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Martin Horwood: I would just say that our moral and political position in criticising Beijing would be much stronger if we had done more to deliver democracy for the people of Hong Kong over the many years we controlled the territory. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of change, and it is right to understand that that change cannot be hermetically sealed in Hong Kong. It is in the interests of China as a whole to understand how it can accommodate people’s economic and political aspirations, because, in this day and age, it is simply not possible for ideas of freedom and protest to be contained in Hong Kong—the traffic of people and electronic information is just too free.

China has seen a remarkable transformation over recent years; it has seen a flowering of not only economic development, but intellectual, artistic and academic potential. In that situation, it will at some stage have to confront its people’s aspirations for more freedoms in the political sphere as well, and it is important that it learns the lessons of Hong Kong and tries to understand how they can be accommodated.

The issue also has lessons for UK foreign policy towards China, which, I hope the Minister will not mind my saying, has been a bit unsophisticated at times in recent years. It has been so dominated by the need to trade and the desire to have a beneficial economic relationship that we have underestimated some of the multiplying concerns about the impact of China as an emerging superpower. Those obviously now include the situation in Hong Kong, but they also include the rapid militarisation—what is rather euphemistically called force projection—taking place in the South China sea, for instance.

Other concerns include the rather confrontational language being used with Vietnam and Taiwan, which is now being told to reflect again on the idea of “one country, two systems” on a rather shorter timetable than previous Chinese leaders talked about. In recent years, the dialogue with Taiwan has been more about progressive development, but the people of Taiwan could interpret China’s language now as quite negative and threatening—as Beijing setting a time limit on their separation from the mainland.

There is also the issue of China’s role on the UN Security Council and its inability to support what most of us in this Chamber would have seen as very necessary action in the middle east and elsewhere. In addition, there is China’s role in Africa and its exploitation of natural resources not only in China itself, but in Africa and other parts of the world, which raises the question of whether that is really sustainable. There is also its domestic human rights record, including the number of executions taking place in China; and the attitude to self-determination in other parts of Chinese territory, such as Tibet.

However, British policy towards China cannot just be one of complaint, and highlighting negatives. There are enormous positives to be found in what it is doing at the moment. As others have mentioned, it is an extraordinary achievement to have lifted millions of people out of poverty. There is a growing awareness of the need for that economic revolution to be sustainable—for resources to be used in a sustainable way, and renewable energy to be brought forward alongside other forms of energy generation. The very existence of the one country, two systems idea can be seen as a Chinese experiment in freedom and democracy. It is positive in that way, and perhaps could not have been imagined by earlier generations.

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An intellectual, academic and artistic flowering is also going on in China, which we must see as positive, and which has the potential to benefit not only China but the whole world, given the country’s enormous intellectual and human resources. It would be wonderful to think that Hong Kong could be the shining beacon in the new Chinese revolution, and that the ideas of freedom and democracy could start to be part of a new era for China. It is important that we try to persuade the Chinese Government to see that potential, and, in doing so, stand beside the protesters in Hong Kong, and assure them absolutely of our support for their democratic aspirations.

3.21 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on obtaining this important debate, and the effective way in which he set out the Hong Kong position today.

Unlike my hon. Friend, or my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), I cannot claim a long-standing interest in Hong Kong. I have a personal interest, which arises from the fact that my daughter has been resident there since 2010. She is one of 34,000 Britons who live and work in Hong Kong. She has told us how the situation has developed in recent weeks and we have seen things through her eyes. We had a fairly lengthy conversation at the weekend about her concerns, and those of her friends—young people who include both Britons and Hong Kong residents. For my part, I recall watching the handover in July 1997. It was a spectacular event on a wet and windy evening, when the 99-year period of British control came to an end.

I tried to understand a little then about the process by which Hong Kong would be returned to China. It seemed that there was a pretty effective agreement, which offered the best of both worlds to the Chinese Government and to Hong Kong residents, with the notion of a special administrative region retaining its free market economy and other freedoms. I understood at the time that that was broadly intended to last for 50 years after the transfer. Having watched the handover I was quite keen to see what life was like in Hong Kong and that led to my first visit as a tourist in 2007, en route to a holiday in Australia. We spent three days there and saw an ordered, dynamic and exciting place—just the kind of place that would be ideal for a young person starting their career. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, it was a fantastic place to do business.

With that in mind, when my daughter received the offer of a job with a role in Hong Kong, in 2010, my wife and I were enthusiastic in our guidance to her that she should take it. We based our advice on the fact that the place was secure—she would be both financially and personally secure there. The years that she has spent in Hong Kong have been very happy for her. She has had a great time and made many friends. She has learned a great deal about business and things have gone well. We have looked carefully at the news from Hong Kong and seen how protests have developed. The police we have seen on television have largely remained peaceful and we are still happy for our daughter to remain in Hong Kong, but it is a matter of concern that with substantial numbers of people protesting in a cramped and confined space the relationship between them and the authorities could deteriorate; so our advice to our daughter might change.

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Of course, there are many places in the world where the response of the authorities to such protests would be less predictable, and there would be a fear of matters getting out of hand. We all want that to be prevented.

Richard Graham: The story that my hon. Friend is telling of his daughter working in Hong Kong, as one of almost 270,000 UK citizens there, reminds us of the enduring links between our country and that territory. Were he and his daughter surprised by the good nature, orderliness and above all peacefulness of that large demonstration a few weeks ago?

Mark Pawsey: I think the answer is that she was not surprised, because having spent so long there she has come to understand the nature of the Hong Kong people and authorities. She has been happy to observe, and to support—without providing physical support—the principles of those who are protesting. I understand that they are concerned largely about the erosion of what they expected in 1997, and the loss of many of the freedoms they expected. That led to the protests that began in September. My observation is that the protestors would like more democracy than the authorities are currently prepared to admit. That situation arises from the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on electoral reform, with respect to the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, which is of course a very high-profile post.

I understand that the NPCSC will identify two to three electoral candidates before the general public will be able to vote on them. That seems to me to go against the principles set out in the 1997 agreement. In that way, candidates that Beijing might consider unsuitable would be pre-emptively screened out. That would not be considered acceptable in most democracies, and the protesters describe it as fake democracy. That has given rise to the civil disobedience protests. The protesters have the objective of ensuring the right of all to vote; but they would particularly like the resignation of the existing Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I do not know whether my hon. Friend saw the report in The Times today, suggesting that the mainland Chinese Government may make the protests illegal. Will my hon. Friend deprecate that and say that the protests should be allowed to continue, provided that they are peaceful, for as long as it takes, until both sides are satisfied that some progress has been made?

Mark Pawsey: We are looking at these things very much by our standards. We would certainly want to allow such peaceful protest to continue while the protesters want it to. The notion that it might become illegal would be of great concern to those currently engaged in such peaceful protest.

The Chief Executive’s term comes to an end in 2017. He is a figurehead for the authorities in Hong Kong, but in many ways he seems not to have helped matters. His political career has of course been dogged by accusations that he is unduly influenced by Beijing, and there is evidence of that: on his election the Chinese state newspaper, the People’s Daily, referred to him as “comrade”. He decided to implement some pro-China patriotic lessons in schools in Hong Kong, although that was later vetoed, but that compounded the fears of those who saw him as overly influenced by Beijing.

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China clearly wants to vet C.Y. Leung’s successors and he supports that, so a big issue for the protesters is that he personally is an obstacle to the pursuit of democratic rights. That is certainly the impression gained by my daughter and her friends.

C.Y. Leung has aggravated the mood of the protesters and those who seek more democracy by recent remarks reported in Tuesday’s South China Morning Post.He said that if the Government met the protesters’ demands, it would

“result in the city’s poorer people dominating elections”

and that

“if candidates were nominated by the public then the largest sector of society…would likely dominate the electoral process.”

That is what democracy is all about and such remarks shock those of us who have grown up with the sort of democratic system we enjoy in this country. C.Y. Leung’s reputation has not been helped by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 October about what is described as a secret 7 million Australian dollar payout from an Australian firm. That led to questions about the transparency of dealings by a public official.

All that has led to the protests and we are pleased that they have been peaceful on the part of protesters and authorities. The umbrella as a symbol of protest is as unthreatening as can be imagined. Many of the young people and British people who have been attracted to Hong Kong sympathise and find themselves supportive of the protesters who are seeking what westerners have always taken for granted.

There are, however, some concerns. The protests have carried on for so long that the blocking of main thoroughfares such as Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok is starting to affect people’s daily life. Journeys that previously took 15 minutes are now taking around two hours as people transfer from road to the mass transit railway, which is usually very efficient. That has led to businesses losing trade and concern within the business sector, with some business people beginning to show their frustration with protesters. It has also led to some ordinary people giving the areas of protest a wide berth, which is having an impact on businesses in those areas.

The big question for us to consider—I look forward to the Minister’s response—is what happens next. I have spoken about the economic impact and it has been suggested that Hong Kong’s tourist industry could face its worst decline in a decade. The protests have already prompted some cancellations of hotel bookings. October and November are typically the peak season for its hotel industry as business travellers arrive for trade fairs and exhibitions and there are fears that business travellers will cut short or even cancel their trips because of safety concerns. How that might develop?

What might the Chinese authorities’ longer-term response be? They have made it clear that there will be no concessions on political reform. They are digging in their heels because the international community might see granting a concession as a sign of weakness by Beijing. Where that might go is a concern and clearly the solution should arise from politics rather than force.

Talks took place between student leaders and the Government only yesterday, but I see them in a less positive light than the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). They were televised and watched

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live at protest sites, but the

South China Morning Post

reports today that nothing has changed and that the Government have simply offered to submit a report to Beijing reflecting public sentiment, and to consider setting up a platform for dialogue on constitutional development. That sounds as good a description of kicking the matter into long grass as we are ever likely to hear, and we often hear such expressions in this place.

Crucially, the Government have said that there will be no movement on the nomination of candidates and the Government’s remarks through Chief Secretary Lam—that protesters should pursue their ideals in reasonable and lawful ways—may indicate that the occupation of public highways might in time be considered unlawful.

Martin Horwood: I am largely in sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but even in this place—the mother of Parliaments—we are familiar with the phenomenon of authorities not always giving the appearance of being about to make concessions before they go on to make them. China often moves even more gradually and slowly. I do not think the progress by Mr Leung goes far enough—I have said that I support the protesters’ aspirations—but at least it shows a willingness to negotiate and to make some changes to the proposed arrangements, which he should welcome.

Mark Pawsey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am seeing the events with the eyes of someone who is based in this place and does not have much knowledge of how government works in Beijing. I am taking them at face value and I am encouraged by his positive response to the report of the outcome of that meeting.

My concerns are for people who are currently living in Hong Kong, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how our Government can influence the successful outcome of the position today.

3.35 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As ever, Mr Weir, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate. He has a long-standing interest in this part of the world and is chair of the all-party China group. We all have an interest in our historic relationship with Hong Kong and our current financial and economic ties. I do not intend to dwell on those, given the time pressure, but I will focus on the test that one country with two systems is facing with the proposals to move towards universal suffrage, and some of the unhappiness that has been expressed on the streets of Hong Kong about whether those proposals go far enough. The issues are obviously for the Government of China and the Hong Kong special administrative region, but the Minister will agree that the UK also has a responsibility to uphold the joint declaration.

Over the past month, many thousands of Hong Kong citizens, predominantly students and those in the Occupy Central movement, have taken to the streets to protest because they feel the proposals for electing a Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017 do not go far enough. It was interesting that the hon. Gentleman

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said that many of the protesters were not even born when the joint declaration was signed. I had to do my sums, and I am that old.

The point about the change in identity of the young generation that has grown up in Hong Kong was interesting. The protesters are questioning whether what is being proposed gives Hong Kong the high degree of autonomy guaranteed by the joint declaration and the Basic Law. Article 45 of the Basic Law states:

“The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.”

It also states that

“the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

That is where we are now, as was confirmed by the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress at the end of August.

The concern that has been aired is that there will be only two or three candidates, who will each need to secure the majority approval of the nominating committee. As the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) said, the size of that committee has increased substantially from 400 to 1,200 members and many people in Hong Kong feel that they are not being given a genuine choice and that the future chief executive will be too tied to Beijing.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 500,000 people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong this year, although I think the hon. Member for Gloucester said 800,000. We have heard disturbing news of clashes and injuries over the weekend. For the most part, the protests have been peaceful, for which we are thankful, but the response from the police in Hong Kong has been a more serious cause for concern. They have used tear gas and batons to control protesters, and last week we saw images of officers beating a handcuffed protesters. The police department has confirmed that it is investigating the incident, and it is important that reports of excessive use of force are independently investigated.

Amnesty International has reported that the police have failed in their duty to protect the pro-democracy protesters. They report that women and girls have been targeted and subjected to sexual assault and harassment, and witnesses have reported that the police stood by and did nothing. Those reports must be taken seriously by the Hong Kong Government and by the British Government, too.

The joint declaration states:

“Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

As a signatory to that binding international treaty, the UK must speak up if the agreement is not fully upheld and if people are under threat of violence or intimidation for exercising those rights and freedoms. As a further point, it is also worrying that the BBC English language website was reportedly blocked in China last week.

On the specific point of arms export licences, it is reported that the tear gas used against protesters was imported from Britain. Worryingly, the Foreign Secretary was quoted as saying that was “immaterial”, because Hong

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Kong could buy it from other countries if they did not buy it from the UK. I do not think that is what should pass for a responsible export licensing policy. If the test is simply whether other countries could sell them the product, too, I do not think that is where we should be, and I would be grateful if the Minister could advise us of any review of the relevant export licences.

The Minister may, I hope, have been copied into a letter that the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, has just sent to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is dated 21 October, and he is asking for a reply before the Committees next meet on 30 October. Does the Minister intend to discuss the six points that have been raised by the Chair of the Committees in that letter? Will he also advise whether the Government have discussed the authorities’ response to the protesters with their Chinese counterparts of the Hong Kong special administrative region?

In addition to the UK’s responsibilities arising from the joint declaration, we must ensure more generally that the commitment to promoting human rights and the rule of law and to supporting democracy as the best means of creating stable, accountable and transparent government is not in doubt. Although I acknowledge that the elections are a matter for the Basic Law rather than the joint declaration, it is still right for us to take an interest. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about concerns expressed by some that if democracy was allowed to take its course, poor people might actually get to wield a degree of influence, or in fact, the majority could decide the outcome of the election. Those comments were quite entertaining, but also made a pertinent point about some people’s definition of democracy differing from other people’s.

I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that the UK Government should not seek to interfere in China’s affairs, but we do have a role to play in safeguarding the principle of one country, two systems, which has worked so well since 1997. Building a constructive, multi-faceted relationship with China that allows our two countries to work together in pursuit of common objectives—so yes, to support our trading ties, our economic and cultural links, and to work with them particularly closely on issues such as climate change—is very important, but it is also important that we have a relationship with China that allows us to engage on areas of disagreement too, including raising human rights concerns.

The FCO’s statements have rightly emphasised how important it is that

“the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome.”

The Minister’s statement last week likewise said that the transition to universal suffrage should meet

“the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong”

and offer them

“a genuine choice in the election”.

Of course, it is not up to us to decide what the aspirations of the Hong Kong people are or how they can be best fulfilled, but we do have a role to play in promoting and encouraging dialogue within Hong Kong and by endorsing the high degree of autonomy that one country, two systems is supposed to safeguard.

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As we mark 30 years since the joint declaration was signed, we want to look forward to 2017—to celebrating those 20 years since Hong Kong returned to China. The introduction of universal suffrage, as set out in the Basic Law, will be a fitting tribute to all those who worked so hard to deliver and implement this historic agreement, and who have worked to ensure its success over the past two decades. We trust that the Governments of China and Hong Kong will work with the people of Hong Kong to ensure that the commitment is honoured and that we can deliver Hong Kong’s vision for democracy.

3.44 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. I do not call him my hon. Friend just as a courtesy; he was my excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until recently, and I pay tribute to his valuable work, his deep personal interest and his well-informed advice to me on Hong Kong and China over the years.

My hon. Friend’s great expertise, along with the wealth of experience of my predecessors who spoke in the House of Lords debate on Hong Kong last week—and indeed, the extraordinarily good participation that we have had from colleagues across the divide this afternoon—show the depths of knowledge available to the Government on Hong Kong. Incidentally, I would not want people to think that the only interest in Hong Kong is from the people of Gloucestershire, although that is very much how it might look when people see who turned up here this afternoon.

The future of Hong Kong is of great importance to the United Kingdom as a co-signatory of the Sino-British joint declaration, and given the magnitude of our trade, investment, educational, cultural and, of course, historic links. With over 250,000 British citizens and 3 million British national overseas citizens living in the city, more than 500,000 visitors from the UK to Hong Kong last year, and over 560 British companies with offices in Hong Kong, more than 120 of them using it as a base for their Asia-Pacific regional operations, Britain’s relationship with Hong Kong is long-standing, wide-ranging and unique.

We strongly believe that it is the autonomy, rights and freedoms guaranteed by the joint declaration that underpin Hong Kong’s success. As we approach the 30th anniversary of its signature, our commitment to ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration, and the protection of the rights and freedoms it guarantees, is as strong as ever. That is why we have been monitoring events closely and regularly raising Hong Kong at senior levels through official channels in Beijing, Hong Kong and London.

My hon. Friend said he thought that the Government had been a bit slow to respond to developments in Hong Kong; I take a slightly different view. I point out to him that we have been addressing this all year. In May in Beijing, I talked about constitutional reform with the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya. Last week, I saw the Hong Kong Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen, in London, along with our Secretary of State for Justice, and, as has been well publicised and said again this afternoon by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I met Anson Chan and Martin Lee along with the Deputy Prime Minister at separate meetings back in June.

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I also refer to the statements we issued. The Foreign Office issued statements on 4 September and during the parliamentary recess on 29 September and on 2 October, and, of course, I issued a written ministerial statement on 13 October. Last week, the Foreign Office submitted its written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on Hong Kong. I should also point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, who I know is a modern man, that I also tweeted, as I am sure he would have seen during that period.

Hong Kong has also been discussed by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in a number of meetings, including with Premier Li at the summit in London in June and Vice Premier Ma Kai at the economic and financial dialogue in London in September. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I also discussed Hong Kong with the Chinese ambassador earlier this month. As I am sure my hon. Friend will also readily concede, sometimes megaphone diplomacy is not the best way of proceeding.

I believe that the six-monthly reports that we continue to submit to Parliament on developments in Hong Kong are taken seriously and are widely read by academics, non-governmental organisations and other diplomatic missions in Hong Kong—and, indeed, further afield. I understand that those reports are also widely read by officials and key decision makers in Hong Kong and Beijing.

In the last six-monthly report, the former Foreign Secretary, now my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, noted that “one country, two systems” continued to work well. Specific evidence for its success includes an independent judiciary and the rule of law. I readily agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the importance of that. He asked about judicial independence with regard to the White Paper. I can do no better than quote the noble Lord Neuberger, one of the judges who regularly goes to Hong Kong, who said to Reuters in August 2014 that

“at the moment I detect no undermining of judicial independence”.

He also said:

“If I felt that the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong was being undermined then I would either have to speak out or I would have to resign as a judge”.

The evidence also includes direct and active participation in political decision making by a number of different political parties; the freedom of Hong Kong people to participate in regular peaceful protests; and the activity of a vibrant and engaged civil society. Indeed, the protests on the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks have shown that the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, including the right to demonstrate, continue to be respected. It is important for Hong Kong to preserve those rights and for Hong Kong’s people to exercise them within the law.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who speaks for the Opposition and is looking rather lonely on her side of the divide, asked particularly about allegations of how the police have behaved. We have been watching the reports and following the allegations that the police have used disproportionate force. I very much welcome the investigation that the Hong Kong

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police have launched into those. I am pleased that the protests have largely been peaceful to date. That is in itself quite an achievement, given the huge numbers of people who have been on the streets, and sometimes in very confined spaces.

The hon. Lady also asked about the use of CS gas and whether the United Kingdom had sold gas to the Hong Kong police. The answer is, yes, we have previously licensed exports of tear gas to Hong Kong, but we will certainly take the recent disturbances in Hong Kong into account when these matters are discussed, as they most properly will be by the Foreign Secretary, who would discuss them with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is worth pointing out that tear gas was used once, at the start of the protests, but not since.

Kerry McCarthy: Could I press the Minister on that point? Will the Foreign Secretary or he be speaking to the Business Secretary before he replies to the letter from the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls?

Mr Swire: I shall have to get back to the hon. Lady on that, because I genuinely have not seen the letter and was not aware of it until she raised it a few moments ago. I will ensure that we get back to her.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about his daughter, who works in Hong Kong, and rightly pointed out the disruption caused to many businesses and the huge inconvenience. I am concerned to hear what he says about the possible negative effect on tourism in Hong Kong. We will continue to follow developments on the ground with keen interest and to remain in regular contact with our consul general in Hong Kong, whom I met in London last week.

The issue at the centre of the protests is, of course, Hong Kong’s democracy and specifically the arrangements for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017. It is perhaps worth underlining some important points. Unlike with Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, the joint declaration does not deal in the detail of Hong Kong’s democratic arrangements. It provides the essential foundation, including that the legislature be constituted by elections and that the Chief Executive be selected or elected locally. However, the detail of that is set out in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that came into force at the time of handover in 1997, and in associated decisions of China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress.

Her Majesty’s Government have consistently set out our view that Hong Kong’s future is best served by a transition to universal suffrage, in line with the Basic Law and the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong. We firmly believe that greater democracy will help to reinforce Hong Kong’s open society, the rule of law and its capitalist system, which are vital for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity in the long term. But let me make it crystal clear that the detailed arrangements for implementing that are for the people of Hong Kong and the Governments of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China to determine.

When the National People’s Congress issued its decision in August, we responded by welcoming its reconfirmation that the Chief Executive could be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, but we also acknowledged at the time the disappointment of those in Hong Kong who were

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hoping for a more open nomination process. However, it is important to recognise that the NPC decision does not represent the last step in this process. It sets the parameters for electoral arrangements for the Chief Executive in 2017, but there is still important detail to be decided before a final package can be presented to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council for debate next year, and of course those arrangements need to be approved by two thirds of the Legislative Council.

The details that still need to be defined include how the nominating committee operates to ensure maximum competition between candidates; transparency; and accountability to the broader public. The Government have made clear our hope that the different sections of Hong Kong society will come together to agree detailed arrangements on these issues that command the broad support of the community as a whole, that are consistent with the Basic Law and that represent a significant step forward on Hong Kong’s democratic journey. That journey then, of course, continues with the elections for the Legislative Council in 2020.

During my visit to Hong Kong last year, I had the opportunity to engage with a wide range of people with divergent views on how to implement a system for universal suffrage. The strength of feeling among Hong Kong people on this issue and their desire to stand up for what they believe in is clear. It is now essential that all sides engage in constructive dialogue, to broker consensus and allow meaningful progress.

I am pleased to see that Carrie Lam, the Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong special administrative region Government, held talks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students yesterday in which she made a commitment to gauge and reflect people’s views. The Hong Kong Government’s suggestion that there is still ample room under the 31 August decision to work out a nomination procedure and election method for 2017 reiterates the importance of the next round of consultations.

I emphasised to the Hong Kong Justice Secretary last week the importance of relaunching dialogue with a wide range of people in Hong Kong on these issues. I hope that the second phase of consultation, which is the right method to engage all the citizens of Hong Kong, will begin soon. As the former Foreign Secretary said in

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his foreword to the last sixth-monthly report to Parliament, published in July, there is no perfect model. What matters is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester asked whether the Foreign Office would give an oral statement at the time of the next six-monthly report. That will be in January. I am appearing in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee myself in January, which will provide an ample opportunity to debate these issues. We will consider having a statement at the time, depending on the circumstances. I will say to my hon. Friend that we are having a debate now and he also has the ability to use the Backbench Business Committee if he wishes to have another debate himself.

My hon. Friend asked about the BBC. We have made representations, with our embassy in Beijing, to the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs on that subject. My hon. Friend asked whether we had made representations about Parliament’s right to hold inquiries and debates. We have reminded the Chinese Government, in London and Beijing, that the UK Parliament is independent of Government and very well entitled to debate and look into any aspect of Government policy. He asked when I would be going next to Hong Kong. Depending on the Whips, I shall be going there in January.

Given the UK’s strong commercial and trade relationship, shared history and unique commitments to Hong Kong, we care deeply about its future and that of its people. We have a moral obligation and a legitimate interest in the preservation of the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. We believe that a transition to universal suffrage will safeguard Hong Kong’s future prosperity and stability. That is why we continue to encourage the Governments of Hong Kong and China to find options that offer a genuine choice to the people of Hong Kong in the 2017 election.

I am grateful to hon. Friends and to the shadow Minister for this opportunity to restate clearly the Government’s position on this incredibly important issue and to all those people who follow these matters and contribute to the debate that we need to have in this place.

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Environmental Challenges (Somerset)

4 pm

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): I am delighted to be able to take part in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am grateful to have another chance to debate the situation in Somerset and some of the environmental challenges we face. Given the catch-all title of this debate, several Departments may be interested in what I have to say.

My county, and my constituency in particular, have faced extraordinary environmental challenges during the past year. If there was an award for facing down environmental challenges, the Somerset levels would win hands down. This time last year, no public body in Britain was prepared to take the idea of severe flooding seriously. We were told that it could not possibly happen, and anyone who said otherwise was branded a doom-monger.

However, local people and farmers who had looked after the land for generations voiced concern about how little had been done in recent years to dredge the rivers and prevent them from silting up. Those people knew what could happen if it rained too hard and too long. They had witnessed the decline of regular maintenance of the pumps and pumping stations, and they had watched the withdrawal of equipment. For anyone who lives at or near sea level, such observations are second nature. Farmers on the Somerset levels well understand the delicate balance of nature. Unfortunately, severe rain and unprecedented flooding were required for the world to wake up to what had not been done—to the clogged up river beds that could not take the flow, the inadequate pumps that could not move the water and the penny-pinching, ostrich-like mentality of the Environment Agency.

I am not here to seek recrimination. I have come to know and admire many of the Environment Agency’s people on the ground, who have done wonders since the crisis began. I also believe that there is a new attitude at the top, led by the Prime Minister, since the appointment of a new and completely non-political chairman. So much has happened since the waters began to rise, and so many lives have been affected. There are so many tales of courage and fortitude, and so many millions of pounds have been spent on putting the mess right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) knows, we have all grown a little bit wiser because of these events. What a terrible shame that wisdom arrived after the event. I believe that the biggest environmental challenge is to ensure that such disasters do not happen again.

I intend to concentrate my remarks on those essentials. One of the most positive lessons from the whole experience has been the way in which local authorities have worked rapidly and in co-operation with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency to produce a 20-year flood plan. I can assure hon. Members that obtaining that agreement was no picnic, but the urgency and importance of the task concentrated everybody’s minds. The plan forms the basis for what is now being done and what remains to be done to safeguard the whole area for the future.

The Prime Minister donned his wellies and came with me across the levels on three occasions, not only to show solidarity but to make a promise. He said that whatever

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it cost, we had to fix the problem. We all knew that it would not be cheap, and with hindsight we realise that there is no such thing as a blank cheque; we live in the real world. The Prime Minister’s intervention set the wheels turning an awful lot faster, however. Slowly but surely, the dredging programme has been agreed on as part of the 20-year flood plan, and it is being implemented. Somerset is getting there at last.

Not everything has been plain sailing. Six months after the launch of a £10 million compensation scheme for farmers, only £4 million of payments have been approved and less than £1 million has been paid out. That may be partly because some of the farmers have been far too busy looking after their animals and land to do all the paperwork, but the process of making applications is riddled with red tape.

For example, my constituent Mr James Winslade, a farmer whose cows famously had to be rescued from the floodwater, should finally receive a cheque this week for £5,000. That is part of a payment for grass seed to replant his fields at Moorland, which is right in the heart of the flood zone. The vast majority of Mr Winslade’s farm—810 acres of land—was completely waterlogged for weeks. Like other applicants, he had to send DEFRA detailed maps showing the precise fields involved, which he did, but DEFRA wanted more imagery, in the form of aerial photographs, to prove that his fields were actually flooded.

I invite the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)—I am delighted to see her in her place—to do some research, because she will find that there are hundreds of aerial photographs of the exact area taken throughout the time of the flooding. The area resembles a huge lake that stretches for miles. The only safe way to travel was by boat—I have actually paddled across parts of Moorland in a canoe. When DEFRA officials were finally satisfied with the pictures, they demanded additional proof that my constituent had planted the grass seed. Is it any wonder that many farmers are still waiting and are extremely peeved about that penny-pinching process?

During a recent visit to the area, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), made it abundantly clear that much of that frustration was caused by bureaucracy imposed by EU rules—no surprise there. It is high time that we extended our list of things to renegotiate with Brussels to include loony farming regulations. I pay tribute to the new Secretary of State, who came into her post at a difficult time. She has been to Somerset twice since her appointment, and she has quickly grasped the problems and challenges that we face. She knows full well that there are concerns about the speed of the Whitehall decision process.

The Secretary of State also knows that an essential part of the flood action plan is the creation of a viable Somerset rivers board, which should involve all the local councils in affected areas. The new body would call the shots when it comes to dredging and maintenance. It would be funded partly by the Environment Agency, from which it will take a lead on what it should do. That could be slightly awkward, but I believe that any such difficulties can be overcome.

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I warned at the outset that my remarks might involve several different Departments, and now it is the turn of the Department for Communities and Local Government to prick up its ears. That branch of Whitehall seems to be saying that a rivers board for Somerset, run by councils, is a good idea provided councils pay for it. That was not what the Prime Minister had in mind when he offered to pay whatever it cost to fix things. The Department’s attitude has an element of logic, because if Somerset were to get preferential treatment from Whitehall, every other local authority that ever had a flood would want exactly the same. That is understandable; it is human nature.

It is, however, unrealistic to believe that Somerset councils can afford to do everything that they need to do from the word go. The obvious way to pay for everything would be to raise council tax. According to some estimates, council tax could go up 20%, which would be the kiss of death. We simply could not get that through anywhere in the country.

There is, however, a sensible solution. If the councils were given a few years’ breathing space to allow them to save money for the rivers board, and if the law was tweaked to permit them to levy a special tax to pay for future flood prevention, the only thing missing would be a grant to tide them over during the transition. That is more or less the argument being made by most of the councils involved. We are, as anyone would expect, anxiously awaiting some signal to indicate what is in Whitehall’s mind. The answer may involve intervention from the Treasury, which is yet another Department that I should have put on standby for this little debate. Any indication that the Minister can give will be helpful, given the complexity of the situation.

I do not want the valuable work on the formation of a Somerset rivers board to go to waste for a lack of answers, and I am worried that we may struggle to keep all the councils on board unless we get a clear sense of direction soon. In my view, it would be extremely short-sighted of, say, Taunton Deane borough council to consider opting out of membership of the new rivers board simply because it cannot yet see a viable plan to pay for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane knows, Taunton was flooded badly in November 2012. I do not see how, in the name of common sense, the council can contemplate quitting the rivers board now. If the River Tone overflows again, local people will never forgive the council. I hope that councils will stick together, but there is a growing sense of urgency about the matter.

It is also critical to get a clear thumbs-up from the Government about the most important element of the flood plan, which is the construction of a barrage at Bridgwater to stop silt being washed back inland by the tides. The need for the barrage has been accepted, but it involves a lot of money. Here we are, fast approaching what promises to be yet hard winter, without the answers in place.

Like it or not, we are all subject to the ravages of the weather, but are we the hapless victims of climate change, and is the Climate Change Act 2008 the right way to deal with it? Those questions have been topically highlighted recently by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who wants the 2008 Act to be scrapped. His recent experience as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural

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Affairs during the flood crisis makes that all the more relevant, as he came down many times to visit and help us.

My constituency already has far too many applications for ugly, useless and oversized wind turbines, and Somerset is in danger of being overrun by, dare I say it, solar panel farms. Their collective contribution to reducing carbon emissions is, I am afraid, small, and their collective cost, in terms of subsidies and European grants, is large. Their ability to keep the lights on, depending on the sun or the wind, is probably a no-no in the long term.

I am delighted to learn that the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs intends to scrap EU payments to landowners who use solar panels on productive areas of land. Let us grow food and stop paying for panels. I am delighted that the tide is beginning to turn against such stupidities in many areas of our political lives. If we spent less time slavishly following the flawed edicts of Brussels, we would have ample funds to finance the common-sense solutions that we all know we need in order to fix our flooding problems. We still have environmental challenges in Somerset, and the solution has to be found now; it does not need to be so elusive. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that.

Mr Jeremy Browne (Taunton Deane) (LD): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. I sense that he is drawing to the end of his remarks, so I invite him to develop the theme of the barrage. The Chancellor will soon be making his autumn statement—autumn gets later and later, but it still happens before Christmas, so the autumn statement is imminent, happening just over a month from now. Would it not be ideal if he were in a position to announce the Government’s intention to go ahead with the building of the barrage?

Mr Liddell-Grainger: I gratefully thank my hon. Friend, who has helped immeasurably, because the barrage is in fact in Bridgwater, not Taunton Deane. His point is exactly right. Both the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire, and the present Secretary of State have made it clear to the Environment Agency that plans for the funding need to be in place to make absolutely sure that they go into the autumn statement—which I believe will be on 3 December 2014—so that we can get the money to get this done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane knows this far too well—a lot of his constituency was also flooded—but if we did not build the barrage, we would never be forgiven for creating the problems and the mess again. The barrage will be a surge barrier that stops 60% of the mud that comes all the way up the river to Taunton Deane, which is a distance in the region of 10 miles. The barrage would therefore reduce the silting and the need to dredge, which means that we could continue pumping. We were not able to pump in his constituency or in most of the levels because our water levels were too high. The barrage would give us an opportunity not only to combat climate change, which the Minister will tell us about in a minute, but to address the practicalities of everyone’s daily lives. I look forward to hearing her remarks.

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4.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate on the environmental challenges in Somerset, and I thank him for his speech. Having a home or business flooded is a devastating experience, and I know everyone here extends their sympathy to all those who have been affected.

As has been pointed out, this topic involves a number of Departments, particularly the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but also the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury. As this is the week for the Department of Energy and Climate Change to reply to Westminster Hall debates, I am responding for the Government. I reassure my hon. Friend that I have consulted colleagues in other Departments in preparing this reply.

I pay tribute to all those in the Environment Agency, local authorities and emergency services, in Somerset and elsewhere, who work tirelessly during flood events. The response to last winter’s floods was tremendous. In response to that exceptional weather, DEFRA made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain the most critical flood defences. Repairs at many sites started as soon as the weather conditions allowed and continued throughout the summer. The Environment Agency is on track to complete permanent repairs to 96% of its critical defences by the end of October. Recovery from last winter’s flooding continues and is going well. The Government have committed more than £565 million in flood recovery support funding. DEFRA has managed to secure a £2.3 billion capital settlement to improve flood management infrastructure over six years from April 2015. That investment will reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households, on top of the 165,000 protected during the current spending period.

At the end of January, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asked local leaders to produce a long-term action plan for the sustainable future of the Somerset levels and moors. Following intensive work by Somerset local authorities, local farming and business representatives and NGOs supported by central Government and agencies, and of course by their MP, the plan was published on 6 March. The plan is wide-ranging, covering specific flood risk management projects, farming and land management interventions, transport infrastructure, planning and community resilience issues.

The Government have committed just over £20 million specifically for Somerset, which includes £10 million from DEFRA for dredging 8 km of the Rivers Parrett and Tone and other flood management work. The Department for Transport has provided £10 million to support the action plan, and DCLG has provided £500,000 to Somerset under the severe weather recovery scheme. I can report that progress against actions in the plan is good. The 8 km dredging of the rivers is due to be completed by the end of October.

One of the key actions in the Somerset action plan is the formation of a Somerset rivers board to take more responsibility for water management on the levels. Local leaders in Somerset are agreeing the board’s responsibilities and functions. DEFRA Ministers are working closely

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with local partners to ensure that Somerset is better protected in future. Local leaders will need to find a sustainable, long-term funding mechanism for an effective local organisation that has the support of local residents. As my hon. Friend has said, Somerset is not the only place where people wish to raise additional funding for flood risk management, and we are continuing to explore options for local fundraising.

My hon. Friend mentioned the farming recovery fund, which was made available to help farm businesses to restore flooded agricultural land and bring it back into production as quickly as possible. We made £10 million available to help farmers get their land back into production after the flooding. Under EU rules, as he understands, payments from the rural development programme budget must be paid to farmers once the work has been carried out and all necessary evidence submitted. All claims submitted by Mr Winslade have now been paid—we have looked into that. We will assess any new claims as they come in.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater and West Somerset and for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) for raising the matter of the Bridgwater barrier. I am delighted that Somerset partners will be making use of some of the money that they are receiving through the local growth fund to develop and appraise options for the barrier.

Severe storms and flooding have always affected the UK and will continue to do so, even without climate change. However, we know that human-caused climate change is influencing both the likelihood and severity of such extreme events. The complicated nature of the UK’s weather makes it difficult to say definitively that human influences caused single weather events such as last winter’s storm. However, it is possible to make scientific statements about how human influence on the climate may have changed the odds of an event happening. For example, a recent study of the floods experienced by the UK in autumn 2000 found that they were made about twice as likely due to the influence of greenhouse gas emissions.

On a global scale, the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that extreme rainfall events across the world are becoming heavier and that, without action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the trend will very likely continue. Undoubtedly, the damaging weather that we experienced last winter is consistent with a warming world.

The events of last winter highlight this country’s vulnerability to extreme weather and the need for us to take action to limit climate change and the impact it will have. Internationally, we are pushing for an ambitious global deal in Paris in 2015, whereas action at home is driven by the Climate Change Act 2008. The Government remain committed to the Act and meeting the targets it contains. The Act was the first of its kind and demonstrates UK leadership—almost 500 climate laws have now been passed in 66 of the countries with the largest emissions across the world. Businesses and investors welcome the certainty provided by the long-term target and the five-year budgets.

Setting carbon budgets as part of the Act has driven action that saves people money and makes people warmer. Our achievements in reducing emissions also demonstrate

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that the Climate Change Act is working. The Act has helped to drive the UK to reduce emissions by almost a quarter since 1990.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one part of how the UK is responding to climate change; the other is building resilience to climate change and associated severe weather events such as flooding, heat waves and drought. This helps to safeguard growth and minimise the damage and disruption to economic activity from such impacts. The earlier we plan for adaptation, the less it will cost, and we will be better equipped to cope with potential changes.

Under the Climate Change Act, the Government published the first climate change risk assessment in January 2012, which identified the key risks—and opportunities—to the UK. This informed the first national adaptation programme report, published by DEFRA in July last year, which sets out a wide range of actions for government, businesses, councils, civil society and communities to address the most pressing climate risks we face as a country. Both the CCRA and NAP are reviewed every five years as required by the Climate Change Act.

At the end of last year, DEFRA also invited more than 100 organisations from key sectors to provide voluntary reports to Government on how they plan to build their own resilience to the impacts of climate change and associated severe weather events. Most have agreed to do this, which will add significantly to our understanding of how resilient we are as a society. The next major milestones will be publication of the second climate change risk assessment early in 2017, for which the process is under way, and the second national adaptation programme that will follow on from that.

Despite the exceptional weather conditions experienced last winter, the impacts were significantly less than in previous similar events. Our existing flood defences protected around 1.4 million properties and more than 2,500 square kilometres of farmland from flooding. This reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability. We will never be able to stop flooding entirely, but we have acted on the lessons learned from last winter.

In the UK, climate change is a serious risk. We are vulnerable to extreme weather, including severe winters, heat waves, storms, gales and flooding from rivers and the sea.

Mr Browne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want briefly to raise two points. First, it is in the nature of parliamentary debate that the Minister is always criticised by MPs who want to make points on behalf of their constituents. By way of contrast, let me

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thank the Government for the speedy work that has been done on dredging. A lot of people in the Somerset levels despaired of ever seeing any dredging. They may want more and they may want it done differently, but I was in Burrowbridge, which was at the centre of the flooding area, last week, and a significant amount of dredging has been done. It is fair to put on the record that a lot of people in the levels are grateful to have seen such commitment from the Government following visits by the Prime Minister and others earlier this year.

Secondly, on a related point, when we talk about resilience to climate change and flooding, I hope the Government will not lose sight of mundane matters. Resilience does not have to be about big projects and flood barriers. It is also, for example, about ensuring that when new housing is built, it does not have an effect on flood areas.

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be brief.

Amber Rudd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for his kind words of support for the action that the Government were able to take after assiduous lobbying—of course, by local MPs as well. I take his point entirely about the need for local action on the ground to reduce the effects of climate change, and the need to work generally with the local community to ensure that they appreciate the need for action and the urgency.

If I may, I will take the opportunity to refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset in his speech earlier about solar, which is a great success and is appreciated by many residents. We now have more than 500,000 houses with their own solar panels on them. It is a marvellous way of people taking the initiative and delivering themselves warmer homes for less, and at the same time making their own contribution to reducing climate change.

Climate change is a serious risk in the UK. We are vulnerable to all sorts of changes in the weather that affect our economy, our livelihoods and our health. That is why the UK is leading from the front on action against climate change. We are investing in low carbon and energy efficiency technologies, with an increased focus on home-grown renewables, to reduce our reliance on foreign imports and create a sustainable supply of affordable energy for consumers and businesses alike, always with the intent of improving the lives of our constituents throughout the country and ensuring we are more resilient to changes in the climate.

4.25 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Development Projects (Afghanistan)

4.28 pm

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Mr Weir, I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise some issues about the role of the Department for International Development with respect to development projects in Afghanistan. If you will allow me, I would like to begin by making some general observations about how DFID conducts its business.

About 9% of DFID’s 2011-12 budget, some £360 million, was given directly to the private sector. Of the 117 major DFID contracts and procurement agreements—worth nearly £750 million between them—published on the Government’s own portal since January 2011, only nine applied to non-UK firms. The reality of aid under the present Administration is that it is an economic development project largely designed, organised and delivered by the private sector. Nearly £500 million spent by DFID in 2011 went to private consultants. Aid has become a lucrative business for consultants, several of whom take home six or seven-figure salaries.

It is worth remembering that in 2001 the UK Government promised to untie aid and that one of the first commitments of the present Government when it came into office was to reaffirm that decision. The coalition pledged that

“We will keep aid untied from commercial interests, and will maintain DfID as an independent department focused on poverty reduction.”

However, the reality today is that large parts of UK aid are being channelled through big multilateral organisations and British commercial firms. The European Network on Debt and Development—Eurodad, as I believe it is called—has noted that developing countries are often little match for firms from big donor countries. In the UK, KPMG—one of DFID’s top contractors—has an entire department dedicated to working with development groups.

With this approach, the UK Government seem to have adopted the model of the US, which unashamedly ties aid to local business opportunities. It is a model that has acquired a rather sullied reputation in the US, as a result of the activities of Halliburton or the behaviour of International Relief and Development, the contractor company.

Interestingly enough, the US has recognised the potential conflicts of interests with contractors and consultants who play multiple roles, the blurring of the lines between profit and non-profit groups and the risk of using contractors who are not subject to proper oversight and discipline. The US acknowledges that there is a stench of corruption in some of its aid channels. However, at the very time when the US is reviewing its approach and has given a commitment to spend at least 30% of its aid money through Government and organisations in developing countries, the UK seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

DFID has set up a unit to focus on private sector development and claims that it will

“help private enterprise work its miracles as the engine of development”.

However, this approach has been criticised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which questions

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how it can be adopted fairly and effectively. The ICAI argues that staff need clear guidance and a framework within which to

“develop a coherent portfolio of projects that, taken together, effectively support economic growth and poverty reduction”.

The ICAI made those comments as part of its investigations into DFID projects in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Tanzania, but I believe that I can demonstrate that its concerns about projects in Afghanistan are not very different. The ICAI has argued that the current aid model encourages contractors to focus on short-term targets and quick wins, rather than on helping countries to embark effectively on economic growth and poverty reduction. In effect, it is a “get rich quick” approach for some, but according to the ICAI some of DFID’s private sector projects end up having a negative impact on the very people and places that they are supposed to help.

In the financial year 2011-12, DFID awarded 135 contracts worth a total of £489 million. Five individual contractors secured 50% of that funding. Of course, the model being used permits many contractors to have multiple contracts, and so we see organisations such as Adam Smith International with 28 live contracts, Mott MacDonald with 27 and Coffey International with 20.

When I debated the question of the Bost airfield and agri-park in Afghanistan—a debate in Westminster Hall, as it happens—on 18 March, I asked a number of questions about the contractual arrangements surrounding the Bost development proposals. In her reply to that debate, the Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—did not mention the memorandum of understanding that had been signed in mid-February 2011, but I am sure that she must have been familiar with the terms of that agreement and how it limited the capacity of either party to pull out of the project unless it faced a major collapse.

I have looked again at what we know about the Bost project, and I want to press the Minister who is here today to tell me, if he can, what went so drastically wrong in the 22 months from February 2011, when the agreement on the project was signed, and December 2012, when the Secretary of State for International Development says she terminated the project after a visit to Afghanistan. I hope he has some idea of the specific events that led to the termination of the agreement and that he can say a little more today about what led to it. What factors spiralled out of control and forced the Secretary of State to close down the project?

As the Minister will know, the ICAI report on Afghanistan refers to the work on the business park—the Bost agri-park—as being 90% complete, which makes the decision to pull the plug on the project all the more confusing. And what of the Islamic loan product? What has happened to that? Is that more DFID money being written off, or can he give me an update on that project? What has happened to the flexible fund? I understand that it has been transferred, so can he update me on where it has been transferred to? What was the basis of these decisions? Is there any reason why, after two years and with the Department about to embark on a new phase of work in Afghanistan, he is unwilling to clear up some of the questions about what has gone before?

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As the Minister will know, the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, or AISA, issued a statement on its website, in which it said:

“On 9th January 2013, DFID without any rational reason informed AISA that they have decided to stop funding for the development of the first phase of the BABP.”

That is, the Bost agri-business park. The statement continued:

“DFID’s unprofessional team involved in BABP project and their lack of understanding and expertise about its own project arrangements has been surprising”.

That sounds as if our Afghan partners thought that DFID had not behaved very well over this matter.

The Secretary of State has told me repeatedly that she made the decision to end the Bost project after visiting Afghanistan in December 2012, because of a failure of our partners to complete the work and the fact that the project could no longer be considered value for money. However, the outgoing deputy head of mission, Mr Fergus Cochrane-Dyet for the Helmand provincial reconstruction team, wrote to the provincial governor on 8 January 2012, 11 months before the Secretary of State decided to terminate the project, and said:

“We could not obtain the necessary assurances on environmental and land related issues required by the UK to complete responsible construction within a reasonable timeframe. We will stop our involvement in the Park now because the cost to complete the Park exceeds the economic benefits we estimate will follow.”

I want to know, as straightforwardly as possible, whether Mr Cochrane-Dyet is blessed with second sight. Is that how he was able to anticipate the Secretary of State’s decision? Alternatively, does he just not know when he entered and left Afghanistan? Is it just a mistake? It would also be useful to know who the key figure was at the centre of this agreement and the memorandum of understanding.

I understand that the programme director was a Mr Dominic d’Angelo, but the agreement was actually signed by an “acting head”, a Mr Andrew Kidd. There may, of course, be a perfectly simple explanation, but I am curious to know whether Mr d’Angelo’s role as an employee of the consultancy firm Upper Quartile could have had anything to do with it.

The Secretary of State answered my parliamentary question on 11 June 2014, telling me that her Department paid only three consultancy firms directly for work relating to the Bost airfield and agri-park development, none of which were Upper Quartile. However, Upper Quartile’s website mentions its work relating to the Helmand growth fund on behalf of the UK Government and spells out that it has done work in relation to the Bost project:

“the company’s experienced team is reviewing the investment potential—both domestic and international—in the Bost Airfield and Agriculture Park.”

Of course, like many other firms, Upper Quartile is not the beneficiary of just one DFID contract, but several. Again, in June 2013, Upper Quartile was tasked by DFID with providing advisory support to a Minister with a high degree of visibility in the Afghan Government. I know about this because I read it in a news release written by one Dominic d’Angelo, in his capacity as an adviser to Upper Quartile.

Upper Quartile seems to be a very important contractor for DFID. Mr d’Angelo went to Kabul in 2009 as a DFID employee then went on to serve as a ministerial

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adviser to Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, and then as a senior adviser to Minister Amin Arsala. But in 2011 he was still working for DFID as the man in charge of DFID’s Afghanistan growth and livelihoods team, responsible for at least £150 million of taxpayers’ money. At least two other prominent Upper Quartile employees who appear on its website also seem to have been DFID employees.

The Minister will know that I have tried to indulge my curiosity on these matters by submitting some freedom of information requests. On 16 January, I asked whether I might have a copy of the appraisal report produced by Upper Quartile consultants on the Bost agri-park. The Department replied that the report was being withheld under regulation 12(4), as the material is still in the course of completion and contains unfinished documents. The project was closed down by the Secretary of State in December 2012. Is the Minister saying that the report is still material in the course of completion and an unfinished document?

In September 2013, I submitted an FOI request and asked whether I could see a report in relation to a contract won by the Mott MacDonald consultancy firm, which covers an impact assessment and extensive planning regarding the Bost airfield and agricultural business park programme. I was told that the request was being refused under regulations 12(3) and 13(2), as the Department believed that letting me have this report would involve releasing details that would breach the legitimate expectation of an individual’s right to protection of personal information. Naturally, I am not clear what personal information was involved. I was asking to see a report on planning and an impact assessment. The request was also refused on the grounds that it was unfinished material. Will the Minister confirm today that he still regards it as unfinished material? When might it become finished material?

I am aware of at least three consultant reports on the Bost airfield and agri-park project, two of which the Department has refused to let me see and a third, by Coffey International consultancy group in July 2010, which says:

“Bost park represents a high risk investment that has a high risk of financial failure.”

Naturally, I can only speculate about what the other two appraisals say and how so much of our money continued to be committed to this project.

DFID’s own website, “Development Tracker”, says that only £2.7 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on the airfield and business park, yet a Minister—a different Minister, I should say—told me in response to a question in October 2013 that a total of £8.42 million was spent on the airfield and business park programme. How do we account for the additional £5.7 million? Will he tell me exactly what the £2.7 million was spent on and what the remaining £5.7 million was spent on? How much of it went on consultancy fees and which companies and/or individuals were the beneficiaries?

I understand that Mott MacDonald, as well as producing a Bost consultancy report, was contracted to develop the engineering design for the park and training for the Helmand-based businesses, and that it in turn subcontracted part of this work to Monic & Monic Consulting, to provide capacity-building training for local businesses. It is alleged that Monic & Monic then charged local

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businesses for writing a business plan: the allegation is that it was paid twice. Is the Minister familiar with this accusation and has it been investigated? Will he say today that he will investigate it? Can he say categorically that these allegations play no part in the Department’s decision to give so little information about these companies, their contracts and the termination plan?

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report of March 2014 was less than flattering about DFID’s efforts in Afghanistan. It cites

“examples that include weak component design and assessment for the Bost Agri-Business Park, the Flexible Fund, the hybrid Sharia-compliant loan product and the biomass project, all of which were ultimately cancelled or transferred to other programmes.”

It accuses DFID of indulging in over-ambitious and complex programme design and of a lack of consultation with intended beneficiaries. Indeed, the report points out that the more ambitious and multifaceted the projects, the less successful they were, and that even where projects are deemed as successful, it is not clear how long the positive impacts will be sustained.

The review covers the effectiveness of DFID’s bilateral growth and livelihood projects, which account for approximately 30% of DFlD’s annual aid budget in Afghanistan.

The ICAI report makes some key recommendations and I should be interested to hear the Minister’s view of them. It says that DFID needs to review formally current and future projects and focus its portfolio more firmly on reducing poverty, using evidence-based interventions. Does he intend to take that advice? It says that DFID should ensure that the intended beneficiaries are, as far as is practicable, directly consulted when new projects are being designed. How will he respond to that challenge? Can he confirm today that it is still the Department’s intention to proceed with a major project on tackling violence against women and girls in Afghanistan? Can he say more about how that project is proceeding and what companies and/or organisations are involved? Who has been consulted to date?

ICAI also says that DFID should enhance its approach and commitment to independent monitoring to assess current and future project performance, and to allow proper assessment of the impact of the programmes. How does the Minister intend to address that?

There is an unpleasant smell about some of DFID’s dealings in Afghanistan; the same names and companies appear too often. The British public puts a high value on aid to developing countries, but they expect that money to be invested in health and education programmes, and in investment that helps local people to improve their own economy and living standards. It should not be a get-rich-quick scheme for a privileged few. We need more transparency and more evidence of value for money for the British taxpayer.

4.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Desmond Swayne): I last visited Afghanistan in 1976, when it was a very different place. I had the pleasure, and indeed the liberty, to hire a horse and ride round the lakes of Band-e Amir and to visit the standing Buddhas at Bamiyan, since destroyed by the

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Taliban, all entirely on my own and entirely safely. Of course, things have changed dramatically since those days. The British taxpayer has shed treasure and British soldiers, sailors and airmen have given their lives and shed much blood in attempting to return Afghanistan to some form of stability. Perhaps those days will come again.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and, after 30 years of warfare, we have the extraordinary situation where the average lifespan is only 49 years. One third of the population lives on less than 70p a day. Barely one in three is literate and able to read and write, and one child in 10 dies before their fifth birthday. It is unlikely that, or rather, it is certain that Afghanistan will not meet any of the millennium development goals before 2020. That is why we believe it is right that we should have a lasting commitment as a partner to Afghanistan for the long term. Our aim is to deliver 71,000 jobs for people in Afghanistan and to provide primary education for 5.4 million people, with 40% of the places for girls. We want to assist, and we provide important technical assistance on the public finances and to address corruption, strengthen basic services and fundamentally improve the lives of women, as well as providing resilience for the country in the face of natural disasters, given that it is situated in earthquake zones and subject to those dangers.

The focus of much of our development has been on the rural economy and providing for the distribution of goods and access to markets. Since 2002, we have been the largest donor to the World Bank’s Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund. I should point out to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) that about half our aid to Afghanistan is channelled through the World Bank to provide basic services to people. The achievements of the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund include the delivery of some 9,321 miles of road, benefiting some 6 million people.

We also support the infrastructure trust fund, which provides finance for power. As a result—this is among the other achievements of that fund—some 30% of households are now on the electricity grid. We also contribute to the comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility, which tackles obstacles to rural development, increasing productivity, encouraging value-added production and improving rural incomes. It has delivered some 6,663 jobs, of which 1,977 have been for women. It has increased incomes by some £2 million, delivered 800 small farms and 250 greenhouses, and provided for canals and reservoirs. The next phase of the project begins this year, with an even more ambitious target of 13,000 jobs and an increment to incomes of some £88 million.

We are presented with an enormous opportunity by the political developments in Afghanistan with the new Ghani regime, and we will be hosting a conference in London in December to catalyse on that. The conference was originally conceived as a technical catch-up on the conference that took place in Tokyo to try to keep Afghanistan up to the mark in delivering its side of the development bargain, by reducing corruption and living up to our expectations on probity. The situation has fundamentally changed with the Ghani regime and his welcome appointment of his main presidential rival as Chief Executive Officer, or, to all extents and purposes, as Prime Minister—although the Afghanistan constitution

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does not have a role of Prime Minister, that is the nearest comparison by which to paraphrase that role. He has put his rival in that role and announced by presidential decree a reopening of the investigation into the plundering of the Kabul Bank in 2012.

Steve McCabe: The Minister is making a fascinating, upbeat speech, but we are a bit like ships passing in the night. Given that it does not sound as though he will be able to address the points I have raised, I ask him to look at what I said and give me a thorough written response.

Mr Swayne: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to his points, but the title of the debate entitles me to put on record the policy of the Department and the achievements we have made and seek to make. With respect to the opportunity that is now opening up, it is time to re-engage with Afghanistan in the London conference in December, which will provide an opportunity for the new Afghan regime to lay its cards on the table and show its commitment to reform. The conference will provide us with the opportunity to restate our long-term commitment to Afghanistan, notwithstanding our withdrawal from the combat role.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the Bost development before. On account of that and the 40 parliamentary questions that he has tabled on the matter, I took some trouble before this debate to look into what he clearly sees as a conspiracy of silence to conceal information from him. Given the number of questions and the new information he has presented today, he is right: I will not be able to address them all in this debate, although I will attempt to address as many as I can.

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My immediate reaction on having read his earlier Westminster Hall debate was to think, “Is there a conspiracy?” As a fellow Member of the House—and one who served under his chairmanship in that famous private Bill Committee—I say to the hon. Gentleman that while it may smell rotten to him, I am of the belief that there is nothing rotten here. However, given what he has said today, I will of course go away and look at it again. I make a genuine offer to him. I know how frustrating it must be to try to elicit information through parliamentary questions, only to get a glacial increase or increment or a step back with each one, but I am more than happy to pursue this matter through correspondence. I will be as open as I can.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made good use of the Department’s website. We believe in transparency and making things public, with respect to freedom of information requests. Will the report ever be finished? I am afraid the answer is: “No, it won’t.” As I understand it, the reason the report he referred to has not been released is because it was a draft report.

Steve McCabe: Reports.

Mr Swayne: They were draft reports. DFID had no intention of proceeding with the scope covered in those reports. We were for carrying forward a much smaller project. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the memorandum of understanding. My understanding is that—

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).