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Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2007

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

On an evening when I am sure that some hon. Members are a bit gloomy that England got beaten 2-1 in the football match—although we can look for better things against Croatia—I hope to cheer everyone up with this debate about the Maldives.

When we die, most of us aspire to enter paradise, even though we might be sinners. Well, I have news for the House: my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) had an early taste of paradise when, through the all-party parliamentary group, we had the opportunity to visit the Maldives earlier this year. No words can describe adequately just how beautiful the islands are. He and I had a splendid visit, and learned at first hand the challenges faced by the Maldivian Government. I bring the House the good news that we were given an open opportunity to visit all parts of the Maldives, and that next year’s plans will result in democracy being well and truly delivered to the islands.

Britain’s relations with the Maldives began with our colonial expansion into south Asia in the mid to late 18th century. On 16 December 1887, the Sultan of the Maldives signed a contract with the British governor of Ceylon, turning the Maldives into a British protectorate. The British Government promised the islands military protection and non-interference in local administration, in exchange for an annual tribute paid by the Maldives. In 1957 the British established a Royal Air Force base in the strategic southernmost atoll of Addu, where hundred of locals were employed. Nineteen years later, the British Government decided to give up the base, as it was too expensive to maintain.

The Maldives has been an independent state throughout its known history, except for a brief period of 15 years of Portuguese occupation in the 16th century. The Maldives remained a British protectorate until 26 July 1965, but I am sure that the Minister will accept that the ties between Britain and the Maldives remain very close, even though it is no longer a British protectorate. We remain a leading economic power, and rightly still contribute aid to the Maldives, which is a developing country. The great disparity in wealth between our two countries, and our shared history, places an obligation on Britain to continue to provide assistance to that island state.

The Maldives is a small nation, but the House may not understand that it is made up of 1,200 coral islands, most of them uninhabited. The fact that none of them stands more than 6 ft above the level of the ocean makes the country very vulnerable to rises in sea level associated with global warming. With their abundant sea life and sandy beaches, the Maldives islands are often portrayed by travel companies as a paradise, and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South can testify that it is.

The Maldives islands are absolutely magnificent, but many Maldivians live in absolute poverty. The country has done its best to develop its infrastructure and industries, including the fisheries sector, and there has been a boost in health care, education and literacy. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as he has some splendid ideas about developing further educational links between our two countries. I think that he also has some points to make about human rights.

In December 2004, the Maldives was hit by the Asian tsunami. Homes and resorts were devastated by the waves, precipitating a major rebuilding programme. The Maldives are beautiful but the country faces many challenges, one of which is the threat of rising sea levels.

During our visit, we saw at first hand just how vulnerable the islands are and I want to outline briefly some of the issues. Malé, the capital, is home to the majority of the country’s 300,000 inhabitants; it is by far the most developed of the Maldives islands. I do not know whether the Minister has had the opportunity to visit the island, but Malé is absolutely crowded—there is nowhere left on the island for building or development. That is a real issue.

To counter pressure on the capital, the Government have developed an extraordinary project; they have reclaimed and rebuilt an island, which will in time be bigger than the capital. Hundreds of people already live on the island and the Maldivian Government are considering the construction of a bridge or causeway to link Malé to the new island. So far, under the first phase, 1,500 people have gone to live in the housing that is being erected on the 465-acre island. It is an absolutely magnificent project.

Hulamalé is already the same size as the island of Malé and will more than double when the project has been completed. It is phased over 40 years and eventually the island will house 153,000 people. The vast, flat, barren rectangle is a far cry from the rest of the Maldive islands. The project began in 1997 and will be completed in a number of stages. It has already cost £30 million. Malé residents are being given priority in land and home purchases and the Government of President Gayoom are offering real estate at a 40 per cent. discount on prices in the capital as an incentive.

The President has spent much of his 26 years in power warning of the dangers of global warming, erosion and shifting weather patterns. The reclaimed island offers an opportunity for British involvement in the development of the project and I hope the Minister will reflect on it.

The new island will be 2 m above sea level—a metre higher than Malé—as a safeguard against the rising ocean. Commenting on the threat of rising sea levels in relation to the project, the President said:

“There is encroachment of the sea on many islands, there is erosion of our beaches. We think the new Malé is sufficient for the time being. Of course we can’t foresee what will happen 50 or 60 years from now.”

We hope that the island will be safe in the future.

My hon. Friend and I visited a regeneration project on Dhiffushi island. The tsunami that hit south Asia in 2004 struck the Maldives on 26 December at 9.20 am. It destroyed lives and affected the livelihoods of a third of the population. The disaster severely affected the whole country, flooding all but nine islands—13 islands were completely evacuated. The tsunami claimed 82 lives, left 26 people missing and displaced more than 15,000 people. It destroyed much of the country’s physical asset base, including homes and entire settlements, public service utilities, such as hospitals, clinics and schools, transport and communications infrastructure, private businesses and livelihoods. The main industries of tourism and fishing were badly hit. The total asset loss is estimated at 62 per cent. of the Maldives gross domestic product.

One island that was very badly hit by the tsunami was the one that my hon. Friend and I were taken to. There we saw a wonderful project to look after people with mental health problems, and we also saw a number of other projects. However, I cannot emphasise enough to the Minister the fact that the people there are struggling. They need more help. None of the Ministers and officials whom we met asked for anything, but, given the financial constraints, my hon. Friend and I thought that our Government could be encouraged to do a little more than is being done at the moment. The reconstruction project was absolutely wonderful.

The Maldivian Government have proposed an investment programme of £200 million to meet the challenges caused by the devastating tsunami of three years ago. The work that has so far been completed on the land reclamation project has cost £33.25 million and the total cost of the project will of course be much greater than that.

I congratulate our Government on the way that they have responded to the challenges and helped the Maldivian Government so far. The British Red Cross was also absolutely magnificent in helping to construct new houses. The Government have done the very best that they can to support the Maldivian Government, but many more challenges need to be faced.

I shall end with a few remarks about the political situation. I want to praise my noble Friend Lord Naseby, who is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group. He has already met one of the election commissioners and was very impressed by the meeting. The view is that there will probably be a bigger turnout when the elections are held next year than there would be in a British general election, and he was very impressed by the arrangements that are in hand. The Parliament and the President sit for five years, and the President is chief of state and the Head of Government. When a referendum was held on the way forward, there was a very high turnout and 90,000 voted for the new agenda and 60,000 voted against. The outcome was very satisfactory and new elections are scheduled for 2008. I hope that our Government will enthusiastically send observers to oversee the election process.

During the trip, my hon. Friend and I met the Speaker, the Foreign Minister and the Chancellor and we were given wide access to any number of officials. However, the Maldivian Government are concerned about Islamic fundamentalism.

I say to the Minister that there are many commercial opportunities for the United Kingdom. The desire for development, the relaxation of foreign investment regulations, the level of political stability and the extent of existing cultural ties mean that the Maldives is a very attractive location for UK foreign investment. I encourage UK firms to grasp that opportunity, and that opportunity is to unite with the Maldivian Government in what my hon. Friend and I regard as an early sight of paradise.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and especially to the Minister for allowing me to take part in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for securing it.

I am the secretary of the all-party Maldives group and although it is paradise, I can assure the Minister that work does take place in paradise. Indeed, we worked really quite hard and were well received wherever we went. As my hon. Friend said, the whole of society was opened up to us and we were taken wherever we asked to go. That is worth saying.

As the Minister will know, there have been political difficulties in the Maldivian system. I know that the British Government have been heartened by the fact that the country embarked on a change programme two or three years ago. I am delighted to report to the Minister that the change programme is moving on apace. A problem might be that we see the Maldives as not the perfect democratic nation, but it is striving to get there. As my hon. Friend said, the referendum was very successful and a massive proportion of the electorate took part. Hopefully, the elections in September 2008 will prove conclusively that the Maldivian people are in possession of a representative democracy of which they can be proud. This is thus a good time for us to help the Maldives, which was a protectorate for so long and where English is spoken. The fact that the Maldives looks to our country as a model and a great friend certainly came over to my hon. Friend and I.

What can we do? There is a real problem with education. There are about 80,000 pupils in Maldivian schools, but only up to secondary school level. Anyone who wishes to pursue further education to any extent must leave the country. When we asked the Minister, the honourable Abdulla Shahid, the areas of activity in which Britain might help, he suggested further education, especially in connection with British universities. We said that we would explore that area of activity, so my hon. Friend and I intend to contact our senior educational establishments. We are talking to foundations that might be able to help with the creation of a university college, or at least some attachment of that kind that could relate to a British university, given that the country uses British exams. We hope that something might come of that.

The Minister is involved in and appreciative of relationships with the Maldives. He is what we in Northamptonshire might call a good old boy—I hope that that is parliamentary language, Mr. Speaker. I know that the Minister is a kind man, so I wonder whether he might allow my hon. Friend and I to spend 10 minutes with him to determine whether we could pursue the possibility of working closely with our senior educational establishments with a view to helping the Maldivian people into the degree of higher education that is difficult for them to attain now.

I am grateful for your kindness, Mr. Speaker, and to the Minister. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

May I join the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) in congratulating the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing the debate? I welcome the close interest of the hon. Member for Southend, West in the issues that have been raised. If he does not mind my saying so, it is always a pleasure to debate with him. He believes passionately in the causes that he champions, as does the hon. Member for Northampton, South. I do not always agree with the hon. Gentlemen, but I recognise the force of their arguments.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the debate on relations between the United Kingdom and the Maldives. Mention of the Maldives will readily evoke images of picture-postcard islands and crystal-clear water. We have heard such a description today. I have not had the opportunity to visit the country, but, hopefully, I will do so one day. I cannot remember whether this was mentioned, but 100,000 British citizens go there for a holiday every year, which in itself is a testament to not only the beauty of the islands, but their potential, which was the most interesting aspect of the hon. Gentlemen’s speeches.

We enjoy excellent relationships with the Maldives, both bilaterally and through our shared membership of the Commonwealth. Many Maldivians hold Her Majesty the Queen and the United Kingdom in high regard. That is reflected at ministerial level, and through the close relationships between Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials and the Maldivian Government.

In his visit in July, President Gayoom had an audience with the Queen. He also met my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister with responsibility for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They reviewed our wide range of shared interests, which include education, trade, tourism and addressing the challenges of climate change. More recently, senior FCO officials met the new Maldivian Foreign Minister, Mr. Abdulla Shahid, and the Deputy Foreign Minister, Ms Dhunya Maumoon, who was educated in Britain. She is the daughter of the President and is married to a British national. Officials also met Mohamed Nasheed, who is the leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic party.

I was interested in the suggestion that the hon. Member for Northampton, South, made about establishing closer contacts with UK universities; I could not agree with him more. We do not work hard enough at that. I will give him an undertaking: tomorrow night, I will have the pleasure of dining with the distinguished Professor Merfyn Jones, who is chairman of Higher Education Wales, which represents Welsh universities. I shall mention the subject to him, because he has done some pioneering work on contacts between Bangor university, of which he is the vice-chancellor, and Kuwait. Work is done on important maritime studies, and I have no doubt that issues such as climate change could easily be included.

The hon. Member for Southend, West, mentioned that the Maldivians are extremely concerned about climate change, and he gave us the most vivid example possible. While I was swotting for the debate, I read that no point in the Maldives is higher than 2.5 m. When we read some of the predictions of what will happen if sea levels rise, we see that climate change poses the gravest threat to life and commerce in the Maldives. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the subject, and we want to work with him on it.

When I made inquiries with our officials, they said, “Look, as for contact between the Maldivians and us, we are no more than a phone call away.” We have a very good relationship with the Maldivians, and it is not at a formal level. If they want to speak to us, they can do so at any time. I wanted to reiterate that in the House tonight, because it is an important point. We care a great deal about the Maldives. It has a very small population of 350,000, but as the hon. Member for Southend, West, pointed out, it has strong historical links with our country, and we want to nurture and strengthen those links.

I was fascinated to hear the hon. Gentleman’s description of the new town that is set to grow, possibly with a causeway connection to the capital, Malé. That is an exciting prospect. The hon. Gentleman probably already knows, although I admit that I do not, whether the Maldivians are looking closely at the new developments in the Gulf, where causeways are being used to enlarge the available building land. He made an important point when he said that it is easy to run out of land. We may be talking about the biggest occupied atoll in the world, but that does not mean that there is a lot of land there for development. Clearly, we are talking about a country with aspirations—I will come to the points that the hon. Member for Northampton, South, made on that subject later. It aspires not just to become a more transparent and vigorous democracy, although I believe that it is that, but to feed itself and to ensure a sustainable economy. As the tourism industry grows, so will the population, probably—and why should it not? However, it will be a fine balance, because there is not much room. From our own constituencies, we all know how difficult it is to get land for development, even though we have such an abundance of it. For the Maldives, the problem is acute.

I am sure that the hon. Gentlemen and the entire House will join me in condemning the appalling bomb attack on 29 September that injured 12 tourists, including two British nationals. We offer our sincere condolences to those injured, some of whom are still recuperating from the attack. The bombers, whoever they were, do not represent the overwhelming majority of the Maldivian people, who reacted with horror to the attack. Their reaction was not only of great comfort to the victims, but sent an unambiguous message to the perpetrators that the Maldives is united against terrorism. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown wrote to Foreign Minister Shahid on 4 October to express our gratitude for the generous and effective response of the Maldivian Government, the tourism industry and the Maldivian general public for their expressions of opposition to that outrage.

I join the hon. Member for Southend, West in saying that that attack did not represent the Maldives. Perhaps it was designed to try to weaken confidence in the Maldives and to tell people that they should not go there. We have seen the same tactics being used in Sharm el-Shaikh and elsewhere. I have been impressed by the determination of the Maldivian people in re-asserting that that is a country worth living in and one which has a great future.

I echo the words of the hon. Member for Northampton, South—if it was the hon. Member for Southend, West, I hope he will forgive me—who paid tribute to the work of the noble Lord Naseby, whom we know well. He has done sterling work in helping our Government and the House to focus on helping the Maldives to achieve a more democratic and transparent system of government. That has been a remarkable achievement. As the hon. Member for Northampton, South told us, the transition has not been easy and there is a long way to go yet, but we appreciate the fact that President Gayoom has set in train an ambitious reform programme to adopt a new constitution and to institute multi-party democracy.

We should not underestimate the challenges in attempting to make the transition from a political system that was based heavily on patronage and state control to a multi-party liberal democracy in the space of just a few years. In some areas, such as freedom of expression and the media, the formation of political parties and the development of civil society, there has been good, albeit not always consistent, progress. We would like to see more movement in other areas. I understand that the new constitution is well on its way to being finished. I heard today that 13 chapters had been written. It is being put together by a constituent assembly, and the United Nations Development Programme has provided assistance in the drafting. That is encouraging news.

In August the Maldives constitutional referendum was the first national poll since the creation of political parties. The hon. Member for Southend, West asked whether we could send election observers out there. We would like to do that, but whether we can is another matter. It is an important issue. We would certainly support full Commonwealth or European Union election observation missions and British participation in those missions to observe what promises to be the first multi-party elections next year.

I am told, and the hon. Gentlemen have confirmed to me tonight, that because of the nature of Maldivian geography, with hundreds of small islands—I think that more than 200 are inhabited—an international observation team would not be able to cover the entire country. It is at least as important that there should be sufficient domestic observers, through the Maldives human rights commission and the political parties. I very much hope that we can take that forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o’clock