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Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

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

I am pleased that we can have a short debate on the situation facing Bangladesh. As I have already explained to the Minister for the Middle East, I want to concentrate on two aspects of life in Bangladesh—the cyclone and the disasters that followed, and the current political situation in the country.

It would not be right to make that part of my speech without first recognising the fact that there is a large Bangladeshi community in Britain, in London and in many other cities, and also recognising the incredible contribution of its members to our society and life—especially in the restaurant and garment industries. Through their hard work, they have sent large amounts of money home, which has played a major part in the development and improvement of Bangladeshi society. It should be on the record that members of that migrant community have come here to contribute, to work, to support each other and to become a positive force in our community.

Like my hon. Friend, I have a large Bangladeshi community in my constituency. Does he agree that there is considerable concern in that community, and elsewhere—I have heard concerns from across the Bangladeshi community in London—about the political situation in Bangladesh? People are looking to the British Government to do something to help. This debate is an ideal opportunity for the Minister to set out how he can help with the situation.

That is absolutely right. That is the case with many people in the community whom I have met and worked closely with, including my good friend the former Islington councillor Talal Karim, who has helped a great deal with the preparations for this debate.

Those of us who have followed Bengali politics over a long period recognise that the country is in a difficult position geographically on the globe. It has a population of 150 million, which is growing quite slowly. The increase is down to 1.5 per cent. a year. That is a credit to the country’s development strategies. About 30 per cent. of the population live in urban areas. However, the population density, at 1,100 people per sq km, is among the highest in the world. Infant mortality rates have fallen to 54 per thousand live births and life expectancy is now 62.8 years. Although adult illiteracy has not been conquered yet, the literacy rate is up to 41 per cent. and is rising quite fast. So, there are signs that there is much to be pleased about when it comes to the improvements that are taking place in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is also an important trading partner with this country. Exports from Britain to Bangladesh and vice versa are growing fast, and therefore access to EU markets and so on is important. However, those are not the main points that I want to talk about today.

Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, after the war in which the Mukti Bahini led a guerrilla force against the forces of the Pakistan Government in what was then East Pakistan. On independence, Bangladesh was keen to develop a secular constitution, a constitutional and democratic form of government, and a democratic way of life. It is important—I will come back to this later, and I am sure that the Minister will want to mention it as well—that a secular constitution and secular politics are maintained in Bangladesh. I am sure that other Members who have a Bengali community in their constituency would agree.

Before I go on to the politics, it is only right to talk about the current crisis facing the people of Bangladesh. Cyclone Sidr has probably already resulted in around 3,000 deaths. The figures beggar belief. Many estimates say the number of deaths could be as high as 10,000. Large numbers of people—many tens of thousands—have been made homeless. Roads and infrastructure have been destroyed. Large numbers of livestock are dead, many of them drowned, because of the cyclone. Tens of thousands of acres of cash crops have been destroyed.

The immediate crisis is one of life and limb. The next crisis, following on quickly after that, is the shortage of drinking water. The next crisis is food. Then, after the immediate problems have been resolved, there is the task of rebuilding and of feeding the population. Bangladesh suffers periodically from floods, because it is low lying, on a river system, and liable to cyclones. We have to do all that we possibly can to help. Saudi Arabia has pledged help. The United Kingdom has already sent $5 million of aid, for which I thank the Secretary of State for International Development. The US is providing aid, as are neighbouring countries, including India. We have to recognise that these things happen from time to time in Bangladesh, and we have to do all that we can to support it as rapidly as possible.

There was a cyclone in 1991 and in 1998. They happen periodically, and that may be the result of climate change. It is key that we not only provide emergency aid, but make sure that development agencies do not walk away from the longer-term development of Bangladesh when it is no longer in the headlines, few though those headlines have been.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The current disaster is truly appalling, but the question is what happens afterwards. I will come back to that, if I may. I know that the Minister is from the Foreign Office, and therefore cannot be expected to speak on behalf of the Department for International Development, but perhaps he could pass on to DFID the concerns that some people have about too much of our aid being focused through official or quasi-official channels. There is an important role for local Bangladeshi non-governmental organisations and for the voluntary sector across the world. For example, today I received very useful briefings from Save the Children, and from the Disasters Emergency Committee on its work.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) pointed out, because of Bangladesh’s infrastructure problems, there are serious issues to do with inequality in the distribution of aid. A photographer, Ruhul Amin, is reported in The Muslim News as saying that

“those who live beside the roads get more relief material than they need while those in far flung areas, especially offshore and remote islands, along with inaccessible villages, are not even getting the minimum…better coordination…of relief is just part of the problem.”

There is also the question of longer-term development and protection against cyclones and floods. I recall that after a previous flood in Bangladesh, the Secretary of State for International Development spoke, quite correctly, about the need for shelters and raised areas to which people could escape when floods come; those things are very important.

I congratulate DFID on the excellent support and help that it has given, but we need to concentrate rapidly on developing a warning system—such systems are much better than they ever used to be—and on a thorough reconstruction job, with properties that are to some extent cyclone-proof where that can be achieved, and refuges. A good emergency system is also needed, because Bangladesh does not have enough helicopters or other equipment to get aid to remote places. It has to plead with India, the United States and others to send that kind of equipment as quickly as possible. I would be grateful if the Minister could help us to some extent on those matters when he replies.

I will be brief, so that the Minister has sufficient time to reply, but the second part of my speech concerns the political situation in Bangladesh. As I pointed out, Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971. We are still dealing with the effects of the division of British India in 1947, and we will all be dealing with those effects for a long time to come, whether we like it or not. It was a great historical event. Bangladesh set up a democratic, secular constitution in 1972. The country’s future looked hopeful and rosy. The first President, Sheikh Mujib, was in office in 1972, and was assassinated in 1975 in the first military coup. There followed various periods of military government in Bangladesh, interspersed with elected government.

Tragically, violence has been a feature of life in Bangladesh—political and terrorist violence, and gratuitous violence against minorities. Many people have suffered as a result. For example, Kibria, a former Finance Minister, was assassinated in 2005. That got enormous publicity at the time because the British high commissioner was injured during the assassination. I want to draw to the House’s attention the problems with human rights in Bangladesh, and the abuses that are going on.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is highly appropriate. Like him, I learned about Bangladesh through the eyes of a good friend, Talal Karim. I have never visited Bangladesh; I have only seen it on television. Does my hon. Friend agree that the tragedy of Bangladesh is that democracy has never been able to mature there? There have been regular military coups, and democracy never had the opportunity to flourish, so the country has never been able to find direction. Does he share those concerns?

I do indeed share those concerns. Although the constitution allows for democratically elected government, there has always been the concern that the military might take over and remove the elected system. There is a constitutional safeguard that in many ways is very good. In the period surrounding an election, an interim Government have to take office. The interim Government are to be in office for only three months. Their role is to oversee the election period and the installation of the new Government. That is a laudable democratic aim that many other countries might think about.

The present problem is that the interim Government have already been in office for the best part of a year and plan to be in office a lot longer. There are concerns about that because of what is happening now in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch, reporting on the events of 2006, states:

“Security forces used mass arrests as means to suppress demonstrations. Workers in the export garment industry were subjected to violence and job dismissal in response to demands for wage increases and safe work conditions. Violence by religious extremists increased, and fundamentalist political groups gained influence in government.”

The report continues:

“Death in custody is common. In 2006, 51 prisoners, of whom 32 were reported to have died from various causes, including violence by fellow prisoners, and delays in medical treatment.”

It goes on to list many other issues surrounding corruption, the treatment of minorities and religious tensions in the country. These are matters of enormous concern.

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, referring to the ban on political life in Bangladesh that has been imposed by the interim Government, states:

“The idea that politics is banned in a democracy is bizarre. If the Bangladeshi authorities are serious about restoring democracy, they must fully end the ban on political activities.”

The Human Rights Watch report goes on to say:

“However, the partial lifting of the ban”,

which has happened,

“will only allow a political party to meet to discuss internal party reforms in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform. Parties will still be required to inform the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in advance about all meetings. A maximum of 50 party members will be allowed to attend each meeting. The ban on all other political meetings will remain in force in the rest of the country. Under the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, those who violate the restrictions face prison terms of two to five years as well as fines.”

Those are draconian measures, to put it mildly. I hope that our Government will be prepared to make appropriate and strong representations about them. Although we would all agree with the interim Government’s laudable aim of fighting corruption, the best antidote to corruption is accountable government through a democratic process—through the ballot box. It is therefore important that we make all the representations we can on that topic.

The leaders of the major political parties, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, often referred to disparagingly as the two sisters of Bangladesh, have very different political views and political aspirations. That is what democracy is about. Both are in detention, having returned to the country. We heard today that Sheikh Hasina has been given a date for her trial. Unfortunately, the trial will take place in front of a special court. I hope that the Government will send observers and make the appropriate representations to ensure that she has an open and fair trial. Those of us who met Sheikh Hasina in this country before she went back watched with amazement as she was preparing to go back. Indeed, I had a meeting with her on the day that she was preparing to go back. At that moment a call came through from British Airways saying that she could not get on the plane because it would not be allowed to land in Dhaka. Considerable negotiations followed. She wanted to go back to face the trial. That, surely, is to her credit.

My last point is that according to Amnesty International, about 20,000 people are being held under special powers in Bangladesh, which is rather more than the number being held in Pakistan. I am not defending Pakistan’s human rights record—far from it. I merely make the point that a large number of people are being held in detention in Bangladesh.

I hope that our Government will do a number of things. We are already doing the first, which is supporting the people in their hour of need after the cyclone, and I applaud what is being done. The Government should make all the representations possible to a fellow Commonwealth country about democracy and the restoration of democratic rights, and they should also send observers to the trial that I mentioned, to the electoral registration process and to the elections—if and when they finally take place.

I am a representative of the Bengali community in my constituency. I am very proud of that community, and I know that it, too, feels the pain of the lack of democracy in Bangladesh and that it wants democratic rights restored. I am sure that we would support that community in that laudable aim.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this debate, and I welcome his close interest in the important issues that he raised. He is an indefatigable champion of the Bangladeshi communities in this country, as indeed are my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), who made interventions, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who has been giving me a running commentary from the Front Bench.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) also intervened. I know from long experience that he has been very interested in this subject and is a firm supporter. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North have emphasised, and reminded us of, the vital part played in the life of our country by the Bangladeshi community. We ought to celebrate that, and it is an important point to make.

Hon. Friends spoke of the tragedy of the cyclone and floods in Bangladesh earlier this month, and Her Majesty the Queen and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have expressed their shock and sadness. Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones and to those who have lost homes and livelihoods. I salute the resilience of the Bangladeshi people in the face of natural disasters, which sadly they know only too well. I have been fortunate enough to visit Bangladesh on a number of occasions, and I know that its terrain must be among the toughest in the world for people to eke out a living—it is astonishing how they manage to do it. The impact of the cyclone and the floods was devastating, but it would have been worse without the early warning system and the contingency measures developed over recent years and implemented effectively by the caretaker Government.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development today announced a contribution of £7 million for immediate to medium-term relief efforts—I did not pick that up in the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North but I think that he mentioned it—and £2.5 million has already been channelled through the United Nations Development Programme to provide safe water, food, medical treatment and housing repairs. The remaining part of our contribution will be used to fund gaps in existing provision, particularly that for clean drinking water and sanitation. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting some of the difficulties in the distribution of that aid. I have seen for myself after other disasters that people who live nearest the roads can be the more fortunate ones in receiving such aid, but I am sure that great efforts are being made to get this aid out to the more remote areas, too. We are considering further assistance as the needs become clearer.

I pay tribute to the impressive contributions of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. It quickly began raising large sums for the Disaster Emergency Committee, whose appeal is also raising additional resources for those affected. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North knows this, but it is worth repeating to the House that the development programme in Bangladesh managed by the Department for International Development is a vital part of our bilateral commitment, and is valued very highly by the people of Bangladesh and by the caretaker Government. Indeed, the United Kingdom is the largest bilateral donor to Bangladesh, with a programme of nearly £117 million this year. Bangladesh represents the United Kingdom’s second largest country development programme worldwide. That is a sign of the warm relationships between our two peoples and the understanding in this country of the need to support Bangladesh and its democracy and to ensure that such natural disasters do not make matters worse than they already are.

DIFD has produced a country strategy for Bangladesh that lasts from 2006 to 2010. That is very progressive and it addresses the longer term, but we need to get the World Bank, the European Union and other donors behind it; otherwise we will go through disaster after disaster and pick up the pieces. Will my hon. Friend press his colleagues to encourage other donors to get behind that longer-term strategy?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. That is one of the ways of doing it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North might have said had he not lacked time. Bangladesh could become one of the world leaders in tackling climate change. It has 30 million—perhaps even 70 million—people threatened by rising sea levels. We should approach that bilaterally as well as trying to involve the big international funding organisations in projects to help the Bangladeshi people themselves to take these schemes forward.

My hon. Friend spoke about the political situation in Bangladesh. We should not forget the scale of the crisis when the President of Bangladesh asked the caretaker Government—my hon. Friend called it the interim Government—to take on their heavy burden in the first place. A confrontational, winner-takes-all political culture, deep-rooted corruption, cronyism and falling standards of governance added up to a raw deal for the people. I saw that for myself, time and again, when I visited Bangladesh. The country was nowhere near reaching its full potential. This time last year, we saw violence on the streets between the parties ahead of elections that showed no signs of meeting the “free and fair” test. Members of the public and of civil society told us repeatedly that the status quo could not continue. There had to be fundamental change to put Bangladesh on the right track, and the country needed, and continues to need, a political overhaul.

That is not to say that good things have not happened in Bangladesh; my hon. Friend mentioned some of them. The country has made impressive progress on poverty reduction, with poverty being reduced from 58 per cent. in 1990 to 40 per cent. in 2005, as well as progress on gender equality. Bangladesh’s pioneering of systems of micro-credit has gained global admiration. Those systems have been replicated around the world, wherever I go. Bangladesh should be very proud of that. Bangladesh’s armed forces have forged a good reputation in United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world. The economy has achieved steady growth. The frustration was that Bangladesh should have been doing even better—much better—and that the focus of the political class on self-interest was depriving many Bangladeshis of the chance of a better life and a chance to share in the country’s prosperity.

By January 2007, Bangladesh had been pushed to the brink of state failure. I say that after a great deal of consideration. We were as worried about Bangladesh a year ago as we were about anywhere in the world. Because it is such a populous country with so many people living on the edge, it was very important that something was done to start pulling its politics around. There was an urgent need for an Administration who would put the interest of the Bangladeshi people first and put Bangladesh on the right track. It is unfortunate that circumstances arose in which a state of emergency was declared. We do not want that, and I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern. We welcomed the appointment of the caretaker Government as offering an opportunity to establish conditions for credible elections that could sustain democracy in the longer term.

We believe that the caretaker Government have taken at least some constructive steps towards those goals. I see plenty of evidence of concrete action towards creating a strong Bangladeshi democracy that can endure. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and I could talk for a very long time about the time lines that he mentioned and about the need to get to elections as quickly as possible while producing a sustainable result. It would be a disaster to hold elections that were not regarded as free and fair because we would probably see another cycle of corruption and military action.

There has been good progress on the production of a revised and accurate new photo-voter list. The judiciary has been separated from the Executive, which was an historic step. The election commission has been strengthened and made independent and the anti-corruption commission rejuvenated and given unprecedented bite. There are measures to reform public service and make merit the basis for advancement, and there are signs of better relations with India. That is a notable list of achievements 10 months on, but important challenges lie ahead, including food prices, which are the main concern for many Bangladeshis. Effective management of the economy will be key over the next year, and beyond.

Our Government strongly support the road map to elections by December 2008 at the latest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North has pointed out, that is a long way away. We are offering practical support for election preparations. It is our strong impression that the majority of Bangladeshis accept that time is needed to put in place preparations for free, fair and credible elections for a democracy that can endure. We welcome the chief election commissioner’s remarks that the date for elections could be brought forward if the voter list and electoral reforms can be completed earlier then planned. If the date of elections can be advanced, it should be. We welcome the good progress that has been made on preparing the new voter list.

I realise that my hon. Friend has very little time left, but will he put what pressure he can on Bangladesh to lift its ban on political activities and to release its political prisoners—and all others held under emergency legislation—so that they can go through the normal judicial process?

We are certainly in favour of releasing political prisoners anywhere in the world. I welcome the attention that my hon. Friend has drawn to the important issues of due process of law and human rights. He raised a particular concern about the treatment of Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia, both of whom I have met on several occasions. I remind him that both have been charged with corruption and extortion, and remain in detention in so-called sub-jails. We cannot ignore that. Their cases are within the judicial system of Bangladesh, and we have consistently urged the caretaker Government to ensure that due process and individual rights are upheld, and that trials are independent and fair, consistent with Bangladesh’s international human rights obligations.

In the few moments left to me, this crackdown on corruption—

The motion having been made after Seven o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes to Eight o’clock.