Thursday 29 January 2009
[John Bercow in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Gillian Merron.)
I am delighted to open the debate and to talk about the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which celebrates its 120th anniversary this year. It was co-founded, as hon. Members know, by William Randal Cremer, a British parliamentarian who went on to win the Nobel peace prize. The IPU has a proud history of promoting democracy and inter-parliamentary dialogue across the globe. It began small, with representatives from just seven countries joining the British and French at the first meeting. As we know, a good idea cannot be kept down for long and, as the work of the IPU became widely known, its membership grew. Today, it boasts a membership of 154 national and 8 regional Parliaments, from Austria to Afghanistan, and New Zealand to Zimbabwe.
The IPU’s declared purpose is to work for peace and co-operation through worldwide parliamentary democracy. Some might say that that is a lofty aim, but it is one that remains as valid today as it was in the 1880s when the IPU started. Parliaments are the cornerstone and the essence of democracy, but the idea of democracy was far from universally accepted at the time the IPU was established. There is no doubt that, today, parliamentary democracy is an ideal and a practice rightly aspired to by a vast number of countries and peoples. At its best, parliamentary democracy puts people at the centre of government, allowing them, through their representatives, to check, challenge and often change the actions of the Government of the day.
In too many places, Parliament does not work as it should and in no country can it be said to be perfect. For all of us, parliamentary democracy is work in progress. We have no one ideal model and no single template to follow and there is no help desk with all the answers that we can call—if only that were so.
We parliamentarians learn largely by doing and from studying the triumphs and mistakes of our predecessors. We can also benefit from the successes and failures of our peers in other countries, allowing us to replicate what works and reject or question what does not. That is where the work of the IPU has a unique contribution to make. The IPU fosters contacts and exchanges of experience among Parliaments and parliamentarians of many countries and represents the true spirit of internationalism. In so doing, it makes an invaluable contribution to the success and progress of parliamentary democracy worldwide.
The chance to contribute is no doubt why a majority of Members of the House join the British branch of the IPU, as I did on coming into the House in 1997. I have seen first hand the added value that the IPU can bring. I was a member of the delegation that visited Croatia in 2000, which was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who now chairs the British group of the IPU. As you can see, Mr. Bercow, it was quite a delegation. Our visit to Croatia was the first by the British group to that country after it gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, so it is, therefore, one of some significance. I also had the opportunity to visit Cape Verde, which helped to deepen contacts between the UK and Cape Verde. That is particularly relevant as we do not have an embassy there. Again, I saw first hand the value that the IPU can add.
The last debate in the House on the work of the IPU was in November 2007 and since then the British group has been particularly active in furthering the democratic cause. I congratulate the group on that. It has conducted delegation visits to various countries, including Japan, Tunisia, Iceland, Ukraine, Mongolia, Syria and beyond. Delegations from across the globe have also been warmly received: from Moldova, Algeria, Nicaragua, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay. I was fortunate enough to be invited to meet the delegation from Uruguay.
These visits are not the only way that the IPU does its work and not the only way in which it furthers parliamentary democracy. It holds seminars and specialised conferences, and issues handbooks, for example, allowing people to exchange and develop ideas. Topics discussed at IPU meetings during the past year include the participation of women in decision making, the role of parliamentarians in protecting children from sexual exploitation and the challenges of migration in Africa. Handbooks issued recently include those giving advice on eliminating violence against children and taking action against HIV, as well as a guide for reducing violence through parliamentary action. We can see how, through such activities, the IPU has never stood still, but continues to move forward and reflect pressing contemporary issues.
The meetings and handbooks may not generate great media interest, but they are nevertheless influential in areas of policy that touch the lives of millions around the world, using quiet diplomacy and knowledge sharing to tackle such issues. I congratulate the British group of the IPU on and commend all its active members for the hard work and dedication shown over past years.
In particular, I want to place on record my admiration for the successful role played by my hon. Friend—my delegation leader—who chairs the British group and led the delegation that attended the IPU’s 118th assembly in Cape Town in April last year. Through his hard work and diplomatic skills on behalf of the British group, the assembly agreed a presidential declaration that was critical of the Government of Zimbabwe’s handling of the election held some three weeks beforehand.
In that declaration, the IPU president spoke on behalf of 700 parliamentarians from 135 countries when expressing deep concern for the plight of the Zimbabwean people. The declaration called for the people to be allowed to exercise their right to determine their future through free and fair elections and urged the Zimbabwean authorities to release the results of the elections, restore freedoms of assembly and speech, and exercise restraint. The IPU’s work in respect of Zimbabwe still goes on, as is the case with all of us.
When all is said and done, the real value of the IPU is in its ability to do things that others cannot do, because it has special access and a special way with building parliamentary contacts into personal relationships, directly nurturing and supporting fledgling democracies and realising common aims by combining efforts with those of others.
I am keen to see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work more systematically with IPU delegations coming into and going out of the UK. The IPU focuses on parliamentarians meeting parliamentarians, and those people can do things that the FCO simply cannot do. I have discussed this with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and I am keen to make progress. I hope that this debate will allow us further to develop how we do our work.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Bercow, and pleased to hear what the Minister has to say.
Unsurprisingly, I shall raise the issue of Sudan, because this is a crucial period in that bedevilled country’s history. One thing we could do is to ensure that we build capacity in that country. There is a series of elections leading up to the referendum on the potential of secession in 2011, in which the IPU is engaged. It would be interesting to hear what the Government could do, particularly for a country such as that.
Of course, good governance and building capacity and institutions in countries such as Sudan and many others across the world is at the core of our work. I am sure that we will hear in the debate that it is about strengthening not only parliamentary democracies, but the institutions that work with Parliaments.
I look forward to the debate, the contributions of hon. Members and our continued working with the IPU.
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate when you are in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I saw you striding across Westminster Hall a few moments ago and I wondered whether it would be our good fortune to have you chairing the debate. I am delighted that you are—[Laughter.] I would have said that to any other person present this afternoon, because we are a little thin on the ground.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her opening comments, which demonstrated her long-standing interest in the IPU, her commitment to it and the importance that she attaches to the work that we do. I very much appreciate those remarks.
This is my first year as chair of the British group of the IPU and the first time, in that capacity, that I have reported in a Westminster Hall debate on our activities. I should like to place on the record my thanks and the thanks of the group for the work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who not only served for three years as chair of the British group but served for five years on the IPU’s committee on human rights and chaired it for three years. More recently, she has taken over as chair of the IPU’s committee on middle east questions. It has to be said that that committee is not one of the IPU’s greatest achievements thus far. It has been a little tardy in engaging in activities, but I am sure that, with my right hon. Friend as chair, it will become more involved in what is an extremely important situation and that the period of inactivity will come to an end.
I am also pleased to report that another previous chair of the British group, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin), has recently been re-elected unopposed as chair of our geopolitical group, the 12-plus group. That reflects the great esteem in which he, too, is held by colleagues in the IPU for his contributions. I thank my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend for their ongoing contribution. They are both great internationalists and make an enormous contribution through the IPU and in other ways. I am sure that the House recognises their efforts.
I thank the members of the executive of the British group, the officers and all the Members of both Houses who have participated in our activities in the past 12 months. I also thank our general secretary and our secretariat. Ken Courtenay and his colleagues provide an excellent service. We greatly appreciate their expertise and good humour. We are very grateful for all that they do on our behalf. It goes without saying that we could not function without such an effective secretariat.
Finally, I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. Without the work of Ministers, officials and staff in embassies and high commissions, we could not have such well-organised inward and outward delegations. We thank them for the very helpful briefings that we occasionally need at very short notice at IPU assemblies and for all the support that they give. We thank Ministers for agreeing to meet inward delegations. When the British group sends colleagues to other countries, we are invariably received with great hospitality, which involves meeting Ministers and senior political figures. It is very good that we can reciprocate when we receive inward delegations to the UK. I am very grateful to Ministers for all that they do in meeting visiting delegations. As this Minister said, she has been doing that again recently.
As has been said, the IPU exists to promote dialogue between parliamentarians, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and representative democracy—parliamentary democracy. It is worth saying in parentheses that a country does not have to be democratic to be a member of the IPU. I shall resist the temptation of naming names, but the criteria for becoming a member of the IPU are that a country is a sovereign state and has a functioning Parliament. Sadly, there are a fair number of sovereign states with Parliaments that can hardly be described as democratic, but engagement is the name of the game. The IPU, as an international organisation, is committed to promoting parliamentary democracy and human rights, and many of the activities, conferences and publications on which the IPU focuses are concerned with issues of parliamentary democracy. That probably explains why, although there are not, by any sensible definition, 150 democracies in the world, there are 150 countries that are members of the IPU. The need for dialogue and the promotion of democracy is as great now as it was 120 years ago when the IPU was established.
There is a distinct difference between intergovernmental relations and relations between parliamentarians. Governments have their jobs to do, and Ministers, officials and ambassadors do them. Parliamentarians have a distinct job, but if we are to take a serious interest in the international community, as we must, our relations with parliamentarians from other countries become very important, so that we can learn from one another and share our views about tackling some of the important international issues of the day, but also share views about how parliamentary democracy can operate better.
So, what has the British group been doing since our last debate just over a year ago in November 2007? There have been the usual two IPU assemblies: the annual assembly in Geneva and the major assembly elsewhere. As the Minister said, the major IPU assembly was held in Cape Town in April. As it took place so soon after the Zimbabwean elections, it was hardly surprising that both informal and formal discussion at the assembly focused heavily on the situation in Zimbabwe. The only additional comment that I shall make on that is that in many respects what happened in Cape Town illustrated the importance of parliamentarians and not just the IPU.
At the opening of the assembly, the then South African President, President Mbeki, managed to give a lengthy speech without referring to Zimbabwe at all. However, Mrs. Mbete, the Speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly, who, following protocol, was president of the IPU assembly because South Africa was the host country, was forthright in her comments on Zimbabwe. In her words, democracy had gone wrong and
“the world cannot simply look away”.
It is to the credit of the Speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly that she said that at the opening of the IPU assembly, and that she invited a small group of delegates to draft a presidential declaration. That it came out as, from all our perspectives, a good, strong declaration owes an enormous amount to the fact that Speaker Mbete had set it up, that the South African delegate on the committee was passionately behind a strong declaration and that there was support from other southern African countries, not least Botswana.
It became clear to me, both at the IPU assembly and during a bilateral visit in the lead-up to that assembly with South African colleagues, that a very large number of South African parliamentarians, including a very large number of members of the African National Congress, for example, were appalled at the situation in Zimbabwe and were prepared to speak out about it. Those parliamentarians deserve enormous credit. Without Speaker Mbete’s support, the resolution would not have been carried at the IPU assembly. If one is perfectly honest about the situation, it was the big assembly of the IPU in Cape Town following a few years of democracy in South Africa. Anyone who was going to speak against South Africa at that assembly would have to be pretty courageous—and foolish. None the less, the enormous prestige that South Africa had at that assembly was used to good purpose to challenge directly the situation in Zimbabwe, and all those South Africans involved deserve enormous credit for that, not least Speaker Mbete, who led that challenge.
At IPU assemblies, as hon. Members might know, there is invariably a general debate on one topic, and this time it was on pushing back the frontiers of poverty. Those general debates tend to go on for three days, with between 190 and 200 speeches. Each country has about 15 minutes, and I shrewdly shared ours with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), the Opposition vice-chair. Apart from his contribution, the others were often mind-numbingly boring—we have all been to international conferences at which everyone has to do a set-piece speech. I have been to World Trade Organisation meetings and heard such speeches, and it can get really quite tedious, but every country has to have its 15 minutes.
I think that the work that took place outside the main plenary, however, was more important. We had a significant number of bilateral meetings, and some colleagues served on standing committees looking at issues such as national security, foreign aid, migrant workers and trafficking. Several colleagues in the group drafted papers for those standing committees and made significant contributions. At Cape Town we had 10 bilateral meetings, which I think was a useful way to spend our time. I mean no disrespect to the other speakers at the plenary, but I thought that those meetings were a better way of spending our time than listening to speeches as bland and general as mine was. We met with representatives with Iran, Russia, Thailand, China, Iraq, Serbia, South Korea, Kenya, Turkey and Pakistan—a varied collection, but all countries that wanted to engage with us and with which we wanted to engage. Without exception, all those bilateral meetings were useful. We did not always agree, as might be self-evident, but they were useful meetings that at least promoted understanding and certainly a commitment to further dialogue.
The assembly in Geneva in October also involved delegation colleagues taking part in standing committee discussions on a range of issues, including nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and freedom of expression. We had further bilateral meetings, including one with Russia, and we parliamentarians in the British group are keen to continue to have such discussions.
There was an emergency item at the Geneva meeting on the global financial crisis. The downside was that I was again put on the drafting committee, and the bad news was that everyone was trying to blame everyone else. The United States, of course, is not a member of the IPU, so there were no representatives present to be blamed. You can imagine the kind of conversations that took place, but despite that, I think that a sane resolution was produced. It drew attention to the fact that, although the global financial crisis might have originated in the United States and other rich countries, we should be particularly concerned about poorer countries. They are bearing the brunt of the crisis in a way that does not correspond to their responsibility for it. Many countries are now suffering that cannot be accused in any way, shape or form of having any responsibility for the crisis, and they are mainly poorer countries, so the debate was significant.
As the Minister has said, the British group engages in several bilateral exchanges each year, usually with between six and nine inward delegations and a similar number of outward delegations, and she has mentioned those that have taken place since we last debated the IPU in this Chamber. Sadly, there has been slightly less activity over the past 12 months on that area than we had planned, but frankly, that was because of short-notice cancellations, which are beyond our control. Each year we normally plan to do seven, eight or nine inward delegations and a similar number of outward delegations, but if other countries, for whatever reason, have to drop out at the last minute, that obviously reduces the number. This year the figure was more like six inward delegations and six outward delegations, so we are anxious to do more in the current year.
We are also anxious to encourage more hon. and right hon. Members to apply to take part in IPU delegations. Some delegations are very popular, and some less so—we are on air, so I will not name names—but I urge hon. Members to encourage their hon. Friends to apply, because as an organisation we want to be able to send good delegations that are diverse. I particularly encourage more women parliamentarians to apply as we really would like to see more women participate. When in South Africa I was interviewed by the local radio station, and the interviewer asked what I thought of the fact that only one member of our delegation to the assembly in Cape Town was a woman—my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. I answered that I thought that it was shameful, which it was, and said that I would try to do something about it. The only thing we can do is to encourage more people to apply, especially our women colleagues, and I strongly urge us all to do so.
In our delegations we try to get not only some kind of gender balance but a balance between new and more experienced Members. Clearly, we are looking for people to lead a delegation who have some experience of the topics or know the relevant country, but we also want to encourage people for whom the visit would be their first. That is a point I keep making to people—they should not think that they have to have done something like that previously to apply for an IPU delegation. We are always keen to encourage Members who have not joined us on delegations in the past to do so in future.
A large number of all-party groups on countries are affiliated to the British group of the IPU. We provide financial support and assistance where possible and have done so in several cases in the past 12 months, in particular for the all-party groups on the Philippines, Finland, Palestine, Liechtenstein and Sudan. We send delegates to specialised conferences, as the Minister has said: in the past 12 months delegates have attended conferences, for example, on HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, the World Trade Organisation and gender equality. Indeed, the IPU has taken a great interest internationally in gender equality. I would like to see it take a greater interest in wider issues of equality, and maybe that will happen soon, but gender equality is clearly extremely important.
One of the good things that the IPU does is produce an annual “women in politics” map, and the latest shows that globally only 17.7 per cent. of MPs and 16.1 per cent. of Ministers are women. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is one of those and that she is with us today. However, those figures are not particularly good. Rwanda’s Parliament heads the list, with women accounting for 48.8 per cent. of its MPs. The UK is joint 60th with Cambodia, with 19.5 per cent.—I think that we have 125 women MPs out of a total of 646, but I apologise if my maths is wrong. I say in passing that without certain action taken by a certain party before 1997 we would not even have that 19.5 per cent. The point is that more needs to be done on gender equality, and the IPU internationally, as well as member Parliaments, would do well to do more to promote it.
I ought to say something briefly about funding. The IPU used to be funded by grant in aid from the Treasury, as was the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but for reasons that I will not go into we are now funded directly by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As it happens, the agreed formula is that 70 per cent. of the funding should come from the Commons and 30 per cent. from the Lords. For reasons of equity, we therefore seek some kind of balance in our delegations and other activities—perhaps 70:30—between Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As I say, that is only one guideline, but the funding mechanism means that we are directly funded—as it were, internally.
We have had a successful year. We are always looking for ways to improve what we do, and we would gratefully accept the suggestions of other hon. Members. For example, in April we are organising a disabilities seminar for members of the 12-plus group, following the recent publication by the IPU of a handbook on disability equality. I said earlier that we were beginning to see an increased interest in wider areas of equality. That is an example, and I am delighted to see it. I expect that the 12-plus group seminar will generate some interest. We are always keen to look for new things to do and ideas on how to do things better. As always, suggestions would be greatly welcomed.
We all know that many of today’s important political issues are not susceptible to national solutions. Until recently, we used to rattle off the familiar list. We talked about climate change, terrorism and world poverty. We now have to add financial crises to the list. The planet on which we live is characterised by extensive interdependence between countries. If we are to deal with problems that affect us all, we need to co-operate. It is therefore important that parliamentarians, with their national responsibilities, should take the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with those from other countries.
The need for internationalism, for dialogue and for peaceful conflict resolution is as great today as it was 120 years ago when the IPU was established. I am grateful for the support that colleagues have given to the work of the British group.
I am pleased to be called to speak in this important annual debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), the chairman of the group, I regret the fact that attendance is pretty sparse.
I consider it a tremendous honour and privilege to have been elected as vice-chair of the British group of the IPU. I do not want to sound too self-congratulatory, but I certainly congratulate my hon. Friend, who has been an exemplary and inclusive chair of our branch for the past 12 months.
I pay tribute to our general secretary, Ken Courtenay, and his assiduous team. I see that three of them are in the Chamber today. It has not been an easy year. There have been a number of personnel changes, but Members seem not to have noticed as we continued to receive an efficient and seamless service from the IPU staff.
At last year’s annual debate, the Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), then Minister for Europe, made a strong point of acknowledging the valuable work done by members of the IPU in aiding the work of the Foreign Office. It is good to hear the same message being repeated today by the Minister. I believe that the work and activities of the IPU can genuinely help to build trust and respect between parliamentarians from different countries. Often, our more informal contacts and discussions play an important part in helping to build bridges and defusing situations between nations.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, in the past year the British branch has welcomed delegations from Algeria, Nicaragua, Moldova, Gabon, Uruguay and, this week, the United Arab Emirates. Common threads have emerged. There is shared concern across the world about the global financial crisis. However, discussions with most of those countries have centred on the challenges posed by climate change and the question of energy security. The subject of mass migration has often cropped up as a major issue, as has poverty. Those subjects arise not only in Europe and the middle east but throughout the world. There is a real need to find a durable, lasting peace in the middle east.
We all know from personal experience that we are more likely to find common cause over a cup of coffee, or even a glass of wine, than in a more formal and stuffy setting. Relationships can often begin at IPU-sponsored events, and can be followed up through the medium of e-mail or by making visits. Those little things can make a significant contribution to advancing our country’s diplomatic endeavours.
When our Ministers visit overseas countries, they are usually on a tight schedule and the Whips often summon them back to Westminster. They rarely have the opportunity to travel beyond capital cities, or to see what life is like for ordinary people. That is the strength of IPU visits. As part of an IPU delegation, one usually has the opportunity to see the bigger picture. One can meet a wider range of decision makers, and politicians from opposition parties as well as the Government party. One may be able to travel, and thus meet regional or provincial governors or Ministers. One can meet representatives from a range of NGOs and from civil society. One can also meet staff from the Department for International Development, the diplomatic service or UN agencies—those who work on the front line.
That point is well illustrated by the excellent IPU delegation that I had the fortune to go on last year to Mongolia. It was ably led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). Hon. Members will know that Mongolia is a vast country. It is about six times the size of Britain, but it has a population of only 2.5 million, about half of whom live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. During our visit, we had the opportunity to go beyond the capital and visit Erdenet, a large industrial city. There, we met the regional governor. We also visited the world’s largest copper mine. We then travelled on to Darhan, where we visited a hospital and met local politicians.
If anyone thinks that going on an IPU delegation is a jolly—I am sure that no one here today does so—they should have been with us on our trip to Mongolia. The seven-hour journey back, through blizzards and appalling climatic conditions, to Ulaanbaatar, would be a worthy contender for the award for scariest journey ever undertaken by man or woman.
In previous annual debates, we have recognised the huge contribution made by the British Council, which does not have an office in Ulaanbaatar. However, it has helped to organise a scheme funded by the Department for International Development. It has put in place a couple of people—I am not sure of their titles—advising and supporting Mongolian peacekeepers. Mongolia punches above its weight in the world community on peacekeeping missions, and it was nice to find there those two British guys on two-year assignments helping to train Mongolian peacekeepers. I hope that I am crediting the right people—I apologise if I am not—but I think that the funding is provided by DFID and the work organised by the British Council.
On IPU visits, we sometimes have time to see the valuable work being done by our non-governmental organisations. On a hospital visit in Mongolia, we met six volunteers with Voluntary Service Overseas, some of whom were on two-year secondments from the NHS. They are very dedicated people. One lady, Robin, was a recently retired nurse who had given more than 30 years to the NHS in Cambridge. She had gone out to Mongolia for two years. It was wonderful to see the work that they were doing. We also met the Mongolian Red Cross, whose workers were so grateful for the amazing and generous support that they received from the British Red Cross. It has established, in that vast country, almost a complete network of first responders. I think that most of its financial support comes from British donors, including the British Red Cross. That was very good.
We also visited Save the Children UK. Mr. Bercow, you would have been delighted had you been with us. In the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar, it is running an inspirational assessment centre for youngsters with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and behavioural problems. In Mongolia, there is almost no state provision for children with special needs, and I think that Save the Children UK has invested nearly £1 million in that wonderful project—I have visited several projects and centres supporting children with special needs, and this one was exceptional. I came back with a sense of the appreciation that the people of Mongolia have for British NGOs—an aspect often overlooked when we talk about their work.
I planned to mention other activities in which I have played a part, but our chairman has mentioned them all, so I shall not repeat the points that he made. In conclusion, therefore, I encourage all Members in both Houses to participate in, and engage with, the work of the IPU. It is a truly great institution giving a global voice to parliamentarians from more than 150 countries. Working in isolation, we cannot solve the great challenges facing the world at the start of the 21st century, but by working together, through the United Nations, standing up for human rights and the rule of law, nurturing fledgling democracies, defending the rights of parliamentarians, promoting social and economic justice and encouraging the greater representation of women and minority groups in our Parliaments, the IPU can make a significant contribution to bringing peace and prosperity to the world.
It is a great pleasure, Mr. Bercow, to serve—for the first time, I think—under your gimlet eye. The last time that we debated the Inter-Parliamentary Union, it was under the gimlet eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). I know, Mr. Bercow, that you will resist the temptation to step down from the Chair and participate in the debate, but I know that you feel very strongly about a number of the issues raised.
Like the Minister, I congratulate our chairman, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). I have never been on an IPU delegation with him, but I have been on an all-party trip with him, and I know how seriously he takes all the issues under discussion. At times, there is a cynical view that our IPU delegations go on surf-and-sand trips abroad. Although some of them are in what could be regarded as desirable parts of the world, many of them are not, and from talking to colleagues who have participated, I know that they involve a considerable amount of work.
I was struck by the mention made by the Minister and the hon. Member for Kingswood of the remarkable man who co-founded the IPU. I have done a little research on him. William Randal Cremer—he preferred to be known as William Randal—was a Liberal Member of Parliament, although I suspect that if the Labour party had existed then, he would have been a Labour MP. He left school aged 13; he was self-taught and eventually became a carpenter. He worked incredibly hard in many social areas. What is particularly cheering is that he did not become a Member of Parliament until he was aged 57. An article on him states:
“Thirty-six years were to elapse from the end of his apprenticeship in 1849 to his first election to Parliament in 1885, at the age of 57. Nowadays a newcomer of that age would stand little chance of being adopted as an official candidate of a major political party. That he achieved so much in the remaining 23 years of his life should be viewed as a classic example of how much society can benefit by not treating citizens over the age of 50 as past their prime.”
Most of us here would say, “Amen to that!”
Well, of course with the exception of the Minister. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is embarking on his fourth political career, would also say, “Amen to that!” The serious point is that William Randal was a confirmed pacifist who believed in parliamentary co-operation, for which he worked until the end of his life. We owe him a great debt for co-founding the IPU with his French colleague.
I was struck by a number of the points made by the Minister and by the hon. Members for Kingswood and for City of Chester (Christine Russell). The crucial one that I want to home in on is the IPU’s role in promoting democracy. At times, we in the House can, quite rightly, get very exercised over our privileges and what might happen to us in our representation of our constituents. I do not need to tell you this, Mr. Bercow, but hundreds of parliamentarians throughout the world would love to fear only the raised eyebrow of their Whip. They would love to fear merely that a tabloid was attacking them, and that in an election there was a chance only that they might lose their seat.
However, hundreds of parliamentarians have faced the worst kinds of danger. They have been assaulted, beaten up, imprisoned and, in some cases, killed by their own Governments. We know that because we frequently receive delegations of parliamentarians who have been through such experiences. Both the Minister and the hon. Member for Kingswood raised the specific case of Opposition Members of Parliament in Zimbabwe. I give great credit to the hon. Gentleman and the IPU for what they did in South Africa. They highlighted the situation in Zimbabwe in which thousands of people have suffered badly. Parliamentarians in particular have been the object of the hatred and violence of the Mugabe regime.
The hon. Member for Kingswood emphasised the different activities of the British group of the IPU. I take note of what he said about trying to encourage more Members from both Houses, in particular female Members, to participate. He also mentioned that this is his first year as chairman of the British group of the IPU, and he thanked his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I, too, should like to place on record the appreciation of Her Majesty’s Opposition for all the work that the right hon. Lady has done through the IPU and in many other areas. She has been very outspoken on human rights, and she has never resiled from both criticising and praising her own party in government, which is never an easy thing to do.
The hon. Gentleman said that a country does not have to be a democracy to be a member of the IPU. Some of us in the Chamber are old enough to remember the occasions during the cold war when we had the opportunity to meet Members of so-called Parliaments under communist rule. There was a strong argument at the time that one should not engage with such people—after all, they were puppets, apparatchiki, and placemen and women of one kind or another. I was not a Member of Parliament then, but whenever I met such people I believed that one should engage with them. At times, they did not like to hear what we had to say, but in the drip, drip, drip of engagement, I am sure that it was absolutely crucial. We should redouble our efforts to deal with countries that do not have the full party democracy that we have.
Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for City of Chester said that many issues are not easily resolved in a national context, and the Minister emphasised the importance of the IPU with regard to discussions and negotiations that go beyond the Foreign Office and Governments. The IPU plays a very useful role. We should encourage Members who not only have specific knowledge and experience of an issue, such as mass migration, global finance or whatever it is, but who also feel passionately about issues such as human rights, and are prepared to speak up. We should also encourage Members from all parts of the House who have experience in Government. They, too, have an important role to play.
The hon. Member for City of Chester pointed out that Ministers rarely get to travel outside capital cities. Without appearing to be parti pris—I can translate that for the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, it means partisan—
The hon. Gentleman’s presence in debates is always a pleasure, and I hope that he has finished making his paper aircraft. I am sorry, Mr. Bercow, I shall return to the subject.
The hon. Member for City of Chester said that Ministers rarely travel outside capital cities. I am not absolutely sure whether the Foreign Secretary would approve of that statement given the fact that he travelled outside the capital city in India, although he probably feels that his overnight visit to that village is something he would rather forget. However, the hon. Lady’s point is obviously correct. Moving from one InterContinental hotel to another is not the way to find out about a country.
In conclusion, I thank all the support staff of the British branch of the IPU. They are the unsung heroes and heroines who make certain that our parliamentary delegations can travel abroad and, equally important, that we receive parliamentary delegations in the UK. I hope that the funding of the British branch will continue even in difficult financial circumstances, to enable all of us to do our work, and that the visiting delegations are impressed by the vibrancy and openness of our parliamentary democracy.
It is very easy to think that our parliamentary democracy is inadequate, out of date and full of corrupt people. Without appearing to be pretentious, however, I think that our democracy, in continually having to renew itself, is something of which all of us should be proud. At the end of the day, our ancestors literally fought for the privilege for us to be represented in this place and to debate here.
With the leave of the House, I know that you, Mr. Bercow, are a great supporter of and contributor to the IPU, so I hope that you share my view that we have had an insightful and thoughtful debate this afternoon, by which I am heartened. I am particularly heartened by the sharp focus that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) gave to the intrinsic value of parliamentary democracy. In the United Kingdom, we parliamentarians can act and do our job as elected representatives without fear.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Members of Parliament in Zimbabwe. In view of today’s debate, perhaps it is appropriate to recall the number who have been subject to post-election harassment. In August, five MPs were arrested on what appeared to be trumped-up charges. All were released on bail within a month, and all charges were dropped by the end of last year. We know that at least five MPs are currently on trial, and that one of them was charged on 15 January under anti-terrorism legislation and denied legal representation and bail and will be in custody until the end of this month. That reality stands in stark contrast to our experience in the UK.
I wholeheartedly echo the thanks of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). I thank him for his appreciation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, including the FCO adviser who does an excellent job of working closely on our behalf with the IPU. I, too, reinforce the appreciation for my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), whose service is well known in the House.
I welcome the comments made about engagement being the way forward in the promotion of human rights and parliamentary democracy. On that point, we heard that the IPU treads in places that others might question, but we pursue democracy and human rights, and we look to the IPU to do so in its own special way. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood gave us a flavour and painted a clear picture of what kind of issues, work and debates that involves, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) said, promoting the inclusion of all peoples—including women and other groups. That is important for all of us.
I noted the advertisement for new and enthusiastic parliamentary applicants for IPU visits. I can assure hon. Members that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) has already indicated his interest, such is the power of debate in the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester, who joins my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood in leading the British IPU with distinction and hard work, talked about trust and respect, which are crucial. I certainly share the view that more informal contacts offer value and change in a way that formality sometimes cannot. That is why, in my opening comments, I spoke clearly about my wish that the FCO would work more closely with the IPU. There are aspects and approaches that the FCO cannot take that the IPU can. I look forward to our work together. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester spoke about issues that know no boundaries, such as migration, climate change, economic issues, instability and many others. That is true, and the IPU can reflect that in its work.
I welcomed the flavour of the trip to Mongolia and the value that it brought. It is worth reminding ourselves why IPU trips matter, and Mongolia is a good example. We know that Mongolia has troops in many countries around the world, and we know about its contribution and commitment to playing a responsible role in the world. There is no doubt that our support for Mongolia, positioned as we are between two superpowers, can play a crucial role in forging wider global relationships. The IPU trip will have helped to strengthen and support that role.
I end my remarks by returning to a point that I made in my opening comments. The FCO and the IPU share many aims. Central among them is the wish for fruitful, meaningful dialogue between nations. My intention is for the debate not to end here but to continue, not just in debate outside the Chamber but in practical action and close work together to achieve our shared objectives. I look forward to it.
Question put and agreed to.