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Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

I am glad to have the opportunity to initiate this short debate on Britain’s relations with Nepal. I have no pecuniary interests to declare; however, I chair the all-party group on Nepal.

Just over a week ago, I returned from leading the first British Inter-Parliamentary Union group delegation to Nepal for 13 years. It is a happy reflection of the way in which the British IPU and our Parliament are regarded in Nepal that the group was received at the highest level. We had meetings with the President, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly and the heads of the army and the police among others. That visit made a refreshing contrast to my experience when I last led a delegation to Nepal, which was sponsored by the Foreign Office in March 2006. The former king, King Gyanendra, refused to see the British parliamentary delegation, choosing instead to receive the special envoy of President Fidel Castro.

The British IPU group’s delegation was well timed, because it came at a critical moment in Nepal’s constitutional and democratic development. Nepal is a young multi-party democracy, which has effectively been in existence for some 20 years, following the wise and far-sighted decision of the late king, King Birendra, to end the panchayat system and to usher in a new democratic constitution. Sadly, even over those 20 years, there has been a considerable threat to Nepal’s multi-party democracy from the Maoist insurgency, which began in 1995 and continued for more than a decade, accompanied by some extreme and totally revolting brutality. It was threatened, too, when King Gyanendra suspended the Nepalese Parliament for more than four years. It was recognised to be not only a personal tragedy for the Nepalese royal family but a democratic and political disaster for Nepal that King Birendra should have been a subject of the mass family murder committed by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001.

The challenges facing Nepal are substantial. The United States took many years to write its constitution, yet Nepal and its Constituent Assembly find themselves with barely more than a year before the agreed deadline of May 2010 to produce a written constitution and secure its approval. That Assembly has a considerable lack—an understandable lack, I stress—of experience and expertise in multi-party democratic politics. When we were in Kathmandu, we saw the impressive Centre for Constitutional Dialogue, which is part-funded by the Department for International Development. It is a valuable learning and resource centre for the Members of the Constituent Assembly. However, a great many members are effectively entering democratic politics for the first time. In addition, the Constituent Assembly has a multiplicity of parties. Some are narrowly based on geographical and ethnic factors. Beyond the Constituent Assembly, there are still some 20,000 former Maoist insurgents in cantonments. Although they have laid down their arms as agreed, they still retain the keys to the containers in which the arms are held under UN supervision.

Britain is Nepal’s longest-standing friend—a friendship goes back for nearly 200 years. Happily, Britain continues to be regarded with high esteem in Nepal. Any number of references were made in our meetings to the British Parliament being the mother of Parliaments and a source of valued advice on democracy and due parliamentary process. I wish to make a number of specific suggestions as to how the Government may be able to assist Nepal in its present challenging position.

First, I judge that the single most difficult and intractable issue that the Nepalese constitution makers face is managing to combine the preservation of the unity and integrity of Nepal with the aspiration of ethnic minorities, particularly the Madhesis in the south, for a greater measure of autonomy. That is the Nepalese devolution question. Our country has a substantial reservoir of expertise on that matter, with the devolution arrangements made for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to consider what help we can give Nepal at this critical time. I ask specifically whether the Foreign Office will consider sponsoring an outward visit to Nepal by experts in devolution or funding an inward visit for key members of the Constituent Assembly, who wish to be better informed about the possibility of establishing a viable structure of devolution in their country.

Secondly, something that appears no less intractable but which is, I think, capable of solution is the implementation of the commitment by the Maoist leader during the insurgency that the Maoist militants would somehow be incorporated into the Nepalese army. It transpired in discussions that that proposition has never been put individually to the 20,000 or so Maoist insurgents in the cantonments. In my judgment, when it comes to individuals making a choice, and if they are asked whether they wish to join the regular army, to serve in uniform and be subject to military discipline and the rigours of the military life, the majority are probably unwilling to go down that route. However, they wish to stay on the Government payroll, as they are at the moment. Alternatively, they might be attracted to training possibilities that would give them a marketable skill and enable them to conduct successful business in the private sector.

On the latter point, may I put the following proposition to the Minister? When I was the Armed Forces Minister, I made a number of visits to Nepal and saw at first hand the extremely successful work done by the Brigade of Gurkhas in Nepal in preparing Gurkha officers and soldiers for civilian resettlement. They had in place a series of training programmes, which came to an end a few years ago, when Gurkha resettlement was transferred to the UK. However, those skills and that expertise must remain in Nepal and with the Brigade of Gurkhas. Will the Minister therefore explore whether, drawing on those retraining facilities, the Brigade of Gurkhas could be of assistance in enabling at least some of the former Maoist insurgents to receive good-quality training for civilian life and so be able to pursue worthwhile occupations as civilians?

I come to some of the more technical aspects of the constitution, such as the electoral procedures for achieving free and fair elections and the need to establish properly conducted parliamentary procedures. Again, this country has a huge range of expertise to offer on those matters. It is said frequently that this country has no written constitution, which is technically correct, but we do have in writing a huge body of statute and procedural law laid down, for example, in the Standing Orders of both Houses, which is effectively part and parcel of the written form of our constitution. Again, will the Foreign Office consider sponsoring an outward or inward visit for those in the Constituent Assembly who want to ensure that, on electoral arrangements for achieving free and fair elections and proper parliamentary procedures, the constitution benefits from our knowledge and expertise, if they so wish?

I come to the issue of enshrining in the constitution the fundamental requirements of human rights, especially those of women, children and those, such as the Dalits, with low or effectively nil caste status in Nepal, as well as other key rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the media. In Pokhara, we held two very valuable meetings with women’s groups on women’s rights, which, I am glad to say, were of an entirely cross-party nature, in Nepalese terms. We also had a valuable meeting in Kathmandu with Freedom Forum, a leading Nepalese non-governmental organisation, on the freedom of the media. We also have much expertise to offer on human rights and freedom of expression. I suggest to the Minister that the Government consider proposing to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), as Chairman of the all-party human rights group, that she lead a Foreign and Commonwealth Office-sponsored delegation to Nepal to focus on the human rights dimensions of its constitution.

A further critical issue is international development aid. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the worst incidences of child mortality. Development aid is crucial. We saw the value of the programmes run by the Department for International Development and, at the Baglung district hospital, how DFID funding is helping to improve maternity care and the quality of health care for children. In the high hills beyond Pokhara, we also saw what the DFID project for community forestry user groups, which is funded through its livelihoods and forestry programme, was doing to improve the quality of forestry, environmental protection and income streams to women and disadvantaged groups in the poor hill communities. I am glad to say—this is to the credit of the Government—that the UK is the largest single bilateral foreign aid donor to Nepal, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that that position will be maintained and, if possible, aid increased.

Unusually, for such visits, we achieved one significant change in policy. When the Maoist leader, Prachanda—now Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal—was engaged in the Maoist insurgency, he made a firm commitment that he would end the recruitment of Gurkhas to the British Army. During our meeting, I put it to him that he should consider abandoning that commitment and resume recruitment. I am glad to tell the Chamber that he said that he would do so. Following our meeting, his office put out a press statement to that effect. I am sure that the Minister, and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, will do everything possible to ensure that that commitment is adhered to.

Nepal is at a crossroads: the Constituent Assembly is in existence and has a blank sheet of paper in front of it for the compiling of the written constitution. That represents considerable progress since my last visit to Nepal in March 2006, when the Parliament building was behind shutters and the Assembly had not sat for four years. That was followed by the successful elections last year, for which Parliament contributed a British observer team led by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). Over the next year or so, Nepal will either succeed in writing and securing approval for its written, multi-party, democratic constitution, or relapse into deadlock, factional infighting and a possible resumption of the insurgency. Its two huge neighbours to the north and south—China and India—are watching attentively, with consequences unknown should instability rage again in Nepal. This is Nepal’s hour of need, when it most urgently needs its friends, especially it longest-standing friend. I hope that the British Government will not be found wanting.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for securing the debate and for inviting me to make a very brief contribution. It was an honour to visit Nepal in his company a couple of weeks ago, and I am grateful to the Inter-Parliamentary Union for facilitating and organising the trip.

In the long history of Nepal, it is no exaggeration to say that the next 12 months will be critical. This most ancient of countries has the astonishing opportunity to become one of the most modern and youngest countries in the world. There are key ways in which the UK Government can assist the process. For example, it can help with the writing of the constitution. The question of how Nepal will be federalised as a nation is at the heart of the biggest challenge that it faces. We offered some assurances from our own experience of devolution, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that even more can be offered. With my experience as Minister of State in the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office, I thought that he was going to offer me up as a special envoy to Nepal, which might find favour in some quarters in Government. None the less, we must help in whatever way we can.

Integrating the People’s Liberation Army into the Nepalese army is critical as well. Some 20,000 trained guerrillas are being kept as a bargaining chip should the negotiations not go as some quarters would like. That cannot be a force for stability, and we should offer whatever help and support we can.

Finally, the most important thing is for DFID to continue what it is already doing. We are the largest donor to Nepal, and we are making a real difference. We are demonstrating to the people of Nepal that stability, peace and democratic government can deliver material benefits, and that is what will ensure long-term stability in Nepal. A new country assistance plan is due, and the signals are that it is very promising. We will continue to support Nepal, which is the most important thing that we can do to help the country at this time.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate. Let me start by setting out its context. As he said, Nepal is now at a watershed moment in its history. The Nepalese people, through their Constituent Assembly, have the opportunity to build a lasting peace and a democratic society, based on the rule of law, which serves their aspiration to live in a normal and stable society. As a close friend of Nepal, it is important that the UK provide all the support and encouragement that it can to the Nepalese people at this crucial time. Therefore, I thank the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for visiting Nepal as representatives of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. From what I have heard, the visit was both constructive and helpful.

The UK and Nepal have enjoyed close relations since the first British resident was posted to Kathmandu in 1816. The British remained the only foreign diplomatic presence in the capital for well over a century. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we are viewed as firm friends and as a respected source of impartial advice and support.

Let me now turn to a few areas in which we have helped the Nepalese Government and their people. Both the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) referred to development aid. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and the 14th poorest in the world. The UK is the largest bilateral donor to Nepal, contributing £55 million in 2007-08. As long as this Government, with their massively increased aid programme, remain in power, such donations will continue as a priority. That support is aimed at helping Nepal achieve the millennium development goals, as well as supporting the ongoing peace process.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, foreign direct investment in sectors such as hydropower, industry and tourism has the potential to create new jobs and lift many more people out of poverty. The key to jump-starting that will be a more stable business environment in Nepal, which, above all, requires a visible improvement in public security. That must remain the top priority in the coming years, and we will do all that we can to help achieve that. On their visit, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend saw that the British Council is also an active and engaged player, helping to develop international engagement and educational opportunities in Nepal.

Let me turn to the broader peace process in Nepal, which rightly attracts a lot of international concern, and which we monitor extremely closely though our embassy in Kathmandu. That peace process has made impressive progress since the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement in November 2006. Nepal held its first democratic elections in nine years in April 2008. The UK played a leading role in galvanising, funding and co-ordinating international support for those elections. We also played a significant role in supporting the international observation of those elections, including providing two Members from this House and two from the other place.

The Constituent Assembly that was elected to write Nepal’s new constitution is the most representative legislative body in the country’s history. Unfortunately, since its first meeting last May, at which it abolished the monarchy and declared Nepal a federal democratic republic, progress has been slow. Nevertheless, we will do all that we can to support the work of the Assembly in drafting a new constitution and we urge it to take this work forward in 2009.

A Maoist-led coalition Government were eventually formed last August. Unfortunately the consensus between the main parties that allowed the elections to take place has subsequently and regrettably weakened. We are doing all that we can to encourage the parties to work together in a co-operative way to bring Nepal’s peace process to a conclusion and to agree the new constitution. A consensus needs to develop among political parties and between parties and society on their future vision for the country, and we will do all that we can to support that process.

The integration issue is also critical. The future of more than 19,000 Maoist ex-combatants and of the Nepal army remains one of the crucial elements in the ongoing peace process. It is clear to all observers, including those in Nepal, that the current limbo is not sustainable and that the cantonments that house the former rebels cannot persist for ever. As a first step, those whom the UN disqualified as legitimate combatants, including some 3,000 minors, should be discharged without further delay. Although it is for the Nepalese to decide how to take the process forward, it still falls to us to help if the Nepalese Government so wish. For example, the UK Government stand ready to offer technical support and guidance if it is needed by the Nepalese Government. We are also doing what we can to assist the Nepalese with security sector reform, which is another crucial area. We have already done some work on managing the civil oversight of the Nepalese army by helping to strengthen the Ministry of Defence. We are willing to take that forward under the new Government.

Let me try to respond to some of the specific questions that have been raised. The right hon. Gentleman asked what help we can give to support—for want of a better phrase—the devolutionary process within Nepal. That is a matter for the Nepalese Government, but we are ready to offer support if that is requested. In the meantime, we are supporting ongoing work to gather public opinion on the future constitution, and we stand ready to provide technical assistance if it is needed.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of Gurkha resettlements. That is a matter for the Ministry of Defence. None the less, it is an interesting suggestion. Following this debate, I shall write to my counterpart in the MOD, raising that issue. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of inward and outward visits in order to help build democracy in Nepal. As I said earlier, we are ready to offer technical expertise if that is requested by the Constituent Assembly and by the Government.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), in her capacity as Chairman of the all-party human rights group, might visit Nepal. That is something to which I shall give consideration. If he is agreeable, I shall write back to him when I have reached a decision. Therefore, constructive progress is being made. We are ready to do all that we can to support that process.

Finally, let me address the crucial issue of human rights. It is rightly an issue that attracts a lot of interest from parliamentary colleagues. We regularly raise human rights concerns at all levels and co-ordinate with other international and domestic partners to put across the message that protecting human rights is the cornerstone to ensuring that peace is both sustainable and based on democratic values. We welcome the establishment of the National Human Rights Council. The NHRC’s unique constitutional responsibility to protect and promote the rights of Nepalese people makes it an essential part of a strong national human rights protection system. We encourage the NHRC to continue to work closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to draw on the expertise available within Kathmandu to develop its own capacity. The signing on 20 February of guidelines on co-operation between the two organisations should provide the basis for future co-operation.

In conclusion, there is a long-standing relationship between this country and Nepal. It has served us well in a variety of ways. We have contributed to the development of Nepal. At this critical juncture, we will continue to do all that we can to support the development of that important country.