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Human Rights

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2010

Human rights are at the core of our foreign policy. FCO posts overseas monitor and raise human rights concerns wherever and whenever they arise without compromise. I will ensure they continue this excellent work, tackling these challenges in the most effective manner. There will be further improvements in how we monitor human rights, which I plan to announce in a written statement in the coming days.

I think we are all very glad to hear of the Government’s U-turn on the scrapping of the Foreign Secretary’s Department’s annual report on human rights and to learn that it is not being sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction, but can the Foreign Secretary give us some assurances about the substance of the report? Can he tell us when it is likely to be published, and whether it will be as substantial as the report from the last Government?

Yes, it will be substantial. There has been no U-turn, only an inaccurate report about what the Government may do. The position is as I described it to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House last week. The report will take the form of a Command Paper, and it will be detailed and authoritative. I intend it to be laid before Parliament in about March, in line with the practice of the last Government, but it will be accompanied throughout the year by up-to-date online reporting and evaluation of our human rights work and concerns. I hope that, overall, that will provide Parliament with a better service than has been provided in the past.

While I understand the importance of the monitoring of human rights, does the Foreign Secretary accept that their promotion is just as, if not more, important? What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking with regard to the promotion of the human right of sanctity of life, particularly in connection with countries that appear to be hellbent on barbaric ways of taking people’s lives?

We intervene against the death penalty at every opportunity, in line with long-standing practice in this country. My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the strong protests that we have made recently about, for instance, sentences of stoning in Iran, an absolutely barbaric punishment that has no place whatsoever in the modern world. The strong stand that this country has taken on those issues will continue to be maintained.

We have seen U-turns on the scrapping of the annual human rights report and on the BBC World Service pulling out of Burma, not as a result of pressure from the Liberal Democrats but as a result of the Opposition’s highlighting the intentions of the coalition Government. That raises serious questions about whether the Government’s commitment to human rights is at the heart of British foreign policy.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary a very specific question? We have already seen £560,000 removed from the Foreign Office human rights and democracy budget this year, and not in terms of future spending review decisions. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that there will be no further reduction in funding for that part of the Foreign Office budget this year?

One would not think that the hon. Gentleman had been a member of a Government who reduced funding for human rights and democracy projects in Iran, Sudan, Zambia, Russia and central Asia, all in the course of the last year. There have been no U-turns on any of those subjects. I do not think that having to correct what appears in The Guardian now and again constitutes a U-turn brought about by the Opposition. As for future spending commitments, they will of course be set out in the future, once we have the results of the comprehensive spending review.