Wednesday 11 January 2012
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Newmark.)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to have secured this debate at such a momentous time, so soon after the succession of Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea, following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, last month. It was even more gratifying to hear, only yesterday, of the North Korean Government’s announcement that they will grant an amnesty for prisoners to mark the birthdays of those two leaders. We look forward to hearing more news about the prisoners to be released.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that very important case, on which a number of my colleague parliamentarians have made representations. I believe that the Minister is aware of that case, and I look forward to hearing his comments. I also hope that further representations can be made to the North Korean Government about the release of Dr Oh’s family as part of the amnesty.
The amnesty announcement emphasises what many see as a fresh opportunity, at the start of a new era, to forge further relationships with the people of North Korea. That is the hope of many people in Britain who have worked often for years to develop relationships, and indeed friendships, with people in North Korea to share knowledge, understanding and support. Several of my parliamentary colleagues from the all-party group on North Korea have visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—the DPRK—in recent years, as have many other delegations from the UK. Interestingly, in 2010, that included the Middlesbrough Ladies football team, who apparently attracted a 20,000-strong crowd of spectators.
On a more modest level, but no less importantly, the Speaker of the House of Commons has met the Speaker of the North Korean Assembly, Choe Thae-bok. Mr Speaker was able to raise human rights concerns with his DPRK counterpart in a very constructive discussion. Most recently, the DPRK authorities extended an invitation to the Archbishop of Canterbury to visit their country soon, and I hope that he accepts.
The most recent visit of the all-party parliamentary group was in autumn 2010, after which it produced a report, “Building Bridges Not Walls: the Case for Constructive, Critical Engagement with North Korea”. The report describes a welcome commitment from DPRK officials to dialogue, with particular reference to negotiating a peaceful resolution as regards the relationship between North and South Korea. “Building Bridges Not Walls” also states that the APPG had
“the opportunity to see some encouraging developments, including the establishment of a Russian Orthodox Church in which Russian diplomats freely worship; a Protestant seminary; the work of British Council teachers; English-language teaching at Kim il-Sung University…a newly opened e-Library at Kim il-Sung University; and the establishment of the impressive Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), with a faculty of teachers from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. These are welcome developments which we hope will…contribute towards the establishment of a more open and prosperous society for all the people of North Korea.”
I believe that I speak on behalf of many people in this country who fervently hope that the accession to leadership of Kim Jong-un will further pave the way for that.
The APPG delegation also voiced concerns that cannot be batted away with diplomatic niceties about the need to discuss grave human rights issues in North Korea through a process of constructive critical engagement. That should be done in the same way that President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher established the Helsinki process with the Soviet Union. The APPG reports says:
“It is time for peace, and ‘it is time for Helsinki with a Korean face’.”
In other words, as the human rights researcher David Hawk says, a process is to be encouraged that would
“pursue peace, engagement, and reconciliation in association with the promotion and protection of human rights”.
That sums up more eloquently than I ever could the process that many in Britain desire to see develop in this new era. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on how the British Government can help to facilitate dialogue to that end.
I turn to the protection of human rights, on which it has to be said that North Korea has, by any international standard, a deplorable record. I was stirred to call for this debate by a visit two months ago to the UK Parliament by a remarkable young man who is now in his late 20s, Shin Dong-hyuk. I understand that he is the only person ever to have escaped from a North Korean prison camp. On hearing Shin’s story, I was moved, by compassion for the North Korean people, to highlight their dignified suffering in order to encourage support for them in their plight. May I record that I called for this debate holding no hatred of the people of North Korea? I am motivated by a deep love for the North Korean people, and by concern for their needs and their deep suffering over decades.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. May I reinforce her remarks about the evidence of Shin Dong-hyuk, which was not only moving but informative? He taught us that life in the prison camps was very often the only way of life that families who had been born into captivity knew. When he came to the west, he learned for the first time about the Nazi holocaust, and it instantly reminded him of some of his experiences in North Korea. Is that not very powerful testimony of the depth of deprivation of human rights from which the people of North Korea are suffering?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If you will indulge me, Mr Davies, I shall shortly go into further details of Shin Dong-hyuk’s testimony to us.
It was in meetings with the Conservative party human rights commission, and at an event that I chaired on behalf of the Henry Jackson Society, that Shin Dong-hyuk told his life story. It is the personal testimony of someone who was born into a North Korean prison camp, lived there for 23 years and then escaped. As my hon. Friend says, his story was authoritative, valuable and deeply moving.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in camp 14 in 1982. Shin described the conditions he endured for the first 23 years of his life. When he was 14 years old, his mother and brother were executed in front of him because they tried to escape. He was held for seven months in solitary confinement. The torture he faced was unimaginably inhumane. With extraordinary dignity and lack of bitterness, he described to us how he was hung upside down by his legs and hands from the ceiling, and on one occasion his body was burned over a fire. His torturers pierced his groin with a steel hook; he lost consciousness.
On another occasion, Shin was assigned to work in a garment factory. Severe hard labour is a common feature of North Korea’s prison camps. He accidentally dropped a sewing machine, and as a punishment the prison guards chopped off his middle finger. According to Shin, couples perceived by the authorities to be good workers are arbitrarily selected by prison guards and permitted, even forced, to get married, with a view to producing children who could, in turn, become model workers. Children born in the prison camp are, like Shin, treated as prisoners from birth. As a child in the prison school, Shin recalled the teacher, who was also a prison guard, telling the children that they were animals whose parents should have been killed. He told them that, by contrast, he, the teacher, was a human, and that they should be grateful to be alive.
Shin also recalled seeing, while at school, a seven-year-old girl in his class being severely beaten because she was discovered to have picked up a few grains of wheat on the way to school. The beating continued for two hours, and her classmates had to carry her home. She died the next day.
In 2004, at the age of 22, Shin met a fellow prisoner who had seen life outside the camp. This prisoner described the wider world to Shin. Initially, Shin did not believe him. His entire life until then had been spent behind the barbed wire of the prison camp, and he thought that this was the extent of life. Eventually, the other prisoner convinced him, and Shin’s curiosity developed. Together, they decided to try to escape, and in 2005 they put their plan into action. What then followed is a story of agony and ecstasy. In a written testimony available on the internet, Shin recalls:
“I had no fear of being shot at or electrified; I knew I had to get out and nothing else mattered at that moment. I ran to the barbed wire. Suddenly, I felt a great pain as though someone was stabbing the sole of my foot when I passed through the wire. I almost fainted but, by instinct, I pushed myself forward through the fence. I looked around to find the barbed wire behind me but Park”—
“was motionless hanging over the wire fence! At that desperate moment I could afford little thought of my poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy. The feeling of ecstasy to be out of the camp was beyond description. I ran down the mountain quite a way when I felt something wet on my legs. I was in fact bleeding from the wound inflicted by the barbed wire. I had no time to stop but sometime later found a locked house in the mountain. I broke into the house and found some food that I ate, then I left with a small supply of rice I found in the house. I sold the rice at the first mining village I found and bribed the border guards to let me through the North Korean border with China with the money from that rice.”
Shin described to us first seeing the country of North Korea outside the prison camps, and said that, to him, it looked like paradise.
Shin’s story will be published in March this year, in a book called “Escape from Camp 14”. I hope that many of us will read it. I am aware that the Minister met Shin, and I look forward to hearing his reflections on their discussions. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Mr Speaker also met Shin, and expressed what an impact that encounter had on them. Shin, however, is by no means the only North Korean defector to have spoken in Parliament; earlier this year, Kim Hye-sook addressed a meeting organised by the APPG. She spent 28 years in the North Korean prison camps, and was first jailed at the age of 13. Kim was forced to work in coal mines even as a child, and witnessed public executions.
What Shin Dong-hyuk and Kim Hye-sook have in common is that they were victims of North Korea’s appalling “guilt by association” policy, which punishes people for three generations for the alleged crimes of a family member. Kim’s grandfather had gone to South Korea during the Korean war, and for that reason her family were regarded as hostile elements by the regime, and jailed. According to lists of detainees, which I have been sent, many others in the camps are jailed for being Christian.
It is estimated that there are approximately 200,000 prisoners in such camps, and over the years human rights reports by organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have catalogued stories from survivors of the camps, who testify to the widespread use of forced labour, executions, torture, rape, sexual violence, forced abortions, infanticide and religious persecution. One, Kim Wu-yeong, told CSW:
“Christianity is public enemy number one in North Korea. If someone is a Christian in North Korea they are a political enemy and will be either executed or sent away to a political prison camp.”
Further information can be found in the book “North Korea: a Case to Answer, a Call to Act”, published by CSW in 2007 and available on the internet.
One of the most remarkable books I have ever read is “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick. If hon. Members read just one book on North Korea, I would recommend this one. It is available from the Library and tells the life stories of several escapees from North Korea to South Korea—people who have not lived in prison camps, but who have none the less suffered greatly over the past several decades in many ways, in a country where freedom of speech and movement is minimal and malnutrition is commonplace. I remember reading and being so saddened by one mother’s story; I identified with her. In the 1990s, when there was a severe famine in the country, she was forced to search the countryside for grass and bark, which she would mash up and feed her family. Both her husband and her loved son died during that famine.
Despite the passing of that terrible famine, malnutrition still affects many millions of people who live in North Korea. The current humanitarian situation is dire and food aid is desperately needed. The World Food Programme and UNICEF conducted an assessment last year that shows that food needs are acute. The problem has continued over many years with such serious implications for growth that the North Korean army has, I understand, now reduced its height requirement for men from 4 feet 8 inches to 4 feet 3 inches. Our fellow men and women are living at this time, in the 21st century, when there is so much plenty in so many other countries, but they live in another part of the world with such shortages in a country that, as the book “Nothing to Envy” describes, was once a developing nation but is now going backwards. Compassion should surely move us to do all that we can to provide food aid and to support international aid agencies that are willing to help.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is moving on to one of the most important issues on this subject—humanitarian assistance. As well as making it very clear to the new regime in North Korea that the brutality and the other matters that we are all very deeply concerned about need to stop, we need to ensure that humanitarian assistance gets to the people of North Korea, as opposed to the Government and the regime, which could well be entering a new, dangerous phase.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One of the issues that I will ask the Minister to address is the monitoring of humanitarian food aid across the country. Currently, food rations are distributed by the DPRK under the North Korean Government’s food distribution programme, on which millions of people are dependent, but it meets less than half the daily calorific needs of most recipients.
To underline the urgent need for food, I will relate some of the descriptions given to the APPG at a meeting here in Parliament, just a few weeks ago, by Baroness Amos, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, after she visited the country late last year. I hope to report what Baroness Amos said accurately. She stated that the background to her visit was that in 2011, for the first time in 16 years, the North Korean Government made an international appeal for assistance—welcome news. By a UN assessment, she said that 16 million people in the DPRK are now in need of food aid and that the number is increasing because of the growth rate, especially in women and children.
Baroness Amos recounted that during her visit she was at pains to stress to the North Korean Government that humanitarian aid is impartial. She visited a hospital, a market, a biscuit factory, a Government food distribution point and a co-operative farm. She reported a situation of chronic poverty and underdevelopment, with an annual gap of about a million metric tons in the amount of food needed, according to the DPRK’s own targets. People live mainly off maize, cabbage and occasionally rice. There is no oil, although if people live near the sea, there is occasionally fish, but no meat. She asked some mothers when they last had an egg: no one could tell her. So there is virtually no protein for people in need of food aid. In fact, there are hardly any animals to be seen.
The nutritional deficit in children is acute, and there are major structural problems with food production, with severely low production from land and an almost total lack of mechanisation. Indeed, another visitor to North Korea, who went last month, told me this week that she had seen only three tractors over several days of travelling across the countryside.
Transport is a major problem. Baroness Amos reported seeing steam lorries—something she had never seen anywhere else in the world—where coal is burnt on the back of lorries to create steam and three out of four of them appeared to be broken down.
Food for much of the population comes from the public food distribution system and is obtained on production of ration cards. People receive about 200 grams of food a day, on average, although the DPRK’s own target is about 600 grams. Needs are particularly acute outside the capital Pyongyang. People living in Pyongyang rarely travel out of it, and vice versa, so the desperate needs of those outside the capital are perhaps not as well understood as they could be.
Will the Minister advise us about the endeavours of the British Government to facilitate the provision of food aid to North Korea, either directly or through international aid agencies? Will he press for unrestricted access for humanitarian aid organisations to all parts of the country and inform us what the British Government are doing, by themselves or through the European Union or United Nations, to address the crisis? What efforts have been made to ensure monitoring of aid and what assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness of international aid and the ability of international humanitarian organisations to reach North Korean people in need?
I want to highlight two other concerns: the situation of abductees and the plight of refugees. The Minister will, I hope, be familiar with the case of Dr Oh, who has been mentioned. There are many other cases. Will the Minister tell us what the latest position is regarding Dr Oh’s family and what efforts the British Government are making to press the North Korean authorities to account for the large number of foreign abductees, believed to run into several thousand, and to release them? What steps can the British Government take to work with Governments of countries whose citizens have been abducted and with international organisations such as the UN to secure their release?
Additionally, what steps can be taken to urge China to desist from the forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees and to tackle the plight of refugees who subsequently suffer at the hands of human traffickers? The number of women affected in that way runs into tens of thousands.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech, which I am listening to with interest. Does she agree that there has been quite a lot of discussion in the media about nuclear and military issues and the backward economic situation, but that human rights in Korea has had little exposure? Does she agree that that needs to be remedied urgently?
I agree. I hope that this debate will raise awareness of those two key issues.
The former UN special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn, has called on the international community to
“mobilise the totality of the UN to promote and protect human rights in the country”.
Will the Minister advise us whether the British Government would consider taking a lead to seek the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry in this respect on the subjects that my hon. Friend mentioned? In particular, what steps is the Minister taking to press the new leadership to open up access to international human rights monitors, including the UN special rapporteur for human rights, who has repeatedly been refused access? Can the Minister say whether any progress has been made in negotiation and dialogue with the DPRK authorities by the new UN special rapporteur to the DPRK?
With reference to the prison camps, such as the one Shin Dong-hyuk described, I understand that the North Korean authorities regularly say that these are not prisons as described. Will the Minister, through a process of Government engagement between the two countries, endeavour to arrange access to some of the camps for British parliamentarians, such as those from the APPG, who have already sensitively endeavoured over several years to build constructive relationships with North Korean people? In this regard, I pay tribute to the chairman and founder of the APPG for North Korea, Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool and his colleague in the House of Lords, Baroness Cox.
I welcome the British Government’s improved funding support, despite their austerity programme, for the British Council’s English teaching work within North Korea. It is particularly pleasing to note that English is now being taught as the second language in the DPRK. I should particularly like to offer my congratulations on the recent acceptance of the first two scholars to study at Cambridge university, which is to the credit of our Government, the Foreign Office and those scholars.
I welcome the Minister’s thoughts on what can be done to encourage the flow of information from the outside world into North Korea, perhaps through support for radio broadcasting.
I understand that there are some 400 North Korean refugees here in the United Kingdom. The book, “Nothing to Envy”, which I have mentioned more than once already, describes how difficult modern life, with all its choices and complexities, is for North Korean refugees. What support is available for them in the UK to help them prepare for a better future for themselves and their country? Is there dialogue between the Government and those refugees to aid our country’s understanding of North Korea and in turn help build relationships with that country?
I thank the Minister for meeting Shin Dong-hyuk personally. I believe that that is an indication of his sincere concern about these issues. Will he also consider meeting Dr James Kim, a remarkable man who has founded Pyongyang university of science and technology—PUST—within the past two years, when he visits Parliament on 15 February? Perhaps after hearing of the wonderful story of hope that the establishment of that university provides, the Minister may consider making representations to the Department for International Development to give support to PUST, if not on a wider basis for North Korea.
It is encouraging that the UK Government have developed, over the past 10 years, diplomatic relations with the DPRK. I pay a particular tribute to our diplomatic staff in North Korea, especially our new ambassador, Karen Wolstenholme, who I am sure will follow in an equally exemplary manner her immediate predecessor in the British embassy in Pyongyang, Mr Peter Hughes, whose ongoing concern for the people of North Korea has been evident to me whenever I have had the pleasure of meeting him.
What a positive step it would be if the United States established diplomatic relations with the DPRK and thereby effectively formally ended the Korean war. Can the Minister advise us what steps, if any, the British Government may be taking to encourage the Americans in this respect?
Shin Dong-hyuk told me that the North Korean people cannot change their situation by themselves. They need help from the international community. I hope that the Minister gives us an indication of what we can all do to give more hope to the people of North Korea.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate and on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. I also commend her on her passion and compassion on behalf of the people of North Korea and for making some salient, pertinent points about conditions in North Korea.
I wish to focus on human rights, specifically how people with Christian beliefs are affected. Perhaps the only subject at school that I excelled at was history. I was interested in the history of the second world war and the Korean war. In my constituency there are still some Korean war veterans, who tell stories about the critical battles that they fought and how they came through. No one could fail to be horrified by the stories they told. Today, when we look at North Korea, we see things getting progressively worse, and I want to focus on that.
Yesterday, just before I left the hotel where I was staying, on one of the TV news channels there was a story about the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. There was this guy on a horse galloping around, looking well fed—there is certainly no shortage of food in his house—surrounded by immense numbers of people, who were supportive, all smiles and cheering him on. They were all wearing army uniform which tells us a lot. He appeared to be a confidante of many people, and he was looked on as a leader for change, perhaps to change things for the better. That, however, was a persona for TV, a story that the North Koreans wanted to put forward. The reality in North Korea is very different for people who do not necessarily accept his leadership or the authoritarian regime that he supports.
Any number of charities working to end the persecution of Christians highlight what happens in North Korea as some of the most horrific acts of persecution anywhere in the world. Open Doors and Release International have a chart of countries in the world, giving their level of persecution. In No. 1 position, at the top of the chart—not the championship or premier league winners, but at the top of the persecution league—is North Korea, in the persecution of its people and how it affects them.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) not only on securing the debate but on her choice of subject. My hon. Friend has raised his concerns about rights and so on, but on 19 December, the UN passed a resolution by majority, with 51 abstentions, that expressed the Assembly’s
“very serious concern at the persistence of continuing reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights”.
Is my hon. Friend concerned that there is no mention of religious rights?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that matter to my attention, and to the attention of everyone in the Chamber. I am concerned about that, and I hope to use this opportunity, as others in the House will do today, to highlight the issues on behalf of Christians, who need to know that their human rights and individual needs are being represented by people on the other side of the border who have not forgotten about them.
Release International has stated that North Korea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and the extent of that repression is unknown because the country is fiercely independent, politically isolated and closed to all countries except China and Russia. The hon. Member for Congleton suggested what our Government might be able to do on behalf of people in North Korea whose human rights have been violated, and perhaps we need to ask Russia and China to be the main players in any process.
Defectors describe a society in which human rights do not exist and freedom of association, worship, movement and even thought are denied. Such claims are credible in the light of the fact that North Korea can make use of the world’s fifth largest army, of 1.2 million soldiers and 8.3 million reservists—9.5 million people. The hon. Lady referred to the height requirement being reduced, but one thing we always see when the soldiers are marching is that they are fit, healthy and determined. North Korea has a state monopoly of the media—TV, radio and the press—that indoctrinate the population with party propaganda, and the country also has 14 concentration camps, some of which hold as many as 50,000 prisoners. One has to feel compassion for people in those prison camps who might feel that they are forgotten, so it is important to ensure that they are not forgotten.
North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, referred to as the so-called great leader, is comparable to Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse-tung as an ideologue who controlled the masses through propaganda, revolutionary zeal, ruthless elimination of opposition and the sacrifice of large numbers of the population to starvation due to economic mismanagement. He used a philosophy known as juche—self-reliance and permanent revolutionary struggle—to achieve a national unity that has produced an isolated nation that many call the hermit kingdom. His son, Kim Jong-il, the so-called dear leader, continued his father’s policies but, if anything, more destructively. After decades of economic mismanagement and resource misallocation, North Korea has relied heavily on international aid to feed its population since the mid-1990s. Chronic food shortages and widespread malnutrition are rampant. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), in his intervention, spoke about food aid and how it could best be used. North Korea’s history of regional military provocations, the proliferation of military-related items, the development of long-range missiles, programmes for weapons of mass destruction and massive conventional armed forces, is of major concern to the international community. We in this country cannot ignore the effects of that.
As juche becomes increasingly weak and deluded, North Korea and its regime appear ever more vulnerable. We are now in a state of limbo after the death of Kim Jong-il as to the intentions of his son, Kim Jong-un, who was educated in the west but, according to The Wall Street Journal, is depicted by US intelligence as
“a volatile youth with a sadistic streak who may be even more unpredictable than his late father”.
The last and most extreme of the world’s dictatorships seems set to run as before. The dictatorship is certainly not over with the demise of his father. Citizens are obliged by law to display portraits of the late Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in their homes. It is considered highly subversive to have a religious faith and, as stated by the hon. Member for Congleton, anyone refusing to accept the Korean leader as the supreme authority is likely to be punished with imprisonment, death or simply disappearing.
The precise number of Christians in North Korea is unknown. Before the communists came to power, numbers were higher than today but, during the Korean war of 1950 to 1953, many fled to South Korea or were martyred. Those said to remain in North Korea are forced to hide their faith or face terrible consequences. The debate information pack included many press stories of those who tried to escape and who were shot and killed as a result. People have reportedly been executed merely for owning a Bible. Every one of us has a Bible in the house, probably more than one, and we have that freedom of expression. In some countries people do not, and North Korea is one of those countries. Many Christians have been sent to concentration camps as political prisoners for their beliefs—for having a belief in God—and have been subjected to brutal treatment in appalling conditions: torture, abuse, execution or simply being worked to death. There are an estimated 50,000 people in those concentration camps.
The regime still maintains the facade of religious freedom, and in 1998 opened three churches in Pyongyang. However, they are widely considered to be showcases for the benefit of foreigners and those who visit the country, demonstrating a façade of religious opportunity, and sermons contain political material supporting the regime. Christianity as we know it, and as is expressed in the Churches of the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world, is not what happens in North Korea.
The Harsh regime and grinding poverty have forced thousands of North Koreans to try to escape to China. It is estimated that as many as 350,000 North Koreans live in China as illegal immigrants, with many more in South Korea and other countries. The Chinese authorities stubbornly uphold their policy of repatriating defectors found in their territory, even though repatriated North Koreans face notoriously harsh treatment. The North Korean authorities allegedly pay Chinese informants to denounce defectors, so defectors in China are forced into hiding and, often, into the clutches of ruthless individuals who trap them into forced labour or the sex industry. Some time ago, I watched a TV programme—again, a news item—that showed how people escaping North Korea left one set of horrific circumstances for another, and were exploited by those who take advantage of the vulnerability of such people. Pressure needs to be applied, so can the Minister, if possible, outline clearly what discussions have taken place with China and how we intend to help more? Thankfully, some of those who escape have turned to Christ after meeting missionaries who share the gospel with them. We as a nation must be ever mindful of those who are less well off and those who need help and support. The House and MPs who represent areas such as mine, and many others, have a duty to ensure that we do our best for them. We should apply any pressure we can on China and Russia to play their part in ensuring that change is brought about in North Korea.
I will continue, as will many other hon. Members, to pray daily for people in North Korea. I hope that something practical can be done, and it should be done if there is a possibility of success. I commend the hon. Lady on introducing the debate, and I look forward to the support of the House for the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in a debate on a subject other than Europe. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing the debate, and for the passionate and compassionate way in which she introduced it. Her speech was one of the most moving that I have heard this Parliament, and some of the points were very well made. The story she told of Shin Dong-hyuk was inspiring and horrifying in almost equal measure.
Many international comparisons have been made of the regime in North Korea. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said that it stood comparison with the Nazis, and the re-education and prison camps do indeed bear comparison with those under Hitler. In North Korea, there are disappearances, torture and violent repression, carried out with as much ruthless efficiency as there was under any of the old Latin American military dictatorships. We see there the “duce” ideology, as totalitarian and intolerant as that of the Khmer Rouge. The cult of personality is as extreme as that of Ceausescu or Bokassa. The reckless mismanagement of the food supply has caused a self-induced famine as devastating as that experienced by China during Mao’s terrible “great leap forward”. To those traditional state crimes can be added terrorist acts that bear comparison with those of al-Qaeda, abductions like those by Somali pirates, and a nuclear programme that is as threatening as anything in Iran.
That is an extraordinary list, and in many ways it probably adds up to the most completely ruthless dictatorship in modern history. That poses a bit of a problem for those trying to focus opposition, or to support those campaigning for any sort of freedom in North Korea. In Burma, attention can be focused on a figure such as Aung San Suu Kyi; in eastern Europe, there were figures such as Walesa and Václav Havel, and there was Nelson Mandela in South Africa, but their equivalents in North Korea were annihilated long ago, or imprisoned and forgotten. That poses a problem.
To reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman is making so eloquently, the last special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council classified human rights abuses in North Korea as sui generis—that is, as a completely separate category from any other abuses in the world. The hon. Gentleman has encapsulated why the rapporteur’s findings were absolutely right.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely correct.
It is important to focus on the people who have managed, extraordinarily, to escape from the regime, such as Mr Shin. I am pleased that the Minister has met Mr Shin personally, and that the Government are taking seriously the views, opinions, testimony and witness of those who manage to escape from the regime.
The hon. Member for Congleton asked us to focus on humanitarian and human rights issues, and rightly drew attention to Baroness Amos’s report of her visit last year, which highlighted that, on the humanitarian front, there is chronic poverty, underdevelopment, poor infrastructure, and indicators of widespread malnutrition and stunted growth in the population. Daily diets are deficient even in basic protein and essential fats. Previous UN assessments of the food supply suggested that it was very poor, with poor management of land, and as the hon. Member for Congleton suggested, there is poor access to basic mechanical farm equipment. That seems extraordinary in the 21st century. Add to that a near total breakdown in the management of public health, and vulnerability to human trafficking and perhaps even the exploitation of children, in which agents of the state may be complicit, and the picture is truly apocalyptic.
The picture is little better on the human rights front. We have heard about the widespread use of torture and possibly rape, and certainly about the regime’s use of extrajudicial beatings, imprisonment and execution in the many prisons camps. There is persecution not just of what the regime deems to be criminal acts, but of wrong thinking in a souped-up version of the Maoist red guards’ worst excesses. There is absolutely no freedom of belief, of the press, of thought or of political expression.
That poses the problem for democratic Governments of how to deal with such regimes. How can influence be exercised over a regime that is so totally beyond the pale that it is, as the hon. Member for South Swindon suggested, almost in a class of its own? There are some avenues. There is the traditional diplomatic pressure that the Government exercise through diplomatic contact with the North Korean embassy here in this country, our embassy in North Korea, and the embassies of our European Union partners. Clearly, we should continue to use those channels. We should also continue the pressure to encourage North Korea to allow access for the UN special rapporteur on human rights. We should certainly support a commission of inquiry, but there is clearly a problem in the UN Security Council, and we may not be able to obtain widespread support, which seems incredible. If China and Russia are not minded to support that, it is a damning indictment of their foreign policy. I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s latest report of any discussions that he may have had on that front with Chinese and Russian colleagues, or the UK’s representation at the UN.
There is also an issue with refugees. Some 300,000 refugees have allegedly made their way from North Korea to China. Apart from the logistical and social problems that that might cause, if they are caught, they are apparently routinely repatriated to North Korea, where they face almost certain torture and execution. A few refugees seem to reach countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Mongolia. What discussions has the Minister had with China and other regional Governments, and organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on the treatment of North Korean refugees and the protection of their human rights and their right to asylum, which are extraordinarily important in the current situation?
Beyond that, there is the exercise of what is traditionally called soft power. It is difficult to make humanitarian aid relationships conditional, and that seems a brutal and inhumane approach, but some conditionality or attempt to ensure that food aid gets to the right people and is not being used as a political tool is important. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts about his Department’s latest approach to that policy, and the approach taken by the Department for International Development.
The hon. Member for Congleton referred to the British Council and the language-teaching programme, which is a positive step. I should be interested to hear whether the Minister has any news about penetration of the BBC World Service or other language services into North Korea. I know that it is standard practice in North Korea to solder the tuning dial of radios, so that they can be tuned only to North Korean stations. The extraordinary levels to which the regime goes to try to repress its people are astonishing, although it does not require a mechanical or electrical genius to undo solder, so perhaps messages are getting through.
There are limits to soft power when a regime is totally unresponsive to that approach. We must try to find a means of exerting pressure. We could hope that a new regime and a new leader might lead to some change, but I think that may be as futile as the hope that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad would be a new influence on their countries. The likelihood is that, in reality, Kim Jong-un is much less influential in the exercise of power than even his father, and certainly his grandfather.
The key relationship in the region, and the only one that could make a material difference, is that between North Korea and China. China’s tacit tolerance of the appalling regime in North Korea is allowing it to survive, and it is crucial to emphasise to the Chinese that if they are to be players in international relations and participate responsibly as part of the international community, they cannot be seen to be complicit in the survival of such an appalling regime.
The kind of instability that I am sure the Chinese fear more than anything is a possibility in North Korea. As we have seen in north Africa and all over the world, repression leads in the end to a kind of instability. In an utterly dysfunctional society, a repressive regime will fall in one way or another, and it is surely better for that to happen through a process of international action and intervention than in a chaotic way that may cause instability on China’s doorstep. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about any discussions he has had with China. As the hon. Member for Congleton has said, there is a moral case for not being tempted to forget and dismiss the situation in North Korea. Inaction is simply unacceptable in the face of such an appalling situation, and we should be grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing that out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I assure you that I will be brief.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on obtaining this timely debate, and on the time that she has spent in this House looking at human rights issues. She has also looked, from a faith position, at the persecution of Christians across the globe, and I pay tribute to the outstanding work that she has done since becoming a Member of the House.
During my time in the House, many debates on human rights have been held in this Chamber, including on Somalia and on Burma, where some changes are taking place. North Korea probably has one of the worst regimes that the world has seen in recent years. According to recent press releases and the Financial Express of Bangladesh, North Korea has told the international community not to “expect any change”. It would seem, therefore, that we are in for more of the same persecutions and human rights violations that we have seen from that bitter regime in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the persecution of those who hold a particular faith. In this great United Kingdom, we claim the privilege of civil and religious liberty for all. We may not practise that liberty too well, but we certainly claim it and state it as our position. Many years ago, people in the United Kingdom were burned at the stake because of their faith and what they believed. Thank God that day has passed, and people have the freedom to practise their faith in whatever way they desire. That is not the case, however, under North Korea’s brutal regime. As the hon. Member for Congleton said, it has been estimated that up to 200,000 people have been consigned to the prison camp system because of their faith, and that of those people, between one quarter and one third have been sentenced for religious reasons. The lower end of that estimation places the total number somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people, the majority of whom profess Christianity.
Religious people who engage in evangelism, or who have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, including imprisonment or execution. There are frequent reports of the execution of Christians in North Korea, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated:
“Severe religious freedom abuses occur regularly, including: discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity.”
I urge the Minister to do whatever possible to help and to alleviate the difficulties experienced by those who are persecuted because of their faith under that brutal regime.
There are also issues of malnutrition, and the imprisonment of people who do not bow down and worship their leader. I believe, however, that there is a deep-rooted problem in that society, and we hope to see some changes in the not-too-distant future. I urge the Government to do what they can, and to use their influence through international development or aid. The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned that a request for aid had been made by North Korea, and that is perhaps an area in which pressure can be used to alleviate the difficulties experienced by people in that country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this debate, and for the tone of her speech. She achieved the right balance between raising legitimate concerns about human rights, and reflecting a positive way forward and underlining the importance of engagement, and I warmly congratulate her.
I would like to share a few personal reflections. Seven or eight years ago, I visited North Korea with Michael Bates, who is now in the upper House—actually, he is not there, as he is walking from Mount Olympus to London on a 3,500-mile journey to raise awareness of the Olympic truce, which again is about peace and human rights. We went to North Korea of our own volition, and it was an extraordinary experience.
What hon. Members have said in this debate is correct: I have been to many countries in the world, but nowhere is quite like North Korea. One of my most striking memories, which I will carry with me to my grave, is of being woken at 5 o’clock in the morning in the state-owned hotel in which we were staying. We were woken by military music blaring not from a radio, but from loudspeakers on street corners. It continued for about 10 minutes, after which the odd light would turn on in apartment blocks all over Pyongyang. The music started again at 6 o’clock, and as we looked out of the window, we saw people filing down in silence from their apartment blocks, walking three abreast along wide pavements. There was not a car to be seen and the roads were empty; people were walking silently to work.
One point that has perhaps not been touched on in the debate is the regimented nature of the North Korean regime, which is extraordinary. One morning, we got up and walked along the pavement with other people. It was eerie; thousands and thousands of people were walking to work in complete silence. In North Korea, people tend to work from 6 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock at night, and then go home and do two hours of self-improvement. How about that as a policy for the United Kingdom?
We were in North Korea shortly after its latest famine, and we saw extraordinary poverty. One day, we were taken out of Pyongyang, even though not many people are allowed to leave the capital. We were taken to see something that the North Koreans were quite proud of: a new latrine block—not a toilet block, but a latrine block—in a hospital in a city about an hour and a half north-west of Pyongyang. They showed us this extraordinary thing that we would have condemned in the 1950s. That is just an example of how far behind they are.
Sometimes people say to us that politics is not important. One of the abiding reflections that I have is that down in the South are people who are broadly free and broadly prosperous, but in the North—it is not a small country; it has a population of 25 million people—the people are very much not free and not prosperous. Many of them are in poverty, and all of them are in oppression, apart from the ruling elite. The only difference between the two—these are the same people—is the political system and structure, so we must never let anyone tell us that politics is not important. It is crucial in underpinning freedoms.
My visit to North Korea was an extraordinary experience, and one that I thought hon. Members might like to hear about. I believe that it is right for the Government to engage with North Korea, despite all the problems that we have heard about today. We are all scratching our heads as to what we can do about that, and perhaps there is a glimmer of hope with a new leader coming in. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) suggested, we do not know the extent to which people are secretly listening to certain radio stations or hearing news from the outside world. Of course, there is no internet access for the ordinary masses. However, we do not know the extent to which there is awareness of how life is different outside North Korea, and how there might well be an opportunity in the future. My instinct is that if there is change in North Korea, it will come quickly and suddenly and from who knows where, so I think that it is right for the British Government to engage positively with North Korea in the meantime.
One thing that I did while in Pyongyang was vote in the Conservative party leadership election taking place at that time. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is sitting beside me, had my proxy vote, which I exercised by telephone from a hotel in Pyongyang. I am probably the only person ever to have voted in Pyongyang. Whether I made the right decision, history will decide.
I just wanted to share those reflections. North Korea is an extraordinary country, and I believe that we are right to engage with it positively. I pay tribute to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has been mentioned several times, for the excellent work that it does in banging the drum and raising awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea, but also in other countries. Whatever attitude our Government take in terms of positive engagement, it is very important that British non-governmental organisations are raising awareness, fighting for the causes and championing human rights around the world. They do a fantastic job, and long may that continue.
As for the attitude of the North Koreans to outside pressure, one thing that we have to realise is that they have lived for 50 years with hostility from outside. All over Pyongyang are billboards, and almost all of them show North Korean soldiers squeezing the life out of an American soldier or bombing the Japanese. They hate the Japanese and they hate the Americans, for all sorts of historical reasons, and there are billboards proclaiming their hatred of those countries, so in one sense external pressure simply bolsters the regime. It is already saying to its own people, “Look, it’s us against the world.”
As has been mentioned, China is the key relationship, in the way that I guess the relationship with the USA is key for Israel. I suspect that it suits China quite well to have this slightly odd regime on its doorstep, almost like a buffer zone. Is it not extraordinary that there is a country on earth that can make the Chinese human rights record look quite good? It happens to be right alongside it, in North Korea.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when our Government quite properly raise human rights issues with the Chinese authorities in relation to what is going on China, they should at the same time mention the situation in North Korea, given that it is a country of 25 million people where there is such widespread abuse of human rights?
Yes, I do agree, and I am sure that the Minister will touch on that in his response.
As we are paying tribute to the Government’s position, which I think is absolutely right, and to non-governmental organisations for raising awareness, I think that we ought not to let the opportunity pass to pay tribute to Lord Alton, who has been mentioned a couple of times. He has done an extraordinary job as chairman of the all-party group on North Korea. I am privileged to serve as one of the vice-chairs. He has done an extraordinary job in getting the balance right between entertaining people from North Korea when they come over here and organising all kinds of meeting and so on, and being robust and firm about human rights abuses. I wish him every success in the future.
I have the privilege of chairing the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I have had a couple of meetings with members of the Korean Workers’ party when they have come over here in recent delegations. It is extraordinary to be talking about that kind of democracy with people from a one-party state, where people really have no understanding of it at all. However, it is important that those discussions continue, because all the time we are sharing our values and our pitfalls and mistakes—we always talk about our own mistakes along this journey towards democracy. Although that is a very long-term venture, it is important.
One way to get into the heart of the regime is to support education initiatives in Pyongyang and elsewhere in North Korea. The English language is increasingly valued by the North Koreans. It is now taught, I think, in all their schools as the second language. They have universities that are broadly staffed by English lecturers. They have an interest in English literature and in English culture. If I may say so to the Minister, he should work with the British Council and with his own Department to continue to build links, bridges and relationships. That is about looking forward. It may seem fruitless, but I believe that in the long term it will pay off, and I very much encourage him to continue down that road.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; welcome to your position. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate. As has been said—by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I think—her concern about the plight of the people in North Korea shone through in everything that she said. It is important that we discuss this issue in terms not just of criticising the regime in North Korea, but of the compassion that I am sure we all feel for the people of North Korea.
I, too, had the pleasure of meeting Shin Dong-hyuk when he was in Parliament recently. The hon. Lady spoke in detail about the account that he gave. No one who met him could fail to have been moved by his personal story. The thing that stuck with me particularly was his account of the young girl who had been caught with some grains of rice in her pocket and was eventually beaten to death—she died because of her injuries. What struck me was the fact that he said, “Actually, we regarded this as commonplace. We weren’t horrified by it, because it was so common for that sort of horrific scenario to be enacted in the prison camps.” He had no awareness of life outside his camp, or of the fact that there was an alternative, until he escaped. What he had to say made a very powerful impression on me. Christian Solidarity Worldwide is to be congratulated on its efforts to ensure that we get to hear about such examples.
Obviously, the situation in North Korea at the moment, with the death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s succession, has created a great deal of uncertainty among the international community. Whether we can treat it as an opportunity to try to put the international spotlight on North Korea and highlight some of the opportunities for change is a moot point. Certainly, we would all be united in hoping that it does present an opportunity, but, as has been said, there is not just one issue to tackle in North Korea. The hon. Member for Cheltenham talked about this. There are humanitarian concerns and concerns about the repression of free speech and lack of democracy. There are the kidnappings and the prison camps. There are so many issues to be tackled, but we need to do all that we can to try to keep the focus on North Korea and to keep diplomatic efforts to engage with North Korea at the forefront of what is being done.
As the 2010 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights and democracy highlighted,
“Human rights, as understood by the rest of the world, do not exist in the DPRK.”
The former UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea described the situation as “horrific and harrowing”. As has been said, the outside world lacks reliable information about life in North Korea. The fact that we have to rely on the accounts of the few people who have managed to defect—it can take them many years to reach a safe place where they feel able to talk about their situation—shows how dire the situation is.
It is difficult to imagine the sheer scale of the restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of information, freedom of movement and freedom of association. The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) gave a fascinating account of his visit to North Korea and of just how different it is. I have visited many countries where there are real concerns about human rights, but the scale of what he was talking about was very different from that in any of the countries that the rest of us have visited.
As has been said, external media are prohibited, and there are indications that the restrictions are being enforced even more stringently. There is no freedom of religion, and several Members have talked particularly about the persecution of Christians. The rights of women are enshrined in the constitution, but sexual harassment and violence are reportedly widespread, while victims of human trafficking are treated as criminals. There are also reports of forced abortions and infanticide, and child labour is not uncommon.
The punishments associated with even minor transgressions against the restrictions are harsh and arbitrary. Although the numbers are not known, for the reasons that we have discussed, the death penalty, including public executions, and torture and other forms of inhumane treatment are used routinely.
Even more worryingly, Amnesty International reports that, in preparation for Kim Jong-un’s succession, officials deemed a threat to him were executed. Although it is difficult to secure completely reliable figures, Christian Solidarity Worldwide notes there was a 58% increase in reports of human rights violations between 2010 and 2011. The populations of the prison and political labour camps also seem to have increased, with estimates that 200,000 people are now held in them.
The hon. Member for Congleton did not touch only on the human rights abuse, and it is important to note that the debate is also about the humanitarian situation, which the UN special rapporteur has described as absolutely dire. As we have heard, there are severe food shortages, which, along with the lack of proper health care, are a serious danger for the people of North Korea. There is minimal medical care outside Pyongyang, and any facilities are of a poor standard. The food shortages are acute and chronic, and inefficiencies in the public distribution system are exacerbated by floods and harsh winters. It is estimated that 1 million people have died since the mid-1990s because of the lack of food, and millions are suffering from malnutrition.
Of course, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the regime is not prepared to admit just how bad things are or to engage with the international community to the extent that it needs to on the issue of aid. China and South Korea have provided the most humanitarian aid, but with the deterioration of the bilateral relationship with South Korea since 2008, its contribution has fallen drastically. I was in China just before Christmas and took the opportunity to talk to the Chinese authorities about what more they could do to provide support for the people of North Korea.
I very much support the World Food Programme’s emergency operation, which was launched in April, but there are concerns. The UN has reported that it has received only 31% of the resources needed, and the assessment is that there is still a serious crisis.
Countries face a difficult dilemma when providing humanitarian aid to North Korea, not least because of the difficulty of ensuring that aid reaches the people who need it most. We also get into the whole debate about whether aid should be used as leverage on the human rights issue. However, the UN has warned that aid to North Korea should not be politicised when the humanitarian situation is so dire, and I subscribe to that view.
Can the Minister tell us whether longer-term plans will be in place once the World Food Programme operation ends in March? Do the Government agree with the UN’s statement that aid to North Korea should not be politicised? In that context, what can we do to support the humanitarian programme in North Korea?
Will the Minister assure us that the Government are making every effort to work with the EU and the UN to send a clear message to North Korea and to ensure that the transition to the new leadership presents an opportunity rather than a danger? What discussions have UK representatives had with international partners—particularly North Korea’s neighbours—and representatives of the North Korean regime since Kim Jong-il’s death? Does the Minister share my concern that efforts to cement the new leadership in place could lead to a deterioration in the human rights situation? If the new leader is not secure in his position, that could trigger a greater crackdown on anyone seen as a potential opponent of the regime.
Following Kim Jong-il’s death, the Foreign Secretary indicated that the UK’s priority was the resumption of the six-party talks. Any engagement between North Korea and the international community would be welcome, but will the Foreign Office seek to broaden its efforts beyond denuclearisation to include a human rights agenda?
One significant obstacle to progress is North Korea’s refusal to admit external observers, so we support continuing efforts to press for a visit by the UN special rapporteur. Can the Minister advise us on any recent diplomatic discussions on the issue?
Finally, last September, the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, led by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights, was launched to campaign for the establishment of a UN commission—something that the European Parliament has called for previously. The Government have indicated that they are not against a commission, but there are doubts that it would be possible to secure UN Security Council support. Will the Minister advise us whether there are any active negotiations on the issue and whether he takes a positive view of whether a commission can be achieved?
Thank you, Mr Davies, for giving me the opportunity to conclude the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
Let me start—not just because it is the convention to do so, but because I want to—by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on raising this subject and giving us an opportunity to debate it at some length. As well as having responsibility in the Foreign Office for Asia, I have a thematic responsibility for human rights policy, and, over my year and a half as a Minister, I have observed that many serious human rights causes around the world, although they certainly deserve our attention, receive far more attention in the House and among campaigning organisations in Britain than North Korea does. In my view, North Korea receives insufficient attention, considering the gravity of the situation in that country. In a small way, we have, I hope, started to address that deficit this morning. I therefore pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for raising this subject, but for doing so with such evident decency, humanity and passion.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), to whom I should apologise, because I called him the Member for Shannon in a previous debate—I think I got it right this time. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) got to the nub of many of the political questions underlying the human rights problems in North Korea. He was quite right to focus some attention on China’s role, and I will seek to come to that.
We heard a fascinating speech from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who was quite right to draw a stark contrast between North Korea and South Korea to illustrate the importance of politics. An amazing transformation has taken place in South Korea, which has, in my lifetime, been poorer than North Korea, but which now has the 12th largest economy in the world. It is a member of the G20; it has big companies such as Samsung, LG and Kia; it has the UN Secretary-General; and it will host the winter Olympics in a few years. You name it—South Korea has an amazing success story to tell, but it shares the peninsula with people who, although ethnically and linguistically the same, are in radically and shockingly different circumstances.
I, of course, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). This certainly is a cross-party issue, and I am sure that everyone wishes to treat it in that way. She was right to point to the most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights and democracy report, which lists North Korea as a “country of concern”. She gave the report’s crucial quote, which is that
“human rights, as understood by the rest of the world, do not exist in”
North Korea. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that human rights
“are part of our national DNA and will be woven into the decision making processes of our foreign policy”.
As such, we treat human rights and the humanitarian plight in North Korea with the utmost seriousness.
North Korea is a secretive society with limited access to outsiders. Verification of the real situation in the country is difficult, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and others rightly noted, civil liberties are severely curtailed there. Fundamental freedoms that we take for granted, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement within a country, do not exist. Even freedom of religion, which is enshrined in the North Korean constitution, is restricted, with the state prosecuting all illegally held religious services and missionary activities. The Government also impose pervasive everyday restrictions on their population, such as the ban on listening to or watching foreign radio and TV programmes and the requirement to display portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in all homes.
The judiciary is not independent and the legal system is not transparent, so citizens have no protection from the state. Ordinary citizens are not able to get advice from defence lawyers and many endure ad hoc, onsite public trials. There are also continued reports of public executions, with some indication that their frequency is increasing. Also deeply worrying is the current estimate that there are about 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners serving terms in prison camps. Accounts continue to emerge from defectors of torture and beatings in correctional centres, labour training camps and detention centres across the country. Inmates are believed to endure inadequate meals, hard labour and a lack of medical care.
As has been mentioned, like other hon. Members, I also had the opportunity to meet Shin Dong-hyuk during his visit to the UK in October. I greatly appreciate the efforts of Mr Shin to raise awareness throughout the world of the appalling conditions and the seemingly inhumane treatment of people in North Korean prison camps. His personal testimony brought home the human suffering in a way that statistics could never manage, but it is worth mentioning that I am afraid that a lack of transparency and independent verification means that we are unable to get a full and accurate picture of the conditions in the camps. I am unable to inform hon. Members of how widespread the maltreatment that Mr Shin experienced is, because we are unable to obtain information that it is as clear as we would wish it to be, but the situation is obviously extremely serious indeed.
As the hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned, the rights of women and children continue to be of concern. Although women’s rights are enshrined in the North Korean constitution, sexual harassment and violence—both domestic and in detention—is still widespread. Human trafficking remains one of the gravest crimes against North Korean women. Victims are often treated as criminals rather than helped by the authorities. The welfare of children is of equal concern, with many having no access to education and children under 16 routinely used as cheap labour.
We also have serious concerns about North Korea’s failure to guarantee the right to eat and their management of the food sector. The North Korean Government’s prioritisation of the military budget and their 1 million-strong army means that the state does not spend nearly enough in support of food production and imports. In recent decades, that has led to serious health issues among their population and humanitarian catastrophes, including the severe famine in the 1990s that caused up to 2 million deaths. International food aid and development aid have reduced the number of famine deaths, but North Korea still requires international assistance to feed its population.
We work bilaterally and multilaterally, in partnership with the United Nations, European Union and non-governmental organisations, to improve the situation in North Korea. Bilaterally, we take every opportunity to raise concerns on North Korea’s human rights record via its embassy in London and our embassy in Pyongyang. Most recently, our ambassador in Pyongyang raised human rights as an area on which the UK and North Korea disagree, when she called on Kim Yong-nam, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly—one of the most senior figures in the North Korean Government—in October 2011. Through our embassy in Pyongyang, we also contribute to a series of small-scale humanitarian projects, but it is one of the hardest countries in the world in which our diplomats serve.
On large bilateral funding, the UK does not give aid directly to North Korea, owing to the difficulty in agreeing acceptable access and monitoring controls with the Government. We therefore believe that the Department for International Development’s contribution to various multilateral organisations in North Korea represents the best way to contribute financially. Such commitments include subscriptions to various UN and Red Cross funds. Multilaterally, we continue to work through the UN and the EU to raise concerns about human rights abuses.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham that I have personally raised the Government’s and my concerns about the Chinese Government’s role in North Korea directly with the Chinese Government. The point has been made in the debate that the current condition of North Korea might suit China. That might or might not be the case, but for the reasons that he spelled out, I do not accept that analysis. Even if one believed that its condition was in China’s narrow political interest, the Chinese need to take account of a moral dimension, which is that the most appalling degradation of human life is taking place on their doorstep and any country that does not devote its energies to addressing such an issue needs to reconsider its political priorities and responsibilities.
At the UN, one always has to assess how one can be most effective. There is a place in politics for dramatic statements of intent and a place for trying to achieve the objectives that we all share. Our approach has sought, as much as we are able, to bring about those objectives, but we keep an open mind about how we can best achieve them in future.
The succession of Kim Jong-un brings with it an opportunity for us to push the new leadership to acknowledge the need for greater respect of their citizen’s human rights. However, that will be difficult in the next few months, as it is likely that those who have recently assumed power in Pyongyang will take some time to establish policy priorities and a modus operandi for dealing with foreign countries. On 5 January 2012, the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly issued a decree to implement an amnesty of prisoners to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung and the 70th birthday of Kim Jong-il. We will push for further details and encourage transparency, but if it goes ahead, it will be a welcome small step forward for human rights.
We will need to be mindful of the increased risk to stability on the Korean peninsula, as the new leadership in Pyongyang establishes its security credentials. To that end, we continue to be in very close contact with key allies, including South Korea, the United States, Japan and our partners in the EU. Despite that important work, we will ensure that we and international partners continue to prioritise all the justifiable human rights concerns that have been articulated in this debate.
I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for raising the topic this morning. I assure all Members present that the situation in North Korea is as grave and as big an affront to our common humanity and decency as that in any country in the world. The British Government and Parliament will continue to work to bring about radical change.
Empty Property Rates (SMEs)
It is a privilege to be granted time to hold this debate here today and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. As all Members present know, the rating of empty properties is a contentious and sensitive issue.
Let me start by outlining the situation of a couple of farmers in my constituency who have lived and worked on their land for decades. After the previous Government strongly encouraged them to diversify their land, they decided to develop a couple of small business premises to rent out to local entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises. They undertook substantial developments and put tenants in place. The future looked bright until the financial crisis broke and the recession hit. As a result of the subsequent turmoil in the financial market, many of my constituents’ tenants were forced to downsize and move out. In some unfortunate cases, their tenants’ small businesses collapsed, as bank lending sadly dried up. The limited three or six-month exemption from empty property rates has now expired, with the threshold returning to its original £2,600 level. As a result, my constituents now face bills totalling thousands of pounds.
Like all rational and sensible politicians, I have a great deal of sympathy for my constituents. In a letter to me, they said:
“We have worked hard all our lives to get what we have today... the price we are paying now is the price of progress and it is like a lump of concrete around our necks.”
One of my core principles in life is that every person has the absolute right to aspire and achieve without unfair burdens being placed on their shoulders.
In the current economic climate, our inherited policy of rating empty properties is unfair. We seriously run the risk of driving small business men and women into the ground, particularly in rural areas, where a number of small retail and commercial properties have been developed on diversified land. The owners are not wealthy property tycoons and often possess only limited experience of property management. It is wrong to believe that every property owner can take the hit of tax on empty properties; many simply cannot. To lay the blame for such a situation at the door of the coalition Government is entirely foolish and short-sighted.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I must declare an interest as outlined in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does my hon. Friend agree that the previous Government introduced this scheme with the good intention of ensuring that all redundant properties were redeveloped? However, it has been an incredibly blunt instrument, and with the economic downturn, it has effectively caused chaos for many small investors. We need to consider a more subtle approach to encourage the regeneration of areas.
As my hon. Friend has said, the scheme is a blunt instrument that has had unforeseen consequences. It is also a barrier to investment and regeneration, which particularly affects the north, but I will go on to that point later in my speech.
The previous Labour Government reformed the empty non-domestic property rate relief in 2007 in an alleged attempt to encourage more commercial properties to be brought back into use throughout the supposedly never-ending boom years. The Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 increased rates on empty properties from 50% to 100% of their occupied rate. It also removed the exemption for storage and industrial premises, which was recommended by Kate Barker and Sir Michael Lyons in their independent review ahead of the 2007 Budget. As one would expect, the plans were controversial at the time. It was said that the 2007 Act would lead to constructive vandalism. However, the vast majority of property owners would not deliberately hold back empty properties from the marketplace. If I had been an MP at the time, I would have said that such properties were most often empty as a result of the poor planning system or a simple lack of demand for commercial properties within specific locations.
Appreciating that the new policy introduced unnecessary burdens on businesses in recessionary times, the pre-Budget report of November 2008 outlined a temporary increase to the threshold for exemption from such rates to £15,000 and then later to £18,000 for a two-year period. That provided much-needed relief for many affected individuals and was greatly appreciated. The Business Centre Association estimates that that measure saved its members about £10 million. However, the problem has returned. On 1 April 2011, the empty property threshold returned to £2,600, which is a remarkable and dramatic drop from the temporary £18,000 figure.
As a loyal supporter of the coalition, I appreciate that the Government cannot afford to tackle every issue and reduce the vast deficit simultaneously. Furthermore, I understand that some issues must take priority over others. I accept that the reckless economic legacy of the previous Government has largely tied our hands. Thankfully, though, this Government are intent on spending only what they can afford, and long may that approach continue.
The previous Government are responsible not only for the creation of the empty property tax rates, which they designed and implemented, but for the inflexibility of the coalition’s fiscal options. Having to spend £120 million a day to pay off our country’s debt interest payments hinders the present Government’s ability to reform as broadly as they might otherwise do. None the less, empty property rates should be higher on the Minister’s list of priorities.
Property owners in rural villages across the country are beginning to be hurt by this policy. They now feel let down by successive Governments. Such sentiments have been summed up well by Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, who said:
“If the Government is pinning its hopes on a private-sector led recovery, then this is a damaging and retrograde step. Empty rates are a tax on hardship at the worst possible time. The majority of the properties affected by this announcement will be in areas which are already economically disadvantaged, and so this will be a further blow.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On Friday, I visited a mill complex on the outskirts of Huddersfield that is home to many thriving and positive businesses. I saw at first hand the disincentive for the owners of that complex to bring back some of the units into habitation and to make them ready to show off to new businesses. He has talked about the Business Centre Association. Does he agree with its idea of allowing an exemption period of three years for all new and refurbished units to try to get them back into use as an incentive to stimulate small businesses?
On the exemption period, does my hon. Friend agree that six months is too short a period in which to find a new tenant? The commercial property market is difficult. Six months between one tenant leaving and the finding of a new tenant is insufficient to do the necessary marketing, to show people round and to get people into the accommodation. At the very least, the exemption period needs to be increased.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The six-month exemption period—indeed, it is only three months for retail premises, which is obviously even shorter—is incredibly burdensome for property owners. He is right that the short exemption period is difficult when marketing these properties and looking for new tenants.
We have to accept that there must be churn within the market. No one will ever say that we will get 100% of such properties filled up. Even in the best of times, we are perhaps talking about filling 80% to 85% of properties, and there must be that effective churn within the market to allow flexibility within businesses.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The specific point about churn is crucial. In my constituency, there is a very successful small business park in the town of Conwy and its proprietor feels that he is being penalised, because he tried to develop an incubator unit-style approach. In effect, he is now being penalised because of the churn. He is providing a service to the local business community and allowing people to have easy options to come in and out of the business park, which is vital for new business development, but he is actually being penalised by the system.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that we need the churn within the market to allow new investment and new businesses to start up. As I said in my initial remarks, there are unforeseen consequences to this measure and it seems to be a barrier to investment and regeneration within certain areas.
As I have already said, the British Property Federation has expressed such sentiments, and it is not alone in doing so. Ahead of the Budget last year, the TaxPayers Alliance urged the Chancellor to scrap this tax altogether. In addition, ahead of the pre-Budget report last year, almost 50 regional chief executives of the British Chambers of Commerce signed a letter to the Chancellor that highlighted the perverse consequences of the policy.
Sadly, nothing has happened and according to Government replies to my written questions on this matter, there are no plans in the short term to review the situation. Consequently, I want to focus the rest of my speech on three main points. If they are taken further, I firmly believe that the Minister will urge the Government to review their position sooner rather than later.
First, I have already outlined my concerns about the impact of empty property rates on small businesses in rural areas. In addition, I briefly want to discuss my fears about the specific impact that this tax has across the whole of the north of England. As a Member of Parliament for the north, I have always been interested in the economic north-south divide. My first question at Prime Minister’s questions was to ask the Prime Minister specifically about that gap. After all, it is statistically the case that the economic divide between the north and south of England actually increased during Labour’s rule.
On many fronts, the coalition should be commended for its introduction of the regional growth fund and local enterprise partnerships, which are specifically aimed at addressing regional imbalances. However, such positive measures run the risk of being undermined if negative policies, such as empty property rates, are allowed to strangle many SMEs in the north.
Recently, Horncastle Group—a property developer based in Yorkshire—wrote to me about that issue. Its chairman, Mr Andrew Horncastle, has been lobbying against this regressive taxation for years. Discussing the issue with me, Mr Horncastle said:
“This empty rates property tax is a tax on failure, and as such it discriminates between the prosperous south and hits weaker regions, particularly in the north. It is a short-sighted, ill-thought through socialist-style tax grab, and it does not sit in any proper growth strategy.”
Frankly, I could not agree more with those comments. Those areas that are directly outside new enterprise zones will be hit further by this form of regressive taxation. At a time when we are genuinely attempting to rebuild and rebalance our northern economies, it seems somewhat foolish that we are continuing to operate such negative rates on empty properties.
Secondly, I fear that empty property rates carry with them unintended consequences. A number of Members have already touched on this issue. In 2009, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors showed that empty property rates are the key driver behind decisions to demolish empty properties and they act as a barrier to investment in new property. Likewise, with an increased work load—owing to the higher vacancy rates—the cost of administering this tax within local authorities has already started to mount. Demolitions, higher administrative costs, additional financial demands on small businesses and a stagnating commercial property and flexible space sector are the consequences of this regressive policy.
My third point relates to the very simple principle of fairness. My right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister, has himself talked passionately and genuinely about “enemies of enterprise” that act as unnecessary hurdles for entrepreneurs and SMEs. The empty property tax is a perfect example of an enemy of enterprise. For a country targeting a private sector-led recovery, it is not right that such rates are imposed upon the very small businesses whose success we are counting upon. Indeed, it is not only not right; it is not fair. I believe passionately that no Conservative would view the policy as being desirable or fair.
Actions speak louder than words, and if we admit that something is wrong but fail to reform it, we are badly letting down all those who are affected by it. I also firmly believe that any cost of tackling empty property rates would be far outweighed by the investment in premises, jobs and training that would follow in a rejuvenated market.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I apologise—I would very much have liked to have been here at the beginning of this debate. The point that he has just made is very important. Regarding regeneration, in my constituency, I have found that empty property rates often make individuals who own commercial or industrial property view that property as a problem. Consequently, they will sometimes consider measures to try to mitigate the empty property rate tax. So the tax actually changes the mindset of property owners; it changes how they view the property. They do not view it as an opportunity but as a millstone around their necks.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. If he had been here for the beginning of my speech, he would have heard me quote one of my constituents who said almost exactly the same thing.
The coalition should be commended for pursuing a fairness agenda, but let us now extend the principle of fairness to the empty property rates tax, because there is nothing fair about increasing taxes on property owners who are already suffering due to high vacancy levels.
On fairness, one of the small business owners in Castle Point said that he would be very happy to pay tax on income that he was earning. He supports local businesses; he often has very good deals to help local businesses to get going; and he contributes enormously to the local community and local economy. He says that he would be delighted to pay even more on income that he was genuinely receiving, but he feels that it is incredibly unfair to be penalised when a property is empty.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and that point is very well made. In fact, the whole hub of the argument is about fairness. People are completely prepared to pay tax on income earned, but this tax on empty properties could be seen as a tax on failure and it is just simply unfair.
Similarly, there is nothing fair about forcing entrepreneurs to consider selling, abandoning or even demolishing their premises because of the threat of excessive taxation. To penalise a property owner whose property falls vacant in recessionary times is not a prescription for economic recovery but a recipe for economic stagnation. Our stance on empty properties requires a fundamental review.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me to speak.
I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and I remind the Chamber that I raised this issue in Westminster Hall in November 2010. Interestingly, Mr Davies, you were in the Chair then too. Equally interestingly, there was no attendance at that debate by any Opposition spokesmen, which perhaps indicated the Opposition’s level of concern about matters affecting business.
At that time, I raised a constituency case, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) has done today. My constituent had a commercial property as an investment, which he had acquired after selling his business that had been located there. In recent months I, too, have visited constituents who have been very much affected by the changes including, most recently, an engineering company that has a vacant unit on its site, is unable to find a tenant and is liable to pay the commercial rates. In his reply to me a year ago, the Minister spoke of support to small business generally, but regretted the fact that the Government were unable to offer the concession that property owners would like.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer drew attention to the fact that the situation has become worse rather than better as a consequence of the fall in the exemption limit from £18,000 to £2,600, which means that the large majority of properties are now included. My hon. Friend spoke about the need for a private sector-led recovery from the recession we are suffering. Critically, at a time when we are demolishing perfectly sound industrial premises to avoid paying the vacant commercial rate, and developers are not developing new industrial and commercial premises because if they do so they might be left vacant, we are making it more difficult for small businesses to get started. There are strong reasons why the Government need to address the issue, and I very much look forward to the remarks that the Minister may make to be able to assuage the fears of businesses in this sector.
It is good to serve under you today, Mr Davies. I commend the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) in getting this matter before the House. It is interesting to see how many other colleagues share his concerns.
I want to begin and, bearing in mind the time, it might be very nearly where I finish as well, by picking up one of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer made about the financial situation facing the country. He drew attention to the fact that £120 million a day is spent servicing the interest on the outstanding public sector debt; I wish that that was the whole story, but unfortunately it is not even half of it—it is only a quarter. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the signed-off accounts showed a deficit accumulation of £164 billion of extra debt added to the national debt for that year. That sounds like a lot of money, but people find it very difficult really to understand how much it is. Looked at on a daily basis, it is £450 million added to the national debt for every day of that financial year, and it was in that context that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) left his famous note: the money has all gone.
I want to make it very clear that the Government recognise the vital role that small businesses play in building a sustainable economy, but a sustainable economy depends on having a sustainable financial system and sustainable public expenditure. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, and our other hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate, would be even more enthusiastic than I am, as a member of the coalition Government, to see the fiscal and financial situation brought under control. We have a coalition commitment to rebalance the economy and to support businesses to provide the growth and jobs that the country needs, and Members have eloquently pointed out the particular role of small start-up companies in doing so. This Government have made an excellent start and are doing a great deal, but there is always a balance between putting the finances right as a short-term necessary foundation and providing the right springboard for growth.
This Government fully recognise the problems that were caused by the outgoing Government’s so-called reform of empty property rates. Members have spoken eloquently today about the problem, and have allocated the blame correctly to the outgoing Government. From 2008, the exemption period was restricted to three months for non-industrial property and six months for industrial property, with ratepayers being liable for full rates once that period had lapsed. The previous Government claimed that the purpose of the reforms was to increase the cost of holding empty property and thus to encourage owners to relet or redevelop empty commercial properties, or to sell them on to people who would do so. That argument was based on an economic theory that was, and still is, not fully accepted by the business community; hon. Members have pointed out that even in good times it would be unrealistic to think that every commercial property in the country would be full—there would always be churn and vacancies.
The Government fully understand and appreciate that ratepayers would like us to undo the previous Government’s so-called reforms, or to continue with the temporary measures, but our ability to take action needs to be balanced against the very high costs involved. We are, however, also providing targeted support on business rates, and there is an overriding need to reduce public expenditure and support the economy generally by reducing the deficit. Had any Labour Members been here today, and that is perhaps something of a statement in itself, I can imagine that they might have said, “Why don’t you do it anyway, it’s only another day’s deficit borrowing?” Restoring the relief would cost somewhere between £400 million and £500 million a year—just another day’s borrowing. I believe that those of us present are more mature and responsible than that, and would not simply say, “Oh yes, it’s just another day. Let’s do it.” That is the challenge the Government face because, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer made clear, the Government have to balance getting the economy straight financially and fiscally with providing the springboard for business growth.
I have a long list of the very wide range of help we have provided to businesses, and had time permitted I would have read it out, but I would be happy to pass it on to Members who have contributed to the debate. The help focuses on getting new businesses started and on getting existing businesses to expand. We have to set priorities. Although changes to the empty property rate are currently unaffordable, we recognise that the problems caused by the previous Government’s reforms are still there, and we will certainly keep the matter under review.
We have already taken some major actions, particularly on business rates, to demonstrate our commitment to providing targeted support for the business community. Yesterday, the Local Government Finance Bill, which reforms business rates, received its Second Reading. When the measure comes into force, it will give every local authority the capacity to rebate business rates at their discretion in their local area. I hope that Members here today will support that legislation with great enthusiasm, and that they look forward to the day, in April next year when the measure comes into force, when they can go to their local authorities and make as eloquently as they have today the case for empty property business rate relief, which can then be targeted and shaped to local circumstances.
Although I would like to spend time on the long list of good things that the Government have done to support business, I hope that in the limited time available I have been able to explain why the Government have set rigorous priorities and feel obliged to stick to them through these 12 months. I hope that there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, when the Local Government Finance Bill becomes law, for my hon. Friends to approach their local authorities and put their case strongly to them.
Iran (Human Rights)
[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
I am pleased to be conducting this Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
This debate draws attention to Iran’s horrendous human rights record. The abuses affect a wide range of people—women, gay people, dissidents and the human rights lawyers who try to defend those people, including the lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani, held since September 2001 for creating propaganda against the system. Last September, three Iranian men were executed after being found guilty of charges relating to homosexuality. Last week, the daughter of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President of Iran, received a six-month jail sentence for allegedly spreading propaganda against the regime. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was due to be sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery, may now be hanged; we are told that the change of punishment from stoning to hanging is some kind of progress.
However, I wish to focus on an area of persecution that has received too little public notice and attention: the long-standing and ongoing persecution of the Baha’is, adherents of the Baha’i religion founded in Iran in the mid-19th century. The persecution is not widely acknowledged, although it is pervasive and is escalating dangerously. There are thought to be more than 300,000 Baha’is in Iran and 188 Baha’i communities worldwide.
Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, 200 Baha’is were expelled and thousands were imprisoned. The 1991 memorandum of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution set out what still remains official policy towards what is ominously called the Baha’i question. The memorandum makes it clear that official policy is repression of the Baha’is in an effort to crush the religion and its adherents—in the words of the Iranian Government’s official policy, to block their progress and development. The repression takes a number of forms in an ongoing and systematic persecution. It means arbitrary arrest and imprisonment and the denial of access to higher education and areas of employment. The homes and businesses of Baha’is have been subject to arson attacks, cemeteries have been destroyed, and children have been harassed.
There are 102 Baha’is imprisoned in Iran. One current issue of major concern is the trial of the seven former leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran: Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm. They were detained in 2008 without charge and were denied access to lawyers for a year. In January 2010, they appeared in court on charges that could have led to their execution. In August, they received sentences of 20 years. Although the sentences had been reduced to 10 years following international condemnation, the length has since been restored.
In May 2011, another series of raids was held on 39 Baha’i homes in Tehran, Karaj, Shiraz, Gohardasht, Sari and Zahedan. In the ensuing weeks, eight people were released, but 11 remain imprisoned. The charges were of conspiracy against national security and conspiracy against the Islamic Republic of Iran by establishing the illegal Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an online programme to support Baha’i youth barred from universities. I have raised the persecution of the Baha’is previously.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this afternoon’s debate. Canadian Senator Dallaire, a former commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, recently drew attention to the escalation of attacks on Baha’is and others in Iran, which he described as
“a slow-motion rehearsal for genocide”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that such comments from such a distinguished observer of human rights are a great cause of concern, as are the issues that my hon. Friend outlines?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Those comments show how the situation is escalating. They should lead not only to increased concern but to increased action. I intend to refer to that comment later, and will say what I think should be done to address the situation.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s work on behalf of the Baha’i community. We are both members of the all-party friends of the Baha’is group, which tries to advance the cause of the Baha’is. Does she agree that one of the big problems with Iran is raising awareness of the human rights issue in Iran? I am thinking of the case of Madam Ashtiani, of the 600 people who have been executed over the past year, and most definitely of the Baha’i community in general. That is where contributions from Canadian senators and others are particularly important. There has been a huge awareness deficit across the world of the extent of human rights violations in Iran.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is extremely important to raise awareness, knowledge and consciousness of these atrocities. It is important that people take action to prevent or stop persecution, but unless they become aware of it, it is less likely that action will be taken. Contributions such as his are important in increasing that awareness.
Reference has been made to members of other faiths. Has my hon. Friend read the report of the United Nations special rapporteur, which condemned the actions taken against Arabs, Azeris, Baha’is, Balochs, Christians, Kurds, Sufis and Sunni Muslims? The report was published in September by the special rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, who was appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
That report is extremely important in documenting the wide range of persecution in Iran. It is important that the report is made known more widely and leads to action. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work during the previous Parliament as Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which considered human rights in Iran and specifically referred to some of these issues, including the Baha’is and other groups to whom he referred. The Select Committee’s work in drawing public attention to the situation is extremely important, but what also matters is that the information is used and followed by action, in this country and internationally. I note that both the present Government and the previous Government have taken the issue of general persecution against a range of people in Iran seriously and have raised it. Their work has been good, but much more still needs to be done.
In March 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed a special rapporteur to monitor Iran’s compliance on human rights, and last December the General Assembly expressed deep concern about a wide range of abuse that is continuing and, in some cases, escalating. It stated that the abuse includes a “dramatic increase” in the use of torture, the systematic targeting of human rights defenders, pervasive violence against women, and continuing discrimination against minorities, including members of the Baha’i faith.
Regrettably, those representations, and the work done by our Government and others in the United Nations—and, indeed, in Europe—have not had a great deal of effect. Persecution continues and concerns are escalating. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) referred to the concerns expressed by the Canadian Senator, Roméo Dallaire, who has drawn attention to the rise in atrocities in Iran, both generally and specifically against the Baha’is. It is extremely important that the world does not wait until there is a genocide. It should heed warning and take further action to put pressure on the Government of Iran to stop what they are doing. The Minister does good work in this area, but what further representations does he intend to make? Will he make representations to those members of the UN Human Rights Council who did not feel able to join in the condemnation of the atrocities, in order to persuade them to increase the pressure and join that widespread condemnation?
I have a specific request: will the Government call for Dr Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, to be granted a visa to visit Iran, so that he can compile a new report on freedom of religion or belief there? Dr Bielefeldt’s comments in October 2011 on the extreme nature of the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran are extremely alarming. Will the Minister do all that he can to support the issuing of a visa from Iran to allow Dr Bielefeldt to visit and conduct further investigations?
Too little is known about the plight of the Baha’is. Some Members may be aware of it only from their constituency work and their work with refugees. Many of us find that people in our constituencies are seeking asylum on grounds of persecution following their experiences in Iran. I have met a number of such people. Indeed, I am in the process of making representations on behalf of two Baha’is from Iran who are seeking asylum following persecution in their homeland, in this case for their work in the field of the arts. That demonstrates the Iranian regime’s repression of its whole population.
Last July, the popular Iranian comedian, Omid Djalili, wrote in The Guardian about the plight of the Baha’is and, indeed, his own experience as a Baha’i. He wrote about his experience as a member of an Iranian football team in Northern Ireland. He was a valued and successful member of the team, but when his colleagues discovered that he was a Baha’i, he was cold-shouldered and dropped from the team, which is an example of absolute prejudice against Baha’is.
The hon. Lady referred to the 1991 memorandum. Does this not go beyond a culture? It is an actual black-and-white policy, as laid out by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. The memorandum needs to be withdrawn so that there is not a policy in black and white, with expulsion from universities, exclusion from employment, and general exclusion from life in Iran.
I agree with the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. In the context of the whole field of human rights in Iran, we are talking not about persecution by individuals, and something that is inconsistent with the general tenor of the way in which the Government operate, but about state-sanctioned persecution, which is what makes it so ominous and horrendous. That is why it so important that action is taken, not just nationally—we cannot achieve very much on our own—but internationally. It is extremely important that people understand what is happening—that this is part of the state apparatus, not an anomaly.
Omid Djalili wrote a number of interesting things in his article. He wrote about his own experience. I was privileged to hear him speak about it directly at the House of Commons only a few months ago when he addressed a meeting held by the all-party friends of the Baha’is group—of which I am the treasurer—about human rights in general. In his Guardian article, he took the issue further than his individual experiences. He wrote about the general situation in Iran in relation to Baha’is and how he felt that their plight had been ignored for far too long in Iran as well as outside it. He wrote:
“Nowadays, the climate feels different. In February 2009 a group of Iranian intellectuals, writers, activists and artists signed an open letter to the Bahá’ís stating their regret concerning the Iranian government’s treatment of its Bahá’í minority. They made an open apology for their silence during Iran’s long-running persecutions: ‘a century and a half of oppression and silence is enough’. This letter was welcomed by the Bahá’ís, who have always made it clear they are humanitarians, not political activists, working towards social transformation for all at a grassroots level, not concerned with overthrowing governments.”
It is important that people understand that the nature of the Baha’is is peace-loving. They want to unify people and do not seek division and dissent. It is important that that gentle approach is not misunderstood, that people understand what is happening to the Baha’is and, indeed, to other groups, and that they are willing to take action about it.
I hope that this debate will focus attention on Iran’s deplorable record on human rights across the board. The abuses affect far too many people. I hope that it will shine some light on the position of the Baha’is, whose plight is little known and little understood. What matters most, however, is that action is taken. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this vital debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea, and I warmly thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for bringing this issue to the Chamber. I am indebted to Christian Solidarity Worldwide for assisting my preparation for this debate. I could not speak in front of a more apposite ministerial representative than the Under-Secretary, who has taken a great interest in the issue throughout his years in the House.
This is a period of unprecedented tension between the west, broadly speaking, and Iran, but that should not mean that we resile from confronting Iran with the reality of the human rights abuses and persecution that it is inflicting on many of its citizens. In the context of human rights, I would like to focus specifically not on the Baha’i faith, but on the wider Christian community and the suffering that it endures at the hands of the state.
Iran has witnessed a steep rise in the persecution of religious minorities during 2011, principally of Christians belonging to both the sanctioned Churches and the unsanctioned house-church networks. The most worrying forms of persecution include regular raids on gatherings; harsh interrogations and torture of Christians, including demands for the recantation of faith and for information on the identities of fellow Christians; detention for long periods without charge and other violations of due process; convictions for ill-defined crimes or on falsified political charges; the economic targeting of the Christian community through the demand of exorbitant bail payments; and the threat of imminent execution of a house-church pastor.
Both evangelical Christians and Christians within the traditional Armenian and Assyrian Churches who conduct services or church activities in Persian are deemed a threat to the Islamic integrity of the nation and live increasingly in an atmosphere of instability. Targeted persecution has been undergirded by a proliferation of anti-Christian rhetoric from senior figures in Iran and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside has said, has been accompanied by the continuing repression of the unsanctioned Baha’i religious community.
I particularly want to raise the very worrying case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, which I have previously brought to the Minister’s attention. Pastor Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for apostasy—abandoning Islam—in 2010 and was involved in two further court cases last year. The case went to appeal at the supreme court in June 2011, and the verdict of the lower court was not overthrown. However, the supreme court requested a re-examination of whether Pastor Nadarkhani had practised Islam as an adult before his conversion to Christianity. The re-examination took place in September last year, and it was ruled that although the pastor had never practised as an adult, he was nevertheless guilty of apostasy due to his Islamic heritage.
In a series of hearings from 25 to 28 September, the pastor was given three opportunities to recant his faith to secure his acquittal and release. He refused very courageously each time and was returned to prison to await a final written verdict from the court. A significant international outcry raised the profile of the case and the courts have twice referred to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, for his opinion. However, the ayatollah has so far avoided commenting on the issue and no official final decision has been reached. Pastor Nadarkhani remains in Lakan prison.
On 23 December, the sanctioned Assemblies of God church in the city of Ahvaz was raided during a Christmas service. Everyone in the building, including children attending the Sunday school, was detained, interrogated, threatened and eventually released. However, the church’s senior pastor, Pastor Farhad, remains in detention along with some of the church leaders. Although direct attacks on sanctioned churches were rare in 2011, a large number of unsanctioned or underground house churches were violently raided, items confiscated and members arrested and interrogated. More than 300 members of house churches are known to have been arrested and interrogated in at least 48 cities throughout Iran in 2011. However, the complete figure is almost certainly significantly higher. The majority of those arrested were released following questioning and a short incarceration, but many have been recalled for further questioning, and at least 41 have spent a month to a year in prison. Some of those arrested have not been formally charged and many of them face long periods of solitary confinement.
Farshid Fathi-Malayeri, who was arrested on 26 December 2010 in Tehran, is still being held in Evin prison. He has not been formally charged and a court date has not been set. That evangelical church leader and father of two young children has been kept in solitary confinement for a large part of his incarceration. The equivalent of £120,000 was demanded as bail for his release, and his family eventually managed to raise that, yet the authorities still refused to release him. On one occasion, as a form of psychological torture, Farshid was told to pack a bag and get ready to leave. The guards led him as far as the outer gate of the jail where other prisoners were being released, but he was then suddenly ordered back to his cell. Noorollah Ghabitzadeh, a church leader arrested in Dezful on 24 December 2010, is also believed to be still detained, although little is known of his condition.
Detainees regularly face solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, illness as a result of privations, denial of medical treatment, unsanitary conditions in prison and forms of psychological and physical torture during interrogation. Torture is used to pressure individuals to make confessions and to provide information on others. As I mentioned, exorbitant bail postings secure the release of individuals, along with illegal documents that religious detainees are forced to sign. Such documents demand an end to participation in Christian activities, the renunciation of faith, and compliance with further questioning when summoned. Laptops and mobile phones are often confiscated during raids on private Christian homes and are used to obtain information on the activities and identities of other Christians.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on bringing the matter to the House today. One of the repercussions of the issue being discussed relates to employment and the owning of property. It is not just about being hit for worshipping God in church; there are repercussions beyond that. Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Government have made any representations to the Iranian authorities to reduce and minimise the threats to Christian people?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a great interest in these issues. If he will bear with me, I will make some key requests of the Minister when I conclude. I certainly agree with the tenor of his comments.
The majority of Christians arrested in the past year have been released and are either on bail awaiting trial or have been issued with severe warnings and threats against other Christian activity. The Church of Iran evangelical denomination has been particularly targeted with legal action in the past year. Pastor Behnam Irani is a pastor from that network who has been imprisoned since May 2011. He is currently serving a five-year sentence in Ghezel Hesar prison in Karaj for action against national security. The verdict against him includes text that describes Pastor Irani as an apostate and reiterates that apostates “can be killed”.
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide sources, Pastor Irani is sharing a cell with criminals who regularly beat him and, as a result of injuries sustained during these assaults, he is now having difficulty walking. Christian Solidarity Worldwide was informed that, during the first few months of his imprisonment, he was held incommunicado in a small cell, where guards would repeatedly wake him from sleep as a form of psychological torture. He was moved into a cramped room where inmates could not lie down to sleep, before being transferred to his current cell.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling contribution about the distressing persecution of the Christian minority in Iran, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) did about the Baha’i. Does he agree that it is bizarre that the Iranian Government claimed to support the Arab spring, when people were demanding democracy, freedom and human rights, while they oppress their citizens and abuse their human rights in the most appalling way, whether on the basis of religion, sexuality or for daring to express a political viewpoint?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is more than distressing; it is of extreme concern to anyone who values freedom, liberty and democracy. We are seeing the beginnings of a systematic approach that sometimes prefaces genocide, and our Government—and other Governments—are starting to realise that.
I am mindful that other hon. Members want to speak, so I will make some progress. The Islamic Penal Bill, which would amend the Islamic penal code, is expected to be passed into legislation by the Iranian Parliament this year. The Bill will almost certainly increase the severity of human rights abuses in Iran. The initial approval of the Bill by the Iranian Parliament on 9 September 2008 was a worrying development, as the original draft stipulated the death penalty for male apostates and life-long hard labour or imprisonment for female apostates. In June 2009, Ali Shahrokhi of the Parliament’s legal and judicial committee reportedly told the Iranian state news agency—the Islamic Republic News Agency—that the committee had decided to remove the reference to the death penalty from the Bill as it was not
“in the interest of the regime”.
However, it is possible the death penalty clause may still be in the text. There were fears that, if that was the case, the clause would be implemented in the case of Pastor Nadarkhani without warning at any time and would endanger other Christians.
The persecution of Christians has been accompanied by a proliferation of anti-Christian rhetoric from authority figures in Iran. In October 2010, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared from Qom that Christianity was being deliberately spread by Iran’s enemies as a means to weaken Islam within Iranian society. Likewise, on 4 January last year, Mr Morteza Tamaddon, governor of Tehran, made a speech in which he openly threatened further arrests of Christians. He declared that evangelical Christians had inserted themselves into Islam “like a parasite” with the backing of the west. We must think back to the vile propaganda of the Nazis before the war and the way in which Jews and others were characterised when we consider the appalling comments that have been made by leading figures in the Government of Iran.
In August 2011, Ayatollah Hadi Jahangosha echoed this sentiment in a presentation on Mahdivism—belief in the twelfth Imam. He declared that
“the West is trying to devour our youth by publishing and advertising false Gnostic books…our enemies have noticed that Satanism and false Gnosticism are not popular in Iran and because of that they are taking a religious approach to expand Christianity.”
He identified the house-church movement as a deviant sect by stating that
“the ‘real Christians’ do not believe in this distorted Christianity-Protestantism.”
Furthermore, following the seizure of a consignment of 6,500 bibles in Zanjan province in mid-August, Dr Majid Abhari, adviser to the Iranian Parliament’s social issues committee, declared that Christian missionaries were attempting to deceive people, especially the youth, with an expensive western-backed propaganda campaign. In seeking to portray evangelical Christians as part of a foreign conspiracy against Iran, the regime seeks to justify its continuing crackdown on house churches and individual Christians.
I had intended to speak on the Baha’i faith persecution, but it has been covered admirably by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside. I will, however, conclude by way of putting questions to the Minister. Perhaps he will respond by saying what action is necessary by the international community, and by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government. We should urge the Iranian Government to uphold their obligations under their own constitution and penal code, which do not codify the death penalty for apostasy, and their obligations under international law, including provisions for freedom of religion or belief, contained within the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which Iran is a state party.
We should urge the Iranian Government to ensure the removal of the clause stipulating the death penalty for apostasy from the draft Bill for the amendment of Islamic penal code in light of Iran’s human rights obligations, and to make the amended draft publicly available.
On the point about the possible amendment within Iran, I, like others, was lobbied regarding the pastor. Thankfully, the death penalty was not used. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our Government should, at every level possible in the immediate future, in the next weeks and months, ensure, as far as we can, that pressure is applied to the Iranian Government, and that we should not pre-emptively take any action that would endanger the life of the pastor about whom we are all concerned, as well as the lives of other Christians and Baha’is in Iran who could suffer a fate similar to that which has, unfortunately, been hanging over the pastor’s head?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is important to make the point to the Iranian Government and Iranian parliamentarians that the world is watching and that they cannot inflict their vile regime, systemic torture and abuses of human rights without very serious ramifications on the part of the international community. We should urge the Iranian Government immediately to release all Baha’i detainees held on account of their beliefs and to end official discrimination, monitoring intimidation and other hindrances to their freedom of religion.
A comment was made earlier by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) about Mr Ahmed Shaheed, who must to be able to continue and complete his work unmolested. He is newly mandated as the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. He needs to continue to monitor the regime’s compliance, specifically with respect to international human rights standards, including freedom of religion or belief.
Finally, the motto of Christian Solidarity Worldwide is, “Be a voice for the voiceless”. This debate is vital. Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, because at least in this Chamber in our Parliament, the voiceless do have a voice this afternoon.
Order. It is normal to call the Opposition Front Bencher at 3.30 pm, followed by the Minister. A number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I should like to allow as many of them as possible to speak, so I ask colleagues to be mindful of that when they are making speeches.
I welcome the debate and the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights in Iran and, from that, our relationship with Iran. I deplore intolerance. I deplore the attacks on the human rights of religious people and religious minorities, dissidents within Islam or, indeed, linguistic minorities in Iran. Most countries in the world, including our own, have gone through periods of the most grievous intolerance towards minorities. One hopes that at some point Iran will come through this.
The current intolerance towards many dissidents in Iran is not particularly new. Indeed, it has gone on since the 1950s. The high point of freedom in Iran was the nationalist Government of the early 1950s. The coup of 1952 brought in the Shah’s regime and his secret police. The revolution of 1979 brought in the Islamic Republic and a great deal of repression of its opponents, particularly in its early days and more latterly. We should recognise that large numbers of people in Iran stand up for human rights, democracy and their own rights. Any change within Iran is more likely come from internal opposition and internal organisation than from anything that is done from outside or any outside pressure.
To add to the list of people affected, I draw attention to an early-day motion that I tabled early in December:
“That this House is alarmed at the re-arrest of Ebrahim Madodi from the Vahed Trade Union Syndicate in Tehran; calls for his release and that of fellow trade unionist, bus workers’ leader, Reza Shobabi immediately; and supports the rights of independent trade unionists in Iran to represent their members without the threat of imprisonment.”
Ebrahim Madodi was released after an international campaign mounted by the TUC in this country and supported by many other unions. Indeed, campaigns have been mounted on behalf of Christians who have been under threat in Iran. The regime responds when there is enough international pressure. They do not send an e-mail straight away saying, “Thanks for your representations; it has all changed.” What one notices is that subtly, over a period of a few months, usually some kind of change happens. It is therefore well worth raising these issues, and it is very important that we continue to do so.
I should like to draw attention to a couple of other points, but I am mindful of what you said about time, Dr McCrea. The UN special rapporteur on extradition and summary executions in Iran, supported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, drew attention to the very large number of executions that have taken place in Iran, either for alleged drug dealing or alleged consumption of drugs. This country has a policy of absolute opposition to the use of the death penalty. I pay tribute to our representatives at the UN Human Rights Council, who routinely and absolutely assiduously, whenever a peer group review comes up of the human rights in any country, immediately raise the issue of the death penalty if it is applied in that country. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will be able to assure us that, when the next opportunity arises at the council, the death penalty in Iran will be mentioned again and complaints will be made about it.
In the context of what is happening in Iran, it is worth referring to documents from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, as well as to its campaigns for media freedom, for film makers and for legal representation to be available to all those who have been arrested or detained by the Iranian state. We recognise that work, and we want to put pressure on the Iranian Government to ensure that the centre can carry out its work without let or hindrance.
It is also worth recognising that there is a problem in Iran beyond that which has been mentioned so far. A number of bombings and assassinations of scientists—nuclear scientists and others—employed by the Iranian Government are taking place in Iran, and mysterious explosions are taking place at military bases. I do not know, any more than anybody else in the Chamber knows, who is perpetrating those attacks, but there is clearly a pattern. I do not believe that any country, whether Iran or anywhere else, should have nuclear weapons. Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and I hope that it remains one. I also hope that we take steps to achieve a nuclear-free middle east.
The British Government were obviously concerned when the attack on the British embassy took place, and all diplomatic representation has now been withdrawn from Iran. I should be grateful to the Minister if he explained what options are now available to people in Iran who want to contact British representatives, because I have constituents of Iranian origin with family members in Iran who want, quite legitimately, to visit family in this country. Under normal circumstances, they would be perfectly able to do so, but they now find it extremely difficult to know how to apply for the appropriate visa. I should be grateful to him if he explained how they could do that.
In this country, we have considerable freedoms to speak, as well as protection for minorities and tough anti-discrimination and anti-racist legislation. All that is absolutely right and proper, and I would want the same for everyone in every country in the world. I therefore support those in Iran who are doing their best to stand up for rights, democracy and accountability in their society. However, I am not convinced that such rights will be won for Iranian people by imposing isolation and sanctions on Iran’s Government, threatening military action or, indeed, attacking Iran. That will not bring about change but make the situation considerably worse for people in Iran.
Will the Minister therefore explain exactly what dialogue is taking place with the Iranian Government and what dialogue took place with civil society before the withdrawal of British diplomatic staff? Dialogue with civil society can be helpful in protecting people, but it can also be helpful in promoting changes in society. I want to see changes, but I also want to see peace. The presence of US warships in the region and sanctions against Iran will not necessarily bring about those changes; in many ways, such things are probably strengthening the regime and its intolerant side, rather than its more tolerant side.
We should pay tribute to those who demonstrated during the election process to call for free and fair elections, those who stand up in universities demanding intellectual freedom and those who stand up for plurality in society. Surely, that is really what the Persian tradition is about—not the intolerance and oppression that all Members in the Chamber have rightly drawn attention to.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on securing this important debate. She may be interested to know that Michael Nazir-Ali, a Member of the House of Lords and formerly Bishop of Rochester, was very active on behalf of the Baha’i community in Iran in his recent travels to that country.
I want to echo some of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who talked about the persecution of Christians in Iran, a subject I have raised on the Floor of the House with the Minister. It is important to say at the start that Christianity in Iran is as old as Iran itself. We know from the New Testament that Parthians, Medes and Elamites—all tribes from Iran—were present on the day of Pentecost. Furthermore, some of the earliest Christian missionaries to China were Iranians, and there is a lot of evidence that the early Church in Iran went back to the early centuries after the birth of Christ, and to people such as Tatian the Assyrian.
Any idea that the regime in Iran tries to put out that Christians are somehow not intrinsically Iranian, not patriotic or not part of the country is therefore historically wholly untrue and is not borne out by the facts, even though Christians are few in number in Iran. Their numbers are growing, however, and there is considerable growth in the Church. That is despite the fact that eight Christian leaders have been murdered for their faith since 1979. Open Doors, another excellent charity, which looks at religious freedom around the world, says Iran is the second-worst country in the world in which to be a Christian, after North Korea. Some colleagues in the Chamber were at this morning’s debate on North Korea, in which we looked at the position of minorities—Christians and others—in that country.
I was delighted by the Foreign Secretary’s intervention in the case of Pastor Nadarkhani, which was bold and clear, and it was heard in this country and around the world. I agree with the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who said that our interventions do have an effect. Things may not change immediately, but countries do not like justified, evidence-based international criticism. Such debates are worth while in a small way, because when we mention the names of people who have been wrongly treated for whatever reason, we show our concern for them, and that has an effect. Those of us who are privileged to have a platform from which to speak in this place are called to be a voice for the voiceless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough rightly said.
It is right that we go on raising the case of Pastor Nadarkhani, and that of Pastor Fahad, who is in detention. Pastor Fahad’s Christmas service was raided on 23 December, when many of us were enjoying the freedom to go to carol services and so on in our communities. Children in the Sunday school were arrested and taken into detention—what an appalling thing to do to children.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that intolerance in Iran towards Christians and, indeed, other religious minorities, including Jewish people, is outwith the traditions of Persia before the Shah’s time, when there was considerable religious tolerance of a wide variety of faiths?
That is a good point, and it adds to some of the historical context that I was trying to give earlier. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for quite properly putting that on the record.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, I want to mention the case of Farshid Fathi, who was imprisoned just over a year ago, on 26 December 2010. He is still in Evin prison, and I have not met him, but I have met Dr Tony Sargent from the International Christian College in Glasgow, who knows him well. Farshid Fathi is a very bright and dynamic young man who is the life and soul of the party, but he is languishing in prison when he should be free to nurture a church, as he feels called to. Similarly, Pastor Behnam Irani was imprisoned in May 2011, and he, too, is someone we should not forget. I agree with the concerns my hon. Friend raised about the Islamic Penal Bill. There is still the possibility that the death sentence could appear in it for apostates.
In mid-August last year, 6,500 Bibles were seized in Zanjan province. It is illegal for Christians in Iran to print or sell Persian Bibles, such as the one that I am holding. Bibles have been seized, and there have been reports of some having been burned. Christians around the world rightly condemned the threatened burning of a Koran by a rather fringe and slightly lunatic pastor in Florida some years ago, so some condemnation by Muslims of what we have heard from Iran on the burning of Bibles would be welcome and would give us a bit of reciprocity.
I have had meetings with diplomats from the Iranian embassy, but I do not think that there will be many more, because they are back in Tehran at the moment. I met Mr Mousavi and Mr Sahabi, and got the impression that they were personally slightly uncomfortable with what is going on in Iran, which is perhaps a glimmer of hope for the future. When I met them in the Pugin Room, they gave me a document, which I have with me today, called “Minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. It reads very well, as documents from Governments with poor human rights records tend to, and it says that Christians in Iran should
“Enjoy freedom in holding religious ceremonies and rites.”
We know from what my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough eloquently said that that is not the case at all.
It is right that we keep raising such matters and do not give up. History tells us that the cause of freedom shines through in the end. Whether one is in Islington, Bedfordshire or any other part of the world, such rights, as the hon. Member for Islington North said, are universal. We will continue to raise these cases for as long as it takes.
During the previous Parliament, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs went to Iran in autumn 2007, and in February 2008 it published a report that went into considerable detail on many issues, including the human rights situation. The Select Committee concluded that Iran is a complex and diverse society ruled by a theocratic regime. My impressions are of a young country that wants to engage with the rest of the world, but is prevented from doing so by the policies of the ruling clique. However, another problem is that there is not one ruling group; that touches on the point about how the authorities sometimes move in unexpected ways, because decisions are not taken in a way that is transparent from our point of view.
How we deal with a country such as Iran is a dilemma. On the one hand, we try to encourage a process of openness and reform, but on the other, we recognise its appalling behaviour, whether in systematically breaching obligations under the non-proliferation treaty; sponsoring terrorist actions in other countries; or defending the autocratic, repressive Syrian regime, as it is doing at the moment. We and the European Union had problems with the policy of so-called “constructive engagement”, which has run into the sand. We saw the newly elected President Obama extending his hand to the Iranians when he came to office in early 2009 and being snubbed. How do we deal with a country of that kind?
I, too, was in the delegation to Iran in November 2007. Would my hon. Friend agree that we were given privileged access to, among other things, some of the dissenters? Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), there are quite a number of dissidents who stand up for the things that they believe in—a free, open, democratic and pluralist Iran—despite being oppressed day in, day out.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but I think that we were not “given privileged access”; rather, our diplomats made it possible for us to engage with some people. It was a privilege for us, but those people were taking great risks in contacting us, and some of them are no longer in Iran and are not allowed to return, due to their activities at that time and because they would not be secure and safe.
I want to conclude by making a contrast. BBC journalists are not allowed to report in Iran, and the Iranian authorities make systematic efforts to jam international broadcasts and satellites, including the BBC World Service Persian television service, which has been very popular with the Iranian people. The regime tries very hard to keep from the people the truth about the atrocities in June 2009, when protestors against the rigged election were on the streets in huge numbers, and about what subsequently happened to protestors’ families. Propaganda is broadcast to Iranian homes by state-controlled Press TV, including broadcasts from London of people who claim that the demonstration against tuition fees was parallel to the protests of June 2009.
Will the Minister say something about the anomaly of the BBC not being allowed in Iran and foreign broadcasts systematically being prevented from getting through to Iran—so far as the regime is able to prevent that—when we allow representatives of the Iranian Government, through their mouthpiece, Press TV, to broadcast propaganda about this country that completely distorts what is happening in the world? Given the current crisis, and the fact that diplomatic relations are broken, I find it difficult to see why we do not take steps to prevent Press TV from behaving in such a way. Would we have allowed Nazi media to broadcast from London in 1939? I ask that question as a serious point for us to think about for the future.
I am now even more grateful to serve under your extremely lenient and enlightened chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on choosing a subject that is even more topical today than she probably realised it would be when she secured the debate. It is clear that the human rights situation has worsened since the contested elections in Iran in 2009. Amnesty International’s recent report states:
“The authorities maintained severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Sweeping controls on domestic and international media aimed at reducing Iranians’ contact with the outside world were imposed. Individuals and groups risked arrest, torture and imprisonment if perceived as co-operating with human rights and foreign-based Persian-language media organizations. Political dissidents, women’s and minority rights activists and other human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and students were rounded up in mass and other arrests and hundreds were imprisoned. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were routine and committed with impunity. Women continued to face discrimination under the law and in practice. The authorities acknowledged 252 executions, but there were credible reports of more than 300 other executions.”
It is almost inevitable that the true total is higher.
The situation for human rights defenders, lawyers, protestors, trade unionists and ethnic minorities seems to be getting worse. The regime’s intolerance of not only dissenting political beliefs, but, as many hon. Members have pointed out, dissenting personal beliefs is increasingly clear: secular teachers at universities have been purged; Ahwazi Arabs have been sentenced to death for enmity to God; and Amnesty has drawn attention to the plight of Sunnis, dissident Shi’as, Christian converts and evangelists, and the Dervish and Sufi communities, who all suffer discrimination, arbitrary detention and attacks on community property.
By drawing attention to the plight of those of the Baha’i faith, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside has shown that she is particularly well informed. The faith is not even recognised as a legitimate religion in Iran, so the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was right to say that discrimination against the Baha’i is systematic and institutionalised. My small group of Baha’i constituents have shown me great hospitality in my constituency, and I promised them that I would take every opportunity to support the rights of the Baha’i in Iran. I am happy to fulfil that pledge today.
My hon. Friend reads out a devastating roll-call of abuses. However, the situation is even worse than he outlined. He mentioned 252 executions, but in 2011 that number included the execution of a juvenile. There are currently 143 juvenile offenders on death row in Iran, in complete defiance of international law.
My hon. Friend makes a devastating point in support of her argument.
The last faith group in Iran that I shall mention is the Jewish community, which is extremely long-established. There is a history of tolerance of the Jewish community in Iran, but there is increasing evidence that anti-Semitism is growing there, and that the small Jewish community there is being blamed for the actions of the Israeli Government. Those actions are beside the point; an unfair collective punishment is, in effect, being imposed.
I support the consistent calls from the United Kingdom Government and the European Union for an improvement in the human rights situation in Iran. Certainly, the decision by the EU in October to increase targeted sanctions on officials—those identified as responsible for particularly grave human rights abuses—was exactly right. The sanctions regime is interconnected with the nuclear programme in Iran, but targeted sanctions relating to human rights are every bit as justified, in my view, as those relating to the nuclear programme.
It is important, as the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned, that we do not pursue a path that leaves the regime no escape route and inadvertently strengthens the hands of the hard-liners in the regime. Iran is not North Korea. Iran is not a monolithic society; it has human rights defenders, courageous and independent-minded writers, filmmakers, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and young campaigners; it does, in effect, have opposition; and, above all, it has a young population that is quite aware of what has happened in the neighbouring Arab countries in the Arab spring, and is aware of what democracy really looks like—and what oppression looks like.
Of course, Iran has a tradition of vigorously contested elections, even though they are not democratic in the sense that we would recognise. That tradition of independent thought and resistance should be reinforced and supported wherever possible. That means that the exercise of soft power can have some effect, can still be deployed and is likely to have positive effects.
The jamming of international radio and TV broadcasts—I cannot remember which hon. Member mentioned that—is an important issue. I draw attention to it again and ask for ministerial support to raise it at the International Telecommunication Union world radio conference in Geneva, which begins on 23 January. The jamming of the BBC Persian TV service has resulted in that service being taken off the Hot Bird satellite, which is the main satellite for the region. That illegal censorship is, in effect, denying freedom of information and human rights to the Persian-speaking population. I welcome Ministers raising the profile of that issue in advance of the conference.
The Persian people, like their Arab neighbours, have the potential to tackle the human rights issue once and for all themselves, through their own resistance and traditions of championing freedom. We should do everything we can to support them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for securing this debate. I do not intend to touch on the issues that she raised with regard to the Baha’i faith, because she did comprehensive justice to those and we will hear the Minister’s response. We also heard from the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the plight of Christians. Both issues have been raised with me on a number of occasions by local campaigners, including members of the Baha’i faith and the Christian community in Bristol and on a wider scale.
I join hon. Members in paying tribute to the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which was also mentioned earlier today during a debate on human rights in North Korea. CSW does sterling work campaigning there, as well. It is testament to that organisation’s powerful campaigning on this issue that so many hon. Members have mentioned it.
I was going to mention the BBC World Service Persian TV service being jammed, but that has already been mentioned by hon. Members. Will the Minister comment on what representations have been made? That has been going on for a couple of years, and since 2009 there has been almost consistent jamming of the service and only intermittent ability to broadcast. I should be grateful if the Minister said a few words about that.
It is 17 years since Iran last submitted a report to the UN human rights committee. As we have heard, the scale of human rights abuses in the country is vast. It is not just people of religious faith who have come under threat: political activists, women and ethnic and sexual minorities live under the real and ever-increasing threat of arbitrary arrest, torture and even death. The UN has called on the Iranian Government to engage with the international community in strengthening human rights safeguards and we fully support this approach.
A key area of concern is the deplorable attack on the British embassy in Tehran last November. The Iranian Government have blocked access to the embassy’s website, which detailed Iran’s human rights obligations and important information about how Iranians could travel to the UK. Given that the Government have now closed our embassy in Iran—a measure that Labour spokespeople supported—will the Minister say how they intend to continue to monitor human rights violations in the country? Does the Minister accept the concerns of some human rights campaigners that the embassy’s closure will inevitably have an impact on the UK’s ability to appeal to the Iranian Government regarding ongoing and future human rights abuses? Will he also say what impact the closure of the embassy will have on our work with civil society groups within Iran?
Although the attack on the embassy was utterly deplorable, we should not allow that to deter us from trying to find ways to continue to promote human rights and hold the Iranian Government to account for their abuse of those rights. The campaign to save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani from being stoned to death has already been mentioned; that is a compelling example of how international pressure can have an effect on the regime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, there are small signs that such things have an impact, even though they may not deliver overnight the ideal situation that we would like. The campaign to save her life continues. There is still a threat of death by hanging. It is important to try to mobilise international opinion on such issues.
At some point, Iran will have to submit itself for an in-country review of human rights at the UN Human Rights Council. I do not know when that will be, but it cannot be that far away, because it is near the end of the first tranche of in-country reviews. That would be an ideal time for the concerns that hon. Members have raised here to be rearticulated by the British representative in Geneva.
It is important that Iran is subject to such intense international scrutiny.
The UN special rapporteurs have difficulty coming up with authoritative statistics. Figures show that 252 officially announced executions were carried out in 2011. However, Amnesty International, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, and the UN have reported that more than 300 people were secretly executed in Iranian prisons in 2011. There is a strong suspicion that the real figure is probably far higher.
Among those secretly executed were women and a great number of foreign nationals, particularly from Afghanistan, the majority of whom were accused of drug trafficking offences. Testimony from relatives and other inmates reveals that the majority of the victims were not informed of their sentence until a few hours before the execution was carried out and that most executions occurred without families being given prior notice. Most deplorably, as has already been mentioned, Iran continues to execute children, who are widely reported to have been tortured into making confessions. It is suggested that 143 children remain on death row.
In respect of the figures that the hon. Lady mentioned, approximately 550 and 600 people were executed in Iran last year—and probably every year for a period of time. Iran is second only to China in that regard. Does its being number two in the world league of executions lead to concern?
We oppose the use of the death penalty in any circumstances, but the crucial starting point is that information on executions that are carried out should be transparent. We should know the figures for what people have been convicted of and how many executions have been carried out—half the executions I mentioned were carried out secretly, and most people would regard it as inappropriate that offences such as drugs trafficking should carry the death penalty. The issue is significant, and one on which we should continue to put pressure on the Iranian Government.
The hon. Lady is giving a good overview of the difficulties. Does she concede that, because of its role as a state sponsor of terrorism and other activity in the middle east, in particular in support of despotic regimes, Iran is in many ways exporting human rights abuses throughout the region?
There is certainly concern about the international role played by Iran. I do not want to stray into the territory of its foreign policy, particularly because Iran does not fall under my brief in the shadow foreign affairs team, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the influence of the Iranian regime, in particular in the region, and the wrong message being sent to other regimes.
We have not debated in much detail today the impact of human rights abuses on women in the country. Officially, under article 20 of the Iranian constitution, there is equality between men and women. It states:
“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”
As a recent report by the UN confirms, however, Iranian law provides an insurmountable barrier to gender equality. To give a few examples, under Iranian law, a woman’s testimony is worth only half a man’s testimony; the age of criminality starts at the age of nine for girls, whereas it is 15 for boys; mothers may never have guardianship of their children, even if they are widowed; and women do not have equal inheritance rights. For some time there has been growing concern about the crackdown on women who fail to adhere to the traditional dress code in public. For example, the number of women applying to university has declined since measures taken by the regime to enforce the dress code there.
Disturbingly, Iranian authorities blame women who have been raped for inducing their attackers to sexually assault them. In June 2011, 14 women were kidnapped and gang-raped, but the Government claimed that the women had brought the attack on themselves and that the manner in which they had been dressed was reason enough not to bring the attackers to justice. Recently, we have seen the imprisonment of women’s rights activists who signed the “One Million Signatures” campaign to repeal discriminatory laws. One activist was sentenced to nine and a half years in jail for assembly and collusion against the regime and to a further two years for participating in a protest against laws discriminating against women. Another women’s rights activist was given three and a half years in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons in May 2011.
Three gay men are known to have been hanged in Iran in 2011, and two teenage boys, in a case that drew widespread international attention, were hanged in 2005 for the same offence. Some observers report that that is only the tip of the iceberg, because in many cases the families are not prepared to make public the fact that their relatives were executed under the sodomy laws.
I finish with a few words about the role of social media in Iran. We heard from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about how a fairly well organised, well educated opposition movement exists in Iran, and how it is struggling to break free from the regime’s grasp. According to Harvard university, the rate of growth of internet usage is higher in Iran than in any other country in the middle east. An estimated 700,000 active blogs come from the country. In 2009, the regime was quick to blame the use of the internet, social networking sites in particular, for the outbreak of protests following the disputed presidential election. Today, the regime does all it can to block access to websites promoting democratic change. For example, in September last year, a blogger received a nineteen-and-a-half year prison sentence for propaganda against the regime, and the UN’s recent report on the state of human rights in Iran gives numerous examples of bloggers and journalists imprisoned for similar activities.
It has now been reported that internet cafés have been asked to record customers’ online footprints and to install security cameras. As recently as Monday this week, the Iranian regime announced that it intends to introduce its own internet operating system, to enable it to block websites considered unsuitable and to monitor online activity. As we saw in other countries during the Arab spring, social media are incredibly important in spreading democratic ideas and in enabling people to mobilise opposition to human rights abuses and undemocratic practices. I urge the Minister, in his discussions on human rights in Iran, to stress that freedom of expression is an important human right, and that access to the internet and to social media is now a fundamental freedom that should be protected.
I echo the sentiments of others, Dr McCrea, that it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank all colleagues who have spoken, in the spirit of a collective Parliament speaking across party lines on matters about which we think similarly. I appreciate the challenge offered by one or two colleagues and will do my best to respond.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)—an old friend in such matters over the years—on securing the debate and on how she raised the issues, from deep knowledge. She mentioned a series of individual cases, and I might touch on some during my remarks, although there were too many for me to comment on them all. She spoke for all of us when she hoped that such debates shone some light on the situation of the Baha’i community for instance, or others under pressure in Iran. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) said, we collectively act as a voice for the voiceless and for those minorities known and unknown to us, in what we do here. Colleagues have certainly lived up to such obligations.
The human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate sharply. The United Kingdom, together with the international community, continues to urge the Iranian regime to respect its human rights obligations and to improve the situation of its people. Our efforts and those of Iranian and global civil society ensure that the international spotlight remains on the serious human rights violations taking place in Iran today. Before I comment on some of the individual items that came up, let me refer to one or two general issues raised by colleagues.
Concern is not felt simply by those outside Iran, and I pay tribute to the bravery of those operating in Iran. In September last year, The Times ran a good seminar entitled “Imprisoned in Iran”, to raise awareness of the plight of victims of human rights abuses. The event was well attended, raised a large number of issues and was addressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Among his remarks, he said:
“2011 has shown that demands for human dignity are irrepressible. Iranians should take solace from this… Iran is very different from its Arab neighbours. But the lessons of the Arab revolutions hold true for Iran just as they apply to repressive countries across the world. Simply refusing to address legitimate grievances about human rights or attempting to stamp them out will fail.
While some governments across the region are waking up to this truth, Iran is moving in the opposite direction. The actions of the Iranian regime are holding Iran back, isolating its people and suffocating their immense potential, and preventing Iran from enjoying normal and productive relations with the outside world.”
My right hon. Friend conveyed the sense of how well we understand the dynamics. Iran is a complex society, not a monolithic one. At one and the same time, we can condemn the activities of the regime and express support for the Iranian people. When relations with the regime have necessarily to be rather more restricted than they were, it is still possible to engage the Iranian people and to have contacts with the regime itself. Colleagues said that they wanted the United Kingdom Government to be aware of that sentiment, so let me elaborate.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her support and that of her Front-Bench colleagues in relation to the appalling attack on the embassy. When there is a problem and an embassy must be evacuated, neighbours step in to provide support. We are working actively to find a country that will take on the obligations and we are in negotiation, but until that is done, under the Lisbon treaty—if a Minister may mention that—EU partners can provide support for one another in such circumstances. We are grateful to other EU member nations that have been able to provide support.
At the moment, they can take the matter up with any other EU embassy. In due course, one designated embassy will take on responsibility as a protecting power. That process must be negotiated not only with the country willing to take that on, but with Iran—that may explain the time that has been taken—but for the time being a partner EU nation can take on that request. I hope that that explanation is helpful.
Despite the invasion by regime-backed paramilitaries and the subsequent closure of the embassy, our wish to maintain strong support for and friendship with the Iranian people remains. We have always stated that our disagreement with Iran on human rights is with the Iranian leadership regime, not the people. Human rights are universal, and Iran’s failure to meet its obligations is punishing and stifling the fulfilment of the wishes and aspirations of millions of people.
Dialogue continues, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), spoke about the importance of continuing a dialogue using social media and the like. Again, the Government are well aware of that. We have a good system of direct contact with people in Iran. We have a Farsi service and can communicate directly with people in Iran. They are savvy and open to the world; they know what is going on; and they know the limitations of their own regime. We are also aware of how we can continue to contact and work with them. We have a Farsi spokesperson to speak directly to the Iranian people, so colleagues may be absolutely sure that we will do that.
The embassy is not the only way in which to make representations to Tehran. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside was right to raise the matter, because closure of the embassy makes that more difficult but not impossible. Our contacts through other channels and with other agencies will certainly be kept up. The balance is difficult to maintain, but we are endeavouring to do so.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) speaks with a deep background of the issues and raises the awkward and realistic ones that need to be raised. It is clear from our contact with Iran on the nuclear issue that an offer of negotiation is available. We urge Iran to respond to the latest letter from Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative, because we will not be caught out by the Iranians saying that they have been backed into a corner. The opportunity exists for them to talk. We oppose the killing of civilians, and we want a negotiated solution to the problem. We are also alert to the fact that human rights issues in Iran may often be more powerful than the nuclear one, which is why we are concentrating on the matter today.
I shall respond to some of the specific issues raised. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the situation of women in Iran. In 2010, we opposed Iranian membership of a specific UN women’s committee because of Iran’s discriminatory practices in relation to women. In June last year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke out about the arrest of women activists and praised those whose conscientiousness and achievements should be celebrated but who are instead behind bars. We will continue to highlight and to encourage Iran to address gender discrimination in Iranian law.
Iran’s excessive use of the death penalty is a major cause of concern. In 2011, reliable sources reported that about 650 people were executed, although because of the opacity of the Iranian judiciary and penal system, it is quite possible that the number is much higher. That maintains Iran’s inauspicious record as the country witnessing the highest number of executions per capita in the world. Iran’s use of the death penalty shows little regard for minimum international standards in the application of the death penalty, including a lack of fair trial and the execution of juveniles. We should not forget other brutal punishment methods, including stoning. Fourteen people still live under sentence of stoning.
On freedom of speech and assembly, last year Iran was described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the
“biggest prison for journalists anywhere in the world”.
It finished the year with more journalists and bloggers in prison than anywhere else, including China. The traditional forms of media in Iran are all run by the state, with satellite television banned and most foreign journalists denied entry. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) raised that matter. Iran blocks more than 10 million websites and is pursuing a separate and highly censored Iranian internet, disconnecting Iran from the world wide web.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the contrast between Press TV and everything else. The contrast is this: we do not control and we do not censor through Government as such. The law does that. Press TV may be investigated by Ofcom. That is the appropriate regulatory body. That is how we do it here, not through Government diktat. That is the contrast between the two nations. Press TV must obey the laws of this country, but is handled independently, as we all know.
In 2011, we have again seen brutal crackdowns by the Iranian state. During the first one in February, several people were killed by the security forces. In April, more than 30 people reportedly died during protests in Ahwaz in southern Iran. In August, security forces attacked people who were protesting peacefully against the neglect of a natural salt lake in Azerbaijan province in northern Iran, and several deaths were reported. The range of activities that a repressive regime may clamp down on is extensive.
The majority of colleagues wanted to raise the issue of minorities, including the Baha’i and Christian communities. In 2011, we saw increasing patterns of violence and intimidation against minorities. The authorities have continued to crack down on Kurdish and Baluchi groups, as well as those mentioned today. Religious minorities have been subject to arrest and intimidation, as we have heard. Christians and Baha’is in particularly have suffered harassment, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for their remarks. I echo the tribute to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
We have spoken in the House about both issues a number of times, and the Government have made representations on them. I have met the Baha’i community in the United Kingdom, and I made representations direct to Iranian representatives when they were here. We continue to raise the matter, and we have done so also in relation to Christian persecution, about which colleagues spoke movingly. We particularly deplore the pressure that has been put on the Baha’i community in Iran, and the attacks on the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, and its closure. We will continue to raise all those issues.
A general point about the protection of religious minorities is that protection of an individual minority must be done in company with all. In our experience, those who oppress one minority usually oppress others, and it is collectively safer if we raise the issue on behalf of all—the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, women, Christian minorities, Muslim sect minorities and Baha’is. If we seek to protect the rights of all, we are doing the best that we can.
On UK action at the UN and through the Human Rights Council, colleagues can be assured that we press other countries to support resolutions that we have co-sponsored. The result of a vote in December showed how effective lobbying had been because the margin was the largest ever in relation to a country-specific resolution against Iran. That showed how successful some of the work had been, and we will continue with that. The next periodic review when Iran must deal with the issues will be in 2014, and we will press at the council in March, as we do at every council, for Iran to deal with the record against it that colleagues have spoken about. There is no doubt that the issues raised here will continue to be raised by colleagues, but they may rest assured that their concerns are echoed by the Government. We will continue to stand up for the rights of those who are oppressed in Iran.
It is a great pleasure to initiate this debate under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Today I want to deal with the tragedy of a lawyer who worked closely with and for a British company—and its British chairman who is present in Westminster Hall—and who was done to death under the most atrocious circumstances. If a British lawyer working for an overseas firm had been arrested and so mistreated in the UK, all hell would break loose. This tragedy, however, happened in today’s Russia, and my charge is that the British Government have been singularly lax in dealing with the case, and lacking in adequate and necessary measures, not only to obtain justice but to send a clear message that putting to death a lawyer who represents British interests is not cost free. I do not claim a new policy of “advocatus Britannicus sum”, but the idea of civilisation and the rule of law, as well as the clear rules in the European convention on human rights to which Russia is a signatory, provide a special place for lawyers to represent their clients without facing prosecution or persecution unto death.
The details of the tragic death of Sergei Magnitsky are somewhat well known. Mr Magnitsky was the Moscow lawyer of British businessman William Browder. Mr Browder was born American and is the grandson of Earl Browder who was leader of the Communist party in the United States during the 1930s until he fell out with Stalin in 1945. Earl Browder’s grandson decided that capitalism was a better bet than communism, and over a decade beginning in the 1990s he built up the largest investment fund in Russia with billions of dollars of assets. However, not all went well for young Browder when he started publicly complaining about endemic corruption in Russian state companies, and in 2006, President Putin expelled him from Russia as a “threat to national security”. I would like to recommend to the House the remarkable documentary by Ms Norma Percy on the early Putin years. It will be shown on BBC 2 next Thursday and it illustrates the interface between politics, state bureaucracy and business.
Once the Putin regime decides that it does not like a business leader, it does not operate in half measures, and when it decides to turn on someone, it does so in spectacular fashion. After Browder’s expulsion, Putin’s tax police raided his offices in Moscow, seized all his company stamps and seals and stole his investment holding companies. Browder hired a bright young Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to try to stop this continuing state-sanctioned crime. Magnitsky investigated all the police actions and discovered that Browder’s companies had not only been stolen but had subsequently been used by the tax police to fraudulently refund from Government coffers the $230 million in taxes that Browder’s firm had paid in the previous year.
Magnitsky did what any lawyer would do on behalf of his client: he filed criminal complaints and testified on the involvement of the tax police in that enormous theft. That was a big mistake. He was subsequently arrested by the same tax police officers against whom he had testified, and blamed for the fraud himself. The scams that the Putinocracy arranges are not just for a few high-up people—everyone gets a cut. To shut him up, Magnitsky was flung into one of the roughest prisons in Russia and essentially held a hostage. Because the Russian state could not get at Mr Browder, who, as a British citizen was now safe in London with his family, they went for his lawyer to send a signal to other firms operating in Russia saying that when the tax police—or anyone else demanding a cut—knock at the door, co-operation is wiser than insisting on the rule of law.
Sergei Magnitsky was brutally treated in prison. He was tortured for 358 days by sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, the withholding of food and other torments left over from the Stalin era of torturing people whom the Kremlin did not like. After six months of such treatment he became extremely sick and was systematically denied any medical treatment. Eventually, Magnitsky’s beleaguered body began to give way and his condition became critical. Instead of sending him to the emergency room, his jailers put him in an isolation cell and allowed eight riot guards with rubber batons to beat him until he was dead. In November 2009, he was found lying in a pool of his own urine, dead on the cell floor at the age of 37.
Since then, the Russian Government have tried to cover up the cause of Magnitsky’s death, and a network of named officials in the tax, police, public prosecution and prison departments of the Russian state has been identified as part of that cover-up. Many of those involved have bought property abroad at prices that would be impossible on their declared salaries.
None of those facts are secret and they have been reported by journalists in Moscow, as have the details and names of those involved. The names have been listed by US Senators, Congressmen and Congresswomen, and by parliamentarians in some EU member states and in the European Parliament. The Magnitsky affair has also been the subject of a Council of Europe report. I, together with a number of right hon. and hon. Members, as well as Peers, have asked questions in Parliament and sought to highlight this assault on a respected British business, and show the terrible insight that the Magnitsky death gives us into how Russia operates. I had the luck to secure this debate, but that could have happened to any number of interested colleagues who support me on this affair, some of whom are present in the Chamber.
Vasily Aleksanyan was another young lawyer, and former general counsel to Yukos. In 2006, Mr Aleksanyan was arrested as part of the persecution of those involved in Yukos. He rapidly developed serious health conditions due to AIDS-related illnesses, but was denied antiretroviral treatment or chemotherapy in prison. In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights intervened and ordered Russian authorities to release Aleksanyan. The damage done to his body during his detention was too great, however, and he died last year as a direct result of the denial of treatment in jail.
That is the Magnitsky story. We must now turn to the Whitehall story and ask the Minister why the Foreign Office and Home Office have been so lax in taking up the Magnitsky case, and unwilling to take action against the named officials who were involved in theft via the tax system and the crime that Magnitsky sought to reveal. Will the Minister explain why some of the principals involved have been allowed to enter the UK without let or hindrance? Lieutenant Colonel Artem Kuznetsov from the Russian Interior Ministry was named in Magnitsky’s testimony as having orchestrated the theft of the Hermitage fund’s investment companies. Kuznetsov was also accused of perpetrating the $230 million tax fraud, as well as Magnitsky’s false arrest and persecution in detention. Public records—let me stress that—show that shortly after the $230 million was paid from the Russian Treasury, Kuznetsov’s family acquired $3 million worth of high-end apartments in Moscow, land plots outside the city and several luxury cars. Kuznetsov travelled to the UK twice in 2006.
Major Pavel Karpov, also from the Russian Interior Ministry, was named by Magnitsky as a close accomplice of Kuznetsov. Karpov initiated the criminal case against Mr Magnitsky that was used as a pretext for his false arrest. Public records in Russia—again, I stress that—show that Karpov’s family acquired $1.3 million in real estate assets and luxury cars following the completion of the fraud. Mr Karpov travelled to the UK four times between 2006 and 2007.
Dmitry Klyuev is the owner of Universal Savings bank through which the $230 million proceeds of the fraud were laundered. He was previously involved in a number of other tax-refund frauds, and in 2006 was convicted of a $1.6 billion fraud relating to the attempted theft of shares from Mikhailovsky GOK, a Russian iron ore company. Mr Klyuev also travelled to the United Kingdom at least five times in 2008. As I have said, all these names are on the record in Russia and on Capitol hill in Washington.
The following Government officials also played a role in the tax fraud that Magnitsky uncovered, his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, the persecution of Hermitage lawyers and executives, Magnitsky’s continued detention, the denial of medical care, torture, the denial of fair hearings, and finally his death in custody and the subsequent cover up: from the courts service, Judge Yelena Stashina, Judge Alexei Krivoruchko, Olga Egorova; from the Interior Ministry, Mr Oleg Silchenko, Oleg Urzhumtsev, Alexei Anichin, Oleg Logunov, Boris Kibis, General Major Tatiana Gerasimova; from the FSB—the Russian secret service and the successor to the KGB—Mr Viktor Voronin; from the tax offices, Olga Stepanova and Elena Khimina; from the prison services, Dmitri Komnov, Fikhet Tagiev and Yuri Kalinin; and from the General Prosecutor’s Office, Andrey Pechegin.
I ask the Minister to agree that those people should now be banned from entering the UK and their names circulated via Interpol and Europol. We need to sharpen up our diplomatic tools by declaring that the functionaries linked to Magnitsky’s death are unwelcome as visitors in Britain, thus copying what the US State Department has done under pressure from the US Congress.
The hon. Gentleman and I are probably about to say exactly the same thing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is not much point in just banning these people secretly behind closed doors? It is important that we say publicly that they are not welcome in this country.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that in addition to highlighting the tragic case before us, it is time for a British equivalent of the US Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would hold to account more generically foreign officials responsible for grotesque human rights abuses, through travel bans and asset freezes, and also that, as in the US, this a matter not just for the Executive, but for Members of this House and for Parliament?
I would support that. Perhaps some right hon. and hon. Members present might combine to ask the Backbench Business Committee for a longer debate, which might allow a slight pause for breath and more development of some of these themes. In particular, it would show the Russian authorities that this is a cross-party affair, with support from a considerable number of Members of both Houses.
Poland and, I believe, the Netherlands have done so as well, but the addition of Canada, which is a great beacon of democracy and a Commonwealth country, is most welcome.
Yes, I believe that we should be doing what has been set out. We should not need to have a debate, because I hope that when the Minister replies, he will tell us that he fully accepts that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will put a statement, a note, in the Library tomorrow, with those names on it, saying that they are not welcome in the UK, and will pass the names on to Europol and Interpol. So far, the FCO has resisted that idea and has constantly sought to downplay the Magnitsky affair. The FCO position or, more accurately, the Whitehall position has been to shelter behind Russian bureaucracy.
On 15 November 2011, the Minister for Immigration finally replied to a letter that I sent him in August on the idea of a visa ban. That was a very discourteous gap between my letter and his reply. He wrote:
“The Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights presented to President Medvedev its report on Mr Magnitsky’s arrest and treatment”
“Minister of the Interior has announced that its own internal investigation has not found any evidence of abuses by their officials”.
Well, that is a surprise—a bureaucracy defends its own people. Nevertheless,
“the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation chaired by Alexander Bastrykin”
would report by 24 November. To my knowledge, no such report was issued, and it is time for the FCO and Home Office to stop parroting Russian excuses for inaction and instead to follow the example of the United States, Canada and Poland and make it clear that those who stole the money that Magnitsky was investigating and then colluded in his death should not be given a permanent status of impunity by Whitehall fiat.
In an earlier reply to a parliamentary question from me on 13 July 2011, the Minister for Immigration—I welcome the Under-Secretary from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but this is as much a matter for the Home Office as it is for the FCO—confirmed the following:
“The Secretary of State for the Home Department…does have the power to exclude foreign nationals whose presence in the UK she judges would not be conducive to the public good”,
but he added that
“the duty of confidentiality means that the Government are unable to discuss the details of individual immigration cases.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 398W.]
I am sorry, but that will not do and it is not true. Her Majesty’s Government have regularly published the names of those to whom they deny visa entry. They include or included the TV cook Martha Stewart, the actor George Raft, the Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard and even a Nobel laureate, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote:
“Death is the stone into which our oblivion hardens.”
It is the wish of the Russian authorities that Magnitsky’s death hardens into oblivion, but as another great writer who lived under communism, Milan Kundera, wrote:
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Let us not hear from the Minister today that the Government cannot publish the names of the people whom they ban. We should not allow Magnitsky to be forgotten. If the Home Office can publicly ban a cook, an actor, a loopy and a poet, surely it can ban those Russian officials named as associates in this massive theft, then the arrest and ill- treatment to the point of death of a lawyer representing a British citizen and his company.
Modern Russian apparatchiks like to visit, buy flats in and educate their children in London. If we name and shame and announce that they will lose those privileges if they break the law and allow a lawyer representing a British firm to die in agony for having defended his client’s interest, diplomatic pressure will be focused and sharp and will send a clear state-to-state signal that Russia cannot live above the law.
This is not just about Russia, however. We need to find ways of sending signals to mid-level officials in other authoritarian regimes that when they break the law, the doors of Britain are not easily open to them. A new approach is required to create a new tool of democratic diplomacy—namely, the precisely targeted travel ban that is made public so that all law-abiding state officials in Russia and elsewhere can see that corruption and collusion in murder are no longer crimes without sanction. That is what more and more decent Russian citizens want.
A further signal could be sent. Just as Mr Putin is not welcome on the streets of Moscow today, Britain should say that he is not welcome at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. In 1980, Mrs Thatcher had the guts to say no to a formal British endorsement of the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the Prime Minister wants to emulate the Iron Lady, he should say no to Mr Putin, who will use the London Olympics and the winter Olympics in two years’ time as events for self-promotion.
Of the 20 years since the end of communism, Russia spent the first decade being plundered by oligarchs and the second decade being robbed by state functionaries up to the highest level. It is time that Russia became a normal rule-of-law nation and its tax collectors levied taxes for the good of the people, not their own offshore bank accounts.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on securing this very important debate. The high-profile case of Sergei Magnitsky is of serious concern to Her Majesty’s Government and one in which there is a clear need for Russia to act. As the right hon. Gentleman made clear, Mr Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, went into pre-trial detention and died in state custody nearly a year later. Before his arrest, he had been working to uncover an alleged tax fraud against the Russian state by certain Russian law enforcement officials, a number of whom are alleged to have been involved in the investigation and detention of Mr Magnitsky.
In July 2011, the Russian presidential council on human rights published a report that found that Mr Magnitsky had been denied medical treatment and had been beaten while in detention, which directly contributed to his death, yet no one has been held to account by the Russian authorities. It is deeply disappointing that the Russian investigative committee appears to have made little progress. The publication of its findings in relation to Magnitsky’s death was postponed a number of times during 2011. They are currently due to be issued on 24 January. It is vital that the Russian authorities complete a thorough and transparent investigation into his death without further delay, as the case has wider implications for the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening. Of course, it is disappointing that the Russian investigative committee has made so little progress. It is also very disappointing that its report has been postponed on three occasions, but we are putting on all the pressure that we can and understand that the report will be issued on 24 January. We will keep up the pressure and look forward to publication on that date.
On HMG action, we have made our concerns very clear to the Russian Government. I should like to point out to the right hon. Member for Rotherham that the Prime Minister discussed this case with the President during his visit to Moscow in September, when he also outlined the need for confidence in the rule of law in Russia. This case is an unfortunate reminder that Mr Magnitsky’s death in pre-trial detention is not an isolated incident in Russia: approximately 50 to 60 people die in pre-trial detention facilities annually.
Our embassy in Moscow is providing financial support to the important work of the Social Partnership Foundation—a human rights non-governmental organisation—to look at the underlying causes of such cases and to help prevent further cases occurring.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Government subjecting Russian officials allegedly implicated in Magnitsky’s death to punitive measures in the form of visa bans. He will be aware that the immigration rules enable us to refuse a visa where information on an individual’s character, conduct or associations makes entry into the UK undesirable. However, the UK has a long established global practice, which has been followed by all recent Governments, including the one of which he was a member, of not commenting routinely on individual cases.
The right hon. Gentleman named a number of individuals whom he says were involved in the case. The Home Office and I will look into the cases of those individuals and will write to the right hon. Gentleman in due course.
I hope the word “routinely” was important in that sentence. The Minister for Immigration has, on several occasions, done a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to me to say, “Look, these people aren’t going to be coming into the country.” Frankly, though, we need more than that. If the Minister was prepared to provide a list of people who would not be welcome in this country, that would be a significant step forward.
There is nothing routine about a murder closely connected with a British enterprise. Although Mr Magnitsky was not a British citizen, this case really is on a par with the Litvinenko murder. The reason why these things keep happening is well known: these people are crossing the Russian state. If the Russian state does not want to be seen as a gangster, surely it should stop killing journalists, lawyers and dissidents.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point in his own inimitable way. I would not want anyone to have the impression that I was describing this case as routine, because obviously it is not. What I said was that the Government have a policy of not commenting routinely on individual cases. Obviously, this is an incredibly serious case, and I take on board what he has said.
On visa action taken by other countries, we are aware of media reports that the US has imposed sanctions on implicated officials and added them to a visa application watch list. Although Bills have been introduced in the US Congress and some other countries’ Parliaments, such as in the Netherlands and Canada, and motions have been passed in support of visa bans against Russian officials allegedly implicated in Mr Magnitsky’s death, we are not aware that those states have taken such action.
What we ultimately want—as all Members will agree, I believe—is the Russian Government to take the initiative in ensuring that justice is achieved in this case and in putting in place measures to prevent further such cases occurring. To that end, we are urging the Russian Government to conduct a full and transparent investigation into Mr Magnitsky’s death, and we continue to raise the case at the highest levels.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he says about the action that the Foreign Office is taking and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) for raising the issue in the first place. This case is of the utmost importance. Will the Minister act in concert with his European colleagues, so that all the nations of the European Union can show their anger at the way in which this lawyer has been treated and at the abuse and violation of human rights in Russia today?
I will certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s strong comments are passed on to the Minister for Europe, so that he will speak to his European counterparts about this case at the next appropriate Council. He has already raised it with them, and similar action has been taken by other European countries. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman says, we will ensure that the case is raised again.
I should like to say a few words about the wider situation in Russia. The FCO’s annual human rights report makes it clear that we remain concerned about the rights afforded to Russian citizens and the strength of democracy. The Russian Government’s support for human rights often appears ambivalent. As President Medvedev has acknowledged, there is a pressing need to strengthen the rule of law in Russia. Legislative changes to reduce corruption represent a tentative step in the right direction. Reports of grave human rights abuses in the north Caucasus continue, and Russian human rights defenders and journalists remain at high risk. In some cases, though, we have seen some minor positive developments.
The state Duma parliamentary elections have been the key recent test of Russia’s democratic credentials. The conduct of those elections confirmed our concerns about human rights and democracy in Russia. Before the elections, NGOs and media organisations were routinely harassed. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe was permitted to observe the elections. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that they had been
“slanted in favour of the ruling party”.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said on 6 December, those conclusions underline the need for alleged electoral violations to be investigated rapidly and transparently and to ensure that all democratic institutions, including the media, civil society and opposition political groups, can operate freely in Russia.
I apologise for being slightly late. I very much appreciate this debate. Does the Minister acknowledge that it is not just the conduct of the elections but the whole functioning of democracy in Russia that prevents anyone who could challenge the system from getting nominated, never mind elected, as a presidential candidate? Will Her Majesty’s Government not make it clear that pluralism requires a much more open access to democracy than is currently available in Russia?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that strong point. In light of what he says, I can tell him that our wider work on human rights in Russia focuses on a number of key areas: democratic rights, including supporting free and fair elections, freedom of expression and freedom of the media; support for those seeking to resolve conflict in the north Caucasus; support for those seeking to increase monitoring, reporting and prosecution of human rights abuses; better support and protection for human rights defenders; support for those seeking a stronger rule of law with improved access to justice; and making progress towards greater equality and reduced discrimination.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. In early 2010, I visited Chechnya with Lord Judd to investigate the human rights situation. Will the Minister, in his discussions with Russian colleagues and his ministerial colleagues, impress upon the Russian Government that this is also an issue of security? It was clear from our trip to Chechnya that, without the proper upholding of human rights, the security situation and the terrorism issues faced there would not be resolved.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I agree with what she says, and we will ensure that that is taken up at the highest level.
In addition to the Magnitsky case, it is important that the Russian Government fully investigate the unresolved murders of journalists and human rights defenders. We remain concerned at the lack of progress in prosecuting those responsible for the 2009 murder of Natalya Estemirova. The murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya remains one of the most worrying cases of recent years. More than five years after her tragic death, the case still remains to be concluded. In October, Russian prosecutors announced new charges against suspects allegedly involved in organising her murder. The Prime Minister raised this case with President Medvedev during his recent visit to Moscow, calling on the Russian authorities to take further steps to bring all perpetrators to justice. There is a low success rate in investigating and prosecuting these crimes, thus perpetuating the perception of impunity, which undermines freedom of expression and human rights in Russia.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. He is eloquently making the case for the kind of legislation that the US wants to enact. He mentioned the Bill that has gone through Congress. It looks likely to become law and is unlikely to be vetoed by the President. Given the evidence that he has adduced here before us today, would he be open to that kind of Bill being introduced in the House of Commons?
If that Bill gets through Congress, we will certainly look at it very carefully. We will look at whether there are any appropriate lessons for this country, and we will consult parliamentary colleagues from all parts of the House. I cannot give any guarantees, but we need to watch very carefully to see whether the Bill becomes law in the US.
In conclusion, I hope that what I have covered today illustrates the Government’s concern and action, both on the wider issue of human rights in Russia and on the specific case of ensuring justice for Sergei Magnitsky. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said:
“Human rights are part of our national DNA and will be woven deeply into the decision-making processes of our foreign policy at every stage”.
That applies to our dealings with Russia as much as with any country. We will continue to engage Russia on human rights through bilateral contacts, including our annual human rights dialogue, which will take place in London this year—in the summer, we hope—as well as through multilateral channels, such as the EU, the UN and the Council of Europe.
I thank the right hon. Member for Rotherham for bringing Parliament’s attention to this issue and giving me the chance to explain the Government’s position. We will continue to push for the respect of human rights and the rule of law in Russia and achieving justice for Sergei Magnitsky.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Technology (Primary Schools)
I begin by apologising to the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), because they have had to listen twice in a week to my meanderings on the curriculum. I also apologise the people who have advised me on this debate and might be reading it in Hansard, because I have to confess that on this subject I am relatively untutored. However, I do speak with passion and enthusiasm, which might to some extent compensate for my lack of precise knowledge.
It is sometimes helpful to put things in an autobiographical context. I am the victim, as many people are, of the traditional British approach to design and technology. Like you, Dr McCrea, in primary school I did craft, the rationale for which was always slightly fuzzy, the practice somewhat varied, and the results certainly diverse. In my case, the only achievement of note that I can remember was a papier-mâché giraffe that my mother loyally put on the mantelpiece for a few years until, presumably, it toppled off. Then one went on to grammar school, and although some traditional craft skills were always put in one’s way in the early years, if one was considered to be relatively clever one went off and did Latin and Greek. Pupils continued with practical subjects only if, in some sense, they were not making the grade.
I was brought up in Kent, where there were three categories of school: grammar school for those people who passed the 11-plus; secondary modern schools for those who failed it; and technical schools for those who were somewhere in the middle. The theory was, essentially, that pupils did the hands-on, practical stuff if they were not academic, even if they were highly numerate. It was rather like the Confucian model of education that they had in China in centuries gone by, which had a disdain of things that had a technical aspect to them. Consequently, we ended up with the problem we are all familiar with, and about which I will not go into any depth, which is that we have a dearth of engineers in the country, a decline in manufacturing, and even a loss of some basic craftsmanship at many levels. That is not entirely due to the school system; it has something to do with how the workplace has reacted to apprenticeships and financial pressures. However, the school system certainly plays a part, and it differs markedly from the German one, in which there has been a better element of technical education for some time.
We have woken up to this mistake, but to some extent we still see technology as an escape route from serious academic study for the less able—something that is bolted on to or plugged into the curriculum as we get towards the school-leaving years. There are very adverse consequences of that line of thought. Fundamentally, we fail to recognise that human intelligence is very diverse, and that people have enormous undiscovered potential. Even people who have been academically very successful—those who, in the schools’ terms, are successes—have latent abilities that they have not had the chance to explore. We deprive children, including the academically able, of the challenge that technology presents, and to some extent we allow the academically able to consider it not a failure to be bad at technical matters. There are people, certainly of my acquaintance, who would be appalled at some minor slip of grammar, but who openly own up to not being able to put on a plug or do anything of practical utility at all.
More contentiously—this is the more difficult bit of what I want to say—we alienate some children, particularly some boys, from the education process, or if we do not alienate them we do not adequately engage them. I was reading recently the biography of Steve Jobs, who was a disruptive and singularly uninspired pupil in the early years of his education.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important matter. I want to make a point about aspiration, and about inspiring boys and girls. It comes down to the fact that the curriculum provides the opportunity under aspects of science for the creative teaching of design and technology. For example, Byron primary school in my constituency was the winner of the 2007 design and technology competition for schools. It built go-karts, with the help of BAE Systems, and raced them competitively—so there was competitiveness in there, and working with outside technology departments as well. It all came down to having excellent teachers and to using the curriculum to provide creativity. That is a clear example of how the curriculum can provide opportunities, if they are taken to a greater extent, to inspire people in technology. Byron school has excellent teachers, including the head, Jim Fernie.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention, because there is a need to pay tribute to the awful lot of very good practice in this area. I have been inundated with exemplars of schools that have done astounding things under the banner of design and technology.
The point I wanted to make with my reference to Steve Jobs was that technology can be a catalyst in a child’s education, in the early years. In pre-school education, that should be a fairly familiar concept to us, because we recognise that as well as introducing little children to books to encourage their development, there is also a need to introduce them to constructive toys and toys out of which they can make constructs. Technology, almost from the word go, plays an appreciable part in a child’s general cerebral and educational development.
A point that eluded me before I started looking further into the subject—a point that is not particularly well understood—is that technology is a catalyst. It not only gets people into technology, but gets them comfortable with areas of education with which they had previously not been comfortable—mathematics and literacy, for example—because the design elements of the design and technology curriculum have a real drive on presentational as well as constructive skills. Many additional gains, aside from pure technological ability, are driven by good design and technology education. There are many excellent examples of that, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti).
It is not my supposition that every child will be technically gifted in the same technologies. There is a huge diversity of potential and of things to be good at, which is why we want the curriculum to be as varied and imaginative as possible. I do not think that that is disputed; there is wholesale agreement right across the board that that is a worthy ambition—one that I think the Minister would be perfectly happy to own and espouse.
The difficult thing is the technical question. Although we can all agree that fulfilling every child’s potential and stimulating their talents is a laudable ambition, there is an interesting debate about how to do that, and what the Government and the forthcoming curriculum review can do to encourage it. There is excellence in technical education, but it is fair to say that although there is a constant stream of improvement in both primary and secondary schools, there is also some patchy performance. Errors can be made. If we look at information and communications technology teaching, which the Secretary of State touched on today, we see that quite a few significant errors have been made in how ICT is used in the classroom. I will return to that in a minute or two.
We must also acknowledge that, however good design and technology might be, there are other equally good things, such as numeracy, literacy, imagination, music and all sorts of other things, that the Government wish to encourage and schools wish to incorporate in their curriculum. A further dimension to the problem is that even if we have the most laudable ambitions, we still need a work force who are trained to implement them effectively. Of course, the poor old primary school teacher is meant to be a jack of all trades and to be equally good at an astounding number of things, which is a tough call.
In passing, looking at the wider implications, some of the greatest successes in technical development often take place outside the school curriculum, rather than in the classroom. Reading about the development of the IT industry in California, we find that boys leaving school and going off to things such as the Homebrew Computer Club—Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among them—made significant developments that ultimately had spin-offs for the whole culture of California. That was not necessarily in the curriculum, and it could not necessarily have been easily incorporated.
The design and technology sector has genuine fears of the educational world. The principal fear is that, in slimming down the curriculum, technology may suffer. In other words, if we reduce the demands of the national curriculum in total, which most people would support, technology may drop out or be put on the back burner. Some people argue that the absence of a standard assessment test or rigorous measurement will not do much to improve the overall quality of the subject. There are complementary and opposed fears that heavy-handed state intervention or diktat will have perverse effects, particularly if, as we all believe, design and technology is a blend of both technical skills and genuine creativity.
There are certain dilemmas involved in ensuring that present good practice is further built on and developed. Ofsted has recorded significant progress in recent years, but I worry that that might be lost in curriculum revisions simply because it is not fully assessed or seen to be assessed.
I turn to two other connected issues. One is the speech by the Secretary of State today on the state of the ICT curriculum. I entirely echo his sentiments. In a Guardian article I wrote after tabling an early-day motion, I said:
“we will end up with second-rate education for pupils, who will have no understanding about how IT is developed or is likely to progress. The future of IT in business in the UK is not going to be just about using PowerPoint presentations.”
“become innovators of software, rather than people who just punch data into keyboards.”
That article was published in 2007, so I like to think that I am five years ahead of my time.
The picture that my hon. Friend paints is an accurate and grim one. There are 100,000 IT vacancies in this country at the moment, and the people are not there to fill those posts, because the number of people taking computer science courses at university has halved since the year 2000, and the number of drop-outs has risen. That is because the basic science in schools is not being taught, which is why I think the Secretary of State’s speech today is timely, if not long overdue, as my hon. Friend would say.
I certainly subscribe to the general view that a crash-course in Boolean algebra is probably more useful to the future of IT in this country than learning how to use Word or any other Microsoft product, but the insistence that ICT and technology education are about using applications shows how sometimes, when the state or organisations associated with it weigh in, they can get things wrong.
A lot of what we have is in part, although not entirely, a consequence of distinctly poor procurement, encouraged by the defunct Becta—Bringing Educational Creativity to All—which the Secretary of State had the wisdom to abolish. There are lessons to be learned. I genuinely think that when we intervene to advise schools, we must accept that schools, from their own practice, might wish, for good reasons, to be diverse and different, rather than aligning themselves with some common curriculum idea that could perish as rapidly as it emerged.
The second issue is a little contentious as well. Part of what I wanted to say today and might not have expressed adequately involves gender. I suggest, tentatively, that boys in general might benefit a little more than girls from good technical education. That might play some part in addressing the problem of children leaving schools without any qualifications, a disproportionate number of whom are boys.
In saying that, I accept that girls are and can be excellent technologists, and that technology is much more varied than the sorts of thing that boys first fixate on. I accept that gender is a spectrum and that boys and girls are all different. I also accept that the Department for Education has invested in efforts to prove that I am speaking nonsense, and that what I say can be both challenged and refuted. I have studied the Department for Education’s website, which has some excellent documents, largely written by female members of staff, suggesting that much of what I will go on to say is mythology, and that in fact boys and girls approach the curriculum in broadly similar ways. The similarities are far more important and prevalent than the differences, but I am not convinced by the argument that there are no differences. Although some views can be challenged, they are not necessarily refuted.
It is a basic biological fact that male and female brains are structurally different—males and females are, obviously, hormonally different as well—and that, irrespective of social conditioning, the two behave quite differently. That can be evidenced not only by anecdote, but by the performance of girls at any linguistic task; their abilities are far in excess of the abilities of boys, both in the UK and elsewhere. We have to recognise that and ask ourselves whether technology, if properly construed, might do something to balance out the attainment levels of the sexes in that respect. I make that proposal in the knowledge that, to some extent, it is controversial, but I think that it would benefit from some examination.
The essential problem remains that if we want design and technology to be embodied adequately in the curriculum, as we do, and if we genuinely want to spread good practice as best we can, how will we do it within a narrowing curriculum, and in an environment where teachers face a variety of demands? Moreover, how will we do it at a stage at which it is immediately relevant to children? My supposition is that some children who attend primary school, and who are not naturally bookish or who do not come from bookish homes, may find it difficult at times to engage with what they are offered and therefore detach themselves from the curriculum. That will eventually lead to poor attainment and to them being transferred to secondary school as underperformers. Giving them a series of other activities simply because they are not very good at what the school has to offer is less likely to be successful than finding out at an early stage where their talents lie and giving them an opportunity to explore them through design and technology. I believe that that opportunity exists, and we have to capitalise on it.
I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response, particularly on how he sees D and T fitting into the curriculum and its revision, as planned.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate and on his interesting opening speech. He need not apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) or me for a second contribution on educational matters—these are important issues and it is always a pleasure to hear what he has to say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southport is right to say—we need to reiterate this—that design and technology is absolutely not just an alternative for those young people who are not academically inclined; it is an important subject in its own right. Indeed, the expert panel that we appointed to look into evidence from around the world for our national curriculum review recommended in the report that we published before Christmas that design and technology should become a basic curriculum subject, with greater freedom for schools to teach what they want, free from the constrictions of a programme of study, to encourage innovation and an individual approach. The national curriculum review will consider that before providing final recommendations to the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend has strong views about the importance of technology in primary schools and schools in general, and has voiced his concerns about the risk that too rigid a policy on the provision of technology to schools can stifle the very innovation that we all seek. Of course, technology can never supplant good teaching, but the effective use of digital technology can support good teaching and help raise standards in schools. We need to support the effective and innovative use of technology in schools, with good practice being developed and shared between them. That means not only exposing children to technology and encouraging them to feel comfortable with it, but promoting technology as a useful tool in itself and as a means to help develop general teaching in schools.
We do not seek to micro-manage the application of technology. As we stressed in the schools White Paper, it is for individual schools to identify their own needs and to address them as they think best. We need to encourage and enable teachers to take better advantage of the great opportunities presented by the burgeoning range of digital technologies, and to use them to improve their teaching and efficiency.
As my hon. Friend has said, the Secretary of State emphasised the fact that technology is a priority in his speech to the Schools Network conference last month and at the BETT technology show this morning. Like me, he wants to encourage the innovative use of technology both within and beyond the classroom. We need to equip our pupils with the technical skills and the knowledge to meet the needs of the 21st-century workplace.
This country has an exemplary record on the use of technology in schools. There is on average one computer for every seven primary school pupils, and one for every three in secondary schools. Primary schools spend an average of £12,400 each year on information and communications technology, and an additional sum of almost £1,500 on software and content. No one should doubt the importance that we attach to the use of technology to support our teachers.
I recognise that some will fear that the passing of Becta, to which my hon. Friend referred, has left a gap in the provision to schools of specialist advice on technology. We are in a period of transition, but this should be seen as an opportunity for the commercial sector and professional organisations to adapt their services to fill that gap.
My hon. Friend has spoken about the curriculum. We are in the process of reviewing both the national curriculum and the suite of qualifications. I think that we all agree that the current ICT curriculum, to which he has referred, is in need of an overhaul. It is outdated and needs to be reformed. We see the teaching of technology-related knowledge and skills as an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum that schools offer their pupils, but it is also our belief that, in a fast-moving and continuously evolving area such as ICT and technology in general, central Government are not necessarily best placed to define the knowledge that pupils need to acquire. As my hon. Friend has said of the early career of Bill Gates, he did not learn the skills that he used to build the Microsoft empire from technology lessons at school. He had a general, good education and he used it to develop his own work in understanding computers and software.
I have been fortunate over the past few months to meet representatives of those who work in the industry, particularly the ICT industry, who are concerned about the lack of a rigorous foundation in programming and the consequences of that for the wider economy. They are persuasive advocates and their detailed submissions to the national curriculum review have been very welcome.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the Secretary of State addressed the BETT technology show and took the opportunity to announce that the Department for Education will shortly open a consultation on the withdrawal of the existing national curriculum programmes of study for ICT from September this year. This is an interim measure that is intended to give schools more flexibility to develop their own programmes of study to meet the needs of their pupils more effectively. This move may have come as a surprise to many people, and we recognise that we are taking a wholly new approach.
I am grateful to the Minister. I, too, have met, in recent months, representatives who have made an impressive case. Can he explain—because I do not know the answer—why, until last year, there was not a single computer science GCSE? All we had were programmes of study and qualifications in, as he has said, operating programmes. The actual educational material was not in the courses. Why was that? How did we get into that position, and how will we make sure that we will not allow such things to happen in future?
My hon. Friend is right and that situation undermines the status of ICT. We have seen that in the GCSE figures. In 2000-01, something like 95,200 people took the GCSE in ICT, and last year that figure went down to 31,800, so something has gone very wrong with the content of the specification in ICT GCSE and in the programmes of study that were in recent reviews and that have led to this problem. There is a widespread belief that the existing programmes of study for the subject lack ambition, and that they serve to inhibit schools from engaging with innovative and inspiring ICT initiatives. We have heard that from so many sources—from teachers and pupils, from industry and, indeed, from my hon. Friend just now.
Some of the biggest names in the computer-related industries have told us that, in its current form, ICT is turning pupils away. That, in turn, is hampering the development of more relevant ICT-related GCSEs, with a focus on the more rigorous disciplines of computer science programming. That has had disastrous consequences for our digital industries, which face ever-increasing competition from emerging economies all around the world.
Eben Upton, a computer science academic at Cambridge university, was reported in yesterday’s Guardian as saying of applicants for degree courses whom he was interviewing:
“None of them seemed to know enough about what a computer really was or how it worked…Children were learning about applications, which are pretty low-value skills. They weren’t being properly equipped to think about how computers are programmed…Computing wasn’t being seen as the exciting, vibrant subject it should be at school—it had become lack-lustre and even boring.”
Our proposed change to the ICT curriculum will offer a chance for the subject to be rejuvenated, freeing teachers to explore and innovate, and hopefully to inspire a new wave of pupils to pursue computing and ICT. We need highly-skilled programmers if we are going to continue to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s markets, which will be increasingly dependent on, and driven by, the new digital technologies.
That is why the Secretary of State made the announcement that he did this morning. Pending the outcome of the national curriculum review, ICT will remain compulsory at all key stages in schools and it will be taught at each stage of the curriculum. The existing programmes of study will no longer be compulsory, but they will still be readily available for reference purposes on the web, although no school in England will be required to follow them. Subject to the consultation, from September this year, all schools will be able to use whatever resources they choose to teach the subject, and there is a wide range of excellent materials to choose from. I know that industry and specialist organisations, such as the British Computer Society, e-skills UK and Naace are already working on an alternative ICT and computing curriculum.
The worry is that we will go from one phase of prescription to another phase of prescription. We will not get back the days when young men came in and programmed BBC Micros on BASIC and such things, and got very excited about it. Technology is changing enormously. Years ago, if someone in the computer industry was asked about the key skill required, they would have said, “Keyboard skills,” yet touch-screens and so on will make those very skills obsolete. The model that the Minister is suggesting, which involves not only advice from above but interaction from below, is probably the right way forward.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the radical notion of removing the programme of studies. As the Secretary of State said this morning:
“Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11 year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch”—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).