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Westminster Hall

Volume 564: debated on Wednesday 12 June 2013

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 12 June 2013

[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

Rakhine and Kachin State (Human Rights)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Randall.)

It is a privilege to open this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. The issues of human rights, equality and justice, and the plight of the persecuted people of Burma, are potent for Members of both Houses and have caused considerable concern to a number of my constituents in Bolton South East who have family and relatives living in Burma. Indeed, a number of them formed a small campaign group called the Burma Action group, which has organised two peaceful vigils in Bolton town centre. I thank both that group for its hard work in raising awareness of human rights abuses in Burma and the London-based charity, Burma Campaign, for its excellent work. I acknowledge and pay tribute to Members who have worked hard to raise the awareness of some of the issues, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).

The Foreign Secretary once said that the Government of Burma must be judged by their actions and not their words, yet over the past 18 months the UK Government have reversed a decade-long policy of prioritising human rights in Burma and supported the lifting of all European sanctions on the country despite the fact that none of the human rights benchmarks of the European Union has been met. Even The Daily Telegraph described that decision as “deeply embarrassing”. Undoubtedly, there have been some changes in Burma over the past two years, but still more need to be encouraged. However, the policy must be carefully calibrated, taking into account the wide disparity between words and action. Burma still has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Since Thein Sein became president, human rights abuses, which violate international law, have increased.

In June 2011, the Burmese army in Kachin state broke a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation, and for the past two years it has pursued a brutal war against the Kachin people, targeting civilians and violating international law. The United Nations special rapporteur has documented widespread abuses, which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Rape and gang rape, torture, executions, arson, mortar bombing of civilian villages, beatings and the use of child soldiers are commonplace. The UN Human Rights Council resolution on Burma, passed in March 2013, highlighted serious human rights abuses that violate international law, including arbitrary detention, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as other violations of international humanitarian law. None the less, the Government of Burma still deny that human rights abuses have taken place, and when asked about the abuses in a recent interview, Lieutenant General Myint Soe said:

“Don’t believe everything you hear.”

Perhaps one of the most disturbing elements of the conflict in Kachin has been the widespread use of rape by the Burmese army. It is reported that more than half the women raped or gang raped by soldiers were also tortured, mutilated and killed. Perhaps the Minister could explain why, in the G8 summit, the Prime Minister decided to leave Burma out of the preventing sexual violence initiative? I would have thought that highlighting the increased use of rape by the Burmese army was of more importance than promoting an inaccurate positive image of Burma, which is what we have seen in recent months. I urge the Minister to press the Burmese Government to enter proper political dialogue on Kachin state to ensure that they address the root causes of the violence instead of constantly delaying such talks.

In Rakhine state—or what is now known as Ankhar state—we see the heartbreaking plight of the Rohingya people, described by the UN as the

“most persecuted group in the world”.

They are a little publicised Muslim people, who are historically located in the coastal Rakhine state, dating their ethnic lineage in the region over centuries. When the military junta under General Ne Win, an ethnic Burmese, came to power in 1962, it implemented a policy of “Burmanisation”, which was based on a nationalist ideology of racial purity. It was a crude attempt to bolster the majority Burmese ethnic identity and to strip the Rohingya of any legitimacy. The Rohingya were declared foreigners in their own native land and labelled illegal Bengali immigrants. By stripping them of citizenship and denying them citizenship, the Government institutionalised discriminatory practices in Rakhine state.

The Rohingya have no rights to own land or property and are unable to travel outside their villages, repair their decaying places of worship, receive education, or even marry and have children without rarely granted Government permission. Although I am sure that hon. Members will recall the events of last summer, I will none the less run through them quickly. In June 2012, deadly violence erupted between the Buddhist Rakhine community and the Rohingya Muslims. Human Rights Watch, a respected and independent international body, reported that state security forces failed to intervene to stop the violence or protect civilians, and in some cases they directly participated. Rather than defuse the situation, President Thein Sein was highly provocative. He called for the “illegal” Rohingya to be sent to a third country. Since most Rohingya, even those whose families have resided in Burma for generations, lack formal legal status, his language implied that the great majority of Burma’s Rohingya did not belong in the country. His comments were eagerly seized on by those who favour the expulsion of all Rohingya from Burma.

In a recent Human Rights Watch report, a copy of which I have with me, it is documented that the violence that resumed in October was a co-ordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing that sought to remove or relocate the state’s Muslim population. The October attacks were organised and carried out by local Rakhine political party officials, Buddhist monks and ordinary Rakhines, often directly supported by state security forces.

The report says that Rohingya men, women and children were killed; some of them were secretly buried in mass graves, and their villages and neighbourhoods were razed. In the months since the violence, the Burmese Government have done little to investigate the killings and abuses or to hold people to account for such crimes.

Along with their complicity in crimes against humanity, the Burmese Government have contributed to the severe humanitarian crisis facing the displaced Rohingya and other Muslim communities. More than 125,000 people are now living in internally displaced persons camps in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, yet the Government have consistently obstructed the delivery of aid to them. The camps are overcrowded and lack adequate food, shelter, water and sanitation, as well as medical care. Unless there is a dramatic improvement in conditions in the camps, including unfettered access for international humanitarian organisations, the situation will almost certainly deteriorate further, especially with the coming monsoon season.

We are faced with considerable evidence of crimes against humanity; ethnic cleansing; mass graves; and the obstruction of humanitarian aid to displaced communities. Those claims should not be taken lightly. There has been a tendency to describe the violence in Rakhine state as communal and a reflection of deep-seated hatred between communities on the ground. However, the findings in the Human Rights Watch report tell a very different story—of extensive state involvement, and planned killings and destruction of property, as well as the forced displacement of a population.

Only last month, the Foreign Secretary congratulated the Burmese Government on their role in leading “remarkable changes” in the country. That upbeat assessment was premature, just as the EU was premature in its haste to lift economic sanctions on Burma. Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected non-governmental organisation, has carried out more work and it has found that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed, and that Government forces were involved.

There are some questions that we naturally ask. Why have no steps been taken to hold to account for their actions those who are responsible for organising the violence? It is easy to call on the Burmese Government to investigate themselves when we are fully aware that they will not do so. The Burmese Government-organised Rakhine commission, which was set up to investigate the violence, did not even consider any issues relating to who was responsible.

There needs to be an international investigation into the violence. I urge the Minister to support the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry to examine the allegations of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. After all, we worked with the rest of the international community to set up the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, precisely because there had been ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in those countries. I do not see why there should not be a similar inquiry in Burma; even if there is not a tribunal, at least in the first place there should be an independent inquiry led by the UN, which can investigate and deal with all the issues that have arisen. Obviously it must be an impartial international investigation. Then we will know the truth, and we will be able to hold to account the people responsible. Of course, such an investigation may also provide useful information and act as the basis for future reconciliation.

The Rohingya people have no place on earth to call home; they are a stateless people. The Burmese Government should face international pressure to repeal the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law. All the Rohingya people want is reinstatement of their citizenship in their own land, and the dignity, human rights and opportunities that come with it. Human rights must be the single most defining test for the Burmese Government’s commitment to democratic change and the rule of law. It is a test that they are failing.

I sincerely ask our Government to push for an independent inquiry into what is going on in Burma, because the evidence is clear. These are not just communal riots because different communities do not get on with each other. Since the 1960s, there has been a deliberate policy of effectively trying to drive out people who are not ethnic Burmese Buddhist.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate on a very important matter. Does she agree that, on occasions such as this, it is international pressure and the embarrassment and shame of the individual Government responsible for many of the actions that will bring the necessary change, and that we all have a part to play in applying pressure and bringing embarrassment and eventually shame to the Government responsible?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. That is why we are asking other Governments to put pressure on the Burmese Government. There have been suggestions that we are almost in haste to have negotiations and win contracts with the Burmese, to increase financial gains or financial stability. That is all very well, but the human rights issue is paramount, and the Burmese Government must be told that what they are doing is wrong.

As I was saying, the issue is not just that different communities are not getting on with each other, as it has been described. Those who have studied the history of Burma, particularly what has been going on since the 1960s, know that there is a deliberate, calculated policy effectively to get rid of people in Burma who are not ethnically Burmese Buddhist. In Kachin state, which I have talked about, most of the people who are persecuted are, in fact, Christians; they are treated badly. The Rohingya people are Muslims. In another state, the Karen people are treated just as badly because they happen to be neither Christian, Burmese Buddhist nor Muslim. It seems that there is a pattern. There is not just one group the Burmese Government are against; there is a very sinister and deep underlying issue. The motive behind most of these actions is to get rid of other communities and other religions in Burma, not only to leave the Burmese Buddhist community as the main community but perhaps to keep Burma almost ethnically pure Burmese and Buddhist.

That is why the state has been completely complicit, as has the army. Yes, Burma held elections last year, which we thought would bring progress, but everybody knows that all that happened was that most of the generals took off their uniforms and got into civilian clothes, and the majority of the people who are involved in Parliament are military people. There is still very much a military dictatorship in every form. The situation should not be seen as conflict between communities who are not getting on; a much worse and far more sinister agenda is being pursued by those in power at the moment in Burma.

In the past, other Governments have gone into various parts of the world on the basis that there were human rights violations. I am not for one minute suggesting a military intervention, but there should be robust sanctions and a robust programme against what the Burmese Government are doing. They should be held to account.

At the G8 summit that is taking place, rape will be looked at in different countries. Burma has been omitted from those countries, yet Burma is the place where most rapes are taking place. As the Minister may be aware, many years ago an international case held that rape is, in fact, a form of genocide, because the idea of carrying out rape—not to get graphic—is effectively to ensure that the women of the population being attacked are impregnated by members of other ethnic groups, and therefore rape is effectively about trying to get rid of that particular generation. There is a high level of rape in Burma, and it is an indicator of what I described earlier, which was not scaremongering or exaggeration; it seems to be part of a ploy to make Burma a Buddhist Burmese country. Surely that cannot be right, when there have been communities made up of different ethnic or religious groups living in Burma for hundreds of years.

I thank the Minister for listening to my speech, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will be able to take this matter further.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am pleased to take part in this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing it. This is the most recent in a series of debates, each of which has shown that hon. Members are passionately committed to seeing Burma emerge as a successful, flourishing country with a mature and maturing society at peace with itself. Unfortunately, although a lot of progress has been made, that is not the case at the moment.

I am also here because, like the hon. Lady, I have been approached by constituents concerned about the human rights situation in Burma—not exclusively the matters on the Order Paper today. As the hon. Lady rightly said, conflicts in various parts of Burma involve all the minority groups in the country, including minority religious groups such as Christian and Muslim groups as well as animist groups and those from other marginal religions, and they seem to involve just about any group that does not have some claim to what might be described as pure Burmese heritage or lineage. That cannot be right. The persecution of religious and racial minorities—of those who have been excluded from citizenship—is what this debate is about and what I want to spend a few minutes talking about.

It would be wrong not to recognise that there has been progress, as shown by the 42 by-elections last year that resulted, for the first time, in Opposition Members being elected to Parliament. We need to recognise that the restoration of some stability in the country has led to rapid economic growth, the rate of which the Library briefing states was estimated at 6.5% last year. Let us face it: that is something we cannot match in this country. There are plans for fair and free elections in 2015. Those are all things that we ought to celebrate and encourage and not in any way undermine.

The reality is also that Burma is the poorest country in south-east Asia; it is a by-word for poverty and under-investment and, as the hon. Lady passionately pointed out, for discrimination as well. I support exactly what the hon. Lady said—that discrimination is not casual and not accidental; it is clearly orchestrated and state-sanctioned, or at least the state allows things to proceed with complete impunity. Reports of destruction of mosques and homes, and attacks on individuals, with the police and security forces standing by and simply allowing it to happen, illustrate that point.

I do not want us to be blind to our own history, either. There is a tendency for us—perhaps particularly in England, but certainly in western countries—to imagine that we have lived for the past 1,000 years in countries with secure human rights, where these things could never have happened, and we seek to export that to other people. I remind hon. Members that 200 years ago I would not have been permitted to be in this House, because I am not a member of the Church of England.

So we have history ourselves. Even 70 years ago, we had a somewhat flaky history about what to do about the Jews—the internment of Jews who came from Germany, for example, is not necessarily something that we would want to celebrate. The idea of universal human rights is politically contested, even now, within this building. We sometimes need to stand in other people’s shoes.

Burma is having to catch up with 200 years of our history and our developing understanding of what it means to have a civilised, mature democracy. It is only to be expected that that will be a difficult and sometimes painful process.

Although the right hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge the time it took us to achieve the standards that we hope other countries will achieve, would he not agree that now our role and that of the EU, in engaging with Burma, is to apply our influence to ensure that history does not repeat itself and that people in Burma who are being persecuted do not have to wait hundreds of years before they have the kinds of rights that he enjoys now, and which his forefathers should have had?

The hon. Lady, for whom I have a lot of time, could have been reading the next paragraph of my speech, so I have to agree with her. Indeed, our own history should give us the determination to help and support other countries and ensure that they do not have to spend 200 years getting to where we have got.

I give credit to the work that successive Governments have done, particularly in the past three years, in making this country the biggest aid donor to Burma at the moment. That gives us a significant role and voice in respect of Burma’s future and how it should develop. A contribution of some £1 million was made last year towards improving governance and civic society in Burma, and humanitarian help was in the order of £2 million or £3 million. That means that it must be right for us to engage strongly, as a country, as well as through EU and UN institutions, with the Burmese authorities to ensure that our voice, and our learning, can be shared with them.

Of course, the humanitarian aid and support is going in not simply because there are poor people and a harsh climate in Burma, but because of the purges and the cleansing that the hon. Member for Bolton South East outlined so well. That is part of a bigger pattern, as she also said. It is to be welcomed that the military forces have signed some kind of ceasefire in 12 out of the 14 different conflicts that had been going on in Burma, but those remain fragile and do not in any way seem to represent the military power structure’s accepting the legitimacy of alternative views and alternative religious persuasions, let alone alternative ethnicities as having legitimacy inside the country. We can welcome the fact that there is less conflict in some parts of Burma, but we also need to recognise that that does not mean that the underlying problems have been confronted and resolved.

I think—perhaps the Minister will comment on this—that there is a certain amount of game-playing by the military authorities in Burma. They gave in to international pressure, and pressure from their own citizens, to go through at least the appearance of sharing power and drawing in the Opposition, but, as the hon. Lady said, the current President is a general, but not with his uniform on.

Some of the macho posturing that we have seen in conflicts inside Burma comes in the category of flexing muscles and demonstrating the role and strength—and perhaps the necessity, as the military authorities would see it—of continued military participation in the governance of Burma. That is surely something we need to keep a close eye on, and I hope Britain will challenge it.

I notice, again from the papers prepared for the debate, that the UK was proud to boast that its military officials were the first foreign military officials to visit Burma since 1950 or some other early date. I can see the value of getting alongside the military forces in Burma and of demonstrating to Burmese military officials and leaders our forces’ values and their role in civic society, but I would be concerned if we were showing them how to be better at suppressing internal dissent. It would be interesting if the Minister commented on the role of our military mission and on the placing of a defence representative in the embassy in Burma.

At the moment, we are seeing a denial of citizenship and deliberate tactics to drive out minorities. That is all cloaked in a dangerous racial nationalism, which we in western Europe have, thankfully, utterly rejected. I hope the Minister will be forthright in saying that we are determined to help Burma to do the same and to reject utterly that nationalism, as it develops its state, which it very much needs to do. Perhaps we could start by simply saying that if a country denies people within its borders citizenship, that does not mean that it is entitled to deny them law, basic services and human rights. The right to life, the right to family life and the right to practise one’s religion are not dependent on citizenship, and it is a function of any state to ensure that those within its borders are free to worship and live as they wish.

Let me echo the words of the hon. Lady by saying that it is puzzling why Burma is not on the preventing sexual violence initiative list. I have seen some of the parliamentary answers on the issue. As somebody who was giving parliamentary answers himself until last September, I know how they are written and what lies behind them. There really is no good reason why we should not be saying that we want to put Burma on the list. It is an excellent initiative, which is capable of doing a lot of good. We should take real credit for initiating and promoting it, but there is a strange reluctance to apply it in this case.

The hon. Lady commented on the removal of sanctions. It is perhaps worth underlining that military sanctions remain in place, and rightly so. However, I would like to hear from the Minister whether consideration has been given to making the withdrawal of sanctions conditional on further positive developments. Sanctions have been lifted, but they could be reimposed, and the Burmese authorities need to be clear that that is a consideration.

The hon. Lady talked about the UK supporting a UN commission of inquiry, and there are established mechanisms for doing that. What is the Government’s view of how such an initiative might be proceeded with? If the Minister’s brief does not allow him to say that, will he at least tell us that the views of Members speaking in this debate will be taken back to the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister, to assist them in forming the view that they need to support that inquiry initiative as soon as possible?

I am not one of those Members who have been to Burma and seen it first hand; I have only newspaper reports and briefings. Some of those briefings have been eloquently put to me by constituents with first-hand, or at least immediate second-hand, knowledge of the country. There are real prospects for peace and development, and we celebrated that in this very building only 18 months ago. However, there are worrying and dangerous signs that the process is going off track, and I hope the Minister will reassure us that the Government are determined to help the Burmese authorities to get back on track, stay on track and deliver a peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Burma in due course.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this important debate. As she knows, I recently visited Rakhine state, courtesy of Refugees International and Burma Campaign UK. I had the opportunity to visit Rohingya, Kaman and Rakhine camps. I went because I wanted to see first hand the humanitarian challenges faced by those communities, and particularly by the Rohingya Muslims, whose situation I, like other hon. Members, want to highlight. Many constituents have come to me to raise concerns about what is happening in Burma and about the treatment of the Rohingya community, not to mention the many other minorities that form 40% of the Burmese population.

Since inter-communal violence erupted a year ago almost this month, Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state have been forced into segregated settlements and camps, and many have been cut off from life-saving aid. The humanitarian situation in Rakhine state is dire. Tens of thousands of people are still living in makeshift camps, where they lack food, water, sanitation, adequate shelter and access to health care.

The violence has caused not only massive internal displacement, but loss of life, livelihoods and property. Many have seen their homes and villages burned to the ground. I witnessed places where there was row after row of cut-down trees and nothing else. Such places used to be people’s homes, where Rohingya lived side by side with Rakhine neighbours. Muslim and Buddhist communities that had previously been able to live together, albeit not necessarily in full harmony, remain deeply divided, and the violence is spreading around the country. It is directed particularly against the 9% of Burma’s population that is Muslim. As the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said, Christian minorities are also likely to be affected.

During my visit, I met displaced Rohingya who were forced to flee to remote areas of the countryside completely unsuitable for displacement camps. I also saw informal camps, which were not registered, or allowed to be registered, by the UN, and which therefore had no access to humanitarian assistance. They had to rely on the good will of local people and Muslim charities, whose access to the camps is also extremely limited. Those camps need to be registered, but the UK Government and other Governments have been unable to get state authorities and the national Government to agree to register them. By any standards, these camps should be a high priority for registration and should be recognised as being desperately in need of help. They are adjacent to the registered camps.

One camp I visited, in Pauk Taw township, was accessible only by means of a two-hour boat journey. Non-governmental organisations had to bring drinking water in on boats, and primary health care was provided just one morning a week. The shores adjacent to the camp were covered in faeces, and dead rats floated in the water just metres from children who were bathing to keep cool in the scorching heat. Their home is a camp on a beach; I was there for only two hours, and that was long enough for me and the delegation I went with. I recommend that the Minister and his ministerial colleagues from the Department for International Development visit that camp. It is only when we see the desperate situation those children and families face that we can truly understand the plight of Burma’s internally displaced people.

Most of the shelters I saw were made of tarpaulins and rice bags, which cannot withstand even moderate rains. One Rohingya man told me that displaced people—particularly those living near the coast—were growing increasingly frightened of the rains. With the start of the rainy season there are serious concerns that flooding will exacerbate the humanitarian situation and increase the risk of waterborne diseases.

I visited a hospital that was set up with state assistance. A couple of charities were allowed to provide some additional funding, but the only people able to help there were untrained nurses. Doctors were not allowed in, even though international NGOs had offered to provide doctors. The only other place where people can get emergency care is the local Rakhine hospital, where there is a unit of 12 to 14 segregated beds for the whole population of 140,000 people. What I saw was shocking. A man was waiting for an operation. I did not see any sign of anaesthetics, and the hygiene was appalling, yet doctors could go in there if they were allowed access by the state and national Governments.

We need the British Government, and particularly the Foreign Office, to apply pressure on the state government and national Government to provide unfettered humanitarian access. There is no shortage of good will from international NGOs and foreign Governments or of willingness from UN agencies to provide help. The World Health Organisation needs to step up and apply pressure for access, so that emergency care can be brought to people. I heard stories of many people—particularly women—dying unnecessarily because of the lack of health care. That experience—observing hospitals turning people away in life-and-death situations because of their ethnicity and the fact that they are not recognised—echoed, to me, apartheid. I do not use that term lightly. Being forced into camps and not allowed out is the equivalent of being a prisoner in one’s own country.

Will the Minister reassure the House that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for International Development to help to improve the conditions I have talked about? Given that there are flood-prone areas, the need for shelter should be dealt with urgently. It is likely that the existing crisis will turn into a catastrophe if we do not act immediately.

The Burmese Government recently evacuated 120,000 people in Rakhine state, ahead of cyclone Mahasen. However, the lack of safe evacuation sites remains a key concern during the monsoon season. The Foreign Office has significant influence over the Burmese authorities, so in making representations, what pressure is it using, with DFID colleagues, for people to have the security to return voluntarily and safely to the places they came from, or places nearby? At the moment there is little hope that they will be able to return. Many people said to me that they had pretty good relationships with their neighbours. It was not those neighbours who caused the violence, but Buddhist extremists, who came and stirred up tension and conflict. Now, people are too frightened to go back, as are the Rakhine refugees who were caught in the violence. These are ordinary civilians, who were getting on with their lives. Both sides need security so that they can return. However, there is concern that the state government’s agenda is not to allow that, but to keep people in the camps. That is not sustainable.

The movement of the Muslim community in Rakhine state has been heavily restricted, as I have said. The story is one of segregation and desperation—a humanitarian catastrophe that cannot be dissociated from the fact that the Rohingya population do not have the right to Burmese citizenship, or, therefore, any further consequential rights, including access to humanitarian assistance, freedom of movement, or connecting with their Rakhine neighbours to trade with them.

One of the things that I experienced was trying to get to one of the few Rohingya villages that are left in the part of Rakhine I visited. Half way through the journey the Rakhine driver had to stop. He was too frightened to go beyond the point where he saw the military. He would not go further, and we had to find a Rohingya driver to take us further. On the way back we had to do the same thing. Likewise, we had an interpreter who was supposed to go to Pauk Taw with us. However, we were refused passage in the boat, because we were going to visit Rohingya Muslims in the camp, which was two hours away by boat, so we came close to not having access. The Rohingya interpreter was not allowed to go in with us to interpret, and we had to find another one. Rakhine interpreters were not prepared to go with us. One person agreed in the end, subject to anonymity. That gives an idea of the scale of the problem, and it is why we need to act fast. We need to ensure that what little good will remains between people—it is being annihilated by the understandable fear in the different communities—does not become overwhelmed, with little room left for reconciliation and reintegration with security.

I mentioned that the Muslim community’s movement is restricted. The critical point is that its members cannot do anything: they cannot do business, or trade, and supplies to those who still trade are blocked. They are therefore increasingly vulnerable, and the only route by which they can get food, shelter and help is through international agencies. The displaced Rohingya and Kaman told me they would never be allowed to return home because, in their words, the local authorities were trying to create Muslim-free zones. As the recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what happened was well orchestrated and backed by the state government. At best the national Government turned a blind eye, and at worst they were complicit.

A recurring theme that came up in my discussions with internally displaced people was the threat to their security and safety, which often prevented them from returning to their place of origin, even if they were allowed to. Will the UK Government use their position and influence to exert pressure on the Burmese national Government and state government in Rakhine, to ensure that security forces on the ground provide adequate protection to all ethnic communities, and particularly the Rohingya community? There are concerns—and this has been documented—that police who were present during the violence tended to stand by. There seems to be much more confidence in the security forces, and that must be encouraging. However, it would be helpful to know what the Minister thinks the UK Government can do to encourage the authorities both to help people to return home, and to resettle them with the protection they need to avoid further similar events: I am thinking of what happened in the key events of June and October last year, and March this year, in Meiktila.

At the heart of the humanitarian crisis, as hon. Members have already said, lies the question of citizenship. The Rohingya have been described by the UN, as my hon. Friend has said, as the

“most persecuted minority in the world”.

When I visited camps, where malnutrition rates are dangerously near emergency levels and where people are forced to live in segregated areas cut off from their livelihoods and are struggling to survive, I did not expect citizenship and identity to top the list of issues that people wanted to talk about. However, every group of Rohingya men and women, including children, to whom I spoke told me that their priority was recognition of their Rohingya identity and the restoration of their Burmese citizenship rights, which were taken away from them in the 1980s. Many Rohingyas were keen to insist that ethnic Rohingya Muslims had been in Burma for centuries, yet the national and state Governments deny them their Burmese citizenship and their ethnic Rohingya identity, instead claiming that they are “Kala”, a racist derogatory term, or Bengali migrants from Bangladesh.

One woman lost her entire family—I met a group of women, many of whom had similar stories—and she told me, “If, after having lost everything, including my whole family, because we are Rohingya Muslims, the Government still don’t recognise me as Rohingya in my own country, then I might as well be dead.”

During my visit, the authorities were conducting a “verification exercise” in displacement camps, trying to force Rohingyas to sign forms admitting that they were Bengalis. Citizenship is key to the rights of freedom of movement, work, marriage and much more. The displaced Rohingyas are effectively living the lives of prisoners in the camps with no right to get out.

The authorities in Rakhine state recently issued a directive placing a two-child limit on Rohingya couples in predominantly Muslim townships in the region, which is a chilling development and a gross violation of their human rights. Will the Minister tell us what his Department is doing to prevent the Burmese Government from applying such discriminatory practices?

An urgent resolution is needed to the question of Rohingya human rights and citizenship. The future of Burma and its reform process can be assured only if the question of citizenship for the Rohingya minority is properly addressed. The UK Government need to act urgently to end the segregation and human rights violations in the region. I hope the Minister will work with his counterparts to apply pressure, and I echo the points raised by my hon. Friend about the need for international inquiries into what happened and how we can move towards reconciliation and the protection of all minorities, including the Rohingya minority, in Burma.

I hope the Minister takes on board my hon. Friend’s point about the need for the Foreign Secretary to include Burma in his anti-sexual violence initiatives. Will the Minister explain, given that the EU has lifted sanctions, what leverage he thinks the UK Government and the EU still have to exert influence on the Burmese authorities to get the results that we need on this important issue? Why does the US have a different position? What does he make of that? How can we work with our US allies on this matter?

This is a critical issue for Burma’s transition to democracy. We all welcome the changes and improvements that have been made overall, but if people’s human rights are not secured—some 40% of the Burmese population come from minority backgrounds—Burma’s transition to democracy could be at risk. I hope the UK Government will not put trade alone at the top of their agenda. Trade is important, but human rights are integral to our discussions on trade and investment. The Minister should not overlook this vital and important issue, which is critical to Burma’s advancement over the coming decades.

There are three other speakers on my list, and I doubt whether I will be able to call all of them. I will be calling the Front Benchers at 10.40 am at the very latest. If speakers are quick with their contributions, we may get a contribution from all three Members.

I will be brief, because I want to give the other two hon. Members an opportunity to be involved.

The UN has a key role to play. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing this matter to the Chamber. There have been some impassioned pleas on behalf of the Rohingya people, which is good because the House has an important democratic role to play in promoting the matter. The situation in Rakhine and Kachin states is one that must be highlighted internationally in the House today, as it has been in the past.

Some 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been forcefully displaced. There is an ongoing humanitarian crisis and there are questions about access to aid; the hon. Lady has spoken about the amount of aid that goes towards that humanitarian crisis. Burmese officials, community leaders and some Buddhist monks organised and encouraged ethnic Arakanese, backed by state security forces, to conduct co-ordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods and villages in October 2012, and they forcibly relocated the population. Christians have also been attacked, abused and displaced.

I believe the Burmese Government have engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and the use of restrictions. There have been violent mass arrests, aid to displaced Muslims has been blocked and there have been months of meetings and public statements promoting ethnic cleansing, all of which builds up to a co-ordinated plan. A number of mass graves have been found. The news last night carried stories of displaced people and of hundreds—indeed thousands—of people murdered and buried.

Human Rights Watch has outlined the issue, too, and given many examples of those who have witnessed or suffered abuses. There are examples of state forces participating in some of the events. The local police have stood by in many cases. One soldier told a Muslim man who was pleading for his protection, “The only thing you can do now is pray for your life.” There is clearly no compassion or help from the security forces, which is disconcerting.

On 23 October 2012, 70 Rohingya were killed in a day-long massacre in a village, and the security forces stood by and let it happen. Imagine the situation of those who had not yet been killed but who were listening to the screams, shouts and murders. Twenty-eight children, 13 of whom were under five, were hacked to death. Children of that age—look at what happened to them. The security forces told them, “We will look after you and protect you,” but they did not look after or protect them.

There are many other examples out there. Local authorities, politicians and monks have also made public statements and used force to deny Muslims their rights to freedom of movement, opportunities to earn a living and access to markets and humanitarian aid. All those things are disconcerting. On 13 June 2012, a Government truck dumped 18 naked and half-clothed bodies near a Rohingya displaced persons camp outside Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital. That is another example of what is going on.

I will conclude with a couple of points, because I want to give the other two hon. Members a chance to speak. The main Opposition party in Burma has been unfortunately quiet. Why are the Opposition quiet in their own country whenever we are highlighting the issue here? I am not being disrespectful to the Opposition leader, because I respect her greatly, but I think that has to be said. I ask for direction from the Minister on the effective delivery of humanitarian aid, on disease and deadly waterborne diseases and on the right of the displaced to return to their original townships—there is also the question of their citizenship. We must address all those issues, and I ask the Minister to take them on in his response.

Burma should accept an independent international commission to investigate crimes against humanity in Arakan state, to locate victims and to provide redress. Burma’s donors need to wake up and realise the seriousness of the Rohingyas’ plight, and they must demand that the Burmese Government urgently stop abuses, promote the safe return of displaced Muslims and Christians and ensure accountability to end the deadly cycle of violence in Arakan state.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and I give an opportunity for the other two hon. Members to speak.

My remarks will be brief, because I have previously spoken at length on these matters in both Westminster Hall and the Commons Chamber. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for her excellent speech and the kind remarks she directed towards me. I will cut down my comments so that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) may take part in the debate.

I should say at the outset that it is right to praise the progress that Burma has made, as hon. Members have done. Freedom of expression and media freedom have increased, political prisoners have been released and moves have been made to a form of democratic election, even though some seats are reserved for the military. Aung San Suu Kyi has been released.

However, I will focus, as have other hon. Members, on the treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The last time we debated the subject in this Chamber, all Members referred to the plight of the Rohingya. The deaths number in the hundreds—or the thousands, according to some reports—and many Rohingya have been displaced to camps that have been described as some of the most dire in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) was particularly eloquent and moving in describing what she saw there on her recent trip. Rohingya mosques, madrassahs and homes have been burned down, and shops looted.

Although the violence has not been on the scale that we saw last October, small-scale violence remains. The perpetrators have been allowed to continue and have not been brought to law. Anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be increasing across Burma. In recent weeks, in the Mandalay area, clashes and deaths have been stoked by extremist monks from the 969 movement, and the security services seem to stand by and do nothing. There are parallels with what happened in Rakhine state last year.

We know that the Burmese Government set up an inquiry, but it was their own internal inquiry. Every speaker in this debate has said that that is not satisfactory and that we should have an international inquiry at UN level. I hope that the Minister will endorse that. As many Members have said, we also need complete, unfettered access to the camps, which are in a dire situation, for all humanitarian and human rights agencies. I hope that he will support that also.

I would like to press the Minister on the stories that have emerged in the past few days about the two-child policy in Rakhine state. A couple of days ago, the Burmese Minister for Immigration and Population endorsed the policy, saying that it would benefit “Bengali women”. Note the phrase: he still refuses to recognise the Rohingya people.

Human Rights Watch says that the law violates international human rights protections and endangers women’s physical and mental health. Aung San Suu Kyi calls the policy discrimination and not in line with human rights, and health workers have reported an increase in illegal abortions and in women giving their children to other women in order to avoid fines or arrest. That is an appalling abuse of human rights, and it is another example of the unacceptable way in which the Rohingya people of Burma are treated.

At the root of the issue is the citizenship question, which has been referred to many times. I remind the Minister that even though the current Burmese Government consider the Rohingya to be illegal Bengali refugees, the first President of Burma said many years ago that the

“Muslims of Arakan”—

that is, Rakhine—

“certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma…if they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races”.

I am sure that everyone would agree that the citizenship law must be sorted out. It is absolutely unacceptable that Rohingya children born in Rakhine are being denied the citizenship that they deserve. It is a moral disgrace. Does the Minister agree that it contravenes various UN protocols on the treatment of children?

We are a significant donor to Burma, and the UK has supported lifting sanctions. Given that we have done so, what other diplomatic tools does the Minister have at his disposal to put pressure on Burma to deal with human rights abuses? We are rightly and understandably positioning ourselves to take full advantage of the economic opportunities of that mineral-rich country. I understand that, and I support international trade, but if we go down that route while doing nothing to insist on human rights, it will be a tragedy for the Rohingya people, who are some of the most oppressed in the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I pay tribute to all hon. Members, who have made thoughtful speeches. I will move on quickly to my speech in the remaining time.

Let us remember that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy won the election in 1990 with 60% of the vote and 80% of parliamentary seats. Although those results were not recognised, we must acknowledge that Burma is moving forward and taking steps as part of the reconciliation process.

My contribution will focus on three main issues: the Kachin state, land grab and humanitarian issues. I apologise for the speed. Kachin is predominantly a Christian state. I was pleased that Mr Speaker granted my urgent question in January. On the day of that debate, a child of 15 and a pastor were killed. I got a helpful response from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), saying that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. What we see as crimes go unrecognised in that state. The police stand by. Some 100,000 people have been displaced in Kachin. Although a ceasefire has been announced, it appeared to be on the very day that General Thein was in America. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that abuses are still taking place, even after the ceasefire.

The second issue is land grab. People who have been living on the land and using it to feed themselves have been displaced. The Asian Legal Resource Centre, in a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June, warned that Burma is in danger of a land-grabbing epidemic. Forests have been cleared, dams and pipelines are being built and the people are just being ignored. The Burmese Parliament has a land investigation committee, but it has seen only about 500 complaints, and many ethnic minorities do not even know that it exists.

Thirdly, on the humanitarian aspects, all Members have rightly mentioned the reports from Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and even the Kachin Women’s Association. There is a global movement against human trafficking. Women are being trafficked into China and back again. They cannot do anything with their lives once they have been humiliated in that way. Attacks are consistently systematic. The reports are clear, and they all say the same things: people are being threatened. Local aid groups say that workers are also being threatened by local administrations. A child died after drinking from a stream poisoned by pesticides.

Daw Suu Kyi has gone the extra mile to ensure that her country moves on. Although EU sanctions were lifted, with some criticism in some quarters, I ask the Minister to raise a number of issues in exchange. First, will he raise the human rights issues set out in the reports and ensure that he speaks to the Burmese Government or his counterpart and that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights finds a place in Burma, as agreed by the Burmese Government? Will he ensure, more importantly, that aid given to Burma goes to the correct people in a transparent way, so that women who have been raped get the support that they need?

In the long term, a constitutional solution is needed, as is a second Panglong conference. We must use our resources and expertise to ensure that the NLD’s aim of equality of nationalities is supported. Religion must not be used to divide people; people must be allowed to live and choose their own religion, whatever it happens to be. We have a long history with Burma, and we should be able to walk hand in hand as Burma finds a new constitutional settlement that respects human rights and the rule of law. As one worker said, we need to move away from the ceasefire process to a peace process. We can help Burma to step out from behind the faded politics of the past. That can be achieved only through dialogue, respect for each group and the rule of law and, most importantly, reconciliation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) both on securing this debate and making an excellent speech. It is a matter of great concern to her constituents, to Members across the House and in the wider community.

We should start by welcoming the major changes made in Burma over recent years. The country had been so long isolated from the rest of the world, had suffered severe repression for many years and was of concern to the world community. That is why this Parliament was so pleased to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi to Westminster Hall and to hear her message of hope, and why the world is renewing and expanding business and other relationships with Burma. We welcome the corresponding economic growth that is taking place.

It is also right to acknowledge the significant persuasive role of President Thein Sein in bringing about change, and the patient diplomatic role played by Burma’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which worked steadily to persuade the previous regime, often facing criticism for what seemed to be their cautious approach. All that offers hope for the future, for Burma and for its people.

As we have seen elsewhere in the world, however, such rapid change can often release old tensions and conflicts that have been repressed under the old regime. That is why we must acknowledge the progress that Burma has made towards peace and democracy. The conflicts in Rakhine and Kachin states demonstrate all too powerfully why there can be no complacency, whether from President Thein Sein or us and the international community. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) alluded to that.

The Rakhine conflict started a year ago, following the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman and the killing of 10 Muslim men. June and October in particular saw shocking inter-communal violence, with more than 200 deaths and by now an estimated 140,000 internally displaced persons, predominantly Rohingya. Conditions in the camps are shocking, as ably reported by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).

The conflict also raises fundamental human rights concerns, including the seemingly arbitrary arrest of hundreds during the Government-imposed state of emergency. The special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma noted

“harsh and disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of movement of Muslim populations in the IDP camps”

and received “credible allegations” of

“widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials targeted against the Rohingya and wider Muslim populations”.

That includes

“extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture and ill-treatment in detention, deaths in detention, and denial of due process and fair trial rights”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow also mentioned the chilling report from Human Rights Watch “All You Can Do is Pray”, which expresses considerable concern about possible state collusion in what is argued to

“amount to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”

I understand and welcome the fact that our ambassador has raised that report with the Burmese Government. Will the Minister tell us the outcome of those talks, and whether the claims will be discussed at the highest level between the UK and Burma? The senior Minister of State at the Foreign Office commented that

“further independent investigative work would be required”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 June 2013; Vol. 745, c. 1248.]

Will the Minister here today elaborate on what investigations the Government would like to see and on what steps the UK is taking to secure an inquiry and to ensure that the Burmese Government recognise the gravity of the report?

President Thein Sein initiated an inquiry into the inter-communal violence last year, and the Rakhine investigation commission finally reported at the end of April. Unfortunately, it seemed to provide further evidence of the rejection of the Rohingya community, as the report referred to them as “Bengali” throughout. That reinforces the point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Bolton South East. There were a number of comments on the birth rate among the community and, as mentioned in the debate, the two-child policy imposed on the Rohingya was reaffirmed last month, a move I am pleased to see was condemned by Aung San Suu Kyi as discrimination that

“is not in line with human rights”.

What discussions have there been with the Burmese authorities and in the European Union or the UN about the Rakhine investigation commission report?

In particular, the report notably failed to support a review of the 1982 citizenship law, which denies the Rohingya citizenship and renders them stateless. What recent representations has the Minister made in support of a review of the law and of positive action to address the prejudice and discrimination suffered by the Rohingya community? Does he agree that continued segregation, as endorsed by the commission, should not be seen as a permanent solution? There was also a strong emphasis in the report on a greater presence for the security forces. Given that we have already discussed grave concerns about their past role, is the Minister satisfied that they can be deployed as a force for good and to calm the tensions, and that they will be held accountable for their actions?

Non-governmental organisations have reported worrying difficulties in supplying vital humanitarian support to the thousands who have lost their homes, and that was acknowledged by the investigation commission, which concluded that 15% of food needs are unmet and that

“some 90% of needs are unmet in the construction and provision of shelter”.

Can the Minister provide an indication of how reliable those figures are and tell us what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are taking to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian support, an issue stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South? Can the Minister also update us on the current safety of internally displaced persons and on efforts to protect them from the monsoon season? What recent representations have been made to the authorities in Thailand and Bangladesh regarding the treatment of Rohingya asylum seekers? Is the Minister aware of any work by the Burmese authorities to stem the violence and to promote inter-religious dialogue?

The focus of today’s debate has been primarily but not only on Rakhine, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East is absolutely right to say that the human rights situation in Kachin state also requires international attention. That conflict intensified in November last year, after the 17 years of ceasefire. There are now estimated to be 90,000 internally displaced persons, to whom humanitarian support was reportedly restricted. There is also evidence that, unfortunately, those fleeing Kachin and seeking asylum in China have been turned back, adding to the humanitarian crisis. As has been mentioned, the UK has contributed £3.5 million in humanitarian aid to people affected by the Kachin conflict. Is the Minister confident that assistance is reaching those who need it, and can he update us on the humanitarian situation?

Amnesty International has received claims of extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention, forced labour and sexual violence, and concerns about the involvement of elements of the Burmese army. What investigations have the Government made into the actions of the armed forces in Kachin. What representations has the Minister made in support of justice for the Kachin civilians?

We support the Government in welcoming the agreement in the past couple of weeks between the Burmese Government and the Kachin Independence Organisation to begin dialogue and to work towards a ceasefire. Does the Minister consider that to be a likely scenario? What assistance can the international community and regional bodies provide to ensure that the talks prove successful.

As a number of colleagues mentioned, the Foreign Secretary has been rightly commended for his work on tackling sexual violence in conflict. Understandably, there have been calls for Burma to be included in the initiative. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), stated:

“Over the summer, the British embassy in Rangoon will be scoping options to expand the initiative to Burma.”—[Official Report, 5 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1120W.]

Can the Minister assure us today that the urgent need to end the sexual violence and to hold those responsible to account has already been discussed with the Burmese Government? Can he elaborate on how and when the preventing sexual violence initiative could be expanded to Burma, as was also discussed by the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell)? Furthermore, will the issue be raised at the G8 next week?

In April, the EU Foreign Affairs Council took the decision to lift sanctions, with the exception of the arms embargo. Some have argued that that was premature, and this morning’s debate has certainly highlighted that far too many people in Burma are still waiting for sustainable peace and respect for human rights. That is not to say that those things cannot be achieved, but does the Minister agree that the EU’s decision to lift sanctions must place an even greater obligation on Burma to comply with international law? Will he assure us that the UK, bilaterally and through the EU, will use the lifting of sanctions to press for more concerted action on human rights? What discussions have the Government had with the authorities in Burma since the sanctions were lifted, and what expectations have been set out? Answers to those questions will enable Burma to move on and start to build the democratic, peaceful and prosperous society that its long-suffering people richly deserve.

I am pleased to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Hood, and I am delighted to be under your guidance.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this important debate, and on the articulate and passionate way in which she put her case. She is absolutely right to highlight the concerns about human rights, sexual violence, displaced people and other ethnic violence, as well as the humanitarian concerns that she articulated. Many other hon. Members made a significant number of points, which, unfortunately, I will not have time to address in their totality this morning, although I will try to deal with the particular points made in the debate. If I do not have time to respond to all of them, I or the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), will of course be happy to do so in writing after the debate.

I must first reiterate a point that the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) and other hon. Members have made. There has been progress in Burma in the last two years. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, who now sits in the Burmese Parliament building alliances and working to strengthen the process of reform. There has been a general relaxation of the crippling censorship and onerous infringements of freedom of expression that once characterised Burma. Civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, unions and individuals are freer to organise and to act. The international community—Governments, NGOs and others—deserve praise for their significant pressure on successive Burmese Governments, which has led to the improvements of the past two years. However, that does not mean that there are not significant issues that need to be addressed, as we have heard this morning, and that progress is not still a long and difficult road ahead.

It is right to acknowledge the strides that have been made in Burma since President Thein Sein took office, and it is also right to continue to express our concerns and to take action. Human rights and ethnic reconciliation remain at the heart of UK policy and our discussions with the Burmese Government. I assure hon. Members that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are significantly engaged at senior ministerial level with Burma. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, was the first EU Minister to visit Rakhine last year. He visited five camps for people displaced by the violence and heard for himself the terrible stories that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) outlined in her articulate contribution. He also heard the stories of loss and abuse. He raised at all levels in the Burmese Government the need for a co-ordinated humanitarian response, accountability and security. That has been followed up by the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

I want to take the opportunity to address head-on the point made by hon. Members about European Union sanctions. As the right hon. Member for Warley rightly said, the arms embargo has not been lifted. Its purpose, which was agreed in the EU, was to deepen engagement and to encourage reformists. It was also agreed and suggested by Aung San Suu Kyi, although she has said that it

“is time we let these sanctions go...we can’t go on relying on sanctions forever to aid the democracy movement.”

I assure hon. Members that human rights will be at the centre of UK and EU policy on Burma. EU Foreign Ministers have agreed a comprehensive framework that sets out how we will work with the Burmese Government and apply pressure on them to address the many challenges that Burma still faces.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) made a key point about the importance of humanitarian aid and the alleviation of suffering in parts of Burma. It is not just about those who are suffering from being internally displaced, although that is of course a pressing concern. The UN is building temporary shelters for 24,000 people, but 40,000 more remain vulnerable to flooding, a point that hon. Members rightly made. We must continue to do more. Significant work has been done and continues to be done, but I want to ensure that hon. Members understand that we do not pass UK taxpayers’ money through Burmese Government mechanisms; we do so through the NGO community, most if not all of which does sterling and excellent work on the ground.

We are a leading donor to Burma and in the past few years no country has given more humanitarian aid to the Burmese people than the UK. Our commitment to aid for Burma is £187 million over four years until 2015. If hon. Members are interested, I will be happy to provide details of the geographical breakdown of where that money is being spent. It is focused on health care, responsible investment, good governance, improving livelihoods, strengthening the work of Parliament and civil society, and, importantly, assisting people affected by conflict with a focus on ethnic reconciliation.

Britain also has a package of emergency measures. Nearly 80,000 people will be able to access safe drinking water and improved sanitation facilities. Acutely malnourished children will receive treatment in the rural camps to which some hon. Members referred, and hygiene kits will be available for 40,000 people. There is significant co-ordination and co-operation between the FCO and DFID to ensure that we maximise the impact on the ground of UK taxpayers’ money.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove referred to the relationship between the UK and Burmese militaries. At the request of Aung San Suu Kyi during her meeting with the Prime Minister last year, we have an accredited defence attaché in Burma. She specifically recommended that appointment as a key channel for engagement with the Burmese military. As my right hon. Friend said, the Chief of the Defence Staff visited Burma from 2 to 4 June as the next stage of our engagement. I assure my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members that the focus of that engagement will be on adherence to the core principles of democratic accountability and human rights. There must be accountability for those who took part in and organised last year’s violence. The process of justice must be in accordance with the rule of law and should adhere to international standards. Accountability is important in its own right and underpins the process of reconciliation between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.

The hon. Member for Bolton South East made an essential point related to the recent report from Human Rights Watch—the UN special rapporteur raised similar concerns in his report in February. I reiterate the point that she rightly articulated: the report contains disturbing and specific allegations, backed up by evidence. We will follow up those allegations directly with the Burmese Government. If serious crimes have been committed, those who perpetrated them must be held to account for their specific actions. That should be done through a clear and transparent investigative and prosecution process that meets international standards. Further investigative work must fully establish the facts that will be required for an informed assessment of whether ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed. The Government are looking carefully and seriously at the contents of those reports.

Some hon. Members referred to the two-child policy. I want to put on record the fact that a presidential spokesman in Burma said on 2 June that the central Government did not announce the Rohingya two-child policy and that it would be looked into. I am happy to keep the House informed as the matter develops.

Finally, I want to address a point that several hon. Members made about the initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. There is support for the initiative throughout the House, and significant progress has been made in engaging the international community, including at the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London in April. Sadly, Burma is not the only place that suffers from terrible and unacceptable levels of sexual violence. Somalia, Mali, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria are but a few examples. As the right hon. Member for Warley pointed out, during the summer the British embassy in Rangoon will scope options for increasing UK engagement and embedding the initiative to tackle sexual violence in Burma. Wherever it occurs, whether in conflict or elsewhere, sexual violence is completely unacceptable, and the impunity that has existed for too long must be stopped.

The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) rightly raised the issues in Kachin state. Although significant challenges remain, there has been progress recently, which we should encourage. With its expertise in Northern Ireland, the UK is playing a positive role.

In conclusion, the UK will remain a constructive, supportive and critical partner for Burma, committed to supporting reform efforts to ensure that the Burmese people, wherever they live in Burma, can live in peace and harmony, for the betterment of themselves and their families.

Media Sexism

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. Few things are more important than ensuring that every member of our community feels safe in their own home, workplace, community and school. Sadly, for far too many women and girls in the UK, that is simply not the case, and there is strong evidence that media sexism is playing a significant contributory role.

I want to start by outlining some consequences of the fact that objectifying women has become so normalised in our society, before exploring the extent and nature of media sexism, as well as what action is required. The shocking facts are that here in Britain 60,000 women are raped every year. Two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. Sexual harassment in our schools, communities and workplaces is routine. In Brighton and Hove, which is home to my constituency, an estimated 11,000 women experience physical and emotional violence every year, and last year more than 2,700 women experienced sexual assault.

The city’s new strategy for prevention offers valuable insights into the way in which violence is normalised—

Order. Can I tell the hon. Member that there are standards of dress that Members must comply with, both in the House and in Westminster Hall? I ask her to respect that and to put her jacket back on, which she was wearing when she came in, please.

I will of course comply with your ruling, Mr Hood, but it strikes me as a certain irony that in this place people can get copies of The Sun. Perhaps I can even show you what is in The Sun. In eight places in this House—

Order. I am not commenting on what the Member may wish to say in the debate; I am only addressing the appropriate means of dress. If she does as I asked, she can carry on with her speech.

Thank you, Mr Hood. I was simply going to say that it strikes me as an irony that this T-shirt is regarded as an inappropriate thing to be wearing in this House, whereas, apparently, it is appropriate for this kind of newspaper to be available to buy in eight different outlets on the Palace of Westminster Estate. That is why I have written to the Palace asking for them to be withdrawn, and for them not to be on sale until page 3 is removed.

I was describing a violence against women strategy in Brighton and Hove and was about to quote from it. The city’s new strategy for prevention offers real insights into the way that violence is normalised, saying that

“violence against women and girls is a continuum: it is the basic common characteristic that underlies many different events in women and girls’ lives, involving many forms of intimate intrusion, coercion, abuse and assault, that pass into one another and cannot always be readily distinguished, but that as a continuum are used to control women and girls. Many women and girls learn to discount and minimise forms of violence and abuse both as a way of coping but also because much of it is normalised.”

This is not just about extreme cases. It is an epidemic, with the symptoms identifiable at an early age. A YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women coalition found that more than 70% of 16 to 18-year-old boys and girls said that they routinely heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school, and even more disturbingly that one in three girls said that they experienced “groping” or other unwanted sexual touching at school. A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children study reveals that almost half of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner, while one in two boys, and one in three girls, believe that there are some circumstances in which it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

The point I want to make this morning is that none of that is happening in a vacuum. We have to recognise the impact of wider culture, and today I want to focus on just one aspect of that: the objectification of women in the media. Women have been degraded, belittled and served up as sex objects in some of our daily newspapers for many years, despite the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women repeatedly identifying the links between the portrayal of women as sexual objects and attitudes that underpin violence and discrimination against women and girls.

The Government-commissioned “Sexualisation of Young People” review found that evidence suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects, and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. The American Psychological Association reports that viewing media that portray women as sex objects leads people to become significantly more accepting of gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence and rape myths.

The scale of the sexism that pervades our media was highlighted last year by women’s groups, including the End Violence Against Women coalition and OBJECT, which gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry and later published a report called “Just the Women”. It examined how domestic homicide cases are reported as “tragic” one-off incidents, rather than as part of a well understood pattern of behaviour; how rape cases in some papers are routinely placed next to pictures of half-naked women; how cases of forced marriage or “honour”-based violence are explained in terms of culture or religion, or almost anything except violence against women and girls; how news reporting upholds myths about sexual and domestic violence, often implicitly blaming women for violence committed against them, or eroticising such violence; how images and stories that sexualise and objectify women are normalised; and how women, particularly those in political office, are frequently vilified and infantilised by the media.

Lord Justice Leveson’s response concluded:

“The evidence as a whole suggested that there is force in the trenchant views expressed by the groups and organisations who testified to the Inquiry that the Page 3 tabloid press often failed to show consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women generally, and that there was a tendency to sexualise and demean women.”

I am not suggesting that the media are solely to blame, but their objectification of women goes some considerable way towards explaining why prejudicial attitudes to women are so deeply entrenched and normalised.

A few months ago, inspired by the brilliant Everyday Sexism and Everyday Media Sexism campaigns, I asked constituents to help me gather evidence of the problem. I have since joined forces with women’s groups in Brighton and Hove to launch the Spot the Sexism campaign, which is a month-long campaign dedicated to sharing experiences of how women are portrayed in the media.

I would like to give a sense of just a few contributions that I have received so far. More are coming in, and I hope that the Minister will agree to a meeting later in the year, as some of my constituents would very much like the opportunity to talk about their experiences.

Let me start with a Mail Online story about Britney Spears that appeared on 8 March—ironically, on international women’s day. It opens like this:

“Like many women Britney, who has a net worth of nearly $200 million dollars, appears to struggle to find the right bra…On this occasion Britney ‘booby trap’ appears to be caused by a lack of support—and a sure sign that she needs to use some of her earnings to splash out on some correctly sized lingerie.”

The website used eight photos of the singer to make its point.

On the same day, the website also carried this headline about a Girls Aloud singer: “Being on tour certainly suits you! Kimberley Walsh shows off her tiny hourglass figure in a clinging white dress”. The story was illustrated with three virtually identical photos of her in the said dress. The spurious news element in both pieces was presumably that two women had bothered to get dressed before leaving the house, but the subtext is that they are worth nothing more than the content of their wardrobes or the shape of their bodies.

The frequency with which women’s looks are used to undermine them was underscored by a Telegraph piece that irritated another of my constituents. It was about the Conservative candidate for the Eastleigh by-election, in which far more was said about her appearance than her policies—specifically, the fact that the journalist decided that she must have been airbrushed in the billboard posters because the real-life version looked tired and harassed, rather than sleek and happy. Another constituent cites every single story in the so-called sidebar of shame in the Mail. The irony, of course, is that that is part of the content aimed directly at women.

The Daily Mail comes in for more criticism than most, including for the way that it is still struggling with, as one constituent puts it,

“the right—or is it the wrong—age to have a baby.”

She is referring to the endless stream of articles critical of women having children later in life, as well as of those having them too young, or of working mothers, or those who stay at home. The articles accused women of being too old for IVF and quizzed career women who have “failed” in their so called “duty” to produce offspring.

Another constituent sends this example of media sexism, saying:

“The Sun’s leery front page on Reeva Steenkamp a fortnight ago was particularly outrageous. They wouldn’t print a picture of a recently murdered man in his swimming trunks, one hopes.”

A constituent who complained about a BBC trailer for a children’s TV programme, in which girls are shown answering phones and applying makeup, while boys are shown operating cameras and reading the news, got this reply:

“I can assure you that the trail certainly wasn’t designed to perpetuate any negative gender stereotyping…However, I fully recognise your concerns about how girls are shown throughout the trail. To that end I’d like to assure you that I’ve registered your concerns on our audience log…The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.”

Well, the message does not seem to have got through. I myself was incensed to see even a trailer for BBC Parliament, that august channel, use clips of exclusively male politicians—there were 12 politicians, all of them male—to depict the cut and thrust of politics. I wonder what message that gives to any young girls or women who might be considering going into politics.

Then, of course, there is page 3—a symbol of the fact that pictures that are illegal on workplace walls because of equalities legislation are still allowed to be featured in our newspapers. Sexually objectifying images that would be restricted on broadcast media before the 9 pm watershed are printed in national newspapers that are not age-restricted and are displayed at child’s-eye level. Defenders of page 3 argue that adults should be able to choose to look at images of topless women and that anyone who does not like it does not need to buy The Sun. As the nation’s most popular newspaper, The Sun is seen by about 7.5 million people every day, according to market data. Many have not chosen to view those images, but they cannot be avoided, whether they have been left lying around in cafés, on the bus or in the pub. That means that children in particular are at risk of being exposed to page 3.

These are a few examples of how page 3 helps to normalise the objectification of women’s bodies—and the consequences. A schoolgirl wrote to the Everyday Sexism project, saying that the boys in her school hold up page 3 in the corridor and mark the girls out of 10 as they walk past. A teacher who asked the class to bring in newspapers for art class had to explain why there was a naked woman in a so-called newspaper. A mother who took her six-year-old daughter to a café for a treat and found page 3 lying open on a table was asked, “Mummy, why isn’t that lady wearing a top?” A father felt outraged that a man was looking at page 3 while his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter was having a haircut. None of those people buys The Sun and none wants to look at images of topless women in newspapers, yet they had little choice.

As Lucy Holmes, founder of the wonderful No More Page Three campaign, says,

“We are all affected by Page Three whether we buy it or not, because we all live in a society where the most widely read paper in the country makes ‘normal’ the idea that women are there primarily for men’s sexual pleasure.”

The answer is not to “turn over”, as the Prime Minister has suggested. Turning the page on inequality, prejudice, harassment and violence does not make it go away. Nor is the fact that some page 3 models say that they feel empowered by men looking at their bodies any justification, because many more women are disempowered by the objectification of their and other women’s bodies. Lucy Holmes says that we

“see page after page of men doing all of this stuff, like running the country and achieving in sport, and then there’s an image of a woman standing there in her pants.”

The impact on young girls’ self-image is especially worrying, as has been recognised by Girlguiding. It is supporting the No More Page Three campaign with this message:

“We need to get used to the idea that women are not for sale.”

In common with the No More Page Three campaign, I do not think that women’s breasts are acceptable daily content for a family newspaper. For that and a whole host of associated reasons, I join the campaign in calling on the paper’s editor to consign page 3 to the rubbish bin, where it belongs. To date, public pressure has secured the most public sign from the proprietor of The Sun that the paper might scrap page 3, but the clock is ticking and we still have not seen any concrete action, so I think that if page 3 still has not been removed from The Sun by the end of this year, we should be asking the Government to step in and legislate.

There are other areas where the Government could act as well. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents issued updated guidelines on displaying adult or top-shelf titles in December 2012. The Government could, as a small but important step, consider whether to make those guidelines mandatory, rather than voluntary as at present. It could also extend them to a wider range of publications to ensure that young women in particular are better protected from page 3-type images. Hon. Members may know that there are also currently moves to hold supermarkets and newsagents to account under equalities legislation for stocking publications that degrade women. I hope that the Minister will look at that as well.

Women’s groups such as the End Violence Against Women coalition also argue that newspapers and magazines that are not age-restricted should always be suitable for wider audiences—in other words, audiences that include children and young people. That means that all content, including advertising, must be suitable for children to consume if they choose to buy the publication or if they should come across it unawares. The groups recommend that sexual material, such as images of nudity and/or language of a strong sexual nature that are not justified by the context, is not printed in newspapers or magazines that are not age-restricted. Those principles already exist for broadcast media, and I am interested in what the Minister thinks about introducing some consistency.

Crucially, we also need the wider media culture to change. We could start by ensuring that the new editors’ code of conduct, introduced in the wake of the Leveson inquiry, has a much stronger clause on the definition of discrimination, in line with equalities legislation designed to protect people from violation and with the Government’s international obligations on equality. People with expertise in equality should be an integral and permanent part of drawing up and overseeing implementation of the code. That would help to deliver media that better reflect their audience. Half of us are women, yet there is still a notable absence of women presenters and journalists. It is the case that 72% of “Question Time” contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s “Today” show are men. Just 18% of presenters over 50 are women—that is evidence that women are battling against media ageism as well as sexism.

It is not just TV that is the problem. Researchers have found that from July 2011 to June 2012 women wrote less than one third of the articles in the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian and only 26% of the opinion pages. Only one national newspaper is edited by a woman, and there has only ever been one instance of a woman editing a daily broadsheet newspaper in the UK. That was 15 years ago when Rosie Boycott became editor of The Independent for just three months, from January to April 1998.

Women are fighting back with wonderful initiatives such as The Women’s Room and HerSay to promote women experts on a range of topics, yet in a media culture that degrades women as standard, they are swimming against the tide. We need media that feature women in all their diversity as well, rather than media that inadequately reflect women’s roles and contributions to society, yet that, too, is an uphill struggle when the industry is dominated by men.

A Women in Journalism analysis of UK newspaper front pages from 2012 found that not only were more than three quarters of the stories written by men but that men also dominated the news stories themselves. Of all those quoted or mentioned by name in the lead stories, just 16% were women. The analysis also found significant differences in the roles that named men and women played in news stories. For example, three quarters of so-called experts were men and 79% of so-called victims were women. Women are twice as likely to be quoted in their capacity as celebrities and 10 times as likely to be featured as victims when compared with men. If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, the photos that make the front pages—not just page 3—of our newspapers also tell us a great deal about media sexism.

Women in Journalism’s analysis further underscores how much men dominate the news agenda and examines the particular function that women fulfil for newspapers. Although there are generally strong news-related reasons for the appearance of most images of men on a sample of front pages, the same cannot necessarily be said for the women who feature. It cites as an example the Middleton sisters, for whom

“the wearing of a new hat or new dress could be enough to prompt a lead front page picture, in a way that would be unlikely to be the case, say, if Prince William or Harry stepped out in a new tie.”

An improved code of conduct needs to go hand in hand with ensuring that the proposed new regulatory bodies are fit for purpose. That means that the post-Leveson regulatory frameworks need to institute and include a statutory body with proper women’s representation on it and full rights for third parties and groups to complain about prejudicial treatment in the media. That is essential if the press is to be held accountable through fair public scrutiny in line with its own press code.

Sexualised and sexist representations of women in the media provide a conducive context for violence against women and girls; it is one in which such violence flourishes. Earlier, I cited the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. I welcome the fact that the Government have this year joined other member states at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in making a formal commitment to act. It has specifically promised to

“promote balanced and non-stereotypical portrayals of women with a view to eliminating discrimination against and the exploitation of women and girls and refraining from presenting them as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects and commodities and instead present women and girls as creative human beings, key actors and contributors to and beneficiaries of the process of development”.

That is a very worthy and positive objective, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what practical action the Government will be taking to that end to confront media sexism. I should also like to know whether he agrees with me that it is a sexist anachronism that The Sun is still available so widely across the Palace of Westminster Estate and whether he will join me in taking action to try to get rid of it. I hope that the Minister will lend his full support to the measures that I have outlined today.

This is an unusual and refreshing debate. I probably have to choose my language carefully; I am reluctant to praise the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on her dress sense, but she certainly made a fantastic impact in the initial stages of the debate. I note that you, Mr Hood, reminded us all of the current code of conduct for dress in the House, but she did make an impact. She has also made an impact with a powerful speech.

I note in passing the remarks the hon. Lady made about the opening credits of BBC Parliament, which I confess is not a channel that I watch a great deal, but I know that the BBC monitors debates such as this extremely carefully. The debate today is one of the few in which the BBC is mentioned when somebody from its public affairs department has not texted me furiously to put points on its behalf. I hope that the BBC has noted what the hon. Lady said about the opening credits of BBC Parliament representing the cut and thrust of debate with 12 male Members of the House and that it notes that there are many women Members of the House, who make a fantastic contribution to our debates.

The debate covers a crucial and wide-ranging issue, which impacts all of us in this country. I welcome the hon. Lady’s recent campaign and her ability to secure today’s debate. In responding to her remarks, I will describe some fundamental principles in the Government’s approach to media regulation and, as she challenges me to do, provide a flavour of how we are addressing media sexism more generally.

Media representation of women is rightly of great concern to many people. As discussed in the debate, it can include, in particular, images or text that are sexually explicit or objectifying, reporting that trivialises violence against women and girls, or accumulated imagery that restricts the diversity of representation of women. The Government fully recognise that concern, and the potential that such representations have to impact negatively on women’s participation in public life, as well as how they can affect the way women view themselves and how they might be viewed by others.

It is also worth reminding the House that the media play an invaluable role in our cultural and democratic life. The Government are utterly committed to supporting a vibrant and diverse media industry. The press has a crucial role to play in our society: shining a light in dark places, holding the powerful to account and supporting vibrant local and regional communities. Freedom of expression is a vital part of our society. As well as maintaining that freedom, we as a Government are committed to maintaining media that command the respect of the public through high standards and are capable of appropriately protecting the rights of individuals. While on the one hand we must promote vibrant, diverse and free media, we must also maintain and protect the rights of ordinary people. The focus of Government regulation has therefore always been on supporting those standards and protecting individuals who find themselves, often through no fault of their own, the focus of the media. I will talk briefly about the different types of media regulation in this country, including press regulation, broadcasting regulation and advertising regulation.

The hon. Lady spent some time on press regulation in her speech. It is important to point out that newspapers are, of course, already bound by the law of the land, including the Obscene Publications Acts and the Indecent Displays Act 1989. The Press Distribution Forum has published guidance on the display of adult material. The majority of newspapers already sign up to the editors’ code of practice, which the Press Complaints Commission is continuing to enforce until new arrangements are in place.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, the Leveson inquiry considered the issues in detail. Although the Leveson report concluded that the editors’ code of practice is generally recognised to be sound, its central recommendations were about how the code could be more effectively enforced. Although it sets out a range of requirements around the treatment of individuals who become the subject of the news, it does not veer into the regulation of press content. That is because content regulation is not something that we have applied to the press in this country, and on the whole, Leveson was clear that the distinction should continue. Leveson recommended a reformed system of self-regulation, including independence of appointments and funding, an arbitration service, a fast complaints-handling mechanism, and the power to demand apologies and levy fines. He urged the press industry to work towards establishing a new, independent self-regulator to address those issues and suggested that press self-regulation should be independently verified through a process of recognition.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, Lord Justice Leveson specifically examined evidence concerning media sexism, taking evidence from organisations such as Eaves, the End Violence Against Women coalition, Equality Now and OBJECT, which jointly published a landmark report late last year entitled “Just the Women.” He summarised thus:

“The evidence as a whole suggested that there is force in the trenchant views expressed by the groups and organisations who testified to the Inquiry that the…tabloid press often failed to show consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women generally, and that there was a tendency to sexualise and demean women.”

Among other points, he concluded:

“What is clearly required is that any such regulator has the power to take complaints from representative women’s groups.”

Consequently, his 11th recommendation was that a new self-regulator should enable third-party complaints, from, for example, representative women’s groups, to help counteract media sexism, as well as other issues, and provide redress.

The Government have considered the recommendation, and it is now reflected in the cross-party charter that we published in March. However, we considered it appropriate to apply a threshold to the consideration of group complaints by the regulator, to ensure that the future regulator was not inundated with complaints whose motive was to forward the campaigning agenda of a group or organisation, and to make sure that complaints did not impact on the freedom of the press to express an opinion, which is a very important principle. To summarise: the underlying principle of press regulation has always been that provided something remains within the law and so long as it does not inappropriately interfere with the rights of individuals, it is for adults to choose for themselves what they want to read. The Government therefore do not regulate and have no intention of regulating the content of the press itself.

The Minister has talked a lot about how current press regulation means that the press are bound by the law of the land, but the point I am making is that the law of the land does not go far enough. Does he not agree that if Rupert Murdoch does not take steps himself and listen to the campaigners who are asking for page 3 to be ditched, the Government have a role and should step in at that point? The existing law is not enough.

I hear what the hon. Lady says and I know that she is campaigning for a change in the law, but the Government’s position is that we do not interfere in press content. There are no plans to change the law in that regard. She mentioned other points in her remarks, which it is appropriate to address while I am on the subject of press content.

The hon. Lady suggested that I meet her constituents when the results of her campaign have been collated. That would be an appropriate meeting; I would go further and suggest that other Ministers involved in these issues also take part. She mentioned the guidelines of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. I take the approach that self-regulation can often be more effective than legislation, because it is more flexible and can be updated more rapidly. I suggest that, with the NFRN, the Government look at how effectively the guidelines are being applied, and that we maintain a dialogue with the NFRN, the hon. Lady and campaigning groups on the guidelines.

I do not have time to go into detail about broadcast media, but it is important to point out that there is a difference between broadcast regulation and press regulation. Broadcasting is pushed into the home, whereas it is often a matter of choice whether print media are brought into the home. That is why the level of regulation is tighter for broadcasting.

The Minister is very kind. With the 40 seconds left, I want to point out that page 3 is not a matter of choice; it is everywhere—in shops, on the tube and on buses. That is why, in the last few seconds, I again invite him to take action with me to, at the very least, get it off the premises here in the House of Commons.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I am not planning to join her campaign to keep The Sun out of the Palace of Westminster. As I said, it is a matter of choice whether people read The Sun and I do not think that campaign would be appropriate. I have only three seconds left, so I congratulate her on this effective debate.

Sitting suspended.

Financial Products (Mis-selling)

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

I thank you, Ms Dorries; as always, I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I want to discuss the limitations set by the Financial Services Authority, now called the Financial Conduct Authority or the FCA, in respect of its June 2012 review of the mis-selling of financial products to companies by UK banks in 2005 and 2006, which I shall refer to hereafter as “the FSA review”.

The FCA now holds the compensation fund contributed to by the banks that were guilty of such practices. The fund was set up to provide recompense to small and medium-sized enterprises—SMEs—that were mis-sold certain financial instruments. I seek the Government’s support in challenging the FCA’s definition of a SME as contained in the limitations of the FCA review, so that all businesses and not just the smaller ones may be permitted support and assistance from the FCA in claiming compensation for being mis-sold financial products.

I also wish to challenge the limitation placed on the types of financial products that were part of the FSA review. In 2007, the FSA implemented new conduct of business rules, which derived from the EU’s 2007 markets in financial instruments directive. Under those rules, customers are afforded different levels of protection according to the category into which they fit.

The three categories are retail, which includes private individuals and smaller businesses not regulated by the FSA; professional, which includes larger firms, some of which are regulated by the FSA; and eligible counterparties, which includes financial institutions such as investment banks and stockbrokers.

Before 2007, the boundaries between retail and professional customers were significantly lower than they are now. Today, as a direct result of the 2007 rule changes, the banks are prohibited from selling many products they used to sell to their customers. Recognising, however, that we had insufficient legislation and protection for our businesses against the banks’ mis-selling of financial products back in 2005-06, I question why the FSA review protected only some and not all of those affected.

I suggest that the limitations set by the FSA fly in the face of logic and reason, and wrongly exclude a number of organisations from deserved recompense. I therefore ask the Minister to require that the FCA increase the scope of the compensation fund. We should afford protection to all affected companies, regardless of their size and of which financial products they were mis-sold. Quite simply, if they were mis-sold anything, they should be entitled to the protection of the FSA review, and compensated accordingly by the FCA.

In June 2012, the FSA issued a statement regarding the banks’ mis-selling of financial products. The statement reads as follows:

“The FSA has today announced that it has found serious failings in the sale of interest rate hedging products to some small and medium sized businesses (SMEs). We believe that this has resulted in a severe impact on a large number of these businesses. In order to provide as swift a solution to this problem as possible we have today confirmed that we have reached agreement with Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and RBS to provide appropriate redress where mis-selling has occurred.

The banks will move to provide redress directly for those customers that bought the most complex products. They have also agreed to stop marketing interest rate structured collars to retail customers.

Interest rate hedging products can protect bank customers against the risk of interest rate movements and can be an appropriate product when properly sold in the right circumstances. During the period 2001 to date, banks sold around 28,000 interest rate protection products to customers.

These products range in complexity from comparatively simple ‘caps’ that fixed an upper limit to the interest rate on a loan, through to the more complex derivatives such as ‘structured collars’ which fixed interest rates within a band but introduced a degree of interest rate speculation.

Over the past two months the FSA has conducted a review of these sales. We have reviewed a significant amount of documentation from the firms (including sales files, customer complaints and taped conversations). We have also talked to over 100 customers who have come forward.”

In its investigations, the FSA found a number of poor sales practices by the banks, including poor disclosure of exit costs; failure to ascertain customers’ understanding of risk; non-advised sales straying into advice; over-hedging, which is where the amounts or the duration did not match the underlying loans; and rewards and incentives being a driver of the practices.

In its statement, the FSA concluded that

“not all businesses will be owed redress”,

which means that only SMEs, and only those SMEs that were sold interest rate hedging products, were entitled to redress. Those conditions left certain businesses, simply because of the number of employees they had or the amount of turnover they generated, being declared by the FSA as “sophisticated investors”, and not entitled to redress via the FSA, or the FCA in its new form.

For the FCA, a sophisticated investor is an organisation that is bigger than an SME, but I suggest that the term must surely apply to a person, firm or organisation that has a degree of sophisticated knowledge or understanding of financial products, and that the level of sophistication cannot be determined merely by size.

From information provided to me by a constituent, the FCA’s definition of an SME—a “non-sophisticated investor”—which has been agreed with the banks, is that it is an organisation with an annual turnover of less than £6.5 million, a head count of fewer than 50 and protected assets of less than £3.26 million. If a company cannot satisfy two or more of those criteria, it is considered outside the FCA’s scope for the compensation fund.

The definition hardly covers all SMEs, especially when we consider that they are differently defined by the Companies Act 2006. Under that Act, a medium-sized company is defined as having fewer than 250 employees—considerably more than 50—and a turnover of less than £12.9 million.

Furthermore, under European Commission guidelines adopted on 1 January 2005 with a view to harmonising the Europe-wide definition of an SME, there is a third definition whereby a medium-sized company is defined as having fewer than 250 employees and an annual turnover of less than €50 million, which is the equivalent of £42.5 million and therefore considerably larger than the figure in the FSA’s definition.

The FSA created its own definition of an SME with no public consultation and no logic or reason behind it, and in a way that seems to contradict legislation and EU guidelines. Perhaps it was influenced by the banks—perhaps not.

We are talking about the very sector that has been hit hardest by the mis-selling of interest rate swap agreements. All we seek is growth, most of which will come from small and medium-sized businesses, so does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that group of companies and organisations should be given the best assistance possible, so that they can get out of these appalling agreements and carry on with their businesses?

I partly agree, but I would like to see justice for all companies, irrespective of their number of employees or the size of their turnover. As a former banker, I know that the degree of sophistication needed to understand these complex products is extremely high. If companies were not properly educated into the deals they were doing, why should the FSA pick one particular group to protect? I agree with the emphasis on SMEs as a very important sector, but they are not the only sector.

We know that many businesses were mis-sold different types of financial product. In many cases, they were mis-sold products that were even more complicated than the interest rate hedging products covered by the review, but because they were mis-sold a different and more complex type of product, they, too, are not entitled to redress via the FCA compensation fund. Could it be that companies outside the FCA’s definition of an SME, such as my constituent, that were mis-sold complex financial products have suffered even greater financial losses than those that have redress available to them?

In the FSA statement of last June, Martin Wheatley, managing director of the conduct business unit, said:

“For many small businesses this has been a difficult and distressing experience with many people's livelihoods affected. Our work has focused on ensuring a swift outcome for these businesses that form such an important port of the economy.”

That was rather what my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) said.

Surely all businesses, large and small, form an important part of our economy. For my particular constituent, whose case I will cover in detail, the effects of the banks’ negligent malpractices were unquantifiable. It is almost impossible to predict how the company might have grown, how many more people it might have employed and how its development might have impacted on the local economy of Herefordshire had it not lost in excess of £2.25 million over just a few months, which it spent five years paying off. Because it had more than 50 employees at the relevant time and was doing well in turnover during the relevant period, it did not get access to the justice to which others were entitled from the compensation fund.

Despite my constituent’s company being clearly recognisable as a medium-sized enterprise under the Companies Act definition, it falls outside the FCA’s unique version of what constitutes an SME. I suggest that it is not alone, and that it is time that the floodgates were opened to provide redress to all organisations that have been the victim of bank malpractice, regardless of their size and of what they were mis-sold.

I think that we would all agree that the FSA review was necessary to bring order to the banks, to create accountability for past negligence and malpractices and to provide deserved recompense for those that had been misled and badly advised by the banks. However, it is now time to do more.

My constituent’s is a privately-owned, limited company, called allpay Ltd. Entrepreneur-led and owned, the company rapidly evolved from a groundbreaking idea in the 1990s—the owner re-mortgaged his house to get the business off the ground—and has now become one of Herefordshire’s biggest success stories. It was the first company to use magnetic swipe cards to collect payments for Departments, local authorities and registered social landlords cheaply, efficiently and safely. It now offers several bill payment solutions, and processes nearly £5 billion of central and local authority and RSL payments every year. The business deserves recognition and reward for its services to the public sector, its innovation and its creation of hundreds of jobs in the most rural county in England. The company is still growing.

In 2005-06, allpay was the victim of mis-selling by its bank, HSBC. Originally, allpay asked HSBC to advise it on the very type of product that was covered by the FSA review, but it was ultimately mis-sold something significantly more complex: three multi-callable range accrual interest rate swaps—products that, although speculative in nature, were sold as hedging by the bank.

The company had banked with HSBC for many years and felt that it could trust the bank to recognise its needs and understand which products were suitable. It was required to sign HSBC’s private customer terms and conditions, which confirmed that it did not rely on advice from the bank, but fully understood the risks as it was a sophisticated customer. The word “sophisticated” was not defined.

There is no evidence that allpay was made aware of the risks, yet HSBC continued to present more complex products for sale. The beauty of the bank’s sales pitch was to offer differing products—some suitable, but with a price attached, and some unsuitable, with a slight additional return and a purchase price of zero. The bank relied on an unsophisticated customer not to spot the unlimited risk associated with the free products should there be an adverse rate movement.

Under the terms of the agreement, allpay initially received from HSBC the difference between the interest rate that was first set and LIBOR on a notional sum, provided that LIBOR remained below 5.5%. We are all aware of the LIBOR manipulation scandal, and it is impossible to suggest that my constituent’s company was not one of its indirect victims.

The agreement was for five years. HSBC, not allpay, had an option to terminate the agreements at the end of each quarter; allpay had no documented exit route. It did not realise that at the time, because in no way was it ever a sophisticated investor with any degree of sophisticated financial knowledge about its entering into something akin to betting on a horse—in essence, gambling on LIBOR rates staying at a certain level. At the time, my constituent’s company entirely misunderstood the risks. Furthermore, even when it explicitly asked HSBC, allpay never received an explanation about the level of compensation that the company would have to pay if the bet was lost.

To go back to the FSA’s investigation of bank behaviour, there were several findings. It found poor disclosure of exit costs, and my constituent told me that allpay had no contractual right to exit and that no exit costs were stated. It found that there was a failure to ascertain customers’ understanding of risk, and I know that HSBC failed to explain the risks to allpay. It found that non-advised sales strayed into advice, and allpay told me that it asked for advice on hedging products but was ultimately sold something more risky. It found that rewards and incentives were a driver of such practices, and in this case the rewards for the employees who carried out the sale were significant. Therefore, despite ticking all the boxes looked into by the FSA review, my constituent still has no form of redress.

Ultimately, the horse did not win: my constituent’s company lost more than £2.25 million and overnight, with a change in the LIBOR rate, found itself haemorrhaging almost £5,000 a day—£35,000 a week or £455,000 a quarter—in interest. That was completely unsustainable, and would be for most businesses for any period. Worse still, those figures were the least amounts payable: if interest rates moved further from the agreed price, they could easily double, treble or more.

My constituent’s company was left in a very difficult position—completely over a barrel—facing certain insolvency and the probable loss of hundreds of jobs. The managing director attempted everything that he could: he threatened, begged, cajoled and applied to exit out of an agreement that had no exit clause. It cost the company dearly, not just in the interest payments made, but in additional costs of £1.5 million to cover the bank’s lost income. Ironically, HSBC provided the loan for the exit payment that it agreed to take.

My constituent’s company was advised to sue the bank for negligence, but by that time it did not have the resources to take on HSBC in expensive and lengthy High Court litigation. It asked the FSA to consider allpay in its review, but the request was refused due to its size at the relevant time and the type of product it was mis-sold.

The company asked HSBC for recompense. Appallingly, HSBC ignored it and responded to its correspondence only when I stepped in to offer my support. HSBC’s in-house lawyer finally engaged with my constituent’s company and entered into some dialogue, eventually inviting my constituent from Hereford to its offices in Canary Wharf on a “without prejudice” basis to discuss a settlement. The meeting was a waste of time: it lasted no more than 30 minutes, and it appears that HSBC dragged my constituent to London essentially to be told to get lost. The bank made it clear that it will discuss the matter further only if it is compelled to do so by the FCA, and if the case is brought within the review.

In March, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) queried why other products were excluded from the FSA review. A constituent of his was mis-sold a fixed-rate tailored business loan and was excluded from the review. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is ready to press the FCA to extend the review’s remit, which I wholeheartedly support. An extension of the scope of the original FSA review is necessary.

The decision to limit the scope of the FSA review was perverse, because it did not take into account the categories into which companies fitted and what definition they met, nor the fact that companies, through no fault of their own but entirely due to a banking institution, were mis-sold a financial product and suffered significant financial loss. There is no logical explanation for the exclusion from redress of companies due to their size or to the type of product that they were mis-sold.

I appreciate that an extension might open the floodgates to a wave of new claims against other banks and trigger a significant increase in their provisions for mis-selling liabilities, which have already more than doubled to £2 billion, but the banks might just learn a lesson. I hope that the Government will support all affected businesses of whatever size, ensure that the banks are called on by the FCA to provide compensation for their malpractices and that the FCA is compelled to extend the scope of the review.

This is the first opportunity that I have had to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is a real pleasure. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) on securing this important debate. I acknowledge the strength of his feeling on this particular subject. He has put forward a considered and eloquent argument to the Chamber, and made a strong representation on behalf of his constituent.

I am sure that everyone present is keen to see a speedy conclusion to the Financial Conduct Authority review of the mis-selling of financial products. It is only right that businesses that have been mis-sold products are compensated accordingly.

The Government have been clear from the start that such practices are unacceptable. We take extremely seriously the abuse that has taken place, and we are determined that any wrongs that have been inflicted on businesses should be put right. My hon. Friend shared with us the example of allpay Ltd, which is a company in his constituency that was sold a hedging product but is not eligible for the FCA review. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand if I do not go into the specifics of that particular case right now, but I am happy to look into any case, including the one that he has raised, in further detail.

I want to take this opportunity to address the key points that my hon. Friend has raised. First, he challenged the definition of an SME as used by the FCA in its review. He has argued instead that all businesses, not just the smaller ones, should be given support and assistance from the FCA in claiming compensation.

The FCA used the criteria for non-sophisticated customers, as set out in the UK Companies Act 2006, in its objective test. That is because those criteria are used for classifying companies that are subject to the small companies regime, and that have lighter reporting requirements. They are therefore the companies that are less likely to have staff or advisers with appropriate knowledge and skills to advise directors on the purchasing of financial instruments.

Moreover, I understand that the FCA review also changed the sophistication test in January to ensure that certain customers who were classified as sophisticated under the Companies Act test are instead classified as non-sophisticated and therefore brought into the scope of the review. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome that move, particularly as his constituency in Herefordshire, like mine in Bromsgrove, has many farmers. Had the change not happened, many farmers who typically have larger work forces and balance sheets than other SMEs could have been excluded.

The Government have been clear that where a business lacks the necessary skills and knowledge to understand fully the risks of such products, it should receive the appropriate redress. However, we do not agree that all businesses should have access to the FCA review. Instead, there needs to be a defined cut-off point where more sophisticated businesses are able to take responsibility for understanding the products or services they are entering into. There will be organisations that took one of these product with a full understanding of the risks involved if interest rates changed, and it is not for the Government to perform due diligence for such large, sophisticated organisations. Any such action would weaken incentives for businesses to act sensibly when purchasing financial instruments, and would potentially open the floodgates—a word my hon. Friend also used—to any businesses that have lost out from a financial transaction. I am therefore confident that the FCA has found the right balance to ensure that all non-sophisticated businesses fall inside the scheme.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the limitation placed on the type of financial products that are part of the FCA review. Given the widespread sale of the particular products included in the review to small businesses, it is reasonable that the FCA has established the parameters of its review on that basis. The FCA did that based on a full review of what products were sold to which businesses and by whom, and the full review includes all those products that were widely sold to small and unsophisticated businesses.

The FCA must also consider how to allocate its resources economically and efficiently, and it therefore seems reasonable that the review is focused on the products where the bulk of sales took place.

In closing, I reiterate that the Government take extremely seriously the abuse that has taken place in very many cases.

I am most grateful to the Minister for taking the trouble to reply to this debate. He is right that there are some things in there, but will he agree to think about how a regulator such as the FCA should proceed in the future so that we get regulation across the board, and not just for specific groups of companies? It strikes me that it does not matter how many employees a company has or how big its balance sheet is, it should be behaving responsibly. In the case of larger companies, more jobs are put at risk if financial mis-selling takes place, and we rely on the FCA to be a regulator. I would be grateful if he bore that in mind.

Yes, I can bear that in mind. My hon. Friend makes a characteristically good point. Throughout this debate, he has raised a number of important issues, but I hope that he accepts that the FCA is an organisation that needs a degree of strong independence so that it can make robust decisions and not be influenced for the wrong reasons.

Will the Minister consider this particular situation? If a company has gone into administration because of the mis-selling of an interest rate hedging product, it is by definition excluded. If it is in administration, only the insolvency practitioner can represent the interests of that company, but the insolvency practitioner is often appointed by the bank and is extremely loth to sue the bank for redress, and if it does, it has a direct interest, which means that there is a conflict of interest in that sort of situation. The company can never get redress because, effectively, the company owner has gone down the pan—his house will be gone and so on. It is an appalling situation. Will the Minister address that point for me?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The issue of insolvency, insolvency law and our approach to that is, as she will know, looked at in great detail by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Given the connection between that issue and the one we are discussing, I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is aware of it and responds accordingly.

Let me reiterate that the Government take extremely seriously the abuse that has taken place in many cases and I am determined that these wrongs will be put right. I want to see a quick solution to the mis-selling of interest rate hedging products to allow those businesses to continue to operate and contribute to the ongoing recovery of the UK economy. Once again I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire on securing this debate.

In Amenas Hostages

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, in what is a very sensitive and important debate.

When you look into the eyes of a mother who has just lost her son, you begin to understand what true heartbreak is. On Friday 8 May this year, when I met Margaret Barlow and Jan Barnes, the mother and sister of Garry Barlow, an innocent victim of the In Amenas terrorist attack, that heartbreak is what I saw. It is on their behalf that I have secured this debate.

Five months have now passed since the attack and the family still have too many unanswered questions. They still do not know the full and exact details of how, or when, Garry died. In a statement to the House on 21 January this year, the Prime Minister said:

“There is still some uncertainty about the precise facts”.—[Official Report, 21 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 25.]

I trust that the Minister can begin to enlighten us about some of those facts today.

One of the main areas where we are short on facts is how and why the attack happened. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was rationalised as retaliation for the French involvement in Mali. However, that view is now rejected. Other motives that have been speculated on are kidnapping, ransom, suicide bombers, or that the attack was an attempt to secure the release of Islamic terrorist prisoners. There are even some reports that suggest that the Algerian security services may have had some involvement. At the moment, we just do not know the truth.

I would be grateful if the Minister provided an explanation of the facts, particularly—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

To recap, I should be grateful if the Minister could provide an explanation of the facts, particularly the motivating factors for the attack and its purpose. We really need an answer to the most fundamental of all the questions, which is how, despite the Foreign Office and BP, independent assessments and local intelligence, were Garry Barlow and the other foreign workers at the plant left in harm’s way? How could that happen, when the Foreign Office issues travel advice, companies are paid to provide strategic risk assessments and advice on areas throughout the world, including Africa, major multinational companies running those projects employ on-site security advisers, and employees on the ground feed back information to their companies?

In November, the Foreign Office amended its travel advice to increase the threat level in Algeria. An article in the Financial Times on 24 January stated:

“‘there were no known specific threats to the site’”.

Yet previously, in July 2012, a report by Executive Analysis named the In Amenas plant as a potential target for a terrorist attack. In the same article, BP is referenced as arguing

“that there was no need for private guards in In Amenas”,

owing to

“large numbers of Algerian security forces”

located nearby, with a full arsenal, including helicopters and tanks. Alongside that,

“access to the complex was controlled by Algerian gendarmerie.”

Yet somehow, 40 heavily armed gunmen travelled unnoticed across the desert, according to reports, and took control of the plant.

The uncorrected transcript of the Foreign Affairs Committee sitting on 21 May contains interesting evidence from Jon Marks, an associate fellow at Chatham House. He says that

“the plant was being softened up for such an attack, at least as far as we understand at present.”

The most damning critique of the official picture is in Garry Barlow’s own words, in an e-mail to his sister on 30 November 2012. He wrote:

“situation is getting dodgy here, local drivers have been on strike for 6 months, they are now on hunger strike, place is practically crippled and can’t go on much longer.

Government would normally step in and shoot them, however they belong to the Tuareg tribe. The Tuareg are nomadic and occupy a large area of the Sahara crossing many borders. They recently staged a coup in Mali and took control, as they are militant Islamists. Al Qaeda are now starting to settle in Mali, this is making the Algerian Government very nervous and they have sent a few battalions to the southern region. They have not intervened in the strike as they don’t want to inflame the situation.

Local Tuareg have said that if any of the hunger strikers die then they will kill 30 expats at the In Amenas gas plant. As most expats have been demobbed, there are only 10 of us left, they must be planning to kill us all three times over, ha ha. Don’t start any candle lit services yet.

Due on Wednesday…not sure if there will be a job when I am back on site though.”

Somehow, somewhere, between the information available and what was being communicated by the companies to their staff there was a disconnect, which cost lives and needs to be explained.

Garry Barlow was my constituent, and his widow and their two children are still trying to find out precisely what happened to Garry. Mrs Barlow recently sought my further assistance, to try to get more and better information about what happened to Garry, because she feels that that has not been advanced at all since his death. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind in responding.

I thank my hon. Friend.

Is the Minister satisfied that the companies employing British staff at the In Amenas plant provided the correct advice and assurances to ensure those workers were safe? What is his evidence for being satisfied of that, beyond the companies’ verbal assurances?

In the light of Garry Barlow’s e-mail, does the Minister believe that the Foreign Office failed to react to the changing circumstances on the ground in Algeria? Can he explain why so many foreign workers had been demobbed, as Garry stated in his e-mail? Was that related to the security situation? If so, why were not all the foreign workers removed? Did the FCO have any conversations with BP or the Algerian authorities about the situation within the region and about any developing threats to the safety of foreign workers?

I am sorry that I have such a series of questions, but there is a mountain of unanswered questions. Does the Minister believe that the companies employing British workers, or the Algerian authorities as the host nation, fulfilled their duty of care to the staff at or returning to the In Amenas plant in January? British citizens working abroad need to be confident that the Government play an active role in monitoring the security provisions of multinational companies with British interests such as BP. It is really important that there are such assurances.

I will now turn to the Government’s response during and after the hostage situation. On 17 January 2013, the Prime Minister made a statement saying that the families should expect “bad news”. The families learned that information like everyone else, as it was being broadcast through the TV in their living rooms. Even the police liaison teams had not been informed that a statement was to be made, much less the content.

All the Barlow family have ever sought was to be told information before it was given to the media so that they were able to prepare and protect their family, especially the children. I know how badly affected Mrs Barlow was. The whole family were affected, but I have seen Mrs Barlow and my heart goes out to her. Mrs Barlow Sr is in a dreadful state.

That one aspect of control in the whole situation was taken away from the family, and I have been asked to convey their deep disappointment at the Prime Minister’s failure to make personal contact with them; there was not even a telephone call to offer condolences to Mrs Barlow on the loss of her son. That is in contrast to the Norwegian Prime Minister, who personally met the families of the Norwegian victims of the terrorist attack. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one understands that such words of condolence do not take away the pain of that loss, yet there is the smallest comfort in those simple words, which are respectful and demonstrate that the human life lost is valued. Public statements such as laying wreaths, as the Prime Minister did in Algeria, have their place, but care and compassion in communicating with the families should have been paramount.

I acknowledge the work of the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), in trying to keep the families informed, but the Prime Minister told the families via TV and radio that their relatives were in mortal danger, which is a very sad indictment of his priorities. I urge the Minister to review the manner in which his Department and the Government as a whole handled communications with the family and to resolve any issues.

Finally, I turn to the investigation that is currently being conducted by SO15 officers and the effectiveness of that investigation. At the time of the attack, an SO15 officer was sent to Algeria. Between Algiers and In Amenas, the officer was accompanied by a BP representative. During his time in Algeria, the investigating officer was prevented from gaining access to the In Amenas site not once but twice, despite the British Prime Minister having sought assurances on access from the Algerian Prime Minister. Even the media were allowed access. SO15 was not allowed access, but the media were. On the last occasion the SO15 officer spoke to my constituents, he still had not managed to gain access to the In Amenas plant, where operations are already back up and running.

How can the families have confidence that that investigation will offer any real answers when the crime scene has been compromised and vital forensic information from the site and the bodies have been lost? Why does there appear to be little or no co-operation from the Algerian authorities on allowing British investigators access to the site? Can the Minister explain the efficacy of BP’s involvement with the investigating team given that BP has not conducted its own investigation, unlike its partner Statoil? Is it not appropriate that, rather than joining the investigation, BP be considered as a body to be investigated? Will the Minister comment on the appropriateness of the investigating officers speaking at conferences on the situation when the families have been given little or no information on the current progress of the investigation?

I thank the Minister in advance for responding to my questions, and I hope he is able to restore some of the Barlow family’s faith and confidence that the Government are on their side, with care, compassion and feeling for all members of the family being paramount.

I am pleased to be under your guidance this afternoon, Ms Dorries.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing this important debate and on the measured, calm and detailed way in which she set out her concerns and those of her constituents and other hon. Members. Before I respond to her points, I put on record that my thoughts and sympathies are with all those affected by the terrorist attacks at In Amenas. I am personally very sorry for the tragic loss of Mr Barlow and all those, UK citizens and others, who lost their lives in that terrorist atrocity.

No one will forget the horror of those days in January, when six British nationals and one British resident lost their lives. I can only begin to imagine how difficult those days must have been for those anxiously waiting for news and how painful every moment has been since that news was received. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: no words, however well meaning and however often they are repeated, can relieve the suffering of the loved ones of those British citizens and others who lost their lives in Algeria.

I remind hon. Members that Her Majesty’s coroner is legally responsible for determining the cause of death, and my response must not in any way prejudice the course of her inquiries.

The hon. Lady raised very serious, significant, substantive and important issues, and I will try to address them in my remarks. I hope she and other hon. Members will be patient. What happened at In Amenas was abhorrent, and it was the terrorists who were responsible for the tragic deaths of so many. We know that the terrorist threat in the Sahel comes from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which aspires to introduce Islamic law across the Sahel and north Africa and to attack western interests wherever it can. The hon. Lady is right to say that we should not assume a straightforward link to events in Mali given the complexity of the attack, but we do not know now, and we may never know, what motivated the individuals at In Amenas. What we do know is that their actions—the cold-blooded murder of innocent workers—can never be justified. That is why the world stood united in its condemnation, and why the actions of the extremists have only confirmed our implacable opposition to terrorism and our resolve to fight it together.

The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is holding an inquiry into terrorism in north and west Africa. To our mind, it seems that many of the terrorists who carried out the attack, and who were involved as well in the destabilisation of the Malian force, were trying to help Colonel Gaddafi before his regime in Libya fell. Many of them are not from Algeria but from neighbouring countries in the Sahel. Does he accept that the outcome of the Libyan conflict had some bearing on the attack, and indeed on what is happening in Mali?

Of course I am aware of the detail of the Foreign Affairs Committee investigation. The hon. Gentleman is partially right, in that the perpetrators of that terrorist atrocity were not all from inside Algeria, but he will also be aware that the borders in that part of Africa are extremely porous. It is a significant challenge that countries in the region must resolve, with the co-operation and assistance of the international community at both multilateral and bilateral levels, if we are to ensure that that sort of situation does not occur again.

To pick up on one of the key elements of the contribution made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire about the safety of the British nationals involved, the repatriation of those killed and the evacuation of the wounded and freed hostages was the top priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and of the international community as it related to people of other nationalities. Staff in London and Algiers worked around the clock to support the Algerians in resolving the crisis, and our embassy in Algeria was strengthened by 18 consular experts, six experts from the Red Cross and specialists from the Metropolitan police. We gave direct assistance to the British nationals involved in Algeria, and our ambassador was the first to reach In Amenas. Our response involved playing a leading role among the countries affected, including sharing information with them and supporting the identification of victims. We have continued to take a lead since then, for instance by co-ordinating work on the return of possessions.

As hon. Members will remember, In Amenas is two days’ drive from Algiers; it is in the middle of the Sahara desert and is one of the most remote places in the world. Information was therefore difficult to come by, not least since we were not informed in advance of Algerian operations. None the less, I understand and regret that the unpredictable nature of events and a lack of detail caused distress for those waiting for news.

The attack was on a significant scale. From the outset, the Prime Minister led the United Kingdom response, chairing Cobra on a number of occasions. He continued to do so in the month after the attack, making a ground-breaking visit to Algeria, closely followed by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). We believe that early, proactive and personal engagement with families and relevant MPs is essential. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Lancashire for her commendation of my hon. Friend, who did a sterling job in difficult circumstances.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister immediately offered ministerial contact, via police liaison officers, to all affected families and MPs, a number of whom took up the offer, including the family of Mr Barlow. I know that my right hon. Friend has recently spoken with them again and regrets sincerely that he cannot be here in person today.

I accept that we may not always get contact right in crises where information is limited. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office always seeks to learn from such incidents, and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire will be doing so. He has discussed the police liaison process with the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police to see whether it can be improved in future.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire specifically made the point that what happened was unclear. It is still unclear. Some of the details are still not known. I know how hard that must be for the families, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment on behalf of the Algerian authorities or BP. Instead, we very much hope that the investigation, on which the Algerian authorities are leading, and the coroner’s inquest in the UK, will answer some of the hon. Lady’s questions, and those of her constituents and others.

We continue to discuss the detail of the In Amenas attack with the Algerian authorities at every available opportunity, including at ministerial level, as we did when the Prime Minister and the Minister for the middle east visited in the weeks following the attack. We will support their investigations in any way that we can. We continue to seek assurances from the Algerian authorities that they will share details and access to the site in the aftermath of the attack. None the less, it must be said that Algeria is a sovereign country and, just as we would expect to do here, the Algerians must be allowed to conduct their investigations in accordance with their own laws.

The coroner’s investigation will take place early in 2014. The Government are supporting that process. A small team of Metropolitan Police Service officers travelled to Algeria on 18 January to lead on the identification and repatriation of those who died, and they continue to gather information. They last travelled to Algeria in May. Her Majesty’s coroner for West Sussex will hold a preliminary hearing on 1 July, which will set out the scope of her investigation.

It is important to understand that this is a complex inquiry into deaths that occurred at a site staffed by multinational personnel. Nationals from nine other countries lost their lives, and individuals from a total of 29 countries were involved, so much of the information that might assist the coroner is not automatically available in the UK. The police are therefore liaising with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Algerian authorities and other international authorities and partners to progress enquiries and get that information on the coroner’s behalf. Regrettably, that will take time, but I am sure that the hon. Member for West Lancashire will agree that it is absolutely essential that the investigation is thorough and benefits from the maximum availability of the appropriate amount of information.

I am happy to agree that the investigation should be thorough and proper, but can the Minister comment on the fact that SO15 officers were not allowed access to begin that investigation when members of the media were? Surely that is the starting point for a thorough investigation, is it not?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. She was right to emphasise in her initial remarks the assurances that the United Kingdom Prime Minister received, but I am sure she also understands that the Algerians are leading the judicial investigation. They have allowed some access to the site for the repatriation of personal property and possessions, which the UK took a lead on. I assure her that we will continue to press for the appropriate level of access for the UK investigative team in support of the Algerian and coroner’s inquests. I assure all hon. Members that the Government will continue to do all they can to support the families in their search for answers to their very appropriate questions.

Is the Minister aware that the relatives of Garry Barlow know no more now than they did in January about when and how Garry died? They are becoming distressed at the passage of time, without any commensurate increase in the amount of information they have.

That was one of the first questions I asked my officials. I prefer not to put the response on the record, but I am happy to talk privately to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for West Lancashire to give them a more accurate assessment as to why that situation is the case. Perhaps we can find a moment to do that.

I also want to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire about travel advice, which was integral to the thrust of her initial remarks. I assure her that we did not have advance warning about the attack or about specific threats that would have warranted further changes to our travel advice. As I am sure she is aware, our advice already made it clear that western interests were specific targets for terrorism in Algeria.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office closely monitors and keeps under constant review travel advice around the world, including for Algeria, and the advice was updated several times in the months before that appalling attack. It needs to be said, however, that travel advice is what it says—advice. It is up to companies and individuals to heed that advice, or to follow their course of action in the full knowledge that the advice is there.

The advice noted the increased risks following the French military intervention in Mali. Having reviewed our advice once again, I am confident that it accurately reflected what we knew at the time. Had we had any specific information relating directly to In Amenas, it would have been passed to the company immediately. Protecting our citizens is a priority. We try to establish as much information about terrorist activity as we can, and to communicate it both to relevant companies and to the public. The tragic reality is that sometimes there is no warning.

From the outset, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided support to those caught up in the attack and their families, and we will continue to assist in any way we can. Police family liaison officers remain appointed to each family and are in regular contact.

The hon. Lady mentioned concerns about BP. Companies, ultimately, are responsible for the security of their staff and assets. As investigations continue, however, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the security arrangements at the site, or on how BP and the other companies used the information that was available about the threat. Any specific questions on those issues must be addressed to them. Nevertheless, looking ahead, we are doing everything we can by engaging closely with industry representatives to ensure that we are aware of their concerns and that we take steps to give them the best support we can in keeping their staff and assets safe.

To that end, since the In Amenas attacks, we have actively engaged with UK industry in the region and the extractive industries sector to review and refine how we work together on crisis and threat management: first, to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government and industry understand each other’s crisis management mechanisms through information sharing, exercising and using lessons learned from this and other crises; and, secondly, on threat management, to ensure the most effective channels between industry and Government on threat contact, informing our bilateral engagement with partners such as Algeria on their response. I assure the hon. Lady that that work is ongoing.

I also assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to provide the best information possible through our travel advice, and we will work with countries in the region to reduce the risk to British nationals in Algeria and elsewhere in the Sahel and north and west Africa. As the Prime Minister said, we are determined to root out and defeat the terrorist scourge and those who encourage it anywhere in the world, including in north Africa. That issue will be debated at the G8 meeting next week.

In conclusion, the In Amenas attack was a stark reminder of the threat we face throughout the world, and of the importance of a global response to terrorism, not only over months, but over years. I hope that the Algerian investigation and the coroner’s inquest will help to answer some of the questions asked by the hon. Lady this afternoon, and that families in West Lancashire and elsewhere, whose lives were changed for ever by those terrible events, will get responses to their questions. Through the police liaison officers, we will continue to inform them of progress. Finally, I offer again my sincere condolences and those of the Government to the families who lost loved ones in that terrible atrocity.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.