Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Osborne.
Twenty years ago, I was an officer in the Royal Air Force, and I helped to police the no-fly zone over the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Operation Warden operated from Incirlik airbase in Turkey. Aircraft from the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Turkey prevented Saddam Hussein from waging his war against Iraq’s 5 million Kurds. During my tour, I joined coalition officers from the military co-ordination centre in Zakho, northern Iraq. We toured Kurdish villages in that spectacularly beautiful part of the world. We met village elders, and spread the word that the aircraft flying above them were friends, not foes. Of course, we were given a very warm welcome.
The no-fly zone saved lives and has meant that Iraq’s 5 million Kurds have experienced relative stability and peace since the end of the 1991 Gulf war, but the Kurds had suffered abysmally at the hands of Saddam Hussein, who carried out genocide against them, most notoriously at Halabja in 1988. That slaughter of 5,000 men, women and children remains the worst single incident of the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Saddam Hussein destroyed the Kurds’ agricultural base, razed thousands of villages and rounded up the Kurds into concentration camps; it is estimated that about 200,000 people were killed.
When Saddam Hussein’s forces were defeated in Kuwait in 1991, the Kurds rose up, but they were set to be annihilated. One million people fled to the mountains—at that point, they called the mountains their only friends—and the sight of people freezing to death during the winter months prompted the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, John Major, to work incredibly hard to initiate a no-fly zone with other allied forces. It saved the Kurds, and enabled them to rebuild their economy and society into what it is today: a dynamic, prosperous, pluralistic, tolerant and democratic part of a federal Iraq.
Britain has a mixed historical record in Kurdistan, but when I returned there recently I was left in no doubt about the deep affection and respect felt there for the British and for the United Kingdom. I was back in the region last summer as a guest of the Kurdistan Regional Government, via the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq—it is good to see colleagues from that group here this morning. I saw at first hand the peaceful and increasingly prosperous city of Erbil and its surrounding areas, a fairly secular region in which Christians, Jews and Muslims live side by side—we even met a local bishop. Over 2 million tourists visited the region last year. The Erbil citadel, 6,000 years old, is a fantastic building. The world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement, it is set to be a huge tourist attraction. Again, the welcome was warm and friendly.
I also saw first hand that the Kurds are looking west. English is their second language, and they speak it very well indeed. Two universities operate in English and most of the Kurds who go overseas for their studies and postgraduate courses choose to come to the United Kingdom.
The Kurdistan of two decades ago lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Today’s Kurdistan is becoming a wealthy and cosmopolitan society, with an active civil society; but it is still in a transition phase from genocide, dictatorship and its own civil war. It has many bright community leaders and public servants—we met many of them, and they were impressive people—but the practice of politics, administration and civil society is still fairly new to the region, and the Kurds are having to learn new skills. They seek to soak up as much experience, advice and expertise as they can from various bodies, including the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
There is a deepening détente with Turkey. We have to admit that that is based on hard-headed self-interest: the export of Kurdistan’s newly explored and vast reserves of oil and gas has overcome decades of hostility and conflict. That trade is set to be a major gain for Turkey, with a potentially positive impact on resolving the conflict with Turkish Kurds—something that is important for the region—and could also have great positives for European and British energy security, which we have been discussing so much in the House in recent months.
The Kurds want British trade and investment because they value our skills and the quality of our goods and services, but until now we have been too slow to respond. Many Members here today have seen the Kurdish success story for themselves at first hand, and we talk about it regularly. Small and large companies, universities and health bodies should go over to the region and get stuck in.
We have a number of asks of the Minister based on increasing such close co-operation. There should be direct flights from the United Kingdom to the Kurdistan region. When we went there last year, we had to fly with Austrian Airlines via Vienna, which ended up taking seven or eight hours. Direct flights would help massively. We also need a British trade envoy to the region. It would be great if our leaders visited Kurdistan, and even better if we could invite their leaders to come here. It is important that we are bolder and more positive in recognising who our friends are, and we have a great opportunity to make new friends in the Kurdistan region.
Having been helped themselves, the Iraqi Kurds are now helping others. On my trip there in the summer, we spent an emotional day at the Domiz refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border. At that stage—I have no doubt that the figure has since grown—some 130,000 Syrian Kurds had fled the fighting in Syria. I spoke with many refugees, including many children who are continuing their education in specially constructed schools. The Kurdistan Regional Government deserve praise for funding and arranging that, after the crisis the Kurds went through two decades ago.
That ability to help others now is a far cry from the poverty and despair I saw on the border with Turkey 20 years ago. It has been a remarkable journey from genocide to prosperity. I urge the Minister to help efforts to achieve greatly increased co-operation with the Kurds, not just for our sake but for theirs, and I have five specific requests to put to him.
First, I suggest that the UK Government invite the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region on an official visit to London to meet the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Secondly, I suggest that the British Government consider the possibility of a visit by the Foreign Secretary to the Kurdistan region. I have no doubt that he would receive a very warm welcome.
Thirdly, at a time when the Government are stressing the importance of overseas exports and finding new markets, I urge them to appoint a UK trade envoy to the Kurdistan region. I saw an area that is becoming increasingly prosperous, and met the Erbil chamber of commerce where many deals were being done. There are great opportunities for British companies and business people, and having a UK trade envoy would be helpful.
Fourthly, we would like a meeting with the Home Office to discuss the visa regime and how to remove the obstacles to increased cultural and commercial activities with Kurdistan. I referred to students who are choosing the United Kingdom for their university and postgraduate studies, and we should ensure that they are encouraged to come to our wonderful universities, including my local Huddersfield university, which has students from 130 nations. Fifthly, with Holocaust memorial day coming up, I urge the Government to recognise formally the genocide against the Kurds and to take a full part in marking the annual Anfal day on 14 April.
I will conclude my comments because other hon. Members who have experienced the Kurdistan region first hand have some positive and well-informed input to make to the debate. The Iraqi Kurds are back from the brink and making real and positive progress. They are helping their neighbours, and it is important that the United Kingdom does not neglect that renaissance in the Kurdistan region.
I refer to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), who in this debate is my hon. Friend, as well as being my colleague on the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, which I have the honour to co-chair with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is also my hon. Friend in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley on securing the debate. It is good that we have been able to secure a second debate on the Kurdistan region in less than a year, and a sign of the area’s growing potential.
In November, together with some hon. Members here, I visited the Kurdistan region as part of a delegation from the all-party group, and we saw some of the issues affecting the area. The contrast between that visit, which was my sixth, and my first visit four years ago was astonishing and heartening. During my first few visits, it was easy to feel like a pioneer, as there were few western faces about, but today there is a modern airport terminal and several new hotels, each with lobbies full of local and western business people discussing deals and developments. It is truly a transformation.
During the visit in November 2013, we went to the Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley in the summer. The impact on hon. Members who were visiting for the first time, and on me, was such that I want to spend a little longer talking about the situation there. It is the new home, working place and school for 75,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict, of which 13,000 are children. It is just one of 13 refugee camps in the Kurdistan region and the largest of the four in the Dohuk province. In a prominent location near the camp entrance is the child protection unit, which is funded by the UK Government and run by UNICEF. With my previous working experience of child protection, I was pleased that we spent considerable time addressing the issue of children and their welfare.
The Kurdistan region has been at pains to welcome Syrian refugees, and Dohuk’s governor told me that another 75,000 refugees are living in the province among the host community. Two months ago, there were 150,000 refugees, up from the number that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley mentioned. Many of the refugees living in the region have family connections in the area, and highly-qualified refugees have found jobs and been able to move their families into permanent accommodation within the community. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described that hospitality and support as extraordinary. The Kurdistan region has supplied much of the finance itself, which is a huge burden for a region that is still developing its services. For example, many of the local Kurdish schools have double shifts to accommodate all the children who want to attend. The region is not in a good place in terms of being able to welcome refugees, but it is opening its arms to those in desperate need.
I want to emphasise the importance of the Government remembering that the Kurdistan region of Iraq is hosting refugees. In his statement to the House on Monday, the Foreign Secretary referred to refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, but did not mention Iraq; refugees are also flooding over that border and being welcomed there. The Government should recognise that.
I pay tribute to the Government, who have committed £500 million of their aid budget to Syrian refugees. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that further funds will be made available, and I fear that that will be necessary well before the end of the conflict. As the fighting in Syria continues, we must ensure that the people in the refugee camps are not forgotten.
During our visit, I met representatives of Syrian Kurdish groups who are members of the Syrian Opposition coalition. The majority of Kurdish groups oppose the Assad regime, and the representatives we met were clear that they wanted the British people and Government to have a better understanding of the situation in relation to the Syrian Kurdish Opposition. They stressed that the organised Opposition in Syria is different from the al-Qaeda groups that grab the headlines. Those groups were asking for greater representation in the Geneva II talks, and I urge the Foreign Secretary to help to accommodate that.
Turning to economic development and relationships with the UK, I had the opportunity to visit the Taq Taq oilfield, run by the Taq Taq Operating Company and the Turkish-British oil company Genel Energy. The oilfield is a large local employer, employing 400 people from local villages. I understand that the first oil exported to Turkey will be sold by the end of this month, although all of us in contact with the region know that there is some controversy about that. I will not go into that today, but the Kurdistan region has a target of producing 2 million barrels of oil per day by the end of 2019.
Unlike in many post-conflict situations, this region of Iraq is not having to rely on international aid to rebuild its economy. Instead, it is developing the oilfields to ensure a strong source of revenue for decades and generations to come. That foresight and enterprise should be applauded. It was good to meet British citizens working in the oil industry and clearly enjoying working in Kurdistan with local people.
The region is growing quickly, and the regional Government have been strengthening their relationship with Turkey. Not long ago, 200,000 troops were on the border of Turkey, but 200,000 people from Turkey now work in the region. That stability provides a great opportunity to strengthen the commercial and cultural links between the UK and the Kurdistan region.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley said, the all-party parliamentary group has long supported improved trade links between the UK and Kurdistan. Since we began lobbying on the issue of visas, the capacity to receive applications for visas and to take biometrics in Erbil has dramatically increased, which we are pleased to see. However, we know, having spoken earlier this month to the consul general from Erbil, that more could be done, if the capacity were there. I urge the Government to look again at the issue and consider providing even more capability. As has been said, our all-party group would like to have a further meeting with the Home Office to explore what more can be done.
We have long campaigned, as has also been mentioned, on the importance of direct flights from Kurdistan to the UK. It is good to note that progress is being made with the recent visit by officials to Erbil. However, it would be remiss of me not to press the Minister further on maintaining the pressure for a positive outcome as soon as possible. The UK is the country of choice for trade for many in Kurdistan, and we should do all we can to facilitate those contacts. Compared with other European countries, there is a lack of ministerial support from the UK to British companies in Kurdistan. Trade and Industry Ministers in Italy, Germany and other countries tend to visit Kurdistan, often with big trade missions, and they are all well received by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Although it was a great pleasure, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, to lead a trade delegation as a Back-Bench Member of the UK Parliament in 2010, so much more could be done if Ministers were to go out with trade delegations and the companies that really want to do trade in Kurdistan, to make those contacts. It is clear that the countries that are giving that priority are benefiting, through positive contacts with their companies, and through gaining contracts.
Similarly, it is good to see that the UK remains the country of choice for the majority of students who are funded by the Kurdistan Regional Government on placements overseas as part of their human capacity development programme. Many universities across the UK are welcoming students, including Sheffield Hallam university. That is a real benefit for all concerned and is likely to have long-term benefits. The university of Huddersfield, which has already had a mention this morning, has even formed an alumni association in Kurdistan, with more than 70 former students and their families attending the recent launch. We know that many students who have spent time in the UK carry positive attitudes for the rest of their lives, which can lead to ongoing relationships in a wide range of walks of life, including business, academia, and even politics.
The willingness of the people of the region to help and support people from other areas of Iraq who have faced persecution, particularly the Christian community, has been impressive. They have again shown their good will in providing help to the refugees from Syria. They are a beacon in the middle east of a stable, democratic and welcoming people and Administration. It is time for more MPs and Ministers to take seriously our relationships with the Kurdistan region, and it would be good to see the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, for example, doing an investigation into the prospects for the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the issues facing the Kurds across Syria, Turkey and Iran; that is just a suggestion. I am sure that other hon. Members will cover security, but we stress the importance of the Government providing non-lethal security equipment to help the KRG. The UK must do all that it can to support the ongoing work of the KRG to develop the resources in the area and the skills and enterprise of the people.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on initiating the debate. He displayed extraordinary knowledge, and we respect his service in the armed forces. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), whom I call my hon. Friend; I hope she will not mind me saying that she represents the liberal interventionist wing in her party—something I strongly support.
My interests are on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and chairman of the Kurdish genocide task force. I am privileged to have been to Kurdistan a significant number of times over the past few years, and every time I have been, I have seen the region go from strength to strength. Until the 1990s, Kurdistan faced constant threats to its very existence through war, internal unrest and genocide, and yet incredibly, it is now a progressive, democratic Muslim nation, where the rule of law is well established. For Kurdistan, freedom is not only about elections, but about being a place where women have equality, all religions are respected, property rights are manifest, and where a free press is unshackled. It is early days, and of course there are problems, but the direction is positive.
Across the Kurdistan region, business is flourishing, as has been described, and people are keen on British and foreign investment. Privatisation continues apace and huge property complexes are being built. There are significant oil and gas reserves, which, unusually in these parts, are used for the benefit of the country, not salted away in corruption. As I pointed out in an early-day motion, which I tabled just before my visit to the region in November with my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, the KRG can become an important ally in guaranteeing the UK’s future energy security, but we must be aware of the legacy of the Ba’athist regime. I know from questions tabled by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) that there are questions and reservations about the closeness of Crescent Petroleum to Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime, and therefore its current status as operator in the Kurdistan region. That needs to be examined.
Three significant challenges face the KRG, some of which threaten its survival as an autonomous region in Iraq, as well as all its social and economic achievements since 1992. I shall describe each in turn. They are terrorism, the situation in Syria, and as has been mentioned, the recognition of the genocide.
Since its founding, the KRG has faced significant terrorism threats, mainly from Iran and al-Qaeda, but there have been very few attacks, thanks to tight security. Similar to what people see when visiting the state of Israel, outside every major building, there are guards checking for suicide bombers and armed checkpoints are on all the major roads. Sadly last September, one day after the results of the fourth democratic elections in the region, there were two linked suicide bomb attacks in Erbil, one on the Interior Ministry and the other on the next-door security directorate. I visited the site with my hon. Friends. Seven security guards died, with more injured. The atrocity was linked to al-Qaeda, which is thought to control vast swathes of Mosul, an Iraqi province next to Kurdistan where a strong Salafist movement has been established. On visiting the site of the attack, one Minister warned that if action was not taken, Mosul could become a second Afghanistan in one year, with significant implications not only for Kurdistan, but for the whole of Iraq. The British Government should take that seriously.
Secondly, there is Syria. The unstable situation in Syria is a threat to the KRG’s security and stability. It is thought that the terrorism I have described is being aided and abetted by terrorists passing through Syria, trained by al-Qaeda and funded in part from Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sudan. In addition to the exploitation of the Syrian crisis by extreme Islamists, large numbers of refugees are seeking safety in Kurdistan. Many of the refugees accepted by Kurdistan are Syrian Kurds, who represent 9%—1.9 million—of the Syrian population.
During my recent trip to the KRG, I, like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, visited the Domiz camp, just 40 miles from the Syrian border, where there were 75,000 refugees, including 15,000 children. The Kurds, having experienced centuries of persecution, have welcomed the refugees and assisted them by providing residence permits and work opportunities. Nevertheless, the number of refugees, already at 250,000, is due to increase and that will inevitably put the KRG’s society under strain. In addition to the pragmatic challenges of hosting such large numbers, the geopolitical consequences are also of extreme importance. What happens if Syria breaks up post-Assad? Does the Kurdistan region extend into Syria, with the risk of a domino effect on the millions of Kurds who live in Iran and Turkey?
The third challenge is the genocide. Inexplicably, the genocide against the Kurds, described earlier, has not been recognised internationally, causing a deep sense of grievance among the Kurds. I have said in previous debates in the House on Kurdistan that I have seen there some of the worst places that I have ever seen in my life. When we go to the prisons and to Halabja, we see how the Kurds suffered. Major perpetrators of the chemical gas attacks have not been brought to justice, and some are thought to live freely in Europe. Many of the companies, also from the west, that sold Saddam the materials used to make chemical weapons have not yet faced the criminal courts. In Iraq, the Ba’athist Arab hatred of the Kurds remains strong in some areas, even though in 2008 the Iraqi Parliament recognised the genocide.
In 2013, the Netherlands courts and the House of Commons recognised the genocide. Despite that, it remains incumbent on western Governments to push through a relevant resolution in the United Nations. Recognition would mean that those responsible for war crimes could appear before the international court and compensation and reparation would be given to the KRG. The Kurds are a nation that does not live in the past, but learns from the past. Recognition would help to heal the wounds from many years.
Following last year’s debate, the former Minister for the middle east, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), said:
“I am greatly sympathetic to the motion. The Government do not in any way oppose it and I have no doubt that Parliament will respond to the views expressed in the motion by my hon. Friend”—
that was our hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon—
“I have listened carefully, with whatever compassion I may possess, to the case that has been made. I do not doubt that the Foreign Secretary will read the debate with exactly the same sense. I am sure the Government will find the vote of Parliament helpful when further representations are made, as they will be.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2013; Vol. 559, c. 562-63.]
I believe that our country has made a significant step towards recognition of the genocide of the Kurds and I urge the new Minister in that post to carry that forward.
I said at the beginning that western intervention in Iraq saved a nation from being exterminated, but that is not enough. The free world has a real chance of a new, prosperous, democratic and forward-looking Muslim nation forging ahead. The UK can and must assist the Kurdistan Regional Government in reinforcing their democratic institutions and fulfilling their potential. In the short to medium term, we should enter negotiations with the KRG about the supply of non-lethal security equipment to be used in the fight against terrorism. Kurdistan and the geopolitical challenges that it faces because of the instability in Syria should be considered in any solution that the Government put on the table at the Geneva talks.
In the long term, our efforts should focus on strengthening civil society and the people’s participation in political life. There are already two organisations that run projects in Kurdistan—the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the National School of Government—but much more can be done. As has been suggested, Members of Parliament can lead on that by visiting the region, meeting our Kurdish colleagues and sharing best practice. If the Government invited the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region on an official visit, that would send a strong signal to the Kurds.
Kurdistan has the potential to act as a beacon for the rest of Iraq, to be a force for good in the middle east and to spread these values across the region. Muscular enlightenment means more than deposing dictatorships and stopping mass murder. It means helping to embed the conditions necessary for those evils never to return.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this very important debate. I place on the record my appreciation of all the work that my co-chairman of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), did before my time in this place. The moment I arrived here in 2010, she made a beeline for me to ask me to join the group and, soon after, very generously asked me to co-chair it with her.
It will come as no surprise that I declare a significant interest in the relations between the UK and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am immensely proud to be the first British MP of Kurdish descent. The UK provided a safe haven to my family when Iraq was a dangerous place to be a Kurd.
In the relationships between countries, the past will always have an influence on the present, and although memories of British policies may cause suspicions to linger in some parts of the middle east, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq the UK has generated a huge amount of good will over the past 20 years. From implementing a no-fly zone in 1991 to recognising the Kurdish genocide in this place just last year, the UK has been a long-term friend of the Kurdish people, but we cannot be complacent. As a region with a burgeoning economy and even more potential, it is important that we continue to foster this friendship and the great benefits that it can bring to us both.
Politically, the region is not an easy one to operate in, but Kurdistan has made great strides in cementing democracy and is gradually finding its way in the post-Saddam era, as so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). The success of recent elections serves as a model for the rest of Iraq in the run-up to the national polls in April.
One of the most prominent, if slightly controversial, diplomatic developments for the Kurdish region in recent years has been its improved relationship with Turkey. As Turkey is one of the UK’s most important trading partners, the benefits of increased understanding between the two should not be underestimated. Not only has the new-found friendship between Turkey and Kurdistan brought increased stability to the region, but the recently completed oil pipeline will, in time, also help to strengthen the security and diversity of European energy supplies. Although the pipeline has been the cause of some tension with Baghdad, its success should not be viewed on a zero-sum basis. KRG Ministers have assured me that they are proactively engaging with Baghdad to establish a new, reliable and robust revenue-sharing agreement through which the whole country can benefit from the Kurdish success.
Equally, although I recognise that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is beginning to take a more proactive approach towards the KRG, he could go further. I hope that the national elections this year will incorporate all groups in governance and further cement federalism. Such progress in resolving these kinds of disputes will not only enhance stability in Iraq, but enable the region to expand as a gateway to the whole country for trade and investment.
Natural resources are not the whole story of Kurdistan. The pipeline is just one area of progress in a region with a fantastic appetite to work with the United Kingdom. As the economy grows, KRG Ministers are actively encouraging British investment and expertise, creating widespread opportunities for British businesses throughout Kurdistan. On my most recent visit to the region, with a number of colleagues who are here, I met the Prime Minister of the region, Nechirvan Barzani. He reiterated his desire to engage with the UK at governmental and corporate levels to help him deliver the next steps in capacity building and infrastructure development.
Education, health and tourism are all sectors in which British expertise is flourishing and can go further. Our British universities, as we have heard today, are already having major success. We are fortunate enough to host a disproportionate number of the KRG’s international scholarship students, who come to the UK to take advantage of our world-class universities. I urge the Minister to look into what more can be done to help British universities attract such students, and to consider what the Government can do to help establish campuses in the Kurdistan region.
Bringing in companies is only one side of a successful commercial relationship. The KRG must play its part in strengthening efficiency, transparency and dispute resolution.
I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this important debate. Does the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) agree that engagement in developing relations with Kurdistan is important not only at national level but among the regions of the UK? Does he agree that the recent visit of KRG representatives to Northern Ireland, where they met the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Invest Northern Ireland, following on from the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Northern Ireland and the KRG, is significant? Local relationships and opportunities for trade and investment co-operation are extremely important and should be encouraged throughout the UK.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The feedback I have had since those significant visits and meetings is that the level of knowledge sharing, especially with Invest Northern Ireland, and the best practices that the Kurdish delegations observed have been incredibly important in helping them to design their investment packages as part of their investment body, which will visit the UK in the coming weeks. The relationship with the regions of the United Kingdom is also flourishing.
In consolidating our position as the partner of choice to this emerging region, the enhancement of our representation in Irbil was vital. I was pleased to hear last week from our consul general in Irbil that real progress is being made in securing our new consulate. We currently operate out of a hotel in Kurdistan, but the new consulate will be built on land provided by the KRG. I would like to take this opportunity to commend my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on all the progress he made in advancing British relations with the Kurdistan region. I am delighted that he has become the vice-chair of the all-party group on Kurdistan. The Foreign Office’s loss is most certainly our gain.
The UK should be rightly proud of the close friendship that it has forged with the Kurdistan region, but as we have heard, we must not get left behind. From France and Germany to Russia and the United Arab Emirates, other countries are realising the opportunities that exist in the region and participating in state visits at the highest level. I add my voice to those of my colleagues who urge the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to visit this wonderful part of Iraq and see the mutual opportunities for themselves. The Kurdistan region is not resting on its laurels, and nor should we.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and I commend not only the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this timely and appropriate debate, but all the members of the all-party group who have spoken. It is clearly an active and effective group.
The division of Kurdistan, fixed almost by historical accident after the first world war, has posed enormous challenges for the Kurdish people. However, the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war in 1991, which paved the way for the no-fly zone and the autonomy and self-government of the region of Iraqi Kurdistan, delivered to the Kurdish people an enormous opportunity that they have made good use of. They have built a democratic, peaceful and stable society—a nation, really—in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is an example to many other parts of the middle east.
The situation might not have been that way. In the 1990s, the PUK and the KDP were virtually fighting a civil war between different armed peshmerga groups. If we, as Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, think that our coalition is a little bumpy and was difficult to put together, imagine if one of us had been drawing support from Saddam Hussein and the other had been drawing support from Iran, and we had been at war only a few years before. Even so, the PUK and the KDP, for many years, put together a successful coalition. They put aside their differences. They built strong institutions in Iraqi Kurdistan, with help and input from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which assists with institution-building in Kurdistan. The two parties encouraged significant investment in the region, even from investors such as Turkey that might once have been its enemies—as hon. Members have said, Turkey has now become very engaged. The governing coalition also invested significantly in infrastructure. In many ways, the approach was a model one. The two parties managed to achieve all that while respecting the rights of minorities, both religious and ethnic.
When the PUK suffered a setback in recent parliamentary elections in Kurdistan, its supporters did not take to the streets or challenge the results. They did the traditional democratic thing of having a go at their own leaders and looking to their own resources to do better next time. That is a real example to other areas of the middle east. An independence referendum was even held in Kurdistan that garnered virtually 99% support for independence, but Kurdish politicians saw the bigger picture and stepped back from the brink of pressing that case, which is perhaps an example to another political party not a million miles from here.
We should not look at the region through rose-tinted spectacles, however, because there are problems. It might be better for Kurdistan’s image if the Prime Minister were not the nephew of the President. The dominance of the Barzani family is something of a cause for concern, although I stress that both the President and the Prime Minister are respected figures who have attracted a great deal of praise for the way in which they have behaved in office. There are concerns about the human rights situation, particularly the treatment of journalists. I heard what the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said about the movement towards freedom of expression going in the right direction, but there are some real causes for concern, which have been highlighted by Reporters without Borders. In December, for example, Kawa Germyani, editor of Rayal magazine, was murdered. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the British Government will take that matter up with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Female genital mutilation is prevalent, and I know that tackling it is a big priority for the Department for International Development. The Kurdistan National Assembly has made great efforts to tackle violence against women in all its forms.
Another problem, to which hon. Members have referred, is the refugee situation. I believe that DFID has committed some £18 million from its large budget to help refugees and host communities in the region, and it is doing fantastic work with organisations such as UNICEF and Save the Children, but the situation is complicated. Most refugees from Syria who enter Iraq are going into the Kurdistan region. There are even refugees from Iraq in Syria who are trying to return to their homes in Iraq; they have become secondarily displaced because they have not been able to return to their home regions. In camps, settlements and urban areas across Iraq, but mainly in the Kurdistan region, there are still Palestinian refugees who were granted asylum by the previous regime. We can do only so much through aid budgets and assistance. In a sense, the ultimate solution to all these problems is to press the peace processes for Syria, for Israel and Palestine, and across the region.
It is right that we should accentuate the positive in a debate such as this, and I would entirely endorse the requests made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley for greater diplomatic links, reciprocal visits, better trade links, and visa relaxation, particularly in respect of student visas. Of course, I must add to the chorus by recommending the university of Gloucestershire as a potential destination. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who is in the Chamber, would endorse that.
The security situation must be addressed, as the hon. Member for Harlow mentioned. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is already helping the Kurdistan Regional Government to address that, but more can be done. We should do as much as we can to help with the refugee situation on the ground, but there are many things happening in Kurdistan to praise and applaud. It is now an example of what many nations and communities in the middle east could achieve, given peace, democracy, and self-determination.
It has been a pleasure to listen to this extremely well-informed debate on the Kurdistan region. It is testament to the work of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq that so many Members who have taken part in the debate have actually visited the region, learned so much about it and can speak with such breadth of knowledge. It is also interesting that Members have forged relationships with the region through the universities that they represent. We do not always sufficiently appreciate the importance of MPs building relationships with different parts of the world through local contacts and visits.
Before he had to leave, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) made an important point about the regions of the UK. We have here Members from right across the UK. We must deal with Kurdish matters not just at the UK Government level in Whitehall; we MPs must make efforts in our communities and build personal connections. There are Kurds right across the UK, often studying. As we know from the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), in the long term, building strong links over a sustained period will help to create prosperity in Kurdish communities.
I must pay tribute to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for securing this debate. It is important that we recognise his service in the Royal Air Force in the 1990s. We must also pay tribute to the people of Kurdistan, who are so grateful for the commitment of the United Kingdom over the past 25 years. When I visited the region last June—I refer to my record in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I found that people were particularly grateful to former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair. The latter has not been mentioned today, but he is extremely highly regarded in the region because of the part he played in safeguarding the role of Kurds in Iraq throughout an extremely difficult period.
We have heard about the progress made in the region. It must have been an extraordinary experience for the hon. Member for Colne Valley to visit a peaceful Kurdistan, after previously making a flying visit, if I may use that phrase. He will have seen the extraordinary progress in the country that I saw, and the appetite there for all things British. I must say to the Minister that the impression that I got—I am sure the Government will agree—is that the door is open and needs only a gentle push as far as UK universities, trade and cultural links are concerned. There can be a strong, vibrant relationship to the benefit of Kurdistan and the UK, if only we give that door a gentle push.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting the consul general to talk about the progress made even since I visited last June. It was good to hear that we are building better links. We must be conscious of issues such as immigration caps when we are talking about student visas. We can talk consensually about the importance of bringing Kurdish students to the UK, but we must recognise that if we are to impose rough caps, that might affect the ability of our universities to build close contacts with regions such as Kurdistan.
The co-chair of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), has contributed an enormous amount to the strong relationship between Parliament and the Kurdistan region, and we heard her depth of knowledge on the issue. I would like to pick up on what she said about the Domiz refugee camp, which I visited, as did a number of other Members, and where 75,000 people are living. When I visited, the environment was extraordinarily calm. I had a haircut there, which was very high quality indeed. A meticulous gentleman applied to my hair a strange substance that is not normally applied to it. The community there is working extremely hard in very difficult circumstances, and the UK Government are giving it a great deal of financial support, for which I pay tribute to them. Our consul general is playing an important role in assisting with that support, alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Kurdistan Regional Government are also working hard to provide a strong base to support the huge number of refugees that are going into not just the camp but the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about the refugee camp. I am greatly concerned about the 13,000 children there, and the fact that there are only four schools. There are efforts to increase the number of schools so that these children, who have already suffered displaced lives and a great deal of trauma, can continue their education. Does he support my call for the Government to look specifically at supporting the provision of schools for those children?
Absolutely; I would certainly support that call. I visited a school in the camp and spoke to the head teacher. It was quite extraordinary to see the enthusiasm and interest that the children attending the school showed to visitors to the site. We are doing a good job on site, but because of the continuing pressure from the appalling events in Syria, I am afraid that the pressures on Iraqi Kurds in the camps also continue.
I echo my hon. Friend’s point about the fact that Iraq is housing huge numbers of refugees. For reasons I do not really understand, Iraq is not generally referred to as providing support for refugees from Syria, but there is huge pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan from Syrian refugees, and we are doing a lot there. We must recognise that whenever a statement is made.
I ask the Government, as the Labour party has done previously, to consider whether, in a very limited number of cases, they should offer refuge to individuals who have fled Syria and are now in places such as Iraq. There are people who have serious medical difficulties or particularly close family contacts here, and they could be offered direct refuge in the UK. We have pressed the Government previously on this issue. In a limited number of cases that option should be considered, because at present we are not offering any places to those individuals. We should consider doing so, and I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
We heard from the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) about the Anfal, which I heard about on my visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, when I met relatives of individuals who had disappeared in 1988. As I have said before in the House, I remember seeing a TV programme—I think it was “Newsnight”—on the Halabja attacks in the late 1980s, which has stayed with me for ever; it was very powerful indeed. I think we made a lot of progress in our discussions on this subject in the debates that we have had during the last year. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the work that he did. I can report to Members here that after a debate that took place last year, I had some private discussions with him about trying to take this issue forward on a consensual basis—it is clearly not a partisan matter—and we would like to try to continue that process with the new Minister, who is here today.
I know that, as far as the Kurdistan Regional Government are concerned, the recognition of the genocide is a major issue and that there is a strong feeling in the country that there is not the level of international recognition that there should be, so the steps taken by the UK Parliament last year were welcome. They helped to inform the debate, which we need to take further at Governmental level. I am happy to continue the discussions in which the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire played such a positive role.
Of course, the co-chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, does not need any lectures from me about Kurdistan. I simply say to him that as a visitor to Kurdistan—I visited it for a limited period—I was fascinated by the region. It is such an important region, because it has played such an important role in the past 25 years in UK politics. In the context of current events in the middle east, it would be very valuable for all Members to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, whatever their position on it has been in votes in the past 10 years; I know that we have a number of different positions represented in Westminster Hall today. Visiting Iraqi Kurdistan makes a valuable contribution to one’s knowledge of the region, and visiting it would help to inform Members who have not been there about the progress of democracy in the middle east, because it is an important example of a place where progress has been made.
After all, when I was in Erbil, I had the longest political interview that I have ever had on the Rudaw television channel. It was a wide-ranging interrogation on policy across the middle east. I would love to have that on the BBC, but unfortunately the interview went on for longer than “Newsnight”; I think my interview lasted 50 minutes, whereas “Newsnight” has a 45-minute running time. As I say, there is progress in the region on democratic debate.
The citadel referred to by the hon. Member for Colne Valley is an extraordinary historic site. When one says to one’s constituents, “You should go to Iraq for a holiday”, there might be a certain amount of scepticism initially, but that citadel is the longest-occupied site on earth and it is an extraordinary place to visit. I am quite sure that in the future people will go to Erbil, and there is a strong view—is there not?—that we need to work towards introducing direct flights from the UK to the region, so as to facilitate that type of visit for our constituents. I am sure that that would be widely appreciated across the House, both for tourism and for business.
I am afraid that I will have to refer to my university in Wrexham, Glyndwr university, which as we speak is holding discussions with the university in Erbil about possible relationships between them. Again, that shows the appetite in the UK for building relationships with the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. There will be more contact between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the world in the future. The region wants contact with the UK and its different regions. We really need to seize that opportunity and do the best that we can to ensure that we are right at the forefront in pushing at that open door that I referred to earlier.
The Iraqi region of Kurdistan is a very tough neighbourhood indeed. We must remember that it is bordered by Iran on one side and Syria on another, and that Turkey is to the north. Notwithstanding that difficult environment—it is such a difficult political environment, with so much violence, including the violence in the rest of Iraq—there has been real progress in the region, and that is quite extraordinary.
We need to help the Kurdistan Regional Government to build better relations with the Government in Iraq; relations between the two have been the source of some tension. It is also important that we recognise that those tensions continue, particularly over the pipelines that deliver oil from northern Iraq to Turkey. There is a continuing debate over that issue, and I hope that the UK Government will play a positive role in trying to build relations, especially in the context of the election later this year.
We have heard a great deal about the positive nature of the relationship between the region and the UK. I would like to flag up the issue of female genital mutilation, which is still an issue in Kurdistan. We can play a positive role in engaging on that issue with the Kurdistan Regional Government. I think that they would accept that it is an issue on which progress needs to be made. This is a country that is developing a democratic tradition. That has happened there very recently, and it is very important that difficult issues such as this one are addressed in their cultural context.
One of the important players in that process will be the Kurdistan diaspora community in the UK. That community is very important indeed, and they are very active and willing to engage with UK political representatives. I hope that they will engage with more and more MPs to try to get them to recognise the importance of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and to get more of them involved in the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. That group has achieved a great deal. We have heard about the work being done with universities and businesses locally as a result of the group’s work, and that can only be further developed by having more MPs involved with the group. I am not sure how many of my colleagues in the House will welcome this, but I encourage members of the Kurdish diaspora here to contact their local MP to try to get them involved in the group, because they will then learn about the progress made in the northern region of Iraq, and will also build better links between the UK and the region.
The positive picture that Members and I have painted this morning is testament to our good relations with the region, both under the previous Government and this Government. That picture is one of extraordinary progress. There are still opportunities there, and we need to build on them further. I think that this is an issue that there is not a big political divide over, and the positive picture of the UK in the Kurdistan region provides a massive opportunity for the UK. It is an opportunity that we need to seize.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this debate. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), would have been delighted to respond, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) referred to me as the new Minister and this was compounded by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) doing so. I have been Minister of State in the Foreign Office since September 2012, but this part of the world is not my responsibility particularly, which is why there may have been some confusion. It is none the less my pleasure to respond on the Government’s behalf.
The knowledge and insight with which hon. Members have spoken today says much about the strength of our relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, the reasons for which and the significant advantages it brings I will come on to discuss. I pay tribute to hon. and right hon. Members from all parties—and in both Houses—for their work over many years to build relations with the Kurdistan region, not least to the great efforts made by the all-party group.
The hon. Member for Wrexham said that it was up to hon. Members to familiarise themselves with the region. I have not had the advantage of travelling to the region, but having done extensive research for today’s debate, including reading the previous, extraordinarily distinguished debate in the House, I should love to go there and see it for myself—and perhaps even have a similar haircut to the hon. Member for Wrexham, not that the creator of his hairstyle will receive an MBE any time soon. You never know.
APG members have observed great changes—because there have been great changes—in Iraqi Kurdistan, including in its relationship with the UK, and they have made a significant contribution to realising them, which I acknowledge and for which I thank them. It does our Parliament great credit and their efforts do not go unrecognised. We welcome the group’s latest report, which is launched today.
The links between Britain and Iraqi Kurdistan are historic and deep, as we have heard. The recent strength of those links is founded in no small measure on our country’s role in establishing the no-fly zone in 1991, which helped to protect the population from Saddam’s murderous threat. The region is now a stable and prosperous area within a volatile region. I will return to that point, but first I shall say a little more about opportunities to strengthen our relations further, echoing many comments made hon. and right hon. Members.
The people of Iraqi Kurdistan and its Regional Government are ambitious, and opportunities in the region are, as we have heard, striking. Its economy continues to grow impressively. More companies from Britain than from any other EU country are registered in the region and we hope more will follow. British companies are helping to realise its potential in the energy sector. In recent months, two major trade missions have visited the region, led by my noble Friend Lord Marland and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne respectively.
We recently welcomed the first inward investment mission from the region to London and another will follow this month. As ever, these links benefit from the contribution of the Kurdish community resident in the UK, which now numbers many thousands, and the Kurdistan Regional Government representation here in London.
We have only just begun to realise the commercial potential for the UK and the Kurdistan region, and we cannot take success for granted. That is why we have increased staffing at our consulate general in Erbil and will move to a new permanent building, which, I am glad to report to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), we plan to open in the second half of 2015.
We continue to look for new opportunities in the region. UK Trade and Investment worked with the London office of the Kurdistan Regional Government to host a conference in July 2013 dedicated to tourism in the region. We continue to build strong links in higher education. On her recent trip, Baroness Nicholson took representatives from a range of UK universities to that part of the world.
Some 1,600 postgraduate students came to the UK last year, supported by the Kurdistan Regional Government. As Minister responsible for the Chevening scholarship programme, I am delighted that one of its scholars, Minister Falah Mustafa, is now the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Department of Foreign Relations and recently met my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent.
Recognising the relative safety and security of this region, our travel advice makes a distinction from the rest of Iraq. We are one of the few countries that do not advise against travel to the Kurdistan region. We have also taken steps to make it easier to obtain a UK visa. During his visit in September last year, my noble Friend Lord Marland opened a visa application centre in Erbil, so that applicants no longer have to travel to Baghdad or outside Iraq to submit their applications, although I accept that it is still relatively expensive to submit applications.
Hon. Members spoke about direct flights. I have ever more calls for direct flights around the world, particularly with my responsibilities in Latin and central America; everybody wants direct flights to the UK, and the Kurdistan region is no exception. We share the ambition to see direct flights between London and Erbil and other destinations in Iraq. That requires work to satisfy our security assessments, but I am pleased to say that officials from the Department for Transport visited Erbil in November and we are making good progress with the authorities. It is our hope that Erbil airport, designed by a British architect, will welcome British carriers in the near future.
As I have noted, the security situation in Iraqi Kurdistan compares favourably with much of Iraq and the wider region, but it is not immune from threats. We recognise the ongoing bravery of the security forces who counter the threats of terrorism, and pay tribute to those who lost their life in September in that deplorable act of terrorism in Erbil—thankfully, the first such atrocity for several years. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) rightly spoke about the complex situation in the region regarding refugees.
If the hon. Lady will allow me, I am about to address the points that she made.
The hon. Lady asked what the British Government were doing for the refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow also commented on that. As a result of the horrors in Syria, Syrian refugees continue to flee across the border. I pay tribute to the Kurdish and federal Iraqi authorities, and to the people of the region, for their support to the many people whose lives have been threatened and who have been left displaced and dispossessed. The Department for International Development has given £14.2 million to international efforts supporting Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan region. The UK will make a major contribution to the new UN appeal for Syria at the pledging conference being held today in Kuwait, and we urge other countries to be equally generous. We also welcome the efforts of the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government to encourage Syrian Kurdish groups to agree on participation in Geneva II.
The hon. Member for Wrexham asked specifically about allowing in refugees from that part of the world. He will know that there has been a lively debate about asylum for Syrian refugees, and I will not change the established Government position. I remind him of our major commitment to alleviating suffering in that part of the world. The UK is right at the forefront of this. Following the pledging conference in Kuwait, I am sure that we will maintain that position.
I want to ask about security, because the Minister moved on a little bit too quickly, hence my agitation at that point. When we visited in November, the Interior Minister responsible for security spoke to us about his difficulty in getting support for help and advice about non-lethal security measures. I should like to press the Minister, if not now then perhaps later, to say what more we could do to help with a difficult security situation and to help a Government who are working hard to keep the region safe and who are successful for most of the time.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, and she and other hon. Members will be aware that sales of non-lethal equipment may be subject to the UK’s export licensing controls. Applications for export licences are considered on a case-by-case basis against the criteria, taking into account the circumstances at the time.
Following on from what the hon. Lady says, Iraqi Kurds have a vital role in the stability of Iraq, where terrorist violence claimed nearly 9,000 lives in 2013. We are extremely concerned about the current violence in Anbar province in western Iraq. This Government will stand alongside the Iraqi Government in combating that threat and other terrorist threats across the region. We have made it clear that addressing the threat of terrorism requires support from the local community and an inclusive political process for all Iraqis. We urge Iraqi Kurds to play a full part in Iraq’s democratic future, ensuring that federal elections take place in April on time, fairly and freely. We also hope that overdue provincial elections for the Kurdish region will be held at that time.
We welcome the efforts in 2013 to improve relations between Erbil and Baghdad, including reciprocal visits, which were asked for by a number of hon. Members, by President Barzani and Prime Minister Maliki. We urge both sides to find agreement on how to administer the country’s energy resources and on how to share oil export revenues, and to finalise the 2014 federal budget. Resolving those issues is vital to unlocking much needed investment throughout Iraq. We also hope that a new Kurdistan Regional Government will continue to make progress on human rights in the region. The recent murder of a journalist was a brutal reminder that journalists continue to be targeted, and we call on authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham raised the murder of Kawa Germyani, about which we have expressed serious concern. He was the editor-in-chief of Rayal magazine and a correspondent for the Sulaymaniyah-based Awena newspaper. He was assassinated outside his home in Kalar on 5 December, which is a brutal reminder that journalists in the region continue to be targeted for reasons related to their work. It is important that the KRG honour their commitment to investigate the attack and to bring those responsible to justice.
The people of the region know only too well the horror of violence and abuse, having suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Members have spoken eloquently today and in the past about the Anfal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds. I am pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has accepted the vice-chairmanship of the all-party group, and our debate on the subject in February 2013 is an example of the House at its best. As he noted on that occasion, the Government have a long-standing position of following a legal process to ascertain whether such atrocities should be designated as an act of genocide, but I reiterate our sympathy for the victims of the Anfal and confirm that we will work with the Kurdistan Regional Government and representatives here on how we can mark Anfal day on 14 April in an appropriate way.
Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to ensure that the British Government do everything that they can to bring to justice the perpetrators of the genocide if they are living in Europe? Will he do the same for the companies that supplied the chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein? Fortunately, the companies are not British; they are from other parts of Europe.
Indeed, we should and will do everything we can to bring to justice perpetrators of any atrocities anywhere in the world, and the companies that have been supplying them illegally. That is what we do as a Government, and we will certainly continue to do so. Reflecting on those past tragedies only emphasises the progress made by Iraqi Kurdistan. We urge Iraqi Kurds to use the example of their history and progress to become a voice of moderation in Iraq and to show what they have done to address discrimination, to protect minorities and to rejuvenate their economy.
In the closing moments I will address the other questions that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon is a fantastic example of someone from that part of the world. He said that he is the first British Member of Parliament of Kurd ancestry, which is a remarkable achievement. There is a lot more he can do, and I would not be surprised if there were some wonderful opportunities for Erbil in Stratford-on-Avon. If we can export “War Horse,” the Michael Morpurgo play, to China, I am sure he can probably export “Wolf Hall” to Erbil. “Wolf Hall” is a play that runs for eight hours and is on in Stratford-on-Avon as we speak, and I know that my hon. Friend is experiencing considerable difficulty in obtaining tickets.
The hon. Members for Cheltenham and for Wrexham talked about women’s rights, particularly in relation to FGM. Since I have been in the House we have not done enough about FGM, which is one of the most abhorrent, despicable things to happen to women, and the thought that it still continues in the UK is absolutely unacceptable.
The Minister is addressing an important topic. Does he agree that we need to send out a clear message not just in the region but across the developing world that the practice of female genital mutilation is totally and utterly unacceptable to try to move those societies away from such a barbaric practice?
Yes, I absolutely do. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Foreign Secretary’s wider initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict, particularly against women. FGM is different, and there is a big initiative in the House, not before time. We have continued to fund various projects run by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to increase participation by female parliamentarians in the Kurdistan Parliament. We continue to support efforts to improve the position of women in Iraqi society, and we are working closely with the UN, the EU and other international partners, but he is right. I find the practice of FGM absolutely abhorrent wherever it is perpetrated. It seems to me to be an ultimate act of violence against very young women and girls who have no choice, and we should continue to be strong wherever in the world we find the practice.
I do not run the Foreign Secretary’s diary, but I am certain that he will have noted the point on high-level visits. The then Minister with responsibility for the middle east, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, visited Erbil in February 2013, and Lord Marland has also visited. Various hon. Members called for more ministerial visits and trade missions—yes, absolutely. I would point out that Ministers under this Government are travelling much more than ever before, and that part of the world should certainly be on their agenda. I welcome the idea that we should invite President Barzani to the UK, and we will factor that in. We heard from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) about President Barzani’s visit to Northern Ireland at the invitation of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in February 2013 and the signing of the memorandum of understanding, which was a very successful trip.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley asked about a UK trade envoy for Iraqi Kurdistan, which is probably under consideration. Such appointments are made by No. 10, which is aware of the opportunities in Iraqi Kurdistan. We have spoken about visas, Anfal and flights. This is one of those remarkable occasions on which I have addressed every single question raised by hon. Members. This debate has been entirely consensual. There is no party political divide, and we agree that the work of the all-party group has been superb and continues to be so. We agree that we need to do much more in the area on education, cultural links and business opportunities. We need to do a lot to remind the world of the horrendous suffering of the Iraqi Kurds, and we need to do more to raise awareness and to alleviate the suffering of many refugees from Syria. The extraordinarily complicated mix in the area is the fallout from what is going on in Syria. On human rights, we need to ensure the safety and freedom of journalists. We want free and fair elections. We want good relations with all the disparate parts of Iraq, and we want to end barbaric practices such as female genital mutilation. We are in a good place and we are doing a lot, but we can always do a lot more. With such an active all-party group, we are in a pretty good place.