[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Bangladesh and its future.
This debate about the future and direction of travel of Bangladesh is important, and I am delighted that it is well attended by people from the all-party group on Bangladesh.
It is worth briefly revisiting how and why Bangladesh was born, and why it emerged from the cauldron that was East Pakistan—against a background and prospect of the loss of the official language, Bangla, and against the prospect of greater Islamisation—to become the modern developing country that it is today.
Bangladesh is a young country and it has had to make a long journey in a relatively short time. No one is saying that the journey to independence and democracy has been easy, and it is easy to be too judgmental and see that journey through the prism of our own long-established democratic processes. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh has told me that Bangladesh models itself on our democracy.
It is important to remind ourselves of the dreams and ideals for Bangladesh when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led his people to victory in the battle for independence. It is important that, as friends of Bangladesh, we ask, what is the direction of travel for Bangladesh 44 years later, and what more can be done by the UK to help the people of Bangladesh on their path to fulfilling their potential and delivering a future that upholds the ideals of peaceful secularism, prosperity and political engagement?
It is vital that we, as the biggest bilateral donors to Bangladesh, act as a critical friend and offer help and support where we can. With the most recent figures showing a UK contribution of more than £250 million, it is important that taxpayers’ money is protected from corruption and is spent wisely, transparently and effectively in helping Bangladesh on its journey.
A recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact report on Bangladesh observed:
“Poverty levels have fallen to under 45% as a result of steady growth, industrialisation and greater access to finance, which has led to improvements in a range of social indicators, such as adult literacy, child malnutrition and infant mortality. The agricultural sector accounts for only... 18% of GDP... A number of factors, nevertheless, point to continuing vulnerability. Many Bangladeshis still live under the poverty line—an estimated 77% of the population live on under US$2 a day—and there is marked income and social inequality. Resilience to... shocks cannot be guaranteed.”
It is vital that we help Bangladesh to achieve its millennium goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal healthcare; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. I know that good progress has been made on those goals, and, given the criticisms from some quarters about the largesse of our aid budget, I urge the Minister to consider giving an update to the House some time soon on the progress that has been made in those areas.
However, corruption is rife in Bangladesh, and 34% of aid projects in the countries that we support, and that are scrutinised under the ICAI, are showing amber or red, giving cause for concern. Does the Minister have any updates on how many of our aid schemes in Bangladesh are running on green, and how are the schemes being audited to ensure that we know we are getting value for money for the taxpayer and delivering real benefit in the country that we want to help?
It has been observed on many occasions that Bangladesh was born of blood and suffering, and that no election since has not resulted in blood and suffering or been delivered peacefully. That is a great shame, and I will touch on it later. Over the past few days, many Members will have had the opportunity to meet the visiting Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led the call to arms to fight for independence in his country in his Road to Ramna speech on 7 March 1971. It is worth looking at, because this was the goal that people set themselves:
“I am requesting you, you are my brothers. Do not make this country a hell and destroy it. We will not see each other’s face in the future. If we can solve things in a peaceful manner, we can at least live as brothers. That is why I am requesting you; do not try and run military rule in my country… Hindus, Muslims, Bangalis and non-Bangalis, all those who live in this Bangla are our brothers. The responsibility of protecting them is upon you. Ensure that our reputation is not smeared in any way... If one more shot is fired and if my people are killed again then my request to you is; build a fortress in each and every home. Face the enemy with whatever you have”.
Even then, in the call to arms, he was stating how relevant it would be in an independent country to be secular and inclusive. He went on:
“The struggle this time is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle this time is... for independence”.
It was also the vital struggle for secularism and the wish to live in peace with their fellows.
In December 1971, Bangladesh was born. I know there are disputes and concerns over war crimes from that time and disputes over the persecution of perpetrators of those crimes, but I do not wish to explore those issues. I particularly wish to stress today that whoever is governing Bangladesh, now and in its future, it is imperative that all aspects of human rights are protected and observed, and that freedom of speech is championed. All efforts must be made to ensure forthright and fair political engagement.
I have been concerned about allegations of political harassment and about concerns over malicious destabilisation of the country through acts of violence by groups that do not hold the high ideals that Mujibur Rahman expressed in 1971. No avenues must be left unexplored in supporting Bangladesh’s avowed commitment to secularism, its avowed commitment to ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process, and, most importantly, its role in protecting the rights of religious minorities. Anything the Government could do to help Bangladesh to navigate that tricky path would be most helpful.
It is worth noting that, in October 2010, the High Court in Bangladesh declared:
“Bangladesh is now a secular state... everybody has religious freedom, and therefore no man, woman or child can be forced to wear religious attires like burqa.”
That was a welcome public statement and a well-timed reiteration of Bangladesh’s origins, which were born out of a desire to resist the pull of fundamentalist Islam. In today’s uncertain world, with fundamentalism on the rise, we should applaud and nurture that stance. Too many young people in our own country are heeding the siren call of religious fundamentalism and travelling abroad to support terrorists and join jihad. We need Bangladesh to hold the line in an uncertain world and stand up for secularism and freedom of speech.
Only recently, there have been some widely reported attacks on individuals in Bangladesh, and they are a worry. Four bloggers have been brutally murdered since February 2014. In February of that year, Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed outside his home amid tensions over a tribunal judging war crimes. In February 2015, a Bangladesh-born American blogger, Avijit Roy, was similarly killed with machetes and knives as he walked back from a book fair in Dhaka. In March 2015, Washiqur Rahman, 27, was hacked to death by two men with knives and meat cleavers just outside his house as he headed to work in Dhaka. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das, 32, was killed as he left his home on his way to work at a bank. Four masked men hacked him to death with cleavers. Such atrocities have been linked to freedom of speech and perceived religious insults. The Government have made arrests, but that is a worrying direction of travel. Does the Minister have any views or updates on this?
On the bigger picture, we are all aware that rumbling along in the background of individual incidents is the unhappiness of the opposition parties, particularly the Bangladeshi National Party, or BNP, over the abolition of the caretaker system, as well as their lack of engagement in the current electoral process. It must be said, however, that there has been a history of unhappiness with the caretaker Governments on both sides, depending on who has been in charge, since 1991.
It will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that it has been reported in today’s edition of the Daily Star, widely ready by many of our constituents, that protesters from the BNP were demonstrating outside our own Parliament yesterday against the visit by Sheikh Hasina. The newspaper observed quite fairly that the wings and influences of the BNP and of the Awami League have spread to many countries, and that those parties campaign and protest against each other outside Bangladesh. It is regrettable that such political enmity and unhappiness is travelling so far, and indeed sweeping up supporters in our own country. We need a way forward and we need to help to break this impasse.
Whatever the outcome of any future election in Bangladesh, it is vital that all sides feel they are not excluded from it or cannot take part in it.
I agree with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that the priority for Bangladesh, and for the UK’s relationship with Bangladesh, is to facilitate, in some way and at some point, a peaceful transition of power from one side to the other? Like her, I have talked to many colleagues and supporters on both sides of the political divide in Bangladesh, and the sense of grievance on both sides is legitimate and real. Until there is a peaceful transition of power, the problems will simply go on and on.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I wrote a letter to Baroness Warsi in January 2014 raising that issue. She replied:
“I called on both sides to put a stop to disruption and violence and to focus on political dialogue. They both have a responsibility to ensure a secure and stable Bangladesh. We have always made clear that how this process is managed is a matter for Bangladesh”—
she was referring to the caretaker Government system, or not. She continued:
“I issued a statement on 6 January noting that the UK, like others in the international community, believes that the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy is peaceful elections that express the genuine will of the voters.”
“As an urgent priority, all Bangladesh’s political parties must share a clear and unequivocal responsibility to work together to strengthen democratic accountability and to build the willingness and capacity to hold future participatory elections without the fear of intimidation or reprisals. The UK is encouraging Bangladesh’s political parties to support political dialogue... We will continue to work with international partners including through the European Union to help achieve this.”
I hope the Minister has an update and that there has been progress, because that letter to me was written on 24 January 2014, nearly 18 months ago.
When evaluating Bangladesh in May 2014, the ICAI said:
“Long-running political rivalries have paralysed government decision-making in recent years. Bangladesh is in need of infrastructure upgrades and advances in its public service delivery systems.”
The squabbling and disputes are hampering that, which cannot be good for the country.
The Minister sent me a response in February 2015:
“I share your deep concern about the escalating political unrest and the absence of political dialogue among Bangladesh’s political parties… I raised my concerns about the continuing violence and political harassment when I met Bangladesh’s Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs on 20 January.”
“Together with our international partners, we continue to urge all political parties to work together to resolve their differences through constructive and peaceful dialogue.”
As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) said, this has been going on for a long time, and it must be brought to some sort of conclusion. We must not interfere, but we must somehow help the process.
The Minister said in his letter:
“Our High Commissioner, along with other EU Ambassadors, met Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Mr Mahmood Ali on 14 January to express our collective concern at the ongoing violence”—
this is the phrase that struck me most—
“and the shrinking of democratic space.”
Will the Minister update us on whether there has been any progress in expanding that political space, or has it been contracting even further?
Only on Monday, Sheikh Hasina addressed Members at an event in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room, and she was warmly welcomed. She made a point of reaffirming her Government’s commitment to upholding secularism and tackling terrorism. She has been praised by Prime Minister Modi of India for her efforts to tackle terrorism, even if he somewhat spoiled the effect with his comment that she was not doing badly for a woman—she was probably damned with faint praise. What more can be done to help her to make further progress against the destabilising effects of terrorism and religious persecution in Bangladesh? What more can be done to encourage and facilitate full participation by all groups in the electoral process? As we know from our own democracy, strong participative opposition parties that scrutinise and hold Governments to account make for robust legislation and fairer government for all.
I have visited Bangladesh five times, so the Minister knows that I take a keen interest in the country. My most recent visit was in 2013 as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I am pleased to see Members in the Chamber who went on that cross-party visit to investigate and report on the Rana Plaza tragedy. That catastrophe led to the deaths of 1,100 people, with many more left crippled through catastrophic injuries. The ready-made garment industry is crucial to the prosperity of Bangladesh. The recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact case study stated:
“Economic growth has mainly come from an abundant source of largely unskilled and cheap labour. The RMG sector has taken advantage of this situation and… now employs around 4 million workers (mainly female) and accounts for 80% of manufactured exports. The recent international attention on Bangladesh’s RMG sector in the wake of safety disasters, such as… Rana Plaza… is proving… a challenge to the Government rather than an opportunity to reform the RMG sector.”
I would welcome a comment from the Minister on that, because our report was keen to see what progress could be made after Rana Plaza and our Government’s big efforts to try to support the country in developing infrastructure resilience and fairer work practices, and to ensure that Bangladesh can be proud of the garment industry, its biggest export, and that the industry has a secure future. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh assured us that much has been done, but have there been any inspections or updates on the aid and expertise we have sent?
I will conclude there, because I know many other Members will raise other issues. I wish Bangladesh well, and I think it has so much to offer. We are friends of Bangladesh, but we are critical friends. We need to ensure that aid money is being well used and well targeted, and, where it is not, that it is redirected. We need to ensure that we follow up on progress. It would help to satisfy many critics of our aid budget if they knew that the money is helping to form, mould and support a country that is independent, secular and a bulwark against the fundamentalist Islamism that is affecting so many young people in our own country today. Bangladesh may need our help, a bit more coaxing and a bit more effort, and I would like the Minister to update us on where we are in the bigger picture.
Order. Before we proceed with the debate, I would like to make one or two announcements. First, I told Jim Fitzpatrick before the debate that I thought it was getting a little warm and that it would be fine by me if Members or the Minister wanted to take off their jackets—I apologise for not making that announcement a little earlier.
We have a full list of speakers, and I hope that everyone can participate in some way. That means we are fairly restricted on time. I intend to call the three Front Benchers —from the official Opposition, the Government and the Scottish National party—from 3.30 pm, and before that we will have the debate among Back Benchers, which means about eight or 10 minutes per speaker.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on her measured and considered opening speech, which raised many of the necessary issues. I also congratulate her on her leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I have not been here very long, but she is clearly very well thought of in that role.
I, too, had the privilege of meeting Sheikh Hasina when she came to this place earlier this week. I strongly support her efforts as Prime Minister, in difficult circumstances, to introduce a civil society based on secularism. The hon. Member for St Albans talked about the UK being a critical friend, but we have that role not only with the Bangladeshi Government. Many British and western European corporations are working in Bangladesh and taking advantage of very cheap labour conditions to produce goods at very cheap rates. Those corporations, frankly, have a responsibility to the Bangladeshis and to the Government of Sheikh Hasina to treat their workers decently.
In 2013 more than 1,100 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh collapsed. Many of the clothes made there were destined for the British high street. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to improve the rights, the pay and, indeed, the safety of workers in Bangladesh? Does he further agree that the Government should reverse their decision to cut support for the International Labour Organisation?
Absolutely, and I will develop that argument over the next couple of minutes. ILO standards are basic minimums, and there should not be a problem with our addressing them. Western corporations —in this place, we look at British corporations in particular—are responsible for ensuring that their employees in Bangladesh are treated decently and fairly. As the hon. Member for St Albans said so eloquently, there are siren calls from fundamentalist Islam in Bangladesh that will sound more attractive and fall on much more fertile ground if the ordinary working people continue to see exploitation in the garment industry and other sectors. I support the work of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and I know the Bangladeshi community in Britain does, too.
I was pleased to attend recently a reception at the Chester Tandoori restaurant with my good friend, Mr Abdun Noor. The small Bangladeshi community in Chester was paying tribute to a visiting police superintendent from Sylhet district, whom they had met when they were out there. They were impressed by his work as an up-and-coming police leader—in particular, his work on eradicating corruption. They simply want to be able to work fairly out there, and they want the system to work fairly. At last, the new regime is attempting to eradicate corruption, and he is in the lead on that issue. He introduced a concept and strategy that, for them, seemed novel: policing by consent. He was trying to win support for the police from across society and to develop a structure of civil society. Therefore, there is support for the kind of measures for developing civil society that the hon. Member for St Albans talked about.
Our role in Parliament is to put pressure on British and other western companies to ensure they do not exploit their employees in Bangladesh for short-term profit. The long-term strategic error of allowing fertile ground for extremism will be extremely damaging to those companies and to the UK’s long-term interests. We have a responsibility to the UK to ensure that the companies that benefit from such labour fulfil their responsibilities.
We also have responsibilities. I like a bargain as much as the next hon. Member. When I go to one of the large supermarkets, I feel happy if I can pay a low price for a garment made in Bangladesh, but if the price of treating poor workers in Bangladesh fairly is that we have to pay a bit extra for a shirt or a pair of trousers, it is worth paying if it ensures long-term stability.
As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde will confirm from our visit to Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza collapse was caused by poor building conditions. It would not have mattered how much those workers were being paid. Corruption around the infrastructure that had gone on previously caused those buildings to be unsafe and unstable. We need to work on those two things.
I absolutely accept that, but what the workers are paid is under the control of western corporations, and therefore under our control, because we can put pressure on them.
In the time remaining, I want to talk about my work with the shipbreakers on the beaches south of Chittagong, who are some of the worst-employed workers in the world. They have no health and safety protection and work in some of the most dangerous conditions. If they are lucky, they might have a pair of sunglasses for eye protection when using metal cutters. They are sent on to ships—big bulk carriers and oil ships—and told to cut through pieces of metal, although they do not know what they are cutting. Sometimes they cut into fuel tanks where gasses have built up.
It is common for workers to be killed on the ships. When I was there about four years ago, I was told that there was an average of three or four deaths per week in each shipbreaking yard. Indeed, the week before I arrived, it was reported that five workers had died. In fact, a sixth had been reported dead, but I was told that his body had simply been thrown overboard, so the shipbreaking owner would not have to pay compensation to his family. I hope that since I was last there the shipbreaking owners have become more responsible. Those workers’ conditions were absolutely appalling. When we are being a critical friend of Bangladesh, in the words of the hon. Member for St Albans, we must put pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that they put pressure on the shipbreaking owners.
Child labour is also a problem. I was told by workers in the shipbreaking yards that there is no child labour problem, but I could not understand that as I could see that the young boys in front of me were child labourers. It turned out that in Bangladesh the age of adulthood is 15. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) talked about ILO standards. Young boys of 15 are considered child labourers by international standards. Child labour should be discouraged, and we should support its eradication in those shipbreaking yards, not least because of the huge dangers those workers face.
My hon. Friend also mentioned Rana Plaza. One of the problems is that the garment workers are fractured. There are many unions that cannot see eye to eye, and there is a lot of disagreement. In those circumstances, it is easy for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of the workers. I hope we can help to develop trade unions in Bangladesh, because the best way to improve conditions is for the workers to improve them themselves by joining together and giving themselves that collective strength.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans on securing the debate, and I echo the request for assurances from the Minister, whose response I await with interest.
For the past six years, I have had the great privilege of serving as vice-chairman of the all-party group on Bangladesh under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). There are a lot of ethnic and national groups in my central London constituency, including a significant Bengali population. Some are in the City of London, but a significant number are in south Westminster and Pimlico. I am therefore very much aware of the issues raised in the debate.
I have twice visited Bangladesh—specifically, I have visited Dhaka, the capital, and the Sylhet region in the north-east of the country, from where many British Bengalis come originally. We were promoting grassroots football, and in 2010 we met Sheikh Hasina and the Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia.
Half of Britain’s estimated 500,000 Bangladeshis live in London. That may account for the growing success of that community’s young people, who benefit from the education and job opportunities on their doorstep. Some 61% of Bangladeshis got five good GCSEs in 2014, compared with 51% of the Pakistani population and 56% of the indigenous white British population. I am incredibly struck by the fact that the great majority of Bengalis whom I represent in Parliament live in social housing. Many came here speaking little English and with few conventional skills, but they have a passion for education, and we should be proud of that. That applies to many immigrant populations in this country. It is unique to Britain; the experience in places such as France and Germany is very different. Many of our immigrant populations recognise that the way out of the economic difficulties that they face, and will probably face for the rest of their lives, is educating their children to give them a better life. That is something we should all work hard to encourage.
Bordering my constituency is Tower Hamlets, the heart of the Bangladeshi community in Great Britain. We are all familiar with the sometimes negative press coverage of elements of that borough in recent years, but that is only a very small part of the story of Tower Hamlets—I say that as I look into the eyes of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He knows as well as I do that it is an incredibly vibrant borough, which produces aspirational, motivated young people who go into the tech and banking jobs in Canary Wharf, which is in his constituency and, to the west, crosses the border with the City of London. It is also great to see the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) leading the charge on parliamentary representation from that community. We should be proud that there are now three female Bangladeshis in the Commons representing London seats.
However, major tensions and political problems remain in Bangladesh. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans rightly pointed out, they sadly spill over, to an extent, into this country. We see close at hand some of the factionalism within the main political parties and a group of smaller parties. We particularly have to watch for the creeping influence of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is thought to have founded the Islamic Forum of Europe, which has been promoted in London mosques, in particular the East London mosque down the Whitechapel Road.
Hon. Members will be aware that I have recently been vocal in the House about the persecution of religious minorities in the middle east, particularly the ancient Christian communities such as the 8.5 million Copts in Egypt, and the 2 million Christians who until recently resided in Syria. Many go back to communities that were proselytised by St Paul in the immediate aftermath of the birth of Christianity.
Precious little is said about the situation of religious minorities in Bangladesh. I am afraid that has deteriorated in tandem with the rapid rise of militant Islam and its influence on Bangladeshi politics. I take this opportunity to raise the plight of the 20 million Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and indigenous minorities living in Bangladesh. Since the verdict by the International Crimes Tribunal in February 2013, which handed a life sentence to the leading Jamaat-e-Islami figure for war crimes in 1971, members of Jamaat have responded by destroying many places of worship, and murdering and attacking innocent people for their religious views, as has been pointed out.
That is incredibly depressing, particularly because, with a young and vibrant population getting a much stronger education both in Bangladesh and in our diaspora here, it is a country that should be looking to the future, not constantly harping on the past. Terrible and dreadful things did happen 44 years ago on all sides of the divide. It ill behoves any Government to utilise their position in power and manoeuvres with the judiciary to give a one-sided approach, as has happened. Clearly, justice has to be done, and I accept that an element of reconciliation has to take place. The worry is that this episode will continue in a downward spiral in years to come, with different sets of politicians taking the opportunity to make narrow, partisan points, without looking to the future of the country.
As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the current ruling Awami League is nominally secular and has promised to bring the ageing leaders of Jamaat to justice for their role in the 1971 genocide. However, in the face of violence and the broader band of Islamists, that is no easy task. Attacks on those minority communities in Bangladesh are, I fear, frequent and continuous and may well continue.
I reiterate my hon. Friend’s message about the importance of maintaining that secular society. We are lucky that our relationship with Bangladesh has, to a large extent, kept terrorism at bay, but we cannot be complacent about that, particularly with large numbers of Bengalis in this country potentially being influenced by events in their homeland.
They are. One difficulty, of course, is that we are fighting the battles pre-1971. Because of the upsurge in religious cases, it becomes a downward spiral with an eye on the past, rather than the future.
As everyone knows, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. It is estimated that by 2025 that substantial population will have reached 190 million, of which 43% will be under 30. There is little doubt that many of Bangladesh’s problems relate to poverty and a lack of education for some of its young people, although there are significant improvements. The question of how Bangladesh retains educated professionals and builds a future for them in Bangladesh will be one of the biggest challenges going forward. I hope that this country can play our part, given the passion clearly shown by the large Bengali diaspora here. No doubt we will have many more of these debates, with a sense of friendship. As my hon. Friend rightly says, we must be critical friends at times. Equally, there is so much good to be said about that country, and we want to play our part in ensuring that the world gets to see that.
It is a pleasure to see you, Sir Alan, presiding over business this afternoon. I look forward to hearing the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) respond to the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh, for leading the group with distinction and enthusiasm. She knew that I was thinking of challenging her for the chair but I thought that would be churlish, given how well she has led us for five years. I probably could not have beaten her, anyway, so that was entirely fatuous on my part. I am delighted she secured this debate and pleased that the title refers to the future of Bangladesh. That is very much what we all want to see, although she also covered the history, as have other speakers.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). He is my neighbour and friend. In this debate we are all friends because we are all friends of Bangladesh. We may be in different parties but we all want the best for that country. I know we all agree, as other speakers have touched on, that it is not our role to play sides in Bangladesh. We are not supporters of the Awami League or of the Bangladesh Nationalist party. Whichever party—BNP or Awami League—has won the support of the Bangladeshi people, I and colleagues have supported the Government of Bangladesh.
The right hon. Gentleman made some pertinent points about some political organisations in Bangladesh, in particular Jamaat-e-Islami. That is the sister organisation of the Islamic Forum of Europe, which has such a bad influence on our young people in the UK. Jamaat has been an ally of the Awami League in previous elections, though in more recent years has been associated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. That is disturbing because, as has been referred to, Bangladesh has a proud secular history.
Another matter already raised is that of the violence against minority communities. I know the Bangladesh Government want to do more to protect minority communities. We want to see them redouble those efforts because those attacks are deeply disturbing for a country that was founded as a secular democracy. I criticised the Awami League for boycotting the last BNP election victory and I criticised the BNP when it boycotted elections two years ago. Many of us thought the BNP could have won that election and I thought the boycott was completely wrong.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) referred to confidence in the electoral process. The UK, the European Union, the United States and international organisations have a huge role to play in rebuilding the confidence within Bangladesh about transitional arrangements and the confidence in elections. The UK Government played a huge role in validating the electoral roll in Bangladesh, where 80 million voters were registered in 18 months. That demonstrated that we should have confidence in the electoral structures and arrangements within Bangladesh for future elections. There is a lot of pressure to accelerate the elections, and they have got to be timed to have the confidence of the international community as well as of the Bangladeshi people, so that the outcome will be respected internally and externally.
We all know, and reference has been made to the fact, that Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Although its people are among the poorest in the world, it has had 6% growth for the past five to 10 years—a growth rate we would all bite their hands off for. That is not a criticism of the UK Government’s economic plan, although we all know it is not working that well, notwithstanding what the Conservatives say, but we would all love a 6% growth rate.
One side product of that growth, of course, was the disaster at the Rana Plaza. The acceleration in growth has meant that the regulation and protection of workers, wages and conditions have fallen behind. It was therefore reassuring to read an email this week from GreenGrade, an organisation the hon. Member for St Albans invited to make a presentation to the all-party group last year. GreenGrade, which helps garment workers and garment factory owners to improve the industry’s standing, says that
“Rana Plaza workers will get full compensation”
and that the donor trust fund, which was set up by the ILO,
“has reached its US $30 million target”
this year. Victims and families will therefore get compensation.
Colleagues will know that I am patron of the Sreepur village orphanage, which has been running in Bangladesh for 25 years. I am proud that it has helped a whole number of children who were made orphans by the Rana Plaza disaster. They have been housed, and they are being looked after. Clearly, a lot of good is coming out of a very tragic story.
The hon. Gentleman is being a little too modest: the Sreepur office is run by his wife, who is absolutely fabulous—she came to make a presentation to the all-party group. I pay tribute to the efforts of the hon. Gentleman and his wife in rescuing children from the exploitation they may have been drawn into as a result of Rana Plaza.
It is very generous of the hon. Lady to mention my wife, who is a trustee of the orphanage. It was set up by Pat Kerr, who was born in Scotland and who was a cabin crew member with British Airways. The orphanage now looks after 500 children and 150 destitute mums. It has looked after women and children for the past 25 years, and it is a huge success story. It goes from strength to strength, and it has a lot of support in the House, including from the hon. Lady.
I want to refer quickly to elections. As I said, we need to build confidence in the electoral process. Accusations have been made about corruption and fraud. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster touched lightly on the fact that we in Tower Hamlets are not unused to corruption and fraud—our mayor was recently taken out by the election court. However, it was great to see Sheikh Hasina here this week giving commitments on the drive to rebuild confidence in the electoral process and institutions. Incidentally, it was also great to see her niece, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), make her impressive maiden speech yesterday. She will be a real asset to not only the Labour party, but the whole House in due course. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh is rightly proud of her.
When Sheikh Hasina came over, it was also fantastic to hear the older brother of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) speaking about the wonderful work he has been doing in Bangladesh to extend broadband. However, as we are talking about the future of Bangladesh, will the hon. Gentleman reiterate the point that corruption, fraud and demonstrations such as those that happened here in London at a community event with Sheikh Hasina may hinder progress in Bangladesh unless we get things right over the next few years?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The all-party group, which the hon. Member for St Albans leads so well, has a really important role in helping to bring the two sides together. Lord Avebury has been working on that for many years. There needs to be dialogue. The good news is that, for the past few months, the situation has been quieter than it has been for the best part of two years. If the country is to get back to having a normal political future, that needs to continue.
As parliamentarians, we have great respect in Bangladesh. This debate will, I know, be covered in Dhaka’s Daily Star. It will also feature on Bangladesh TV here in the UK and back in Dhaka and Sylhet. The message we collectively want to send to the Bangladesh Government is: “We are your friends. We are here to help. We want to do everything we can to see continued progress in your country, which has made fantastic progress in the last 40-odd years. We are a resource and an asset.”
When the Minister and the shadow Minister respond—I am sure the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire will reinforce this point—I am sure they will say we are all in the same endgame: helping Bangladesh to move forward. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for securing the debate and for giving us all a chance to put on record our views on the future of Bangladesh. I also thank her for work as the chair of the all-party group. On our last visit, she and I spent a great deal of time on the roads of Dhaka and travelling around Bangladesh. There is no doubt that her commitment is absolutely genuine, and I am pleased to see her continue in her role.
I want to add a few comments to the distinguished speeches we have heard. Bangladesh has a tremendous future and a really important relationship with the UK. The challenges it faces can be overcome, but they need to be addressed, because they are important.
I pay tribute to the British Bangladeshi population in my constituency—we have a substantial community in Hyde. To be honest, I did not grow up with a great deal of diversity; I grew up in a very white working-class part of north-east England, so I was not familiar until my adult life with any sort of diversity. In fact, I acutely remember being at university in Manchester and experiencing Eid for the first time. I lived just at the edge of Rusholme, and everyone came down the road, beeping their horns and waving flags. I honestly thought that there must have been an explosion and that everyone was fleeing to safety. People sometimes take the time to tell us about their faith, background, history or culture and they invite us into their homes to share that experience with us. That is a wonderful part of being an MP, and I treasure it a great deal, although we do not always talk about it enough.
My community has not been without its challenges. Like many communities, we have had situations such as that in 2012, when we had an invasion—that is the word I would use—by the English Defence League. Its members came to Hyde and harassed people, trying to exploit community tensions and to get a foothold in the community. When members of our communities—people of different backgrounds, political views and ethnicities—stand together and say, “We don’t welcome you. In fact we oppose this invasion of our town,” that, too, is a special thing. We are not tough enough on organisations such as the EDL, which come in and tell people who are second or third-generation British citizens that they should not be here. They should not have the right to do that. Of course, they have the right to express their view, but, equally, we must protect our citizens as they go peacefully about their lives.
When we talk in future about the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh, I hope that Bangladesh’s impressive economic performance will have further strengthened that relationship. Despite all the political problems with forming Governments and having peaceful transitions into power, the growth rate in Bangladesh is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, something we in the UK very much aspire to. Given the language and discourse in the UK around India, China and the MINT countries—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey—the Next 11 countries, of which Bangladesh is one, could become the vogue, fashionable countries that this country wants a relationship with. The links the UK has with Bangladesh could be a tremendous asset, not just to the UK as a whole, but to towns such as mine.
The hon. Gentleman was brave enough to travel the roads of Dhaka. The important thing we saw over there was the power lines draped outside buildings and the roads, which made us feel like putting our hands over our eyes while we travelled on them. If business is to keep investing and trusting in Bangladesh, we need to see infrastructure growth, and I would like to hear comments from the Minister about that. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that infrastructure growth and resilience are important if we are to support growth?
I absolutely agree, and I want briefly to mention three issues we came across when we went to Bangladesh, because they are important for the future.
The first is the context of our visit: the Rana Plaza disaster, which was one of the worst industrial accidents the world has seen—some 1,100 people died. That came just after the Tazreen Fashions fire, which killed 112 people. Clearly, they should be addressed in the context of the development of Bangladesh’s economy. To be honest, when I went there, I perhaps had a predetermined view that the question was primarily one of exploitation, with western companies using the cheap labour rates of Bangladesh to make profits. I still believe that western companies have a duty not just morally but in terms of their reputation and brand to make supply chains transparent and to do what they can.
However, the situation is complex. The standards adhered to by western factories that export to this country are clearly higher than those of the domestic garment industry in Bangladesh. Many of the problems that we encountered were to do not just with the behaviour of western companies, and labour standards, but the whole system of governance in Bangladesh—the need for good governance, and for corruption to be rooted out. Those are central challenges that have been mentioned in the debate, and they lead to my second point, which is on the political culture and political violence in Bangladesh, and the need for change.
I am sure that all of us with an interest in Bangladesh—particularly in Tower Hamlets, I should imagine—have had experience of people wanting to take our photo and get a comment from us endorsing one side or another in regional or national elections, or perhaps in Bangladesh’s historical disputes. I completely understand that there are legitimate grievances on either side of Bangladesh’s political history, but my message to those people is always that there is much to be gained from trying to find a way through to a peaceful transition of power in Bangladesh.
For all the differences between parties in the House, we can honestly say that when one side wins an election—usually the Conservative party—we are willing to give up the keys to Downing Street. I was surprised by the amount of interest there was in that way of doing things when I was in Bangladesh. People were taken aback by the fact that we were an all-party delegation, and could not relate to that. If either side can reach the point of having faith in the central idea of adhering to the rules of the political system, and to the rule of law, perhaps through the mediation and support of countries such as ours, Bangladesh has a huge future, and proceeding in that way is extremely important.
Political violence in Bangladesh clearly continues to be a concern. I asked for figures from the Library. I believe that 120 people have been killed this year in political violence—half of those are believed to have been burned to death. It would be terrible if people took that as indicating the nature of Bangladesh as a whole. It is much more than such statistics. Many people, and not only those with an ethnic or historical link to the country, want to visit it, to have a relationship with it and to do business with it. UK investment in Bangladesh is of huge importance to our economy, just as it is to that of Bangladesh, so it is important to get past the issues I have outlined.
I want finally to make brief mention of climate change. Most people in this country who consider the challenges are aware that Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable. Today, there is a lobby of Parliament on climate change on the theme “Speak up for the love of”. Bangladesh produces 0.3% of global emissions, but it is one of the countries most at risk from rising sea levels. The Ganges delta has 230 rivers, and there are 160 million people living in an almost completely flat area one fifth the size of France. A sense of justice and equity, regardless of what side of the political divide we are on, will tell us that there is a need to do the right thing this year in this Parliament to tackle the situation.
People often ask about the consequences of climate change, and they need to realise that it will affect not only countries such as Bangladesh, but the UK. It will create refugees and problems of food supply and food security. There will be huge knock-on effects for this country as people go to places where they have relatives, or that they have relationships with. That brings us back to the fundamental point that it is in our interest for UK parliamentarians to take the right steps for the UK’s national interest and for the world. I hope that we will do that throughout this Parliament.
I warmly welcome the debate, and the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh, which I agree is extremely important to parliamentarians. We are all friends of Bangladesh and I hope that the relationship will become even more important in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for her excellent presentation, and look forward to working with her in future. I am of mixed heritage and have background from Pakistan, which shares issues with Bangladesh. I want to focus on child marriage, climate change, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), and climate justice.
Last Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a report called “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away”, ranking Bangladesh fourth in the world for child marriage, and describing the practice as an epidemic. Sixty-five per cent. of young women in Bangladesh are married before 18, and 29% before 15, according to UNICEF figures. Child marriage leads to dangerously early pregnancies, lack of education, and greater chances of domestic violence and poverty—issues that are, of course, of great concern to all.
Meanwhile, however, the UN has praised Bangladesh for meeting other development goals, including on the reduction of poverty, gender parity in school enrolment, and reduction of maternal mortality. If some of the development goals have been met, the question must be raised of what is going wrong on child marriage. Gender discrimination has been mentioned as one possibility in the Human Rights Watch report, along with desperate poverty that means parents cannot afford to feed or educate their daughters, and natural disasters caused by climate change, which force families to adopt survival strategies.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about marriage. The Human Rights Watch report made great play of the fact that because of poverty the option for many families is either to find a husband for the daughter, or for someone in the family to starve. It is a difficult choice—whether to keep a girl in the family and keep the family together, or marry her off so she can survive. We in this country could not countenance that situation.
As the hon. Gentleman says, we cannot possibly imagine facing such choices, but people living in Bangladesh make such stark choices daily. The Human Rights Watch report is specific in its comments about child marriage rates in Bangladesh:
“Natural disasters in Bangladesh, and the lack of an adequate government safety net for families affected by them, compound the poverty that drives child marriage. Bangladesh’s geophysical location makes it prone to frequent and sometimes extreme natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, river bank erosion, and earthquakes, which cause widespread loss of life and property damage.”
The report continued:
“Some families interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had made decisions about marriage for reasons directly related to natural disasters—some for example rushed to marry off a daughter in anticipation of losing their home to river erosion.”
Bangladesh is the most vulnerable nation in the world to the impact of climate change, according to the risk analysis firm Maplecroft; 57 rivers enter the country at one side and drain out at the other. The country has no control over the water flow and is particularly vulnerable to rises in global sea level. It is densely populated, with widespread poverty, little capacity to adapt and ineffective governance. The people are powerless in the face of natural disaster.
That leads me on to the matter of climate justice. The poor and vulnerable—often women and children in particular—are always the first to be affected by climate change, and they suffer the most, when in many cases it is the richer countries and populations that have caused the problem. Acknowledging that imbalance is central to climate justice. Climate change threatens basic human rights: to water, food, a home, an education, economic development and life itself. It reverses hard-won progress on human rights and development, and we can see that clearly happening in Bangladesh. Climate justice puts people, and a human rights-based approach, at the heart of decisions on global sustainable development. It means benefiting the environment, alleviating poverty and improving equality.
The Scottish Government are leading the way in the realm of climate justice, with a dedicated climate justice fund, which is possibly the only fund of its type in the world. The £6 million fund currently supports 11 projects in Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zambia, empowering the poorest and most vulnerable communities to access their rights and to become more resilient with respect to climate change. The fund’s emphasis is on access to clean water, enabling communities to assert their water rights, and sharing best practice in natural resource management. The results have been inspiring. Communities are brought together to work towards a better future, sickness is banished, crops are healthy, and children can return to school.
The Scottish Government have stimulated conversations about climate justice nationally and internationally among businesses and communities, and in academia and the public sector. Glasgow Caledonian University this year launched the world’s first masters programme in climate justice. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recognises Scotland’s pioneering role, stating last December:
“Within the UK, the Scottish Government continues to take a lead in putting climate justice on the international and domestic agendas, with a renewed commitment to the cause of human rights and an announcement of new projects supported through its Climate Justice Fund.”
As Humza Yousaf, Scottish Minister for Europe and International Development, has said:
“We aim to be a world leader and a progressive voice on the global stage—we hope our commitment to helping the world’s poorest will inspire many people, both home and abroad.”
The Scottish National party manifesto for 2015 promised that
“we will call on the UK government to match the approach of the Scottish Government with a dedicated Climate Justice Fund.”
This debate highlights perfectly the need for such a fund, to help countries including Bangladesh, which suffers an endless stream of disaster caused by climate change—a problem not of its own making that leaves millions in deprivation and forces families to give up on their own daughters’ futures, as was shown in the Human Rights Watch report.
Bangladesh, like many other developing countries, is doing its best to make social and economic progress in the face of ongoing environmental catastrophe. We can call on its Government to restore full democracy and call for strong action on child marriage, but as first-world contributors to the global climate crisis, which affects countries such as Bangladesh disproportionately, we have a strong moral obligation to help. Will the Minister promise to take a close look at the Scottish Government’s climate justice policy, with a view to creating a similar fund at UK level?
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate. It is not the first time that we have debated Bangladesh in this Chamber. She has done an excellent job chairing the all-party group and obviously continues to show passion for the country.
We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) about the importance of free and fair elections, which must have the confidence of the international community and the people of Bangladesh—I will mention that—and peaceful transition from one Government to another.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) mentioned the important issues of child marriage and tackling climate change. Many of us will today have been lobbied by constituents on the Climate Coalition’s summer rally. It is important that we highlight the impact of climate change on countries such as Bangladesh when urging the Government to make progress in the talks that will happen later this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made an interesting speech, with a new take on this topic from the trade union point of view: he spoke about labour standards in the shipbuilding yards and among garment workers. Most importantly, he name-checked his local restaurant, which is always a good move for an MP; there will be free poppadums for him next time he is there, I am sure.
Perhaps the next time my hon. Friend speaks he will give a long list, and then he will get free poppadums in all of them.
The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) talked about the plight of Hindus, which I will mention, and about the diaspora community in his constituency and its passion for education. I think that all of us with ethnically diverse constituencies realise that levels of aspiration in some of these communities are extremely high.
The Bangladesh diaspora is an important part of our communities that maintains our strong historical links to Bangladesh, which the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned. The connection between our two countries was reaffirmed this week with the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whom many of us had the opportunity to meet. She was in the public gallery for the maiden speech of her niece, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who has become, as has already been mentioned, one of three MPs of Bangladeshi heritage in the House, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq).
We have heard that Bangladesh has made progress on poverty reduction and prosperity is rising. Its economy has grown by around 6% a year despite political instability, structural constraints and the global financial crisis. Many of the millennium development goals have been reached, such as the goal on getting girls as well as boys into primary and secondary education, although there is always an issue about children dropping out as they get into secondary education—particularly girls, when marriage is on the cards.
The country is heavily reliant on agriculture and the garment industry; the latter accounts for more than 80% of exports. We have heard about Rana Plaza, to which I will return in a moment. There is potential for growth in some sectors, such as the information and communication technology sector, which generates some $300 million in revenue. At a very local level, microfinance has made a real difference. I was fortunate, when I visited Bangladesh with Results UK, to meet Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel peace prize winner, whose microcredit system has reached out to some 7 million of the world’s poorest, many of them in Bangladesh, and helped when the conventional banking system would not. It is notable that he said that 95% of its loans were given to women. Women are very much the driving force of economic regeneration locally.
Remittances from the diaspora community accounted for 8% of GDP in 2014, which is some $14 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has done excellent work on this front, trying to ensure that the flow of remittances continues to countries such as Bangladesh, but there is still a need to look at whether remittances can be better channelled into growth, so that it is not just about subsistence and supporting families to keep their heads above—let us leave that metaphor. It should not just be about supporting families to get by on a daily basis.
Bangladesh remains a poor country. Political violence is a major concern. Last year’s elections were boycotted by the main Opposition party and more than half of the 300 seats were uncontested. There was violence on election day, including arson attacks on polling stations; 21 people died, adding to the death toll after 120 people lost their lives in pre-election violence. This year, with the anniversary of the election, there were more deaths and fires, and thousands of people were arrested. Amnesty International has reported in the past on the use of excessive force, torture and extrajudicial killings by the police in Bangladesh. Questions have to be asked about the police response to the violence. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said about conversations in his local restaurant regarding developing policing, and about the contribution that we can perhaps make on that front.
The Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, reportedly encouraged protests in January. The Minister will be aware that she has been charged with corruption—allegations that must be dealt with independently and in accordance with the rule of law. I hope that, during her visit, the Foreign Office discussed the matter with the Prime Minister in more detail.
The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 was one of the world’s most serious industrial accidents, as hon. Members mentioned, in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives and 2,500 people were injured. It exposed the hidden costs of the clothes we buy on our high streets. The TUC and organisations such as the Bristol-based Labour Behind the Label have done great work to campaign for justice and reforms. I understand that the compensation target was finally reached in the last few weeks. The tragedy demonstrates the importance of the International Labour Organisation, yet the coalition Government withdrew funding for it. Of course, we have seen plans to erode workers’ rights at home, too.
It would help if the Minister outlined how the FCO was working with Bangladesh to improve rights and safety conditions for workers, and how it was demonstrating to the international community, as well as to businesses operating in the UK, that this is a concern for the Government; and it would help if he said that the Government recognised the importance of raising labour standards, not just internationally in Bangladesh, but to protect those in this country.
As the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire said, Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. It produces just 0.3% of global emissions, but is especially susceptible to cyclones and rising sea levels, which threaten the lives, homes, food and livelihoods of its 160 million people. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I were at a meeting with climate scientists this morning, and some of the facts and statistics they put in front of us were absolutely frightening. If the world does not act, rising sea levels and global warming will impact on not just such countries as Bangladesh, but every country. That is why we need a strong global deal on the table at the Paris talks later this year. It is also why we need action on climate change when the conference on the sustainable development goals meets in the autumn.
Bangladesh warned last year that it would need £3 billion over five years to adapt to current climate challenges, including help to build 700 km of coastal defences. If that is not done by 2050, rising sea levels could cover 17% of Bangladesh, displacing millions and potentially forcing 50 million people to flee. If any more incentive were needed—again, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire touched on this—we need only look at the wider impact of climate change. According to Human Rights Watch, 29% of girls in Bangladesh marry before the age of 15, despite that being illegal. That percentage is higher than in any other country. By the age of 18, 65% of girls are married, in part because of poverty and lack of access to education. Climate change is another driver of that, with parents marrying off their young daughters after losing their home or crops to floods or soil erosion.
The APG visited an institute for the paralysed. While we were there, we saw many children who looked like they had cerebral palsy, but it was the result of young women giving birth and those births going wrong. It is important that young women are protected from entering into having children at a young age.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Parents may see marriage as a way of securing a better life for their daughters, but too often they suffer abuse in marriages. Even where that is not the case, the physical risks of giving birth at such a young age can be bad indeed. Child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh and the Prime Minister made some encouraging commitments at the girl summit in London last year. Reports indicate, however, that there has been little progress on her pledges. There has even been some discussion about the legal age for marriage being reduced in Bangladesh. The UK Government were rightly lauded for hosting the summit, so I hope the Minister can update us on how they have been trying to maintain that momentum and get Bangladesh to deliver on the commitments made there.
As the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned, there is serious concern about the persecution of Hindu communities and the decline of the Hindu population in Bangladesh. Freedom of religion and expression are a grave concern. Earlier this year, three secular bloggers were hacked to death on Bangladesh’s streets. Those responsible for such horrendous acts must be brought to justice, and the Government must protect the rights of religious minorities and atheists in Bangladesh, as well as the majority Muslim population. We have seen bloggers, Facebook users and human rights organisation officials arrested because of what they have put online. The FCO listed freedom of expression on the internet as one of its six human rights priorities, so perhaps the Minister can advise us on whether the new Government continue to have those six priorities. How have they been working with Bangladesh to support reform in this area? Abolition of the death penalty was another of the FCO’s priorities, and the UK must continue to push for a moratorium in Bangladesh, as we do elsewhere.
Finally, one area where Bangladesh has been less proactive is the boat crisis with Burmese and Bangladesh migrants. We have previously discussed our concerns that Bangladesh has returned Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma and blocked aid agencies from accessing Rakhine state. The international community is horrified by the discovery of mass graves and scenes of migrants from Burma and Bangladesh packed on board ships and risking their lives in search of a new home in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. I know that the Minister responded to an Adjournment debate in the Chamber only last week or the week before on the situation in Burma, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has dismissed the Rohingya as economic migrants who are “mentally sick”, and said they should be punished, as they were
“tainting the image of the country”.
Will the Minister comment on the situation from the Bangladesh perspective?
I hope the Minister will agree that the international community needs to address not only the immediate crisis in the Andaman sea, but the underlying issues forcing people to flee their homes in Burma and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is of course part of the discussions about Rohingya citizenship and whether they can eventually be given rights of citizenship in Burma.
I regret that my remarks may appear rather negative; I started by saying that there was much in Bangladesh’s future to be positive about, but it is important, as other Members have said, to highlight some of the issues, in a spirit of friendship, so that we can, with our common shared history and our role in the Commonwealth, work with Bangladesh to address them.
Before I call the Minister to speak, I remind him that there are approximately 15 minutes to go. It would be helpful if at the end he could find a little time for Mrs Main to respond to the debate and thank Members for their participation.
I shall certainly try to do as you suggest, Sir Alan. On that subject, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate and on the almost universal acclaim from all parts of the House for her work as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh. I commend the commitment that she and all the group’s members, some of whom are with us this afternoon, have shown over the years to strengthening and deepening our relations with Bangladesh, as well as to encouraging progress in many areas, from human rights and economic and social development to educational and trade links.
In January 2014—more than 16 months ago—the House had a debate on Bangladesh immediately after its 10th parliamentary elections. Those taking part in that debate expressed concerns about: the high levels of violence and disruption; the removal from Bangladesh’s constitution of the provision for a caretaker Government, following the annulment of that provision by the Supreme Court; and the consequent lack of participation by some of Bangladesh’s political parties in the elections. Indeed, as we know, before a single vote was cast, just more than half of all seats were declared, meaning that 46 million out of 92 million voters were deprived of choice at the ballot box. While that was deeply disappointing, the UK recognised that elections had been held, in accordance with Bangladesh’s constitution, which was amended by its Parliament in 2011. While it is not for the UK to prescribe the constitutional provisions of other countries, I add that the caretaker Government system was not without its flaws and was open to criticisms of manipulation and abuse. It is certainly not the panacea or path to participatory democracy that some have claimed.
Since then, alongside our international partners, we have encouraged Bangladesh’s political parties to take bold steps towards building much-needed confidence, mutual understanding and co-operation as the only way for the country to remain on a strong democratic path with full political participation, so that its people continue to have political choices. That is a message I have conveyed personally in my engagements with Bangladeshi Ministers.
It was therefore deeply concerning when the situation deteriorated in Bangladesh earlier this year. There have been: restrictions on public gatherings around the first anniversary of the 2014 elections; nationwide transport blockades and enforced labour strikes declared by the Bangladesh Nationalist party; outbreaks of violence and disruption; more than 100 deaths, horrific arson attacks and many more injuries; and opposition and activist arrests, which a tough law and order response that saw a number of fatalities. On 5 March, I issued a statement calling for a peaceful way forward. Preparations for city corporation elections in Chittagong and Dhaka in April presented a real opportunity for Bangladesh to focus on democratic processes once more, but that opportunity was lost after the BNP withdrew part way through, citing widespread irregularities. The Election Working Group—an umbrella non-governmental organisation that the UK, among others, supports—found election day to be marred by significant levels of electoral fraud and violence, and judged the elections not to have been credible.
We and many other international partners called for all allegations of irregularity to be investigated swiftly and impartially. Sadly, that does not yet seem to have happened. The UK cares deeply about Bangladesh, so we continue to urge the political parties to do the right thing by Bangladesh’s future. Like any modern, vibrant democracy, Bangladesh must protect and promote civil society and human rights, and not least freedom of expression, whether through allowing peaceful protests on the streets, media commentary or digital expression. No one should fear reprisals if they express a view. I associate myself closely with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) about the importance of a secular society.
The recent horrifying and brutal murders of three bloggers in Bangladesh caused consternation around the world. The perpetrators must be brought to justice and the Bangladeshi Government must be unequivocal in protecting those who speak up. We are also deeply concerned about allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Again, where allegations are credible, we call on the Bangladeshi Government to hold the perpetrators to account through impartial, transparent investigations.
I should note the final verdict yesterday in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh’s appellate division, confirming the death sentence against Jamaat secretary-general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, for crimes committed during the 1971 liberation war. Although I fully understand the strong desire finally to bring those who committed terrible atrocities to account, the UK remains strongly opposed to use of the death penalty in any circumstances.
Bangladesh has a strong network of non-governmental organisations, all contributing to Bangladesh’s future in a range of sectors, from supporting women’s and children’s issues, to food security and poverty alleviation. We regularly engage with the Bangladeshi Government to ensure that they support the vital work of these organisations and address legitimate concerns, including revisions to new legislation governing NGOs.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) commented on the Human Rights Watch report, “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away”, and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred to passages in that report about girls being married off so that others can eat or be educated. We welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment at the girl summit last year to ending marriage for under-15s by 2021, and for under-18s by 2041. With two thirds of women in Bangladesh currently married before they are 18, it is hugely important that the new Child Marriage Restraint Act sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, with no exceptions. We continue to discuss with the Bangladeshi Government our concerns about the proposed legislation to lower the legal age for marriage.
We invest heavily in Bangladesh’s development. UK aid currently stands at £191 million a year. That support aims to lift 1.5 million Bangladeshi citizens out of extreme poverty, provide access to safe water for 1.3 million people, and ensure that 500,000 boys and girls complete primary school education. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans asked how the UK aid schemes are audited; the situation is complicated. I will ask my colleagues at the Department for International Development to write to her. Nevertheless, I can assure her that none of our aid is paid as direct budget support to the Bangladeshi Government.
Climate change is of course hugely important to Bangladesh. I remind the House that the Government set up the international climate fund to provide £3.87 billion between April 2011 and March 2016 to help the world’s poorest to adapt to climate change and promote cleaner and greener growth.
Hon. Members rightly mentioned the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza two years ago, which resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 innocent lives, many of them women’s. We welcomed the all-party group’s report and recommendations. The garment industry in Bangladesh has played a pivotal role in Bangladesh’s development by helping to reduce poverty and empower women. Significant steps have been taken to improve building safety and working conditions, but there is still more to be done. All the parties involved in the supply chain, including Government agencies, building owners, factory owners, and the international brands, need to share responsibility for ensuring that change happens.
The UK is providing £7.4 million to fund factory inspections, train new inspectors, strengthen factory health and safety, help garment workers to understand their rights and help survivors of Rana Plaza to find new jobs or start their own businesses. We are pleased that the $30 million Rana Plaza fund has now been met in full. Primark’s contribution of an additional $13 million, on top of its $1 million donation to the fund, is particularly noteworthy and will help to ensure that victims and their families are properly supported.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), mentioned the migrant crisis in the bay of Bengal and Andaman sea. I recently discussed the matter with the permanent under-secretary from the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and urged Bangladesh to take steps to improve border security and address the root causes of the crisis. He invited me to go with him to Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong to see for myself what is going on there. I very much hope to take him up on that offer. In parallel, UK aid is providing £4.79 million for food security, livelihoods and relief co-ordination for the Rohingya and host communities in Bangladesh, in addition to the significant existing UK aid programmes in Rakhine.
Before I draw my remarks to a close, it is worth reflecting on Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh. It is important that countries in the region collaborate to ensure the region’s long-term stability and prosperity. We therefore welcome the Indian Parliament’s long overdue ratification of the 1974 India-Bangladesh land boundary agreement and the 2011 protocol. That will make a significant difference to the lives of tens of thousands of citizens living in enclaves on either side of the border. We hope that this historic agreement, along with other Bangladesh-India bilateral agreements made during Mr Modi’s visit, paves the way for even more—for example, on Teesta water sharing. Incidentally, the boundary realignments have already unleashed a whole tranche of long-overdue Indian investment in infrastructure—I think my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans alluded to that earlier.
It is important that all countries in south Asia continue to play a role in tackling the threats of terrorism, extremism and radicalisation. I therefore welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to eradicating terrorism, although it is important that, when countering risks, law enforcement agencies do so transparently, fairly and within the bounds of the law.
To conclude, the United Kingdom values its relationship with Bangladesh deeply. The 440,000-plus people of Bangladeshi origin in the UK make an enormous contribution to British society. That is why the Government will continue to work closely with Bangladesh on its democratic path and as it grows to be a strong and more prosperous nation that benefits all its people. On behalf of the whole House, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans for her work and for the opportunity to debate these important issues, and I thank other Members for their continuing interest in furthering the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh.
Thank you for that guidance, Sir Alan. I shall do so.
I thank all Members who have participated for their contributions. This has been a model debate in terms of the friendliness expressed by Members from all parties. I thank the Minister for his response. He gave us his thoughts about the election irregularities that he has asked be investigated. I really hope that they are, because such helpful pressure, which we are putting on all political parties in Bangladesh, will move things forward.
The all-party group expressed a desire at its inaugural meeting to look at flooding—the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) really wants to look into that. Infrastructure resilience is hugely important in Bangladesh. If the country is to grow, it is critical that it moves itself forward with the infrastructure upgrades that it so desperately needs.
I again thank the Minister. I am sure we will be asking for further updates.
That concludes the debate. I must point out that, although a Division has not yet been called, one is expected in a few seconds’ time at 4 pm. If that is the case, the next debate will not start until 4.15 pm.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.