I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for Pakistan.
As chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan, I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss Government support for that country, which has long and deep historic ties with the United Kingdom. Our thoughts are with the people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of India affected by yesterday’s earthquake. I lost 25 relatives, including my grandfather, in the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. I know what amazing support the UK provided then, and I ask the UK to do all that it can to help Pakistan at this difficult time.
There are more than 1 million people of Pakistani background in the United Kingdom. They are the second largest ethnic minority group, and many continue to contribute much to our country, as well as retaining links with family and friends in Pakistan. Pakistan has come a long way in its relatively brief 68-year history, passing an important milestone in 2013 with the first peaceful democratic transition from one Government to another. There is a conviction that a resilient UK-Pakistan relationship is vital to regional and global peace and security. Working together and with key international partners helps to address evolving threats in south Asia. Pakistan has the will, determination and commitment at every level to be a progressive, strong and democratic country at the heart of the international community.
As a country on the front line of the war on terror, Pakistan has faced major challenges and brutal attacks, such as the horrific massacre at the army public school in Peshawar.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in the debate. I congratulate him on securing it; it is important, given the historical and cultural relationship of Britain and Pakistan. Pakistan has existed for only 68 years, but things have developed. Given what is happening now because of earthquakes and other things, the area needs peace and increased prosperity. The British Government have a responsibility to look into the issues and work with the diaspora here and with the Government of Pakistan.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He has always been a strong friend of Pakistan, wanting to build on the excellent relationship between our two countries. He often highlights the important role of the diaspora. Of course that is right. The United Kingdom has a huge role to play in ensuring that there is prosperity, stability and security throughout the region in south Asia, by working with all countries—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. It has a significant role to play in that respect.
I was touching on the horrific attack in Peshawar, in which, sadly, 134 children lost their lives. After many years of attacks that have resulted in the deaths of more than 47,000 civilians and 5,000 armed forces personnel in terrorist-related violence in the past decade, reports show that in the past nine months major terrorist attacks have declined by 70%. The UK has always stood shoulder to shoulder with those tackling terrorism and has always been a strong ally of Pakistan. As the Prime Minister said,
“in this battle the friends of Pakistan are friends of Britain; the enemies of Pakistan are enemies of Britain”.
Domestically, Pakistan’s main threat emanates from terrorism and extremism, and there is a direct link between those things and external factors such as conflict in Afghanistan, the unresolved Kashmir dispute and increasing chaos in the middle east.
This is an important debate and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there are more than 1 million people of Pakistani origin in this country. The debate will be important for them. My thoughts and prayers are with those who tragically lost their lives in the earthquake in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one issue that remains outstanding in the region, which is in some ways a barrier to peace and prosperity, is the region of Kashmir? Does he agree that there is a need for a peaceful solution to allow the sons and daughters of Kashmir the right to self-determination, and will he call on the Government to encourage both Pakistan and India to have peaceful round-table discussions to promote that?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the brilliant work that he does in building the relationship between our two great countries, and for all that he does in his constituency with its large Pakistani diaspora. He touched on an important point about Kashmir; no doubt the Minister and all concerned are aware of United Nations resolution 47 of April 1948, which says that the people of Kashmir should be given a right to self-determination, to determine their own destiny. The resolution includes the words:
“Considering that the continuation of the dispute is likely to endanger international peace and security”.
My response to the hon. Gentleman is that yes, of course, people will say there is a need for bilateral talks between India and Pakistan. However, as we saw in the past year the talks between Foreign Secretaries collapsed, with the Indian authorities withdrawing from them. For talks to continue, two willing parties are needed. At the moment there is no constructive bilateral way forward. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the international community, including both the United States and the United Kingdom, has a moral obligation with respect to peace and stability in the region to do all that it can to assist in that long, drawn-out issue. I would mention, by way of a declaration, that I was born in Kashmir, so I await a plebiscite for my say, whenever that may come. I think that the international community has a moral obligation with respect to the matter.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful response. Will he also comment on the continued breaches and human rights violations in the region, as reported by many international human rights organisations? Will he join me in asking the Government to note that that is perhaps an even more pressing issue at present? Human rights violations in the region must end and the international community must do more to assist with that.
The hon. Gentleman is right about respect for the rule of law and human rights. Both the countries in question are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, so on that basis everything needs to be done to ensure that people’s basic human rights are respected, wherever they are.
It is said that the UK’s supply of advanced conventional armaments to India has the potential to aggravate the growing asymmetry between India and Pakistan, which will lead to a lowering of nuclear thresholds. Some in Pakistan consider the UK’s nuclear stance on Pakistan to be unfair and that the UK’s support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and perceived pro-India stance on the Missile Technology Control Regime not only undermines Pakistan-UK bilateral relations but also forces Pakistan to adopt measures in the nuclear domain that it considers to be in its national interest but which may be contrary to the UK’s aspiration within the international nuclear paradigm. The UK-Pakistan defence relationship is strong but not regarded as strategic. A move in that direction could develop even stronger relationships.
One of Pakistan’s biggest challenges and largest opportunities is its growing and young population, which is projected by the UN to increase to more than 300 million by 2050. There is an opportunity to reap that demographic dividend, and Pakistan could be the next South Korea by 2050. According to economist Jim O’Neill, Pakistan has the potential to become the world’s 18th largest economy by 2050—almost the same size of the current German economy.
Lord Maude, UK Minister for Trade and Investment, said in the House of Lords in June 2015 that Pakistan presents “too big an opportunity” to miss. Pakistan has one of the world’s fastest growing middle classes, representing 55% of the total population. In the past three years, consumer spending in Pakistan has increased at an average of 26% compared with 7.7% in Asia as a whole. That increase in consumption-driven demand presents an opportunity for British brands to introduce their products and services to the market, as demonstrated by the success of Debenhams.
Pakistan’s strong relationship with the European Union and the US through the GSP plus programme, which the UK strongly supports, is a significant boost to the country’s exports. Since Pakistan was awarded that status by the EU, exports have increased by 21%, and total UK-Pakistan trade increased by 15% in 2013-2014. The China-Pakistan economic corridor in particular has seen 51 agreements signed, totalling $45.6 billion in 2014, in one of China’s largest overseas investments. The mega-projects that will follow can be given vital assistance by British companies through providing services and expertise to maximise the benefits. Encouraged by that, and in recognition of its being one of the best performing frontier capital markets, Pakistan’s credit rating was upgraded this year by Moody’s for the first time since 2008. The UK Export Finance fund has been revised in order to support the work of publicly managed projects, while the overall size of the fund has increased from £200 to £300 million.
While there is an appetite in the UK to do more business, there are mutual obligations and a moral imperative for Pakistan to reform, including improving the legal process, privatisation, taxation reform and dealing with corruption. Pakistan is rated 127th out of 177 countries on the corruption index. Its controversial and often abused blasphemy laws hinder the country’s international standing, as countries are expected to respect citizens’ human rights and religion freedoms.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about human rights issues and blasphemy laws. Does he agree that our Government should also look at human rights issues in the rest of south Asia? For example, in India there has been a surge of sectarian violence in the past year or two, which has often been linked with the rise of Hindu nationalism or fascism—whatever we want to call it. In Burma, there have been killings of Rohingya Muslims. Does he think it appropriate for our Government to look at those countries and their human rights records as well?
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks and pay tribute to her for the brilliant work she does to promote the relationship between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. It was a real pleasure to be on a British Council delegation to Pakistan with her. She probably read the article I read—I urge the Minister to read it too—in the Times of India on 1 May 2015, entitled “US panel: Minorities under attack in India”. The independent panel that reports on religious freedom to the President of the United States, Barack Obama, highlighted human rights issues concerning minorities in India.
Whether the issue is China or the Rohingya community in Burma, human rights should be a key part of our foreign policy wherever abuses occur, as I made clear to the shadow Foreign Secretary in a Queen’s Speech debate on foreign policy. As I said to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), everyone’s human rights, wherever they are, should be respected by all, and we should do everything we can to ensure that countries respect basic human rights and religious freedoms.
I have often spoken about the need to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Last year, I wrote a letter, signed by 54 Members of Parliament, to Prime Minister Sharif and the Chief Justice raising concerns about Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death. I am pleased to see that in July, Pakistan’s Supreme Court announced a stay of execution, but there is still much to do to secure her release. Over the summer, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and I visited Pakistan as part of a cross-party delegation. We met senior Government officials and discussed the need to reform blasphemy laws and minority rights. It is fair to say that we sensed a real desire by those senior officials to look at reforming those laws, which are often abused and target Muslims as well as minorities.
The hon. Lady not only raised the issue, but used that meeting to provide alternatives of how abuse could be curtailed. I fully support what she said about reform, whether it is a question of these cases being dealt with at high courts rather than lower courts or having special prosecutors and special judges. Those discussions took place at every level, and I thank her for her expertise and contributions.
The delegation to Pakistan had the opportunity to learn more about the British Council’s excellent work. Members on the trip visited Islamabad and Lahore to see some of the British Council’s projects in action, including Take a Child to School and the Punjab Education and English Language Initiative, which aims to train 300,000 teachers. The British Council in Pakistan works in all four provinces and has built a network with the scale, skills and influence to deliver transformational change. The council aims to expand its presence and reach tens of millions of people across the entire country by reopening libraries, improving life chances and community engagement through citizenship and sport, empowering women and girls, strengthening skills and expertise in English and UK-Pakistan partnerships in higher education, science and the creative industries.
The Department for International Development is investing some £320 million this year in Pakistan in one of its largest programmes. Pakistan was DFID’s third largest bilateral programme in 2014-15, and if progress continues, it could become DFID’s largest such programme in 2015-16. The greatest priorities for the UK as an international development donor to Pakistan are education, women and children, creating jobs and supporting economic growth, strengthening democracy and governance, building peace and stability in conflict-affected areas, and providing humanitarian assistance through life-saving support to people affected by conflict and natural disasters.
There are ways we can further our relations with Pakistan. In particular, I would like the Minister to consider the following issues. Will he ensure that every possible assistance is offered to Pakistan in the light of the earthquake, to assist the country at this difficult hour? There is a clear relationship between the number of direct flights to a country and an increase in trade. However, since 2008, British Airways has suspended its six weekly Heathrow flights. Will the Minister look at that? The Government’s travel advice has been raised as an issue. Will the Minister look at that and the process for reviewing it, in line with the improving security situation in Pakistan?
The Government have a target of increasing bilateral trade to £3 billion by 2015. Will the Minister present an update on plans to increase trade relations, including plans for trade delegations to Pakistan? With the bulk of trade focused on the goods sector, what can he say about the scope to develop trading links across the service sector? Around 10,000 Pakistani students are studying in the UK. However, changes to student visas were raised when we visited Pakistan as a delegation. Will the Minister provide an update on the situation?
On security, Pakistan is on the front line of the battle with terrorism and would appreciate assistance through GSM—global system for mobile communications—intelligence gathering and technology, such as biometric scanners and night goggles, to monitor the Afghan border more effectively.
I come to my last specific point for the Minister. In a recent joint statement with Prime Minister Sharif, President Obama said that US engagement with Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim democracies in the world, should be comprehensive and multi-dimensional to reflect the global challenges of the 21st century. Is that what the United Kingdom is trying to achieve with Pakistan in its long, strategic relationship with the country?
In conclusion, Pakistan still has many challenges, but it is determined to become a safe and prosperous nation at the heart of the international community. With our mutual shared history, our very large Pakistani-origin diaspora and our deep, strong, multi-dimensional relationship based on mutual trust, respect and understanding, our relationship can go from strength to strength by working together to tackle the global challenges facing the international community. I know that the Minister has recently visited Karachi and seen the many opportunities that the country offers. I thank him for the brilliant work that he does in building our two countries’ excellent relationship, and I look forward to hearing from him on this matter.
Thank you, Mr Davies; it is a real pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing it. He spoke with such passion, flair, understanding and expertise on this matter, and in such detail, that he has managed to give me limited time in which to respond. However, such is his enthusiasm for making sure that these matters are discussed in the House that it is fully understandable that he has eaten a little into my time to reply. I will do my best to respond to some of the matters that he has raised, and as usual, I will write to him in the normal manner if there are points that I cannot reply to now. I commend him and other hon. Members for the work they have done in the House.
My hon. Friend began, as I should as well, by offering our condolences, understanding and sympathies to all those affected by the horrific earthquake that has taken place in Afghanistan, but which has rippled right across the region. He asked what Britain is doing. Naturally, we stand ready to give support—we have had no formal request yet, but we stand by, ready to help our friend and ally.
My hon. Friend mentioned the important role of the enormous diaspora that we have in this country, which strengthens our cultural relationships and the understanding of our country, which is very important indeed. I am pleased that he also paid tribute to the British Council, not least the delegation that I had the opportunity to meet recently on a visit to the country. I was very proud to meet those British Council representatives and to hear about the work they are doing to strengthen this important bilateral relationship. I had the opportunity to visit not only Karachi, but Islamabad last month. I saw at first hand how Britain is working very closely with Pakistan on three key areas: security, which my hon. Friend raised, the economy and governance. Before trying to answer his questions, I will cover—in the time available—some thoughts on those three key areas.
First, as my hon. Friend implied, security across Pakistan has improved dramatically. There really was an understanding—almost a wake-up call—following the disastrous attack that killed so many children in the Peshawar public school. The British Government are very much playing our part. We are training Pakistani police and promoting work with prosecutors and the judiciary to investigate, prosecute and sentence terrorist suspects in line with international human rights standards. We have made an awful lot of progress, and I hope that continues.
Secondly, on the economy, the improved security is helping to drive economic growth. It is making the country more attractive. An International Monetary Fund programme has helped to stabilise the economy since the fiscal and balance of payments crisis two years ago. However, more work is needed if we are to increase the country’s growth to the 7% to 8% needed to reduce poverty. We continue to encourage Pakistan to address the energy crisis, tackle corruption and undertake further privatisations, which are needed to boost the economy. We are supporting businesses that want to trade more with Pakistan, where the opportunities, from energy to infrastructure, are clear, as I discovered on my visit. I hope to return to Pakistan, not least to Karachi, in the near future with my own trade delegation. Indeed, I have invited and encouraged the Mayor of London, who is familiar with working with megacities, to provide assistance in making sure that Karachi works towards being a gateway to the region.
Thirdly, on governance, the advances made in security and prosperity cannot be sustained without good governance, and democracy in Pakistan has shallow roots, as we have heard. We are helping to build on that and sharing our experience to cement accountable governance, credible elections and civilian transitions. The Department for International Development, which my hon. Friend mentioned a number of times, has one of the largest bilateral aid programmes and is helping Pakistan to improve healthcare, education and the provision of humanitarian assistance. UK aid has benefited over 6 million primary school children, ensured that over 1 million more births involved medical professionals and helped over 4 million flood victims.
My hon. Friend mentioned Kashmir, which is obviously a very sensitive subject. He is familiar with our long-standing position in the UK—that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting solution to the situation in Kashmir which takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or indeed, to mediate, but we very much encourage both sides to maintain their positive dialogue and to work towards a solution.
In the limited time remaining, I will try as best as I can to answer the series of questions that my hon. Friend asked. As I mentioned, on the earthquake, we stand ready to give support. We will continue to have discussions with British Airways. The time is now ripe for those flights to be reviewed and reinstalled. I hope that will be the case, pending the security requirements that we and the airline need. On travel advice, we want to make things as trouble-free as possible. There are over 1 million visits and movements every year. There is a requirement, occasionally, for us to review travel advice to specific areas. We are quite careful to make sure that we articulate that travel advice on our website.
On bilateral trade, we have the target of £3 billion. I hope we can persevere towards that. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the fact that the British Government now underwrites and guarantees business opportunities. The money has increased from £200 million to £300 million, which I think is excellent news. That is an indication of how we want to meet the target and to encourage not only businesses that are already there to grow, but new businesses to consider Pakistan as a place to open up and do business.
My hon. Friend mentioned the 70th anniversary in 2017. I very much hope that that is something we can work towards, and it is wise to flag that up now, to ensure that we can mark that important landmark in Pakistan’s history.
On visas, my hon. Friend will be aware of the robust requirement for us to have a thorough visa system in place. However, we want to make sure that we can attract the brightest and best students from around the world and that they are able to come here on legitimate courses, so we very much want to work with Pakistan on that front. On terrorism, I hear what he said about the requests. We will certainly look at that. We have a very strong relationship that is growing ever stronger with regard to helping Pakistan on counter-terrorism.
My hon. Friend spoke of the opportunities for the country to grow and to become the South Korea of the future.
That intervention was absolutely deserved. I look forward to meeting the high commissioner in the very near future—I think we have a meeting planned either today or tomorrow—and we are always happy to have the opportunity to meet.
This has been a short debate, but it has articulated the importance of this bilateral relationship and the opportunities for us to work together on security, the economy and governance.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).