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UK and Kazakhstan

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2016

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the relationship between the UK and Kazakhstan.

Happy new year, everyone. It is particularly good to see staff from the embassy of Kazakhstan here. I declare my personal interest as treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group on Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is massive. The whole of western Europe would fit into the state. It is the world’s largest landlocked country, and it stretches from the Caspian sea to China. Some 16 million people live across its vast lands. Kazakhstan is so vast that, if those people were evenly spread out, there would be only six in every square kilometre. In 1991, Kazakhstan was the last former Soviet republic to break from the Soviet Union. The former Communist party leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has effectively ruled the country since its independence—he is now 75 years old. He was first elected as the secretary of the Communist party of Kazakhstan in 1989, but he was re-elected after the break with the Soviet Union in 1991. Practically unopposed, President Nazarbayev has won—

I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kazakhstan. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of Kazakhstan’s problems is that its wealth is very much in its oil and that it needs to import many products? One of the challenges that the political leadership will have is in governance and the country’s relationship with its neighbours.

I thank my good friend, despite her being in opposition, for that intervention. I entirely agree that that is one of the problems that Kazakhstan has to address.

The President is very popular with ordinary Kazakhs and is credited with presiding over successful political, economic and social changes through the 1990s and impressive economic growth since 2000. Corruption is undoubtedly a serious problem in the country, with perceptions of Kazakhstan in Transparency International’s annual index being almost as bad as the perceptions of Russia. However, I note that Kazakhstan is not listed as a country of concern in the 2014 Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on human rights, unlike its neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Clearly, President Nazarbayev retains a tight rein on power. In fairness, he argues that real democracy will come one day but that change must be gradual so as not to destroy the country’s stability. That makes pragmatic sense, considering the situation in many surrounding countries. Kazakhstan is doing its very best in a region where good governance is hardly endemic. After all, Kazakhstan is no different from countless other states across the world, most of which the United Kingdom considers to be both friendly and a trading partner.

With that in mind, I support Kazakhstan’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2017, and I hope the Minister will do so, too. Kazakhstan has a great record on non-proliferation and disarmament, and it gave invaluable help to our Government during the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan. Kazakhstan also hosted two rounds of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, which was important. Kazakhstan has also mediated in talks on Syria and Ukraine. Finally, the country has initiated the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in central Asia—that treaty was signed on 8 September 2006 in Kazakhstan. In 2009, it was Kazakhstan that initiated the adoption of the UN resolution declaring 29 August as the International Day against Nuclear Tests. Kazakhstan has also closed down a nuclear test site, which was a legacy of the Soviet Union. That is an impressive record.

Oil is dominant in Kazakhstan’s economy. It provides a very large source of foreign investment, Government revenues and employment. Kazakhstan is the 17th largest oil-producing country in the world and has the 12th largest proven reserves of oil, too. Booming oil prices sustained Kazakhstan’s strong growth from 2000 to 2007, when the global financial crisis hit. GDP per capita, a measure of living standards, rose by 89% in real terms over those years. Growth slowed in 2008 and 2009, but picked up again in 2010. The World Bank notes that those rising income levels have led to rapidly falling levels of poverty, which is excellent news.

Our Prime Minister visited the Kashagan oil district on the Caspian sea in June 2013, taking with him representatives from 30 British businesses. The visit was billed as the beginning of a new strategic partnership with the United Kingdom. More recently, President Nazarbayev visited the UK last November to hold talks with the Prime Minister in No. 10 Downing Street. The President and Prime Minister discussed Russia and Ukraine. On Syria, they considered the vital importance of finding a political solution to the conflict and, concerning Daesh, the Prime Minister and President agreed that violent Islamist extremism poses one of the most significant threats to our generation and that there must be comprehensive efforts to defeat it. On Afghanistan, the two leaders agreed that rebuilding the economy would be a key guarantor of the country’s future stability. In short, Kazakhstan is clearly playing a full and responsible part on the world stage.

After the meeting, the Prime Minister announced that the two leaders had secured 40 deals worth £3 billion. The biggest deal was a memorandum of understanding with Kazakh state firm KazTransGas on the construction of a 1,500 km gas pipeline and four power plants in Kazakhstan. Will the Minister tell us about President Nazarbayev’s reforms and our partnership deals with Kazakhstan? What further plans are there to enhance our relationship with the Kazakhs?

I am told that there is a bit of a problem doing business in Kazakhstan. Consultant advisers such as McKinsey & Company suggests that it stems from factors such as the taxation system, lack of transparency, corruption and possibly the revision of original contracts, which is awful for businesses. Mindful that the UK is one of the top 10 investors in Kazakhstan, what are the Government doing to help fix such problems for our businesses?

As a member of the Defence Committee, I am particularly interested in how we can foster and grow a bigger military relationship between Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom. I gather that a certain amount of defence co-operation has taken place already, particularly on the UK’s withdrawal of troops from neighbouring Afghanistan. Just over two years ago, in November 2013, a military co-operation plan was signed between our Ministry of Defence and Kazakhstan’s. Matters decided included support for English language training, career courses in the UK and peacekeeping courses with the British military advisory training team based in the Czech Republic, as well as for programmes to professionalise the Kazakh armed forces and participate in KADEX, the Kazakhstan defence exhibition. Although I appreciate that the Minister is not part of the defence ministerial team, when he replies to this debate, can he update us on the status of our defence relationship with Kazakhstan?

In conclusion, I believe that the United Kingdom’s current and future relationship with Kazakhstan is of huge importance and will be beneficial to both. Kazakhstan might not be a democracy in the way that we experience democracy, but it is one in its own manner. We should help the country to evolve its own version of democracy even further, which will take time. Political, economic, social and military links between the UK and Kazakhstan will help each not only to understand the other better but to prosper.

Thank you, Mr Davies. I apologise for any confusion on our part. I wish everybody a happy new year and welcome members of the Kazakh embassy, and I thank the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for securing this debate.

Kazakhstan’s history, geography and economy make our relationship an important one. I understand that the Government’s position is to secure that relationship in order to become the country’s partner of choice and build on our strong position with regard to trade and investment. Given this Government’s woeful record on the balance of trade, I suppose that every bit helps in closing our current huge trade deficit. As the British Chambers of Commerce said last month, our poor trade performance will continue to be a drag on UK growth into the fourth quarter. I agree with this quote from the BCC:

“If we are to redress the balance and reverse our long-running trade deficit, more must be done to help support export growth, including improved access to funding for those looking to export.”

In the context of this debate, I agree that it makes strategic sense to work to become a key partner of Kazakhstan, particularly on trade. As the hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned, Kazakhstan is currently 126th out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, which is significant. It signals to those of us in the SNP that we need to be a friend to the people of Kazakhstan, not just to its Government.

Kazakhstan restricts freedom of assembly, speech and religion, and torture remains a problem. In 2014, authorities closed newspapers and jailed or fined dozens of people after peaceful but unsanctioned protests, and fined or detained worshippers for practising religion outside state controls. Critics of the Government remain in detention after unfair trials. Recently adopted changes to the criminal code and a new law on trade unions contain articles that restrict fundamental freedoms and are incompatible with international standards. If we are to be a friend to the Kazakh people, as I believe we should be, we must make every effort to use our position of influence with President Nazarbayev to conduct serious reforms of his country’s democratic process and human rights legislation.

Press freedom is a case in point. Kazakhstan was placed 160th out of 180 countries in the 2015 world press freedom index, which noted that media pluralism is succumbing to increasing repression by the regime. Increased Government pressure on the press has shrunk the already limited space for freedom of expression. Media production and distribution are largely controlled by members of the Nazarbayev family or powerful businesses affiliated with the regime. Government propaganda dominates the informational space and systematically discredits independent voices. In fact, a London-based correspondent for the state TV channel, Bela Kudaibergenova, quit her job on 3 December, saying that she was “tired of lying”.

One particular human rights case that I want to raise is the detention of Vladimir Kozlov, a journalist and the leader of the unregistered political party Alga. It is a significant act that has rightly attracted attention from international human rights groups. He was sentenced on 8 October 2012 to seven and a half years in prison. The charges relate to Kozlov’s alleged role in violent clashes that took place in Zhanaozen following extended labour strikes. A month after Kozlov’s trial, a court suspended the activities of Kozlov’s party after the Almaty prosecutor’s office asked a court to designate Alga, the People’s Front movement and several opposition media outlets as extremist.

I am glad that the Prime Minister met the Kazakh President at Downing Street in November, and raised

“Kazakhstan’s progress on political and societal reform”

within a wider discussion of trade and international security. It would be most helpful if the Minister confirmed whether, during those talks, the Prime Minister raised the specific case of Vladimir Kozlov. What measures has the Foreign Office taken to ensure that promoting human rights in Kazakhstan stays at the top of our bilateral agenda?

The development of Kazakhstan’s economy presents a range of opportunities for organisations from the UK and Scotland, from the oil industry to our higher education sector. We must ensure that we use our favourable position to exert pressure on the President to address the serious human rights issues in his country at the same time. Consistency of approach on human rights is imperative.

For the sake of belt and braces, I repeat my interest as chair of the all-party group on Kazakhstan. I am beginning to wonder whether, whenever we discuss a country, we should start by being given a map showing that country in the centre. It would give us a bit more understanding of the geographical constraints and some of the problems and historical developments. In the case of Kazakhstan, that is particularly important now that we are establishing more exchange and relationship.

I think of a poignant quote from the chief executive officer of the Kazakh central bank, Berik Otemurat; I am happy to take pronunciation lessons after this debate. As someone whose name is permanently mispronounced, I am sure that it must be irritating for people to listen to us mispronouncing their names. He said of Kazakhstan’s current problems in the context of falling oil prices that the country has massive cash reserves, and it is a question of how to invest those; what is its relationship with hedge funds and all the new financial vehicles? He went on:

“I have always thought about ourselves”—


“as a newly-born giant kid standing on the shore of an ocean of opportunities for the country, being afraid to make our first steps without breaking a leg. Before you run you have to learn how to walk.”

What is imperative is reaching out both to the people and to the Government. As for our definition of democracy, we hope that this is not just the beginning, but that democracy will continue. The Government are the people, and the people should provide the Government. Therefore, it is not always helpful to draw those kinds of separations.

However, the best thing that we can do to help in terms of reaching out and allowing this process, which in many ways is one of learning to walk, is around governance, including governance of party political processes. We have fantastic organisations here, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, where we work across parties. We must recognise that there is a real difficulty post-1989 for countries to establish political parties, including a process whereby loyal opposition parties that have different ways of thinking about how things should be done can be established.

At the same time, when there is an electoral result of 97% for one party we just know that something is wrong; not even someone’s own family would vote for them with a margin of 97%. That takes us to the processes of transition. One mistake that we sometimes make is that we think that just because someone has a ballot paper and because there are ballot boxes, that in itself means there is a democratic process; that may be one of my criticisms of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe when it carries out election monitoring. Kazakhstan has gone through the process, but to quote T.S. Eliot, “You had the experience but you may have missed the meaning”. For me, the meaning always is that the people actually change those in government in a peaceful process. So, it is not the first election or even the second election that matters; what matters for me is always the first peaceful transition from those who have been in power to the Opposition, which replaces them. In that sense, when we look at that whole part of the world post-1989, we see that most of the countries are, in some way or another, struggling with that process.

We need to do what we can to help with that process. There is a reason why I think Governments and bureaucracies are so important. I always say we need bureaucracy and such things as a civil service and all the other institutions because they are the organisations that stop things from going seriously wrong when there is a crisis. Therefore, we need those fall-back positions.

There are two areas that I plead to the Minister about regarding our relationship with Kazakhstan. One is financial governance. There are some serious problems if a country has huge cash reserves, is beginning to look at greater involvement with hedge funds and has a big national sovereign fund. We also read about the emergence of the Bitcoin market. If the financial markets are ungoverned spaces, we just know that something will go wrong.

The second area is about the times when a country experiences very high inflation while also experiencing falling oil prices. Those periods will have some economic problems, which—again—we can provide some significant help with, by supporting those structures that I have mentioned. What will hold us together is membership of the big international organisations, whether it is the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations. Those structures have rules which we all must comply with. Therefore, it is as much in the interests of the people of Kazakhstan as it is in our interests that such rules-based processes and a shared understanding of those rules are entrenched, so that the rules are not something that countries must learn to evade or avoid, but instead help people to govern their own country and to deal with other people.

Building that capacity—whether it is with the OSCE or the WFD, or through bilateral support of our businesses—is something that we must do more of, particularly in those parts of the world that will become increasingly important to us all. It is in relation to one of those countries—Kazakhstan—that I am glad that parliamentary colleagues, both in the Commons and in the Lords, have decided that an all-party group should be formed. Therefore, I hope that, in the end, we will learn from each other, and if we cannot do so I hope that we will at least understand each other better.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I thank my very good friend, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. It will be no surprise to Members here that I will focus on some of the human rights issues and the persecution of Christians in Kazakhstan. I mean to do so in a very constructive way. I hope that Members will view my contribution in that way, but it is also very important that these things are said; they need to be said. We have a very strong economic working relationship with Kazakhstan and we want that to continue, but the issues of human rights and equalities, as well as the abuses that take place, also have to be addressed.

Kazakhstan is often overlooked, but it is the world’s largest landlocked country; as the hon. Member for Beckenham said in his introductory remarks, it is larger than western Europe. Therefore, I suppose that we should not be that surprised to learn that the astronaut Tim Peake was launched into space from that central Asian republic. It has been ruled by the same president—Nursultan Nazarbayev—since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Nazarbayev’s regime is heavily criticised by human rights groups for restricting freedom of speech and for its apparent lack of democracy. At the most recent presidential elections, Mr Nazarbayev obtained 97% of the vote, which is a majority that some MPs can only dream of.

As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said, there has been a start to democracy in Kazakhstan, but there is a long way for that democracy to move, and it must move alongside the securing of human rights and equalities. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) clearly outlined the human rights issues in her contribution, and I will do that too, as well as I can.

Kazakhstan is No. 42 on the Open Doors world watch list and suffers from both Islamic extremism and dictatorial paranoia. The population is 16.7 million, of whom 2.5 million are Christian, although the majority of people in Kazakhstan are followers of Islam. The Christians amount to some 12% to 13% of the population. Not all Christians are affected by persecution in Kazakhstan, but those from non-traditional Protestant groups or who are converts from Islam face the most pressure from both families and communities, as well as from the regime, which is constantly working hard to extend its influence in the country.

More and more sanctions have been imposed on the Church, and Christians are frequently fined for their activities, while pastors are often arrested and imprisoned. In 2014, at least 71 people were fined for worshipping in unregistered underground churches. When people are denied their basic human rights and cannot enjoy freedom of religion or belief, it is little wonder that they are forced underground. Also, a law passed in 2011 limits church registration to groups of more than 50 people, forcing more than 500 churches to close and making church planting nearly impossible. It is surprising that there are 2.5 million Christians in Kazakhstan when we realise the very direct effect that those activities have had upon them. In 2013, Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev from Astana—such names never come out right in my Ulster Scots accent—spent eight months in prison and was given a four-year suspended sentence for allegedly serving a mind-altering substance to a parishioner, which turned out to be nothing more than herbal tea that was being used for communion.

Those are some of the things that have happened in Kazakhstan, Mr Davies, and you can understand why we as MPs have to ask these questions and make these contributions. Hopefully we do so in a constructive way through this debate, while also having these things recorded.

On human rights, Kazakhstan heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech and religion, and torture remains a serious problem. In 2014, the authorities closed newspapers, jailed or fined dozens of people after peaceful but unsanctioned protests, and fined or detained worshippers for practising religion outside state controls. Government critics including Vladimir Kozlov, the opposition leader who the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire referred to earlier, remain in detention after unfair trials.

Recently adopted changes to the Kazakh criminal code, as well as a new law on trade unions, contain articles restricting fundamental freedoms, which is incompatible with international standards, and I am sure the Minister will refer to that in his response to the debate. Also, despite widespread calls to decriminalise libel and to amend the overboard criminal offence of inciting social, national, clan, racial or religious discord, the Kazakh authorities increased the sanctions for these offences in the new criminal code. We have to ask why they have done that, and why they restrict the freedoms of religion, expression and belief of the Kazakh people.

Independent and opposition media continue to face harassment and interference in their work. For example, in May 2014 a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist was jailed for four days on hooliganism charges. He was not involved in any protest; he was just reporting for the radio after covering an anti-Eurasian Economic Union meeting.

These are some of the things that have happened in Kazakhstan. I have asked some questions about Kazakhstan before; they are in the background information that I have. The Minister who is here today was the person who responded to those questions. I asked questions in relation to fundamental labour rights and exploitation of child labour. I also asked questions about human rights, and freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. In fairness—I give credit where credit is due—the Minister responded that the previous Foreign Secretary had brought the issue of human rights before the Kazakhstan Foreign Minister. I am not saying that no one has done anything, but I do not see the response and the changes, and it is changes that I want to see, so I think that the issue needs to be brought to Kazakhstan’s attention again.

Despite the fact that the general public might overlook Kazakhstan, this central Asian republic is a hidden gem, with the potential to unleash a new wave of economic growth and co-operation between east and west. And it can do that, as the hon. Member for Beckenham said very well in his introduction. The ancient silk road that linked China in the east to us in the west ran through what is now Kazakhstan, and the potential for a new silk road has been talked about and can hopefully come to fruition. However, we must address the Kazakh regime’s shortcomings on human rights and democracy.

Britons can visit the country visa-free until the end of 2017. We are a nation that is in favour with the Kazakhs and I expect we will be top of the list for future co-operation, as the emerging powerhouse gains traction and begins to fulfil its true potential. Kazakhstan is underdeveloped, but it is sitting on an abundant wealth of natural resources and minerals and it is essential that we work with the country to move it towards a real democracy with which we can work. We can then truly begin to unleash the potential of a close relationship with what is sure to become the powerhouse of central Asia and a facilitator of even greater trade links with the far east’s emerging economies. The country is strategically placed, and we want to develop our relationship with it.

As we continue to advance our space industry and the stars become more and more within our reach, Kazakhstan, with its space capabilities, will become a central part of that. I am sure that Tim Peake will not be the last person to launch into orbit from such a place. The potential is there. Undoubtedly, Kazakhstan is one for the future.

I have outlined the potential for a new silk road, the abundance of underdeveloped resources and the huge swathes of undeveloped land, but we cannot fulfil the potential until we have progress on the key issues of human rights and democracy. With the election results I referred to being dismissed by the OECD as “largely indiscernible” and human rights organisations across the board continuing to raise the poor track record of the regime, with some of them feeling that it is getting worse, it is essential to put the necessary pressure on the Kazakh regime and let it know that such infringements are simply intolerable in this day and age. We need to get a balance between economic co-operation, human rights, equalities and religious freedom. Despite what Mr Nazarbayev’s public relations offensive would have us think, Kazakhstan continues to stand as a pre-eminent post-Soviet dictatorship, in which, in addition to the disregard for democracy, political opposition and independent media are routinely stifled. Events such as the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre, in which a dozen unarmed protestors were killed, have gone largely unpunished and, despite free speech being guaranteed in the country’s constitution, the reality is very different—I have given examples of just that. The potential for Kazakhstan is amazing, but we can begin to work fully with it to fulfil that potential only when the regime becomes a democracy that respects all human rights.

Thank you, Mr Davies. Bliadhna Mhath Ùr dhuibh uile an seo. Happy new year to all those present. I commend the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for securing the debate, and I apologise for the slight confusion about the speaking order. I do not think that either my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) or I have got over the shock of discovering at 8 o’clock last night that we would be on now, rather than at half-past 4, but we got here on time.

It is interesting that most of the speakers agree on what we are looking for. Kazakhstan is clearly a country of enormous strategic importance, but it is not our country; it is theirs, and we have to be careful about interfering too far in someone else’s country. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, it is a country that has not yet managed to shake off the chains of the dictatorship its people lived under in Soviet times. It is a country with massive mineral wealth, and that inevitably means that everyone wants to be its friend. The judgment call that the UK Government and other Governments have to make must be this: where do we balance out the desire to ensure development in a way that matches our interests with not ignoring the serious human rights issues that continue to emerge?

Other speakers have commented on some of the more serious cases, so I will not repeat the details, but it often seems that if a country’s press is not genuinely free, its human rights record will never be all that good. If no one is allowed to criticise, even if the criticism turns out to be unjustified, human rights abuses, corruption and the abuse of power will carry on, and even those who feel they should draw attention to and expose such criminal acts are scared to because they are worried about what the consequences might be for them.

It is noticeable that Kazakhstan as a whole is already starting to reap the economic benefits of the massive natural resources at its disposal. Economic growth is significantly higher than in many other countries. Its GDP per capita places it well above average and pushes it just about into the top quartile of the world’s countries—according to my good friends at the CIA, who I find are good sources of information on any country I want to check up on. By comparison, however, the lot of the typical Kazakhstan citizen is not all that great. It is 152nd in the world for life expectancy—almost into the third quartile—and 157th and 138th for health and education expenditure respectively. Those are figures we would expect to see from a country that did not have the resources to invest in its people. Compared with many parts of the UK, Kazakhstan has a relatively young population, with the majority of its citizens of working age—between 25 and 55—and a significant number of young people as well, so by investing in education and health it can start to improve life expectancy.

It may be that life expectancy has been reduced by the appalling environmental legacy of the former Soviet masters. There is no doubt that taking advantage of the oil and mineral wealth has left behind pollution on a catastrophic scale. Kazakhstan borders the Aral sea, which has been described by some as the world’s worst ever man-made environmental disaster. Because of a number of misguided policies of previous Soviet Governments, the sea is down to a fraction of its previous volume, which means that the pollution that flowed into it has now been left to blow around, affecting the health and lives of both the people and the livestock on which the agricultural economy of parts of the country greatly relies.

Some 59,000 children under the age of 14 are in employment in Kazakhstan. Why is that happening in what is a wealthy country?

Hon. Members have commented on the fact that there is, at first glance, a democratic society in Kazakhstan. People are allowed to vote in elections, but I do not think one needs to be too cynical to wonder whether elections are genuinely free and fair if between 95% and 97% of people vote for the same party. It is possible to get 95% of elected politicians from the same party without that—as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire and I can testify—but that is because of a flaw in an electoral system that is far from perfect. However, any election in which such a high proportion of the electorate is said to have voted in the same way makes one wonder whether they had a proper choice. The result is possibly partly explained by the enormous personal popularity of the President. If he is seen by his people as someone who has done a lot to manage the transition from what was effectively a colony of Russia to an independent nation and they are enormously grateful to him for that, we must respect that and their decision to vote for him.

Just a few weeks ago, Kazakhstan became the first and so far only country in central Asia to sign an enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement with the European Union. Interestingly, in the early stages of negotiation, the EU made it clear that progress towards such an agreement would depend on progress in Kazakhstan’s human rights record. If anything, that record has deteriorated over the time of the negotiations. The European Scrutiny Committee, on which you and I serve, Mr Davies, might want to return to that when the agreements on closer co-operation between the EU and Kazakhstan start coming through for UK Government Ministers to ratify or not—that is, if the EU is still relevant to the UK Government in a few years’ time. Will the Minister indicate what view the Government take on the agreement? Do they feel that Kazakhstan has made sufficient progress on human rights for us to sign up to that agreement, or should we be looking for more?

We have to recognise that progress has been made, but we also have to recognise that that progress has been far too slow. If anything, we have been regressing rather than progressing. I hope that we will get an assurance that, as well as looking for trade deals that would benefit our economy and provide export opportunities for the United Kingdom, we will set an example of what used to be termed an ethical foreign policy. I hope the Minister will assure us that we will not allow UK investment power or the desire for economic growth in the United Kingdom to come at the cost of the abuse of human rights and the exploitation of child workers in some major industries in Kazakhstan, or at the cost of our turning a blind ear or a deaf ear to the cries of religious minorities who are not allowed to practise their faith in peace, or of journalists and other media workers who are not allowed to express fair criticism and are effectively not allowed to disagree publicly with the party line. I am interested to hear what he has to say about that. I am also very interested to see what comes before the European Scrutiny Committee in the presumably not too distant future. It would be good to look into the area in more detail.

I understand the strategic concerns of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about Russia and China wooing Kazakhstan hard. If we have a country that would not match our definition of a full democracy, but which has a substantial Muslim population and a leader who is absolutely determined not to allow his country to become a breeding ground for Daesh and its preaching of hatred and death, there are clear reasons why we should want to speak to that country and be friends with it. We may at times have to be critical friends, and sometimes that criticism may need to be severe indeed.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will be very brief, because I know that the Minister will want a lot of time to respond to all the concerns that have been expressed. I commend the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate. The fluctuations in the oil markets have brought the topic into focus and shown the importance of this huge country to that economic question.

In brief, a couple of the points that the Minister should cover in his response are: how we can further work together on the counter-terrorism strategies that were briefly mentioned at the beginning of the debate; and how we can come together around the work on the anti-corruption strategies—I know he is working on them in other parts of the world as well—and governance. We have had a good level of debate on the human rights questions, particularly the treatment of journalists, child labour and freedom of religious expression, but I would appreciate it if the Minister gave quite a bit of detail on the governance questions. I look forward to his response. I am keeping it nice and brief, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Beckenham would like to come back at the end.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I wish you and hon. Members a happy new year. It is a real pleasure to respond to this debate on our relationship with the important country of Kazakhstan. I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) in her place. She is co-chair of the all-party group on Kazakhstan with Lord Astor. That is formidable cross-party representation and a reflection not only of the interests of Parliament, but of the bond between the two countries.

I pay tribute to the Kazakh ambassador, His Excellency Erzhan Kazykhanov. His hair went a little bit greyer, as did all of ours, in preparing for the presidential visit to this country and the Prime Minister’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. Both visits were extremely successful and were examples of how our two countries are working together far more closely. I had the pleasure of visiting the country last September. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham articulated, this landlocked country is the size of Australia—it is situated between Russia and China; it is where the apple is said to have originated and where horses are claimed to have first been domesticated; and it lived under the tsarist shadow and then the Soviet shadow—and there is no doubt that it is taking significant steps in becoming a regional and global power. The recent visit by the President is testament to the growing bond between our two countries. During my visit, the presidential visit here and the Prime Minister’s visit in 2013, the hand of friendship has been clearly extended to Britain, and we should embrace it.

For people who have not been to the country and are not familiar with the region, the chances are that when they think of Kazakhstan, their thoughts might be out of date. It is a proud, rich and extremely large country that has escaped the shackles of its Soviet past and is modernising. It is confident and willing to do business with traditional trading partners in Moscow and newer partners such as China, south-east Asia, the west and Britain. Commercially and politically, the Kazakhstan of today is on the verge of becoming a significant player on the regional and international stage. It boasts, as we have heard, an impressive range of mineral wealth, from oil and gas to ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and a space launch facility, which a Briton has taken advantage of to get up into the International Space Station—I pay tribute to Tim Peake, who I had the pleasure of serving with in the Royal Green Jackets, and I hope that Members will wish him well.

The country has changed hugely, and when I visited the capital I saw that its skyline was akin to that of Dubai, with many of the skyscrapers designed by British architects. Kazakhstan has also decided to fast-forward its integration into the international rules-based system on which the world’s security and prosperity depend, reducing the role of the state in its economy through a substantial privatisation programme. Furthermore, the introduction of English contract law as part of the development of the Astana international financial centre makes the country one to watch—or, for someone in business, a country to consider visiting before being beaten to it by competitors in other countries.

Kazakhstan is about to become a member of the World Trade Organisation, and it aspires to membership of the G30 and the OECD in coming years. As has been mentioned, an enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement with the EU will shortly be concluded, enabling a broader and closer partnership.

I am grateful in particular for the Minister’s comments about the WTO. Are contract law and WTO membership both things that will require anti-corruption measures to be addressed very seriously? We have a mutual interest in Kazakhstan meeting those requirements, which will also enable our companies to deal with the country.

I absolutely concur that a strength of our relationship with Kazakhstan will be, with our experience, to encourage the country to sign those agreements and to engage with the international rules that will allow and encourage further commercial activity and the bond between our two countries. Only when businesses are confident that there is that positive and transparent environment will we be able to enhance the commercial relationship that the right hon. Lady is espousing.

I am grateful that the President was able to make his visit to the United Kingdom in November, which confirmed the UK as a partner of choice as he seeks to implement governance and rule of law reforms, in line with universal rights reforms as well. Another important element of our bilateral relationship, which I know is of particular interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, is the military relationship, which he raised in relation to various matters. He articulated the need for political structures and mentioned President Nazarbayev’s reforms, the challenges in doing business and our commercial and military relationships. I will address those one by one.

First, the success of any country relies on good governance and reform. While acknowledging the continuing challenges faced, we should recognise that Kazakhstan has made great efforts to improve its governance structures and engage accordingly as the best way to promote reform. In May, President Nazarbayev launched a far-reaching programme of reforms. These included changes to the legal system, the civil service, the economy, and public accountability. These will be implemented through his 100 concrete steps—essentially, milestones for each of the five reform areas that hon. Members have mentioned today.

I recognise, as other hon. Members did in their contributions, that although Kazakhstan has made real progress on its human rights record, there is further work to be done, in particular to avoid the risk that progress in one area might be offset by retrograde developments in others. We rightly have high expectations for a country that is a leader in the region and seeks a greater international role.

During the President’s visit in November, the Prime Minister discussed Kazakhstan’s progress on political and societal reform, including creating a more permissive environment for non-governmental organisations. The President outlined some of his thinking on the reform agenda and spoke of the creation of new structures designed to tackle corruption. For our part, we plan to invite Kazakh Government representatives to our anti-corruption summit in May. Our embassy in Astana is one of a small number that contribute to regular meetings of the Kazakh Investment Council, where transparency issues are discussed. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that, on taxation, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is working hard on a revised double taxation agreement with the Kazakhs. Those discussions will be completed shortly.

On the commercial relationship, let me answer hon. Members’ questions about where we stand on the various partnership deals since President Nazarbayev’s visit to the UK last year. A wide variety of commercial memorandums of understanding were signed during the President’s visit, ranging from joint exploration studies to the forming of a task force to facilitate new partnerships between Kazakh and UK companies in the oil and gas sector. The target is to form 10 to 15 new partnerships in the sector by 2017. We are working hard across Government to follow up swiftly. For example, in the gas sector, UK Trade & Investment is offering in-country assistance to the British company, Independent Power Corporation, to help to take forward its programme.

To provide the maximum support to British businesses, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appointed Lord Astor as trade envoy for Kazakhstan, so he is not just co-chair. I pay tribute to Charles Hendry for the work he has done. He will now work with the country as it hosts EXPO 17 and will act as the commissioner for the United Kingdom. Both will play an active role in the UK’s thriving bilateral relationship with Kazakhstan, and they are both planning to visit the country next month.

We will continue to support British businesses wanting to trade with Kazakhstan across sectors, from energy to infrastructure. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston commented on the falling oil prices. That underlines the need to not rely on hydrocarbons, but to diversify. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham noted, the opportunities are many. For example, the two-way trade in the region is worth about £1 billion per annum. Over the next 10 years, expenditure on major new oil and gas developments in Kazakhstan is expected to exceed £60 billion. We want to be a part of this exciting investment. Indeed, the oil and gas programme is the highest grossing programme globally for UKTI, having already delivered £6.6 billion of business wins for the UK.

On military relations, the Ministry of Defence, through the defence attaché in Astana, has built an extensive network of contacts throughout the Kazakh armed forces. There have been reciprocal visits at the highest level of chiefs of defence staff, and a visit by the Kazakh Defence Minister in 2013. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham raised the issue of officer cadets from Kazakhstan being trained in the UK. Our MOD colleagues have been working hard on this. I am pleased to say that it is now making real progress and our embassy is currently following up with the Kazakhs.

The current focal point of defence engagement with Kazakhstan is the Steppe Eagle exercise, now in its 13th year, with the aim of developing the Kazakh forces’ capabilities to deploy on peacekeeping missions, which my hon. Friend mentioned. In July 2016, it will take place in the UK for the first time, and we look forward to Kazakhstan taking part in its first UN peacekeeping role in the near future. Exercise Steppe Eagle is clear evidence of Kazakhstan’s growing international ambitions and of the positive contribution it can make on the international stage.

I am conscious of the time; I want to give a minute or two to the motion’s proposer.

I want to come to the human rights matters, which are of interest to many Members. Human rights in Kazakhstan have not progressed at the speed and to the extent that we and others would have liked. When looking at human rights in Kazakhstan, we acknowledge that it is a relatively young country, only gaining full independence in 1989. However, progress has been made. For example, we have seen important progress on social and women’s rights, as well as on torture prevention. The development of a national preventive mechanism against torture is a significant step that is starting to have real effect. The rights of children have improved and progress against human trafficking has been made. Dialogue between the Government and NGOs critical of their activities is gradually improving.

I am afraid I cannot give way; there is not enough time.

Challenges remain, and, as I said earlier, there is a risk of advancements being made one way affecting efforts elsewhere. Time is against me; I will try to write to hon. Members if I have not answered their points. In conclusion, we have a deep and growing relationship and substantial mutual interests with Kazakhstan. These interests will not stop us raising sensitive issues, including corruption and human rights, as we would with any partner country. Kazakhstan’s ambition to take on a wider regional and international role is also leading it to take on associated responsibilities. I acknowledge what my hon. Friend said about the UN Security Council seat. It is a prominent role, which we welcome. We of course do not declare our voting intentions to do with any country. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham for securing this debate and for the contributions that have been made. If I have not answered all the questions—I know there is one outstanding question to do with a particular case—I will write to hon. Members in due course.

I want to thank some of my favourite Members of Parliament for turning up to support this debate. Kazakhstan is somewhere that matters a great deal. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) for saying that people matter just as much as Governments and we should do our best to get to grips with the people. I am very impressed, as always, by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who always speaks so well and to the point. She made the point that democracy is not just about ballot boxes, but about a system, and I entirely agree with that. She was absolutely right about getting good governance in the financial system to spread the wealth of the country around.

My very good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), raised the matter of persecution and human rights, and the 2.5 million Christians in the country. I hope that our debate today will help protect them.

The Front-Bench speakers were excellent too. I very much agree with the speech of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). He said that it is not our country, but we can have a bit of influence—if we can—in that country. We all agree that a free press is important, and I subscribe to the view that we should try to encourage the country to use some of its wealth to increase life expectancy among its population.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).