I beg to move,
That this House has considered the funding of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
This debate gives us all a remarkable opportunity to focus on a small and sometimes underknown organisation, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which for 30 years has played a distinguished role in standing up for and representing our values on a global stage.
I must declare an interest as the current Chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Today I will discuss with colleagues here in Westminster Hall, some of whom are governors of the organisation, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which I will call the WFD for short, including why we were created, what our aims are, whether we are succeeding, and what we can contribute that matters to the taxpayers who fund us, to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to whom we answer, to other organisations that fund us and, perhaps above all, to the nations and peoples of the world, who we exist to serve.
I believe this is a good moment to ask these exam-type questions of ourselves in public, not just because this year is our 30th anniversary and no organisation has a right to exist forever; not just because the delay in confirmation of our funding this year has caused us to question every activity, programme, office and pound of expenditure; and not even because of the events in Ukraine, where I am delighted to say that our two staff members, Halyna and Marina, are now safe, far from the Ukrainian Parliament, where they had been working to bolster and sustain Ukrainian democracy, in a project with partners that is financed by the United States Agency for International Development—USAID.
It is even more fundamental to examine the UK commitment to open societies and the WFD’s contribution because, I suggest, democracy is in recession. That is the issue of our time, the challenge for our Government for a generation and perhaps longer to come, and the cause on which our children and grandchildren may later judge us. Moreover, it is not simply about one side winning and the other side losing, or even about a rise or fall in the various democracy indices, although the latest reading, from The Economist index, is dire; it is certainly the worst for 15 years and arguably for even longer. I believe that it is about something more invidious and longer-term—a view among the young in particular that democracy is no longer assumed to be the best solution and the best form of governance, and that other, more efficient, models might exist.
If Churchill’s maxim that “Democracy is a terrible thing, but I cannot think of a better way of governing” is still true—it is a maxim that the WFD holds close to its heart—then we, like every generation, must remake the case for democracy and against the authoritarian range of alternatives. Right now, we may be tempted to remember that time and time again, authoritarian regimes have few easy ways of replacing leaders who pass their sell-by dates, stop listening to their people or surrender to imperialist fantasies. However, we also need to keep asking this question: how do we keep our systems, processes and use of technology up to date, relevant and effective?
That is where the work that the UK does to help open societies abroad matters hugely. There is, of course, Margaret Thatcher’s great observation that
“democracies do not go to war with each other,”
which is never more valid than today in Ukraine. There is also the hard truth that democracies are fragile plants that need much tending and, untended, decline—first gradually and then, like all gardens, suddenly very rapidly.
I note my hon. Friend’s concerns about delays in funding from the Foreign Office. I have to say that I saw first-hand the excellent work done by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy when I attended its training workshop in Ghana for female politicians across Africa. So, does he agree that the Foreign Office must continue to fund that vital work, to help strengthen open societies and democracies around the world?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She makes a very good point and her own work in Africa, which she continues today in her guise as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy in Kenya, absolutely confirms the point that she makes: in every continent in the world, there are countries in which sustaining this fragile plant is incredibly important. We should not be complacent about that in our own country, or across the pond in North America, either.
In this gardening analogy, the WFD is the constant gardener. We are there for the long term, and our projects need time to succeed. Let me give one example. I have seen our programmes in action in four of the countries in which our western Balkans project operates. I have no doubt that in all of them the project has been a success and great value for money. Were we to abandon the project in less than a month’s time when its funding expires, it would be another setback for open societies in the western Balkans. Yet that is precisely the risk, because the funding for the project, which comes from the conflict, stability and security fund—that is, the Cabinet Office—has not yet been decided. The work that the WFD has been able to do there, improving Parliament structures and scrutiny, helping more women into political leadership positions and so—this is the crucial aspect—reducing corruption, which is the scourge of faith in Government, is really important work, done indirectly by Her Majesty’s Government to help nations across the oceans.
Today, every organisation—barring a civil war or invasion—needs certainty in which to operate. During the pandemic, the Government provided that certainty for both businesses and the self-employed. It is therefore extraordinary that, having declared an end to the pandemic, and with departmental budgets agreed with the Treasury some time ago, until 6 o’clock yesterday evening I could not have told this debate what the WFD budget would be in less than a month’s time. Our outstanding chief executive Anthony Smith is here today, and we have roughly 100 staff in many countries around the world, and there are the rest of the governors, both political and non-political. For us to have to say in a board meeting last week that we could not sign off on a budget—only an indicative operational plan—is not an acceptable way for a non-departmental Government body to operate. It was with great relief, therefore, that I took the call last night from the office of the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), for the verbal confirmation of our core funding for 2022-23. I look forward to the written confirmation as soon as possible.
However, I stress that that does not resolve everything, for many of our projects are funded through official development assistance by individual missions. The western Balkans project, pooled by five embassies, is a good example of that. They still do not know what their allocations are. The good news on core funding enables us to complete a budget and a restructure with much greater certainty, and enables us to decide the party political programmes that are arguably the unique feature of the WFD, but it does not mean that all our programmes, or the jobs of the staff delivering them, are secured. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that I speak for many heads of mission and diplomats when I say that, for an organisation well-versed in understatement, the words “frustrating” and “disappointing” are polite ways of describing widespread feelings. I hope that we never have to slog through such agonising budget treacle for so long ever again.
Let me come back to the core purposes of the WFD and our constant reinvention. Our work cannot prevent rogue states from invading others, whether in Myanmar or Ukraine, but we do have the relationships, mentoring and knowledge such that, when freedom returns, we can help those societies to work better. For example, we have an understanding of what is not working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and beyond. Western democracies want to know why the youth is voting with its feet to leave across the west Balkans, and were they to show the resolve in helping unblock these impediments to more open societies, it would reduce the tensions in that region that exist now and could yet lead to a new round of violence.
All Governments need the tools to help deliver what they believe in. This great country of ours believes powerfully in open societies and democracy—the values on which all of us were elected. Even after temporarily reducing our development spending to 0.5% of gross national income, we still spend over £10 billion a year, the vast majority of which goes on large, multilateral organisations, delivering important work through Save the Children, Oxfam and so on. In that enormous pond of development expenditure, the WFD is but a tiny drop—£6.5 million of core funding this year. However, we do answer to those values and the choice to stand up for them, as outlined in the Queen’s Speech and the integrated review paper that the Government wrote last year, which I still believe to be a very good definition of strategic choices that defend our interests.
My hon. Friend has made a powerful case for the WFD and the work that it does, and through him I want to appeal to the Minister. It is only natural that any large bureaucracy protects itself first and the outsiders last. When there is a cut, it tends to cut off the tentacles, however valuable they are. I hope we will hear from the Minister a personal commitment to ensure that WFD and its work are not allowed to languish, and that they have her full personal support. I know that the Department and the wider civil service will hear that message if it is given clearly by the Minister today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who was earlier discussing with me the importance of environmental democracy. I hope he will participate in the event that the WFD has organised, which I think is on the last day of March. It will gather colleagues from across the world to discuss the importance of environmental democracy. It is exactly the sort of long-term work he believes in, and that we are trying to deliver. I sense a future role for him in the WFD.
My apologies for arriving after the commencement of the debate; I was still in a Select Committee. I put on record my appreciation for my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the work that he does in chairing the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It is not always the most glamorous task, but having been a director myself some 10 years or so ago, I know what incredibly important work it does. It helps to project on a cross-party basis from both Houses of Parliament the importance and the strength of encouraging democracy in some of the emerging democracies—particularly from former Soviet states.
I was in Kyiv with the WFD on my only visit to that, at present, benighted country. I tried to encourage the parties to recognise the importance of democracy and the role they can play in standing up to aggression. It is vital that WFD continues to do that work, not least during these dark days.
I am very grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said. His own experience, both in Ukraine and more widely on the board of WFD, is extremely relevant. I pay warm tribute to Members of Parliament, the Government themselves and our non-political governors for their commitment and voluntary work over the few years that I have been chairing this organisation. It is to them that we owe what I hope is generally seen as a successful organisation, punching, as Douglas Hurd used to say, above our weight.
This is a good moment to come back to when we started, which was in 1992, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a time when optimism was strong about the future of democracy. There was the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the fall of dictators across eastern Europe. There was the exit of Suharto in Indonesia and Pinochet in Chile. These were heady times for those who believed in the values of democracy. The WFD was created to build those bridges between British political parties and our counterparts overseas, with other Parliaments and civil society, which is not to be underestimated in any of the countries where we run programmes—the role of civil society to help build more open societies and more prosperous countries.
In many ways, when the Foreign Secretary talks about a network of liberty, we can help deliver that, but we can do that only if we get the resources to enable us to deliver. Let me give one very tangible example, which I saw in action last week, in the Bangsamoro region of the southern Philippines, on the island of Mindanao, which I last spent a considerable amount of time in in 1986, when there was a rampant civil war between various Islamic groups, which we would now call fundamentalists or jihadists, as well as communists and the Philippines army. It was a region where everything was decided by the gun.
Today, in the Bangsamoro Parliament, which was set up over the last couple of years, and in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which is run by a former freedom fighter, I saw at first hand how the project that we are delivering—sponsored by the British embassy in Manila—can contribute to a series of programmes there, run by those who most strongly believe in democracy, to help deliver real peace and prosperity to that part of the Philippines. It is fragile, but I believe that an extension of it, which I hope will be formally announced fairly shortly, will continue to make a real difference. It is far away from the headlines of the media back here, but it is delivering very valuable progress.
To bring this speech to a conclusion, I hope that today’s debate leads not only to a reconsideration of our budget and a reaffirmation of support from the FCDO and from colleagues, but to a reimagination of what this country can do to support democracy across the world, at a time when democracy itself is under threat. That great challenge of our generation is up for grabs.
It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Dr Huq. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate, and thanking him for all the work that he has done for the wonderful Westminster Foundation for Democracy as chair.
If there was ever a time when an organisation was needed that crosses Parliaments, parties, electoral bodies and civil societies around the world—a non-departmental body working and empowering everyone—it is now. This debate is crucial because it reaffirms our commitment to democracy around the world. We have heard that every major index of democracy has pointed to a reversal in the spread of democracy—that is worrying—although there is an increase in political participation, which may be something to do with the work of WFD, hopefully, for more accountability.
It was a privilege to see the soft power of the FCDO when I visited Burma Myanmar in 2013, just before the elections. The soft power and the diplomats do not tell people how to vote or who to vote for; they just empower people. I saw the work that Parliament does to support the MPs in Myanmar—building a library and supporting the new MPs. What about the work that is being done now in Ukraine? WFD supported Ukraine’s independent budget committee, and they must be devastated for the people that they worked with to see them under siege at the moment.
Dr Huq, you will know what Gandhi said about democracy. When he was asked about western democracy, he said he thought it was a good idea. It is not about us exporting our version around the world; it is about empowering people.
Gandhi also said that when we educate women, we educate society, so I was pleased to see that the annual report of the Labour party WFD programme had focused on working women and young people. What a success! In Montenegro, 10 of the 24 participants in an academy were selected as candidates. Despite the pandemic, they delivered training sessions with more than 90 representatives from women and youth forums. People in the WFD are committed to the work, and it cannot take place without funding.
In this 30th year, I pay tribute to everyone who has worked for the WFD—including my colleagues who have done so, across parties—for making a difference to democracy. Its funding is uncertain. The organisation cannot plan and redundancies are already being made—a 29% cut, and with no plan or certainty of a budget for 2021-22. I was pleased to hear about the phone call but, as the hon. Member for Gloucester said, we hope to see that in writing soon. I urge the Minister to commit to funding immediately, because this is about the future, which we are seeing every day now on our screens.
The Government’s own integrated review stressed “robust democratic institutions”. I hope that the Minister will meet the chief executive of the WFD to settle on an appropriate level of funding to enable it to promote democracy and therefore peace. Minister, we only had to look at the face of the Ukrainian ambassador today in Parliament to see how important that work is. I note the Minister is dressed in the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
We are arming people with the arguments for democracy, for the rule of law and for the accountability and transparency of decisions made in the people’s name, so that they are not subjugated by authoritarian regimes. Surely that is the most compelling reason to make sure that the WFD can function, whether through widening participation of women and young people, election monitoring or—our most pressing issue—the future of the world on environmental democracy. The WFD is a sign to every autocratic Government that we will not be intimidated, but uphold the principles of freedom and justice, democracy and peace—and spread that message across the world.
It is a great pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Dr Huq.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and on his incredible work as the chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I, too, am a governor of the WFD. There can be few dates when it would be more appropriate to discuss the importance of supporting democracy around the world, following the incredibly moving standing ovation for the Ukrainian ambassador at Prime Minister’s questions today.
My hon. Friend set out why we should never be complacent about the role of democracy in our world and about the importance of continually making the case for it. He is absolutely right about the fragility that we should be concerned about at all times. I suggest to him that this is an appropriate time to remind ourselves that no man is an island. Geographically, that is always a difficult concept for people from the United Kingdom, but we are not an island: in a world of globalised interests, everybody is our neighbour, and we should never forget that. The more that we can invest in ensuring that those neighbours are stable and have the values that we have, the safer we all are.
My hon. Friend pointed out that the WFD was established directly after the fall of the Berlin wall to strengthen democracies and, by doing so, to strengthen Parliaments and countries as well. WFD funding is from many different sources. I am a relatively new governor and am still trying to get my mind around all these things, but the core funding, rightly, is from the UK Government. To be diplomatic, planning for the next financial year has been challenging because of the lack of a clear indication of the likely level of the grant for the spending review period.
Having myself been a Minister through a spending review, I can only stare in admiration at this Minister, given the amount of work that she must be doing or have done on this. I do not underestimate the complexities. It is absolutely right that Ministers consider carefully how overseas development assistance is allocated—we would expect nothing less—but this debate is to draw attention to the fact that delay, of necessity, causes uncertainty. That uncertainty and the impact it can have on organisations such as the WFD is what we want to remind the Minister about today, particularly given the WFD’s pivotal role in helping deliver the strategic priority for the Government of strengthening democracies around the world.
Financial uncertainty is affecting our ability to operate at a level that we would expect, given the real and transparent need to strengthen democracies at this time. I hope the Minister can provide clarity today. She knows the WFD through her own work and through my noble Friend Lord Ahmad’s visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he learned about the WFD’s western-Balkans programme. Indeed, the Prime Minister, in his former role as Foreign Secretary, announced the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy programme and launched the WFD Kosovo programme in Pristina.
The Minister for Europe and North America, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), also learned a great deal about the work of the WFD in supporting women’s political participation and representation, in preparation for his recent visit to Kuwait. It is so often women who are disproportionately affected when democracies are threatened. I could give many other examples, but time is short. Suffice it to say that we need to see that the UK Government are doing all they can to ensure that, through the WFD and organisations like it, Government strategy for a global Britain and the ambition to strengthen democracy around the world can be brought into reality. I pay tribute to the staff of the WFD who, despite all the uncertainty, have continued their extraordinary work in an unstinting way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Dr Huq. Many believe that Putin felt emboldened to act in Ukraine after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August. That is why now is not the time to cut the support that we give to developing democracies. When one collapses, it emboldens those who have no interest in democracy, and there is a domino effect. We need to double down and reinforce the incredible work that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy has done in the last 30 years, not turn our backs on it, making the last three decades meaningless.
As a WFD consultant when I was not an MP, I spent some time in the Gambia, working to strengthen accountability and democracy, and to increase the number of women, young people and people with disabilities in elected office. Ten of the 11 political parties had come together behind one presidential candidate to oust the human rights-abusing dictator of 22 years. That, in itself, was incredible, as was the fact that they were successful. Unfortunately, the new President got a taste for the lifestyle and decided to renege on the agreement to stand aside after three years. The Opposition parties and numerous human rights organisations are clear that they are not accepting that; they will fight the upcoming elections in the Gambia on that basis. The work that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy did with all those parties has contributed to their determination to ensure a fully-fledged democracy in the Gambia.
The WFD’s in-country rep, Madi Jobarteh, is a shining light in the Gambia, as are so many others who I have met in countries across the globe, including Dinesh Wagle, who is the in-country rep in Nepal. I did a piece of work in Nepal, and the thing about the WFD is that we continue those relationships. Dinesh has brought parliamentarians over here and he is bringing them again in two weeks’ time, not just to Westminster but to my constituency office in Glasgow. The WFD deserves our continuing support. As was said by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who I congratulate on securing this debate, they must be allowed to keep tending those gardens.
I pay tribute to Emma Armshaw, who is the SNP WFD’s head of office—she is with us today. She has certainly kept me busy over the years, but I am exhausted just watching her energy and commitment to the distinct programmes that the SNP office runs. I have been fortunate enough to work with Emma and Ra’edat—the Arab Women Parliamentarians Network for Equality. I was very privileged to engage with some formidable women as they came together in Beirut to talk about violence against women in politics. I wish I had time to say more, but for now I will express my continuing solidarity with them, and with the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus of Malawi, who I also spent some time with through the SNP WFD office.
Those are but two of our projects, and they both demonstrate the SNP’s manifesto commitment to pursuing a feminist foreign policy. The WFD has supported around 600 women parliamentarians across the world; I think I have met most of them. I am very proud of Emma, Madi and Dinesh. I am proud of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy—and, actually, of the UK Foreign Office for setting the foundation up and funding the work done. However, the SNP office alone has had cuts of nearly £100,000 in recent years and the WFD is now looking at further cuts of £1.4 million.
Regardless of the governing party, the WFD’s grants have always been a fraction of those provided to counterparts in other countries, representing perhaps 1% of US funding and 5% of Germany’s funding over the last 20 years. This £1.4 million represents 21% of core funding, so it is massive to the WFD but miniscule to the Government. If the Government had not written off £4.3 billion in fraudulent covid payments, they could have afforded to maintain this budget 3,071 times over.
There is no excuse. I implore the Government to think again. They cannot just keep talking about Britain being the bastion of democracy; they have to walk the walk—that does not mean finding the money, because it is already there, but parting with it. I implore the Minister not to let this wonderful organisation slip through our fingers. It is something we can all be proud of and unite behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq.
I declare that I am also a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I first became involved with the WFD on one of the programmes I visited in Kenya, which was encouraging, supporting and advising women to get involved in the political process there. I was taken aback by the similarity between the issues they faced and those we face here, and by how useful what we experienced was to them. Today, in common with so many other people, I am taken by the timing of this move, which simply reinforces the need to rethink the cuts to the budget.
We have all mentioned that this is the 30th anniversary of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It was set up, almost to the day, in 1992, to support and encourage the nascent democracies of eastern Europe—those peoples who had just thrown off the yoke of the Soviet empire and were experiencing for the first time the freedoms that we took for granted. Now, 30 years later, those very democracies, which have flourished, are under threat once more from a Russian autocrat. Those very freedoms, which they cherish, are under threat.
I am from the generation that remembers the cold war. I remember feeling fear as a teenager at every faux pas by an American President and every rumbling of discontent from Moscow. I felt the sheer elation and celebration that went with the crumbling of the Berlin wall and the awakening of democracy in Europe: the end of the cold war and of the Soviet empire.
I am now standing here, 30 years later, considering the future of the organisation set up to protect those democracies, which has gone on to do so much—not just in eastern Europe, but throughout the world, including in Africa and in Myanmar. It has been protecting those democracies. The foundation was working in Kyiv this week until the invasion. If ever there were a moment for the Foreign Office to stop and rethink its funding of this wonderful organisation, it is surely today, when the very thing it was set up to defend is yet again under threat.
It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Dr Huq. I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this important and timely debate.
This should have been an opportunity to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Since 1992, after offering support for projects across the world, this Foundation has promoted its belief
“that we need strong democracies to prosper and to protect our rights and freedoms.”
And yet—and yet—it is clear that democracy is under threat globally. Over the past week we have seen just how precious but fragile democracy is. It is a simple and unequivocal fact that the spread of democracy that followed the cold war has been reversed. Every major democracy index, such as Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World”, has shown a slide downwards over the past 15 years.
Only 20% of the world’s population live in free countries: 38% live under authoritarian rule, and the rest have restricted freedom. Some say that we are living through a democratic recession—who knows? It may become a depression. Given that the WFD was founded after the fall of the Berlin wall and tasked with supporting pro-democracy political parties and developing democratic processes as countries from eastern Europe emerged from the cold war, it is a particular tragedy that Ukraine—one of the nations that has embraced democracy—should now be the victim of a bloody, brutal and barbaric invasion by Russia under Vladimir Putin’s autocratic and authoritarian regime. Sadly, the Russian regime is not the only one working to diminish freedom of expression and democratic participation. From Belarus to Syria, China to Afghanistan and Myanmar to Eritrea, we have seen that democratic freedoms are by no means guaranteed.
At this time of increased need to be vigilant about these threats and continually defend, promote and improve democracy, the WFD faces cuts that will significantly hamper its ability to operate. That is a consequence of this UK Government’s short-sighted and unimaginable decision to renege on its manifesto commitment and the cross-party consensus to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas development aid, which is not only morally reprehensible, but penny wise and pound foolish.
The WFD’s core funding was cut by 29% during the pandemic—what a time to choose!—without consultation or consideration of the consequences. The result is that programmes are either curtailed or cancelled; staff, with all the expertise they have, are made redundant; and efforts to promote democracy ultimately suffer. The Government can try to argue that there will be a return to 0.7% when fiscal tests are met, but that will not bring back those programmes or those staff, and the likelihood is that democracy will have been eroded in the meantime.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy should be rightly proud of the work it undertakes. It focuses on accountability and transparency, elections, environmental democracy, inclusion, participation and openness, and women’s political leadership, with 74 programmes implemented across 43 countries in the years 2020-21. Key to its work—in many ways, its unique selling point—is its collaboration with party political offices, providing them with the resource to develop their own programmes across the world. The SNP established its own WFD office after becoming the third largest party in the UK in 2015, placing a particular focus on gender equality in political representation and participation. Its two key programmes include the Arab Women Parliamentarians Network for Equality, which the SNP was instrumental in helping build. That network has gone on to develop a policy paper on violence against women in politics—the first of its kind in the Arab world, and something we should all be proud of.
The SNP WFD also supports the Malawi Parliamentary Women’s Caucus, pursuing gender-just politics and legislation, and works to promote the effective participation of women in Parliament. Furthermore, it has recently launched a new environmental democracy project in Pakistan, supporting the Climate Change Committee with post-legislative scrutiny. However, all this important work can be supported only if the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is adequately funded—it is as simple as that. The SNP’s WFD funding has dropped from £260,000 in 2016 to around £156,000 in 2020. There are real concerns that if funding drops any further, this work will simply no longer be viable.
The UK Government recognised the importance of the WFD in its integrated review last year, and made commitments to address democratic governance around the world—given how critical this is for UK interests. I agree, and I am sure every Member present does as well. However, that was on the back of cutting funding for international development programmes at the same time, when the UK Government cut aid spending from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%, and they subsequently announced that funding for the human rights, democracy and rules-based international system would be cut. That makes no sense: it is a completely incoherent and ultimately self-defeating decision, one that has the likes of Putin and other autocrats around the world laughing at us for being such blind fools.
Not only is this spending the morally right thing to do, but it is in our national interest. A fairer, more democratic world is a safer and more stable world, and any savings made now while making cuts will only cost us more in the long term when vast amounts have to be spent on the crises that subsequently emerge across the world. The UK Government must now see the error of their ways, reverse the reduction in WFD grants and reinstate the commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA if they are to have any credibility in defending democracy at this vital time in the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Dr Huq. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing such an important debate. It comes at an extremely important time, as Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine’s democracy rages on, becoming more brutal by the day.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has been conducting vital work in Ukraine as part of its inclusive and accountable politics programme, which aimed to help the Ukrainian Parliament strengthen its important role in scrutinising Government legislation. That improves transparency and accountability, which, as right hon and hon. Members will agree, are the bedrock of any democracy.
The WFD has played a part in helping Ukraine to build its democratic institutions. That is everything that Putin fears: democracies working together to prevent the horrific repression and human rights violations that we see in Putin’s Russia today. That is what he envisages for Ukraine, so it is vital that we do all we can in our Parliament to empower organisations such as the WFD, so that they can help prevent that.
In Belarus in 2020, we saw clear evidence of election rigging by the Lukashenko regime. Now that same regime is playing its part in attempting to destroy Ukraine’s democracy. The Opposition welcome the sanctions against those in the Belarusian and Russian regimes who look to subvert democracies. In particular, we welcome the fact that the UK, EU and US have agreed to disconnect some Russian banks from SWIFT, but there is much more that the UK Government can do to cut Putin’s rogue regime out of our financial system.
The hardest possible sanctions must be taken against all those linked to Putin, and against the Russian Government’s interests. We should work in a co-ordinated and unified way with our allies to ensure that the Putin regime faces the severest possible consequences for its unprovoked violence. That is why we, as parliamentarians in one of the world’s oldest democracies, must throw our support behind the WFD and its international partners in the global democracy coalition.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, eastern Europe was suddenly awash with new political parties legalised after the one-party authoritarian system of governance of the Soviet bloc came to an end. Hope was on the horizon, and I am confident that such hope will soon return to eastern Europe, including Ukraine.
The WFD has historically played a key role in protecting that hope. In the western Balkans, for example, it has worked closely with political parties to ensure that they are more policy focused and orientated towards voters’ needs. It has also helped to develop more effective parliamentary practice and, as a result, better legislation. It worked to enhance the democratic culture of formerly undemocratic states by facilitating greater interaction between state and non-state actors on the challenges affecting the everyday lives of citizens.
Properly funding the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is a significant part of Britain’s influence abroad. That influence does not stop at democracy; with it comes freedom of the press, human rights, the rule of law, the right to peaceful protest, and many other freedoms that we enjoy in this country and that, sadly, many others around the world do not. The WFD shows that we can all play a part in changing that. The rights of democracy campaigners are being violated every single day, and we must do all we can to support courageous activists in countries such as Cuba, where the Government continue to limit access to the internet in a desperate attempt to prevent campaigners for democracy having their voices heard.
Today I have highlighted some of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s work. Its work to increase Britain’s democratic influence across the world is needed now more than ever, from Nicaragua to Hungary, from Venezuela to Colombia. We are truly fortunate to live in a democracy, and I urge the Minister to commit today to the future of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, so that we may spread hope to the less fortunate parts of our fragile world.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate and to the Members who have spoken. I join them in their praise of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. This debate has demonstrated that across the House and the nation we share many fundamental values and beliefs. We believe in democracy, free speech, fair treatment and inclusion, but those values are under attack.
The world is watching in horror as Russian tanks roll into their democratic neighbour. Putin’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is utterly reprehensible. The UK condemns his actions, and we stand with the people of Ukraine. As we have been sitting and speaking here today, at the United Nations we have been joined by more than 140 countries, who have voted for the motion condemning Russian actions. A huge number of countries is united. We are showing the strength of feeling across the globe. We stand with Ukraine, and Russian aggression must stop.
Freedom of expression and an independent media are essential. The fundamental rights to freedom of expression; to read, discuss and debate issues freely; and to challenge news agendas and make informed political decisions are precious, but today’s ordinary Russians do not even have that. This morning, the Russians shut down the Russian TV channel Dozhd, and the radio station Ekho Moskvy. The Putin regime has again suppressed independent media and is censoring Russians’ access to independent reporting. That leaves the Russian state media outlets unchallenged and free to peddle their already discredited state propaganda. The actions by the Russian authorities are a further demonstration of the importance of independent media, and that is why we must stand up for democracy.
The Minister is making a very powerful case. I hope she will conclude by saying that there will be full funding and support for WFD. She mentioned state media and the shutting down of media. Last night Google shut down RT. Two days ago, the whole of the EU shut down RT and Sputnik. So far, the UK has not gone anywhere near touching RT in this country. Will the UK Government reconsider their position, because we are isolated in our approach to Russian/Kremlin TV in this country?
I certainly hear his point, Dr Huq.
Far beyond Russia and Belarus, we are seeing concerted efforts to silence dissent and stifle freedom, and covid has brought that into even sharper focus. Regimes have used the crisis to restrict civil liberties and to entrench repressive measures. The democratic world is facing the starkest of choices. Either we retreat and retrench in the face of assault, or we come together to advance our cause.
The Government believe that now is the time to fight back. That is why we are working with friends and allies to build a network of liberty, to promote democracy and freedom across the globe—an area in which the Westminster Foundation for Democracy will continue to play an important role. That is why the Foreign Secretary agreed to increase the grant in aid by 25%, from £5.1 million this financial year to £6.5 million per annum over the next three years. I know that there are questions about ODA programming in specific areas, and I recognise the urgency of decisions here. The process is ongoing and no specific programme decisions have been made.
Our arm’s length bodies, including the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, are very important to supporting our foreign policy, diplomatic engagements and key priorities. We want to continue to support the WFD, so that with partner countries across the world, it can deliver impactful programmes that support democracy, and can counter the rise of authoritarianism.
The WFD is a unique organisation. Funded by the FCDO to strengthen democracy around the world, it works with Parliaments, political parties and civil society groups to make countries’ political systems fairer and more inclusive, accountable and transparent. Through the WFD, the UK projects its own experience and expertise.
Despite funding challenges, together with partner countries all around the world, the foundation has continued to deliver impactful programmes that support democracy, including programmes that support the representation of women, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) knows intimately, and programmes that support young people, people with disabilities and LGBT+ people in the democratic process in more than 20 countries. Many Members have pointed to the foundation’s successes in many countries, and I have heard their comments; the foundation’s work spans the globe.
I have heard my hon. Friend’s questions; I will make sure that he is written to, and that the foundation receives answers to the questions he has raised.
As set out in the integrated review, the UK will support strong, transparent and accountable political processes and institutions overseas, including Parliaments and political parties, through the work of the foundation and other institutions. As part of that work, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy organised a thematic election expert observation mission to the presidential election in the Gambia on 4 December 2021, which was the first independent UK observation.
On behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, the foundation also delivers UK observers to election observation missions organised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Following an invitation from the Hungarian authorities, the foundation will send election observers to Hungary on 3 April 2022.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has a strong record on the issue of women’s political leadership. It recently led an event aimed at elevating women’s role and influence in politics. There were participants from more than 30 countries, including women Ministers from countries as far afield and as different as Finland and South Africa.
The foundation is an important part of our soft power network, alongside the British Council, the Great Britain-China Centre, the BBC, Wilton Park and our universities. As the noble Lord Ahmad pointed out in the other place the other day, these institutions play an important role in our democratic reach, as we build a powerful ideological alternative. They are all vital instruments of our influence overseas. They project our strengths and values, as the Prime Minister has said, and they build trust and opportunities across the globe.
Yes, I am wearing the colours of the flag of Ukraine, because right now in Ukraine, missiles and guns are killing innocent people, women and children, and people who just want to live in peace in their own country. That brings into sharp relief the importance of tackling autocracy, strengthening democracy and standing up for freedom. The work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is as important as ever, and I thank the foundation from the bottom of my heart for what it does.
I thank everyone who has spoken today, from all four main parties in Parliament, as well as fellow governors and others. All of them paid tribute to the WFD’s work and all its staff, here and abroad; I know our chief executive Anthony Smith will have welcomed that.
I thank the Minister for what she said about reassurance on our funding. She will have noted the two specific questions I asked, and she will also be aware as Minister for Africa that there are programmes and offices in Africa that are under review. I hope that she will involve herself more in the detail of decisions made on the WFD, because they will affect the continent she covers so ably.
I finish by quoting President Reagan, who launched the US organisations that support democracy around the world in 1982 in Westminster Hall, just outside this Chamber. He said then—and what could be more appropriate now?—that
“the ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve: the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.”
Today’s debate, which is in stiff competition with the debate on Ukraine in the main Chamber, has highlighted the support from all parties represented in Parliament for the work of the WFD. I hope the Minister and her colleagues will give us the tools to support the beliefs and values that she, her colleagues and all of us share.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the funding of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.