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Volume 746: debated on Thursday 27 June 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Morocco.

My Lords, Morocco is a country with which the UK can do business. I visited it in January 2011 with the all-party friendship group—a visit funded by our Moroccan friends—and I hope that I developed a better understanding of it than was evident elsewhere. It was of course at the time of the incipient Arab spring, and I remember Wyre Davies, the BBC commentator, saying that Morocco, along with the other countries in the Maghreb, was going to be subject to great upheaval. For many years, Morocco has been responding to the home-grown need to ensure that that does not happen.

There is a further dispute that everyone knows about in terms of the western and southern Sahara. I went to Laayoune, where I consulted with my colleagues—not only the NGOs—and met the Saharis but, most importantly, I met the UN peacekeepers at MINURSO. Speaking to their head and deputy head, I was quite convinced that Morocco had not played its cards right in ensuring an understanding about the November 2010 incident. This was where its own police had been mown down, but not as many civilians had been slaughtered by the police as had been claimed. The Moroccans have sometimes suffered from reporting in London. There was film evidence of that incident and it should have been conveyed better.

I want to ask the Minister, whom I am very pleased to see here today, what the Government are doing about encouraging fair reporting of Morocco, whether they are supporting the Moroccans’ autonomy initiative for the western or southern Sahara, and whether they support the United Nations’ demand for a census of the refugee camps in Algeria.

Uncertainty and insecurity are very important. We can do business with Morocco on the question of security, especially given its strategic importance in being a bulwark against sub-Saharan countries which perhaps have been influenced by al-Qaeda.

One who does understand Morocco is the UK ambassador, Clive Alderton. Speaking at the recent 800-year anniversary of England’s diplomatic ties with Morocco, he talked about the importance of seeing the bigger picture between our two countries. He, of course, worked with and served Prince Charles before he became our ambassador. What the two countries share is that we both have monarchies and are maritime trading nations. Each country is perched on the north-western edge of its continent and each boasts of being a regional hub: we with the United States, the European Union and the Commonwealth; Morocco with Africa, the Maghreb, the Americas, the Gulf and the European Union. Does the Minister envisage making an official visit to Morocco? I think that she of all people would be the appropriate person to visit on behalf of the United Kingdom, but perhaps she could give a report of recent visits by the United Kingdom Government.

Morocco also has a link with the European Union. It applied for membership as far back as 1987, showing the forward-looking view that it has taken in its relations with the European Union. It is now proposed that deeper and more comprehensive ties with the EU should develop. Again, I ask the Minister whether the UK will support that development and see an ally in Morocco in terms of our working with the European Union over the future.

I think that we can do business in the area of tourism. We have some 50,000 Moroccans here in the United Kingdom—some of them in the House of Lords—but half a million tourists go there every year, and the intention is that that should swell to 1 million by 2020. I know that an important role is played by the British Council in Morocco in spreading the use of English, which is so important for servicing tourists. Can the Minister report on what budget we have to promote the British Council’s work there? Tourism is a changing product: green tourism is an example, as well as the wonderful big cities in Morocco.

With the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, who is head of English Heritage, I recently met the Tourism Minister from Morocco. There was a suggestion that the two countries might work together on the protection of historic monuments. During my visit in early 2011 I got the sense that UK business was not fully aware of the opportunities for business and trade. I am particularly pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, who can perhaps correct me on that. However, the Moroccan economy is changing, generating more added value: where it was fresh fruit, now we are talking about food processing; where it was traditional dress that was sold, now we are talking about ready- to-wear clothing—pret-a-porter; and we are also talking about automotive parts. Are we sensitive to these changes and new opportunities? We recently had the first Morocco-British trade day. I believe it was a success but can the Minister tell us of any tangible results?

The UK is only the seventh trading partner of Morocco, way behind France and Spain, according to the journalist Jonathan Fryer. Let us think about some of those other opportunities coming along. These include the new cities being created for Morocco, and Tangier with its free port on the Mediterranean, which is going to be home to Renault and Nissan’s new production facility, with 170,000 vehicles planned, swelling to 400,000 in time. Although the UK is Morocco’s fourth largest investor, are we doing enough to take advantage of those opportunities?

Can we do business in the financial services sector? When I went there in January 2011 I did not see many British banks. However, Casablanca has recently become the new financial centre not just for Morocco but for north Africa. A new agreement was reached between the Moroccan Financial Board and City UK, which I recently received as chair of your Lordships’ European Union economic and finance committee. All these opportunities are well documented in the excellent brief I received from Tanya Warburg’s Freedom for All organisation.

We are talking about opportunities for small businesses, for agricultural development and fisheries development—there is a link between the Laayoune fisheries and the Canary Islands for instance—as well as the phosphates and ammonia found in Algeria. If we could bring together Morocco and Algeria, currently enemies, there would be enormous business opportunities. Then there is renewable energy, where the Moroccans are doing so much, and water management, telecoms, aeronautics, and transport infrastructure. We drove down excellent motorways; I understand that 150 kilometres a year are added to the railways in Morocco. That warms my heart, coming from Chester, birthplace of Thomas Brassey, the great builder of world railways in the 19th century.

There are some notes in a minor key when discussing Morocco. Others will elaborate on human rights and on youth unemployment, which we share as a common cause in the European Union. The World Bank’s interesting report criticises the quality and access to education. The European Council for Foreign Relations has issued strictures on Morocco’s slow drive to democracy. However, so much has been done by the Moroccans in trying to drive forward a modern country. King Mohammed VI seems to be a man of the people and Prime Minister Benkirane’s Islamist Government, who have not fought to curtail the rights of women, are tackling the troublesome levels of corruption and repairing some past difficulties with abuse in the truth commission. I conclude by saying that Morocco is a friend with whom Britain should be proud of doing business.

My Lords, at the outset I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for arranging this debate. The United Kingdom and Morocco enjoy a long and happy history—a heritage of which I believe we should be proud. Earlier this month, the British Embassy in Rabat celebrated the 800th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries, a point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. In April this year the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs made his first official ministerial visit to London. An estimated half a million British tourists travel to Morocco every year to take advantage of its outstanding natural beauty and renowned hospitality. This tourism helps maintain our relationship, and Morocco is economically dependent on it.

I believe that the recent social revolutions across north Africa and the Middle East, coupled with the economic turmoil across much of the western world, present an opportunity to look again at our priorities. It is a chance to refocus where we should be looking to build stronger bridges for the future and dedicating more of our efforts. I firmly believe that Morocco should be one of the countries we should focus on, and with good reason. Like some other countries in the Arab world, Morocco is engaging in fundamental democratic reforms. While it remains essentially a kingdom, a new constitution was adopted in July 2011 establishing a more democratic system of governance. A key political change is that the majority party in Parliament, rather than the King, now has the right to nominate the Prime Minister. Strong human rights provisions were also included in the reforms, although I appreciate they have had mixed results.

Last September, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, reported his findings following a visit to Morocco. He was concerned at the continued use of cruel treatment by some security forces on the ground and in prisons. However, he also noted that the general situation regarding the practice of torture has improved and that a culture of human rights, with a genuine political will, is slowly emerging. Morocco has implemented a National Human Rights Council and announced that it will ratify the optional protocol of the UN convention against torture later this year. In recent years, further rights have been granted to women and the King has also stated that tackling unemployment and poverty are two of his main priorities. Unemployment has shrunk significantly over the past decade and spending on social programmes and subsidies have increased substantially.

In all, it seems as if this new constitution is laying the groundwork for introducing laws that will build greater levels of engagement with and transparency towards the general public. It is important we recognise how the conviction that fuels such reforms can spread across borders, calm tensions and set examples for others. These measures are a beacon of hope in an ever insecure region. Can the Minister highlight the role that Morocco has taken in promoting or contributing to regional stability?

Our Foreign Secretary recently reaffirmed his support for the progress that Morocco has been making towards implementing the new constitution, particularly through the Arab partnership, with efforts to tackle corruption and encourage political participation. I very much share this sentiment and, on that note, I would be grateful if the Minister could also provide details of any programmes that we are supporting in Morocco through civil society.

Our relations with Morocco can be enhanced further by undertaking more trade. As I have stated many times before in your Lordships’ House, one of the keys to building and advancing successful relationships between countries is by having increased levels of trade. Such trade allows for increased diversity and consistency of goods and services, leading to the widening and opening up of markets. This in turn nurtures cultural and technological exchange and helps bring countries closer together, benefiting economies on both sides. Indeed, 2012 was a landmark year, as the bilateral trade between our two countries passed £1 billion for the first time. Despite suffering a setback, Morocco’s GDP growth rate in 2012 was 2.9%, which is a respectable figure within the context of the global downturn and higher than that of many western countries. It is also projected to accelerate to an average of 4.8% over the next few years.

Morocco boasts a number of economic achievements that have, unfortunately, gone unnoticed and to which we should be paying much closer attention. Last year, it built the largest port in the Mediterranean, Tanger-Med—again, this is a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harrisonas a strategic way of capitalising on its geographical position as a primary gateway between Europe and Africa. It is also establishing itself as a hub for international investors looking to get into Africa, with the creation of Casablanca Finance City. Morocco also enjoys free trade access to 55 different countries, representing more than 1 billion consumers and 60% of the world’s GDP. Bearing all these points in mind, it is no surprise that Ernst & Young recently ranked Morocco as the second most attractive African country for foreign investors.

I spoke last month in the Queen’s Speech debate on the importance of the UK investing in Africa. We must act now, before other countries beat us to it.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate and for giving me the opportunity to make a few remarks about trade and business with Morocco. As your Lordships will know, I was appointed the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Morocco at the end of last year, so in this debate it is appropriate that I restrict my remarks to matters of trade. I will leave the other aspects of the relationship to those who are much better qualified to deal with them.

From the point of view of many parts of British business, the first thing they say when you talk to them about Morocco is that it is too French and too risky, both of which are fundamentally untrue. That is not the case; Morocco is important to us as a market, as the previous speakers have said. It is a market that we must be concerned with, and UKTI has reflected that. It is one of only 14 markets in Africa where UKTI has a permanent presence.

In my judgment, it is particularly important because if you accept the proposition that Africa is likely to be the next great area for generating global growth then, looked at from the perspective of Great Britain Ltd, we have penetrated that area quite successfully in anglophone Africa, largely through the southern states. However, the phrase that I use is to say to people, “When you look at China, you would not go into half of China”, and we have practically ignored francophone West Africa. What Morocco gives us, particularly with the structures in place there through Casablanca Finance City, is the opportunity to use that as a hub and penetrate francophone West Africa through it. Interestingly, I was visiting a vegetable-growing operation down there a few weeks ago which, your Lordships might be surprised to know, farms 8,000 acres of vegetables in Senegal but it is done via Morocco.

I hope I have made the point that it is strategically important for business. I would like to talk a little bit about the Morocco/British Business Council which has rather fallen into abeyance but I am working on it. It has not met for some time and, when I was in Morocco in March, I met Mostafa Terrab, the Chief Executive of OCP, the large phosphates business. He and I will co-chair a new initiative in that area, probably with a different title. It will be much more restrictive in its ambitions but these will be readily achievable. I am working on that at the moment and hope we can launch it in September or October this year.

I have decided to concentrate most of my efforts as trade envoy on a limited number of industrial sectors. This is because one cannot do everything and I would sooner try to do a number of things well than a lot of things badly. The first sector I am concentrating on is financial services, to which other noble Lords have already referred. The CFC project in Casablanca is very interesting and impressive. Noble Lords will not know that I was financial adviser to the London Docklands Development Corporation when Canary Wharf came into being. I was also the financial adviser to the Irish Government in the creation of the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin. I would describe CFC as a combination of the two. It has a very attractive package of incentives on offer and a huge, fantastic site. When it gets going it will be a key place in north Africa through which to access the rest of francophone Africa. The stock exchanges in London and Casablanca are talking to each other about a project to work together. We are also looking to see if we can get an insurance centre established there, linking in to the London insurance market.

The second sector, which may sound a bit surprising, is higher education. I acknowledge the work of the British Council in Morocco in this area and, in particular, the work done by Martin Rose, its director there. There are a large number of co-operative agreements between British universities and Moroccan universities being developed. These have moved in recent years away from the old focus on the humanities and more towards science and technology. We are in the preliminary stages of discussions on the establishment of a campus of a British university in Morocco and also a British-based business school which will, I hope, be within Casablanca Finance City.

Reflecting what has been said earlier, the thirst for English language skills is prevalent wherever you go in Morocco today. The thirst for English-based secondary school education is there as well and there are ongoing discussions about the establishment of a leading, independent British secondary school in Morocco. This is important because it fuels the relationship that then builds trade.

The third area I am looking at is energy, but only in the sense that Morocco, like many other north African countries, does not have a lot of hydrocarbons knocking around the place. It is not self-sufficient in energy and is looking at importing liquefied natural gas. The areas of renewables, particularly energy from waste such as tapping methane from groundfill or anaerobic digesters based on vegetable and food waste, are ones where Britain has the technology to participate, and we will be having discussions on them. The second area of renewables, which is at an early stage but has great potential, is wave power.

Let me say a quick word about agribusiness. It is not that I do not think it is important but it is taking care of itself quite well at the moment. However, we can put focus on that. On tourism, developments need to look further than only tourism and should include event management, conferences and so on. Were the facilities there, it would be an attractive proposition.

From my point of view, the prospects for furthering our trading relationship with Morocco are good. I have been able to enjoy cordial relationships and, as has been said, it is an open country. It is very easy to do business with Morocco and we should be doing so.

My Lords, my noble friend and I are both members of the Friendship Group with Morocco in our Parliament and therefore I warmly congratulate him on his initiative and, indeed, on his impeccable timing on the 800th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. I take the opportunity also to salute the excellent work here by Her Excellency the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco, Her Highness Princess Lalla of Joumala Alaoui.

Like my noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Sharman, I shall refer to some of the key elements of our bilateral relationship, particularly in relation to the agriculture side. I invite the Minister to comment on the extent to which Moroccan agricultural exports to the UK and the European Union are constrained by the protectionism within the common agricultural policy. I shall later say a few words on the basis of what the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, has said about our cultural relationships.

No one doubts that, like other countries in the Arab world, Morocco faces huge challenges—massive illiteracy, at 44%, and fast-growing youth and graduate unemployment. I pose the intriguing question: given this background, why has there been no Arab spring or Arab uprising in Morocco? Why is Morocco apparently largely exempt from the turbulence of most of the other Arab countries? I observe that, broadly, the monarchies have largely avoided such troubles. His Majesty King Mohammed VI is a force for stability and has had the political wisdom to ensure political evolution in the direction of a constitutional monarchy and an intent to ensure that moderate Islamic forces are kept within the tent. It helps, of course, that he is a direct descendant of the Prophet.

Externally, Morocco is conscious of its role as a bridge between the north and the south of the Mediterranean. One speaks of l’exception Marocaine, which arises from its geography and history and a self-confident view of its own role—the positive role it has played in Syria and the moderating role it has played in Israel/Palestine. As to the Barcelona process of 1995, the Union for the Mediterranean, Morocco has tried to build a regional impetus but this has been hampered by the west Sahrawi question. I have visited both the Laayoune and Tindouf and seen the position at first hand. In my judgment, ultimately the Moroccan offer of a substantial autonomy will be the end. That will allow a much greater regional link between the north and south of the Mediterranean.

Morocco is the pioneer of linking with western European organisations, NATO and the Council of Europe—I am a member of the assembly—which concentrates on strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law. Of course, there are problems: the need to reform the judiciary and fight corruption; money laundering; media freedom; the position of women; and child labour. However, by and large Morocco has played a very positive role. In 2009 the Council of Europe Assembly created a new status of Partner for Democracy, and Morocco was the first country to enjoy that status of all the neighbours of the Council of Europe.

In March I was in Rabat as part of a monitoring process, and this week the Assembly will debate the two-year monitoring process of that new status. The school report, which is being debated this week, is mainly positive, describing what the rapporteur calls a “promising start”. The Venice Commission has recognised the quality of the new constitution. The king called on the winning party in the general election to form the Government, and Morocco has acceded to many Council of Europe conventions. There is indeed a new dynamic.

Finally, I would like to say a word about our bilateral cultural relations, which have largely been covered by the noble Lord, Lord Sharman. We have tried to identify areas of mutual interest. The tradition is of course francophone, but Morocco recognises that English is the language of employability and of research. Euromonitor found there to be a 12% wage premium for anglophone Moroccans. The British Council does remarkable work on the language side, with two language schools in Morocco and a flourishing examination bureau. Programmes include youth employability.

There has been an emphasis on English teaching, both at school level and at higher education level. In passing, let me say that I hope that the Moroccan diaspora in the UK—including graduates, many of whom wish to keep links with Morocco—may be used by our country for English language teaching, both in schools and as assistants in Moroccan universities. The emphasis has been on language, governance and link-building. There are research agreements and, as the noble Lord said, bilateral university agreements, and an excellent arts programme in design, digital arts, music and film.

Overall, there are very constructive links in this field. Of course, French predominates because of the country’s history. Our overall aim is not in any way to replace French—that would be impossible in any event—but to respond to the Moroccan wish to diversify, and to encourage and support the wish to diversify in a collaborative way. Thus the wide education, commercial, scientific and cultural opportunities offered by the globalised anglophone sphere will be made available to Morocco. It is an ambitious programme for a very special and friendly country. I congratulate my noble friend on procuring this opportunity to discuss our bilateral relations.

My Lords, of course we have to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on securing this debate at a very timely moment, coming as it does in the year in which we celebrate 800 years of diplomatic relations with Morocco. I have had the good fortune to visit Morocco on a number of occasions, including as one of the 500,000 tourists that people refer to. I once crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into the historic free port of Tangier and spent time in the ancient diplomatic quarter, which is traditionally engaged in all sorts of goings-on that I shall just call “trade” and “politics”. As a key point of entry into Africa from Europe, it is a hugely important route.

I had the pleasure of staying in the riads in Marrakesh, close to Jemaa el-Fna, the huge square at the heart of the city. It is bursting with all sorts of activities that you will not find anywhere else in the world, even down to the guy selling second-hand sets of false teeth, displayed in neat rows on a huge tray in the middle of the square. It is an amazing sight. Of course, by contrast down on the coast there is Essaouira, a perfect example of an 18th-century fortified town, complete with the original cannons still in place on the ramparts. The town is characterised by strong, persistent winds coming off the Atlantic, making its miles of beaches the world capital for kite surfing and wind surfing, as well as the site of an internationally acclaimed music festival. The amount of different cultural activities within Morocco is quite amazing. Given the opportunity, Morocco is a must-see place for noble Lords to experience for themselves.

However, we are celebrating the 800th anniversary of UK-Moroccan diplomatic relationships and recalling the dispatch by King John of England—we were not the UK at that stage—in 1213 of the first diplomatic mission to make contact with the court of Sultan Mohamed Ennassir. King John, we are told, sought support for our conflicts in Europe—there is nothing much new there by the sound of it. There are close and ancient ties between our two countries as monarchies. Here there is an intriguing historical aspect.

As we in this House know only too well, just two years after his approach to Sultan Mohamed Ennassir in Morocco, King John was forced by the Barons of England to sign the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of the Liberties of England. As we know, Magna Carta made chequered progress over the ensuing years, being sometimes rescinded, sometimes reinstated, with bits deleted, added and altered. Nevertheless, it was an important part of an extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in the English-speaking world. It is generally considered part of the uncodified constitution of England. The late Lord Denning described it as,

“the greatest constitutional document of all times—the foundation of the freedom of the individual against arbitrary authority”.

In 2005, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, called it,

“the first of a series of instruments that now are recognised as having a special constitutional status”.

Others include the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the 1689 Bill of Rights. Magna Carta was reconfirmed by successive sovereigns over the centuries and it was not until 1829 that a single clause of the charter was changed or repealed. However, by 1969, just three clauses remained in force.

The relevance of the progress of Magna Carta is, of course, that it took some 750 years for its constitutional powers to become redundant in our law. In the excellent brief provided by the House of Commons Library, there is a critical analysis of the 2011 Moroccan constitution by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. The Arab spring elsewhere seems to have created an opportunity to fast-track constitutional reform in a country where the monarchy has reigned for three centuries. The monarchy acknowledged the need for a social charter and later constitutional reform.

The new Moroccan constitution includes many human rights not previously recognised, which is clearly a major step forward. However, constitutional experts point out that several rights are unclear, such as the right to life not being accompanied by a clear abolition of the death penalty and contradictions in the establishment of equality between women and men. The recommendations include that any new constitutional reforms should be based on: fundamental rights and freedoms as recognised by the constitution in accordance with the Declaration of Human Rights, the origins of which are of course attached to Magna Carta; strengthening the independence of Parliament and the judiciary vis-à-vis the Executive; and recognising gender equality without the restrictions currently in place.

In April, our ambassador published an excellent op-ed in Le Matin on the relationship between Morocco and the UK, pointing out that Morocco played a vital role as a fellow member in the Security Council’s deliberations on threats to peace and stability emanating from the Sahel. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, pointed out, our ambassador knows the importance of the bigger picture, saying that,

“Morocco needs no lessons from the UK in pursuing the reforms which have been underway for more than a decade … Along with Britain”,

Morocco is,

“one of the oldest countries in the World and”,


“neither wisdom nor courage. But, where we have experience and expertise that may be useful”,

we are,

“proud to share them … as a partner and friend”.

Let the last word go to His Excellency Taieb Fassi Fihri, the Moroccan Minister for Foreign Affairs. He said in a speech at Chatham House in March 2011:

“Historical reform, important reform, ownership reform, open reform, audacious but serene reform—I hope that all Moroccans will be happy to live under the umbrella of the next constitution in Morocco”.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for this timely debate, which has been a great learning process for me. It has been very good to learn about all the positive things that are happening in the relationship between our two countries. I am especially glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, is here, as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy. It is good to know that UKTI is focusing on Morocco. We would all welcome the rebirth of the Moroccan-British Business Council.

I know that in April the Foreign Secretary hosted a high-level lunch for a Moroccan delegation. It is good that, at that level, we are making a positive and very strong relationship with Morocco. I understand that we are also helping to train Moroccan journalists, strengthening wider democratic participation and increasing public transparency, as well as helping to support the fight against corruption, which is all very much to be welcomed.

Various noble Lords have mentioned the European Union and the fact that it is working with Morocco. I am glad that the United Kingdom is working as part of the EU on development projects and business and educational projects with Morocco. I think that negotiations have begun, or are about to begin, on a free trade agreement between the EU and Morocco, and I would certainly welcome some information from the Minister on that. Given that Morocco is the gateway between Europe and north Africa, it is essential, as noble Lords have said, that we have a very strong relationship between the European Union and Morocco.

I hope that the European Union will also be able to do something to assist Morocco with the problem that it has, and we all have, in relation to youth unemployment. Various noble Lords mentioned the Arab spring, and there was a sort of Arab spring in Morocco. As the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, said, it fast-tracked constitutional change. We must pay tribute to the political parties in Morocco for the fact that it was a peaceful Arab spring and has led to positive developments. The fact that there was an Arab spring probably arose largely because of the frustration of young people and the fact that the country was not meeting economic needs—and the fact that there are so many young unemployed people in the rest of the Arab world.

Many noble Lords have spoken about the desire for links between British universities and those in Morocco, which is terrific. Clearly, the British Council, as ever, is doing a very good job. The premium that employers put on English in Morocco is tremendous and there is obviously much work to be done.

I had a conversation with my honourable friend Ian Lucas MP, who visited Morocco in March 2012. He was deeply impressed by the infrastructure and the development of renewable energies. The noble Lord, Lord Sharman, mentioned lots of renewable energies, but he did not mention solar energy. There must be an awful lot of sunshine in Morocco and I wondered whether we were working with the Moroccans on developing solar power.

One challenge that Morocco faces is with human rights. In May, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights stated that, since the adoption of a more democratic constitution during the Arab spring, which is welcome, arrests of political activists have increased. I know that Morocco is attempting to improve its human rights record by ratifying UN conventions on torture, discrimination against women and children’s rights. It has also appointed its first Minister for Human Rights. However, criticism of Islam, the monarchy or Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara is still not tolerated, so there is work to be done. I am sure that our Government are doing whatever they can to support Morocco as it strives to improve its human rights record.

That leads me to the problem in Western Sahara with the Polisario. I know that Christopher Ross, who was appointed in January 2009 as a UN special envoy, recently described the present situation as “untenable” and called for negotiations without preconditions and in good faith to find a mutually acceptable and lasting solution that would lead to self-determination for the Sahrawi people. It cannot be right that so many people are still living in camps in Western Sahara. There has to be a solution. It also has wider implications for the wider Maghreb, because it affects Morocco’s relationships with Algeria and the trade between those countries.

The position of women has also been mentioned. We are doing some work on the empowerment of women because, as many noble Lords have said, women face a very unequal society in Morocco and there is much to be done, including on human trafficking. A UN independent expert has said:

“Morocco faces considerable challenges as a source, transit, and increasingly as a destination country for trafficking in persons”.

I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s comments about trafficking and what we are doing to assist Morocco with that very difficult problem.

I end on a positive note. We have a shared aspiration with Morocco for a secure, peaceful and prosperous north Africa in which Morocco has a large part to play. One of those parts relates to the creative industries, which have huge potential in Morocco. I was delighted to read that there will be a Marrakesh film festival in November. I did not know about it, and I think that it is really great that things such as that are happening. I end on that positive note. I am very glad that our Government are doing what they can to foster a better relationship, including a trade relationship, with Morocco.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for calling this debate. Morocco is a nation with which we have a strong and enduring relationship. Indeed, as many noble Lords have mentioned, this year marked the 800th anniversary of the founding of UK-Moroccan diplomatic relations. We have heard about the first diplomat who was dispatched by King John to petition support from Sultan Muhammad Ennassir against our then rivals for dominance in Europe.

That first mission laid the foundation for the relationship that continues to this day, exemplified by the visit in 2011 of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to Morocco as personal guests of King Mohammed VI. Those historical ties have allowed a frank and open dialogue to flourish with the Moroccans—with both His Majesty the King and the Government.

That was clearly demonstrated a little over two months ago, when my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary hosted a high-level Moroccan government delegation on a visit to London to discuss a range of issues from foreign and security policy through to human rights. The delegation was headed by the King’s principal adviser and included the Foreign Minister, Al-Othmani, in April this year. Some noble Lords asked what further visits have taken place. In 2011, the Foreign Secretary visited Morocco. In 2012, Minister Burt visited Morocco. In 2013, as well as the delegation to which I referred, the Interior Minister visited here, and only earlier this month, 11 Members of Parliament from Morocco visited as part of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy programme.

I have never visited Morocco officially. I have visited as a tourist seven times, I think. I have visited most of the country from north to south and east to west and have spent many weeks travelling as a tourist.

Several noble Lords mentioned values. The Government have put values at the core of our foreign policy, and so it is with our relationship with Morocco. Ongoing reform is essential, and I thank my noble friend Lord Chidgey for focusing both on those areas where progress has been made and on where further progress needs to be made.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred specifically to human trafficking. I do not have anything in my briefing on that but it is certainly something that has caught my interest. I will write to the noble Baroness, because I should like to know the answer as well.

In January, I hosted a seminar on something that is a big personal priority for me—freedom of religion and belief. The Deputy Foreign Minister, Youssef Amrani, participated in it and was able to reaffirm a strong commitment to freedom of religion and belief within Morocco. He gave me strong support for building a political coalition from different nations across the world on this specific area. The seminar also included discussions on early implementation of the new Moroccan constitution, which will bring greater protection for human rights while respecting the conservative and traditional nature of Moroccan society.

The question of the freedom of the press was raised by a number of noble Lords. We have ambitious and far-reaching reform programmes and we have already seen them happening in Morocco. We are working alongside those programmes as part of the Arab Partnership initiative. Noble Lords will acknowledge that this can sometimes be a difficult and sensitive issue, but Morocco’s record on this is much improved. However, there remain some challenges, particularly where the interests of the monarchy or the security services are involved. A free, independent media are, as we all know, one of the vital elements in a democratic society because they are able to hold government to account.

To further strengthen the scrutiny of government, our Arab Partnership programme is active in Morocco. It has provided support worth £1 million to reform projects that will enhance the Moroccan Government’s efforts to strengthen political participation and promote good governance and access to information, and encourage media and civil society engagement in shaping legislation.

Eight Arab Partnership-funded economic reform and job-creation projects are also currently under way in Morocco, underlining the importance of providing a job and a vote in ensuring peace, stability and prosperity.

Morocco has shown that it has the political will to improve human rights in the territory of Western Sahara and that it can play a constructive role. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, visited Morocco and Western Sahara in September last year, reporting an “emerging culture” of human rights and the political will to improve things further. That is happening. However, his report also contains tough judgments for Morocco and includes mention of a systematic pattern of ill treatment. The recommendations will, I think, take time to implement but it appears that they are on the right path.

We fully encourage and support positive measures to address these shortcomings and we remain committed to working to help all parties to reach a mutually acceptable solution to the Western Saharan situation—one that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara and secures the future of the large refugee population, some of whom have been without a home for more than three decades. This issue features regularly in contacts that we have with the Moroccan Government.

I am pleased to say that it is not only domestically that Morocco looks to support those seeking confirmation of their democratic rights. The Moroccan Government share our aspiration for a secure, peaceful and prosperous Africa. We have been working closely together on the UN Security Council on a range of challenging issues, including, in particular, that created by the conflict in Mali and the surrounding region. Morocco has also shown invaluable support and regional leadership in the continuing international efforts to bring an end to the crisis in Syria through its regional leadership on the UN Security Council and by hosting the Friends of Syria conference in Marrakesh last year.

The UK and Morocco already enjoy an excellent security partnership to address a range of shared concerns, including threats from terrorism, organised crime and drug smuggling. Our intelligence relationship, for example, is important and mutually productive. Shortly we plan to launch a strategic dialogue with Morocco that will focus on wider policy issues and enhance our co-operation on regional security and counterterrorism. Work to finalise the details on the frequency and level of this strategic dialogue is currently in hand, but the principle is there and I am sure that this House will support it.

Just as we have a shared interest in security, so the close links between our nations mean increased trade and increased travel, to which both the UK and Morocco are strongly committed. Last year, bilateral trade between our two countries surpassed £1 billion for the first time. This is a significant achievement. However, there are many opportunities to expand this still further, and it is in both our interests to make the most of them.

Therefore, I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Sharman was appointed by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister as his trade envoy to Morocco. My noble friend Lord Sharman is leading our efforts to increase the presence of British companies in key sectors such as education, renewable energy and financial services. I understand that the Moroccan-British business leaders’ forum could possibly be launched later in the autumn, but I do not want to determine my noble friend’s timetable.

I agree with my noble friend that there is great potential in furthering trade in Morocco. It is one of the best resourced countries in Africa, and trade and investment is clearly an area where we can enhance the relationship further. A number of examples have been referred to by noble Lords in the area of trade, and I shall touch on a few. More and more Moroccans are learning English for business and pleasure, as shown by the popularity of the British Council’s LearnEnglish website, which last year had more than 1 million hits. That bastion of Britishness—M&S—opened its first store in Morocco in February and is talking seriously about expanding further. A memorandum of understanding between TheCityUK and Casablanca Finance City, which has been referred to already, shows plans to develop Casablanca as a regional financial services hub. The memorandum was signed in October last year.

I am grateful, as I know is the Prime Minister, for the work that has been led by my noble friend Lord Sharman, and I look forward to further success in the initiative to which he referred—specifically on the development of renewable energy. A specific question was asked about solar energy. I know that in relation to renewable energy a contract has just been signed with a British company. I am told that it is a substantial contract to erect wind turbines. In terms of solar energy, I know from my own travels that almost every rural dwelling in some parts of Morocco seems to have a solar panel on its roof. I should be interested in how that works and whether there is potential for expansion there as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked specifically about the European Union-Morocco relationship. Negotiations for a deep and comprehensive free trade area between the EU and Morocco were launched on 1 March this year. The first round of negotiations began on 22 April, and a second round is currently taking place in Brussels. The main objective of those negotiations is to bring Moroccan legislation closer to EU legislation in trade-related areas and proceed to the gradual integration of Morocco’s economy into the EU single market. Morocco is the first European neighbourhood country to have begun this process with the EU and we welcome its positive attitude to the negotiations so far.

My noble friend Lord Sheikh asked about Morocco’s role in promoting and contributing to regional stability. I think that I have previously referred to the Friends of Syria conference which it hosted in December 2012; an increased level of contact that it has had with other countries in the Maghreb when there has been instability there; and, of course, it took over the chairmanship of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee in January 2013. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred to other contributions as well. Noble Lords also asked about support programmes. I have referred to some of them already, such as the Arab Partnership programmes which look at fostering political parties’ place in civil society, more involvement of youth and women, and building journalistic capacity to scrutiny.

Finally, the UK strongly supports the process of transformation, institutional change and constitutional reform that is already under way in Morocco. Although there are areas, such as Western Sahara, where we will continue to press for progress, our relationship with Morocco is based on shared values—demonstrating, once and for all, that values of democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and the right to a job and a vote transcend the boundaries of religion. Morocco’s move towards a constitutional democracy will lay the solid foundations needed for it to build greater security and prosperity. The UK continues to stand ready to assist in any way that it can.