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Grand Committee

Volume 750: debated on Monday 2 December 2013

Grand Committee

Monday, 2 December 2013.

Arrangement of Business


Good afternoon, my Lords. May I issue the usual reminder to the Committee that, in the event of a Division in the Chamber, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes from the sound of the Division Bell?

European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Colombia and Peru Trade Agreement) Order 2013

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Colombia and Peru Trade Agreement) Order 2013.

Relevant document: 13th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the EU-Andean free trade agreement covers the trade and investment relationship between EU member states and Colombia and Peru. Although this deep and comprehensive agreement constitutes a small part of the EU’s ambitious programme of bilateral trade and investment negotiations, it is an important and valuable step in improving our trade relations with Latin America. Together with our important trade negotiations with such countries as the US, Japan and Korea, it demonstrates that the EU is looking to advance its trade with countries large and small, developed and emerging. Taken together, all the EU trade negotiations stand to boost the EU’s GDP by over 2% and bring over 2 million jobs to the EU. The Government are proud to be a major voice in support of the EU’s overall trade agenda.

Not only will this trade agreement bring significant benefits to the Andean economies of Peru and Colombia, but it sends an important message of the benefits of open markets and the importance of resisting protectionism to the rest of Latin America. The free trade agreement will aid UK firms in getting a foothold in those two emerging markets, which have enjoyed strong growth figures in recent years. The agreement will also help UK companies already trading in this part of the world. Analysis shows that the deal could benefit our economy by up to approximately £400 million a year over the long term.

In line with other recently concluded trade agreements, the deal is ambitious and comprehensive. It stands to substantially improve the market access for UK exporters to the Andean region through the elimination of tariffs and technical and procedural barriers to trade, improve market access in procurement and service markets, and enforce common standards and rules that will level the playing field. It will also bring stability in areas including the protection of intellectual property. Furthermore, the deal stands to bring in greater transparency on subsidies and implement processes to settle disputes.

Not only have the economies of Peru and Colombia enjoyed strong recent growth, but they provide a combined market of almost 80 million people, and are increasingly becoming important commercial partners for UK firms looking to trade in Latin America. Between 2007 and 2012, overall UK exports to the combination of Colombia and Peru almost doubled. With this FTA in place, providing British firms with improved access to these rapidly growing markets, UK export levels should grow even further. We have already seen a variety of UK firms set up businesses in these countries, from fragrance house CPL Aromas, to retail firms such as Mothercare, Accessorize and Hackett. Those last three firms have all now opened shops in Bogotá, the second largest city for retail in Latin America. It is my hope that further UK firms will follow and take advantage of the new opportunities brought by this agreement.

Since the trade agreement entered into provisional force earlier this year, the UK Government have worked closely with UK firms and the respective Governments of Colombia and Peru to maximise opportunities presented by the deal. In particular, UKTI officials have identified significant opportunities for UK firms in infrastructure markets, financial services and energy. This FTA provides opportunities not only for larger companies but for SMEs. It also provides further opportunities for companies already established in these respective markets, those which are looking to establish themselves in these markets or those which are yet to consider trading with these two countries. A number of ministerial colleagues have also visited Colombia this year. The noble Lord, Lord Green, David Willetts, and the lord mayor of London visited Peru and Colombia this summer. I look forward to more official visits which will build on this momentum.

To assist SMEs looking to trade with Colombia, the Government launched a new business-to-business organisation called UK Colombia Trade, which hosted an event at the UK ambassador’s residence in Bogotá in November to showcase the varied commercial opportunities that arise from this trade agreement. I look forward to hearing about future such events as firms take advantage of the important opportunities that the deal provides.

I am a firm believer in free trade, and trade agreements bring competition in the marketplace. Ultimately, it is the consumers who stand to benefit from increased choice and companies from sourcing inputs and components from abroad. By improving our trade relations with new countries we are improving markets around the globe and not merely with our traditional commercial partners. Increasing trade and investment is at the heart of generating balanced, long lasting and strong economic growth. The United Kingdom continues to be the most influential voice in ensuring that trade liberalisation is at the heart of the EU’s growth strategy. Rapidly ratifying this FTA in the UK will strengthen our relations with these two important Latin American countries, bring major benefits to UK firms and underline the UK’s position at the heart of global trade liberalisation. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I, too, welcome this trade agreement. I will mostly confine my remarks to Colombia, which I was lucky enough to visit last year as part of an IPU delegation. First, I shall make a couple of slightly regretful general remarks. Originally, this free trade agreement was to be for the whole Andean region of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. For reasons which I imagine partly are what the Minister was alluding to when he said that this would send a strong message, Bolivia and Ecuador are not included in this agreement. There are two obvious difficulties with that. One difficulty is that, for those of us who believe that open markets and free trade bring prosperity, it will make an even more two-tier Andean region. We have seen some of the effects of Colombia’s successful push against illegal coca growing, which has been pushed towards Bolivia and Peru. I am nervous that we should do anything further to divide the region when I am sure it would benefit from a more cohesive approach.

That said, I shall concentrate the rest of my remarks on Colombia. Obviously, Colombia has particular issues because it is coming out of decades of conflict and is just entering into, it seems, a successful peace negotiation. That puts a particular onus on those of us who are entering into a free trade agreement to put human rights issues right at the heart of our considerations, partly because human rights are self-evidently incredibly important but partly because the speed of development is going to have a tremendous impact on Colombia, with all the interest in it and indeed with the Colombian Government’s own efforts to develop its infrastructure and to raise the people of its regions out of poverty, especially as a lot of the development will be concentrated on the extractive industries and agriculture.

I get the extremely good briefings from our embassy in Colombia, which highlighted in its September briefing that some of the conflicts have resulted in the deaths of protesters: four protesters were killed in one conflict and one in another, and indeed one policeman has been killed, so it is a matter of life and death.

I underline my praise for the British embassy’s work there. We met His Excellency John Dew, who has since handed over to a new ambassador. The embassy’s work in highlighting the importance of human rights in welcoming in various groups, whether from the peace communities, which are small agricultural farmers, or the trade unions, has been very important. I am sure that its efforts will not lessen with this trade agreement going through.

If the first issue is human rights, the second is biodiversity. The country is one of the most biodiverse in the world. I know that the Colombian Government are well aware of the treasures that they have, but again the extractive industries tend to need infrastructure and are often looking at extracting minerals from some of the most sensitive areas of the country. All this poses a challenge for any companies going in, and I hope that all British companies involved will be very mindful of these issues.

My question to the Minister is: how will we monitor the human rights issues and what is happening with them? Clearly our own embassy is doing that but the trade committee in Europe that is concerning itself with the free trade agreement does not really have a human rights remit at all. That is the question that I would like the Minister to answer.

My Lords, I share my noble friend’s regret that Ecuador and Bolivia are not included in this treaty. I am hopeful that the Minister may be able to say something in his concluding remarks about the prospects for them joining at some later date. Of course, everyone welcomes free trade between the EU and third countries as a means of enhancing economic prosperity on both sides and, although it is not a stated object of the treaty, potentially reducing the disparities of wealth and income that are an endemic feature of third-world societies.

I am going to speak exclusively about Peru, having been president of the Peru Support Group for 11 years until I was succeeded a year ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and I declare an interest accordingly. I am indebted to the support group for advice on the effects of the treaty, on which I am going to base my own remarks.

Women and indigenous people have not benefited proportionately up till now from Peru’s impressive rates of growth. There are also huge disparities between the regions. There is no reason to assume that the benefits of this treaty will be applied so as to reduce these inequalities, but if they were so applied then it would be advantageous not only for the poor but for Peruvians at all levels of the economy, and hence for British investors and traders.

The Minister said that the treaty would benefit the UK economy to the tune of £400 million. Has a similar calculation been made, I wonder, on behalf of Peru? Has my noble friend anything to say about the potential benefits for the worst-off in Peruvian society? Similarly, there is no link between the rising national prosperity that will result from the treaty and the improvement in human rights that rests on the flimsy foundation of a single article, as my noble friend has pointed out, providing that respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rule of law constitute an essential element of the agreement. The Minister in another place also referred to Article 8, which deals with the fulfilment of obligations under the treaty generally but is clearly intended to deal primarily with trade matters that are the overwhelmingly predominant purpose of this massive document.

One apparent advance for Peru’s severely marginalised indigenous people, 78% of whose children are malnourished, was the 2011 consultation law, designed to implement ILO Convention No. 169 on indigenous peoples’ right to prior consultation on government decisions affecting them. That was 17 years after Peru ratified the convention in 1994, but the law is now being watered down by eligibility requirements beyond those permitted under the convention. The Peruvian Government propose that people would have to speak an indigenous language and to practise communal land ownership to be entitled to the right of prior consultation, but these practices may not have survived the disruptive and discriminatory influence of colonialism and subsequent Administrations. In any case, decisions on which communities are to benefit from ILO 169 are not to be made for at least five years, until information from the 2017 census has been analysed. There are concerns about the lack of transparency and participation in that exercise, to say nothing of the lengthy timeframe. What rights are there to consultation in the intervening five years?

I hope that my noble friend will agree that mechanisms for democratic dialogue such as prior consultation are absolutely essential as a means of reducing Peru’s high incidence of social conflict, which has claimed at least 27 lives under the Humala Administration and is contrary to the interests of British companies in Peru.

As an example of what can happen, the British-registered company, Glencore Xstrata, is in trouble with local leaders and civil society organisations after its workers, assisted by dozens of riot police, evicted the Taco Quehue family from their smallholding and beat them up on 5 November. They were in the way of the company’s Las Bambas pipeline. The human rights NGO Derechos Humanos sin Fronteras documented injuries to 10 family members, including four children aged under six. The family’s “offence” was to object to a change in the route of a highway linked to the pipeline, affecting their farmland and water supply, about which there had been no consultation.

In another case, nine people were detained on 11 November following a protest, which lawyers say was peaceful, against the Peruvian-owned Condestable mine in the Lima region. The protesters, two of whom were pregnant, were charged with kidnapping and extortion, which carry sentences of up to eight years’ imprisonment. One of the pregnant detainees, Jane Cristina Rodriguez, miscarried on the day on which she was arrested. A coalition of national indigenous organisations is demanding the immediate release of the detainees, who say that the mine operators are failing properly to contain waste, undermining their farming through excessive water use and failing to make annual payments of $18,000 to the community that were agreed in 2005.

In July, a government impact study on planned expansion of the controversial Camisea gas field, warning of the risk that the Nanti, Kirineri and Nahua peoples living in a reserve affected by the proposal risked extinction, was withdrawn hours after publication, apparently under pressure from pro-investment interests.

Due to the perceived readiness of the authorities to accede to the demands of foreign investors without listening to the views of local people, inevitably there is widespread social protest against extractive industry in particular, and this leads to the criminalisation of protestors and the use of disproportionate, sometimes lethal, force against them by the police.

During Peru’s universal periodic review, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at the limited enjoyment of economic social and cultural rights by indigenous peoples and Afro-Peruvian communities, particularly regarding housing, education, health and employment. It recommended adopting a framework law on indigenous peoples, covering all communities. A number of states called for compliance with international norms on the use of lethal force by security forces and the need for timely investigation of any violence. Poland, for instance, stressed the need to refrain from applying unnecessary police force during public demonstrations. Yet despite reliable reports of the killing of demonstrators, no police officers have been investigated for these offences and no protesters have been compensated for injuries caused by police gunfire.

In the debate on this instrument in another place last week, the Minister, Michael Fallon, said that private companies were no longer allowed to hire Peruvian police for their own security purposes, a practice which had been made illegal almost a year ago. However, according to Peruvian human rights organisations which have been in touch with the Peru Support Group since then, it is still going on. In the case of the Xstrata mine in Espinar there was a police station on the company’s property where protesters were detained and ill treated in the summer of 2012 and, according to Congresswoman Verónika Mendoza, the local representative, lawyers were initially denied access to the detainees because they were on private property. Would my noble friend ask our embassy to clarify these matters with local NGOs and members of Congress?

The problem with the scanty reference to human rights in this treaty is that it has no links to any of the other human rights obligations to which Peru has acceded. If another party considers that Peru has failed to fulfil its obligations in accordance with Article 8(2), that party cannot cite evidence from the universal periodic review or reports from the UN special procedures on breaches of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This no doubt explains why the human rights articles in all these EU trade agreements are dead letters and are never invoked.

The Minister in another place says that if there are human rights abuses serious enough to trigger the relevant clause of the agreement, it is for EU mechanisms to collect that information and refer it to the appropriate domestic and international human rights bodies. Can my noble friend cite any instance throughout the history of these trade agreements where such a process has been invoked? Does he consider that automatic inclusion of a pro forma article on human rights in this treaty adds any value to the work that is already being done by Peruvian NGOs, trade unions and members of Congress, together with their international allies and the UN mechanisms, to bring the observance of human rights, and particularly racial equality, in Peru up to the highest international standards?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Popat, for his explanation of this instrument. I also listened with great interest to the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I will make a couple of general points before coming on to the particulars of this agreement.

First, it is a good thing that the British Parliament has this opportunity to ratify this agreement. It is often said about the European Union that things are imposed upon us against our will. This is a case where we, as Parliament, have to ratify this agreement. That is a good thing. Our Ministers agreed to the opening of negotiations, originally under the Labour Government in 2007, for what was then hoped to be the Andean pact. Ministers have all along supported the Trade Commissioner of the European Commission in pursuing this agreement. Parliament is involved and the Government are involved. This is not imposed by Brussels.

Secondly, I think that there is a general view on all sides of the House and across the United Kingdom that free trade is a good thing and brings benefits all round. The noble Lord, Lord Popat, outlined what those economic benefits are; modest perhaps, but worth while from a European point of view, in the case of these agreements. Free trade has been part of the British progressive tradition ever since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the middle of the 19th century. Business has not always been a strong defender of free trade, though. Joseph Chamberlain wanted the imperial preference as a result of pressure from West Midlands manufacturers who wanted protection. Similarly, in the 1930s there was a lot of protectionist pressure. Generally speaking, however, business has supported free trade, as have the trade unions, on the principle that it brings economic benefits all round. But while free trade brings clear income gains to all the countries that participate in free trade agreements, such an agreement does not in itself ensure that the income gains are fairly distributed within those countries or that the wider questions of democracy and human rights are guaranteed. That is where the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is 100% right.

My third general observation is that being members of the EU and negotiating these agreements through the European Union gives us enormous potential clout. You have only to look at what happened just this weekend. The Government in Ukraine are tottering because of a free trade agreement that the European Union had signed with Ukraine, but which the Government have decided not to implement. That is an example of how free trade agreements can be a force for democracy and political change. But we have a responsibility as members of the EU and thus part of what is the most powerful trade bloc in the world to use our economic power as much as we can to promote democracy and human rights.

I am not familiar with the situation in Peru in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is, but certainly Colombia has had an appalling human rights record. According to one UN source, there have been some 4,716 complaints about extrajudicial killings by the Colombian army. It is country where the rule of law falls well short of European standards and one where trade unionists have been subject to systematic violence and murder. The record in Colombia shows an appalling number of motorbike assassinations of community and trade union activists. Given that, what should we do? If we wash our hands of any kind of economic relationship with countries like Colombia and Peru, we are not advancing the interests of their people. We can pass resolutions of protest at congresses and in committees, and we can try to make such countries international pariahs, although I think if we tried that we would find that there are an awful lot of international pariahs in this world in the form of countries that do not reach the standards we set for ourselves. Indeed, the Prime Minister is presently in a country with, let us say, a poor record of respect for the rights of trade union organisation, free collective bargaining and individual liberty. We cannot go around the world treating countries as pariahs for these reasons. The question is how we use our engagement to try to make things better.

The European Union was right to open the negotiations for the Andean pact—I think I ought to declare an interest, because I was closely associated with the Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson when this decision was taken—and right to see what commitments could be obtained. The question is whether, as a result of these agreements, we have made progress on human rights and trade union rights.

Our socialist colleagues in the European Parliament did not think enough progress had been made. That was after a visit by the current President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, to Colombia. Last December, the Socialist Group, in the main, including the British Labour MEPs, voted against the ratification of these deals in the European Parliament. However, a majority of the European Parliament approved the deal, and member states approved it too and are set on this agreement’s ratification. What should we do now? Some Labour colleagues in the other place take the view that we should make a gesture of protest against this agreement. My view, and I think that of the Official Opposition, is that we must do our best to ensure that the protections and safeguards in the agreement are used to the maximum extent. One of the innovations in the agreement was, as I understand it, provision for the European Parliament to be involved in the monitoring of human rights in these countries.

I end with a number of serious questions. If the Minister cannot answer them now, I would be grateful for written replies about how the Government propose to ensure that this agreement is implemented and that the safeguards in it are used to the full.

In the other place, my shadow Business Secretary colleague, Ian Murray, called for a human rights report to be produced before the Commons vote on the approval of this order on Wednesday. Can the Minister tell us what is likely to be in this report, and assess the latest human rights situation? There has been news of further killings of community and trade union activists in the last month, and this is causing a lot of concern, because we had hoped that the situation was improving; it may not be.

Secondly, what steps will the British Government be taking to ensure that the monitoring provisions in these agreements—the role of the European Parliament and all of that—are taken seriously, and that there is proper reporting on the human rights situation in these countries? Thirdly, will the Government initiate, possibly at European Union level, a review of the relationship between trade policy and the promotion of ILO 4 standards and human rights monitoring and enforcement? We need to think about what the relationship should be between trade policy and these questions and about what part questions of human rights, trade union rights and social rights should play in the enthusiasm—which we on this side of the Committee certainly share—for more free trade agreements to be concluded by the EU, as a key dimension of our economic reform agenda for Europe.

What are the Government’s objectives here? How do they see the trade-offs and what alliances are they going to build? It may be difficult for the Minister to answer these questions today but I hope that they will be given proper consideration. I do not think we can close our eyes to the human rights issues that occur daily in these countries. We have to be in a position where we can use what leverage we have to improve the situation—a leverage which at least has some significance because of our membership of the European Union. I would be grateful for replies.

I thank Members of the Committee for their contributions this afternoon in what has been a very interesting debate. The major issue that has been raised is that of human rights, although others have been too. First, I will address the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, of the two countries that have opted out for the time being.

Ecuador suspended its participation in the negotiations in July 2009, predominantly for internal political reasons. However, in May 2013, it formally expressed interest in resuming negotiations. The Commission has confirmed that the country has now offered the necessary clarification on the previous stumbling blocks that remain outstanding. Bolivia withdrew from the negotiations in September 2008, predominantly due to its rejection of certain elements of the deal including those on intellectual property and state purchases. Nevertheless, it remains open for Bolivia to accede to the agreement, should negotiations reopen. Contact between Bolivian and EU officials continues.

The Committee’s major concern was human rights and what provisions we have made in this agreement to address those. The European Union is very strong on human rights and we take a strong view too. The UK pushed hard for a legally binding human rights clause in the text of the agreement, which is consistent with our policy to have frank dialogue with Colombia and Peru on human rights. The clause is backed up by international law, and Clause 8 of the agreement allows any party to take appropriate measures against any other party which violates essential elements. Various monitoring mechanisms, which the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned, are in place to make sure that human rights abuses are well monitored.

The agreement does not have the monitoring of human rights abuses as one of its primary functions. The primary function of the agreement is to support trade between the EU and Peru and Colombia respectively, and therefore to support economic growth. However, increased prosperity should support increased respect for human rights. The role of monitoring human rights rests with domestic and international bodies including the United Nations. We regard trade agreements as important for economic growth and prosperity in developed and developing countries. This FTA supports that growth and prosperity. The promotion of the UK’s prosperity and the promotion and protection of human rights are mutually supportive priorities that are at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy.

It is right that the UK engages with Colombia commercially, as we would do with any emerging power. If we did not, I bet our competitors would do it anyway. Therefore, it is important to this Government that British businesses respect human rights in the places where they do business. The Government part-funded a major event in Cartagena in May on implementing the UN guiding principles on business and human rights.

I will also cover an issue that was touched upon, the role of our embassy in Bogotá. The embassy supported a UN-led research initiative to help improve the protection of trade unionist human rights and the development of positive labour relations, an area cited by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. Our embassy is very active on human rights issues, including employment legislation. It regularly raises individual human rights cases with the Colombian Government, including those of indigenous communities that are at particular risk, and meets with individual human rights defendants. Staff from the embassy have attended the trials of certain academics and trade unionists. I am pleased to say that our embassy at Bogotá is quite active in this area.

There are a large number of areas which I have not covered in this short debate. I promise to write to noble Lords. I share some of the other concerns which have been raised by noble Lords, but we firmly believe that we should not let these stand in the way of a progressive trade agreement and fostering a context of prosperity in which human rights will improve. Liberalising trade brings prosperity and prosperity, in turn, helps to bring political stability. I strongly commend the free trade agreement to all Members of the Committee. It delivers not only for businesses, but for jobs and for consumers in the UK as well as in Colombia and Peru. Colombia and Peru are fast growing economies where there is and will continue to be growing demand for UK goods and services. As I said earlier, if we fail to grasp this important and valuable opportunity our international competitors surely will. I commend the order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Infrastructure Planning (Business or Commercial Projects) Regulations 2013

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Infrastructure Planning (Business or Commercial Projects) Regulations 2013.

Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 18th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to the many Members of your Lordships’ House who have taken a close interest in the Government’s proposal to extend the infrastructure planning regime to business and commercial development as an opt-in for developers. This change was debated thoroughly in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. During the evidence sessions held at the start of the Act’s passage, both the CBI and the British Chamber of Commerce expressed support for the Government’s proposal. The CBI said that companies which are R&D intensive could see scope to use the infrastructure planning regime and,

“that those kinds of developments are very much in Britain’s interest not only from a local point of view in creating local jobs, but in terms of driving growth and developing Britain’s industrial strengths”.

In addition, the British Chamber of Commerce said that it supported the change that would make it possible for a large industrial development that is nationally significant and with export potential to benefit from a faster planning regime.

The Growth and Infrastructure Act provided a new provision enabling business and commercial projects to make use of the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime, and enabled regulations to be made setting out the particular types of projects that could benefit from this option. The Government carried out a consultation last winter to inform detailed design of these regulations. We received over 100 responses, which have allowed us to refine our approach to ensure that it will benefit a wide range of businesses. These regulations therefore prescribe the types of business and commercial projects that will be able to use the infrastructure planning regime. The regulations do not place any additional burdens on business but open up the streamlined infrastructure planning regime as an option for the most significant business and commercial schemes.

Increasing the speed and certainty of the planning regime is vital to our economic growth and has been a top priority for the Government. The Government have made significant strides in simplifying and speeding up the planning system, with the new National Planning Policy Framework published in 2011, streamlined and web-based planning guidance and important legislative changes through the Localism Act 2011 and Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. However, over the past few years there has been a decline in the speed with which local planning authorities determine large-scale major commercial and industrial applications. This is despite a reduction in the number of cases that authorities have to process. Over the five years since 2008-09, the proportion of large-scale major applications that were determined within 13 weeks fell from 68% to 53%. Delay results in additional costs and uncertainty to developers, delaying much needed new investment and jobs. Large-scale major business and commercial schemes can be complex and controversial locally and may require a number of different consents, not just planning permission.

In response to these concerns, the Government announced their intention to extend the nationally significant infrastructure planning to business and commercial projects, as an option for developers. The infrastructure planning regime—which is focused on nationally significant projects relating to energy, transport, water, waste and waste water—allows for a single consent regime which is useful where multiple consents are required and a streamlined process for considering applications. The infrastructure planning regime offers a number of potential benefits to developers, including statutory timetabling of a maximum of one year from the start of the examination to decision and removing the potential for call-in or appeal. These features could provide important benefits to developers of the most significant business and commercial projects. Increased certainty could also enable developers of the most significant business and commercial projects to secure the necessary finance faster to commence their projects once a decision has been made. By offering a new, streamlined option for the determination of these business and commercial projects, we are providing a way for these important projects to be built more quickly and provide a crucial boost to the economy.

These regulations therefore enable business and commercial development—including offices, research and development, industrial processes, storage or distribution, conferences, exhibitions, sport, leisure and tourism—to benefit from the option of using the infrastructure planning regime. It might assist noble Lords if I briefly explained how the regulations will work in practice. If a developer wants their business or commercial project dealt with though the infrastructure planning regime, they will need first to make a written request to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to use the regime. The Secretary of State will make a direction for the application or proposed application to be determined through the infrastructure planning regime, if he is satisfied that the project both falls within one of the prescribed types of project and is nationally significant.

To assist developers, the Government have published the factors that the Secretary of State will take into account in considering whether a project is nationally significant or not. These are set out in a policy statement published alongside the draft regulations, which is available in your Lordships’ Library and the Printed Paper Office. The Secretary of State will consider carefully all relevant matters concerning national significance, including whether the project is likely to have a significant economic impact over a period of time. Job creation and new investment into the economy would be taken into account. Consideration will be given to whether the impact of the project is wider than a single local authority area; major business or commercial schemes can generate, for example, economic benefits across more than one local planning authority area. The Secretary of State will also take into account the physical size of the project and its importance to the delivery of a nationally significant infrastructure project or other significant development. This could potentially benefit a complex mixed-use business development.

Once the direction is given, the project will need to comply with the requirements of the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime. These requirements include comprehensive pre-application consultation with the local community, local authorities and statutory consultees. The local authority plays a vital role in the infrastructure planning regime, preparing a local impact report and representing the views of the community during the pre-application and examination stages. This enables developers to recognise and understand the issues for local communities and allows them to refine their proposals accordingly.

We all agree on the need to support new investment and jobs. That is why we have acted to extend the benefits of the infrastructure planning regime to business and commercial development, helping to bring forward appropriate development and reduce delays that cause uncertainty for local communities and businesses looking to create jobs. These regulations provide an optional route for the developers of potentially nationally significant business and commercial projects and we believe that they should be approved as part of our wider plans for driving economic growth. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very full introduction of these regulations. She also thanked the many Members of the House who took an interest in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill—clearly a waning interest given the lack of presence in the Committee today. However, we all agree on the importance of generating new investment and jobs for our economy. I think it is fair to say that these regulations carry no surprises in so far as they are entirely consistent with the June 2013 response to the November 2012 consultation. They are part of a range of measures which have as their root the assumption that it is the planning system which is holding back growth and that opening up pathways for developers to circumvent local planning authorities should be facilitated. We could spend a long time debating this—the purpose of planning, the engagement of local communities, the balanced judgments that good planning should entail and much else—but clearly we have before us an SI that emanates from primary legislation which we must accept as a fait accompli.

In the same area, I take this opportunity briefly to ask about the designation of local planning authorities which are deemed not be dealing expeditiously or in a quality way under what was Clause 1 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. How many of those local authorities, which is an adjunct to this, have currently been designated? I have a few more questions for the Minister. We support the exclusion of the construction of dwellings from the scope of these regulations, but we would like some clarification. The SI covers developments that wholly or mainly comprise the activities set down, but it must not include the construction of one or more dwellings. Can it be confirmed that any minor part of a development, such as a residential floor atop of an office development, would preclude this procedure being adopted? That would seem to be what runs from a strict reading of the regulations.

The secondary legislation committee commented on the consultation process and made reference to the fact that the consultation ran for six weeks over Christmas, which it suggested was at odds with good practice. It went on to point out that it took the department five months to publish its response. Perhaps we might hear from the Minister why that was so. There was also some suggestion of disparity between the conclusions drawn by the Government and the level of responses received under the consultation.

Given the architecture of the position we are dealing with, we support the exclusion of new coal development and oil and gas, as well as the exclusion of retail and generally the exclusion of development of homes, but we are disappointed that there is no commitment on the production of national policy statements. Those criteria could have applications to developments which might have a regional or even sub-regional basis. As the Minister outlined, the criteria adopted are: whether a project is likely to have a significant economic impact or is important for driving growth in the economy, and I would be interested to understand how significant economic impacts are determined for this purpose; whether a project has an impact across an area wider than a single local authority area, which could occur in many developments and hardly be indicative of something of national significance; and whether a project is of a substantial physical size, which, similarly, may be indicative of some regional project rather than something which is of national significance. There is also reference to the creation of sports stadia and it is suggested that where seating capacity is less than 40,000 seats that should not be seen as being of national significance. A 40,000-seater stadium is not that unusual across the country. We in Luton aspire to maybe 25,000—we could do with 5,000 as it stands—but 40,000 does not seem to me indicative of something which is inevitably of national significance.

I have a few more questions. Will the Secretary of State be required to publish the reasons for his decision to assume authority to decide any particular application? In the absence of a relevant national policy statement, what will be the role of the local plan in guiding decision-making? What if anything will be required of local planning authorities in relation to this process? In particular, can the Minister remind us of what is entailed in consultation under this planning route? It appears that a new consent service unit has been established whose task is to improve co-ordination and communication between the Planning Inspectorate, applicants and consenting bodies. Can the Minister give us a clue as to how large that service unit is and how many individuals are involved in it? Can she also say how many applications are currently proceeding on non-business and commercial projects through the national infrastructure process and what the performance levels are? In particular, I am driving at whether the Minister is confident of the capacity for it to do more and to take on projects that might run from this SI.

There was debate, particularly in the other place, when the Bill was under consideration about whether quarrying or surface mineral extraction such as open-cast mining would be included. It is clear that we have excluded new coal, oil and gas, but I am not sure whether that potentially leaves anything under that description. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on this.

Clearly, we will not oppose the regulations, but they give rise to some quite serious questions as to the level of discretion which is left to the Secretary of State on what are fairly broad criteria. It would therefore be helpful to have as much detail on the record today as possible.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for making it clear that the Opposition will not oppose the regulations. I note what he said about the absence of many of those noble Lords who had contributed during the passage of the Bill not being here for the regulations today. I take that as a good sign and am grateful for the support that I have received.

As the noble Lord will know, it was my noble friend Lady Hanham and not me who took the Bill through your Lordships’ House, so it is something with which I am becoming familiar in some detail at this stage. I will try to respond to the numerous points raised. A good place to start is to remind the Committee that we expect that in most cases the local authority will be able to provide a swift decision on business and commercial developments, and that that will remain the route for the vast majority of applications. We are providing an alternative route and, in doing so, some certainty for developers, because of the statutory timetabling of the infrastructure planning regime.

The noble Lord raised a point about the length of the consultation, and about why we only consulted for six weeks. It is worth reminding noble Lords that, in accordance with revised Cabinet Office guidelines, we now take shorter periods for consultation where we believe that the issue is one specific to, or of primary concern to, professional or trade areas, or, in this case, local authority bodies. Therefore, six weeks was considered to be adequate for people to respond, and the fact that we received over 100 responses suggests that people felt they had adequate time.

The noble Lord asked why there was no national policy statement. We do not think the case for one here is strong, mainly because this is a new option for developers; it is not mandatory and the Secretary of State retains some discretion in deciding whether or not an application should follow this route. In this context, therefore, we do not think a national policy statement is needed. He asked about housing, and whether the criteria exclude any residential element. That is absolutely right: we are firm and clear that responsibility for housing should remain with local authorities, so if one of these plans included housing that would render it unsuitable for this type of application. However, I remind noble Lords that most big projects would want to use the existing routes—this is an option, not the way they have to go.

The Minister has been clear. However, if there was a very significant official or commercial development, and it happened to have a few penthouse suites at the top, are we saying that that would completely preclude such a development from availing itself of these provisions, whereas without the suites it would have been eligible?

The advice I have been given is very clear that any kind of housing would not be permissible, if this was the route chosen by the developer. The regulations are quite clear on that, so I can be clearer than I am normally able to be in these circumstances.

The noble Lord referred back to a debate during the passage of the Bill and asked how many local planning authorities are designated as poorly performing. One local authority has been so designated. He asked about the consent service unit, the team responsible for this new process. It is a small unit of three people, with secondees from Natural England and the Environment Agency providing ongoing support to a number of major projects.

The noble Lord also asked why we have not explained how we will decide whether a project is likely to have a significant economic impact. I can best answer that by repeating a point I made in response to another question; namely, that the Secretary of State will need to consider these applications on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, it is not possible for me to be explicit in the way in which he would like me to be. To illustrate my point, perhaps I may use the example of whether a sports stadium is nationally significant or not, or whether cross-local authority issues may mean that it is nationally significant; in many cases it will not be. The point trying to be made by this is that, of itself, one element of a big plan might not warrant it being designated as nationally significant but, when combined with something else, a 40,000-seater stadium, for example, might qualify it as being nationally significant.

The noble Lord also asked about a policy framework for the business and commercial category, such as a national policy statement. I think that I have already answered that point. He also asked about the importance of local plans and how they fitted into the new regime. The local plan is likely to be an important and relevant factor to be taken into account. It is part of the type of things to be considered as and when an application is made.

The noble Lord asked about the number of cases going through the major infrastructure regime more generally. As he said, what was underpinning that question was whether we had capacity for more. Some 14 decisions have been taken under the infrastructure planning regime and another 20 are being considered either at the Planning Inspectorate or by Ministers. A further approximately 60 are at the pre-application stage. The regime is seen as working well and is widely supported by developers.

I think that I have covered all the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. On that basis, I just will restate how grateful I am to him for supporting these regulations. They will provide developers of potentially nationally significant business and commercial schemes with the choice of using the infrastructure planning regime and benefiting from its statutory timetable and certainty. These benefits are important in enabling developers to plan ahead and to secure the necessary finances in a timely manner to take forward their projects with confidence and, we believe, provide an important boost to growth.

Perhaps the Minister would drop me a line on what, if anything, is left around quarrying and surface mineral extraction. She made reference to one authority which has been designated. Is she in a position to let us know which authority that is?

On the latter question, at the moment the answer is no but, if I can, I will write to the noble Lord. As to quarrying, he is right that I did not address that point. Regulations include winning or working of minerals but exclude winning or working of peat, coal, oil or gas. I hope that that answers the noble Lord’s question. If he requires further information, I will write.

Motion agreed.

Providers of Social Work Services (England) Regulations 2013

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Grand Committee takes note of the Providers of Social Work Services (England) Regulations 2013.

Relevant document: 16th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, Part 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 enables local authorities to delegate specified relevant care functions to a provider of social work services. Part 1 has, to date, been brought into force only for piloting purposes but the Government brought it fully into force on 13 November, before sunset provisions would otherwise take effect.

The background to this is that in May this year the Department for Education laid a draft legislative reform order as an affirmative instrument under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006. This draft LRO proposed removing the requirement for direct registration and inspection by Ofsted of social work services providers in England in parallel with Part 1 of the 2008 Act being brought fully into force. The department’s intention, as I understand it, was that if the LRO had been approved, inspection of arrangements involving such providers would have become part of the local authority inspection by Ofsted.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee first considered the draft LRO in June. In its third report of the current Session, it recommended that the LRO should be subject to the super-affirmative procedure, because it considered that the noble Lord’s department had not adequately demonstrated that the LRO would not remove any necessary protection. The committee considered the draft LRO for a second time in July, taking account of a letter received from DfE Ministers responding to the points raised in its third report. However, the letter was not persuasive and the committee remained of the view that the department had not justified its statement that the LRO would not remove any necessary protection. Therefore, in its seventh report, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recommended that the LRO should not proceed.

The department has now withdrawn the draft LRO and, consequently, my understanding is that this instrument is needed to set out registration and fitness requirements for persons who wish to contract with local authorities as providers of social work services. This instrument has been drawn to the special attention of the House by the Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House, which is why I am moving this Motion this afternoon.

First, with the withdrawal of the LRO, can the Minister confirm that the matter is now settled for the foreseeable future and that independent providers of social work services will continue to be inspected directly rather than as an adjunct to a local authority’s inspection?

I would also like to ask the Minister about the wider implications of the policy to outsource social work services. Are the Government determined to press ahead with plans to outsource the placements of children in care to the private sector, despite opposition from children’s charities? Can he confirm that Serco and Virgin are among the firms that might take over those services? The Minister should consider very carefully before pressing ahead with plans to allow private companies to take decisions about some of the most vulnerable children, when the pilot projects showed no clear benefit for children. I know that the noble Lord’s department is rather light on evidence to justify the policies that it takes on, but will he acknowledge that an evaluation of the pilots by academics from King’s College London, the University of Central Lancashire and the Institute of Education found that there was limited evidence in favour of relocating public services for children in out-of-home care to the private sector?

The study, published last year by the Children and Youth Services Review, concluded that:

“While the independent sector is often the setting for innovation, the public sector continues to function as a repository for a wide range of expertise and resources. It is also more likely to offer continuity of knowledge, skills and care and, in this respect, it may be better placed to respond to the uncertainty that characterizes the needs of children in out-of-home care”.

What is the Government’s response to the evaluation of those pilots?

What will happen when children’s interests and the ambition of companies to make profits conflict? Most worryingly, the regulations seem to allow for a clear conflict of interest to arise. My reading is that the same private company will be allowed to place a child into care under contract from the local authority and then actually to run that placement. The parallel with clinical commissioning groups in the health service—CCGs, which are essentially member organisations run by GPs, are actually allowed to place more money into GP primary care-led services—is uncanny, and is clearly against the public interest.

Will the decision to contract with private providers be entirely a matter for individual local authorities, or is the Minister’s department intending to put pressure on local authorities? His department does not seem to have a very positive view of local authorities, and I would be very interested in his response on that matter.

I would like to ask the Minister about the consultation. The Explanatory Memorandum that accompanies the order states that there was near-universal support for the principle of these regulations. It goes on to list the broad support and the percentage of respondents agreeing with the proposals. However, the memorandum says that amendments have been made to the regulations concerning premises, and those covering the registration process, to reflect consultation responses. I would be grateful if the Minister could give details of the changes made as a result of the consultation.

My principal reason for raising this order today is to find out from the Minister exactly what government policy is, to look for reassurance that the Government will not attempt to reintroduce an LRO in the near future in order to reduce the amount of regulation on providers of services that are contracted with the local authority, and to seek some reassurance about the potential conflict of interest with regard to a private provider in contract with a local authority then placing a person who needs care into the institution or service that that private provider also runs. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for proposing and speaking to this Motion. Noble Lords will be painfully aware of the tragic cases recently in the news, so I do not think I need to name them. The noble Lord said that we do not have a very positive view of local authorities; in fact we have a completely open-minded view of them, but the facts are that there are currently 26 local authorities in government intervention following recent Ofsted inspections and, of the 50 local authorities inspected since June 2012, 17 were found to be inadequate, only four were found to be good, none was found to be outstanding and the remaining 29 were judged adequate, which will become “requires improvement” under the new Ofsted framework. That is an extremely disappointing and depressing picture and it shows that the status quo is just not good enough.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education recently made an important speech on how to improve support for children in need, and many have noted how keen he is to encourage local authorities to improve and spread best practice. An important part of this is to allow innovation. We are committed to giving local authorities the tools they need to make their own decisions on how best to deliver services. We wish to give them every freedom to delegate social care services if they so choose.

The first step towards this was the commencement of Part 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, which was enacted by the previous Government. From 12 November, all local authorities have been free, if they wish to do so, to delegate children in care and care leaver services—only those services—to third parties. This follows the social work practice pilots which were put in place under the previous Government. Commencing the Act has enabled the pilots which are still in operation to continue if they wish to do so and given freedoms to other local authorities to delegate. It is a purely permissive provision. No local authorities will be forced to delegate functions under the CYPA, although we will not hesitate to intervene more directly where councils are failing vulnerable children, as in Doncaster. It is an important first step towards our aim of expanding this permissive approach to delegation.

The noble Lord is quite right that the Government’s original intention was not to make these regulations. He points out, as noted in the 16th report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, that we sought to make a legislative reform order, which would have removed the Ofsted registration requirement. However, whether or not these providers are registered has no bearing on inspection, and the way Ofsted will inspect, which is essentially following the child, is not affected by whether or not they are functions performed by the local authority or functions subcontracted by the local authority.

We are determined to give local authorities the opportunity to contract out to a range of providers. He mentioned some specific private providers—that would be possible. Providers could also include charities such as Barnado’s or NSPCC, or social work practices which have been spun out from the council, such as in Staffordshire or Bristol. As the noble Lord may know, we are great fans of the mutuals approach, which seems to be having a great effect.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive response. I come back to the point he raised. My understanding is that these regulations are needed as a consequence of the fact that the draft LRO will not proceed. That is, in a sense, why I ask the question. Under the original proposals, the provider who receives a contract from the local authority would not have been inspected as an individual body but as part of the local authority inspection. Can the Minister say whether we can expect another LRO to be brought forward in the next year or two, or whether it is now settled policy that the provider, when it comes to inspections, will be inspected as a separate entity rather as an adjunct of the local authority? I am trying to elicit what future policy is likely to be—I think that I have grasped what current policy is as a result of this order and the fact that the LRO was not introduced. It is a question of whether this is a settled policy or whether the Government will come back in the next few months with further proposals.

I can confirm that the Government have no plans to change the inspection arrangement, which would be through the local authority.

The noble Lord also raised the very important point of conflict. Before expanding on any of those paths, we would look at that very carefully. We feel that some valuable lessons were learnt from the pilots. The advantage of a pilot is that one learns and expands on good practice. Evidence was found of positive change for children, parents, carers and the workforce, including increased opportunities for direct work with children and young people. There are examples of very good quality support for carers and of small integrated teams working well to offer a personalised service, as well as a number of other examples. We feel that we should take this opportunity. We may continue to expand but we would consult on that. It is only fair that these children and young people have the opportunity of the whole range of experts who may be available to them, rather than just those who happen to be working for a particular local authority. I hope that the answers that I have given the noble Lord will reassure him that we have no plans, in a rush, to make any more dramatic changes in the short term.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Perhaps he would care to write to me about the changes that were made as a result of the consultation; I would be happy for him to write to me on that basis.

I am glad to have reassurance that the Government are not going to reopen the question of short-circuiting the regulatory function with regard to private providers. I am also glad that the Minister has agreed to look at conflict of interest. He said that there are valuable lessons to be learnt from the pilots, and I agree. The most valuable lesson to learn is that there is a great risk of breaking up public sector provision. As the pilot evaluation showed, there is a repository of knowledge and a wide range of expertise and resources.

I take the point that there is an issue of innovation—of course there is. That is why the previous Government took through the 2008 Act. However, innovation cannot be introduced at the expense of the solid foundation that is required from a wide range of public services, and I hope that the Minister will be prepared to consider that. That said, although this short debate has not been well attended, none the less it has been useful.

Motion agreed.

Afghanistan: Women’s Rights

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that improvements in the rights of women in Afghanistan will endure after British troops withdraw in 2014.

My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests. I am chair of the Advisory Board of GAPS, which runs the No Women No Peace campaign focusing on Afghanistan. I am a founder member of the Afghan Women’s Support Forum and a patron of Afghan Connection. “A woman’s place is in the house or the grave” was a mantra of the brutal Taliban years. Girls were unable to go to school or to work and, as one woman told me, “When the Taliban was here, I did not have a right to go out and speak to other people. I had to wear a burka and look down”.

When the West invaded in 2001, Laura Bush declared:

“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

Now, 12 years on, even though Afghanistan remains the most difficult country in the world to be a woman, there have been significant improvements. About 2.7 million women in Afghanistan are employed; 27% of MPs are women; and women hold one-quarter of government jobs. About 3 million girls are in school. There is strong evidence of a rising age for first marriages and of improved access to healthcare, while 30% of teachers are women. There are women lawyers, diplomats, pilots and soldiers, and 128 women judges. Women now have equal rights to men under the Afghan constitution. Afghanistan has signed up to CEDAW and UN Resolution 1325, and an EVAW law was brought in by presidential decree.

As Justine Greening has said:

“There has been a huge improvement”—


“it was from such a low base that even now … there is a hugely long way to go”.

Progress is fragile and change in Afghanistan has been slow. Many girls drop out of education, prevented by their families from going to secondary school. Many women in rural areas still do not have maternity care due to lack of money and distance from health facilities, and many suffer from untreated depression. Maternal mortality remains high, with one in every 50 women dying of pregnancy-related causes, and only 20% of women have access to modern contraception. It is estimated that there are 2.5 million widows, mostly young and illiterate, in a country where a woman depends on her husband. Politically, not all the women MPs support women’s rights. The underfunded Ministry of Women’s Affairs is ineffectual and the nine women on the 70-member High Peace Council are mostly ignored.

There have been many reports of women in the police being assaulted by their male commanders. The handful of women’s refuges were denounced as brothels and there was push-back on the EVAW law when it was taken to Parliament this summer. As Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch said:

“It is time for donors to wake up and realise that if there is not constant pressure on the Afghan Government to respect women’s rights, there will be no women’s rights”.

The Afghan women I have met are enormously courageous. However, there is fear about what will happen after the troops leave—fear that their rights may be traded for peace with the Taliban or that they will simply be forgotten; fear about the Taliban returning; and fear of the Northern Alliance warlords and local militias, including the police. All those women human rights defenders who have raised their heads above the social parapet are at particular risk.

Nearly 40 years of war in Afghanistan have developed a culture hostile to women in public and where violence is endemic. Women on the streets are sworn at. As Horia Mosadiq of Amnesty says:

“Besides the Taliban, women suffer abuse at the hands of their own husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins—simply because the men know they can get away with it”.

An Oxfam report states:

“Official figures are distorted by underreporting but in reality as many as 87 per cent of Afghan women suffer … violence”.

Social norms prevent most women from approaching male police officers, and only a few of the police are female. Thus has been built a culture of impunity, with very few cases making it to the formal justice system and most being decided by jirgas and shuras, dominated by strongmen, while women are still prosecuted for the “crime” of running away from an abusive family.

The violence is getting worse. The 2013 UNAMA report found a 20% increase in the number of Afghan women or girls killed or injured, a trend echoed by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the International Crisis Group. In the home, tensions have increased as girls who have learnt their rights start to push against Afghan societal norms such as forced marriage.

In the past year there has been a spate of attacks on high-profile women, including two parliamentarians. Two senior policewomen in Helmand were murdered, and a well known female author who had written about the Taliban years was dragged out of her home and shot 15 times. There are many attacks on less high-profile women too—for example, Parween, a head teacher from Laghman province, was targeted for running a girls’ school, with her son abducted and killed. I heard anecdotally that police often do not even bother logging women’s deaths. Girls going to school have been attacked with acid and school drinking water has been poisoned. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has found that many honour killings and sexual assaults against women have been committed by the police themselves. Just last week, there were rumours that the amended penal code might include stoning to death of adulterers.

Hillary Clinton recently said:

“This is a serious turning point for all the people of Afghanistan, but in particular for the hard-fought gains women and girls have been able to enjoy”.

The UK Government have already committed to making violence against women and girls a priority in DfID’s Afghan operational plan. Justine Greening announced further funds last week to boost women’s voice in politics and to tackle violence through grassroots projects, and other funds are already in place to support female voter registration. I am sure that the Minister will tell us about these.

Even after the combat troops have left, the UK will have influence as a donor country, so what more can be done? We need to keep the achievements and move forward. We must ensure that women’s rights are not traded away and that female human rights defenders are given some kind of protection in line with the UN General Assembly resolution passed last week. Good quality education for girls must be assured. We must ensure a fair presidential election with women freely voting; include women in any peace negotiations and NATO talks in line with UN Resolution 1325, as their voices need to be heard; implement laws dealing with equality; build up a capacity of women in the security sector, making sure that they are supported and protected; help more women to access formal justice; with half the population under 15, educate boys that abusing women is wrong; ring fence aid money to grassroots projects that protect and help women, including women’s refuges; and ensure easy access for smaller organisations that cannot deal with complicated proposals. In the longer term, it is by working slowly and sensitively at grassroots level that culture change will occur, and to make that happen we need to work with men too.

I conclude with the words of our Foreign Secretary:

“No lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met—not only justice for the victims of crimes of war, but their active involvement in creating a society in which their rights are respected and their voices are heard”.

My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for bringing this matter to our attention. Our involvement in Afghanistan over the past number of years gives this country an especial responsibility. It is often not difficult to convince people that when things are bad they should engage. However, we must always be extremely careful that when we disengage we do not leave a situation which rebounds into something which is worse than before we got involved. One of the first principles one teaches young doctors is: first, do no harm. One of the great dangers is that we have raised the expectations of democrats in general and women in particular in Afghanistan. There is a real danger of a reaction against that, and those who followed our lead and took our encouragement being the ones who will suffer most.

One of the great anxieties for many people is that, despite the change in political institutions, the resilience of an old culture is so strong that it may overwhelm all the achievements that there have been. As the noble Baroness has pointed out, there are some things which have improved significantly: political engagement by women, even at a relatively senior level, albeit in smaller numbers than one would like to see; political involvement through elections; and, of course, education, which the noble Baroness also mentioned. Recently, when the UN Women deputy executive director for policy and programme, John Hendra, visited one of the governorships, the governor there pointed out that 12 years ago there were two girls in school in the 12 schools in his governorship, and now there were 10,000; and in the country as a whole, that number approaches 3 million, as the noble Baroness has said.

These are positive things. In fact, they are essential if there is going to be further development. At the same time, however, we are very much aware of the high level of violence; not just the almost traditional, tragically cultural, violence that there has been, but very specifically targeted killings of, for example, senior female journalists and government officials. That makes it quite clear that any woman who speaks out or stands up is regarded as a target for those who want to turn things back and attack the position of women. This is a serious problem and the question for us must be what we can do.

The noble Baroness has pointed out that, as a donor Government we have some, albeit perhaps modest, leverage. That is one of the reasons I was rather disappointed in reading the last monthly monitoring report to which I had access, that of October 2013. Although there is mention of political and educational issues, both very positive, there is very little else about what DfID and our other government departments are doing in support of organisations which are protecting the rights of women.

Almost more troubling to me was the account of the trilateral meeting in Downing Street on 29 October, where the Prime Minister met President Karzai of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan. Pakistan is not a country that has particularly distinguished itself as a protector of women—absolutely the contrary in recent times. So I ask myself why we are not engaging more with India. There have been difficulties and some horrific incidents in India recently, but the people, the politicians and the Government of India regard those as dreadful aberrations that must be stopped, which is a very different thing from those countries that regard them as culturally congruent.

This neglect of India as a key partner is something that goes right back to the beginning of the engagement. I remember talking to both senior American security officials and senior Indian army officials about whether we had consulted India in any way before the invasion of Afghanistan. The answer was that we never even thought about it. Here is our ally, with 1 million men under arms, just across from Afghanistan, which could make a real difference and have real leverage; but we do not seem to be engaging with it. When we leave, we may have some little leverage and involvement, but India will be there. Can the Minister say what we are doing to engage not just with Pakistan—which is perfectly reasonable and appropriate—but with India to ensure that, in the region, there is leverage there to ensure some maintenance of the possibilities for democracy in general and the position of women in particular? India, as a country, at least recognises the importance of this matter even if it does not always have a perfect record—no country does, I suppose—in dealing with these kinds of questions.

I have a real fear that that any improvements we achieve in Afghanistan and some of the other places where we have intervened may be short lived. It is not just that we might return to the status quo ante but that there might even be a reaction against them. Along with the noble Baroness, I seek reassurance from the Minister about our involvement with those who are likely to have positions of responsibility—not just those who are currently in government but those in the Taliban. Those of us who were advising engagement with the latter some years ago were told it was a nonsense, but of course in the end it was an inevitability, not a nonsense. We should try to find some way of ensuring that they understand that, if their country is to benefit as part of the community of nations, it must measure up to some of these important requirements that the community of nations now rightly recognises, in particular on the position of women.

My Lords, I, too, am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for raising this important issue. There are few in Parliament who know more about the subject, and we welcome her and her considerable expertise to the House. I also take this opportunity to salute the Foreign Secretary, the International Development Secretary and my noble friend Lady Warsi for the time, effort and focus they have all put into this very challenging problem. With the imminent departure of United States and UK combat troops from Afghanistan, and the election of a new president and provincial councils scheduled for next year, we are all too well aware that the country stands at a crossroads.

Many women’s rights around the world are still far away from where they should be in the 21st century: 70% of people living in poverty are women and a third of all women in the world experience some form of violence. However, it is Afghanistan which, despite many efforts by many people in recent years, remains the most dangerous place in the world for a woman to live.

One Afghan woman e-mailed me to say how grateful Afghans are that we, as a country, have been generous to them over the last 12 years, providing assistance in many ways, reaching out to women and promoting their cause. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, we have to do all we can to ensure that this support is not wasted. I hope that this debate will be reported in Afghanistan and that women there will know that we are on their side, and that we support and are concerned for the women there who fear for the fragile rights that they have gained.

As my noble friend pointed out in her powerful and well argued speech, there are a number of signs of appeasement of Taliban and other conservative forces by the Afghan Government. Last year President Karzai supported a new code of conduct, issued by a group of prominent clerics, which permitted the beating of wives by husbands and the segregation of men and women in offices and schools. As both my noble friends have said, there has been progress and this should be celebrated. However, this progress is at risk. As human and women’s rights activist Wazhma Frogh comments:

“After 12 years of struggle and sacrifice we are handing over the fate of Afghan women into the hands of … guys who are ready to take away every right from women”.

One new NGO, the focus of which has been on assisting women in Afghanistan to make a contribution, is Future Brilliance, of which I am proud to be a trustee. Its vision is to create stability in fragile states by offering world-class training that contributes to the nation’s prosperity through the skills, ambition, professional knowledge and participation of its people. One person whom the charity has helped is Khala Zada. It took her two months to persuade her sons to let her come to Jaipur to be trained. A 50 year-old illiterate widow from rural Afghanistan, Zada runs a small business making jewellery by hand. The six-month course would teach her about design, techniques and sales but, as a woman coming from a country of gender inequality, she was not allowed to make the decision herself. She had to get permission from the men in her life—her adult sons. Finally, in January this year, she left her home accompanied by one of her sons and his wife to enrol alongside 35 other Afghan men and women—the ratio was two men to one woman—at the Indian Institute of Gems and Jewellery in Sitapura, Jaipur’s new jewellery quarter. The institute had hoped for more women than men, but it proved difficult for the women to get permission to travel for the training.

Zada is a pioneer in this new scheme to create a network of skilled Afghan artisans who will set up businesses and spread their knowledge. The advantage is that women jewellery-makers will be able to work from home—a key benefit should the Taliban return to power once UN peacekeeping forces pull out. She will be able to expand her business and employ more women so, in terms of maximum return on capital employed, taking just this one woman and investing in her personally is potentially huge for the economy of her local village.

Future Brilliance has recently forged an agreement with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to distribute 7,000 tablets to young entrepreneurs and students at training and vocational colleges throughout Afghanistan by 2014, customised for use in Dari and Pashto and loaded with education, social media, and m-commerce applications—there is lots of very exciting potential in that.

As my noble friend has said, education is the silver bullet. Education for all children, but especially for girls, is the key to continued progress. In 2001 there were fewer than a million students in school, and practically none of them were girls. Today, if you were in Kabul, you would happily see girls travelling to school in their black uniforms and white headscarves. There are now more than 8 million children attending 4,000 schools across Afghanistan and nearly 40% of these are girls. This is a fantastic improvement. As Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, has said:

“These girls who are in school today are the future of Afghanistan”.

When influenced early enough, boys and girls can grow up to be accepting of one another and to resist regressive tendencies. By educating boys and girls together in an equal environment, ensuring that they have access to the same knowledge and opportunities, the first step is taken to eliminating entrenched sexism.

I am proud that the UK has committed to supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan by giving £47 million to the DfID Girls Education Challenge fund to help 250,000 girls to access quality schooling. We have a responsibility to help these girls to reach their full potential. We also have a responsibility to ensure that boys fully comprehend the value of women and understand that appreciating and valuing women does not distract from, or in any way decrease the value of, men.

Many women in Afghanistan today are putting their lives and those of their families at risk by fighting for the rights of women. Shaima Alkozai secretly taught girls in her home during the fear and repression of Taliban rule. Her students would pretend that they were going to a friend’s house and hide their books in flour containers. Today she is the deputy principal of Zarghona Girls High School in Kabul, responsible for the education of more than 8,000 girls. As she says:

“An uneducated person is blind. They don’t know how to live their life. It’s especially important for women, because they are responsible for their life and the lives of their children and family. The life of the nation is in the woman’s hands”.

She also voices her concerns about the future of Afghanistan under the Taliban:

“What will be the future for women? Will their situation improve or become worse? It doesn’t matter to us if we have to wear a burka or not. But we want to continue with education”.

Ease of movement for women is a key problem that also needs tackling. In public transport, women have to wait until the men get into the vehicles, there are hardly any public bathrooms for women and it is not safe for them to walk around and be out after the sunset. There are many obstacles in their way, physically and psychologically—unimaginable for any of us in this Room today.

Last week I e-mailed a contact in Kabul to ask what changes she thought would best enable progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she came back with a rather extensive list. Beyond education, which was at the top of her list, she would like to see a distinct subject of human rights included in the school curriculum and taught in all schools, mandated by the Afghan Ministry of Education. She wants the Government to require all employers to display posters on rights and respect for women. She says that the Afghan public should be exposed to effective and brief TV and radio skits and slogans demonstrating why it is important to honour women as equals. The media in Afghanistan should be used extensively to reinforce the vital role that women play in society.

Historically, women are the first to suffer in a fragile state. Without proper planning, traditionalists will gradually erode the progress that has been made at the expense of so many lives. If we are to continue to make changes or even just preserve the status quo, women’s rights must be at the centre of negotiations with the Taliban. It is only by fully integrating women into the Government’s agenda that we can protect their fragile gains. As Kofi Annan said:

“There cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women”.

There must be increased access to justice, including reparations, and access to comprehensive services for all women to ensure that they are enabled to fully participate in the democratic process. As with all long-lasting and sustainable change, this cannot be imposed by the West. It must come from the Afghan people. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for initiating this debate. As we have heard, over the past decade significant steps have been made to advance women’s rights in Afghanistan, such as the provision of gender equality in the new constitution and the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Although the Afghan Government’s quashing last week of the proposal to reintroduce stoning for the offence of adultery was good news, its emergence in the first place, as we have heard in the debate, was a sign of how fragile gains in human rights over the past decade have been, particularly for women. As foreign troops head home before a 2014 deadline for the end of combat action in Afghanistan, and political attention fades with it, many fear that years of slow progress are at risk of being swept away.

This debate is a timely wake-up call for all donors to realise that if there is not constant pressure on the Afghan Government to respect women’s rights, there will be no women’s rights. As we have heard from the noble Baroness, many women have severely limited physical freedom and no political voice, and violence against women and girls is an everyday occurrence. Some 60% to 80% of all marriages are forced marriages; 57% of girls are married before the age of 16; 98% of women have no formal papers, citizenship or identity; 25% of women are in employment compared to 88% of men; and women’s life expectancy is 44.8 years. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated on her visit to Kabul in 2013 that violence against women was “endemic” in Afghanistan and urged the authorities to speed up the implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women law. I am aware that the FCO has funded a study into barriers to the implementation of the law and funded legal education in Helmand to raise awareness of women’s rights. What is the UK doing to support effective implementation of the law?

DfID is very active in funding programmes in Afghanistan. In March 2013, the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, announced that tackling violence against women and girls in Afghanistan was a strategic priority. Can the Minister give more details on how DfID will implement this strategic priority? What is it doing to achieve social norm changes towards women and prevent violence against women and girls? As we have heard in the debate, the position of Afghan women in society will remain a key challenge as the international mission draws down. Obama and Karzai’s strategic agreement stipulates that the,

“necessary outcomes of any peace and reconciliation process”,

follow the,

“Afghan Constitution, including its protections for all Afghan women and men”.

However, as we have heard, even if Kabul were to draw anti-government forces into formal negotiations, it remains highly doubtful that the Taliban leadership would ever work in accordance with the Afghan constitution's protection of,

“equal rights and duties before the law”.

The deteriorating security situation since 2007 has left the population, especially women, without access to basic services. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said, gender gaps in Afghanistan are widespread in health, education, economic opportunities, power and political voice. A combination of traditional customs and rigid interpretation of Sharia law places serious restrictions on women’s rights. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, I welcome the Government’s confirmation that the UK will continue supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan until at least 2017. The £47 million committed to the DfID Girls’ Education Challenge fund between 2013 and 2016 has helped and will help a quarter of a million girls to access quality schooling in Afghanistan.

The FCO is jointly responsible, along with DfID and the MoD, for implementating UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and jointly responsible for delivering the UK’s national action plan on the resolution, in which Afghanistan is a priority county. Much of the detail of Her Majesty’s Government’s support in Afghanistan is reported in the third annual review of the UK national action plan. The UK is providing funding for capacity building in the presidential and provincial council elections in 2014, including £12 million to a programme which supports female voter registration.

DfID has also given £4.5 million to the Asia Foundation parliamentary assistance programme on women’s participation in the 2014 elections and funding to increase female employment in the civil service. Through Tawanmandi, a pooled fund to which DfID has pledged £19.9 million over five years and whose purpose is to strengthen Afghan civil society, 15 of the 34 grants have gone to women-focused projects. What is the UK doing to provide long-term support to women’s rights organisations? How much of overall DfID spending in Afghanistan goes to women’s rights? The MoD is providing support and training for the Afghan National Army Officer Academy which, from 2014, will train 150 female students. What more will the UK do to ensure the participation of women in the Afghan police and army and that such participation is meaningful? What strategies will be in place to prevent sexual violence? Is there regular monitoring of women’s recruitment into the Afghan police and army?

The UK has contributed £1.4 million to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and is funding the EU policy mission to Afghanistan. Strengthening gender and human rights is one of the six strategic EU policy mission objectives and, as part of that programme, UK police officer trainers delivered the first ever training course exclusively for Afghan female police officers. DfID has contributed to an umbrella programme that supports women in developing business skills and creating an accessible market.

The EU’s human rights strategy on Afghanistan contains commitments on human rights defenders, as we have heard. The implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women law and women’s participation were identified as key commitments in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. The report states that the UK will chair the ministerial review of the TMAF in 2014. Will the review take place in London? How will the UK ensure that Afghan women’s rights organisations are properly consulted ahead of it? As a co-chair, how will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that Afghan women involved in the review will be protected? What is the UK doing to protect women human rights defenders and women in public life in Afghanistan?

As we have heard, and as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, our focus should be on leaving Afghanistan stable and secure. There is an urgent need to work with Afghanistan’s neighbours, as he quite rightly said, to play a more active role as NATO forces in Afghanistan withdraw. My view is that Pakistan is crucial both to the success of the mission in Afghanistan and in the wider struggle to combat terrorism. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us more information on the FCO’s efforts in that regard.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Hodgson for highlighting this important issue. This is a timely debate. Along with her, I had the privilege this morning of addressing the Afghan Deputy Minister for Women’s Affairs, Fawzia Habibi, and her fellow parliamentarians Shukria Barakzai, Dr Nilofar Ibrahimi and Raihana Azad at the Chatham House event on the status of Afghan women post-2014.

I share my noble friend’s deep concern—echoed, I know, by everyone who has spoken in this debate today—that the considerable progress that women have made over the past decade in Afghanistan may be eroded and some gains may be lost. The protection and promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan is a central pillar of our activities in Afghanistan and a cause to which I am personally committed; indeed, my maiden speech many years ago was on the issue of Afghan women’s rights.

Despite having been a cynic when we first intervened in Afghanistan, I have seen the progress and the transformation that have taken place and the contribution that women are making at all levels of Afghan society. I have had the privilege to meet some of the truly inspirational women who are risking their lives and leading the way on this issue. It is a central issue against which we will be judged when we consider the sacrifices that have been made in Afghanistan and whether they were worth the state in which we leave it.

I had hoped that more Members of your Lordships’ House would take part in what I think is an incredibly important debate. All noble Lords said that the gains made must not be lost, a message that we continuously reiterate to the Afghan Government. Last week my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development highlighted the importance of this with President Karzai during her visit to Afghanistan. My noble friend Lady Jenkin referred to the gains on education, employment and political participation. I co-chaired the joint commission on the enduring strategic dialogue between the UK and Afghanistan, and I stressed those gains when we had that meeting a few weeks ago in Afghanistan, which I co-chaired with the Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr Ershad Ahmadi. There is one female vice-presidential candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections, Habiba Sohrabi, who is an ex-governor of Bamyan province. When I spoke with presidential candidates, I said that it is not just about having front-facing candidates but whether you have women in all aspects of your decision-making, in terms of your policy, the inner circle and the campaigning theme which is going to take these elections forward. I think I gave them some food for thought, given that at least two of the candidates could not mention a single lady.

Challenges, therefore, remain in many parts of the country, but Afghan women are starting to take control of their lives. They rightly want a voice in deciding Afghanistan’s future. Next year’s elections are a real opportunity for women to play an even greater role in shaping their society. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, through the Asia Foundation DfID will provide up to £4.5 million to strengthen women’s political participation as candidates and leaders and in other ways.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lady Jenkin raised the issue of girls’ education. We welcome DfID’s commitment to provide education for 250,000 of the poorest girls in Afghanistan, and this complements the UK’s existing funding for education there. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin notes, virtually no women were in education in Afghanistan in 2001, and to date over 2 million girls have been educated, largely thanks to funding by international donors including DfID.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the new DfID programme announced by my right honourable friend Justine Greening. DfID will provide a further £8 million to the UNDP’s Elect II programme, bringing DfID’s total support to £20 million, and this will support the three key Afghan election institutions, including the independent election commission’s gender unit. The UK will also provide £7.5 million to strengthen political governance in two main ways: first by capacity building for parliament, and secondly by developing skills for women provincial councillors.

I was pleased that the Afghan Government reaffirmed their commitment to implement the measures included in the human rights reform agreed under the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, the TMAF. At the Afghan Government’s request, the UK will co-chair the first ministerial review of progress against the TMAF in 2014. The final timings and venue of that have not yet been fixed, but as soon as I have more information I will update the House.

Achieving lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan must be our primary aim, but we will continue to make clear that any political settlement involving the Taliban must preserve the progress made to date and respect Afghanistan’s constitutional framework, including the protections it provides for women and minorities. Reconciling the Taliban must never be at the expense of gains made in women’s rights.

It is for the Afghan Government to ensure that women’s rights are protected. We welcome their intention to publish a national action plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and the fact that UN Women and other partners, including civil society, are being consulted in its formulation. The British Government will continue to provide assistance where appropriate. It is important that the Afghan Government ensure that a strong political will is galvanised behind implementing it fully.

With regard to women’s rights generally, I think I said this morning that we must keep them on the agenda. It will be so easy, when we have withdrawn our combat troops at the end of 2014, for this to start slipping. One way to do that is through the Afghanistan universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The review will take place in early 2014, and that will provide an opportunity for us and the rest of the international community to raise our concerns, and for the Government of Afghanistan to show the strength of their commitment to safeguard women’s rights.

Afghan civil society also plays a vital role, and our support for it will have to endure. The British Government recognise their contribution through the DfID-funded Tawanmandi programme, which has been referred to in today’s debate. This includes a specific focus on women’s rights. To date, for example, 66% of grants awarded either focus specifically on gender issues, or have a strong gender component. Funding for this is going to continue until at least 2016.

We must also acknowledge that Afghanistan, as many have said, is a deeply conservative country. Substantial improvement to the situation of Afghan women is likely to take place over the long term, and progress is likely to come in short steps. Against this backdrop we should recognise the courageous efforts of all those across Afghanistan who are working to defend the rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In particular I applaud female human rights defenders, who face enhanced risks from conservative elements of their society. The Government will continue to support and defend these brave individuals who, by seeking to protect the rights of others, are challenging historic and very conservative social norms.

We continue to contribute to the work of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. We will continue to work closely with all our international partners to improve our understanding of the risks faced by human rights defenders so that they can be mitigated. Every time I visit Afghanistan—I think that I have visited four times in the past 12 months—I make a point of meeting the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and Sima Samar, an incredibly inspirational individual at its head. We will continue to raise our concerns and, where appropriate, to issue public statements condemning violence. These days, with the progress in terms of social media and being Twitter-linked to many female Afghan parliamentarians, it only takes a direct message for us to become aware almost instantaneously when things are starting to go wrong in Afghanistan.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson also raised the issue of stoning for adultery and the penal code, which of course has been in the media. The Secretary of State for International Development raised concerns about these reports in her meeting with President Karzai last week. I think that we saw some rowing-back from what was then described as a consultation. However, even a consultation is dangerous territory for the Afghan Government to be starting to venture into. The UK opposes abhorrent practices such as stoning, which are a disturbing reminder of the type of justice carried out under the Taliban. That has no place in modern Afghanistan.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about recruitment of Afghan women to the police. The UK agrees that the recruitment of women in the police has not been a high enough priority. The Afghan Ministry of Interior has set up a working group. The EU police commission to Afghanistan is seconding in some expertise to come up with a comprehensive approach to the role of females in the police. Its aim is to increase the number of police women by adjusting selection procedures, improving working conditions and providing better training. However, the risks are incredibly high for these individuals. I saw a tragic case. One female officer whom I had met on a recent visit to Helmand was attacked and killed by the Taliban purely for being a member of the local police.

My noble friend Lord Alderdice raised India, which, of course, is an important regional power and an important country in terms of the future of Afghanistan. It is actively involved in Afghanistan, including among other things through the development work that it does there. The Pakistan-UK-Afghanistan trilateral procedure is one of a number of forums created to try to create a better process between countries in the region in order to progress on issues such as women’s rights. Other processes are, for example, the Heart of Asia and, of course, bilateral relationships. It is not an either/or situation between Pakistan and India in terms of Afghanistan. We regularly keep the Indians updated on the trilateral process. Indeed, the Prime Minister did so on his recent visit to India when he spoke with Manmohan Singh. At the last trilateral meeting, both Afghanistan and Pakistan indicated that they would like us to continue with this and to try, effectively, to act as an annoying friend to allow the two to develop their bilateral relationship further.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson spoke about the Elimination of Violence Against Women law being a key deliverable in the TMAF. Our £7.1 million of assistance to the Ministry of Interior includes a strong focus on developing Afghan policy and promoting human rights in the security sector and protecting women from violence. The UK also supports the Afghan national police response unit, which investigates domestic violence and provides support to female victims of crime. DfID has made tackling violence against women and girls a strategic priority for its work in Afghanistan. It will make announcements in the near future on what more it can do to address this issue. As my noble friend is aware, this issue is incredibly close to the Foreign Secretary’s heart in terms of preventing sexual violence in conflict.

In conclusion, the Government have made long-term commitments to Afghanistan’s future through financial aid and political support. In return, we expect to see clear progress from the Afghan Government on a range of issues, including on human rights. UK support to the women of Afghanistan will remain long after our combat forces withdraw. Afghanistan has come a long way since 2001 but we are not going to be complacent. We know that it still has a long way to go.

I can assure this House that the British Government will continue to support Afghanistan as it continues on this journey. On a very personal basis, it was part of my maiden speech and I am sure that it will be part of many more speeches and debates in this House. We owe it to the women of Afghanistan to keep this matter on the agenda by ensuring that this House continues to discuss these issues.

Committee adjourned at 5.45 pm.