I beg to move,
That this House has considered the detention of Jagtar Singh Johal.
It is good to see you, Mr Hollobone, in the Chair and to see that so many Members have been able to join us, either physically or virtually. Members joining the debate today, either here in the Boothroyd Room or online, will be glad to hear first that I intend to keep my contribution relatively short today. I only really have one question to ask the Minister, and I think that Jagtar’s case will be best served by allowing other diverse voices from across these islands to speak on his behalf and to demonstrate to the UK Government that there will be no let-up until Jagtar is released.
Let us get to my question for the Minister, which I will ask again when I sum up: why have the UK Government deemed that Jagtar Singh Johal’s detention is not an arbitrary one? Of course, many other questions today will flow from this one and I am sure that we will hear it being asked in other guises over the next hour. But the Crown’s Minister must answer it.
I have raised the case of Jagtar Singh Johal with Ministers almost 20 times since my first point of order about it on 15 November 2017. The week after that, I first raised it at Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions, when the allegation of torture was still fresh. The House of Commons was told by the then Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who was responsible for consular policy, that
“We will work very closely to investigate the matter and will, of course, take extreme action if a British citizen is being tortured.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 858.]
That Minister is no longer in the Government—indeed, he is no longer even a member of the Conservative party. Nevertheless, when a Minister speaks from the Dispatch Box, we should be assured that their words will be believed. I still remember my own surprise that day at hearing the use of the words “extreme action”, but both the Singh Johal family and I would be content right now with a simple ruling of arbitrary detention and for the concomitant obligations to kick in.
I have spoken at length about many aspects of this case on many occasions, most notably in an Adjournment debate on the first anniversary of Jagtar’s detention on 27 November 2018. I do not intend to go over too much of that material again, but it is worth remembering how this case began.
Jagtar was a young man from Dumbarton, fresh from his wedding that week, who was enjoying his time with his new bride in Jalandhar, until suddenly a group of unidentifiable men in plain clothes leapt from a van, hit him and took him away. I am sure that we can all appreciate the terror and helplessness that his wife must have experienced in that moment—it would be unimaginable. The next few days, as Jagtar was held incommunicado, must have seemed like an eternity. Allegations of torture—and more recently, the reality of covid in an overcrowded maximum security prison half a world away—have weighed heavily on the family. I must say that their resilience in the face of this ordeal has been extraordinary.
By my reckoning, Jagtar has now been detained for 1,335 days without any substantial charges being brought in the case—that is coming up to four years. We know that the FCDO had been looking at a designation of arbitrary detention and, from conversations with Ministers of all levels, we know that they have been thinking about this for some time. This issue must surely have grown more recently. In January, we were glad of the estimation made by the charity Redress that Jagtar’s detention was an arbitrary one, and even more so when a cross-party group of 140 MPs signed a letter to the Foreign Secretary asking him to ensure that the FCDO intervenes to secure Jagtar’s release, as he himself is on record restating the policy quite recently.
Given that it is the opinion of Reprieve and Redress and their legal counsel that Jagtar’s detention is a clear breach of categories 1 to 4 of the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention’s definition, I again ask the Minister why the UK Government do not share that view. I expect the Minister to speak about many of the things that the UK Government have been doing for Jagtar, so please let me put on the record—I also do so on behalf of the family—that the work of the FCDO staff, both in post and in the prisoner policy and human rights team of the consular directorate here in London, has been immense. There has been immense support for the family and myself. They have diligently undertaken all that has been asked of them—and gone above and beyond on occasion, as I am sure they will know. I am only sorry that convention does not allow me to thank them by name.
However, these are civil servants who pursue their work through a framework established by their political masters. It would be remiss of me not to mention some of the issues that FCDO Ministers have either allowed to pass by or should immediately seek to remedy, beginning with the failure to ensure that an independent medical examination was undertaken to establish the facts around the allegations of torture made by Jagtar against the Punjabi police. There is the continuing lack of private consular visits, and the continuing reluctance of the Secretary of State specifically to meet with Jagtar’s family and myself, as his predecessor did. Finally, there is the decision of the Prime Minister not to raise Jagtar’s case with Prime Minister Modi when they last spoke virtually in April.
Taken together, these issues tell me that we have a group of FCDO civil servants who are ready and able to implement Government policy, but senior Ministers who are reluctant to escalate representations beyond simply raising them with the Indian Government officials. If they can do so with Governments of other countries where UK nationals are arbitrarily detained, why can they not do so with the Republic of India? Doing so would not be intervening in the internal affairs of the Republic of India unnecessarily. I have been clear from the start of this case that all we ask for is transparent due process and rule of law. When at least two of these elements are missing, as was so clearly demonstrated at Jagtar’s 161st pre-trial hearing today, it is my responsibility as his local MP to ask why. Neither the Singh Johal family nor myself is asking for the “extreme action” that, as I mentioned, we were promised by the UK Government at the start of this process: we are asking them only to recognise an obvious fact.
This week, Jagtar was able to speak by video call with his brother for the first time since his incarceration. He was as good as could be expected under the circumstances, but most of all he wondered when he would get to see his family again in the flesh. That was a sobering moment for me. Jagtar Singh Johal is a husband, a son, a grandson, a brother, an uncle, and a son of the Rock of Dumbarton. He is arbitrarily detained in India. Why can the United Kingdom Government not recognise that? Let us get Jaggi released: let us bring him back to Scotland and let him see his family.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
While in India for his wedding on 4 November 2017, British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal was shopping with his newly wedded wife when he was bound, hooded and bundled into a car by plain-clothed police officers. Leaving his wife with no explanation why he had been taken, Jagtar was taken into police custody and denied his right to see a lawyer, family members or a representative from the British high commission. Once imprisoned, Jagtar reported being tortured by police. He said crocodile clips were placed on him, with electricity fired through his body. Such was the severity of the torture that Jagtar had to be carried out of the interrogation room. To make the pain stop, Jagtar reports that he was forced to confess to the alleged conspiracies.
Why has he faced these basic violations of his rights? Prior to his arrest, Jagtar was involved in raising awareness of human rights abuses against India’s Sikh population. Human rights organisation Reprieve fears that he has been targeted for exercising freedom of expression and his right to it. It has already cost him four years in prison without trial. He has endured torture and now there is a real risk that confessions extracted through torture could be used to sentence him to the death penalty. Jagtar now languishes in prison, where mass covid-19 outbreaks have triggered calls for states to protect vulnerable prisoners.
In the face of these humans rights abuses, what have the British Government done? Rather than standing up for the rights of British nationals overseas, they have failed to follow Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office policy to lobby for arbitrarily detained UK nationals overseas, and ignored calls from myself and 139 colleagues earlier this year to do precisely that. The Government have even failed to secure an independent medical assessment of Jagtar to judge the severity and extent of torture, and to secure private consular visits with him for over three years. The Foreign Secretary has failed to meet with Jagtar’s family and despite calls from human rights organisations to raise the issue, the Prime Minister failed to challenge Indian Prime Minister Modi on Jagtar’s detention and treatment in a meeting in April.
This is a shameful dereliction of duty, Mr Hollobone: a pattern of what is happening in India and how the British Government are failing to stand up for human rights. In recent years in India, there have been a growing number of arrests of humans rights defenders, student leaders, trade unionists, journalists, and others critical of the ruling Government. In occupied Kashmir in 2019, the Indian Government unilaterally revoked articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this important debate and for his tireless efforts.
Many residents in my constituency are deeply concerned about Jagtar’s continued detention. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Sikhs, I know the ongoing work that that group has done. In a previous Parliament, I spent an extraordinary amount of time lobbying for the release of my constituent Billy Irving, wrongly detained for years in an Indian jail. I know the horrendous impact of that ordeal on his family and can imagine that the impact on Jagtar Singh Johal’s family is similarly huge.
Let us remember that Jagtar was taken from the street where he was walking with his new wife, who was not even given an explanation for her husband’s detention. They had just got married and were looking forward to their future home in Scotland. Even more concerning now is the analysis by his legal counsel in India confirming that he faces a possible death sentence on at least three of the charges levelled against him. Forced confession, allegedly extracted through torture, is the primary evidence on which these death penalty charges are based, so his fair trial rights have been gravely violated and detention is clearly arbitrary. Despite the fact that the UK Government’s policy is to lobby for the release of arbitrarily detained British nationals overseas, the Foreign Secretary has not yet done so in Jagtar’s case. I would like to hear from the Minister why the UK Government have failed to implement their own policy on arbitrarily detained British citizens.
Of course, we are looking at all this through a particular prism, because covid puts an urgent complexion on everything. I can only imagine the anxiety that Jagtar and his family face knowing that he is so far from them—with covid rife and them unable to do a thing to keep him safe. He is in a horrifically overcrowded prison. Even though the state government has recognised the challenges that covid is causing and recently sanctioned the emergency release of thousands of prisoners—even those accused of murder—Jagtar was not included and remains incarcerated.
I applaud all the efforts of the family and of the all-party parliamentary group on British Sikhs, and I applaud the sterling work of Sikhs in Scotland and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire and others who have been working on this issue. So much effort has been expended, but what we really need is action in India. For that to happen, we urgently need this UK Government to take these issues on board, to listen and to act. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I am here because of my personal concern about Mr Johal, but also because of the scale of representation that I have received from my constituents. The Government need to recognise the truly immense worry in our own country about this case. People are concerned because they have witnessed how Mr Johal can be picked up in this way, detained and deprived of his liberty. They feel that if it can happen to him, it can happen to any one of them, especially those who have raised real fears, concerns and criticisms about the current Indian Government’s human rights practices.
Those of us with family connections to India have immense affection for the country and its people. It pains me to see the reputational damage that has been caused to India by the actions of its Government in relation to Mr Johal’s case. I just want to ask a few basic questions about where our Government go from here.
First, in the light of the failure of their representations on Mr Johal’s case so far, can the Minister explain to us the strategy the Government will now pursue for effective representations from our Government directly to the Indian Government? Secondly, can the Minister explain their strategy to co-ordinate the representations from other countries and international bodies in order to create a climate of opinion that will, hopefully, force the Indian Government to act? What is the strategy to co-ordinate the work of human rights bodies to investigate and report on the adherence or non-adherence to basic human rights standards by the Indian authorities in relation to this case? Finally, if there are continued delays, what sanctions are the Government now prepared to take—politically, diplomatically, and if necessary economically—to either secure the release of Mr Johal or at least ensure that justice is done in this case?
There is a sense of frustration now within our own communities at the failure of the Government to act decisively. That is undermining confidence that our Government will actually protect their citizens when they travel abroad. I urge the Government strongly to listen to the representations that have been made so eloquently today, which I fully agree with, and to act. For goodness’ sake, we need speedy action on this appalling case.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on bringing it forward. When he had an Adjournment debate on this case some time ago, I was there to support him, and I am here today to do the same thing.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The Sikhs are one of our stakeholders, and I want to put that on the record. I have come here to support them.
It is tragic that yet again we are debating the violation of an individual’s human rights. The fact that Jagtar Singh Johal was detained—kidnapped, basically—from the street by balaclava-covered men, thrown in a van, taken to a prison cell, tortured and forced to sign a confession is absolutely unbelievable. I am my party’s spokesperson on human rights as well, so I am here to register my support for the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire and his constituent.
We live in an age in which most of the major human rights treaties—there are nine core treaties—have been ratified by the vast majority of countries, but it seems that yet again the human rights agenda has fallen short. This case involves a British national—one of ours—and his family, for whom we must stand up and speak out. Why have the Minister and the FCDO refused to meet with Jagtar Singh Johal’s family?
Mr Johal has been detained without evidence of any wrongdoing. India is the world’s largest democracy and is rarely considered to be among the major human rights-violating nations, yet Mr Johal has been subjected to torture and forced to sign false confessions while being held in a prison that is now suffering an outbreak of coronavirus. The Indian Government must be held to account. What actions has the Minister’s Department taken to protect Mr Johal, given his pre-existing health conditions, following the outbreak of coronavirus in Tihar prison? Do they include an independent medical examination and psychological evaluation? It is really important that we give the same treatment to all our citizens wherever they are in the world.
The prohibition of extrajudicial torture and killings is fundamental to human rights law. I acknowledge that the appalling treatment has been done not as a matter of official policy, but as a matter of practice, which is even worse. It is unacceptable that the Indian authorities are ignoring international legal obligations regarding torture and detention despite a lack of evidence. Is the Minister aware the Mr Johal is under the threat of the death penalty? What actions has his Department taken since learning of this situation?
India has a judicial system in which the process must be that if suspected criminals are formally charged, they appear in court. Courts might be slow and underfunded and police might be under pressure to convict, but that is no excuse to employ inhumane and degrading treatment of those in custody. That must not be accepted or tolerated.
We are sending that message to the Indian Government from this House today. I hope the Minister will do the same. India is clearly in breach of article 9 of the universal declaration of human rights. We must be told what actions have been taken by the Government at the United Nations to raise g the case of Mr Jagtar Singh Johal. I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire again. We speak today for someone who is one of ours, who has been mistreated and is under threat of the death penalty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As the shadow Minister who has been lobbying the Government on this issue, I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this vital debate about his constituent Mr Jagtar Singh Johal. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for their important contributions.
The Labour party is deeply concerned about the Indian police’s incarceration of British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been held without trial for more than three and a half years. Although the Labour party does not involve itself in the internal matters of other countries, we will always stand up for human rights, democracy and international law everywhere, and we will always stand up for British citizens wherever we feel that their rights and freedoms are being violated. We value our country’s long-standing relationship with India, which we see as an important partner in the decades ahead on trade, security, climate change and, critically, the joint promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law. However, a strong relationship is worth having only if it means that each Government are able to engage frankly with the other and to challenge each other and take robust positions wherever necessary.
That brings me to the issue we are discussing, which is the deeply troubling case of a UK citizen incarcerated for more than 1,300 days without trial, and with the threat of the death penalty looming over him. Jagtar’s story is heartbreaking, as has been the experience of his wife and wider family, not least his brother, whom I have had the privilege of meeting on a number of occasions over the past year. We have all heard the facts of the case, and they are deeply disturbing for all manner of reasons. It is also worth noting that the United Nations shares our concern. On 29 January 2018, the UN working group on arbitrary detention, the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the special rapporteur on torture sent an urgent representation to the Indian Government. It expressed concerns over the lack of detail on the factual and legal basis for Mr Johal’s arrest and detention, and it questioned the measures that are being taken by the Indian authorities to safeguard him from torture. On 9 November 2019, the United Nations working group and special rapporteurs sent an urgent representation to the Indian Government, insisting that there had been over two years of delay through an unfair legal process, and that the Indian Government must provide the right to due process, a fair trial and independent medical examination, yet there has still been no movement towards either a fair trial or Jagtar’s release.
Given the facts of the case and those UN interventions, I find it astonishing that the Foreign Secretary has refused to meet the family and that the Government Minister responsible in the other place has refused on two occasions to answer my questions on whether the case amounts to arbitrary detention—first, in a letter that I sent to him last autumn, and then in a letter in January of this year, which took the Government three months to reply to. I therefore ask the Minister today whether the Government recognise Jagtar’s incarceration as a clear case of arbitrary detention. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has made it clear that in death penalty cases where the detainee is detained on spurious grounds as a political statement, or in circumstances of clear human rights violations, the detainee’s country should make representations to the detaining state that the detainee should not be in detention or facing charges at all. Are the UK Government acting on that guidance? Do the UK Government intend to implement their own policy?
Three and a half years is more than enough time to gather evidence and bring a case to trial. Jagtar’s continued incarceration is a clear and obvious breach of international human rights law. He is clearly a victim of arbitrary detention and as such should be released immediately. The UK Government must also remind the Indian authorities that international human rights law prohibits the reliance on evidence that has been gathered under torture. Jagtar and his family have been through far too much already. Today is the moment for the UK Government to demonstrate that they are genuinely committed to standing up for a British citizen whose human rights are being violated.
As ever, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this very important debate, and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing it. I pay tribute to him for his tenacious support for his constituent Mr Johal since his arrest in India. I am also grateful for the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members who have been in contact with the Foreign Office, either in writing or through formats such as this, and I will try to respond to the points raised in my remarks.
Before coming to Mr Johal’s specific case, I will set out our consular policy in general terms. Clearly, consular assistance is central to our work at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year our staff endeavour to give advice and practical support to all British nationals overseas and their families here in the UK. We aim to treat every consular case with equal importance and tailor our help to the individual circumstances of each person who is in need of our support, in normal times and in times of crisis. For example, from March to July 2020, the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office ran a repatriation operation unprecedented in the post-war era. We were proud to be able to return 38,000 people on 186 charter flights from 57 countries and territories back to the UK, as well as enabling 1.3 million British nationals to return via commercial routes.
The Government do not have, and have never had, a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad, because our ability to provide consular assistance is always dependent on other states adhering to the Vienna convention on consular relations and the laws of that host country. Consequently, a right to consular assistance in English law would not help those caught up in complex consular cases. In a similar vein, the FCDO does not seek preferential treatment for British nationals. We do not and, as we have heard from several hon. Members, must not interfere in civil and criminal court proceedings. It is absolutely right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws when they are in the United Kingdom.
Our policy in respect of how to engage on complex detention cases, such as that of Mr Johal, is clear: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office makes no judgment on the innocence or guilt of any British national who is detained overseas. Our priority is always the welfare of the UK national concerned. We look to ensure that they are receiving food, water and medical treatment, and that they have access to legal advice. With their permission, we can raise concerns about mistreatment or torture with the prison authorities, and request an independent investigation into any such allegations.
We will always consider making representations to the local authorities if detainees are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards, including if trials are unreasonably delayed compared with local cases, and as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire will know, we have provided Mr Johal and his family with extensive consular support since his arrest in 2017. We will continue to do so until this case has been resolved. That resolution must include an independent investigation into Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and mistreatment, and the transparent progress of judicial proceedings against him.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising a really important point. I have had discussions about this not just with the Lord Chancellor, but with the President of the Supreme Court. We have agreed a common set of principles that should apply. The challenge is whether, by removing UK judges wholesale, we would actually be removing a moderating impact on the way in which the national security legislation is applied. I hope the hon. Lady will know that the Hong Kong Bar and other countries around the world have suggested to us that they would prefer those international judges to stay. With one narrow exception, I do not think that any other country has removed its judges. We are very much seized of the issue, and I hope that my answer demonstrates that.
That is a great question. Of course, we live in hope; I always want the door to be open on this and other issues where we want to engage. What I would like to see is either for China to moderate its action, or—if it contests that this is all fake news and nonsense—for it to allow Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to go in and verify the facts. That would seem, under all international auspices, a fair and reasonable way to determine the accuracy of all the allegations that have been made.
The hon. Member is right to mention Tibet. He knows the answer in terms of Magnitsky sanctions. We are very concerned about the human rights situation in Tibet, where there are restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, assembly and association, as well as reports of forced labour. We are urging China to respect all fundamental rights across the People’s Republic of China, including in Tibet, in line both with China’s own constitution and with the international framework to which it is a party.
My hon. Friend is right to push this point and, of course, we are constantly reviewing our regime, as he knows. We have raised our concerns directly and with our international partners, and it is no mean feat to have increased the number of countries signed up to our declaration in the manner in which we have over the past year.
I am happy to write to the right hon. Lady with the specific numbers that we have, but as I have said, our focus has been first and foremost on prosecuting in the region—where that is possible, that seems to be the right thing to do on jurisdictional grounds and for the victims—but also when they return. I will see whether we have the breakdown of numbers that she wants and write to her, if I may.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is not just a strategic danger; we also have to think of the vulnerable people who are at risk. We are working closely with all our partners. Of course, those camps are a target not just militarily but for the warped propaganda and narrative that Daesh and others seek to sow.
I thank the hon. Lady for the points that she has made. As she knows, coronavirus has, in the UK and around the rest of the world, had severe and detrimental effect on our economies, and this will have an impact on our aid spend. Nevertheless, Yemen will remain a UK priority country, and we will continue to use the full force of our diplomatic efforts to bring about peace. I am also glad that she raised the importance of women peacebuilders. I myself have spoken—virtually, unfortunately—with women in Yemen. I am the ministerial lead for women, peace and security, and I have on numerous occasions called for the voices of women in Yemen and further afield to be right at the heart of decision making about peacebuilding. I will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we have seen recent news about long-range attacks by the Houthis on Riyadh and, as I mentioned in my response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the use of child soldiers is of very significant concern. Ultimately, the best way to address both those problems is to bring about peace in Yemen as quickly as possible, and that will absolutely be a priority in the work that we do. We fully support Martin Griffiths and the UN-led peace process, and we speak directly with regional partners, with the Government of Yemen and with the Houthis directly to encourage them to the negotiating table to bring about a political solution, because that is really the only sustainable way of protecting the very people that my hon. Friend has identified.
We have taken action. We have led international action; we have targeted measures, as announced in January; we will continue to work closely with our partners and lead international efforts to hold China to account, including by working with the new Administration in the United States; and I can tell the hon. Lady we are carefully considering further Magnitsky designations on the Chinese regime and keeping all the evidence and the potential listings under close review.
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. If China has nothing to hide and claims again today that these allegations are false, there is absolutely no excuse for unfettered access not being granted to the UN human rights commissioner, and we have constantly called for that to happen.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of sexual abuse and exploitation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. When we think of overseas aid workers, we imagine altruistic individuals using their skills to provide essential support to people in need across the world, often with little compensation or formal recognition. Peacekeepers, especially those from the United Nations, also enjoy a favourable public image associated as they are with reducing fatalities and helping communities damaged by conflict to rebuild and recover. When they perform their roles correctly, they represent the best of humanity but when they abuse their positions of responsibility, they harm their relations with the host country population, jeopardise peacekeeping and development efforts and leave victims behind, damaged and with no idea of where to obtain redress. I intend for this debate to focus on how to protect the victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers and prevent further victims from being made in the future.
The involvement of international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers in sexual exploitation and abuse and the difficulties experienced by their victims in obtaining redress has been known about for years. To provide some examples from the Select Committee on International Development report on “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector” published in 2018, I point to the revelations in 2002 about children being abused in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. In 2007-08, the vast majority of surveyed victims of sexual exploitation in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand said they did not know where or how to report their abuse. Last month, staff from a variety of organisations, including the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, Oxfam and World Vision were discovered to have exploited and abused girls and women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is going on again, again and again.
Host countries damaged by poverty and war naturally have displaced people and it is not the case the peacekeepers and overseas aid workers are merely passive participants in the effects of deprivation and misery in host countries. Sometimes their arrival can actively create the problems. A note by the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1996 entitled “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” concluded:
“In six out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children during armed conflict, the arrival of peace-keeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”
Most obviously international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers have access to money, food, supplies and other resources that enable them to exercise influence over the population of the host country. This influence is frequently used improperly—for example, to obtain transactional sex. Women sometimes even have to sell their young daughters for food and supplies. That may be shocking but the fact that it happens just shows how desperate the victims are.
As I said at the beginning, overseas aid workers and international peacekeepers have incredibly important roles supporting the most vulnerable across the world. When they engage in sexual exploitation and abuse, they undermine the trust of the people they are meant to protect and of the people who support them at home. Public trust in charities has fallen since these matters were reported, so have donations. Ultimately, sexual exploitation and abuse undermine the efforts of those workers who conduct themselves properly.
Reading the reports of historical sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers, and the responses of organisations involved, provides a sense of déjà vu. First, there are the apologies, often expressed in general terms about falling short of standards, which are undefined. Secondly, there are frequent platitudes about “lessons being learned” and the interests of victims being at the forefront while ultimately inconclusive investigations are commissioned. During that stage, the perpetrators can be allowed to resign quietly and are free to take employment with another organisation operating in a different country, where they continue their abusive behaviour. Thirdly, there is a gradual loss of interest in the issue until, in five or six years’ time, the exact same thing happens again and the same people make the same excuses. That complacency has led to the trend of the last three decades and it must stop.
While ever I am on a Committee looking at how the aid budget is spent on behalf of our taxpayers, I will keep asking the questions that many do not want asked, which I have been doing since I first heard about this shocking problem at the world humanitarian summit in 2016 in Istanbul. I heard about the problem at one of the fringe meetings, where panellists from several different countries discussed the problem and admitted that nothing could be done about it. From that moment on, I asked about it in almost every IDC evidence session until it was recognised that something had to be done, but only when the Oxfam and Save the Children scandal happened was I finally taken seriously.
There are already fears in the current IDC that the latest round of complacency has arrived. In the evidence session on 7 May 2019, we were given an assurance by Frances Longley, then chief executive of Amref Health Africa UK, who said:
“As a sector, we are passionately committed to making that reporting better and more effective, and we absolutely stand side by side with you on that.”
But I wonder what is actually happening. Tracey Smith, then chief executive of British Expertise International, stated:
“The companies have shared best practice. They have looked at the way the sector operates. They have collaborated together, but it is felt that those specific, strategic issues, the support for survivors, cultural change, minimum standards, organisational capacity and capability, are covered by the code of conduct.”
Passion, collaboration and discussion do not produce results and will certainly not do so if they fall back on a vague code of conduct that has hitherto abjectly failed to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable women and girls across the world.
Three problems must be addressed to discourage potential abusers from exploiting women and girls and to support those who have been abused. They relate to reporting, investigation and whistleblowing. Victims of sexual exploitation and abuse encounter significant problems when they attempt to report their experiences. Many different legal regimes may operate in the context of international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers in mission host countries. There is international law, which often comes with immunity in respect of certain actions; the law of the perpetrator’s country, which may or may not provide redress; and the host country’s law, which cannot be reliable if the host country is in political turmoil.
Generally, victims lack the expertise to pursue their cases without legal assistance, and of course they lack the ability to pay for that legal assistance unless they rely on those organisations that may have been responsible for their abuse in the first instance. Different organisations have different structures and complaints procedures, and there may be so many operating in one area that it is impossible to know which the abuser belongs to. Reporting rape and sexual assault is difficult in the best of places, but as Professor Andrew MacLeod stated in the IDC’s evidence session on 6 October this year, in the context of host countries,
“It is like asking the victim of rape to report to the rapist”.
Often, the women or girls cannot read, so notices that we have been assured are pinned up for the victims to read go unread and therefore the complicated systems for reporting such abuse are a complete waste of time.
This situation is not improved by the behaviours of the institutions involved. In the evidence session on 6 October, Sienna Merope-Synge characterised the “practical reality” of the UN’s assistance as
“usually a black hole of information; that is the standard. At best it may be some charitable crumbs to the victim that is not based on an acknowledgement of legal rights and responsibility.”
In the minority of cases that are reported to the organisation involved, there is no guarantee that effective remedial action will be taken against the perpetrators, even when they are known and identified.
The Oxfam scandal of 2018 is probably the best known example of that. After an investigation by The Times in February of that year, it emerged that senior staff in Oxfam’s mission to Haiti, including the Belgian country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, had hired prostitutes at a villa rented by the charity. An internal investigation commenced, in which several of the abusers admitted using “prostitutes”. The internal report concluded that there was a culture of impunity among Oxfam staff and that some of the “prostitutes” could have been under age, yet that report remained confidential. The perpetrators were allowed to resign and the details disclosed to the Charity Commission were inadequate.
Shockingly, The Times reported that Dame Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam at that time, offered van Hauwermeiren a “dignified exit”, because sacking him would have had potentially serious implications for the charity’s reputation. In other words, Oxfam was more concerned with looking good than doing good, and acquiesced in one of its top staff members enjoying all the acclaim of his position while performing none of his responsibilities towards the vulnerable people he was meant to protect. He had already been investigated for inappropriate sexual activity in 2011, when he had worked for Merlin, but he had been allowed to resign and go to another job elsewhere.
In numerous evidence sessions to the IDC, it has become apparent that the problem is not exclusive to Oxfam. Nevertheless, what I want to know is why they believe that women or girls are “prostitutes” rather than victims. How many people in this Chamber went to school with somebody who said, “When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute?” Exactly: these women or girls are victims, as are all sex workers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I think that the problem with character references is that those giving them can be sued, and they often have to be public. Often, the person applying for a job has to know what has been said in their character reference, which I feel is completely wrong. Very often, what someone has done is known about, but they resign before the end of the investigation into their activity, which means there is no blot on their copybook; nobody knows about their behaviour and they move on. That is a serious problem and I hope that we will hear from the Minister as to how he will address it.
Reporting sexual exploitation and abuse is often discouraged by those organisations that do not have transparent structures. Many whistleblowers, having approached the media or other organisations, are summarily dismissed and unable to work again in a similar role. These are not isolated examples; there are many examples.
One recent example that attracted notoriety is that of Anders Kompass, a former employee of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2014, he approached French authorities regarding sexual exploitation and abuse that he had learned about by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. He was suspended for not having gone through the formality of asking his superior for guidance before whistleblowing and for including personal details of the victims in his report. He was later exonerated by an independent panel. The UN’s allegations were spurious. However, six years later the investigations into the allegations against the French peacekeepers have still not been completed. It is often difficult to avoid the impression that organisations complicit in sexual exploitation and abuse are more concerned with protecting themselves than with punishing the perpetrators, with scant regard for the victims. Given the difficulties at every stage, from perpetration and reporting to whistleblowing and investigating to obtain redress, fundamental changes must be implemented to ensure the safety of women and girls in the world’s most deprived areas. We must not forget that it is a problem for a few boys as well, although a much smaller number than for girls.
Currently, frontline aid workers do not require Disclosure and Barring Service checks to operate in host countries. DBS checks ensure that people working with children and vulnerable adults do not have a history of abuse, which is an effective move towards protection. Since overseas aid workers support mainly very vulnerable children and adults, a requirement that they obtain DBS checks or something similar might improve the situation. There is an aid worker registration scheme that would prevent perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse from moving around the sector after their abuse has been detected. The scheme could be made effective if donors and Governments were encouraged to make their donations conditional on an organisation being a member of the scheme.
Twenty-one of the 30 major donors that form the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD have agreed to pilot the scheme. Regular reporting of safeguarding and misconduct data would also ensure that victims are actively sought out rather than expected to report their abuse to organisations that, understandably, they do not trust. The establishment of an ombudsman by the international aid community could reduce the complexity of legal systems and complaints procedures that contribute to the chronic under-reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse. Such abuse by peacekeepers and overseas aid workers is an appalling fact of life for vulnerable people in the world’s most deprived and war-torn areas. It is thought that because sexual exploitation and abuse of under-age children has been tackled primarily in the churches, particularly in this country through the Scouting and Guiding groups and all those other places where it was happening, many of the perpetrators are gravitating towards the aid sector because they can go abroad where they are anonymous and can get away not with murder, but with sexual exploitation and abuse. My hope is that effective reforms will be implemented to improve the situation and that the victims are not simply forgotten, as they have been time and again.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) was the Secretary of State for the Department for International Development, she had an international summit just across the road, where many of us present believed that much would be done and achieved as a result of a spotlight on the problem. Things have changed, but nowhere near enough. The whole culture must change, not only to ensure that proper reporting is done, but to stop men’s abuse of women and girls. Men need to know that there is absolutely no tolerance of such behaviour, and that if it happens they will be sacked immediately and will be unlikely to get another job where they have access to the most vulnerable.
I wish to ask the Minister what solutions the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has come up with to ensure that this country does not in future become complicit in any form of sexual exploitation and abuse of anyone, never mind the most vulnerable people in the world. What will the Department do to stop it from happening again and again? How does the new, mighty Department plan to follow on from the female Secretaries of State for DFID?
I apologise for my tardiness this morning, Mr Hollobone; I got a little over-excited with the one-way system. I am incredibly grateful to follow in the wake of my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). I use the word “wake” determinedly and decidedly, because she has really ploughed a way that the rest of us have followed. I can honestly say that the work of the International Development Committee has been led by her championing this, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
The IDC first started to work on this topic in February 2018, following the Haiti scandal. I am really glad that the Government took this seriously and, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, held the summit. We had high hopes for that, and I speak of my optimism both as someone who has campaigned for child protection and now as the Chair of the IDC. The non-governmental organisations took up the challenge led by the umbrella organisation, Bond, that put in place training, policies and lots of resources. The UK NGOs saw this as an opportunity to better their practice and get on top of the issues.
Unfortunately, what we have seen is an endless cycle of scandals leading to policy change, rather than work to address the actual problem that is obvious to all of us if we only take the time to look. It is quite simple—people who prey on the vulnerable go to where the vulnerable are. We have seen big movements within faith organisations and children’s organisations to prohibit and prevent this sort of behaviour, to call it out and to prosecute, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
I am, however, shocked that the aid sector is probably 20 or 30 years behind that. The culture that existed, for example, in faith organisations, still exists within the aid sector. They see themselves as doing good work, as being virtuous, and think that everyone is there for the right reasons, so they do not dig down into the fact that perhaps a very small minority is there for very, very wrong reasons.
Abuse can always happen where there is a power imbalance. By very definition, aid workers work with the most vulnerable people on the planet. The IDC is currently running an inquiry into the sexual exploitation of beneficiaries by aid workers, and I have discovered that there is a very unpleasant layering of racism, colonialism, and deep, deep sexism coming from the aid workers to the beneficiaries. We have to challenge this. We really need to see the Government stepping back onto this platform.
I spoke to a number of women aid workers who belong to a Facebook group that they set up when one of them was raped and did not know where to turn. There are now 8,000 women aid workers in that Facebook support group. They set it up to support one another when they were sexually harassed and abused by their colleagues, but when I spoke to them about the beneficiaries they said, “Of course it is going on there. If they do it to us, of course they are going to be doing it to the beneficiaries, where there is even less comeback or awareness and the power imbalance is even greater.” They described it as the wild west: these men—and it is almost exclusively men—coming in as saviours on their white horses, but now they tend to be white UN Hummers and Land Cruisers.
I want to focus a little bit on the UN, because a lot of the abuse we are seeing is by UN peacekeepers. We are very grateful that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF appeared before our Committee. They are the two branches of the UN that have been on the front foot in trying to address abuses in the system. However, there are many branches to the UN and unfortunately the abuse is repeated time and again. It should not be. In 2013, a UN investigation declared sexual exploitation and abuse
“the most significant risk to UN peacekeeping missions, above and beyond other key risks including protection of civilians”.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself asserted that “a single substantiated case” of SEA
“involving UN personnel is one case too many”.
Yet civilian and military personnel associated with peacekeeping operations continue to perpetrate sexual exploitation and abuse, despite the development of policy frameworks designed to prevent it and hold perpetrators to account. However, the cycle of abuse—oh, shock!—and action, rather than focusing on prevention, is the reason we are constantly in this loop; and it is a loop and has been going on since that statement. Haiti continued from 2004 to 2017, with peacekeepers stationed there trading sex with children for food, and dozens of women left pregnant from rape.
I have discovered that there is almost a currency exchange going on. I speak to different peacekeepers and aid workers in camps around the world, and it is standard: “If you want a tarpaulin, I spend the night with your daughter.” That is the exchange that we are allowing to be perpetuated. From 2013 to 2015 in Central African Republic, more than 108 cases were investigated, including the sexual abuse of women and children. Twenty-six peacekeepers, from France, Chad and Equatorial Guinea, were accused of forcing children into acts of bestiality. Human Rights Watch also documented gang rapes by armed UN peacekeepers near the base where women were scrabbling around looking for food. They were then threatened with death if they reported it.
In 2017 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, UN peacekeepers were accused of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation, accounting for roughly a third of all allegations against peacekeepers in 2017. Women, again, were left pregnant and forced to care for children on their own. Video from Tel Aviv in 2020 shows a woman straddling a man in the back seat of a vehicle from the UN Truce Supervision Organisation unit.
The reason it keeps on happening is that the focus is on the victims to report, and then on banning the perpetrators once they are discovered. It is just not realistic. In the DRC, one organisation had 23 reporting mechanisms, but they were not being used and it took journalists to uncover what was going on. We keep hearing, particularly of the UN, that there is a culture of impunity. The UN says that it has zero tolerance, but in the DRC, UN-marked vehicles were driving the perpetrators to hotels to “interview” the women for jobs. There was also a lot of hostility in DRC towards aid workers. Are we really surprised?
Yesterday, we had a session looking at the report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact on abuses carried out by peacekeepers, and it became clear that there was a lack of commitment in middle management, leading to that feeling of impunity. There is no regulatory body for the UN. The UK could push for that. Transactional sex versus sexual exploitation: there is allowed to be a grey area for what is or is not acceptable. Let us just say that sex with any beneficiary is not acceptable. The UN’s whistleblower protection is, to be honest, useless.
We need an independent mechanism to give confidence to victims. To make lasting change we need strong leadership. I say that, because I know the Minister can do this: he can give us that leadership and take personal responsibility for tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, and make it his priority. He can ensure that the UK uses its diplomatic ties with the UN and Governments around the world to start meaningful discussions on how we can get justice for victims and survivors.
Why does the UK not contribute to the UN trust fund in support of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse? As to prevention, mechanisms to prevent SEA and provide support for victims and survivors should be incorporated in the design of all aid programmes, and budgeted for, from the start. The Government should fund only aid organisations that can demonstrate how to militate against sexual exploitation and that that is integral in all of their work. Aid organisations should challenge the extreme power imbalances between the people delivering aid and the local populations receiving it. The Minister should be championing that and challenging those imbalances. I understand why we are shifting resources from the ongoing humanitarian crisis to the covid-19 response, but we still need to do the base work. The Government have put significant time, energy and resources into looking at the perpetrators and how to prevent them from working, but we need to put the same energy into preventing those abusers from having access to potential victims.
I echo the final point made by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire: we cannot expect victims to come forward and report. We need to be there on the ground—preventing, looking and, most importantly, listening. I have one final ask for the Minister, which is really simple. Currently, NGOs cannot access DBS checks. We need to expand what is classified as regulated activity, and then we can stop this parade of people going to exploit the most vulnerable in the world.
I congratulate the hon. Lady for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on bringing forward the case and presenting it so well. I almost feel in awe of those who have spoken before me, including the hon. Lady for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the right hon. Lady for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who both do incredible work in this department. I think we owe a debt to those three ladies in particular. I am not taking anything away from those who will speak after me, including the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). I just think that those three ladies have put a wonderful case and we thank them for their work. I am pleased to see the Minister. I am not quite sure whether this is an order, Mr Hollobone, but I think he might be at Westminster Hall more often than I am. It is good to see him.
You may be aware, Mr Hollobone, that I hail from what is not only the most beautiful country in the UK but the most generous. I say that factually: it is understood that Northern Ireland donates the most money per capita to charity than anywhere else in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are that sort of people. I am not taking away from anybody else, but that is what we do. The facts indicate that. I am a great believer in the need to help others. I am a well-known advocate in this place for retaining our international development funding and for using NGOs and Christian charities on the ground. I know many churches that do incredible work. They do it—I say this honestly—because they are generous people and they want to help. That is what it should all be about.
I was very shocked and saddened by reports of exploitation in Haiti by NGO workers. It is clear that, although it is good to use NGOs on the ground, we must be certain that there is no abuse on the ground. I read with dismay a number of briefings presented to me by different NGOs and by Bond, which represents a number of NGOs, indicating the serious response of charities to the thought that any of their staff, anywhere in the world, would take advantage of the most vulnerable people.
It makes my blood boil when I hear that those in power have used and abused their important positions for a loaf of bread. Would anyone here give someone a loaf of bread with a condition attached? No, we would not—or at least I would not, and neither would anyone else in this Chamber. We would give it to them because they wanted it. Would we give someone a tarpaulin because they wanted and needed it? Of course we would, and we would not attach a condition to it. Why is it that these people, including UN peacekeepers and some charity workers, are using their position in such an obscene, violent and criminal way? They are there to help; they are not there to abuse underage children. It absolutely shocks me to the core when I think of what those people have done. I tell you what—no, I cannot say what I was about to say; that would be wrong. I will just say this: let the law of the land take control and bring them to account.
Bond has suggested a number of ways in which we in this place can play our part. First, we should make safeguarding in aid and development a political priority, ensuring that core safeguarding is funded effectively through the grant and contracting processes. I say to the Minister that that is key. It is about making sure that those NGOs and charities have in place a methodology that makes these people accountable.
We need a requirement to ensure that new systems reach the most marginalised and invest in prevention. Bond states:
“In the past two years, increased resources have been dedicated to the development of policies, systems and structures, providing a sound platform for reports to be sensitively and effectively handled and responded to. A vital next step is to ensure that these new systems reach marginalised people in the communities in which NGOs are working.”
NGOs are on the frontline. They have a position of incredible responsibility, but they should be using it for the vulnerable people—for those people who need help. Just help them—do not take advantage of them. Bond adds that investment should go
“prevention, rather than waiting for people to speak up when the damage has been done”.
We also need UK legislation to widen the meaning of regulated activity. Perhaps legislation needs to be tweaked in order to provide an obligation for NGO workers to have DBS checks, and to require NGOs to report to the DBS any cases where harm has been caused, so that these individuals can be not just legally barred but made accountable in the courts of the land and prevented from working with children and at-risk people. Making such checks available to NGOs should be a priority, so I ask the Minister: how will that protection be provided? I know that he is going to reply to the debate, but speaking honestly and from the bottom of my heart, I think we all want that to be in place.
You have been clear about the time, Mr Hollobone, so I will conclude with this. There are many issues that we cannot control, but there are others that we can and we must sow them. This new way of doing things must take priority. We must put in place a new system of working in partnership with NGOs that goes beyond funding. Were direct Government workers to be found guilty of exploitation, we would make changes to prevent repeats. If that is our approach in this land, let us do it in other lands as well. I know that the responsibility for running these charities does not belong to us in this House, but we still have an obligation to make safeguarding changes that permeate through the NGOs, as we seek to ensure that every penny that we put into the charities helps people and does not abuse and exploit the vulnerable any further.
I will be brief. It is always a pleasure to honour my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I support what he has said and I deeply respect the contributions that have been made by other eminent Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I want to take a slightly different line, because I do not want to repeat what they have already said with such gravitas.
I want to focus for a moment on the abuse that has been suffered by women and girls in Pakistan, a country to which the UK pays an estimated £383,000 per day in aid. Many are very young girls from minority groups who are abducted, forcibly married and sexually abused—girls like Huma Younus, who was 14 at the time of her abduction, Maira Shahbaz, who was 14 at the time of hers, and Saneha Kinza Iqbal, who was 15. The list goes on. Research suggests that approximately 1,000 such girls, often from religious minorities, are abducted and sexually abused in Pakistan every year. Unfortunately, not many will see justice.
Should we really be paying a reported £383,000 per day in British taxpayers’ money by way of aid—that adds up to £2.8 billion over 20 years—to a country where the rights of so many women are trampled on, where the rights of minorities are ignored, and where there is no freedom of speech or belief, as enabled by Pakistan’s unacceptable blasphemy laws? Can we allow that to continue without calling it out at the highest level as part of the FCDO strategy and on the ground?
I want to talk a little bit more about Maira Shahbaz. The details come from Aid to the Church in Need, which I commend for its reliable information. I have had the privilege of working with that organisation for 10 years. Aged 14, Maira was abducted during the covid lockdown. She was taken from her home in Madina Town, Pakistan, in April this year. She was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men—a 14-year-old girl. Her life was suddenly turned upside down. She was filmed and photographed being raped and then forced to convert to Islam and marry one of her abductors. In a statement to the police, she said:
“They threatened to murder my whole family. They have also shown me my naked video and pictures which they have taken on their mobile while raping me.”
She was placed in a shelter for women and girls, but what is really shocking is that when her case was heard in court, the Lahore High Court judge determined that she should be returned to her abductor. She actually had to return to his home. Fortunately, however, she managed to escape. Her lawyer states:
“Maira’s life is in constant danger because she is condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters. Unless Maira and her family can leave Pakistan they will always be at risk of being killed.”
Aid to the Church in Need has launched a petition on her behalf. Her case is ongoing, but she is now forever in danger in her home country. There is the threat of honour killing. Extremists in Pakistan have said that they will kill her at the first chance. Her lawyer has said that men are looking for her, knocking on doors and asking for her whereabouts.
That is all happening while the UK Government continue to pay millions of taxpayers’ money to Pakistan. We need to ask some really important questions. What is being done to protect these vulnerable minority women and girls? How is some of the money being used to support them? What are our aid workers doing on the ground to address this issue? It is not a small issue—thousands of young women are affected. What challenges are our Government making to a judicial system that returns the abused to her abuser? Are the Government putting in place strategic plans to address the issue? To which projects does UK aid contribute to support these vulnerable women and girls? What effective challenges have been made by the UK Government against the utterly unjust blasphemy laws, so often cited to justify such atrocities? Why should such enormous amounts of money continue to be paid to a country that so blatantly fails to address such breaches in fundamental human rights?
First, I do not wish to condemn all aid workers, because there are some amazing aid workers out there. However, far too many are abusive to women and need to be stopped, so I am pleased to hear some of the things that the Minister has said.
I believe that whistleblowers need much more support. They need support to be able to come forward, and they do not need condemning, which has sometimes been the case. They also need to be guaranteed a job afterwards, because many of them come forward and never work again. It is a shocking state of affairs.
I thank all hon. Members present for their support. What I find most interesting is that two current members of the International Development Committee, and some past members, have spoken powerfully of the IDC. The other Back Benchers who have spoken have made excellent contributions. It is interesting that the Back Benchers we have heard from include four women and two men, whereas the Front Bench spokespersons are all men. That is not to decry their abilities or anything else, but one of the problems that we have in this debate is that there are not enough women at the top. There are not enough women leaders in charities and in peacekeeping areas—the men tend to rise to the top. It is important to accept that we need to ensure that more women are involved.
I would like to see no abuse happening. That is unlikely, but we need to make it much easier for people to come forward. I believe that victims will feel much more comfortable coming to talk to women than to men—that is just a fact of life.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure he will appreciate that we must continue to scrutinise the aid budget not just through FCDO, but through the other Departments, because who will look at that funding if there is no follow-on Committee from the IDC? It will be in nobody’s remit to do that, and it is important that somebody is watching out for sexual exploitation. We need to continue the IDC’s work not just on this issue, but on many others. Spending a large amount of taxpayers’ money needs scrutiny. In this case, it is vital that somebody is looking at it through the different Departments.
I thank the Minister very much for his assurance that things are happening in FCDO, but he has no influence, of course, over what happens in other Departments. It is vital to move on and move forward with the changes that have happened in his Department—
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reports of China’s rapid expansion of the labour programme in Tibet co-published by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. Having wiped my microphone, I feel like I am ready to go. Today’s debate is about the recent report on China’s rapid expansion of mass labour programmes in Tibet. This paper was co-published by a leading human rights adviser and scholar, Adrian Zenz, with a group that I am a member of called IPAC—the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China—and there are others in the room who are also part of that group. It includes both left and right parliamentarians in 17 countries who are concerned about the behaviour of China across a range of issues. As I say, Adrian Zenz is a scholar in this area, and he has previously published a paper with IPAC on the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women, and I will touch on that issue shortly.
Adrian Zenz has uncovered this material through existing Government papers. That is the interesting thing: none of this is secret. In a sense, it is quite open, and these Government papers spell out exactly what has been going on. The findings are shocking, although it is important to note that, with all the other debates about China, which I will touch on in my conclusion, Tibet has, funnily enough, been rather forgotten. It has been an issue for a while, and then it has disappeared, and nobody seems to talk about it. What this paper has done is reminded us that, over a longer period than for anything else, the Chinese authorities have been bearing down on the human rights of the indigenous population in Tibet.
The findings of the report are particularly interesting, because they show that there has been mandatory—I use this term advisedly—vocational training, which basically means driving out the sense of identity of the people in Tibet. Alongside these programmes, there are forcible labour transfer schemes. Those are slightly gentle words, but what they mean is that people are being taken from one place and put into camps, a bit like—well, a lot like—the Uyghurs we uncovered, who are forced to do hard labour in all sorts of areas and without proper pay or support.
Over half a million labourers were collected together into these camps in the first seven months of 2020. Local government officials are required by the Government to meet quotas for what they term recruitment to the scheme—it is nothing like any concept of recruitment that we might understand. It basically means that they have to get people in certain categories into those camps as quickly as they can. This process is overseen by strict military management, which includes enforced indoctrination and intrusive surveillance of participants. Labourers may also be forcibly transferred from their homes to work all over China. In other words, this is not just about camps in Tibet; people are being moved around to fulfil requirements elsewhere. Of course, this process has close similarities with the training and labour transfer in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, which I will touch on.
The Government’s attempts to dilute Tibetan identity are really critical. That is being done through forced cultural assimilation, and the same pattern is going on in a number of areas. Interestingly, the Government documents state that these programmes aim to reform Tibetan cultural “backwardness”. That is an interesting concept and a relative concept, and of course its relativity is defined by those in power, which is to say the Communist party of China. That aim is achieved by the Government enforcing the learning of Mandarin and weakening, however they can, the religious influence that exists among those who claim to be indigenously Tibetan.
This is not an isolated incident. We have seen this pattern of eradication—or attempted eradication—of ethnicity across China. We know from the parallel report that was published a little earlier on the Uyghurs that at least 1 million Uyghurs are in mass arbitrary detention in Xinjiang. There are almost 400 prison camps in the region, with more still under development. It is disgraceful, but we understand that western fashion brands use supply chains where forced labour is prevalent. I am sure that will apply in due course, if not already, in Tibet. The Government-sponsored forced sterilisation and birth suppression in the Uyghur populations, which we believe do exist, would meet the genocide criteria—we have yet to get the UN to even look at that, but it is the key. Civil servants are also placed in Uyghur homes to monitor behaviour, and children whose parents are detained are being taken from their families and placed in state facilities.
But it is not just the Tibetans and the Uyghurs; it is now also the Christians. Party members who profess a faith are now subject to disciplinary procedures, with the arrest and detention of Christian leaders such as Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Church, who was detained in December 2018 and sentenced to nine years in prison for
“incitement to subvert state power”.
It is a pleasure to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who came early to this issue. He has been calling it out for some time, and I congratulate him on that. I agree with him. We have to look at the starting point. People took their eyes off Tibet, but we can see now what is happening. People did not want to talk about the Uyghurs, but we have advanced. Repression is happening everywhere.
My point about the Christians is that it has been going on for a long time. There are threats, for example, to withhold state support from low-income Christian families who do not give up their religious belief, and there is a similar experience among Catholic churches. It is not only about churches that the Government do not consider to be registered; it is also even churches that they might consider to be registered.
The Falun Gong has experienced the most appalling behaviour. The 610 Office is the security agency charged with solely persecuting the Falun Gong. If detainees do not renounce Falun Gong beliefs, they are subject to re-education through labour. There are reports of beatings, solitary confinement, 24-hour monitoring, rack torture, tiger bench torture, water torture, stress position torture, forced feeding for those on hunger strike and forced injections of unknown drugs, and now, most shockingly of all, there are confirmed stories of organ harvesting from those who have been incarcerated.
Liu Guifu, a Falun Gong practitioner from Beijing, was twice sent to RTL camps—retraining camps—in Beijing. She reports being deprived of sleep, not allowed to use a bathroom or drink water. She was forced to consume faeces and toilet water, and was given unidentifiable drugs to make her lose consciousness. I urge the Government to call that out.
I also urge the Government to do a series of things so that the UK becomes a lead advocate in all of this. First, we need to look at mandatory sanctions with regard to global human rights abuses: sanctions such as travel bans or asset freezes. The officials responsible should have Magnitsky arrangements applied to them for the use of forced compulsory labour in Tibet and in other areas, too. The Government should also open a way for similar judgments to be issued on cases regarding abuses against Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and other minorities in China that I have touched on.
I urge the Government to support amendment 68 to the Trade Bill in the Lords to nullify trade arrangements past and future if the High Court makes a preliminary determination that a proposed trade partner has perpetrated genocide. I can tell the Government now that, should such a new clause come to the Commons, I will absolutely support it. I also urge the Government to consider that, to meet GDP targets. China’s economy needs to grow by some 7.5% a year. Under the cover of that, China is being given the capacity to behave in the way it does by western companies and Governments, which are turning a blind eye.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, beyond even the human rights abuses, China is now in breach of World Trade Organisation rules endlessly across the piece. It incentivises companies through illegal discounts, tax breaks and subsidies. Even Volkswagen reported that it had to buy a quota of components from local Chinese suppliers or pay more than double the standard import tax on such parts, which violates the WTO rules that everybody else is meant to obey. China favours exporting finished products, which means that it basically forces companies to manufacture and produce.
The supply chain risk profiles are all in the report, and they are there for us as well. The supply chains in Tibet, Xinjiang and other regions are linked to forced labour, and the Government have to make it clear to British business that it is unacceptable to be in the slightest bit involved with those chains. I also ask the Government to demand reciprocal access to Tibet and other regions, such as Xinjiang, in order to allow for independent international investigation into the reports of forced labour, and to call for a UN special rapporteur on Tibet.
The peculiarity of the situation is that if China were any other country in the world, every Government would call it out. They would demand change. Imagine if it were a country in Europe, Africa or anywhere else—there would immediately be demands and debates in the UN. That does not happen. Far too much of what we think and do about China is now influenced massively by the concern about getting goods, manufacturers, investment and so on organised.
China is involved in occupying the South China sea. The UN has said that China has no right to it at all, yet it is demanding and controlling whole areas. It has been involved in border disputes—aggressive behaviour—recently with India, in which Indian soldiers have been killed.
Then there is the situation in Hong Kong. How much more can we say about Hong Kong? China is abusing what is going on and has dismissed an international agreement with regards to the legalities, leading to the incarceration of many peaceful protestors and their shipment to China for prosecution, where they will certainly not get a fair trial. By the way, I asked the Government what they think of British judges being employed still on the bench in Hong Kong. Surely it is time that we said, “Enough!” They can no longer give cover to what is going on in Hong Kong. It has to stop, for goodness’ sake.
There is one other action that the Government can take. The winter Olympics are planned to be in China. Many of us believe that, if it were any other country, there would now be calls for the Olympics to be moved. I simply say to the Government that they will have to take a stance on this issue pretty soon.
Overall, we are dealing now with a country that appears to have bullied and threatened its way through all of this. It is imposing the most dreadful and terrible things on many of its people, it is abusing human rights, and many people now believe that it might even be guilty of a form of genocide. I simply say to my Government that it is time for them to stand up. It is time for this Government to lead, and it is time for this Government to act.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall today. I echo what has been said about human rights abuses in Tibet and in the People’s Republic of China in general. It is shocking that in the 21st century we are still having to speak out against the barbaric acts of a totalitarian regime. The basic rights enshrined in documents such as the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights are the foundation stone on which human life can be lived in dignity. We have a duty to stand up for those rights on behalf of not only persecuted people inside China but all people, not least because the Chinese Communist party is seeking to expand its influence around the world.
I would like to speak more specifically about the recent report by Adrian Zenz on militarised vocational training in Tibet and to place that in the context of the CCP’s long-term strategy in Tibet. First, it is important to note that the report refers mainly to what is happening in the so-called Tibet autonomous region, which is only one part of Tibet. The vast areas of eastern Tibet are contained within the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. We must be careful not to overlook the Tibetan people in those regions.
About 6 million Tibetans live under Chinese rule. Although exact numbers are hard to ascertain, it has been estimated that, until recently, there have been roughly 2 million Tibetans whose lifestyle can be described as nomadic or pastoralist. They graze their herds on the high pastures, as their ancestors did for generations. Their way of life is fine-tuned to the harsh climate. The CCP has long sought to undermine that traditional lifestyle. The fundamental reason for that is that the pastoralist way of life perpetuates the distinctive Tibetan identity and culture. Together with the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism, it is one of the pillars on which that distinctive identity and culture rest. The CCP has for decades seen the Tibetan’s distinctive identity and free spirit as a threat to its authoritarian rule. Just as the CCP wishes to cripple the Tibetan language through Mandarin education, as we have heard, and to cripple Tibetan Buddhism through the demolition of monasteries such as Larung Gar, so it is trying to undermine the pastoralist lifestyle.
That is the context for this report. The CCP’s pretext for its action is framed in terms of economic development. The pastoralist lifestyle is characterised as backward, and pastoralists are treated as surplus labourers who are lazy. Using a combination of superficial incentives and punitive force, the CCP has long been driving pastoralists off their ancestral lands and into towns, where they are expected to engage in the Chinese economy. The forced vocational training courses described in the report are nominally to give them skills that they can use in the towns. It must be affirmed, however, that that is a pretext. Considerable evidence amassed by Tibetans suggests that the lifestyle of pastoralists who are driven into towns is deeply degrading.
Once in the towns, the Tibetan people are much more easily controlled within the horrifying systems of surveillance, such as the grid management and double-linked household system described in the report. To reaffirm the key point, the CCP’s framing of its policies in Tibet in terms of economic development is spurious. The issue here is deliberate cultural destruction. In that sense, there are many similarities between the CCP strategy in Tibet and the horrific cultural genocide taking place in Xinjiang. I stress, however, how important it is to take the situations in Tibet and in Xinjiang on their own separate terms. We must be careful not to blur the important difference between the two cases, as that would only help to let the CCP off the hook for its specific abuses against Tibet.
Therefore, I call on the Government to bring Magnitsky sanctions against those members of the CCP involved in perpetuating human rights abuses in Tibet, as we have heard. I also call on them to adopt the private Member’s Bill from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on reciprocal access to Tibet, which would make it harder for the CCP to continue to hide its abuses in Tibet from journalists, diplomats and independent travellers.
Finally—this is important and has not been mentioned yet—I call on the Government to publish their formal strategy for when the current Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, dies. It is very likely that the CCP will try to use that moment to further undermine the Tibetan identity by appointing its own stooge Dalai Lama. We should be ready to stand in defence of the Tibetan people if and when that moment comes.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. I declare an interest, in that I am also a member of IPAC. I, too, think that IPAC is to be commended for the production of the report that is tagged in the title of the debate.
To pick up on the theme first touched on by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), it is heartening to see the attention that issues such as the oppression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province and the situation in Hong Kong are now getting. However, it has not always been thus, and we should acknowledge that there has been a significant attitude change in Governments across the developed world towards China.
By and large I welcome that and I think it a positive change, but I sound a note of caution: when we criticise the regime in Beijing, the Chinese Communist party, we do that because what it does is worthy of criticism. It is not about isolating or demonising China. China has the potential to be a force for good as a massive and growing economy, but when we see that strength in the Chinese economy being used as a malign force in different parts of the world—the way in which China has used its economic influence in Africa, in particular, is worthy of greater consideration—we have not just the right, but the duty to call it out.
It is the case, candidly, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) touched on, that Governments of all stripes in recent years have been slow to the party on this. I remember the years when visits to this country under the Blair Government saw protesters shielded away from the site to avoid the risk of offending the delegations, and in 2013, Alex Salmond should have met the Dalai Lama when he came to Edinburgh. However, on all those occasions it is fair to say that the risk of upsetting China, getting on the wrong side of it and then being somehow economically disadvantaged, meant that we made the wrong call and took the wrong turns.
I am delighted to see a different approach from this Government and others throughout the western world. It was for that reason that I made the point about southern or, as we often call it, inner Mongolia, because what we are seeing there has disturbing echoes of what we have seen in other semi-autonomous regions in China. It starts with the linguistic and cultural oppression, but it never finishes there, and when we see it starting, that is the point at which we should be calling it out. I know today’s debate is not about southern Mongolia—perhaps we can keep that for other occasions—but I would draw the House and the Minister’s attention to some of the recent work being done by bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre and the reports that they published towards the end of August.
The IPAC report that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green referenced reveals that Tibet now has a significant compulsory vocational training programme and forced labour transfer scheme—straight out of the Xinjiang playbook, we could say. More than 500,000 people have been enlisted by the programme in the first seven months of 2020 alone; 49,900 of them were directly transferred to other parts of the province, while 3,109, according to the report, were transferred out of Tibet. It is easy to talk about the figures, horrific as they are, but it is worth pausing for a second to reflect on what they actually mean.
The figures mean, essentially, that the people of Tibet are seen as tools of the state and are deprived of the right and the opportunity to have any say in how and where they work. They have no freedom to choose how they live their own lives. It is a wilful disregard of human rights and human dignity, and that is why we have a duty to call it out. The report says that the forced labour programme is overseen by “strict military-style management”, which limits the liberty of Tibetans in an attempt to remove their so-called “backwardness”.
There is absolutely no place for such an approach in any working or social environment. We see this obsession with conformity and uniformity time and again in the way in which the Government in Beijing approach their people. There is no place for that in a modern state. The treatment of Tibet is part of the much wider programme that we have seen by the Chinese in other parts of the country.
I have a number of points for the Minister. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), there is a need to get observers and a human rights taskforce, badged under the United Nations, into Xinjiang province and other areas of concern. There is a need to meaningfully use Magnitsky-type sanctions and to look at whether the supply chains of companies selling and operating in this country have been using forced labour and whether British businesses and public bodies should take that into consideration. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 means that we have legal obligations as well as a moral imperative.
This comes down to the most fundamental human rights imaginable. We should never forget that human rights are universal. If they do not matter in Tibet and Xinjiang, frankly they do not actually matter here either.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to be back in Westminster Hall. I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing the debate and on his incredibly comprehensive opening contribution, which has been followed by equally powerful contributions from Members representing a wide range of parties and the wide range of views within some of those parties. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, we are identifying a new and increasing consensus about the importance of speaking out about the actions of the Chinese state and, particularly in this debate, its treatment of the Tibetan peoples and other minorities.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is right that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) would have been here in other circumstances. He has been a passionate campaigner with his colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting Tibet over the years. He has been on visits, and has met some visitors, as I have had the privilege of meeting, including the Sikyong and others, who have come to address the all-party group.
The report that the debate has highlighted and the efforts of Dr Adrian Zenz have given a new level of coverage to, and awareness of, the tragedies that are unfolding. It is important also to recognise the role of journalists who have picked up on the report, in particular Reuters, which, in the face of the restrictions on journalists that Members have spoken about, has produced a comprehensive piece of coverage and analysis, and attempted to seek a response from the Chinese authorities.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right: for many people, the oppression of Tibet and the exile of the Dalai Lama is a kind of static fact of life. However, the report has brought home the chilling reality of all the different horrors—enforced military-style training and education, environmental degradation and what the report calls a coercive lifestyle change for the Tibetan people from nomadism and farming to wage labour, which is the strongest, most clear and targeted attack on traditional Tibetan livelihoods that we have seen since the cultural revolution. As others have said, it is essentially a form of cultural genocide, or indeed worse.
We know that the Chinese regime denies that and says that everything is voluntary and nothing is forced, but that does not match the reality that has been reported and the experience elsewhere. As we have heard, the United Nations estimates that at least a million people in Xinjiang, mostly from the ethnic Uyghur population, are subjected to similar treatment—detained in camps, subjected to ideological education and forced sterilisation, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, and other horrors—despite Chinese claims that the participants in such camps have “graduated”. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified at least 14 detention centres being built this year alone—14 out of 380 that it has identified across the country using its satellite technology and other methods. Speaking up and speaking out has to be an important first step, and global leaders must recognise and respond to the report and other similar analysis.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was right to say that the global attitude towards China is changing. Throughout Members’ contributions to this debate, we have heard the options that are open to Governments, including the UK Government, be it travel bans for identified officials, Magnitsky sanctions, the implementation and monitoring of the Ruggie principles and the business and human rights action plans that the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke of, or questioning the role of specific companies. We have had a lot of debate in the House recently about the role of Huawei and how it is allowed to operate here in the United Kingdom. Most importantly, journalists, academics and international observers should have a right of independent access for monitoring in Tibet and the other regions.
The UK Government have to support all those calls. This is an important moment for the UK. If it wants to emerge now as a new, global Britain, it has to demonstrate that it will have the courage to rise to the challenges. That is why questions around participation in the winter Olympics in 2022 have to be part of that consideration. They have to be part of our use of soft power, how we make our views on these issues felt around the world and how we engage.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who gave a powerful speech listing the issues with the behaviour of the Chinese Communist party, whether in Hong Kong, the Himalayas or the South China sea. That set the stage for what has been an excellent debate.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who gave a powerful critique of the human rights action plan. She demonstrated that our values are not for sale and that, when it comes to the constant debate on whether to prioritise trade or human rights, there should be no debate at all, because the priority is to stand up for our values and for human rights. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly put it, if human rights do not matter in Tibet, in Xinjiang or in other parts of the world, they end up not mattering here either. This is a universal issue that affects all of us. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) made that point very clearly with regard to the ethnic and cultural survival of ways of life and diversity across China.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has done so much work on the issue of Tibet and has been a leading voice on it for so long. He set out some very tangible and clear recommendations for what we need to do to address these issues. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) did likewise. Indeed, there were so many other contributions today that unfortunately I do not have enough time to go through them all in detail.
I will say a few words about where my party sits on this issue. It is absolutely clear that we are profoundly concerned by the human rights abuses in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims. We have called repeatedly on the Government to take action and we are deeply troubled to hear that similar abuses of human rights are taking place in Tibet.
The research sets out some very disturbing statistics, including the half a million labourers over the first seven months of 2020. There is strict, military-style management and enforced indoctrination and intrusive surveillance of participants. It is clear that the programme’s aim is to reform Tibetans’ so-called cultural backwardness, through teaching Mandarin, and by weakening the way of life and the religious practices of the Tibetan people.
Before I appeal to the Minister with some specific recommendations, I will say a few words on the wider context of the policies and activities of the Chinese Government. It is becoming increasingly clear that our interaction as a United Kingdom, and the interaction and engagement of the United Kingdom Government—indeed, of successive Governments since 2010—has been characterised, I am afraid to say, by naivety and complacency, both domestically and abroad. Of course, in 2015 David Cameron and George Osborne announced the so-called golden era of Sino-British relations, based on the premise that we would open our markets to China and that the Chinese Government would reciprocate while gradually aligning with the international rules-based order and opening up to trade with the rest of the world. That approach viewed the UK’s relationship with China purely through an economic lens, turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in exchange for the naive and narrow promise of future economic benefit.
The reality is that the benefits of trade have remained largely unbalanced, a process actively encouraged by the Chinese state, which has facilitated the replication of intellectual property and the dumping of heavily subsidised products on European markets, leaving UK firms open to hostile takeovers and driving the UK to a trade deficit with China of around £20 billion a year. Further still, the UK now has 229 supply chains dependent on China, 59 of which relate to our critical national infrastructure.
Moreover, we are increasingly isolated on the global stage. Over the past decade, I am afraid we have gained a global reputation for being alliance breakers, when one of the great strengths of our country has traditionally been our role as alliance makers. The UK’s relative isolation has made it easier for President Xi to press ahead with the imposition of national security legislation in Hong Kong, which has been met with international condemnation; the persecution of the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities; and destabilising actions in the South China Sea, which are a violation of international law. To summarise, our supply chain dependence on China clearly constrains our ability to stand up for our national interest and national security, while this Government’s approach to international relations has hindered our ability to convene and lead an alliance of democracies, to stand up for our values and interests.
The golden era strategy was an unmitigated failure. Britain alone—an agenda that the current Government appear to be pursuing—is not a strategy at all. It is a recipe for disaster. China respects strength, unity and consistency, but we are in a position where we are starting to look weak, divided and inconsistent, and that has to change. We need a fundamental reset in Sino-British relations and, indeed, in relations between China and the rest of the world.
It is against that backdrop that we debate Tibet today. Our central message to the Government is that expressions of outrage are not sufficient. Tangible action is required and we recommend three initial responses. First, the scope of legislation that underpins the so-called Magnitsky sanctions must be broadened. The senior Chinese Communist party and Hong Kong Executive officials, who are clearly responsible for breaches of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, must be added to the list. The rapidity of the Government’s recent decision to add senior Belarusian officials to the Magnitsky list was very welcome. Why, then, are they dragging their feet when it comes to Chinese Government officials?
Secondly, we urge the UK Government to revise their risk advisory for British companies that source goods and services from areas that may involve Tibetan forced labour. The vast majority of British companies want to do the right thing. They want to behave ethically, and the Government must act to support them in doing so.
Thirdly, we support calls for the UK Government to push for the appointment of a UN special rapporteur for the full and transparent investigation of forced labour and ethnic persecution in Xinjiang and Tibet. The issue of genocide has been raised, but in order for that to be classified as genocide, very clear and compelling proof and evidence are required. The way to get that is through international action to get that special rapporteur; otherwise, we cannot move forward with the debate on genocide.
I trust that the Minister has taken note of the strong views expressed by right hon. and hon. Members from across the House. I look forward to his response to the specific points and recommendations.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a great pleasure to be back in this Chamber. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for initiating this very important debate. I am also grateful to others for their contributions and strong views, including the hon. Member for Bath (Vera Hobhouse), my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
Promoting and protecting human rights are incredibly important to this Government, no matter where those violations and abuses occur. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, on 22 September the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China published a report alleging that the Chinese Government had expanded a large-scale mandatory vocational training programme in Tibet. The reported nature of this programme is deeply concerning to the UK Government and we take these allegations extremely seriously.
As we have heard, the report alleges coercive vocational training and the transfer of labour. It describes a large-scale campaign to retrain and transfer some rural labourers within Tibet and elsewhere in China. Those allegations bear similarities with the reported system of forced labour in Xinjiang, including the military-style vocational training; a focus, as we have heard today, on Chinese language training; and local middlemen receiving financial incentives to transfer labour throughout Tibet and beyond.
It is worth noting, however, as brought up by the hon. Member for Bristol East, that we do not have clear evidence that the very worst abuses taking place in Xinjiang are being replicated as yet in Tibet. There is no evidence of mass extrajudicial internment or of workers being kept in closed and securitised environments, like in Xinjiang. But of course we are working very closely with the report’s author. We are scrutinising the report, which has been out for two weeks. We are also working with other experts on Tibet and our international partners, so that we can get a clear and thorough understanding of the situation.
As is evident from our track record, we pay very close attention to the human rights situation not only in Tibet but right across China. We have called on the Chinese authorities to lift the severe and unjustified restriction on access for foreigners to Tibet. That has been raised by virtually every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber. Our officials at the British embassy in Beijing were last able to visit Lhasa in July 2019. We are consistent in our calls that that access needs to change.
We have consistently urged China to respect all the fundamental rights, in line with its own constitution and the international frameworks to which China is a party. The right to freedom of religion or belief applies to the people of Tibet just as it does to the people of Chingford and Woodford Green and elsewhere in the UK.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was mentioned by Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. The UK views the Dalai Lama very much as a respected spiritual leader, and as such he has visited the UK on a number of occasions. We continue to do all we can to encourage freedoms for religious and cultural expression in Tibet and across China.
I think that the hon. Member for Bath made the point about the succession. The appointment of a new Dalai Lama is clearly a religious matter, and one for the relevant religious authorities to decide, in line with freedom of religion or belief. It is worth pointing out that we have also raised the case of the Panchen Lama with the Chinese authorities. We have demanded confirmation of his welfare and that he enjoys freedom of movement.
This Government have therefore shown time and again that when allegations are substantiated, we will speak out and act to hold China to account. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and First Secretary of State, supported by his ministerial team, has repeatedly set out our grave concerns about the human rights violations perpetrated against the people of Hong Kong and against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. I have done so myself in many parliamentary debates, the most recent being last month. We have raised those concerns directly with the Foreign Secretary’s counterpart, Wang Yi, on a number of occasions.
We have also played a leading role within the international community to hold China to account, with two unprecedented joint statements at the UN in the past year. Twenty-eight countries joined the UK-led statement at the Human Rights Council in June, and right hon. and hon. Members will have seen that yesterday 39 countries joined a statement at the UN General Assembly in New York expressing our deep concern at the situation in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. I believe that that growing coalition reflects UK diplomatic leadership. I have an awful lot of respect for the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon, but I rather disagree that we have been ineffective in that regard. We have shown diplomatic leadership, as those statements in the UN demonstrate. The personal involvement of the Foreign Secretary is testament to that situation.
At the UN Human Rights Council, we used China’s most recent universal periodic human rights review to challenge its record publicly and encourage improved compliance with all its international human rights commitments. Last month, we dedicated our entire national statement at the council to the human rights violations taking place in China. That is only the second time that the UK has dedicated a national statement to a single country, with the first being in 2018 on Russia, following the poisonings in Salisbury. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, we want a positive relationship with China. China is a leading member of the international community with which we want to have a strong and constructive relationship in many areas.
I turn to points raised by right. hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green raised sanctions, as did virtually every other Member. We are carefully considering further designations under our newly introduced sanctions regime. It is essential that sanctions are developed accurately and with the correct evidence. My right hon. Friend will know that it is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated, but it is absolutely right to say that we are constantly reviewing this within the FCDO.
Members have mentioned supply chains, responsibility and amendment 68 to the Trade Bill. It is crucial that all businesses conduct the appropriate due diligence to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labour. All Members referenced how there should be reciprocal access, and that is absolutely the Government’s position in terms of unfettered access to these regions. I will come shortly to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green also referenced judges in Hong Kong. An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s economic success and way of life. Sadly, the new national security law provides Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, rather than the Chief Justice, with the power to appoint judges. That risks undermining the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary. We will monitor that closely, including the implications for the role of UK judges in the Hong Kong justice system.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned the Olympics, which he has also mentioned publicly. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, we are focused on working closely with our international partners to hold the Chinese authorities to account. We need to build the evidence base on which future action should be taken. While we have no current plans to boycott the Olympics—that is a matter for the sporting authorities—we have been clear throughout that we will not look the other way when faced with egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang or violations of the freedoms of the Hong Kong people.
The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the APPG for Tibet and all he has done to bring Parliament’s attention to what is happening in Tibet. We are very much aware of his Bill, which has its Second Reading in March 2021. We will continue to call, at the UN and directly with the Chinese authorities, for unfettered access to the region, and obviously we will work with my hon. Friend and closely monitor his private Member’s Bill.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the issue of Inner Mongolia, which he and I have discussed separately. We will continue to monitor that situation and engage on that. He also referred to unfettered access to those regions, which we will continue to call for; all the Opposition spokesmen also made that point clearly. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, as have others, the call for a UN special rapporteur. We have repeatedly called in the UN for China to allow unfettered access to observers, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is vital that that should include access to Tibet. She also mentioned the work of Confucius institutes. It is simple: any attempt to interfere with academic freedom or freedom of speech will not be tolerated. If any universities or research institutions experience attempts to undermine free debate, we encourage them to come forward and speak to the Government.
I have a few seconds left before I hand back to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. We will always act to uphold our values, our interests and our national security. We are crystal clear with China when we disagree with its approach. We urge the Chinese Government to respect all fundamental rights across the People’s Republic of China, including in Tibet. We are examining the latest reports of coercive training and transfer of labour in Tibet, and we take them seriously.
I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the attention of the House today. We are working to establish a full picture of the situation. We have repeatedly held China to account for its human rights violations, and we will continue to do so. We will continue to stand up for our values and act as a force for good in the world.
The hon. Gentleman is spot on, and I could not disagree with him. However, we have to ensure that this process is done in a managed way, which is why we are supporting Turkey, bilaterally, in particular. We have been very proactive in providing significant levels of bilateral support to Turkey and Greece, because it is very important that we manage these migration challenges in a much wider and much more managed way.
My hon. Friend raises a good point, but we should not allow that to detract from the reality that has created this situation, which is the continued brutal violence, particularly in Idlib, of the Syrian regime and its Russian supporters, which has driven millions of refugees into Turkey and beyond. He is right to say that the UK as a whole should be proud of the part we have played thus far.
I applaud my right hon. Friend for his question and the work that he did on this case when he was Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister met Richard Ratcliffe on 23 January. We continue to make strong representations to send a clear signal in this case that Iran’s behaviour is totally wrong and unacceptable.
We welcome the US proposals for peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on recognition of the two-state solution. We support this initiative to get both sides around the negotiating table.
I thank my hon. Friend. This is a first step on the road back to negotiations. The absence of dialogue creates a vacuum that only fuels instability and leads to the drifting of the two sides further and further apart, so whatever the different views, we want both sides to get around the negotiating table to work to improve the plan and to get peace in the middle east.
We are engaging with them, and we will engage with them more during the process of the DRM, but we need to be clear that this is not a transatlantic issue, and it is not just an Iranian issue—it is a regional and global issue, because the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would be damaging, devastating and destabilising for the region and the world. All permanent members of the Security Council need to be engaged in this and live up to their responsibilities to ensure, through the diplomatic track and the pressure that we exert on all sides, that Iran cannot pursue those ambitions.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I share his concerns that there are weaknesses to the JCPOA. It is time-limited. There are other weaknesses to it. We have never been doe-eyed about it being the perfect deal, but it is also the only deal in town which is restraining the behaviour of Iran. As we have now got to a situation where Iran is not complying with those restraints, we have to trigger the DRM as a matter of the credibility of the deal and the credibility of the E3. I take his point—it is the point that the Prime Minister made—that we should also be ambitious for a broader deal that deals with not only the nuclear issue in a more sustainable and long-term way but all the other wider concerns that those in the region, the Europeans and the Americans have about Iran’s conduct in the region.