Easter Adjournment

Part of Deferred Division No. 85 – in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 1:31 pm, 29th March 2007

It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. McLoughlin, who became a Member of Parliament when I did 20 years ago. He spoke with enormous passion about several key issues that concerned his constituents. I am glad that he did not raise them all; otherwise the whole Adjournment debate would have concentrated on West Derbyshire. However, I hope that he is successful in his campaign to keep his local maternity unit open. I ask him to take the Prime Minister at his word, because I have the same problems in my constituency. There has been massive investment, but those who deliver on the front line need to be careful about the way in which they use public money and they need to be accountable. I hope that he gets satisfaction from his local health trust and that the wonderful maternity unit that gave us his daughter, Clare, and others will remain open.

I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping on his reappointment as a Minister. He has returned to the post that he held six years ago and I gather from the Opposition Chief Whip that we get him at a discount because of his long service. When my hon. Friend occupied the position previously, he always listened carefully to the views of Back Benchers. I have watched him in the past 15 years or so take up issues of concern to his constituency, and one of the iconic television pictures of the 1992 elections was of my hon. Friend dancing—it looked like banghra dancing—at his count on gaining the previously Conservative seat. I do not say that he has been dancing ever since, but I am sure that he did a little jig on his reappointment this week. I wish him well in his role as Deputy Leader of the House.

On police co-operation, my hon. Friend represents a constituency in Nottinghamshire, the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire represents a constituency in Derbyshire and I represent a constituency in Leicestershire. We did not need police reorganisation for the police forces of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire to co-operate. Unfortunately, I missed the meeting to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, but I know that that co-operation is important.

I want to raise two main matters. It is the first time I have participated in the Easter Adjournment debate for some time. I have been unlucky in the ballots so far and have not been able to find parliamentary time to discuss the two issues. I hope that my hon. Friend will give me a positive response and that we get some movement from the Government on both matters.

The first relates to my constituent, Rafiq Gorji, whose case I have raised on several occasions in business questions. He is a widower with three children. Like more than 50,000 British citizens, he went on the pilgrimage to Saudia Arabia to perform his Hajj in December last year. He was on a coach with his wife, Zenab Ali, on the Madinah-Makkah highway near Dubaiyah when it overturned. It hit a central reservation and Mrs. Ali died at the scene of the crash. Mr. Gorji suffered severe burns to his hands and back. Two other British nationals died in the coach crash and many more were injured.

I have met my constituent on several occasions and seen the burns on his body. They remain visible even though the crash happened a few months ago. The crucial point that he makes is that the coach driver was extremely tired. He had been driving for more than 18 hours before the crash. He had been swerving the coach when he was driving Mr. Gorji and his wife, and the coach passengers urged him to stop. They offered him refreshments and asked him to rest because they feared that, if he continued on the journey, the coach would crash. That is exactly what happened.

The crash highlights the problem that many British Muslims, some of whom live in my constituency, suffer when they go on the Hajj to Saudi Arabia. The Leader of the House set up the Hajj Committee when he was Foreign Secretary and my noble Friend Lord Patel of Blackburn chairs it. It does a great job, but it cannot control the activities of the Saudi Arabian Government. So far, we have been unable to bring to the Saudi Arabian Government's attention with sufficient force an understanding of the problem that continues to occur with those who drive my constituents and those of other hon. Members in Saudi Arabia. The Hajj has to be performed there because the holy places are there.

Rafiq Gorji eloquently made the point to me and the Saudi Arabian authorities that the people who are employed by Saudi Arabia to drive the coaches do not necessarily come from that country. Many come from Libya and Syria. They are not paid a huge amount of money for the task and they are made to work for many hours to get that money. That is why they continue to drive even when they are tired.

The incident was perfectly preventable and that makes it especially sad. Had the man not driven, had he stopped and rested, Mrs. Ali would be alive today and the three children who are still grieving for their mother would have a mother, Mr. Gorji would have a wife and the family would be content.

Mr. Gorji made many complaints to the Ministry of Hajj, which is responsible for licensing the coaches and the drivers, but it has been reticent and reluctant to give us any information. It was months before Mr. Gorji received a copy of his wife's death certificate. All her personal effects have been lost, including her copy of the Koran. To this day, we have still not received a copy of the police report.

I telephoned Sherard Cowper-Coles, our very good ambassador in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh and asked him to intervene personally in the case. I want to place on record my appreciation and that of my constituent for the work of Sherard Cowper-Coles, the consulate general in Makkah, and all the other people involved there. The embassy has been absolutely terrific.

We could not go any further, so I did what I normally do when dealing with a foreign Government, which was to make an appointment to see the Saudi Arabian ambassador, the prince who has recently taken over the role here in the United Kingdom. He was unavailable, so I met the deputy ambassador. I took my constituent with me, and I said that we wanted a police report because my constituent could not make progress unless he knew exactly what had happened.

I was a friendly Member of Parliament—I was born in the middle east, I chair the Yemen group and I am a friend of the Arab community—asking a friendly Government in a friendly way for a simple document. I would have thought that that document would be easy to produce, yet I was told that I had to go back to the British embassy and speak to my ambassador, who would then ring the Ministry of Hajj, and that we would then get the police report. No sympathy was offered to my constituent at that stage. So we did that, and we received the response from our man in Riyadh that this was really the responsibility of the Saudi Arabian Government.

In normal circumstances, one might seek to raise such an issue with a Member of Parliament, but as we know, the political situation in Saudi Arabia is slightly different. Approaching the Government was therefore perhaps the best way to get a response. They are, after all, a friendly Government. We have heard the Leader of the House, the Solicitor-General and the Foreign Secretary tell us from the Dispatch Box what a good friend Saudi Arabia is, what a close personal relationship we have with it, and how it is our ally in the region. I would have thought, therefore, that if a British citizen asked for a police report, it would be a simple thing to obtain. To this day, however, we have still not received it, so my constituent cannot take the issue forward.

I have raised the matter twice with the Leader of the House, whom I admire for his great skills and his ability to deal with Back-Bench Members of Parliament. He always came back to me very quickly whenever I raised issues with him when he was Foreign Secretary. He promised to raise this matter with the Foreign Secretary, who would presumably raise it with her Minister of State, who would then raise it with the Saudi Arabians. It is only a matter of a police report, after all. We did the Saudi Arabian Government a great favour recently when we stopped the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office on the ground that it was not in the public interest. I would have thought that it was in the public interest for information such as the police report on this incident to be given to a British citizen.

I was subsequently contacted by the parliamentary liaison officer at the Saudi Arabian embassy, Prince Sultan—not "the" Prince Sultan, but another official called Prince Sultan—who was actually very helpful. He came to see me at the House and told me that he felt that I was right, and that this was a simple thing to ask for. He said that he would go back to his Government and try to arrange it. Four weeks after meeting him, however, absolutely nothing has happened.

Why should a Member of Parliament have to raise this matter constantly in the House of Commons? It concerns a British citizen whose wife has died. Why am I not getting a response from the British Government? Of course, in the end, the matter is the responsibility of the Saudi Arabian Government, but they are on good terms with us. I expect to see action from the British Government in support of a British citizen. I can give my hon. Friend the Minister many examples of British citizens abroad being helped. I remember when a number of nurses were being held in Saudi Arabia. The case attracted massive publicity and our Government moved heaven and earth to assist them. Why have the Government not taken a similar course of action in this case?

I want this matter raised, please. And I want an assurance that when the Foreign Secretary talks to her Saudi Arabian counterpart about all the arms that she is selling to Saudi Arabia—of course we sell them arms—she will raise Mr. Gorji's case. I also want it raised by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he sees his Saudi Arabian counterparts. I want Mr. Gorji's name to be on the lips of every British Minister until we receive the police report on the death of his wife, and I will not stop harassing my newly promoted hon. Friend, or the Leader of the House at business questions, until that happens.

That is only the start. My constituent still has not visited his wife's grave in Saudi Arabia. She had to be buried, according to Muslim rites, almost immediately after she died. He wants to go there, and I want the help of the British Government to ensure that he can do that. Let us be caring of British citizens who face problems such as these abroad, and let us do something about this. I would be grateful to my hon. Friend for a response. He is sitting there very calmly and not intervening. I am not having a go at him; he knows that. However, as the Conservative Chief Whip said, this debate is our opportunity passionately to put forward a cause.

My second subject concerns the problems being faced by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, which I last raised at Prime Minister's Questions on 14 March. Daily, hundreds of Tamils are having to leave their homes because of the activities of the Sri Lankan Government. Over the past 15 months, 4,000 have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Recently, the military airport in Sri Lanka was bombed by those who support the Tamil cause.

My hon. Friend the Minister was parliamentary private secretary to the Leader of the House when he was at the Foreign Office, and he will know that this is an issue that Britain needs to be involved in, because we are partly responsible for it. Britain gave Sri Lanka independence 60 years ago and, as we did in so many parts of the world, we drew the borders. We created this situation, and we have a responsibility as honest brokers to help. In 2002, the Norwegian Government brokered a ceasefire which was agreed by both sides: the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In response to my question on 14 March, the Prime Minister asked for an immediate ceasefire, so that a dialogue could be resumed. I am utterly in awe of what the Prime Minister has done in Northern Ireland. As a parliamentarian, I do not expect to use terms such as "historic" and "in my lifetime", even though 20 years is almost a lifetime for some. It is certainly a long sentence on certain criminal tariffs. In the 20 years I have been here, the achievements in Northern Ireland have been profound, and I congratulate all those involved, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the fact that two Members of this House—even though one of them has not taken the Oath—have been able to sit down together at a table, engage in a dialogue, and agree to share power and form a Government. What a message that is for the United Kingdom to sell to the rest of the world!

I am asking for British involvement in the Sri Lankan issue, to ensure that the two sides get together. Like other hon. Members, I have Tamil people living in my constituency. Some came here as refugees, and some have settled here. They are British citizens whose communities have a hinterland abroad. The continued violence against the Tamil people has to stop. I ask the British Government to do something about it, and to make a statement calling for a ceasefire so that the killing can stop, so that people do not have to leave their homes, and so that we can have peace on that beautiful island.

I have arranged a meeting on 2 May with the Minister for the Middle East, my hon. Friend Dr. Howells, and many right hon. and hon. Members wish to be there to support what I am saying. A year from now, Sri Lanka will celebrate 60 years of independence. I am not asking the United Kingdom to apologise for what it has done, but we have a responsibility as the former colonial power. Let us please get involved to bring the two sides together. We all know that the Prime Minister is stepping down. Being a peacemaker in Sri Lanka would be a great role for him. I have not put it to him yet, but I will drop him a note to suggest that he take it on if he is pushed for things to do after he goes.

We had a statement today about Home Office reorganisation. I favour the creation of a ministry for justice, and I was surprised to hear Mr. Clegg scolding the Home Secretary over that, because it is Liberal party policy.