Sri Lanka

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 2nd May 2007.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 4:45 pm, 2nd May 2007

It is always a pleasure to follow Peter Luff because of his great interest in sub-continent matters. It always interesting to hear what he has to say about countries other than India, in which he has a particular interest. I did not agree with everything in his contribution and in my contribution I will explain where I disagree. What is significant, however, is that for the first time we are debating these issues in Parliament today.

Had it not been the eve of local elections in other parts of the country—other than London—the Chamber would probably not have a majority of London Members in their places. I realise that many members of the Tamil community live within London and the M25 area, but they also live in other parts of the country—Leicester being one where many members of the Tamil community have settled.

I want to pay a special tribute to the Minister for the Middle East. This date was originally chosen for a discussion between him and more than 60 MPs who had shown an interest in Sri Lankan issues, particularly in what is happening to the Tamil community. I think that he was surprised at the level of interest and he decided, of his own volition, to put to the Leader of the House the view that there should be a debate today. That has proved to be a much better way of dealing with these matters—having an open debate involving as many MPs as possible on the Floor of the House.

The Minister is, in my view, a special and exceptional Foreign Office Minister—not the usual type that we get. He is prepared—I have seen him operate—to listen to views without necessarily taking the Foreign Office line. On this issue, he has been particularly concerned to listen to the views of hon. Members, to understand them and to relate them to his own experience when he visited Sri Lanka. I thank him for his special interest. His remit is so large, as he has to look after at least a third of the world—he would probably say the most interesting third of the world. On the two issues where I have engaged with him—Yemen and Sri Lanka—he has been very forthright and listened very carefully to what I said. I thank him for his interest in what is happening there.

I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy. In all my discussions with members of the British Tamil community, I have found that they are full of praise for the work that he has done. As we heard today, he has not taken sides on the issues, but has focused the British Government on a particular problem. I am grateful—and I think that we are all grateful—for the fact that he has brought to bear his vast experience of Northern Ireland, which must have been just as complicated as the situation in Sri Lanka.

Apart from his day job, which he mentioned, he has allowed himself to go over to Sri Lanka in order to be the eyes and ears of our Prime Minister and to report back on these issues. I hope that we can formalise his role. He may not want that, but I think that it would be a good idea if the Government looked to formalise his role so that it was no longer just on an ad hoc basis. He could be given formal envoy status, which would allow him to play the role that we all would like to see this Parliament get involved with.

On Monday, we established the House's first ever all-party Tamil group. I was privileged to be elected chair of the group; Simon Hughes was elected vice-chair; Mr. Pelling was elected secretary; Susan Kramer was elected treasurer, as was Angus Robertson, in his absence in Scotland. That shows that it really is an all-party group, because all parties are represented in this cause.

The group was determined not to be just like any other all-party group. We were determined to take the issue forward, and on that basis we agreed three things. First, at the end of September a delegation of all party members should visit Sri Lanka, particularly areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers, to engage in a dialogue in a positive and constructive way. We also agreed to invite the chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers to visit the United Kingdom and to come to Parliament so that we could hear his views on what is happening.

The third thing that we agreed was to hold a summit meeting here in July at which all the various parties could participate as a means of exploring how to take the issue forward. Although we have not had a debate of this kind in the House before, listening to the experience of so many right hon. Members and hon. Members reminds me that we have had many such discussions outside Parliament. It really is time to make progress, rather than simply discussing these issues from time to time as we do now.

My hon. Friend Mr. Khan pointed out that we are also concerned with the Tamil community here, and that that is what drives us. Many of us are interested in foreign affairs, but what drives us as constituency MPs is our constituents coming to see us in our surgeries, at public meetings and at various projects in our constituencies to point out the contribution that the British Tamil community has made. When my hon. Friend mentioned the Tooting Tamils, I thought that that made them sound so British that they could be a local football club. They are as British as you and I, Madam Deputy Speaker, and they make a full contribution to this country. They contribute to the economy and to the national health service, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire pointed out. Almost 2,500 Tamils work in the NHS, not just as GPs and other doctors; one of the leading pre-natal surgeons is based in a hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting.

The British Tamils have become first-class contributors, and they therefore deserve to have us debate these issues in the House. For the reasons mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, they are constantly aware of what is happening to their friends and relatives in Sri Lanka. That is why they deserve to hear these issues discussed, and to have them taken forward, rather than just discussed in the usual parliamentary way.

I was present at a very useful meeting that the British Tamil forum had with our Home Secretary, who reminded us of the phrase—I cannot remember who said it originally, but I am sure that someone here will know—"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". I am sure that it was not the Home Secretary's phrase; he was merely reminding us of it. This was in the context of a discussion on how to lift the ban. I firmly believe that the ban on the Tamil Tigers—certainly as regards the way in which they operate in this country—should be lifted as soon as possible.

The proscription by the Government of various organisations in 2001 happened because of certain events that were occurring worldwide at the time, and we reacted by imposing that ban on a number of organisations, including a Sikh organisation that operated from my constituency. I know that Governments sometimes have to react in a knee-jerk manner, but six years have now passed and it is time to reconsider the ban and to look at ways in which we can help to ensure that the dialogue proceeds.

I know that that is different from what the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire suggested, because he believes that we cannot hold discussions with people unless they renounce violence. As we have heard from colleagues on both sides of the House, however, without such discussions we would never have reached the stage at which we could look with mild amusement at a photograph of Rev. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness—with EU President Barroso in the middle—sharing a joke. Other right hon. and hon. Members who have had to sit through debates on Northern Ireland, as have I, would never have believed that possible even a few years ago. However, thanks to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and many others, it has become possible. It is possible to move on, but we cannot move on unless we have a dialogue, and we cannot have a dialogue if we proscribe and ban the groups involved.