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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the current situation in Bangladesh.
I am pleased to see that this debate will be well attended despite the fact that it was arranged at very short notice. I pay tribute to Simon Danczuk, who originally tabled it, with my support, at the Backbench Business Committee, but cannot lead it because of previous commitments. I am pleased to share the debate with him, and I know how actively he takes an interest in the subject.
We could not possibly look at the current political situation and sense of instability in Bangladesh without briefly revisiting what has happened in the past, which has helped to form the situation. I was in Dhaka in 2006 when the previous Government led by Khaleda Zia, the Bangladesh Nationalist party and various coalition parties were proceeding with an election in which the Awami League was not participating and which was deemed unfair and undemocratic. The non-participation and civil unrest that ensued led to a takeover by the army. Dhaka was under curfew and chaos ensued as a result.
There has now been another election that both parties came back and contested having spent two years out of the country and out of political engagement while the caretaker Government led by the military were in place. The Awami League won a landslide victory. That was not disputed; the voting was considered to be perfectly within the rules of the electoral process. However, it appears that nothing was learned from those two years in the wilderness or from the grievances expressed against the previous Government. The Government led by the Awami League carried on with an election but there was not full voter participation, to put it mildly—it was about 30%—and there was non-participation by the leading opposition. There were all the similar complaints of non-engagement in Parliament because microphones were switched off, and so on.
I am sorry to say that the democratic process improved nothing between 2006 and the latest election in 2013. That is deeply disappointing given the amount of the British aid budget that goes into supporting the strengthening of democracy in Bangladesh, such as the training of civil servants.
All of us who have Bangladesh close to our hearts are deeply worried by the situation, particularly, as my hon. Friend rightly says, over the past seven years. There seems to be a sense that that country is again plummeting towards the prospect of some military takeover and martial law. Does she agree that while one inevitably has to look at the history, going back as far as partition in 1971, it is also important that there is a responsibility in the hands of today’s Bangladeshi politicians to draw a line under the past and look with a firm eye to the future?
Order. We must have shorter interventions. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to speak in the debate, but he cannot make a speech in an intervention.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that others will touch on that matter. On
Our Government, I am proud to say, continue to urge all parties to work together and to strengthen democratic accountability, but unfortunately it is not bearing a lot of fruit. The parliamentary model over there does not reflect ours. There are no shadow teams, so any new Government coming in will not have been actively involved in shadow responsibilities in a Parliament that is regularly empty—I have sat in there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On having confidence in the caretaker system and an Opposition to shadow the Government, a key element for many years was that Bangladesh had caretaker Governments before elections—as in other countries, such as Pakistan—to ensure that the election process was fair and transparent and that all political parties could have confidence in it. It was completely and utterly wrong that that did not happen this time.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point that has been raised many times with the all-party group on Bangladesh and other Members with an active interest in the issue. The reason the caretaker Government were introduced was that neither party trusted each other. During the 2006 election, the then Opposition—the Awami League—hotly disputed the fairness of the caretaker system and accused the BNP-led Government of stuffing it with their own supporters and people with influence over, or who owed their jobs to, them.
It was not a perfect system. The Awami League Government had a right under the constitution to alter it and they did so. I completely accept that many of the public disagreed with that decision, but it was recognised internationally that, given that they were elected in an 87% landslide victory, it was within their electoral mandate to make it.
Since the decision was made, I am sorry to say that the country has been in turmoil. Members of the all-party group—some of whom are present—visited the country in September to investigate the collapse of the Rana Plaza and other infrastructure deficits associated with the Tazreen fire and other garment factory fires and collapses. We raised the issue with both leaders and with businesses, asking them what their concerns were about the current unhappiness, debate and instability surrounding the change from the caretaker system—which, despite the fact that it was regularly disputed, was understood—to the leap into a future without such a system. People can have confidence in one system over another only if they truly believe that a caretaker is neutral. I believe that towards the end of the process, as the election loomed, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League suggested a move towards a version of a caretaker system with Ministers from both sides, but it was not accepted
This is always a matter of dispute. The Bangladeshi Prime Minister told the all-party group—I found this poignant but, oh, so true—that an election has never taken place in Bangladesh without blood and dispute. That has been the case since the birth of the country. The people who suffer are the poor and those whose livelihoods rest on whether the international garment industry, which is dragging Bangladesh—if only it could get its act together—to the fore of a tiger economy, will get fed up.
May I press my hon. Friend on the important point she is making? During our visit to investigate the collapse of the Rana Plaza, was not the clear message from those businesses that perform to ethically high standards that, unless the infrastructure, stability and future of Bangladesh was secure, they could not pledge their continuing support?
My hon. Friend accompanied the team and did a very able job, along with the hon. Members for Rochdale, for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood). We managed to prise out of businesses—some of which did not wish to be identified—their concerns and they are reflected in our report, which we submitted to the Department for International Development. It says that we
“were concerned about the complacent belief in Bangladesh that” the ready-made garment industry
“will continue to invest in the country for the foreseeable future”, and that businesses were concerned about the infrastructure problems.
Every building in Bangladesh is liable to collapse in an earthquake, apart from—I am pleased to say that at least our staff will be safe—the high commission building. Many of the buildings that have been turned into garment factories are unsafe in their construction, were never designed for the purposes for which they are being used and are poorly inspected and poorly built, which is threatening this vital economy.
We have suggested that other markets, such as Morocco, Ethiopia and Burma, would be viable alternatives. Political instability, disruption caused in the provision of power and gas and failing infrastructure are all key factors in the slow down of an undeniably excellent growth record.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work as chair of the all-party group. I agree with her points about the garment industry. Will she comment on the disturbing reports of attacks on religious minorities, particularly Hindus and Christians, over the past few weeks that have resulted in a large number of deaths?
The hon. Gentleman is another member of the all-party group to whom I pay tribute for his sterling work in raising concerns about this issue. We had a presentation from religious minority groups on how persecuted they are. Unfortunately, it is a failing of any democracy when people are not free to express their religion and belief. Bangladesh is a secular country that has many Muslim believers, but many other religions as well. In 1971, it had the proud aim that it would remain secular. It is also a proud member of the Commonwealth. It is a disservice to that country that people from minority religions now feel so oppressed and intimated, with their temples being daubed and disrupted.
The hon. Lady is speaking eloquently, and she is a distinguished chair of the all-party group. I want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. I might be wrong, but I think, statistically, that Bangladesh has the second-largest Hindu population in the world. We are all supporters of Bangladesh—I have a huge Bengali community—but the message we should send from this Chamber is that it must respect the human rights of religious minorities.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have met Amnesty International and other groups that watch the human rights situation, and I know that that situation has, sadly, been a major source of concern over the years.
When I was in Bangladesh in 2006, I was pretty depressed to read comments in the press about the BNP Government, who were then limping along, giving undertakings to introduce sharia law as part of a coalition deal. That was before the army stepped in. A legal system based on sharia law would certainly disadvantage communities that do not follow that law. The belief espoused in the constitution that Bangladesh should be a secular country and respect other religions was a fantastic aim. It is just sad that on many occasions it has not been delivered.
Jeremy Corbyn mentioned that people are in fear of their lives. There has been significant violence on the streets, with petrol bombings, and the leaders of opposition parties have felt intimidated since the election, while the poor are suffering. According to The Guardian, the recent data are that more than 500 people have died and 20,000 people have been injured in the past 12 months, and that more than 100 people have died since the election.
Other issues are intimidation, disappearances, cross-firing and whether the rapid action battalion is out of control. I went to pay my respects to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, who gave firm assurances that such issues would be investigated. Whoever leads the Government in Bangladesh needs to take them seriously. When we were there, the members of the all-party group made it clear that we do not have any truck with or particular preference about how the election was conducted, so long as it was fair, or about who is in power, so long as they represent the people and do the best for the people, which is not happening at the moment.
I very much agree with most of what my hon. Friend is saying, but will she put it in context, because many people may wonder why we are talking about Bangladesh? It is a member of the Commonwealth and there is a big Bangladeshi diaspora in this country, but we also spend more than £150 million a year of DFID money on Bangladesh, much of which is handled very well by Bangladeshis on the ground in Sylhet and Dhaka. Will she tell us more about that and about this country’s commitment to the long-term stability of Bangladesh?
I will not speak for too long, because other people want to take part in this important debate. I am sure that we will all have second bites of the cherry during other Members’ contributions.
A parliamentary answer that I received this week stated:
“Violence and instability are damaging to Bangladesh’s reputation, economy, and to people’s livelihoods. As the largest cumulative investor in Bangladesh, and the largest bilateral grant donor, the UK supports the people of Bangladesh in their aspirations for a more stable, democratic and prosperous future.”—[Hansard, 14 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 525W.]
My hon. Friend Mark Field is therefore right that we are a hugely important partner for Bangladesh. That is why we are hearing the views of so many hon. Members, even on a day when many Members, and particularly Opposition Members, have an important event to attend after the death of their colleague. Bangladesh really must take this matter seriously. These are not idle concerns.
There was a report in The Daily Telegraph last Saturday about aid budgets being under threat of being curtailed, cancelled or put on hold. From talking to the Minister of State, Department for International Development, I understand that that is a total misrepresentation. I am glad to have that assurance. Some 70% of our aid to Bangladesh goes to non-governmental organisations, many of which do a fabulous job. The APPG saw some of the projects when we went to Bangladesh. However, the British public, who are also facing tough times, will find it questionable that 30% of our aid goes, in various forms, to the Government. If the Government do not show that they will speak up for and do what is right for all the people of Bangladesh, I do not believe that we should be giving them 30% of the aid. We should give it to the charities and NGOs that are doing a great job and that are accountable. I do not think that we, as one of the largest aid donors, should continue to send money directly to a Government who were elected on 22% of voter participation—some voters felt too intimidated to participate and others that they had no choice—until there is a return of democratic accountability.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia should put aside their venomous personal differences, which go back decades, and put the interests of Bangladesh first so that the country can move forward?
I absolutely agree.—[Interruption.] I can hear the chuckles that are going around the House because we have had these conversations many times.
The APPG has received many representations about how the other side—I will put it in that way, because there is the churn of a wheel and next time it will be a different political group—feels deeply that it is kept out of Parliament, that it does not have an opportunity to speak, that the microphones are switched off and so on. We have been to the Parliament as part of a fact-finding group. The participation in debates is virtually zero because people see no point in participating. Whichever party or coalition is in power has to acknowledge that. We do not have a perfect system here, but we have a system in which strong opposition makes for better governance. By going there in September, the APPG hoped to show that, despite the fact that we may lob political differences across this Chamber, we can work together in an apolitical fashion to discuss what is in the best interests of Bangladesh. We hoped that the unity that we showed would provide a good example.
I am sorry to say that the election and the level of non-participation are plunging the country into disarray. We are expecting a big rally by the BNP on
I offer my deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in the terrible clashes over recent months and in the run-up to the election. According to Human Rights Watch, some 300 people have lost their lives since last February in the political violence in Bangladesh. The people of Bangladesh and those who have family connections with it live in fear and with a sense of perpetual frustration at the situation in their country. The hon. Member for St Albans highlighted extremely well the history of the turbulence that the country has suffered since its birth.
The House was critical in supporting Bangladesh’s independence, and many senior Members of all parties played a critical role in its fight for independence, liberal values, secular principles and freedoms. It is a great source of sadness that we are here today debating a situation that could not be more different from the ideals of the founding fathers of my country of birth, which I am proud to say I am originally from. I am proud of the fact that Members throughout the House have championed the cause of the people of Bangladesh, regardless of the political situation or which party is in power.
I commend the members of the all-party group on Bangladesh who joined me and the hon. Member for St Albans, who chairs it, on the delegation last September. We went with the intention of encouraging the parties to work together to move towards free and fair elections and to focus on the challenges facing Bangladesh, whether the recent garment industry accidents and the challenges of labour standards and human rights, or the major challenge of climate change. Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country to climate change, which will lead to some 20 million to 30 million climate refugees in the coming decades. People also face grinding poverty, despite the achievements that have been made on reaching some of the millennium development goals, tackling poverty and promoting girls’ education.
There have been some examples of success, but also political unrest and governance challenges, and the major political parties have failed to find a way of moving towards and achieving free and fair elections. They must focus on the challenges facing one of the most populous countries with a majority Muslim population, not to mention the important minority communities of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and many others that make up the country and built the nation based on values that we can all share. The leaders of Bangladesh should focus on all the challenges that I have mentioned.
My hon. Friend is making a heartfelt speech. Those of us who count ourselves as friends of Bangladesh are concerned about what is happening for many reasons. She has mentioned development issues, but is not another tragedy that the progress that Bangladesh has made in recent years in economic and other fields is in danger of being totally undermined by what is happening at the moment? It will do great damage to Bangladesh’s standing in the world in the field of trade and the economy. Is that not yet another reason why the situation should be resolved as soon as possible?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who has a long-term interest in countries such as Bangladesh, not least because of his interest in climate change but also because of his interest in the economic development challenges that he rightly mentions. Britain is one of the top investors in Bangladesh, and we have major multinationals that operate there. The current violence stands to put that investment at risk, as the all-party delegation found when we visited recently.
As has been highlighted today, the lack of stability and the lack of focus on investment and on achieving the conditions needed for trade will undermine economic and social development in Bangladesh. It is scandalous and unforgiveable that those in positions of power, of whichever political party, cannot put their differences behind them and focus on the interests, both economic and social, of the country and its people. All political leaders in Bangladesh must face up to that responsibility. That is not about us wringing our hands. Everyone understands that the history of Bangladesh is marred with bloodshed and sacrifice across the political spectrum. The point is that that cycle of violence must stop. Too many lives have been lost and too much is at stake, not only for Bangladesh, but for all of Asia and the international community, for the reasons I have mentioned.
Members from both sides of the House have on a number of occasions raised the need for interim measures to secure and guarantee free and fair elections. Some raised the need for caretaker Governments, which have served the country well in the past. As Rehman Chishti mentioned, other countries such as Pakistan have followed that lead and have expressed their disappointment that the system has been removed.
I was coming to that. The hon. Lady is well versed in both the recent and earlier history of interim, caretaker Governments. She is right that that is why the caretaker Government system ended up being changed.
The fact is that the opposition parties lack confidence in the election commission. The commission has been recognised by the international community as potentially having the ability to create the framework for free and fair elections but, regrettably, that has not happened. That is what I want to focus on in the rest of my remarks.
Before I do so, I wanted to mention the concerns, which will be shared by colleagues on both sides of the House, of British Bangladeshis in relation to their family members and their ties with their country of origin. Many have important business and trade ties as well as family ties—they support family members, promote education and give wider support through remittances. Half a million British Bangladeshis are deeply concerned about the situation. It is right that we debate the matter because we need to give our attention to what is happening in Bangladesh.
As hon. Members have discussed, our nation has major economic interests as well as development interests—we invest a great deal and give a great deal in development assistance. Those interventions cannot be undermined.
My hon. Friend raises the concerns of the Bangladeshi community, which makes huge contributions to our society in the UK. The debate is important to them, and our actions to help to improve the situation in Bangladesh are supremely important.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
People face a daily grind of transport blockades and national strikes, known as hartals, which undermine trade and investment and create fear for those who want to visit family members and relatives, and for those who have trading ties. In recent months, significant numbers of people have lost their lives—we will hear more about that in the debate—and many have been injured. The backdrop of the war crimes tribunal means a great deal of tension and unrest, alongside the unrest in the run-up to the elections. Such turmoil should be of grave concern to the international community. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that there is dialogue and an end to the violence.
Turning to the election, half the seats in the January general election were uncontested. Many have complained that the election process was not, by any standards, free and fair. It is deeply disappointing that a significant proportion of the population did not take part or have confidence in the election. Free and fair elections are an essential component of a functional democracy, and when they do not happen it is a disgrace, not least for Bangladesh, which has such a proud history. According to various reports, some 18 people died as a result of election day violence. According to Human Rights Watch, many innocent civilians, including young children, were caught up in the crossfire of violence in the run-up to the elections and on election day.
The EU High Representative, Baroness Cathy Ashton, said that she
“regrets that the main political forces in Bangladesh have been unable to create the necessary conditions for transparent, inclusive and credible elections, despite many efforts, including most recently under UN auspices…The EU remains nonetheless ready to observe the elections should the political conditions allow for the holding of transparent, inclusive and credible elections.”
It is a source of great regret that that has not happened. We need to move forward and ensure that people have confidence in the electoral process and that change occurs.
It is a source of great frustration that the leaders of the major political parties in Bangladesh were not able to reach a compromise that would have led to free and fair elections. The international community’s efforts, whether by the UK Government or my party leadership on successive visits by the current Prime Minister and the main Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, or by the UN, the EU and our American allies, have fallen on deaf ears. With the other international challenges in Syria, the middle east and many other countries, the international community has limited capacity. We need the Government and Opposition parties of Bangladesh to recognise that patience is running out. They need to work together to find a solution that respects the interests of the people of Bangladesh.
Members across the House have raised the issue of minorities. I reiterate my condemnation of the violence, the targeting of minorities—particularly of Hindu communities, but of other communities too—and the burning of villages. That is a disgrace for a country whose history—Bengalis were persecuted when they were a part of Pakistan—is about a fight for minority rights. It is, therefore, a source of great shame that minorities feel persecuted and have experienced persecution. The all-party group on Bangladesh has been working on this issue, and will continue to pursue it vigorously with colleagues across the House and work with the Government to ensure that our voice is strong and united in highlighting that this is of deep concern. The Government must act to protect minorities in Bangladesh.
There are great concerns about how the law enforcement agencies have acted. The law must be enforced in a proportionate manner and people must have the right to protest peacefully. The onus is also on all groups to protest peacefully, and we have all seen that that has not always been the case. The Bangladeshi Government and the Opposition have a responsibility to ensure that their supporters behave with restraint when they protest.
Mrs Main raised the issue of the main leader of the Opposition being essentially under house arrest. That is of grave concern to everyone. Political leaders must have the right to take part in elections. As she rightly said, the pendulum has swung the other way. The cycle of violence, opposition and boycotts of Parliament must come to an end or Bangladesh will remain in a perpetual déjà vu experience of never being able to move on, and history will continue to repeat itself.
Bangladesh has the potential to advance economically. The World Bank states that growth rates are at about 6%, and Goldman Sachs predicts that it could be one of the next 11 countries to become a middle-income country. It has made progress in tackling poverty and improving girls’ education. However, the political dimension to the challenges facing Bangladesh stand to undermine those achievements and the country’s potential. Strategically, it is well placed, with the biggest global markets of India and China on its doorstep, but none of these opportunities are being maximised. Indonesia, another Muslim-majority country, is showing the way, though it too has challenges, with a growing economy and social development, so there is no reason why Bangladesh cannot move forward and achieve—if it gets its political house in order.
I appeal to those in Bangladesh listening to today’s debate to find ways to work together in the interests of the people of Bangladesh and not in partisan, political self-interest. That is the challenge for everyone in Bangladesh, as it is in any country. I hope that, as we move forward, we can work as partners and continue dialogue, despite our frustrations, to try to achieve free and fair elections and move beyond what has happened in recent months.
Will the Minister highlight what representations have been made to the Government of Bangladesh to relay our concerns about the elections and the violence? What discussions have there been with our EU and US allies, as well as the UN, since the elections? What steps will be taken to highlight our concerns? What will happen to our development assistance and trade and investment links with Bangladesh?
As the only person of Bangladeshi-British origin in the House, I take it upon myself to thank all hon. Members for their continued interest in Bangladesh. Despite the frustration that colleagues feel, it is a tribute to them that they continue to take an interest in Bangladesh. It is a country with so much potential, talent and dynamism, and its people want to get on, achieve and progress. Sadly, its politics are holding them back. We are united in wanting to see a future that is peaceful, stable and democratic. I hope we can all work towards that.
What my hon. Friend has said today reflects the wishes of the Bangladeshi community in Coventry. There are a large number of Bangladeshis in my constituency and I think they would appreciate her efforts, since she has entered this House, in the interests of the people of Bangladesh. A lot can be done when people get together—the UN, the UK, the US and others—with good will.
I am not imposing a time limit, but I suggest that hon. Members take about 10 minutes each. If they do, we will get through nicely.
It is a pleasure and, in this context, an honour to follow Rushanara Ali, whose remarks struck exactly the right tone. I also compliment the hon. Members for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate and note the wide interest in it, including from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes, who is unusually silent. He has to remain quiet, being on the Treasury Benches, but I know he has been a great friend to the Bangladeshi and Bengali communities in his constituency.
Today’s debate reflects the traditionally strong cultural, political, business and diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and the UK. We are fellow sovereign states within the Commonwealth, we are allies in the battle against climate change, in the UN framework convention talks and elsewhere, and there remains the strong relationship fostered by the work of the British Government as part of their historic achievement of spending 0.7% of national wealth on overseas development assistance. The £238 million that DFID spent in Bangladesh in 2013-14 has had an enormous impact: 205,000 more births attended by skilled carers who would not have been there otherwise; 295,000 women giving birth more safely and with better care for their infants; 24 million people benefiting from better protection against floods, cyclones and the impact of climate change, thanks to early-warning systems; and millions benefiting from better water and sanitation. This is a proud record and a demonstration of this country’s commitment to the success of Bangladesh. I should also mention our assistance with transparency and anti-corruption measures, supported by the Bangladeshi Government, and championed by the previous Secretary of State for International Development, Mr Mitchell. It is right to pay particular tribute to his commitment to getting value for money for the British taxpayer from that spending in Bangladesh.
It is also right to point out the contribution of the Bangladeshi community to this country. About 500,000 people of Bangladeshi origin live in the UK, employing millions and contributing massively to the British economy and, in particular of course, contributing to British digestion and cuisine. My constituency does not have a huge Bangladeshi community, but its presence in the restaurant trade is still significant. We have the Krori family’s Curry Corner, which rose to national fame through Gordon Ramsay’s television programme; we have Mohammed Rahman’s Spice Lodge, which was a national finalist in the British curry awards and the Tiffin cup, organised in this place; and we have Abdul Mannan’s Brasserie Group, which owns 20 businesses in the Gloucestershire area, employing many people and contributing massively to the local economy. Those people are active members of the local area, supporting communities not only in Cheltenham and Gloucestershire, but back home in Bangladesh—remittances are an important part of the relationship between the two countries. Mr Rahman contributes to primary education, helping students to remain in education, while another constituent, Mr Arosh Ali, has founded a charity to help the Nowder district, and only recently, the wonderful new Koloshi restaurant hosted a fundraising event for victims of the Rana Plaza disaster and advocacy for their rights—another important aspect.
I recently attended the first Bangladesh victory day celebration in Gloucestershire, which saw 300 people gather at Cheltenham race course to remember the history of Bangladesh and to remind people, especially the young generation, of the country’s difficult birth. Millions were displaced and hundreds of thousands—perhaps as many as 3 million—lost their lives in that terrible conflict, which was the birth pang of the state of Bangladesh. Despite its difficult beginnings and years of political violence, however, there are enormous achievements to Bangladesh’s credit: it still has the institutions of democracy and the rule of law, it has, as hon. Members have said, enormous economic potential, and it has achieved a lot in development.
The UN development programme has highlighted the achievements of Bangladesh in reaching many of the millennium development goals—targets set in the 1990s that many people at the time thought were unrealistic for many countries. Bangladesh has reduced the poverty gap ratio from 17% to 6.5% since 1990; attained gender parity at primary and secondary education; reduced under-5 mortality; contained HIV infections through access to antiretroviral drugs; reduced the prevalence of under-weight children, which has nearly halved from a staggering 66% to 36.5%, virtually meeting the 2015 target of 33%; seen increasing enrolment in primary schools; reduced the infant mortality rate, and so on. Many challenges remain—the incidence of poverty is still enormous; hunger and poverty reduction, primary school completion and adult literacy rates are still a challenge; and the creation of a decent wage economy, particularly for women, is also an enormous challenge—but much has been achieved.
As hon. Members have rightly said, this progress will be threatened if a fundamentally peaceful and democratic environment is put at risk. There is no simple solution to this problem and no simple blame to be attributed—I have been lobbied by constituents with views on all sides of the debate between the political parties—but I am afraid that the current election situation fits into a pattern of distrust bred by worrying developments in Bangladeshi democracy. The Foreign Office’s latest human rights report emphasises that politics is still done in a violent and confrontational atmosphere, as has been true for many years, as the hon. Member for St Albans said. The situation has echoes of 2006. Human Rights Watch makes it clear that the Awami League Government have many questions to answer, not just about the controversial decision to abandon the system of caretaker Governments during elections, but about press freedom and the imprisonment of political opponents. The decision to suspend the system of caretaker Governments at election time might have been technically justified—after all, there is an independent electoral commission in Bangladesh supported by the British Government—but it clearly further undermined the confidence of civil society and political parties that the elections could be conducted freely and fairly.
A country that I know well, Pakistan, which shares much history with Bangladesh and many of the sad stories of military takeovers and political parties with bitter differences, agreed on a caretaker Government last year and saw its first transition from one civilian Government to another. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the caretaker system, with the support of the electoral commission, has worked well in Pakistan, it can work well elsewhere, including in Bangladesh?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is not just about the technical merits of electoral commissions or caretaker Governments; it is about building confidence and consensus across the political spectrum.
The Bangladeshi Nationalist party and other opposition parties have to tread carefully too. Boycotting elections, abandoning the democratic high ground of participation and calling for the overthrow of elected Governments is a dangerous path to tread. Opposition groups and activists have clearly been involved in violence, and there have been accusations, particularly against some of the most controversial members of the opposition, including parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami, of violence against Christian and Hindu minorities, which is particularly concerning. However, hon. Members should avoid taking sides too clearly. I spoke to a Bangladeshi constituent this morning who said that the provision of a caretaker Government was no panacea and not necessarily a solution, as the hon. Member for St Albans pointed out. In a lovely phrase, he said that the two ladies, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, held the future of Bangladesh in their hands. It is for those two women to come together and try to overcome this history of hostility and distrust. He said that dialogue was the only solution and that all the progress and potential would be put at risk if it did not happen.
Let me finish by asking the Minister a couple of questions about what practical steps the UK is taking to put pressure on both sides to get that dialogue going and to engage in meaningful negotiation. In particular, are we collaborating with the Government of India in trying to exercise that kind of pressure? Given its success in negotiating issues between Serbia and Kosovo—almost equally unpromising at the time—will we use the offices of the European External Action Service to exercise that pressure? What more can be done for us to make some practical impact on the situation? It would be a tragedy if a country that has suffered so much, yet which has such potential and has achieved so much in many ways, descended into violence yet again.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing the time to debate such an important issue—the debate is indeed timely. Let me thank, too, Mrs Main—perhaps I should say hon. Friend—for helping to ensure that this debate took place and for her excellent chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Bangladesh is the eighth largest country in the world and is an exceptionally important member of the Commonwealth. Closer to home, as I think has been said, there are around half a million British Bangladeshis living in the UK. We have very strong economic links with Bangladesh, and it is important to debate this today.
We are aware, not least from what previous speakers have said, that Bangladesh has a history dominated by political factionalism, which came to a head on
Reference has already been made to the fact that, as a result of the political turmoil, 180 people have died in Bangladesh since October. On election day, 21 deaths occurred and 47 constituencies were forced to shut down their voting stations because of the violence. It has been reported that voting booths were set on fire and that mob intimidation was commonplace. It is not surprising that the electoral turnout was exceptionally low; people were genuinely afraid of injury or death. As a result, Bangladesh’s economy and its general infrastructure has received a destructive blow and I am seriously concerned that if action is not taken soon, we could see a rapid deterioration.
Is my hon. Friend as alarmed as I am that the International Monetary Fund has, as a result of many of the things he has mentioned, downgraded the Bangladeshi growth forecasts into 2014?
I was not aware of that, but growth is a major concern to which I shall return, and I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point.
I have three main worries for Bangladesh at this time. The first is the impact on the country’s democracy. We are extremely fortunate in this country that we have a relatively peaceful political culture. That has grown over many years and generations, not by accident but through co-operation and the determination to have peaceful elections. We accept that the winner of our elections has the right to govern. Bangladesh is a young country—it was created in 1971—and it has been steadily making progress on building democracy. We should celebrate that, but I am concerned that this particular election may well derail democracy there. The irony is that the people of Bangladesh are crying out for their voices to be heard.
The hon. Gentleman may remember from our trip, as I do, the memorable scenes when we drove out from Dhaka when for miles and miles we saw people—in fact supporting one political party—queuing up in expectation of their leaders. Is not the great failure here that a nation of people who love democracy is in effect being betrayed by their political leaders.
That is an excellent point. The impression one gets from visiting Bangladesh is, as the hon. Gentleman says, that people have a strong desire for democratic politics and view politics in a positive light. It seems almost ironic that we should end up with the country in the position it is in now.
My second major concern about Bangladesh is the violence. I am worried that violence could escalate even further in the coming weeks and months. We have seen from around the world that when opposition groups are excluded from the political process, there is a risk of the more moderate groups being squeezed out, with extremists on all sides gaining greater prominence. We can see that from experience in Northern Ireland and, more recently, in Syria.
In the elections he encountered on his visit to Bangladesh, did the issue of the maintenance of a secular constitution come up? Does he agree that an important fact in the country’s history is that it is a secular constitutional democracy?
That issue did not come up during my visit, so far as I can recall, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that this could be viewed as a healthy aspect of Bangladesh’s politics.
My third and final worry concerns economic development. In recent years, as has been pointed out, the country has made great strides forward in that respect. Gross domestic product growth has been at 6.1% and Bangladesh is on track to meet the goal of halving income poverty by 2015. Despite that, Bangladesh is not a rich country. As I have seen for myself, millions live in desperate poverty.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that when we were in Bangladesh, we saw some excellent factories that were internationally run but, as Rushanara Ali said, we also saw sweatshops. If Bangladesh does not want to go back to being an immensely poor country full of sweatshops, it needs international buyers, but they are being scared by all these problems.
The hon. Lady is exactly right. I was coming on to make the point that if this political instability continues, there will be real concerns for Bangladesh’s economic development. The constant strikes, boycotts, violence and sabotage will cost the country literally millions of pounds in lost productivity.
So what next? The first thing that needs to happen is an end to the violence by both sides and the reopening of dialogue, at least between the two major parties, which need to agree on a way forward to end the current uncertainty. Hon. Members will be aware that other countries in the international community—the United States, Canada and the European Union—have already called for fresh elections. I would urge our Government to take a similar view and to press for that to happen. International observers should be present at elections and I believe that there should be an interim caretaker Government.
Whatever route is taken, it is clear that the welfare of the people of Bangladesh must be the top priority. Bangladesh can be a model for other countries to follow, but it must first leave behind the factionalism and the division that has haunted its politics. Most ordinary people in Bangladesh are tired of the bickering and the violence; what they want is a better life for themselves and their families. I believe that it is time for the voices of those people to be heard. Bangladesh must focus on the future, and not dwell on the past.
I thank Simon Danczuk for his initiative in enabling Members to comment on the situation in
Bangladesh. I also echo others in thanking the chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh, my hon. Friend Mrs Main, who has earned the trust and the gratitude of Members through her exceptional leadership of a group that has covered a number of important issues during the past few years.
I listened with particular interest to Rushanara Ali, who spoke with great expertise about this topic, as she does about many others, and I shall begin my speech where she began hers. The impact of the terrible situation in Bangladesh can be measured by the disruption, violence and deaths that affect the lives of ordinary Bengalis in Bangladesh, and also by the natural sympathies and empathies that British Bengalis feel in relation to not just their family members and people from their villages, but the future of their country, given the direction that it has taken under the current political leadership of the Government and Opposition parties.
Effective democracies require good governance, and good governance requires not just the letter but the spirit of the constitution to be followed. Constitutions are not dry documents on which the ink settled many years ago; they are living documents, and they are given life by the people and partisans who take on public life in democracies to achieve a better outcome for their constituents and their countries. If politicians are to operate effectively, a discourse must take place between the leaders of political parties. Beyond the clash of personalities and the partisanship of party labels, there must be a fundamental understanding of the operation of politics to which both political parties acquiesce, and that requires compromise. It is clear that such a situation has not existed in Bangladesh in the recent past.
As many Members have observed, the present situation in Bangladesh cannot be viewed in isolation from the sequence of events that led to it. What appeared to many members of the all-party group over the past few years to be a drift away from democracy now appears to be an active pursuit of one-party or one-coalition rule. Let me list the steps that have been taken that I believe point to there being an active strategy, rather than an unconnected series of events.
Many Members have rightly observed that we should look at the actions of both political parties and should not take sides. That is fair, but only up to a point. I believe that a particular responsibility lies with the governing party of the day. As I list these steps, I think it will become clear, in the case of each of them, that there were decisions to be made, that those decisions were made by the governing party and that, as a result, that governing party is accountable for them. I hope that the Minister will convey to us some of his thoughts about the actions that he would like the current Government of Bangladesh to have undertaken in each instance.
Let me begin by describing the actions of the Rapid Action Battalion. Like many organisations, it was organised with good intentions—the purpose was to crack down on crime—but, in effect, it is an extra-judicial squad that goes around randomly arresting people and potentially involving itself in wide-ranging corruption. It has a habit of killing ordinary civilians in what Human Rights Watch has euphemistically called “crossfire”. By 2010, more than 600 people had been reported to have been killed by the Rapid Action Battalion in such “crossfire” incidents. Its action has continued, and the Awami League-led Government have shown no ability whatsoever to bring it under control.
Imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, an extra-judicial killing squad roaming around the countryside in Epping Forest or other parts of our United Kingdom, and the Government of the day not taking any action as a result. I think that serious questions would be asked in the House and that the whole of our free society would require the Government to take action, but that has not happened in Bangladesh.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will confirm that serious questions have been raised for years about the integrity of the Rapid Action Battalion and the way in which it has operated. That has happened under both Governments, which makes it doubly depressing that the force seems still to be operating with total impunity.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. When issues persist under this Government, he rightly asks the Government questions in the House about how they are dealing with them—that is the right thing to do. Responsibility now lies with the Government in Bangladesh, who are allowing that force to continue its extra-judicial killing.
I agree with much of the hon. Gentleman’s powerful speech. Is he aware that people who in are exile from Bangladesh following the most recent elections have themselves made allegations about the behaviour of the Rapid Action Battalion? One man said that he had been forced to leave the country as a result of a threat issued by the RAB that was simply, “Either you disappear from this country, or you will disappear.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to my attention. I think that it emphasises the need for accountability on the part of the Bangladesh Government, and the need for them to bring that force under control.
The second instance in which decisions were made and actions were required involves the sequence of political disappearances in Bangladesh. That, too, has been continuing for a number of years under different political parties. However, when a series of what might be called junior political operators—people who have just become involved in politics—start to disappear, it is the responsibility of any Government to take that very seriously indeed. It is their responsibility to use all the resources at their disposal to try to identify the circumstances that led to those disappearances, to find out who was responsible for them, and to bring whoever was responsible to justice.
This issue has particular poignancy for me because of the disappearance of Ilias Ali, the former Member of Parliament for Bishwanath. I met him in 2011 when he visited Bedford and brought to my attention the growing problem of political disappearances in Bangladesh. I listened to him intently. I was getting to know him and I thought that he was an interesting fellow, but I sort of thought, “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you, because you are from the political opposition.” I wish that I had listened to him more. Then, in 2012, I saw him in Sylhet. He said “Richard, I am worried about the disappearance of one of my student political leaders.” I was a bit more concerned on that occasion, but I wish that I had listened to him then, because two weeks later, he himself disappeared.
Even now, no one knows what has happened to Ilias Ali. I do not believe that the Bangladeshi Government are wantonly trying to avoid bringing people to justice, but I do hold the Government of the day accountable for continuing political disappearances in a state that they are supposed to be governing.
Let me now give my third example. We have talked a little about the war crimes trials in Bangladesh. They, too, were begun with the best of intentions, with the aim of bringing about reconciliation; indeed, the international community was very happy with the structures that were established. It has taken a long time for the people involved in the wars of liberation in Bangladesh to be brought to trial.
I consider any system of justice that ends in the death penalty to be inherently flawed, because I do not believe in the death penalty as any form of justice. Notwithstanding the potential death penalty, however, the war crimes trials went from auspicious beginnings to become a very tainted process. Indeed, The Economist reported that the chief justice, Mohammed Huq, had to resign after he had
“prohibited contact with the prosecution and Government officials.”
The process was further tainted when the rules of trial, which permitted providing for a life sentence, were rewritten so that a death penalty could be imposed on someone, who was subsequently hanged. That undermines people’s faith that, when they are looking for justice, the Government of the day are on their side.
My hon. Friend is making a hugely powerful speech. War crimes were carried out on all sides, in effect, and there have been major accusations about retaliations and retributions, and that only certain people are being pursued for their crimes, rather than there being a process of looking at the crimes as a whole and holding people to account regardless of the party they happen to be involved in. That is not justice either.
The chair of the all-party group makes a powerful point that adds to this picture of a sequence of actions that were impacting on political and everyday society in Bangladesh. It was the responsibility of the Government of the day to handle and manage that, but they failed to do so. With the elections and the situation in Bangladesh, a clear thread can be drawn through all activities and actions up to the present day.
On the point about the war crimes tribunals, when representatives of the Awami League in Birmingham came to see me, I made the point that they were responsible for the rules that enabled the death penalty to be used for an Opposition politician. It is clear that that fits within the pattern that has been put forward by the hon. Gentleman.
I appreciate that intervention from my hon. Friend.
The fourth aspect that the House needs to consider is the issue of the caretaker Government system, which other Members have mentioned. My hon. Friend the
Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) said that that works in other countries. It is perfectly legitimate for countries to determine how they want to handle their own elections, and it is not for the House to tell another country how it should handle its elections, but it is certainly a responsibility of this House to say how effective those systems are in maintaining and promoting democracy, because we have an interest in promoting freedom and democracy around the world, and certainly in countries that are fellow members of the Commonwealth.
The all-party group has persistently called on the current Government in Bangladesh to install a caretaker Government system. Again, the decision was taken by the Government, not the Opposition. The Opposition leader wanted to see that system, but it was the Government who refused to introduce it—there was an obstinate refusal to accept the caretaker Government system. We did not need to have the wisdom of Solomon to understand where we were heading two years ago into this election, and to know that if Bangladesh did not have a caretaker Government system, it would end up in its present situation. That, again, is a responsibility of the current Government in Bangladesh.
I will not, as I know that other Members wish to speak.
My final point is about political arrests and detentions. In circumstances in which there were just one or two instances, and if they were connected to a particular crime, a functioning democracy could operate an election—that can work. However, if such a thing is persistent and not tied to a particular criminal act, and if the leader of a political party is detained in their own home, how on earth can an effective election be held? People might say that locking up some of our political leaders here might help our election chances—my hon. Friends might think it could help them in the 2015 election. Seriously, however, how on earth can we believe that the international community is going to say that there has been a free and fair election if the leader of the leading opposition party is not permitted to leave her own home?
These are a series of indictments against the current Bangladesh Government: the failure to secure and limit the extra-judicial killing by the Rapid Action Battalion; the failure to follow up the disappearances of a wide range of people involved in politics; the tainting of what should have been war crimes trials that could have brought the country together; the obstinate refusal to permit a caretaker Government; and the arrest and detention of political opponents.
Let me finally talk about some actions that I would like to see. It is appropriate for the Department for International Development to review its expenditure in Bangladesh, but I urge the Minister to ensure that our response to the political turmoil in Bangladesh does not harm the interests of ordinary Bengalis who need support through the alleviation of poverty. Secondly, despite what I have said, I urge the UK Government to continue to work with the Government of Bangladesh to pursue a solution to the current turmoil. Four steps are required, however: the full release of political detainees; the installation of a caretaker Government; the disbanding of the Rapid Action Battalion and an external investigation into its activities; and more work and more investment from the UK to strengthen business and trade with Bangladesh, in order to promote entrepreneurship and the growth of business, because that can be the strongest bulwark in the defence of freedom in countries around the world. If we can achieve those four things, they will provide a more effective transition to a peaceful future and a new election in Bangladesh than hoping that somehow, after decades of hostility, the two political leaders themselves will miraculously come up with the solution through discussions.
It is a pleasure to follow Richard Fuller, who is an active member of the all-party group and demonstrates his deep knowledge of the issues we are discussing. I congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk on his initiative in securing this debate from the Backbench Business Committee and welcome the support from the chair of the all-party group, Mrs Main. I also commend her on the way in which she framed this debate in her excellent opening contribution which was balanced, constructive and informed, and demonstrates why she is our leader as chair of the group. We are very grateful for the work she puts into making it as active and involved as it is.
What we are hearing is shared despair at the situation in Bangladesh. I am a vice-chair of the all-party group and I have visited the country on five occasions. I have some 15,000-plus constituents in Poplar and Limehouse whose family are from Bangladesh. Some of them support the Awami League and others support the Bangladesh Nationalist party, and I suspect there are even some who support Jamaat.
My wife is a trustee of the Sreepur village orphanage in Bangladesh and I am a patron. It has being going for 25 years this year and looks after 1,000 destitute mums and kids in Bangladesh. We in Britain are proud of it because it was founded by a British Airways stewardess, Pat Kerr, and promoted by the BBC and British Airways. I also did a two-week stint in Dhaka in Bangladesh in 2008 with my wife on Voluntary Service Overseas. As an aside, I add that my most memorable headline was secured during that visit when, as part of our activities with the non-governmental organisation to which we were attached, we visited Bangladesh’s largest legal brothel, with 1,800 prostitutes, to look at the sexual health advice and the anti-HIV/AIDS activity it was promoting. The headline in the Dhaka Daily Star the next morning was “British Aviation Minister visits brothel.” That was not the most encouraging information No. 10 received that September, but I still managed to front the Labour Government’s initiative on additional aviation capacity in the south-east, which fortunately the Davies commission now seems to be agreeing with. I have strong connections with Bangladesh, therefore.
The international reaction from Washington, Beijing, Brussels and the UN has been consistent, as it has been in the Chamber today. All are calling for calm, for dialogue and for a fresh approach.
Many Members have pointed out that Bangladesh is a young democracy, that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and that it suffers greatly from climate change, but it also has strong international support, and it has made dynamic economic progress in its young history and demonstrated great generosity and spirit. That is what makes recent events doubly disappointing, especially after the 2008 election, which had a turnout of nearly 90% and was declared to have been free and fair.
Subsequent problems have arisen over the war crimes tribunal, the international caretaker electoral arrangements, the use of the death penalty—the hon. Member for Bedford mentioned the adjustments to that—the use of punishments, the unprovoked violence from political extremists and the concerns about overreaction. These have all conspired to exacerbate the problems facing Bangladesh.
Given the progress made since the 1971 war of independence, the country’s political leaders have serious questions to answer. Both the main political parties have demonstrated immaturity and petulance. The Awami League and the BNP have both boycotted Parliament after election defeats, but both came to their senses. The representation by the hon. Member for St Albans of the history of the problems of the Governments and the different systems involved was a fair one. She demonstrated the open support in this House and across Britain for the Bangladeshi political parties to get together to resolve their difficulties. The challenge for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League is how to reach out to Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP and rebuild confidence. Without stabilisation, Bangladesh’s world standing could be reduced, which would harm its economy. No one wants to see that outcome.
Yesterday, I and other colleagues met minority groups based in the UK. They were citizens demonstrating in Parliament square to raise their concerns about the violent attacks on Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and others in Bangladesh, which occur regularly at election time. Those attacks must be condemned. Jamaat supporters have been accused of orchestrating a lot of them, but whatever their source, they must be stopped. Both the main parties need to do more to protect the minority communities and to condemn all political, ethnic, religious or cultural violence.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Jamaat. He must have seen the recent statement that Jamaat will not be able to contest any elections in future. If that is the case, might it not result in further violence in Bangladesh? We have only to look at what has happened elsewhere with the Muslim Brotherhood; if it goes underground, there is more likelihood of violence, and that needs to be addressed.
That is a genuine concern. The right balance must be struck in regard to political freedom and the free expression of ideas through democracy, argument and reasoning, and the possible defeat of those ideas at the ballot box. Jamaat has not been prohibited in Bangladesh, although it has been accused of being a terrorist organisation. One would oppose the ambition of some in Bangladesh to create an Islamist republic, but I understand that it is something that some people want. However, they form a tiny minority. In the last election, I think Jamaat got less than 4% of the popular vote. That demonstrates Bangladesh’s great support for its democracy and its secularism.
I do not think that the political parties in Bangladesh need to be frightened or provoked by Jamaat, or stampeded by it. Arguments can be made that will beat it through the electoral process. The BNP has been in alliance with it, and many commentators are calling on that party to dissociate itself from Jamaat in order to create more political space. I understand that, historically, the Awami League had an alliance with Jamaat. These days, however, Jamaat is putting forward a much clearer political point of view, and the main parties should all dissociate themselves from it and let it stand on its own two feet.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend Richard Fuller have said so far. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in order to build trust and ensure that there are fresh elections, the institution of a caretaker Government will be necessary?
I believe that the calls for new elections are premature at this point. Holding elections immediately would only play into the hands of those who have tried to sabotage the recent ones. The international community has a job to do in stabilising relations within Bangladesh, in giving support to the BNP and the Awami League, and in creating a climate in which elections can take place. I cannot see the Awami League staying in power for a full five-year term; that would be against the spirit of what has happened so far, and against the spirit of what has been said in the Chamber today. It will be very difficult to get to a situation in which elections can take place, however.
I want to make it clear that it is important for new elections to be held in the near future. The last election did not confer legitimacy. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it would be okay to go on for two or three years before having a new election, or should one be held within months, as happened in 1996?
The timing of a new election is difficult. I do not think it should be five years hence; it should be held within weeks or months, but I think it will take a bit longer than that. A certain political climate has existed in Bangladesh for several months now, as the all-party group’s visit in September confirmed, and it would not be in Bangladesh’s best interests to call an election now. However, I understand the ambition—and I support the call—for free and fair elections to give greater validity to whoever is in power.
The recent election has produced nothing but losers. The Awami League has lost some of its moral authority, the BNP clearly lost the election, and Bangladesh has lost some of its international reputation because of its damaged democracy. However, online reports yesterday from The Daily Star in Bangladesh seem to offer some hope. The reports of consensus talks and co-operation between the Awami League and the BNP are encouraging, but there is a long way to go.
In conclusion, I too want to ask the Minister what contact the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have had with their Bangladeshi counterparts. What message are we sending to Dhaka and to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina? Everyone, including the British Government, our high commissioner in Dhaka and the
Bangladeshi high commissioner here, wants to see peace and a healthy, secular democracy thriving in Bangladesh. Getting there will be very challenging, however, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.
It is a pleasure to follow Jim Fitzpatrick, who has a long, distinguished history with the people of Bangladesh. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Main and Simon Danczuk on initiating the debate through the Backbench Business Committee, and on giving Members an opportunity to express their views on this important matter.
I start from the principle that we should exercise caution when commenting on another country unless we have had a chance to visit it and see the situation on the ground at first hand. I had the good fortune to visit Bangladesh some 18 months ago, as part of a trip organised by the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh. My hon. Friends the Members for St Albans and for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and I saw at first hand many of the issues that have been raised today. I have to say that the Parliament in Bangladesh was bizarre. We three Members were greeted almost like visiting royalty. We were presented to the Parliament, which was half empty, and witnessed its Prime Minister’s question time. It was a far cry from what we experience in this House each week. Questions to Government Ministers were scripted and delivered by Government Back Benchers only. No members of the Opposition asked any questions whatever of the Prime Minister, because they were not there—
Indeed. Clearly, a fledgling democracy that has not yet established itself into a proper parliamentary democracy had taken adversarial politics to the extreme.
We had the opportunity of meeting all three party leaders, and it was clear to me that there is bitter hatred between them and no sense of co-operation between the parties, which is a problem for a parliamentary democracy. It can work in a military dictatorship because it does not matter there, but the proper orders of priority are needed in a parliamentary democracy.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reminder.
I also think there was complacency from the Government of the day. I remember their Chief Whip telling us, “Don’t worry, when we come to those elections the BNP will not boycott them because they fear losing their seats.” That Government believed that they could bend and twist things but everything would be all right and there would be an election. They expected not only that they would win that election, but that the BNP would bow and participate fully in it. Clearly, that view was misguided and wrong, and it has led directly to the current impasse.
Other hon. Members have referred to the violent history of Bangladesh—how it began and what has happened—and I do not intend to dwell on that because it has been well covered. Although Bangladesh has advanced economically, the bitter poverty that exists there must be addressed. We were able to see children from the slums attending a school, and the only clothes they had were those donated by British non-governmental organisations—
Indeed. It was a great thing to see those children being educated, to give them a chance of a better life, but the poverty in the whole of the country is extreme and must be addressed.
We also witnessed the problems caused by the risk of earthquakes, and I will never forget my hon. Friend being winched down the outside of a building in a rehearsal of what could happen in an earthquake. It took great courage for her to carry out that act—I am not sure she was aware of what was going to happen when she was put into the winch in the first place. That demonstrated to us that the Bangladesh Government are making preparations to deal with natural crises that could occur.
Bangladesh’s infrastructure, however, is horrendous. Dhaka’s traffic is probably the worst in the world, as the city is permanently gridlocked, and the condition of the roads is a disgrace. I cannot forget the 12-hour trip we took by rutted road from Sylhet to Dhaka—my body has not recovered since. The key point to make is that there is a great opportunity for investment in the country’s infrastructure, which will improve the ability of farmers and industrialists to produce the goods that will drive forward the country’s major economy.
DFID funding must be at centre of our thoughts, because it is where we can bring pressure to bear. We saw how DFID and Government funding has enabled cataracts to be treated in the outlying communities in a way that shamed our national health service. People who have the first signs of blindness as a result of cataracts can be spotted and then treated quickly for the princely sum of £27 per eye. That shows that when a good project is implemented it can be done properly and effectively, and is a demonstrable example of what can be done elsewhere.
However, DFID funding—to the tune of £5 million a year, I believe—has also gone towards community workshops to build community capability. Clearly that has not worked, because if it had the parliamentary elections and democracy in Bangladesh would be far better. I hope that DFID will review that funding. When we returned 18 months ago, we questioned whether the money was being used in the best way possible, given that other projects could clearly be organised through NGOs to provide a better future for the people of Bangladesh. Those issues must be addressed and the funding needs to be reviewed, so that we bring pressure to bear on the Government in Bangladesh. We need to say, “If you do not make sure that the rights of minorities and of the country are protected, we will have to reconsider whether that funding continues.” I must add a word of caution, because the money that goes to the NGOs is being spent extremely wisely, well and effectively; it is the money given to the Government to spend that is of great cause for concern, for not only our taxpayers, but the people of Bangladesh.
The current persecution of minorities, with the murders of Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and other minorities, is an absolute disgrace. We should condemn those murders outright. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will take up the issue, and make sure and demonstrate to the Government of Bangladesh that these things cannot be allowed to continue, in any shape or form. Any representations should be made through our Foreign Secretary and our embassy. The rights of those individuals are paramount and they must be allowed to continue to celebrate their religion, their ethnicity, their background and their history.
Finally, I think that there is a potential way forward for the future. I was a bit disturbed to receive an e-mail from the BNP about the situation in Bangladesh—I differentiate the BNP of Bangladesh from the pernicious, evil organisation that exists in this country, but I was not sure at the time which had sent me this e-mail. The leaders of two major political parties in Bangladesh hate each other and will not co-operate in any shape or form, but surely there is an opportunity for the Commonwealth and for the British Government to play a role in bringing together the disparate parties in Bangladesh and hammering out a deal. Such a deal would allow a caretaker Government to proceed; and it would allow us to move towards free and fair elections in the near, but not necessarily immediate, future, in order to allow the fledgling democracy of Bangladesh to flourish and to encourage and promote a Parliament in Bangladesh that mirrors how we operate in this country. That would entail free and frank exchanges, an opportunity for the Opposition the criticise the Government and the opportunity of saying, “That will be done in a fair way” It would also entail the freedom of the press.
At the moment, press freedom is seriously threatened, because politicians and journalists disappear and nobody knows where they have gone, whether they have been arrested or whether they are still alive. A situation of fear breeds uncertainty and the worst case scenario. I ask our Foreign Secretary and our Ministers to make representations to the Bangladeshi Government, asking them to come to their senses and reach a negotiated settlement, so that there can be a bright and prosperous future for the people of Bangladesh, because the young people there deserve it.
Along with others, I welcome this debate, and pay tribute to those who applied for it and to the all-party group on Bangladesh. I have a substantial, but not huge, Bangladeshi community in my constituency, and I have had close relationships with them and with the wider Bangladesh community for all the time I have been an MP.
I agree that we cannot change the tragedy of the history of Bangladesh, but it is worth recalling a couple of highly significant points in its history. It was originally created as East Pakistan during the tragedy of partition in 1947, and there was a tragic loss of so many lives during the wars that followed. To divide a country called Pakistan by 1,000 miles of another country was inevitably going to lead to an unstable relationship and problems. The many uprisings in what later became Bangladesh against Pakistani rule and the abuse of power by the authorities in East Pakistan led to the war in 1971, and eventually the success of the Mukti Bahini forces, which brought about the independence and recognition of Bangladesh.
It is true that disgraceful atrocities were committed during that war and that very large numbers of people died. It is also absolutely correct that those who commit atrocities should be brought to justice however long that takes. That surely is what we believe in when we hold international war crimes tribunals. In that sense, it is right that the Government of Bangladesh, led by Sheikh Hasina, set up the war crimes tribunal. My concern, and that of many others, was over the difficulties that international observers faced in observing those trials. Concerns were expressed about them and the execution of one very prominent person that followed the tribunal. Apparently, there was indifference by the Government of Bangladesh to universal concerns around the world about the use of the death penalty. Let me reiterate that I for one cannot accept the death penalty in any circumstances or on any occasion. The message has to be that justice and the judicial system must be seen to be independent. However, I endorse the point that Governments are entitled to operate a war crimes tribunal and use their judiciary to look at atrocities that have been committed. They should also ensure that all witnesses and legal representatives are secure and safe, that there are international observers and that international norms are followed.
The more recent history of Bangladesh is about the economic problem that the country faces. It has a large population and is one of the largest countries in the world. It faces enormous environmental challenges from water supply—either over-supply or under-supply of fresh water—and the problems of managing a river system that emanates from a neighbouring country and of rising sea levels and the dangerous floods that occur as a result.
Bangladesh also has an economic model that is difficult to sustain. It wants to become part of the world trade system by exporting garments, and I applaud that, but the problem is that with the beggar thy neighbour policies of the World Trade Organisation, the garment industry quickly moves itself from one low-wage economy to another, to another and so on. We now have the prospect of Chinese companies opening factories in Bangladesh because wages in China, while very low, are relatively high compared with Bangladesh. If Bangladesh then raises its wages to any decent level, the danger is that the garment industry will up sticks and go somewhere else. We have to think about the cheap clothes that we buy on the high streets of this country, and indeed of the United States and the rest of Europe, and the appalling working conditions that are behind all that.
That was the focus of the all-party report. The few extra dollars or pence that would be needed to give a fair wage was not an issue to those who were involved in the garment industry. It was the whole infrastructure deficit that was more likely to drive businesses away. The problem is not in paying the workers in Bangladesh but in the Government not tackling the infrastructure deficit, which is making businesses question their presence there.
To its credit, the Government of Bangladesh did increase the basic minimum wage, and that was welcome. None the less, I have attended meetings with the International Labour Organisation and trade unions from this country and Bangladesh about the abominable working conditions and safety of buildings, to which the hon. Lady rightly drew our attention, and the loss of life as a result of fire. We must bear all that in mind.
Before I conclude, let me turn to the violence that has been committed against human rights activists and religious and ethnic minorities, and to the numbers of people who have disappeared over the last few months and years. There can be no acceptance anywhere in the world that it is legitimate to persecute people. In the case of Bangladesh, the persecuted happen to be Christians or Hindus, but it would be no more correct for any other society to pursue and persecute people because they are Muslims. Surely the norm of the United Nations universal declaration of 1948 was that one accepts and respects religious and ethnic diversity in any and every society. I welcome the fact that Bangladesh’s constitution of 1971 is a secular one and guarantees rights of religious assembly and religious freedom, but the reality is that forces and gangs—in some cases funded elsewhere, and in some cases parastatal—have been killing and persecuting religious minorities, which is simply not acceptable. We must send out a strong message to that effect.
My final point is about how a democracy works. A democracy works if there is an open, free and fair electoral system. It also requires an independent judiciary, an independent media, security for those who are reporting, and the right of assembly and of free speech. All those things have been challenged in Bangladesh, and the violence and the deaths that we have seen are simply not acceptable.
When the election took place, the Awami League was inevitably going to win it, because the Opposition simply did not participate. I have read the Awami League report on the elections, and I can kind of see the point that it is making, but it hardly confers legitimacy on a Government when the Opposition do not take part, so we can hardly say that it was a democratic representation of the will of the people. Indeed, I have had it said to me by people in the London Bangladeshi community that the BNP might well have won the election had it taken part. I do not know whether that is the case, but we do know that the current impasse has to be broken in some way. There have to be talks with all the parties and there has to be freedom of movement of all political leaders and an acceptance that that is really not a credible way for the Government of Bangladesh to continue to behave. It is not for us to say what should happen, but if there are to be legitimate talks with all political parties and representatives, there is likely to be a call for fresh elections.
Human rights, peace and democracy are at stake. Sadly, many of the very poorest people in Bangladesh live in disgraceful and appalling conditions. Working conditions are appalling and we look to a strong democracy in Bangladesh and support from the rest of the world to conquer that poverty and bring about a decent life for the people of Bangladesh. That is what the war of 1971 was about. It was not about the discrimination and the killing of people because of their views.
It is good to follow Jeremy Corbyn, who gave a good résumé of the history of Bangladesh. I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Main and Simon Danczuk for securing this debate.
My interest in the country stems from the fact that I was an EU election observer in 2008, along with Dr Charles Tannock, Nirj Deva and Koenraad Dillen from the Netherlands. What was interesting, and perhaps depressing in many respects, was the great hope that came after those elections. Before them, there had been a huge amount of electoral fraud in the country. In 2008, we saw one of the best electoral rolls ever seen anywhere in the world. There were 80 million photographs of the individuals who were to cast their votes. I expected the electoral roll to contain rather fuzzy pictures from which one might not be able to recognise the voter, but I can assure the House that, although the photographs were quite small they were recognisable.
That election was carried out in a pretty free and fair way, resulting in a landslide for the Awami League. In a way, that is what brought about many of the problems we see today. I find it depressing. In 2008, Sheikh Hasina was under house arrest under the then military Government. She was released to take part in the election, and there was talk about whether the military were going to back off from the government of Bangladesh. All those things came about and there was a transition to a form of democratic Government. As other hon. Members have said today, when we are in government we are not always delighted to get a lot of opposition from the Opposition, but that is how democracy works and how we are held to account. Once a party has 80% or 90% of the seats, there is no opposition. It becomes a dictatorship, albeit by a different route. That is what is fundamentally wrong with what is happening in Bangladesh today. It is ironic that Sheikh Hasina is treating her opponents in exactly the same way as she was treated.
I know that it is not always easy to find the Nelson Mandelas of this world in every country, but there comes a time when it would be lovely if someone could stand up and say, “Let’s learn from the past, let’s forgive and let’s have some reconciliation.” The trouble is that that is not happening. Members have clearly made the point today that Bangladesh needs a Government who can rule on behalf of all the people. We want Bangladesh to remain a secular country; we do not want to see the persecution and even perhaps the murder of Christians and Hindus. Those are things that we cannot accept.
It is very difficult for us, as I am sure the Minister is aware—particularly if we are seen in some ways to be the old colonial power—to say that we will tell people how to run their country and how to run a democracy. We have had a form of democracy for 500 or 600 years —or even, one might argue, for nearly 1,000 years, although that is not to say that I think that William the Conqueror was particularly democratic. It has taken us a long time to get to where we are and some might argue that our democracy is not entirely perfect even now, but younger countries with huge divisions find it more difficult to have a democracy. However difficult it is for us to intervene, what we can say is that we give a great deal of money to help Bangladesh and we must consider how the money given to the Government is spent. We expect the Government of that country to show some recognition of human rights, recognition of a free press and respect for opposition. The Minister has the wisdom of Solomon and will, I am sure, be able to provide all the ideas we need, but we need to put the pressure on.
We must also remember, as other Members have said, that the people of Bangladesh are very hard working. They are very poor yet they will work hard to bring themselves out of poverty. We must help them by targeting the areas where we want the Government to change rather than targeting the people. That is always difficult.
Bangladesh is almost one huge river valley, so the soil is very fertile but also prone to flooding. Building anywhere is difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans made the point that many of the buildings are not structurally sound because of what they have been built on and how they have been built.
Should we as individuals boycott clothing made in Bangladesh? I do not believe that we should, because it makes the situation worse, but we need some checks and balances on where those clothes have come from, what the factories are like, how the workers are treated, how they are paid and what sort of conditions they are in. We are right to debate that in the House.
I agree with Jim Fitzpatrick that it is not our duty in this House to tell Bangladesh when the next election should be, but we should not ignore the situation. We cannot ignore a Government who were not elected in a free and fair way in the recent elections. If fewer than half the seats are being contested, that is no way to run any form of democracy, and if vengeance is then to be taken on political opponents, that is no way to run a country. Let us put the pressure on where we can and say to Bangladesh that it has to change its ways and go back to the ballot box. The timing is for Bangladesh to decide, but we and the international community must add to the pressure.
I am delighted to have been able to make this speech although I am disappointed that the great hope of 2009, with the landslide and Sheikh Hasina coming into power, has not delivered what we want for Bangladesh. We should not walk away from Bangladesh now, however, as we have to support it through these difficult times. Ultimately, the country has a bright future.
It is right that we in this country, in all humility but with an active sense of participation, should work for the peace, stability, good governance and prosperity of the people of Bangladesh, not just because of the great warmth felt towards the Bangladeshi community living in this country but because Bangladesh has a fantastic series of opportunities to succeed in the forthcoming years. If we get the governance of Bangladesh right, the generation that is growing up there now could see its nation pushing towards becoming a middle income country and tackling many of the issues that will arise as a result of climate change.
I am reminded today that the transition to a democratic system is not just about how people vote but about all sorts of other forms of civic engagement and processes. Becoming a democratic country does not just require majority rule; it also requires minority rights. It requires a political system that emerges, respects differences and tolerates alternative opinions. At its heart, it should require people to come together in a way that does not ignore difference but says that there is a future available to a country that would not be birthed without people coming together to achieve those aims.
Today, our thoughts are dominated by the concerns about the 10th general election, held on
The tension between the Awami League and the BNP led to around half the seats going uncontested. Of course, it is a feature and not a bug of the Bangladeshi political system that the first-past-the-post system further accentuates the disconnect between the proportion of people voting for one party and the number of seats it wins. It has led to a pendulum effect, with power going backwards and forwards between the parties.
I associate myself with the sentiment expressed by Richard Fuller when he warned against falling into the trap of thinking that it is six of one and half a dozen of another, because it is not about choosing sides. Fundamentally, it is about saying that our political leaders have a responsibility, when given the opportunity, to set the conditions. It is not just about what benefits us in our parties; it is about the long-term prosperity of a nation.
Setting the right tone is incredibly important. That is something we need to be aware of in this House, which is why I hope that today’s debate will be welcomed by all those with a genuine interest in the future of the Bangladeshi people. We offer it in a spirit of humility, acknowledging that in no country are democratic processes perfect—we are all trying to improve things. However, where attention can be drawn to human rights abuses, where, as hon. Members have said today, concerns point towards a system in which injustice can be institutionalised, and where the abuse of power can lead to large groups of people feeling completely frozen out of the democratic process, it is right to point that out and condemn the situation that allows it to come about.
It has been asked today whether it was right to press on with the election or whether it would have been better to have an interim Administration until such time as full and free democratic elections could be held. I think that it was right that, as a nation, we chose to put out a series of statements making it clear that we did not believe that the election was free and fair, but surely the time ahead will be vital.
Today’s debate is taking place in the Parliament of a country that has strong links with the Bangladeshi nation, not least through the diaspora in our constituencies and communities. If we ever needed a statement on the incredible strides that that young nation—young demographically and young given its date of birth—can make, we need only look to the entrepreneurial spirit of the many people of Bangladeshi origin in our nation. They are a fantastic group of people and a fantastic work force. They are working incredibly hard, delivering the kind of growth that Bangladesh will need to see in the coming years to tackle many of its problems.
Those people in our communities will rightly say that for the world community to look on Bangladesh as though it should not have to live up to our expectations of democratic nations is deeply offensive to its people. Sometimes we view parts of the world as though they should not step up to what they could be—true participants in the world community, with processes and systems that reflect their leadership role.
Our partnership with Bangladesh involves not only business links, but international aid, development and support. I believe that there is a strong story to tell about our involvement, but there are also strong expectations. Bangladesh is one of the top five nations that we support through DFID. There are a number of figures available, but roughly £250 million of UK taxpayers’ money is spent in Bangladesh, and around 10% of that goes to big programmes aimed at strengthening political participation and safety and justice. I for one would never argue that we should go around the world with a big stick, trying to increase leverage in places where that is inappropriate, but surely it must be right, in the light of recent deeply concerning events, for DFID to review not the viability of those programmes, but their effectiveness.
We provide direct funding for the Bangladeshi Government, and the NGOs and multilateral agencies are, by and large, very successful in their much-needed work, and in strengthening governance and participation in the political process and civic society. However, we must ask how we can make those programmes more effective to ensure that the leverage that is rightly being exercised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is backed up with participative support from DFID.
Finally, I want to say a few words on the international trade links with Bangladesh. The all-party group’s report has rightly been widely welcomed by Members on both sides of the House for its instructive message. I think that we have a fantastic trade relationship. We must acknowledge that there is an economy coming through—the garment industry and other industries—that benefits us as well as them, and that is vital. That is why I believe that it was so short-sighted for the Government to defund the work being done by the International Labour Organisation, the body that ensures decent standards and working practices in those places. I welcome DFID’s approach in acknowledging that the ILO was an important participant in the process of raising standards in Bangladesh and urge it to increase the amount of money once again going into the ILO’s work.
Our relationships with Bangladesh are obviously political. They cross diaspora communities. They come from a deep-rooted sense of values and a shared history. But the future of those relationships relies upon us treating Bangladesh as a country that can step up to the requirements of being a modern world economy. Through our participation and all the ways we can exercise our agency here in the UK, we should work with a clear sense that majority rule, minority rights and true shared decision making will create the only future path for the people of Bangladesh. In that light, I hope that this debate will go a long way towards pointing out the future direction for the people of that fantastic country.
I congratulate all Members who have taken part in the debate on their well-informed contributions, many of which result from personal visits to Bangladesh. I pay tribute to Mrs Main and my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk—he has made his apologies for having to leave the debate early—for stepping in at short notice to secure the debate, which is timely, given that the elections took place on
I also want to say briefly that I am sure that we are all mindful of the reason why the debate on child neglect that had been scheduled for today was cancelled. My thoughts are with the family, friends and many colleagues of Paul Goggins who are paying their final respects to him today.
As several hon. Members said, Bangladesh has long been a valued partner of the UK. Obviously it is a young country, but our historical links with the region and its people go back long before its formation. We also have a sizeable diaspora community in the UK. Indeed, Bristol currently has the pleasure of having not only its first Muslim lord mayor, but its first lord mayor of Bangladeshi origin, Councillor Faruk Choudhury, who has made a real impact as a role model for younger people in the community.
As I said, the elections were held on
Furthermore, election day and the weeks preceding it saw deplorable acts of violence. There were arson attacks on polling stations, including more than 120 schools. There were reports that an election officer was beaten to death on polling day, and that 440 polling stations closed early due to security concerns. Human Rights Watch reported that 120 people lost their lives in pre-election violence, and at least 18 people died on election day. Media reports have said that many were shot by police.
The reasons for the violence and the failure of the elections to proceed as we would have hoped are varied and complex. The Bangladesh Nationalist party, along with several of the smaller parties, decided to boycott the election in protest against the Government’s decision not to allow a neutral caretaker Government to take charge in the run-up to the elections. As we heard from the hon. Member for St Albans and others, such a practice had been in place since the 1996 elections. Meanwhile, there was a court order preventing the Jamaat-e-Islami party from participating. There were also reports that some candidates tried to withdraw, but were prevented from doing so, and that party representatives were arrested or forced to leave Bangladesh. After the BNP’s leader called for a march for democracy in late December, hundreds of opposition supporters were arrested, and demonstrators were prevented from reaching Dhaka. There were reports of arbitrary arrests and the indiscriminate use of force. Ms Zia was, in effect, placed under house arrest, with security forces preventing her from leaving her home. Those are all deeply troubling human rights violations.
We believe that the European Union, the United States, the Commonwealth and others were right not to send election observers, given concerns about the election arrangements, and the associated violence and intimidation. We support the remarks by the EU High Representative, Cathy Ashton, condemning the violence and highlighting the concern that some of the attacks targeted women and children, and religious and ethnic groups. Many of our international partners support her conclusion that conditions were not met for transparent, inclusive and credible elections.
It is hoped that the dialogue everyone—particularly the UK, the EU, the UN and the Commonwealth—is calling for will enable all people in Bangladesh to participate in transparent and credible elections in the future. We have heard calls today for fresh elections, with differing views about whether they should take place within the next few months, or if more time is needed to put the appropriate mechanisms in place. I know that it is early days, but I would be keen to hear from the Minister what discussions the Government have had with the parties in Bangladesh and what role we could play in ensuring that elections that are satisfactory to the majority of the people in Bangladesh happen in the near future, no matter what the outcome.
The hon. Member for St Albans talked about the troubled history of elections in Bangladesh. She also discussed the persecution of religious minorities, which is a matter of great concern to hon. Members—it has been raised on a number of occasions, and it is important that it is flagged up. She talked about the all-party group’s visit to Bangladesh last September, which sounds very successful. Members of Parliament get criticised quite a lot for going on such overseas visits, but Members who took part in that visit feel that they are now informed about the situation so that they can take part in this debate. There is no substitute for being on the ground in a country and witnessing at first hand what is happening there.
The hon. Lady spoke about the garment industry, as did my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. The role of consumer power in flagging up these issues is something that we have not really mobilised. There are brilliant campaigns such as Labour Behind the Label, a Bristol-based organisation, and groups such as War on Want have campaigned on the matter in the past. We need to do more to flag up the ethics of our high street and what we are actually buying.
Given that the report has been submitted to DFID, it would not be my place to respond on its behalf, but my colleagues in the shadow DFID team, my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), are doing a lot of work on how we can make the high street more ethical. I am sure that we can work on that on a cross-party basis and with the support of those such as the all-party group.
My hon. Friend Rushanara Ali spoke from her unique perspective as the sole Member of the House of Bangladeshi origin—indeed, she was born in the country. She spoke eloquently about the frustration that is felt by members of the community over here. No matter which political party they may be aligned with or which party they may want to win the election, they all have a desire to see political stability and order restored in Bangladesh, not least because the current situation is putting at risk the economic investment that is lifting the country out of poverty. She made a powerful plea for people in power to put their political differences behind them in the country’s interests and said that the country’s politics is holding it back. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale echoed those sentiments, as did Neil Parish.
I thought at one point that Martin Horwood was after a free meal in one of the curry houses in his constituency. I hope that he name-checked all of them and did not leave anyone out or he will be given a cold welcome next time he visits. He talked about the impact of aid and the contribution made by the diaspora, as did Bob Blackman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South, who speaks as someone with not just a significant Bangladeshi diaspora in his community, but a role as a shadow DFID spokesman, talked about the Department. The last thing we want to do is to abandon a country just because the democratic process is not perfect, but we need to see how FCO and DFID funding, and the work taking place in the country, can be pulled together so that it is about supporting better political engagement and strengthening governance to ensure that aid money for poverty projects is well delivered, going into the right hands and benefiting the people. Richard Fuller was entirely right to raise concerns about extra-judicial killings and the Rapid Action Battalion, about which I was talking to somebody only the other day.
Let me turn to the human rights situation. Last year, as a result of political violence, Bangladesh was added to the FCO’s human rights report as a case study. It is estimated that 500 Bangladeshis were killed in political violence in 2013, with injury caused to thousands of others, predominantly associated with the international crimes tribunal’s investigations into the 1971 war. I have seen harrowing reports. Human Rights Watch has documented evidence that the security forces were responsible for some of the deaths during the protests. It is imperative that those responsible are held to account. The incidents provided further evidence of the need to promote freedom of expression and association in Bangladesh. People in Bangladesh and some external observers have argued that the tribunal process is flawed, and there are troubling reports that at least one witness has been attacked and killed.
The verdicts have led to the death penalty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North said, most of us are united across this House in condemning the use of capital punishment in all cases. I know that that is not a unanimous view, but I think I am right in saying that it is probably a majority view. Labour Members regard the death penalty as inhumane. As in the case of the execution of Abdul Quader Molla of the Jamaat-e-Islami party last month, it serves only to heighten tensions and spark further violence. The Government therefore have our full support in calling on Bangladesh to implement a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and to uphold the international covenant on civil and political rights. It is important, especially now that we are members of the Human Rights Council, that the abolition of the death penalty continues to be raised at the council and with our Commonwealth partners.
As has already been mentioned, the people of Bangladesh had our deepest sympathies following the Rana Plaza factory disaster last April, in which 1,100 people lost their lives and 2,500 were injured. We have discussed the protection of ILO standards within the garment industry and the hidden human costs associated with the ability to buy high street products in the UK at such a low price. I commend the TUC, among others, for its work with retailers to secure support for an accord to fund an independent and much-needed health and safety inspection body for Bangladeshi factories.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the role of the TUC. Will she also commend War on Want for its support for the garment workers and its practical support for helping union organisation in Bangladesh which, at the end of the day, is the best way to bring about health and safety in the workplace?
I agree entirely. I gave War on Want a little name check earlier, along with Labour Behind the Label, which also does excellent work. My hon. Friend has pointed out that China is now moving production to Bangladesh because it is even cheaper to produce garments there than in China. How do we tackle the issues involved? How do we raise terms and conditions, wages and living standards in countries such as Bangladesh in such a way that production is not displaced to another country that will undercut it even further? The only way that can be achieved is by implementing ILO standards universally so that there is not a race to the bottom and everything is about quality and maintaining good standards across the board.
The UK was a founder member of the ILO and, given the Government’s professed commitment to business and human rights—they published their action plan in
September—it is important that the UK does more to work with the international community and British businesses to promote worker safety and employee rights with our partners overseas. Our immediate focus, however, must be on how we can secure peaceful and open elections in Bangladesh so that the people can express their political will in a democratic ballot. I am keen to hear the Minister’s assessment of the
I pay tribute to all those who have contributed to the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for St Albans (Mrs Main), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), for Bedford (Richard Fuller), for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), and the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy).
Listening to the speeches of Members from different political parties, I have been struck that they share a common commitment to and a passion—I do not think that is too strong a word—for the well-being, future prosperity and stable democratic development of Bangladesh. Coupled with that sense of commitment, we heard in a number of speeches a sense of frustration, impatience and almost anger at times at how difficult it had been to make such progress, and especially at the events of the recent parliamentary election.
The Government believe that it is peaceful and credible elections expressing the genuine will of the voters that are the true mark of a mature and functioning democracy. The facts are that on
The day after the elections,
All of Bangladesh’s political parties share a clear and unequivocal responsibility to work together to strengthen democratic accountability as an urgent priority and to build the willingness and capacity for Bangladesh to hold fully participatory parliamentary elections without the fear of intimidation or reprisals. I am pleased that the Bangladesh Nationalist party has announced a suspension of its blockade programme and that Begum Zia has publicly condemned violence, including attacks on minorities. That is a positive step, although we would welcome further bold moves by both political parties that lead to dialogue between them. Above all, it is important that the political parties put the interests of the Bangladeshi people first.
I have been asked by a number of hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, about action since the elections. The Bangladeshi Government were only sworn in on
On the question of international observers, obviously it is for Bangladesh to decide to invite international observers, who have an important role to play in assessing the inclusiveness and fairness of elections. It is also essential, however, that the political conditions exist for observers to go about their work in safety and with full access to all stages of the electoral process. That was not possible this time in Bangladesh, but I hope very much that it will be the next time it holds elections.
My hon. Friends the Members for St Albans and for Bedford and the hon. Member for Islington North asked about disappearances and other reported and alleged human rights abuses. At Bangladesh’s universal periodic review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in April 2013, the United Kingdom called for a thorough and impartial investigation into enforced disappearances. We also argued that if credible evidence emerged, there should be prosecutions for all alleged abuses of human rights. That continues to be our position. We believe that any allegation of an abuse of human rights should be properly and impartially investigated, and that where there is credible and verifiable evidence against people, they should be held to account, through due judicial process, for those actions.
I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman now, but I will write to him on those details.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans was absolutely right to warn that political instability and feuding in Bangladesh will harm the country’s prospects of attracting the investment that its people so desperately need. I welcome her emphasis on the garment sector and the role of women in the economy. I will certainly draw to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for International Development her wish for a formal response to the all-party group report. The Government regard the garment sector as vital for poverty reduction and for the economic empowerment of women. Through our aid programme, we provide just under £5 million to the International Labour Organisation to enhance worker safety in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends at DFID will keep under review other opportunities for providing similar help through the appropriate agencies.
Several questions were asked about the United Kingdom’s aid programme and the political situation in Bangladesh. Of course, aid is not the only way in which this country helps Bangladesh and tries to make it possible for its people to prosper. We have a flourishing and growing commercial relationship. The United Kingdom is one of the largest investors in Bangladesh, with about £2 billion provided in investment projects to date, and with 100 UK firms operating successfully right across Bangladesh. Our bilateral trade in goods doubled between 2006 and 2011, and we are now the third largest destination for exports from Bangladesh, with garments and seafood accounting for the bulk of total sales.
The aid relationship is, however, very important as well. The United Kingdom is the largest donor of bilateral grant aid to Bangladesh. It will amount to £275 million in the 2013-14 financial year. The aid programme is focused above all on the relief of the chronic and desperate poverty of far too many millions of people in Bangladesh, as well as on programmes to improve the quality of drinking water and sanitation, and to help Bangladesh to adapt to the risks posed by climate change. I say to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow that we estimate that about 15 million people in Bangladesh have been helped directly by UK aid funding for extending flood early warning systems.
[Official Report, 22 January 2014, Vol. 574, c. 1-2MC.]Most United Kingdom aid is channelled through non-governmental organisations and none is paid directly to the Bangladesh Government. It is true that about a third of our total aid programme ultimately goes to the Bangladesh Government’s health and education systems because, as we all know, help with primary health care and education are key to promoting the economic development and sustainable growth of a developing country. However, that one-third share is channelled via reputable NGOs, such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and money is paid out by our Government only once we have been given clear, accountable evidence that a project or programme in the education or health sector has been delivered. That aspect of our aid is delivered on a reimbursement basis.
Roughly 12.5% of United Kingdom aid goes to matters related to governance, although I again stress that it does not go directly to the Bangladesh Government or any individual political party. That element of our aid programme includes measures to enhance the taxpayer base in Bangladesh, which indirectly contributes to anti-corruption work in that country. The number of registered taxpayers has risen by 480,000, in part as a result of that element of the UK aid programme, and improving the technical side of the electoral system—the quality of the electoral register—is another aspect of it.
As some Members have urged, the Government, through the Department for International Development, will always keep their aid programme under review. I am sure that my colleagues in DFID have heard the questions posed about whether we need to review with particular rigour some parts of the Government’s spending in Bangladesh. I know that the commitment to a review is real, but I emphasise that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, who said that we must not let our dissatisfaction with the political situation in Bangladesh lead us to decide to restrict aid in ways that penalise some of the poorest people on the planet, who are not responsible for decisions taken by Bangladesh’s party political leaders.
Bangladesh is an important partner of the United Kingdom, not least through the Commonwealth and our links to the British Bangladeshi community that contributes so much to our society. We continue to support the people of Bangladesh in their aspirations for a more stable, prosperous and democratic future. We urge all political leaders and parties in Bangladesh to shoulder their responsibilities to bring that about, and to commit themselves to a peaceful political process through constructive dialogue.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate at such short notice. The slot became available because of the unfortunate circumstances of the death of Mr Paul Goggins. Although they are participating at short notice, many hon. Members and colleagues from the all-party group have spoken with great knowledge and depth. If the debate shows the world outside this Chamber anything, it is the House of Commons at its best. We are completely at one in our disappointment at Bangladesh’s situation and in our hope that some solution and way forward can be found even at this late stage.
The reason why the interim period lasted for two years, despite that being far longer than is allowed for under the constitution, was that the 2006 to 2008 interim Government had to fix so many problems that had been left unfixed. For example, a credible voter list was needed, because millions had been left disfranchised. As my hon. Friend Neil Parish said, when such a voter list was brought in, hopes were high that the country would be led by a party with a true democratic mandate, because so many people were enfranchised who had previously been left off a voter list that could in no way be considered free of corruption.
Given the hopes expressed at the 2008 election, which the Awami League won with a landslide vote and a true democratic mandate, it is a shame that in such a short time Bangladesh should find itself in its current position. So many colleagues who care so much about the country and who have spoken so knowledgeably—indeed, some have large Bangladeshi diasporas in their constituencies—are united across the House and across parties in saying that the country must do better.
I concur with the shadow Minister that Martin Horwood will probably have curry for life. I am surprised that Jim Fitzpatrick did not break into the mother tongue of Bangladesh that he seems to speak so well, albeit with something of an accent. His wife runs the Sreepur street project, to which he referred, admirably. She has presented the good work that that charity does to the APPG.
To the people who ask what APPGs do, I say that this debate shows what they do at their best. They take an interest in a niche subject and unite colleagues in the House across party lines. I am truly grateful that this debate has been participated in so fully. I am only sorry that Simon Danczuk could not take the limelight, as he was going to do, because of pressing engagements that meant he could not stay until the end. He would have done a brilliant job of opening and closing the debate, but I have had to fulfil that role. I am sorry if I have coughed throughout, but I have watched all of it.
I honestly hope that those who are watching this debate—some of whom are very close to us—have taken on board our earnest hope that they will go back and say, “Put your differences aside.” The two-lady solution that was being talked about in 2006 would have been a disaster because there can be no way to run a country through violence. We want Bangladesh’s political leaders to keep their arguments and debates within their Chamber, and to allow their electorate to come forward freely with a strong voice and say who they would like to represent them. The people should then be able to hold them to account. That is what this House does. We hold the Government of the day to account. Every Government who are in power must feel that they have to deal with the issues and that they cannot just keep looking back and blaming the Opposition, saying, “It all happened then.” [Interruption.] That goes right the way back to 1971. Let us end on that note of consensus—don’t spoil it. We can look back at the history, but if people focus only on that and lose sight of the bigger picture, to which we have all alluded, it will be a tragedy for Bangladesh.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the current situation in Bangladesh.