International Democracy Day — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Crossbench 3:15 pm, 14th September 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to mark the United Nations- sponsored International Democracy Day on Thursday 15 September.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

My Lords, to mark the international day of democracy, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will issue a Statement reaffirming the United Kingdom's support for more open societies, political freedom and democratic values across the world. We will encourage our bloggers at posts overseas to discuss democracy issues in their countries to promote greater public awareness and use a variety of digital communications to highlight our work in supporting democracy worldwide.

Photo of Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which was very informative. Is he aware that the Inter-Parliamentary Union has 157 member countries and is in fact the United Nations of parliaments? Its principal purpose is to promote the cause of democracy worldwide. It is currently wrestling with the emerging democracies in the Middle East and north Africa.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I am indeed aware of the IPU, which does excellent and valuable work. It reinforces the causes and activities not only of Governments but of all kinds of organisations, non-governmental and governmental, in promoting democratic values.

Photo of Lord Ryder of Wensum Lord Ryder of Wensum Conservative

My Lords, in view of the fact that every piece of legislation which comes to your Lordships' House has been automatically guillotined in the other place, can my noble friend and his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spend a little of democracy day trying to persuade their colleagues to stop this miserable practice in the interests of better Parliament and for the sake of true democracy, to which I gather from my noble friend's reply the Foreign Secretary clearly adheres?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I am asked whether I can comment on that. I can't and, in fact, I won't, because these are matters not only for usual channels but for managers of business in both Houses. I add a general point: I think that it was Mr Churchill who said that democracy was the worst system except all others. It is certainly not perfect; it can be constantly improved. We try in both our Houses to do that, but how it should be done is not for me to advise.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary will make the Statement that has been promised. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, I have looked at the IPU's plans. It has encouraged parliaments and Governments around the world to organise activities for tomorrow, particularly directed at young people and students and focusing on democracy and human rights. That is obviously resonant given the events of the year-the growth of democratic demands and the Arab spring. While I am delighted to know that people who are in post around the world will be twittering, could we be told what events have been organised by the Government for young people and students, as the IPU suggests and at the request of Ban Ki-Moon, and where we might learn about them on any government website?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I could not speak about the detail of youth organisations, but it is obvious that vast numbers-billions-of young people need to be encouraged in the values of democracy throughout the world and we play our part. On specific propositions on the website and elsewhere, I shall have to write to the noble Lord.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the celebration is not just about our own historic past and the contribution that this great country has made to democracy, nor about encouraging democracy in other parts of the world-extremely important and exciting as that is-but about a never-ending requirement to ensure that each succeeding generation of young people in our own country understands the importance of democracy under the rule of law? Is he aware of the research of Professor Peter Weinreich and others which suggests that, in dealing with radicals and politically motivated, violent young people, it is less a question of dealing with the ideas that they have, fundamentalist as some of them might be, than of ensuring a commitment to democracy and the rule of law that means that they do not turn to violence but accept democracy as the way of dealing with difference?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

Yes, of course I agree with my noble friend. There is great wisdom in what he says. Democratic values need to be constantly reasserted. Democracy lies in the responsibility of each individual. I think that it was Edmund Burke who said that society only works if there is a policeman within each of us. So it is with democracy. If democratic ideas are implanted in each generation, there will be democracy. It is about a lot more than votes and party politics.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for implying in a previous intervention that he was wrong in saying that the grant to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy had increased. In fact, depending on which start date one takes, he and I were both right as to whether it had increased or decreased.

A noble Lord:

Is that an apology?

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

That is my kind of apology. However, in view of the greater demand and the plans that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy has, particularly in relation to the Middle East and north Africa, will he and his colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development give sympathetic consideration to increasing the grant for the coming years?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I am in an extremely generous mood and I want to say to the noble Lord straight away that he was indeed half right, just as I was. The facts are that the budget for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was cut last year-and unfortunately the year before, which I think that must have been under another Government; I am not sure. But this year there was an increase of 3 per cent. We support this very strongly indeed. I must tell the noble Lord that the level for next year has not yet been set, but his enthusiasm for it has been noted in the work we do in building democracy and supporting this organisation.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, will my noble friend assert the democratic principle very strongly this week by telling the foreign judges in Europe that it is up to this Parliament to decide whether prisoners in jail should have votes, and not for a bunch of foreigners to decide it for us?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

That is a robust point of view that I am sure will be noted in all the right quarters.