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Philippines - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:57 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 2:57 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, the Philippine islands have some 107 million people. They also have a high level of poverty. Some authorities say that 16 million people are in serious poverty and 6 million in extreme poverty, often in shanty towns. The Philippine Statistics Authority gives a poverty level of 20%. Those facts, combined with a high birth rate, unemployment and little social welfare, force many to seek work overseas. That affects all levels of skill, from graduates to nurses or seamen and domestic workers, as we know from experience in London. Indeed, without the money that 10 million or more expatriates send home, the balance of payments would be in serious trouble.

These problems have existed for many years. They bear harshly on the poorest children, who exist on low-quality rice, with few vegetables and little salt. Children witness violence and sexual activity from an early age. It is therefore not surprising that many live by their wits on the streets, sniff glue or join gangs. They are wide open to all kinds of exploitation and can be arrested for being homeless. The law demands that children under arrest be kept separate from adults. In practice, alas, that provision is not always respected, even in the capital city.

An extreme concentration of wealth lies behind urbanisation, poverty and injustice. Some 1,000 or more people are said to own 70% of the nation’s wealth. Not only do these people enjoy great luxury but they own or control most of the media. This, with the help of some judicious bribery and intimidation, enables a small number of people to sway voting in elections. The result is that direct taxation remains low and the light regulation allows big companies, including internationals, to do very much what they want. Transparency International has placed the Philippines among the most unequal and corrupt countries in the world. Research by Oxfam in 2018 showed that 82% of new wealth generated in the previous year benefited just 1% of the world’s population. I imagine that those figures reflect conditions in the Philippines. I hope that other speakers today will underline the need for social justice.

Both rich and poor in the islands contribute to the demand for illegal drugs and substances. The Government, being aware of the harm that drug abuse undoubtedly causes, have declared a war on drugs. Since May 2016, President Duterte has encouraged a shoot-to-kill policy by both police and vigilantes. Arrests are therefore not made, but drug dealers and pushers are shot on mere suspicion, without charge, trial or any process at all. The Philippine Daily Inquirer gave the rather precise figure for the number of deaths arising of 22,360. In February 2018 Senator Antonio Trillanes put the death toll a little lower at 20,000. The President’s role in these killings is now the subject of a preliminary inquiry by the International Criminal Court. Have our diplomatic staff tried to assess how this war on drugs has worked in practice? Has the street price of illegal drugs risen, or is the supply largely unaffected? Is the rehabilitation of addicts and users being effectively addressed? There are issues of health in addition to those of criminal justice; for example, if the price of drugs rises, there is the temptation to dilute them with other unhealthy substances and still charge the same price. The bad consequences can be imagined.

I turn from the war on drugs to the death penalty in criminal justice. In June 2006 the parliament abolished capital punishment. The Philippines then ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with its second optional protocol. No doubt Her Majesty’s Government strongly approve of that measure. Since then, however, there have been efforts to bring back the death penalty. For instance, in March 2017, the House of Representatives approved a Bill for that purpose. This was despite a warning by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that reintroduction would breach the Philippines’ international obligations. Are Her Majesty’s Government willing and able to discuss the administration of justice in the islands at all levels, especially as it affects poor and voiceless people? I note in particular that last August the Foreign Office Minister, the right honourable Mark Field, called on the Philippines to observe international rules and regretted its intention to leave the International Criminal Court. Has this yet happened and has the proposal been discussed in, for example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?

I think we all acknowledge that the right to life is the most precious of all rights, yet the International Federation of Journalists reported that 146 journalists were murdered in the Philippines between 1986 and early 2018. That is almost five a year. Clergy and human rights defenders have also suffered extrajudicial killing or disappearance, especially when exercising their freedom of expression.

As regards prisons, the New York Times has twice lately recorded extreme overcrowding and bad conditions. These were confirmed this month by a fuller report from Oxfam. Will Her Majesty’s Government ask for diplomats to be able to make unannounced visits to prisons and juvenile holding centres? Incidentally and ironically, the latter are called “houses of hope”. Can the Minister give your Lordships any detail on whether the Minister for Asia and the Pacific received credible and satisfying replies on these issues when he visited Manila or at sessions of the UN Human Rights Council? The most serious point is the independent investigation of extrajudicial killings. Has this yet started?

As regards employment and the economy, the UK Prosperity Fund has been making small grants to prepare for larger programmes to increase employment and establish minimum wages and conditions. Can the Minister report progress on that?

If there is no improvement on these clearly defined issues within a reasonable time, will the Government apply individual personal sanctions on identified corrupt persons? I suggest that these should include the 17 mayors in Metro Manila and perhaps elsewhere who fail in their duty to provide proper protection for arrested children. Another category might be internet service providers which fail to comply with the law requiring filters against child pornography.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who will speak in this debate. I look forward to listening to their speeches and to the Government’s reply.