I shall speak only briefly because I hope to respond to the debate later. On behalf of the Government, let me start by paying tribute to the IPU's significant work. I very much look forward to my hon. Friend John Austin highlighting some of that work. The twice-yearly assemblies, in particular, give parliamentarians internationally an important opportunity to engage with one another. I know from the feedback that I get from MPs that the bilateral visits are exceedingly important, and I always try to meet those who come on such visits when I can. Many hon. Members are present this afternoon, which shows the degree of interest in the issue, and I very much look forward to their speeches.
In responding to my hon. Friend the Minister, let me say how grateful we are for the support and encouragement that we have had from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—not only from Ministers, but from the civil service and, in particular, the parliamentary relations and devolution department. I may say something about that later.
I rise to speak in the debate, which is the first of its kind in the House, as the chairman of the British IPU group. My term of office is coming to an end, although I have been more fortunate than others because, despite a three-year time limit, I have enjoyed almost four years in the post following the retirement of my predecessor, Mr. Rogers, and the intervention of the general election.
In my four years as acting chair or chair, there have been several significant changes not only in the workings of the British group, but at the international level. When I first chaired a conference, there were several problems with the IPU budget internationally. I very much regret, as I think all my colleagues on the executive of the British group do, the withdrawal of the United States of America from active participation in the IPU. We are the oldest international inter-parliamentary body—indeed, the largest international political body—in the world. We predate the League of Nations, never mind the United Nations, and it is sad that one of the most important democracies in the world is no longer a member. I know that the Minister and his colleagues share our concern and will use all their endeavours to get the United States to rejoin.
Because of the size and wealth of the United States, its absence has had an impact on the IPU's budget internationally. When I first became the chair of the British group, I was among those who said that the IPU had to come to terms with the reality of its budget and to trim its activities—to reduce the scale of its operations, not the impact of its work—and become a more lean and focused organisation. One of the initial changes was that we moved from having two major assemblies a year to one, and a smaller conference in Geneva in the autumn, thereby reducing some of our costs.
We also changed the way in which we operated. The IPU moved from being a general assembly of parliamentarians from across the world to holding more focused discussions. It created three new standing committees—one concerned with peace and international security, one concerned with sustainable development, finance and trade, and one concerned with democracy and human rights. That new structure is not as radical as some of us had hoped it would be. We had hoped for smaller committees with some of the powers that the Select Committees have in this House, such as conducting investigations and summoning witnesses. However, the majority view was that every member country should have the right to be represented on every committee. Therefore, we have somewhat large and unwieldy committees. Nevertheless, they have been focused and there has been a change in their structure. Each committee has a bureau representing all the geopolitical groups in the IPU and two rapporteurs who prepare detailed working papers before we go to the assembly. The conferences are not ill prepared; a great deal of work goes into them beforehand to ensure that they are productive.
I pay tribute to Mr. Wilkinson, who is one of the vice-presidents of the bureau on the peace and international security committee, and who has been very active in the IPU's work in that regard. My hon. Friend Mr. Colman has been a co-rapporteur of the committee on trade and sustainable development, and I am sure that he will want to address hon. Members on its work. Other hon. Members present have attended meetings of the IPU. While those standing committees are meeting, there are, in parallel, meetings of the women parliamentarians. Dame Marion Roe and my hon. Friend Ms Prentice have played an important part in the working group on the committee of women parliamentarians.
In the past few years, the IPU has addressed a number of gender issues—notably, in recent years, female genital mutilation. My hon. Friend Ann Clwyd and the hon. Member for Broxbourne have been vigorous spokespersons on the issue in this House. I record my thanks to the hon. Member for Broxbourne, who has served on the special panel established by the IPU to tackle the abuse of girls and women, particularly in Africa, by the custom of FGM. She also serves on the IPU's panel on the sexual exploitation of children.
The IPU is not a talking shop; it is a doing body, trying to tackle some of the major issues that confront us. It is also concerned not only with human rights across the board but with those of politicians. As British parliamentarians, we enjoy a degree of free speech that is unheard of in many parts of the world. We would find our civil liberties somewhat curtailed if we made in other parliaments some of the utterances that we make here. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley for her work on the committee on the human rights of parliamentarians. One bit of good news is that Leyla Zana is now free, and we hope that she will visit this Parliament later this year. That is due in no small measure to my hon. Friend's work.
The period during which I have been chairman of this very important body has not been easy. The conference, as it then was, in Santiago took place against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq. There will be divided views in this Chamber on the rights and wrongs of that intervention, as there are strongly held views on both sides of the House and within parties. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will know of the difficulty that I had leading a delegation of eight Members of Parliament, four taking one view and four another. I pay tribute to that delegation, because its members were determined to ensure that something positive came out of the meeting in Santiago and that it was not some sterile debating society issuing bland resolutions. It was a difficult assembly, but I pay tribute to our delegation for staying together and concentrating on what we as parliamentarians could do constructively to assist in the process of reconciliation and reconstruction in Iraq. When the IPU president, Senator Páez of Chile, came to London, he met my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and spoke to him about the ways in which parliamentarians might assist the process in Iraq, helping the growth of emerging democratic institutions.
In the same way, parliamentarians from the House, through a variety of organisations—such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the East-West Parliamentary Practice Project and the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe—have assisted the newly emerging democracies in eastern and central Europe. We have not told them how to do things, but have shared our experiences of operating a parliamentary democracy. We do not have all the right answers, but we can share our experiences and, in so doing, learn from one another.
In Geneva last year, we gave strong support to the proposal that the Inter-Parliamentary Union should assist the Iraqi people in establishing a constitutional conference that could lay the foundations for the establishment of representative institutions. To that end, the IPU convened a meeting of Speakers of the Parliaments of the countries neighbouring Iraq to discuss the constitutional processes. The meeting took place in Amman in May, with the Speakers from Bahrain, Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, together with representatives of the IPU, the United Nations and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The IPU is playing a key role by sharing experiences, providing constitutional advice, assisting with the establishment and consolidation of state institutions, directly supporting the emerging Parliament and harnessing regional solidarity in support of that process.
Let us turn to the middle east process. The IPU has a standing committee on middle east questions. At the assembly in 2003, there was a direct encounter, organised by the IPU, between members of the Israeli Knesset and the elected Palestinian Legislative Council. At a time when the Israeli Prime Minister was refusing to speak to the Palestinian President, and when negotiations on the road map were stalled and had broken down, under the auspices of the IPU, the Speakers of the Legislative Council and of the Knesset could meet in dialogue and debate.
I want to refer briefly to our relations with the United Nations. During my period as chairman, we have entered a new era. The IPU has been granted special observer status at the UN, with a right to circulate papers. The Minister will know that there are problems with the procedures. We would like the papers tabled to become official UN papers, to be catalogued and dealt with as such. We are still in discussions about that.
The IPU has worked extensively with a range of United Nations organisations, and has worked intensively with the United Nations Development Project since the early 1970s. The IPU administers a number of UNDP-funded programmes in various parts of the world. In Burundi, we have assisted the National Assembly in the peace process, trained staff and Members of Parliament, and provided equipment and assistance with EU funding to the women's caucus. We have strengthened the library and Hansard services in Equatorial Guinea, and have trained staff and Members in the establishment of a computer network and a library and documentation service in Ethiopia. We have assisted MPs in Rwanda in the oversight of legislation and have also assisted the human rights committee. The list of projects in Africa is very long, and I will not tire hon. Members with it. Recently, the IPU published a document—one of many—setting out the 10 years of its work in Africa and an assessment of its effectiveness. Outside Africa, the IPU is working in the context of capacity building in Kosovo, Albania, Uruguay, and Timor-Leste, and projects are in the pipeline in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Another priority of the IPU has been gender partnership and gender equality, focusing in particular on the contribution of men, and men parliamentarians, to the promotion of gender equality. The IPU has produced a number of handbooks for parliamentarians, to assist them in their task. One of the most important is "Parliament, the Budget and Gender", which shows how the budget of a Parliament can begin to address the issues of gender inequality.
The IPU has looked at a range of issues concerned with the electoral rights of disabled people. It has considered the information society and its implications for democracy, and the impact of information technology on people's lives—on their social interaction and their political engagement. It has also considered the health and educational communities and their economies. The IPU has been a partner in the world summit on the information society, the second meeting of which is to take place in 2005.
The IPU has also been engaged in parliamentary meetings on the fringes of international organisations, including UN bodies such as UNICEF and UNESCO. One of the most powerful organisations in the world—it is not democratic, not accountable and not elected—is the World Trade Organisation. A parliamentary forum now sits alongside the WTO, bringing a parliamentary perspective to its deliberations. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley), for Putney and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) have been intimately engaged in that.
The IPU has been in the vanguard on a number of international issues—for instance, anti-personnel land mines; the International Criminal Court; trying to combat the trafficking of women and children; developing programmes to prevent drug trafficking and money laundering; combating desertification; the management of natural disasters; and getting parliamentarians not Governments to sit and work together on the major problems facing the world today, not least trying to combat the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. I am pleased to say that the IPU has been able to build on the excellent work done by the all-party group on AIDS, chaired by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, and the all-party group on Africa, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York.
There are one or two issues that I would draw to the Minister's attention regarding our relations with the United Nations. Under the auspices of the Secretary-General, the UN set up the Cardoso panel, headed by the former Brazilian President, to consider the relationship between the United Nations and civil society. We welcome that engagement, particularly with regard to non-governmental organisations. We had not anticipated that the Cardoso panel would include Parliaments and parliamentarians in its definition of civil society. Our relationship with the UN is quite different from that of NGOs, especially as we have observer status. The Minister knows the arguments and issues—we have discussed them before—but it would be absolute folly for the United Nations to set up a parallel organisation for consulting Parliaments and parliamentarians outside the IPU framework. It would be costly and less effective.
I shall refer briefly to some of the other issues with which the British group of the IPU has been involved. The House will know that a group of Members is actively dealing with the great lakes region of Africa and the question of genocide. We in the British group have been keen to support the response of Parliaments and parliamentarians in the region to those issues. That is why we are supportive of the Amani forum, which brings together not Governments but Parliaments and parliamentarians of the countries involved in the great lakes region.
The British group has been actively engaged with the British Council in its attempts to create a south-east Balkans forum. We recently hosted a delegation from Serbia and Montenegro, where we talked about the contribution that parliamentarians could make in bringing peace to that troubled region. I am pleased to say that, irrespective of their Governments, the Balkan Parliaments have come together to form the Cetinje forum, which will allow parliamentarians from that region to meet and try to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the area. I am pleased that the British group and the Speaker have been invited to appoint representatives to attend the Cetinje forum in September.
Apart from that wider scene, the British group of the IPU is engaged in a range of bilateral exchanges. We have between six and eight incoming delegations a year, and we send out a similar number. Contrary to the belief held by some hon. Members, the chair of the British group of the IPU does not participate in the outgoing delegations, which are extremely useful. Hon. Members present who have participated in some of them may want to say something about how valuable they have been.
As someone who does not go on the outgoing delegations, I should like to say how valuable it is to have delegations coming here, which result in frank, open and honest parliamentary discussions. I am grateful to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and particularly to the Minister for his willingness to engage with incoming delegations. On behalf of the IPU, I record our grateful thanks to Mr. Speaker, who has always been willing to receive delegations from overseas in Speaker's House and to engage with them.
May I say a few words about the bilateral visits? We choose which countries to invite, and we are governed a little on where we send people by who invites us, but we are always happy to enter into a dialogue with the Foreign Office about what would be in the interests of Parliament and the country.
At a time when all of us in this Chamber wanted to bring Libya back into the international community, it would not have been appropriate for a Minister to have gone to Libya, or for the Foreign Office formally to have invited Libyans here, but we did invite them here and we did send a delegation there, which was headed by the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Mr. Dalyell. That was very productive and oiled the wheels, enabling a transition to a more rational relationship between our countries. I hope that, as well as being interesting to Members and informative, it was helpful to the Government.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments on Libya. That was an interesting precedent. Afghanistan does not have a Parliament—indeed, parliamentary elections appear to have been postponed. Does the IPU have any plans to engage with those who are politically active and who wish to see democracy in that country?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Afghanistan has been on our agenda. The Loya Jirga is not a Parliament, but it could be considered to be a Parliament in embryo. The IPU internationally has certainly been considering ways in which it might support it and engage in some capacity building. Indeed, we in the British group have discussed whether we might engage in an initial exchange with it, even though Afghanistan is not a member of the IPU.
There are some precedents. Palestine is different, because it has observer status. It is not a member, it does not have a Parliament, but it is an observer member and we have had exchanges. When I entered this House, one of my first visits was to Ethiopia, when it had a transitional Government who were not yet a member of the IPU. I believe that the IPU has a particular role to play—not just in defending human rights and democracy in member countries, but in assisting emerging democracies in which there is no Parliament or civil structure, as we did in central and eastern Europe. I know of my hon. Friend's interest in Afghanistan, and I assure her that the British group will do all it can to assist in that process.
I wanted to mention Colombia. At one stage, I wondered whether the Whips would decide who should go there, as more politicians disappear in Colombia than anywhere else in the world and I thought that they might have a short list of people in mind. It is an important country to visit because of key issues such as corruption, international crime and drug trafficking. Perhaps some of the Members present who were on that delegation would like to report on it.
My final point about international exchanges, which I make with some trepidation with my hon. Friend Tom Cox sitting behind me, is that we are in a strange position because we engage with all the Parliaments in the world in the IPU abroad, but in this House there is a division of labour, and we relate bilaterally only with non-Commonwealth countries, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—of which I am the vice-chairman, I hasten to add—deals with the Commonwealth. Therefore, one thing that we in the IPU have tried to do, because of Africa's importance, is to concentrate more on bilateral exchanges with Francophone Africa than with the non-Commonwealth countries of Africa. We have begun to build up good links there.
We are a founder member of the IPU, along with France. The union was founded by Randal Cremer, whose bust stands by the members' entrance. I should like to thank the Government for their contribution to ensuring that Randal Cremer's memory lives on in the IPU by commissioning the building of the foyer of the IPU's headquarters in Geneva.
I end on a note of sadness. As hon. Members will know, we should have hosted the 110th assembly of the IPU here in London. I believe that it would have been one of the best organised assemblies, because I have absolute confidence in the IPU's staff and I should like to pay tribute to them. We did not host that assembly, because the IPU said that we should allow any person appointed by any Parliament with membership of the IPU to attend. The executive committee of the IPU took the view that we were honour-bound by international obligations that we had signed up to in the Council of Ministers to operate the travel ban against certain members of the Zimbabwe regime. We were pressed by our colleagues in the IPU to seek a derogation from that decision from the Government on the grounds that we were an international organisation.
Not one Member in the British IPU group, from any political party, was willing to go down the road of seeking a derogation of that ban. It would have been absolutely unthinkable for us to invite Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Speaker of the Zimbabwe Parliament and the man responsible for the Matabeleland massacres, who ought to be before the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide. It would have been unthinkable to give him a platform, here in Westminster Hall.
We lost the assembly as a result, although we are in ongoing discussions with the IPU about the issues. I believe that we were absolutely right, because we stood by the principles enshrined in the statutes of the IPU. We are there to promote democracy, good governance and regional co-operation on human rights. Allowing Emmerson Mnangagwa or Patrick Chinamasa—the Minister of Injustice in Zimbabwe—to come here would have been a derogation from that constitution and those statutes.
I should like to thank the Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the House and, unusually for me, my right hon. Friend Ms Armstrong, my party's Chief Whip, for allowing us to have this debate. This is the first time that we have debated the IPU's work. Perhaps there should be one on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's work too. We are appointed to represent this Parliament in the association of all the Parliaments of the world, and as such it is right that we should be accountable to Parliament. I hope that this debate is not a one-off. I hope that we have established a precedent and that every year we can have a debate on the British IPU group's positive work.
I thank hon. Members for their tolerance in allowing me to speak for so long. With that, coupled, I am sure, with the thanks of everyone associated with the British IPU group, I should like to thank Kenneth Courtenay and all the staff of the IPU—they are a small group—who have served us so well over the years.
Before I call the next speaker, I must tell hon. Members that I am keeping my eye on the monitor, as I understand that there may shortly be a Division in the main Chamber. If there is a Division, I shall suspend this sitting for 15 minutes, and ask Members to be back within that time. In order to maintain calm and equilibrium in the Chamber, I intend to call the officers of the British group of the IPU very early in the debate, so I hope that Members will not panic. I also hope that all Members present will be called this afternoon to make their contribution.
It is a great privilege to follow John Austin, whose remarks I endorse wholeheartedly. It has been a great pleasure to serve with him and with other officers and members of the executive committee in a common purpose that unites us across party lines. The United Kingdom can be proud that the hon. Gentleman has been elected to the executive committee of the worldwide Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The timing of the debate is very appropriate. In the centenary year of the entente cordiale, we remember not only Randal Cremer but Frédéric Passy, his French counterpart, who initiated the IPU back in 1889. Some of us will recall the celebration of the 100th anniversary in the Palace of Westminster. I might range less widely than the hon. Gentleman and focus a little closer to home, but that is only to try to reinforce the importance of our work in the IPU to this Parliament and to Members of Parliament in their personal development.
The IPU is a means of international co-operation between Parliaments and parliamentarians across the globe, whereby Members of Parliament and peers can develop their expertise in foreign affairs, gain greater understanding of some of the principal challenges that face the international community, and bring that understanding to fruition in a more effective contribution in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
I had, for example, the opportunity to attend a conference in Santiago immediately after the restoration of democracy in—I believe—1990. That historic conference underpinned the approval of the international community of the peaceful transition back to democracy in Chile. I also attended the Chilean conference in 2003, and a conference in Mexico City.
I am also very glad to have had the real pleasure of taking part in conferences in the American hemisphere, because we in the House of Commons do not have enough relations with that hemisphere, apart from north America, of course—although the transition to democracy throughout central and south America has been one of the most exciting features of modern times. The underpinning of democracy in those countries is a really worthwhile enterprise in which the IPU can play its part. I therefore found wholly satisfactory the election of the Christian Democrat MP from Chile, Mr. Páez Verdugo, to the presidency of the IPU.
I had the honour of leading delegations to Estonia, to Finland, to Latvia and to the General Assembly of the United Nations, and many Members will have had similar experiences that will have given them not only an opportunity to exercise personal responsibility but to gain a greater understanding. I also started parliamentary groups again for Chile, Ukraine, Estonia and the Philippines after their return to democracy.
I emphasise that the IPU's role as a custodian body for democracy around the world is the most important aspect of its work, so I share the disappointment of the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead that the IPU acted in a somewhat aberrant manner in not allowing the 110th conference to take place here in London. In so doing, it underplayed the importance we attach to ensuring that parliamentarians in Zimbabwe, who have been indicted for serious crimes, cannot take part in an international forum of that magnitude.
The inward-bound delegations are as important as the outward-bound ones. My counterpart, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead, brought that to the attention of the Chamber. I think, for example, of the delegation that has just come from El Salvador. Some would say that it is a shame that priorities have dictated the closure of our embassy in El Salvador. However, we were able to demonstrate to our parliamentary counterparts from that small but significant, country, which has reformed its economy and is making genuine progress, that we still care for their country and that the United Kingdom remains interested in it.
Another inbound delegation that I am sure will be important for the British group is that from Bolivia, which is due in October. As reciprocation is the name of the game, many of us will have had the interesting privilege of going to Bolivia. I went with Mr. Dalyell, the Father of the House. As you can imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it was an unforgettable experience and we learned much from it. That will help us to welcome our Bolivian guests, who need every encouragement with the important task of underpinning their democracy even more strongly following the forced resignation after popular pressure of an elected President of Bolivia only too recently.
As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, the strength of our work is achieved largely because of the quality of the people involved. My predecessor as vice-chairman of the British group of the IPU, my hon. Friend Dame Marion Roe, has championed the issues of female genital mutilation and women's rights generally. Likewise, Ann Clwyd has championed both those issues and, above all, the human rights of parliamentarians in a most exemplary way. Mr. Colman, with whom I have also had the pleasure of attending overseas assemblies, brings great commercial expertise and understanding of overseas development to the work of the IPU and is a distinguished rapporteur.
I pay tribute to Ken Courtenay, our general secretary, and his admirable staff. I also pay tribute to Sue Breeze of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because without the information that she is able to supply at our fingertips, members of British delegations would be much less well equipped to make a worthwhile contribution. We work effectively together not only in the British group, but across delegations. In that context, I pay tribute to the chairmanship of the standing committee on peace and international security—with which I am involved—by Senator Menem, the brother of the former Argentine President. I am on the bureau with him, and we work very well together.
The understanding that is achieved in our committee work makes it easier to have fruitful bilaterals at the margins of the assembly. I am thinking of the Argentine one in particular, as well as those with the Russians and with the Belarusians. I hope that the process of constructive engagement at parliamentary level, which the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead described in connection with Libya, can over time ensue with Belarus, too. Indeed, I am sure that we can help to ensure the right atmosphere for addressing such vexatious questions as the Arab-Israeli dispute, Kashmir and the future of Taiwan.
However, representation is not always equitable in the IPU. I am thinking of the exclusion of the Republic of China on Taiwan, which is a fully fledged democracy and a prosperous nation that deserves to send a delegation to the IPU. The IPU is an interesting body. Like the United Nations, it is full of rogue states and exemplary democracies. I do not believe that the United States is wise in remaining out of it, and I join the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead in asking it to come back.
On the subject of collaboration across delegations, one of the most challenging aspects of our work is producing reports with rapporteurs from another part of the world. I am currently engaged in producing a report for the first committee, and my co-rapporteur is from Jordan. She is a fine lady—a senator—but it is difficult at extremities of distance and with different political backgrounds and experiences to come to a consensus. That is different from my experience as a rapporteur in both the Council of Europe and the Western European Union.
The biggest future challenge that faces the IPU and affects the 12-plus group of countries—the Council of Europe countries plus the New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians—is whether the European Parliament should have full membership. I do not believe that it should, because if it did, it would call into question the nature of the representative membership of federal countries such as Australia, Canada and many others. It would also prompt the question whether we could maintain such a strong national delegation. There would be a demand for national delegations to be reduced, and that would not be in the British interest.
My final words relate to the importance of single-country all-party groups at Westminster. They are the bedrock of our day-to-day work, and I wonder whether the House of Commons rule that there should be a minimum membership of 20 is wise. It is easy for Germany, America, France and the other big countries that we all know well and visit often to get 20 members and more, but small countries that perhaps need help more find it difficult to get 20 parliamentarians interested and prepared to become members. That they cannot be registered as qualified groups is a mistake, and I hope that the House will reconsider that rule.
In the meantime, with our work programme ahead, I am sure that we are looking forward more than anything else to the assembly in Manila. As chairman of the all-party group on the Philippines, I am particularly happy about it. It is a Christian archipelago in a challenging part of the world and is facing all sorts of problems, including terrorism and AIDS. However, it has been a good supporter and friend of the United Kingdom, and it will be an admirable host for a successful assembly.
I congratulate the present chairman, my hon. Friend John Austin. I had to write down his constituency, as it is rather a mouthful—Cynon Valley is much simpler to say. I thank him for his leadership in the past few years. His knowledge of foreign affairs is equalled by few in the House, and I have had full advantage of that knowledge and his guidance in the several IPU conferences that we have attended together. I thank him warmly for his leadership.
I also thank my co-vice-chair, if I can call him that, my hon. Friend Mr. Wilkinson. He has been extremely helpful and supportive in the conferences that I have attended with him and in the work of the executive committee. I thank all other members of the executive committee as well; it has been a pleasure working with them.
I agree with the sentiment already expressed that it is unfortunate that the United States is not a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That is ridiculous given that, as recently as a year ago, Iraq was a member of the IPU. I remember lobbying once on behalf of Indict at a conference in Brussels. We put out all our leaflets on a table, but within 10 minutes of the start of the conference, they had all been scooped into a bin by the Iraqi delegation. I hope that when the other representatives of Iraq join us at the conference, we can put whatever leaflets we like on the table without them being scooped up and thrown away.
I am a member of the human rights committee of the IPU and I shall highlight the work done by that group. Few people know what we do because we are tucked away in a committee room, usually in the basement—we managed to get a room with windows in Mexico City, for which we were very grateful. The committee meets in parallel with the sessions of the main IPU assembly. Sometimes we are forgotten about and lost from view, although in the past year people have begun to remember that we are also sitting. We like to be kept in the picture and I thank Kenneth Courtenay and his staff for ensuring that that happens.
It is an excellent committee and I am pleased to have been a member of it. It sits in defence of parliamentarians the world over who are or have been subject to arbitrary action such as state harassment, arrest and detention, unfair trial or violation of parliamentary immunity during the exercise of their mandate, whether the Parliament in question is sitting, in recess or has been dissolved by unconstitutional or extraordinary measures. Since 1977, the committee, which consists of five parliamentarians from around the world, has looked into and acted on complaints received concerning the violation of the human rights of parliamentarians—rights which we take for granted in this country.
I have had the privilege of representing this Parliament on the committee for several years and I am proud of its work over the past 27 years. I take this chance to thank MPs who have supported the committee's efforts and co-operated with it during that time. It has a very small but dedicated staff in Geneva. I do not know how they get through all the work, but they do—Ingeborg Schwartz and her staff are excellent and totally dedicated.
The committee has dealt with a large number of cases, from those involving MPs who have been unjustly stripped of their mandate, to those involving MPs who have been threatened, prosecuted, jailed or forced into exile—and ultimately to the most tragic cases of MPs who have been killed or "disappeared" because they exercised their right to freedom of speech. Sadly, although parliamentary democracy has been embraced in theory by an increasing number of countries worldwide, the reality is that many MPs are still not able to speak their mind for fear of losing their mandates, their liberty or their lives.
Over the years, the committee's case load has grown. At its first session in 1977, it investigated the situation of 40 MPs in nine countries. At its session this January, it studied 48 cases of allegations of violations of human rights involving 190 Members of Parliament in 28 countries. They included public cases involving Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Israel/Palestine, Rwanda, Syria, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
The committee meets four times a year in camera to consider complaints it has received. Essentially, it acts as an intermediary between the complainant and the authorities of the state concerned. Through its intervention, it aims to end any arbitrary measures that are applied against MPs, to ensure their protection, and, where appropriate, to secure compensation for them. Although its procedure is essentially written, it frequently conducts hearings with the representatives of the authorities and the victims, and may also carry out on-site missions. Government delegations are often questioned at IPU assemblies; selected delegations appear before the human rights committee.
This year, in addition, the committee conducted an on-site mission to Zimbabwe, to examine the growing number of complaints about the mistreatment of MPs in that country. In Mexico City, we also met a delegation from Zimbabwe, which included the Minister of Justice, whom the chair of the human rights committee of the IPU described privately as the "Minister of Injustice", as did my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead.
The complaints received by the committee are very varied; they originate from the MPs in question, from regional, parliamentary and human rights bodies, from Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, and sometimes from anonymous sources. The committee then has to establish whether the complaint comes within its remit. When that has been established, the procedure in dealing with a complaint involves two phases.
The first phase is confidential. During that phase the committee can hold hearings and undertake on-site missions. As of June this year, the committee was dealing with 22 complaints out of 47 through the confidential procedure. If it does not prove possible to reach a satisfactory settlement of the case during the first phase of confidential examination and communication with the authorities concerned, reports and recommendations for specific measures are then submitted by the committee to the IPU governing council, the plenary policy making body, and the complaint is then made public. If hon. Members are interested in reading a selection of the complaints made to the committee, they can do so on the internet, which shows a variety of the complaints that have been made public.
The work of the committee can be supported by parliamentarians more widely, on the basis of the information released in those reports. Parliamentarians can make further representations and have informal discussions during bilateral visits. We often bring up with visiting delegations cases that have been made public, to underline ongoing concern. I hope that many MPs, in this Parliament and elsewhere, will familiarise themselves with the workings of the committee, so that they can give their backing to its work, and also demonstrate their solidarity with fellow MPs all over the world who are being unjustly victimised.
The committee also makes more general recommendations to Governments and parliamentary bodies when it believes that a particular situation is a major contributory factor to the danger faced by MPs in a specific country. For instance, in Mexico City this year, we asked the Congress of Colombia to play a much more active part in the peace process. The conflict in Colombia has had a serious impact on the ability of parliamentarians to do their work, with six Colombian MPs continuing to be held by Colombian guerrillas. The committee also called on the Colombian Congress to set up an independent inquiry commission, in view of the magnitude and seriousness of the alleged collusion of officials from the Attorney-General's office and the paramilitary.
The IPU committee and the committee on legal affairs and human rights of the Assembly of the Council of Europe recently issued a joint statement of concern relating to the case of Victor Gonchar, a former Deputy Speaker in Belarus, and a major political opponent of the President of Belarus. Gonchar disappeared from Minsk in 1999, as have others in Belarus, allegedly for political reasons. That is of great concern to all of us. I hope that it will be the first of many joint statements from various parliamentary bodies on such matters. There is great potential for co-operation with regional and multinational bodies, which as yet is largely untapped.
It is hard to say precisely how many cases over the years have been resolved as a direct result of the committee's work. However, I do not doubt that in many instances in which a case remains confidential, the committee's intervention behind the scenes is a crucial determinant in getting a Government to act to remedy the injustices facing the MPs in question. As the procedure is confidential, I cannot go into those details, but I know from first hand that many cases are resolved at that initial stage.
However, there are success stories that I can talk about: for example, the release of parliamentarian Mr. Agboyibo in Togo on the eve of the IPU conference in Marrakesh in March 2002. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the President of Indonesia, came personally when we were in Jakarta to thank the Committee for its work on her behalf. She was unfairly unseated in June 1996 and afterwards effectively prevented from standing as a representative. She is extremely grateful to the IPU, and has stated so publicly.
In some instances, for one reason or another, cases become intractable. Sometimes a case involves political in-fighting, with certain MPs bearing the brunt. The treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in Malaysia is a case in point. Sometimes, member states are reluctant to engage in any meaningful dialogue about the fate of particular MPs or the political environment generally, and Burma comes immediately to mind in that respect. There remain very many cases on the committee's books concerning Burmese MPs. Seventeen MPs are reportedly still serving their prison sentence either in prison or under house arrest, six have died in custody, and two were assassinated. In 1999, the committee was dealing with more than 200 cases of MPs-elect, most of whom had been wrongly imprisoned.
There are a number of cases in which MPs have been killed in suspicious circumstances, and the authorities have not conducted the investigation or the prosecution of the murders with due thoroughness and diligence. Those cases, such as that of Zorig Sanjasuuren of Mongolia and Miguel Angel Pavon Salazar of Honduras, have unfortunately dragged on for many years. When such cases have gone public, often the committee's representations bring the matter to the attention of a much wider international audience and can add to the critical mass which may eventually turn the tide in the MPs' favour. Persistence pays off and is a necessary attribute of any organisation working on human rights issues.
In that context, our chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead, mentioned the case of Leyla Zana and her three colleagues, on whose behalf the IPU has been campaigning for many years. After the case remained unresolved under the confidential procedure, the committee helped to publicise the injustice done to the MPs and was able to put ongoing pressure on successive Turkish Governments to release them. Unfortunately, although they were released, in the last few days a Turkish court has ordered the retrial of those four former MPs, who were freed after nearly 10 years in prison. The European courts had already said that they were mis-tried, and recommended either that they should be freed or retried.
A retrial has already taken place in Turkey, but I am sorry to say that it was a farce. The MPs were released, but another retrial has been ordered. We must make the strongest possible representations to the Turkish authorities, because it is a disgrace that those people, who have spent nearly 10 years in prison and who seem to be regarded as practically nothing, are to be retried again. In the retrial a few months ago, the judge who tried them in the first place retried them, and started by saying, "Nothing that I am going to hear in this retrial is going to change my mind on what I decided in the first place."
My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in the campaign for the freedom of politicians in Turkey. Those of us who belong, as I do, to the Council of Europe are continually bringing to the attention of the Turkish delegation there the injustices and the total unacceptability of how their authorities are treating those people. I assure my hon. Friend that that campaign will continue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that the Council of Europe has been at the forefront in pursuing the MPs' cases. I notice that earlier this week the police pressed for new charges to be brought against them for making separatist speeches at rallies in south-eastern Turkey last month. They were also accused of speaking Kurdish at the rally, in violation of Turkish law. I thought that most restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language had been lifted in the past 18 months, but speeches in Kurdish are still forbidden under Turkish law governing elections and political parties. That is outrageous, particularly because we are supporting Turkish membership of the European Union. Most people believed that restrictions against people of Kurdish origin were easing, but if that is not so, we must be very vigilant and continue to put pressure on the Turkish authorities.
A new Administration in a country can radically change the political environment for the better, and I had hoped that that would be true of the new Turkish Administration. In some cases, it is true. I note, for example, that the human rights committee has not considered any public cases in connection with Nigeria, after the gradual tailing off of cases in the late 1990s.
At our most recent conference in Mexico City, we discussed the case involving Israel/Palestine—that of Marwan Barghouti, a potent symbol of Palestinian resistance, who is widely seen as a possible successor to Yasser Arafat, and who was given the maximum sentence of five life terms plus 40 years for allegedly organising killings, for a botched suicide bombing and for membership of a terrorist group. The human rights committee of the IPU commissioned a report from an independent legal expert, who made stringent observations on the process of the trial of Marwan Barghouti. In Mexico City in April, the governing council of the IPU unanimously adopted a resolution, recalling
"the concerns that it has expressed at the alleged ill-treatment of Mr. Marwan Barghouti in detention, the interrogation methods used, and his state of health, in addition to its questioning of the competence of the Israeli court to try Mr. Barghouti".
At the back of the report, which is on the internet, there are comments made by the independent legal expert commissioned by the IPU, which are well worth reading.
The committee's work should be further publicised and more MPs should be encouraged to take an interest. The cases in question involve our colleagues. We all have an interest in supporting—a duty to support—our fellow parliamentarians, to ensure that they can enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted, and to assist in putting democracy on a firmer footing. I urge Members of this House and other Parliaments and institutions to bring up those cases in the relevant forums.
First, I thank John Austin for his kind comments on my contributions to the deliberations of the IPU. His support is always much appreciated and I want to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his leadership of the British group during his term of office. I add my tribute to all our staff working in the IPU secretariat for the excellent job that they do, as well as to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the help that it gives us and the full briefings that are made available to us. Those are very welcome.
I am delighted to be called in this afternoon's debate, because I fear that some of the work of the IPU is frequently underestimated and undervalued, because of a lack of understanding. Although I have been a member of the UK branch of the IPU since 1983, owing to parliamentary duties over the years I could never participate in an IPU visit abroad until I became vice-chairman in 1998. In that year, for the first time, I attended an IPU conference and spoke in the assembly on an issue that is close to my heart—child labour, which is an aspect of my campaign on child protection. It was the first time that that important matter had been raised in that public forum.
I shall not bore hon. Members with a detailed, blow-by-blow account of my quest to raise child protection issues at all IPU conferences ever since, but I have become known for my views on child labour, child soldiers, child trafficking, child pornography and internet chat rooms, and particularly for my views on female genital mutilation. I want to give an account of the constructive and positive role that the IPU has played and is playing in the elimination, worldwide, of the abhorrent practice of FGM.
During its conference in Burkina Faso in September 2001 the IPU organised a panel discussion on the topic "Violence against women: FGM". Its purpose was to make parliamentarians aware of the importance of eliminating that harmful traditional practice. The session was well attended by men and women MPs who wanted to take the matter further. A further brainstorming session was organised at the next IPU conference, in Morocco in March 2002, which I addressed. A parliamentary think-tank for the eradication of FGM was created. There were six members of the panel, comprising a Member of Parliament each from Kenya, Nigeria, Norway, Uganda, Senegal and the United Kingdom. I was the United Kingdom representative.
We were mandated to study the possibility of working towards an international convention for the eradication of FGM and of organising, if need be, a parliamentary conference on parliamentary action to eradicate FGM; the latter would be convened jointly by the IPU and the African Parliamentary Union and should bring together MPs, Inter-African Committee representatives, religious and traditional leaders, non-governmental organisations and former practitioners of FGM, together with many others involved in the issue.
Another meeting of our parliamentary think-tank was held at the next IPU conference in Chile in April last year. Discussions resulted in the presentation of recommendations to the full international council of the IPU on the future work to be done in this field by the IPU in co-operation with the APU and national Governments.
The IPU has also set up sections on FGM on the IPU website, which includes details of countries throughout the world where this is practised and what action, if any, Governments have taken to eliminate it. The idea of the website is to disseminate information to anybody and everybody who has an interest in eradicating FGM so that the wheel is not reinvented and good practice is spread. Many African countries have found those web pages extremely helpful.
As a representative of the international IPU, together with a parliamentarian from Norway, I attended a conference in Addis Ababa in February 2003 called "Zero tolerance to FGM", organised by a non-governmental organisation, the Inter-African committee on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children. My Norwegian friend and I were the only parliamentarians attending the conference and we were given a warm welcome by all the delegates.
We listened with great interest to the presentations and comments from young and old representing NGOs and voluntary organisations from countries throughout Africa, as well as UNICEF and the World Health Organisation. They described plans for mobilising religious leaders, community leaders and young people, projects for entrepreneurial training for former circumcisers, so that they can find new employment, and awareness programmes. I remind hon. Members that every year 2 million young girls are estimated to be at risk from this harmful practice.
It was a very heartening experience to hear religious leaders explaining that there is no religious base to FGM and also to hear young men condemning this abuse of human rights. There were former circumcisers who had abandoned their practice and were now preaching to the communities the error of their ways. Needless to say my Norwegian friend and I briefed our IPU colleagues on the conclusions of this conference and reported back on how we could assist.
In April this year, in Mexico City, the IPU, in conjunction with UNICEF, launched a handbook for parliamentarians on child protection. I shall refer to its contents in more detail later but FGM is, of course, featured, and recommendations and strategies for parliamentarians to eradicate the practice are outlined. We in the IPU are now beginning to achieve our objectives. First, on
The protocol requires African Governments to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women in Africa and to promote equality between women and men. It commits Governments, if they have not already done so, to include in their national constitutions and other legislative instruments those fundamental principles and ensure their effective implementation. In addition, it obligates them to integrate a gender perspective in their policy decisions, legislation, development plans, and activities, and to ensure the overall well-being of women. The protocol will enter into force after 15 states have ratified it.
Secondly, I am pleased to say that the IPU, together with UNICEF, is in the process of organising a parliamentary conference to take place next year in Africa, where we can bring together MPs, religious and traditional leaders, NGOs and former practitioners and others. This conference will be a major step forward in persuading national Governments to take action against this abhorrent practice. Other like-minded parliamentarians and I are doing our bit internationally to eradicate FGM, but that will not be achieved without the intervention, co-operation and major support of the IPU.
I have also participated in forums on child labour, child trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, at which I presented papers on the United Kingdom's policies on combating such abuses. The response of IPU conference delegates to those special forums was interesting: they developed the dissemination of good practice between all countries, as well as assisting the developing world with new ideas and providing an opportunity to contribute to possible solutions.
The comradeship that I have witnessed between parliamentarians from all over the world, as they tackle the pressing problems of the day together, has convinced me that the IPU has a major role to play in international affairs and matters of concern to us all. Briefing parliamentarians on possible legislative routes to combat a particular problem can create a climate of understanding and co-operation, and thus have a major impact. For example, laws on child pornography on the internet cannot be imposed beyond a country's borders. We therefore all need to work together.
I was heartened that copies of my written presentation and speech on the use of the internet for child abuse were gathered up by other delegates at the last IPU conference. They were aware of the difficulties that their countries face and were keen to learn of new approaches to the problem. In fact, my presentation has now been put on the IPU website so that any country can use the UK experience to help prevent that misuse of modern technology.
I return to the IPU-UNICEF parliamentarians' handbook on child protection, which catalogues all forms of child abuse and what action parliamentarians can take to combat violence, neglect, sexual exploitation and harmful traditional practices as they affect children. It gives guidance on prevention, law reform and methods for developing parliamentary mechanisms for child protection. Such information is helpful to us all. We in the United Kingdom are not immune from the need to keep a watchful eye on child abuse. Child trafficking, for example, is taking place in this country, and it is still possible to practise FGM by sending young girls abroad for the mutilation. The private Member's Bill recently introduced by Ann Clwyd amends the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which I introduced as a private Member's Bill, and is designed to combat the problem.
As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, three major committees have been set up under the new IPU committee structure. One deals with democracy and human rights, and I am pleased to say that I have been appointed the UK branch's titular member. I hope to convince the IPU headquarters in Geneva and the international IPU executive that we need a sub-committee of that committee to deal with all forms of child protection on a continuing basis, rather than through ad hoc forums. The proposal will be discussed at a mini IPU conference in Geneva in September, and I hope that the IPU will display once again its flexibility in dealing constructively and positively with major international issues.
Of course, Governments can always speak to other Governments, but it is equally important that Back-Bench parliamentarians can raise the profile of worthy causes and put pressure on their Ministers to take action. The IPU is in a unique position to avail parliamentarians of a special international platform of influence and action. We should applaud that, and long may it continue.
It is a great pleasure to be called immediately after the previous two speakers. They are Members who are held in the highest possible esteem, and we have today heard from both of them the enormous role that they have played in fighting for the freedom and human rights of people throughout the world. I am sure that we all appreciate their contribution to the overall standing that our Parliament has in organisations such as the IPU.
I suppose like all new Members who come to the House, when I came here some 34 years ago one of the first things that I did was join the IPU. I have been an officer of it and, like many Members present this afternoon, I am now a member of its executive committee. Over the years, there have been some major changes in the membership and role of the IPU, as we have already heard. I can recall when many IPU member countries came from what was then eastern Europe. I remember going to an IPU conference in East Berlin during that period, when, whatever we did and wherever we went, we were watched and followed. Although no one could in any way have called those countries democratic, or said that they had election systems that were free or fair, that allowed us to make contact with people. After a period of time, certain friendships and a certain respect started to be developed. That is, to me, the great strength of the IPU.
I want to refer to two involvements that I have had. One goes back to the period immediately after the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict when, as we know, the Falkland Islands were invaded by the Argentine military forces. I am sure that we can all remember the events of that time. When that conflict was over, there was no contact—no involvement whatever—between the Governments of the United Kingdom and Argentina. That lasted for a long time. At that time, the chairman of the United Kingdom IPU branch was Sir Michael Marshall, a well respected Member of this House. He had been a Minister, and in time he became the president of the IPU, such was his standing and the respect in which he was held. I can recall Michael saying to me, "We have got to try to build up a relationship with Argentina."
That was certainly not easy. We were seen as the spokesmen of the British Government who had defeated the Argentines in the Falklands conflict. It did not matter that we belonged to different political parties. I have to say that the first meetings were extremely difficult. At times, after meetings, we would wonder whether we should continue, and whether it was the right time to be trying to be involved. However, we and the other members of our delegation to the various conferences where the meetings took place held the view that, yes, as long as they were prepared to meet us, we were going to meet them.
We started by saying, "Look, whatever may have happened in the Falklands, the link between our two countries goes back a long way. That means something to us and we believe that it must mean something to you. We will not discuss the Falkland Islands with you, but we will discuss one of the other issues that you would like to talk about." Contact was made slowly and real friendships were made. That happened with no Government participation, but solely with the involvement of the British IPU group.
My hon. Friend the Minister also speaks on behalf of our relationships with the Falkland Islands and the Argentine. I am the chairman of the all-party group on Argentina and I know about his excellent work and involvement. He will be aware of our excellent relationships with the Argentine: Ministers from both countries visit each other, senior military personnel work together, there are massive business contracts and the Argentine Government play a role in world affairs.
I am sure that hon. Members in the Chamber will be pleased to hear that yesterday Mr. Kenneth Courtenay and I visited the Argentine ambassador in London. During a warm, friendly meeting we discussed a future IPU visit to the Argentine in the coming months. That is an example of what has been achieved solely as a result of the British group at the IPU. I am sure that all hon. Members and the British and Argentine Governments welcome that. When the rebuilding of contacts was starting to take place, no one but the IPU could have done it. I attended all the meetings and, as I have already said, I have great pride in that, because I regarded Sir Michael Marshall as a very dear, personal friend, and none of it would have been possible without his commitment and dedication. Despite all the problems—and with people saying, "Do we go ahead?" and "Is it really worth it?"—Michael insisted that we went ahead. We now see, as a result of that involvement long ago, how the relationships between our two countries have turned out. Although that happened many years ago, the British IPU group, as always, has an ongoing involvement with many countries.
At the moment, we are involved with the Ukraine, where in recent years important developments have taken place. Its economy is strong and growing, large investments are being made and the UK is one of the major investors. Sadly, however, there is another side to that situation. The conduct of elections leaves much to be desired, as does the operation of its ports and legal procedures. The IPU is providing real, positive help and advice to the Ukraine. Next January, we are to host a parliamentary visit from the Ukraine, and we are already working on the programme. I know from a recent trip to the Ukraine that it attaches great importance to the visit.. We are being advised and supported in that visit by the excellent British ambassador to the Ukraine, Mr. Robert Brinkley.
On a recent visit by the delegation, which was fully supported by the British IPU group and led by Lord Geoffrey Howe of Aberavon, along with Mr. McLoughlin and me, we stressed at all the meetings that we had with the President of the Ukraine, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Rada, and the Prime Minister how crucial the forthcoming presidential election in October this year was to the Ukraine and its image in Europe and the world. The election must be free and fair to all candidates. Again, the British IPU group is playing, and will play, a major role in seeking to help and advise the Ukrainians to ensure that the election is free and fair.
We have a great deal to be proud of as an organisation. As the two previous speakers clearly said, we are respected and listened to wherever we are represented. Other colleagues who have spoken paid the warmest tribute to Kenneth Courtenay and all the secretarial staff of our branch. As you know from your many involvements in organisations, Mr. Deputy Speaker, such staff are vital to a group's role and success. I have a long association with the branch, and I know of their great value. I thank them all very much indeed.
It is a pleasure to say a few words in this important debate. I join other speakers in congratulating the chair of the British group of the IPU, my hon. Friend John Austin—I almost forgot the name of my hon. Friend's constituency then; my hon. Friend Ann Clwyd is right that one needs to write it down to remember it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead described, over the years that he has been both acting chair and chair he has had a challenging time on occasions. Difficulties have had to be addressed, and he has done that with great skill. There has also been enormous progress. I echo the remarks of previous speakers in congratulating him on the tremendous work that he has done as chair.
I congratulate also all previous speakers who have made enormous contributions to the group—far larger than mine. This afternoon, we have had the benefit of the wisdom of those who have worked in the IPU both in the UK and internationally. I echo the thanks paid to Kenneth Courtenay and staff, who are always incredibly helpful and manage to smile even when we ask some rather funny questions. I also thank the Foreign Office staff. On IPU delegations, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegations and the occasions that my Select Committee on Trade and Industry travels overseas, the Foreign Office staff's support both here and in embassies and high commissions abroad is absolutely exemplary.
Our chair, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead, invited us to refer to bilateral links. Indeed, my hon. Friend Tom Cox referred to bilateral links that have been particularly productive in recent years. I would like to do the same to illustrate an important point that I know we recognise, but I am not sure that those outside IPU discussions do. The value of inward and outward delegations does not rest only on what happens in those five or six days. The benefits are not transitory; they can be very long term and to the enormous advantage of both sides.
In September 2001, the IPU invited me to lead a delegation to Lithuania. The timing was good, as Lithuania was celebrating 10 years of membership of the United Nations; 10 years had passed since the political upheavals of 1990 and 1991, which had resulted in Lithuania gaining its independence again.
When the IPU delegation visited Vilnius and other parts of Lithuania in September 2001, the parliamentarians we met were not only celebrating 10 years of membership of the United Nations. More importantly, they had other clear messages for us. Mr. Wilkinson might have heard similar messages from our parliamentary colleagues in Latvia and Estonia. The two strongest messages that we received during our visit that week were that Lithuania wants to join NATO and the EU. Five days of meetings on ostensibly different topics all ended up focusing on those same two themes, and they did so for the obvious reasons of security and wishing to be part of a united Europe after the end of the cold war. The Baltic states' requests to join NATO and the EU were the cornerstones of their foreign policy; all parties were united on that, and they still are.
We received a third request from the Lithuanians. It was pointed out to us that we had parliamentary groups for Latvia and Estonia but that there was not a parliamentary group for Lithuania. Our delegation was firmly told that it would be appreciated if we did not forget Lithuania upon our return. So, when we came back, we established an all-party group on Lithuania with Lord Bowness as the Conservative co-chair, Mr. Keetch as the Liberal Democrat co-chair, and me as the Labour co-chair.
A number of us on the IPU outward delegation to Lithuania in 2001 came back determined to establish an all-party group. We did so; it has three co-chairmen, one from each party. The group has enabled us not only to gain an enormous insight into the enlargement process from an applicant country's point of view, but to appreciate the implications of that enlargement for the UK and the other member states. It has been incredibly useful. The practicalities are that the all-party group on Lithuania visits that country once a year. We have regular contact with the Lithuanian ambassador in London and our ambassador in Vilnius. We frequently meet Lithuanian parliamentarians who come here for whatever reason, and we are happy to do so. We have entertained the Lithuanian President.
My point is simple: an IPU delegation, whether outward or inward, has enormous spin-off benefits. It is important for us to realise what those benefits are. I am sorry to admit this, but I am conscious of not having followed up on IPU visits as much as I now wish I had. It is important that we try to encourage that as far as humanly possible.
We had the great pleasure last month to visit Lithuania again. It was the first of our annual visits since Lithuania became a member of NATO and the European Union. In fact, we visited the week after the European Parliament elections. I might confide that Lithuania had some surprising results in its elections, just as we did, but I shall not bore hon. Members by discussing them. The visit was an historic occasion and important for the ongoing dialogue between our two countries. Our relations are incredibly warm and friendly.
Obviously, inward and outward delegations are an important way of building relations between parliamentarians and Parliaments, but following them up is terribly important, and there have been countless examples of all-party groups doing that.
The British group also provides assistance to all-party groups for what are, perhaps, less ambitious activities. Since December last year, 14 all-party groups in this place have been assisted by the British group of the IPU through the arranging of meetings, provision of money for lunches or the odd flight and so on. Such assistance enables all-party groups in this House to raise their level of activity—to raise their game—which is very important. It would be wrong to think that only inward and outward delegations matter.
I know that much assistance of that kind is in the pipeline. As it happens, I am one of the founder members of the all-party group on Vietnam, led incredibly ably by my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman. If anyone can raise funding to promote bilateral relations between two countries, he can. I was elected Treasurer with no money—two of my colleagues think that that is the appropriate thing for me—but in fact I will have to open a bank account at the Co-op this weekend, as we are getting some financial support, including generous support from the British group of the IPU, for which I am very grateful, for a visit to Vietnam later this year.
I quickly comment in passing that that visit will be the first-ever delegation of UK parliamentarians to Vietnam, to the best of my knowledge. There was an inward delegation four years ago, but our visit will be the first outward delegation. In essence, it is being organised by the all-party group. It is an example of how a little assistance—or a lot—from the IPU can enable all-party groups to do this kind of work.
I am conscious of the fact that several other Members wish to speak. Let me make two very brief comments. The first echoes remarks of other hon. Members about the importance of relations between parliamentarians, in contrast with relations between Governments. We are all conscious that other Governments in office have different policies, and we all want to be helpful and so on, but the job of parliamentarians is different from that of Governments.
In the meetings in which I have taken part, the frank discussions on various issues about which we were all concerned have been particularly useful. It is a well-known fact that there is a difference of opinion on the European Union within some political parties, as well as between political parties. It is a well-known fact that there have been differences of opinion about Iraq. There is value in parliamentarians being able to meet and exchange views to determine what is behind the position of their Governments, and the openness and frankness of such dialogue can be and is facilitated by the work of the IPU.
Reference has been made to Randal Cremer, who was the joint founder of the IPU. He was a far-sighted internationalist who had a deep commitment to seeking to resolve conflicts peacefully. The need for internationalism and for seeking to settle conflict peacefully as is great now as it was 100 years ago.
People often talk about globalisation being a problem, but I do not think that it is one. The problem is how, in a globalised world, we can promote political and economic democracy, and how we can develop a real international community where people have respect for each other's views but seek above all to ensure that the majority interest is represented and that it is an international community that represents the interests of the people who live on this planet. The work of the IPU is essential in seeking to achieve that task.
The things that first drew me into politics were domestic issues such as low wages, unemployment, health care, and the quality and accountability of public services. Nevertheless, I am instinctively an internationalist. I believe that long-lasting, sustainable solutions to domestic problems cannot be found in isolation from the rest of the world. That has always been the case; there is nothing new, or 20th or 21st century about that. It was true in the 19th century. The repeal of the corn laws was a domestic policy that had profound implications for the rest of the world and the abolition of slavery was an international policy that had profound implications for this country and for the national politics of other countries.
Domestic and international politics are hugely intertwined and always will be. That was true in the 19th century, when the IPU was formed. It probably became more so in the 20th century, which was one of two great world wars that led to the creation of intergovernmental bodies that mirrored the IPU—the League of Nations and then the United Nations. It is even truer in the 21st century. Globalisation gathers apace and makes more issues tractable only on a transnational basis.
Some anti-globalisers want to resist the trend and they say that we should opt out, but that simply cannot be done. Some parliamentarians blame globalisation for our failure to tackle current issues such as rights at work, the offshoring of jobs, levels of taxation, developing countries' debt, or the role of a public sector. If we were to tell the public that globalisation undermines our effectiveness as MPs, we would not get sympathy or understanding from our constituents; they would just regard us as irrelevant to their problems and those of a modern world. They would switch off and there would be more abstention from elections and less interest in politics. There would be apathy and cynicism, which we experience during some elections. For instance, although we got an increase in turnout for the European elections in this country—from an extremely low level at the previous European elections—across Europe as a whole there was a huge decline. Depressingly, there was a turnout of less than 25 per cent among the accession members. That apathy and cynicism is sapping the lifeblood of parliamentary democracy.
When it was created more than 100 years ago, the IPU was an enormous innovation. It was created to pursue the principle of international dialogue based on the principle of equality of nations and it predated the other major international institutions, such as the UN, the EU, the African Union and the Organisation of American States. The need for dialogue now is as important as ever.
I do not want to be a party pooper. I am a passionate supporter of the IPU and am fortunate to have been elected for a number of years as a member of its executive, but I believe that it is losing its way, and therefore that it is losing its relevance to international politics. It is illustrated by the growth of other inter-parliamentary bodies, which do good work, such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and more recent innovations such as the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank.
Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development approached me asking for a parliamentary arm so that it could be more accountable to parliamentarians and, through them, the public. I asked why it could not work through existing institutions, as we would end up with so many inter-parliamentary bodies that we would have one parliamentarian attending each and no dialogue at all.
We must take stock of the fact that those new bodies have been created because parliamentarians see them better able to deal with some of the issues than the original body—the IPU. That has been illustrated by the withdrawal of the United States of America from the IPU. I join every Member present in urging the United States to rejoin the fold, but only a fool could ignore the signal that America's decision sends about the relevance—to itat least—of the IPU.
The problem of relevance was illustrated by the IPU's failure to put the principles of parliamentary democracy and human rights first when it decided to withdraw the 110th conference from London. It is also illustrated by its procedures and priorities at its conferences, which put discussion of policy before control by parliamentarians of the executive in national Parliaments and the influence of executive decisions in international bodies, such as the World Bank and UN agencies.
On several occasions, I have argued that IPU conferences should spend at least as much time allowing parliamentarians to report back to the IPU on the action that they have taken in their Parliaments to pursue the policies agreed at previous IPU conferences. Unless one does that work, one does not get any positive outcomes in the way in which the world is governed. If we do not seek such outcomes, I do not know what we seek to do.
I pay tribute to the tremendous work that colleagues who have spoken in this debate do in committees of the IPU and, in particular, to the work that the chair and the vice-chair, Mr. Wilkinson, and others have done to modernise the IPU and its procedures. I say, as a friend of the IPU and as somebody who wants to create a valuable future for it, if it does not change to make itself more relevant it will wither away. It must change, like some of the 19th-century practices in this place, such as having to wear a top hat in the Chamber if one wanted to ask a point of order during a vote. It took our Modernisation Committee and some 100 years to abolish that. Changes must be made.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate is one of those ways of stepping forward, as what we do in the IPU is debated in the Parliament rather than the chair writing a letter once a year to the Secretary of State? I know that he is passionately concerned about the millennium development goals, and the IPU is convening a conference next year of Speakers of Parliaments of the member countries of the IPU precisely so that member parliamentarians can report back on the action that their Parliaments have taken to achieve those goals.
It is a step forward. If I did not think that change was possible I would not attend this debate, play a part in the IPU or urge that process along.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, the vice-chair of the UK branch of the IPU on the important part that he has played in driving that agenda forward. I want to encourage that, which is why I have risen to my feet to speak briefly in this debate. I was fortunate enough to represent the UK branch at the IPU meeting at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Sao Paulo last month. If we had more time, I would report in greater detail on my experiences at the conference. I have produced a written report, which I have sent to the branch, and, because I know that other Members wish to speak, that is probably the best way to report back.
Let me say this: I welcome the work that the IPU is doing to establish a parliamentary wing to the World Trade Organisation. That is important. Parliamentarians represent people in their countries and the views of those people need to be represented in the WTO. However, I am slightly concerned that the international secretariat of the IPU is seeking to establish the parliamentary wing of the WTO on too exclusive a basis. For instance, it seeks to exclude the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank, which wants to play a part in that parliamentary wing.
The IPU needs to be inclusive and not exclusive. It cannot claim to represent individual Parliaments or other interparliamentary bodies and, of course, it does not have a monopoly on wisdom. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a member, recently produced a very interesting report on international trade and development, and the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank has started some work in that field. Parliamentarians who work together internationally on these difficult issues need to pool their knowledge and skills.
The IPU is the parent. It was the first body of its kind. I certainly do not want to be accused of patricide or matricide—I do not want to kill it off. It is not perfect; it is not a stairway to heaven, but it has certainly helped to lift some Parliaments and parliamentarians out of the abyss, as we heard from my hon. Friend Ann Clwyd. If it did not exist, some inspired leader or leaders somewhere in the world, such as Randal Cremer, would seek to create it.
However, if the IPU is to remain relevant in the 21st century, it needs to change in two ways. It needs to learn to live with its children, to give them their head, and to recognise that they have things to say too and that there are some things that they can do better than their parent. It also needs to reform its own procedures so that it spends more time considering the implementation of policy and not just its creation.
We are due to finish at 11 minutes past 6, although that is dependent on whether there are any more Divisions in the main Chamber. I hope that those who are still to be called to speak will bear that in mind. I want to give the Minister at least 16 or 17 minutes to reply to this important debate.
As Henry VIII said to his wives, "I'll not keep you long."—[Laughter.] It is a privilege to take part in this debate, and it is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley. Although some of his remarks might be regarded as controversial, I am sure that we will have another debate in which those issues can be discussed.
The UK branch of the IPU is modernising. We are welcoming and extending services to many other Parliaments and nations who seek support and guidance from people of experience, such as those who have spoken in this debate. It has been very interesting, and I am sure that the Minister has been impressed by our colleagues' reports of their contributions to and their experience of the way in which the IPU has been providing a service and operating over the past few years. Long may that continue. It takes time and effort to ensure that we are fully represented on visits and to receive internal delegations properly, but it is always pleasing to meet people from abroad, to hear their views and to consider some of the problems in their countries.
For the Minister's benefit, I wish to refer to a procedural matter involving our own branch. At the main meeting of the executive, it was agreed that we should establish an audit committee for the IPU to bring it into line with other bodies to which Treasury rules apply and public funding is provided. During discussions in the executive committee, it was decided that the audit committee's purpose would be to advise the executive committee and the responsible officer—the honorary treasurer—on the adequacy of our risk control measures and the need for internal audit of our proceedings. We also had the opportunity to discuss the financial arrangements, the balance sheet and the business of the IPU branch. We agreed at that main meeting that the audit committee would comprise eight members of the executive who did not hold posts as officers in the branch—"Back-Bench" members of the IPU—with representation from both Houses. We also agreed to meet quarterly.
A meeting of the group was held on
I wish to put on the record the procedures that have been followed by the IPU branch in the United Kingdom. We are now regulated in line with the Treasury's recommendations and we intend to report to the IPU branch in the United Kingdom. We shall ensure that all the Treasury's requirements are met and that the IPU follows the usual route of ensuring that any risk or risk management measure is reported to the executive, and the executive takes note of the audit committee's report.
It is an honour to follow so many distinguished parliamentarians. I praise as others have the superb leadership of my hon. Friend John Austin, the two vice-chairs and all those who serve on the IPU committee.
When I came into the House, I knew of the work of Select Committees but I did not know about the secret society of behind-the-scenes organisations. I am glad that one secret society that does great good has come out from behind the Speaker's Chair and has been given the opportunity today to speak to a wider public through Hansard and, I hope, through "Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament" by its members talking about the work that we do outside this Chamber, working with other Chambers throughout the world.
That is clearly done, as my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley said, by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the Council of Europe, the Western European Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but I see the IPU as the doyenne of such organisations, because it is the one that brings together all the Parliaments of the world. At the last meeting, 122 Parliaments came together in Mexico. Taking on my hon. Friend, let me point out the main reason for the growth of some of the other organisations is the fact that the United States pulled out of the IPU some four years ago. It did so because it did not like the deep questioning it was getting at the meetings that I attended when I first became a member. We should think about whether we play along with the Americans' absence from the IPU as a reason for some of the other organisations developing. I am concerned that some of those organisations operate on a "signing-on" basis. They are not representative of all the parties in a Parliament, but represent people on a partial basis, and the organisations themselves fund some of the events. That does not mean that I am against organisations like the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank. It is simply a matter of fact that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund fund that organisation. It is important that it has an independence of spirit, instead of being seen as a replacement for the IPU.
I rise to correct my hon. Friend. In fact, a number of developed country Governments—in particular, the Government of the Netherlands—supplied the funding to create the trust that established the network. I am simply suggesting that there are a number of bodies that do particular jobs of work in different ways, and the family of inter-parliamentary bodies must learn to live together and respect the advantages that each body brings to better international understanding.
I agree with my hon. Friend on the need for the bodies to work together. I agree, and put it on record, that the Netherlands provided funding initially, but increasingly the funding has come from the World Bank, and I am concerned that the participation of developing countries at the meetings at the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank has been dependent on whether funding has come from sources such as the World Bank. It is important that there is an equality of approach, which is reflected in the IPU's funding base, but not in the approach of the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank.
At the moment the IPU is the only organisation at which issues such as the World Bank can be discussed at some length by representatives of the Parliaments of all the developing countries, rather than only those who are able to make it to meetings that are held in Europe, which is true of the last four I have been able to get to. The Parliamentary Network is not a world organisation as the IPU is. That is not to say that daughter organisations should not be welcomed; however, the IPU remains the one that represents all the Parliaments of the world.
By going to conferences, I have learned a great deal and I have been able to understand the views of fellow parliamentarians, who have stood for election and gone through the same heat of the hustings that I had to. They include not only Government parliamentarians but those from Opposition parties. It is important to me that the IPU constitution requires that the delegation represents the party political mix of the Parliament that is being represented.
I first got involved in the IPU at the 1999 Berlin meeting, at which I was put forward by the then chair, Mr. Marshall. I was the rapporteur on a committee dealing with global financial architecture following the collapse of the east Asia economy the previous year. To me, that showed that the IPU was the one institution that would grip such an enormous problem and discuss how to attempt to deal with it. The resolutions we produced are still worth reading, because they led to the work on heavily indebted poor countries and are an example of how the godfathers and mothers of the HIPC process came through the IPU.
I was pleased that the branch supported my appointment to the original sustainable development committee in 2000. It was formed after the 1992 Rio conference and overviewed the work of the IPU with UN organisations. That link between the IPU and the UN was cemented in the years following the 1992 conference. It was particularly apposite at the Ouagadougou conference in September 2001, because the appalling atrocity of
In 2003, following the reform of the IPU, the second committee on sustainable development was established. It became one of the three main committees. I was appointed rapporteur to that committee, together with Madame Tamboura, the deputy speaker of the Malian Parliament. Together we produced a report and draft resolution on the issues of trade in agricultural products and access to basic medicines. That was interesting because it took place eight months after the Cancun ministerial meeting—at which the IPU met the European Parliament, which had shadowed the Cancun ministerial meeting. The latter had broken up in disarray because the developing countries' voice had not been listened to. It was important that we got a resolution that, following long discussions, all sides could agree on.
The drafting committee members were Belgium—which represented the EU—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Japan, Switzerland, Russia, Uganda and the United Kingdom. Through the four days of the committee, we worked on resolutions that will, I think, serve the Doha settlement well. That settlement may be agreed in Geneva in the next seven days. Work is going on there, particularly behind-the-scenes work on cotton subsidies. At this point, I join in the praise given to Sue Breeze from the Foreign Office. She e-mailed London at short notice to get answers to the difficult questions that were asked about cotton and agricultural subsidies and about the nature of the settlement agreed on
That is the new process that Mr. Wilkinson will go through this autumn, when he acts as rapporteur to his committee. One has to stand by one's report and one's resolution. In the past one had what I described in Mexico as 40 or 50 Christmas trees of resolutions that had to be pushed into one. Now there is just one resolution, and one has to add to it. About 95 per cent. of the Mali-UK resolution survived and went through. That was a good example of the reform that is changing the IPU from a cosy talking shop to a hard-edged negotiating chamber. A lot of us welcome that change, given its wide membership of 122—I think that that of the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank is up to about 30.
I should also like to mention an experience that I had that was similar to that of Mr. Berry. It was my outward mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina last month. I shall not go into great detail because the report of Bob Spink, who was with me, appears in the Official Report of
I pay particular tribute to the protocol officer for the IPU in the Bosnia and Herzegovina Assembly, Samir Corovic, who spent a great deal of time working with us to make that mission work. Also—the Hansard writers will be glad to know that I have written these down—the leader of the Bosnia and Herzegovinan IPU delegation, Milos Jovanovic, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Martin Regusz, and the Speaker of the House of Peoples, Mustafa Pamuk, are leading their country out of the chaos of some 10 years ago. It has only been possible in recent times to stand in Sarajevo and see the Parliament building, directly opposite the Holiday Inn, with shell holes marking it like a Gruyère cheese. That reminds one of the need for parliamentary democracy in a way that no other visual aid can do. In a sense, it needs to remain in order to remind people of what they are moving away from.
I should also mention last week's suspension by the high representative, Lord Ashdown, of the speaker of the Republika Srpska entity Parliament, Dragan Kalinic, and others within the Republika Srpska. It was important for us—having our interchange with the national Government, and being seen as the first ever IPU delegation to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina and to be seen to recognise the role of the national Government and not of the entity Parliaments.
I should like to emphasise the fact that the hon. Member for Castle Point and I will ensure that the all-party group has great support. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has agreed to link with Mostar and Sarajevo, and it is possible that on
I have also privileged to listen to the views of members of inward missions, including from El Salvador last week. From such visits, I have learned a great deal and acquired a good understanding of what is going on in their countries.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead emphasised at the beginning, and I emphasise now wearing my hat as chairman of the all- party group on the United Nations, we need to revise the recommendations of Cardoso's panel on civil society and state very clearly that it should be recognised that the IPU represents the Parliaments of the world. Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for City of York said, I do not believe any comparable organisation can fulfil the requirements.
I do not often quote George Monbiot's "The Age of Consent"—he is usually a little too left-wing for me—but interestingly from page 76 onwards, he states very clearly that the only world parliamentary body that can give the consent of the world is the IPU. He prefers a one person, one vote election to a world parliament, but he accepts that that will not happen for several lifetimes. For now, however, he believes that the IPU should be supported. It may surprise Guardian readers who believe that he has no faith in Governments or Parliaments that this is George Monbiot's recommendation.
There are important issues of legitimacy affecting international bodies. IPU conferences are not like a Parliament, where each delegate represents an equal number of constituents. My hon. Friend overstates the legitimacy of IPU decisions. Certain common positions are adopted at IPU conferences, and the conferences are valuable for that reason, but because they are common positions, they are sometimes lowest common denominator positions. For instance, at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the initial draft put forward by the IPU secretariat did not mention the private sector at all. Given that it was a trade conference, that was strange. Nor did the IPU mention the need to tackle corruption or the rule of law—
I agree that there could be greater accountability under a world parliament, which could sit alongside the General Assembly. George Monbiot makes the point in his book that such a parliament should have a one person, one vote system across the world. He sees it as a 600-member parliament. One could say that that would be preferable to the IPU, but my point was that that would be impractical. What we have at the moment is the IPU, and although it is not as accountable as Mr. Monbiot's proposed system, it exists and involves all the Parliaments of the world.
I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York to the enormous list of observers to the Mexico conference. It mentions some 40 organisations. I do not imagine that it would be a problem if the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank sent a delegate to go on the great list of organisations with observer status and speak in the general debate if it so wished. I shall not list the daughter organisations, because we are up against time now, but there is a great list of them, including those that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. They have observer status and are included in the democratic process.
I come back to my point, so that we do not lose sight of it—although the Hansard will read smoothly anyway, I hope—which is that the Cardoso report needs to be questioned strongly by the Government, in terms of it excluding the IPU as the legitimate voice of Parliaments across the world. That needs to be corrected.
I am pleased that we have had this debate. My hon. Friend Mr. Grogan, who was here earlier but had to go, suggested at an IPU meeting in June last year that a debate about the IPU should be held on the same day in every Parliament around the world. I hope that the absolutely brilliant secretary Ken Courtenay will take back to Geneva the fact that we, the co-founders of the IPU, have started the trend. We hope that it will be adopted by every other parliamentary member of the IPU.
It is a great privilege to take part in a debate in which we have heard so many of Parliament's political heavyweights. I should like to thank the Leader of the House for allowing this innovative debate on the IPU, and John Austin, as a member of the executive, for his leadership as the chair of the British IPU group.
It is worth looking back to those two great men, the French parliamentarian Frédéric Passy and our very own Sir Randal Cremer. Before the IPU, the United Nations or any of the any international organisations that we take for granted had been established, those two advocates of peace had the foresight to acknowledge that only through greater communication and friendship between nations would the world be a safer place for future generations. We are still struggling to come to terms with that reality more than 100 years and many millions of deaths later, but had not that initiative been taken by Cremer and Passy, who can tell how many more battles would have been fought and how less stable our modern world would be?
The visions of 1889, when Cremer and Passy founded the IPU, can be seen to have influenced many other drives for greater international co-operation, running from the international peace conference of 1899 all the way through to the establishment of the UN in 1942 and the recent expansion of the modern EU. It is much better for the leaders of countries to be in constant communication, continually developing mutually beneficial relationships, than for each to close off contact with the outside world, thereby sowing the seeds of distrust and xenophobia. If there is a new Government in the United States in autumn, perhaps the United States will return to the fold.
In my eyes, that role of the IPU must not be undervalued or forgotten. Peace was, perhaps, the primary motivation for the organisation's establishment. The positive effects on peace and the notions of tolerance and co-operation that have resulted cannot be overstressed. Although the ethos may now be focused more on such problems as human rights abuses and world health, we must remember to appreciate discussions with our friends around the world for what they are: the product of many years of hard work by people who shared a common ideal of universal peace and co-operation.
We have heard that the recently reformed IPU, having traditionally served as a forum for general debate, now concentrates on standing committees that debate reports and resolutions drawn up by legislators. I pay tribute to some of the giants of Parliament whom we have heard today who take part in those conferences and are rapporteurs for the resolutions drawn up. I have not yet been to an IPU conference. That is not a hint—well, perhaps it is; I am envious of colleagues who have been. That change in the IPU does not mean that its role as a centre for parliamentary diplomacy has been undermined; rather, as we have heard, it has strengthened the union and given it more relevance and responsiveness to the rapidly changing world around us.
We have heard that the IPU's three main areas of focus are the standing committee on peace and international security, the standing committee on sustainable development, finance and trade, and the standing committee on democracy and human rights. Each committee undertakes investigations in matters within their given sphere of concern. The amalgamation of diverse views agreed upon through majority voting is presented to the assembly, and the resulting reports and publications are an invaluable tool for parliamentarians worldwide, giving us access to information from all corners of the globe that we may find useful in developing domestic policy or helping to resolve conflicts.
Aside from the conferences and committee work, the IPU runs three core programmes in areas in which it holds strong beliefs. That is perhaps where the work of the union can be best observed having a dramatic practical impact on real world scenarios. First, the IPU plays an important role in protecting the human rights of legislators. We have heard from Ann Clwyd about her work on that committee, to which I pay tribute.
The second core programme focuses on providing guidance to newly established Parliaments, helping them to find their feet and offering solutions to the day-to-day problems that they are encountering for the first time. East Timor is one example of the programme's success story, as the IPU was heavily involved in setting up a Parliament that we hope will continue to bring greater stability to the region.
The third programme relates to the representation of women in Parliament. We in Britain are as guilty as any other country of failing to represent women adequately in our governing Chambers. The IPU runs a dynamic programme of seminars and activities designed to advance the interests of women politicians throughout the world. Not only does the IPU talk the talk, it walks the walk by insisting on a fair gender representation from delegations. Article 15, point 2(c) of the IPU statute states:
"Any delegation that for three consecutive sessions is composed exclusively of parliamentarians of the same sex shall have a minimum of eight votes (instead of the ten for mixed delegations) at the Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union."
I thank the staff of the IPU. We have already had tributes to Kenneth Courtenay and his wonderful staff, but I also pay tribute to Kenneth's predecessor, David Ramsay, and to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is unstinting in its support of the work of the IPU. The FCO is the biggest employer in my constituency, so I always enjoy paying tribute to it.
During the 12 years that I have been in this House, I have been privileged to meet many inward delegations. I remember particularly a delegation from Angola: with pain in his eyes, one of the MPs asked us to help end Angola's civil war. I do not claim that the UK branch of the IPU achieved that aim single-handedly, but I like to think that meeting us and seeing how we do things in our Parliament in a peaceful and tolerant way strengthened the resolve of the Angolan delegates and helped to end that devastating war.
I also accompanied Tom Cox, another giant of our Parliament, and the hon. Members for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) on an election monitoring delegation organised by the IPU to a Commonwealth country—another war-torn country—Mozambique. We had the privilege of meeting the former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, and his wife, Rosalynn, who were heading the Carter Centre group monitoring those elections. On that visit, I formed the opinion that history would be kinder to President Jimmy Carter than the American voters were in 1980. I believe that our branch of the IPU should carry out more election monitoring. It is valuable work that gives credence to elections overseas and encourages new democracies to develop peacefully.
With my final thoughts on the IPU and the praiseworthy role that it plays in the sphere of international politics, I come full circle back to where I began. In the current climate of world politics, it is essential that we encourage as much dialogue as possible between nations to safeguard the fragile peace in many regions. We must seek to maintain communication between factions involved in hostilities so that we can find a resolution to such conflicts. We must also learn that unilateral action cannot be a reasonable way to police the international arena. If we are to encourage communication between opposing factions and support the notion of debate over destruction, we must be careful to heed our own advice. I will be a happy man when delegates from countries such as Iraq, where I worked before I entered this House, can join us around the table at an IPU conference and have a productive discourse with representatives from all over the globe.
It is a pleasure to be able to place on record in this important and interesting debate the full support of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition to the work of the IPU. As we have heard, the IPU has existed for more than 115 years—115 years of building relationships between parliamentarians all around the world. In that time, we have experienced two world wars, the rise and fall of various tyrannical dictators, the division of the world into two hostile blocs during the cold war, and now the confusion and uncertainty of the war on terror and a fast changing world. It is difficult to measure the contribution of the IPU during that period, but I have no doubt that it has played its full part in contributing to global co-operation and security. I pay tribute to all those on the current executive who work so hard, and to the chairman, John Austin, who is a fine leader as we have heard today.
I also commend Hugh Bayley for having the audacity to sound a slightly brittle note. I have learned that it is always worth listening when we are challenged about whether we got it right or wrong. I have no idea whether the IPU has lost its way, as he asserted, but I am sure that the executive will take on board his challenge and respond to it properly.
Although the organisation is old and revered, I suspect that it has never been more relevant than in today's world. Following the end of the cold war and the break-up of the old blocs, fledgling democracies around the world are feeling their way towards a proper understanding of democratic rule, the rule of law and market-based economies. I imagine that IPU support for them is as necessary now as ever before—perhaps more so.
In my role since November as a shadow Foreign Minister, I have travelled extensively to the middle east, where there are early stirrings of movement towards democracy in many Gulf states. I was in Bahrain in February working with Members of Parliament there who were hungry to learn about our experiences of "doing democracy". I am sure that the IPU has a vital role in helping those countries to move forward.
This morning I met the ambassador of Kazakhstan who told me that they are holding elections in September and intend to form an Executive from their elected house for the first time. That is their choice, but the model will be based on the best bits that they have seen around the world, and I am sure that the IPU can help them. The role of national Parliaments around the world is becoming more important. National Parliaments have existed for a long time in many countries, but perhaps only now are some becoming real for the first time. The work of the IPU is not finished yet.
We live in a world in which soft power is vital—perhaps more important than hard power. In Afghanistan and Iraq we have seen the exercise of hard power by the world's only superpower in coalition with us, but soft power is even more important. The IPU's work in bringing parliamentarians together is part of exercising that soft power: not working on behalf of any country in particular, but working together to build global stability and security. Britain should be at the forefront of the exercise of soft power through our much respected diplomacy, the role of our non-governmental organisations, our aid and humanitarian work, the impressive peacekeeping skills of our armed forces and our historical commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Those assets all equip us to play a significant—perhaps unique—role in exercising soft power and influencing the world for good. We know that we are no longer a superpower or an empire, and we do not want to return to those days, but perhaps the spirit and heart of democratic understanding lives on impressively in this country—as long as we can still persuade people to vote for us at ongoing elections and the next general election. It is no coincidence that one of the two founder members of the IPU was British. We have a crucial role to play.
In our discussions about supporting democracy around the world, it is important to talk not about exporting our style of democracy, but about sharing values and experiences. Local democracy will take different forms where it emerges. Although the principles of free and fair elections and freedom of speech should be universal, we must accept that their implementation will be diverse from place to place. It is also important to understand that these things take time. Our Parliament has been developing since 1295, and less than 100 years ago women did not have the right to vote in this country. We must take care not to lecture other countries about the speed of their progress.
We have heard about the important work of the committee on the human rights of parliamentarians and about the work done by my hon. Friend Dame Marion Roe on championing the rights of children. Those are important issues and that work is greatly admired.
May I make three brief points that I hope will contribute to the debate? My understanding is that the IPU's key role is building relationships between parliamentarians around the world. The hon. Members for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) and for Putney (Mr. Colman) mentioned that in their speeches. The key role of the IPU is to develop bilateral relationships between parliamentarians; that is how it was set up. I believe that that is its core business, and—although I have no knowledge with which to back up the statement—I believe also that sometimes it is wrong to move away from our core business. I have seen some of the excellent work that is being done by the different committees of the IPU, but I still believe that it is right to focus on bringing parliamentarians together so that they can exchange views and strengthen one another in their challenging role.
Secondly, it is crucial—I am sure that it already happens—that the IPU works with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other agencies and organisations to avoid duplication. There must be a spirit of co-operation in theory and in practice. I mentioned Bahrain earlier. I know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, through its global opportunities fund, is putting together an important programme in that country. I would like to think that the IPU could take part in that, working with those MPs who are hungry to learn.
Thirdly, I have seen in some of the literature—it was also mentioned earlier in several of today's excellent speeches—that there is talk of adding some kind of parliamentary bolt-on to the WTO to provide some kind of accountability. I understand the reasons for that, but I must place on the record my deep belief that democracy will continue to be expressed by a people group electing its own leaders, with the ability to elect them and remove them within a nation. That is the primary form of democracy. [Interruption.] Do you want me to stop, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
I shall make one more point. I welcome the growth of IPU activity in countries such as North Korea, as we saw in last month's edition of the IPU Review. I believe that the IPU and parliamentarians can sometimes go where Governments cannot. The IPU should take that kind of risk.
National Parliaments are increasingly important, and developing relationships between them so that they can learn from each other is an essential part of building a better world. I wish the IPU well in the future.
Hon. Members have made important contributions to the debate, but with the permission of the Minister, the initiator of the debate and the Chair, some have excused themselves. Therefore, using my discretion again, I now call the Minister to wind up this excellent debate, for which I am delighted to say that he has been present throughout.
I shall ignore the comment from Mr. Streeter that I should just write to hon. Members, tempting though that may be.
This has been an exceedingly good debate, which has underlined the intent and purpose of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in bringing a depth of knowledge, understanding and experience to international relations and international affairs, which is of enormous benefit to this country and the wider world.
I start by paying tribute, first, to my hon. Friend John Austin for his leadership of the UK branch of the Inter-Parliamentary Union over the last four years. He has performed an exceedingly challenging job, and that is a view that is widely held on both sides of the House. I pay tribute, too, to Ken Courtenay and the staff of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and to Sue Breeze and the Foreign Office team, to whom a number of hon. Members have paid tribute. I know how highly hon. Members value their support and assistance in providing briefings. I add my thanks on that score.
As hon. Members have said, this is the first debate of its kind, and I hope that it will be repeated. Given the difficulty of arranging parliamentary debates in the House, I listened with trepidation to the suggestion from my hon. Friend Mr. Grogan that debates should coincide, and be held on the same date at the same time for every member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Several hon. Members commented on the withdrawal of the United States of America from the IPU, which is a matter of regret. It was done not on a government-to-government level, but by senators, who withdrew because they said that they prefer to conduct inter-parliamentary relations bilaterally. Attempts have been made by the IPU and by many parliamentarians to encourage the US to rejoin, but to no avail. We are prepared to lobby, and if the Chair wishes us to do so I will take on that responsibility. However, the best way that the issue can be resolved is at parliamentarian level.
I listened with genuine interest to the opening speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead, who talked about the new structures and the committee-based system in the IPU, which has much to commend it. The system is bedding down, and individual members of the British group—my hon. Friend Mr. Colman and Mr. Wilkinson—are already taking on key responsibilities, which is welcome. I am particularly interested in the work that Dame Marion Roe and my hon. Friend Ms Prentice are doing in the women's group to try increase the representation of women parliamentarians from throughout the world. We have made some progress in our own Parliament, albeit that the level is still low. The challenge remains, and we need to take it forward across the world.
The hon. Member for Broxbourne has undertaken an immense amount of work, particularly with regard to female genital mutilation. In mobilising on that issue, the IPU has been absolutely right in seeking to gain media and NGO attention at the grass roots in the fight against that inhumane and dangerous practice. I shall return at a later stage to the work done by my hon. Friend Ann Clwyd on the human rights of parliamentarians.
I was struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead said about leading the delegation at the conference in Santiago at a particularly difficult time during the Iraq conflict. He described the 4:4 split in the UK delegation. Given what I know of his views on the conflict in Iraq, it is to his immense credit that he handled the matter with such diplomacy and dignity, and managed to carry it forward. I agreed with his comments about the importance of the IPU playing a role in Iraq as we move toward the critical January elections and the establishment, at long last, of a fledgling democracy there. Any advice and assistance that the IPU can give on that will be enormously helpful.
My hon. Friend talked about the middle east peace process and underlined the fact that there are conflicts throughout the world over which Governments simply do not speak to each other. The IPU can break through that process and begin to build human contact, which is the absolute minimum requirement with which to move forward from an intractable dispute or conflict. That is one of the major benefits of the IPU.
My hon. Friend also spoke about the UN and the special observer status that has been gained. He raised the issue, which he has discussed with me, of whether the papers that have been tabled should become official papers of the UN. From our discussions, and from what I know, that seems to be a bureaucratic issue to which there must be a solution. The Government certainly seek to offer support.
Several Members mentioned the WTO and the desire for a parliamentary forum. I understand that desire, as I believe that we need parliamentary engagement on such issues, but I am not sure whether we should go forward with a multiplicity of parliamentary forums in a way that might be seen as being in competition with the work of the IPU. Perhaps that issue should be further debated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead spoke about the Cardoso report—another issue that we have discussed privately. I was concerned to hear about the work of the UN Secretary-General's Cardoso panel, as it appeared to be likely to recommend the setting up of a network of parliamentarians that would duplicate the work of the IPU. That is the fundamental concern—the work of the IPU. Now that the report is out, it is clear that its drafters have made several efforts to reflect the IPU's concerns, but the proposals are still not satisfactory. I agree that there could still be a high level of duplication with the work and structures of the IPU, and I assure my hon. Friend that officials are in touch with the UK mission to the UN about how best to influence the next steps in that process.
My hon. Friend also talked about the importance of outgoing and incoming IPU delegations. I was unaware that one of the sacrifices that the chairman makes on attaining that office is to absolve himself from taking part in outward delegations, which are of enormous benefit. Having been a Foreign Office Minister for the past 19 months, I know that however many briefings and books one reads about a country, nothing enhances one's understanding of a country, region or conflict better than visiting the area, talking to people and debating the relevant issues. That gives a real sense of what is going on there. The reciprocal, incoming visits are also of enormous benefit to us, and I do my best to meet incoming delegations, and to host lunches for them.
I very much took my hon. Friend's point about liaising to agree our priorities regarding which countries that we should visit. The Foreign Office is prepared to do that, but that must not undermine the independence of the IPU, which has to be seen as being separate from the Government.
I listened to my hon. Friend's comments about the situation in Colombia. One of the IPU visits that I found to be the most constructive in my work as a Foreign Office Minister was the IPU delegation to Colombia some six to nine months ago. The Government are right to take the approach that they do to the appalling conflict in Colombia, but I am conscious that that issue is controversial, which is why I believe that the engagement of parliamentarians in that process through the IPU is of enormous benefit.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the cancellation of the London assembly, on which many hon. Members have commented. It was a real cause for concern that we were asked—and most importantly that he was asked—to tear up the international commitments that we had made in order to host that conference. I was certainly grateful for the significant efforts that were undertaken by the chairman of the British IPU branch and other members to seek a resolution to the issue. From a Government level, we tried our best to find a resolution. Ultimately, in the circumstances of being forced to take someone on the banned list, we and members of the group were absolutely right to stick to our guns and ensure that the issue was resolved in that way. I hope that the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead to the executive committee of the international IPU will ensure that such issues can be considered on an international basis.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood made an important point when he referred to the personal development of Members of Parliament and peers through the IPU process. The fashionable view of the press is that MPs who undertake foreign travel are engaged in something that is not quite proper and which comes close to junketing. That is not the case. The need in the world for travel and engagement between parliamentarians has never been greater. It is in the public interest and to the public benefit that such work is undertaken.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley highlighted the work of the all-party group on human rights, which has made significant progress in championing the causes of Members of Parliament who are under repression throughout the world. Such work should be taken forward. The hon. Member for Broxbourne highlighted that work that she has done in connection with female genital mutilation. Her work to raise consciousness about the issue is to be applauded tremendously. As she said, each year 2 million young girls are at risk of genital mutilation. That figure is shocking and we all need to be doing more on that front.
My hon. Friend Tom Cox referred to the situation in Argentina and the need to maintain dialogue. We certainly do not resile from our view on sovereignty in respect of the Falklands about which we are in no doubt. Outside of that, we want a constructive relationship with Argentine and the efforts that hon. Members have made through the IPU are of benefit to that process. My hon. Friend Mr. Berry spoke about the way in which his IPU visit to Lithuania had brought an all-party group to life. That is much to be welcomed. He also talked about the importance of Parliament-to-Parliament links outside of the Government. In terms of enhancing international understanding, that is particularly significant. Otherwise, other parliamentarians and other Governments simply receive a single-facet view of the politics within a country. Such enhancement is to be welcomed.
My hon. Friend Hugh Bayley referred to globalisation and the need for an international response. I wholly agree with him. He then bravely challenged the conventional wisdom. Such issues need to be debated. That was difficult action to take and I am sure that the members of the IPU will take his comments on board. Any organisation needs to reflect on matters and consider how to go forward. Whatever people felt about those comments, they were a constructive contribution to our debate.
My hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien talked about the role of the audit committee, and I take the view that when we are talking about a significant commitment of public funds, it is right that such arrangements are in place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney spoke about his role on the sustainable development committee. I know that it has an exceedingly challenging task, and I pay tribute the work that he does on it. Sustainable development presents an important challenge, and the Government are reviewing our strategy on it. We need to move forward in international forums, as we are doing, and the support that can be provided and work that can be done at a parliamentary level to back that up should be welcomed.
We have had an exceedingly good debate. If anyone was in any doubt, the breadth of understanding demonstrated this afternoon has amply justified the existence of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I genuinely believe that it brings a level of dedication and understanding that enhances international relations. It has been going for 115 years, and I hope that it will continue for many years more. I congratulate everybody involved in the process, and I hope that the branch will continue its good work.
I thank the Minister for his detailed reply on all the matters that were raised by hon. Members. Using my authority from the Chair, I say to all those who have participated that they have made a good contribution on an important subject. Parliament believes that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is extremely important in the work that it does, and its role is greatly valued.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Six o'clock.