Civil Society Space — [Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:01 pm on 26th January 2017.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 2:01 pm, 26th January 2017

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that suggestion, and I hope that the Minister will address it in his response.

I welcome the Government’s words in the first paragraph of the partnership review:

“A healthy, vibrant and effective civil society sector is a crucial part of Britain’s soft power and leadership around the world. The Government will give them our strongest support.”

The UK can use its considerable soft power to influence global behaviour. Although I would always like to see more done, I commend our Foreign Office Ministers and officials for raising concerns privately and publicly. For example, FCO officials supported land rights activists in Colombia by visiting them, improving protection of their livelihoods by helping them raise the visibility of their case. Just yesterday, when I met the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, he confirmed that he had raised human rights concerns with the Chinese authorities over the alleged forced harvesting of the organs of prisoners of conscience in that country.

The UK Government have given excellent international leadership by example in respect of listening to civil society advocates by tackling female genital mutilation, taking up what was wrongly seen as a niche issue. Our Government are doing a lot. Of course I think that DFID could do more; I have said many times in this Chamber that I believe it could do more to support freedom, particularly of religion and belief. When I went to Nigeria, I was concerned that I had to fight to get a representative of a major Christian organisation there to come to a roundtable discussion involving other NGOs.

I welcome the new review. It refers to commitments by DFID, including that we will

“increase opportunities for in-country CSO engagement with DFID country offices, including working with…faith groups”.

That is exactly what I am talking about talking about with regard to my Nigeria experience, so I am pleased to see that commitment in the review.

I am also pleased to see the commitment that DFID will

“help shape the environment in which CSO operate. We will address declines in the operating space for civil society that reduce civil society’s ability to improve the lives of poor people and hold those in power to account. Alongside other UK Government departments, DFID will support organisations that protect those under threat and increase understanding of the extent, causes and consequences of closing civic and civil society space.”

I appreciate that the Department for International Development Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, has had to leave this debate, but I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who has remained to respond. I was going to ask the DFID Minister to tell us in a little more detail how DFID will action the commitment; perhaps he will ask his colleagues in DFID to respond to that question in particular.

As I said, there is much more that we can do—all of us; not just Ministers. I have therefore suggested that the Select Committee on International Development should consider sustainable development goal 16:

“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

That is a new goal and a new commitment. I hope that the Committee will examine how it is being implemented internationally, as well as through UK aid. It would go a long way towards tackling some of the grave challenges that I have outlined.

I end by reiterating the complexity of the issue and the incremental way in which freedoms can be eroded. I hope that we will all be stirred into recognising the urgency of the issue and into speaking out to protect civil society far more. In the current atmosphere of rising nationalism and economic protectionism, and with Islamic State so threatening, legislation putatively designed to address those issues could become more common, as could Government acts to deter them. If the pattern of the last decade is an indicator, abuses will therefore also become more common, unless we all resolve today to redouble our efforts to ensure that the oxygen of democracy continues to flow, so that civil society can play its vital part around the world.