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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 26th January 2017.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 3:00 pm, 26th January 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, as I do in the all-party group on the Chagos islands. If there was ever a community that deserved the support of a strong civil society movement it is the Chagossians, but we shall perhaps not trouble the Minister too much on that issue, as he responded to it in Westminster Hall recently.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate, and want to clear up a point: I was happy to support their bid for a debate at the Backbench Business Committee, but because I would be summing up for the Scottish National party on the Front Bench, my name had to come off the motion. We in the SNP exist in a kind of gloaming—a word people can look up if they need to—depending on whether we are speaking from the Front or Back Bench, and on the topic and who is replying. The concept of the debate has my full support, and we have heard some considered speeches and interventions.

I thank, as other hon. Members have, the large number of non-governmental, civil society organisations that provided briefings for today’s debate, including Bond, CAFOD, Amnesty International, the Charities Aid Foundation, and ABColombia. The fact that so many briefings were submitted is a cause for both celebration and perhaps a little concern: celebration because this country has a vibrant NGO sector that feels empowered to speak out; but concern at the content of the briefings and the many instances of the closing of civil society space around the world. Indeed, Amnesty’s report says that the situation is unprecedented.

I want to reflect on three themes: the intrinsic value of civil society and its contribution; areas of specific concern—countries that we have heard about and specific individual cases; and some domestic considerations and the role of the UK Government. I no longer need to declare a formal interest, but I should say that my professional background was in the NGO sector as a civil society lobbyist and campaigner on international development issues. I sometimes feel a little like poacher turned gamekeeper, but it has been an interesting 18 months or so since the 2015 election.

A strong civil society is a key indicator of healthy, stable democratic societies. As other hon. Members have said, it is such an important indicator that it has been integrated into the sustainable development goals framework—the plan for the planet over the next 30 years. Goal 16 commits countries around the world to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. So it is fundamental to the global vision of peaceful and sustainable societies.

Civil society provides a platform for debate, to influence policy process and to mobilise opinion outside party political structures. Susan Elan Jones referred to the Charities Aid Foundation. Its research shows that when asked who is best placed to speak up to Government on behalf of disadvantaged people, and to influence their policies, 84% of respondents in this country said it was charities that specialised in those areas.

The role of the Church and faith-based organisations has also been a strong theme in the debate. Often there is pressure on them from two fronts—from Governments in the countries where they operate, and sometimes from extremists and fundamentalists of other faiths. Yet often those faith-based organisations are among the best placed to speak out on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable communities. In countries where there is very little infrastructure, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, it is the Church that has a presence in the communities most remote from society and central governmental structures.

Conversely, the absence of a strong civil society is generally a sign of instability. Syria has been mentioned by several Members. The roots of the conflict are incredibly complex, but Syria is an example of how, when people cannot protest peacefully against the Government, or protests are shut down, people turn to extreme measures. It allows violence to creep in, and Governments respond in kind. We fall into a downward spiral. That point was powerfully made by the hon. Member for Congleton when she reflected on other lessons from history, especially given the fact that we are preparing to mark Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow; I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are attending a service today. The role of faith-based organisations in this country, such as the Jubilee 2000 movement, the trade justice movement and the Make Poverty History campaign, has also been recognised.

Several specific countries of concern have been discussed, and my hon. Friend Natalie McGarry gave a powerful testimony in her speech. It struck me that the countries mentioned are middle-income countries. Colombia, Ethiopia, Malaysia—mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton—and Turkey are all classified by the World Bank as lower or upper middle-income countries. I said in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on West Africa that middle-income country status is perhaps the most precarious, because those countries are in transition from having had little in the way of infrastructure or the kind of development that we enjoy. Hopefully, they are on a journey to the kind of stable democracies that by and large we experience in the west. However, there is a huge risk of regression and backsliding, and it is one of the most precarious periods in a country’s history. An important point that has been made a couple of times is the statistic from the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law about the 120 or so legal initiatives that have been introduced, in more than 60 countries, since 2012. Many of those are in transitioning middle-income countries. Amnesty has issued more than 40 reports on repression and fundamental freedoms.