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

That is a fair point. The rule of law —we have heard a lot about it in this part of the world in recent days—obviously requires lawyers. I will perhaps come on to say a little about the appropriate use of the aid budget later.

I want to look at a couple of particular cases. Colombia has been mentioned; it is symptomatic of issues around the country that, despite the progress—the peace agreement signed with FARC, pending agreement with the ELN—civil society organisations report that the situation on the ground continues to worsen progressively. In 2016 85 human rights defenders were killed, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights publicly condemned the violence against human rights defenders. What is encouraging, however, is that the UK ambassador to Colombia is one of eight ambassadors who have publicly denounced abuses of human rights and announced their concerns for human rights defenders.

The case of Andy Tsege in Ethiopia, the subject of a debate in its own right here in Westminster Hall, was mentioned again by the hon. Member for Congleton. His case is a powerful example of how UK citizens can be affected by oppressive Government crackdowns on freedom of speech. The Ethiopian Government, which announced the state of emergency that has seen thousands detained and severely limited due process and access to justice, sentenced Andy under a widely condemned anti-terrorism proclamation. Other concerns have been expressed about aspects of Ethiopia’s regulation of civil society. NGOs are not allowed to accept more than a very small percentage of their budget—15% or something like that—from overseas donors. Likewise, only a small percentage may be spent on administration, but the definition of that can be extremely wide. I wanted to flag up those two situations in Ethiopia.

There are some domestic considerations, and it has never been more important for the United Kingdom and its Government to lead by example. The examples given by the hon. Member for Clwyd South were very interesting. Even a local organisation can have a global impact, taking Wales forward to become the first fair trade nation. Scotland was the world’s second fair trade nation, which we are very proud of, but it is something we are happy to work with our brethren in Wales to promote. Indeed, the fair trade movement as a whole is another example of successful civil society campaigning, and it is an approach that also leads to positive economic benefits for people.

Even in the lifetime of this Parliament, since those elected in 2015 have been here, there have been some concerns, such as the threat to repeal the Human Rights Act without any clear indication of what was to replace it. Concerns were expressed about surveillance during the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, and the Government were also pressing the so-called anti-advocacy clause, which would have severely restricted the ability of NGOs in this country to advocate on issues of Government policy. The climbdown on that was welcome. One concern was that scientific researchers in receipt of Government money could not have been called to give evidence to Select Committees in this Parliament, which would have been nonsense. We welcomed the Cabinet Office climbing down to an extent, but we have to keep an eye out for all such things.

I appreciate that a Foreign Office Minister is responding to the debate today, but there is a role for the Department for International Development to play in support of civil society and civil society organisations around the world. The Government should also recognise their importance here at home.

The “Civil Society Partnership Review” was mentioned, but my concern about it was that the concept of partnership was being changed significantly. Partnership was not about working together to achieve shared goals but about a service delivery model through which DFID was almost to commission its desired results from civil society stakeholders, rather than take the collaborative approach that may have been seen in the past.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked about acknowledging the particular role of faith-based organisations. Particular kinds of support and sensitivity are necessary with them.

In recent days the Minister’s colleague in the Government has confirmed several times Government support for the 0.7%, which is important, but I ask the Minister present to do the same again. It is important for as many Ministers as possible to make it clear that the UK Government are committed to the 0.7% in current and future spending reviews, despite the best efforts of some of their Back Benchers.

In the context of Brexit, it is especially important for the UK Government to continue to be seen as a world leader on the 0.7% and not to roll back from such an important commitment. If they are somehow struggling to meet that commitment and to find things to do with the money, plenty of examples have been given today. Only a moment ago we spoke about support for lawyers and legal practitioners around the world. There is no shortage of imagination on how to spend the budget, not least in civil society. I say that as a former employee of a civil society organisation, but I have made my interest clear.

The Scottish Government have a good partnership approach to civil society. Due to the nature of the devolution settlement, they are not allowed to use their small international development budget to fund organisations directly in different countries, so they have to work through civil society organisations in Scotland. There are some lessons to be learned from that model, although it is not entirely replicable at the scale DFID operates on, obviously.

This has been a very substantial and constructive debate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Governments at home and around the world should have nothing to fear from a strong civil society and, as we have heard from all Members, they have so much to gain.