I beg to move,
That this House
has considered transparency of the Integrated Activity Fund.
May I say from the outset that it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and to see Members here for this Thursday afternoon debate? Many MPs from different parties have attempted to question the Government on this fund, only to be met with unclear and murky answers. This is a fund of up to £20 million each year to countries accused of human rights abuses, so the last thing the Government should be is unclear and murky.
I will raise several issues regarding the transparency of the fund, in the hope that the Government can finally provide some answers. We know that the fund is spent across the Gulf Co-operation Council states—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. However, the Government have failed to provide a breakdown of spending in each country. Ministers reason that this lack of transparency is because:
“Many of the projects and programme activities were delivered regionally, so it is not possible to provide a breakdown by beneficiary state.”
It seems clear to me that a solution would be to outline the projects that the IAF supports, then we could understand how the money is spent across the region.
However, when MPs have inquired into the projects that the fund supports, the Government continue to be vague:
“The Integrated Activity Fund supported a range of non-ODA programmes and projects across the Gulf. These included, but were not limited to, activities focusing on culture, healthcare, youth engagement, economic diversification and institutional capacity building.”
I am afraid that that is not clear enough. The House deserves to know exactly what projects the UK Government are funding across the region through the IAF.
The hon. Gentleman is setting up the debate nicely here, but may I suggest that it might be helpful to go back to first principles and ask ourselves whether, in the areas he has just outlined, the need for any reform within the Gulf Co-operation Council countries may not necessarily be rooted in lack of money?
The right hon. Gentleman puts a good point on the record, and it is something I will attempt to develop later in my speech. In terms of first principles, he is perhaps right, and I am sure that when he speaks he will reaffirm that to the Minister.
Considering the accusations from human rights groups over the legitimacy of this fund, the Government should be obliged to publish the results of the risk assessment that they should obviously have undertaken. However, the Government will not even disclose to the House the beneficiaries or implementers of, or projects funded by, the IAF, giving Ministers and the public no idea how their money is being spent.
Members of this House and of the other House have repeatedly questioned the Government on the specifics of the Integrated Activity Fund. However, we have only received vague half-answers in response. I guess that begs the question: if the Government have nothing to hide, why will they not be completely transparent on the fund?
The question of transparency clearly links with a topic brought up by hon. Members across the House, that of human rights abuses in the gulf region. Hon. Members have brought up the fact that the UK Government funds projects in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where we know the death penalty, torture and political imprisonment take place. Indeed, the human rights situation in those countries is worsening; Saudi Arabia executed a record 184 people last year, while the indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing of Yemen is responsible for what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian catastrophe.
This is not the first time the Government have been criticised over their funding of projects in GCC states. A case in point is the controversial conflict, security and stability fund, the CSSF, which drew criticism from UK aid watchdogs for serious shortcomings in the way it operated. It was found to have been insufficiently rigorous in applying safeguards to prevent collaboration with foreign entities with suspect human rights records.
One project funded by the CSSF was the contentious security and justice programme in Bahrain. In its 2018 report, the Foreign Affairs Committee urged the Government to review the programme, particularly in light of the evidence that Bahraini prison staff and security personnel had been implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings.
That programme, which cost at least £6.5 million, caused the CSSF to come under parliamentary investigation for its lack of transparency. However, once the programme began to face scrutiny, it was simply transferred over to the Integrated Activity Fund. If the CSSF faced severe criticism from this House for its funding of the programme, then it is only natural that the IAF, which is arguably more opaque, should receive the same investigation.
The IAF has also come under further scrutiny for its links to the Bahrain Special Investigations Unit. Recent freedom of information requests obtained by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy revealed that in 2018, visits were made under the IAF from the College of Policing, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, and Merseyside’s professional standards department to meet counterparts at Bahrain’s Special Investigations Unit. Since those visits, Bahrain’s SIU has been criticised by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims as “critically flawed” and failing to meet,
“the minimum professional standards and minimum international legal standards”.
Bahraini judges and representatives from the Ministry of Interior visited the UK in 2018 and 2019 under the IAF. According to the Bahraini embassy in London, these visits were conducted to discuss,
“both the scope and implementation of alternative sentences in the UK”.
The FOI requests also indicate that no overseas justice and security assessment was conducted for the judges’ visit, violating the Government’s own human rights safeguarding policy.
Prior to a mass prisoner release to ease the severe overcrowding of Bahrain’s prisons following the outbreak of covid-19, evidence suggests that alternative sentencing legislation was discriminating against political prisoners, including Sheikh Mirza Al-Mahroos and human rights defender Ali Al-Hajee. Alongside revealing the other contentious programmes and activities that the IAF supports, the FOI requests further highlight that at least two programmes have been provided exclusively to Bahrain. This evidence shows that certain activities are, in fact, country specific, thus negating the FCDO’s claim that country-specific breakdowns are impossible, since activities are only covered regionally. In the light of that, I again urge the Government to provide a clear breakdown of the individual projects and programmes they fund in each of the countries that the IAF supports.
With a history of controversial projects and their insistence on being vague about the Integrated Activity Fund, the Government are not painting a particularly clear image of their support for the GCC region. Lord Scriven said of the IAF:
“I have never seen a situation where it started open and became more swiftly opaque as criticisms grew…
the Government have become hypersensitive if not paranoid to the fact that the truth will be exposed”.
It is imperative that the Government are more transparent about the Integrated Activity Fund, including by releasing information on the specific projects that the fund supports, in what countries, and crucially, whether they comply with the human rights risk assessment. I look forward to the Minister, for whom I have the utmost respect as a personal friend, enlightening the Chamber this afternoon as he closes the debate on behalf of the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I say to the Minister through you that we need three things. First, we need a direct answer to the question of why the Government will not provide the information that has been asked for over the years, not just, “It’s the spy clause” or whatever else it may be. Why has not the information been made available in the way it would be on virtually every other element of Government spending, whether through the Cabinet Office, the FCO, the British Council or the Home Departments?
Secondly, how can MPs and the public judge the effectiveness of the programme if they do not know what the money is spent on? We can all produce a list of things that we would like money to be spent on, whether in these fields or others.
The third issue, which is the underlying one, is the transparency process. One of the Minister’s predecessors, Alistair Burt, was very sympathetic and helpful as far as he could be as a Minister when I and others worked with the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy on some of the Opposition activists whose experience of the Bahraini justice institutions was appalling.
I have been in Parliament for some time. Two periods have been under Labour Governments. I would class myself as an Opposition activist. There are times when I have been on the streets protesting about things—whether it is trying to help drug dealers by imprisoning the social workers or a whole range of issues, when I have challenged either our fiscal politics or our justice system. We have to believe in the rule of law, but the law is not always justice. A campaign to change the law or constitution is something that ought to be allowed and encouraged. I take pride in living in a country where I can stand outside No. 10 Downing Street and shout abuse, or at least say to a Prime Minister, “I think you ought to be a different person or a different party.” That is part of opposition and we find that, without the kind of dictatorships we had 400 years ago and without the slaughter of political opponents, we have developed a better system—not perfect, but capable of improvement and recognising mistakes when they are made.
My judgment on the limited information that is available in public is that the Government have made a mistake in not being more transparent about this fund. I think we probably knew more about its predecessor fund than this one. It is interesting that it has not always been spent. The average spend is only about two thirds of the allocated £20 million a year.
This debate is not just about effectiveness, transparency and the other things I have talked about. The fund is also a way of introducing those countries where it may be spent on co-operation and all kinds of things from institutional changes to aquaculture and the like, to the idea that we are interested in their trying to make fewer of the mistakes that we made in our past so that they will make fewer of the mistakes that they are making in their present. If we are going to be effective collaborators and we can put our weight of different kinds, be it military, diplomatic or economic, behind the states that are trying to resist some of the more powerful and worst elements in that region—we understand the difficulties they are facing—we would like to know that public money and public process is working in a way that allows us to understand what is going on, so we can support the money being properly spent. That is why we need to have greater transparency and greater effectiveness from the money.
It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, for the first time. I hope it all goes well—from both sides.
Some people might think this is something of a niche debate concerning relatively small sums of public money in the context of overall Government spending. We have heard that it has been about £20 million a year for the past five years, although there were predecessor funds and not all of that was spent. Having said that, we could pay for a lot of free school meals in the holidays with the money that is going to what many people will think is a rather prosperous region of the world.
I pay tribute to other sponsors of the debate, the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). I remember a lot of Conservative Members—I exonerate the hon. Member for Worthing West from this—complaining that the former Department for International Development funding regime wasted money by sending it to countries such as India and China. I wonder whether we will hear the same about money being sent to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. That in itself deserves some explanation.
I thank the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which has been mentioned, and Reprieve, which has helped with briefings for the debate. It sometimes seems like a thankless task, but they and other human rights organisations labour constantly to bring to light abuses of human rights in Gulf countries. The crux of the issue—I think it has already been said—is to do with secrecy. There have been few statements about the fund. Initially, there was no admission of the fund at all. It was like the security services used to be—it did not exist. When it was finally introduced to the public, the distinguished former Minister, Alistair Burt, said:
“The IAF provides funding in support of a range of programmes across the Gulf Region. These include, but are not limited to, activities focusing on aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
What could sound more benign than that? Aquaculture sounds like a wonderful thing to spend British taxpayers’ money on in Oman. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is perhaps a sorer point.
However, that is not really the full extent of it, is it? With all due respect to Alistair Burt, for whom I have a great deal of time, it emerges that about a third of the projects could be euphemistically called “justice projects”: they are related to justice, security, imprisonment and other similar issues. Despite the plethora of FOIs, the Library briefing is almost entirely made up of questions with inadequate answers to them—some from the Minister, who I am sure will give us a far more candid response. We have a whole list of UK Government Departments that are spending the fund’s money, but we do not know how much each is spending or, indeed, on which projects. We do not know which of the Gulf countries are in receipt of the money and how much each of them is given. I notice that a written answer to the noble Lord Scriven said,
“All IAF-funded project work undergoes assessment and review. We are not able to disclose information related to particular IAF projects in greater detail as we have a duty to maintain the confidence and confidentiality of our partners.”
It appears that they do not want us to know what they are doing in the aquaculture field.
A couple of months ago, I asked a question that drew attention to the contrast between the funding of Bahrain through the IAF and the two prisoners who had undergone abuses through the Bahraini justice system, Mohammed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa, who are still on death row. Again, the reply simply said, “Yes, we object to the death penalty being used in these circumstances, but we are designing to support Bahrain-led reform in areas including human rights.”
I return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Worthing West: how effective is that? The answer must be, not very effective. The record on human rights across the board is getting worse year on year in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, which is much larger and more proactive in the region—although, UAE is becoming increasingly so—draws a lot of the attention. We have heard about the 184 executions, quite a number of them by crucifixion and other horrific practices. We know about those protesting for women’s human rights who were locked up and tortured. All of that is happening now under the current Saudi regime.
However, we also know that Bahrain lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in 2017, has executed six people and has a further 26 on death row. Those are the headline figures, but the practices and conditions in prisons, which are squalid, lead to epidemic-level outbreaks of illness. Prisoners do not get treatment for serious health conditions. Many of these individuals are long-standing human rights campaigners going back decades. They are now quite elderly, but they are locked up. Despite having serious health conditions, they do not receive any health treatment.
The situation in Bahrain has gone downhill since the Arab spring, when there was a popular uprising, which was supressed using Saudi forces. Since then, anyone speaking out on human rights has been dealt with in a summary fashion. Civil liberties in these countries are virtually non-existent now. Things that we would take for granted, such as a free press, the right to assemble and the right of opposition political parties to form—most of them have now been dissolved—do not exist. In Bahrain, unlicensed gatherings of over five people are illegal and public protests are supressed with violence.
I ask the Minister, how are our attempts, funded by the British taxpayer, to improve human rights in these countries going? It all seems to be going in the opposite direction. I do not have time to go over the many individual cases, but there are cases of people—such as Ali Al-Hajee, Ali Al-Wazir, Hassan Mushaima and all those on death row—who should be held up as supporting human rights and arguing for better conditions of life, but who are being supressed by entirely oppressive regimes.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that obvious point, which I wish I had thought of. Now that it is on the record, perhaps the Minister would like to respond to it. Why are we supporting the organisations that we have heard about today, such as the special investigations unit and other human rights bodies in Bahrain? They all have wonderful names, such as the ombudsman. The problem is not just that these organisations are ineffective, despite the money they receive from the UK, but that they collaborate with the prosecuting authorities. They provide a shield against proper investigation and often turn down investigations on little or no evidence, which puts the individual whose case they are reviewing in a worse position than when they started. Yet those are exactly the organisations that we are supporting.
When I was shadow Justice Minister, I put it to the then Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, in very strong terms, that we were selling prison services—this is a peculiarity of our relationship with Gulf countries: half the time we seem to be giving them money, and half the time we seem to be selling them services—through what was called the Saudi prison contract, when in fact what was going on in those prisons was torture, abuse and appalling conditions. To his credit, he ended the contract that had been started by his predecessor, Chris Grayling, which was exactly the right thing to do.
If mistakes have been made in the past, look at them again. How effective are they? Are they, in fact, giving cover to repressive regimes? Are they, in fact, making the situation worse? We cannot answer those questions because of the secrecy surrounding this and other funds. It is simply outrageous that the Government continue to use national security or other measures to disguise the use of money that they say is for entirely benign purposes. We look to the Minister for some answers today, but what we would actually like is a proper review of whether this is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I remind the Chamber of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I chair the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group. I am struggling to remember, but I think I am also an office-bearer for the all-party parliamentary group on Kuwait, but other hon. Members will know that the amount of commitment that those offices bring with them is, shall we say, variable. My engagement with those APPGs has, however, given me, I hope, a small measure of insight into engagement with Gulf countries—those in the Gulf Cooperation Council in particular, although I am not sure that there really is a functioning GCC at present.
I am not without sympathy for the purposes behind the idea of such funds. As I said to David Linden, I am not really persuaded that the deficiencies in civic Government, human rights and even in agriculture—rarely does a debate come up where the MP for Orkney and Shetland cannot talk about agriculture—are necessarily down to a lack of funding. However, I am also always aware that when one engages with countries that have deficiencies in those and other areas, it is best always to do so from a starting point of a measure of humility. We rarely achieve much by lecturing and preaching to people in other countries. Understand a bit of their own history and how they have come to the point they are at today.
To draw on my experience with Qatar, for example, I have been genuinely impressed in recent years to see some of the progress that has been made in relation to labour rights. The abolition of the kafala system and the opening of an International Labour Organisation office in Doha are significant achievements, and we should be pleased. When I speak to people in the Qatari Government, of course we want to talk about those things, as they inevitably do—every Government always want to talk about where they have made progress—but we also have to be mindful that there is still a significant way to go in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, for example. To engage with any measure of integrity with these countries, we have to be able to tell them that, while appreciating the progress they have made, we see other areas where progress still has to be made.
I am always very conscious of the fact that in Britain the abolition of the death penalty and the legalisation of homosexuality both happened in the course of my life. Both date back to the 1960s, so we should engage and encourage, but we should be mindful of the fact that we have not always had the greatest story to tell. On labour rights, for example, let us not kid ourselves, because we still have a problem with human trafficking in this country, notwithstanding the gangmasters legislation that we have now had for about 10 to 15 years. So humility is the order of the day.
That said, engagement must bring with it other things. The most important of those, as Sir Peter Bottomley said, should be transparency and accountability. It is in the operation of the IAF that we find a worrying lack of both transparency and accountability, and I fear that permeates other aspects of our engagement with Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Although it is not necessarily directly on point in relation to the operation of the IAF—at least I suspect that is the case, but who knows?—I am very concerned that the police chief in Dubai appears to be a front-runner for the presidency of Interpol. Nasser Ahmed Al-Raisi was in charge of the police service that detained a British academic, Matthew Hedges, for around six months on trumped-up charges, bluntly, which Matthew has always denied. I understand that he was eventually forced to sign a confession in Arabic, which he just did not understand, and in that time he was tortured. The engagement with the United Arab Emirates in relation to that case, for example, is not one that in any way, shape or form can be seen as working in the interests of United Kingdom citizens.
It is because of the lack of transparency and accountability that the business of engagement with GCC countries looks, from time to time, as if it is operating on double standards. We criticise China—I am 100% behind the Government’s new policy on China—but at the same time we seem to find it very difficult to criticise the Saudi Government, notwithstanding, as Andy Slaughter outlined, their truly appalling human rights record. Yes, they have recently passed legislation allowing women the right to drive, but at the same time they are jailing those who actually campaigned for that very right. They also use the death penalty for people who would have been minors at the time they committed any crimes. They seem to continue on an almost unrestricted basis, including—God help us—having crucifixions.
If UK taxpayers’ money is being spent in such countries, the UK Government have a duty to account to taxpayers for where it is being spent and what it is being spent on. The little that we do know about the operation of the IFA, particularly as it relates to Bahrain, is that it involves sentencing reform and alternative sentencing there. That is a cause that I am prepared to support—indeed, it is a drum that I have beaten for many years in this country. That is certainly something we should support. However, if we consider the way in which alternative sentencing policy is pursued in Bahrain, we find very quickly that in fact there is no benefit for the political prisoners there. The beneficiaries of alternative sentencing are all within the country’s criminal justice system. I would have thought that one of the things we would want to promote is equal treatment, at the very least, of criminal prisoners and political prisoners. We should of course be pursuing a situation in which there are no political prisoners, but for those who find themselves imprisoned in Bahrain, any advances should be equally available to all.
There is a case for doing at least some of the work associated with the IAF, but I cannot think of many areas of public expenditure, even at this scale, that are allowed to be maintained in such conditions of secrecy. It is totally lacking in transparency and accountability. If the money is genuinely being spent on capacity building, we should expect it to be spent through non-governmental organisations, which I know is not easy in Gulf countries. However, they are there and they do operate, and they would seem a more obvious route for channelling support through, as we do in virtually every other theatre in which we spend overseas development moneys.
Indeed, which is why I deliberately did not use the terms “overseas aid” or “overseas development assistance”. However, to the hard-pressed British taxpayer, it is money that is being spent overseas, and the objectives set for the IAF would not look out of place in our overseas development assistance budget. If the objectives are the same, there would have to be some compelling reason why, on this occasion, we are effectively giving money to state actors, rather than non-state actors.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in this regard. I fear that it is a topic to which the House will continue to return for some time to come.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Efford. I am conscious that other Members have other places to go, so I will not dwell on my speech for too long. I thank David Linden for setting the scene, as he always does. He and I might have a difference of opinion on one big issue, but we agree on a great many other things, which is important. I am always glad to see the Minister in his place as well. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
I have long spoken in this House about the need to ensure that any funding for conflict zones should be traceable to relieving the effects of conflict on innocent victims, not to those who carry out the conflict. One example of that has been—I make no apology for this—the funding to the Palestinian Authority, who carry out campaigns against Israeli women and children, and who use education and propaganda to perpetuate hatred between the two nations. As the UK has not published a full list of the projects that the IAF supports, it is unclear whether we directly fund such textbooks. I seek clarification on that from the Minister, and receiving that today would be extremely useful.
The British Government have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Palestinian Authority. The text is regurgitated each time it is signed. Paragraph 2(i)i confirms that, to receive our support, the Palestinians must adhere to non-violence, yet they do not, but the money seems to keep rolling in. My concern lies in the fact that if the Government have difficulty in enforcing an agreement that sends tens of millions of pounds every year to people who endorse violence, what chance do they have of controlling and properly supervising the IAF, the budget of which is a fraction of the size? I have argued that we need more transparency, and I am very happy for this debate to take place today. No one should benefit from British aid who is not carrying out the most basic human rights obligations.
One such issue raised with me relates to Bahrain, which other Members have referred to. Freedom of information requests have demonstrated that IAF funding has supported religious organisations in Bahrain, and the Government have frequently praised Bahrain on its religious tolerance, stating on their website that:
“Bahrain maintained a positive record on freedom of religion or belief.”
However—there is always an however—it has been clearly illustrated that that is not what is happening.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has repeatedly raised concerns about systematic discrimination against Bahrain’s indigenous Shi’a population by the Sunni Government. Without full transparency about Government funding to the Gulf, how can taxpayers be sure that public money is not being used to underpin bodies involved in religious discrimination and the violent suppression of civil societies in the Gulf Co-operation Council? That is why we need transparency and why this debate is so important.
The Government have often pointed to Bahrain’s alternative sentencing legislation as an IAF success story. However, although an impressive number of individuals have been released on alternative sentences—that should be noted and congratulated—I have been made aware that there might be evidence to suggest that releases may have discriminated against political prisoners. At Jau prison, there are now reportedly entire cell blocks that exclusively house political prisoners, and those on criminal charges are granted alternative sentences.
A notable example of discrimination relates to the prisoners known as the Bahrain 13—the leaders of Bahrain’s political opposition, jailed for their role in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. Four of those men—Sheikh Mirza al-Mahroos, Mohammad Hassan Jawwad, Mohammad Ali Ridha Isma’il, and Sheikh Abdul-Hadi Abdullah Hassan al-Mukhodher—have completed nine years of their 15-year sentences, making them eligible for alternative sentences. However, despite their advanced age—some of them are over 70—all have been excluded from recent prisoner releases, while individuals convicted of violent criminal offences have been released ahead of them. When International Activities Fund-backed legislation is applied in such a discriminatory manner, without any transparency in how the IAF money was spent supporting this initiative, how can the public, the British taxpayer and we as elected representatives be confident that our taxes are promoting genuine reform in Bahrain and the wider GCC?
Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa are Bahraini political prisoners who have been sentenced to death for his participation in pro-democracy protests and are at risk of imminent execution. Andy Slaughter referred to them. It is clear that they were tortured, sexually assaulted and forced to sign false confessions, which acted as the basis of their capital convictions. As a matter of principle, the UK opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, and I welcome that. However, the use of executions has risen in Bahrain by a factor of more than 10 since 2017, in spite of IAF assistance to strengthen the rule of law.
The Special Investigations Unit is an IAF beneficiary—it sounds very dramatic and it has lots of power. The results of its so-called investigation were criticised for being flawed, failing to comply with the Istanbul protocol and leading directly to the re-imposition of the death sentences, so that review and investigation led nowhere. Amnesty International has found that IAF beneficiary oversight bodies that are responsible for investigating allegations of torture and abuse
“continually contribute to a pervasive culture of impunity in Bahrain through their failure to independently carry out their mandates.”
In the light of those well-documented and well-known failures, will the FCDO freeze funding until an independent review has been conducted?
Naji Fateel, a prominent Bahraini human rights defender, is currently serving a combined sentence of 25 years and six months for his human rights activism—something that we all subscribe to and speak about. He has now been away from his five children for more than seven years. When he was arrested, he was severely beaten and officers stomped on his head. During interrogation, Naji was severely tortured: he was kicked, forced to stand for long hours, suspended from the ceiling for long periods of time and electrocuted grievously on his genital area. His torture was so severe that he lost consciousness multiple times and had to be rushed to the hospital. There are publicly available pictures of the resulting scars on his body and he has suffered long-term consequences from this torture. Although Fateel now requires specific medication and surgery for his various injuries, the Jau prison authorities routinely deny him such treatment and have cancelled surgical appointments numerous times. Again, are we helping those people financially through the International Activities Fund, and are they then disregarding human rights, as they seem to?
“his rights related to access to healthcare” without a proper investigation or any action to remedy his situation. If the National Institute for Human Rights cannot do that job fairly, impartially or in a way that we can be satisfied about, it is time to do something about it.
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
To conclude—it is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson—will the Government make their funding streams to the GCC transparent, so that Naji and the British taxpayer can be sure that money is not going to, in effect, the institutions that cover up abuse?
Those are just a few examples of why the so-called secret package of funding must be transparent. Let us see where it goes, so that we can hold people accountable and allow for scrutiny. We must have dialogue with those we are helping, to ensure that human rights protections are not just a talking point, but a reality. Those examples show why we need it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I put on record that I am also all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend David Linden on securing this important debate and thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part for their contributions this afternoon, for the way they have sought to get to the truth of exactly what this fund is and what it is being used for, and for shining a light on places where, frankly, the Government and the recipients of the money would rather a light not be shone.
Although this debate has been a useful exercise, it remains a matter of deep regret that in a democracy there should be such a lack of transparency about how the shadowy Integrated Activity Fund is being used that the only way that we as hon. Members can scrutinise it is to have the occasional debate every couple of years. I fear that, as always happens when the Government are asked about the fund, we are going to be fobbed off with the standard response that the IAF is being used for
“aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
Sadly, that old “Nothing to see here” answer has been the hallmark of the Government’s response ever since the fund was established. Andy Slaughter was absolutely spot on. The Government must think we button up the back if they are asking us to believe that sending money to the cash-rich states in the Gulf is, “to help to develop aquaculture and sporting activities—but don’t ask about it, because it’s a secret.”
We live in hope, however, and the Government should be aware that even the expected non-answers will not deter us from continuing to ask these hugely important questions. The secrecy and lack of transparency that surround this fund make a mockery of the Government’s claim to be pursuing an ethical foreign policy. An ethical foreign policy does not fund states that are complicit in human rights abuses, and then seek to deny elected representatives the right to scrutinise that.
How can it be remotely ethical to give money to regimes that are accused by many highly-respected international human rights organisations of routinely using torture and executing political dissidents? How can it be remotely ethical for a Government to do everything they can to prevent democratic scrutiny and avoid public accountability for what has been done in our name? Jim Shannon—always a great champion of the rights of people across the world to practise their religion or belief—is correct when he points out that we do not believe that there is freedom of religion and the ability to practise one’s belief in those states, and we should not be funding states that deny that.
I am sure in his response, the Minister will say that the UK Government fully respect human rights and that he will condemn any form of torture and say that they are working to promote best practice among our allies. That is absolutely fine, and no one would disagree that they should be doing that. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said in his opening remarks, the problem is, if they are so confident about their position, why do they run a mile from any form of serious scrutiny?
Due to the Government avoiding scrutiny, it remains unclear where the money goes and what has been done, leading to the inevitable conclusion that they have something to hide and know that, should that truth get out, they would have plenty to answer for that would not be covered under the
“aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building” defence. Sir Peter Bottomley said that the Minister has to accept that hiding from public scrutiny is not a good look and only leads to further suspicion, and that the reason the UK keeps this out of the public eye is because they know that there would be outrage if the UK taxpayer discovered what their hard-earned cash was being spent on. If there is nothing to fear and nothing to hide, why this lack of scrutiny and transparency? Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, said:
“The only way for the British public to be confident their money is not leading to abuses abroad is for the government to publish a full and transparent account of projects we are funding and the human rights assessment for each.”
There is nothing in that that I can see a democratic Government could argue with.
Despite all the evidence of the human rights abuses that this money is going towards, the Government continue to give their unconditional political and economic support to many Gulf states. I think we should be asking more of our allies and friends. Surely we have a moral and ethical obligation to reassess any current aid relationship we have with states that stand accused of human rights violations.
I commend Mr Carmichael for calling out the double standards at play here, considering that we treat other states, quite rightly, as pariah states for how they treat their political dissidents. I fear that the United Kingdom stands accused of turning a blind eye to abuses when it believes it has something to gain.
Given that the opportunity to dig into the workings of the fund are extremely limited, in the time remaining I will ask the Minister a series of questions. He may wish to answer them this afternoon, but I am more than happy to receive a more considered written answer, so long as they do not contain the words
“aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
First, will the Minister accept that criticism of the fund is growing and will not go away? If the UK Government are so confident that the fund only funds lawful, peaceful and legitimate activities, will he explain what they have to fear from an open and independent review of how it is being used? Why, at a time of this supposedly ethical foreign policy, will he not agree to suspend the fund while it undergoes that independent review, in the hope of restoring public confidence? Why do the Government believe that there should be no transparency or independent democratic scrutiny of the activities of those who benefit from these funds? In what way do the Government believe that releasing the information about the activities of those receiving funding would threaten our relations with the GCC states?
The Government have claimed much credit for the human rights oversight bodies now operating in Bahrain, yet numerous human rights organisations have accused them of being complicit in torture and other serious abuses. Will the Government publish their internal evaluations and let Members of this House and the public see how they assess the recipients of IAF money and how they are making progress towards building those effective and accountable institutions? The UN committee against torture and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy have revealed that those organisations have frequently failed to investigate and have actively shared confidential correspondences with Government bodies. They have been shown to be not only ineffective, but deeply compromised. Does the Minister not agree that those bodies provide the Bahraini Government with a veneer of reform, while achieving very little in the promotion of human rights?
The Government repeatedly claim that they benefit from an ongoing and genuine dialogue. If that is true, why have the Government been unable to come out to condemn the death sentences against torture victims in Bahrain? Why is the receipt of funding from the IAF not contingent on the states seeking it not executing people, including their own dissidents? What is Minister’s explanation for why two states in particular, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which receive millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, are now executing more people, at a faster rate, than they were before receiving money from the IAF? Will the Government name all the bodies that receive funding, as well as those that deliver the funding? Will the Government provide a breakdown by country or activity? Do the Government believe that there is, currently and in the past, no IAF programme that has failed to comply with the UK’s human rights obligations?
Finally, I once again thank all the Members who have contributed today, and put on record my gratitude to, appreciation of, and respect for those human rights organisations and committed activists who, on behalf of us all, are shining a light where too many people do not want a light to be shone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. To start with, it is worth making the point that there have been six contributors to this important debate so far this afternoon, and there has been a commonality among all their contributions, which I really think the Government have to take note of. It is also worth reminding ourselves of why we were told this fund was established in 2015. The then Minister of State for the Middle East indicated that the fund was
“intended to support the delivery of flexible, cross-cutting and sustained investment in the region. The IAF provides funding in support of a range of programmes across the Gulf Region. These include, but are not limited to, activities focusing on aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
However, it is pretty clear that the fund is used for a whole range of activities that go well beyond the limited areas that were specified.
A few months ago, I participated in a Zoom conference organised by the Bahraini Government, on the alternative sentencing programme in that country. Many positive things were stated, and there had no doubt been a distinct British influence on what was described to us. However, I have to say that, as we all know, the programme was very limited, because it included only certain kinds of prisoners. Other prisoners, such as political prisoners—who, as Mr Carmichael mentioned, should not exist anyhow—are not included in such programmes. They are people who are unspoken of and unrecognised, but we all nevertheless know that they are there.
It is also important to recognise that it is not simply parliamentarians complaining about a lack of information and transparency. It is objectively true that this information is not fully, freely available to a whole range of non-governmental organisations, and is certainly not available to members of the public and anybody else who wants to inquire about how the money is actually spent. Even the House of Commons Library, on which we rely for objective information, has been unable to find out very much about the allocation of resources. I have read the Library briefing on this topic, which said very clearly that although the funding allocations are
“reported in the FCO’s departmental Estimates and its Annual Report and Accounts”,
there is little else besides. The Library has looked everywhere for additional information, and has had “to rely on PQs” and written replies from the FCO and other Departments to glean more information, but it knows very little about this fund. This debate is therefore incredibly important, and the Minister’s response will be very important as well.
As we all know and as Members have mentioned, there are a whole range of concerns about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and many people believe that, far from getting better, the situation is getting worse. It is therefore extremely important that we focus acutely on how these resources are allocated and why, and whether or not they are being used truly effective.
Two organisations that have done a tremendous amount of work in this area are Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, and it is significant that BIRD submitted a freedom of information request to the Government in July 2019, in which it asked a number of important questions.
One of the key questions asked in that letter was
“whether any risk assessments were conducted by the Government under the overseas security and justice assistance guidance to evaluate the human rights implications of such assistance, and, if so, what were the findings of these investigations?”
What was the answer from the FCO?
“No OSJA risk assessments were carried out.”
That is it. The FCO did not bother to ask, look or inquire. It simply did not carry out the assessments.
Not only is that wrong, but it is in stark contradiction to the express policy of the Government themselves. They are proud of those assessments, yet they do not bother to implement their own policy. That is why I think the debate is important. I also think that it must continue beyond today. I welcome the request that has been made by Brendan O’Hara, for example, for responses following the debate. We will look carefully at the responses from the Government, because the debate is not a one-off. Our concern is deep, entrenched and widely held, and I look forward to the Government’s responses to questions asked today, and to those that will inevitably be asked later.
It is central to a modern democracy that we have openness and accountability, and that the Government should give us a clear statement about how public money is being used and whether it is being used appropriately and effectively. It is not our money that we are talking about. The people of this country have a right to know how their hard-earned resources have been spent by the Government, and whether that is effective. I look forward to a full response from the Minister and hope that our debate will continue beyond this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley and the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing the debate today. I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members, and I will attempt to answer as many of the points that have been raised as possible.
The UK continues to look at ways of deepening our already strong and historic relationships with Gulf partners. Our 2015 strategy sought to increase our mutual security, prosperity and regional stability interests. In making that point, I reflect on the comment of Mr Carmichael about doing things with a degree of humility, as well as the importance of doing them with a degree of sensitivity. He was right to highlight that. The UK Government seek to work alongside the GCC countries and to support and encourage a positive direction of travel in reforms there. However, being a hectoring bystander is probably not the most effective way to do that.
On being a hectoring bystander, I take the Minister’s point. We were paying through the nose to be that hectoring bystander. When there is transparency and accountability, that is when it becomes possible to hector, surely.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and will address some of his points in my speech.
The creation of the Integrated Activity Fund in 2016 was part of the process to support that work to encourage and steer our friends in the GCC. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland highlighted the fact that they are for the most part wealthy countries, and a number of Members have questioned whether there should be any expenditure at all in the region. I remind Members that diplomacy is cost-efficient, but it is not free. If we want to make a positive difference and be a force for good in the world and in the region, we must recognise that it has to be paid for, but it is completely understandable that Members and the British public want the money to be spent ethically and effectively.
I do not disagree with the Minister. I understand that diplomacy costs money, but does he accept that when that money is being spent on behalf of British taxpayers, they also want transparency to follow that?
I will touch on the transparency of our expenditure in the region.
Earlier this week, I came back from Oman, where I saw first hand some of the work that the fund has enabled us to deliver. For example, it has helped to provide technical assistance to key economic institutions to help them respond to the reduced oil revenues and strengthen their regulatory process and staff capabilities, because stronger economies underpin stability. This work creates a stronger business environment, which is beneficial to the people of Oman, and it builds a better business environment for UK traders and investors. We also launched the UK-Oman digital hub in partnership with UK universities and industry to raise Omanis’ digital skills. That helps to build an innovative and more diverse economy in Oman. In February, we used the IAF to fund a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, which secured export contracts worth £80 million in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s smart cities sector. Our support for scientific and medical work on genomics in Qatar has established the UK as the partner of choice in that field.
Jim Shannon talked about the importance of tolerance, religious freedom and human rights. He is absolutely right to do so, but it is through such partnerships that we are able to raise these incredibly important issues with our partners in the GCC.
I want to recognise the excellent work that the Government and the Minister do, but I gave three examples of human rights being deliberately abused and disregarded. That surely indicates that the words that the Minister has with the people in the Government there are not effective. If that is the case, we need to find a different way.
I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I will attempt to address them in my speech.
As I was saying, this co-operation, which is to the benefit of the people of both the Gulf and the UK, is possible only because we are able to build strong and resilient partnerships with countries in the GCC. Of course, building trust has to be balanced with the desire for transparency—a point that various right hon. and hon. Members have made. I take issue with a comment made by Brendan O'Hara, who said that the only way to scrutinise the Government’s activity in this area is to have debates. I remind him that that is the way that Governments are meant to be scrutinised; that is how Parliament works. I am here at the Dispatch Box to be part of the scrutiny process of the Government.
I think the Minister knows the point that I was making: having this debate once every 18 months or every two years is simply not enough, and having written questions fobbed off time and again with almost identical answers is an inefficient and inadequate way to do business.
I understand. The hon. Gentleman knows that, since becoming the Minister for the region, I am the responding Minister. If he is critical of repetitive answers, it is because the same questions keep being asked, but I will try to address promptly some of the points that were raised, if hon. Members permit.
I am very conscious that, as we have seen today, through written correspondence and more broadly, there has been criticism of the fund, and particularly of our work in Bahrain, but our policy has been to engage with Bahrain and to encourage and support its institutional reform through targeted assistance. For example, the IAF has enabled British expertise to help develop Bahrain’s independent human rights oversight bodies. I know that Members present have been critical, but the creation of those bodies is important, as is their improvement and reform. I know that the ombudsman’s office has, again, been criticised, but it must be recognised that it has investigated more than 5,000 complaints. I invite hon. Members to consider whether those investigations would have happened had we not been involved.
The Minister cites two examples that we have discussed already. That is good, but if he can tell us about those examples, why can we not be told about them all?
I am going to try to rattle through my speech, because, unfortunately, I will run out of time otherwise. A number of the points that Members have raised are embedded in it, but if I do not get to the end, I will not be able to cover them.
Wayne David said that the alternative sentencing programme is a welcome step in the right direction and that he would like to see it go further. He is right, but if it were not in existence it would not be able to go further, and it is in existence at least in part because of the technical assistance from the UK Government. Those outcomes have strengthened human rights adherence and accountability in Bahrain, and they are possible only because—
I thank the Minister for his generosity. The way forward could be very simple for the Government: they could simply provide a comprehensive list of all the projects that are funded. Will he or will he not do that?
Thank you, Mr Robertson. The UK is confident, and it is evident, that we are having a significant positive impact on human rights in the region because of the funds that we have allocated to technical assistance. We conduct rigorous overseas security and justice assessments in support of this work. That preparation enables us to put safeguards in place that ensure that our co-operation strengthens rather than undermines human rights and the rule of law.
The fund has evolved and is now the Gulf strategy fund. Ministerial colleagues and I will continue to use these funds to work with countries in the region to support our mutual prosperity and, as I say, strengthen their adherence to human rights. We have reviewed and strengthened the governance of the fund, so we do listen to concerns raised by colleagues from both sides of the House. We have invested in our programme expertise and brought more senior-level oversight through a streamlined cross-Whitehall governance board in London. We have appointed new programme teams in each Gulf state, with the ambassador or head of mission held accountable for effective programme delivery and value for money.
I can confirm that we will publish a summary of work funded by the Gulf strategy 2021 for Members of this House and broader society to scrutinise. Please be assured that I and my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will continue to monitor the governance and operation of the Gulf strategy fund, as it now is, so that it delivers true value for money and viable results, supporting the UK’s explicit desire to be a force for good in not only the region but the world
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to colleagues from a number of parties. Normally, a Westminster Hall debate on a Thursday afternoon would be one man and a dog. Unfortunately, in this case, it is several men and no dogs, but the point remains that we have had Members from the Conservative party, the Labour party, the SNP, the Democratic Unionist party and the Liberal Democrats. It is very unusual for so many parties to come together and, as Wayne David said, to affirm the same message to the Government. I hope the Minister reflects on that.
Mr Carmichael made the point that, several times in his remarks, the Minister, for whom I have the utmost respect, was able, on a country-by-country basis, to reference countries such as Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where funding is becoming available. I am afraid that that rather flies in the face of the argument that has been made to hon. Members of this House who have lodged written questions that the information cannot be provided on a country-by-country basis, but that is what the Minister has just done that in his summing up.
I welcome what the Minister said about publishing a summary of 2020-21 financial year spending, but I come back to the central point that we are not just looking for a summary; we are looking for all the information. If the Government have nothing to fear, they will have no difficulty publishing that information.
Finally, I have been involved in politics for 19 years, including three years in this House, and more often than not Conservative Members demand to know about every single payment spent on international development. A number of us in this House have had concerns about the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I accept that that has gone ahead, but the Government cannot have their cake and eat it. If they want to have that level of transparency in international development funding, it must surely be the same with the IAF.
I hope the Minister will accept that this is not something that will go away. I invite him on behalf of my hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara to come to the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf to continue this conversation. As he knows, I consider him a friend, and I am sure he will be more than happy to continue this conversation and to seek to allay the fears of hon. Members of this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered transparency of the Integrated Activity Fund.