Queens Speech Foreign and Defence Debate

Mike Gapes spoke in the Foreign Affairs and Defence debate on the Queens Speech yesterday Here is  what he said :

4.55 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome some aspects of the Queen's speech, particularly the international development spending Bill, which is about to be introduced, and the legislation on cluster munitions, which is in line with what the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has called for over a long period. I am also disappointed, however, that legislation has not been proposed to regulate private military and security companies and that the Government decided a few months ago that there would be a voluntary code of self-regulation. That is unfortunate and I suspect that we might have to revisit the issue in the future.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is coming up in Trinidad. I want to begin by concentrating on the Commonwealth aspect of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Too often, we ignore or downplay the importance of the Commonwealth. This week, it is important to give it renewed emphasis.

Reference has already been made to Zimbabwe. Of course, Zimbabwe will not attend the meeting because it has left the Commonwealth, but I hope that before too long Zimbabwe will be back as a member of it. Last week, I met the Foreign Minister of Swaziland, Lutfo Dlamini, who is part of a troika of Foreign Ministers from Mozambique and Zambia who, on behalf of SADC, have been trying to achieve political progress in Zimbabwe. He gave me a realistic and to some extent optimistic assessment of how things are going and the progress made, albeit with great difficulty. I hope that with the engagement of the other countries in southern Africa-particularly South Africa-we will see an acceleration of progress towards a truly democratic system within Zimbabwe and that that country will be back in the companionship and fellowship of the Commonwealth before too long.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Is the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee aware that Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF have recently completely ignored a decision of the SADC tribunal in respect of the occupation of a farm? Does that hold out much hope that Mr. Mugabe is prepared to move towards a more democratic, pluralist African state?

Mike Gapes: I accept that there are big problems. Another problem is the continued failure of the Zimbabwe Government, under the leadership of Mugabe, to allow Roy Bennett, a Minister, to be released from detention and to take his place within the political system. Other issues have also led to difficulties, but I believe that it is important that we in this country give support to those in southern Africa who are trying to achieve political progress in Zimbabwe.

I have also recently met trade unionists from Swaziland and Zimbabwe, who have expressed their concerns about the situation that faces so many people in southern Africa. In the context of Swaziland, it is unfortunate that the British Government decided, because of financial pressures, to close the high commissions in Mbabane in Swaziland and in Maseru in Lesotho a few years ago. Our new high commissioner in South Africa, Nicola Brewer, recently-last month-exchanged her credentials and went to Swaziland, where she gave an important message to King Mswati about the need to ensure that the Swazi constitution is upheld and that steps are taken towards democracy in that complex society. I hope that message will be received in that small but important Commonwealth country. I declare an interest: I was a teacher for Voluntary Service Overseas in Swaziland in 1971, so I retain an interest in the situation in the country.

I turn to another Commonwealth country-Sri Lanka. Reference has already been made to the announcement this week by the Sri Lankan authorities that they will allow the temporary departure of people still held in detention camps. A few months ago, up to 280,000 people were in those camps. Just last week, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, the British diplomat John Holmes, visited the camps in Sri Lanka. When he was interviewed for BBC world news on 19 November, he said that 140,000 people had been allowed to leave and that the situation was improving, but he drew attention to a number of concerns. The Sri Lankan Government need to act on them, including the fact that UN officials are still detained by the Sri Lankan authorities several months after the end of the conflict. That is not acceptable. The officials must be released as soon as possible.

If Sri Lanka is to become a prosperous state, it has to deal with its internal political dynamics and the feelings of alienation among a substantial number of its citizens. Tamil Sri Lankans are important to the standing of Sri Lanka in the world, because there is a huge diaspora, including in London. Many thousands are in my borough of Redbridge. Members of Parliament know from our conversations with our Sri Lankan Tamil constituents of their terrible anguish and concern about the situation in their homeland. It is important that there is real political devolution and reconciliation in that island in the future.

As part of its responsibilities over recent years the Foreign Affairs Committee has looked at a number of areas of the world. Last year, one of our reports highlighted the British overseas territories. We made a number of recommendations and criticisms, as a result of which the British Government established a commission of inquiry, under Sir Robin Auld, into the situation in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That led to recommendations for the suspension of the TCI Government and the reimposition of direct government from the UK.

A number of communications have been sent to me and members of the Committee over recent weeks from people living in TCI. Some of them are concerned about the bubbling discontent within society. People associated with the former Premier, Michael Misick, are lobbying and doing their very best to undermine the Governor, Gordon Wetherell, who was appointed last year.

Another concern was raised in a letter copied to me and other Members. The letter was sent to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, by Shaun Malcolm, a former leading opposition politician in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It says:

    "I write to you in reference to your Deputy Chairman, Lord Michael Ashcroft, and the possibility that the Conservatives may form the next government in Britain.

    We respectfully and sincerely ask for your written assurance that Lord Ashcroft will not be influencing, directly or indirectly, decisions regarding the Turks and Caicos Islands should the Conservatives win the next election, and if you are willing to give us these assurances then we kindly ask for you to work with us now to establish tangible safeguards towards this goal."

The letter then goes on to quote the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee and praises three members of our Committee: the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), whom I see in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). They visited the islands, and on their recommendation, our Committee published the report. Shaun Malcolm says:

    "As I am sure you are aware, under the guidance of the FAC, and in particular through the valiant efforts of these men...the Foreign and Commonwealth Office initiated a Commission of Inquiry",

to which I have already referred. He continues:

    "The Commission of Inquiry's findings led to an Order in Council that has resulted in direct rule of the Turks and Caicos Islands coming into effect on August 14, 2009. Most thinking citizens and residents of the TCI are grateful for the intervention and look to work hand in hand with the British to rebuild our institutions of governance.

    The people of the TCI have passed through an extremely dark period. The media in the islands was bought or intimidated, free speech was restrained, and much like dissidents in China, we had to go to the Internet to get beyond the intimidation of the local government to inform our citizens and the world community about what was happening here.

    Your Deputy Chairman, Lord Ashcroft, and his son Andrew Ashcroft, have been deeply involved in the affairs of the TCI for much of this last decade, to the point where his bank, Belize Bank TCI, recently renamed as British Caribbean Bank, is now the largest banking institution within these islands, as stated by him. Sir Robin's Inquiry found that many of the questionable transactions involving local politicians during these last six years were financed by Lord Ashcroft's bank. 

    As well, their alleged involvement with local property development and environmental holocausts such as the Leeward Development on Provindenciales have caused grave concerns within our small territory.

    Due to his willingness to contribute to both political parties, as well as the small size of our population and economy-only 30,000 citizens and residents in total-Lord Ashcroft's wealth and his willingness to use it, has and does give him a level of influence that we feel puts any hope of democracy here at risk." ....

     Madam Deputy Speaker, the concluding sentence of the letter expresses the hope that "the TCI will continue on its path towards good governance"-.......

    I wish to conclude on this matter by saying very clearly that serious questions need to be answered by the Leader of the Opposition-I hope that he will do so-and that the matters relating to the TCI and the fact that the Caribbean bank plays a role in other territories in that region, including Trinidad, need to be looked at very seriously.

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