Why are ministers still ducking a debate on human rights abroad?

There are too many concerns to cover and too many issues on which ministers have been evasive for the government to refuse a full day’s debate.

Britain’s standing in the world is in part dependent upon our commitment to human rights and democracy. But sadly, MPs were this year again denied a chance to fully debate the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in promoting and protecting human rights abroad. This was the third year that I have replied to the annual debate in Westminster Hall on the FCO’s human rights work and the debate was, once again, highly unsatisfactory, not least because, in January 2014, we're discussing a report on the FCO’s human rights work in 2012.

Ninety minutes is not nearly enough time to cover the 27 countries of concern highlighted by the FCO’s own report, let alone discuss why the government has again left countries such as Bahrain off the list.

There are also broader global themes, such as the increasing prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, growing concern about the persecution of religious minorities abroad, regressive steps in some countries on LGBT equality and the government’s stance on business and human rights. The government's action on human rights - or lack of action in some cases - warrants the exposure and scrutiny of a full day’s debate.

So it is now time that FCO ministers agree to a debate in government time and on the floor of the House. There are too many concerns to cover and too many issues on which ministers have been evasive. The publication of an annual human rights report – which Labour introduced in government - should not be used as a fig leaf by ministers reluctant to broach difficult issues.

On Sri Lanka for example, David Cameron did eventually appear to question President Rajapaksa over his human rights record at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November. But this was long overdue. He was forced to speak out by campaigners like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, by the Tamil community in the UK and by the Labour Party urging the government to do more in the run up to the summit.

The Prime Minister could - and should - have intervened earlier to demand President Rajapaksa comply with UN resolutions emphasising the need for reconciliation and an independent, credible investigation into alleged violations of international law, or to support the UN High Commissioner for Human Right's call for an international inquiry. Something Douglas Alexander, as Labour's shadow foreign secretary, had been calling for since 2011. Labour repeatedly urged the government to use the Prime Minister's potential attendance at CHOGM as leverage. But letters to ministers, Parliamentary Questions and debates in Parliament did not elicit an appropriate response or real engagement with the issue. 

There was further hesitation and obfuscation when it came to China. China's global importance cannot be underestimated and we value a strong relationship with the world's largest country. But the government seems determined to view China through narrow blinkers, confining our bilateral relationship to a narrow understanding of our commercial interests. A closer, more strategic relationship does not mean that we should be silent on human rights issues. Parliamentary questions that I tabled to George Osborne about his discussions on human rights during his October visit received a generic answer from a junior minister who did not even accompany him to China.

So I tried again, this time tabling questions to the Prime Minister before he left China a month later. I tabled three "named day" questions which should have been answered three days later, calling on the Prime Minister to discuss specific human rights concerns, the UK and China's roles on the Human Rights Council, and climate change during his trip.

But it wasn't until after his trip had taken place that I received just the one answer: "The government is committed to engagement with China on a full range of subjects as part of a broad and mature relationship. Nothing was off limits in my conversations in China and I raised climate change and human rights issues and agreed a new round of the UK-China human rights dialogue in early 2014." Of course it is not always appropriate in foreign affairs to relate every word of diplomatic relations, but the Prime Minister’s response implies at best that he gives a cursory mention to human rights during meetings.

An upcoming test for the government’s approach will be the Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to Colombia, a country with which the EU has recently agreed a Free Trade Agreement, but where there are still disturbing human rights violations and threats to the lives of trade unionists and activists. I believe in engagement with Colombia, in support of the peace talks and its economic and democratic development, but we must be frank when there are shortcomings and this cannot be just another Ministerial trade mission.

The Foreign Secretary once espoused a foreign policy that has "consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core". The coalition must do much more to prove to Parliament and to watching NGOs that the reality matches some ministers’ rhetoric.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang accompanies David Cameron to view an honour guard during inside the Great Hall of the People on December 2, 2013 in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle