The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Baroness Sugg) (Con)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate, and join the tributes made to him for his work on Pakistan and human rights more widely. I also thank all noble Lords for contributing to this short debate. There has been lots to say and not very long to say it in. I share the concerns that all have expressed about minorities in Pakistan. Nobody should face discrimination because of their religion, let alone the examples we have heard tonight of trafficking, forced marriage, forced conversion or threatened or actual violence. Freedom of religious belief is a high priority for the Government’s work in Pakistan. We raise it regularly at the highest levels of government and support grassroots campaigning with our programmes. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to guarantee the rights of all people in Pakistan, particularly the most vulnerable, as laid down in the constitution, highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his opening speech.
We have heard much distressing testimony and evidence tonight, but there is some hope. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked about the new Government and whether they wanted to change direction. Prime Minister Khan has stated his desire for a more tolerant and pluralistic Pakistan. We welcome his commitments to improve transparency and inclusion. Some progress has been made to date on the passing of a new Child Marriage Restraint Act and the issuing of 3,000 visas to allow Indian Sikhs to make pilgrimage to Pakistan, but there is clearly more to be done, and we continue to support the Government to implement other commitments, including the creation of a commission on minorities, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the Christian divorce bill.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord McInnes, the noble and right reverend Lord Harries and many other noble Lords raised the blasphemy laws. We remain deeply concerned by the misuse of those laws, and that religious minorities, including Christians, are disproportionately affected. The harsh penalties for blasphemy, including the death sentence, add to these concerns. The long-term objective is to overturn these draconian laws, which are used not just against minority communities but against Muslims, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, highlighted. My noble friend Lord Ahmad raised our concerns about freedom of religion or belief, the blasphemy laws and the protection of minority religious communities with Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister in February 2019. The Foreign Secretary raised those concerns with Foreign Minister Qureshi during his recent visit. We will continue to urge Pakistan to strengthen the protection of minorities, to explain the steps being taken to tackle the abuse of the blasphemy laws and to honour in practice its human rights obligations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others asked where in Pakistan aid, DfID money, is being spent and whether we are specifically targeting minorities of all faiths. We have a number of programmes which directly target and benefit minorities. Our new AAWAZ II programme will address a range of modern slavery issues, including child labour and forced or early marriage. Our first AAWAZ programme saw great success, holding community forums and peace festivals and supporting a national anti-hate speech campaign. That programme developed early response mechanisms to try to pre-empt some of the violent conflict we have seen and really work on interfaith and intrafaith conflicts and community dialogue.
In the first AAWAZ programme, we specifically developed and disseminated key messages on non-violence and tolerance in communities. We have also funded a survey on women’s well-being in Punjab, including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, and trained nearly 6,000 people from minority groups through the Punjab Skills Development Fund. As I said, the new AAWAZ II programme is currently under development, and we will ensure that it definitely reaches the people who need it.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of data collection. It is the case that for our bilateral programmes we do not currently have a breakdown by religion. That is not because we do not see the issue of treatment of minorities as important; it is due to the sensitive nature of collecting data. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, highlighted this. There are a number of reasons for this lack of reliable data—sadly, people are reluctant to declare—but we are working proactively to improve this. We recently had some success in collecting more and better-quality data on people with disabilities in Pakistan. We learned from that and will build on it to focus our energy on collecting data from other vulnerable and minority groups. It will be challenging, but we have learned lessons which can be applied to other groups.
We are working very closely with a number of NGOs to help to target minorities, and I agree with the right reverend Prelate that we must do more to focus our programming on minorities. I talked about our AWAAZ programme. That funded four NGOs that work specifically with religious minorities: the South Asia Partnership, Aurat Foundation, the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, and Strengthening Participatory Organization. This made a vital contribution to the programme’s work to raise the voice of poor and excluded people in Pakistan, increase their choices and give them control. As I said, as we develop our successive programme, AWAAZ II, we are looking to identify NGO delivery partners to continue this vital work on inclusion.
I reassure my noble friend Lord McInnes that our development assistance really targets the poor, regardless of race, religion, social background or nationality. We know that those affected by discrimination are likely to be among the poorest. We know, and our NGO partners have confirmed, that our focus on the poorest and most marginalised ensures that we benefit minority groups.
We should not forget, as many noble Lords have said, that being in the religious majority does not prevent many millions of Pakistanis from suffering poverty and its consequences. As has been highlighted, almost a third of Pakistan’s population live in poverty. It is therefore right, and indeed in keeping with Christian values, that we should provide support to people in need, whatever their religious background.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, asked about the result of our aid. Since 2011, we have seen real success. UK aid has supported primary education for 10 million children, skills training for almost 250,000 people and microfinance loans for 6.6 million people. We cast a wide net, and justifiably so, but within that net we ensure that minorities receive our help.
My noble friend Lord McInnes asked about education. We have a strong programme of work on education within Pakistan. We have helped provincial governments to review primary curricula and textbooks in English, Urdu, mathematics and science. This has included a reduction in religious content, removal of discriminatory content and the inclusion of new content to promote knowledge, understanding and respect. We have also helped governments to set and implement systems and standards to help remove that discriminatory content. We have trained nearly 100,000 teachers in equity and inclusion and worked with civil society organisations to champion issues of inclusion, but that is a work in progress, and we will continue on that project.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked about the asylum offer for Asia Bibi. The UK Government’s primary concern has always been the safety and well-being of Asia Bibi. We were in close and extensive contact with a range of international partners to ensure a positive outcome, and of course her acquittal and release were good news for all those who campaigned on her behalf.
The noble Lords, Lord Hussain and Lord Sheikh, asked what we are doing specifically to support the Government of Pakistan in this area. We are working with that Government to support projects to tackle child abuse and modern slavery by empowering communities to realise their rights, helping to increase citizens’ awareness of their fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution and lobbying to reduce the scope and scale of the death penalty. We also supported a national human rights conference in October 2018 to commemorate the late human rights activist Asma Jahangir. That is on top of the wider profile of HMG programmes that seek to counter violent extremism, strengthen the rule of law, improve government services, reduce poverty and deliver education.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised the issue of refugees in Thailand. We have raised our concerns with the Government of Thailand about the detention of foreign nationals seeking refugee status, including of course the nationals of Pakistan. We have repeatedly urged Thailand to sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and have closely followed the detention of around 100 people, mainly from Pakistan, in October last year. We do not believe that those actions were aimed at a specific group or groups but apply to anyone deemed an illegal visa overstayer. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is working very closely with the Royal Thai Government on asylum and resettlement issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, raised the issue of the importance of the Commonwealth. That is an organisation where we have a strong voice, and we should continue to take action on freedom of religion and belief. DfID works closely with the FCO to raise concerns on freedom of religion or belief with partner Commonwealth Governments. Heads of the Commonwealth have recognised that freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of religion or belief are cornerstones of democratic societies and are fundamental to achieving the sustainable development goals. The UK funds the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy, which is promoting freedom of religion and belief in the Commonwealth during our Chair-in-Office period.
The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, asked about trafficking and modern slavery. We are deeply concerned about the reports of trafficking, and we continue to urge Pakistani authorities to investigate and take action as needed. As the noble Lord highlighted, our approach is to reduce the permissive environment through community-based activities, but we are also providing support to the Government of Pakistan to tackle modern slavery, including trafficking, more effectively. We recently provided support and advice to enable the recent passage of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2018 and the Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act 2018, which provide a stronger legislative framework for the effective prevention of trafficking. The AAWAZ II programme that I mentioned earlier will address a range of modern slavery issues, including child labour and forced and early marriage. As the noble Lord highlights, there is some deeply concerning evidence that we have seen on that. We will continue to work with the Government of Pakistan on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, highlighted the report by the Bishop of Truro that was commissioned by the Foreign Secretary, and we look forward to its publication. We have seen the interim report, and I think it is going to be a really important piece of work that looks at how we as a Government target our activity on freedom of religion or belief. We very much look forward to that report, which will be released shortly.
There is also the International Development Committee’s inquiry on aid to Pakistan. We look forward to the hard questions that it is going to ask. That will be welcome scrutiny. We work hard to ensure that our aid is targeted properly, but the more conversations such as this and the more scrutiny that we can have, the better, because that will help us to improve.
We actively make the case whenever we can that the most stable societies are those that uphold the right of freedom of religious belief. Our substantial aid programme has helped us to position ourselves as a partner of choice for the Government of Pakistan. That allows us the access to raise these issues at the highest level and to provide advice and assistance to support the implementation of reforms. We have promoted, and will continue to promote, the rights of all Pakistanis as part of our effort to make the best use of every penny of aid to work towards a prosperous, stable and inclusive Pakistan. We should also welcome the royal visit to Pakistan, which will highlight the relationship between our two countries. I am afraid that I do not yet have details of the programme but I know the Foreign Secretary will respond to the noble Lord’s letter in due course.
I understand the frustration that we are not doing more and that we are not moving more quickly; the message tonight has been clear. However, through our programmes, our partnerships and our diplomatic relationships, we target minorities where we can and continue to build the data picture so that we can do so more effectively. I agree with my noble friend Lord McInnes that we must keep our programmes under constant review, and we do so.
I think we are making progress with DfID in Pakistan. We are seeing some positive outcomes. I speak to the team there on a regular basis, and their commitment and diligence on this is clear. We are working hard to identify and reach those most in need in what is a very complex and challenging environment, from both a data and an operating perspective. I know there is more to do on that, but I hope the Committee will recognise the work of the DfID team in Pakistan as we continue to make progress. As I say, it is slow going, but the commitment will continue from both DfID staff and myself to ensure that our aid programmes in Pakistan and indeed elsewhere really reach the people who are in desperate need of our help.
I think I am out of time. I hope I have answered the majority of the questions.