Thursday 25th April 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Question for Short Debate
15:00
Asked by
Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask His Majesty’s Government how UK aid is used to support minorities in Pakistan.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords participating in today’s short debate about ways in which UK development aid to Pakistan, which is rising from £41.5 million this year to an estimated £133 million next year, will be used to help the poorest of the poor in Pakistan’s minorities to climb out of destitution and caste.

I declare a non-pecuniary interest as co-chair, along with Jim Shannon MP, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities, on whose behalf I am currently chairing an inquiry into the plight of brick kiln bonded labourers caught up in modern slavery—including young children—who are massively and disproportionately drawn from the country’s minorities. I have shared the draft report and preliminary recommendations with the Minister and pay tribute to the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s secretariat and advisors, notably Mr Morris Johns and Professor Javaid Rehman.

Before I say more about the horrific evidence that we have taken in the current inquiry, let me refer briefly to the other questions and recommendations that I have sent to the Minister and to which my noble friends will refer later. Some of the issues are referred to in earlier reports by the APPG and in the submissions of the APPG on Ahmadis. They include discrimination and persecution against minorities, entrenched in school textbooks; stigmatisation in schools and colleges; and primitive and dismal conditions in the so-called colonies where Christians live, which are often devoid of running water, sanitation and electricity and which I have personally visited with Marie Rimmer MP and Jim Shannon MP.

The APPG has highlighted the lack of reparations and convictions and the impunity following the violence in Punjab’s Jaranwala in 2023, when a mob rampaged and torched churches and homes. I hope that the Minister will respond to that and to the destruction of Ahmadi mosques and cemeteries; the persecution of the dead as well as the living; the violent attacks, including murder; and the denial of comparable voting rights with other citizens. We want to hear the Minister’s assessment of the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, with forced conversions, rape and coercive marriages—all issues that British aid could, and should do more to, address. Lastly, what happens to those who try to escape and end up caged like animals in detention centres in other countries, which my noble friend Lady Cox and I have seen at first hand?

For the record, 3.72% of Pakistan’s 230 million people are from religious minority backgrounds: 1.6% are Hindus and 1.59% are Christians, some of whom converted to escape the untouchability of the caste system. Most of the Hindus are also from Dalit, or scheduled caste, backgrounds, with all the stigmatisation and discrimination to which that leads. Does the Minister agree that their plight deserves greater focus? Further, does he agree that women and girls from the religious minorities remain at the very bottom of the societal hierarchy? Has he had a chance to read Life on the Margins, a report that includes disturbing evidence of child mortality rates being higher than the national average?

In acknowledging the significant impact of the FCDO’s work on improving lives in Pakistan, it would be negligent not to point out the failure to prioritise the minorities. Our resources should be used to challenge and reform laws and policies that are used as a pretext for persecution; procedures that breed impunity; and priorities that bypass the destitute and despised minorities. In saying so, we stand with the foundational ideals of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s original constitution and, more recently, the findings of its most eminent jurists.

On 19 June 2014, the then Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued an admirable landmark directive. It included the continuing failure of the state to create a federal task force to promote religious tolerance; new educational curricula to encourage religious harmony and social tolerance; the curbing of hate speech on social media; the establishment of a national council for minorities’ rights; police reform; employment opportunities; and prompt action whenever the constitutional rights of religious minorities are violated or places of worship desecrated.

UK aid programmes should be turning that 10 year- old directive into action. When did we last raise the failure to implement the directive with the Government of Pakistan, and what response did we receive?

I return to the plight of bonded labour and the preliminary findings of our inquiry. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of bonded labourers in the world, with over 1 million workers in brick kilns. Although religious minorities comprise less than 5% of the total population, the percentage of religious minorities in brick kilns is often as high as 50%, especially in Punjab and Sindh, where most of the religious minorities live. This finding is corroborated by Anti-Slavery International.

UNICEF says that

“bonded labour is an abuse analogous to slavery”—

a system in which the middleman, or jamadar, arranges the advanced loan, called peshgi. The often illiterate worker must work exclusively for that employer until the loan has been paid off, including interest at high rates. It is a vicious circle, trapping workers and their families across whole generations.

According to the 2023 Global Slavery Index, in one recent year an estimated 10.6 of every 1,000 people in Pakistan were in modern slavery. Theoretically, bonded labour was made illegal under Pakistan’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992. It has signed international treaties that outlaw slavery, as does its constitution. But in practice, successive Governments have lacked the political will or capacity to implement and enforce the law on bonded labour.

In evidence to our inquiry, we heard shocking stories that women and girls from minority backgrounds have been subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse—reduced to lives of servitude. Our inquiry can confirm the finding of Human Rights Watch that:

“There is a consistent pattern of sexual abuse at the brick-kilns, including rape”.


I draw the Minister’s attention to the testimony of “Sara” and other accounts from women who told us of rapes by jamadars or local police officers. They describe women and girls being sold into marriage or prostitution.

We heard of enslaved children to whom debts had been passed down from generation to generation. Recall the horrific murder of Iqbal Masih, who was taken into bonded labour at the aged of four. Having escaped and campaigned against modern slavery, he was murdered at the age of 12. He had helped 3,000 children escape bonded labour. When did we last specifically raise the plight of children with Pakistan? Children should be in school, not servitude.

Our inquiry also heard accounts of a lack of any safety equipment, no medical coverage or social protection, shortage of clean drinking water, absence of latrines and obscenely low wages. A recent ILO report highlighted the dangers that workers face, including

“exposure to toxic fumes and carbon particulates”.

We set out 10 practical recommendations to the UK and Pakistan Governments, from ethical buying standards to confiscation of assets. If time does not allow him today, perhaps the Minister will commit to responding to each of the recommendations by letter. I also hope that a Select Committee will use our report and this debate to drive this issue forward until change occurs.

No one should underestimate the consequences for those who call for change, equity and reform. In 2011, the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his friend, Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of the Punjab, spoke up for Asia Bibi and called for reforms. Both men were murdered. When did the UK last challenge Pakistan over the failure to bring the murderers of Shahbaz Bhatti to justice? If you cannot bring the killers of your Minister for Minorities to justice, is it any wonder that the two children forced to watch a lynch mob of 1,200 burn alive their parents, or minorities living in places like Jaranwala, are in despair?

I shall conclude more hopefully. Also recall that, on 11 August 1947, the great Muhammad Ali Jinnah insisted in a famous speech that:

“You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.


Jinnah gave the newly independent Pakistan a new flag—symbolising the country’s plurality and diversity, combining the Islamic green of its Muslim people with the white of the country’s religious minorities. The flag’s crescent represents progress, and the five-pointed star symbolises light and knowledge, objectives which Jinnah hoped would inspire and unite the nation.

Empirical research shows that the countries which enjoy the greatest prosperity and harmony are the ones that promote freedom of religion or belief for their minorities—something that the UK, Pakistan and the Commonwealth should prioritise. It is my fervent hope that our short debate will return Pakistan to that path and encourage the realisation of many of Jinnah’s unfulfilled hopes.

In ending, I pay a personal tribute to the Minister for all that he does on these issues and his wonderful generosity with time, which he has given on many occasions to address some of the issues that I have mentioned.

15:10
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, first, I agree with that last sentiment concerning the Minister. From the short time I have been in this House, I know that he spends a lot of time dealing with these issues and has a passion for them, as we do, and I thank him for that. It is of course a huge pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to thank him for bringing this important Question for Short Debate, which concentrates our focus on how UK aid is used to support minorities better in Pakistan. At the outset, it is important to say how much I welcome the increase in overseas development aid. That provides our Government with an opportunity to do more to support minorities in a practical and meaningful way.

Looking at the aid profile for the year 2023-24, it has to be acknowledged that the Government did a lot with the budget they had. Priorities listed include climate vulnerability, gender inclusion and disability inclusion—all very laudable goals. There is much I can speak about this afternoon, but I want to spend the limited time I have looking at the issue of women and girls. There is, no doubt, a lot of work to be done in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referenced the work that the APPG has been doing on the bonded labour issue and he outlined the issues surrounding women and girls on that.

I make the point, as I did in my Question for Short Debate on global Christian persecution, that women and girls from a minority faith, whether it is Christian, Ahmadi Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, face a double marginalisation or a double injustice. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage and/or forced conversion. It is still shocking to me that, in our world today, young girls are being groomed, trafficked into sham marriage and then forced into conversion. The international development White Paper commits the UK to develop policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief, and I very much welcome that, but we need to turn this commitment into positive actions.

We know that Pakistan is the third least tolerant country in the world in terms of social acceptance of religious diversity, and that cannot be ignored. In terms of the treatment of women from minority religions, a survey taken by the Punjab Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women has shown that they have a higher than average illiteracy, and that has persisted among minority women in the province—64% as opposed to 34%. Minority community members get into a cycle of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and early and often forced marriages. This can be broken only by getting good education, academic or technical, for children and especially for girls. It is even more difficult for Christian students to get places to study in higher education, if they are lucky enough to have education at primary level, because the good marks which are needed are often obtained by bribes, and most Christians do not have the financial resources to deal with bribery.

Recently the Punjab Government allocated 2% of seats in universities for minority students—of course, that is to be welcomed—but that is only one province, and the other provinces have no plans to help students from minority communities in this way. There are, of course, good missionary schools and colleges which could offer quality education for minority girls, and UK aid could be used to get education for minority girls in those schools and, in doing so, lift their families out of poverty. It would be great to hear from the Minister whether there are any plans to ring-fence a percentage of aid for minorities in Pakistan and use it for education and practical training for girls. That is in line with the Government’s goals, and indeed the existing minority schools could be utilised for this purpose.

Of course, education works only if the girls are free, and it is estimated that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu faiths are abducted and forcibly married and converted each year. In some cases, such forced conversions are used as a smokescreen for other serious crimes such as human trafficking, forced prostitution and child abuse. As the mother of a daughter, whose birthday is today, I cannot imagine the pain that this causes to the child and the family of the child —yet it appears that very little help is available.

It would be a very positive sign of global leadership in this area if we could use the UK aid programmes as a tool to spread education among minority girls, so that they are aware of their rights and, importantly, to train police officers and judiciary members on the laws pertaining to this issue and how to treat such cases. The Minister will be aware that the Punjab police have set up Meesaq centres in police stations in areas with a large percentage of Christians, but it is important that these centres are staffed by trained individuals. Likewise, in education it would be important to train teachers in religious tolerance and to promote a positive image of coexistence.

In closing, I commend the tireless work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the APPG for the Pakistani Minorities. The increase in aid is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the minority communities in Pakistan and cement the UK’s leadership role in our strong belief and commitment to freedom of religion for all by taking practical steps with the aid budget such as I have laid out in relation to training and education.

15:16
Baroness Cox Portrait Baroness Cox (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton for initiating this debate on a subject of such current concern, which is not widely reported, and where the suffering of people requires an appropriate and timely response.

Some time ago I met refugees from Pakistan who fled to Thailand to escape the hardships inflicted on them in their home country. Many were living in dire and deeply disturbing conditions, in detention centres. I visited some of those refugees to witness their predicament and I was profoundly disturbed by the conditions in which they were forced to live. But the situation that had forced them to leave their homes and their homeland was so dire that they had to emigrate. Their predicaments include discrimination against, and persecution of, minorities, resulting in severe hardships in so-called colonies where violence is perpetrated against communities, including desecration of Ahmadi mosques and cemeteries, the destruction of churches, and the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, involving forced conversions, rape and forced marriages.

There is a continuing culture, with stigmatisation of minorities even instilled into the culture by inclusion in school textbooks. The blasphemy laws continue to be used as a justification for persecution, and there is a culture of impunity. For example, no one has been brought to justice for the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities—and reference has already been made to that terrible situation.

Those who wish to see a change in the culture of prejudice and persecution recommend many fundamental changes, and I shall highlight some of them. First, they recommend the use of the percentage of official aid for minorities mainly for education and professional training projects, such as nursing for girls, in line with the Government’s MDG goals. Secondly, they recommend support for the Punjab police’s commendation policy of establishing Meesaq centres in police stations, in areas where there is a large percentage of Christians. These are staffed by minority police staff and can be used by minority members to report crimes and seek appropriate protection and/or recompense. As the competence of staff is essential, UK aid could be used to help to train the staff and maximise the use of this significant opportunity.

Thirdly, provision of funds is recommended for basic necessities such as fresh water and electricity in slums and primary schools where there is a concentration of minority members. Fourthly, they recommend the provision of funding for training teachers in religious tolerance, so that they are equipped to deliver positive images of coexistence in their schools. Fifthly, provision of funds is recommended for shelter homes for the victims of forced conversions and forced marriages, where they could be taught skills to be self-sufficient. Finally, provision of funds is recommended for labourers working in the sewers to safeguard them from deaths and injuries.

Having heard the first-hand accounts of the suffering inflicted on so many Pakistani civilians from those people themselves, I passionately hope that policies to alleviate their suffering will be recognised as matters of profound concern and measures will be taken to implement them as an urgent priority.

15:19
Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am privileged to be the first of a trio of Bishops speaking in this debate.

For the past eight years or so, the diocese of Guildford has partnered with the diocese of Sialkot in the Majha region of Punjab. Sialkot is probably best known for the production of medical equipment and World Cup footballs. The diocese also includes the Mirpur district, which has strong connections to the British-Pakistani community—not least in Woking, just a few miles from where I live, which boasts the oldest purpose-built mosque in the UK. I was privileged to visit Sialkot and Mirpur in 2019; Mirpur had just suffered two devastating earthquakes. I am a vice-chair of the Pakistani Minorities APPG.

I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating the debate and for his tireless championing of freedom of religion or belief over so many years. I fully support the suggestion that religious minorities should be explicitly included in the list of marginalised communities when it comes to the provision of UK aid.

As we have heard already, there is no question that discrimination exists on all levels against religious minorities in Pakistan, most notably against the Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu communities. In part, that is due to extremists who frequently use the blasphemy laws to whip up public anger and acts of violence, with the arson attacks on dozens of churches and hundreds of homes in Jaranwala on 16 August last year a particularly egregious example. In part, it is also due to an entrenched institutional malaise despite the specific protection of religious minorities under the constitution. Aspects of that malaise are well documented; many of them have been highlighted in both the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and subsequent speeches. They include: a biased educational system; a legal code that specifically discriminates against Ahmadis; the blasphemy laws, which are so widely drawn and frequently abused; and the continuing legacy of the caste system, which frequently leaves Christians and Hindus at the bottom of the pile.

Issues of modern-day slavery have been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, especially in the huge brick-making industry and in the sewers, where—as my friend the Bishop of Sialkot, who came to lunch last Saturday, tells me—there are deaths reported almost every week due to a lack of basic personal protective equipment. Complaints about abduction, rape, forced conversion and forced marriage are frequently given short shrift in the courts. One particular concern in the diocese of Sialkot was the effective confiscation of eight church schools, which remains in place despite a subsequent ruling by the federal Government that they should be returned. That is a particular tragedy for both the Christian community and wider society given that so many of the key Muslim leaders across many aspects of Pakistani life have benefited in the past from a church school education, often giving them a wider, more tolerant perspective on those who adhere to faiths other than their own.

I could cite various examples on the other side that have sent out more hopeful and positive messages to minority religious communities in recent years. There are courageous people across Pakistan who believe in the constitutional protection of religious minorities and who seek, often very bravely, to promote that belief. I was privileged to meet some such people in my visit in 2019. However, as this is a short debate, I do not want to add to it unnecessarily. My points here are that the negative stories remind us of the continuing need for change, in which UK aid can play a significant role if carefully directed, and that the positive stories remind us that change can happen—especially when we pay proper attention to religious tolerance and the equity that flows from it.

Many of the problems for minorities emanate from the fact that they are often very poor, with illiteracy the primary cause of that poverty. Indeed, it is something of an irony that, although it was often the Christian missionary schools that began to educate many from a variety of religious backgrounds, all too often the Christian community is left behind today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, pointed out, the survey taken by the Punjabi Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women showed that, while women’s literacy in a general population was 64%, women’s illiteracy in a minority population was also 64%, showing the extraordinary imbalance between the two groups. From those statistical foundations flow unemployment, poverty, early marriages and poor health outcomes in a cycle that can be broken only by renewed efforts to improve the educational opportunities for children, especially girls, from minority communities. The UK Government could help to advance that ambition through carefully targeted aid to the educational institutes that promote it.

In conclusion, I suggest the following. First, UK aid should include religious minorities in the list of marginalised communities within Pakistan. Secondly, I support the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, that a percentage of the aid budget be set aside for minorities, using most of it on education and professional training projects, in line with the Government’s MDGs and the Pakistan Government’s allocated quotas for minority groups.

15:25
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I would like to see UK aid support in Pakistan focus sharply and almost entirely on identifying and supporting minority communities, of which there are of course a number of different kinds; they include the religious—such as the Ahmadi, who suffer viciously—as well as Hindu and Christian minorities.

A high percentage of those who suffer most among the minority groups are Dalits. I want to speak mainly about the Dalits, who suffer disproportionately in every area of life because of the terrible stigma of untouchability. According to the 2017 census figures for minorities, the number of registered scheduled castes in Pakistan is 849,614, but, according to researchers and Dalit activists, their number is more likely to be in the millions. They have no representation in political life. All 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims and political parties are occupied by dominant caste Hindus and Christians. The National Assembly has never had a Dalit woman parliamentarian. Despite the fact that 33% of all women have seats in the national Parliament due to temporary special measures, few political parties nominate a Dalit woman for the reserved seats. This means that they have no voice to make their plight known.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, minority communities suffer particularly in the areas of poverty, slavery and forced labour; as I suggested, a very high percentage of those who suffer in these areas will be Dalits. They are excluded from union representation and are in widespread employment in the brick kiln and agricultural sectors. As has been mentioned, Dalits—in particular children and not least women—are working in hazardous and slave-like conditions. One aspect of this is that Dalits, particularly women, are most likely to be assigned to manual scavenging. This undignified work, without any safety equipment, exposes them to death, accidents and poor health, while 80% of sanitation work in Pakistan is carried out by minority communities—mostly Dalits—through hereditary schemes.

There is another factor: water and sanitation issues are intimately linked to the mistaken notion of purity, leading to the untouchability stigma. Sanitation workers face a risk of fatality that is 10 times higher than for workers in other sectors, while Christians, a minority in the country, are the largest community represented in the sanitation workforce.

Forced marriages and conversions are widespread, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, emphasised. I will not add further to that except to point out the figures showing that, since 2017, no official data on forced marriages and conversions was produced, though estimates vary between 300 to 1,000 per year with only 16.67% of victims aged over 18.

Since 2006, the Pakistan Parliament has provided about 6,000 projects in a national poverty reduction scheme. This progress is welcome but none of these projects target issues specifically facing Dalits, who are floundering in a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of land, which forces them into that poorly paid employment where they can be exploited. Many take on loans from their employers and are unable to pay them back. There is a high level of suicides among this community due to this distressing economic situation. Nearly 74% of Pakistan’s Dalits are illiterate, among which 90% are Dalit women, leaving no prospects for Dalit children and thus perpetuating the problem. At the heart of it all, this is reinforced by the education programme itself as school textbooks portray Dalits as inferior, which is absolutely intolerable.

I will briefly mention in addition one point already raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. One of the most distressing features of Pakistan is the law on blasphemy, which carries a sentence of death and can be used in village or family disputes to target perfectly innocent victims. Among them are Mariyum Lal and Newsh Arooj, two Christian nurses recently charged with allegedly removing a sticker with Koranic verses from a hospital wall. Also unjustly imprisoned with the threat of death are Zafar Bhatti, Asif Pervaiz, Ashfaq Masih, Shagufta Kiran and Ishtiaq Masih, to mention just a few. My plea to our Government is that our aid should be directed almost entirely to these minority communities, and that real efforts be made to identify them, especially the Dalits among them.

15:30
Lord Bishop of Leicester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Leicester
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate, and I commend his tireless campaigning over the years for the UK to defend and support the rights of minorities in Pakistan. I will focus on two specific issues raised with me by members of the large Pakistani heritage community in Leicester: first, the plight of Christians forced to work as gutter cleaners with no personal protective equipment; and, secondly, the need for a small, safe and legal route for persecuted minorities to come to the UK.

Christians, who are less than 2% of the overall population, account for more than 80% of the sewerage and street-cleaning workforce in Pakistan, where hazardous conditions and a lack of workplace health and safety regulations and protective equipment cause untold preventable accidents, illnesses and deaths. The accounts of their working conditions are truly repugnant, made even more shocking by the fact that the government agencies advertise cleaning positions for Christians and other religious minorities only.

Safe and sustainable economic development and inclusion of minority groups go hand in hand; the Government’s approach to development in Pakistan must recognise that. I, too, warmly welcome the increase in the aid budget for Pakistan, as others have. Will the Government commit to targeting aid to the poorest of the poor and, in particular, the provision of protective equipment to industries where minority populations comprise the majority of the workforce? Such provision would provide an important symbol of the Government’s priorities and, moreover, save lives.

My second point relates to the provision of a small, safe and legal route for persecuted minorities to come to the UK. The well-documented case of Asia Bibi is a case in point—the Canadian Government are to be applauded for their approach, as are those Muslim leaders in this country who spoke out in support of her—but there are others. I was approached by a bishop in Pakistan to ask if I might help secure asylum for one of his priests. The priest’s brother had been murdered and there was clear evidence to suggest that others in the family were at serious risk. But despite all my efforts, and indeed the intervention of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, we could not secure a visa for the priest and his family.

Would the Minister be willing to discuss with his colleagues in the Home Office the possibility of a small, safe and legal route—in the sense of 50 or so people, not the hundreds coming by other legal routes—for persecuted minorities in Pakistan to receive a welcome in this country? Given the history of this country’s involvement in the region, I dare to suggest that we have a moral duty to offer such help.

If the Minister cannot answer these two points today, I dare to hope he might be willing to write to me. First, there are many possibilities for how our aid budget might be targeted and I dare to suggest that helping the poorest of the poor must be a priority. Secondly, where the risk is simply too great, might we also be willing to offer a route to safety for those being persecuted?

15:34
Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow this small convocation. I join all speakers in congratulating our friend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate and his determination and perseverance on these issues. However, I will briefly raise with the Minister from the FCDO a specific point, as it is the first opportunity that I have had. I think he will understand the concern among the diplomatic community about the statement yesterday by the Home Office Minister about not recognising Gaza as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I look forward to the Home Office writing to me, but the Minister has not so far today.

Returning to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, kindly shared with me the draft of his report and it makes for truly depressing reading. I share his comments on the need for our friends in the Pakistan Government to adhere to the obligations that they have signed up to under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the convention on forced labour, the ILO and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, so I endorse everything that he said.

Pakistan has been and is one of our most important development partners and, of course, a diplomatic partner too. That country has seen huge UK commitment to development over the last 20 years. It has also seen enormous progress itself, halving poverty in 25 years, but there are concerns that this progress is now in doubt, with 40% of that population—95 million people—living below the poverty line. I want to commend British officials, especially those who have been in DfID, for the work that they have done and their programmes. Over those years, UK development reach has secured clean water and sanitation for more than 2.5 million people. More than 2 million children have received a decent education as a result of British support and partnership, including more than 1 million children under five, and women and adolescent girls. That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Foster.

UK support, working with our NGOs and the Pakistan Government, has brought about results, but that does not mean we take focus away from the points made in this debate. UK support in partnership with Pakistan in 2017-18 was £441 million. It went down to £77 million and is now rising again, which I support. Pakistan remains the sixth largest bilateral program for the United Kingdom, so is a very strong priority for us.

I also commend the Aawaz programme. My understanding is that, over the last decade or so, the Aawaz programme has been focusing on accountability and the inclusion of at-risk groups. This has been a £90 million programme, with the second phase of it addressing modern slavery. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that child labour, child and forced marriage, gender-based violence, and human trafficking and modern slavery remain a priority of the programmes that will be going forward.

I will use two sources for the remainder of my comments: the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s 2023 review of UK development support, including for Pakistan, and the House of Commons International Development Select Committee’s 2022 review. The ICAI report highlighted some of the concerns and difficulties in delivering some development support, because of the increased restrictions faced by and backtracking on civil society, with media restrictions and, as ICAI put it, “increasingly populist politics”. As the ICAI report highlighted

“the UK government decided to deprioritise democracy objectives”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether the Consolidating Democracy in Pakistan programme will be brought back, in either its previous or a revised form. Will we be reprioritising the civil society and democracy reforms that had been part of previous programmes, all of which are focused on ensuring that there is space for minorities—not only for their development but to participate in the public space?

The final element I wish to highlight is that the Select Committee and ICAI reports called for the UK to have a more systematic implementation of human rights objectives in its policies and programmes. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether, if we are increasing support, it will include support for civil and political space, human rights and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked, individual minority groups within the country.

15:39
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. He has heard me say many times that violations of freedom of religion or belief do not happen in isolation. Countries that fail to respect religious freedom or the basic right to no belief invariably also fail to respect other basic human rights.

I start with a specific question regarding the Afghans whom we addressed in the Urgent Question Repeat last Wednesday and who are at risk of being forcibly returned by the Government of Pakistan. Last week, the Minister said that Pakistan had not made a “formal announcement” recommencing the removals, although it was talking to representatives of the Pakistani Government, and stressed the need to uphold international humanitarian commitments. What is the department doing to track developments? Have any further representations been made since the Urgent Question on 17 April?

In this debate, we heard in some detail about the experiences of Christians in Pakistan—including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, highlighted, accusations of forced conversion and forced marriage, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted, violence and attacks on places of worship. The blasphemy laws continue to be used as a pretext for persecution, with a culture of impunity.

During our debate on 25 March about the persecution of Christians, the Minister said that he had recently spoken to Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar. Can the Minister give us more detail and an update on those conversations? Has he had any further ones?

I want to focus on what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted: the bonded labour sustaining a caste system that massively and disproportionately affects minorities. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of bonded labourers in the world. According to reports, there are more than 1 million workers in brick kilns in Pakistan. Apart from brick kilns, bonded labour is most prevalent in agriculture, and the carpet-weaving and mining industries. I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting the excellent work of the APPG for Pakistani Minorities and its inquiry into the brick kiln workers; although it continues its work and has not yet reported, its draft report highlighted the failure to implement constitutional prohibitions on modern slavery and laws against bonded labour.

We need to hear from the Minister about how we are using the UK aid budget—as we have heard, it will increase to £133 million next year—for greater scrutiny and monitoring of compliance with the ILO conventions on the prevention of slave labour, on child rights and on women’s rights. Although the Government of Pakistan have passed legislation to outlaw the practice, as we have heard, implementation of the law is basically non-existent.

In their response to the Commons International Development Committee’s report in November 2022, the Government said:

“We prioritise our aid to achieve maximum impact for the people of Pakistan in line with our strategic priorities, including promoting FoRB. Our Accountability, Inclusion and Reducing Modern Slavery programme … brings together community leaders and minority representatives to promote tolerance”.


I ask the Minister: does it specifically address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton? Does it include advice to businesses in relation to the high risk of modern slavery in the brick kilns in Pakistan? Surely we should be using these programmes to support provincial labour inspectorates to ensure that they can fulfil their obligations, including support in the use of modern technology so that they are much more able. These are straightforward, simple things that we can do and which can make a huge difference.

Finally, what are we doing to support the Government of Pakistan to ensure implementation of the existing legislation? We need to do more. I remind the noble Lord that I have constantly raised the issue of working with trade unions. What are we doing with the international trade union movement and the ILO to ensure compliance with these important conventions?

15:45
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for convening this debate and for his kind remarks at the conclusion of his speech. I thank my noble friend as well for what he said about my personal and professional commitment to this important agenda. I also thank my noble friend Lady Foster, for her kind comments, but while I accept this graciously, I also accept fully that the challenge we have over freedom of religion or belief around the world is immense. That is why I have been delighted, over the years, to support work on Christian persecution and the work that has been undertaken by my department in this respect. It has been recognised by many and has been transposed into policies and programmes. That said, as we have heard from all noble Lords during this brief but important debate, the challenges remain immense.

I begin by paying tribute to the strong advocacy of human rights in Pakistan, particularly for oppressed minorities, from the various all-party groups. I pay tribute particularly to Javaid Rehman, with whom I work very closely—I met him recently, albeit briefly and coincidentally—and to the work of Morris Johns. He is amazing in what he does and I join in the tributes of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions. The noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, raised a number of points on prioritisations, from bonded labour, which I will come on to, to modern slavery. I was delighted to meet my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister Theresa May, at the launch of her Global Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. She is playing a very active role in getting that commission set up and I am sure that, as she looks at the key priorities of countries, she will be working constructively with Pakistan, a country she knows well.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, among others, raised the importance of increasing aid. When we look at the stats, almost one-third of Pakistan’s population lives in poverty, and this was exacerbated by the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2022, when 33 million people were directly impacted. I remember visiting Sindh and seeing that the most vulnerable and marginalised were the ones who suffered. Therefore I am delighted that our programme looking specifically at some of the key minority parties, which I will come on to explain, is being expanded into Sindh.

I acknowledge at the outset—as I was saying to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, just before the start of the debate—the need, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also acknowledged, to visit Pakistan. I think it helps. It helps the British Government in explaining some of our priorities and it provides valuable context on some of these challenges. Some of the communities that suffer, frankly, particularly those who are the most economically and socially marginalised and indeed come from a minority faith, often just accept what is being endured as the norm. We need to ensure that the investment in education is key, as my noble friend Lady Foster pointed out. That is why I am proud, over the years, of the commitment of successive Governments to 12 years of quality education for girls, but we need to ensure empowerment and access as well. The noble Baroness also talked about the situation in Thailand. I am seized of that issue, but I agree with her that, when we see what is happening there, it must have been pretty desperate for them to be in that situation.

The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Collins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford referred to the issue of bonded labour in Pakistan. I welcome this report, because again it draws an important prioritisation on this issue. It is real and we need to face it. The UK is committed, I assure the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, to eradicating all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking and we work with international partners, the IOM in particular, on the important issue of modern slavery.

I will take back the issue of trade unions in Pakistan, to see what kind of work is taking place. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that it is a weak structure, but it is important that we continue to see how we can further work in co-operation with key bodies.

I will answer some immediate questions on the report. We have supported the Pakistani authorities to undertake the first child labour surveys in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. We are now using that data to support policy formulation on child bonded labour, including the formation of child protection systems. The UK is also working very closely on the issue of modern slavery through the £26 million we have allocated to the regional child labour programme—the FCDO’s largest modern slavery programme—which helps to deliver the UK’s commitment not just in Pakistan but in Bangladesh and India.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of Afghanistan, which I have followed through. I have not yet had any further updates or announcements, but I will of course keep the noble Lord and the Grand Committee informed. We are very much seized of the situation in Afghanistan. Yesterday, I once again met the courageous Fawzia Koofi, a former vice-president of the National Assembly in Afghanistan, to understand the issue of the discrimination and marginalisation of women that continues in Afghanistan.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford highlighted the injustices, discrimination, economic exclusion and wider intolerance suffered by minority communities in Pakistan. We condemn unequivocally the desecration of religious sites and graves and the violence against individuals, and we want perpetrators to be held accountable. On a personal note, I will be courageous enough to say to all noble Lords participating in the debate that no one knows better than I about the challenges that the Ahmadi Muslim community faces.

The right reverend Prelate asked about safe and legal routes. I know that the community has worked consistently with successive Governments on the importance of those fleeing asylum because of religious persecution. While the Government have a very robust policy on immigration, as we have seen in recent months, it is important to sustain, maintain and strengthen those seeking asylum in the UK, particularly those who are persecuted simply because of their faith. Let us be frank: I have seen the benefit of those who have come to our country. When you look at a proper analysis, they make an incredible contribution to the progress of our country, and we are richer for it. I can speak with some personal experience on that front, too.

Overall, our development budget for Pakistan this year is more than tripling, as noble Lords have acknowledged. I will spend some time on the specifics that have been raised. I assure all noble Lords that we are very much seized on some of the key priorities. On the brick kilns, I visited a zig-zag kiln in Lahore in 2021 with the then high commissioner, Christian Turner. On a more amusing note, the last thing that you want to do as a suited and booted British Minister is to be put on top of a brick kiln in the middle of summer—so I know how it feels. The zig-zag technology used in Pakistan evolves the brick kiln operation into something that is a substitute for coal, will reduce emissions and will improve the welfare of brick kiln workers. For some of the workers, that is their only source of income, so we need to ensure that there is an effective transition, both for cleaner energy and to protect their rights. I have seen that in operation. The UK’s £46.5 million Aawaz accountability, inclusion and reducing modern slavery programme is working to tackle child bonded labour directly, alongside the formation of the child protection systems that noble Lords alluded to. I have already mentioned the importance of the surveys; having read the ICAI report, I will follow up on specific elements.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others who came to see me in the aftermath of the appalling mob attack against the Christian community in Jaranwala last August. I have a regular drumbeat of visits to the region to ensure that the houses are being repaired—they are—and that the places of worship are being repaired, which I am informed they are. The issue of compensation is important, and I am told that it has begun. We want to follow through on that. Indeed, when I met the Foreign Minister from the new Government of Pakistan during his recent visit to London—as well as in my first meeting by phone call with the Human Rights Minister—I prioritised the issues of minority rights and forced marriages in our conversation.

The harms of forced marriages, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, are very clear, and we want to tackle them. There is a phrase in Islam, from the Koran, “Lā ’ikrāha fi d-dīn”, which means, “There is no compulsion in religion”. We need to ensure that that is carried through. I was pleased that we were able to exercise human rights sanctions in our human rights regime on a particular individual who exercised this vulgar practice.

I am conscious of time, but I assure noble Lords, including the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that I shall look specifically at the issue that he raised about Dalits. They are among the most marginalised of the marginalised, and we need to stand up and ensure that their rights are equally protected. There are a variety of other programmes, including GOAL, which looks at improving education outcomes, with a focus on minorities, and we will continue to focus on minority communities. I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford on that, as well as the other Bishops—indeed, we have three bishops. The buses analogy comes to mind, but I shall not use that here. Their contribution to this debate is particularly welcome; we are following through in a range of initiatives, in prioritising and ensuring that education is not in any way lost.

Meanwhile, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will be pleased to learn that our hate speech and disinformation programme aims to protect vulnerable groups with a focus on making digital spaces safer for women and religious minorities. In the run-up to the general election in Pakistan in February we supported voter education, and we also support, through the UK’s Magna Carta Fund, Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights and the Minister for Human Rights. The review of technical assistance for Pakistan’s national curriculum has also remained a vital priority, and we continue to work with the new Government in that respect. The £130 million Girls and Out of School: Action for Learning programme focuses on improving teacher quality and learner outcomes for children in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I assure my noble friend Lady Foster that we are working to ensure that much of this fund is allocated specifically to the education and protection of minorities. When I had my call with the Law Minister, Azam Nazeer Tarar, we looked specifically at freedom of religion as a key priority of our continuing relationship.

On the final point that I shall make—I shall of course follow up on any questions that I have not been able to answer—on a positive note, some progress has been made. We have seen the route for Sikh pilgrims into Pakistan being sustained and protected. We recently saw through our initiatives Pakistani Ministers attend various events, including during Easter and Eid, which involved all communities being in attendance. We continue to stress to Pakistan the importance of inclusivity, particularly for minority communities such as Christians and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which are particularly persecuted and denied voting rights. You either claim that you are a non-Muslim, if you want to vote, or you cannot vote at all. That is fundamentally flawed and needs to be corrected.

I shall continue to work with noble Lords on these important priorities to ensure that we deliver them. I know that we are short of time. I do not know whether we are up against the time on the clock—we have three minutes, I think.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Could I just ask the Minister about the brick kiln report and the draft recommendations? Will he commit to write to those who have taken part in today’s proceedings, responding to the recommendations?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I shall do so. I have read part of it—as I say, it is an active part of what we are looking at, and there is a series of work that we have been doing on brick kilns. I stress the importance of transition in a way that is practical and does not end up with people having no money at all—but I shall certainly respond formally.

I thank all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for convening us on this important issue.