Pakistan: UK Aid

Lord Alton of Liverpool Excerpts
Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Asked by
Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool
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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)
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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.

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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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)
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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)
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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.