Hugh Robertson winds up debate on Bangladesh

Hugh Robertson replies to a back bench MP’s debate on the recent elections in Bangladesh and opportunities to help Bangladesh work towards democracy and political stability.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): Thank you, Mr Hollobone—although perhaps not for that introduction, to be honest. May I begin by saying that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) for securing this important debate? I apologise to him at the outset for not being the Minister with direct responsibility for Bangladesh, but I read the Backbench Business Committee debate from 16 January before this debate and I give him a commitment that I will ensure that his remarks today are passed to Baroness Warsi and, in view of the comments he made, to my ministerial counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It was clear from reading the report of that debate that Members on both sides of the House share a common commitment to the well-being, future prosperity and stable democratic development of Bangladesh, but considerable concerns have been expressed about all three areas. As the hon. Gentleman said, the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh is strong, with considerable ties of history and family. We want to promote a shared belief in democracy, good governance and sustainable development. He is right to say that the recent election in Bangladesh fell drastically short of the ideals we would expect. Our response falls into three areas. First, we expressed public regret at the lack of participation and the scenes of violence. Secondly, we call on Bangladesh’s political parties to begin a dialogue that finds a long-term, sustainable solution, in a way that does not exist at the moment, for the good of Bangladesh’s people. Thirdly, we recognise that a proper functioning democracy, as we would understand it, is vital for Bangladesh’s future security and prosperity. I shall take each of those in turn.

Successive British Governments have believed that peaceful, credible elections that express the will of the voters are the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy. The 10th parliamentary elections, held in Bangladesh on 5 January, were constitutionally correct, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, but the main Opposition party did not participate. Indeed, half the electorate did not get the chance to vote. There must therefore be concern as to whether the will of the Bangladeshi people has been properly reflected and whether the elections met the goals of a true democracy.

In the run-up to those elections, the UK engaged with all political parties in a number of ways, calling on them to ensure full, open and participatory elections. My honourable and noble Friend Baroness Warsi delivered the same message personally to leaders of the ruling and Opposition parties when she visited on 12 December. Her public statement on 6 January expressed our disappointment at the election outcome and condemned the acts of intimidation and unlawful political violence.

Those acts are striking: more than 500 people are believed to have lost their life as a result of political violence in 2013; 21 deaths were reported on polling day; and more than 100 polling centres, many of which were schools and colleges in poor rural areas, were burned down. By any standard, that is shocking. The deaths and destruction sadden me, as I know they sadden Members on both sides of the House.

We remain deeply concerned about the deaths and the continued political harassment, and the heightened political tensions that underlie them. However, as the hon. Gentleman said in his well-balanced and fair speech, there have been some positive moves recently. We are pleased that the Bangladesh Nationalist party has condemned the violence and announced a suspension of its enforced strikes and transport blockades. The relaxation of police restrictions at Opposition party offices and the granting of bail for some BNP leaders by the High Court brings some promise, but it is not nearly enough. Further bold moves by all sides are needed if the needs and wishes of the people of Bangladesh are going to be met and put first. As he said in his balanced speech, in the meantime, the UK continues to do what it can to support Bangladesh and its democracy.

We remain absolutely committed to supporting the Bangladesh development goals, as laid out in the millennium development goals. Between 2011 and 2015, as the hon. Gentleman said, our support will lift 1.5 million people out of extreme poverty, provide access to safe water for 1.3 million people and ensure that 500,000 boys and girls complete their primary school education. I am pleased that UK aid is working to improve governance in Bangladesh. It is vital to develop a political system that is more capable, more accountable and much more responsive than it is at the moment. I will ensure that the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made are brought to the attention of DFID Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned the support that was given around election time. The UK supported the Bangladesh Election Commission and work was done to update the voters register, train polling officials and develop new systems to publish candidates’ details, including declarations of wealth, which I imagine is a controversial topic in that part of the world. Notwithstanding the outcome of the poll, we believe that those improvements will stand the Government in good stead in future elections.

Unless the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to raise anything else, I shall end where I began; by congratulating him on securing the debate and on the tone with which he led it, and by thanking him for his continued interest in the country. It is shared by many across the House. Bangladesh is an important partner for the United Kingdom and we will continue to support its people in their aspirations, as we see them, for a more stable, prosperous and democratic future. In doing that, however, it is important that we never shy away from delivering tough messages to the political leadership to try and ensure that those expectations are fulfilled.

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