Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Short week

Yesterday the Parliament was prorogued, ie ended, and the new Session will be opened by the Queen on November 6. I have never attended the State Opening in the 45 years I've been in Parliament, because I don't see Parliament as being about dressing up in funny clothes like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

The prorogation ceremony I don't object to so much, because only the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the House, the Leaders of the three parties and the Leader of the Crossbenchers have to put on robes. The men also have to wear ridiculous Napoleonic headgear, which they doff three times to the Commons at the bar, while the two women just bow. The names of the few Acts which haven't already been given Royal Assent are read out in turn, and after each the Clerk says 'La Reine le Veult'. Finally, the Leader reads out a Queen's Speech on prorogation, listing all the wonderful things done by 'my Government' during the past Session.

The extra day's sitting, at which no other business is transacted, probably costs £50,000

I chaired a meeting to discuss the research findings of Dr Jo Richardson of de Montfort University on site provision for Gypsies and Travellers, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation []. Other speakers were Cllr Richard Bennett, chair of the LGA Gypsy Traveller Task Group and Janie Codona, a former Commissioner of the CRE.

Monday I asked a supplementary question on the trials of the four LRA leaders in Uganda, and the scientific evidence on global warming and the floods in Uganda (and other parts of east and central Africa)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Trafalgar Square rally

Speaking at a rally in Trafalgar Square yesterday on human rights violations in China and the Olympic Games. I said that foreign visitors who attend the Games might take copies of the Mandarin translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with them, to give to Chinese sports fans, officials and other people they meet there. (

The Olympic Charter's objective is to establish a peaceful society based on human dignity, but Chinese officials have said they will 'crack down severely on troublemakers' in advance of the 2008 Games.

There are still more executions in China than the rest of the world put together.

In Tibet, the police beat up schoolchildren for drawing political graffiti and murder people fleeing across the border into Nepal. The hysterical reaction to the Dalai Lama's reception by President Bush shows what they think of the human dignity of the Tibetans.

The arrests, tortures, killings and vilification of peaceful members of the Falun Gong is another brazen violation of the Olympic Charter.

Abroad, China encourages brutal dictators and props them up with arms. In Burnma, they sustain the incongruously named State Peace and Development Council, which kills and injures monks, imprisons democrats, and wages war against its ethnic minorities.

In Zimbbwe, they befriend the appalling Mugabe, who drove 700,000 people out of their homes, eradicated the free press, rewarded a few cronies while making the rest of the population destitute, and drove two million people into exile.

In Sudan, with their ally General Beshir, they have blocked UN measures to stop the genocide in Darfur, and to prevent it from spreading into Chad and the Central African Republic.

Some people hoped that awarding the Olympic Games to China would give them an incentive to improve their human rights record, and there's just a chance that it may. Let all sports fans and other tourists visiting China engage with the Chinese people in their struggle for human dignity, and for the rights and freedoms in the Universal Declaration.

Friday, October 26, 2007

My week at Westminster

Tuesday October 23

UK Borders Bill Third Reading

That the Bill do now Pass:

AGM All-Party Gypsies & Travellers Group

Wednesday October 24

LibDem meeting on Zimbabwe

Thursday October 25

Pakistan: Terrorist Attacks
Lords Hansard text for 25 Oct 200725 Oct 2007 (pt 0002)

Female Genital Mutilation
Lords Hansard text for 25 Oct 200725 Oct 2007 (pt 0001)

Trafalgar Square rally on the Olympic Games and China’s human rights record.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

JW in his room

This was taken just after midnight yesterday evening.

I won 2-1 at ping-pong yesterday, making the grand total 75-74 to me.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My week in the Lords

Question, Speaker's Conference and Voting Systems 15 Oct 2007 : Column 528
Debate, UK Borders Bill Report 16 Oct 2007 : Column 655 etc etc

Debate, Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy: 18 Oct 2007 : Column 799

Plus written questions I don't usually bother to record, but for this week:

Government: Ministerial Responsibilities
Lords Hansard text for 18 Oct 200718 Oct 2007 (pt 0001)
Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government: How much time elapsed between the announcement of the recent ministerial changes and publication by the Cabinet Office of the list of ministerial responsibilities; .....

British Citizenship
Lords Hansard text for 18 Oct 200718 Oct 2007 (pt 0001)
Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether they will exercise the power granted in Section 27(1) of the British Nationality Act 1981 to give effect to the commitment made by Home Office Minister Lady Young to Lord Avebury during the passage of the Hong Kong Bill in 1985 that no former Hong Kong British Dependent Territories citizen or any child born after 1 July 1997 to such person... .....

British Citizenship
Lords Hansard text for 18 Oct 200718 Oct 2007 (pt 0001)
Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether they will exercise the power granted in Section 27(1) of the British Nationality Act 1981 to remedy any anomalies created by Section 2(2) of the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990 which render a newborn infant stateless, where save for the provision of Section 2(2) of the 1990 Act, the infant would have become a... .....

Justice: Ecclesiastical Courts
Lords Hansard text for 17 Oct 200717 Oct 2007 (pt 0001)
Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government: How many (a) charges, and (b) convictions there have been for offences under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 in each of the years 1997 to 2006 inclusive. .....

Friday, October 19, 2007

From the Baha'i event, with Lindsay, JW and Bhante

With Yusuf Gabobe today


Will the UK help to develop a comprehensive media law in Somaliland? A 3-4 year project costing £700k has been put to the FCO and DfID, as Yusuf Gabobe told me this morning. I will see whether the Somaliland Parliamentary Group can do anything to help this valuable initiative. Somaliland is one of the most democratic countries in Africa, but it needs a lot of help with drafting laws, and freedom of expression needs to be underpinned. Gabobe himself, publisher of the independent Somali-language daily Haatuf, was released after nearly three months in prison on March 20 this year.

Dan, Barney, Shila, me, Lindsay & Rob

Responding to the award

Listening to the Hon Barney Leith making the presentation

Ann Clwyd MP, Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group

With Ms Bemma Donkoh, UNHCR Representative in UK

With my Cote d'Ivoire 'grandchildren'

Speech at the Baha'i Centre, on receiving the Blomfield Award

My father had a friend called Noel Mobbs, who was given a knighthood just after the last war for his support of boys’ clubs. At a lunch in his honour he was describing the scene when he went to Buckingham Palace to receive the honour, and the speech went something like this:

. “The King said to me: ‘Mobbs, for what you’ve done you deserve a peerage’ and I said to him ‘that’s up to you your Majesty’.

Let me say without qualification that there’s no honour I would sooner have received that the Blomfield award, established in memory of Sara Louisa Ryan, Lady Blomfield, one of the most remarkable women born in the second half of the 19th century. Its difficult for us to imagine the enormous wall of prejudice and discrimination that women of that era had to surmount if they were to do anything at all outside the domestic sphere. Barred from the universities and the professions, business and Parliament, and treated as the chattels of their husbands in English law, it’s a miracle that a few women did get to play a role in public life. Lady Blomfield’s contribution spanned among other causes the women’s suffrage movement, the liberation of Ireland, her native country, from British rule; the League of Nations and Save the Children Fund.. In these great movementss as well as the personal work she did such as nursing the wounded in the first World War, she was inspired by her Baha’i Faith, and particularly by the constant encouragement of Abdu’l-Baha, Guardian of the Faith, in a correspondence that has been preserved in the Baha’i archives. In a booklet she wrote supporting the Save the Children Fund she quoted Baha’ullah, the great Prophet who founder the Baha’i religion a century and a half ago, that the First Obligation of humankind was towards children, and that is still very much at the forefront of Baha’i thinking today.

And that brings me to the second reason why I am proud to be the recipient of this award. I have long been an admirer of the Baha’is, and of the principles that guide them. Tomorrow I’m initiating a debate in the Lords on the Government’s revised alcohol harm reduction strategy. The Government always preface their statements on alcohol harm by pointing out that 90% of the adult population drink alcohol, most of them sensibly. But millions of people – men, women and children – are drinking hazardous or harmful amounts, and there is never any attempt to highlight the 10% who don’t drink, like the Baha’is. I intend to emphasise that an alcohol-free lifestyle can be exciting and fulfilling.

The Baha’is. Work hard for the equality of women, human rights and particularly the rights of children, religious freedom and the promotion of international cooperation through the United Nations, in which they continue to play an important role as they did in the League of Nations from its foundation. How perverse, that a faith based on these ideals, bearing enmity to no other creed, should itself be the victim of violent persecution in Iran, and suffer persecution and discrimination in Egypt! I have been an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Baha’i Group since it was founded, to lobby Foreign Office Ministers into countering this irrational animosity. But to be honest, it is virtually impossible to make any impression on a psychopathic regime like that of President Ahmedinejad in Iran. We have to hope that one day the Iranian people will get tired of being governed by clerics and return to the separation of church and state which had been the normal rule throughout Iran’s history. You will get discouraged if you expect quick results on most human rights problems, as you can see by the fact that we still have some way to go in this country. We have reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and there are groups that suffer institutional disadvantage and discrimination, such as Gypsies and Travellers.

When I first entered the Commons 45 years ago, I wanted to make some contribution to human rights, and joined the Parliamentary Civil Liberties Group, which was concerned with domestic human rights here in the UK. The Chairman was Tony Greenwood, and the Group was serviced by Martin Ennals, then General Secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties, which has now turned into Liberty and is doing a lot of good work under the leadership of Shami Chakravarti. In 1964 when Labour came to power, Tony Greenwood was appointed Minister of Housing and Local Government, and I was elected Chairman of the Civil Liberties Group, a post I occupied until the electors of Orpington sacked me in 1970. Meanwhile, Martin had moved on to become Secretary-General of Amnesty International, and he prompted me to get involved in international human rights. It was Martin’s encouragement that led to the Parliamentary Human Rights Group being formed in 1976, and I’m particularly grateful to Ann Clwyd, who has made the Group more effective and influential since she took over from me s chair in 1977, for coming here today and making such flattering remarks about my work.

If you look at the volume of human rights-related questions and debates in both Houses over a number of years, you will see a huge increase. That may be partly to do with the proliferation of human rights NGOs, but it is actually a two-way process. The NGOs need to have organised all-party groups of MPs with whom they can interact, and apart from the PHRG itself, there has been a great expansion of thematic and country-related All-Party Groups in recent years – subjects ranging from AIDS to zoos, and countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, not all of which are focused on human rights of course. Yesterday, for instance, I was at the AGM of the Peru Group, which on this occasion was focused entirely on the earthquake of two months ago, a Richter Scale 8 event which did $800 million worth of damage – and then later to a 15th anniversary dinner of the Armenian Group where as you can imagine there was much discussion of the US Congress decision to recognise the Genocide of 1915. I would like to thank the many NGOs which have given me so much help and advice over the years, such as this week on the UK Borders Bill the Refugee Children’s Consortium and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association.

Oddly enough, there isn’t a Group in Parliament or an NGO covering religious freedom in general. Often there are lessons to be learned from comparisons between the kinds of religious persecution that occur in different countries. The recent atrocities committed against the Buddhist monks in Burma can be compared with the long term oppression of Buddhism in Tibet, where both monks and nuns have been killed and tortured, and with the attacks on the dissident United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In Iraq , on which Ann is the foremost Parliamentary expert, there is a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’as, with Christians and Yazidis caught in the middle. In Saudi Arabia, the Shi’a are considered to be heretics, and in Bahrain, the hereditary dictatorship is Sunni but the people, who are mostly Shi’a, suffer endemic discrimination. Then you have the states where it appears that a religious group is persecuted for their beliefs which are thought to be subversive, like the Falun Gong in China or the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea. A third category, including the Baha’is, the Ahmadis, and now the Mehdi Foundation International, developed in an Islamic context but deny the finality of the Prophethood. We need an international NGO to campaign for all these groups, call it Article 18 by analogy with the NGO that campaigns on freedom of expression, Article 19.

Yesterday Ming Campbell said it was time for him to leave the stage, though it seemed to me he was shoved off it by ageist scribblers and cartoonists in the media. Ming has as sharp an intellect as ever, and I hope there will be other important roles for him to play. People are living longer nowadays and there in no reason to retire either from the stage or politics when you still have something to offer. I remember running into Manny Shinwell in the peers’ entrance when he was 100 and mentioning an article about him in that morning’s Express. He asked me eagerly ‘What did it say’ I said the gist was that he was the oldest peer ever to have spoken in the House ‘Is that all they could find to say about me?’ was his dismissive comment..

Well, I don’t expect to break that record, but my ambition is to carry on, as Lady Blomfield did, as long as my health lasts, and nothing could have made that intention firmer than receiving the Lady Blomfield award.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Visit to Silbury September 18, 2007

Yes, I know its getting on for a month since I posted anything on the blog. But Maurice and Olivia were here until October 5, to our great joy and satisfaction, and since they left I've been rather busy with backlogs of letters and emails, together with the return of Parliament. Last week I had two days on UK Borders Bill which involved a lot of preparation, and fielding questions on Burma and Zimbabwe. Borders didn't finish in the two days allotted (not my fault, I'm not long-winded) so we have extra time next Tuesday. Wednesday I am to receive the Blomfield Award at the Baha'i Centre, and Thursday I'm initiating a debate on the Government's revised alcohol harm reduction strategy, which is not going to make much of a dent in the problem.

The one concession we have had on Borders was that children born abroad of women who married foreigners are to be treated the same as if the father were British and the mother foreign. Up to now there has been a cut-off date of February 7, 1961, and when we first raised the matter 5 years ago Ministers told us there had to be a cut-off oint and 'we can only go so far in righting the wrongs of history' We have now asked the Government whether putting this particular wrong right will enable the UK to withdraw its reservation on nationality to th Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

I almost forgot that in the few games of ping-pong since Maurice and Olivia left, the scores (me first) have been 1-0, 0-2 and 2-1, so the total is now 73 all.