13 January 2022
James Cleverly responds to debate on Bahrain

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and North America, responds to a debate on human rights in Bahrain.

The Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and North America (James Cleverly)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for securing the debate. It gives me the opportunity to put on record an alternative—and, I suspect, more balanced—viewpoint to the one that he put forward. Nevertheless, the debate gives us all an opportunity to discuss an important issue. I also put on record my gratitude to other Members who have spoken. I will try to address some of their points, but time prevents me from dealing with them all.

As has been said by Members on both sides of the House, the UK and Bahrain are indeed allies and partners. We work closely together on defence, security, trade and regional issues. Our naval support facilities are a symbol of that enduring co-operation and the UK’s commitment to peace, security and stability in the region. The country provided the first permanent UK naval presence east of Suez since 1971, and continues to support our counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and maritime security operations, providing security not just for British trade and British nationals, but for all those who are active in the maritime region around the waters of Bahrain.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute was passionate in his criticism of not just Bahrain, but Her Majesty’s Government. He claimed—Hansard will correct me if I am wrong—that the UK is bankrolling Bahrain. He went on to say that we were trying to get money from Bahrain. It is not credible to hold simultaneously the positions—

Brendan O’Hara 

At no point did I say that the UK was getting money from Bahrain. The Government are trying to secure a trade deal with Bahrain and that is why they are turning a blind eye to the most flagrant human rights abuses. It is not about getting money from Bahrain, but about turning a blind eye to human rights to secure a trade deal.

James Cleverly 

The hon. Gentleman seems to think that he has clarified his position, but he has made it more chaotic and incoherent. If he does not think that trade deals are about securing an inward flow of money to a country, I dread to think what the trade policy of a separatist Scotland under an SNP Government would look like. However, time is tight and we need to get on. 

I also thought it was quite telling that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) listed and dismissed the oversight bodies—I will come to some of the oversight bodies that the UK has helped to bring into existence later—rather than calling for them to be made more effective. She seemed to want to rip away the organisations that seek, with our support, to improve the legal and criminal justice system in Bahrain, and I think that is perhaps rather telling in respect of her motivations in the debate.

I have genuine respect for my shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), but he accused Her Majesty’s Government of being silent on the issues of concern in Bahrain. He is relatively new in post, so I will forgive him for this, but I suggest that if he thinks we have been silent, that is more of an indication that he has perhaps not been listening. I will highlight where the UK Government have brought these things to international attention.

Defending human rights and promoting democracy around the world is a priority for Her Majesty’s Government. We want to work to support countries such as Bahrain that have demonstrated, and continue to demonstrate, a desire to adopt a more progressive and inclusive domestic set of measures, not just in their attitudes and words, but in their actions.

I have heard from a number of Members that we should disengage from working with Bahrain, including on human rights issues, and I cannot possibly disagree more strongly. They should ask themselves about the options before them: do they want Her Majesty’s Government to drive improvements in countries such as Bahrain or would they prefer Her Majesty’s Government just to stand on the sidelines and shout abuse, as they have done? If it is the former, the question we should ask ourselves is how best we influence change. We are better able to influence change through engagement, dialogue and co-operation. It is patently in the UK’s national interest to help countries such as Bahrain to benefit from our experience and expertise as they move on their journey towards essential reform.

Mr Carmichael 

The Government presumably have key performance indicators on the money that is spent in relation to Bahrain. What are they and what progress have we seen in recent years?

James Cleverly 

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have raised the issue of progress and I will come to that, particularly with regard to the Gulf strategy fund. I want to clarify a point that was repeated by a number of Opposition Members about the increase in funding. I remind the House that the Gulf strategy fund does not come from our ODA allocation. The predecessor of the Gulf strategy fund, which sought to accomplish, largely, the same set of priorities, had a budget of—let me double-check. Sorry, the budget for 2021 had halved. The Gulf strategy fund’s predecessor’s previous budget was twice as much, so when people talk about an increase, actually, the budget has halved. It is important to put that on record.

Jeremy Corbyn 

The point is about engagement. Will the Minister assure us that he will pressurise the Bahrain Government to engage with the United Nations human rights organisations and allow them to have independent visits and monitoring, as well as allowing unfettered access for human rights groups such as Amnesty International?

James Cleverly 

My understanding is that the United Nations is already engaging with Bahrain on a number of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has put forward. I have a number of other points that I wish to address, and I have been generous, so if the House will forgive me, I do not intend to take any more interventions so that the next debate can take place in good time.

A number of Members have highlighted performance indicators and demonstrations or approvals of our involvement. Our close relationship with the Bahraini Government and civil society, including non-governmental organisations, gives the UK a privileged position to positively influence developments on human rights. We draw on 100 years of probation experience, for example, and we are using it to encourage and support Bahraini-led judicial reform. We welcome the steps taken by the Government of Bahrain in reforming their judicial process, including the introduction of alternative sentencing legislation. I know that a number of people in incarceration have been offered alternatives to it. To date, more than 3,600 individuals have had potential prison time replaced by alternative sentences, and further cases remain under consideration by the judiciary.

Our work has supported the effective establishment of independent oversight bodies—the ones that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) would seek to destroy—including the National Institute For Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, the Special Investigations Unit, and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission.

Members have highlighted examples of completely inappropriate behaviour by Bahraini officials. I remind the House that more than 90 security personal have been prosecuted or face disciplinary action because of investigations carried out by human rights oversight bodies that the UK Government support. We believe that Bahrain is undertaking important and effective steps to address allegations of torture and mistreatment in detention.

We strongly welcome the initiative that Bahrain has taken to develop an inaugural human rights plan. It is taking an inclusive approach, welcoming contributions from us and from the United Nations, which the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) was so passionate about earlier. We look forward to the publication and implementation of the plan, which we expect will deliver further reforms in Bahrain.

We of course recognise that there is more work to be done. To reinforce the point that I made to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, Lord Ahmed and I have made and will continue to make these points directly to our ministerial counterparts in Bahrain, and because we enjoy a strong working relationship with them, I know that they will listen to us.

I am not able to go into details case by case, but Ministers and senior officials closely monitor cases of interest of those in detention in Bahrain, and indeed in many other countries. That is a core part of the support Her Majesty’s Government gives to human rights and democracy. Where appropriate, we bring those cases to the attention of those at ministerial or senior official level in partner countries. It is important to highlight that those currently under detention have been tried and convicted of crimes and sentenced under Bahraini law, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said. The right to fair trial is enshrined in the constitution of Bahrain, and we will continue to encourage the Government of Bahrain to follow due process in all cases and meet their international and domestic human rights commitments.

Bahrain remains an important partner and friend of the United Kingdom. We commend the progress that it has made on human rights and the ambition for the further development of political, social, economic and governmental institutions. The Father of the House, my right hon. Friend—

Sir Peter Bottomley 

indicated dissent.

James Cleverly 

Outrageous. The Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), said something typically wise: it would not take much for Bahrain to become one of the best. I think he is right to say that. We will continue to hold frank and sometimes difficult but constructive discussions with our counterparts in Bahrain, and we will continue to support them through the Gulf strategy fund and other diplomatic means, to help them to become the very best that they can be.