Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am lucky enough to be the chairman of the all-party group on Azerbaijan, and I was also on the trip that the previous two speakers attended in recent weeks. In addition, in recent months I have been board adviser to the European Azerbaijan Society.
We had a tremendous trip to Baku, Nagorno-Karabakh and Quba during the Whitsun recess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate. Like him and the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe), I was particularly moved by being at a war memorial that faced and was yards from the Parliament building. It was a particularly important war memorial because, as those who are familiar with the history of this region will know, fighting took place in areas such as Baku during the great war. Such areas were part of the Ottoman empire at that juncture.
I very much hope that the Minister will take the opportunity when he is next in Baku to visit that memorial. Clearly, I suspect that work has been carried out by the war memorials body to keep the memorial in reasonably good shape. What struck me was that the memorial is an important part of what is called Martyrs’ Alley, which is the memorial for various conflicts that have taken place in Azerbaijani and, indeed, Turkish history over recent years. In particular, there were problems during 1990 when there was a move by the then USSR, which was on its last legs, to try to put down conflicts on the streets of Baku. There was also the conflict with Armenia, which started two years later. What struck me was that, given the importance of pride and face in what one might broadly call the Muslim world, we should be intensely proud of the fact that a small corner of this sacred ground is in the hands of a British war memorial.
I reiterate both previous speakers’ words. There seems to be a tremendous opportunity in relation to Azerbaijan. It is essentially a secular Muslim state. Some 94% or 95% of its inhabitants are Muslim, and the remainder are a few Jewish and some Christian inhabitants. Given Azerbaijan’s strategic importance between Russia and Iran and the daily security concerns that we face in this country from difficulties in that part of the world, fostering closer links with Azerbaijan seems to be an extremely sensible way forward.
Although we had a tremendously interesting visit and we felt it was very open, it would be wrong to be ludicrously idealistic and not to recognise that Azerbaijan faces some issues. It is not a functioning democracy as we would understand the term here in the UK. However, it has made tremendous strides forward both politically and economically in recent years. That should be recognised and rewarded as far as our relationship with the country is concerned.
I became involved with Azerbaijan immediately after the previous election, when there was a move to reconstitute the all-party group. I did so partly because local Azerbaijanis who have business interests in the UK and other parts of Europe have had a big impact in trying to ensure that the country is not just seen as another oil and gas state. It would be all too easy to put the country in a box as being one of the “stans” of that region, as if such countries are somehow similar in history and outlook to other countries strong in the oil and gas area.
However, it would be wrong to understate the importance of oil and gas and of the tremendous trading links between the UK and Azerbaijan that go back some 20 years to the signing of long-term contracts by BP, which is and remains tremendously committed there. Some 4,000 or so permanent UK expats live in Azerbaijan. They are predominantly Scottish, but a significant number of people from other parts of the United Kingdom also live there. They make a good living and play an important part in developing the economy.
The Azerbaijani economy has grown. There has been compound growth of 7% or 8% in recent years, partly on the back of oil and gas. However, Azerbaijan is keen to promote to the world that it is about other things. In particular, it is looking to develop its financial services expertise. Obviously, I hope that my background as a Member of Parliament for the City of London will assist in that regard. It is also looking to develop areas such as high quality agricultural produce—some significant manufacturing goes on—and the tourism industry. Baku was always regarded as the third city within the Soviet Union after Moscow and St Petersburg. It has tremendous tourism opportunities in a quasi-alpine area in the north of the country. Benefits will arise there in the coming years and I hope that the tourism trade begins to assert itself.
I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Bradford South said. There is clearly an issue with visas. It is probably fair to say that there is a two-way issue and that there is a problem at this end, too. I hope that people will begin to learn more about Azerbaijan. We can laugh about the Eurovision song contest, but it will provide a phenomenally important showcase for that country. On that particular weekend, Azerbaijan will have an opportunity to open itself up not just to the United Kingdom, but to the other countries of Europe to show what it is all about. I hope that Azerbaijan will use that opportunity to say more about some of its great beauty. As I say, Baku is a very cosmopolitan city. Obviously, it has benefited in recent years from oil and gas, but it is clear that it has a lot of architecture and history that goes back many centuries and shows what an important city it was.
It is only fair to say a few words, as other hon. Members have, about the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. That is understandably close to the heart of many political leaders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned, we were very fortunate to have a 40-minute audience with the President. As mentioned, he was very keen to talk extremely openly about all the issues that have been touched upon already in this debate, but he also wanted to stress the importance of Nagorno-Karabakh. There is an understandable feeling in what one might call the moderate Muslim world that perhaps it is all too easy to look at UN resolutions that are immediately acted upon, particularly UN resolution 1973, when other resolutions—there were four resolutions between 1992 and 1994 on the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia—have, to a large extent, been ignored. Lip service has been paid to trying to put those resolutions in place. I hope that the Minister will have something encouraging to say about the ongoing work that is being done not just within the UN, but as part of the bilateral relationship.
I totally agree with that the hon. Member for Bradford South said. It is in Armenia’s interests for the matter to be resolved as soon as possible. That country does not have the benefit of oil and gas and its people are becoming increasingly impoverished by its being regarded as a pariah state. As I say, it is evident that significant wealth from Azerbaijan’s oil and gas fields is going into building up a good life, even for those who feel themselves dispossessed in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It would be in Armenia’s interests to recognise that there are tremendous advantages to being part of an area—albeit a little-known area as far as people in the UK are concerned—that has its eye on the future.
Finally, I wish to mention student visas. On a number of occasions I have made it clear that I have some concerns about the Government’s policy in that regard. We must recognise that education is a tremendous earner for this country and that our gold standard is recognised across the world—the English language has a part to play in that. We should also look to encourage the brightest and the best young people from across the world—not only Chinese and Indians, but Azerbaijanis—to spend time studying in this country. They could do two years of a postgraduate degree or part of a sandwich course, and they could, indeed, work for a year or two in this country afterwards. Such citizens from some of the less well known but fast-developing countries will be ambassadors for this country for the rest of their lives if they spend time here.
I recognise the political constraints that we are under in terms of getting our immigration numbers down, and there are, of course, great financial constraints on all our educational establishments, but it is self-defeating for this country to make coming to this country difficult for students and for highly skilled individuals from countries that are not members of the European Union or the British Commonwealth. We need a much more serious debate about that, and it behoves the coalition Government to be quite up-front about the issue. Immigration should not be about just headline figures and seeing such things as a great success going forward.
As I said, that issue is particularly important in developing countries, including not only Azerbaijan, but other south Caucasian countries, and I hope the Minister will be able to play some part in making a case on that issue. Indeed, I know he does that, and, like me, he probably believes that if Britain’s place as a trading and mercantile country is to be maintained, we need to make sure that we have as much free movement as possible for some of the best and brightest labour in the world.
Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this important and interesting debate, Mr Hollobone. I hope that the Minister and the Opposition Front- Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), will take on board some of the positive impressions that we have all gained from our brief introduction to Azerbaijan.