§ 5. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
When he next plans to visit Bahrain to discuss bilateral relations; and if he will make a statement. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has no plans to visit Bahrain at present. However, my right 836 hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will meet His Majesty the King of Bahrain tomorrow and will discuss bilateral relations.
§ Mr. Clapham
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, and am pleased to hear that he and the Prime Minister are meeting the King of Bahrain tomorrow. My hon. Friend will be aware that, since 1999, Sheikh Hamad has introduced widespread democratic reforms, including greater transparency, greater accountability, equality between the sexes and respect for human rights, particularly rights for women. Women can now stand as candidates in local and general elections as well as voting in them. Does my hon. Friend agree that our close relationship with Bahrain gives us the opportunity of extending the influence of democratic development and combating the conflicts in the middle east and the Gulf area in particular, without having to enter into ill-considered meddling in other people's affairs?
§ Mr. O'Brien
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we continue to support development of human rights and democratic values in the middle east. Indeed, in respect of Bahrain, we have offered advice and expertise, particularly on citizenship education. Our embassy held a conference, aimed at promoting citizenship education, which was open to the media, NGOs, Government Ministries and other bodies. We have sponsored visits to the United Kingdom for leading Bahrainis to learn about UK democracy and issues such as human rights and freedom of the press. We have provided the Bahraini Government with information on electoral boundaries, systems of government and trade unions. We welcome steps taken by the Bahraini Government to progress towards a constitutional monarchy and a democratic state. In the context of the middle east, those are very welcome developments.
§ Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
When my hon. Friend meets the King of Bahrain, will he congratulate the Government and people of Bahrain on showing that the Arabian peninsula does not have to be dominated by 14th century attitudes to women, repression of minorities and apologists for terrorism, but can be a beacon for democracy and human rights throughout the Arab world?
§ Mr. O'Brien
Human rights have indeed improved dramatically in Bahrain in recent years. There are now no political prisoners and exiles have been allowed to return. We maintain a constructive dialogue on a number of issues with the Bahrainis. Bahrain is in many ways providing a lead to show that it is possible to create a more democratic state in the middle east that can participate in the international community with its head held high.