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Sierra Leone

5. Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): What aid has been given to Sierra Leone during 1998. [42501]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Since the return of President Kabbah's democratically elected Government, we have provided £1 million to re-establish core functions and services to enable the Government to be up and running; £1 million for non-governmental organisations delivering humanitarian and development assistance and £1 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to enable it to continue its humanitarian aid and protection work. The European Union is providing 2 million ecu for seeds and tools, and 200,000 ecu to help refugees in Guinea to return home. We are looking at what more we can do to strengthen governance and bring immediate relief to the people. We hope in future to be able to assist in demobilising and reintegrating ex-combatants.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the Secretary of State for that full and helpful answer. All hon. Members welcome the giving of humanitarian aid where it is greatly needed. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that none of her officials knew of or supported the activities of Sandline International in breaking the Government's embargo on Sierra Leone?

Clare Short: I can give the hon. Lady that absolute assurance. Beyond that, as she knows, an inquiry is taking place into the matter. The proper, democratically elected Government have been restored. The coup in Sierra Leone was vicious and brutal; a set of people went around chopping off the arms and legs of children. It is good for humanity that that is over. The paradox of the return is that it was led by the Nigerians, which means that an undemocratic Government helped to restore a democratic one. That is the biggest irony. The details of the Sandline operations will be resolved by the current inquiry, but my Department has no engagement whatever.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Now that there is a legitimate regime in Sierra Leone, does my right hon. Friend agree that, rather than waiting for the millennium and the Jubilee 2000 appeal to apply to every poor country, a group of nations, perhaps under EU leadership, could use debt relief in some poor test countries to determine the effectiveness of offering the remission of debts? It would be on the basis that those countries passed the money to the poor and not into some rich, elite pockets.

Clare Short: That is exactly what we are doing. Forty-one countries are on the list of highly indebted

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countries, with unsustainable debt affecting their capacity to deliver services to their people. A formula has been agreed by the International Monetary Fund and the World bank. I refer to debt to multinationals, not commercial debt; that is a confusion in some of the debate.

About 20 of those countries will qualify, if we can do better on post-conflict countries, which include Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Liberia, but debt relief is only part of the answer. The problem is poverty. Some countries have poverty without debt: some countries with debt are not interested in the poor. Giving debt relief within the context of supporting Governments who want to eradicate poverty and to provide for human development is what we are doing and will continue to do.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Does the Secretary of State agree that, in Sierra Leone last year, aid was reduced as part of the political pressure to oust the junta, yet, as in the case of Sudan, arms continued to flow into the country? Does she agree that, although humanitarian aid must never be reduced to the poorest people in the world, because poverty leads to conflict, which leads to poverty, we must also look at the supply of arms to those countries? It is only by the prevention of conflict that we shall ultimately solve the problem of the poor.

Clare Short: I agree with the hon. Lady's second point, but we did not reduce humanitarian aid to Sierra Leone to put pressure on the coup leaders. I personally met my officials and supervised everything we did on that. That allegation has been made by one NGO, and it just is not so; some of my officials have written to it on the matter. There was real trouble getting resources in without feeding the fighters. That is always a serious problem, but, through NGOs and the Red Cross, we put in as much relief as we could get through to people. We also funded a radio station so that people could gain access to the truth. We funded many refugees and prepared the Government to return. We did not cut resources to hurt people.

On the wider question of the feeding of conflict by access to arms, the hon. Lady is right. Oxfam and others have launched an important campaign on small arms. Africa is littered with them. They feed fighting in very poor countries, where having a weapon makes people strong and means that they can get resources that others cannot. Sadly, much of the ammunition is manufactured in Africa, so it is not a question just of imports, but we must do better. Conflict is breaking out in the poorest countries and impoverishing them further.

Drought and Famine

6. Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): What extra moneys she has earmarked to combat drought and famine since 1 May; and if she will make a statement. [42502]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes): We have a contingency reserve that is set aside for emergencies and funds can also be allocated from country programme budgets. I assure my hon. Friend that we give the highest priority to ensuring that adequate resources are made available very quickly for humanitarian emergencies. Since 1 May this year, we have pledged £6.23 million for the emergency in the Sudan.

Mr. Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that information and for his efforts as a Minister. Is it his view that, in the

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Sudan, there is a shortage of food for people who are hungry, or that the hungry cannot get access to the food that is there? Has he any further advice to the Red Cross as to how it conducts its campaigns for money for people who are hungry and poor?

Mr. Foulkes: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we have already agreed more than £10 million to the Sudan. The problem is not money. Even the Disasters Emergency Committee was divided when it considered whether to have an appeal for the Sudan. My right hon. Friend has done the country and this issue a service by opening up the debate. The media sometimes seem obsessed with disasters. If it bleeds, it leads, in some media. That means that we do not get the positive message over of some of the success of the development work that we and other countries have been doing.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): Given the Minister's undoubted commitment to the principle of humanitarian aid, will he tell the House whether his Department was consulted about clause 63 of the Finance Bill, and what effects he and his Department believe clause 63 will have on the provision of overseas aid by British charities?

Mr. Foulkes: Departments are consulted regularly about matters that affect them. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the arrangements he has made for tax relief for people who are willing to give money to charities, which has been a great boost for them. That is the kind of issue he should be raising, rather than quibbling about that particular clause.

Debt Reduction

7. Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis): What action her Department intends to take to assist in the reduction of the debt burden of countries that do not qualify under the terms of the heavily indebted poor countries initiative because of recent conflict. [42503]

10. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): What progress has been made in reducing the indebtedness of countries that do not qualify for the heavily indebted poor countries initiative because they have recently come out of conflict; and if she will make a statement. [42507]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Following a British initiative, the G8 summit agreed on the need to look at ways in which to provide more and earlier debt relief to help heavily indebted post-conflict countries, such as Rwanda and Liberia. Special arrangements are needed because, by definition, they lack a track record of good economic management, having come out of war and crisis. We are working to implement this and, in the case of Rwanda, the UK has made a substantial pledge to the debt trust fund for Rwanda at the donors meeting which is taking place in Stockholm.

Mrs. Heal: Will my right hon. Friend--who is aware of the particular problems of those countries--do all she can to urge the international community to respond to their exceptional needs as they try to rebuild their

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political, economic and social systems? She will know of the many organisations linked with Jubilee 2000, and of the concerns of the British Medical Association about the impact that debt has on the health of those countries.

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. In Birmingham, I met lots of people who came--with enormous dignity and good spirits--to call for help with debt relief. Rwanda is coming out of bitterness and pain after surviving genocide, when the world let it down and failed to intervene, and it has a Government who are trying to do the right things. If we do not assist the Government in bringing relief to the country--Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world--the chance of it returning to conflict is great. It is in everyone's interests that we make greater progress and are not rigid about the formula, thus excluding post-conflict countries.

Fiona Mactaggart: I was pleased to hear that part of the Secretary of State's response which suggested that we would be able to make a contribution to Rwanda's being able to meet its current debt. Does she accept that many of the countries of the poorer world find it unfair that the international mechanism seems to be a one-way street? The UN did not deliver protection from genocide in Rwanda, yet countries are expected to fit in with incredibly stiff recommendations in terms of meeting debt relief proposals. Will she work to try to make sure that, within debt relief programmes, the future prospects and accountability of a country are taken into account, as well as its history?

Clare Short: I agree with my hon. Friend, as did Kofi Annan and all serious observers, that the international community badly let down Rwanda. We are committed by convention, following the holocaust in Europe, always to intervene to prevent genocide. We failed to do so, and we pulled out UN troops. There was systematic, organised slaughter, and we should never forgive ourselves for that. I do not fully agree that, in all cases, the debt owed to the IMF, to the World bank and for export credits is unfairly imposed. In some cases, bad Governments have been replaced by good Governments, and they need help. Borrowing is not always bad. If it is borrowing for good investment, it is desirable. We need good Governments to get out from the overhang of bad debt so that they can build their economies for the future.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): No one doubts the personal commitment of the Secretary of State to debt redemption. However, she will be aware of the widespread disappointment and anger at the abject failure of the recent G8 summit to take the matter forward. Can she confirm that the Government remain committed to giving a lead in relation to debt redemption, albeit linked to good governance? Will she continue to seek to persuade leaders of other creditor nations to do exactly the same?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman must not believe everything he reads in the newspapers--he should have read the communique produced at the summit. The truth is that, shortly after forming our Government, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made a speech calling for speeding up of the implementation of the HIPC initiative, and for three quarters of eligible countries to be untrapped

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by 2000. Immediately after the general election, in a meeting with the World bank and the IMF, we could not reach agreement on the initiative. We now have the support of all the major countries. Partly because of pressure by those good people demonstrating on the streets of Birmingham, implementation of the initiative is being speeded up. We need now to make more progress in dealing with the debt problems of post-conflict countries, which will be a complex matter. However, for some of the poorest countries, the problem is not debt. We have to act on poverty and on good governance--which includes dealing with debt, but not only with that.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire): Will the right hon. Lady reassure the House that, if the United Kingdom writes off a country's debts, we shall not make further loans out of taxpayers' money to that country? Otherwise, in 10 years' time, we might be faced with the same problem. When help is needed, is it not better to provide it as aid rather than as loans that will not be repaid?

Clare Short: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the initiative is not only British, but international; that the issue encompasses export credits to many countries, IMF debt and World bank debt; and that the initiative provides relief only to countries that adopt good economic management to improve their economy and benefit poor people in their country. Countries must have a track record of such economic management both before and after they sign on for debt relief. I assure the hon. Gentleman that no country will receive debt relief unless it is being very responsible in its economic management. I give him that complete assurance.


The Prime Minister was asked--

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