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6.30 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) rose

Mrs. Spelman: I will reply to the intervention before I give way again.

The hon. Lady says that Zimbabwe is a difficult example. The chances are that countries that are shown to abuse human rights will be difficult examples. They will hardly be easy, but that does not mean that we should flinch from the issue. To hide behind a sense of embarrassment about our colonial past would be seen by many ordinary people as an excuse for inaction. Worrying about our colonial past certainly did not stop the Prime Minister making pronouncements about Kashmir. I have difficulty understanding the hon. Lady's argument.

Who is to provide thought and leadership in the Commonwealth if not Britain? Of course, we want other Governments to take action but, as the conflict in Afghanistan demonstrates, this country is not afraid of being brave and taking the lead.

Tony Baldry: I thought that I could help my hon. Friend by pointing out that, unlike the hon. Member for

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Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), I took part in this morning's debate on Zimbabwe. Would it surprise my hon. Friend to learn that the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), made a robust speech calling on the Government immediately to introduce sanctions against Zimbabwe? Is that not yet another example of the Liberal Democrats saying one thing in one place and another thing in another?

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. In this respect at least, the Liberal Democrats have proved themselves consistent in their inconsistency.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): As my hon. Friend knows, I initiated the debate in Westminster Hall. I posed the question as to whether liberal left-wing angst and the fear of being accused of neo-colonialism was a problem. It quickly became apparent that it was a substantial part of the problem, but I do not understand why such fears did not hold us back from intervening in Sierra Leone. I went to Sierra Leone and the people were only too delighted by our presence there. If there had been a poll on becoming a colony again, they would probably have voted for that. When people are in such desperate straits as the people of Zimbabwe are, the last thing that will be on their mind is the thought, "Oh, we must support the Government again, because Mr. Mugabe is able to say that Britain is being colonialist again." The fears expressed are preposterous left-wing nonsense and the sooner we see an end to them, the better.

Mrs. Spelman: I should have congratulated my hon. Friend on securing the debate in Westminster Hall. He is the second Conservative Member to have been successful in securing a debate on Zimbabwe. Labour Back Benchers were marked by their absence in contributing to the debate, and that is regrettable. However, I promised that I would not be drawn into the temptation of considering the party political aspects of this issue, so it would be a good idea to return to the main thrust of the new clause.

I do not want to detract from the importance of Zimbabwe as an example and I hope that the Minister will return to the issue when he responds. How the Government conduct themselves in relation to a country such as Zimbabwe is very much in the public eye. Like it or not, our pasts are intertwined and I am sure that there is not a Member of the House who has not received an e-mail, letter or other communication from a constituent with relatives in Zimbabwe. The subject therefore involves our national interest.

Dr. Tonge: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I was about to move on from the case of Zimbabwe and to turn to another one, but I will give way.

Dr. Tonge: A little bit of self-defence is necessary before the hon. Lady leaves the subject of Zimbabwe. I was not in Westminster Hall for the debate on Zimbabwe because I was doing something else at the time. However, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) spoke about

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taking a robust lead in the Commonwealth and the European Union so that we have multilateral action on Zimbabwe. That is the point that I wanted to make.

Mrs. Spelman: Once again, this shows the value of debates in Westminster Hall. However, I wish to give the hon. Lady a piece of advice. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and I were present in the debate, and the issue of Zimbabwe crosses the boundary between foreign affairs and international development. Given the subject's topicality and importance, there is a case for the spokespersons on both subjects attending such debates.

I am glad that we have tested the value of the new clause against a topical example. That is more valuable than testing it against what happened in the past, and perhaps even more valuable than discussing hypothetical impacts in the future. The situation in Zimbabwe is real and we all know that disaster looms. That is why we emphasise the need for the Government to act while there is still time.

The other example that I wish to consider is the situation in Burma. More than 340,000 Karen people have been displaced as a result of Burmese military activity, and other ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and Kavenni peoples, have suffered terrible atrocities at the hands of the military, including extra-judicial executions, forced labour, rape, torture and the destruction of their villages. I know that the Minister is aware of that. Many people are forced to live in the jungle and, if they are seen, they can be shot on sight.

Burma is one of the few countries against which a policy of isolation has been practised, but how do we get humanitarian relief to those who need it? The answer shows the practical thrust of the new clause, because the developed community faces yet another challenge in making sure that the aid reaches those who need it. That is especially true for those who live in countries where there is no dispute about the facts that gross violations of human rights have taken place and that the Governments of such countries have attempted to obstruct our efforts to get humanitarian assistance to those who need it. Again, the thrust of the new clause would be to provide the legislative underpinning that would help to ensure that assistance gets to where it is needed.

There is no suggestion that humanitarian assistance would be blocked by the new clause's incorporation in the Bill. The new clause's main purpose is to focus the attention of the Government and, as it transpires, that of the Liberal Democrats on a conundrum that should not be regarded as difficult. It should be possible for us to find a way of working that addresses the public's disquiet that taxpayers' money does not always go to those for whom it is intended and deals with the discomfort that the public feel when assistance is given to countries that flagrantly abuse human rights.

The new clause offers a refinement to the received wisdom that we cannot do anything about the problem for the fear of hurting those who are already down. Conservative Members contend that it is possible to refine policy in a way that will ensure that those who really need help will receive it while sending the clear message to those who abuse human rights that we do not accept such behaviour.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I welcome the opportunity that the debate on the new clause has provided. I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised his concerns and endorse his comments about the interest that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) takes in the subject and, particularly, in the problems faced by religious minorities. That issue was discussed in Committee.

As several hon. Members said, if we reflect for a moment on our history as a country, it is clear that we do not have a particularly honourable record on religious discrimination. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) rightly drew our attention to the fact that, in parts of the United Kingdom, people are tragically still being killed because of their religion. We need to think about that.

Fresh thinking is genuinely welcome. Although the debate has been wide ranging, a small party political element crept in. However, as the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, it has not featured much in our proceedings. If the fresh thinking of the Conservative party includes coming to the conclusion that the aid budget will not be cut under a future Conservative Government, I would welcome that. It would be a sign that together we have moved on and made progress. Please can we have fresh thinking of that nature.

If we are truly to eliminate poverty, as the hon. Member for Castle Point said, we need societies that promote a sense of value in their citizens. They need to be committed to equality, non-discrimination and the promotion of human rights. All of us can agree with those aims. However, the debate has clearly demonstrated that the difficult question is how we take those aims forward in relation to particular countries at particular times and in particular circumstances. A key question is to what extent we are prepared to engage with Governments who are abusing human rights or who have a questionable human rights record, in order to persuade them to mend their ways. The answer, as we know, is that we are prepared to do so, bearing in mind that a range of responses is possible, depending on the circumstances.

Vietnam was mentioned. We are making, and continue to make, representations to the Government of Vietnam, who have made considerable progress in reducing poverty in recent years. We have raised the treatment of religious minorities with them, both in the EC-Vietnam joint commission meeting and, most recently, in September when my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised it with his opposite number from the Government of Vietnam.

We discussed Indonesia at length. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) made the case on that most forcefully. I had the opportunity to visit Indonesia in September last year. The country has a fragile and emerging democracy, having come out of a long period of dictatorship. My hon. Friend was right to say that we must be careful. The circumstances are difficult. There is a conflict in Sulawesi, to which the hon. Member for Castle Point referred. There is much conflict and movement in Aceh as people fight for independence. President Megawati recently agreed to a high degree of self-government for Aceh in an attempt to respond to the legitimate concerns about self-government while not giving way to those who are fighting.

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When it comes to countries that have people who are linked with al-Qaeda or who have fought for that cause, we have to reflect on the fact that we are learning more and more about the countries in which those individuals find themselves. Indonesia is not the only country where supporters of al-Qaeda have been present.

On the death penalty, I have great sympathy with using that as an example of a gross abuse of human rights. Indeed, I cannot think of a clearer abuse. However, should international development aid be the only instrument that we use to pursue a case against the use of the death penalty by other countries? Should it be the only instrument of influence? I yield to no Member of the House in my detestation of the death penalty, but we have to ask whether the new clause sets out the right approach. We need to reflect carefully on the wording of the new clause, and I hope that we do not accept it.

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