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9.34 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): The debate did not start off on a good footing. I must register disappointment at the tone adopted by the Foreign Secretary at the beginning. However, the debate has improved as we have gone along and it entirely vindicates the Opposition's choice of the subject for one of our precious Supply days.

From all parts of the House, we have offered the Government a number of suggestions for measures that might be taken. The most recent suggestion, from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), is not such a bad one. [Interruption.] When the Foreign Secretary is listening, I hope that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will convey to him the large number of suggestions that were made during the debate about what else he might do. The tone adopted by the Foreign Secretary was that of an apologia for inaction. As we heard subsequently, there is a good deal more action that could be taken.

As many hon. Members said, the situation prevailing under President Mugabe is a tragedy, not just for the people of Zimbabwe, but for the whole region. That fact alone makes the Government's failure to engage more proactively even more lamentable. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, that 13 million people in southern Africa are on the brink of starvation. Zimbabwe, which should be able to export food to feed them, is itself dependent on food aid. If the international community had acted sooner and more decisively, they might not be facing the prospect of hunger and starvation this summer—a situation that will get worse as stocks expire.

Let us not shy away from the fact that accounts of the unfolding horrors in Zimbabwe, more than any other country in Africa, are turning up in our postbags. Only this morning I received one from a Zimbabwean farmer, begging me to pass on this message to the Government:

I am sure that all hon. Members have received e-mails and letters in similar vein.

President Mugabe is culpable. His mismanagement of the economy, his violent and illegal theft of people's land, his blatant and sometimes brutal manipulation of the recent elections, and the continued violent oppression of ordinary Zimbabweans have all led a once prosperous country to the brink of ruin. As for Robert Mugabe's stewardship of the economy, we heard various measures of the state of the economy. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit report, it has shrunk by 25 per cent. since 1998, and unemployment is approaching 75 per cent. That is an indictment of any Government's role.

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Scarce food supplies are so expensive that many Zimbabweans cannot afford to buy enough to eat. The UN has estimated that 1.5 million tonnes of food aid will be needed. We welcome the fact that the Government have said that 32 million tonnes of humanitarian relief will be made available to Zimbabwe outside the official channels, but I would like to hear from the Secretary of State for International Development how the safety and security of those official channels can be guaranteed, in the light of the actions of Mugabe and his henchmen.

The people are not so much living as enduring what their appalling Government have inflicted on them. The country's ability to square up to the drought has been severely affected by President Mugabe's governance. Crops have not been planted, and the yields of those that have been is pitiful. The maize crop is only 20 per cent. of normal, and wheat yields are down 40 or 50 per cent. There has been no maize meal in the shops for six to nine months. People have been getting by on stocks of wheat, but those are about to run out. There is a bread shortage looming, and in a muzzled country, people are afraid to protest.

Most hon. Members will agree that land reform was needed in Zimbabwe. We had a long history lesson from the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) on how the land reforms came about—so long that our second Back-Bench speaker got in only at 9.15 this evening. The important point is that Britain had a key role in bringing forward those land reforms, and we have a responsibility to see that they are implemented as originally conceived. Yesterday, nearly 3,000 farmers were made to surrender their farms. Any farmer who continues to farm his land faces the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence, and 60 per cent. of the white farmers who were working the land two years ago will have to stop. Zimbabwe was once the bread basket of southern Africa, but it now presents us with a begging bowl.

Mugabe's response to the crisis has disgraced him even further in the eyes of world. The approach of the Government of Zimbabwe to food assistance has ranged from absolute negligence to outright obstruction. For Mugabe, food is power and a vehicle for political control. At the moment, behind the scenes, a power battle is taking place between Harare and the UN over who controls food distribution in Zimbabwe. The Government of Zimbabwe are using food to reward their allies and punish their enemies. As usual, it is the weakest and most vulnerable who suffer. A fortnight ago, a food distribution agency run by local churches and supported by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development was closed down by war veterans loyal to Robert Mugabe. Some 40,000 people, many of them children, were denied the food on which they had depended. My right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) referred to one school in Zimbabwe whose feeding plan has been altered to keep MDC children from obtaining food.

When the Government of Zimbabwe are not being obstructive, they are being negligent. According to a written answer I received from the Secretary of State for International Development, there is "no credible national plan" to address food shortages in Zimbabwe. NGOs and agencies that wish to distribute food are hampered by the lack of any coherent plan from a Government who do not care about the plight of their own people. Robert Mugabe

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is intent on fighting a war not simply against the white minority, but against the whole country, and the world watches him as he does so.

The Prime Minister is at a meeting of the G8 in Canada in which a topic for discussion will be the New Partnership for Africa's Development. The partnership represents a new model for working in Africa. It is a vehicle to promote just and democratically accountable government in Africa, but one of its first tests is Zimbabwe. I think that I speak for many hon. Members in saying that, at the moment, it is simply not working. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury reminded us of the contribution made by President Museveni to The Washington Post, in which he said that Africa must do its part. As my hon. Friend said, Africa tries, but must do more, to exert pressure.

Presidents Mbeki of South Africa and Obasanjo of Nigeria are the main architects of NEPAD, but they were too slow to condemn Mugabe and have been ineffective in restraining his political excesses. However, we should at least be grateful that they condemned Mugabe, as other African commentators were considerably more reluctant to do so. That has serious implications for NEPAD. South African election observers initially declared the election result valid. A South African police Minister allegedly tried to persuade observers of the elections in Zimbabwe that they were credible and legitimate. Before the close of voting, the head of the Nigerian observer team said:

The President of Kenya was one of the first to congratulate Robert Mugabe. The poll result was also quickly welcomed by the Presidents of Namibia, Zambia and Tanzania, and the Organisation of African Unity said that the results of the election were

That is in stark contrast with the way in which the Foreign Secretary described the conduct of the elections to this House on 12 March, when he said:

Two days later, he told us:

How could the Foreign Secretary argue in his speech that Mugabe should legitimately be able to attend meetings of the UN if he does not recognise the legitimacy of that Government?

Since the election, land-grabs have continued and reports of human rights abuses and torture persist. The freedom of the press remains curtailed and the independence of the judiciary suppressed, and the humanitarian situation continues to decline. If NEPAD is a new model of working partnership with Africa, the situation in Zimbabwe leaves me very concerned indeed. If NEPAD is to be seen to be effective, peer pressure must be made to work. At present, there is little evidence of that.

Many hon. Members share the belief that more concerted action by the Government and the EU could have prevented the situation from getting this far. The EU's travel ban has proved to be humiliating for us,

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as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) pointed out. Politics is about perception, and the perception is that that ban is not working.

The powerful message that the Government should take from the debate is our strong sense that they have failed to act and have allowed a festering situation to go from bad to worse. On 2 October, in his speech to the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister warned that there would be

How does the Government's failure to restrain the theft, corruption and intimidation by Robert Mugabe and his associates square with that pledge of zero tolerance?

I receive countless letters and e-mails from people in Zimbabwe who feel let down and abandoned by Britain. Why, they ask, did Britain allow the situation to get this bad when it was clearly deteriorating under our noses? The Prime Minister wears his passion for Africa on his sleeve, but, when it comes to Zimbabwe, what has that passion achieved? The Government made a great song and dance about having an ethical foreign policy, but their handling of Zimbabwe has destroyed the trust in them to deliver it.

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