International Development Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Leigh: I do not think that my hon. Friend is helping UNFPA. If it were represented here—as it could be at a Select Committee inquiry—it would make it clear that it was opposed to coercive population control programmes, and would probably tell us that it was not involved with such programmes. I am not saying that it is a bad organisation. My hon. Friend is wrong; I do not suggest that if we stop providing money for any one programme, UNFPA will secretly use the general pot to finance it. We are trying to make a moral point, as is the United States Congress. I am suggesting that we do the same as the US, which is putting moral pressure on bodies such as UNFPA to make certain that none of their work involves coercive population programmes. Is that clear?

Dr. Lewis: That is clear, but it still leaves the practical snag, from my hon. Friend's point of view, that if the amendment were passed, the Department for International Development would have to distinguish between programmes proposed by an organisation that

    ``assists, finances, practices or promotes (either directly or indirectly) forced abortion''

and other non-objectionable programmes practised by the same organisation. Therefore, if he is saying that the organisation does not approve of forced abortion, he will not be able to identify any such programmes from which money will need to be withheld.

I stand by my central point. I understand the moral force behind the proposal, but the practical applicability of the remedy that he suggests leaves a lot to be desired.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Gainsborough for raising the issue and for the manner in which he did so, which will unite the Committee. He spoke with genuine passion and sincerity, which all hon. Members will acknowledge, and so did the hon. Member for Richmond Park and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham).

I am also grateful that the hon. Member for Gainsborough has given me the opportunity to offer reassurances. I take the opportunity to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), who is unable to attend this morning as he is attending a funeral in his constituency, has also raised the matter with me. I believe that he was reassured by the explanation that I gave him, which I will now give the Committee.

I should begin by clarifying the issue of the practices mentioned by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, to which all of us are resolutely opposed. Hon. Members will recall that on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear the Government's views on coercive population policies such as those pursued in China. We condemn coercive fertility control unequivocally; we do not support it, we do not and will not fund it, and I can conceive of no circumstances in which a Government of the United Kingdom would do so. I am sure that we all agree on that point. I hope that that answers directly the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington. It is precisely because we oppose such practices that we support and will continue to support the work of UNFPA and IPPF.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough referred to funding. In 2000–01, the total United Kingdom funding to UNFPA was £40 million, with £15 million of core funding for its worldwide activities and £25 million to help to prevent a global shortage of contraceptives.

UNFPA is the largest United Nations provider of sexual and reproductive health assistance to developing countries, and works in poor countries throughout the world. The work of the fund enables millions of women to go through pregnancy and childbirth more safely. The hon. Member for Richmond Park made that point. As the Committee will be only too well aware, reducing maternal mortality is one of the millennium development goals to which we are all committed. UNFPA and IPPF are also playing leading roles in helping to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. IPPF, in particular, provides much-needed family planning and reproductive health services through its family planning associations in many poor countries. Without those associations, women would not have any choice in matters relating to their sexual and reproductive health.

It is because of their track records that we believe that it is important to support those organisations. They are working to reform practices that we all find abhorrent, such as those that still occur in parts of China, even though the central Government forbids enforced abortion or sterilisation. The state family planning commission has issued national guidance prohibiting family planning officials from coercing women into having an abortion or being sterilised against their will. However, the state authorities in China, among others, recognise that those abuses have occurred.

Promoting reform in China is precisely what UNFPA and IPPF are attempting. The hon. Member for Gainsborough was kind enough to acknowledge that that is the nub of the argument: do we do more good than harm by engaging in the task of promoting reform?

The UNFPA programme in China is designed to demonstrate that people can make their own choices about family size without coercion. As hon. Members may know, the UNFPA programme in China took almost two years to negotiate. UNFPA insisted that the programme had to be consistent with the fundamental principles of voluntarism and non-coercion affirmed by 179 countries at the 1994 international conference on population and development. It was a precondition of UNFPA's involvement in the 47 counties where it is working in China that targets and quotas for births, which are the drivers of coercive fertility control, should be done away with. It reports that that has happened in those counties.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Has my hon. Friend received any independent verification of the statistics and comments in the UNFPA report?

Hilary Benn: If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall come on to that very point. Before I do so, I want to mention the allegations made by the Population Research Institute, to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough referred. It is important that members of the Committee should know that it is not the first time that the PRI has made allegations about UNFPA's work. For example, in August 1999 the Population Research Institute accused UNFPA of launching stealth ethnic cleansing campaigns in Kosovo. In fact, it was providing emergency reproductive health supplies to Kosovan refugees.

It is important that every complaint should be investigated, but I have provided an example in which the allegation was without foundation. The accusations to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough referred have not been substantiated. UNFPA does not support coercive family planning. I think that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that point. When the allegations were made, UNFPA, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset mentioned, sent a high-level team, headed by Dr. Nicolas Biegman, a former Dutch ambassador to the United Nations, to investigate. It did so precisely because it took the matter so seriously.

The team members found no evidence to support the allegations of abuse, although they acknowledged in their report that they had some difficulty in investigating because, despite requests, they were not given information that would have allowed them to question the people who were questioned by those who made the allegations. It may help the Committee if I say that I have arranged for a copy of the report to be put in the Library so that hon. Members can examine in detail what the UNFPA investigation team found.

To reinforce the point, I should say that UNFPA has made it clear to Chinese officials that it will not operate unless allegations of coercive abortion and sterilisation are investigated and those responsible are punished.

10.45 am

The hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned the monitoring of the UNFPA's programme in China. It is probably one of the most scrutinised among its family planning and reproductive health support programmes. UNFPA staff monitor every programme county at least once a year. UNFPA executive board members—including the UK, the US, the EU and developing countries—have visited programme counties in China at least twice in the past two years. There has been a US congressional staff visit, and US embassy staff monitor the programme frequently. UNFPA and the Chinese authorities have said on several occasions that they would welcome visits to monitor the programme's progress. That invitation stands for any member of the Committee who is interested, and my Department will be happy to do what it can to facilitate such a visit.

I now turn to the evidence that suggests that progress has been made in influencing what happens in China. The hon. Member for Richmond Park referred to the reduction in abortion rates. It is reported that the abortion ratio in the Sihui municipality—the focus of Ambassador Biegman's investigations—declined from 0.46 in 1998 to 0.21 in 2000. By comparison, the abortion ratio is about 0.48 in Europe and 0.26 in the United States. Therefore, the abortion ratio in 2000 in the county to which the allegations relate was lower than that in Europe or the United States.

Family planning clinics in the programme area have expanded the range of contraceptive methods to include not only IUDs and sterilisation but oral contraceptives, condoms, foam and injectable contraceptives.

Recent information shows that the infant mortality rate has decreased, which I am sure all hon. Members welcome. That is a millennium development goal to which we are all committed. Evidence also shows that the rate for the in-hospital delivery of babies has increased significantly in some programme counties. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, maternal mortality and the female sterilisation rate have declined in Qianjiang.

Those tangible improvements are beginning to have an impact in parts of China outside the 47 counties where UNFPA runs its programme. A question arose about whether 47 counties, 860 counties or 2,250 counties were involved, and the figure is roughly 2,250. In referring to 860 counties, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was talking about the development of services outside the UNFPA programme area to give men and women information and choice in their sexual and reproductive health care. By comparison, only five counties were piloting that approach in 1995.

For the reasons that I have given, it is unlikely—I put it no higher than that—that such progress would have been made without UNFPA's influence. We must be honest about the fact that difficult judgments have to be made. The hon. Member for Gainsborough highlighted one, and we must tackle many others through our overseas aid programme. We must decide when the situation in a country gets so difficult that we must disengage from directly operating with the Government and work through NGOs, or, in the worst circumstances, offer only humanitarian aid because we do not wish to be complicit in practices or policies of which we disapprove.

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