Barcelona Process and Assistance to Palestinian Society

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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): In light of what the Under-Secretary said about the concerns that have been shared across the parties about EU aid in general, and in particular its delivery, will he tell the Committee whether, in relation to the Palestinians, the same problem has occurred that we have observed in other areas of EU aid? The main problem has been that large

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numbers of charities and non-governmental organisations have had to borrow money at commercial rates because of the huge delays in the delivery of EU aid that has already been agreed.

Both the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development have been asked questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and myself. The Secretary of State gave me a written answer on Monday, in which she said:

    ''we understand that the delays have been reduced but remain of concern''.—[Official Report, 21 January 2002; c. 603W, Vol. 378]

Will the Minister confirm that under some EU aid programmes, millions of pounds due to charities and NGOs were not paid? Will he tell the Committee what he and his Department are doing to ensure that charities and NGOs are not left out of pocket? Clearly, it is a matter of huge concern, not only to all parties in the House, but to donors to charities in the UK. Those donors may find that the charities that they support have to waste their funds on borrowing at commercial rates because EU aid that has already been pledged has not been handed over for months, because of the EU's byzantine bureaucracy.

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will have seen from my right hon. Friend's answer to the written question earlier this week that we recognise the problem, that some progress has been made but that there is continuing concern. I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details of the representations that we are making, and our current assessment of the scale of the problem, to which he rightly draws attention.

Roger Casale: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is right to emphasise the paramount need to safeguard the lives of Israeli citizens in the face of the dreadful suicide bomb attacks. Does he not agree, however, that Israel's long-term security will be severely compromised unless we can break the current spiral of violence, and that, by its own actions, Israel can contribute to a de-escalation of the conflict? Does he further agree that although the European Union has played an important economic role in the middle east, it has lacked the political clout strongly to influence the crisis there? Given Britain's standing and the Prime Minister's authority in the world today, does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU might now have more political leverage, and that it should try to advance the agenda in the middle east and move away from the counsel of despair that we seem now be facing?

Peter Hain: My hon. Friend makes his point well, and I agree with him. He was a little unfair about the EU's role, because Javier Solana, the Special Representative, has been actively promoting the middle east peace process and has travelled regularly to and fro in the region. The Belgian presidency and Commissioner Patten made an influential visit in the aftermath of 11 September, seeking to use that window of opportunity to bring people together. Sadly, it was not successful—but this is heavy lifting, and we must

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keep at it. Yes, the EU has a decisive role, and Britain, within the European Union, has a special part in that because we are trusted by both sides as virtually no other country is trusted. We can make a contribution, and we seek to do so.

In respect of my hon. Friend's earlier comment, I offer this observation. It is vital that we get the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat, its leader, around the negotiating table with the Israeli Government and Prime Minister Sharon. I do not understand their strategy. I do not understand where Prime Minister Sharon believes he is taking his country when he responds as he does—perhaps understandably—to the awful terrorist attacks made by suicide bombers and others in the midst of Israeli communities. Those attacks cause terror and mayhem and constant daily fear, and I can understand the response, but I do not see how Israel's security can be advanced by that sort of strategy. It is imperative that both sides call a halt to it.

Mr. Alan Duncan: May I return briefly to the matter of late payment and the costs faced by charities that have to borrow to pay their bills as a result? It was the Government's policy for the private sector that companies that paid late should reimburse the extra interest charged to those who were waiting to be paid. Will he assure the Committee that in the charitable sector, it is the Government's policy on such projects that if a charity is out of pocket because of a late payment, it will be reimbursed the costs that it has unreasonably had to pay as a result of late payment by the likes of the EU?

Hilary Benn: I understand the point, and I appreciate the analogy that the hon. Gentleman draws between that and the problems faced by business more generally. However, I cannot give him an undertaking that it is the EC's intention to operate such a policy in relation to late payments. It would not be proper for me to do so. Expectation about payment would depend on the detail of the arrangements. As I said to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), the most practical contribution that we can make is to put pressure on to ensure that difficulties with late payments are overcome so that the money can be passed on directly. I am glad to say that, so far as I am aware, that difficulty does not relate to our bilateral programme to support the capacity of the Palestinian Authority in several areas in Gaza and the West Bank.

In addition to the water and sanitation project in Hebron, we are providing technical assistance for the development of planning capacity for improvements in the delivery of water at municipal level, given the need that has been referred to.

The Chairman: Order. The question was slightly wide of the subject, and I thank the Under-Secretary for dealing with it as he did.

David Cairns: May I ask my hon. Friend a specific question? A project mentioned in the documents that gives cause for concern, in terms of its cost and various levels of mismanagement, is the European Gaza hospital. The Scrutiny Committee regretted the fact

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that it had not been updated about what was happening on the project a year ago. I am willing to accept a written reply, but will my hon. Friend update us on whether the hospital exists? Is it open? Does it treat people? Has it been knocked down?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as his question gives me the opportunity to give an update on the current situation. The hospital is now complete. The handover to the Palestinian Authority was delayed by the intifada, but it has now occurred and the hospital is functioning.

Hywel Williams: May I go back to the question of deconcentration? Will the Under-Secretary comment on how problems may be solved by the recruitment of local staff, rather than moving out staff who have previously been flying desks? I have some knowledge of cutting-edge problems in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and working closely with mainly local partners is a fundamental and successful principle of the NGO.

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the balance of skills available in delegated offices. Increasingly, the Department for International Development recruits further staff locally, which in itself makes an important contribution to the development of countries in which we work.

The question gives me the opportunity to mention the importance of the changes to the Commission's staff regulations. In discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and me, Commissioner Nielson and his colleagues have said that their capacity to ensure that people with the right skills are moved to the delegated offices would be improved by broad changes in the staff regulations. Those are yet to be completed, but once they have been, they will give the Commission a greater opportunity to ensure that it can put the right people in the right jobs.

Richard Burden: May I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe if he is aware of the letter that has been faxed to all member states of the European Union from an organisation called LAW, or the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment? It is about the application of the EU-Israel association agreement, and recognises that the EU has attached great importance to Israel's legitimate security concerns. It also draws member states' attention to the fact that the association agreement is meant to be seen in the context of the Euro-Med agreement, which includes respect for human rights within the framework of the rule of law in accordance with article 2 of that agreement.

The letter goes on to ask, in view of the concern expressed by the association council on 20 November about extra-judicial killings, administrative detention, collective punishment and the increasing recourse to house demolitions, what the EU will do about that, beyond expressing concern. Will it respond positively to the calls from many quarters—but particularly from

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the Palestinians—to put international monitors on the ground to give us a clear picture of what is going on and, I hope, to help do something about it?

Peter Hain: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for courteously giving me a copy of that submission before the debate, and it makes a powerful case. The European Union is indeed concerned about the deterioration in the situation. We shall continue to raise the denial of human rights and the escalation of violence by both sides through our process of engagement with the Israeli Government and through the association council. We monitor the situation continuously and will carry on doing so. It will remain a matter of concern as long as both parties behave as they do.

Britain supports the principle of external monitors, who could make both sides aware that they had inserted themselves into the situation and could contribute not only to observation, but to restraint. We continue to press the issue, and I hope that the Israeli Government will agree that having such observers would be in their best interests. Equally, it would be in the interests of the Israeli people, who are confronted with suicide bombings and gunmen rampaging through their streets, for objective international observers to ensure that the peace process went forward, rather going than continuously backwards, as, sadly, it has done these past few months.

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Prepared 23 January 2002