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3 Dec 2002 : Column 878—continued

Dr. Gibson: On a point of clarification, may I take it that the letter of apology was sent not to the Minister but to the Chairman of a Select Committee?

Ruth Kelly: I cannot answer as to whom the letter was written, but it has not yet found its way to my desk. It may well have been written to the hon. Member for Gainsborough.

Mr. Leigh: The letter is a memorandum submitted by the Clerk of Supply of the Public Bill Office of the House of Commons, and was sent to the Clerk of my Committee. I have read out the apology, and I think that we should pay tribute to a servant of the House who has made an honest mistake and who has now apologised for it.

Ruth Kelly: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure the House does. The motion in no way provides the Government with any additional spending authority. It simply provides for the correction of that regrettable administrative error.

Mr. Prisk: The hon. Lady said that, in these circumstances, the NAO is prepared to accept the accounts as long as matters progress. However, she did not say that, at the moment, the NAO cannot finalise the accounts, so without this change the Government's accounts for the last financial year cannot be completed. Will she confirm that?

Ruth Kelly: The NAO is signing off departmental accounts, and it has signed off some on the understanding that legislative authority is to be urgently sought because it is needed to regularise the position.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): The hon. Lady made that point in her opening remarks, when she said that the NAO was signing off accounts even though it does not have the authorisation to do so. Is it common for the NAO to do that? If a private company were to behave in that way towards a company's accounts, it would rightly be prosecuted. Call me old-fashioned, but that seems to me to be rather an important point.

Ruth Kelly: As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, most private companies do not have the opportunity to have their accounts agreed and voted on by Members of this House.

Clearly the position needs to be regularised; that is the NAO's approach, and I intend to rectify the matter through this motion.

Michael Fabricant: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ruth Kelly: I shall give way one last time, but after that I must not detain the House much longer.

Michael Fabricant: I just want to repeat the question that I asked when I made my small contribution. Can the Minister now assure us that she has, as she puts it,

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regularised the position not only today, but for future years? Will she confirm that this error arising from the change in accounting practice will not happen again next year?

Ruth Kelly: As I have explained to the House, this was the result of a one-off change from cash accounting to resource accounting. Clearly I cannot guarantee that no drafting errors will occur in future. I would not like to commit myself to anything of the sort, even under such intense pressure.

However, the House should agree that we should resolve that issue today. Departments' spending, including the retention of income, must be regularised at the earliest opportunity. The motion paves the way for that process and will allow the 2001-02 resource accounts to be completed in accordance with legislative requirements. For those reasons, I commend the motion to the House.

Question put—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 4 December, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002.]


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With the leave of the House, I shall put motions 7 and 8 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Local Government Finance

Question agreed to.


Sutton Coldfield Courthouse

11.20 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): I have the honour of laying a petition before the House signed by more than 5,500 people from Sutton Coldfield and the surrounding area, who express a virtually unanimous, united and clear-cut view that the courthouse in Sutton Coldfield should not close, and are supported by all the

3 Dec 2002 : Column 880

political parties, the local magistracy, Her Majesty's coroner for Birmingham and councillors from all parties across Birmingham.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Natural Health Products

11.22 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I have the pleasure to present a petition on behalf of 252 constituents in and around Harrogate and Knaresborough.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

West Freugh Airfield

11.23 pm

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to present to the House a petition signed by almost 1,000 of my constituents, who expressed concern about the proposal to close West Freugh airfield and downgrade its range.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

3 Dec 2002 : Column 879

3 Dec 2002 : Column 881


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

10.24 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I am pleased to have secured the Adjournment debate on a subject that is of interest and concern to many people: the food shortages and subsequent possible famine in Ethiopia. I thank the Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)—who will accompany me on a visit that I shall mention shortly—and other hon. Members for attending.

The debate is timely not only because of the recent warnings and appeal for help by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, but because an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation leaves for Ethiopia on Saturday. I have the honour of having been appointed to lead it. I also have the pleasure of being a member of the British Ethiopian Society and secretary of the all-party British-Ethiopian group. I remain in regular contact with the Ethiopian ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Fisseha Adugna, who is an active and impressive representative of his country and a friend.

Why am I so interested in Ethiopia? Like many people, my interest developed in the 1984 crisis when Bob Geldof and Live Aid did so much to highlight the problems in that country. Two years ago, a threatened famine reawakened that interest. I am personally concerned not because I have travelled to that country—I have not yet done so—nor because of any business links to the region, but because Ethiopia is so poor. Its residents regularly face hunger and possible starvation. The aid agencies believe that things can be done to alleviate that poverty and at least mitigate if not remove the threat of hunger and famine in future.

I shall discuss medium-term and longer-term measures shortly. First, I want to concentrate on the urgent need for food aid, for which the Ethiopian Government pleaded recently. Earlier this year, the short Belg rains failed, and the long Kiremt rains occurred in late summer rather than earlier, resulting in a long dry period. The loss of those rains meant crop failure and further reduced pasture and water resources, with the latter leading to extensive livestock deaths in affected areas and poor physical conditions for surviving animals. In turn, that led to severely limited access to a green harvest of important lean season foods and the limited availability of livestock products. Serious food shortages are reported in several parts of the country.

There is therefore an urgent need for emergency food aid. The Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission says that the people who need assistance between October and December this year will peak at 6.3 million, requiring approximately 270,000 metric tonnes of food. The World Food Programme reported last month that such aid has been promised, although delivering it as quickly as possible is now urgent. However, the impact of the current drought is expected to extend into next year, as the failure of the rains has affected the growth of long-cycle crops.

Ninety-seven per cent. of crops are rain fed and more than 85 per cent. of Ethiopians are subsistence farmers who depend on their Maher—November, December

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and January—harvest. That food will simply not be there. In most years, Ethiopia depends on a certain amount of food aid to feed its people, but the position is now far more acute. The Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission estimates that as many as 14.3 million people could need assistance in the coming year.

A total of approximately 2 million metric tonnes of food will be required to meet the need, with 500,000 metric tonnes being required in the first quarter of next year. Such a requirement is unprecedented, even during the highly publicised famine of 1984–85. I admit that that is the worst-case scenario, but the world should be prepared for it. The world must respond immediately because it takes a long time from reaching an agreement to help to delivering the food to the needy. Much food would be delivered through the single port of Djibouti, and therefore planning is essential to ensure that it has the capacity to cope with the influx.

The response from the United Kingdom and the European Union is disappointing. I hope that a further announcement will be made by the Department for International Development before we leave for Ethiopia, but I am concerned that the Government appear reluctant to commit themselves to providing urgent food aid that could save people's lives.

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