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House of Commons

Wednesday 11 December 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

South Africa (HIV/AIDS)

1. Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): What recent assessment she has made of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the humanitarian situation in South Africa. [84685]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): HIV/AIDS is having a devastating effect on the crises in southern Africa. Drought has exacerbated the consequence of misgovernment in Zambia and Malawi, and particularly in Zimbabwe. The United Nations appeal is only 50 per cent. funded, logistics are difficult, Zambia is refusing to accept genetically modified maize, and as many as one in three of the population are weakened by HIV/AIDS. I am very fearful that by January, a terrible humanitarian catastrophe will unfold.

Mr. Hendrick : Like many other Members of this House, I am extremely concerned at the spread of AIDS in Africa and its devastating effect on the population. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the situation in respect of drugs is getting worse? Despite the fact that drugs are being made available much more cheaply, they are finding their way into markets other than those for which they were intended. That said, I thank her for the excellent work that she is doing in this area.

Clare Short: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There is hope in Africa. The rate of infection among young people in Uganda has dropped massively, and there is some evidence that such drops indicate behaviour change. So there is light at the end of this tunnel, but in the meantime we are in a very difficult situation. Recovery from the drought in southern Africa will be much harder, because the population is weakened by HIV. We are going to see terrible things.

On drugs, there is no cure—only anti-retrovirals that prolong life. Even if drugs were free in most of Africa, they would not reach the people because there are no basic health care systems. In conjunction with the British pharmaceutical industry, we have undertaken a

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big review into access to medicines. What is required is a partnership to build health care systems, as well as to get drugs to people, but prevention remains essential.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The House will have noted with great concern what the Secretary of State said about the effect of food shortages and drought. On HIV, am I right in thinking that there is a massive overlap between venereal diseases and the spread of HIV among heterosexual populations, and will she encourage the people who discuss these issues to make that point more often, because those diseases can be cured?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In very poor populations that have no health care systems or access to antibiotics, venereal disease is often endemic, as it was in the UK among many of the young men who fought in the first world war. The likelihood of being infected with HIV and its spreading very rapidly is much greater in populations infected with venereal disease. So treating those diseases can reduce the spread of HIV, and we are trying to apply that in our programmes.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): May I ask my right hon. Friend what discussions she has had recently with the South African Government on the HIV issue, and whether she discerns any change in their attitude towards this epidemic?

Clare Short: I have not had any recent discussions with them since my last visit to South Africa, but my officials are in constant touch. There is a change in attitude in South Africa, I am happy to say. There is much more positive engagement by the Government and a willingness to provide drugs, particularly to pregnant women. Drugs are now available more widely, as required by the courts, and there is much more public education. Although it is early days, I have seen figures that show some signs of behaviour change and improvement. Former President Mandela has made an enormous contribution, but the Government are now in a much more positive mode, I am happy to say.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The Secretary of State rightly identified the capacity of health care systems in these countries as the primary way of trying to tackle the first stage of the HIV epidemic. Is she aware that last year, Britain recruited 2,114 nurses from South Africa, compared with the 393 who were recruited from there in 1997? According to the BBC, 38 nurses came here from one Johannesburg hospital alone. Is she not concerned that the Government's code of practice, which in any event is observed by only about a third of the private recruitment agencies used by the NHS, is insufficient? [Interruption.] Is she not depressed by the fact that Britain's recruitment strategy is undermining recruitment—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is no need for the Secretary of State to answer that question. The hon. Gentleman should be seated when the Speaker stands.

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Africa (Human Rights)

2. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): If she will make a statement on the participation of her Department in reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in those parts of Africa affected by conflict and human rights abuses. [84686]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Twenty countries and 25 per cent. of the population of sub-Saharan Africa are affected by violent conflict. This is causing great suffering and holding back development across the continent.

Through the Africa Conflict Pool, my Department, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are working together to resolve conflict in Africa, and there has been progress. Sierra Leone and Angola are now at peace, and Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have ceasefires, but a new civil war has erupted in the Ivory Coast. Conflict resolution and development are inextricably linked.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and for the magnificent work done by her Department and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in helping to resolve some of the serious conflict issues in Africa. However, will she consider whether the United Nations needs to use chapter VII of its charter to restore peace in Burundi? Will she ensure that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees does not have its budget for Burundi and Tanzania cut, as it is providing help for people in a truly desperate situation?

Clare Short: I agree with my hon. Friend that the situation in Burundi could lead to another genocide in Africa if we do not handle it well. Our generation failed Rwanda, and it is our duty to make sure that Burundi does not suffer the same experience. President Mandela brokered a peace deal in Arusha, but some of the forces fighting there have not recognised it. There has recently been a breakthrough, with the FDD recognising the deal. It was envisaged that, if other forces abided by the peace deal, an African peacekeeping force would be established, under a UN mandate and with UN funding. Discussions about that possibility are imminent, and I hope that they materialise.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Uganda is our largest recipient of bilateral aid in Africa. Will the Secretary of State explain gently to President Museveni that slashing the country's health and education budgets will not help defeat the Lords Resistance Army?

Clare Short: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am in communication with President Museveni about these matters. There is no doubt that the Lords Resistance Army is one of those vile rebel groups that abduct young girls and make young men kill members of their own family. It is an especially brutal and nasty organisation. It is right that Uganda should do all in its power to bring the rebellion to an end. However, large demands for new military supplies are not what is needed to bring about that end. We must protect Uganda's progress in

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reducing poverty, which is considerable. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall do everything in my power to achieve that.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one effect of internal conflict in African countries is widespread displacement and insecurity? What help is her Department giving, and what work is it doing with the UN development organisations, to build firm local government and administration structures to give people back their security?

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. Africa has more refugees and displaced people than any other continent. Some of the poorest countries in the world are hosting large numbers of refugees—way beyond the sort of numbers that Europe is contemplating. There is no real answer to the problem apart from resolving the conflict, helping people to return to their countries and lands and enabling them to resettle. That is why we are putting such an enormous effort into trying to resolve conflicts in Africa. In the meantime, we are trying to improve help for displaced people so that they are not reliant on handouts. We want them to be able to get their children to school and do something for themselves, so that displacement does not lead to disempowerment and the destruction of the lives of future generations.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): In Ethiopia, reconstruction after years of conflict is still a great struggle. Of course, we acknowledge the crisis response to the lack of food in Ethiopia at the moment, but will the Secretary of State say why the international community has failed to deal with the problem of water resource management in the country? After all, that is the key to all the food supply problems. Why is only 5 per cent. of irrigable land irrigated, when the Blue Nile flows across the plateau?

Clare Short: Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a gross domestic product of only $100 a head. It has been through political crises, civil war and misgovernment, and has not had the economic reform that it needs. Year after year, Ethiopia depends on food aid, but food aid that is badly supplied undermines agriculture by undercutting local prices, ensuring that there is no local production. That has been going on for a long time. We are engaged in helping the Ethiopian Government put in place long-term strategies for getting agriculture and irrigation going again. It will take time, while we handle the current crisis. There is movement forward: it is terribly delayed by the war with Eritrea, of course, but we are beginning to get attention paid to the long-term problems.

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