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22 Jan 2003 : Column 284—continued

St. Helena

2. Bob Russell (Colchester): When she expects to make an announcement on the provision of an airfield on the isle of St. Helena. [92205]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Ms Sally Keeble): In talks in St Helena with the island's Government last September, it was decided to seek proposals for private sector participation. A prospectus is currently being prepared as a basis for inviting bids from interested parties. The future timetable should become clearer once proposals have been received and assessed.

Bob Russell : I am not sure whether that is good news and represents progress. We will have to wait and see what happens. May I remind the Minister that the island's expectations on this issue drag back for several years? Indeed, when a Commonwealth Parliament Association group of which I was a member visited the island in the summer of 1999, the airfield was top of the agenda then. I urge the Minister to get on and to make a

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decision one way or another because the island has been waiting years. I detect from her answer that the decision on the matter will be prolonged even further.

Ms Keeble: No, I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I know from his repeated questions on the matter of his continued interest in it, but since he last asked about it, I think, two years ago, the island has decided in a referendum that it wants the airfield. The financing has been agreed and the prospectus, which we expect to be completed around about the end of next month, is being drawn up. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will keep asking questions about the airfield, but steady progress has been made and there is a firm route forward.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Given the long historical link between the island of St. Helena and the people of south Wales through the coal trade, in particular Barry dock, which was the biggest exporter of coal in the world, and given the lifeline that was provided by the SS St. Helena and the port of Cardiff, will my hon. Friend do all she can to ensure that the island gets the airfield it deserves?

Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of the sea link. Even when the island gets the airfield, assuming that the financing fits together, it will still be important for it to remain involved in sea freight, which will probably be provided on a commercial basis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has agreed that we will provide £26.3 million, so substantial progress has been made. We look forward to seeing the prospectus and to the project being carried forward.


3. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What steps she is taking to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Palestine. [92206]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): We have increased our humanitarian aid to help meet the most urgent needs of the Palestinian people, but the cause of the crisis is political and no amount of humanitarian relief can solve the problem. We can only help to keep people going as the levels of poverty continue to grow. The crisis requires a political solution.

Helen Jackson : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. She told the House last month that the levels of hunger in Gaza were worse than those in Congo. What discussions has she had with her Cabinet colleagues on how she will endeavour to keep those routes of humanitarian aid open in the event of a war breaking out in the region and on what impact such a war might have?

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is sadly right. Some 22.5 per cent. of Palestinian children under five are malnourished and the acute rate in Gaza is 13.2 per cent. That puts Palestinian children in Gaza between Zimbabwe and Congo in terms of children suffering from acute malnutrition. It is a terrible situation. On the

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middle east and the risks of military action, my Department is working on all the various humanitarian scenarios, the optimistic as well as the pessimistic. The pessimistic are pretty terrible.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Does the Secretary of State agree with those people who say that conditions in the occupied territories are like the aftermath of a terrible natural disaster, such is the destruction and suffering there? Apart from the immediate aid that she told us about, what discussions has she had with her European counterparts on the European Union-Israel agreement on human rights in Israel and the occupied territories? Are those rights being respected?

Clare Short: I do not agree that the situation is like a natural disaster; it is worse because it is caused by human agency and is continuing. The destruction of infrastructure because of military action is not the only problem. The closures mean that the economy is being squeezed to death. People cannot get out of their homes to work and are getting ever poorer as the weeks go by. It is a distressing and troubling situation. I have not had discussions with my European counterparts—I do not know whether the hon. Lady knows that the European Development Council has been abolished—but discussions are taking place across Europe on whether Israel is complying with the terms of the agreement.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the deliberate grubbing up of olive orchards in the occupied territories is not only illegal but exacerbating the starvation in those regions?

Clare Short: I agree that the situation is very worrying, and, of course, some of those olive trees, in a very ancient and holy land, are themselves ancient. The settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law, let alone the grubbing up of the olive orchards. I hope that we can get more energy into the international system to establish a Palestinian state; otherwise, I fear, things will deteriorate.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Given those appalling circumstances, how would the Secretary of State like the Government of Israel to assist?

Clare Short: Catherine Bertini has been on a humanitarian mission to the area and made recommendations for immediate help. The problems include even the blockage of humanitarian resources, and the action taken needs to be pulled back, just to enable people to get back to work. Money that belongs to the Palestinian Authority is not being handed over, although there has been a little progress on that. What we really need is a peace settlement and a commitment to the two-state solution, which is the way through. We need to move forward rapidly.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): My right hon. Friend has always championed the cause of strengthening good governance in recipient countries. What assurance can she give those of us in the House who are keen to see that aid used for the poorest people

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in Palestine that the money will not be salted away by the Palestinian Authority, which many Palestinians claim is subject to corruption?

Clare Short: There is no doubt that there have been problems of corruption and weak capacity in the Palestinian Authority. We have been involved in reforms in the Finance Ministry, which have been considerable, and in health, education, the economy, trade and the civil service. This claim of corruption is a red herring, which is used to try to damn the Palestinian Authority when what we need to do is get on with the development of the two states. We are doing a lot to reform the authority's structures so that an effective state can be built, and people need to get behind that effort.


4. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): If she will make a statement on the situation in Malawi. [92207]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): More than 2 million people in Malawi are currently in need of food aid, and that figure will rise to 3.25 million—a third of the population—between now and March, after which the 2003 harvest will begin. So far, the rains have been good, thank heavens. My Department's emergency assistance to help Malawi in its current crisis so far totals £34 million. I should say that the aid comes from my Department and British taxpayers, and I hope that they are proud of that.

Mr. Carmichael : I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does she share my concern that President Muluzi's priority seems to be constitutional change to allow him to get a third term in office rather than to address the problem of HIV/AIDS and the food crisis? What can we do to ensure that Malawi does not see the same political interference in aid distribution that we have seen next door in Zimbabwe?

Clare Short: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the campaign for the third term which took place as the crisis was developing. It is not for the UK Government to tell Malawi what to do, but we have said that if such a constitutional change is to be made, surely there should be a full and thorough discussion in which all the people of Malawi are allowed to express their view. Since then, work with the Government of Malawi, the UN institutions and ourselves has gone well, and the present organisation for keeping people fed is good. There is no prospect of behaviour like that witnessed in Zimbabwe, but Malawi is in very bad shape, and reconstruction to the point at which it does not have recurrent crises will take considerable time and requires much more reform.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in welcoming the restoration of much of Malawi's grain reserves, which were sold off by the Government—the root cause of the famine conditions in the country. I am sure that she will join me also in congratulating the many charitable

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organisations, such as TearFund, which are doing a power of work in Malawi to counter the worst effects of the famine.

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right that the grain reserve was sold off just before the crisis. It is untrue that that was done under pressure from the IMF—that is a false story. It appears that money was corruptly misplaced, and there are inquiries into that. I agree that charities are doing useful work, but so are the United Nations and the British taxpayer. I hope people understand that charities are at the end of the distribution mechanism. The biggest contribution is from taxpayers, and non-governmental organisations help to deliver at the end of the process. Without taxpayers, we would not get through crises like this. Charitable donations are welcome, but the people of Britain should be proud of what they do through their taxes as well.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): It is good news that the Government have been able to give so much money for food aid to Malawi. The other aspect of the situation there is the terrible scourge of HIV/AIDS, with 1 million orphans already. Does the Secretary of State agree that the international community must make a qualitative response to the huge number of AIDS orphans in Africa? Countries such as Malawi simply do not have the sustainable capacity to respond to the needs of their own orphans—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, could the House come to order?

Clare Short: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It was difficult to hear the question, even on the Front Bench. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was right—the problem concerns not just Malawi, but the whole southern African drought and is complicated by the position in Zimbabwe and Zambia on genetically modified crops. It is deepened by high levels of HIV infection, which has affected one third of the population. People become sick quickly, so they cannot get back to farming and there are more orphans. Recovering from this crisis will be extremely difficult—there has not been one like it before and, with HIV and all the other factors, it will take a long time to recover from it.

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