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House of Commons

Wednesday 11 June 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Transas Group Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 18 June.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister of State was asked—

HIV/AIDS (South Africa)

1. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): What discussions the Department has had with representatives of the South African Government about tackling HIV/AIDS in South Africa. [118377]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Hilary Benn): Officials from the Department's Pretoria office hold regular discussions with their South African counterparts about the problems of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Helping to tackle HIV/AIDS is one of our main priorities in the country, and we have recently approved a new £30 million programme.

Mr. Pike : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position. As I am sure he knows, many people in South Africa believe that the true number of people with HIV/AIDS is well above the known, published figure, which is itself high. Many in the country also believe that the link between HIV and AIDS is not yet fully established, which makes our task of trying to help and to tackle this appalling problem even more difficult. What can we do to make such people face up to the issue and tackle it head on?

Hilary Benn: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. Let me also take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) for the integrity, commitment and passion with which she led the Department for six years. The esteem in which the Department is held in the House and across the globe owes a great deal to her achievements, and we are very grateful to her for all that she has done.

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My hon. Friend is right to mention the difficulties created by attitudes to HIV/AIDS in some quarters in South Africa, which are preventing an effective response to the problem. According to our best estimate, about 5 million people in South Africa are currently infected with HIV—one person in nine—although there have been changes in recent months, not least following last year's court ruling that pregnant women should have access to neverapine. That has now been implemented.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must work continuously with the South African Government in responding to the challenge, and that is what we are seeking to do. There is a good plan on paper, and we must provide support, along with other donors, so that it can be delivered in reality.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): Let me also welcome the Minister to his post, and wish him well.

I was in South Africa with the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) in South Africa very recently. We visited Khayelitsha in Cape Town, which has grown from nothing to an area with a population of 1.2 million since 1985. We heard about the work of a woman dealing with child abuse—and its obvious consequences, including sexually transmitted diseases—in a desperately overworked clinic. Will the Minister ensure that the Department's money is spent on supporting such clinics at the grass roots, so that the message about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases reaches those in the greatest need in South Africa? Sometimes those people are away from the public eye and away from the established clinics. Work needs to be done to help those who are moving into shanty towns: that is where the need may be greatest.

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of ensuring that the message reaches all levels of society, especially those that are the hardest to reach. We are working on a national and provincial programme, in partnership with the South African Government and other organisations. Evidence elsewhere in Africa—Uganda being the best-known example—shows what can be done through a concerted effort by the Government and all parts of society to convey the message about the steps people can take to protect themselves, which in the long run is the most effective thing we can do to reduce this terrible scourge in South Africa, and indeed throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. Does he agree that women play a key role when it comes to dealing with HIV/AIDS in South Africa and other countries? They can convey their knowledge of the illness to children, in the family and in schools. Can the Department take that into account, through its relationship with the Government and at other levels?

Hilary Benn: As my hon. Friend says, it is important to work with all parts of society but particularly with women, given their important role in the family. The court judgment that I mentioned, allowing access to antiretrovirals for pregnant women, will be widely welcomed.

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As my hon. Friend knows, an important part of the Department's work wherever we are to be found in the world involves working with women and giving them more opportunities to take control of their lives. Their contribution will also be important to the tackling of HIV/AIDS in South Africa and elsewhere.


2. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If he will make a statement on humanitarian aid to Ethiopia. [118378]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Hilary Benn): The humanitarian situation in Ethiopia continues to cause serious concern, with 12.5 million people affected. High levels of malnutrition are reported in parts of the southern, Afar and Somali regions because of problems with the allocation and targeting of aid, and limited capacity to deliver medical supplies and food to those in need. DFID has provided £48.3 million since the start of 2002, and we are now focusing effort on improving delivery of support on the ground.

Mr. Heath : I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position.

I do not want to emulate the language of Sir Bob Geldof, but is it not appalling that 14 million people are suffering from drought, 12.5 million need food support and 2 million have HIV/AIDS? Apart from the immediate support that we can offer, is there not a need to deal with the structural problems of Ethiopia, which means providing fair prices for its principal commodity, coffee, and fair access to the markets of the west? What are the Government doing to achieve that?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is right about the situation in Ethiopia, although it needs to be said that, despite the serious concern about the situation there, we have not seen a repetition of the famine of 1984. Despite the difficulties that there have existed until now in getting support in, particularly from the European Union, which was an issue that Bob Geldof raised, that aid is now going in, although there are problems with supplementary feeding for those who are suffering from acute malnutrition.

The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a perennial problem in Ethiopia and, as well as dealing with the immediate humanitarian need, all of us must focus our efforts on trying to solve the longer-term problem. The Department is trying to do that through its programme in Ethiopia, but the hon. Gentleman is right that the biggest single step that we could take to help poor people in poor countries is to open trade, particularly agricultural trade. That is why the talks in Cancun in September will be so important.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I welcome my hon. Friend back to DFID.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Department on their contribution to the present crisis in Ethiopia but will he and his colleagues seek to influence the European

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Union towards preparing a strategy for long-term sustainable development, so that the problems in Ethiopia do not simply recur?

Hilary Benn: That is part of the programme that we are seeking to undertake. All donors who are working with the Government of Ethiopia have a responsibility to deal not just with the short-term but with the long-term problems. That will require a concerted effort. As I say, it is central feature of DFID's country assistance plan for Ethiopia, which was published in March.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I congratulate the Government on the aid that they have provided to Ethiopia, but when I spoke to the Ethiopian ambassador just a few minutes ago, he told me that about 30 per cent. of the aid that has been pledged across the world has not yet reached Ethiopia. Will the Minister do what he can to speed up the delivery of that aid to Ethiopia? He is right to talk about achieving food security on a long-term basis in Ethiopia but, as he will appreciate, that country has a problem not of water shortage but of water management: irrigation systems are essential if it is to avoid famine.

Hilary Benn: As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, water management is a key issue for the future of the country. I assure him that we will continue to keep a very close eye on that and to ensure that the aid that has been promised is delivered. According to the World Food Programme, food needs for the remainder of 2003 are about 90 per cent. covered, if all the pledges are confirmed—that is the crucial point. That is why we need to maintain the pressure. We will look to other countries to help to cover the remaining gap. The UK has provided the £48 million to which I referred earlier.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): I visited coffee farmers in Ethiopia a few weeks ago. The collapse in commodity prices has had an enormous impact on them and their livelihoods. It is true—I hope that the Minister will be able to do much more—that the target has not been reached; there is a 30 per cent. shortfall. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do his best to ensure that not just this country but the international partners reach that target. Will he assure me that water management will become a key aspect of the Government's policy in Ethiopia because, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said, it is a question not of water shortage but of what is done with the water that is already there?

Hilary Benn: Indeed, and it is precisely for the reason that my hon. Friend outlines that a significant part of DFID's programme is devoted, so far as water management is concerned, to making sure that countries have in place the structures and systems to manage water effectively. It is a question of making supply available in parts of a country where there are difficulties, but in the long term it is even more important to ensure that Governments have the structures and systems in place to provide and maintain water, to replenish the system and to ensure that investment continues to be made in wells and other supply methods that have been put in place so that the problem can be dealt with in the long term.

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Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): It is my pleasure, on behalf of the official Opposition, to welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the Department for his first Question Time since his rebirth there; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) will have more to say about that later, if the opportunity arises.

On humanitarian aid in Ethiopia, does the Minister recall the words of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in Africa at the end of May? He said:

The Minister has been reminded of the words of Bob Geldof, who described the response of the EU as "pathetic and appalling". But does he remember that Bob Geldof was then slapped down by Glenys Kinnock, who speaks for Labour on international development in the European Parliament, for being "unhelpful and misinformed"? Who does the Minister think is correct: the Chief Secretary and Bob Geldof, or Mrs. Kinnock? And will he assure the House that the food supplies that are so desperately needed by the 12 million starving Ethiopians will reach them, and quickly?

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words on my appointment. I am not sure that the conversation between those esteemed individuals is one with which I should necessarily join in, but what I will say is that everybody recognises that there have been delays in the provision of aid by the European Community. However, it has pledged 465,000 metric tonnes—a substantial amount and about a third of the total requirement—which is now beginning to come through. The reports that we have received demonstrate that the situation is improving, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely right: we need to maintain vigilance and pressure to ensure that the promised aid is delivered, and that the reform process in the EU, on which both sides of the House are in agreement, is carried forward so that we can deal with these problems more effectively in future.

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