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House of Commons

Wednesday 31 March 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

African Cotton

1. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to support the development of the cotton sector in west and central African countries. [164501]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Subsidies paid to European Union and United States cotton producers are one of the clearest examples of how Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development farm subsidies harm the developing world. In recent months, those subsidies have decreased world cotton prices by at least 20 per cent. As a result, many of the poorest west and central African producers struggle to make a living. We will continue to work within the international community, the European Commission and other EU member states to ensure that meaningful trade reform, particularly reform of the EU cotton subsidy regime, remains an essential part of the response to the problems faced by cotton producers in Africa.

Mr. Lazarowicz : I thank my hon. Friend for that positive response. Will his Department use its voice in the donor community to ensure that there is no suggestion of a linkage between technical assistance and development aid for cotton producing countries and their being required to drop their opposition to the subsidies from the US and EU that cause many of the problems of over-production and dumping? As it has been suggested that there should be some such linkage, can he give an assurance that the Government will oppose that?

Mr. Thomas: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. For a demonstration of our support for the west and central African producers, we need look no further than the fact that when they brought their case to the World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun last year, they did so with the support of a number of donors, including some Euros50,000 from the Government.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): While it is undoubtedly true that cotton growers have been badly hit by protectionist subsidy policies, particularly in the United States, is it not also the case that if they tried to add value by processing and manufacturing the cotton they would be hit again by tariff escalation and quotas, especially in the European Union? What is the Minister doing about that?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that additional issue, which we are continuing to debate with our European colleagues in order to secure meaningful reform across the piece. As he may know, an EU-Africa cotton partnership is being worked on. Indeed, the next discussion on that agreement takes place tomorrow in the EU's Development and Co-operation Committee. That will cover not only the specific issue of subsidy, but the wider points about processing that he raised.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Is it not the case that aggregate subsidies to cotton farmers in the rich world exceed $5 billion a year, while poor cotton farmers in Africa make an average of $400 per year? Is not that an obscene inequity and should not we, as a leading nation in the field of international development, be doing much more to ensure that world trade works more in favour of cotton-producing countries in Africa?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with my hon. Friend's substantive point. It is worth flagging up the fact that some 15 million people in Africa depend directly or indirectly on the cotton sector. It is therefore not surprising that the developing countries regard the issue of cotton subsidies as totemic and want progress made in order to have confidence that the developed world is serious about trade reform. We in the UK are working hard in the European Commission with other EU member states, and on an international basis through discussions with the G20 and others, to try to achieve the meaningful progress that all Members would welcome.

Occupied Territories

2. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): What assistance his Department is giving to Palestinians in the occupied territories. [164502]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The Department provides technical assistance and financial support to the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, and Palestinian civil society. DFID's development programme aims to support preparation for a peace process, to make Palestinian governance and institutions more effective and accountable and to encourage more harmonised delivery of humanitarian and development assistance. DFID expects to spend £40 million on support to the Palestinians in the current financial year.

Joan Ruddock : Two weeks ago, I was in Gaza. I saw farmers whose orchards had been ploughed up by Israeli tanks, fishermen who had been deprived of their fishing rights and a whole population trapped in the equivalent

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of a prison lock-down. Following the UN's announcement that food aid to Gaza is to be suspended, does my right hon. Friend agree that the present Israeli policy is leading to a humanitarian crisis to which the Palestinian Authority will not be able to respond? What contingency plans does he have for such a situation?

Hilary Benn: I, too, saw the same sights when I was in Gaza last summer: I am sure that hon. Members know that 1.5 million Palestinians depend on food aid, 60 per cent. of the Palestinian population live on less than $2.10 a day and poverty has increased dramatically since the intifada. I share my hon. Friend's concern that the restrictions on humanitarian access to Gaza that the Israeli Government have introduced are a major constraint on aid and services, not only for the Palestinian Authority, which she mentioned, but for the United Nations and other agencies. We are therefore lobbying the Israeli Government hard to ensure that there is adequate humanitarian access because that is essential if the condition of the Palestinian people is not to worsen further.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): If there is to be Palestinian statehood, there needs to be an effective and accountable Palestinian Authority. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most essential reforms of the Palestinian Authority is that of their security services? What are the United Kingdom Government doing to assist the reform of the Palestinian security services and the provision of a security infrastructure?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is right in identifying security as fundamental to putting the peace process back on track and to progress, which is not currently happening. As all hon. Members recognise, Israel and its people have the right to security, and many of its citizens have lost their lives. Many Palestinians have also been killed in the intifada. It is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority to make every effort to tackle security and thus build confidence in the road map and the peace process.

Part of the UK Government's support has been for security sector reform, but the Palestinian Authority must make a greater effort and be seen to be doing that because progress on security is fundamental. Indeed, it is the key to progress on the peace process, which all hon. Members want.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): What recent discussions has my right hon. Friend held with Dr. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Finance Minister, about ensuring the complete transparency and accountability of all aid to the Palestinian Authority, including that contained in the presidential accounts?

Hilary Benn: Although I have not held recent discussions with Dr. Fayyad, I did so in the summer when I was in the Palestinian territories. I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to express appreciation for his work in reforming the operation of the Palestinian Authority's accounts and finances. Indeed, he has won widespread praise from all quarters for the steps that he has taken to deal with the issue that my hon. Friend raised.

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Transparency, accountability and openness in the use of resources are fundamental to the effective operation of the Palestinian Authority, although we must recognise the difficult and challenging circumstances under which they work.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that agriculture, which was long the backbone of the economies of the west bank and Gaza, has been decimated in the past decade or so and that people who live in those territories receive approximately only one quarter of the water that is available to people in Israel, does the Secretary of State accept that it is essential urgently to press for a new and fairer division of water resources in the interests of both human health and agricultural recovery?

Hilary Benn: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. Problems of access to agriculture partly arise through an uneven distribution of water, to which he drew attention. It also arises from building the security barrier. In Qalqilya, I could see for myself that it encircles the town completely and that farmers find it difficult to get access to their land. Part of the UK Government's work is providing support to the Palestinian Authority through the negotiation support unit. It has been working on trying to open up and maintain negotiations on water because that, too, is fundamental to progress on the peace process.

Mr. Speaker: I call Richard Burden.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Bercow has two questions.

Mr. Bercow: If you can bear it, Mr. Speaker, I am most grateful to you.

I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. I echo his balanced and fair comments and the remarks of my co-visitor to the west bank and Gaza, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), but does he agree that, although Israel is entitled to defend itself, it cannot be right that the route of the security fence denies the people of Palestinian towns and villages access to their land, water, health and education services? Does he also agree that the only effect of such activity is gravely to undermine the genuine humanitarian and development efforts that he and others make in the interests of the long-suffering people of those territories?

Hilary Benn: We can always bear to listen to the contributions of the hon. Gentleman, not least on this occasion, as I can say for the second time that I agree with every word that he said. It is self-evident that the security wall, which is a symptom of the fundamental political problem, is doing to the people living in the Palestinian territories all the things that he outlined. That is why a political solution is the only way to resolve the difficulties relating to access to land, to visiting families and to getting health care, and all the other difficulties that arise because of the closures that

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Palestinians experience daily. The only route out of all of that is a political route, which is what all hon. Members wish to see as soon as possible.

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have all spoken eloquently of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the occupied territories, which they have seen with their own eyes. Does not the real challenge for the international community involve not just what we say about these things but what we do? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU-Israel association agreement contains humanitarian clauses, and that, if Israel is not prepared to abide by its humanitarian obligations, we should warn it that that agreement may need to be reconsidered?

Hilary Benn: I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I know that he takes a close interest in these matters. It is, however, a matter of judgment as to whether such a step would be helpful, and the Government's view is that it would not be. I would also say to my hon. Friend that international pressure, support and interest are extremely important but, in the end, there has to be a negotiated settlement between the two parties. While we are doing all that we can to encourage that negotiation to take place, the two parties have to want it to happen. Sadly, that is what is lacking at the moment.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the best hope for development in the occupied territories is an end to the occupation and, of course, an end to terrorism? Will he confirm the Government's position on the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? Does he agree that the proposed withdrawal would be acceptable only as part of a negotiated final agreement that would include a withdrawal from the west bank?

Hilary Benn: The proposal for the unilateral withdrawal potentially opens up opportunities, but they will depend on the basis on which it takes place and the extent to which there is negotiation and discussion, not least with the Palestinian Authority, about how it is going to be done. It is important that the Israeli Government should now clarify precisely what their proposals are, and if there is an opportunity it would clearly be in everyone's interest to take it. At the moment, it is unclear precisely what the proposals involve.

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