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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 June 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—

Ilois People/Chagos Islanders

1. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): What aid is being given to (a) the Ilois people and (b) the Chagos islanders. [178961]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): My Department provides no direct assistance to the Ilois people or the Chagos islanders at present. In the early 1970s, however, £650,000 was paid to the Mauritian Government to assist with the resettlement of the Chagossians. Under a 1982 agreement between Her Majesty's Government, the Government of Mauritius and representatives of the Chagossians, a further £4 million was paid by the UK into a trust fund for the benefit of the Chagossians. This was agreed at the time by all parties to be in full and final settlement of all claims.

Mr. Dalyell: But how about compensation now?

Mr. Thomas: I know that my hon. Friend has followed this matter for a considerable time. He will be aware that the Government do not accept any legal obligation to pay compensation to the Chagossians, not least because of the money that we have given on two previous occasions. It was agreed with the Mauritian Government and representatives of the Chagossians that that money was in full and final settlement of all claims. The High Court judgment in October last year established that the UK Government had no legal obligation to pay any further compensation beyond what had been provided already. However, I accept that there is a possibility that that judgment may be appealed.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Minister not accept that many Chagossians live in desperate poverty in the Seychelles and Mauritius, and that they won the right to return to their islands in the court order of 2000? Does he not agree that it is disgraceful that, last week, the Foreign Office tabled an order before the Queen preventing those Chagossians
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from ever returning to their islands? Should not the historical injustice of the 1970s and 1980s, when the Chagossians were removed from their islands, be corrected? Should they not be allowed to go back home; and if that is what they wish to do, should we not assist them?

Mr. Thomas: I do not share my hon. Friend's view. We have looked at the question of resettlement, as he knows. It was concluded, by independent experts, that long-term inhabitation, of the outer islands in particular, would be precarious and prohibitively expensive. Even short-term settlement arrangements—which, by definition, would be on a subsistence basis—would leave the Chagossians exposed to natural events such as periodic flooding from storms and seismic activity, and that would be likely to make their lives very difficult. I therefore think that we have taken the right decision.

Debt-for-Nature Swaps

2. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What encouragement his Department gives to debt-for-nature swaps. [178962]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Debt swaps are not an efficient way of providing development resources to poor countries, nor are they effective in tackling unsustainable debt. The Government have been at the forefront of global initiatives to tackle the unsustainable debt burden of developing countries, including through the heavily indebted poor countries initiative.

Mr. Allen: That was a very civil service answer from my right hon. Friend. I am rather surprised that he did not display his normal enthusiasm and imagination in considering these problems. Does he not realise that debt-for-nature equity swaps could be a very constructive way to make progress in tackling matters such as global degradation and world poverty? Will he look at the possibilities involved, especially when it comes to saving the Amazon rain forest and at the same time writing off debt? Will he make sure that he looks at these matters with a more open mind than was expressed in his first answer to me?

Hilary Benn: I am very sorry if my hon. Friend thinks, from my answer, that my mind is ever anything but open—especially to suggestions from him. The WWF—formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature—originally proposed debt-for-nature swaps. In my earlier response, I was simply making it clear that they have worked in various places in Latin America, but have not really taken off in the rest of the world. As far as debt sustainability is concerned, we have made real progress through the HIPC initiative, which so far has delivered debt relief worth $70 billion.

I do however accept my hon. Friend's point that issues to do with sustainability, protecting the rainforest and so on are extremely important. He will be aware of the forestry programmes that my Department supports in a number of countries, among them Brazil, Ghana, Cameroon, Indonesia, Malawi, South Africa and Uganda. He will know, too, of our support for the
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global environment fund, and of our work on illegal logging. They are really significant contributions to tackling the problems about which my hon. Friend is so concerned.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): As on so many issues, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Is the Secretary of State aware of the programme that was so effective in Costa Rica? It has been used to establish the rainforest in the area, and to promote the country as a major tourist destination for people who like hiking, trekking and enjoying all the things that Costa Rica can offer, as I do—[Laughter]—I mean, in the sense of nature. Is not Brazil a prime candidate for such a programme?

Hilary Benn: I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling us his travel and holiday plans. We do not have a programme in Costa Rica, although we do provide support through the European Union. As far as Brazil is concerned, we have a £16 million commitment to a number of projects in the rain forest, some of which I was able to see when I visited a couple of years ago. Six of those projects have ended or will end their natural lives by next March. One project is continuing, which will help indigenous people in the Brazilian rain forest to secure their livelihoods.

Affordable Energy

3. Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on access to energy for the world's poorest people. [178963]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We recognise the importance of continuing to improve access to affordable and sustainable energy services in developing countries. That is particularly difficult in rural areas, where conventional technologies, such as grid-connected electricity, are expensive or impractical. We are working with international agencies such as the World Bank, the global village energy partnership and the EU energy initiative to promote access to energy for those areas.

Mr. Reed: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that Intelligent Energy, a company in my constituency, produces fuel cell technology that allows rural areas, particularly in some of the poorest parts of Africa, to access energy at a cheap rate. Since it is fuel cell technology, it is also a renewable source, which gives us a double win. Will he accept a formal invitation to come and see that technology in action and to make sure that his Department invests in the technology, to ensure that the world's poorest people have access to energy, which is their future? For example, in health services in South Africa, fuel cell technology is being placed to power clinics tackling some of the worst deprivation in the world.

Mr. Thomas: I know, having visited my hon. Friend's constituency, that it has a series of superb energy companies, and I should be delighted to go there again to talk to representatives of those companies. He is absolutely right to say that we need to do much more to
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improve access to energy for the poor. Clearly, improving access to renewable energy is a key solution in that regard, not least because 1.6 billion people—almost 25 per cent. of the world's population—still do not have access to electricity, which is one of the fundamentals if we are to achieve improvements in access to basic health and other social services.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): In order to make such vital investments, countries need more hard currency to come into them. What progress are the Government making in getting major reform of the common agricultural policy so that rural communities can sell their products to the rich western markets and then afford some of the life-saving improvements mentioned?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Piara Khabra.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): The Department for International Development has selected four focus states in India for development aid—Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Orissa. Why were those states selected when others are much poorer? People suffer from grinding poverty in such states as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Mr. Thomas: Let me reassure my hon. Friend that we not only work in the four states that he mentioned but have a series of national programmes. On my first visit, in my post, to India last September, I was able to see one such national initiative to do with the elimination of polio, which is helping to increase access to vaccines for all the people of India, not just those in the four states mentioned.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): When, as he should, the Minister makes sure that the poorest countries have access to energy, what attention will he pay to climate change? There is no point in making progress in this country if we end up exporting fossil fuel generation to developing countries. Will he undertake not to support World Bank and International Monetary Fund projects based on fossil fuel generation?

Mr. Thomas: As I indicated earlier, we need to increase access, particularly to renewable energy, not just because of climate change but because it is often the only practical solution to increasing access to energy. We have had 75 projects looking into access to energy, more than a third of which relate to promoting renewable energy. I accept absolutely that the World Bank must do more to provide more funding for renewable energy projects. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be delighted by the World Bank's announcement at the Bonn renewables conference a couple of weeks ago that it intends to increase its financing for renewable energy by 20 per cent. in each year to 2010.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed). Will he also consider the use of solar panels in
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places where it is difficult to access grid, which would provide a localised and naturally available energy resource?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to flag up the issue of access to solar power as one of many renewable energy options that will potentially solve problems of access to energy in developing countries. I am delighted to say that I was able to sign yesterday a partnership between my Department and the Intermediate Technology Development Group, which works on issues such as increasing access to solar power in developing countries.

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