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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 July 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



Speaker's Statement

Mr. Speaker: Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that Lord Butler is due to publish his review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction later this morning. I am aware of the considerable interest in Lord Butler's findings. In these exceptional circumstances, I have agreed that the Prime Minister will make a statement on this matter this afternoon. The statement will take place at 1.30 pm.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Forestry Projects

1. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Pursuant to his oral answer of 16 June 2004, Official Report, columns 758-9, on debt swaps, what progress has been made by the continuing forestry projects to which he referred. [183716]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The Indigenous Peoples' Project has approved funding for about 30 projects promoting land demarcation and sustainable development in the Brazilian rain forest. In addition, the project seeks to support a number of indigenous movements and their leaders to be better able to articulate, defend and promote the rights of their peoples. Further support has been provided for the strengthening of the umbrella organisation for the indigenous people of the whole of the Brazilian Amazon.

Mr. Allen: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which is heavily involved in forestry, is being accused by native peoples in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia of driving
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deforestation? Is he also aware that the central point of expertise that was established to fulfil the Government's promise of legal and sustainable sources for all timber coming into this country is neither adequately funded nor fully up and running, four years after that promise was made? Will my hon. Friend undertake to write to me on those two detailed questions, so that we can ensure that the UK purchases timber only from legal and sustainable sources?

Mr. Thomas: I am happy to write to my hon. Friend, as he requests, with detailed answers to the specific questions he raises. However, I can reassure him on the question of illegal logging. The UK has been at the forefront of a series of efforts across the continents to tackle the issue of illegal logging. For example, we have committed to a new programme of work on forest governance and trade in west and central Africa, following the ministerial conference that I attended last year, and we have led the debate in Europe on how we can ensure that traders bringing timber into Europe can verify that their supplies have not been logged illegally. We expect that the regulation to achieve that will shortly be brought before the EU College of Commissioners.


2. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What assistance his Department is giving to the development of (a) civil society and (b) women's rights in the countries of the Maghreb. [183719]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): DFID does not have any bilateral programmes in the Maghreb region. However, working with colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we have successfully encouraged the EU through its MEDA programme to use its resources to assist civil society organisations and to promote women's rights. In addition, the FCO's global opportunities fund supports a number of projects in the Maghreb region that seek to increase the participation of women and promote good governance.

Mr. Marsden: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. This is a critical and opportune time for north Africa and the countries of the Maghreb. I had the privilege of chairing a conference with their Foreign Ministers here two or three weeks ago, and the emphasis was on the building up of civil society and, especially, the extension of women's rights, to which Baroness Symons referred. Will my hon. Friend work closely with his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to promote and develop our relations with the Maghreb? Those countries should not be seen as only within the French sphere of influence: they are keen to have support and encouragement for civil society projects and women's rights from Britain.

Mr. Thomas: I congratulate my hon. Friend on chairing and initiating the conference to which he referred and on his work on the issue over a long period of time. As he may be aware, a series of donors already provide substantial aid in the Maghreb region. The Commission, for example, provides some €700 million
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to the middle east and Africa and a further €30 million to Mauritania. I can give a specific example to offer my hon. Friend encouragement that the type of work he wants to see is happening. In Mauritania, about €10 million have been set aside to build up the capacity of civil society organisations and to promote human rights. Clearly, more is needed and the European Commission, at the most recent Council of Ministers, made a commitment to do just that.


3. Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife) (Lab): If he will make a statement on action the Government are taking to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Darfur province in Sudan. [183720]

4. Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): What recent representations he has received regarding the humanitarian situation in Sudan. [183721]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The humanitarian situation in Darfur, western Sudan, is of the gravest concern and the need for food, water and shelter is enormous. Civilian protection is also a major concern, with reports of systematic attacks. With our EU partners, we have made it clear that all alleged attacks should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.

The UK has now allocated £62.5 million for humanitarian aid, which will include an additional £28 million for this year, as I announced yesterday. We are in daily contact with the Sudanese Government, non-governmental organisations and UN agencies both to ensure that humanitarian relief gets to those in need and to seek to improve security for the long-suffering people of Darfur.

Mr. MacDougall: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response and I am pleased to hear his comments about the progress that has been achieved. Does he agree, however, that there are still significant gaps in humanitarian assistance and supplies to the camps, and that despite all the good work progress remains to be made? Can he comment on that?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend is entirely right, although I can tell the House that the UN reports significant progress on humanitarian access and on the removal of the constraints that aid agencies have faced. There are now 31 NGOs registered in Darfur, including most recently World Vision International, which has expressed thanks to the UK for our help in getting its registration through. That enabled the organisation to send two airlifts to the region last Sunday, but the needs remain enormous. Time is very, very short and although there are now 300 international humanitarian staff in Darfur, the UN estimates that 1,000 are needed, so we must continue the effort to ensure that help gets to the people who need it.

Mr. Bacon: Given the intense diplomatic activity of the Government and the UN Security Council in relation to Iraq, were we not entitled to expect more intense activity and pressure from the Government and
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the Security Council in relation to what is going on in western Sudan? When can we expect a robust UN Security Council resolution on the issue?

Hilary Benn: The UK has been vigorous both through the diplomatic channel and through the humanitarian work that I have just described. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the reference to Sudan in the Security Council resolution passed in June and, I hope, of the resolution passed by the African Union at its summit last week, which was extremely significant and made clear the concern of the countries of Africa about what is happening. Like the United States and others, we have told the Government of Sudan that if there is not rapid progress in delivering the commitments that they have entered into—not just on improving access for humanitarian aid, but on ensuring security, which is the cause of the crisis—we shall have to return to the Security Council to take further measures, because if that is what is needed to protect the people of Darfur, that is what we shall do.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab): I welcome the increased aid that my right hon. Friend announced this week, as well as the additional £150 million over the next three years that the Chancellor announced on Monday. Will my right hon. Friend continue to be resolute with the regime in Sudan to ensure that there is an infrastructure, so that aid can be delivered, and especially so that trucks are allowed access to those who desperately need what we want to provide?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He rightly refers not only to the additional aid that we have been able to give for the humanitarian crisis, but also to the aid framework that we want to put into development in Sudan when there is peace—not just peace as a result of the Naivasha process but peace in Darfur. That is a product of the generous increase in the UK aid budget that the Chancellor announced on Monday. My right hon. Friend is also right to note that real obstacles remain, including shortages of aviation fuel and diesel for the airlifts and of the trucking required to get help to the people who need it. We have to address each and every one of those problems with vigour and speed if we are to get help to the people who need it.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Please will the Secretary of State tell us what progress has been made in the application of satellite technology to provide security and humanitarian aid in the area?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raised that issue with me when I made my statement. Yesterday, I looked at a report that Amnesty International has produced that does indeed use satellite technology to identify the villages that have been attacked. I shall, as promised, write to him shortly with further information on that subject. That demonstrates how satellite technology can assist, and the other issue that I will raise with the AU ceasefire monitors is precisely the extent to which they may be able to use it to aid them in the task. There are now 30 monitors in Darfur. They have already
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undertaken four investigations. They have access to three helicopters, and it is important that we continue to support them in deploying as quickly as possible.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend expand on the UN's current and prospective involvement in Darfur?

Hilary Benn: The UN agencies have been present for quite some time. As I have said in the House previously, they were in the past, frankly, slow in responding to the scale of the crisis. The situation has improved since first Kevin Kennedy arrived for three weeks, and now Eric Damor has been appointed as the acting resident co-ordinator. Next week, I will talk to Carol Bellamy of UNICEF and Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator. I have also had conversations with Jim Morris of the World Food Programme. What is required now is for all the agencies—the UN, the international NGOs and financial support from the international community—to come together to exert maximum effort to ensure that the relief that is needed gets past the obstacles, including the security problems that the UN and other agencies continue to face.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given the harrowing plight of those in the internally displaced people's camps in Darfur, which I saw for myself only two weeks ago, what representations has the Secretary of State made to the Government of Sudan about reports that local authorities are still demanding travel permits in some areas? Does he accept that Khartoum's 90-day registration plan makes many NGOs reluctant to increase their asset bases because they simply do not know whether their permits will be renewed?

Hilary Benn: I am, of course, aware of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Overall, the reports that we have had—I spoke to our ambassador in Khartoum this morning—show significant improvements in humanitarian access, but the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the continuing difficulties with the local interpretation of travel permits, and we continue to pursue that issue regularly with the Government of Sudan. I am also aware of the problem that he identifies about 90-day registration. We take things a stage at a time, and as we have got that 90-day registration window, he can rest assured that I will continue to do all that I can to ensure that, having got in the NGOs and given that the crisis will last for a very long time, they are able to stay.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Obviously, humanitarian improvement and sustainable peace are inextricably linked to each other. Further to the inquiry made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), will the Secretary of State tell the House what, if any, objection the Government have to the passage now of a tougher UN Security Council resolution that condemns unequivocally the Sudan Government for human rights abuses and demands that the abuses be internationally investigated, that the ceasefire and human rights monitors be vastly increased in number, that an assurance be given that people will not be forced to go home until it is safe to do so and that all the militias
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will be disbanded immediately, failing which a robust UN sanctions regime will be applied within weeks and a UN protection force deployed before we see in Darfur a replay of the human horrors experienced in Rwanda.

Hilary Benn: The words "failing which" that the hon. Gentleman used are the key to the progress. The Government of Sudan have given commitments on security, so it is right and proper that they should be given a chance—they have a short time—to deliver on those commitments in exactly the same way as we gave them a period to deliver on their commitments on humanitarian assistance, on which we are now seeing progress. That progress is unquestionably the result of international pressure. If the Government of Sudan fail to honour the commitments that they have given on security—to disarm the Janjaweed militia and to send in the police forces that they have promised—we will not hesitate to return to the Security Council to continue to apply pressure to ensure that there is further progress.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise the fact that security is at the centre of delivering humanitarian aid and making a difference. Does he appreciate that the Opposition's request for a clear and tough line would be supported by Labour Members and the Government? It is important that Khartoum is left in no doubt that the international community demands that it not only dissociates itself from the paramilitaries, but makes it clear that it will bring those engaged to justice. There is a suspicion that Khartoum will use weasel words yet continue to support those people unless the international community is resolute in its view and takes action.

Hilary Benn: I recognise the strength of feeling on both sides of the House, not least because I share it. My hon. Friend can rest assured that the Government are doing precisely what he is asking for. We have been playing a leading role in putting pressure on the Government of Sudan, as my conversation with Sudanese Government Ministers demonstrates. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do that because it is the key to progress, which is what the people of Darfur need.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that humanitarian aid will have been effective only if the refugees feel safe enough to return to their homes? How many Janjaweed have been charged and how many have been disarmed? How many weapons have been collected, and what safeguards are in place to ensure that the Janjaweed—who I understand are being incorporated into the police—will not simply carry on harassing the refugees?

Hilary Benn: On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, we have made it clear to the Government of Sudan that the refugees' sense of security will not be increased if, as one person put it to me when I visited Darfur, the Janjaweed return with police officers' badges on their chests. The Government of Sudan are sending police from other parts of the country to Darfur because they realise the force of that argument.
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Some reports suggest that attacks from the Janjaweed militia are declining in some parts of Darfur, but other reports indicate that there is increased conflict between the Government and the rebels. Some of the vital access roads that are needed to deliver humanitarian supplies are currently blocked, which is being monitored on a daily basis. We need to see indications of progress, which explains why the AU ceasefire monitoring force is important. With the helicopters that it now has, it can investigate incidents and report back to the whole of the international community on the steps that the Government of Sudan need to take to improve security.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I heard the Secretary of State say that he is having discussions with UNICEF. Will he include on the agenda an update on the appeal that it launched only last month for £25 million, which will help the displaced communities in Darfur and Sudanese refugees in Chad, especially the thousands of children who are at risk of dying from entirely preventable diseases such as malaria and measles, and conditions such as diarrhoea? Will he help UNICEF to reach its targets?

Hilary Benn: I certainly will raise those issues during my discussions with Carol Bellamy next week. I can tell my hon. Friend that despite the coverage of the measles vaccination campaign, there are reports of outbreaks of measles. A further mop-up vaccination programme is planned. We are able to support UNICEF and other agencies because we have a rising aid budget—the UK is now the largest cash donor to the humanitarian situation in Darfur. That situation is in sharp contrast to Opposition calls for the budget to be cut.

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