Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-233)

2 MARCH 2004


Q220 Mr Chidgey: You did say a moment ago that you felt there were things that the G8 could be doing. Could you give us an example?  Mr Mullin: As I say, I think there is scope for a lot of progress on trade. I think there is scope for further progress on debt. Although we played rather leading role on the progress on both these issues, I think there is the scope for greater bilateral aid. The big one, of course, where I think the G8—particularly the Americans—have responded well is HIV/AIDS. The Americans in particular have made enormous sums available for helping to combat HIV/AIDS and the difficulty will be spending it, not finding the money. I think those are areas where the G8 has—to use the American phrase—stepped up to the plate. Q221 Mr Chidgey: I am glad you mentioned the United States because that features in my last question. It is interesting that you make the point that the USA has been very generous relatively speaking in approaching HIV/AIDS. My reflection on the meetings we had recently in South Africa did not give me any impression that the US had much credit for doing anything in that regard. I am sure they have done but in the sense that we had quite a lot of criticism about our position on Iraq, it was a mild rebuke compared to the comments that have been made about relations with the United States. In relation to NePAD and the way that the United States has almost been seen to abandon the NePAD process—certainly they favour their own Millennium Challenge rather than NePAD—I have heard American ambassadors say that they just do not support NePAD and I wonder whether you have a view on this. It is rather worrying actually that on the one hand we have NePAD which is an African initiative in which we are supporting Africa taking charge of its own issues, problems and destiny; on the other hand the Millennium Challenge seems to be a retrograde step where funding and finances are tied into trade with a particular funding nation. Rather than letting Africa free it seems to be tying Africa in to the major trading partner in the world, the US. I think that is a retrograde step and I wonder if you have a view on it.  Mr Mullin: I cannot speak for whoever you have spoken to, but it is not my impression that there is any lack of enthusiasm for NePAD by the Americans. As I say, the jury is still out. If it is seen to be pursuing rigourously I think it will find a lot of support amongst members of the G8, including the Americans. Q222 Mr Chidgey: Do you have any views on the Millennium Challenge?  Mr Mullin: I cannot help you there. You will have to discuss that with the Americans, I think.  Chairman: Minister, a key feature of our work as a Committee is the focus on the work of your Department in South Africa and I would now like to ask Mr Hamilton to begin and then Sir John to continue on that. Q223 Mr Hamilton: I am always struck, when we visit any foreign country, how good our diplomatic staff are and certainly we would all have cause to thank our superb staff in South Africa. I notice from the statistics that we employ 47 UK-based staff and 178 locally engaged staff. Bearing in mind my colleague David Chidgey's previous comments about the United States' role in South Africa, I am somewhat surprised to learn they have 250 US-based staff and 450 locally engaged staff. It makes me wonder what they do all day compared with the productivity of our staff. Anyway, my question really is, do you envisage any changes to the work that Foreign Commonwealth Office does in South Africa in the near future, and do you expect to maintain the current levels of staff or, indeed, increase them?  Mr Mullin: There is a review of all our operations going on at the moment so it would be very rash of me to make too many long-term commitments, but I do expect our staffing in South Africa to remain broadly as it is for the foreseeable future. Q224 Mr Hamilton: That is very cautious and I can understand your caution. I hope that in considering our work in South Africa that you do not consider selling off the residence in Cape Town.  Mr Mullin: It is funny that you should mention that. We have actually been awaiting the recommendation of our High Commissioner on that issue and she has recommended that the Cape Town residence to be sold. We have not made a decision about that, but we are thinking about it. Q225 Mr Hamilton: Obviously I cannot speak for the entire Committee, but certainly my view is that it should not be sold. It is a huge asset to us there. We saw it ourselves and we saw just what extraordinary good effect it had and how we were able to entertain virtually half the Parliament there as well as half the Government.  Mr Mullin: I think the Foreign Office would be very interested to hear the Committee's views on that issue. Q226 Mr Hamilton: While we were in Johannesburg we visited UK Trade and Investment (I think it is Michael Mowlam who runs that) and we heard some very positive comments while we were there about the role of UKTI and what they are doing to encourage trade and investment in South Africa. I wondered how the FCO intends to build on the success—I know it is DTI as well—and strengthen the commercial ties between Britain and South Africa.  Mr Mullin: They are already very strong and I was struck when your business witnesses gave evidence a few weeks ago, when someone tried to tempt them into saying that really we were not doing a very good job, they both said that so far as trade and investment were concerned we were doing an extremely good job. They resisted all attempts to take them down another road. I would tend to stick with what they say about us. Q227 Mr Hamilton: You cannot have a better affirmation than the people who actually benefit from it.  Mr Mullin: We do have an enormous trade relationship with South Africa. I think that of the top twenty-foreign companies in South Africa, nine of them are British-owned. There is quite a considerable South African investment in this country too, although not on the same scale as we have investments there. A large part of our operation is directed towards sustaining and expanding that and it has been very successful up until now, as I think is universally acknowledged. However, there is always scope for improvement. Q228 Sir John Stanley: In the original paper you sent to the Committee of 30 September last year, you say that one of the areas in which Britain and South Africa are working together is, and I quote, "A commitment to work together on crime prevention within South Africa," and then at paragraph 11 of that paper you start by saying "High crime level negatively affects all South Africans and are a disincentive to domestic and foreign investment"[16]Whilst we were in Johannesburg we sadly became aware of the veracity of just that. There was a terrible murder of a white husband and wife and their two children prior to their home being robbed. We also positively saw the benefits of the partnership between Britain and South Africa when we visited the Alexandra Township Police Station and we saw there a senior officer from Lambeth who had been seconded there and was being a very substantial help to the South African Police. There are limited resources, but that is demonstrably a highly effective way in which the British Government can assist South Africa with this very serious particularly robbery and violence problem. Do you see any scope for being able to expand that sort of cooperation and partnership significantly?Mr Mullin: Firstly, let me say you are absolutely right. The maintenance of the rule of law is a prerequisite for stability and economic success, particularly if you wish to attract foreign investment. The South Africans are as well aware of that as we are. Do I see any possibility of expanding the assistance we already give? Modestly, I think. We are talking about capacity building here, things like training. Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, I know has personally taken an interest in the Met's operation there and he is in South Africa at the moment. At the end of the day it comes down to providing them with effective training and resources, and perhaps bringing some of them over here to see how we do things. I can see scope for modest expansion but, at the end of the day it is the South Africans who are going to have deal with this problem; it is a very serious problem. We can just to our best to help and advise in all capacity. Q229 Sir John Stanley: Can I go onto another specific area which we witnessed but is not actually referred to in the detail of the specific law and order subjects and related subjects that we are dealing with on this partnership. When we were in the Alexandra Police Station we visited the victim support unit and a striking feature for all of us in contrast to what you would experience visiting the equivalent units in our own constituencies, is that in our own constituencies the overwhelming number of cases where victim support units are used are invariably in relation to burglary and theft. It was quite different in the unit we visited; virtually all the cases they told us about were in relation to domestic violence. When we thought about this, we could understand why, when you have a huge township with huge quantities of what is euphemistically called "informal housing"—which is single or possibly double room shanty-type housing with large numbers of people living in very close proximity—this can produce a serious level of domestic violence, abuse of children, abuse of women and so on. As this particular area is not mentioned, could you give any form of undertaking to the Committee that you will look at that area and see whether we could provide any additional expertise and help in that particular area for the South African Police if they should wish it?  Mr Mullin: I will look at that and I will send you a note[17]but I have to say, at the end of the day, this is a problem of which the South Africans are perfectly well aware and which they are taking steps to address as you have seen for yourselves. I have to say, speaking as former Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, that this is an area in which the British Police have underperformed in the past, although we are gradually realising the scale of the problem. It is still very patchy in Britain, so there is probably some scope for a two-way exchange on the subject.Q230 Sir John Stanley: Could I just turn to one other area which is in this area of cooperation. In your paper, you refer to a commitment to work in partnership to combat communicable diseases, notably HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. I think it was, for each member of this Committee, one of the experiences and memories which will always remain with us when we went to the very, very, small temporary building of the Soweto AIDS Hospice and to see there people, including children, dying of AIDS. Clearly the scale of the problem is enormous; we were told there are some five million people in South Africa who are assessed as being HIV positive, but there clearly is an enormous requirement to provide more adequate hospice facilities and that sort of help for those who are terminally ill dying of AIDS. I wonder again whether you might be able to give a further note to the Committee as to whether the British Government feels able to do more. The very small but wonderful staff at that AIDS Hospice put to us that they are in the process of trying to seek funds to expand that Hospice and to create permanent buildings for it. If, in a note to the Committee[18], you can offer suggestions as to suitable sources of charitable funding—possibly even government funding—that might be available in the UK I am sure the Committee will be willing to forward that information to the people concerned.  Mr Mullin: I am not a DfID minister and I think I would be in trouble if I started to spend DfID's funds in front of the Committee here. AIDS is a huge problem in Africa; of the 42 million people in the world who are HIV/AIDS positive, 30 million are in Africa. The problem is actually a great deal worse in some respects in some of the other African countries because, unlike South Africa, they lack the infrastructure to be able to cope either with the orphans or in administering the anti-retrovirals if and when they are available. I do not think there is a need for me to send you a note since I can tell you now what we are doing. Last year we spent about £30 million supporting HIV/AIDS work in South Africa. We work with the Departments of Health, Social Development, Education and Defence and a number of provincial governments and, indeed, with some non-governmental organisations. The Small Grants Scheme which is managed by the British High Commission—and this might be the answer to the particular case that you referred to a moment ago—focuses exclusively on supporting HIV/AIDS non-governmental organisations in South Africa. Globally the UK is the second largest bilateral donor for HIV/AIDS assistance. It is not enough of course, and it is never going to be enough. However, our assistance is substantial. The American assistance is potentially very large indeed; it is targeted on 14 countries including South Africa. So there is money available, but one of the biggest problems is going to be finding the infrastructure to make effective use of it. That will be easier in South Africa than it will be in some of the other countries. Q231 Sir John Stanley: Can I just follow up the point I made about accessing charitable funds. There is clearly a deep wish—not only by this Hospice but probably by others as well—to obtain information about how best to access UK charitable funds and possible charitable funds more widely to help them with the sort of projects that I have been referring to. Do you agree that it would be most helpful—and it is easily obtainable—if the British High Commission had available within it lists of appropriate charitable funds in the UK that it could at least make available to those who are seeking access to that type of funding in this country?  Mr Mullin: I will check out that point. I agree it might well be helpful. Q232 Mr Illsley: Following on from that, the AIDS Hospice that we visited was not, so far as I recall, recognised by the South African government because they will not accept that people are dying from HIV/AIDS and so they will not recognise the hospices, and did not recognise that one. Are we doing enough to try to persuade South Africa to look upon this problem with the seriousness that it really requires and to try to persuade them that they have to do more in terms of hospice treatment, medical treatment and anti-rectrovirals?  Mr Mullin: It is true there has been a debate in South Africa on the extent of the AIDS problem, but it has been resolved really in favour of recognising that there is a very serious problem and I think all concerned now acknowledge that. I think it was just before Christmas that the South African Government agreed its strategy for addressing AIDS so I am not sure that it is true to say that they do not acknowledge the problem because I am confident that they do now acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. As regards what we are doing, I read out a moment ago the areas in which we are involved, the South African Government departments with which we are involved. Given that the political will exists in South Africa—and I hope it now does—for treating this issue with the seriousness that it deserves, then I think South Africa, more than most countries, stands a chance of making inroads into it. Obviously had the problem been addressed earlier it would not now be so great. Q233 Chairman: I have one sweep-up question. Anyone who knows the region will recognise in South Africa a country which works: the infrastructure is of a high quality; the people answer telephones; it is heavily biased to IT; there is a strong civic sub-structure on the social side which is extremely important in terms of local democracy. Any investment which is made will benefit not only South Africa itself but that region which it dominates to a large extent. I hope when we label South Africa a middle-income country with the result that our aid is decreasing, that you can give an assurance to the Committee that we recognise that any aid which assists South Africa will also have repercussive effects on the region as a whole and that aid policy should be given within that context.  Mr Mullin: A lot of our aid is regional. A lot of our overseas aid goes towards capacity building of pan-African institutions. We mentioned NePAD a moment ago; we mentioned SADC and, of course, we have major aid programmes in some of the countries immediately surrounding South Africa and that actually has a knock-one effect in terms of limiting the flow of refugees and migration into Southern Africa. We have major programmes in Mozambique which is one of the poorest countries of the world and in Malawi. It is in South Africa's interest that those countries are brought up as well because one of the problems is that there is a huge disparity between South Africa and its neighbours and the faster they succeed in closing the gulf between the wealthiest and the poorest, at the present moment they are going to suck in people from the surrounding economies because there is no shortage of impoverished people in that region. That is why we have to try to bring the whole region up and not just one country.  Chairman: The message is clear: in partnership we can achieve good things in the region of South Africa. May I, on behalf of the Committee, thank you and thank your colleagues for a most helpful session.

16   Please refer to memorandum submitted by the FCO, Ev 67. Back

17   Please refer to the supplementary memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ev 94. Back

18   Please refer to the supplementary memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ev 94. Back

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