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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement. The report of the Commission for
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Africa is to be welcomed. It contains many sensible recommendations, such as to invest in infrastructure and higher education, to tackle corruption in Africa and to remove trade barriers. It rightly highlights the importance of predictable aid flows, which applies not only to Africa but to the middle-income countries whose funds were cut by the Department when moneys were transferred to the reconstruction of Iraq.
The report prompts several questions, which I hope the Secretary of State will be able to answer. Why have no target dates been set by which the rich countries should meet their 0.7 per cent. target? Why is climate changewidely recognised to be one of the greatest global threatshardly mentioned in the report? Why has so little progress been made in repatriating the funds salted away in UK banks by Abacha, for example? The right hon. Gentleman himself highlighted that issue in a speech to the money laundering conference three years ago.
UK arms are being used in 10 of Africa's conflicts. Will the Secretary of State say what progress has been made since the Foreign Secretary announced in September last year that the Government would support an international arms trade treaty? Russia is to hold the G8 presidency in 2006. What agreement has the UK secured, or what assurances have the Government been given, that Russia will pick up the UK aid baton and run with it? What will the two high-calibre individuals appointed to review progress do if that baton is dropped in future years?
The report has many strengths, but its weaknesses include the number of recommendations and the lack of specific timetables for implementation. A terrible burden now rests on the shoulders of the Secretary of State, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, as they must help to turn those aspirations into reality. If they fail, Africa's terrible cycle of poverty, sickness and death will never be broken.
Hilary Benn: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the report. Taking each of his points in turn, he is absolutely right about predictabilitynot only do we need increased aid but it must be more reliable; otherwise African Governments cannot use it both to employ teachers, doctors and nurses and to buy AIDS drugs for the long term. On the 0.7 per cent. UN target, as he will be aware, an increasing number of countries have set timetables or target dates, including the UK Government, who did so last summer for the first time in history.
On the repatriation of funds, we are in the process of ratifying the UN convention and we have strengthened our money-laundering legislation. We may well have to take further steps, as the Prime Minister made clear when responding to the report on Friday, and we must make sure that we are more effective in returning stolen funds. On the arms control treaty, we are currently looking at the range of measures that such a treaty should cover, and we will talk to other countries about that. On Russia's presidency of the G8 from 2006, in all honesty, the time to have a discussion with that country is when 2005 is out of the way and we know what progress we have been able to make. The Government have taken a responsibility upon themselves in establishing the commission, and I welcome the fact that Africa will be a priority of our G8 presidency this year.
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I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the responsibility does not rest with the Government aloneit is a responsibility for the whole world.
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Where is the link between arms sales and military action? Was my right hon. Friend astonished, like me, when on "Any Questions?" this Friday, our colleague the Minister for Children talked about Sierra Leone, where life expectancy is 34 and going down? We took military action there about four years ago, so why has there not been an improvement? Is not the failure to follow up a failure by the Department for International Development?
Hilary Benn: With respect to my hon. Friend, I do not accept that at all. Following our military action in Sierra Leonea country that has suffered more than any other from conflict and brutalitywe now have a 10-year memorandum of understanding with the Government there. We have provided practical support in the first instance to give the Royal Sierra Leonean armed forces and the police the capacity to provide internal security and to protect the borders, so that when UNAMSILthe United Nations Mission in Sierra Leoneeventually withdraws, the peace and stability that that country now enjoys can be maintained by the Government. There remains one instance of serious corruption, and we have repeatedly made it clear to the Sierra Leonean Government that unless they tackle the problem of corruption the people will not see the benefit of the peace and stability that the action of the British Government has helped to bring about.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I have great respect for the Secretary of State, but I take issue with his comment that people in the poorest countries in the world can somehow influence bad Governments and deal with fraud, as they have low levels of literacy and poor communications. The donor countries will clearly have far more influence in tackling bad Governments and fraud. What sanctions will the Secretary of State impose if his idea of the people themselves influencing the situation does not work?
Hilary Benn: I do not accept the argument that the people of the countries of Africa do not have an important role to play. Kenya is a good example, because there was a change of Government there, partly because people wanted something different. They will be disappointed, however, by the lack of achievement so far. We must be careful not to talk down the growing willingness and capacity of civil society, independent institutions, trade unions, non-governmental organisations and others to play a part in calling Governments to account, as that is certainly part of the solution.
We cannot, with great respect, expect to do the job as donors, however well intentioned we are. What we can do, in answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, is ensure that we use our aid money in a way that protects it and the purpose for which it is intended. That is why, in answer to the earlier question, I indicated that we use a range of methods, according to our own assessment of
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the capacity of the Government in question, to make sure that the increasing aid that we are giving goes to the people and for the purpose for which it was intended.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab): I have not had a chance to read the whole reportits size indicates the magnitude of the task. I want to pick up just one point. On page 385[Laughter]I have not got that far yet, but I happened to pick up this pointthe report states:
I wholeheartedly agree with that. Sierra Leone has been mentioned. I know from my own visits there that the Chinese are very active and are trying to develop economic sub-regions to focus their aid. To what extent have our Government been involved with the Chinese in trying to develop a coherent programme for Sierra Leone, and how quickly does my right hon. Friend think that system can be instituted across Africa?
Hilary Benn: I know my hon. Friend takes an extremely close interest in events in Sierra Leone. When I visited about a year ago, one of the meetings in which I took part was all the donors meeting round the table, together with the Government, to do exactly what the Commission for Africa report recommends, in order to ensure that the donor effort in Sierra Leone works with the Government to try and achieve the changes in that desperately poor country, which has suffered so much, to help bring about sustainable long-term change. If people are to invest in Sierra Leone, which is what that country needs, it will need infrastructure, it will need to be able to convince people that it is right to invest, and as I said earlier, it will need to tackle the problem of corruption. In the conversations that I had with ordinary Sierra Leoneans during that visit, every person I spoke to raised the problem of corruption. It is a very important issue and it must be resolved by the Government of Sierra Leone.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I have a very high regard for the Secretary of State. He is doing an excellent job. Does he believe that what is required is fair trade for Africathat is, a change of policies in respect of trade, particularly in the European Unionand good governance? Leaders like Robert Mugabe are not an example of good governance. A large number of members of the Commonwealth are currently in the UK, taking part in the 54th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association seminar. Has the right hon. Gentleman had the opportunity of meeting the representatives from Africa who, I believe, would be wonderful ambassadors to their political parties and Governments in respect of what the report, with which we all agree, is saying to the world?
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