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House of Commons

Wednesday 9 November 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Malawi. [25985]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Malawi had a poor harvest earlier this year due to severe drought. Almost 2 million people have received food aid since June and that figure will rise   to more than 4 million before the next harvest in April 2006. A new assessment published this week indicates that some additional maize is needed due to an increase in the price. The Department for International Development's commitment of £15.2 million to help deal with the food crisis is the largest donor contribution and we are ready to do more if required.

Mr. Carmichael: This year's harvest in Malawi was exceptionally poor and the Secretary of State will be aware that there are another five months until the next one. The situation is bad and getting worse. Given that the Church of Scotland estimates that some 5 million lives may be at risk in Malawi, what steps can he take to ensure that those people are not left to die?

Hilary Benn: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the seriousness of the situation. The harvest was down by about a quarter and Malawi now seems to suffer a very severe drought every 10 years. However, the assessment system for anticipating the scale of the crisis has worked quite well. We currently estimate that, overall, about 4.4 million people will require food. Of course, the problem is not just the failure of the harvest but the impact of AIDS on people's capacity to cope, along with the high price of maize. From memory, maize costs some 16 kwacha per kilo in the north of the country and 46 kwacha per kilo in the south, where the   problem is most acute. Trying to bring down the price so that people can afford to buy maize is important, but above all, it is about ensuring that food is distributed. I spoke to the Malawian President last week, and to the Finance Minister this morning, about the situation. The steps that are being taken suggest that
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the international community and the Government of Malawi, working together, will be in a position to deal with the crisis, but we keep the situation under very close review.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Drought is not the only cause of the food crisis in Malawi—a population weakened by AIDS is one that cannot get good agricultural yields. What longer-term help will my right hon. Friend's Department give to increase irrigation in Malawi, so that farmers are less subject to the vagaries of rainfall?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes a good point about the importance of ensuring that farmers have the means to get the most produce out of their land. That includes trying to harvest water where possible, but drought clearly makes doing so difficult. It is also about providing and distributing seeds and fertilisers, and part of the money that we have made available in response to the current crisis is for that purpose, so that farmers, particularly those who may have had to eat the seeds or who cannot afford to buy fertilisers, are in a better position in the new planting season to plant and—if the rains come, which I hope they will—to get a better yield next year.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The Secretary of State will be aware of the Scottish Executive's useful and timely mission in Malawi just now. Can he assure me that he, his Department and the   Foreign and Commonwealth Office are doing all that they can to encourage and support the Scottish Executive in that mission? Does he further agree that the success of the mission demonstrates that the Scottish Parliament and other devolved institutions have a real   and meaningful role to play in international development?

Hilary Benn: I welcome the initiative on the part of the   Scottish Parliament and Executive to build on the historic links between Scotland and Malawi. My view is very simple. In the field of development—in trying to help people around the world to build for themselves and their communities a better life—there is more than   enough work to be done, so I welcome the Scottish   Executive supporting health and civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and others. Everybody wants to contribute and we should welcome that fact.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend is right to concentrate on the long-term solution to the situation in Malawi, but is he aware that   the World Food Programme estimates that it is $165 million short this year, while there is a food surplus in South Africa, just a few hundred miles away? Will he apply pressure internationally to ensure that enough money is put into the WFP, so that that short-term solution to the situation faced by 2 million Malawians is brought to fruition sooner, rather than later?

Hilary Benn: The overall position is that the United Nations Malawi appeal asked for $88 million, only about half of which was directly related to the food crisis; the rest was for funding other development and
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humanitarian activities. The UN has received $29 million so far, but the Government of Malawi have received $60 million, so, overall, Malawi has $89 million with which to respond to the crisis, rather than the $88 million that the UN asked for. I know from talking to the Malawian President and Finance Minister that   every effort is being made to procure maize from   wherever it can be found. Indeed, part of the procurement process in which DFID and the European Union have been engaged is resulting in trucks carrying maize entering the country almost daily. I also pay tribute to the United States of America, which is doing a great deal in this crisis.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Secretary of State's Department has been criticised for the use of consultants in Malawi and for the extensive expenses that were built up. Can he tell the House how many consultants his Department employs around the world and what safeguards are in place to ensure that their expenditure is effective?

Hilary Benn: The number varies from time to time and I will see whether I can come back to the hon. Gentleman with a figure. DFID's total expenditure on consultants as a proportion of our bilateral budget has fallen from 10 per cent., as I recollect it, in 1997–98 to about 5 per cent. now, so it is a falling share compared with the position that we inherited in 1997. We use consultants for a range of activities, partly to help deliver programmes and partly to give us advice.

In respect of Malawi, I have to say that some of the   criticism was ill founded, because the training programmes that the National Democratic Institute was   engaged in were supporting civil society and parliamentarians in Malawi to think about how they could do their jobs more effectively. That included hiring rooms for training courses and feeding people who were attending them—a normal day-to-day activity that Members of the House and of all organisations engage in. The feedback from participants in those programmes was that that support and training was very helpful in assisting them to do their job as elected representatives.


2. Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): What steps have been taken to improve the working relationship between the UN and international donors in respect of responses to AIDS. [25986]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, chaired the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria replenishment conference in London in September. International donors, including ourselves, pledged $3.7 billion. A further conference will be held next year. At the same time, donors and UN agencies discussed progress of the global task team in improving AIDS co-ordination and we are continuing to play an active part in that team.

Chris McCafferty: Does my hon. Friend agree that not only that working relationship, but that of the
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sexual and reproductive health stakeholders and HIV/AIDS stakeholders needs to be improved? I hope that the Secretary of State will assure the House that he will engage the UN at the very highest levels to help secure a target for reproductive health within the millennium development goal framework. Will he also report back on progress and the success that he achieves?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend will know that we and   the European Union collectively have long thought   that there should be a target on reproductive health in respect of the millennium development goals. The outcomes document from the millennium review summit called for universal access to reproductive health by 2015. We are discussing with the UN secretariat and a range of other players in the UN how best to take forward that commitment.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): May I   commend the work of World Vision, with which my   hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John   Bercow) and I travelled to Mozambique in the summer to see its work for children orphaned by AIDS? In the Minister's dealings with the UN and international donors, will he urge them to stress to recipient Governments that commitments to children suffering from or orphaned by AIDS and to the most vulnerable people affected by it should be met, as it is all too easy for those commitments to fall behind in comparison with those of more vocal sufferers?

Mr. Thomas: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of World Vision, which has been particularly active in campaigning to highlight the needs   of orphans and vulnerable children affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He may know that we have committed, with UNICEF, to host its annual global partners forum, which looks at the specific needs of orphans and vulnerable children. This year, we will look at some of the blockages in getting the aid through to the non-governmental organisations working with orphans and vulnerable children at the grass roots. I am sure that he will also be aware that we have committed £150 million over the next three years specifically for assistance to help orphans and vulnerable children affected by AIDS.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the points that he has made. Will he confirm that, in the meeting with UNICEF, he will look into how aid is provided, particularly at feeding programmes through community-based groups in African countries to support orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS?

Mr. Thomas: I recognise the campaigning work that my hon. Friend has done on this issue. As I told the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), we will consider what further action we can take to speed the delivery of aid to grass-roots NGOs of the type that my hon. Friend has worked for and consistently advocated. On my recent visit to Malawi and Zambia, I   saw that delivery is speeding up, but more remains to be done. As she says, that will be the focus of our global partners forum meeting with UNICEF in February.
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Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Effective prevention, education and treatment in respect of HIV/AIDS are essential if we are to progress control of the   disease, and Opposition Members welcome the aspirations in that regard at the G8 summit and the global fund replenishment summit. Increasingly, however, DFID's budget is being spent through partnerships with Governments, multilateral organisations and institutions, and NGOs—channels that have minimal accountability. Will the Minister say what progress DFID has made since the critical report of November 2003 in monitoring and evaluating the channels through which British taxpayers' money is spent? How will partnership performance be assessed and resources allocated to ensure maximum prevention, and maximum treatment, of HIV/AIDS?

Mr. Thomas: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise that there is minimal accountability for the aid   that we dispense through budget support or multilateral organisations. There is a whole process of   auditing and assessing how the Government deliver aid and whether our arrangements are appropriate. Where our arrangements in-country are not appropriate, we will not dispense aid through budget support but work through NGOs or UN organisations.

I absolutely accept the point about the need to continue to focus on prevention of HIV/AIDS as well as on treatment. Over the past two years, significant attention has rightly been given to the question of how we get more access to antiretroviral drugs. We need to continue that work and to return to the question of how we can ensure that people have more access to the various prevention measures, such as condoms. We must also step up our research into developing a workable vaccine and an effective microbicide. In the run-up to world AIDS day, we are hosting an event for EU Development Ministers to look at that precise issue.

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