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House of Commons

Wednesday 10 May 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

Committee of Selection


Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What progress has been made towards reaching the millennium development goals on HIV/AIDS. [69502]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): There has been progress in the fight against AIDS. More resources are now available, and the number of Africans receiving treatment has risen eightfold—albeit from a very low base—since 2003. But on current trends, the AIDS millennium development goal will not be met. What is needed is clear: countries should draw up ambitious and comprehensive plans for treatment and care, fight stigma and promote prevention; and donors must ensure that no credible, sustainable country plan goes unfunded.

Sandra Gidley: The Secretary of State will be aware that the US programme known as the President’s emergency plan for AIDS relief spends only 20 per cent. of its funding on prevention, at least a third of which has to be spent on abstinence before marriage programmes. What is his Department doing to address this imbalance?

Hilary Benn: We take a different approach and we are very frank about doing so. Abstinence works for those who can abstain from sex, but not everybody can, and my view is very simple: people should not die because they have sex. That is why, as part of our programme, we promote the distribution of information and condoms, so that people have the means to protect themselves from dying of this disease, which is preventable if they take the right steps.

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Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that HIV prevention programmes—particularly those that link HIV/AIDS with sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes, services for young people and the empowerment of women—are re-emphasised at the forthcoming United Nations General Assembly special session in New York?

Hilary Benn: Like many others, I am certainly looking forward to ensuring that that happens. One has to look at the fight against AIDS and the promotion of reproductive and sexual health together, because the two are entirely integral. I hope that my hon. Friend, in her role as a member of the all-party group dealing with this issue, can join us as part of the delegation. It is very important that we be well represented and link up with others to make precisely the point that she has put to the House today.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The whole House will be relieved that the Secretary of State was not caught up in the Prime Minister’s botched reshuffle at the weekend. In view of the commitment made at Gleneagles last year to providing universal access by 2010 to treatment for AIDS—and of the reality that today one child is dying every minute from AIDS—will the Secretary of State meet pharmaceutical industry representatives to encourage them to develop paediatric drugs for children with HIV, particularly given that there is no market for, or demand for, such drugs in the west?

Hilary Benn: I am certainly happy to meet anyone at any time. Following the points that were made at previous International Development questions on this very matter, officials have put down as the main item on the agenda of the next meeting with pharmaceutical companies paediatric diagnostics and paediatric versions of antiretroviral therapies. As the House is probably aware, there has been a lack of research in this area because AIDS has not been a disease of children in the west, which is where the investment went into. Getting the pharmaceutical companies to make that investment in research is a matter of urgency, so that there are appropriate treatments for children who are HIV positive and in need of treatment.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Have my right hon. Friend and his Department had an opportunity to examine the antiretroviral programme in Botswana, where more than half of those who need such drug treatments are receiving them? Indeed, the aim is that the programme will provide 100 per cent. coverage within the next couple of years. Does he think that there are lessons to be learned from the experience of Botswana?

Hilary Benn: There certainly are lessons to be learned, not least from countries that are making progress in getting more antiretroviral treatment to those who need it. The biggest problem is simply a lack of capacity. The price of drugs is important, and their availability and having the right therapies matters enormously. But in the end, the problem will not be addressed if there are no nurses to do the tests, no doctors to say when antiretroviral drugs need to be prescribed, and no clinics, or clinics that people cannot
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afford to visit because they charge fees. The central issue in the fight against AIDS, and in dealing with all the other diseases that claim so many lives every day in developing countries, is working as hard as we can to ensure increased health service capacity, because on that bedrock progress will be built.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The Secretary of State will be well aware of the link between sexual exploitation and the spread of HIV/AIDS. In the light of that, what safeguards has the Department for International Development attached to its funding—whether bilateral or through multilateral agencies—to ensure that aid programmes are not used as a tool for sexual exploitation, which, as Save the Children has recently shown, is the practice in Liberia?

Hilary Benn: I share the concern that the hon. Lady expresses at the end of her question about the report put out by Save the Children yesterday on what seems to have been happening in Liberia. Sadly, that is not the first occasion when UN peacekeeping troops appear to have been involved in sexual exploitation: the House will be aware of the problems that came to light in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is essential that organisations involved in peacekeeping and development assistance ensure that that does not happen, and, if it does come to light, that those responsible are called to account.

I will reflect on the hon. Lady’s first point about ensuring that we have appropriate procedures in place, but we work hard to ensure that the money that we give is used for the purpose for which it is intended and is not used as a way of exploiting young women. One has to recognise, however, that a high proportion of those who are HIV positive are young women, and that reflects fundamentally their lack of power in the societies in which they live.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What expectations does my right hon. Friend have for the forthcoming high level talks at the UN in June, which I understand are meant to put the millennium development goals back on track? Who will represent the UK?

Hilary Benn: I will lead the delegation at the United Nations General Assembly special session. We hope that the special session will adopt a plan that will enable us to see how we may move from where the world is today to achieving the “all by 2010” targets that the Gleneagles summit agreed last year and which were endorsed by the UN millennium summit. That will involve countries having plans; the resources being available and the capacity to put those plans into effect; the availability of drugs, doctors, nurses, clinics and hospitals; the fight against stigma; and community support to help people to tackle the problem. The global steering committee has put forward its proposals, and the UK played an important part in co-chairing that. The African Union meeting in Abuja last week adopted an ambitious set of targets and, when we get to New York, we will have to grapple with the issue of putting the right targets in place to reflect what countries themselves want to do and continuing to apply pressure on everybody in the system to ensure that we see progress.

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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the increase in the number of Africans receiving treatment and hope that much more progress will be made from the low base that he has described. As he has just said, there is a desperate need for more capacity, and more doctors and nurses, in Africa. What assessment does he make of the effect on treatment in Africa of the loss of 3,000 doctors and 37,000 nurses who have come to this country to work since 2000?

Hilary Benn: That undoubtedly has an effect and the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Department of Health’s code of practice. We could have a policy that banned doctors and nurses from certain developing countries from coming to work in the UK, but my view is that that would not be right. The right policy is to support developing countries in trying to address the reasons that force people with skills out of those countries. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, those reasons include poor pay, poor working conditions, lack of opportunity for career and professional development, and lack of chances to use the skills that people have gained. That links directly to the question of capacity. If capacity can be built and more resources can be put into health care expenditure, we can begin to change over time the drift of people away from the health services in Africa to which the hon. Gentleman refers.


2. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the number of internally displaced people in Burma. [69503]

3. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of British aid to Burma; and if he will make a statement. [69504]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The overwhelming majority of internally displaced people are found among ethnic groups in eastern Burma. The Thai-Burma Border Consortium has estimated the number of IDPs in eastern Burma as being at least 540,000. Despite the extremely difficult operating environment, a recent review of our programme in Burma concluded that the projects we had initiated were making good progress against their initial objectives.

Mr. Jones: As the Minister says, eastern Burma is a frighteningly difficult area for aid workers to operate in, and only a few days ago there was news that a relief worker had been killed by a land mine that had been planted by the Burmese authorities to prevent escapees from returning to Burma at a later date. It is nevertheless essential that aid get through to the terrified people who are hiding in the Burmese jungle. What precise measures is the Minister taking with overseas Governments to ensure that that aid gets through?

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Mr. Thomas: I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in his implicit recognition of the courage of the aid workers working with internally displaced people in eastern Burma. I certainly do. We currently provide some £500,000 a year to the International Committee of the Red Cross to work with people who have lost their homes, and often their families, as a result of the human rights abuses and fighting taking place in Burma. In addition, we support the Thai-Burma Border Consortium, which provides help to people who have left Burma, because of the fighting.

Mr. Benyon: The regime running Burma is clearly unfit to receive aid. What measures can the Government take to support the hard-pressed people of Burma, without propping up the murderous thugs who run the country?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the regime in Burma, and that is one of the reasons why we do not provide aid through devices such as that Government’s budget. Our programme in Burma is worth £8 million, and it works with other organisations such as the ICRC, international non-governmental organisations and various UN bodies on programmes to do with health, education and rural livelihoods. We want to make a difference for people who have been displaced by the fighting, and for those living on less than $1 a day.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that many people, including many Karen, have been living in camps on Thailand’s border with Burma for generations. What is his Department doing to ease the circumstances in those camps to make it easier for those people to survive and get back into Burma at some stage?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to describe the very difficult situation facing many people who have left Burma and who are living in refugee camps in Thailand. One way that we can help directly is through our work with the Thai-Burma Border Consortium, and we have committed some £1.8 million to that work over the next three years. We also make representations to the Thai Government to make it easier for those refugees to seek work and move around freely in Thailand.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that the activities of the Burmese Government against people such as the Karen amounts to genocide, as defined by the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, since they destroy people and their way of life? He is right that we do not have much leverage on the Burmese Government, but will he at least begin to speak seriously to Governments with influence over the country, such as the Chinese Government, to make sure that they are aware of our great concern about what is taking place in Burma?

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Mr. Thomas: I agree that it is clear that systematic human rights abuse is taking place on a very large scale in Burma. He is right that we in the UK do not have the substantial leverage needed to make an immediate difference. We work with our EU neighbours and through the UN to highlight the continuing human rights abuses. Successive UN resolutions have highlighted and condemned the human rights violations in Burma, and we have played a leading role in bringing the matter to the UN General Assembly in the past. We continue to press for it to be discussed in the UN Security Council, but it is true that a number of full members of that council do not yet agree that it should be placed on its formal agenda. We continue to work for a reversal of that situation.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Minister will be aware that religious persecution is one reason why people in Burma, and especially the Christian minority among some of the country’s tribes, suffer displacement. Will he give the House details of the representations that his Department is making to the Burmese Government to protect the rights of religious minorities in Burma?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right that one element of the human rights abuse in Burma arises out of religious differences. The Christian minority suffers, as do members of the Muslim community and various other ethnic groups. We are working through our ambassador, the EU and the UN to try to highlight those human rights abuses. We continue to hope that the pressure will lead to a change by the Burmese Government.

Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as the other issues that have been raised AIDS is a particular problem in Burma? What are the Government doing to combat it?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to say that as well as focusing on the needs of internally displaced people, we must recognise the needs of other vulnerable people in Burma. As Burma has the worst AIDS epidemic in Asia, we have continued to seek agreement with like-minded donors for a common fund to address AIDS, TB and malaria. We were disappointed that, owing to difficult operating circumstances, the global fund had to cease its operations, but we continue to work for the establishment of such a common fund so that we can scale up the assistance that we are already providing.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): With further internal repression and killing reported from Burma and serious difficulties for up to 1 million internally displaced people in a country with close ties to Britain in the past, will the Minister reconsider his Department’s decision not to give humanitarian aid to those displaced, in view of the decision by the Americans and the Canadians, as well as other European countries, that they will help? Will he at least consult the Governments of those countries to find out how they are helping and the level of monitoring and accountability they have secured?

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Mr. Thomas: I do not accept the suggestion that we are not providing humanitarian aid; the vast bulk of our programme to Burma is humanitarian assistance. The specific issue to which I think the hon. Gentleman refers is support for cross-border work in the Karen state. As I have indicated, we already provide substantial assistance: £500,000 to the International Committee of the Red Cross annually for its work in Burma, which helps internally displaced people, and the £1.8 million that we give for Burmese refugees based in Thailand. There are difficult issues involved in monitoring assistance work across borders, but we keep that under close review. We talk to other donors and balance the understandable demands for further assistance to meet the needs of internally displaced people with the need to provide assistance to other vulnerable members of the Burmese population.

Population Growth

4. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What assessment he has made of the impact of population growth on sustainable development; and if he will make a statement. [69505]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The world’s population is anticipated to increase from 6.5 billion to 9 billion by 2050. Most of that growth will be in developing countries, particularly in towns and cities. It will undoubtedly put pressure on natural resources and services such as health and education.

Richard Ottaway: The Secretary of State will be aware of dozens of examples, in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and, currently, China, where stabilising population growth results in improvements in their economy. The net result is sustainable development, with reductions in poverty and hunger and improvements in maternal health. Will he ensure that the principles of that success story are enshrined in his forthcoming White Paper?

Hilary Benn: First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work in the all-party group and I very much welcome the hearing that it is undertaking into this important issue. He makes an important point. In addition to the examples he gave, in Bangladesh, over two decades, average family size decreased from seven to three and a half, in particular because couples could choose when to have children, which links to an earlier question. I can assure him that continuing to support reproductive and sexual health services for people is one of the ways in which we can help to address the question of the globe’s growing population.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to tackle population growth is to tackle poverty? High birth rates are often a desperate response in families suffering from poverty.

Hilary Benn: I agree completely. If people have more choice about family size, if they have better incomes and more confidence in the future, all the evidence from around the world—the whole process of development over the past 200 years—shows that as family wealth increases, average family size decreases, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

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