Previous Section Index Home Page

20 Jun 2006 : Column 406WH—continued

20 Jun 2006 : Column 407WH
12.16 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): It is a great pleasure, as ever, to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. You will be gratified to know that the briefing that was handed to me by the Department said that you were likely to speak in this debate. I think that that is a suggestion that somebody, at least, has got your number.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing the debate. As he said, it is an extremely important and urgent subject and the conflict and humanitarian crisis have gone on far too long.

Addressing the threats posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army and ending the conflict in northern Uganda is a Government priority. The subject is dealt with on a day-to-day basis by my noble Friend Lord Triesman and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, but I have the privilege to speak in this debate. For nearly 20 years, that vicious insurgency group has abducted children, torn families apart and, as we have heard, committed acts of unspeakable cruelty against innocent civilians. The insecurity and fear that has resulted has led to 1.7 million people being sheltered in internally displaced people’s camps. Add to that the huge numbers of night commuters—the children we have heard about today—and nearly two thirds of northern Uganda’s population are involved; it is second only to Sudan in the total number of people displaced in Africa. It is a tragedy of enormous proportions. As hon. Members have made clear, it is impossible not to be moved or angered by the cruel loss of life and continued suffering.

I want to try to answer the specific questions that have been raised, because they clearly concern the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East and everyone else who has contributed to the debate. We do not know the total number of fighters that the LRA can deploy, but we estimate that it is in the hundreds rather than the thousands. That does not mean, of course, that it cannot cause fear across a great part of the region. We believe at the moment that the majority are in the Garamba national park in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the LRA continues to operate in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, as we have heard from hon. Members who have visited recently.

I found the testimony on night commuters very moving. There is a glimmer of light. At the peak, in 2004, about 40,000 children moved into camps at night. In May 2005 the estimated number dropped to 26,000 and in March 2006 the estimate was down to 13,000. I understand that those figures have been given by non-governmental organisations that are trying to help those children.

James Duddridge: Can the Minister confirm that that is because those people are going into the camps and coming back at night, or are they just staying there, thus making the position worse?

Dr. Howells: I cannot answer that. We took the information that we were given in an optimistic spirit, but it may be the case that they are staying in the camps. I will try to find out, and I am sure my right
20 Jun 2006 : Column 408WH
hon. Friend the Minister for Trade will have some more information. The hon. Gentleman has been there far more recently than any of us, but we also understand that the drop in numbers is partly due to better security and a reduced LRA presence.

The Department for International Development and the Foreign Office work closely with each other and with NGOs, including Save the Children, on their important work in relation to the reintegration and rehabilitation of former child combatants. We value that work very highly.

On the lack of a level playing field in the run-up to the general election, I understand that Besigye has been acquitted of the rape charges made against him. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development raised the treason trial with Mr. Museveni on 16 May when he was assured that there would be due process—but I have no more news than that. In relation to the UN Security Council adoption of resolutions 1653 and 1663, the Government believe that Security Council engagement on the LRA is useful and we will continue to press for further discussions on this subject.

Kofi Annan will decide whether to appoint a special envoy. The Government have made it clear to the UN and to the Ugandan Government that in our view a regional envoy would be useful.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Can the Minister assure the House that the appointment of a new UN Secretary-General in December will not hinder the decision on whether a special envoy should be deployed?

Dr. Howells: One would hope that it would not. I know that Kofi Annan has made the point strongly that he wants to see a proper transition and that the work should not be interrupted, and I entirely agree.

The decision on the location of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting for 2007 is for the Commonwealth Secretary-General, in consultation with member states. The Government will certainly ensure that CHOGM keeps the human rights situation under review.

Preparation for the end of the war is an important issue, and our priority is normalisation of the north, to enable people in the camps to go home. The point was made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) that this is an area where, if you throw seeds on the ground, they grow—that is absolutely true. It is obscene that there is hunger and starvation in this area as a consequence of a lack of security and a lack of coherent political will to tackle the situation.

Mr. Drew: We raised the issue of security and the possibility of forming an independent force during the period of recovery in the north with President Museveni. He was absolutely against this, but what would the Government like to see done to encourage a peacekeeping arrangement?

Dr. Howells: The Government would be interested in the UN and the African Union talking to President Museveni and other players in the region. It is a regional conflict, and as I have just said, the majority of the LRA’s members appear to be in the DRC, but
20 Jun 2006 : Column 409WH
they could just as easily have been in Sudan. We have to look at all possible solutions to this predicament.

Several hon. Members asked about the five indictees, and I should make it absolutely clear that we look forward to the day when they go on trial in The Hague, because that will send a powerful signal as regards justice and impunity. We are supporting civil society in Uganda as it seeks to address the conflict and the human rights issues in the north. Wherever possible, we want better information about the amnesty offer to be communicated to LRA foot soldiers, but it is difficult to see how the five indictees will be lured out. We understand that they are sitting prettily in the DRC, and they are not likely to come forward.

I was as shocked as everyone else in the room when my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) told us that the meeting in Juba had taken place. That story might be a rumour, or it might be true, but it would be quite shocking if such a meeting had taken place and those indicted individuals had attended without being arrested. We would be extremely disappointed and we would forcefully make the point that action should have been taken against them. We are certainly in favour of strengthening the process of returning and reintegrating former combatants, about which we have heard a good deal.

We welcomed February’s elections, which were the first multiparty elections for 20 years. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) said, “Democracy is an excellent title, but you’ve got to do a lot more than genuflect towards it,” and that is absolutely true. We have been concerned about the lack of a level playing field in the run-up to the elections, and together with other donors, we have clearly expressed our concern about the arrest of Besigye to President Museveni. The arrest contributed to the decision by the Secretary of State for International Development to cut £20 million from the UK’s direct budget support to the Ugandan Government. Instead, we directed the money towards the north of Uganda. We have held back £5 million
20 Jun 2006 : Column 410WH
and are waiting to hear what will happen to it, although I understand that there will be an announcement shortly. We want to target the money precisely to ensure that it is used in the best way possible and that we make it clear to President Museveni that we want much more precise action directed at securing a solution to the problem.

Health is a priority for the British Government in Uganda, and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) reminded us of the scourge of HIV/AIDS. Other problems, such as malaria and diarrhoea, should also be properly addressed by the Government of Uganda and everyone else working in the camps. Those are the diseases that are killing the most people. The number of HIV infections is approximately 1 million, with higher levels in the conflict areas. Uganda can access funds from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the World Bank to tackle some of those problems, and we are exhorting it to do so. Since 2002, the Department for International Development has provided £7 million for HIV/AIDS and £6.8 million for improving health conditions in the camps, including an HIV component.

Hon. Members mentioned the restrictions faced by NGOs seeking to move resources into the north. We are aware of concerns about the requirements for NGO registration and we are following the issue closely. We will raise it again with the Ugandan authorities.

There were several attacks on NGOs and others in late 2005, and two British nationals were among those killed. That is a serious issue, and I am glad that it has been raised. We urge the Ugandan Government to do more. The gravity of the situation has been expressed, and things have improved somewhat, but there is a great deal to be done. Aid convoys are again being escorted. Not all of them have requested assistance but those that have are receiving it.

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister of State but we must move on to the next debate.

20 Jun 2006 : Column 411WH

Financial Assistance Scheme

12.30 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the financial assistance scheme. I congratulate the Government on introducing it, as well as the Pension Protection Fund, in the Pensions Act 2004. One of the main reasons that those provisions were introduced was the persistent lobbying by employees affected by the collapse of their pension funds, by their unions and by MPs in this House, some of whom are here. Ex-employees of Allied Steel and Wire led the fight and continue to do so. I pay tribute to them.

ASW was a steel company with plants in Cardiff and Sheerness. In Cardiff, the plant was based in the constituency of Cardiff, South and Penarth. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) is here. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is here.

ASW had 1,200 employees when it went into receivership in the summer of 2002. Of those, 838 worked in Cardiff. All the constituencies in Cardiff and the adjoining areas have people affected by the collapse of ASW. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) led the fight for pension rights for the Cardiff workers. He was supported by many local Members of Parliament.

The plight of the ASW pensioners was dramatically highlighted in the House at the time by very moving stories about people who had lost the whole of their pension as well as their job. The trauma of that time is still alive for the people affected even though it was more than four years ago. Last weekend, I met a group of ASW ex-employees in Cardiff, North. They movingly described the experience of learning that the plant was to close and believing that they had lost their jobs but had at least got their pension rights, having paid into the occupational pension scheme for decades. Ten days later, those people learned that they had lost the bulk of their pensions as well.

Approximately half of the people who lost their jobs were then employed by Celsa, the Spanish firm that took over the Allied Steel and Wire site. However, there was a gap of more than 12 months in their employment. One of the effects of that was that Celsa did not take over responsibility for their pensions. Although it is of no benefit to the deferred pensioners, as they are known, the fact that Celsa has restarted steel production in Cardiff and is spending £100 million on modernising the complex is to be welcomed.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with my hon. Friend that the investment by Celsa in Cardiff is welcome. Many were cynical about the possibility of that investment. Does she agree that the efforts made to avoid the gap that she referred to and ensure continuity were important? Our colleagues who were then at the Department of Trade and Industry co-operated with local Members in trying to keep the plant open rather than having the closure that led to the consequences that she is talking about.

20 Jun 2006 : Column 412WH

Julie Morgan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, huge efforts were made to avoid that gap but unfortunately it did occur.

The issue of pensions for ASW workers has never been resolved. The workers have continued to campaign to this day. As a result of the problems faced by employees such as ASW workers, the Government set up the Pension Protection Fund. It will protect future pensioners from the fate of the ASW pensioners. It is essentially an insurance scheme. As we all know, it is not retrospective. It is ironic that those who campaigned hardest for this protection did not themselves benefit.

As a result of persistent lobbying, the Government set up the financial assistance scheme to help members of private sector schemes winding up with assets insufficient to meet liabilities which would have benefited from the Pension Protection Fund had it existed. The schemes would have had to start to wind up between 1 June 1997 and 6 April 2005, when the Pension Protection Fund came in. Initially, the scheme applied to members who had reached retirement age, or who had been within three years of doing so. However, it applied to very few people. I believe that, at the last count, only 17 of the ASW pensioners in Cardiff had benefited.

I was very pleased, as I think were all hon. Members, when, in the pensions White Paper of 25 May, the Government extended the scheme to those who were within 15 years of retirement on 14 May 2004. That will bring the actual pension up to 80 per cent. for those who were up to seven years from retirement date, 65 per cent. for those between seven and 11 years away and 50 per cent. for those between 11 and 15 years away.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): I join the hon. Lady in welcoming the additional funds that have gone into the financial assistance scheme. Does she share my concern that, despite the extra funding, 620 of the 1,000 affected ASW workers in Cardiff are too young to receive anything under the new guidelines, so many people will still miss out?

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I shall come on to that.

The Government also extended the funding for the financial assistance scheme from £400 million over 20 years; the total will now be £2.3 billion. That is a big step forward, and I congratulate the Government on it, but there are still serious gaps. Will the Minister confirm what percentage of eligible pensioners will benefit from the proposals? I am told by the union Community that 38 per cent. of those in the ASW pension scheme are likely to benefit: 9.5 per cent. benefit from the 80 per cent. top-up; 12.5 per cent. from the 65 per cent. top-up; and 16 per cent. from the 50 per cent. top-up. What is the Minister’s knowledge of that, and will he explain the decision not to consider length of service as well as how close a member was to retirement?

I know of glaring examples of people who miss out on the 15 years, even though they have paid into the pension fund for more than 30 years. My constituent Mr. Saxby of Whitchurch misses the 15 years by three
20 Jun 2006 : Column 413WH
months. He worked at East Moors for eight years from 1970, came out of SERPS and went into the ASW occupational pension scheme in 1979, and paid into that for 23 years until 2002.

Another constituent of mine from Heath worked in the steel industry in Cardiff from August 1968, from the age of 15. He worked with ASW until the closure in 2002, contributing to the works pension scheme. Previously, he had contributed to SERPS and he transferred to the final salary works pension scheme, believing, under the guidance of the Government, that that was guaranteed. He wrote to me last month after hearing about the increased funding:

These years have placed a heavy toll on the ex-ASW employees and their families. I am told that there is no provision to make any payment to the dependants of deceased scheme members until the deceased members nominally reach 65, whatever hardship their dependants suffer. I understand that four former ASW workers have died in the time that has elapsed, three of whom have left widows.

I have also met a man who was about to retire on grounds of ill-health, and was negotiating his pension after having had heart bypass surgery, when the scheme collapsed. He has had to survive on sickness benefit ever since, and that has been very hard for him. Will the Minister explain why such people have been left out, and may I appeal to him to look again at the scheme?

Other avenues are being pursued by the former steelworkers. As the Minister will know, the ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has said that the Government are guilty of maladministration and has called for compensation to be paid to those who lost money when their pension schemes went bust. The Government have rejected her finding of maladministration and have estimated that it would cost £15 billion to comply with the ombudsman’s report. Will the Minister tell us how that figure was reached?

Jenny Willott: The hon. Lady mentioned the figure of £15 billion. The Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report stated in the appendix that the figure would be between £3 billion and £3.5 billion. Will the Minister clarify those figures?

Julie Morgan: Will the Minister also comment on the action taken in the European Court of Justice by Community and Amicus? Those unions took the Government to court on 1 June over the failure of the Conservative Government in 1983, and of subsequent Governments, adequately to implement article 8 of the 1980 insolvency directive. We are now waiting for the Advocate-General to publish his opinion of the case. If the action were to be successful, would the Government have to reimburse in full all eligible members of the pension schemes?

Next Section Index Home Page