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18 Oct 2006 : Column 261WH—continued

Contrary to the advice of the Foreign Office, we went out in the evening and walked around the city. It is perfectly safe, and there was no fear that one was threatened in any way. We talked to a number of street children, and here are some of their testimonies. Philippe is 14 and was accused of sorcery, which is why he was forced out of his family and on to the streets three years ago. He collects leaves, which he sells on to
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people who use them for mulch and composting as part of their subsistence farming practices in Kinshasa. Incidentally, there is no public park in the city; if there were, it would immediately be reduced to allotments, such is the poverty. However, there is one park in the middle of Kinshasa—it is run by Lebanese as a private golf course. I have never seen a private golf course in the middle of a capital city. The monthly subscription is $400. Imagine that! That $400 would pay for a child’s education for a whole year.

Philippe augmented his income by helping to push carts around the city, transporting goods for local business people. We saw his home: he sleeps by the stadium in a large pipe near a pile of excreta on the muddy ground. The police come round two or three nights a week and extort what little money he earns, and he and his friends are regularly beaten. He told us of another boy, Joel, who was 10 years old. He was selling leaves to some policemen, but they refused to pay, so he complained. They beat him so badly that after they had pushed him into a drainage ditch, he did not have the strength to pull himself out and drowned.

We then talked to P.Y. from Delveaux. He hobbled into a filthy bar where we were meeting some young adults and older children. This young man had been attacked by police, who were trying to take his miserable, hard-earned pennies from him. As he fled, he tripped up. One of the policemen took a machete and chopped him in the knee. The wound had been dressed by a Catholic priest just before we met the boy, who was clearly in a lot of pain. None the less, he felt that he had been very lucky. Lucky? Being mugged by policemen and having one’s knee sliced with a machete is lucky? These children live in a world that we can barely comprehend.

However, there is hope, which is why we are here today. The United Kingdom is the DRC’s largest European Union bilateral funder, so we have some influence. As my colleague the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, we have the traction and leverage to influence the DRC Government. We can also influence individual politicians, although they are largely at fault in this, and senior civil servants—the ones we met were a hard-working and honest lot of people. We can encourage them to address impunity, corruption, exploitation and the abuse of the most marginalised people—particularly children.

As the DRC takes faltering steps towards democracy, it is important that the British Government use their influence to help those outside the democratic process. The children and young people that we are discussing are not involved in that process, except as spear carriers—often literally—at political rallies.

We must be ever mindful of value for money. We are talking about our taxpayers’ money and we must make sure that it has an effect. We met Ambassador Andy Sparkes, who I thought was very impressive. He gave us his time generously and I pay tribute to him. He is a man who cares about what is happening in the country and I want to quote what he told us:

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Indeed, it is not natural for Congolese people to engage in the practice of accusations of witchcraft. It is a relatively new phenomenon and if there were real political will—it is against the law—and if the western powers were to use their influence and, of course, take greater steps towards dealing with poverty, I am sure that, eventually, we could get a grip on it.

The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway has already dealt with some of the recommendations, and I want to emphasise them, as we have the Secretary of State with us today. I am delighted that he chose to come here himself, rather than sending a junior Minister. That shows the importance that he attaches to the problem and the all-party group is very pleased to see him here. We think that the main thing is to address the problem of impunity and corruption. With that in mind, we believe that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s bilateral fund should be used to invest in tactical, high-focus, high-impact but reasonably inexpensive projects.

I was very impressed by the work of War Child and some other charities in dealing with the problem on a micro level and creating small funds of perhaps a couple of hundred dollars, and not just giving them to a child or young person but training them. One of the children whom we heard about set up a new business with the help of that $200 and got himself off the streets by setting up a television set in his village, as a kind of local cinema. Television sets are still relatively rare, and he was making a living in that way.

The other vital thing—this is where the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can help—is to help with the training of, and payment of salaries to, a small number of magistrates dealing with juvenile justice matters. There is no law in the country. No one is paid. The police, the army, magistrates and judges are not paid, so they must be corrupt just to survive. Therefore there is no justice. If there is an accusation against a pastor concerning witchcraft and it comes before a magistrate it will be thrown out, because the pastor will simply bribe the magistrate. In a way the magistrate is not a wicked person; no one is wicked in that situation. We can imagine what would happen if none of us were paid—none of our police or soldiers, none of our civil servants or the Clerks of the House; we would all have to be corrupt to survive. The Department can help with this, and try to make things better.

I suggest the establishment of a legal aid fund to tackle targeted cases and the promotion of those cases across the media as high-profile wins. It was made clear to us that there have been virtually no prosecutions. I do not think that there have been any successful prosecutions—or perhaps there has been one in the entire country—of pastors who accuse children of being witches. If we had a few high-profile wins and could create a small corps of magistrates prepared to deal with the matter in a proper way, we might get the notion established in people’s mind that it is a criminal offence and that people will be punished for it. Then we
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could perhaps help with the training of specialised police units that could deal specifically with street children.

Such projects could be combined with the provision of awareness training projects for fetish pastors. We went to a training project for fetish pastors with Save the Children, which does a wonderful job. We talked to a former fetish pastor who was now a mainstream evangelical pastor doing a perfectly good job and who freely admitted that what he had done in the past was wrong. He had undergone training with Save the Children and seen the error of his ways. We saw him sitting down with other pastors, trying to convince them that theirs was not the way forward.

As we have so much influence, as a large donor, can we not use it to agree sanctions with other EU heads of mission against local top politicians—especially governors? They are involved—and there is ample proof of this—in the arbitrary arrest, beating and death of street children. Those politicians are very sensitive to sanctions by the EU. By the way, they are also very angry with us and with the EU because they complain all the time that we give money direct to the people and not to the Government. I think that it is an extremely good thing, and I congratulate the Government on it.

It was a searing experience to walk around Kinshasa. The country has obviously been utterly ruined. It is now at the bottom of the world heap. I pay tribute to the personal commitment of the Secretary of State and I look forward to hearing what he will tell us today about attempts to improve the situation, even in a small way. Even if he saves only a few hundred street children from an appalling fate the whole House will, I think, be very grateful to him.

10.6 am

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I was privileged to go as an international observer to the elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a group of hon. Members from the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention. I want to express my gratitude to Christian Aid, which was my host and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), and which will fund me to go back for the second round of elections at the end of next week, for the presidential run-offs on 29 October. I also thank the other organisations, such as War Child, which fund our all-party parliamentary group. Without them, we would not be able to do the work that we do.

The elections were very impressive. They mostly went off peacefully, without a great deal of difficulty and with great enthusiasm from people for voting. They were mostly well run, with a few difficulties and hiccups. After the elections we saw how easy it is for violence to erupt, with the death of 23 people in Kinshasa. Given the continuing tension and the fact that the two remaining presidential candidates have their own armed forces and that other people have arms, the potential for further violence can be seen. At this point I want to note our condemnation of the beating up last week in London of President Kabila’s chef de cabinet, Leonard She Okitundu, who had been
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visiting members of the all-party group and the Foreign Office. I condemn violence from whatever quarter, whatever the reason for it.

Given the way in which, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) pointed out, street children have been used as part of the political process—rounded up and used on the streets—they may be particularly vulnerable if there is any potential for violence in the run-up to the next round of elections, and subsequently. We need to be aware of that. I think that it is important—I know that the Secretary of State has this in mind and has already taken action on it—that the UK Government should make every effort to emphasise to the two candidates and the other people involved in the political process, such as the parties and those who have been elected to the new National Assembly, that it is their responsibility to ensure a continuing peaceful round for the next elections and subsequently; to protect the most marginalised groups such as the street children; and to take on board the issues already raised so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), whom I congratulate on opening the debate, and the hon. Member for Gainsborough.

We have a huge responsibility to keep with the process for a long time. This is just the start of the process. There are many things we need to do to put pressure on all political parties to take seriously the issues to do with street children. Those include trying to ensure that there is training on and, at least, awareness of the issues in the local law enforcement and security agencies, whose approach to street children at the moment is often more part of the problem than an attempt to deal with those issues.

I shall return to the matter of the elections and the situation thereafter, but I want to mention that while hon. Members were in the country for the first round of elections we had the opportunity to visit some projects involving street children. With some of my colleagues, I visited a project run by Save the Children, which has 15 projects. I remember seeing Ilunga, who was not accused of being a witch, as many children are, but whose parents had died in a diamond mining accident and who had then traipsed across the country to be taken in by his grandparents in Kinshasa. They threw him out because they did not have the money to look after him. Then he lost touch with his brother. He is living by himself on the streets of Kinshasa, going into that project during the day and making money by collecting rubbish from people’s houses and taking it to the dump. Given the state of the streets in Kinshasa and Congo generally, he is probably one of the few people who do go round collecting rubbish, but he looked so forlorn, so miserable. He had such a sad long face until we did the trick of taking photos and showing them to him, which always brings great smiles to the faces of the children, but he had looked so forlorn that our hearts went out to him and the other children there.

We also visited a War Child project, where a large number of children are living. Many of them had been accused of being witches. To me, they seemed like normal, bubbly, lively children who were living in
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desperate circumstances and had very few resources to do what they wanted to do. In fact, they were livelier than the children at the project in the middle of Kinshasa. When we talked to them about the elections, we got a better answer on how they were meant to be about getting people to make the country better and life better, than we did from most of the politicians on television. When we asked the children about the elections, they all started yelling, “Kabila, Bemba”. They were very well engaged. One boy we found who was one of the very few receiving an education was very bright and had just come top of the exams in his class, so the potential is there. Many of these children have been accused of being witches, yet to me they are just normal, bright, lively kids.

I gained a greater understanding of the beliefs behind witchcraft. That is not the only element, but it is a very large element in why the street children are out on the streets. There is also the issue of child soldiers and their re-engagement into society, which we have not touched on as much as we might have.

A very good Save the Children pamphlet called “The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo” explains the belief in the spiritual world that is very prevalent in Congo and how that ties in with the issue of dislocation. Interestingly, there is more of a problem in urban areas than in rural areas, which is not necessarily what one would expect when considering the concept of traditional beliefs. Those beliefs are deep-seated. Whether or not we change people’s beliefs on whether witches and sorcery exist, we must say that it is completely unacceptable for children to suffer cruelty and be abused on the basis of what is a false belief.

I was as bemused last year, when I went to America, by the fundamentalist Republicans who told me that people were invaded by Satan, as I am by the idea of there being witches, so I am not sure that we can always say that someone’s belief systems are all that peculiar. Of course, exorcisms still take place in some of our traditional Churches. The key point is that this is not about religion or people’s beliefs; it is about cruelty and child abuse, which must be tackled. That is why Save the Children had been working with a group of pastors to try to say to them that even if they still believed in witchcraft, the children they were seeing were not ones who had been infected by witchcraft and if they did come across any whom they believed were, they should deal with them in a way that was not cruel and did not involve physical violence, because that is clearly unacceptable.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): In April, when we visited a Save the Children project in Mbuji-Mayi as part of the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, Save the Children gave us a very good leaflet on precisely the issue that my hon. Friend is talking about—how children come to be accused of witchcraft. Such a child may have epilepsy, sleepwalk or be greedy. Their parents may have become unemployed. That could cover almost every child in Congo. Has my hon. Friend given any thought to or had any discussions with non-governmental organisations in the field about the possibility of using television to educate people? The leaflets are all well and good, but they are available only in the areas where
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the centres are operating, and given the disruptions of war, there are huge areas of the country where people are illiterate and cannot understand the excellent literature produced by the NGOs.

Judy Mallaber: I agree with my hon. Friend and I know that War Child in particular is keen to engage in that type of awareness-raising campaign. The question is whether we tackle people’s beliefs head-on or take action in a different way. How do we get the message over to people so that we confront the issue of accusing children of sorcery, which is clearly, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough said, illegal? We need a campaign that tells people that accusing children of sorcery is not acceptable and that tackles those beliefs, but that will have to be done sensitively. As I have said, I know that War Child in particular is keen to tackle that, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may have views on it. Those issues need to be taken on board very seriously and we have a responsibility to keep pressing the new Government and the politicians on the issues.

We also met the leaders of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, who have condemned the notion of accusations of witchcraft, but I would certainly urge them to be more strongly proactive, and on a continuing basis. It is important that they do that. We were not altogether convinced about the degree and continuity of that opposition, where those leaders clearly have a role to play.

I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, but I want to say briefly that we need to keep our eye on the outcome of the election because the street children will have a chance only if we have dealt with all the other issues, the key issues, and if we ensure that the newly elected politicians in the National Assembly and provincial government and the President and presidential team deal with those fundamental issues. I am thinking particularly of the security situation. They need to deal with the question of good governance, corruption and the use of resources because, without that, street children and their problems will never be dealt with. We will not be putting in the necessary resources. We will still be in a position in which the wealth of the country is plundered and it does not get down to taking those key issues on board and dealing with them.

Mr. Drew: I know that my hon. Friend has to be careful, and I congratulate her on going back to be an election monitor, but does she, like me, have concerns about the stratification of the election results in the first round, and the dangers that that presents in terms of the way in which children in particular will be brought into certain camps? One hopes that voting will be more balanced in the second round; otherwise, there will be difficulties and the risk of the country pulling apart. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Judy Mallaber: I agree that that is a serious problem and I would be interested to hear the Secretary of State’s comments on what we can do. As we were told last week, a lot of work has been taking place on building alliances to try to overcome some of that stratification, but it is a serious danger. One issue is the terms in which the elections were fought, which
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involves the language that people spoke and so on. I have to say that the situation was similar to our local elections. If, in our council elections in Derbyshire, we put someone up for election in a village who does not come from that village, we get a bad reaction as well, but the stratification in the elections in Congo was extreme and that is a serious issue.

I ask the Secretary of State, in replying to the debate, to assure us—I am sure that he will—that this issue will not be put on the back burner after the elections, that it is a long-term continuing commitment and we will keep applying pressure and that, above all, we will look at dealing with the security situation. Can he say whether there will be a continuing commitment from the international community to co-ordination and international engagement on trying to reform the security system? I am talking about engaging states in saying that we need peace and security for any of the other issues to be dealt with. Will that continue to be a key priority? I also ask my right hon. Friend to press for the role of EUFOR, the European Union force, to be extended beyond the end of November, as is currently proposed, because peace and security are central to other issues that we have been discussing.

How the children are treated tells us everything about the health of a country and a society. We need to consider what we can do to make that society work and function so that those children, including the very bright kids we saw and met, who were absolutely delightful, have some chance of fulfilling their potential. I am talking about putting resources into their education and their future in terms of jobs and so on. That is a reflection of what possibility there is for hope and a future for all the people of Congo, and what possibility there is for having stability in a very important part of Africa that affects us all directly. I shall be interested to hear my right hon. Friend’s comments about what we can do to keep up the pressure on those key issues and to ensure that there is a system of peace, security and reform in the country. How can we keep up the pressure in order to deal with the awful things that happen to those children and the awful lives that they lead, and to give them some common humanity and a future?

Several hon. Members rose—

John Cummings (in the Chair): It is my intention to start the winding-up speeches just after 10.30 am.

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