Previous Section Index Home Page

18 Oct 2006 : Column 275WH—continued

18 Oct 2006 : Column 276WH

For the conflict to come to a complete end, there must be a significant reduction in the number of weapons in circulation in Congo. That requires schemes to collect existing weapons as well as the introduction of tighter controls to stop new weapons entering the country. We were all disappointed with the results of the small arms negotiations in New York earlier this year. What pressure and mechanisms is DFID putting in place to reduce the number of small weapons in circulation in the DRC.?

In conclusion, to my mind the key to the problem is improvement in education and putting structures in place to enable street children and others in Congo to be educated to take a fuller part in the development of their country and to enable it to move on from its terrible history, not just of the past 30 years but of the previous 150 years.

10.48 am

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on securing this debate and above all on the impressive way in which he set out the nature of this terrible problem. I thank members of the all-party groups on street children and on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, which, with organisations that have been referred to in the debate—Human Rights Watch, War Child, Save the Children and Amnesty International—have produced a series of thoughtful reports that help all of us to keep up the pressure on the Congolese authorities.

I am grateful for the contributions from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), and the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds).

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said that it is a pity we cannot have pictures to look at, but every speech that we have heard has painted a painful picture of what life is like for street children, who are at the forefront of our minds this morning. What we have heard tells us that the DRC at the moment is one of the worst places in which to be born and to grow up. One third of children under the age of five are underweight; less than half of children of primary school age are in school and the number has declined considerably in recent years. Only one in three have access to decent sanitation, and as we heard this morning, tens of thousands of children face appalling dangers and threats in their daily lives, having been abandoned to the streets by their own parents, subjected to extraordinary abuse by so-called churches, persecuted by the police, manipulated by political parties, subjected to sexual violence or enslaved by armed groups. Every single one of those children is vulnerable—all of them. Those children who are not in school and the street children are vulnerable. For a society to put its next generation through so much shows just how much the fabric of Congolese society has been destroyed by war, conflict and misrule. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway made that point eloquently.

18 Oct 2006 : Column 277WH

There is hope for all people in Congo through the political process. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley well in her further observation of the elections. She made the point that the world has witnessed in the DRC the first opportunity for a generation to use democracy to change people’s lives. Britain rightly played an important part in helping to fund those elections. In 11 days’ time, the second round of the presidential elections takes place. Several hon. Members made the point that there is a heavy responsibility on the two candidates to accept the results, whoever wins. The hon. Member for Richmond Park made that point forcefully this morning, and I made it to the candidates when I was in Kinshasa at the beginning of September. They must also reach out to others, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, because if one candidate thinks that they can take all the power and exclude the rest of the people, there will be a risk of Congo returning to the war and violence that has destroyed the country.

There is a long way to go, and I agree with the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness that the elections are the start of the process. It will be slow, painful and difficult, but at the heart of the issues that we have discussed today is the need for governance. What we have heard described this morning is the result of a failure of governance. That is the fundamental problem in the DRC, and for that reason the international community must stay there for a long time. That is why we have a large and growing programme, which was worth £5.6 million in 2001 and will be worth £62 million this year. We did not have a bilateral programme in the DRC 15 years ago. It was not part of anglophone Africa, but we are there now because the country has its best chance of hope in a generation.

How are we contributing in order to improve the lives of street children? The British embassy is supporting a Congolese NGO to reunite street children with their families in Kinshasa and to educate parents against abandoning their children in the first place. Our HIV programme focuses on orphans and vulnerable children. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), we are already discussing with the World Bank a major education programme to reduce school fees in the DRC. With the World Bank, we will ensure that the programme addresses the needs of the most vulnerable, including street children, because removing school fees is probably the most important step that we can take to give children, and their parents if they have them, the chance to get into education. Street children will not get the education that they deserve unless there is a reduction in fees.

Jeremy Corbyn: I welcome what the Secretary of State has said. Is there any chance that we could also provide resources for teacher training? The quality of teachers, particularly in private schools, leaves a lot to be desired, and teacher training is essential.

Hilary Benn: We will consider what we can do within the programme. I am about to describe what else we are trying to do, and other donors have responsibilities. It is important that we work together to ensure that all needs, including that which my hon. Friend raises, are covered.

18 Oct 2006 : Column 278WH

We have given funding to train and equip the police to oversee the elections, and training includes the appropriate treatment of children. However, we have heard this morning that parts of the police force have no idea how to behave properly towards children, and changing their approach will be a long process.

We are also funding training for magistrates and police officers on children’s rights and the treatment of children in the justice system. The hon. Member for Gainsborough referred to that forcefully, and I shall ask my team to consider further whether we can do something in response to his specific suggestions. We have provided significant funding for the demobilisation and reintegration programme, and we have given £3 million to the Red Cross for its humanitarian appeal, which includes reintegration programmes for children.

We are working with NGOs in eastern DRC on a programme to reintegrate and protect refugees. However, the process is long, hard and far from complete. It is complicated, delicate and it is not working for everyone. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness made that point. With the World Bank and NGOs, we are trying to ensure that international and national organisations with the expertise get the support that they need. We are working with the DRC Government to ensure that children are properly provided for in continuing demobilisation plans. I shall ask my team to consider the point about CONADER, and to respond to the hon. Gentleman.

Mary Creagh: I am delighted to hear about the Government’s investment, but I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that one of the most distressing parts of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was the description of children who had suffered severe physical abuse, including an account of boys who had had their penises cut off. Those children need specialised medical attention. Is there any way that we can provide such help, alongside training and equipment, for Congo?

Hilary Benn: The example that my hon. Friend provides is extremely distressing. She and I have discussed it before, and it is the most extreme and unbelievable form of child abuse. Other donors and NGOs that specialise in human rights and issues affecting children have a part to play. UNICEF, for example, is helping the DRC Government to implement the UN convention on the rights of the child. NGOs, several of which have been mentioned in the debate, undertake vital work to help children. The hon. Member for Richmond Park made an important point about the sexual exploitation of boys, which people do not talk about.

There has been debate in some quarters about whether we should make parts of our aid programme conditional on progress. It has been acknowledged, however, that we give very little aid through the DRC Government. We must ensure that we adopt the right approach, because if we were to remove aid because of DRC Government failings and a lack of governance, we would not help the people about whom we are concerned.

18 Oct 2006 : Column 279WH

The real issue, which has come across forcefully in all the speeches, is that the primary responsibility for addressing the problem must rest with the DRC Government and people. It is about political structures that work and that are accountable—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North made. We need a society in which the DRC Government start to take responsibility for the most vulnerable citizens. There is no want of legislation in the DRC.

The point has been made that much legislation is in place, and that includes the UN convention on the rights of the child, which was ratified in 1990—16 years ago. However, there is no action to do something about it and enforce it, which is in part a question of capacity. The graphic description from the hon. Member for Gainsborough of the permanent secretary’s office, with nothing in it apart from his own skill, makes the point. There is a lack of resources and of will, but there is corruption.

I assure hon. Members that we will keep up the political pressure on the Congolese Government in every way we can. We are in contact with President Kabila’s ambassador for children and the Ministry of Social Affairs, and I shall consider the point that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness raised about the place of children in the poverty reduction strategy paper.

We have heard that children being abused in the name of exorcism is not a part of the Congolese tradition but a result of the dislocation of that society. As part of our presidency of the EU last year, we pushed for the Congolese authorities to do something about it, but no one has been prosecuted. The law and evidence exists, but the law must be enforced.

The Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Metropolitan police are also putting in place measures to prevent Congolese pastors who abuse children from coming to Britain from the DRC. That is one thing that we can do. I urge all hon. Members present and the organisations listening to the debate to provide us with the evidence. If they give us the evidence, including any evidence of politicians who have engaged in such activity, we can take action.

I am grateful to hon. Members and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway for raising the issue. We have heard just how important what happens in the DRC is, above all to the people who live there, and just how important good governance is to solving those problems. I assure the Chamber that we will continue to support the people of Congo—and the politicians, if they rise to their responsibility—to try to make a difference for them, and for the children in particular. They have suffered much too much for far too long.

18 Oct 2006 : Column 280WH

Bulgaria and Romania (Employment Rights)

11 am

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am most grateful to you, Mr. Cummings, for providing me with the opportunity to bring this matter to the attention of the House. In the next 11 weeks the European Union will experience yet another historic occasion as it expands to 27 members, further unifying a continent in which division, not unity, has historically been the dominant narrative. Many hon. Members deserve recognition for that remarkable achievement. No European leader has been as dedicated a supporter of the new EU members as our Prime Minister. The momentum behind the enlargement agenda was begun by the late Robin Cook when he was Foreign Secretary, sustained by the current Leader of the House when he was in that role, and now moves into a new era under the stewardship of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

A great deal has been achieved in a short time, but enlargement is about more than just admitting new members; it is about respecting them and their citizens as equals. I shall use this debate to urge the Government to clarify their position on migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria and make it clear that they will not be bullied into adopting restrictions merely because of the erroneous fears of supposedly populist, xenophobic commentators.

When I last spoke on the subject, in 2004, Europe was shortly to undergo its biggest ever expansion. It grew by 75 million citizens overnight and confirmed its place as the world’s largest single market, with the highest GDP of any single trading bloc. Then, as now, certain sections of the media and, I must say, some Conservative Members, forecast that the UK would be overwhelmed by desperate economic migrants. Then, as now, it was said that our welfare benefits system would prove vulnerable and irresistible to tens of thousands in eastern Europe. Of course, neither of those presumptions proved true.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Government predicted that approximately 15,000 would come to the UK from eastern Europe and that that figure has turned out to be nearer to 600,000? That was a gross underestimate—far more people have come here from eastern Europe than was anticipated.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is right; more have come than was anticipated. I shall demonstrate why that has been good for the British economy and for Europe.

A well researched report produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research established that less than 1 per cent. of migrant workers have even applied for income-related benefits since 2004 and that most eastern European migrants are working in jobs that are hard to fill. Almost nine out of 10 visitors from the new EU member states have stayed in the United Kingdom for less than three months. Since May 2004, this country has benefited tremendously from an influx of skilled, trained workers while other countries in Europe, which have denied such migrants the right to
18 Oct 2006 : Column 281WH
work, have struggled to be competitive in a global market. Our Government’s decision to welcome the skills and talents of the new citizens of Europe has paid dividends.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am sorry that I did not have the opportunity to advise the right hon. Gentleman of my intention to intervene. Does he agree that the empirical evidence of the past two years shows that disproportionate pressure has been placed on public services in a small number of areas as a result of the influx from the EU8 countries? That may well cause community cohesion problems in the future, particularly if workers from Bulgaria and Romania are allowed to enter the UK on the same basis as those from the previous eight countries.

Keith Vaz: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes carefully, but I do not agree. The arrival of the eastern Europeans has not created the tensions that he describes—I do not know about Peterborough, but it certainly has not in Leicester, where many have come to settle. The evidence shows their contribution clearly. In April this year an Ernst and Young ITEM Club report showed calculations that migration contributed more than £300 million in revenue to Her Majesty’s Treasury in the first year after enlargement, keeping inflation under control and boosting overall economic output. The workers in question pay their taxes, and it is for the Government and local authorities to ensure that if any pressure is created, which I do not believe there is, that revenue is spent appropriately.

Mr. Davidson: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Keith Vaz: I shall make some progress, if I may.

With such clear benefits, I can only welcome the comments of Her Majesty the Queen yesterday. On a state visit to the Baltic states, she expressed her encouragement of the freedom of movement and labour between the UK and those states. I am sure that when she is able to visit Romania and Bulgaria she will congratulate them on the progress that they have made in rejoining the European family.

Our Prime Minister made the crucial interventions during the enlargement discussions on Romania and Bulgaria in 1999. In the first ever speech by a British Prime Minister to the Romanian Parliament, he announced Britain’s determination that Romania join the EU as soon as possible. Our Government then ensured that the accession of Romania and Bulgaria was at the top of the European agenda during the 1999 Helsinki conference. We could not have been clearer: we wanted full and proper membership for those members of the European family.

In the past year it has been disappointing to see the remarkable good will that we have worked so hard to establish with Bucharest and Sofia draining away as the Home Office has equivocated and tabloid scare stories have proliferated. Despite being conclusively wrong about the effects of the previous enlargement, tabloid journalists and right-wing commentators are saying that the stability of our society, the security of our welfare system and
18 Oct 2006 : Column 282WH
the success of our economy will be in grave danger unless we block the access of Romanians and Bulgarians to our labour market. There is simply no evidence to support that. The enlargement will have much less impact than the 2004 experience. Romania and Bulgaria have a much smaller combined population than the previous accession countries and have no well established links with the UK. Those who do wish to travel look instead to Mediterranean countries such as Italy or Spain as their first choice.

Mr. Davidson: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Keith Vaz: I give way to my hon. Friend for the last time.

Mr. Davidson: I regret that my right hon. Friend has indicated that this is the last time that he will give way, because the issues are important. Does he accept that while in the first terms of the Labour Government unemployment in my constituency went down by more than 50 per cent., in the past year it has gone up by approximately 9 per cent.? Anecdotal evidence and my own local experience indicate that many of the jobs that would have been filled by people from my area, many of whom we are trying to move off income support and other benefits under the welfare to work scheme, have been taken by migrants from eastern Europe. Employers should not be blamed, because if they are given a choice between a keen, enthusiastic, highly trained 25-year-old from eastern Europe and someone from my constituency who may have been unemployed and has a drink problem, the latter will lose out.

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief.

Keith Vaz: I have great affection for my hon. Friend; we speak about many matters, especially on Europe. He should not be upset that I will not give way to him again; that is simply because this is an Adjournment debate, I have limited time and I have given way three times. I do not accept what he says; he is talking about anecdotal evidence and chats that he has in the pub in Glasgow. I am interested in the real facts, which are clear. If my hon. Friend shows me a report containing facts, I shall debate them with him. At the moment we have only gossip, innuendo and so on.

The Institute for Public Policy Research, a well- respected organisation, has confirmed in its new report that the new inflow of migrants is likely to be relatively small, and that any impact on the British labour market will be positive. To those who say that wages have fallen owing to the number of new workers, my response is simply to refer them Department for Work and Pensions working paper No. 29, which concludes that

Next Section Index Home Page