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House of Commons

Wednesday 6 December 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Queen’s Speech (Answer To Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain Of The Household reported Her Majesty’s Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the Speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of debt relief granted by the UK on the Nigerian Government’s expenditure on welfare programmes. [107816]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The Nigerian debt relief deal has released $1 billion a year for the country to spend on reducing poverty. A virtual poverty fund has been established to track the expenditure of these debt relief savings. Some 145,000 teachers have been retrained, and the recruitment of 40,000 new teachers, the construction of clinics and roads, and the creation of bore holes is now under way.

Andrew Gwynne: I welcome that, but given the wide range of challenges still faced by the Nigerian Government, such as the fact that 7 million children receive no schooling and one in five dies before the age of five, what assurances has my right hon. Friend been given that the Nigerian Government are using the financial flexibility that debt relief has provided to ensure that the key issues of health and education are tackled head-on?

Hilary Benn: Britain worked very hard to achieve this debt deal, which the Nigerian Government wanted—indeed, we played a leading role—and I share my hon. Friend’s concern that the benefits should be felt by the people of Nigeria. That is why I welcome the establishment of the virtual poverty fund, which is overseen in part by non-governmental organisations in Nigeria. They recognise the progress that the Nigerian
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Government are making, but my hon. Friend is right—Nigeria is home to 20 per cent. of the children in Africa who are out of school, and 20 per cent. of the poor people of the sub-Saharan continent of Africa. There is a long, long way to go before their lives begin to change for the better.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Given our support for debt relief and our positive development aid for Nigeria—I greatly welcome that, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on all he is doing—will he bring his influence to bear to ensure that next year’s presidential elections are not cancelled by the existing President, as is being threatened, and that they do take place, so that good governance and welfare support for the people of Nigeria can continue?

Hilary Benn: I am very happy to give that assurance. We are already providing some financial support to help civil society organisations prepare for the elections, monitor registration, encourage greater participation by women and provide technical assistance. This is a very important test of the very young democracy in Nigeria. Will the elections be perfect? I doubt it, but they need to take place because they will, in themselves, represent progress, and the huge population of Nigeria want the chance to express a view on how they will be governed in future. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very important that those elections take place.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that the Department for International Development is doing in Nigeria. My all-party group has recently returned from a visit to a village just outside Abuja, where school roofs are being re-done. DFID is supplying equipment for those schools and I congratulate him on that, but can he use his offices to put some pressure on the elected representatives of such areas, so that they realise that they have to become accountable to the people whom they represent?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for sending me a letter about that visit, and I look forward to meeting him and those of his colleagues who travelled with him to Nigeria to hear at first hand about their experiences. I also pay tribute to the interest that he takes in Nigeria and its future. It is very important that we do that, which is why our work in the south of the country—in the delta states—includes a programme that we launched this year to support better Government accountability. The delta states get higher income per head in recognition of their oil wealth, but the really big issue in Nigeria is indeed the one that my hon. Friend draws the House’s attention to: accountability. That is why the elections matter and why enabling people to have their voice heard matters. That is the best way for the country to resolve its problems, to get more children into school and to reduce the number who die needlessly.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): The Opposition remain supportive of the Paris Club’s deal on reducing debt. While in Nigeria, I was encouraged by the additional investment being made, as other Members have said, in public services as a result of the extra resources that are available. However, this progress is
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predicated on the continuance of democratic institutions and, most immediately, on next year’s elections. DFID currently funds voter registration, but with minimal tangible success. Just 2 million out of 70 million possible electors have been registered, thereby jeopardising the elections. What is DFID’s strategy to put pressure on the Nigerian Government to ensure that these elections take place, and to increase the amount of domestic legislation and the level of public procurement and fiscal transparency initiated by the Nigerian Government, in order to ensure the confidence not just of the international community, but more importantly, of the Nigerian people themselves?

Hilary Benn: I recognise the scale of the challenge to ensure that the elections take place successfully and that people have the chance to participate in them. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will continue to encourage the Nigerian Government to make sure that everyone has that chance. His second point is also important, as it is about good governance. Fighting corruption and improving financial management are essential to Nigeria making progress. That is why we have supported the extractive industries transparency initiative, and I welcome the fact that one state governor is currently on trial. In the Dariye case, the High Court yesterday ruled that £1 million of assets that were in London can now be returned to Nigeria. That shows what needs to happen: if money is stolen, we must play our part in returning it to the people from whom it was thieved in the first place. Nigeria can contribute by impeaching governors accused of corruption on a case-by-case basis. I can see no reason why anyone who holds public office in Nigeria should be exempt from prosecution if there are grounds to think that that person has broken the law. That has been discussed in Nigeria’s constitutional commission. Although no progress has yet been made, I very much hope that it will.


2. Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): What aid his Department provided to Somalia in 2005-06; and if he will make a statement. [107818]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): My Department provided £18.75 million of assistance to Somalia in 2005-06. More than 80 per cent. of that was humanitarian assistance in response to the drought in the region and other needs. The remainder went on education, health and promoting improved governance and the rule of law—all things that Somalia desperately needs.

Ms Butler: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, and for the money that the Government are investing in Somalia. My constituency of Brent has nearly 20,000 Somalian people, one of the highest concentrations of that community in the country. All are concerned about imminent war, and wonder what this Government will do to try to help progress the peace process.

Hilary Benn: We are encouraging the transitional institutions, to which we are providing modest support, and the Islamic courts to talk about the country’s future and not to return to violence. In effect, Somalia has
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been destroyed by 15 years of conflict. One consequence of the failure of governance is that 80 per cent. of children there have never seen the inside of a primary school classroom. Discussions are taking place in the UN Security Council about whether a support and training mission for the transitional institutions should be set up. The states belonging to the intergovernmental authority on development have made proposals for a peace and support operation, but the central message that all parties in Somalia need to hear from the rest of the world is that the only way forward is to sit down and talk through the problems. The route to disaster would be to return to the violence that has destroyed Somalia.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The Secretary of State referred to the US draft resolution that would give the intergovernmental authority on development in Somalia the power to bring in peacekeeping troops, and which includes a partial lifting of the arms embargo. The Arab League is facilitating the peace talks but is concerned that the resolution could spark an expansion of serious civil war in Somalia and lead to a broader regional conflict. Will he do what he can to ensure that the focus is on making the peace talks effective and that military force is used to support a ceasefire instead of creating further conflict?

Hilary Benn: I agree completely. The situation is very delicate and volatile. The hon. Lady has set out precisely the matters that the UN Security Council will take into account when considering the US resolution. As IGAD itself has said, it is very important that front-line states are not involved in support and training missions. We support the transitional institutions, and it is right to help them build their capacity. However, that needs to be done in a way that does not lead to the consequences that she has described, as that would be a disaster. When she gets an opportunity to read the resolution, she will see that it lays a heavy emphasis on the peace negotiations that have been taking place in Khartoum. As I said earlier, the peace process is the only way forward for Somalia.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab): Given the instability in Somalia, how sure is my right hon. Friend that the excellent assistance that we are giving is getting to the people for whom it is intended? Are there differences in how assistance is distributed in the area around Berbera, for instance, as compared with Baidoa? Is not the north of the country rather more stable?

Hilary Benn: Precisely because there has been no functioning Government in Somalia for a long period, almost all the assistance we give goes through tried and trusted partners, in particular UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. We have provided assistance for drought relief, and I saw some of that work myself when I went to Wajid in Somalia, and to Baidoa, in May, where very brave people are being very creative, in very dangerous circumstances, in delivering aid to people. The fact that there was no great death toll after that terrible drought is entirely down to the effort of UN agencies and their heroic staff. We are currently providing support because it started to rain in large amountsand there has been flooding, in particular aroundBelet Weyne. In the middle of last month, we provided
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£2 million. We are also working in partnership with UNICEF. As I pointed out earlier, most children in Somalia have never had the chance to go to school, so we have a £6 million education partnership with UNICEF and UNESCO to try to enable some of the children in that country to have the best start in life, which is to get into a classroom with a teacher.

Cheap Medicines

3. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What steps he is taking to give poor countries access to cheaper drugs and medicines; and if he will make a statement. [107819]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We are providing more finance to help countries get the medicines they need, to help leverage lower prices and to increase the range of medicines available. We back research into neglected diseases, and we support new and innovative ways of improving the supply of cheaper drugs and vaccinations through, for example, UNITAID—the joint UN programme on HIV/AIDS—advanced market commitments and the international finance facility for immunisation.

Tony Baldry: What does the Minister say to the recent Oxfam report which asserts that a number of drug companies and certain Governments are blocking poorer countries’ access to affordable and much needed medicines, and that the Doha declaration of November 2001 is simply being ignored? As the Minister knows, the “Stop AIDS” campaign coalition of non-governmental organisations wants the UK Government to champion the issue at next year’s G8 summit. Will they?

Mr. Thomas: Let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we do not support attempts to go beyond the TRIPS—trade-related intellectual property rights—deal that was negotiated last year. We are clear about that and, in particular, we want American drug companies to desist from advocating such attempts. We think that there are many positive moves to implement the flexibilities agreed under TRIPS—the recent decision by the Thai Government, for example, is particularly interesting. The Brazilian Government, too, have used flexibilities under the TRIPS deal to negotiate lower prices, but we certainly do not support any attempt to go beyond that deal.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend is well aware that tuberculosis is still rife in poor countries and that new strains are making the disease more serious. New drugs are being developed, but will he ensure that they are available to poor countries through our DFID programmes?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the emergence of worrying strains of extreme drug-resistant TB. As a result, we were asked to provide further funding to help the World Health Organisation “Stop TB” programme to carry out more research intonew drugs, and we have recently provided a further£1.6 million, bringing our total support for the WHO programme to about £7 million. I share my hon. Friend’s view that new drugs need to be developed urgently to
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help combat extreme drug-resistant TB and that we need significant improvement in the management of TB control programmes, because poor management of them contributes to TB strains being untreatable.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Will the Minister accept that we need not only to reduce the price of drugs for all AIDS victims but to target marginalised groups, such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and prisoners, to ensure that they have access to programmes that will help them to stop being the drivers of the epidemic? Only in that way will we reverse and eliminate the rising scourge of AIDS.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We not only need to get the price of drugs down; a series of other measures are needed to make drugs better available to all who need them. He is right to say that there must be an increased focus on marginalised groups, such as men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and people in prison.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that access to cheaper reproductive health commodities is also vital to reduce morbidity and mortality, particularly in Africa, where 500,000 women die every year from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right to say that there is a considerable shortage of sexual and reproductive health commodities in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. That is one of the reasons why we work as closely as we do with the United Nations Population Fund and with the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The UNFPA is leading a process to discover what more we can do to increase the supply of reproductive health commodities. We are co-operating extremely closely in that work.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Secretary of State and his Minister know that many developing countries are still imposing tariffs and taxes on the importation of life-saving medicines. As part of his efforts to revive the Doha trade round, what steps is the Minister taking to encourage the removal of what are effectively killer tariffs and thereby reduce the costs for poor people?

Mr. Thomas: As the hon. Gentleman knows, a whole series of steps are under way to try to inject new momentum into the World Trade Organisation round. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has held a series of conversations with the key players to get some movement. We are pleased that Pascal Lamy, the head of the WTO, has restarted the negotiations. We need all sides to give ground. On the specific issue of additional taxes and tariffs placed on essential medicines, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need greater transparency about their impact, which is one of the reasons why we are in discussions with a series of developing countries, a series of pharmaceutical companies and, indeed, other players about what further steps we can take to increase that transparency on taxes and tariffs.

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Mr. Mitchell: I thank the Minister for that constructive reply. While we all rightly focus on the availability of inexpensive drugs and medicines, is it not the case that inadequate attention is being paid to delivering them on a continuing basis on the ground to people in remote areas who urgently need them? Will the Minister reassure the House that he is absolutely seized of that point and is focusing on those delivery mechanisms?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights a key issue. If we are to get cheaper drugs into rural areas and to people who find it difficult to get access to them more widely, we need to improve the quality of health systems more generally in many developing countries. We are working to improve those health systems. For example, we are actively working with the Government of Malawi to pay for an increase in the number of nurses and doctors over a six-year period. We are increasing the nurses’ salary, and since April, when the programme came into effect, we have seen a slow but significant increase in the number of nurses being recruited. That gives us hope that we will see the key essential drugs being delivered to where they need to go.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What progress is being made in ensuring that children get proper access to cheap drugs? In particular, what progress has been made in preparing paediatric antiretroviral formulae and antibiotics for babies and infants at risk of acquiring HIV?

Mr. Thomas: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s campaigning work on these issues. She will already be aware of the research that we fund into finding a more effective paediatric version of antiretroviral therapy. She may also be aware of the funding that we provide to the new international drug purchase facility, UNITAID. She may have heard the recent announcement that, together with the Clinton Foundation, UNITAID has been able to negotiate significantly lower prices for the existing paediatric versions of antiretroviral therapy. We welcome that, but we recognise that there is much more to do if we are to find the essential medicines most appropriate to the needs of children and if we are to get them where they need to go.

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