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House of Commons

Wednesday 28 February 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Millennium Development Goals

1. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What assessment he has made of the impact of population growth on the achievement of the millennium development goals. [123720]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Rapid population growth will affect the chances of achieving the millennium development goals in a number of countries, making it more difficult to provide the basic services that most people need. High fertility rates also have a negative impact on maternal and child health and on gender equality. About 200 million women who want to control their own fertility still do not have access to modern contraception.

Richard Ottaway: I know that the Secretary of State has read the all-party report on this subject, which concluded that the millennium development goals were difficult or impossible to achieve with current levels of population growth in the least developed countries. For example, while there is a target aiming to halve those living on less than a dollar a day, the numbers living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa are actually rising. Does the Secretary of State accept that present policies are not working and that, in truth, he has to up the funding for international family planning programmes?

Hilary Benn: I pay tribute to the all-party group, the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members for the role that they play in keeping this issue alive and for the excellent report that they published. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The evidence is very clear, which is why I mentioned in my reply the lack of access to contraception. If couples, particularly women, are given the right and ability to take decisions over their own fertility, we see family size falling. Bangladesh provides a really good example. In the past 20 years, the prevalence of contraceptive use in Bangladesh has increased from 3 per cent. to 54 per cent. and average family size has fallen from an average of seven children 20 years ago to 3.4 children now. I think that that makes the point about the need to do more.

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Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the new millennium development goal target for universal access to reproductive health by 2015? Does he agree that that would help to save the lives of the half a million women in Africa who die needlessly from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes every year, and that it would also help those families to choose the number and spacing of their children?

Hilary Benn: I certainly welcome that goal and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her contribution to this issue, which is widely recognised across the House. It is for precisely that reason that we are making some funding available to deal with this issue. We have programmes in Pakistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe; and we have large programmes on sexual and reproductive health and maternal health in India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Those are all examples of the help that we are trying to provide in order to achieve the goal to which my hon. Friend referred.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): While the Secretary of State is obviously right to place emphasis on the need to give women the right to choose and to gain access to birth control, does he not also acknowledge that there is a sort of Catch-22 situation here, in that the one thing that helps to reduce population growth is reduction in poverty? Effective poverty reduction strategies will also help to control the advance of population in many of the poorest countries.

Hilary Benn: The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, absolutely right. The other factor that history teaches us can bring down family size is people becoming better off. When they have an income, they are not so dependent on having a large number of children and very practical questions of social security are relevant. Who is going to look after people in their old age, and who is going to look after them when they are destitute? If they have no visible means of support, what do people traditionally do? They rely on having a large number of children in order to try to provide for that care and support. Giving women greater choice about their own fertility and continuing the fight against poverty are the two single most important things that we can do to help bring down the rate of population growth. As the report of the all-party group makes very clear, that rate of growth threatens to undermine progress in the fight against poverty in some countries.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): It is accepted that the world’s population will grow by 50 per cent. by 2050 and that 99 per cent. of the growth will be in developing countries. Worryingly, there is no mention of specific population policy either in DFID’s White Paper or the latest departmental report, yet there is a clear correlation between high child mortality rates and rapid population growth, to counteract which requires investment in child health, girls’ education, access to water and sanitation, female employment and family planning and contraception. Will the Secretary of State ensure that explicit reference to population growth is mentioned in each country assistance plan so that it details the impact of population growth on expenditure and on the delivery of DFID’s poverty alleviation projects?

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Hilary Benn: I am happy to reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. However, as my earlier answers suggested and as he will find in both the White Paper and the departmental report, DFID is already on the case and taking action on the issues that he listed in his question as necessary to be addressed in order to deal with the problem of population growth. We are doing so because, for the reasons that I set out, it is right and also because it will have the additional beneficial effect of moderating what would otherwise be an increase in population that some countries would find very difficult to deal with.

World Classroom Initiative

2. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the progress of the world classroom initiative. [123721]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The world classroom booklet was produced in January to promote the value of school partnerships and give guidance for schools on how to go about setting up the partnerships. There are some 600 partnerships in existence already and we have put in place the funding to support up to 1,800 UK schools to build such links with developing countries over the next three years.

Gordon Banks: I thank the Minister for his reply. I take it that he would join me in encouraging other hon. Members to involve their local schools in this programme. More importantly, does he agree that there is a real need for the overseas partner schools to have equal access to the funding for the programme, so that the overseas children can get real benefits from it, as well as the children in the UK?

Mr. Thomas: I join my hon. Friend in encouraging Members of all parties to consider what they can do to encourage schools in their constituencies to take an interest in forming such links. I also share his view that we must ensure that there is a benefit not only for UK schools but for the schools that they will be partnered with, if the maximum benefit is to be achieved for children in the developing countries as well as for children here in the UK. The scheme allows for guidance and support for schools here in the UK and for the schools that they are partnering.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I commend the Minister for this excellent scheme. Has he given any thought to having discussions about it with the Department for Education and Skills? Would it not encourage more UK schools to take up the scheme, for the benefit of their own pupils as well as those elsewhere in the world, if Ofsted were to place some emphasis on these links—and the quality of the links—in its assessment of a school’s overall performance? Would not that help to take the project forward?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the potential role of Ofsted. We already work closely with the Department for Education and Skills, and we are discussing with it whether we need to give further joint guidance to
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schools on how they can best develop such links. The links are best developed and nurtured by individual teachers in individual schools. We have recently doubled the funding available to expand the number of links that can be supported. We need to allow the scheme to develop a little further, but I will reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I would also encourage as many Members as possible to get involved with the schools in their constituencies that are taking part in the scheme, to ensure that we build on its success. I know that we have such schools in my own constituency. Will my hon. Friend look into extending the remit of the programme to ensure that the whole of the local community can become involved? It is important for children to learn in the first place, but involving the wider community in more transnational interlinked projects between the countries would strengthen and build on those links. The children would not then simply leave school and leave all those links behind, because the entire community and the families involved could take the projects forward and make a meaningful difference.

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will be aware from his interest in twinning that there are all sorts of relationships between institutions such as NHS trusts, hospitals and local authorities here and their counterparts in developing countries. We have made it clear in the White Paper, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published last year, that we want to extend the opportunities to develop such links, and we are thinking through what those twinning programmes might look like. We shall consult shortly on how we can take forward such work. My hon. Friend also makes the important point that, if the community is involved in the development of the school link, it will obviously help to spread the benefits of the link even further.


3. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Darfur. [123722]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The humanitarian situation in Darfur is extremely fragile. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of United Nations and humanitarian agencies, the 4 million people dependent on aid in the region have been helped. However, worsening security and attacks on humanitarian workers have made this increasingly difficult to sustain. I am sure that the whole House will wish to condemn the continuing violence against civilians and humanitarian workers in Darfur, and to call on all sides to stop, to accept the African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force, and to restart negotiations.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he agree that the west collectively has not done enough to tackle the violence in Darfur, which has seen more than 200,000 people murdered and 2.5 million people displaced? Does he further agree that, if we had done
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more, the conflict would not have spread to Chad and the Central African Republic, and the UN would not now be warning that the violence in Chad could turn into a genocide similar to that in Rwanda?

Hilary Benn: It is difficult to say whether, if more had been done earlier, the upsurge in violence that we have seen in Chad and what is going on in the Central African Republic would not have come to pass. But I agree that, as the world reflects on the crisis in Darfur, it throws into sharp relief the difficulty that we have in finding effective means, through the United Nations, of protecting people who are subject to those crimes. I praise the African Union for the efforts that it has made with the 6,500 or so troops that it has there. I am proud of the fact that the first country in the world to provide financial support to that mission was the United Kingdom and that we are the second largest giver of humanitarian assistance to the people of Darfur. The point that the hon. Gentleman raises is precisely why we are now seeking to get a hybrid AU-UN mission in, with many more troops—17,000 troops and 3,000 police—to provide the security that people want. Finally, the only way in which the conflict will be brought to an end is by means of a political process, and we have to support that too.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all that he has done, but does he share my concern following yesterday’s announcement of the citing of two further people by the International Criminal Court? If we are serious about what we are going to do with regard to Darfur, those citations need to be followed up. However, we must look carefully at what is happening in terms of the humanitarian situation, because that is the very reason why those people have been cited.

Hilary Benn: I welcome what the International Criminal Court has done. Clearly, there is a process that has to be gone through. The judges have to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to issue a summons against the two individuals who were named yesterday. The ICC was able to do that only because the UN Security Council passed resolution 1593, which the United Kingdom Government and others supported very strongly. It is important that the ICC does that work, both to call to account people in Darfur for what they may have done and to send a message to other people around the world who might be thinking of doing the same in the future that they cannot escape international justice.

On the point about humanitarian assistance, the recent attacks, the carjackings and the appalling brutality inflicted on the aid workers in Nyala in January, about which I have had cause to write to the Sudanese Foreign Minister, demonstrate precisely why the aid agencies are finding it more difficult to operate. Those attacks, that harassment and those carjackings have to stop.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that no fewer than 14 United Nations agencies have warned that malnutrition rates are edging perilously close to the emergency threshold and that they attribute the severity of the situation quite specifically to the absence of security, will the Secretary of State tell
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the House whether he thinks that there is the slightest prospect of an adequately resourced United Nations or AU force being deployed before the genocide has been completed?

Hilary Benn: In relation to the AU-UN hybrid force, which we got agreement on at the meeting in Addis Ababa at the end of November and which President Bashir said, in a letter to the outgoing UN Secretary-General in December, that he was prepared to accept, 77 of the UN troops are currently in Darfur as part of the first phase of that deployment. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is simple: we, as the international community, have to test the Government of Sudan’s willingness to accede to those troops arriving at every single stage. However, that is insufficient. We need to do two other things. First, we need to extend the arms embargo that applies to Darfur to the whole of Sudan. We will be pressing both in the UN and with our European partners to get support for that. Secondly, we also have the resolution providing for sanctions against individuals, and notwithstanding the process relating to the International Criminal Court, we should press for further sanctions against individuals who are obstructing the humanitarian relief operation and thus giving rise to the concerns that he expressed.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that despite his considerable efforts, there is huge concern and frustration as we reach the fourth anniversary of the crisis in Darfur that, despite the merry-go-round of endless summits, negotiations, meetings and assurances, there is still no effective force on the ground? Every leading non-governmental organisation that is involved in trying to help in these desperate circumstances says that humanitarian access in Darfur is the worst that it has ever been.

Hilary Benn: I do accept that and I share the frustration that the hon. Gentleman expresses. There cannot be a Member in the House who does not feel frustrated about what is happening, but the question is: what is the right thing to do to try to change the situation? That is, as I indicated a moment ago, to support the AU and the UN in getting the forces in. We need to support the political process, and I welcome what Jan Eliasson and Salim Salim, representing the UN and the AU, are doing. They were in Sudan last week talking to the non-signatories. We need to recognise that this is also about saying something to the rebels, because it takes two to have a fight. The rebels who did not sign the Darfur peace agreement in Abuja in May last year also bear a heavy responsibility for the continuing violence and humanitarian suffering that the hon. Gentleman highlights.

Mr. Mitchell: Since the Prime Minister told listeners to the “Today” programme last week that he was in favour of “tough action” on Sudan, and given the similar comments made by the former French Prime Minister yesterday, will the Secretary of State use the opportunity of the European Union General Affairs and External Relations Council next week to press for new determination in the EU, in close conjunction with the United States, to enforce the no-fly zone, to extend
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the travel ban, to impose an asset freeze, and to give the strongest possible support to the ICC in its pursuit of those suspected of crimes against humanity in Darfur? Would not those actions send a more compelling message to the regime in Khartoum?

Hilary Benn: We intend to use the occasion of next week’s meeting to press our partners for tougher action against the Government of Sudan. We have said—the Prime Minister has made this clear—that we continue to keep the no-fly zone under review, although actually bringing it into effect would be a major undertaking. We should be prepared to examine all measures that would have an impact on the Government of Sudan, because they must hear from all the international community—not just from the United Kingdom or the United States of America—that we are determined that they will be held to account to ensure that they do all the things that they have claimed that they are prepared to do. It would help enormously if Europe could speak with one voice on this.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree with Sally Chin of Refugees International, who has said that the world has given the African Union

the civilians of Darfur?

Hilary Benn: I am not sure that I quite agree with that because, as I said a moment ago, I pay tribute to the efforts that the African Union has made by putting troops and police officers on the ground. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the fundamental problem is that there are not enough of them. That is why we are supporting the hybrid AU-UN mission, which, with the numbers that were calculated in the summer, would eventually result in 17,000 troops and 3,000 police being in Darfur, as opposed to the 6,500 people who are there at present. The British Government are continuing to provide financial support to the African Union mission. We announced further funding at the beginning of January, and we have helped to pay for air lifts and fuel and to provide vehicles. That is the practical way in which we are trying to help the AU.

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