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7 Mar 2007 : Column 456WH—continued

I will quickly mention some of the key points that I believe are relevant. One of the main causes of the suffering endured by former child soldiers and street children in the DRC is corruption. There is a contempt for children’s rights on the part of politicians, officials, the police and the military, and children are regularly subjected to extortion, beatings and worse. Round-ups of street children by officials are extremely violent. Our Government are committed to action on corruption, but they now need to ensure that the relevant
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institution is created and action is taken. They must give greater priority to tackling not only corruption, but impunity—particularly now that the DRC has a new Government. That should be at the top of the list for our Government and for the international community, and should go hand in hand with security sector reform and a widening of the democratic space. We cannot afford to leave that process until afterwards because, frankly, nothing can succeed without it.

Targeted sanctions need to be imposed against individuals and organisations that abuse the rights of marginalised children in the DRC. Some of those sanctions could include visa restrictions or the freezing of assets, including at European level.

Our Government have a valuable role to fulfil in the DRC and internationally. We should push for a clear strategy to be adopted at all levels and mobilise support for a cross-sectoral body, involving the state, civil society and the media. We can use our influence to secure funding, and I hope that the Secretary of State will do so.

I want to raise one or two issues in relation to vulnerable women and marginalised children. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned education. When the all-party group considered that, it recognised that a no-fee schooling system would not necessarily reach all children because they often look after younger children or even work to support their families. Adolescent street children are often perceived negatively by teachers and are excluded from school. They are sometimes not happy in schools that have much younger children. However, education is vital for such children and, combined with livelihood development, it is key to providing an escape from living on the street. In the DRC, education is also crucial to combating the belief in witchcraft, which the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned. Witchcraft is the source of much trouble for many children.

I round off by saying to the Secretary of State that in the DRC and internationally our Government can play a valuable role in raising some of the issues that I have mentioned. It is important to push for the development of a strategy that can be delivered in the DRC and we should raise that with the World Bank and other agencies, particularly those involved in the reform and development of education in the DRC. We should use our influence in the DRC and internationally to secure more funding, which is vital for future developments. We should also ensure that NGOs and marginalised groups, particularly children and women, are fully involved in the delivery and monitoring of the developments that we and the people of the DRC wish to see. I hope that he will take some of those issues on board and respond to them.

10.20 am

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on securing the debate. I had the good fortune to travel with her in July to the DRC to observe the first round of the presidential election and the National Assembly elections. It is hard to overstate the importance of the DRC to Africa’s development. I think that, geographically, it is the second biggest country in Africa; it is certainly huge. It is situated at the heart of Africa, has a population of 60 million
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people and is strategically important: it is surrounded by eight other countries, and the conflict in the past decade in the DRC spilled over into many of them. Its neighbours’ borders stretch to the Red sea in the case of Sudan, to the Indian ocean in the case of Tanzania and to the Atlantic ocean in the case of Congo-Brazzaville and Angola—although, of course, the DRC has a very short Atlantic coastline all of its own.

The DRC is mineral rich, but it has virtually no infrastructure—no roads. It has poor schools, and few schools in rural areas. It has poor health services. It suffered 40 years of corrupt kleptocratic government and a decade of conflict, which, as my hon. Friend reminded us, cost 4 million lives.

The UK has been right to take the initiative of making the DRC a key partner for development assistance, despite the fact that we do not have historical links with the DRC. Despite Henry Morton Stanley’s exploration, we have not, as a colonial power, had the historical relationship with the DRC that we have with many other parts of Africa. Our Government are right to concentrate on peace building and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the former fighters from the conflict, because without peace there can be no progress on democracy or development.

The UK has invested heavily in supporting institutions necessary for effective governance. We have supported the transitional Parliament, for instance. When the Select Committee on International Development visited the DRC in May of last year, the speaker of the National Assembly, Monsieur Luhaka, paid a comprehensive tribute to the UK and thanked the UK for helping the transitional Assembly to draft a new constitution and to work effectively. That was a challenge, because none of its members had ever been in a Parliament or an elected institution in their lives—not that they were elected; they were appointed to the transitional assembly. The big difference and change that the elections brought was just that—people were elected.

The UK is a major donor, a major development assistance partner, for the DRC. The latest DFID statistics, which record bilateral aid for 2004, show that the DRC was our second largest recipient of aid in that year, mainly because of large debt write-offs by the UK. Last year, we contributed £63 million. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, I pay tribute to our ambassador to the DRC, Andy Sparkes, and to Phil Marker, the head of the DFID office there. We talk in London about the assistance that we give to countries that are on the path from dictatorship to democracy and going through the process of economic development, but the work on the ground is done by very small teams of Brits, who work often in very difficult circumstances—the ambassador showed me a bullet hole in the wall of his residence. The difference that those people make to the quality of life for people in the countries where they work is enormous, and we owe them a debt of thanks.

The elections were a huge logistical achievement. About $500 million in foreign aid went into organising them, registering voters—which was a major UK exercise and achievement—training election observers and so on, although the greatest congratulations should of course go to the Congolese people, who did not have a tradition of elections. The elections last year were the first multi-party elections that they had had for 40
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years, yet they rose to the occasion. They knew what was required of them; they did it, and they successfully elected a president, National Assembly and regional government. That is a huge achievement, helped by aid from donor countries, but we must not rest on our laurels and allow the DRC to slide back into chaos and conflict, not only because that would be a huge waste of the money and resources that we have put in over recent years, but because it would condemn 60 million people to a life that, frankly, is hardly worth living and that we, as fellow human beings, should not tolerate.

The Congo’s future, however, does not depend on aid alone. Fundamentally, it depends on the leadership of the Congolese people and the contribution of the people themselves. Economically, it depends on the growing of a private sector. A viable economy in the Congo will never be created through aid, but if livelihoods are successfully to be provided for the ordinary people—the mass of the people, the poor of the Congo—business has to break with the traditions of the past. It must not be corrupt and must operate transparently. The extractive industries and the forestry industry have to operate in environmentally sensitive ways.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, as time passes and we see, I hope, a degree of economic development in the Congo in the coming years, it will remain very important to recognise the fact that about 70 per cent. of people living in the DRC depend in some way on the rain forest, that the land rights of those people must be respected and that the work of DFID and the round table on alternatives to logging, which has begun but has more work to do, is continued and stressed as the months and years pass?

Hugh Bayley: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why business, especially multinational business, must observe international standards when it becomes involved in the DRC, which it is increasingly doing because of the stability that the electoral process has created. I am thinking of standards such as those set by the Forest Stewardship Council. Newspapers report that more and more companies—for instance, Rio Tinto Zinc and Anglo American—are moving back or considering moving back into the DRC.

Today, at a breakfast meeting organised by the Royal African Society, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart posed the question: is it possible for a multinational company to thrive in a corrupt environment? I think that The Economist argues that it is, so long as the company itself does not engage in bribery and pays the taxes that are due, but Sir Mark said that it is not. He told us that corruption prevents businesses from operating efficiently, because it means that they are operating in an environment of poor infrastructure, low skills and unreliable services. He also said that, in a corrupt environment, companies will be blamed for the poor state of affairs, whether or not they contribute to it, and that is bad for their reputation. Finally, he said, very bluntly, “If you are a business leader and you bribe somebody, these days you can end up in prison,” and he cited the case of a senior western executive from an oil company who is serving a prison term.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is the co-ordinator of the Government’s anti-corruption programme, that we need carrots—such as
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the Forest Stewardship Council, the extractive industries transparency initiative and the Kimberley process—but we also need sticks. The Serious Fraud Office is investigating a number of cases of alleged transnational bribery by British companies or British citizens, and we need to start bringing those cases to court, as has been done for many years in the United States and as is done in France. Three years ago, the Government brought a draft anti-corruption Bill to Parliament—a new Bill needs to be brought back.

The Congo is at an important crossroads. Fragile democracy is more vulnerable than dictatorship or mature democracy to destabilisation through violent civil disorder. We need to give further attention to the electoral system and to support the new institutions, including the National Assembly. Aid is needed for the political parties, because a weak party system makes it much easier for the Government to divide the Opposition and marginalise Parliament. Jean-Pierre Bemba needs a real role as the leader of the Opposition. He lost the presidential election, but secured 42 per cent. of the vote, which entitles him to be seen as the elected leader of the Opposition.

10.30 am

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on securing such an important debate. The elections in 2006 were indeed a great step forward, but as everyone here has said, they were only a first step—the start, rather than the conclusion of a process—and they cannot, in themselves, achieve the social outcomes that are needed. The job now is to ensure that the positive momentum continues so that the democratic process and developmental change can take place in the DRC.

Time is short, so I shall concentrate on just two key issues, which other hon. Members have raised. Education lays the foundation for lasting peace and development by providing a whole generation with the skills that they need to build their country. Post-conflict, education offers people the skills that they need to rebuild their lives, but if it has been missing for years or for generations, as happened in some cases, the skills and capacity needed to establish civil society and economic prosperity simply will not be there.

At the last International Development Question Time, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) asked what investment the Government are making in the DRC to ensure that every child has access to the education that they deserve, and I recently had a reply to a written question on the issue. However, the answers to those questions were vague and suggested that there was no direct bilateral aid for 2005-06. Although the Government have undoubtedly given the DRC a great deal through other forms of aid, it is hard to understand what portion of the aid used by multilaterals or for budget support goes on projects to support children in education.

Save the Children and others have reported that the primary victims of the years of civil war are the children of the DRC. Recent figures revealed that more than 5 million children of primary school age are out of school, and the number of children in the DRC who are out of school is among the highest in the world. Given that the country is so fragile post-conflict, there is an ideal opportunity to introduce an initiative to demonstrate a
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commitment to children in post-conflict states. The Government are committed to education in the developing world, and I congratulate them on that, but less aid goes to conflict-affected and post-conflict states. We could use the issue to provide a shining example of the difference that such investment may make, as the DRC stabilises and, I hope, moves into a proper, democratic and stable environment in the years to come.

The other issue that I wish to address is the country’s wealth and natural resources. The DRC is blessed with huge potential wealth and vast natural resources, but as hon. Members have said, the need to reduce corruption is paramount if people are to have real confidence in the institutions that exist to serve them. In the recent war, fighting was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, and post-conflict a continuing cause of problems remains the desire of countries and groups to get their hands on the country’s rich natural resources—diamonds, gold, other rare metals and, in particular, coltan, which is used in mobile phones.

The challenge for the country’s Government is to ensure that those natural resources bring real benefits to all the people of the DRC, not simply to those who are corrupt. I would be grateful, therefore, if the Secretary of State outlined what the British Government are doing to address the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the country. Have they considered the link between exploitation and the continuation of the conflict?

The United Nations report issued in April 2001 noted that foreign armies were used in the conflict as an excuse to continue exploiting resources. It concluded that the illegal exploitation of mineral and forest resources was taking place “at an alarming rate”. In 2003, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) posed several questions on the issue to the Government. I shall pose his questions again, because I would like to know how much progress has been made.

My hon. Friend stated:

How far has that gone? He continued:

What progress has been made on that in the DRC? He went on:

the UK—

It is now years since those recommendations were made in the UN report, and I would be grateful if the
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Secretary of State said whether the Government have taken any steps to implement them.

Recently, thanks to the film “Blood Diamond”, we have all become more aware of the Kimberley process. Are there any plans to extend that process to other extractive industries?

To reiterate, I have highlighted those areas of concern because both are vital to the DRC’s long-term prospects. Often, the long-term vision on aid and development is swept aside by pressing short-term needs. Ironically, however, those short-term needs will never be met unless long-term strategies on issues such as education and tackling corruption are implemented.

10.38 pm

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on securing the debate and on her determination. Her remarks were excellent; she covered a big issue and summarised it extremely well.

The hon. Lady was right to highlight the part played by the Congolese people, as well as their determination, and right to link that to their aspirations and hopes for the future, particularly in the context of their country’s appalling past. She was also right to raise the dangers of regression and the fragile nature of democracy in the DRC and to highlight the fact that those involved have taken only the first, important step towards rebuilding the country. Furthermore, she was correct to mention the importance of the UK’s continuing commitment to assisting with the immense and numerous challenges that the DRC faces. She summarised many of those challenges in a particularly articulate way.

MONUC—United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—also needs to be congratulated on its impact in creating the atmosphere that enabled the first elections for 40 years to take place, because it played a major role in achieving stability. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State stated the UK position on the future of MONUC. There is pressure, particularly from the United States, to wind down the MONUC force, but it still has a significant role to play, especially as there are still significant forces from other countries—in particular, Rwanda and Uganda—on Congolese soil, as well as people in displaced persons camps who require disarming and repatriation. MONUC also has a significant role to play in reforming the Congolese armed forces.

The two main presidential candidates should be congratulated. There were difficulties, but to a great extent they managed to control and limit the violence that took place during the electoral process and that has taken place since. Despite the enormous challenges and issues faced by the country, the elected Government have made some limited progress and taken some steps, including moving to liberalise the economy, freeing up the currency, lifting foreign exchange restrictions and increasing Government revenues. The Government have been successful, for example, in controlling inflation. They have also signed up to the extractive industries transparency initiative and the Kimberley process with a view to overseeing control—far better control than in the past—of the critical mining and diamond industries.

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