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7 Mar 2007 : Column 462WH—continued

The scale of the challenges is enormous and it is worth mentioning one or two stark statistics: 80 per cent. of the population live on less than 30 cents a day;
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80 per cent. have no access to safe water; 70 per cent. have no access to any form of health care. Those are enormous challenges, not just for the new Government of the DRC, but for the country’s political make-up and for the international donor community. The UK, and DFID in particular, have made a significant contribution to the electoral success in the DRC and the progress made on trying to reconstruct the country.

I want to focus on two or three issues to try to extract from the Secretary of State the UK Government’s current position. The first is security sector reform, without which it will be very difficult for the democratically elected Government to make significant progress. The army needs to be apolitical and to draw recruits from all ethnic groups. That should be a priority for President Kabila. Unfortunately, there are signs that things seem to be moving in the other direction and 80 per cent. of the human rights abuses against civilians are committed by the DRC army. That is particularly a result of irregular army pay and poor living conditions, which often make it impossible to survive without extracting additional income. That is often expropriated from local people, and the situation urgently needs to be addressed.

Funding for the security forces also needs to be tackled. It has recently been estimated that up to half the army payroll is embezzled in corruption. President Kabila retains a presidential guard of between 10,000 and 15,000, which is significantly better paid than other army units and ethnically based. Reform is needed to create an ethnic balance and financial parity, which would reduce distrust and division in the DRC.

Many informed commentators, including the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution, have suggested that the only way to tackle the problem effectively is to allocate one donor or international institution to take overall control and responsibility for the reform. What discussions have the Secretary of State or his officials had to try to progress that idea?

The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) rightly highlighted the issue of child soldiers, which remains a significant problem, and mentioned the figure of 11,000. Very little progress has been made by CONADER, the body charged with reintegrating child soldiers. I reiterate the hon. Gentleman’s question about what changes the Secretary of State and the Department are making to CONADER, what reforms are being put in place and how quickly the reintegration can happen to ensure not just that the children are reintegrated in civil society, but that that is done sustainably, so that they can maintain livelihoods for themselves and their future families.

Sadly, like much of sub-Saharan Africa, the DRC is significantly adrift from the millennium development goals. I gave some statistics earlier, but there are terrible health problems, including 1 million people infected with HIV. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) rightly highlighted the prevalence of malaria, which accounts for 45 per cent. of deaths among children. The DRC has the highest child mortality rate in the world.

What work is the Secretary of State doing with other donor parties, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to
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ensure that there is significant harmonisation with the newly elected Government to get the maximum and fastest possible impact for the benefit of the people of the DRC? I think I am right in saying that there is no DFID country assistance plan for the DRC. Perhaps the Secretary of State will say whether one is being written and, if it is, when it will be finished. It is essential that the people of the DRC who went out of their way to participate in the democratic elections—the first for 40 years—should see some benefit from those elections as fast as possible. Quick impact projects are therefore important.

The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was right to highlight the importance of the private sector and the development of a sustainable economy. That will provide jobs and create the wealth needed to generate revenue for the Exchequer of the DRC, enabling it to become less dependent on aid and donations from the international community. That, of course, depends absolutely on the lessening—and, I hope, the eradication—of corruption, which, sadly, is deeply entrenched at every level of society. It has been estimated that up to 80 per cent. of the customs revenue was embezzled. A quarter of the national budget was not accounted for and millions of dollars were misappropriated in the army. An important part of resolving that problem is the creation of accountability and transparency, and ensuring that the judiciary is independent, with the resources to allow it to investigate significant allegations.

As to natural resource extraction, the hon. Member for Islington, North rightly highlighted the importance of transparency of contracts, and the hon. Member for City of York was also right to point out the growing and renewed interest from the national and international mining corporations. Transparency is obviously needed in that context so that the revenue raised by the export of those raw materials benefits the Congolese people in a way that is accountable.

However, in addition to accepting the importance of those issues, the Secretary of State should encourage other types of business—not just the export of raw materials. Infrastructure is very limited in the DRC and needs to grow significantly. Assistance is needed for the building of structures to ensure that revenue is generated. I know that there is very limited road infrastructure, but electrification of rural areas is needed, as is, where that is not possible, the installation of new technology such as solar-powered systems that will enable communities to avoid dependence on national grid structures.

There has been significant concern from some NGOs that DFID may reduce its support for civil society after the elections. I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that that is not the case.

The elections were a significant step forward in the DRC’s history. The DRC has potential not just because of its natural resources, but because of the dynamic nature of its people and their aspirations for the future—given a chance. There is an enormous agenda to be discussed, including issues that we have not had a chance to talk about today, such as the President’s decentralisation agenda, legal reform and state reconstruction, the role of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission and the possible establishment of a country-specific committee. Also,
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regional, pan-African and international trade are important ways to promote economic growth in the DRC.

Britain must play its role in encouraging political and economic stability, as well as the all-important rule of law, to encourage inward direct investment alongside an ongoing commitment, via DFID, to the DRC. We shall support that.

10.49 am

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on securing the debate, and I congratulate her and other hon. Members on their interest in the Congo. I pay tribute to the all-party groups on the great lakes region and genocide prevention and on street children.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, the House of Commons probably would not have had a debate on the Congo. Britain certainly did not have a development programme there then. Those changes are testament to the fact that people have begun to understand the scale of the disaster that has affected that country, as well as its need for support and the importance of providing that support.

We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) and for City of York (Hugh Bayley), and from the Opposition spokespeople, the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), that the challenges facing the Democratic Republic of the Congo are enormous—almost beyond belief. The country has been shattered by decades of misrule and two devastating wars, in which 4 million people died.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley asked for clear reassurance about the degree of our commitment and whether we are there for the long term. I am happy to give that reassurance, and I point to the evidence. The first time I visited the Congo, the Department for International Development had three staff. We now have 34, and that number will rise to 35. The development programme budget has also risen from about £3.5 million to £4 million at that time to £67 million this year. It will be £70 million next year, and is one of our largest programmes in Africa. If that is not evidence of commitment, I do not know what is.

I agree with all hon. Members who talked about the hunger for peace that the people of the DRC expressed by voting in very large numbers in those two extraordinary election rounds. I pay tribute to hon. Members who went out there on behalf of the international community to help to oversee that process. I am also proud of Britain’s role in that process as the largest funder. The real challenge for President Kabila and Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga is whether they will be able to respond to the incredibly high expectations that the people have after casting their votes in large numbers. The Government have only just come into being because Ministers got to work only last week, following their appointments.

The new Government programme that was adopted by the National Assembly on 24 February is a reasonable start and says the right things. It states:

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In the end, they will, like all Governments, be judged on what they do, and not so much on what they say.

The really difficult problem is that everything needs to be done there, so the Government face hard choices and need to prioritise, as does DFID. As a significant donor—we are shortly to become the largest bilateral donor—we must work with other partners and bilateral donors, the international community, the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Commission and others to divvy up the contribution that we can make to help the Government meet those priorities.

I agree that we need a mechanism to replace CIAT, which has come to an end because there is now a sovereign elected Government. It is important that we find a way to ensure that the conversation with, and support for, the elected Government from the international community and donors continues.

I shall respond to the points that have been raised and set out our future thinking. Clearly, a Government’s first priority is to ensure the safety of their people, but, for reasons that we understand, that is not yet the case in the DRC. Its Government have to make army integration happen. We have supported EUSEC in trying to deal with the problem of money going astray to pay ghost soldiers. We have also made funding available to provide some incentive to the military forces to go through the integration process, so that they have shelter, clothing and support when they come out. However, the Government of the DRC need to take the lead. The World Bank is leading the current DDR programme on the donor side, and we are working with UNICEF to treat child soldiers as an urgent and special case to be dealt with through the multi-country DDR programme. We have contributed an additional £5 million to that project. I hope that that answers the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness. The second priority is to have a police service that provides security, and the third is to have a credible justice system. It is likely that DFID will focus on reforming both of those systems.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness and others spoke about MONUC. I join them in paying tribute to MONUC and to Bill Swing. As I told him when he came to see me last week, it has done an extraordinary job in very challenging circumstances. I want to make absolutely clear the Government’s position that MONUC should maintain its current troop levels for the time being, because there is a continuing need for it to oversee security. Any draw-down over time should be based on improvements in security.

While I am talking about security, I shall briefly address the case of Marie-Thérèse Nlandu. Andy Sparkes has raised that case several times with a number of people in the Government, including, most recently, President Kabila.

Another priority is to strengthen accountability, because elections alone do not make a democracy. We want to support the new independent electoral commission, Parliament and the provincial assemblies. I agree with the comments that have been made about the need to reach out to the Opposition in the DRC.

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DFID’s funding for civil society and non-governmental organisations will go up, not down. It will focus increasingly on working with NGOs to provide services so that people begin to see a democratic dividend. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North about the role of women. As ever, I am happy to meet a delegation if he wants to bring them to see me.

What matters now for people in the Congo is that they see some change as a result of the votes that they have cast. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked about education. I am happy to write to her with more detail, but we are currently supporting, through the humanitarian pool fund, 50,000 vulnerable children so that they receive education. We are working with Catholic Relief Services on that. We are planning a major programme, with the World Bank, to help to reduce school fees, which she will know are a major obstacle to children going to school. We are also planning a community-driven reconstruction programme to help to rebuild local infrastructure, which will include schools in rural areas.

On health care, we will be doing more on water and sanitation. In the past two weeks, one in five children in the Congo will have had diarrhoea because of the lack of clean water. One of the programmes that we will be working on will provide clean water to 500,000 people in Mbuji-Mayi. We are also working with UNICEF to extend access to clean water to a larger number of people across the country.

I was asked specifically about education in fragile states. Our spending on that has trebled in the past three years. In the White Paper, we made a commitment to do more in such states, but we need their Governments, including in the DRC, to come up with plans to improve education, so that they can be supported. We are also investing in roads, because they will help with economic development.

The DRC is blessed with great natural resources that have been raped and pillaged, and from which the people have not benefited. The hon. Lady, in particular, asked what we are going to do about that. We are going to work with USAID on a programme to encourage better corporate governance in the minerals sector, and we will support the Government of the DRC in implementing the extractive industries transparency initiative. We are also contributing to the multi-donor trust fund on forestry, and we support a continuing moratorium.

On sanctions, we have played an important role in sanctioning particular individuals, through the UN Security Council, who have violated the arms embargo. We are pushing to extend the list of those who are subject to sanctions, and the UK national contact point has made statements about three of the companies that were highlighted by the UN panel.

We will continue to offer a lot of humanitarian assistance in the Congo. This is the most important opportunity that the country has had for almost half a century to achieve something better. As we heard, it is clear that people have a burning hope for a better future. We must help them to achieve that.

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Eating Disorders

11 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I requested the debate because in the city of Norwich there are two eating disorders associations. There is first the Norfolk Eating Disorders Association, which spends a lot of time consulting and counselling people in its open surgeries. It is full not only of patients and people who are suffering but of carers, who have a major problem as well. Families and friends come independently and get advice and so on from the association, which is fanning out into Yarmouth and other parts of the county.

The other major eating disorders association is the national one, which represents those with problems across the country and has a phone line system, counselling and so on. It has recently changed its name from the Eating Disorders Association to “beat”. I remember the meeting in which we said, “Stop being negative about disorders. Let’s get after it and do something about it.” That is why I am here—to urge the Minister to consider the problem and what we can do about it.

Some harrowing pictures have been produced of individuals who have lost weight and had problems with eating. I do not want to discuss them too much, because the problem is not just about the physical body. There are also mental problems for individuals who use food as a comfort in trying to tackle their daily problems. It controls one aspect of their lives if they use food to try to cope with the emotional difficulties that they are going through. There may be several causes of eating disorders—we just do not know. One thing written in the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines, which I will discuss, is that more research needs to be done. I hope that the Government will respond to that.

Eating disorders primarily affect young women aged 18 to 25, but of course not always. They also affect older women, and an increasing number of men are afflicted by anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. There are cross-governmental issues that we need to consider to get a whole-society approach to the problem. Low esteem among our young people is often a problem, and reports from various organisations and UNICEF studies have put Britain at the bottom of league tables. We can argue about the figures until the cows come home, but we know that they can be better. That is the message that we have all received. There are a lot of unhappy young people out there—as well as old people in here—and for many of them that sadly leads to the problems in question.

We must link the issue with balanced school meals and sport activities so that young people can get some esteem and pride in what they are doing. There is nothing like running around and getting a few endomorphines in the body to feel better and healthy instead of continually having to worry about weight.

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