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22 Mar 2007 : Column 361WH—continued

This is not just about prosecution; it is about a kind of cultural exchange. If the company is being investigated, it is not satisfactory that there appears to be no engagement between the DTI and the company in that process. I hope that what the Secretary of State has told us about the new co-ordinating methods will ensure that such a situation will not arise in future.

Hilary Benn: I very much hope that the new system will improve the operation of the process. That is why we have set up the new national contact point with the three Departments. That is why we have brought in the independent members, who are in the process of getting on to the panel—so that that wider view can be heard and precisely those questions about how the system has worked in the past and how it can be improved in the future can be asked. That will be a real step forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has had to leave us, but she made a very important point about the role that women can play, which is why I am proud that the UK is one of the first countries to develop an action plan under UN Security Council resolution 1725.

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Sierra Leone was mentioned in particular by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West, who made a very good point about the growth of the cities, including Freetown. The situation in Monrovia is the same. Conflict happens and people come to the cities, because things may be a bit more secure there and to look for a way of earning a living. That is one of the challenges.

Jobs are another issue. There is now relative peace and security in Sierra Leone, and Britain played a very important part in achieving that. I pay tribute to UNAMSIL—the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone—for the work that it did. It came, it pacified and secured and it has gone, but now that there is relative peace and security in Sierra Leone, where will people earn their living? There is a growing young population. The same is true of a number of other countries, and if people cannot find a way of fulfilling their potential and earning a crust, they may be vulnerable to those who stir up grievances and want to return to conflict.

What is the best thing that can be done to build on the foundation of peace and stability in Sierra Leone? The answer is creating the right climate, in which people from Sierra Leone and outside will want to come and invest their money, to get the economy going and to draw on Sierra Leone’s raw materials and natural resources. If we look back in time, we see that Sierra Leone was a pretty prosperous country relative to a number of its neighbours, which shows that it has been the failure of Governments and the conflict that have brought it to its knees and impoverished the people so much.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West asked about the Peacebuilding Commission. As hon. Members will know, Sierra Leone and Burundi are the locations of the first two pilots, and yes it does consult civil society organisations as well as those based in New York.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made a very good point about the nature of our support in the circumstances that we are discussing. He gave us credit, I think, for the decision that we took at the time to provide some of our funding to Sierra Leone in the form of direct budget support because of the needs of the situation, but I continue to reflect on the issue that he raised, because we need to ensure that we give our support in the right way in the right circumstances.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West asked about Iraq. It is tough going there, as we know. Our contribution, as he will be aware, has specifically been on reconstruction, water and electricity in the south. Let me describe the real challenge in Iraq. If the people can get peace and security, they have lots of natural resources and lots of wealth. If they can make the system work, there should be no difficulty in funding and supporting redevelopment there. However, as the current terrible conflict, the sectarian butchery and the suicide bombings demonstrate, lack of security is the principal obstacle.

We are a significant contributor to the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, which is not budget support, because it pays out only in response to certified expenditures. It pays for teachers’ salaries and those of other civil servants. There is progress: 4 million refugees have come back; 40 per cent. of the children in school now are girls. There are about 6 million children
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in school altogether, and 19 per cent. of the people in higher education are young women. The return of refugees is always a pretty good sign that things are improving.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes, who serves in every sense, both this House and in his service in Afghanistan, speaks with real authority and insight, and I could not agree more with his comments about the need to build local capacity. He highlighted the tension that is there between what is done by soldiers, who we ask to do a very difficult and demanding job, which sometimes involves killing people in the country that they have come into, and what we all know in the long term is required for the country to be able to prosper, which is the country and its own structures being able to act for themselves.

Some of the wells that the hon. Gentleman referred to have been dug as a result of quick-impact projects, but I pay tribute to the British military, because they did not use their engineers and say, “Right, we’ve got the capacity. We’ll go and do the wells.” Even with the quick-impact projects, they used and worked with Afghan contractors so that there was a greater local stake. The other wells that we dug were the result of the Helmand rural development programme and the Afghan authorities, which use Afghan contractors and labour.

Afghanistan has thrown into sharp relief some of the choices that we have to make about what we have to do first and when. It is an example of the pretty close working relationship between the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID, not least because the difficult security situation there has made it such.

Mr. Mitchell: Before the Secretary of State moves on from his discussion of Afghanistan, will he comment on suggestions that Britain is unlike other countries in that it channels its aid through the Afghan Government? Other countries channel far less through them. Is that true? If so, why is that the case?

Hilary Benn: Yes, it is the case. It is principally because the Government of Afghanistan asked us to do it that way precisely so that they have the capacity to deliver for their people in the way that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes talked about and so that their people look not to us, the Americans or other countries that are represented in Afghanistan, but to their own Government to build that capacity.

Mr. Lancaster: The point that I was making was that these matters are quite straightforward and easy in Helmand. There is still conflict, but the military are definitely in the lead there, so the triumvirate structure falls into a natural hierarchy. I am concerned about how that structure will work between the three Departments in other situations, such as that in Herat, where, as I tried to highlight, there is not a natural leader among the three Ds. How will we tackle that issue?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, because we have to learn from these experiences, some of which are new. In Helmand, we found ourselves in a situation that was more difficult
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than we had anticipated. All that I can say to him is that although we have not found all the solutions to working together effectively, the three Departments are unquestionably working more closely together than ever before. I am a practical soul; we need to look at what works and draw on experiences, including those of hon. Members who visit and serve there. If we have not got things right, we need to find ways of getting them right.

Mr. Mitchell: In his response to my earlier intervention, the Secretary of State explained that Britain is channelling more budgetary support than other countries to Afghanistan. Will he assure us that he is absolutely happy that the British taxpayer is getting value at the other end for every £1 of aid that we put in, and that the stories suggesting that some of the money is being siphoned off are untrue?

Hilary Benn: Just to be absolutely clear, we are not providing direct budgetary support to Afghanistan. We have put a significant amount of money into the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is a multi-donor trust fund and is managed by the World Bank on behalf of all the donors who put cash in. It pays out only in response to certified expenditure, so it is constructed precisely to give the assurance for which the hon. Gentleman asks—quite rightly, because it is a difficult country in difficult circumstances. Britain should be proud of its contribution. In putting that money in, I want to be sure, as does he, that the money gets to its intended destination.

On the arms trade treaty, which was mentioned by several hon. Members, the extra-territoriality rules on brokering apply to long-range missiles, WMD technologies, torture equipment and embargoed goods. The current review will consider whether, in the light of experience, that should change. Some 150 countries voted in favour of the treaty at the General Assembly in December, and a group of experts is being established and will report back in 2008. That is a tremendous result so far, and I assure the House that we will continue to press strongly on that issue. To some extent, it will wrap up some of the work that is being done on small arms and light weapons. There is also a separate UN programme of action on that, but, unfortunately, the July 2006 conference failed to reach agreement on it.

On assault rifles, any weapons in the country that someone proposes to take out of the country would have to go through the export licence process, so safeguards would apply. I must say that I have not heard before the statistics about arms sales that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West gave. My information is that aid to Africa is about £1 billion a year, and that UK military exports to International Development Association countries—I am not sure whether this includes just those in Africa or all IDA countries—are worth about £100 million a year. Some of the exports to Africa are for peacekeeping missions and sometimes involve dual-use goods. However, I am happy to look into those statistics further.

On Burma, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for his kind words about the work that we are doing there, and for the trip that he took and the way in which he reported back on the terrible sights that he saw there.

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On Darfur, which we have debated many times, I share the concerns that have been expressed. I am particularly concerned about the last-minute cancellation by the Government of Sudan of the humanitarian discussion that was scheduled for Monday. I spoke to the Foreign Minister on Monday lunchtime to express my profound displeasure about that. The new head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, is in Sudan now and will pursue the agreement that we need to allow the humanitarian relief operation to work, because the people there face enormous risks. We need to get the troops in, but President Bashir’s recent resiling from the agreement on the hybrid force is very worrying. We wish to increase sanctions upon him, but, in the end, we need a political settlement—and that we will pursue.

Mr. Drew: I know that it is not appropriate to look in detail at what the Prime Minister has written to Chancellor Merkel, but there comes a point at which what has been discussed between western Governments has to be made known, if for no other reason than to make it clear to those who have campaigned for some time for sanctions to be imposed on Khartoum. I simply wondered what timetable we might be working to.

Hilary Benn: We wish to press that. The arms embargo should be extended to the whole of Sudan. We are trying to get consensus in the international community to do that through the UN Security Council and to beef up the sanctions structure that we and others put in place by passing the UN Security Council resolution, so that where individuals are shown to have acted in a way that is contrary to the obligations, they feel the consequences.

Mr. Mitchell: May I reiterate a point that the Secretary of State made on Burma? In such states, people would lose out twice over were they not to receive any support or aid at all—of course, it would not be channelled through the Government there. In the past two years, he has been scaling up the effort inside Burma, and I very much hope that he will continue to do so, because the work that is being done to help the Burmese people to combat terrible diseases is enormously effective. I hope also that he will continue to ensure that the budget, which is very low, is increased in the coming years.

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Hilary Benn: I will just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, of the European countries, we are the largest donor to Burma. However, I recognise that its needs are considerable, and as we look at the comprehensive spending review and future profile of our spending, I promise to take into account the point that we were already aware of and that he makes as a result of his visit: there are still huge unmet needs in Burma.

My last point is that when we draw back from the specific cases that we have raised today and think about the impact of conflict on Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo, Kosovo, Sudan and many other countries, we do not yet have an effective international system for protecting people from genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. We are therefore unable to protect them from the development consequences of the continuing conflict in the lands in which they live. It is a really uncomfortable situation, and the international community is struggling to find the means that it needs.

I am a passionate multilateralist, who wants the institution that we created at the end of the second world war out of the ashes of terrible conflict, the United Nations, to be effective at doing the job, but there is a lack of will and means. For that reason, I am also a strong supporter of the regional efforts that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has mentioned. That also explains why we have been a strong supporter of the African Union, why we are helping it to establish the stand-by force and why we have given so much money to its mission in Darfur. The more that we can build capacity and find reliable ways of funding it—this is why I strongly support UN funding for the hybrid mission—the more we will begin to answer the question of what we should do when conflicts strike.

I shall end where the right hon. Member for Gordon began. He made the point well that because we are passionate about development, we must be equally passionate about dealing with conflict. The lives, future prospects and hopes of billions of our fellow human beings will depend on the extent to which we are successful in that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Five o’clock.

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