Previous Section Index Home Page

However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was informed earlier today that an agreed way forward to devolution has now been
26 Mar 2007 : Column 1158
found. The leaders of the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein—the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams)—met for very the first time this morning at Stormont, and have agreed to participate in a power-sharing agreement on 8 May. Right hon. and hon. Members will recognise the extraordinary significance of that. Many in the House and beyond would never have expected such a development in their lifetimes. The fact that it has been achieved is a tribute not only to the work of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State but to their predecessors in both Labour and Conservative Administrations who, throughout the past 35 years, worked tirelessly to bring about a settlement that would allow devolution to be restored and to end direct rule in Northern Ireland. Most importantly, it is a tribute to the commitment of all the political parties in Northern Ireland.

This morning, following their meeting, the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein together asked Her Majesty’s Government to introduce emergency legislation immediately to give effect to their agreement. To achieve that within the framework put in place last November by Parliament in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, it is essential that the necessary changes to that Act be made by midnight tomorrow. I am therefore proposing to the House a change to the Order Paper tomorrow to allow a very short technical Bill to be considered to put the necessary changes in place. My noble Friend the Chief Whip in the Lords will make a similar request in the other place.

I appreciate that this is an exceptional situation—but these are exceptional circumstances. If the representatives of Unionism, republicanism and nationalism can reach agreement on what the whole House will hope will be a final political settlement in Northern Ireland through a shared future, it is right that this House should do all that it can to facilitate that in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. A Bill will therefore be put before the House tomorrow with the aim of Royal Assent before midnight. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will cover all the key points during consideration of the Bill, I am sure that the whole House will understand that tomorrow’s oral statement, of which I gave notice last Thursday, will now not take place.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): As the Leader of the House has said, this is a significant day for Northern Ireland, and we welcome the fact that agreement has been achieved, and that devolution will now be restored in Northern Ireland. As the Leader of the House has done, I pay tribute to all those, across Governments and parties, who have worked to that end. We, too, want the legislation passed through Parliament, and we will co-operate to ensure that it gets through in the required time.

Important though the new emergency legislation is for Northern Ireland, the Leader of the House’s statement has implications for the rest of our business this week. The introduction of a new Bill tomorrow will have particular implications for our debate on the Budget. What is proposed will cut short that debate, especially were the Government to meet the
26 Mar 2007 : Column 1159
expectation of many right hon. and hon. Members for a statement on the capture of armed forces by Iran.

Why does the Leader of the House intend to cut debate on the Budget short? Surely we should ensure that the time for that debate is protected, and he has options to do that. He could, of course, extend the time for debate tomorrow. Preferably, Parliament’s sitting this week could be extended: we could sit on Friday, or on Monday of next week. Agreement in Northern Ireland, and agreement on a restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, is a significant step, but should not be an excuse for the Government to ride roughshod over Parliament and shorten debate on the Budget. We welcome the agreement, and we will co-operate in getting the legislation through, but I urge the Leader of the House to look again at the order of business for this week.

Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. Lady for her welcome, on behalf of the Opposition, for the principle of what we propose tomorrow. As I said in my opening statement, we pay tribute to the Conservative Administrations and Opposition for the constructive part that they have played in achieving what is a historic moment. I reassure the right hon. Lady and the Opposition, who I know are anxious to debate every last detail of the Budget, as, indeed, are we, that we are ready to extend tomorrow’s parliamentary day by a significant amount. The timing can be agreed between the usual channels in the usual constructive way. I hope that that helps the House. We will also consider whether to make a statement on Iran.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, thank the Leader of the House for his brief statement. What has been achieved in Northern Ireland appears to be both extraordinary and welcome news, and we very much hope that it comes to fruition. It is right to put on record our appreciation to all concerned, in all parties, who have worked so hard to achieve a result.

The Liberal Democrats have been sceptical about deadlines. We were sceptical last time, and we would be even more sceptical were another deadline to be reached and passed without resolution. I believe that the country would expect us to put aside any consideration of the order of business in order to accommodate what might be an historic settlement, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that that must not, and need not, be at the expense of giving proper consideration to the Budget. Do I understand from what the Leader of the House said that he will fully protect the time set aside for the Budget debate tomorrow? If not, will he consider having a later sitting on Wednesday so that we can conclude the Budget debate and the Divisions on the Budget resolutions without losing any of the time that has been set aside for the other matters that are due to be debated on that day? It would be extremely helpful if he were to make that clear.

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. As for scepticism about deadlines, I think that the whole House will agree that were it not for the
26 Mar 2007 : Column 1160
very clear deadline that was set in the St. Andrews agreement Act, it is unlikely that these very constructive events would have taken place. I have already said that we are willing to extend the parliamentary day tomorrow, but I cannot agree that there will be exact, minute-for-minute injury time. We are working on that, but it is a matter for the Whips of the different parties to agree. We recognise that the time for tomorrow’s debate on the Budget might need to be extended. As for statements, hon. Members know that statements and urgent questions are bound to eat into the normal public business. That is a straightforward reality.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As it is important that there should be adequate debate on the important Northern Ireland measure, which we all welcome, why does not the Leader of the House follow the precedent that we used at Christmas, when we resumed the Queen’s Speech debate after it was interrupted for Northern Ireland legislation? Why not resume the Budget debate on Wednesday and devote tomorrow to this historic event?

Mr. Straw: We have to get the whole thing through tomorrow, which means that we have to debate it early so that the other place can then debate it. It is a very short Bill—[Hon. Members: “Start early.”] I am in favour of starting early and finishing late, but others in this place have taken different decisions on that. However, that is another debate.

We have to debate the Bill first in the order of business, after any statements or urgent questions, and it must then go to the other place. Any amendments have to come back to us, and there may be some ping-pong between the Houses, although we hope not. In that situation, it makes sense to continue debating the Budget. This does not really compare with what happened in November, because that Bill was much longer and more complicated.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Clearly, these are exciting times. The Leader of the House is absolutely right to bring in the emergency legislation tomorrow—I am sure that it will have the full support of the whole House. However, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) for his comments that the Budget debate should be concluded on Wednesday. I say gently to the Leader of the House that there is not very important business on Wednesday; indeed, we might be doing a great favour to the Patronage Secretary by withdrawing the debate on the casino order, which she might well lose.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman anticipates my answer: quite important—very important—Government business is tabled for Wednesday, and I think it would be convenient for the whole House if it were dealt with on that day.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the Leader of the House acknowledge the personal contribution of John Major, who is generally recognised to have started the process that should lead to sustainable peace in Northern Ireland? Will he also reconsider the business tabled for later this week? As one of the usual suspects
26 Mar 2007 : Column 1161
when it comes to the Easter Adjournment debate, I can assure him that we should be very happy to sacrifice some or all of that debate to accommodate other business this week, so that the Budget debate is not curtailed.

Mr. Straw: It is nice that the hon. Gentleman should think that the amount of time available for debate on constituency and wider issues on the motion for the Easter Adjournment is in his gift. In any event, I shall bear in mind what he said.

Of course I pay tribute to John Major. I did so in general, but I am happy to do so in particular as well. His was a very significant contribution to what has happened today.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Leader of the House’s historic announcement of the legislation for tomorrow is obviously welcome on both sides of the House, as is his agreement to make a concession on the time for debate on the Budget, but may I return him to the question from my right hon. Friend the Shadow Leader of the House and ask for an assurance that none of this will compromise time for a statement on what has happened to the 15 service men who have been seized by the Iranians? Many of us will want to ask questions about, for instance, the rules of engagement that made that possible.

Mr. Straw: The granting of time for an urgent question is a matter for you and you alone, Mr. Speaker. As for the issue of a statement, there must be a statement this week, and we are discussing with the usual channels which would be the most appropriate day for it.

26 Mar 2007 : Column 1162


3.46 pm

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on Zimbabwe. I hope that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and the Liberal Democrats received a copy in good time.

As the Prime Minister told the House last Wednesday, what is happening in Zimbabwe is appalling, disgraceful and utterly tragic for its people. My noble Friend Lord Triesman, Minister responsible for Africa, noted on 12 March that it was a direct consequence of Mugabe’s own approach and of his disregard for the suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans. What we are seeing is a wilful waste of Zimbabwe’s assets and potential by a ZANU-PF Government who have substituted plunder and corruption for a programme of economic and social advancement for its people.

Hunger and malnutrition are all that millions of Zimbabweans now experience in their daily lives, and Mugabe and his regime are directly responsible. They are directly responsible for Zimbabwe’s economy being in free fall: the economy shrank by 40 per cent. in less than a decade, and will shrink by a further 5 per cent. this year. Inflation is already at 3,000 per cent., and the International Monetary Fund says that it will breach 5,000 per cent. by the end of this year. They are directly responsible for circumstances in which a quarter of the resident population is dependent on food aid, and a quarter has already fled the country. They are directly responsible for an unemployment rate of over 80 per cent., the third highest in the world. It is little wonder that there has been an exodus over the Limpopo river. They are directly responsible for Zimbabwe’s having the world’s highest orphan rate, largely as a consequence of the pandemic rate of AIDS: roughly 20 per cent. of adults are infected. They are directly responsible for circumstances in which Zimbabweans can expect to die younger than anyone else on the planet. A Zimbabwean woman today can expect to live to just 34, while a Zimbabwean man can expect to live to 37. However, instead of taking the necessary measures to reverse each of those evolving tragedies, the regime continues to make people homeless, suppress independent media, harass human rights defenders and arbitrarily arrest those involved in peaceful demonstrations.

The violence and repression used against peaceful protesters gathering to pray for change during the weekend of 10-11 March, during which at least one young person was shot and killed, has continued unabated. Four members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been prevented from leaving Zimbabwe, including one MP, Nelson Chamisa, who was badly beaten when travelling to a meeting in Brussels. I am pleased to note that the MDC’s vice-president was able to take his place: we salute his bravery and that of his colleagues.

A significant number of activists are still being arrested and beaten throughout Zimbabwe. Lawyers representing those who have been detained have themselves faced intimidation. Trade union and student union members have also been harassed and
26 Mar 2007 : Column 1163
arrested. My noble Friend Lord Triesman summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador to register our disgust,

As I did during my address to the Human Rights Council on 13 March, I send my deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured in the last two weeks of terrible assault, and offer my solidarity to all Zimbabweans on behalf of everyone in the House. Mugabe’s men might break the bones of the democracy campaigners, but they cannot break the quiet dignity of these extraordinary human beings. One day, Zimbabwe will return to democracy; Zimbabweans will be free. Mugabe knows that. He knows that he has got it wrong, and that the crisis has resulted in an increase in internal pressure. He feels more vulnerable. The involvement of the military in almost all aspects of Zimbabwe life—from running state businesses and economic programmes to agriculture and food distribution—underlines that.

What does Mugabe do? He blames everyone else, especially us in the United Kingdom. He persistently alleges that the UK is responsible for Zimbabwe’s woes—that we are somehow victimising him for his disastrous fast-track land reform policies. That is simply not true. We have always recognised the need for an equitable redistribution of land, but that has to be done in a transparent, legal manner. We signed up to all three of the internationally recognised land reform packages: in 1979, 1998 and 2001. The UK gave a total of £44 million to the first of them. About £3 million was returned unspent in the mid-1990s when the Zimbabwean Government lost interest in proper land reform. We were also willing to support the package put together by the United Nations Development Programme in 2001, but Mugabe’s violent land invasions put a halt to that.

Let us look for a moment at Mugabe’s claims that the crisis is down to us. It was his Government—not the UK—who displaced and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of 700,000 people during Operation Murambatsvina, which I understand means “drive out the filth”. It is the Government of Zimbabwe—not the UK—who previously refused to appeal to the UN for food aid despite widely reported food shortages. It is the Government of Zimbabwe—not the UK—who have crushed a free media. It is the Government of Zimbabwe—not the UK—who deny Zimbabweans their basic rights of freedom of expression and assembly by routinely and violently breaking up peaceful protests. It is the Government of Zimbabwe—not the UK—who have ignored IMF recommendations to reform an imploding economy. It is they who continue to squander the country’s limited foreign exchange while ordinary Zimbabweans can scarcely afford food. It is the Government of Zimbabwe—not the UK—who destroyed property rights by removing land from the legal process. It is they—not the UK—who have ruined the Zimbabwean agricultural sector; agricultural productivity has fallen by a staggering 80 per cent. since 1998.

Since 2000, more than 250,000 black commercial farm workers have lost their livelihoods. Including families, that means that there has been a rural displacement of about 1 million people, to match the urban dislocation of 700,000. Of course, while the
26 Mar 2007 : Column 1164
Government of Zimbabwe continue to blame the international community, the European Union and the UK Government for their troubles, in each case we are taking action to improve life on the ground for ordinary Zimbabweans.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said last week, there is considerable concern throughout the international community about the situation in Zimbabwe. The United Kingdom is greatly concerned about the situation there, but those concerns are shared by the whole of the European Union, by the African Union—sadly, those concerns have not always been expressed as loudly as they might be—by the United Nations and by the rest of the international community.

Ministers and officials are in constant contact with our African counterparts, emphasising the risks to regional stability and the importance of Zimbabwe’s African neighbours taking a more direct role in addressing the crisis in Zimbabwe. The Prime Minister last week wrote to President Mbeki and spoke with President Kikwete of Tanzania on this issue. We recognise the difficulties in challenging Mugabe bilaterally, but without the engagement of the Southern African Development Community, with its commitment to promoting good governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law, the situation will deteriorate further. We therefore welcome the visit of the chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, President Kikwete, to Harare on 15 March. With President Mbeki of South Africa, he has proposed an initiative to encourage internal dialogue between ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change on policy reform, but quick progress is necessary if that is to have an impact. Mugabe is a master of denial and delay. The Zambian President has recently called Zimbabwe a “sinking Titanic”—an apt description, indeed.

On the European Union, despite the claims of Mugabe about illegal economic sanctions imposed by the EU, let us be clear: the EU has no economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. They exist only in his mind. The EU does not prevent western companies, including British ones, from doing business with Zimbabwe, which in fact has a trade surplus with the UK. The EU does have an arms sales ban, and a travel ban and an assets freeze on leading members of the regime. While those targeted measures have had no impact on the Zimbabwean economy, they show that the EU is serious about human rights. Zimbabwean civil society organisations support those measures because they are focused on the destroyers of Zimbabwean society and not on its suffering people. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the House on Tuesday and the Prime Minister repeated the next day, we will look to add to these targeted measures. We are pushing for, and expect there to be, progress on the addition of extra names to the EU visa ban list, again pressurising the regime without impacting on ordinary Zimbabweans.

On the actions of the UK Government, let the House be clear: we are doing all that we can to relieve the suffering of the Zimbabwean people. The UK is one of the three largest donors to Zimbabwe, and, contrary to the claims of some, that money is making a real difference to the lives of ordinary people in
26 Mar 2007 : Column 1165
Zimbabwe. For some, that money is quite literally the difference between life and death, and the House should be proud of that contribution.

In the past five years, the Department for International Development has committed more than £143 million to humanitarian programmes, including food aid, life-saving vaccines, support for orphans and vulnerable children, and agricultural inputs to the poorest farmers. We have also provided £37 million to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Of the €200 million given by the EU last year, the UK alone disbursed nearly €60 million in bilateral assistance—hardly the actions of a country not interested in the affairs of Zimbabwe; far less one with a bilateral grievance.

As the Foreign Secretary made clear on Tuesday, our aid is channelled through United Nations and NGO agencies to escape the clutches of the regime. I want to stress that our food aid is not a part of the ZANU-PF programme to use food as a means to force support or to punish opposition. It is also clear that not only are innocent Zimbabweans suffering, but the tragedy in Zimbabwe is having a significant impact on the region: both a direct impact with mass migration, and a consequent social impact in terms of HIV, malnutrition, safety and the education of children, to name but a few factors. As Zimbabwe disintegrates, those impacts will increase.

The UK shares the region’s desire to see Zimbabwe’s recovery—there is no other UK agenda. Our concerns are for the ordinary Zimbabweans and their suffering at the hands of a regime determined to pursue policies that hurt rather than help them. We stand ready to help, with our international partners, but only when there is an environment inside Zimbabwe in which that assistance will be effective.

Until the Zimbabwean regime changes course, we will maintain the international spotlight on them, and increase Mugabe’s isolation. In that vein, I welcome France’s decision not to invite Mugabe to the February France-Africa summit, which sent a clear signal that this woeful governance will not be tolerated. However, as I and others, including the Prime Minister, have made clear, the Zimbabwean crisis cannot be solved by the UK. Those sentiments were echoed by the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who told the BBC on 18 March:

Next Section Index Home Page