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Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Secretary of State is aware that, over the last year, we have been pressing the Government to set up a truly independent aid evaluation process, so we welcome the answer that he gave just now—although I hesitate to point out to him that he gave exactly the same answer two months ago. Will the Secretary of State accept that the issue is about not only aid effectiveness, but development effectiveness and demonstrating results and outcomes so that taxpayers can have confidence that their money is being well spent?

Hilary Benn: I do accept those latter points, which is precisely why I have informed the House today that I intend to set up a mechanism. I said two months ago that I was looking at proposals. One of the things that we are doing is assessing the experience of other countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, which have been addressing the same issue. It is important that we are all able to offer reassurance to the British public that Britain’s aid is making a difference, as it is.

Mr. Mitchell: We congratulate the Secretary of State on adopting this Conservative proposal.

Following cross-party support last year for the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), the Secretary of State is required to report to Parliament on the impact of Government policies on development and developing countries across the range of relevant Government Departments. Will he tell the House how he is getting on with that process and when he expects to be able to report?

Hilary Benn: We are getting on fine and we will publish the outcome of that work in the Department’s annual report, which will appear at the beginning of May.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

5. Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): How his Department is marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. [130164]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Last month, we published the booklet “Breaking the Chains”, which highlights the ongoing need to fight slavery and the clear link between modern slaves and global poverty. In October, in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the International Labour Organisation and Anti-Slavery International, we will hold a conference to explore what further action we can take.

Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for that response and commend the book to everyone. It is a sad reflection of society that it was just 200 years ago that we had to abolish slavery. However, it is also an indictment of today’s society that slavery still exists in all forms, whether that is child slavery or human trafficking. In India, with the Dalit system, individuals are paid just 80p a day and have to try to survive on that pittance. Does my hon. Friend agree that we will need to do an awful lot more before we can say that slavery has truly been abolished?

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Mr. Thomas: I agree that we have an awful lot more to do as an international community before we can start to say that modern slavery is coming to an end. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the specific circumstances of the Dalits in India. I hope that he will be reassured by our commitment to helping those Dalits to improve their circumstances through our efforts on primary education in India. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed a further £200 million of aid to invest in primary education, which is designed to help all Indian citizens, including Dalits, to access the education that they need.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the practical step that the Government could take to mark the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade would be to create in this country a human traffic commissioner who would be independent of the Government, as has been done in the Netherlands, to deal with the equivalent of today’s slave trade: human trafficking?

Mr. Thomas: There is a series of practical steps that the Government can take, and are taking, to address modern slavery. One of the most obvious things that we can do is to continue to address poverty in Africa and the Caribbean, as we are doing. It is one of the reasons why Labour Members have spent so much time and effort trying to secure a debt relief deal. One of the benefits of such a deal is that debt relief in Nigeria will help to pay for an extra 120,000 teachers so that we can get another 3.5 million children in school. Such initiatives are probably the surest way to help to tackle modern slavery.


6. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What assistance he plans to give to the African Union in Darfur. [130165]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The UK has committed £67 million to the African Union mission in Sudan since it was set up, including £35 million in this financial year. Our funds have covered vehicles, ground fuel and troop airlift, as well as personnel costs. We are ready further to support the political process, which is being led by the AU and the United Nations, both financially and politically. We are also pressing other donors to do more.

Tony Lloyd: The pre-condition for humanitarian assistance in Darfur must be a proper resolution of the military conflict. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Sudanese Government are both moving arms into Darfur and allowing their military planes to be disguised as being part of the UN humanitarian mission? In that context, is it not time for the international community to carry out proper military enforcement of the no-fly zone?

Hilary Benn: I share the concerns that my hon. Friend expresses about what is going on in Darfur. It is precisely for that reason that we are drafting a tough new UN Security Council resolution that will cover sanctions against individuals, improved monitoring of the violence and the extension of the arms embargo. As
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my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we are looking at the capacity to ensure that planes cannot be used to bomb the innocent civilians of Darfur.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the new United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator, John Holmes, has warned that morale among aid workers is so fragile that one security incident could prompt a humanitarian collapse, endangering the lives of tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what particular steps he and his Department are taking to avert that grisly prospect?

Hilary Benn: We are continuing to provide significant humanitarian assistance. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are the second largest donor in the crisis in Darfur. The second thing that we are doing is giving support to John Holmes in his task to get the Government of Sudan to stop putting obstacles in the way of the humanitarian effort. That is the goal that he was pursuing during his visit this week. The third thing that we are doing is putting pressure on the Government and the rebels to come around the negotiating table, because it is the banditry and general lawlessness that is the principal cause of the low morale and the difficulties that the humanitarian community is facing.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [130080] Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 28th March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Scott: Will the Prime Minister please look into the fact that my constituents in Ilford, North are faced with the prospect of having to travel for 35 minutes by car or for more than an hour by public transport to get to the nearest accident and emergency department under the present proposals?

The Prime Minister: I appreciate entirely the hon. Gentleman’s concern and he will know that no firm proposals have been made yet. His local health service has made a set of propositions or is engaged in consultations, and those—as it has said—will be based on the safety of constituents, especially those using emergency services. It is important that we recognise that some 26 public hospital schemes have been opened in the strategic health authority that covers his area, with a value of £1.7 billion. There are three schemes under construction and no fewer than 25 local improvement finance trust—LIFT—schemes for local services have been opened. So I understand his concern, but no decisions have yet been made on the proposals. The important thing will be to ensure that people get the very best care possible. The hon. Gentleman will also, I hope, recognise that sometimes it is in the interests of those who have suffered strokes, heart disease or trauma to be able to go to the best specialist services available, with the best paramedic care.

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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on the patience that they have shown in helping to bring about the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland? May I also congratulate all of the parties in Northern Ireland on having the courage to take hold of the power that the people in Northern Ireland have placed in their hands? Does my right hon. Friend agree that alongside power goes responsibility, including the responsibility to set a reasonable level of public expenditure?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with what my right hon. Friend says and I thank him for his thanks to me and others engaged in that. I would however like to give my thanks to those who have shown such leadership in Northern Ireland and to the people who have shown and decided in the recent election that they want a future for Northern Ireland in which people from different perspectives can come together and share power on the basis of peace. That is a sensible and lasting solution for the people of Northern Ireland and I know that it is one that enjoys broad support across the United Kingdom.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): May I join the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) in congratulating the Prime Minister on bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion and also those who are taking part in power sharing? It has been difficult for them, but they are doing a brave and, I believe, a great thing.

There can be no excuse for Iran taking our Royal Navy personnel captive in Iraqi waters and holding them prisoner. They should be released immediately. The Prime Minister said that negotiations were entering “a different phase”. While he clearly must not say anything that jeopardises our personnel, can he tell us what that might involve?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that it is the position of everyone in this House that our thoughts are with our servicemen and the servicewoman and their families. Their safe return is our paramount concern.

However, let me be very clear as to what has happened here. These personnel were patrolling in Iraqi waters under a United Nations mandate. Their boarding and checking of the Indian merchant vessel was routine. There was no justification whatever, therefore, for their detention; it was completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal. We had hoped to see their immediate release. This has not happened. It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure that the Iranian Government understand their total isolation on this issue.

This morning, we published the details of the exact co-ordinates and position of our forces when detained. They were 1.7 nautical miles within Iraqi territorial waters. The master of the civilian merchant vessel has confirmed this. Initially, on Saturday, the Iranian Government gave us their co-ordinates for the incident. Those co-ordinates turned out to confirm that the vessel was indeed within Iraqi waters. After this was pointed out to them, they subsequently gave a different set of co-ordinates, this time within Iranian waters.

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We are now in contact with all our key allies and partners to explain the incontrovertible fact that the seizure of the 15 British personnel was utterly without foundation and to step up the pressure on the Iranian Government to deliver their immediate release.

Mr. Cameron: I know that the whole House, and I believe the country, will be grateful for that very full answer. As the Prime Minister said, our service personnel were operating under a UN mandate. Does he agree that, as a result, the UN should make it crystal clear to Iran that the present situation is completely unacceptable? Can he tell us the steps that he is taking to mobilise support in the UN and among our allies in the EU and NATO, and among sympathetic Gulf states, to maximise the pressure on Iran?

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. We have been speaking extensively to all our key allies and partners. I spoke this morning to Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, who has been in touch with the Iranian Government. The German Chancellor this afternoon in her speech to the European Parliament will speak on behalf of the European Union, as Germany has the presidency, and make it clear that the European Union as a whole finds the situation entirely unacceptable and believes that these people should be released. We are also in close contact with our partners and other members of the United Nations Security Council, and of course, next week the UK assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council.

We are in touch with everyone within Europe, NATO, the United Nations and our key allies in the Gulf region. We will do everything we can to make the Iranian Government realise that this is a situation that can only result in one sensible and fair outcome—the release of people who were merely doing their job under a United Nations mandate.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister says that there is absolutely no doubt that when our service personnel were taken, they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Given that UK forces are operating all the time in Iraqi waters and they are all operating under a UN mandate, will he make sure that they have clear rules of engagement? [ Interruption. ]

The Prime Minister: No, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of rules of engagement, because I think that it is important that we deal with it. First, I should make it absolutely clear that the rules of engagement do allow our forces to take whatever measures are necessary in their own self-defence. However, in my view, it was entirely sensible that those on the spot conducted themselves and behaved in the way that they did. They were coming down off the merchant civilian vessel, having checked it, and they were then surrounded by six Iranian vessels, which were heavily armed. If they had engaged in military combat at that stage, there would undoubtedly have been severe loss of life. I think that they took the right decision and did what was entirely sensible. Of course, we always keep the rules of engagement under constant review to make sure that we are carrying out our functions and protecting our people properly, but my understanding is that those who were out there and patrolling these waters believed that the rules of engagement are right.

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It is important that we understand one other additional fact: by the time HMS Cornwall knew that our forces had been detained unlawfully by the Iranians, they were in Iranian waters, and again military engagement would have put a lot of lives at risk. I think that they took the right decision, and it is important that such decisions are left to people on the ground.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the tax-and- spend policies of the Scottish National party for the coming Scottish Parliament elections, which would cost hard-working families in Scotland £5,000 each? What advice does he have for those who are tempted to follow the SNP into the abyss of separation, divorce and the break-up of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the Prime Minister that the question is out of order.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): May I add my congratulations to those who have been responsible for making such progress in Northern Ireland?

In relation to Iran, I content myself simply by offering my support to the Government in their efforts to ensure the early release of our marines and sailors.

Why is it, as the Government’s own report demonstrated this week, that the poorest fifth of people in this country have a lower share of national income than they did in 1997?

The Prime Minister: As I was trying to point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman last week, we have raised some 600,000 children out of relative poverty, and, I think, almost 2 million out of absolute poverty, but the percentage rise in incomes for the bottom 40 per cent., between 1979 and 1997, was way below that of the top 40 per cent. That has been reversed over the past few years, and a combination of a strong economy, tax credits and the minimum wage have delivered, for the first time in years, real reductions in poverty.

Sir Menzies Campbell: If the Prime Minister will not answer that question, perhaps I might try another. After last week’s Budget, does he accept that those earning less than £18,500 a year who are not eligible for tax credits will have to pay an increase in income tax? How fair is that?

The Prime Minister: Again, if I could ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to look at the matter in the round, over the past 10 years those families have seen their income rise in percentage terms by more than the top people. [Interruption.] The Tories may shout, but they opposed every one of the measures to reduce poverty in our country. As a result of the investment in tax credits, families with children, in particular, have benefited enormously over the past few years. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have to do even more. That is why the measures announced by the Chancellor will actually take an additional 200,000 children out of poverty. All the time, as the economy grows, we have to put even more resources into tackling child poverty. This Government are doing it; the last Conservative Government did not.

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