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House of Commons

Wednesday 9 May 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Democratic Republic of the Congo

1. Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote civil society in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [136205]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): We have given significant support to civil society in the DRC, both before and during the elections, to enable organisations to undertake civic education and to act as observers, and we are also supporting the media to help improve accountability. More than 30 per cent. of our support goes mostly to international non-governmental organisations to deliver programmes. That support will include £27 million over three years to two large NGOs to provide free basic health care in 20 health areas.

Robert Neill: Does the Secretary of State agree with the continuing concerns highlighted on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning about arbitrary arrest and violence by President Kabila’s regime towards political opponents? There are also problems of rampant corruption, especially in the extractive industries, and a continuing history of a lack of development in the basic infrastructure. Will the Government put renewed pressure on President Kabila to end those autocratic practices, as without a real and meaningful development of civil society all our increased aid budget will be frittered away? Is not a significant civil society a prerequisite for meaningful and long-term economic development?

Hilary Benn: I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. The DRC is a country where virtually everything is broken. That is the truth, as I saw for myself on my recent visit, and as did the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the Opposition spokesman on international development, who has also been there recently. I raised precisely that point in my meeting with President Kabila, because the people of the Congo want to see that the Government will reach out and embrace the Opposition there and allow civil society the time and space to acquire a voice.
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In that way, for the first time in their lives, people will be able to experience good governance. Unless good governance comes to the Congo, none of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be dealt with, but establishing it will take time.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I strongly commend the Secretary of State for the huge personal effort that he has made, and the amount of work that he has done, in supporting the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in getting the election process under way. Will he do his best to ensure that the Government of the DRC use the country’s enormous mineral wealth, and any aid that is being donated, to develop primary education? I visited the DRC last year as an election observer, and it seemed to me that the illiteracy rate was rising not falling. Unless we address that, all the other development goals will be impossible to achieve.

Hilary Benn: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the interest that they have taken in the Congo. Indeed, a number of hon. Members acted as observers in the elections to which the UK was proud to be the largest contributor. That was an extraordinary moment in the country’s history.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the DRC does not lack natural wealth. The truth is that it has been raped and pillaged—first by its colonial masters, and then by some of the neighbouring countries. That treatment is now being continued by some Congolese, but good governance is the solution, as that will ensure that the natural resources are used in the interests of the people and not of the private pocket.

We are working with the World Bank on a programme to help abolish school fees in part of the country. For the very poorest families, they act as an obstacle to getting children into the classroom, which is where they belong. Education, good governance and an open form of politics are three essential elements that must be secured if the country is to make progress.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I commend the Secretary of State for what he is doing in Africa and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but he will be aware that the Government of that country and President Kabila have a unique relationship with President Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Is the right hon. Gentleman able to exert pressure on Zimbabwe, through President Kabila, to promote civil society in that country? I hope that he feels that we should use every avenue open to us to try to bring a change in Zimbabwe, as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Hilary Benn: May I simply say that the development of civil society is vital for all countries and communities, including Zimbabwe? As I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, if the countries neighbouring Zimbabwe spoke up more loudly and truthfully about what is going on there we would see faster progress towards enabling the people of Zimbabwe—and of the DRC—to express their views, openly and without fear, about what they want to happen to the future of their country.

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Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Congo’s ruling elite has understood that the purpose of government is to benefit the welfare of the people, and that it is not an exercise in looting? What progress has been made towards the integration of the army? As he knows, it does not defend the people but poses a threat to their welfare.

Hilary Benn: The cultural and political change—if I may describe it in that way—to which my hon. Friend refers in the Congo can be described only as work in progress, because it has a long way to go. Army integration is an example of that. There has been some progress, but one of the difficulties is that the large amount of money that comes out of the Exchequer every month to pay for the armed forces does not bear a direct relationship to the number of soldiers who need paying. One of the points that I made to President Kabila both on my recent visit and previously is that if the Government of the DRC want the international community to give more support to army integration—the UK is doing something to provide tents and clean water to those who are part of the integrated brigade—they have to demonstrate that the money that the donors are putting in is being used for the purpose for which it is intended. Army integration is crucial to the future of the country. The country has to stop having separate armed forces representing separate political groups. There is one elected President. The army must come behind that President and act on behalf of the country as a whole.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): In spite of the Congo’s awful history and the accurate comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), does the Secretary of State agree that the recent elections, the performance of the United Nations forces, whose mandate must be renewed, and the support of the British taxpayer all give some grounds for optimism in a country whose stability and prosperity is crucial to that of all of Africa? Since it is clear that building space for the Opposition in Parliament there is of vital importance, will he say a little more about his Department’s future plans for supporting the promotion of that?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Despite all the difficulties that we have just been discussing, the transitional Government represented real progress and the elections—the first for 43 years— were extraordinary. I join him in paying tribute to the contribution of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I agree with him that MONUC has got to stay there for quite some time, because the country needs the security and the reassurance that it provides. I specifically raised with President Kabila the issue of space for the Opposition. I met members of the Opposition both in the National Assembly and separately. It was hoped recently that they would meet President Kabila. I understand that that meeting has not taken place, although they met one of his advisers. Some of the Opposition have now gone back into Parliament, having boycotted it for a while. This issue is the real test. In the end, President Kabila is the President of the whole country and he has a great responsibility, as well as an opportunity, to reach out to
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all those who won representation in the elections and to show that the Congo will be a country in which people can say what they think and participate in that very fragile democracy, which, if they commit to it, will allow the country to move forward. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are going to stick with that process every step of the way.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I also applaud the work of the Secretary of State and the progress that has been made in the DRC. Will he tell us a bit more about what President Kabila said, on the Secretary of State’s recent visit, about providing space for the Opposition? We have met Opposition politicians here who have been concerned about that. What support can we continue to give via EUSEC—the EU security sector reform mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—in particular in relation to the crucial issue of the security forces and their integration?

Hilary Benn: President Kabila expressed to me his commitment to the democratic process. In the end, the international community should judge the President and the country by what it does, as well as by what it says. Only time will provide the answer. On EUSEC, we have provided support in the form of the secondment of staff and we have provided funding, as I indicated in answer to an earlier question. For the reasons that I set out, it is important that the process of army integration continues.

Water Supplies

2. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to promote the availability of clean drinking water in developing countries. [136206]

3. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to promote clean water and sanitation in the developing world; and if he will make a statement. [136207]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): We will double our expenditure on water and sanitation in Africa, where the millennium development goal targets are most off-track, to £95 million a year by 2007-08, and then double it again to £200 million a year by 2010-11. Last November, I published a global call to action on water and sanitation. We need both developing country Governments and donors to do more, we need to invest more and to ensure that money is spent effectively, and we need to put the best structures in place to make all of that happen.

Jim Sheridan: Like me, my right hon. Friend will have visited developing countries such as Ghana and Nigeria and seen at first hand the lack of proper drinking water and the poor sanitation. What tangible efforts could be made in terms of the World Bank to assist us in our millennium goals and in solving the problem of poor sanitation in developing countries?

Hilary Benn: It is a question of funding—there needs to be more funding for water and sanitation from the international community, donors, multilateral
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institutions and the Governments of developing countries themselves—and giving local authorities in the growing towns and cities of the developing world the resources that they need to provide water and sanitation as their populations increase. It is also about changing cultural attitudes and habits, which is why our support for the community-led total sanitation initiative is a really good thing. The initiative has shown its capacity to change attitudes throughout the world and to get people to realise that if they do not deal with sanitation, they undermine the health of their community. We need more of that.

Mr. Vara: Given that more than 1 billion people throughout the world lack access to clean water, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that that important issue is on the agenda of the G8 meeting in June?

Hilary Benn: By our own actions we have increased investment, which I have described to the House. The global call that I issued in November was all about trying to raise the profile of the issue. I am pleased to report to the House that at the recent spring meetings of the World Bank, we reached an agreement that there should in future be one annual report on how the world is doing and one annual meeting at which we can gather to determine what needs to be done next and to divide up the work. The UN has indicated that it is prepared to nominate one lead UN body in- country to be the vehicle through which support for water and sanitation will be provided, which represents real progress. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to press the matter, including through the G8.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): To return to my right hon. Friend’s comments about changing habits, is he aware that the local authority in Nairobi had well-advanced plans some months ago to pipe water to one of the city’s largest slums, but that the plans had to be withdrawn owing to landlords’ threats of violence because they were making too much money out of selling water in that slum?

Hilary Benn: The story that my hon. Friend tells draws our attention to the difficulties that countries face as they try to make progress. In the case that she cites, the landlords have a vested interest in the existing system because, as the House knows, the highest prices for water are paid by the people who buy it in plastic bags and buckets from water sellers. In Ghana, such people pay five to six times as much for water as those who get it through the leaky, creaky water supply system. That illustrates that one problem that local authorities face is how they deal with informal settlements. There is a question whether there will be recognition of the fact that millions of people live in an area and whether clean water will be provided, and that shows what a big task local authorities face. That is partly about governance and partly about resources.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State note that I have tabled an early-day motion, which has been signed by the chairmen of six all-party groups connected with Africa, that calls for support for the “End Water Poverty” campaign? Some 193 Members—soon the number will be more than
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200—from all parties have signed the early-day motion, which, as it happens, is supported by Conservative Front Benchers, to call for the problems to which the Secretary of State has just referred to be remedied. Is he aware that we are going to Downing street on Saturday to present a petition about the matter? WaterAid and Tearfund, which have led the campaign, deserve every conceivable support. Does he agree that the £95 million a year that he is proposing might not be adequate and that we need to do more?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s very last point, and that is why we will double the amount again when we reach the £95 million figure, because the problem is greatest in Africa. I am grateful to him for telling me about the petition that will be presented. I join him in paying tribute to the two organisations to which he referred, which we support and work with, because this is a great global cause—frankly, we need all the help that we can get. Above all, the people who do not have clean water and sanitation need all the interest and attention that we together can garner so that progress can be made to improve their lives.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What is my right hon. Friend doing to improve access to water and sanitation in the slums? Is his Department working with UN-Habitat to examine the upgrading of slums and the likely impact of that on improving access to these services?

Hilary Benn: I have met Anna Tibaijuka, who heads up UN-Habitat, to discuss the slum upgrading programme and the facility that she is advocating. In the end, the most important thing is to give resources to the people who have responsibility for providing clean water and sanitation in the urban areas of Africa and Asia. This country’s history shows that local authorities, as they developed, were principally responsible for putting in place piped water and sewerage systems, which did more than anything else in 19th century Britain to prolong life expectancy. Developing countries are going through exactly the same process, and we need to ensure that they have the means, the political will—that must come from within—and resources at a local and city level, given that that is where the investment must be made.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): The Select Committee on International Development’s recent report highlighted the fact that sanitation is a poorly performing target within the Department, and it recommended the establishment of a sanitation agency. I cannot support that request. Does the Secretary of State not think that it would be more appropriate for him, his Department and his civil servants to highlight sanitation as an issue, to focus on it and to try to improve the situation?

Hilary Benn: I think that that is what we are doing. In fairness to the Select Committee, it acknowledged that the UK played a leading role in securing a millennium development goal target on sanitation, which was agreed in 2002. Britain deserves credit for having pushed for that. Secondly, our support for the rural hygiene, sanitation and water supply project in Bangladesh has helped 7.7 million people in the first five years, and we are funding a UNICEF programme in India that aims to reach 213 million people. In
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addition, the community-led total sanitation initiative is a practical way of dealing with the problem. It is very blunt and direct; it involves going into villages and saying, “We’ve got to take a decision to stop open defecation in this village because that’s the cause of a lot of ill-health,” and it works, because it does not have a fixed plan. It works with the community and finds solutions. In some cases, the price of the plates that are needed for pit latrines has come down to as little as a dollar. These are the practical steps that need to be taken if more people are to have clean sanitation.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): What role does my right hon. Friend think that private water companies can play in ensuring clean water and sanitation through charitable work, and what will he do to ensure that our private companies do even more charitable work overseas?

Hilary Benn: I welcome the contribution of any organisation that supports charitable work to provide clean water and sanitation. On the public-private argument, I welcome what the Select Committee report had to say. In the end, we are not having an ideological debate about public or private; the issue that we should be interested in is the most effective way of getting clean water and sanitation to the largest number of people. I am interested in what works.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Secretary of State must be acutely aware of the widespread concern, expressed by the Select Committee, numerous non-governmental organisations and many others, that clean water and, in particular, the unglamorous but vital issue of sanitation risk becoming the orphan millennium development goals. On current progress, we will not meet those targets for nearly 70 years. Is not all our work on prioritising health and education undermined if girls have to walk five miles each day to get water for their families, and if children risk death from poor sanitation?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why providing clean water is not just good for the health of children and communities, but very good for getting girls into school. That is why, as I saw for myself on a recent visit to Malawi, providing toilets as well as classrooms is absolutely fundamental in the education work that we support. That maximises the chances of girls coming to school, and, as they get older, staying in school, which they will not do if there are no toilets for them to use. The issue is how we integrate all the approaches to health, education, water and sanitation to ensure the progress that the hon. Gentleman and I both want.

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