Previous Section Index Home Page

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks raised a number of questions, as did others. First, there was the question of AMIS. We must recognise that the African Union should be congratulated on its efforts. The only people in Darfur who are trying to prevent the conflict are those 6,500 peacekeepers. I am proud that the United Kingdom was the first country in the world to provide financial support for the African Union mission, because, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke
5 Jun 2007 : Column 224
Newington—who is no longer in the Chamber—we should support regional as well as international efforts.

The United Kingdom has given AMIS strong support, committing £73 million. I believe that the European Union has committed €280 million, €40 million of which was announced last month. There are unquestionably problems over the payment of the soldiers, partly because AMIS has had to live hand to mouth—its funding has had to come from all those different sources—and partly because the AU has not yet been able to meet the EU’s financial reporting requirements. One of the United Kingdom’s practical actions has been, through Crown Agents, to help the AU to build up its capacity to account for the way in which it spends the money.

Let us tell the truth about the African Union mission. This is a major enterprise and undertaking: the AU has never had to do anything like this before. The mission in Burundi was much smaller. That is why, at the meeting in Addis in November about which I shall say more in a moment, President Konare of the AU said to his fellow African representatives “Let us be straight: we cannot deal with this any more. We need a hybrid mission.” The hybrid mission is a creative solution to Sudan’s refusal to accept resolution 1706. In the end, if the mission goes in, it will do what 1706 sought to do, which is to provide more troops on the ground. As General Aprezi reminded me on my last visit, pointing to a map—I am sure he has done the same with other hon. Members—6,500 troops are not enough to do the job. The mission would provide more troops, effective command and control and, crucially, funding. For the first time in the history of the UN, the hybrid mission will use assessed contributions to pay for a joint UN-AU mission. That is absolutely the right thing to do because it will provide financial support for a regional effort combined with a UN effort.

On the Amnesty International report, I can simply tell the House that I am deeply concerned by what it has to say. The UK mission in New York is pursuing this matter with the Sudan sanctions committee. On the hybrid itself, the test for the Government of Sudan is a very simple one. They are about to receive the proposals for the hybrid mission. Once the final arrangements have been agreed between the African Union and the UN, General Bashir and the Government will then have a short time—the UN Security Council is due to visit Khartoum later this month, on 16 or 17 June, I think—to demonstrate that they accept the hybrid. There is no doubt that the threat of sanctions was responsible for agreement to the hybrid package. There is an ebb and flow in the Government of Sudan’s willingness to honour commitments that they have entered into, but this is the last opportunity.

On sanctions, Members have asked what the “further action” might be. It might include further sanctions against individuals, travel bans and an assets freeze, as well as extending the UN arms embargo to the whole of Sudan. I raised my eyebrows when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks spoke earlier because there is already an EU arms embargo that covers the whole of Sudan. We are seeking to get the UN arms embargo to cover the whole of Sudan. We have been consistent in that for a long time.

There is no doubt that the Government of Sudan have returned to bombing. From the reports that I have
5 Jun 2007 : Column 225
read, it seems that it is targeted at the places where rebel commanders are meeting to talk about what might come out of negotiations. That makes the Government’s actions particularly culpable. One of the things that the UN will have to consider is what further action should be taken in relation to that. As the Prime Minister and others have said, that could include a no-fly zone but, as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) made clear, there are real logistical challenges. Fundamentally, who will do it? How would we ensure the continued operation of the humanitarian effort if the Government of Sudan were to retaliate? These are genuine dilemmas on which we would have to form a view.

Disinvestment was raised by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. Rolls-Royce has said that it will withdraw, but one also has to consider the impact of that on the people of Sudan, who are not responsible for what is going on, on the comprehensive peace agreement and on the Government of southern Sudan. We must not forget that that agreement was based in part on a wealth-sharing agreement. Part of the rising oil revenues that the hon. Member for Buckingham referred to comes to the Government of southern Sudan to help them fund development. We need to think long and carefully: do we want to end up undermining the one peace agreement that is, in a slightly shaky way, in place in that country?

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: I fully understand the Secretary of State’s concerns, but will he bear in mind the fact that when Salva Kiir was here last year, he made it clear that the Government of Sudan were not giving the south its fair share of the oil revenues? Will he also bear it in mind that the divestment campaign is extremely clear that it is after divestment in those industries that directly benefit the regime in Khartoum and is not interested in seeking to debar investment where it is for the good of the people of Sudan?

Hilary Benn: My response to the second of those points is to ask a question: how exactly would the hon. Gentleman make the division? The problem with the comprehensive peace agreement is that an agreement has not yet been reached on where the border between the north and south will be drawn. Oilfields fall on the northern side or the southern side of the boundary depending on where the line is drawn. Therefore, where it is drawn is very important in determining how the assets and oil wealth are to be distributed.

The third of the challenges put to me was to do with the political process. The humanitarian effort is about salving the wounds of the people, and AMIS—the African Union mission in Sudan—and the hybrid mission are about better protecting the security of the people, but everybody knows that there is no military solution to the conflict, which can be brought to an end only by a peace agreement. There have been many ceasefires and long negotiations. There were the Darfur peace talks, and it took about two years to achieve the Abuja agreement of last year. I played a part in the final stages of that agreement. In the end, only one of the rebels signed—Minni Minnawi. Abdul Wahid could not be persuaded and Khalil Ibrahim, who heads the Justice and Equality Movement, was never interested in signing it at all, although I see from news reports today that he is now saying that he is prepared to take part in talks.


5 Jun 2007 : Column 226

I remain of the view that the framework provided by the Darfur peace agreement can form the basis of a solution as it involved power sharing, security and compensation. However, I accept that in the negotiations that must now begin it will have to be revisited because a solution can only work if everybody signs up. I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham that although I agree with him and others who have said that the Government of Sudan bear the principal responsibility, one thing that has been missing from the debate has been some recognition of the responsibility that the rebels themselves bear. There has been hijacking and banditry. I am not trying to apportion equal blame, but we must accept that it takes two to make a conflict and the rebels have also been responsible for some of what has gone on. They also have a responsibility to embrace the political process.

That was why at the meeting in Addis not only was agreement secured on the hybrid mission—I pay tribute to the contribution of Kofi Annan, and to Ban Ki-moon for his subsequent support—but there was agreement that we needed a new political process. Jan Eliasson and Salim Salim were appointed as, respectively, the UN and AU representatives. They have been hard at work talking to people. There was a meeting in Tripoli on 28 to 29 April, which included representatives from Sudan, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, China and Russia; the UK Sudan co-ordinator, Christopher Prentice, attended on our behalf. It endorsed the work of the two mediators and has now set out a framework for getting to negotiations. However, the Government have made it clear in discussions with the UN Secretary-General that the AU and the UN need to get on with that; otherwise, we will still be talking about talks in six months’ time. The time to start talking is now, and the time to set a date for those talks is also now.

I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that sustainable peace in Darfur can be achieved only if the other peace is kept—hence my points about the comprehensive peace agreement, which brought an end to a 20-year civil war that killed 2 million people. The eastern peace agreement was also briefly referred to; it was signed in October 2006 but progress has been slow, as it is in Darfur. The east remains desperately poor, and the threat of a return to conflict is never far away. However, in both cases the process of implementation has begun. The progress in terms of those agreements—in one case involving people caught up in a civil war who were fighting and killing each other in large numbers over a long period—demonstrates that in the end people recognised that the country will make no progress and there will be no development as long as the fighting continues. They had the political courage and leadership to use negotiation rather than guns to resolve their problems.

John Bercow: I have something to say about the need to set a timetable for talks. Given that there would probably be a consensus in the House that the Government of Sudan will not be persuaded by political argument or moral force to start behaving, but will be influenced only by fear of the reprisals that will otherwise flow, does the Secretary of State agree that the international community needs to set a deadline by which the Government killing must stop, and that the
5 Jun 2007 : Column 227
Government of Sudan need to be broadly aware of the scale and intensity of the sanctions that they will otherwise face?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the threat of sanctions has concentrated minds and, as I said earlier, I believe that that is why agreement was given to the heavy support package, after quite a lot of prevarication. I have set out for the House tonight the kind of sanctions that we would be looking to get through the UN Security Council, but as the debate has demonstrated, that depends on other countries agreeing, too. They have got to be persuaded of the case, so there is great merit in trying to get agreement and in marching in step with other countries. One can be right and perfect but isolated and ineffective, or one can persuade others of the strength of the case and therefore have a much more powerful impact on the Government of Sudan.

On the talks, I have to say, given that the Government of Sudan did come to Abuja, did participate and did make concessions, that my experience of dealing with them on that front is that they can be persuaded to move. The bigger issue is the hybrid force and getting it in.

Mr. Tom Clarke: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as I sense that he is heading for his peroration. Will he find time to comment on the French initiative and the role of China, which were mentioned in all parts of the House during the debate? Many of us feel that these are important issues.

Hilary Benn: On the French initiative, I welcome, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did, what President Sarkozy has had to say, and Bernard Kouchner’s appointment is undoubtedly good news, given his history and tradition and the things that he has already said. On China, I speak from personal experience. The Chinese were represented at the Addis meeting last November, and at about 11 o’clock at night we reached the point where the Chinese representative said to the Government of Sudan, “I think you really ought to accept what is being offered here.” The Sudanese Foreign Minister looked around the room and realised that nobody else was supporting him. That collective determination of the international community helped to get that agreement. The fact that the Chinese have now appointed a special
5 Jun 2007 : Column 228
representative shows that they are taking steps in the right direction, but I agree that all of us have a responsibility—China included—to play our part and to do everything that we can to persuade the Government of Sudan to do the right thing.

Finally, I want to return to the issue that the hon. Member for Banbury raised in his excellent speech, and which is, in effect, the bigger issue that we have discussed tonight. This is the latest in a series of conflicts in which human beings have been killed, raped and forced to flee their homes because of what people in their own country—their Governments or other people—have done to them. Be it Iraq under Saddam; Afghanistan under the Taliban; Rwanda during the genocide; Sierra Leone, when the Revolutionary United Front and the “West Side Boys” were running around chopping people’s arms and legs off with machetes; Kosovo, when Muslims were being murdered in Europe’s back yard; or the Congo, where 3 million to 3.5 million people have died in a conflict in the past 15 years—I cannot tell the House exactly how many, because there was nobody there to count them; most died of disease, some died of violence—every single one of those recent instances raises a really uncomfortable question for us. When are we as a world going to find the will and the means to prevent them from happening? When are we going to be able to offer protection and help?

When are we going to live up to the fine and inspiring words of the UN declaration of human rights? Let me remind the House of what it says:

It goes on to say:

We have not lived up to those fine words. That is the biggest challenge, the biggest test for the United Nations. If we are to uphold the principle and practice of dealing with these problems multilaterally—in the end, that is a much better solution than countries acting alone—the UN has to acquire the will and the means to act. We have not yet done so. It is time that we did.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


5 Jun 2007 : Column 229

Social Housing (National Mobility Scheme)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to share with the House the problems that confront social housing tenants who want to move from one part of the country to another. I am delighted to see in her place the Minister, who I am sure shares my concern about what has gone wrong in that area. I am also delighted to see in his place the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who has a longstanding interest in housing policy.

This is not a happy tale. Every Member of Parliament has some housing association or local authority tenants who want to move into or out of their constituency. Often there are compelling reasons for such a move. Elderly parents want to move to be nearer their families, perhaps so that they do not have to go into a home. Children want to move near their parents for help with child care and sometimes people have to move for job reasons. Therefore, there are important social and economic reasons for having an effective transfer market in social housing. Mobility is also important if we are to get the right-sized properties for the right households.

Unlike owner-occupiers or private sector tenants, who can simply up sticks and move, social housing tenants are less in control of their destiny. The stock distribution of their landlords is often based on local authority boundaries. If they want to transfer to a new landlord, the process can be complex. Over the years, several schemes have been set up to promote the mobility of social tenants, the history of which has been described by Simon Randall, in an excellent book called “Tenants’ Mobility”. I was a Housing Minister in 1981, when the national mobility scheme was launched by local authorities and new towns in England and Wales.

Later, in 1990, I was still a Housing Minister, although under a different configuration, and I took the view that there was a need for a new national mobility service for local authorities and housing associations. A new organisation, the Housing Mobility and Exchange Service, or HOMES, took over a multiplicity of different schemes, including the inter-borough nomination scheme or IBNS, the local authority mobility scheme or LAMS, the tenants exchange scheme or TES, the housing association liaison office or HALO, and the rest, as well as some successful London schemes. We had a target of 2 per cent. of local authority net lettings, and 4 per cent. for larger housing associations, to be made available to a central pool for tenants who wanted to move for social or economic reasons.

Some 100,000 tenants moved under that scheme. In addition, HOMES developed a separate home swap scheme to enable tenants across the UK to exchange homes. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people will have moved under that scheme. The popular and successful scheme was inherited by the new Labour Government in 1997. Last month, owing to mismanagement, the
5 Jun 2007 : Column 230
scheme collapsed, and a few days ago the remaining staff of HOMES, who had lost their jobs, left, and tens of thousands of tenants were left in the lurch. I understand that earlier this year, staff running the scheme were told not to deal with correspondence, leaving hundreds of unopened letters on the premises.

That failure has not had the national coverage of this Government’s other IT failures. It does not involve the billions of pounds spent in error by the tax credits scheme, or the careers of junior doctors ruined by the Medical Training Application Service. But thousands of people who might have used a perfectly good scheme to move from one part of the country to another without losing the benefit of their tenure can no longer do so. One in five social tenants in a recent survey claimed to be either certain to move or likely to move to alternative accommodation in the next five years.

So what went wrong? In 2004, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister awarded a seven-year £17 million contract to Scout Solutions Projects Ltd. Some surprise was expressed at the time about the choice of contractor. Scout Solutions took over HOMES, and the then Housing Minister said that the new scheme would make existing schemes more comprehensive. It has done the opposite.

By February last year, reports were appearing in Inside Housing saying that the scheme had ground to a halt because of problems making the software workable. One housing director told Inside Housing:

The ODPM admitted that it did not know when the new website was going to be launched. It was originally scheduled for 2005.

In March last year, the failure to get the new scheme, Move UK—the brand name under which it traded—going led a number of housing associations and councils to set up a competing scheme. Lesley Woods, the design manager at Circle Anglia, said of the site that it set up:

By July last year, the Department was saying that it was unable to provide any details of the scheme because it was

A spokesman for Move UK also refused to comment.

Numbers rehoused through the mobility scheme continued to plummet. A spokesman from Barking and Dagenham was quoted in Inside Housing as saying:


Next Section Index Home Page