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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 June 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—


1. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Darfur. [142236]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The situation in Darfur is appalling. Over 2 million people have been forced from their homes, with 110,000 people displaced between January and March this year. The extraordinary work of humanitarian agencies is helping to keep alive the 4 million people dependent on aid, but worsening security is making that increasingly difficult. The continuing violence aimed at civilians and humanitarian workers must cease.

John Mann: When does the Secretary of State expect the second full phase deployment of UN personnel to be on the ground, so that the aid agencies can get to the more than 1 million people whom they cannot currently access? When will the international community get its act together when it comes to Darfur?

Hilary Benn: The answer is: as quickly as possible. The light support package is largely but not yet completely deployed. The Government of Sudan gave their agreement some time ago to the heavy support package, which, speaking from memory, I think would bring in about 2,000 UN support personnel and other equipment. Most significantly, yesterday, President Bashir of Sudan indicated Sudan’s willingness to accept the hybrid package, following the proposals that had been put to him by the United Nations and the African Union. I welcome that commitment, but as ever, we will judge the Government of Sudan by what they do, and it is very important now that everybody makes every effort to enable that force to deploy, because that will eventually get in about 20,000 troops to provide better security for the people who have suffered far too much.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The Secretary of State is right to say that the situation is appalling, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John
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Mann) is clearly right to say that the international community must get its act together. Surely the only way to bring pressure on the disgraceful regime in Khartoum is to impose tough international sanctions? What chance does the Secretary of State think there is that that can happen through the United Nations, with a possible Russian or Chinese veto? If that is impossible, should Europe and America go it alone?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is precisely because parts of the international community have been threatening sanctions that we got both the result in relation to the heavy support package and yesterday’s decision by the Government of Sudan on the hybrid. Our position as a Government, as he will be aware, has been extremely clear that the Government of Sudan must honour the commitments that they have entered into, and we need to keep under review what further steps need to be taken, because commitments are not good enough; they must be matched by actions to support the deployment. We should say to the Government of Sudan, “We will continue to watch the steps that you take, and if at any point you fail to honour the agreement that you have given, we will go back to the UN Security Council.” As the right hon. Gentleman will also be aware, however, not all members of the Security Council are in the same position as the United Kingdom Government, the United States of America and one or two other countries on the question of further sanctions.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that, with colleagues, I was in Rwanda last week and, sadly, could not take part in the debate. One of the alarming bits of information that we picked up was that the Rwandans had not been paid recently. They are a major contributor to the AU force and Rwanda is one of the African nations that is willing to put more troops on the ground if and when we get the hybrid force in place. But can he just chase up the money? Otherwise that will blow up in our face?

Hilary Benn: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he does through the all-party group. Secondly, he highlights a really important issue. The truth is that the African Union mission in Sudan has been living hand to mouth. We have provided a lot of support and committed £73 million. The European Union announced a further €40 million in May. Part of the problem is the difficulty that AMIS is having in satisfying Europe’s requirements in demonstrating how that money has been spent. The real solution is to end the hand-to-mouth existence and fund the African Union effort and the UN part of the hybrid force through UN-assessed contributions. That is exactly what we are trying to do. That is why yesterday’s announcement is so important, and everyone must get on and make it happen as quickly as possible.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the Government of Sudan have, among other things, a record of truly shameless mendacity, what credibility does the right hon. Gentleman attach to the latest intimations from the Government of Sudan that they would be prepared to accept a hybrid force? In the circumstances of not being able for sure to believe them, will he undertake to look very seriously at, and
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give his verdict on, the proposal for an oil trust fund? It is a regime driven by oil. It needs to be squeezed into behaving better than it has so far behaved.

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that pressure is very important in getting the Government of Sudan to do the right thing. As I said in answer to the earlier question, in the end we must judge yesterday’s announcement by the actions of the Government of Sudan and nothing else. There are proposals for an oil trust fund, but the question is how that would be established without the agreement of the Government of Sudan.

There is a second issue in relation to disinvestment, which is another matter that we discussed in the debate last week, and the genuine difficulty is that, given that the proceeds of Sudan’s oil wealth are shared with the Government of South Sudan—for them, that is an important part of the comprehensive peace agreement—one would need to be careful about taking steps that reduced the money available to that part of Sudan’s new Government, because the need for resources, health and education is huge in that part of the country.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Secretary of State has just said that pressure was important. Bashir’s agreement for the deployment of the force does not come into effect until 2008, so has the Secretary of State considered using the international spotlight on China, owing to the Olympics, as leverage to encourage China to use its influence with Khartoum to end the genocide and stop Darfuris being killed between now and when Bashir may or may not allow troops to be deployed in 2008?

Hilary Benn: We certainly have encouraged China and all members of the Security Council and other nations to play their part in encouraging the Government of Sudan to do the right thing. I welcome the fact that the Chinese have now appointed a special envoy, Liu Guijin. That, plus the effort made by China in November when we had the meeting in Addis Ababa, chaired by Kofi Annan, which came up with the proposals for the hybrid force that have now been agreed by the Government of Sudan, demonstrates that China has taken a greater interest in trying to play a part. But the truth is that every single country has a responsibility to do more and to use all the influence that it has, including, if required, the threat of sanctions, to ensure that fine words are turned into action, because action is what is needed.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): We agree with the Secretary of State and welcome Sudan’s acceptance yesterday of the revised plan for a joint African Union/UN force. However, Sudan’s compliance has conditions, including requiring all hybrid force troops to be African, which will make the construction of the force difficult, if not impossible. What is the UK Government’s ongoing strategy—alongside the international community, including China—to guarantee that Khartoum does not renege on assurances again and continues the search for a comprehensive and inclusive ceasefire? What additional support and assistance is being put in place in the interim to ensure the safety of the Darfurian people until the proposed deployment of the hybrid force in 2008?

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Hilary Benn: I set out in my earlier replies the steps that we are taking to ensure that the Government of Sudan honour those commitments. In the meantime, the best that we can do is to provide support to the African Union mission, which we are doing via the substantial amount of money we have put in, and by getting agreement through the UN to the use of assessed contributions. The Government of Sudan have said that they want an all-African force and I hope very much that Africa will be able to come up with the number of troops. We discussed that in Addis Ababa in November and said that we should look to Africa first, but if the troops cannot all come from Africa, we should look elsewhere. I hope that it will be possible to find those troops.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a comprehensive peace agreement is the only real solution to the crisis. I hope that he and the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) will recognise the statement that was agreed at the G8 in Heiligendamm, which was raised in the debate last week. The statement shows that we have continued to press to make sure that the G8 gives a very strong lead. We have to get the talks going. That is a responsibility both on the Government of Sudan and on the rebels, because they too are partly responsible for the current banditry and attacks on humanitarian workers. They too have to stop doing that, get round the table and negotiate a peace deal.

Doha Trade Talks

2. Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): What his assessment is of the current status of the Doha trade talks as they relate to international development issues. [142237]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We have been encouraged by the new momentum in the Doha talks: for example, by the many recent discussions between key countries and the continuing support at the G8 last week for a deal that delivers a good outcome for developing countries. In Potsdam next week at the G4 ministerial meeting we hope that there will be a breakthrough that can be taken forward by all World Trade Organisation members.

Mr. Stuart: European agriculture subsidies remain a major obstacle to the successful conclusion of the Doha trade round. Do the Minister and the Government believe that the new French President has the political will to tackle that issue?

Mr. Thomas: We will enter a series of discussions with the leader of France as part of the EU’s review of the budget, and the common agricultural policy will be part of that discussion. Preparatory work is under way prior to ministerial discussions next year. I do not believe that the common agricultural policy is holding us back from getting a deal. There is sufficient flexibility available to our Trade Commissioner. We need to see more movement by our American friends, but I hope that we will see that in the next week and that we will be able to get the broad agreement that we need.

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Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): While the Doha round is taking an extremely long time to reach some form of conclusion, what is my hon. Friend doing to support the role of co-operatives in developing many trades and industries, especially for crops such as coffee? Through investment from his Department he can ensure that people on the ground are getting a fair deal for their products, which they often produce at a loss when they are not part of a co-operative. Can he assure me that his Department takes the role of co-operatives seriously and is ensuring that money is reaching them to aid their development?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to say that we must concentrate on trying to secure an agreement through the Doha round of talks. At the same time, we must look at the barriers to trade that many organisations face, including the particularly important form of business organisation that he describes—co-operatives. We work closely with a number of international organisations, not least the International Labour Organisation, to which we have recently committed some £5 million so that it can expand its support for work with co-operatives in Africa.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In his statement to the House on Monday, the Prime Minister said that there were only a few remaining percentage points either way, and that the Government would do all they could to bridge the gap. What are the outstanding issues, and what do the Government hope to do to bridge the gap?

Mr. Thomas: As the hon. Gentleman will remember from his time as Chair of the Select Committee, the key issue on which we need progress is access to agricultural markets. As he said, and as the Prime Minister said on Monday, we are much closer to a deal than we have ever been. Through the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for International Development, we have been talking to a range of partners with influence in those negotiations. A series of further conversations is taking place, and next week there is the Ministers’ meeting to try and make progress. We continue to be optimistic that a deal is possible. We hope that the enthusiasm that we saw at the G8 last week for a deal to be concluded will lead to the broad agreement that is necessary next week.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Given that those negotiations are so clearly in the last chance saloon, will the Minister set out precisely what the Government are doing to add urgency and energy to reaching a solution—hopefully, as he said, at Potsdam next week? Will he ensure that the important compromise proposal being tabled by Ambassador Crawford Falconer, the chairman of the agricultural negotiating committee, is given the attention that it clearly deserves?

Mr. Thomas: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made the issue a particular priority in his bilateral conversations with President Bush, President Merkel and a range of other EU colleagues, and in discussions with President Lula of Brazil and Prime Minister Singh of India, so we have been at the forefront of seeking to generate new momentum in the talks. We believe that there is a broad appetite among the G4 for progress
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next week. Of course we will seek to make sure that all options are available to the negotiators who meet next week. We believe that our negotiator, Mr. Mandelson, has the flexibility that he needs within the EU package, but we need some additional “give” from our friends across the Atlantic and from India and Brazil too, in specific areas. If there is a little movement, we remain confident that a deal can be achieved.


3. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What programmes his Department has to assist participation of women in civic society in Pakistan. [142238]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We assist the participation of women in civic society in Pakistan in a number of ways. For example, we provide support to the 24,500 relatively newly elected women councillors so that they can do their job more effectively to represent the poor and socially excluded. We are also supporting the establishment of over 50,000 citizens community boards to drive development at the very local level, which require at least a third of board members to be women.

Mrs. Moon: The Asian Human Rights Commission reports that between 2000 and 2006, almost 9,500 women were killed in Pakistan as a result of rape, gang rape, honour killings and burning to death. How can DFID support women in their fight for equality and status in Pakistan when they take on the risk faced by women such as the Punjabi Minister Zille Huma Usman, and the fatwa against tourism Minister Nilofer Bakhtiar? How can DFID protect women in Pakistan who take on civic roles?

Mr. Thomas: I join my hon. Friend in condemning the murder of the Minister in Pakistan and the continuing intimidation that is happening on too many occasions against women in Pakistan, especially those who enter civic life. Our key role must be to continue to support the Government of Pakistan in dealing with that intimidation. In that light, we have welcomed the Women’s Protection Bill that President Musharraf took through Pakistan’s National Assembly in November 2006, which dramatically reformed the rape laws and laws on adultery in Pakistan. We welcome, too, the further legislation that he has put before the National Assembly seeking, for example, to outlaw forced marriage and to safeguard women’s rights to property and inheritance. Of course, the crucial thing will be how those laws are implemented in practice. We can continue to support, through our financial assistance, a variety of programmes to help to improve a range of Pakistani authorities, so as to ensure that that legislation makes the difference that we all want to see.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways of encouraging women’s participation in civic society in Pakistan and throughout the developing world is through the Grameen bank, which lends small amounts of money to women who otherwise would not be creditworthy and increases that loan as they go along? What has DFID done to encourage micro-finance throughout the developing world?

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Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about the power of micro-finance to empower women, in particular. The Grameen bank in Bangladesh has been an important pioneer in this area. We are working with the Kashf Foundation in Pakistan, which is seeking to help some 300,000 people with micro-finance loans, the vast majority of them women.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): May I ask my hon. Friend for an update on the help given by his Department to the women who were rendered homeless and/or widowed by the Pakistan earthquake last year?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend will remember that we provided some £58 million in emergency relief assistance to help all those who had been made homeless or had lost loved ones as a result of the earthquake. We continue to support the recovery and reconstruction process with some £70 million of aid. We are working closely with the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority in Pakistan, and through the UN, to build up the effectiveness of Government institutions in the earthquake-affected areas, especially in supporting the most vulnerable who have suffered as a result of the earthquake, among whom women particularly feature.


4. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What assessment he has made of the outcomes in terms of international development of the recent G8 meeting. [142239]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): On climate change, the G8 summit made significant progress towards a new global agreement, which is very important for developing countries. The summit also reaffirmed the Gleneagles commitments on development assistance, and set out how the fight against AIDS will be taken forward with additional funding and help for vulnerable mothers and children. There has also been considerable progress on debt cancellation.

Mr. Hands: I applaud efforts made at the G8 last week to get its less generous members to pay more, but surely the Secretary of State agrees that quality matters as well as quantity? Does he agree with the proposal by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State to create an international independent aid watchdog to assess international aid efforts, and will he start at home by creating one for us in the UK?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was interested in the Opposition spokesman’s recent proposals, which came after the statement that I made to the House announcing, first, that we are going to set up an independent committee to oversee our aid evaluation, and secondly, that we are pursuing with colleagues in the international community a means of doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman proposes. In the end, it would be sensible, where we are pooling our efforts in a country—which is the right thing to do to help to overcome poverty—if, rather than individual donors trying to assess the effectiveness of the aid which we collectively give, donors came together to find a way of making that assessment jointly.

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