The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): On 18 June, the then Foreign Secretary met her European Union counterparts and agreed to resume normal relations with the Palestinian Authority. The EU is now working to put in place practical and financial assistance. My predecessor spoke to Prime Minister Fayyad on 27 June about this. British and European Commission officials are now on the ground, arranging the details.
Chris Bryant: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new responsibilities and I say on behalf, I think, of all Members of the House that we are particularly proud of the Governments record in this area, and we look forward to his taking that forward.
On Palestine, does my right hon. Friend accept that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and on the west bank is now so acute that, however fierce the battles between Fatah and Hamas, and however fierce the face-off between Israeli and Palestinian, we cannot simply walk by on the other side? The rich nations need to ensure that there is social justice for the Palestinians.
Mr. Alexander: I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for his generous welcome to my new position at the Dispatch Box. I reciprocate by paying tribute to my predecessor, who I believe has support throughout the House for the efforts he made in the Department for International Development in recent years.
I concur with the rather more dispiriting prognosis offered by my hon. Friend of the scale of the challenge currently faced in Gaza. We are gravely concerned about the humanitarian situation. Since 15 June, more than 140 truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies have been imported to Gaza, which reflects the scale of the challenge and the problem faced on the ground. Across the west bank, the humanitarian situation is more stable, but the priority for Gaza is to get access in order that we can continue to provide the humanitarian assistance that is needed.
On the problems of Palestine, does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that although we work, as we must, with President Abbas, he is not the sole spokesman of the Palestinian people, and that his Prime Minister, able as he is, is not the popular choice of the Palestinian Authority? How can the Secretary of State ensure that aid is delivered effectively in Gaza, with the temporary international mechanism and where the Administration is not one with which the Quartet is prepared to engage? Can he ensure that services will be delivered effectively in the long term in Gaza?
Mr. Alexander: I begin by paying tribute to the right hon. Gentlemans leadership of the Select Committee on International Development. I am glad to say that it is in a spirit of co-operation and consensus that I arrive at the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State, and with a due sense of humility about the range and scale of expertise throughout the House on issues of international development. I am mindful that there has been a recent debate on the issue of Gaza and the west bank in which a number of hon. Members participated, which reflects the scale of concern about ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches Gaza.
As I made clear, notwithstanding the situation that emerged in relation to Hamass actions in Gaza, humanitarian assistance has continued to be provided directly to the Palestinian people there. It is also the case that the temporary international mechanism will continue until September and efforts will continue to ensure that we work directly with the Prime Minister and President Abbas. In the meantime, while the situation on the ground continues to be difficult, we shall ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided directly to those who need it.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In congratulating my right hon. Friend on his appointment and expressing my confidence that he will build on the superb record and reputation of his predecessor among the Palestinians, may I ask him whether he will take an early opportunity to visit the Palestinian territories, so that he can see for himself the terrible oppression, degradation and poverty from which a huge majority of Palestinians suffer? Will he ask the Israeli Government to return all the tax revenues that they have stolen from the Palestinians?
Mr. Alexander: I have in the past had the opportunity to visit Gaza and see for myself the real burdens and suffering experienced by many Palestinians. It is with regret that I say that, even since the visit I paid a number of years ago, the situation has deteriorated. We should bear in mind, for example, that amidst the economic growth that is being witnessed in many areas of the world, the Palestinian economy contracted by 10 per cent. last year. If I recollect the most recent figures correctly, the gross national income for the Palestinian Authority is about 7 per cent. of that of its neighbour, Israel. That shows the scale of the challenge faced to secure the economic development that all of us in this House want to see as part of finding a way forward in the middle east. My immediate travel plans are still being formulated, but I assure my right hon. Friend that I will give consideration to visiting the Palestinian territories, along with other areas.
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Will the Secretary of State remind his counterparts when he speaks to them that much of the equipment that the EU supplied to the Palestinians in the past was destroyed during Israeli incursions, including the air traffic control equipment at Gaza airport, and many of the computers used in the civil administration? Will he make it clear through channels to the Israelis that it is totally unacceptable for that to happen to European aid to Palestine?
Mr. Alexander: Of course, there is consensus in the House about wanting the aid not only from the United Kingdom but from the European Unionand the broader support of the Quartetto be in the hands of those who need it, and ensuring that it does not suffer the sort of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman described. Of course, as well as the contact that has already taken place between the new Prime Minister and President Abbas, contact will continue with the Israeli Government. I assure the House that we discuss such issues in our continuing dialogue.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. If we are to alleviate the humanitarian position in Gaza, it is vital to do something about the crossing at Rafah, where literally thousands of people have been stranded because Israel closed the crossing, even though it is not Israels border. Will he consider the presence of EU monitors there and the role that they can play in alleviating the suffering that is taking place?
Mr. Alexander: I am at one with my hon. Friend in recognising the difficulties that are being experienced at Rafah. My understanding is that approximately 6,000 people are in Egypt waiting for Gazas border with Egypt at Rafah to open. Indeed, between 400 and 700 people are receiving help from Bedouin in a deserted area around Rafah. The tragic death of a mother of four children occurred recently, and that has added a specific poignancy and urgency to trying to find a way forward on Rafah. When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last addressed the House on those matters, he made clear his intention of speaking directly to the Egyptian Foreign Minister. I assure my hon. Friend that I will consider his point about the UN monitors.
The stringent restrictions of movement that are imposed on the Palestinians continue to exacerbate the humanitarian position. They undermine all the aid and humanitarian work that is going on. What will the Secretary of State do to persuade Israel to remove those restrictions?
When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last addressed the House, he made clear the three principles whereby we will move our work forward on the matter in the months ahead. He said that first, we would be unyielding in our support for finding a two-state solution; secondly, we should express a genuine willingness to work with all those who would renounce violence as a way forward; and
thirdly, we need to continue to address the immediate humanitarian challenge while recognising the social and economic development needs of the Palestinians. It is right to place on record the fact that restraints on movement and access are a severe constraint on the capacity of the Palestinian economy to grow. Although, of course, it is necessary to provide humanitarian assistance with immediate effect, there is no substitute in the longer term for a sustainable, developed Palestinian economy. For that to happen, we need the restrictions on movement and access to be removed.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The recent Select Committee report underlined the effectiveness of the temporary international mechanism in providing much needed support to the most vulnerable Palestinian groups. Given that the mechanism was set up to avoid distributing funds to Hamas, and in the light of recent events in Gaza, does the Secretary of State believe that the fund is still an acceptable method of delivering aid to the Palestinian population beyond its current extension to September?
Mr. Alexander: Following a decision that the former Foreign Secretary made on 18 June, we are now working to put in place practical and financial assistance to establish normal relations with the Palestinian Authority. That will inevitably take time and it is entirely appropriate for the EU to have reached a recent judgment that we should continue the temporary international mechanism until September. We have provided £15 million to the temporary international mechanism to date. That support was necessarily provided to both the Gaza strip and the west bank. While we are in the process of transition, and given that the position continues to be fluid, I support the actions to extend the temporary international mechanism to September.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The breakdown in the G4 talks in June was disappointing, but does not mean the end of the Doha round. Negotiators from all countries are working hard in Geneva now and we expect new proposals soon. We are working with EU member states and other World Trade Organisation members to help to break the deadlock.
Mr. Bone: I thank the Under-Secretary for that frank answer. Does he agree that the best method of relieving poverty in developing countries is by developing trade with industrial countries? Has not appalling EU protectionism in the current round of discussions let developing countries down?
I agree with the hon. Gentlemans first point that increasing trade as a vehicle to drive economic growth in poor countries is absolutely fundamental if we are to see progress made towards the
millennium development goals, which both sides of the House hope to see. We are now witnessing significant reform of the common agricultural policy, which has given Peter Mandelson, the Trade Commissioner, the flexibility to offer progress in the negotiations on the EU side. We need further concessions from our American allies, as well as from our Indian and Brazilian colleagues in the areas where they are able to offer them.
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Given the current stalemate in the World Trade Organisation talks, will my hon. Friend consider extending the EU Everything But Arms scheme, which would effectively provide more jobs in the developing world and reach out to countries such as Kenya?
Mr. Thomas: I should say to my hon. Friend, whose interest in this issue over a number of years I acknowledge, that the gaps between the key G4 countries did narrow at Potsdam, so we believe that there is continuing hope for progress in the round. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made very clear his determination that we should do all we can to maintain momentum in this round. That is why he has made a series of calls, not least to the Prime Minister of India and the President of Brazil, and also why progress has been made in talks with key interlocutors such as the director-general of the World Trade Organisation. It is also why there will be a Cabinet Committee to take forward co-ordination across the Government in this area.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): We welcome the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities and the Minister to his expanded responsibilities on trade. Further to the Ministers remarks about the need for the Americans to move in these negotiations, is he aware that while exports of clothes and garments from African countries to America have increased sevenfold over the last five years, the same exports to Europe have actually declined? What plans does he have to increase the ability of African countries to sell into Europe, and is he seeking to change the rules of origin requirements, which are at least partly to blame for the problem?
Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of these trade negotiations in the effort to reverse the decline in the share of trade to Africa, particularly in respect of agricultural products. He is right to say that we need radical reform of the rules of origin requirements and we continue to press the EU to offer a more generous system for those rules. That is why my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and current Chancellor of the Exchequer, in partnership with colleagues in other European countries, wrote to a number of Commissioners to press for progress on those rules of origin. We do need greater progress from our American allies, particularly in respect of allowing Africa to increase its trade of cotton into American and EU markets.
On the issue of the EU, the Minister will be closely following the discussions between the European Commission and developing countries about economic partnership agreements. If EPAs cannot be
negotiated and agreed by December, will the British Government accept the Commissions imposing the generalised system of preferences, or will the Minister press for an extension of the WTO waiver?
Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is also right to highlight the importance of the economic partnership agreement discussions that are currently under way. They have the potential to deliver considerable economic benefits and contribute to poverty reduction across Africa, the Caribbean and indeed the Pacific. We are pleased with recent progress made in the negotiations, particularly regarding flexibility and the generous market access offer that the Commission has put forward. We are also pleased with the renewed enthusiasm across all six negotiating groups in the ACP to conclude negotiations by the end of December.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Many who follow these discussions understand fully the need for the American Administration to respond to its somewhat vocal farm lobby. Nevertheless, does my hon. Friend agree that if there is to be further penetration of the depleted markets in developing countries, where farmers in many cases are still earning less than $1 a day, that would not only be unfair, but we simply would not achieve the millennium development goals?
Mr. Thomas: My right hon. Friend makes a particularly important point on the United States. The World Bank has estimated that farmers in Africa lose out on between $75 million and $100 million per year as a result of cotton subsidies, particularly in the United States. We need some additional flexibility from our American allies, as well as from the EU, India and Brazil.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): We are providing £500,000 a year to support Save the Children's work in Tibet. The support runs from 2005 to 2010. The programme seeks to improve the economic and social status of children in Tibet, by enhancing their rights to education, health care and basic protection.
Norman Baker: I congratulate the Under-Secretary on his appointment and wish him well in his post. I am pleased to hear of the work going on in Tibet, but will he assure me that the moneys will help Tibetan people? As he may know, the Chinese authorities operate, effectively, a policy of apartheid, discriminating against Tibetans in education, employment and health. What steps will he take to ensure that the money allocated gets to the Tibetans, rather than being siphoned off by the Chinese?
May I formally acknowledge the considerable energy directed at Tibet by the hon. Gentleman? There is considerable investment in China in the run-up to the Olympics. The opening of Tibet is creating more economic opportunities for all those resident in Tibet, including
the indigenous Tibetans. Economic growth in Tibet over the last three to five years has been above the national average and the extension of the railway has created a tourism boom from which Tibetans benefit. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are inequalities within Tibet. The hon. Gentleman has raised those issues and issues of human rights on numerous occasions. At the last UK/China human rights dialogue on 5 February, many of these concerns were raised and we handed over a list of individual cases of concern to the Chinese Government, including the names of Tibetan prisoners.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ensure that when these projects go ahead, we will also enter into talks with the Chinese on the self-governance of Tibet by its people and on an end to the illegal occupation?
Mr. Malik: We are constantly speaking to the Chinese on human rights. We recognise Tibet as autonomous but having a special relationship within China. In February of this year and September of last, the Prime Minister raised issues and concerns about Tibet. Through our programme in Tibet, we are doing some work, but we also have considerable investment in China itself to help health and education programmes that will impact across the piece, including within Tibet.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I welcome the Under-Secretary to his new post and wish him well. Will he take time from his busy schedule to meet the Foreign Office to discuss Chinas policy in Tibet and, in particular, safeguards for religious freedom?