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Jacqui Smith: I completely agree with my hon. Friend and I commend him for the important work that he is doing in Nottingham, particularly in the area of early intervention. I have had the pleasure of working with him on the development of social and emotional education.
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In the strategy, we are completely clear about the significance of early intervention, and he is right to say that that job will require not only the resources and efforts of the Home Office but efforts across government. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is already committed to an early intervention approach, and I look forward to being able to look at this issue and others across government through the national crime reduction board, which I will bring together and chair.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May I therefore appeal to the Home Secretary to display real statesmanship? Given that more than 60 per cent. of the 12,000 people in our young offender institutions suffer from speech, language and communication impairments that prevent them from accessing education, training and anger management courses, and that in that category, the reoffending rate is 80 per cent., will she undertake to work with her right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Justice, for Health, and for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that every young offender institution in the country employs a speech and language therapist, so that those young people can access the help that they need before their lives are permanently blighted?

Jacqui Smith: As a result of our investment in rehabilitation, we have already seen four times as many offenders being taught basic skills in recent years than was the case four years ago. The hon. Gentleman has a strong record of raising the issue of speech and language therapy, which I take seriously, and I will look at the matter that he has raised. He is right to say that this would involve working across government—a commitment that I have already made. I will take this matter very seriously—but I am just disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not add an invitation to a night out in Buckingham.

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Points of Order

2.19 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to see the Leader of the House in her place, and I hope that she is there to respond to the issue that I am about to draw to the House’s attention.

During business questions earlier this afternoon, I drew the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1952, which relates to the leadership of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I pointed out that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was not going to be a shoo-in, as there will be an election for the position, taking place next week. Given that the Council of Europe is all about democracy, I sought the assurance of the Leader of the House that a democratic election would involve every member of the delegation having a vote for its leadership. The answer I received was: yes, that is what would happen.

It is now clear that that answer was factually incorrect. I readily accept that the misleading of this House was totally unintentional. Nevertheless, that answer was wrong, because it is absolutely clear that only Labour members will be able to vote. We will therefore end up with a leader of an all-party delegation chosen on the basis that some of us are disfranchised. I hope that the Leader of the House now wants to correct her mistake and then explain why some of us are effectively second-class members, denied the right to say who will be our leader.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The Leader of the House is present. Does she wish to respond?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thank the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for raising this point of order and providing me with an opportunity to clarify the position. I can reassure him that we have not changed the procedure in any way, as it remains the case that the leadership of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe is a matter for the Prime Minister.

Mr. Wilshire: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We must leave it there. If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the matter further, he will have to—

Mr. Wilshire: I simply wanted to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. No, the Leader of the House has responded to the point of order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter further, he should consider choosing other channels to do so.

Mr. Wilshire: On a different point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be a different point of order if I were to thank the Leader of the House for being so prompt in correcting her mistake?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am more than content to accept that point of order. Perhaps we can now move on to the next business.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Michael Foster.]

2.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I welcome this debate. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his opposite number fully intended to participate in the debate, until it was clear that it was going to be significantly delayed as a result of ministerial statements and, as of Tuesday, possible Lords amendments. That is when the decision was taken for me to open the debate. We are, of course, seeking a further debate in the autumn, subject to the agreement of the business managers. We will then be able to debate the matter even more fully.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I would like the Minister to clarify exactly what the Foreign Secretary is doing. I know that he has a meeting at 4 o’clock, as the invitations went out last week. However, why is it not possible for him at least to open the debate today? All hon. Members accept how busy he is and would understand if he had to leave, but why has he decided not to open today’s debate?

Meg Munn: I do not know exactly what my right hon. Friend is doing at this precise moment, though I know that a number of concerns led him to take the decision, in which he liaised with the Opposition. My hon. Friend will be aware of the issue of Russia, which has demanded my right hon. Friend’s attention. She knows, as I do, that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is genuinely honourable and genuinely concerned about issues in Zimbabwe, which are a matter of priority within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Secretary sincerely regrets not being able to open today’s debate. If it were possible for him to be here, he would indeed have been here.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I share the views expressed by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). Does not the Minister agree that the message going out from this House to all those people worldwide who are concerned about Zimbabwe is important? This is the first debate on the subject for three years. I understand that the Foreign Secretary merely has a meeting at Chatham House; and I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is not in his place either. Is it not a very sad indictment when they do not see their first priority as this House rather than elsewhere?

Meg Munn: That is not the message that should go out. The issue is a matter of great concern. The former Leader of the House gave the hon. Gentleman a commitment to have a debate on Zimbabwe, which is being fulfilled. I have now made a further commitment—precisely because it is a matter of such concern and because we want to see it debated even more fully—to have another debate, subject to the agreement of the business managers, in the autumn. There are expectations of further decisions over the next few months, which I will outline in greater detail later, which provide a good reason for having a further debate at that time. We wish to arrange that as soon as possible.

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I shall now move on to the substance of my speech. As the Prime Minister recently said in Berlin of President Mugabe:

In my own speech, I will deal with the following issues: the current situation, including the human cost and economic decline; the appalling human rights abuses that have occurred and still are occurring; the response of the region and the Southern African Development Community or SADC initiative; our approach to supporting the people of Zimbabwe and all those now working for democratic change; and the EU-Africa summit.

I hope that all hon. Members can agree on two points: first, that the situation in Zimbabwe today is appalling; and secondly, that the cause of it is the actions of Robert Mugabe’s regime. The bare statistics are shocking enough: an economy halved in just seven years; unimaginable levels of inflation well in excess of 15,000 per cent.; an unemployment rate of more than 80 per cent.; a currency that has lost 99.9 per cent of its value in the last four years; and one in every five adults infected with AIDS.

The human misery that lies beneath those statistics is starker still. On average, a Zimbabwean boy born today will be dead before he reaches 37, and a Zimbabwean girl will die even earlier—she will not reach 35. One consequence is that today one in four Zimbabwean children has lost a parent. People are fleeing their homes and their country in the hundreds of thousands. The latest estimate is that more than 2,000 cross the Limpopo every night. Around a quarter of the population has already left. Of those who remain, almost half—more than 4 million people—will need food aid by 2008. Let us not forget where this is all happening. It is happening in a country that was one of the richest in Africa—a country that enjoyed comparatively high standards of living, a booming economy, and some of the best health, education and legal systems in the region.

There can be no doubt where the responsibility for the terrible tragedy in Zimbabwe lies—with President Mugabe and his regime. In the first 10 years after independence, significant gains were made in access to basic services. After 27 years of rule, however, Mugabe’s enduring legacy to the people of Zimbabwe is misery, poverty and oppression. Owing to Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is in the grip of a corrupt culture that has destroyed what was once the bread basket of southern Africa. Since 1998, agricultural productivity has fallen by a staggering 80 per cent. and more than a million people, many of them black commercial farm workers and their families, have lost their livelihoods.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I do not wish to be discourteous to the Minister, but those of us who regularly attend debates on Africa and Zimbabwe have all those facts burned into our souls. We do not want to hear a recital of Mugabe’s crimes and offences; we know about that. We want to hear what Her Majesty’s Government and the Foreign Office intend to do.

Meg Munn: I understand entirely that many Members know a great deal about the situation and have spent a lot of time raising such issues. Let us remember, however,
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that we are having this debate on the Floor of the House, it will be read widely, and it is right that the Government put the issues on the record. I do so not to avoid answering the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, but to make absolutely clear how poor the situation is, and what the implications are.

Robert Mugabe’s regime has compounded the catastrophic failure of policy at every turn. The mining sector is crippled—gold production is at its lowest ebb since 1917—which has put another 40,000 out of work in the past decade. Today there are reports that Zimbabwe, despite its huge reserves of coal, is having to import from Botswana. Even so, electricity supplies have now become so irregular that those few companies struggling to survive are having to import their own fuel from outside the country.

The new legislation being rushed through the Zimbabwean Parliament tells the same story. If approved, the legislation will make all foreign investors offer up a 51 per cent. shareholding to local investors. No doubt Robert Mugabe will ensure that his supporters receive the benefit while ordinary people suffer. Meanwhile, in 2005, Robert Mugabe added to the misery of the 1 million people displaced from the countryside by destroying the homes or livelihoods of 700,000 people living in the cities. He has refused to appeal to the UN for food aid, and has persistently ignored the advice of the International Monetary Fund on how to rescue his nose-diving economy.

I am sorry to report to the House that the latest news coming out of Zimbabwe shows that Robert Mugabe is set on pursuing yet more disastrous policies. The ill-thought-out and economically illiterate Operation Reduce Prices is resulting in panic-buying, empty shelves and looting. The few remaining businesses and manufacturers are closing. As might have been expected, such a clumsy attempt to manipulate market forces is simply driving consumers elsewhere—to the black market. As is always the case, those in the best position to take advantage of such an underground economy are the political elite.

Zimbabwe is grinding to a halt, while Robert Mugabe and his regime continue to close their eyes to the suffering.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I set up an organisation, in which the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) is also involved, which provides ongoing support for HIV/AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe. Does my hon. Friend recognise that the people in Zimbabwe place enormous value on the support and solidarity that comes from the UK? That is why the seniority of the ministerial presence in the House, and the level at which the Government engage and seek to put pressure on Zimbabwe, is so important, both in trying to stop Robert Mugabe and in giving some hope and heart to the people who are suffering most under that regime.

Meg Munn: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, and accept the reasons behind it. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary completely supports the actions being taken, and takes the matter very seriously. The issue is being given priority. I hope that that will reassure the people of Zimbabwe to whom my hon. Friend has referred.

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There is only one way in which a regime that is so incompetent and venal can survive—by denying the people the freedom to change it. Robert Mugabe and his regime depend on brutality and oppression for their survival. Since 11 March, when a young Zimbabwean was shot dead and opposition and civil society leaders bludgeoned, the number of opposition activists arrested and beaten throughout Zimbabwe has continued to grow.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, Beatrice Mtetwa, an extremely distinguished human rights lawyer, and Lovemore Madhuku, the chair of the National Constitutional Assembly, both of whom I had the privilege of meeting as long ago as February 2004, are just two of the people who, on more than one occasion, have been arrested and savagely beaten by the fascistic forces of Mugabe’s regime, does the Minister agree that President Mugabe should under no circumstances be allowed to attend the EU-African Union summit, and if he does, that our Prime Minister will boycott that pointless and thoroughly insensitive charade?

Meg Munn: I understand entirely the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he will bear with me, I said at the outset that I would refer to the issue, and I will do so.

In early June, lawyers peacefully protesting outside the high court were attacked and a leading female human rights lawyer was badly beaten in public. In the same month, police used batons against some 200 members of the group Women of Zimbabwe Arise who were protesting peacefully in Bulawayo. Seven of their members were detained and denied access to lawyers. They were held for several nights in degrading conditions before being released without charge. In the past, some of their members have been arrested and detained with their babies.

Just last week, it was the turn of Zimbabwe's students: when they protested against the forced eviction of 5,000 students from their halls of residence, hundreds were beaten and injured by riot police. All that, of course, is set against the backdrop of the continued persecution of opposition politicians, including Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, the rigging of elections, the systematic crushing of Zimbabwe’s free media and the use of food, fuel and land as tools of political repression.

The meltdown in Zimbabwe is a tragedy for the people of that country, but it is also a problem for the entire region. The repeated lesson of history is that the impacts of state failure will always migrate across borders. It is therefore undoubtedly in the interests of African nations to find and lead the solution to the problems in the country. We will support them in that effort.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What representations has the Minister received in relation to the Southern African Development Community supporting Zimbabwe, and specifically South Africa, in relation to expanding the rand’s monetary area and the customs union to include Zimbabwe at some point?

Meg Munn: I shall refer shortly to the role of SADC.
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Zimbabwe’s neighbours are already feeling the negative economic and social consequences of the exodus of Zimbabweans. It is putting added strain on their social and welfare structures. Zimbabwe’s neighbours are having to deal with HIV/AIDS patients, malnutrition, safety and security problems. In turn, that is causing tension within their own populations. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to his South African counterpart last week. They discussed the more than 2 million refugees already in South Africa—the last thing that South Africa needs—and the damage that Zimbabwe’s failure is doing to its neighbours’ economies. There are clear signs that the capacity of Zimbabwe’s neighbours to absorb those fleeing the country is approaching its limit. South Africa has returned more than 100,000 irregular migrants in the first six months of this year, which is twice the rate of the previous year.

The regional consequences of Robert Mugabe’s destructive approach are one compelling reason for the need for African leadership. The other, equally compelling, is that it is African countries and African leaders who have the greatest influence on the government of Zimbabwe. That is why we support a more active stance by the Southern African Development Community. We have been encouraging progress under President Mbeki’s leadership to promote dialogue between ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. President Mbeki updated the Prime Minister earlier this month, and there have been numerous ministerial level contacts with other SADC leaders as the situation in Zimbabwe has worsened.

We are expecting President Mbeki to report on progress to fellow SADC leaders at the summit in Lusaka set for mid-August. This is the opportunity for them to make a difference. However, I would not be being frank with this House if I did not say that ZANU-PF representatives have repeatedly failed to turn up for talks, and this is not encouraging. Robert Mugabe must not think that the SADC initiative can be used as a smokescreen to distract the opposition and his neighbours while he prepares the ground in Zimbabwe for another set of crooked elections. It would be a catastrophe, not just for Zimbabwe but for the region, if Zimbabwe suffered its fourth manipulated elections in a row next year. SADC has itself agreed high-quality standards for its elections. So we will support its efforts to put its stated commitment to promoting good governance and to respecting human rights and the rule of law into effect. It is only through such regional engagement that the situation can be prevented from deteriorating further.

African leadership is key. It helps to undercut one of the great sustaining myths of the regime’s propaganda effort—that international concern is colonialism by another name. We in this country must be particularly adroit in how we approach this problem. As the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, made clear on British television just a few months ago:

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