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House of Commons

Wednesday 30 January 2008

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. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. [182969]

5. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): What assistance his Department is providing to the people of Gaza. [182973]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government and I are extremely concerned about the situation in Gaza and we are monitoring it closely. Gazans scrambling over the Rafah border last week secured essential supplies, but the underlying humanitarian situation is still dire. Although we understand Israel’s security concerns, we do not support the decision to close Gaza’s crossings. The Foreign Secretary and I have called on Israel to open them and to lift immediately all restrictions on humanitarian supplies. So far this financial year, the UK Government have given more than £11 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza and the west bank through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the temporary international mechanism. The majority of that money went to Gaza.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s answer. Does he agree that it is completely unacceptable for the Israelis to stop goods coming in, in particular for the Umm al-Nasser project? That project is needed to drain a lake to prevent potential flooding for 10,000 people in Gaza, but the Israelis are blocking the supplies that are coming in for that. The Israelis made a commitment to the special envoy to the middle east that they would honour the project, but what is the point of having a special envoy and getting him to do deals with the Israeli Government if they will not deliver—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a supplementary question, not making a speech.

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Mr. Alexander: I have had the opportunity to discuss with the Quartet’s envoy the quick impact projects, including the project in Gaza. He is determined to continue his work to ensure that those projects are taken forward. Ordinary Palestinians should not suffer because of the actions of extremists, and any response by the Israeli Government to the rocket attacks by militants should be in accordance with international law. We are therefore keen not only that humanitarian supplies should be able to enter Gaza but that we have the kind of economic progress that is necessary to support the peace and reconciliation process in the middle east that we all want to see.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is the Secretary of State aware that Israel’s collective punishment of the people of Gaza is probably illegal under international law and the fourth Geneva protocol? The closure of the Erez crossing means that basic humanitarian medical supplies and all food supplies cannot get through to Gaza. Even a humanitarian convoy put together by Israeli human rights organisations has been blocked at the Erez crossing. Will the Secretary of State put immediate pressure on Israel to open the crossing, allow medical and food aid to get through and allow the humanitarian supplies to arrive quickly? Israel’s refusal to do that means that the anger and poverty of the people of Gaza simply gets worse and worse.

Mr. Alexander: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I travelled to the Palestinian Authority’s territory in December and took the opportunity to meet Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister who is responsible in the Israeli Government for the policies about the crossings. I impressed on him the long-standing position of the British Government that, notwithstanding the legitimate security concerns of the people of Israel, we believe that the crossing should be open. We recognise that there are deficiencies in the medical supplies available in Gaza and continuing requirements for fuel for generators, not least for the hospitals. That is why I and the Foreign Secretary have made repeated pleas to the Israeli Government to recognise their obligations and ensure that the crossings are open for humanitarian supplies.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I welcome the pressure that the British Government are putting on the Israeli Government to reopen the crossings and the humanitarian support that we are giving through the non-governmental organisations in Gaza. However, what steps and systems has the Secretary of State put in place to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is not being diverted in Gaza to be used to create rockets to be fired into Israel?

Mr. Alexander: I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. There are clearly established mechanisms, principally through the UN and the ICRC, to provide support. We are providing about £100 million through UNRWA to the Palestinian territories over a period of five years. However, in addition to those assurances, we continue to speak to the Palestinian Authority, principally to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, and to impress on them the importance of taking forward the work in the Palestinian community to find a way forward, not least in relation to Gaza.

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Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): While the Government’s actions on this matter are impeccable and the efforts of Tony Blair are wholly admirable, is it not a fact that only international action can bring to an end the humanitarian disaster caused by collective punishment imposed by the gang of amoral thugs who comprise the Israeli Government and violate not only international law but the historic Jewish conscience?

Mr. Alexander: I know of the long-standing concern about and the interest in the middle east with which my right hon. Friend speaks. The British Government have been unequivocal in stating that Israel should abide by its commitment under the fourth Geneva convention. We recognise the legitimate security concerns of the people of Israel, but it is vital that the Israeli Government act in a way that is consistent with their obligations under international law.

My right hon. Friend made another substantial point about international action, and I welcome the steps taken by the Quartet’s special representative and the recent visit to the region by President Bush of the US. The whole international community should speak with one voice to impress on both the Israelis and Palestinians the urgency of finding a way forward in the middle east.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): We are appalled by the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, but does the Secretary of State agree that we have reached an extraordinary state of affairs when a UN representative can say:

We all condemn the rocket attacks on Israel, but does the Secretary of State think that the scale of the Israeli response is disproportionate?

Mr. Alexander: I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his Front-Bench post as Liberal Democrat spokesman on international development. We are extremely concerned by the humanitarian situation. I have seen the reports to which he has referred and which were written by an UNRWA representative. Since July 2007, when the closure regime was tightened, we have made active diplomatic efforts to ensure that the humanitarian situation has eased. In December, I took the opportunity to discuss the Israeli Government’s defence posture and humanitarian obligations with Ehud Barak. As recently as last weekend, my colleague the Foreign Secretary raised those matters directly with Minister Livni, the Israeli Government’s foreign affairs spokesman.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): At least no one in the House of Commons is trying to defend the Israeli Government’s inexcusable actions. Cannot the western powers—certainly this country, and I would hope the US—be much firmer with Israel and say that its actions cause dismay throughout the civilised world? How would Israeli citizens like to be subject to what the citizens of Gaza are subjected to by Israeli occupation?

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Mr. Alexander: As I said, we have been unequivocal in urging the Israeli Government to recognise their humanitarian obligations in Gaza. We have also been unequivocal in our support for the Palestinian Authority’s efforts over recent months to reform the system of governance in the west bank and to take the peace process forward. Ultimately, both the Palestinians and the people of Israel have legitimate security concerns, but that is no reason why humanitarian supplies should not reach Gaza, nor why rockets should be fired on the Israeli population. It is imperative that all sides recognise their responsibilities, and it is essential that the international community communicates that with one voice.


2. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to discuss aid to Afghanistan with his EU counterparts. [182970]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I next anticipate holding comprehensive discussions on aid to Afghanistan with my European counterparts at a conference on Afghanistan to be hosted by France this summer. The conference will take stock of achievements to date and donors will make pledges of support to the Afghan national development strategy, the Government of Afghanistan’s own five-year strategy for reconstruction and development that is due to be finalised in March.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but does he agree that it is most unfortunate that President Karzai first criticised British intervention in Helmand province and then vetoed Lord Ashdown’s appointment as UN special representative? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure better co-ordination of the aid efforts undertaken by his Department and the hundreds of other aid agencies in Afghanistan?

Mr. Alexander: First, I am sorry that Lord Ashdown has felt obliged to withdraw his candidacy for the post of UN special representative, as he would have served with great distinction and ability in that role. Before he withdrew his candidacy, I had an opportunity to discuss these matters with President Karzai at the end of last week. Although the question of who should be the UN special representative should be discussed with the Afghan Government, the judgment ultimately rests with the UN Secretary-General, with whom I have also therefore taken the opportunity to speak. It is right to recognise the urgency of stronger co-ordination within the donor community, but ultimately the initiative rests with the Secretary-General of the UN.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What role does my right hon. Friend think that specific and targeted EU and UK aid can play in reducing Afghan farmers’ reliance on growing cocaine and poppies, and in reducing the level of violence in the country?

Mr. Alexander: Inevitably and appropriately, because British troops are serving with such distinction in Helmand, much of the coverage of Afghanistan in
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British newspapers focuses exclusively on the counter-insurgency campaign. It is right to recognise that there has been a significant uplift in poppy production in Helmand but, at the same time, there has been a significant increase in the number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan. That speaks to the fact that the key to eradicating opium, which will be a long-term endeavour, is making the environment secure and ensuring the rule of law. That is why we stand four-square behind the Afghan Government in their efforts to find a way forward, not simply in the areas affected by the insurgency but more broadly across Afghanistan.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the recent criticisms voiced by President Karzai and other members of the Afghan Government might have something to do with impending elections? Figures suggesting that UK aid is three times more efficient than American aid reinforce the need to co-ordinate aid and its impact on the ground. Will the Secretary of State use his offices within the international community to engage with other partners to ensure local impact and an understanding by the people of Afghanistan that there is real benefit in partnership, and that a long-term commitment has been made?

Mr. Alexander: The right hon. Gentleman speaks with obvious authority as Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, which recently visited Afghanistan. I assure him, as I assured the Committee, that we are engaging actively with our American partners. When I visited Afghanistan, I met the American ambassador, and I am in regular contact with Henrietta Fore of the United States Agency for International Development. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that discussions with the Americans are going on at every level about how we can ensure maximum impact for international development assistance to Afghanistan.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): In his discussions with his European counterparts, will my right hon. Friend ensure that much greater priority is given to reforming the justice system in Afghanistan? Women there are still arrested and routinely jailed for years simply for running away from home or choosing not to marry the man their families have chosen for them. I ask that the issue of gender be given much higher priority as well.

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend speaks with great authority and expertise on these matters. The Americans have led on issues relating to the Ministry of Interior while, within the European Union, our German colleagues have done much on police reform. An active dialogue is taking place in the international community about how best we can support the Afghan Government’s efforts. I am encouraged by the recognition at senior levels in that Government of the importance of both the issues identified by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): During my service in Afghanistan, I experienced at first hand the challenges of trying to deliver
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meaningful development on the ground. The keys to success, as highlighted by the Afghanistan compact, are capacity building, co-ordination and a bottom-up approach through the production of community development plans. Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the signing of the compact, yet the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development remains the only vaguely functioning Department in the provinces and only a tiny percentage of communities have produced meaningful plans. Why has so little progress been made, and what specific action does the Secretary of State intend to take to address the situation?

Mr. Alexander: I do not share the universally negative view suggested by the Opposition’s Front-Bench spokesman. Of course there is a long way to go and a great deal of work to be done in terms of building the capacity of the Ministries, as I just acknowledged in the case of the Ministry of Interior. On the other hand, real progress is being made. Back in 2001, 900,000 boys were in education in Afghanistan; there are now more than 5 million children in education, and more than 2 million of them girls. More than 9,000 km of roads have been improved since 2001. One force commander told me when I visited Afghanistan that where the roads end, the Taliban begin. Both physical work and social and economic development are under way, but I fully recognise that there is still a long way to go.


3. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he has taken to ensure that aid allocated to Palestinians is spent on the purposes for which it is intended. [182971]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): Aid to the occupied Palestinian territories is subject to the highest possible level of scrutiny. Projects are run by internationally respected organisations, with rigorous checks on each payment and independent auditing. UK aid is spent on helping Palestinians pay for their doctors and teachers, maintain water and electricity supplies and support refugees. In addition, the Department for International Development is supporting programmes to tackle corruption and improve the management of public funds.

Mrs. Ellman: But on 29 December a lorry was found to be taking 6.5 tonnes of bomb-making potassium nitrate into Gaza, disguised in a bag labelled “EU sugar”. Again on 14 January a lorry was found to be taking bomb-making equipment into Gaza disguised as aid. In view of that, does my hon. Friend not think that more urgent attention should be given to ensuring that only humanitarian aid goes into Gaza, so that the very genuine needs of the people are met?

Mr. Malik: My hon. Friend rightly highlights the need for constant vigilance where aid is concerned, but it is important to put the matter in context and in perspective. The Israeli authorities accept that the bags had nothing to do with EU projects and were fraudulent. EU aid was thus not misused. Such
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opportunistic frauds are an attempt to undermine the peace process. There is also the problem of weapons smuggled through tunnels, and I take her point about vigilance. We are clear that the Palestinian Authority are committed to the middle east peace process and to tackling extremism and terrorism.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What assurances can the Minister give that, contrary to recent reports, no British aid whatever is being used to fund extremist educational materials in the Palestinian territories that indoctrinate children and young people in Palestine with the belief that martyrdom or the murder of apostates is a legitimate political or religious aim?

Mr. Malik: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue, which has been raised a number of times over the past 10 years or so. I can categorically say that UK aid does not fund textbooks or the Education Ministry. The allegations relate to textbooks that were used pre-1994. Since 2002 the Palestinian Authority have had a new national curriculum that is hatred and violence free. Importantly, that has been confirmed by both the European Commission and an Israeli civil society organisation that was commissioned by the US. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which we support, supports education in the occupied Palestinian territories and produces textbooks, but they are UN approved and endorsed and are free from extremism and violence.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned UNRWA. Is he aware that John Ging, the UNRWA director of operations in Gaza, came to Parliament in the autumn? Was he not right when he said that the problem with Israel’s action is that it

Is not the collective punishment being imposed by Israel unjustified? What are the Government doing to ensure that the United Nations passes an appropriate resolution to bring the situation in Gaza to an end, or at least to express much firmer international disapproval of it?

Mr. Malik: We constantly call on all sides in the dispute and conflict to adhere to international law and to respect human rights. Israeli security and justice for the Palestinians will not be achieved by cutting off fuel, closing crossings, or firing rockets. That is a recipe for continued misery on all sides.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Given the nature of the Hamas regime in Gaza, can the Minister explain to the House whether the controls on aid going to Gaza are tighter than the controls on British aid going to the west bank?

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