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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 March 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. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What support his Department has provided to Palestinian communities affected by recent airstrikes. [193262]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The recent air strikes and incursions have exacerbated an already grave humanitarian situation: 80 per cent. of the population is at least partly dependent on food aid and 90 per cent. of mains water is polluted. I have allocated an additional £2 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which provides water, sanitation, food, medicines and shelter. That is in addition to our wider contribution—linked to political progress—of £243 million over three years.

Mr. Carmichael: The Secretary of State is doubtless aware that the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on the situation in Gaza during the week from 27 February to 3 March recorded that, in that week alone, 107 Palestinians were killed and 250 injured by the Israel Defence Forces and that two IDF soldiers and one Israeli citizen were killed and 25 injured. It also outlines a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with some 30 per cent. of the population currently without access to a regular water supply. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a prima facie case of Israel being in breach of its obligations under article 33 of the Geneva convention regarding collective punishment? If he does agree, what action will the Government—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Alexander: Of course we unreservedly condemn the rocket attacks that continue to affect Sderot and the Negev in the southern part of Israel, but we are equally clear that we do not support the decision taken by the Israeli Government to close the crossings, restricting the flow of humanitarian supplies such as the ones the hon. Gentleman describes. It is also the long-standing position of the British Government that any response
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by Israel should be in accordance with international law, including the fourth Geneva convention. We also, of course, deplore civilian casualties on both sides of the conflict.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for condemning the rocket attacks, but is it not a fact that the bulk of the responsibility lies on Hamas, which has allowed terrorist organisations to rain rockets down on Israel in an attempt to kill children there and, indeed, has undertaken terrorist activity against its own citizens in the military takeover of Gaza? Will the Secretary of State ensure that, however much aid is vitally needed by the citizens of Gaza, none of it gets to those terrorist organisations?

Mr. Alexander: We are obviously keen for Hamas to accept the Quartet principles, which were set out some time ago. Equally, however, we are clear that the humanitarian situation is serious. While we unequivocally condemn both the rocket and sniper attacks, of which my right hon. Friend spoke, we are also clear that there needs to be the means by which humanitarian supplies can reach the 1.5 million people in Gaza.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Spokesmen for the Israeli Government repeatedly say that they have not imposed any blockade on Gaza. Is that true?

Mr. Alexander: The crossings are at present closed, other than for very limited entrance for certain supplies. As the OCHA report, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has already referred, reflects, there is a growing and grave humanitarian situation in Gaza. It is therefore important that all sides recognise their responsibilities and facilitate the entrance to the Gaza strip of exactly the humanitarian supplies that would address that grave situation.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the real problems facing the people of Gaza is shortage of fuel and electricity, as a result partly of an Israeli air strike on their power plants and partly of the blockade? What are we doing to ensure that electricity supplies get through to Gaza, particularly when, as I understand it, we and the European Union are paying for them to get through?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to recognise that, in addition to the fatalities identified in the OCHA report, the air strikes resulted in an additional 30,000 people being cut off from water supplies—200,000 were already cut off before the incursion—and the electricity infrastructure was damaged. There are at present on average about eight hours of power cuts being suffered each day in the Gaza strip, which is why we are in regular contact with all sides and why we are encouraging through the Quartet the continued progress of the Annapolis peace process. Although there is an immediate humanitarian challenge, the long-term resolution to this conflict ultimately has to lie in the political process.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Obviously, the security of the Palestinian people as well as that of the people of Israel should be at the forefront
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of all our minds. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the former Prime Minister of the UK, Mr. Tony Blair, who has taken on a role in the middle east?

Mr. Alexander: I last met special representatives to the Quartet last January and I previously met them at the Paris pledging conference, which is the next major step after the Annapolis conference. There, Tony Blair made clear to me his pleasure in the scale of pledging that was put behind the peace process by the international community. However, there is only so much that the international community can do to support the Annapolis process, which is why we welcome the latest indications that there will be further political discussions within the region in the days to come.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Following on from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) said, may I tell the Secretary of State that although everyone recognises the sufferings of the ordinary citizens of Gaza, some responsibility must also be placed very firmly on Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel? Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that aid given to the citizens of Gaza actually reaches those ordinary citizens rather than the militaristic Hamas? What discussions has he had with the ICRC to ensure that that happens?

Mr. Alexander: I assure my hon. Friend that, once again, we have unequivocally condemned the rocket and sniper attacks on Israel. That has been the British Government’s position for a long time. As for the related issue of whether we can be comfortable about the work being done, in this instance, by the ICRC and the United Nations, there are long-standing procedures to ensure that we provide the supplies that are immediately required to meet the humanitarian need, while not providing the political support that my hon. Friend has described, which I do not think any Labour Member would be keen for us to provide.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Secretary of State and others are right to acknowledge that the people of Gaza are victims of both Hamas and the Israeli assaults, but will the Secretary of State also acknowledge that the Bethlehem development and investment conference will have limited scope to change things if Israel has no access to Gaza? The same applies to the west bank, where movement and access continue to be restricted although no rocket attacks are being launched in the area.

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in complete agreement with the right hon. Gentleman. I travelled to the Palestinian territories in December and had an opportunity to observe the presentation from OCHA, which made clear the significance of the consequences of the blockages of movement and access that apply not just in Gaza but throughout the west bank. In our discussions both with the Palestinian authorities and with the Government of Israel, we have stressed repeatedly that if there is to be the economic progress that we should like as a result of the Bethlehem development and investment conference, there must be changes on movement and access.

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Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): According to the Secretary of State, the British Government have consistently said that Israel’s actions and response to violence from Hamas and others must comply with international law and meet United Nations humanitarian standards. Have the British Government assessed whether the Israeli Government’s recent actions meet those standards?

Mr. Alexander: There are appropriate bodies to adjudicate on international law. I assure the hon. Gentleman that in conversations with Defence Minister Barak of the Government of Israel we made it clear that we are keen to see Israel adhere to international law, whether in relation to the barrier or settlements or in terms of its response more generally. The issue is the subject of continuing discussion between the British Government and the Government of Israel.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that a group of leading charities recently described the situation in Gaza as the worst for 40 years? In particular, it cited shortages of essential medical supplies, electricity, fuel and especially water, which are causing increasing misery. What more can the British Government do, working with the Quartet and the temporary international mechanism, to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis?

Mr. Alexander: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago, in which I announced that an additional £2 million would be given to the ICRC to address exactly those concerns. He is right to say that the crisis action report identified the grave humanitarian situation currently affecting the citizens of Gaza. That is why we not only continue to support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the ICRC, but have today pledged a further £2 million for the ICRC in recognition of the need to respond to that humanitarian situation.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What specific representations has my right hon. Friend made concerning Hamas’s callous decision to launch its rocket attacks on Israelis from civilian areas in Gaza such as the United Nations school in Beit Hanoun?

Mr. Alexander: I assure my hon. Friend that we utterly deplore the rocket attacks, not simply because of their location but because of their consequences—the bombing and casualties in Sderot and the Negev in Israel. We take every opportunity in international forums to make it clear that we unreservedly condemn those attacks, and indeed the sniper attacks as well. However, we make it equally clear that we want Hamas to adhere to the Quartet principles that we set out some time ago.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I join other Members in condemning the violence on both sides of the conflict. I also join the Secretary of State in acknowledging the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In response to a couple of questions, the Secretary of State has said that international bodies are there to judge whether Israel is in breach of its international obligations. Does he agree with my hon. Friend the
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Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that Israel is in breach of the Geneva conventions, and, as I asked him when we last discussed these matters, does he think that the Israeli reaction is proportionate?

Mr. Alexander: I hope that I can offer the hon. Gentleman the comfort for which he is looking in the statements that I and the Foreign Secretary issued on 11 and 21 January and 8 February, where not only did we unequivocally condemn, as he has, the rocket and sniper attacks, but we consistently made it clear that any response by Israel should be in accordance with international law. We deplore civilian casualties on both sides and it is a matter that we repeatedly bring to the attention of the Israeli Government.


2. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to promote free and fair elections in developing countries. [193263]

3. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to promote free and fair elections in developing countries. [193264]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Gillian Merron): Free and fair elections are central to better governance and accountability in developing countries, with primary responsibility resting with the relevant Government. Support is given by the UK at elections, including election observation and voter registration, as well as in between elections to Parliaments, civil society and other institutions.

Mr. Hands: This is all very valuable work, but does the Under-Secretary think that her efforts have been helped or hindered by her boss’s involvement in elections at home, which were criticised in a report from the Electoral Commission as overlooking voter interests— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is about elections in developing countries.

Mr. Boswell: Further to that, the Under-Secretary wishes to be fair. Given that the Council of Europe, for example, has taken up concerns about our own electoral arrangements in relation to postal voting, will she assure the House that when she advises foreign countries and electoral authorities, she will have regard to the need to be scrupulous in terms of best practice rather than some of the practices that may have characterised recent elections here?

Gillian Merron: I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman has concerns about matters in the UK, he will raise them with the appropriate Secretary of State. It is important that we support not just free and fair elections at election time, but underlying systems and processes. We work hard with Parliaments, media and civil society, and the hon. Gentleman will want to know that we have established a governance and transparency fund to support accountability and governance in developing countries. We will soon be announcing the recipients of that fund.

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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ensure that we get free and fair elections in Tibet? What pressure can be placed on China to ensure that Tibet gets those free and fair elections as soon as possible?

Gillian Merron: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working with, and will continue to work closely with, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on that. I will bring his concerns to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): May I caution the Minister against putting too much reliance on Governments to patrol and police their own elections and encourage her to put more effort into strengthening the capacity of Parliaments to hold the Executive to account? The catastrophe in Kenya happened when President Kibaki stuffed the electoral commission of Kenya. Surely it is for the cross-party forum, the Parliament of Kenya, and not the Government of national unity to reform the law so that the electoral commission of Kenya represents all parties in civil society and has credibility when the next elections come?

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend has a creditable record in this area through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I commend his leadership of that organisation and the work that it does. We support the building up of the capacity of Parliaments and political parties in many of the countries in which we work. That includes transparency and support in terms of the selection of candidates and how campaign issues are articulated. I can assure my hon. Friend that we believe that continued work will be very important in building Kenya.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Further to the question of the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), the hon. Lady will be aware that the Department for International Development has spent more than £50 million in Kenya this year, including £600,000 on election monitoring. What lessons have she and her Department learned from the recent events there?

Gillian Merron: Perhaps I could put on record once again the fact that nobody could have predicted the scale of post-election violence in Kenya, and our approach is very much that it is not business as usual. We did much work before the Kenyan elections, and we now need to move from the not-business-as-usual approach to a transitional period. We are currently providing £50 million in aid, and we are keeping our programme continually under review. I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not providing that assistance through a general Government budget, but instead we are ensuring that it goes direct to the Kenyan people who are most in need.

Mr. Mitchell: Is not one of the most significant lessons the importance of building civil society and holding politicians to account over the long term? Why then, according to the last Kenya country assistance plan, was spending by DFID on governance and accountability cut?

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Gillian Merron: Of course, our key role is to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable people get the aid they need most, so we are ensuring that health and education are receiving such aid. The setting up of the governance and transparency fund, worth some £130 million, will ensure that we increase support for activities that focus on accountability, which I know is of great concern to the hon. Gentleman. We have had many applicants, including Oxfam and other such organisations, and I look forward to making an announcement on that soon.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that many people understand that the situation in Kenya was extremely difficult and very worrying and wish to congratulate the Secretary of State and his colleagues on the British contribution to finding a solution? Is she also aware that many people would plead with the Department to continue to support Kofi Annan in the excellent work he is doing?

Gillian Merron: I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s words of congratulation. We have been supporting the Kofi Annan mediation process and will continue to do so. The Government very much welcome the announcement of a peace deal. This is an optimistic and challenging time for Kenya, and it is important that we continue to work within that country to rebuild it so that Kenyans can look forward to peace, stability and further growth.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What action are the Government taking to guarantee free and fair elections in Zimbabwe? It is important that those elections are fair and free in order to bring about a change of Government in that country.

Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that there need to be free and fair elections, and the reality is that the conditions are not in place. I met with the UK ambassador to Zimbabwe last week, and I discussed that matter with him. The UK will continue to provide support for the poorest through non-governmental organisations and the United Nations. We do not accept the list of observers, so we are working closely with civil society organisations to strengthen the process. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we will continue to monitor and work on the situation with the international community.

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