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We have provided not only money but expertise because the support needed by the people of Sierra Leone and other Commonwealth countries cannot be bought with money alone. We had to send people from our Army to support the development of an army in Sierra Leone. We had to send judges from the UK courts. We had to ensure that they were paid from the British purse, so that they could not be bought by anyone with substantial funding who wanted to avoid a conviction for serious crimes. We had to ensure that the police were paid and had accommodation. In the first few months after the war, when I was in Sierra Leone, the British Army was responsible for taking food up country in a helicopter, to make sure that the Sierra Leonean army did not go raiding local villages because they were starving. That was tremendously important, because the Government at the time were struggling to cope with 2.5 million people in Freetown, a city built to
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accommodate 250,000. DFID’s work has consistently been about supporting democratic governance and those instruments that secure the peace and safety of individuals.

DIFD has worked extensively with young people, including former rebels, and has worked closely with the Sierra Leonean Government’s education department to develop a 10-year education plan. It continues to be extremely busy, and although we fund 53 per cent. of the Government’s budget, it is not a great deal of money when so much needs to be done.

Gender is a major issue, as it is in many Commonwealth countries. The CPA has held a number of workshops in Freetown to advise on ways of increasing participation by and equality among women, and that work has been vital. I have done a great deal of community work in Waterloo in Sierra Leone. The headman there told me that every one of the women in his community had been raped during the war, yet none of them had brought any charges for sexual abuse or rape. That continues to be a common feature of women’s lives in Sierra Leone. Tremendous liberties are taken.

I have already mentioned female genital circumcision and mutilation. It is not a Government requirement, or even a male requirement: it is performed by women on women, and is considered to be very much part of their cultural heritage. However, thanks to such organisations as the World Service, supported by the British Government and beamed into every home in Sierra Leone, a significant number of women have been sensitised on the subject of circumcision. Some now object to the procedure, and want an opportunity to be free of the problems associated with it.

The mercy ships, which are supported extensively by the United Kingdom, do a great deal of work in Sierra Leone on behalf of those women. When they were last in the country, 2,000 women who had been subjected to circumcision turned up. Two thirds of them were incontinent, and a third had been left sterile. DIFD’s work with the women has been extensive. It has encouraged them to stand up for their rights, and has referred them to organisations that enable them to talk about their experiences. It is also beginning to help them with their literacy difficulties.

Only 10 per cent. of women in Sierra Leone can read, which makes developing a health programme a nightmare. We cannot arrange lessons for everyone. We can spread an awful lot of good information through the written word, but that requires people to be able to read. I should add that only 20 per cent. of men in Sierra Leone can read. The illiteracy levels there are the worst in the world, ranking bottom in the Commonwealth league. Making the country literate is a major challenge and a major opportunity for another fantastic organisation, the British Council.

We have not talked much today about the British Council’s role in Commonwealth countries, but it is extensive. During the last few weeks a man called Stephen Kinnock has taken over the council’s office there, because, as we all know, its office in St Petersburg has closed. That is very regrettable, but I for one was delighted that such an able individual was to be in charge of the office in Sierra Leone.

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The British Council has been working in Sierra Leone for 60 years, and was there during the trouble. It is a very challenging country in which to serve. During and after the war there were single-person postings, as with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is very hard for people and their families to be sent to a country with no running water and no permanent electricity supply, where life expectancy is the lowest in the world and where there is no functioning hospital. We should all be tremendously proud of people who can do a good job in such circumstances.

The British Council office staff are fantastic. For a long time they have provided the only library in the country. Last year 750 students took United Kingdom examinations, and 17,000 people used non-web-based resources to gain qualifications. The people of a country that was once very proud of its educational background have been given the opportunity to pursue their education through the British Council because we have chosen to support the organisation, and long may we do so. In many Commonwealth countries the council provides a first-rate education to international standards. The educational standards in Sierra Leone are not international, and its desire to create an educational platform as a source of business and income will be denied until that is sorted out, but the British Council is providing great opportunities.

Let me now deal with what I consider to be the only remaining serious challenges that face post-conflict and fragile states. Members will know that I am an engineer, and I hope they will forgive me for focusing on the role of engineering in the development of nations. As I said earlier, a country emerging from a conflict—a fragile state—is deemed to be a state that may tip back into instability for a number of reasons. The reason may be endemic disease or endemic unemployment, or it may be threats from other countries. However, some of those fragile states manage to overcome their crises.

The recent elections in Sierra Leone were very successful, and I congratulate President Kabbah and his successor on the exemplary way in which they conducted themselves. I do not think the people of Sierra Leone ever felt that they could aspire to the levels that they saw in Kenya, but when Kenya collapsed in front of them we could feel the pride of a nation that had managed to overcome such difficulties in its elections. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of York observed, it was like a revolving door: out went one party and in came another. When we visited the country to work on the educational programme, we witnessed the same sort of rivalry and banter between the opposing parties that I have witnessed in the House of Commons many times.

As I said earlier, now that the crisis is over in Sierra Leone, one of its main problems is mass unemployment. The fact that 90 per cent. of the population is unemployed worries the Government of Sierra Leone and many other poor countries enormously. The 90 per cent. is very age-specific. One does not see young people in work; employment is for people in their 20s and 30s. What can be done with approximately 1.5 million young men under the age of 16? It is immensely worrying. With unemployment at
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that level, much damage can be caused. Opportunism allows rebel armies, or any individual, to mass a force of instability.

I have been talking to our colleagues in DFID and the FCO, and I make the following appeal to the Minister: in countries such as Sierra Leone, we must move the DFID programmes on from negotiating civil contingency and civil stability to looking at how to develop employment opportunities. Without employment there is no income, without income there are no tax reserves, and without tax reserves countries such as Sierra Leone cannot get off their knees and do the sorts of things we take for granted.

I want more conversations of this kind to take place because the matter I am raising is of fundamental importance to our country, and if it is fundamentally important to us it is also fundamentally important in Sierra Leone. We think of skills acquisition as one of our twin top priorities, and that is no different in Sierra Leone. The difference between us and Sierra Leone is that we have huge investment programmes that allow young people to train on the job. There are no investment programmes in Sierra Leone at present, other than those funded by the Chinese and the EU. When the Chinese bring development into countries such as Sierra Leone, they will offer to build something for the country but they will bring in Chinese people from halfway around the world to build it. That is super because the facility is left in the country, but there is not a single qualified road engineer in Sierra Leone, so we can build a road—with a lovely ribbon to cut to open it—but nobody can maintain that road when we leave. There is also not a single town and country planner in the country, so even if we wanted to establish business parks, we would have nobody to design them. There is not one organisation that can repair water equipment either, so WaterAid has refused to go into some areas in Sierra Leone, despite the fact that water-borne diseases are the major killer of children under five, because there are no water technicians to repair the equipment.

I would like every piece of infrastructure development that we put into countries such as Sierra Leone to come with a requirement. We have invested in structures: we have built all the police stations—that has been done with our money. I have to tell Members, however, that they will be falling down within 10 years. I can say that because I have surveyed them, and I know that they have been built with salty sand. They cost £20 million to build, and we could ask, “Why have we allowed structures to be built with salty sand?” We have done that because there is no civil capacity in Sierra Leone that knew enough to say, “We shouldn’t use salty sand to make mortar because when it rains all the salt leaches away leaving a friable brick.” When we make investments in that country, we have an absolute obligation to improve technical capacity as well. I do not accept the patronising arguments that we should not enforce British standards in other countries, because that is demeaning in the extreme.

I have talked to engineers in Sierra Leone and they say, “Hold our hands and we will walk forward with you,” because no engineer that I am aware of wants to do badly; we want to do well. However, there are no engineers in Sierra Leone to build up a society—to build the roads and the rest of the infrastructure. But
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there is British money. We are building there, and we should insist that for every pound of commitment—for every pound we put into a block—we deliver technical excellence as a result of that. We do that here: the mandate of—the mantra behind—the Olympic development programme is, “We want to build these fantastic facilities, but we want to build up the skills of the people in east London as well.”

I agree with that, but let us take that model into Commonwealth countries. Let us make that a reality for them so that their further education colleges have somewhere to take their young students. Young people studying engineering at an FE college in Sierra Leone know what a brick is because it gets drawn on the board, and they learn how to build a brick wall by having it drawn out on the board. That is because there are no projects for them to work on. How good can anyone become when they have that sort of experience? I am interested in projects that liberate the potential of young people and connect further education and higher education with British investment. I want that to be extended to EU investment, too. The EU is currently building a road in Sierra Leone; the cost is £176 million, and it will be built by the Italians. Not one Sierra Leonean will be a part of that. That is wasted investment.

We can add value to our investment and help these countries to move on from instability and fragility to a stable state and a stable economy. We now fundamentally believe in our approach of skills, education and workplace for our country, and we must be prepared to take it out to Commonwealth countries, not only to give what we have, but to liberate British engineering companies into countries they have never been in before.

Lots of British companies—engineering companies such as Whitbybird, and others such as Cadbury—really want to engage in our millennium development programme. They want to give of what they have—their expertise. I want to say, “Come on, give us that expertise.” We have a role to play in such countries, as do politicians, the Government and the private sector in the UK. It has a role to play in taking the best technical capacity in this country to our Commonwealth brothers and sisters, and allowing people to go. That concludes my remarks, and I thank the House for its indulgence.

2.35 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on a fascinating speech. It was on an area about which I know nothing, and I am much the better for it. She concentrated on what the UK is doing for Sierra Leone. I want to concentrate on the links between Commonwealth nations, particularly those between the old Commonwealth and the UK, and the two-way aspects of them.

From the moment that I began to speak, it was clear that I have an interest to declare. I have dual nationality, and I carry a New Zealand passport as well as a British one—when I arrive at Gatwick airport, I choose the shorter queue. Everybody who has spoken has correctly pointed out that the Commonwealth is a unique worldwide family: it is international and colourful in every way; it is a fantastic mixture of races,
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religions, languages and creeds; and it is all based around the United Kingdom and the Queen. In saying that, I recognise that the near neighbours of New Zealand—that little island just a little way off—the Australians, have a few republican problems and republican moments. If asked, any New Zealander will explain that being an Aussie is a problem in itself.

I should explain that point a little. Those two old Commonwealth nations in the south Pacific have a huge rivalry. The insults and jokes between them are phenomenal. Every joke can be turned round and played back the other way, and many of the jokes are in vulgar taste. The two have huge battles, particularly in sport and especially in rugby, yet in normal work, normal life and especially in times of war, those two old Commonwealth nations work extremely closely together as part of the British Commonwealth, especially where it is appropriate to do so. Along with Canada and South Africa, they make up what I call the “old Commonwealth”. They have a Commonwealth link reinforced by huge kith and kin links and a two-way flow of tourism and migration dating back for almost two centuries.

My direct knowledge is predominately about New Zealand, although I have lived in the UK for longer than I have lived there. I return to New Zealand occasionally for language and accent refresher courses. I shall give a touch of the history just to set the scene. New Zealand was originally occupied by a group called the Moriories, who were then followed by the Maoris. There are no Moriories left; fable in New Zealand says that the Maoris either interbred with them or ate them. The next influx into New Zealand came almost entirely from the United Kingdom. The early among them were a very rough and unpleasant breed of whalers, loggers and such people. They brought the unwanted disbenefits of the European at that time—syphilis, gonorrhoea, measles, flu, alcohol and firearms, so that for quite a while the Maori people were on an endangered list. As a percentage of the population, their numbers dropped drastically, and that situation did not turn around until relatively recently. The point has been made that the whites did not have it all their own way, because the Maori name for the white man is Pakeha, which is rumoured to mean sweet pig.

New Zealand’s biggest influx of immigration over the past century and a half involved people who went there by their own choice—they were not transported there. One sees that when one wanders around New Zealand, because the names of places are a mixture of Maori, English, Scottish and Irish—there are also a few Welsh names—people drive on the left and predominately speak English, and New Zealand has a parliamentary system much like the one here. There are enormous similarities—

Andrew Mackinlay: One chamber.

Sir Paul Beresford: As the hon. Gentleman says, they have one chamber and, occasionally, that deficit shows.

They also have, like the UK, a minority language of no great international significance. In New Zealand, it is the Maori language, and here it is Welsh—I am sure that I will get some letters to aid my thinking on that. The similarity between the two languages is, of course, that if one is not au fait with them, the words are almost impossible to pronounce.

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When the UK immigrants moved to New Zealand, they wanted to make it like home, so they did some extraordinary things. I know that, because I come from an ex-farming community way up in the high country—“Lord of the Rings” country. One of the most extraordinary things was the introduction of animals that became pests, such as rats, rabbits, hares, pigs, deer and feral cats. All those need to be controlled and, living up in the high country and trying to help the farmers, I was very aware of that. I became aware when I came here that New Zealand does not have foxes, although it now has hobbits—people are not allowed to shoot the hobbits. I have not met any hobbits, although I have met a few trolls.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations talked of the UK as home and of “going back”. They still do, as do some of my generation, even if many of them have never left to go home or come back. They all have their close links with this country displayed in their houses. Most of them have a fantastic book or two sitting on the pine coffee table in their lounge, full of dramatic photographs. They are dramatic for two reasons. First, they all feature the UK’s beautiful scenery, and, secondly, they were all—amazingly—taken on sunny days.

The close rapport between the UK, New Zealand and Australia is perhaps emphasised most in the farming community. There are very close links, including educational visits both ways between farmers, although they are perhaps more educational for the farmers from this country. I was intrigued when a colleague asked me if I could find a farm—thinking that it would be a farm in this country, as I belong to the National Farmers Union here—for his daughter to spend her gap year between leaving school and going to veterinary school. She wanted something that would stand out. I rang New Zealand and spoke to some of the farmers I know there. They were more than willing to take her—for reasons of kith and kin, as they pointed out. I found a farm for her, and she is over the moon. The farm does a lot of barley and Lucerne hay, and it has 1,000 head of cattle, 1,000 head of deer and 15,000 lambing ewes. That will be a striking addition to her CV when she goes to veterinary school.

The biggest example of kith and kin involves times of conflict. In the first world war, there was Gallipoli, which led to Anzac day. Remembrance day here is important—it is covered on television—and Anzac day in Australia and New Zealand is the same. The people in those countries remember the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought for the UK as part of the Commonwealth. I found it hard to understand as a child. I remember when we lived in a little—I mean little—village to the north of the south island of New Zealand, which had a war memorial. In typical New Zealand style, it had public toilets underneath it and the walls were covered with the names of the soldiers who had died—hundreds and hundreds of soldiers from that little village.

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