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House of Commons

Wednesday 11 June 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

spoliation advisory panel


Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food and Agriculture Organisation

1. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What conclusions were reached at the recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation conference in Rome. [209993]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): International agreement was reached on the urgent need for co-ordinated action to combat the impact of high food prices on the world’s poor: in the short term, to address immediate food security needs and in the longer term, to increase agricultural productivity in developing countries, including through agricultural research, improved policies, a rapid and successful conclusion to the Doha trade round and reduced use of restrictive measures that increase price volatility.

Hugh Bayley: Climate change is forcing up agricultural and food prices throughout the world. The Secretary of State is right to say that increasing agricultural productivity, particularly in Africa, is important. What is his Department doing to progress that?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is correct in recognising that the challenge of replicating the agrarian revolution witnessed in India two or three decades ago will be made significantly harder in Africa by the changes in climate that are anticipated. That is why, as a Department, we are taking forward work, not least on building capacity within African countries. We are committing £100 million to adaptation research over the coming five years, including £25 million already under way to support innovation and climate change adaptation in Africa.

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Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that at present many small farmers in poor countries have difficulty purchasing even seed and fertiliser to ensure that they have a harvest? What can the Department for International Development do to ensure that they have the means and confidence to do that, and possibly some kind of insurance scheme to protect them against the possible collapse of prices at a later date that could force them into starvation?

Mr. Alexander: The right hon. Gentleman is of course right in recognising that input costs—principally as a consequence of rising energy prices and the consequential effects on fertiliser prices—are having an impact on the current planting season in Africa. That is why we continue to work closely, not simply with the World Food Programme on emergency food supplies, but with the World Bank, which is establishing a trust fund, and other international agencies to ensure that supplies are provided during the narrow window available for the next growing season. When in Rome, I took the opportunity to make clear our commitment to social protection and cash transfer schemes, which can make a difference in ensuring that smallholders are able to sustain their livelihoods even in these challenging times.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): At the meeting in Rome, was there discussion of the current drought in Ethiopia, which has left 3.4 million people without food or food aid? What can our Government do to help?

Mr. Alexander: I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. As a matter of urgency, I discussed the emerging problems in Ethiopia with Josette Sheeran, the director of the World Food Programme. As a Department, we have already committed £5 million to the first flash appeal for Ethiopia by the World Food Programme. In addition, we anticipate that the Government of Ethiopia will issue a further appeal this week and we shall be providing up to £10 million in response to that appeal when we receive it.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I warmly welcome the recent summit in Rome and the fact that extra money was pledged to help with food security in countries that need it most—not least the extra £590 million from the United Kingdom that the right hon. Gentleman was able to pledge, which is most welcome. Can he tell us how he will make sure that the money gets through to farmers and food producers in time for the planting season and that it will not be siphoned off by Governments, as we well know can occur?

Mr. Alexander: A significant portion of the money that was announced is going into agricultural research. I arrived in Rome with a clear sense that we face three fundamental challenges—short, medium and long term. The short-term challenge is to make sure that we get immediate humanitarian relief to the up to 850 million people around the world who are vulnerable to hunger as a consequence of rising food prices. That is why we are working both with the World Bank and, in particular, to support the World Food Programme initiatives. Secondly, in the medium term, we need a successful conclusion to the Doha development round and we continue to champion that cause in international venues. Thirdly, we need a significant uplift in agricultural productivity, principally in sub-Saharan Africa, which is why we, as a Department, have committed up to £400 million to agricultural research over the coming years.

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Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that market mechanisms will fail farmers in Africa and other parts of the world? Although it is right and proper that we pursue the Doha round and advances in agricultural technology, there should nevertheless be recognition of the need for proper protection for smaller and more marginal farmers if we are to guarantee local food security in marginal parts of the world.

Mr. Alexander: Of course we want protection and adequate supplies to be provided to those in need of either food or finance for subsistence, but three factors accounted for India’s success in its agrarian revolution, to draw once again on that example. The first factor was improved infrastructure, the second was improved irrigation and the third was improved seed technology. That seems to hold powerful lessons for Africa, where there has been a decline rather than a rise in the rate of agricultural productivity in recent years. That is why we have placed such an emphasis on agricultural research for the years ahead.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): As the Chairman of the International Development Committee made clear, shipping food to stress areas can often distort markets and undermine local production. Should not the key lesson for us from the Rome conference be that cash transfers and prioritising local, or at least regional, food purchases help to protect the most vulnerable from the dramatic price hikes taking place around the world?

Mr. Alexander: We often talk about consensus across the House on development issues; this would seem to be an example of an issue on which there is such consensus. We have been strongly encouraging the World Food Programme, in particular, to move towards local sourcing of food supplies instead of using its more traditional mechanism, which is to bring in wheat, often from America, or other supplies from around the globe. I do not think that the choice is between seeing an improvement in the functioning of the international agriculture market—that is why we want progress on the Doha round—and making sure that immediate emergency assistance is provided in the way that most supports the development of the local economies where food aid is provided.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): The Secretary of State is aware that for every 1 per cent. rise in food prices, an extra 16 million people go to bed hungry each night. Is he aware of the World Bank’s latest research, which shows the link between biofuels and the land-use change that is causing the rise in food prices? What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Department for Transport about the renewables obligation in that respect?

Mr. Alexander: The role of biofuels was of course an issue of some dispute at the Rome summit. A speech was made by President Lula, for example, who offered a strong defence of what he called the right type of biofuels. Much of the debate about biofuels, which needs to be better understood, is long on anecdote and short on fact. That is why the British Government have initiated the Gallagher review and I assure my hon. Friend that we are in discussions with the Department
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for Transport on that review. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has urged the World Bank to take forward work on understanding the impact of biofuels on land use and, more widely, on social sustainability. We are also in dialogue with the European Commission to see whether we can establish a European position on the issue.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): On that latter point, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will ensure that the subject is discussed with President Bush when he visits this weekend. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the World Food Programme produced a report this week that highlights the fact that in recent years, as prices for commodities have soared, the volume of aid provided has declined steeply. On food aid, will he give a commitment that his Department’s purchasing power will be maintained, so that we can ensure that as prices continue to soar, the volume of British aid will not decline?

Mr. Alexander: In terms of the volume of British aid, the budget for the Department for International Development was set in the comprehensive spending review last July, and it remains the same. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that, in light of rising food prices, we need to consider where we need to do more in individual countries. That is why we have already supplemented the long-term support that we are offering to the people of Ethiopia with £5 million for humanitarian supplies that are partly in recognition of the significant rise in food prices that has taken place.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to recognise that there appears to be a clear correlation between rising input costs, principally those for oil, and the level of hunger being witnessed; that point was made to me by Josette Sheeran when I met her in Rome. She said, “If I look at the oil price, I can immediately tell how many more poor people we will be dealing with through the World Food Programme.” That is why I welcome the latest commitment that the Gulf states have given to support the flash appeal from the United Nations World Food Programme. I hope that that pattern will be continued in the years ahead.

Non-Governmental Organisations (Iraq)

2. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What support his Department is providing to non-governmental organisations in Iraq. [209994]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): Since 2004, the Department for International Development has provided £20.5 million to strengthen Iraqi civil society. Recipient organisations have included those working on minority and women’s rights, as well as wider human rights. Current support includes a programme run by the BBC World Service Trust to foster an independent media in Iraq. DFID is also providing £17 million this year for humanitarian assistance, much of which is allocated, either directly or through the UN, to non-governmental organisations in Iraq.

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Mr. Anderson: I thank the Minister for that response. Is he aware that last year his Department withdrew funding from support for trade union development in Iraq because of the

Clearly, the security situation is better now. Will he agree to meet trade unions from Iraq and Britain to try to move the issue forward again?

Mr. Malik: Trade unions are a vital part of any democracy. That is why my hon. Friend is right to say that, between 2004 and 2007, DFID provided through Unison training for trade union leaders and helped to establish a trade union resource centre in Iraq. This programme came to a natural end in 2007, which coincided with a spike in violence preventing us from renewing the programme. Since then we have successfully focused on supporting the Iraqi Government to provide essential services to their own people and stimulating private sector investment. In April, I met Governor al-Waili, the governor of Basra, who expressed his optimism about the future of Iraq. I assure my hon. Friend that as security improves, we will continue to assess how we can best support increased prosperity and stability in Iraq, including opportunities to work with trade unions.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): According to The Independent on 6 June, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York holds £25 billion worth of Iraqi oil reserves, so what are the British Government doing to facilitate the release of some of that money, in a planned programme, to the Iraqi Government and to the NGOs involved, in order to relieve suffering in a country where 2 million people have been displaced from their homes and millions more lack basic services? Would that not help to establish much greater stability in that country, where the people have suffered for far too long?

Mr. Malik: The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the suffering of the people of Iraq. That is why, since 2003, the Department and the Government have provided £149 million in humanitarian assistance. With respect to the US Federal Reserve, it is not for us to comment on negotiations between the US military and the Iraqi Government. Needless to say, we are in close contact with the US and Iraq as they formulate their views on the detail and structure of their long-term relationship. I assure the House that we will ensure that future civilian assistance and any future military assistance to Iraq will be based on a sound legal and political footing.


3. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Burma; and if he will make a statement. [209995]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Although access has improved, the situation remains extremely grave. The United Nations estimates that relief has reached 1.3 million of the 2.4 million people affected. Although there has been progress in access, more than 1 million people remain in need. Our priority therefore remains to get assistance to those who need it. We will continue to work with the UN to maintain pressure on the Burmese regime to meet its commitments.

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Tony Baldry: If a Government, by wilful neglect, caused the loss of thousands of lives of a single ethnic group, that would be genocide. The loss of tens of thousands of lives caused by the Burmese Government hindering the international cyclone relief effort is seen by various members of the Security Council as simply an expression of Burma’s national sovereignty. Does the Secretary of State agree that if Russia and China persist with that view of humanitarian relief, we will have an increasingly dysfunctional and fractured world?

Mr. Alexander: Of course, we want to see all Governments meet their obligations towards their people, not least in circumstances of a humanitarian crisis on that scale. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom Government have been at the forefront of efforts to raise the issue within the United Nations. I welcome the fact that the UN Secretary-General will be briefing the Security Council in the days ahead, following his visit to Burma. I can further confirm that we strongly urged the Secretary-General to take a personal interest in Burma and to visit Burma, not least given our concerns as to the importance of the crisis and on dealing with the crisis for the UN system more generally. Only yesterday, I spoke with the UN emergency co-ordinator, John Holmes. I also spoke to Dr. Surin, the secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations, and urged both of them to continue their efforts through the UN-ASEAN bridge to ensure that, limited though it has been, we see significant uplifts in the level of access in the days ahead.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend tell me what agencies our Government are working with?

Mr. Alexander: We are working with long-established partners such as the Red Cross, Save the Children and Merlin, a range of organisations that have access to Burma. I assure my hon. Friend that we have worked hard to ensure that the aid that we are providing to those aid agencies is received by those aid agencies.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that anyone seeking to channel aid privately to cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta region is certain to face arrest, intimidation or at the very least obstruction, and that the Government of Burma preposterously are now claiming that they are ready to move from the relief phase to the reconstruction phase, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that British funds provided for the relief of suffering are not siphoned off by one of the most sadistic military dictatorships in the world in order to enrich itself rather than to help the people?

Mr. Alexander: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I hope he seeks; we are mindful of exactly that challenge. We have systems in place and are working continuously to ensure that the natural generosity of the British people is matched by the effectiveness of the aid that they are contributing through a range of organisations. As to whether we are now in the reconstruction rather than the relief phase, I have been categoric that, given the present level of unmet need, there is still an urgent requirement for international humanitarian agencies to provide emergency relief.

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