Previous Section Index Home Page

11 Jun 2008 : Column 295

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Secretary of State said that the UK is at the forefront of endeavours regarding Burma. Can he give us tangible expressions of the improvement in the situation since we came to the forefront between four weeks ago and today in terms of the level of humanitarian aid to the people of Burma?

Mr. Alexander: Let me give a couple of examples to the hon. Gentleman. We are the largest donor with contributions of £27.5 million, which manifests itself in 22 relief flights that have now landed in Burma thanks to the efforts that have been made. In terms of improvements, 10 World Food Programme helicopters are now operating within Burma, which we have been urging on and demanding of the Burmese Government for many days now. I hope that the fact that we now have airlift capability within the country will lead to a significant improvement in the effectiveness of the delivery of aid within the country.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the aid reaches those who need it within Burma, but that the aid workers are protected? At the same time, the big challenge is how we get a regime change by working with the likes of India and China. That is what we really need in Burma.

Mr. Alexander: When I met the UN Secretary-General when I attended the international conference at his request, I strongly urged him to visit Burma again this year, and I anticipate that he will return to Burma and maintain a close interest in this issue. If he does so, I hope that the focus of his visit will not be exclusively on humanitarian issues, but more broadly on the continuing political crisis afflicting the country.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Despite the junta’s promise to the Secretary-General to grant full access to aid workers, it is clear that insufficient aid is getting through. Indeed, victims are being forced out of the makeshift camps. The Department’s own website makes it clear that only 15 travel requests for internationals were accepted in the time between the Rangoon conference and 4 June. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the international community has not merely had the wool pulled over its eyes by the Burmese generals?

Mr. Alexander: I assure the House that we continue to focus on this issue. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern in terms of the level of access that the international community wants, but, as I say, I have held further discussions within the past 24 hours with the emergency co-ordinator of the UN, John Holmes, and I have also spoken directly to Dr. Surin, the secretary-general of ASEAN. We will continue to focus on this issue to get the relief aid to those who so desperately need it.

Sexual Violence (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

4. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What projects his Department is undertaking to seek to reduce levels of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [209996]

11 Jun 2008 : Column 296

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Gillian Merron): The UK Government programme to tackle sexual and gender-based violence includes £2 million of support to eastern DRC to promote justice, and £4 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The UK also funds medical and psycho-social care for victims, and we are working to reform the security and justice sector.

John Barrett: Rape has been used a weapon of war in the Congo, but now general lawlessness has broken out throughout the country. What can the Department do to strengthen the judicial system there and to make sure that women are a key part of that system?

Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman is quite right that rape is used as a weapon of war, but it has now gone beyond that in the DRC. It is used to humiliate and terrify, tearing up families and communities. We are working on a major programme to reform the security and justice sector. We need a well-run, trusted and accountable police force, army and supporting civil service; we are ensuring that victims also support the legal process; we are training magistrates; and we are lobbying for more prosecutions.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should be heard. It is unfair that all these conversations are going on.

Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend will be aware that it is absolutely essential that women are involved in any solutions to achieve security in areas such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Kingdom has been ahead of the game in having a national plan on United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, but as yet, none of the international forces, either at NATO or UN level, has such a plan. Will my hon. Friend persuade international forces that now is the time to prepare a UN plan on Security Council resolution 1325?

Gillian Merron: We will certainly continue our efforts. I agree with my hon. Friend that what we see in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are some of the highest rates of sexual violence against women and girls in the world, so our commitment to tackling the issue is absolutely crucial. Underlying all that is our dealing with the root causes of the conflict and addressing the humanitarian situation there. In all those ways, we also seek to empower women to take control over their own lives.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Although I welcome the arrest of former Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will the Minister commit the British Government to working closely with the International Criminal Court to ensure that others in Kinshasa, and also Bangui, are brought before the court?

Gillian Merron: I certainly will draw those comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary

11 Jun 2008 : Column 297


5. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe. [209997]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The humanitarian situation is deteriorating. Four million people relied on food aid last year. The fact that President Mugabe has now stopped aid agencies from distributing food and engaging in other humanitarian activities is indefensible. That decision by Mugabe has impacted on 2 million people already, and as we approach the hungry season, that number could rise to 4 million or even higher.

Ann Clwyd: While I was in South Africa a few weeks ago, Zimbabwean refugees handed me a note for 10 million Zimbabwean dollars. That buys a bag of tomatoes in Zimbabwe. Now Mugabe is prepared to starve his people to death for their votes. What kind of human being is President Mugabe?

Mr. Alexander: It is morally indefensible to use the threat of hunger as a political weapon, and that is exactly what Robert Mugabe has shown himself to be willing to do in recent days. Hyper-inflation is but one manifestation of the chronic misrule that he has visited on a country that was previously the bread-basket of southern Africa. That is why I took the opportunity last Thursday to meet in South Africa both the Government of South Africa and the president of the African National Congress to press them to continue to engage with that vital international issue.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Is not the Secretary of State desperately saddened that Robert Mugabe, who lost the presidential election in Zimbabwe, should strut the stage at the Food and Agriculture Organisation conference in Rome, particularly as he is denying to his country and its starving people access to the aid that so many countries and aid agencies want to provide to help the people of Zimbabwe?

Mr. Alexander: Mugabe’s attendance was not only inappropriate but, in light of his subsequent actions, morally repugnant. The fact is that somebody who is willing to use the threat of starvation has little credibility or authority to lecture anybody on food prices or production. There is little comfort regarding the current situation in Zimbabwe, but my comfort is that a matter of weeks after the first election, even Robert Mugabe and his closest associates have been unable to claim that they were chosen by the people of Zimbabwe in that last election. We continue to be committed to ensuring that the people of Zimbabwe are able to have their democratic will expressed in their choice of Government.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what impact the Government’s new strategy will have on tackling HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe?

Mr. Alexander: We launched the latest HIV/AIDS strategy for the British Government only last week. Zimbabwe is one of the countries in southern Africa that has been most devastated by that affliction. I will
11 Jun 2008 : Column 298
ensure that a copy of the report is provided to my right hon. Friend so that he is fully updated on the actions that we are taking.

Sexual Exploitation of Children

6. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): If he will make representations to the United Nations to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children by UN workers and others engaged in humanitarian programmes. [209998]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The UK takes all allegations of misconduct by peacekeepers and aid workers seriously. We fully support the UN Secretary-General’s zero-tolerance policy towards sexual exploitation and abuse and we work to ensure that the highest standards of conduct are required of UN personnel.

Mr. Crabb: I thank the Minister for that reply. However, we have been here before. The UN talks of zero tolerance, but not a single prosecution has ever been brought against a UN peacekeeper or UN member of staff for the kind of abhorrent crimes identified by Save the Children last week. So will the Minister today promise that not one additional penny of British aid will go to the UN until he receives an assurance from the Secretary-General that he will get a grip on his organisation and prevent members of his personnel from hiding behind legal immunity to carry out such crimes against the children they are mandated to protect?

Mr. Thomas: There has been a significant improvement in the UN’s response to these allegations. The Save the Children report is nevertheless a timely reminder of the need to continue to do more to promote the highest standards among all humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. We will meet the UN Secretary-General next week and raise with him again the issues in the Save the Children report.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [209948] Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of Privates Nathan Cuthbertson, Daniel Gamble and David Murray of the Parachute Regiment, who were killed in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Sunday. The risks they bear and the sacrifices they have made are in our thoughts, not just today but every day, and we owe them all a great debt of gratitude.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

11 Jun 2008 : Column 299

Mr. Hands: May I join the Prime Minister in offering condolences to the soldiers’ families?

The biography on the Prime Minister’s website records no achievements in the past year, but it does boast about his popularity as a schoolboy. We are told that he

Given the Stalinist adulation from the past, can he explain why this week he has become Britain’s least popular Prime Minister ever?

The Prime Minister: I shall leave the schoolboy politics to the hon. Gentleman. On a day when we are debating national security, I would have thought that he could do better than that.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I am sure that the whole House would wish to be identified with my right hon. Friend’s comments about the brave soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the question of up to 42 days’ detention for terrorist suspects is more a matter of practical necessity than high principle?

The Prime Minister: It is a matter of necessity because of what the police and the security services have told us. Every senior policeman and every senior member of the security services has told us— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are going to begin today by allowing the Prime Minister to speak. [ Interruption. ] Order. I have told the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) before not to interrupt the proceedings, and I have often told him that he has defied the Chair. He will not do it today, or he will be out of the Chamber.

The Prime Minister: I would have thought that there would be agreement across the whole House that the first duty of a Government is to protect the national security of our country. I would be failing in my duty if I did not report to the House the advice of the police and security services, but I was about to go on to say that I do not rely on that entirely. We have seen in the recent cases that have come before us the amount, sophistication and complexity of evidence that has to be assessed. I refer the House to the airport case in 2006, in which there were 400 computers, 8,000 CDs and 25,000 exhibits. That is why some of the people who were detained were detained for 27 days. I have no doubt that the sophistication and complexity of these cases will require us to do more in future years. That is not only the advice of the police—that is the judgment that I make from having to look at terrorist cases every week.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Privates Cuthbertson, Gamble and Murray of 2 Para, who were killed on Sunday. Every week, quite rightly, we stand here and read out the names of those who have fallen, and we must remember every week that behind every name are family and friends who are suffering the loss of a loved one. The Prime Minister and I have both visited Afghanistan. We know that our soldiers are doing incredible work in difficult conditions on our behalf, and, quite simply, they are the best of British.

11 Jun 2008 : Column 300

I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree with me that it is clear why we are there. If we go, the Taliban come back, the training camps come back and there will be more terrorists on British streets. But after seven years of work in Afghanistan, can the Prime Minister give us a frank and candid assessment today, not just of where we are doing well, but where much more work needs to be done?

The Prime Minister: I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about the contribution of our troops and the bravery of all our servicemen and women who serve in Afghanistan and every theatre of the world. In Afghanistan, we are making progress in training the Afghan army and police, and in building economic and social development, which means that people in Afghanistan have a stake in the future. In the Afghan elections, 70 per cent. of registered voters voted, so Afghanistan became a democracy, and it was shown to be so by the elections. When the Taliban were in power, there were only 2 million children in education—none of them girls. Today, there are 6 million children in education and 2 million of them are girls, which is a result of the changes that we are making.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is a long haul, but our duty is to stop the Taliban ever gaining power again and to stop al-Qaeda making inroads into Afghanistan. That is why 43 countries are part of the coalition in Afghanistan.

Mr. Cameron: I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. I have seen the work of training the Afghan army, which is fantastic, and I have seen some of the schools that have been built, but is there not a risk that while we are winning militarily in Afghanistan, we are losing at least parts of the country? Has he heard the reports that the security situation around Kabul is deteriorating, and that corruption is paralysing the work of the Afghan Government? I am even told that some of the roads that we have built are being used by the Taliban and other bandits to extort money from ordinary Afghans, who are too terrified to use them. It is now six months since the Prime Minister made a full statement in the House about Afghanistan. Does he not agree with me that one of the lessons from Iraq is that it is only by being candid and frank, and by giving regular updates, that we can take the British people with us in this vital task?

Next Section Index Home Page