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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 July 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—

Western Sahara

1. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): How much aid to refugees from Western Sahara living in camps in Algeria his Department plans to provide in 2008-09. [218944]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The Department supports Western Sahara through its share of the budget of the European Community Humanitarian Aid Office—ECHO—and contributions to the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. ECHO plans to provide some €10 million in 2008 to support Western Saharan refugees, while in 2007 UNHCR spent some $2.3 million on supporting them.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and the Government for the considerable amount of aid that they have given over many years to support the refugees from Western Sahara, who live in camps in Algeria, but can he help me? What pressure has been put on the United Nations to ensure that the people of Western Sahara have a free choice and a vote in a referendum to decide on the future of their territory, which we believe to be occupied by Morocco illegally at present, and thus allow people, who have spent 35 years in refugee camps, the right to return home and resume a normal life?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend knows from his extensive interest in the issue that there has been a series of UN Security Council resolutions, which we have supported, calling for a solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. I suspect that he also knows that talks were held in New York in June and August last year and in January and March this year. This year, we have similarly supported the UN Secretary-General’s call to encourage the parties to enter into a more intensive and substantive set of negotiations. We want them to start as soon as possible.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my hon. Friend says, but does he also recognise that Morocco is seeking special status from the EU? One of the pressures that we as a community in the EU could
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bring to bear is to make it clear to Morocco that we want the UN resolution on Western Sahara fulfilled. Will he talk to the Foreign Secretary about that?

Mr. Thomas: I know that my hon. Friend has also taken a close interest in the issue and I am obviously happy to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. He knows that discussions are already taking place between the EC and Morocco, for example, to ensure that human rights issues are properly monitored in Western Sahara. He also knows that there is a UN Group of Friends of Western Sahara, of which we and several other European Union member states are part. That is one way in which we can support the UN Secretary-General’s call for further intensive negotiations to try to resolve the matter and genuinely support the right of the people there to self-determination.


2. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [218945]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Joint analysis by the Government of Afghanistan and the World Food Programme indicates that 4.5 million people face greater food insecurity. The UK Government have already committed £6 million in response to the World Food Programme appeal in Afghanistan. In addition, the Government of Afghanistan have taken a series of short, medium and long-term measures to address the issue. In support of that, the UK Government will provide a further £3.5 million for seeds and fertilisers to increase food production.

Mr. Bone: Our servicemen and women in Afghanistan do an extraordinary job, not only in fighting terrorism but in providing humanitarian aid to civilians. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in praising them for their work. However, will he give his frank assessment of whether our European counterparts are pulling their weight?

Mr. Alexander: I will, of course, join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the brave servicemen and women of our country, who are currently serving in Afghanistan. I had the great privilege of meeting them only the week before last, and I am sure that I speak for the House when I say that they are simply the best of British. Of course, they continue to work alongside the community in Helmand, but I also took the opportunity on my visit to meet Kai Eide, the UN special representative, and urge him to ensure that not simply other European countries but other international partners—we are one of a 38-strong international coalition in Afghanistan—work together more effectively in co-ordinating the international development effort. We have not only to prevail militarily in Helmand on the basis of the bravery of our servicemen and women, but to ensure that the Government of Afghanistan have an effective development strategy.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): What effect on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has the recent terrible accident, in which an American aircraft, in
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three separate strikes, killed 47 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, at a wedding party, had? Cannot we make representations to our NATO allies to say that, in these days when wonderful surveillance is available, such terrible accidents should never take place?

Mr. Alexander: Of course the loss of any civilian life is to be regretted. That said, I heard from the servicemen and women of the United Kingdom whom I met the extent to which we rely on effective co-operation with our allies in the United States. Let me place on record my gratitude for the continuing efforts of all 38 countries, who are clear that they stand together in solidarity and in support of the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan. The people who have the greatest number of questions to answer are those insurgents who seek to frustrate the democratic will of the people of Afghanistan and who still seek to burn schools, behead teachers and drive women back into a previous era, when they were not allowed to enjoy the opportunities that are available to them in Afghanistan today.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What progress is being made in Helmand province, where our brave servicemen and women are doing so much to try to restore stability, on restoring something like normality for the indigenous population there? What investment and resources are going into Helmand?

Mr. Alexander: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that significant resources are going into Helmand. It was to examine that that I took the opportunity to visit Helmand, not simply seeing Camp Bastion, the main United Kingdom base, but moving out to forward operating base Delhi and seeing for myself the work being done there. When one goes to communities such as Garmsir and sees smallholders who are now able to open shops, or visits a clinic where midwives are being trained or a school that there are plans to develop in the months ahead, one sees the practical difference that is being made. However, that is contingent on the security environment. That is why the service and the sacrifice of our men and women are so important.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): During a recent visit to Afghanistan, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and I met the head of the counter-narcotics police in Helmand, who told us that, as a result of a UK Government decision to stop directly funding his unit and instead rely on the dysfunctional Ministry of Justice there, no funding had been received since March. Does the Secretary of State agree that although building capacity is important in Afghanistan, it is equally important that we have greater flexibility in delivering aid and support to provincial ministries, rather than to national ministries?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. When we look at the progress that Governor Mangal has made in Helmand just in the past few months, it is reasonable that we should look at what support can be offered to the governor’s office and to those provincial authorities working in Helmand. That said, although the challenge of counter-narcotics is complex, at its heart is a simple equation. Where one has the rule of law and security, it is easier to enforce an opium-free environment than where that security is
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lacking. That is why, regrettably, there was a rise in opium production in Helmand previously, given the insurgency and the security situation. However, on the basis of the visit that I paid the week before last, I can say that there is a quiet optimism that we will see progress not simply on the number of poppy-free provinces but, potentially, in Helmand. We will have to wait for the official figures, and there is a long way to go—it took neighbouring countries years to rid themselves of opium production—but I assure the hon. Gentleman that work is under way to ensure that we make progress there, too.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): May I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the tribute paid to our armed forces in Afghanistan and to the many brave officials in the right hon. Gentleman’s Department, in other Government bodies and in British non-governmental organisations who put themselves at great risk for long periods? Recent reports from the World Bank and the agency co-ordinating body for Afghan relief have been highly critical both of the failure to deliver on previous pledges of assistance and of the nature of the assistance provided. Following the recent donor conference, what new mechanisms are now in place to ensure that the money gets there and, when it gets there, that it is used effectively?

Mr. Alexander: The foundation on which the discussion took place in Paris was the Afghan national development strategy, which provides a framework within which aid can be disbursed. That is why the conversations that I held with Kai Eide were so important. They were an opportunity to impress on him the urgency and importance that the Government attach to more effective international co-ordination. I have of course seen the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is therefore worth reminding the House that 80 per cent. of our development support to Afghanistan is provided through the Government of Afghanistan. One of the principal criticisms was that a significant proportion of aid from other countries was being spent outside the country and outside Government of Afghanistan mechanisms. Approximately 90 per cent. of UK Government aid is being spent in-country, so we start from a strong place in both conversations with our other international partners—for example, the conversations that I have been having with Henrietta Fore, the head of the United States Agency for International Development—and conversations with Kai Eide, whose job, on behalf of the Secretary-General, is to try to achieve better co-ordination.

G8 Summit

3. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): What the outcome for development policy of the G8 summit was. [218946]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Last week’s summit, as the Prime Minister made clear in his statement to the House, reiterated G8 commitments to delivering $50 billion in extra aid by 2010, with $25 billion going to Africa, and $4 billion in aid for trade and universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment by 2010. The G8 has also pledged more than $10 billion for food security, $60 billion over five years for health, 1.5 million more health workers, 100 million bed nets by 2010, and $1 billion for the education fast track initiative.

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Malcolm Bruce: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply but, given the recent statement by the president of the World Bank that soaring food prices have put more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty, and the world into a danger zone, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if we are to deliver in Africa, tackling the drag-anchor problem of Zimbabwe is absolutely imperative? Given the failure of the UN Security Council resolution, will he make it clear that we now expect the southern African countries to unite in solving that problem, so that the aid and development that we are rightly contributing will be effective?

Mr. Alexander: As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware, our Foreign Secretary was in southern Africa only last week, and he took the opportunity to have discussions with the Government of South Africa. Of course it is to be regretted that there were those who chose not to support the Security Council resolution, although we were encouraged by the terms of the G8 communiqué, which did make some progress. The opportunity now is twofold. First, we want to see further action through the Mbeki process that is being taken forward on behalf of the Southern African Development Community. Secondly, there will be a further opportunity in the days to come at the General Affairs and External Relations Council of the European Union, where we will press for further European sanctions. I can assure the House that we will continue to be unstinting in our efforts to support the initiatives being taken within Africa—not only in SADC but in the African Union as well—and that we will not miss any further opportunities, not least at the upcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council, to press the case and to say that we want to see real progress so that the voice of the Zimbabwean people can be reflected in their Government.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): At the summit, were the Government in a position to reaffirm their commitment, made at Gleneagles, to achieving the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income? If so, that would take us ahead of most European Union countries.

Mr. Alexander: I am able to give my right hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. We are continuing to pursue our goal of 0.7 per cent., and the spending review settlement that we secured only last July reflects the determination across the whole of the British Government to pursue that goal. Some countries, however, are not as determined as we are to achieve that goal in the time scale that we have set out, which is why we continue to use international forums to push other countries to accept their responsibilities as well.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Secretary of State will be well aware that much of the development debate at the G8 focused on poverty. Is he also aware that no country has got itself out of poverty without first stabilising its level of population growth? In those circumstances, to what extent is that factor being put into his own policies?

Mr. Alexander: Of course there is a challenge—as we are witnessing in the present food crisis—to ensure that all the mouths that are here now and in the future receive adequate food and adequate support. Equally,
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however, even countries with rising populations can grow enough to feed their own populations if they put in place the fundamentals, including good governance, effective macro-economic stability, improved agricultural productivity and effective trade. That is why we take a broad-minded approach in saying that we need to tackle poverty in a range of different ways. Of course, discussions on population and family planning are one aspect of that, but we recognise that there are many dimensions to this challenge.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): As my right hon. Friend is aware, water and sanitation made it back into the G8 communiqué after a five-year absence. Is he also aware that a cross-party group of MPs has just returned from a slum survivor event, at which we tried to highlight the fact that one in six people in the world live in slums? Water and sanitation will make an enormous difference to those people. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that what was said in the communiqué about a report being produced in a year is not enough? What we need is action now. Will he urge his international colleagues to put water and sanitation right at the heart of meeting our millennium development goals?

Mr. Alexander: Yes, and let me also pay tribute to the efforts that my hon. Friend has made on this issue for some time. Of course we welcome the fact that the G8 communiqué once again referenced water and sanitation, and recognised their centrality and importance not only for slum dwellers but for poor people right around the world. We are looking ahead to the high-level UN meeting on 25 September as the next opportunity to focus global attention on water and sanitation. We will have had the first annual global monitoring report by that time, as it is due to be launched in early September. I sincerely hope that the meeting will offer many others, and not just the United Kingdom Government, an opportunity to take forward the efforts to tackle this issue.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Although the G8 did, as the Secretary of State said, make some progress on development, may I return to the point made somewhat opaquely by his right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and ask whether the Secretary of State is dismayed that Canada, France and Japan actually cut their aid to Africa last year? Is it not rather difficult to promote good governance in the developing world when developing countries see some leaders of the G8 countries going back on promises made in front of the world’s television cameras three years ago at Gleneagles?

Mr. Alexander: I accept that more progress needs to be made in achieving the Gleneagles commitment, but it is with genuine pride that I reflect on the fact that at Gleneagles in 2005 it was a Labour Government from the United Kingdom who said that development in Africa should be the top priority. Real progress is being made with 41 million more children in school, 3 million more children surviving every year and more than 2 million people receiving AIDS treatment as a consequence of the action taken by G8 countries. I fully recognise that more work needs to be done, which is why I applaud the global leadership taken by our Prime Minister in urging all G8 countries to recognise their responsibilities and to put poverty so high up on the agenda in Japan.

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4. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. [218947]

5. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement [Official Report, 21 July 2008, Vol. 479, c. 4MC.]. [218948]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Gillian Merron): Mugabe’s destructive policies continue to devastate the lives of millions of people in Zimbabwe. Half the population will need food aid by the end of the year. An estimated 36,000 people have been displaced internally, more than 100 killed and thousands injured. The decision by the Government of Zimbabwe to ban the work of many humanitarian agencies has added to people’s suffering.

James Duddridge: I have had a number of harrowing discussions with Zimbabweans about the situation, so I have heard descriptions of innumerable atrocities, which are perhaps being underestimated, involving people having their limbs lopped off and being thrown alive into a fire. It is reminiscent of the discussions I had with people who survived the atrocities in Rwanda. Following the so-called election, we hope that the violence will decrease, but it is possible, with Mugabe’s back against the wall, that it will increase. What contingency plans does the Department have if the violence and humanitarian situation worsen?

Gillian Merron: It is indeed a very grave situation. What we all want to see is a reforming Government based on the results of the March election, in which the people said what they wanted. Within that, we look to the stabilising of the economy, the upholding of the rule of law and the restoration of human rights. It is worth saying that, despite the ban on non-governmental organisations, we have still managed to help more than 9,000 victims of violence and displacement, many of whom were teachers and election observers. Despite that compromise, we have continued our work. On the issue of contingency, we are making every effort to get the ban on NGO activity lifted, while at the same time pursuing contingency plans to support the people of Zimbabwe in ways that we all want.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Robert Mugabe leads a criminal and illegitimate regime and should be treated as such. With millions starving and one in five children dying before their fifth birthday, is it not time that the Southern African Development Community and the African Union did more? Is it not very saddening indeed that Russia—a country that seeks to be part of the modern world—supported by China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution? What are we going to do about it?

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