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29 Oct 2008 : Column 257WH—continued

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry to stop the hon. Lady when she has such little time left, and I congratulate her on her VSO trip. Sierra Leone is 176th out of 177 in the UN index of least developed countries. Will she give the
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Chamber an impression of how the country is moving forward since the 2007 elections?

Laura Moffatt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that because I might have given the impression that it is all absolute disaster, but it is not. Those elections last year were a tremendous success. They were peaceful and everyone was greatly relieved by that. A huge amount of development work is happening. The newly elected Members of Parliament and the President are working to ensure that those who are in positions of power can govern in a fair and honest way. Although the little contretemps that we have in the UK are replicated in Sierra Leone, the system, on the whole, is well supported. The potential to improve is massive. Real opportunities exist, which is why I initiated the debate today. I want to ensure that the UK remains engaged with Sierra Leone. I believe that we have a responsibility to the country, and I want to ensure that we stay there and continue with the fantastic work.

Let me return to the work that I did in the country. I was most impressed with Dr. Etam-Hoteh, who lives in London but who was asked to take on the job of dean in the faculty of nursing. He took a sabbatical from his own top-level NHS job in the UK to go to Sierra Leone to do the work—for no pay whatever. He is doing an immensely worthwhile job as he licks that school of nursing into shape. We would love to see our nurse education being delivered in the same way. I ask DFID to consider supporting that post. I believe that if we support those who have the ability to give lots of information and skills to many people, that is an effective use of UK money. Supporting that one man as dean of the faculty would mean that he could oversee the education of 200 nurses in training. He could increase nurses’ abilities and clinical skills, and improve the health in Sierra Leone. That is the crux of my debate. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to see whether it is possible to support the post, because I believe that enormous strides could be taken in the teaching hospital in Freetown.

My plea is that we stay in Sierra Leone and continue with the tremendous development work that is going on. We should support VSO, which is doing an amazing job of transferring skills from the UK to Sierra Leone. Even if such transfers are for a short time only, it will help. Short placements are a great idea. Clinical tutors who go to the country for a month to give specialist education to nurses would be incredibly valuable. Recent changes from the Department of Health mean that people’s pensions and contributions can continue to be paid while they volunteer. That is such a good move, allowing skills to be shared around the world. It ensures that other countries can benefit from fantastic technological advances and a world-class health service.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I am delighted to appear under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock—I think that it is the first time. As this is my parliamentary debut in this brief, I can think of no better person to debate with than my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt). I reciprocate her very kind remarks; it was a great privilege to work with her at the
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Department of Health. We both feel that we contributed towards the significant progress in reforming and improving the NHS.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for making the decision to spend some of her summer finding out the challenges that ordinary people—people on the front line and our employees—face on a day-to-day basis in a country such as Sierra Leone. When we have debates in the House, it is important that, wherever possible, they are informed and that hon. Members have experienced the realities on the ground. Such experience gives us a unique insight and capacity to shape and influence the development of parliamentary debate and, more importantly in this context, Government policy.

I thank my hon. Friend making the decision to go to Sierra Leone. The feedback that we have from VSO and from the project at which she worked suggests that she would be more than welcome to return. She made a tremendous commitment while she was there. Her nursing expertise and professionalism were very relevant and useful. The fact that she has committed herself to continuing that involvement with those projects will be a source of great comfort to the people involved.

It is also important to pay tribute to VSO. The organisation provides opportunities for a whole range of people, including many of our constituents, to go out there and contribute. We know that we live in a shrinking world and an increasingly interdependent world. As my hon. Friend said, people such as Dawn Powell who visit her in her surgery, and others in my constituency, care and are passionate about the importance of this country’s leadership role in addressing poverty and inequality in the developing world.

In any debate about the kind of society that we live in—we are often told that we live in a broken society—we may forget that there are hundreds of thousands of people who in one way or another care enough about another individual or another part of the world to want to make a difference and a contribution. I echo what my hon. Friend said about that. That army of people such as Dawn Powell—the fact that we have such domestic support—is incredibly important to the Government’s ability to take a leadership role in the world on such issues. I discovered only recently that 10 million people bought one of the wristbands that were part of the Make Poverty History campaign—a massive number of people who made a positive choice and said “This really matters to me, my family, and my country.”

We can be very proud of the fact that, as my hon. Friend was good enough to say, addressing poverty is a moral mission on which the Government have chosen to provide leadership around the world. The Prime Minister has also shown personal moral leadership; he has made poverty one of his top policy priorities at home and abroad. In my short time in my job, I have found that that is reflected in the reputation of the Government and the Department for International Development in the developing world, which should be a source of great pride to this country. We can have debates about foreign policy and this country’s reputation and how it is perceived in different parts of the world, but if one goes to the developing world, one will find time and again in countries where we are active and
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involved that when it comes to agencies making a difference, the DFID brand is the most positive.

Non-governmental organisations also play a crucial role; it is a question of partnership involving the Government and other Governments around the world. Of course, it is not only the fact that we provide aid and run programmes, but the fact that we have banged the table in international institutions and demanded that the world step up to the mark and take responsibility, that has an effect; and it is a matter not just of individual nation states or consortiums of nation states or multilateral institutions, but of the voluntary sector and the contribution of NGOs in this country. My hon. Friend referred to that fact.

In the end, we need to be about the business of empowering and enabling the people in the relevant countries—their Governments, professionals, project leaders and ordinary people—to help those countries to develop through aid, economic growth, tackling the scourge of HIV/AIDS and making sure that people have access to universal primary education and health services. Our job, essentially, if it is to be sustainable, is to support those countries with confidence, knowledge, skills, systems and structures, so that we can feel that our aid is about enabling and supporting them to rebuild, often in incredibly difficult circumstances, such as those in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister may be interested to know that the Conservative party this summer took 100 people to Rwanda, entirely in their own time and at their own expense, and will be taking 200 people next year to take part in such programmes.

My question is about the fact that the UK has a 10-year memorandum of understanding, and a considerable amount of money is going to Sierra Leone, which has one of the poorest poverty indices of any country on the planet. The International Monetary Fund also gives a considerable amount of money for poverty reduction, and has been critical about the rate of progress in reducing poverty in Sierra Leone. How is DFID getting on in that respect?

Mr. Lewis: I welcome the fact that the Conservative party is sending people to experience and contribute in the developing world. That is a good thing and Members on both sides of the House would applaud it.

To deal specifically with the hon. Gentleman’s question about poverty reduction, we have been providing poverty reduction budget support to Sierra Leone since 2002. Our annual contribution is between £10 million and £13 million. That support is given alongside that of other donors in Sierra Leone: the World Bank, the European Community and the African Development Bank. The provision of budget support since the end of the war was not without risks, but it secured macro-economic stability, without which peace would have been much more difficult to achieve. Alongside that poverty reduction spending by the Government has been protected, and the Government have made significant progress in improving their financial management systems, albeit from a low base. We are reviewing how to maximise the impact of providing budget support as we look across the programme of support for the next five years.

When we analyse progress, we must consider the baseline. Sierra Leone started in a dreadful place. As a result of the aid that we have provided and the commitment
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from some sections of the leadership in that country, which has a new Administration, we must acknowledge the progress that has been made, compared with the situation only a relatively short time ago. The country has only recently emerged from 10 years of brutal conflict, as the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is fully aware. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley referred to the recent elections; they were an example to the rest of Africa—and we in this House all know of recent concerns about electoral situations in Africa. However, we are not complacent, and our message to Sierra Leone, in discussions with its Government, is that progress must be sustained.

The challenge now is to fulfil the country’s rich economic potential, and to achieve the millennium development goals, particularly in relation to its appalling health indicators, which, as the hon. Member for Cotswold said, are among the worst in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley will be interested in that point. In a sense we need, in our approach to Sierra Leone, to go from the point of view that the country has done well in an impossible situation to expecting more. We need high aspirations for the aid that we and others give, and for the democratic institutions that now exist. Those are not without problems; we still have concerns about corruption in the country, and we are dealing with them. We must do more than say simply that in difficult circumstances there has been stability. We must move from stability to real progress.

Peace, security and stability: that is a great success story. There will be a long-term commitment from this country, but it is related to an expectation that there should be strong, accountable institutions, and that tackling corruption is non-negotiable. We shall be keeping
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our eye on the ball with respect to the importance of the country’s getting back on track to achieve the millennium development goals by 2015. At the moment Sierra Leone is, on any projection, going to miss all those targets and goals. We shall expect urgent action to get back on track. We are particularly concerned, as we should be in any society, about the fact that child and maternal health indicators are among the worst in the world. I hope that my hon. Friend, with her experience, will be able to help me to think about some of the practical, tangible measures that we can take that could make a difference. She referred to the tremendous work of Joanna Reid, which we want to support, and the role played by Dr. Hoteh. I cannot, much as I should like to, give a cast-iron commitment today on providing practical assistance to him, but I shall certainly look into the issue.

We also need the Sierra Leone Government to raise more revenues of their own, and rapidly to implement a comprehensive public sector reform programme. We need to ensure that the anti-corruption commission, which we now believe is, after a period of great concern, well led, will genuinely become an effective institution.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on going out to see Sierra Leone for herself. Our commitment to Sierra Leone is cast iron and authentic, but we want to move on from being satisfied that it is a stable country that has done well in difficult circumstances; we want it to raise its aspirations and ambitions, so that its people can have the quality of life that so many people in this country take for granted.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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David Taylor (in the Chair): I should point out that the dress code for this Chamber is the same as that for the main Chamber, I am afraid, so jackets must stay on except in exceptional circumstances. I do not think that we are quite at that, although the temperature and humidity do approach what is common in Kabul.

2.30 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Mr. Taylor, it was good of you to arrange such conditions to add authenticity to the debate. I am glad that we have this opportunity to debate Afghanistan and the Government’s strategy and objectives, particularly as we have not had a statement from the Prime Minister on the subject since December. I think—this is a point that I hope the Minister will take back—that there is a desire in the House for more regular statements on what is happening in Afghanistan, particularly as the news about what is happening there seems rather gloomy. I pay tribute to the magnificent work done by our armed forces in Afghanistan, and I honour their sacrifice, as I know everyone in this Chamber does.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and for rightly honouring the valour and effectiveness of our forces in Afghanistan. Does he agree that it is also important to recognise the contribution of the reserve forces there alongside the regular forces, and the particular contribution of specialists?

Mr. Heald: I am happy to do so. A number of Members and hon. Friends have had that role and been to Afghanistan. We all admire what they have done.

From the beginning of this year, we have heard a series of gloomy reports from Afghanistan. Four reports came out at the beginning of 2008 from reputable think tanks questioning what progress we were making in Afghanistan, and in recent days a series of further reports have caused a great deal of concern. First, of course, was the national intelligence estimate leaked in America, which talked about a downward spiral in Afghanistan. We know that the White House ordered a major review—General Lute went to Kabul—and we are waiting to know the outcome. I hope that our Government have been closely involved in that process, and that we too are having a review. If there are changing circumstances on the ground, it is not good enough if our Government are not prepared to order the same sort of serious review as Washington.

A series of generals have also made remarks in recent days. General Craddock, speaking a few days ago to the Royal United Services Institute, said that he felt that we needed far more troops on the ground and fewer restrictions on them so they could be used more effectively. General Sir David Richards said recently that we need more men and should move towards a negotiated settlement. Brigadier Carleton-Smith has warned against ideas of a decisive military victory, saying:

Yesterday, we heard in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that an Afghan diplomat in New York said that in Helmand province we control only one district. That was disputed, but reports are coming in from many
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respected sources suggesting that the situation is going backwards, that more troops are needed and that it is urgent. What are we doing to address that set of reports, and will we have a major review?

Some of the emerging concerns involve our objective. As I saw it, the objective in 2001 after the atrocity at the twin towers was to get rid of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, because that was where they were training their people. I imagine that our objective now should be to keep al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and prevent them from training there, but is the Minister prepared to concede that that does not mean necessarily that we need to impose in Afghanistan a westernised form of government that might be inappropriate to its history, traditions and culture? Also, I accept the point made yesterday that it is a good thing to bring people together to hold elections, but perhaps the Minister will tell us his view on what sort of government might be acceptable there, granted that it will none the less be elected.

On the border issue, the Afghan Foreign Secretary, Dr. Spanta, has pointed out that neighbours are important. In his words, Afghanistan is a land bridge between central and south Asia. He has made the point that the border with Pakistan is porous, and more needs to be done about that. The Pashtun lands in south Afghanistan and north Pakistan extend across the border. Local people do not recognise the border; they just ignore it. In fact, some communities are right on the border, and there is no sign that it exists.

In that environment, what is the way forward for security? Does the Minister think that the yesterday’s mini-jirga, which involved Pashtun tribal leaders from both sides of the border as well as Muslim clerics, might, with the support of the new President, Zardari, lead to joint patrolling of the border? Is there some way forward in tackling that long-standing issue of the porous border?

Because the Afghan Government came substantially from the Northern Alliance, one long-standing problem has been that not enough Pashtun tribal leaders are involved in the process of government in Afghanistan. I welcome the fact that King Abdullah had a breakfast meeting in Mecca with the Afghan Government and with Pashtun leaders, some of whom are aligned with Taliban officials, but how credible a process is that? Do the Government feel that there is some prospect of sitting down with Pashtun tribal leaders who may be aligned with the Taliban and reaching the sort of political compromise that generals have been talking about recently? General Petraeus said today that he feels that American military negotiators might get involved in that process.

Why has progress been so slow in expanding the Afghan national army? It looks like an army that knows how to fight, and it has 60,000 men, but it needs 120,000; I understand that the plan is to double the size. When will that happen, and how will it be achieved?

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): One point made to us when we were in Afghanistan was that Iraq has roughly 600,000 security forces of one sort or another, is smaller than Afghanistan in both population and area and is a less complex problem. That implies that 120,000 troops are far too few. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Heald: I always respect my right hon. Friend’s knowledge of such matters; I do not claim for a moment
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to be a military man or an expert in them. The geography of Afghanistan is rather different. My right hon. Friend will recall that Afghanistan is divided by a central mountain range, the Hindu Kush. North of that, the area populated by the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras is fairly peaceful. [Interruption.] Some may disagree, but I understand that it is relatively peaceful at the moment. The area of concern is to the south and east, where the Taliban are effective in the fighting season. That area has a limited number of roads and communities, so the military effort might be about a smaller number of concentrated communities and roads than in Iraq, but my right hon. Friend will, I hope, have a chance to outline his thoughts on that.

One point keeps coming up—indeed, this is the point that my right hon. Friend made: we need more troops on the ground. Yesterday, Lieutenant-General Wall said that he did not believe that having a lot more troops was the answer until it was possible to have an immediate reconstruction effort following tactical victories. Does the Minister have a plan that brings together those elements in a comprehensive way so that if we were to put in more troops—and, I would hope, more helicopters—reconstruction efforts could be made almost immediately, perhaps with a substantial separate budget for the military? I understand that the Americans have tried that in Iraq successfully, so the Minister might like to address that issue.

My next point concerns the bureaucracy and dishonesty of public administration. We know that the national intelligence estimate has talked about Government corruption as being a major problem in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, a village leader was quoted by the BBC as saying that people who go to the Administration for help with a problem

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