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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) raised with the Leader of the House the propriety of Ministers’ notifying local MPs of visits. The Leader of the House quite correctly made it plain that, when a Minister goes to a constituency on ministerial business, he or she should notify the local Member. I understood her to suggest that Members of Parliament attending party functions were not under a duty to notify local Members. However, reaching back to when I first entered
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the House, my understanding is that whenever a Member goes to another Member’s constituency on anything other than private business, they ought to notify the local Member. Can you assist us on this?

Mr. Speaker: A Minister going to another constituency on ministerial business has an obligation to notify the Member of Parliament concerned, and I do not expect the Member to receive that notification through an e-mail appearing in their system. That has been cropping up recently, but this should be done properly. However, I would say that a party activity is, in a sense, a private matter for a Minister. If a Minister is taking part in a party activity as a member of a political party, it is not necessary to inform the local Member of Parliament. We should not be over-sensitive when someone visits a constituency, but when they do so in their ministerial capacity, or when a Back Bencher goes to a constituency to carry out an official function such as an opening, they should notify the local Member of Parliament. I would not expect them to notify the Member about party activities.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are very good at wanting to protect the interests of Back Benchers, and I want to ask you to help us on a specific matter. My hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and I expressly asked the Leader of the House for an undertaking that no statement on the future of the Post Office card account would be made outside the House by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions unless or until such a statement had been made here. There are strong rumours that a statement might be made tomorrow, which, according to normal convention, would be completely unacceptable. Will you make it as clear as you can that you expect the statement on the Post Office card account—a matter that colleagues in all parties have raised regularly and that affects all four countries in the United Kingdom—to be made here, and only here, first? In that way, the Secretary of State will be in no doubt that no statement, press release or leak can be made until he comes to the Dispatch Box to make the statement.

Mr. Speaker: I cannot go into such a specific matter or give an instruction to a Minister. The House is not sitting tomorrow, but the rule is that the Minister concerned should come to the House as soon as possible. I cannot prevent a Minister from saying something to the press, just as I could not prevent the hon. Gentleman from doing so. All I can do is give a broad hint that this is a very serious matter that I have heard being raised at every opportunity on the Floor of the House, and Ministers must take note of the deep concern being expressed in every part of the House. However, I cannot issue an instruction along the lines that the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you provide some clarity on the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) about visits to constituencies? Is it the case that, if a Member from another party visits a constituency for a party event, but then uses it for press or publicity purposes, notice should be given to
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the Member of Parliament for the constituency concerned? A whole string of Conservative Members of Parliament have been visiting part of my constituency that I am about to lose—it is going into Central Devon—but they have not had the courtesy to tell me of their visits. Perhaps people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Mr. Speaker: I think I made myself clear, and I shall not go any further than that.

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Topical debate

Democratic Republic of the Congo

12.34 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): I beg to move,

This is a very timely debate. The stark images from recent days of the suffering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a reminder of the human consequences of conflict in Africa. The numbers, too, are sobering. In a country with a population close to 60 million, around 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by conflict, many of them uprooted repeatedly. The last week alone has seen an estimated 55,000 people forced to leave their homes as troops under the command of the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda have advanced on the key regional city of Goma. They contribute to a total of 250,000 displaced people in North Kivu province since the resumption of fighting there in late August. Many of them are beyond the reach of agencies that can help them, caught in territory held by rebels where access is impossible.

All of this is taking place against a background of militias killing and torturing the civilian population, pillaging their belongings, and recruiting and deploying children as soldiers. The international community faces a substantial challenge in addressing the factors that have contributed to the unrest in the DRC and its appalling consequences.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister agree that the problems of the DRC and the ongoing conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis are not simply limited to that country? Is it not about time that the international community examined the wider conflict in that sub-region—in Burundi and Rwanda—and tried to initiate a genuine peace conference to try to bring about peace between the Hutus and the Tutsis?

Bill Rammell: I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a wider issue. Certainly, the role of the African Union is key to addressing that concern. There are also specific issues relating to the DRC, however, and I shall talk about those in a moment.

It is clear that the events played out in recent weeks stem from regional political tensions. The terrible events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide resonate in the ethnic strife seen today in eastern DRC. The ethnic Hutu FDLR traces its origins to the Genocidaire Interahamwe militia, and poses a real threat to the security of the Tutsi population. The abuses that it continues to commit mark the group as a destabilising factor, and I endorse the condemnation that it received in United Nations Security Council resolution 1804.

However, no party involved in the violence is free from responsibility for the region’s very real suffering. Nkunda portrays himself as the defender of Tutsis, yet his militia, the CNDP, has committed atrocities of its own. The warlord Bosco Ntaganda, an International Criminal Court indictee, is among its most senior leaders, and it has been responsible for many of the excesses reported in the region. It is the march of the CNDP
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towards Goma, in defiance of the authority of a legitimately elected Government, that has triggered the latest displacements in North Kivu.

The Nairobi agreement, concluded between the Governments of the DRC and Rwanda with the support of the international community in November 2007, offers a framework for addressing the threat of the FDLR. Though implementation has been slow, the agreement contains the right elements to begin to defuse the ethnic tensions between communities in eastern DRC.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is the Minister prepared to search for any information on the links between the mining industry, the sales of minerals and the funding of various militia groups as a consequence of the theft of the wealth from the Congo?

Bill Rammell: I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. That is one of the reasons why we have pushed strongly internationally for an extractive industries directive to tackle those causes. I think that there is an economic driver, but there are other factors as well. I shall talk about them in a moment.

The Government of the DRC must make sustained and comprehensive efforts to persuade the FDLR to disarm and leave, backed by military force where necessary. The needs to deliver on its commitment to bring war criminals to justice, too. For its part, Rwanda must create the conditions for demobilised FDLR members unconnected with the genocide to return to its territory.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I am slightly alarmed that the Minister has mentioned military force. Will he itemise which elements of the British armed forces have already been warned off for a possible deployment to the DRC? Will he also confirm that that would not involve any of the scarce elements of our strategic airlift capacity, which are fully involved in Afghanistan? Will he also tell us what he is doing with our European allies to ensure that any possible European deployment to the DRC will not cut into their commitments in Afghanistan?

Bill Rammell: With respect, the hon. Gentleman is getting way ahead of himself. I have been keen in the statement that I made earlier this week and again this afternoon to make it clear that although no contingency is ever ruled out, we strongly believe that MONUC—the United Nations organisation mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the largest peacekeeping force anywhere in the world—needs to be deployed effectively. That is our overriding priority at the moment.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab) rose—

Bill Rammell: I give way briefly, but then I want to make progress.

John Battle: Some International Development Committee members recently visited Goma, and I would like to put a point to the Minister. It seems to me that every time we hit a crisis, we respond in a box. It is now a human conflict crisis, but it has also been a development crisis and, in the past, a political crisis. Can we join those together? I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of
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State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), in his place on the Front Bench. When we talk about action from the international community, however, can we integrate efforts to tackle conflict, the politics and development at the same time, because if we do not, we will simply return to these situations time and again?

Bill Rammell: My right hon. Friend, who has huge experience in this area, is absolutely right that we must have a concerted and co-ordinated effort; ultimately, however, the circumstances call for a political solution. I know that several Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall now make some progress.

I certainly applaud the decision of the UN Secretary-General to appoint the former President Obasanjo of Nigeria as his special envoy to eastern DRC. His task will be to find effective ways of mediating between the two Governments, encouraging them to make progress and fulfilling their commitments. The diplomatic initiatives being launched elsewhere are also welcome. The engagement of President Kikwete of Tanzania, the current chair of the African Union, is a hopeful sign of the readiness of regional leaders to help end the conflict in their neighbourhood and cement stability in its place.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend confirm that President Kagame will definitely attend the Heads of State meeting in Nairobi this weekend? I understand that he has been somewhat equivocal in some of his public statements, although he claims that he is going.

Bill Rammell: My understanding is that he will attend that critically important meeting tomorrow. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is leaving this evening in order to attend it. The need for it is even more urgent, because in the past 24 hours the fragile ceasefire announced last week seems to have been broken with clashes around Kiwanja, just north of Rutshuru, 80 km north of Goma, between the CNDP and the PARECO Mai-Mai elements. MONUC engaged during the day and succeeded in pushing them further north outside Kiwanja. The fighting stopped at around 4 pm local time and both sides have retreated a little way from Kiwanja—the CNDP to the south and PARECO to the north. Things have been quiet so far this morning, but those events underline the urgency of the situation.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Given that Britain is a substantial donor to the nine countries that border the Democratic Republic of the Congo, does the Minister agree that we, too, should play a significant role in arriving at some settlement, rather than leave it to others?

Bill Rammell: I believe that we have a role to play, which is why the Foreign Secretary attended the meeting, along with the French Foreign Minister, and why my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is leaving for the Heads of State meeting this evening. We are playing a constructive role and it is important for us to do so.

It is only through constructive co-operation that the DRC and Rwanda will deal effectively with the threat to regional security that the FDLR represents. With the international community’s support, they must resume
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their efforts and end the recriminations they have exchanged as the situation in the region has deteriorated. We have heard reports of cross-border interference as the violence has intensified in recent weeks. The two Governments need to agree and consistently apply a robust and reliable method of investigating the allegations, and they must deal effectively with cases where illegal activity is proven. Together with increased border security, that will isolate the destabilising forces in the region and promote collaboration towards the lasting political solution that the region needs. The international community will do whatever it can in support.

The DRC faces a further internal challenge to resolve the questions underlying the tensions between its indigenous communities on its eastern borders. The UK was closely involved in the peace and security conference held at Goma in January this year. After a long and constructive series of debates, that initiative saw a ceasefire and, crucially, agreement was reached between the Congolese Government and more than 20 indigenous Congolese groups on a range of important questions. It brought representatives of rival organisations under one roof to consider the issues affecting the east of the country and it set the Amani process in motion.

The UK has been among the most closely involved of all international players in the effort to implement the accords signed at Goma, which I know has been widely welcomed. There is also no doubt that resolving such urgent questions as access to land, the return of refugees from outside the DRC and greater respect for human rights will encourage better inter-communal relations.

Nkunda’s declaration in October that he was withdrawing from the Amani process was very damaging. The international community should reject Nkunda’s call for bilateral talks with the DRC Government, as the issues behind regional instability run wider than his concerns. The Amani process still offers the best opportunity for all communities, including the Tutsis whom Nkunda claims to represent, to settle issues jointly. The way is open for Nkunda to rejoin the Amani process; I strongly believe that he should take that opportunity.

The DRC Government bear the responsibility for their citizens’ security. Their armed forces need to be better equipped and trained to confront the illegal militias that prey on the civilian population.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): With the best will in the world—not always present in the Congo—there is no way that the Congolese armed forces will be in a position to enforce the rule of law in the east. What is needed in the short term at least, and probably in the medium term, is to reinforce MONUC, which Alan Doss has requested since early October. Failing that, mounting the sort of operation suggested by the French, involving an EU force, could be suggested. What is our position on both those matters?

Bill Rammell: As I said earlier this week—I think in direct response to questioning by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—we believe that MONUC forces on the ground are best placed to deal with the situation. It is the biggest single peacekeeping operation anywhere in the world. We certainly support its efforts and commend it for its work. I have to say
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that it is unlikely that a rapid deployment of forces from the EU or elsewhere could significantly increase the capability that already exists in the region. Discussions with our EU partners have revealed a broad consensus in line with that assessment. MONUC is our most productive way forward. We need to ensure that troops are deployed appropriately. There are issues about the caveats of a number of the national forces that are part of MONUC; we are certainly seeking to address them and have them removed—

Mr. Mullin: And numbers.

Bill Rammell: And numbers, but I believe that we need to put all our efforts behind ensuring that MONUC succeeds.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) rose—

Bill Rammell: I will give way briefly, but then I really must make some progress.

Mr. Davey: Further to the Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), Alan Doss, the head of MONUC, asked for 2,700 extra troops for nine months in October—before the recent crisis erupted—so it is a question of the size and capacity of MONUC forces. What are the Government doing to ensure that Alan Doss, a British commander leading MONUC, gets the forces that are needed, whether from the African Union, the European Union or other countries?

Bill Rammell: We are certainly keeping the situation under review, listening to advice on the ground and seeking to do everything that we possibly can to ensure that the numbers are appropriate and are deployed in the most effective way. Given that it is the biggest peacekeeping force anywhere in the world, I think that the numbers are in place, but they need to be in the right places. That is what we need to push to address.

There have been calls from some quarters for the EU to provide troops to help guarantee supply and support, and I have addressed that issue in answer to questions. The International Criminal Court opened its investigation into events in the country in June 2004. With the exception of Nkunda’s partner, Bosco Ntaganda, all the Congolese individuals subject to arrest warrants issued by the ICC are in the court’s custody. The DRC has co-operated in the process to bring them to justice and we expect it to continue to fulfil its obligations to the court. The broader task ahead is to develop a culture of accountability and tackle the impunity that has had such a detrimental effect on life in the country. That extends to economic issues, which echoes the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). The UK is working to promote transparency in the mineral sector, and to create conditions in which the DRC’s natural wealth can be better managed and used for the benefit of the population.

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