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House of Commons

Wednesday 17 December 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—

UN Conference (Poznan)

1. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): What assessment he has made of the development outcomes of the UN conference in Poznan. [244084]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Among the outcomes from Poznan were further agreement to tackle deforestation and the provision of resources to support it; secondly, the launch of an adaptation fund to help developing countries begin to deal directly with the impact of climate change; and thirdly, agreement that serious negotiations to agree a post-Kyoto framework should now begin in earnest in the run-up to next year’s Copenhagen summit.

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Given that the outcome of the Poznan conference represents a watering down of the commitment by European countries to prevent global warming or contributions to it from CO2 and yet the impact of any global warming—we can see this even if we are not climate alarmist, which I am certainly not—will fall most severely on the poorest countries, which have contributed least to the problem, does that not mean that our obligation to help them to adapt to change is increased? Does the Minister agree that the adaptation fund of some €60 million agreed at Poznan was inadequate to the scale of the problem and the obligation we have to the poorest countries?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with much of the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but not all of it. I do not think that Poznan represents a watering down of Europe’s commitment. Indeed, the 2020 package agreed by Europe has helped to encourage a willingness among some of the larger developing nations, and indeed allies in other OECD countries, to negotiate seriously in the run-up to Copenhagen. The adaptation fund is just one part of the response that we need to help developing countries. I agree with him that more is needed, which is one of the reasons why, along with a number of other countries, we have commissioned a much broader piece of work in order to understand just how much additional finance, whether it be from the private or public sector, is necessary to help developing countries to adapt.

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Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Although I do not completely share the analysis of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on climate change, I agree that it is important that we play a leading role in ensuring that the developing countries that receive Department for International Development funding see it targeted at sustainable development. Does the Minister agree that programmes such as using hydrogen fuel cells for microgeneration are important for developing local projects in areas where there is no access to electricity in other forms? Will he ensure that every aspect of the work of the Government and the Department is sustainable in the long term to allow those countries to skip a generation in respect of such schemes?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with my hon. Friend about the huge potential that hydrogen fuel cells offer not only the British economy, but the global economy—including the developing countries, too. I recognise the particular expertise in my hon. Friend’s constituency on the development of new renewable technologies. I say to him, however, that fuel cells are some way off providing a more immediate solution to developing countries, and there are a range of other renewable technologies that we can help developing countries to deploy. That is one reason why my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made available some £800 million, housed in the World Bank, leveraging other donor sources of financing to build climate investment funds to help developing countries to move on to a low-carbon path.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Given that 2008 represents the halfway point towards meeting the millennium development goals, why was there no discussion of that issue? We should bear in mind that according to the World Bank, the first millennium development goal—eradicating extreme poverty and hunger in the world’s poorest countries—would cost an estimated £30 billion. That is a great deal of money, but it is about the same amount that Wall street and City bankers awarded themselves in bonuses last year. How does the Minister reflect on the abject failure of the United Nations to achieve the first of the millennium development goals?

Mr. Thomas: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, we are still some seven years away from the target date for achieving the millennium development goals and there are encouraging signs in many parts of the world that we will achieve both the top-line millennium development goal and a number of others. We are off track on a number of the goals. That is very true, but it is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister initiated a high-level event at the UN in September to focus on what else we need to do to get back on track to meet the millennium development goals. The impact of climate change was very much part of that discussion.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What effect will the UN climate change conference have on the provision of electricity to Afghanistan, bearing in mind that its one renewable resource, hydro power, cannot be fully utilised because the transmission lines cannot be protected?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Lady raises a very good question about the general need to support developing countries in getting better access to energy in the first place—it is
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a real challenge to help people get connected to electricity and other sources of energy—and in accessing low-carbon sources of energy. On her specific question about Afghanistan, we are in discussions with the Afghan Government about how we can help support them to develop more access to electricity and to other sources of energy.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Oxfam has said that the Poznan conference

on climate change. It is not entirely clear how much irony was intended by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in yesterday’s written statement, in which he cited as the main achievement of the conference an agreement

Given the dismal experience of the Doha trade negotiations, does the Minister agree that a pattern has emerged of a lack of political will among the rich countries of the world, the cost of which is being borne by the poorest people in the world? Is he satisfied by the amount of progress made at Poznan, and if not, what will his Department do now to ensure that we get to Copenhagen and get a deal?

Mr. Thomas: I do not share the doom-laden scenario that the hon. Gentleman has peddled. I think that significant progress was made at Poznan. When the talks were launched in Bali 12 months ago everyone was certain that it would be at least two years before a deal was reached on climate change, but we have seen some of the key building blocks for tackling its impact in developing countries begin to be put in place, such as the adaptation fund that I mentioned earlier and action to tackle deforestation. The Secretaries of State for International Development and for Energy and Climate Change have announced a £100 million contribution to help tackle deforestation and to help with taking a series of additional steps in that regard. What the Government as a whole will do now is work with a range of partners, including G20 colleagues, to establish what further action we can take to increase appetite for the deal at Copenhagen that we all want to see, and build progress towards it.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): When I attended the Poznan conference last week, I was struck by the visible differences in negotiating capacity between the world’s richest and poorest countries. Will the Minister examine ways of strengthening the ability of the poorest developing countries to participate in these vital but complex negotiations?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the need for the voice of developing countries to be heard in the negotiations. We are already helping them to ensure that their voice is heard, in the same way as we have during trade negotiations, and we will continue to provide that support. Through our country offices we are working closely with a range of developing countries, both on their domestic programmes to adapt to climate change and on their engagement in the actual negotiations.

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Mr. Mitchell: I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he not agree that Britain could do more to help, for example through the Commonwealth? Will he consider again the advocacy fund suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), which would help the poorest countries to fight their corner in these crucial negotiations?

Mr. Thomas: As I have already told the hon. Gentleman, we are holding discussions with a range of developing countries about how we can help them to engage in the negotiations. We will have further talks with them through the Commonwealth and a range of other organisations. I would take his question a little more seriously if his party had not just announced its commitment to slashing public spending. That would potentially have very serious consequences for developing countries, not least in respect of their ability to adapt to climate change.


2. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. [244086]

6. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. [244090]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. Thousands have been hit by cholera and hundreds have died. Basic services have collapsed, and the health services can respond only because of the help that we and others are giving. Five million people need food aid, and more disease outbreaks could be on the way.

Mr. Crabb: Contrary to the delusional statements of Robert Mugabe, there is a real and ferocious cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe which is killing children and entire families at this moment. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that genuinely independent non-governmental organisations receive additional resources so that they can provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance? Will he also ensure that no British taxpayers’ money goes into Robert Mugabe’s corrupt central bank? Contrary to assurances given at the last International Development questions, United Kingdom taxpayers are supporting the Zimbabwean Government via the global fund.

Mr. Alexander: There is unanimity throughout the House about the scale of the outbreak. There are about 20,000 suspected cases of cholera, and there have been about 1,000 deaths. I have announced a package of support worth up to £10 million specifically to deal with cholera. We predicted that, tragically, this was a likely consequence of Mugabe’s grotesque misrule of the country, and we had therefore already worked with other international agencies to stockpile the necessary resources on the borders of Zimbabwe. We continue to work with the United Nations and UN organisations including the World Food Programme, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those efforts to address the great humanitarian need are unstinting.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Secretary of State will know that extreme hunger and malnutrition are gripping that country. Save the Children estimates that it is feeding 700,000 people, and as the Secretary of State has said, 5 million people are starving. Cholera is spreading, democracy is dead and violence is now endemic in that country. Will the Secretary of State seek to persuade the Leader of the House to provide a debate in Government time on this crisis, so that Members on both sides of the House can express their views and say what action they believe the United Kingdom must take?

Mr. Alexander: I am always happy to pass on Members’ concerns to the Leader of the House, and I will do so on this occasion. Of course, we recently had a foreign affairs debate in the Chamber, in which I understand that a number of Members raised the very real concerns felt in all parts of the House on Zimbabwe. The hon. Gentleman is right in recognising the scale of the hunger crisis now afflicting Zimbabwe. The estimate is that by the end of this month about 5.1 million people will be reliant on external food aid—this is in a country that has historically been seen as the bread basket of Africa. That figure alone should challenge not only the international community to continue its humanitarian efforts, but those within Zimbabwe who regard the current position as sustainable. We have been at the forefront of international efforts in calling for the will of the Zimbabwean people to be reflected in their Government, and we continue to make that case.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): How much of the humanitarian assistance being offered by the UK Government is available through partnership working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

Mr. Alexander: I can assure the House that we are working very closely with both our diplomatic representatives in Zimbabwe and with colleagues in government. In recent days, I have chaired a Cabinet Sub-Committee, which both the noble Lord Malloch-Brown and the Foreign Secretary attended. Lord Malloch-Brown was in South Africa on Friday, holding talks with the President of the Republic of South Africa; the Foreign Secretary was in New York on Monday, engaged in further discussions at the Security Council; and I can assure the House that there is constant daily contact between the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, as together we do what we can to address what is a dreadful situation in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): What Christmas message can my right hon. Friend send to the people of Zimbabwe who are starving and dying of cholera?

Mr. Alexander: The message is that the British Government will continue to provide food, drugs and any assistance we can to address the crisis afflicting their country, but that we also recognise that humanitarian support is not enough. Whether in the councils of the European Union, the Security Council or our discussions with regional partners, we will continue to make the case that the people of Zimbabwe need and deserve a Government who represent their will.

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Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that so many of the leaders and so much of the media in southern Africa seem to regard the collapse of Zimbabwe and the outbreak of cholera as some kind of European plot, even though the situation is spilling over into their own economies? What can he do to ensure that they understand that resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe is essential not only for the people of Zimbabwe, but for the development of the entire region of southern Africa?

Mr. Alexander: As is so often the case, the right hon. Gentleman brings great authority to his observation on the regional consequences of the crisis that is contemporary Zimbabwe. It is the case that Robert Mugabe has repeatedly sought to portray this as some kind of conspiracy of neo-colonialism, when nothing could be further from the truth. The responsibility for the grotesque misrule of Zimbabwe rests squarely at the door of Robert Mugabe and those in his Government. We in the international community are clear that the strongest voices that can be raised for change are those of the people of Zimbabwe in alliance with regional partners. The cholera outbreak alone gives credence to the claim that if this issue is not addressed the regional consequences will be dire, and that is why we have been working so closely to encourage South Africa to speak up, as well as other regional partners, such as Botswana and other neighbours of Zimbabwe. We will continue to make that case to regional partners.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Sadly, it seems clear that any end of the counterfeit President’s rule in Zimbabwe will not come about through a negotiated process, and that it will probably come about through a sudden and dramatic event leading to chaos. Is the Secretary of State reassured that if that happens, contingency aid is ready to go to Zimbabwe immediately, because the people of that country will need help and support within hours, not days or weeks?

Mr. Alexander: First, it is, of course, a matter for the Movement for Democratic Change, which bravely stood up against the intimidation and thuggery that it faced in the elections on 29 March, to judge what is the best strategy to take forward. The possibility of a negotiated way forward was established in September, but tragically it appears once again as if ZANU-PF and Mugabe have rejected that way forward for their country. We continue to talk to regional partners and those within Zimbabwe who have the best interests of the people of Zimbabwe at heart, but we also have contingency plans in place so that if there is a credible prospect of recovery, we and other members of the international community will assist in that endeavour.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The recent cholera outbreak is only the latest humanitarian tragedy to strike Zimbabwe and its people. Does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest single positive action that would bring the greatest benefit to Zimbabwe would be for the curtain finally to be brought down on the years of the Mugabe regime and on its systematic rape of its own country and impoverishment of its own people?

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Mr. Alexander: The British Government have been forthright in their view of the unwillingness of Robert Mugabe to allow the will of the people of Zimbabwe to be expressed in government. If I appear circumspect, it is for the reason that I gave earlier: that nothing would suit Robert Mugabe more than to be able to ignore the voices of his own people and others within Africa and somehow suggest that this was a British plot. That is frankly not the case; the people of Zimbabwe have spoken, including in the elections earlier this year. It is now for Robert Mugabe to recognise the clear voice that was raised for change within Zimbabwe.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What hope does the Secretary of State have that help in dealing with cholera can get to those communities, both urban and rural, that are regarded by the Mugabe regime as most hostile to it? Would not the President’s insistence that there is no cholera rank in most countries as a basis on which he should be removed from office and probably certified?

Mr. Alexander: First, on the scale of the cholera outbreak, it is affecting almost every part of Zimbabwe now. Tragically, there is no distinction between urban or rural communities; they are all increasingly affected. We are working closely with the World Health Organisation, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the international community is doing the best it can to ensure that the response is being dictated by the epidemiology and the needs of responding to the disease, rather than by any political partiality of the regime in power at the moment.

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