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The lessons that we learned in Northern Ireland were immense. We learned that we had to sit down with those with whom we did not want to sit down. We had to get people together who hated each other so that they would eventually come to a compromise, and that led to the Assembly in Northern Ireland that we have now. That expertise can be used and taken to the negotiating table, but people must be willing to negotiate. The expertise that we have in this country is second to none anywhere else in the world and we should use it, particularly in respect of a country that holds Britain so high in its favour. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the UK can help in that way? Has that option been considered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

From my visits to Nigeria and from discussions with stakeholders, I strongly believe that the Niger delta crisis has roots in corruption and underdevelopment. The question of what the UK is doing for development in the Niger delta is for the Department for International Development, but as insecurity in the delta comes from poverty and underdevelopment, I should like to know whether there is a joint strategy between the FCO and DFID. The all-party group on Nigeria would be happy to assist and point everyone in the right direction on that front. We have a lot of expertise and have met many people from both sides. We would be more than happy to assist DFID and the FCO in helping Nigeria to solve its problems.

I would further like to ask my hon. Friend what the UK is doing in response to requests for support on the Niger delta from the President of Nigeria. In 2008, the Prime Minister agreed to provide military training assistance and advice to help to improve the security situation in the region. Has there been progress on that front? During his visit to London in July last year, President Yar’Adua also expressed a wish that stolen oil from Nigeria be classified as blood oil. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of bunkered oil from Nigeria help to buy the large quantities of arms traded in the Niger delta. Those illegal profits are also channelled into the Nigerian political system, doing nothing to stem the tide of corruption. Estimates put the value of bunkered oil at $10 million daily, at a minimum. Will the UK lead an international effort to end the trade in blood oil? Stopping that will be difficult and will upset people with vested interests in it, but the UK should not be fearful of upsetting such people. In fact, upsetting them may ensure that they come to the negotiating table.

Bunkered oil is only one part of a web of corruption that exists in Nigeria and beyond. Recent years have seen Nigeria making good progress on tackling corruption through its Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. I am pleased that the UK has been able to play a part in that fight. Thanks to the good work of the Metropolitan police, the EFCC has seized £49 million-worth of stolen assets.

Given progress made in the UK on discouraging money-laundering through London, we now need the UK to work with its European counterparts to ensure the end of the laundering of public funds throughout Europe and its tax havens. A change of leadership at the EFCC in 2007 and the subsequent harassment of its former chair, Mr. Ribadu, has caused widespread concern that the anti-corruption fight in Nigeria may falter. I hope that we in the UK will continue to do everything that we can to support anti-corruption efforts, including
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ensuring that our own banks and the tax havens linked to Britain take responsibility to support those efforts.

The two issues of oil and corruption have had damaging long-term effects on Nigeria and its people. Largely unaccountable government has meant that the Nigerian people endure without public services. That in turn means that many people do not see themselves as having a stake in their own country or in how it is run. Government can seem like a separate sphere from their daily lives. The lack of public service delivery in the country is so severe as to be a human rights issue. In fact, during the all-party group’s visit to Nigeria in December many of the people we met raised concerns about human rights abuses, ranging from the persecution of so-called child witches—Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom state must be commended for taking action on this issue by signing the Child Rights Bill into law—to female genital mutilation.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that one of the most moving and most disturbing discussions that we had on the visit to Nigeria was with the group of people who are very bravely campaigning in their communities against the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation? I would like, through him, to put two points to my hon. Friend the Minister. I do not expect her to answer fully in this debate, but I ask her to go away and consider the matter. First, what can she do in her role to try to discourage that practice and, indeed, outlaw it altogether in Nigeria? Secondly, one of the most worrying aspects of the discussion related to people coming to this country and carrying out that barbaric practice in communities here. Will she comment on that?

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. When we went into the room to talk to people, the first thing that we were confronted with was a DVD of a child being mutilated. The child could only have been a few months old. It was an horrific sight and one that will live with us. Can the Minister do something about that practice? I believe that if people go back to places such as Nigeria with young children, those children, when they return to this country, whether it is one, two or three weeks or three months later, should be talked to by somebody. They should be asked what happened to them while they were over there. If a child has been mutilated, they should be taken into care and the parents arrested for what they have done.

That is a very important issue, as is the issue of child witches. I am happy to furnish the Minister with a copy of the Channel 4 television programme on child witches if she would like to see it. Again, what is being done to those young children is horrific. Basically, they are children whom nobody cares about. People just want to get rid of them. They beat them and mutilate them and, in some cases, children have been killed. We must examine that. I hope that the governor of Akwa Ibom state, who signed the Child Rights Bill, will put it into force—that is, of course, a different question from agreeing to it.

A couple of days before the all-party group arrived in Nigeria, there was an outbreak of violence in Jos, Plateau state, in which 300 or 400 people died and many
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more were displaced. The violence was largely presented as a result of religious differences but, from meetings with people in the area, the group believes that the violence was a result of politicians exploiting fault lines and the frustrations of people who feel that they have been denied equal human rights with others. The catalyst for the violence was the local elections. Good elections are clearly crucial for increasing accountability in Nigeria and will advance democracy. In this case, a Christian councillor was elected in a Muslim area. It was obvious that under no conditions would a Christian councillor have been elected in that area but, because the Christian was part of the ruling People’s Democratic party, he was elected. That cannot be allowed to happen. Nigeria has to consider that seriously.

We have raised the subject many times in our reports, but still nothing has been done. Our Government should be backing up what we are saying, which is that proper, free elections should be conducted. We feel very strongly about that. We asked for the removal of the last head of the electoral commission and we believe that work should already have started for the 2011 elections. That needs to happen and there need to be discussions about the help that we and other countries can give. The European Parliament has been very helpful in highlighting the problems. There is more work that we can and should do. Is that issue on the FCO’s radar? Can the Minister assure me that there is engagement and long-term thinking on Nigeria and its elections in 2011?

Although the UK recognises the critical role that Nigeria plays in peacekeeping and stability in Africa, my impression is that we have been treading water in our relationship for the past year. I am sorry that there were not as many positives from the group’s visit as there usually are, but perhaps this one was more eye-opening. As I said, just before we arrived, 300 to 400 people were killed in an area that we had intended to visit. We had to go to another area just along from it but with a similar make-up. I emphasise that we did meet individuals and groups who were standing up to be counted and trying to bring about improvements for the country, so it is not all negative.

There is no doubt that it is in the UK’s interests to do likewise and support Nigeria’s democracy and development. I know that the FCO’s resources are limited, but given Nigeria’s 150 million people, its influence as a regional power and its strong links to Britain, both positive and negative, the UK needs to put as many resources as it can into the relationship. I expect no less from the UK Government. We need Nigeria to be strong and stable. We have a deep relationship with Nigeria in terms of both our history and our goals for the future, so we have no choice but to ensure the best possible outcomes.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing the debate and thank him for sharing his impressions from the recent visit by the all-party group, which he chairs. I am delighted that he is supported today by my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), who also take a great interest in what is a very important country for us. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West introduced the debate
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with great clarity, but also with real feeling and emphasis on the importance of the relationship between the UK and Nigeria. In addition to making some general points, I will seek to answer the particular questions that he has raised. If he requires further detail, I will be more than happy to provide that outside the debate.

I share the view that we have a long-standing, important and warm relationship with Nigeria, but it also presents substantial challenges. I assure my hon. Friends of the importance that we attach to that relationship and the way in which we seek to develop it. The range of our interests touches all areas of government, which is why we have a cross-departmental Whitehall Nigeria strategy. That strategy drives our work on migration, crime and corruption, energy security, development and regional security, and it brings together all the relevant Departments as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West has asked. Why else is the relationship important? There is a large Nigerian diaspora in the United Kingdom, who play a very important role in this country.

Clearly, whatever happens in Nigeria is important to Africa. Nigeria is home to one in five Africans, so what happens there is crucial to what we are seeking to achieve in Africa and with Africa, which includes the fight against poverty through the achievement of the millennium development goals. Nigeria is the leading contributor to African peacekeeping—my hon. Friend has referred to that—and has considerable influence within such groupings as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States. We are seeing a welcome increase in the number of Nigerians playing a role in regional affairs. General Agwai heads up the UN-African Union mission in Darfur, and former President Obasanjo is the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We warmly welcome those contributions.

We have heard today about the importance of Nigeria economically. In that regard, it is second only to South Africa in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria’s economy is ranked 40th in the world. It is the world’s 12th-largest producer of oil and ranks seventh in respect of proven gas reserves, thereby establishing itself in the world. The abundance of natural resources means that what happens in Nigeria has a significant effect on global energy and climate security. As my hon. Friend has said, it is vital for Nigeria to ensure a stable supply by improving the security situation in the Niger delta, where kidnapping continues to be a major issue. I assure my hon. Friends that we are working closely with the Nigerian authorities to secure the safe release of the two British nationals currently held captive. I also assure them that we have made clear our absolute readiness and willingness to support Nigeria in the delta. In response to the President’s requests, we are providing training to improve maritime security and working with international partners to address the issue that my hon. Friend described as “blood oil”—the theft of large quantities of oil.

As an illustration, one way in which we are doing that is through our support for a project with the university of Plymouth and the Nigerian petroleum commission to explore ways of identifying stolen oil. The aim is to ensure that, even if stolen oil leaves Nigeria, it does not find its way on to the open market.

In response to the questions raised by my hon. Friend, the UK will provide military training assistance in two areas—improving operational planning processes and
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inshore small boat operations. Work is progressing on the creation of a joint maritime security training centre near Lagos and training should start in earnest later this year. We have redirected the main focus of the British military advisory and training team in Nigeria from broader peacekeeping to support for maritime security. In October, a naval officer joined the team to enhance its maritime expertise.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the serious effects that gas flaring has on the environment. The UK has urged the Nigerian Government and international oil companies to work together to put an end to that practice. Through the UK-Nigeria officials working group, initiated by the then Minister for Energy in August 2008, we aim to help deliver improvements in methods of capturing and using gas, which we hope will eliminate the need for flaring. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work with international partners, including the United States and the European Union, and with oil companies through the gulf of Guinea energy security strategy, which will continue to support Nigeria’s efforts in all those issues. We also have the Whitehall delta action plan to co-ordinate work across the Government.

As my hon. Friend has said—I know that colleagues will endorse this—poverty is a persistent problem. More than 70 million Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day. I saw for myself the situation faced by so many people in Nigeria when I visited the country as a Minister in the Department for International Development in 2008. The stories that I heard and the evidence that I saw brought home to me the importance of the Government’s work in seeking substantially to increase support to the Nigerian Government, so as to strengthen their ability to tackle key challenges such as those of poverty, governance and electoral reform. There is no quick solution, but it is important to continue to work with the Nigerians to build their capacity to tackle those issues.

Dealing with poverty and inequality will be vital to Nigeria’s efforts to prevent the sort of inter-communal violence that, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, was seen in Jos in November. The ultimate responsibility for tackling conflict lies with the Nigerian Government, but the UK provides support through non-governmental organisations such as ActionAid and Bridgebuilders.

I agree with my hon. Friend that corruption is a deeply serious and corrosive problem that impacts not only on individuals but on economic development. It feeds crime inside Nigeria, as well as in the UK and elsewhere through money laundering. We therefore welcome the Nigerian President’s public commitment to tackle corruption, and we support him in that. How will we do that? That includes co-operating with Nigeria to prosecute high-profile corruption cases, building and maintaining effective institutions, and increasing transparency and accountability in both government and business.

In addition to tackling corruption, we are working with Nigeria to tackle other forms of crime, including drugs trafficking. Those problems do not confine themselves to borders or recognise passports, and they have a significant impact on the UK. That is why our law enforcement agencies, to which my hon. Friend has referred, co-operate so closely with their counterparts in Nigeria to share expertise and information. That is why we welcome our positive relationship regarding the
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return of illegal migrants and Nigerian prisoners, and we will continue to drive forward our work to increase the flow. I agree with my hon. Friend on the need for electoral reform in preparation for the 2011 elections. The President is now considering the recommendations of the electoral reform committee, and we are ready to support him in taking those forward.

I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow, who raised the important issue of how to tackle female genital mutilation. The centre in Ibadan, which was visited by the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria, does very important work to raise awareness of that horrific crime and, crucially, to involve religious and community leaders in the campaign against it. The community speaking out will be a driving force against what can be described only as a truly barbaric practice, and we are pleased to support that centre in its efforts. More broadly, I am sure that my hon. Friends will be glad that we have already made it a crime for any British national to carry out that practice, whether in the UK or abroad. We are working, and will continue to work, with international partners to stamp it out worldwide.

We will continue to drive forward our relationship with Nigeria in a positive direction. I am glad that the President was welcomed to London last summer as a guest of the Government. He had discussions with the Prime Minister and others on a range of UK and Nigerian interests. We look forward to continued ministerial visits both to and from Nigeria.

Reference has been made to the issue of human rights in Nigeria. We have a strong commitment to the promotion of human rights in Nigeria, as elsewhere. Specifically in Nigeria, we have funded projects through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a number of areas. Those include combating torture, campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty, strengthening democratic accountability and promoting women’s rights. I assure my hon. Friends that we continue to raise concerns about human rights with senior members of the Nigerian Government, both in the UK and together with EU partners. We monitor reports of human rights abuses and violence, and raise specific issues, such as that of secret executions by Nigerian law enforcement agencies. Nigeria is currently undergoing the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review process, and I am sure that we all look forward to the outcome of that and the advances that can be made.

I hope that my hon. Friends will accept the overriding objective of the UK Government, which is to see a stable, democratic Nigeria that governs its resources and its economy wisely, successfully tackles poverty, promotes human rights within its borders and plays an active and positive role both in Africa and globally. I welcome the extremely valuable contribution played by the all-party parliamentary group. It contributes towards developing the importance of this relationship, about which we are all agreed, and helps us to deliver our UK Government objectives. I look forward to continuing that work and seeing progress made.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

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Small Business Assistance

2.30 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate. It is perhaps on the most important subject for our country at this time. I wanted to call the debate “Help for small companies during the recession”, but in their wisdom the authorities rightly altered it into parliamentary terminology. Whatever its title, however, the message for the Minister is loud and clear. Small businesses are in real trouble. They form an important part of our national and local economies. The Government’s actions could make a lot of difference to whether they survive.

Every day on television and radio news programmes, Government announcements cite figures of billions, tens of billions and hundreds of billions of pounds. For many small businesses, however, the difference between success and failure, between life and death, can come down to £50 or £100 a week, or a bill for £1,000 not being paid on time. It is important that the Minister and his officials understand that. For many people, figures quoted in billions are almost meaningless when it comes to the front line of business survival at local level.

The Minister may be interested to hear that there are 26,000 jobs in the borough of Kettering. Of those, 10,000 are in small businesses. The borough has 3,377 businesses, of which 2,367 employ between one and four people. An additional 501 businesses employ between five and 10 people. It can be seen that 85 per cent. of businesses in my constituency employ fewer than 10 people. As for the sectors in which those businesses operate, 994 or almost 30 per cent. are in distribution, hotels and restaurants; 441 or 13 per cent. are in construction; and 298 or just under 9 per cent. are in manufacturing.

Putting it bluntly, if the small business sector in Kettering goes under, so will the local economy. Kettering represents the heart of middle England, both geographically and in the sense of being the average at many levels. Our experience in Kettering will be typical of many constituencies. I am grateful to have the chance to make these points today.

My job as a Back-Bench Member is to canvass and to gauge local opinion and to present it as best I can to those who make the decisions. Today, I want to make clear the experiences of a number of businesses in my constituency.

RB Travel, a small coach company, tells me that £5,000 is still owed to it by a far larger coach company. It has tried everything to get the bill settled. The payment terms were 90 days, which was difficult enough, but it still has not been paid. If it remains unpaid, 15 jobs will go. There are at least a dozen similar sized coach companies in and around my constituency, and the experience of RB Travel is not untypical, with difficult payment terms being used.

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