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House of Commons

Wednesday 11 February 2009

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—


1. Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): What support the Government are providing to non-governmental organisations and charities that are delivering humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. [255785]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Since the start of the conflict, the United Kingdom Government have allocated almost £3.5 million directly to non-governmental organisations and charities, with staff and resources on the ground, to provide immediate relief such as safe drinking water, emergency medical treatment, health and hygiene-related items, shelter and emotional support to civilians affected by the conflict. In addition, £4 million has been committed to the International Committee of the Red Cross and £1 million has been committed to the United Nations humanitarian emergency response fund, to which non-governmental organisations and charities can apply.

Christine Russell: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply; the news that our Government are responding positively in helping the agencies to rebuild the shattered lives of people in Gaza is certainly welcome. Many of my constituents have donated very generously to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. At a meeting last week, my constituents asked me what assurance we could give our aid agencies and NGOs that we will keep up the diplomatic pressure on Israel to make sure that there is free movement across the border crossings for the aid workers and the essential supplies that they are taking in.

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend’s constituents in Chester share the concern widely felt across the United Kingdom that support should be provided to people who have suffered terribly in Gaza in recent weeks and months. I assure her and her constituents that we have been unstinting in our demand of the Israeli Government that there should be free and unfettered access not only for the aid, but for the humanitarian aid workers so that they can carry out their vital work.

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David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): What efforts is the Secretary of State making to ensure that help provided by this country with the intention of assisting the people of Gaza is not diverted by Hamas or any other group to attack Israel?

Mr. Alexander: Clearly, our overriding concern is to ensure that the humanitarian aid reaches those who need it; we would treat any diversion of aid extremely seriously. That is why we are already in dialogue with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the World Food Programme and other relevant agencies, which have long experience of working in the region, to ensure that all the aid provided through the generosity of the British public finds its way to those who so desperately need it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Given what my right hon. Friend has just said, does he share my concern at the latest report from the United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator? He complains not only that the crossings into Gaza remain closed for far too much of the time, but that Israel is still refusing entry to lists of priority items for humanitarian aid supplied by the UN. What representations are we making to Israel on the issue of making sure that specific items get to where they are needed?

Mr. Alexander: In recent days, our Prime Minister has written to Prime Minister Olmert reinforcing the consistent message from United Kingdom Government Ministers: that we want the free and unfettered access of which I spoke. I know of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest and commitment on these issues. Through his own expertise, he will be aware that the issue is not simply about the quantity of aid, but about the breadth of the kind of items allowed through the crossings at the moment. The UN estimates that at least 500 humanitarian aid trucks are needed daily for the pre-conflict requirements of the Gazan population and that, of the 4,000 types of relief item that it estimates are actually required, only 20 to 25 are getting in and out.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Israel has set up a clinic at the Erez crossing on the Gaza border to give free medical treatment to Palestinians. However, no one is in the clinics because Hamas turns people away at the border. Are the Government aware that those clinics have been set up by Israel, and what steps will they make to ensure that Hamas allows people to take that free medical treatment?

Mr. Alexander: Of course we support any efforts made to ensure that those injured in the conflict receive the requisite treatment. There has also been provision whereby, for example, injured children have been taken across the Rafah crossing into Egypt. We have been clear; our policy has not changed in relation to all sides in the conflict—there should be free and unfettered access, so that humanitarian agencies of whatever origin can continue their work.

At the same time, we recognise that ultimately there needs to be a political resolution to the basis of the conflict. That is why we welcome the fact that there has been early engagement from the Obama Administration in the United States; they have made early phone calls to the region and appointed Senator George Mitchell.
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We also support the efforts led by the Egyptian Government, as part of the international community, to try to take forward a process that will ultimately lead to the basis of a broader peace settlement being found. Ultimately, that is the best guarantor of humanitarian support.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab): Recent reports by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and other organisations based in Gaza show that on a day-to-day basis only a fraction of the aid that is needed, including food, construction materials and fuel, is getting in. If the Israeli authorities are prepared to allow this to happen, despite the shortages, what role does my right hon. Friend see for the UN or other independent agencies in ensuring that the crossings are open?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to recognise that there continue to be real difficulties in securing the required level of access. To give a sense to the House of the items that are currently being barred from entry to Gaza, they include school textbooks, PVC pipes for water and sanitation, plastic bags that the UN uses to distribute food aid, and equipment to store medical vaccines. That is why it is important that the whole international community is clear on the need for full and unfettered access. From a European Union point of view, there is, through the EU border assistance mission, a long-standing offer on the part of the EU to assist in creating the conditions in which a humanitarian corridor can effectively be established at the crossing, and that offer remains.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Everybody across the House and the country has been utterly appalled by what they have seen happening in Gaza in recent weeks. There will be a broad welcome for the Secretary of State’s commitments and pledges for aid and assistance, and for what I detect to be a harsher tone towards the Israeli Government than has been adopted in the past. Does he recognise that beyond the immediate priority of dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe in the aftermath of this horribly one-sided conflict, there must be a complete rethink of the way that the Quartet goes about development in the Palestinian territories? In particular, will he now accept that the Quartet’s deliberate political isolation of the people of Gaza in recent years has been ruinous and counter-productive?

Mr. Alexander: I simply would not accept that characterisation of the Quartet’s position. Only last week, I had the opportunity to meet the Quartet’s envoy to the region, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and discussed with him the level of ambition that he has for the people in Gaza as surely as for those on the west bank. Last Thursday, I met Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestinian Authority, and he made it clear to me that the United Kingdom, as part of the Quartet, has been one of the key funders of the Palestinian Authority, because, as he rightly argues, if we ultimately need to see a broader peace settlement in the middle east, it will be necessary for there to be a viable negotiating partner for Israel. That is why we continue to support efforts on the west bank and why we continue to support the efforts of the Palestinian Authority. We recognise that while humanitarian access is vital, ultimately it will be insufficient until we see the broader political moves of which the hon. Gentleman speaks.

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Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Israel has always controlled the entry into Gaza but not always the southern border with Egypt. It would be much better if we could have an official entry into Gaza from Egypt. What progress is being made on that score?

Mr. Alexander: The nature of the crossing into Egypt is different in the sense that if one compares, for example, the capacity at Rafah with that at Karni, there are fundamental differences. The Egyptian Government have taken a leading role in some of the political discussions prior to the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire and subsequently following that ceasefire. We welcome those steps. At the same time, attempts have been made to ensure, notwithstanding the very real constraints on all the border crossings, that humanitarian aid continues to enter Gaza. We expect that in the coming weeks there will be conference in Cairo that will provide a further opportunity for those matters to be discussed.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): It is clear from my recent visit to the Gaza border that the work of the Department for International Development is widely respected both by Israeli Minister Herzog and Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad. However, when I spoke to the UN agencies last night, they told me that still only a fraction of the 900,000 Gazans dependent on food aid were receiving it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is in daily contact with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is so vital to all the humanitarian relief efforts, and to which he has allocated £4 million in the past few weeks?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his gracious words in relation to the work of the Department and hope that they inform his other public comments on it in the months ahead. I can assure him that we are in regular contact with UNRWA. We have officials on the ground who are monitoring the situation, and as of yesterday morning, up to 200 humanitarian staff were on the list of people trying to enter Gaza. It is exactly that type of issue that we are discussing with the United Nations, as well as pressing the Israeli authorities on it.

Mr. Mitchell: We welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a total of £27 million of humanitarian support for Gaza and note that he has so far allocated just over half of that. Could he clarify for the House when, where and how he intends to spend the remaining half of that money?

Mr. Alexander: That judgment will be based on the United Nations assessment, which has been carried out in recent days. Historically, there has been a difficulty whereby announcements have been made without allocations of funds following immediately. That is why on the very day that I announced the second tranche of British funds—the £20 million or so—I asked the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to visit the region. He met the Social Affairs Minister, Minister Herzog, who also met the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) in recent days, and we are in the process of distributing the aid through British-based NGOs and the United Nations organisations, including the World Food Programme and UNRWA.

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Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend was clear in his views on the scandalous refusal by the BBC to broadcast the appeal from the DEC. Now that the BBC has perhaps had time to reflect on the public anger that the refusal caused, and on the fact that there is still a clear need for that aid to get to Gaza, would my right hon. Friend urge the BBC to rethink its decision and to broadcast any appeal it wishes to promote on this matter?

Mr. Alexander: I do not think that the BBC is in any doubt as to my position on the merits of broadcasting the DEC appeal. While having been clear from the outset that the decision ultimately has to be reached by broadcasters, the scale of suffering and the unimpeachable integrity of organisations such as the British Red Cross made a powerful case for the British people to be made aware of the mechanisms by which they could make a contribution to the alleviation of suffering. The reports I have received from the DEC indicate that it has received a significant level of support from the British people. I welcome that and continue to encourage people to make a contribution to alleviating such suffering.


2. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What progress has been made on the policy of incentivisation for growing crops other than opium poppy in Afghanistan. [255786]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): Progress is being made on promoting legal crop growing in Afghanistan. The number of poppy-free provinces has increased from three in 2006 to 13 in 2007, and to 18 in 2008. Poppy cultivation fell in 2008 by 19 per cent. across Afghanistan, and the percentage of agricultural land devoted to poppy growing has fallen to just 2 per cent.

Mr. Goodwill: When I was in Helmand province last year, I was surprised to learn that the reason farmers grew poppy rather than other crops such as wheat was Taliban intimidation, rather than profitability—it is more profitable to grow wheat, particularly if free seed and input is provided. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be sufficient supplies of seed and input for farmers so that they can feel sufficiently secure to turn to more conventional crops?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the challenges faced in Helmand province in allowing farmers to make the transition from poppy growing to legal crop growing, such as wheat. That is why our comprehensive approach involves greater security and enforcement of the rule of law. It is a matter of improving infrastructure, developing rural enterprise with micro-credit schemes and, importantly for farmers, allowing the freedom of movement of crops.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Would my hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that there is co-ordination between his Department and the Ministry of Defence to provide the level of security to which he referred? Is he clear, as others may well not be, on the role of the UK in Afghanistan, and on any exit plans it has, in the light of some discussions this week that suggest that we could be there for years while making little progress?

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Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend points out that there is an important role to play in co-ordinating military activity in Helmand with the reconstruction and economic regeneration that is so vital to the people of Afghanistan. That is why we have impressed upon Afghanistan the need to enforce the rule of law, which is done through our contacts with the MOD and military forces, and we have worked with Governor Mangal on the promotion of legal crop growing, such as the $11 million programme to invest in wheat seeds for 32,000 farmers in Helmand province.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Within the past few days, there have been reports of a rift developing between a senior American commander at NATO headquarters, who wants to go back to a more aggressive policy of eradication of poppy by force, and the senior American theatre commander who, rightly, wants to ensure that it is a matter of incentives not crude, counter-productive methods. Will the Minister and his colleagues do everything that they can to convey which side of the argument we are on to our American friends and allies?

Mr. Foster: I am not aware of the specific discussions that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but there is an $11 million programme to incentivise farmers to move from poppy to wheat growing. DFID has supported it with some $8 million, and the United States Agency for International Development, the development body of the US Government, has contributed the remaining $3 million.


3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with his overseas counterparts on developing a co-ordinated approach to the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe. [255787]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Ivan Lewis): As a result of our funding, the World Health Organisation has been able to set up a control centre in Zimbabwe to ensure a co-ordinated response to the cholera outbreak. We are in daily contact with our donor colleagues, relevant UN organisations and international financial institutions to ensure a co-ordinated response to the wider humanitarian crisis and to prepare the way for recovery when the time is right.

Ann Winterton: Bearing in mind that Morgan Tsvangirai has just been sworn in as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in what can only be described as a very imperfect deal, does the Minister believe that urgently needed humanitarian aid can be hastened? More than half the population rely on emergency food aid, and the cholera epidemic has already claimed about 3,500 lives.

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