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This is a landmark [ Interruption. ] I wish that the people in the cheap seats on the Labour Benches could contain themselves just for a little while here in the palace of varieties. This is a landmark debate as well as an overdue one. The House has debated Africa as a whole only once since 1992, in 2005, when the then Secretary of State for International Development led a debate on poverty in Africa. We on the Conservative Benches therefore welcome the fact that the Government initiated todays debate and hope that it signals their intention to pursue a comprehensive Foreign Office-led approach to the continent, which is simultaneously the
source of much conflict and suffering, as well as opportunity and hope in equal measure. We also urge the Government to hold such debates more regularly in future. The interest shown by hon. Members in all parts of the House demonstrates that doing so would be welcome.
Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman appears to be chiding the Government for a lack of consistency in having debates about Africa. Did the Opposition call for a debate on Africa in their own time at any point in the period that he mentioned?
Mr. Simpson: We are indeed the Opposition, and we have had debates in Westminster Hall. I am talking about the fact that the Foreign Secretary has taken great pride in the importance of having a debate on Africa and about the emphasis placed on it by the current Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister. I am merely pointing out the facts. I am looking forward to the contribution that the hon. Gentleman will presumably be making in this debatehe will be making a contribution, I trust.
We also welcome the opportunity to discuss Africa in the run-up to the G20 summit later this week. The whole House will agree that the developing world must be engaged in efforts to reform the financial order and that African countries have a stake in the outcome of the summit. As the Foreign Secretary has emphasised, that is particularly true as the worlds poorest countries are the most vulnerable to what is being called the third wave of the global crisis and as they have the fewest resources available to deal with the consequences of the downturn.
The World Bank and other organisations are warning of reduced tourism earnings in Africa, dwindling remittances from overseas workers, a tapering of foreign investment, falling export earnings and squeezed Government revenues owing to lower commodity prices. Action Aid has calculated that, by the end of this year, Africa will have suffered a real drop in income of some $50 billion since the beginning of the crisis.
Lower economic growth rates in Africa will have a significant impact on efforts to lift people out of poverty, condemning millions to remain living on less than a dollar a day and setting back efforts to reduce infant mortality and to meet the millennium development goals, particularly if donor countries struggle to meet their commitments to international aid programmes. The recent revelation by the Foreign Secretary that the UK has to scale back its peacekeeping commitments due to rising costsa subject to which I will returnis a worrying development, and we expect the Government to keep the House fully informed on that matter. Across parts of Africa, the financial crisis will therefore become a human crisis, particularly in those countries that are still locked in conflict or teetering on the brink of conflictin other words, the countries least able to weather the financial storm.
The impact of the economic downturn is already being felt in many African countries. In Tanzania last week, members of the International Development Committee had the opportunity to meet
the Minister for Finance, Mustafa Mkulo. He took the view that African countries such as Tanzania needed more fiscal space to generate demand for local products such as coffee, but he also spoke in favour of a fiscal loosening in developed countries such as ours, because he felt that that would encourage greater exports to our countries. Would the hon. Gentleman also support such a policy?
Mr. Simpson: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. Different views are expressed by different countries in Africa; I have had some interesting conversations with visiting Ministers on the matter. We need to look at whatever measures will help those countries; there might not be one coat that fits all. Indeed, I have been struck by the danger of generalising about the African economy, just as one would not wish to generalise about the European economy.
There have been no fewer than 90 coups in Africa in the past 50 years, and 125 failed attempts. In the past year, coups have toppled the Governments in Mauritania, Guinea Conakry and Madagascar, and the President of Guinea Bissau was assassinated by renegade soldiers. As the Foreign Secretary pointed out, the situation in Zimbabwe has continued to deteriorate and, although a unity Government are now in place, there are serious doubts about their future. Somalia has had no stable Government for nearly two decades. The fragile peace agreement between north and south Sudan is in danger of unravelling, and the recent expulsion of aid groups from Darfur by President Bashir has exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian tragedy. A few months ago, we witnessed appalling human rights abuses on a major scale in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Any one of those conflicts merits an entire debate in its own right, and I will return to them later. I am sure that many colleagues will wish to talk about them as well.
First, however, it would be wrong not to pay tribute to some of Africas success stories, although I recognise that, in some cases, we should add a negative caveat. Ghana saw a remarkably peaceful transition of power after presidential elections in January this year, despite the fact that less than a percentage point in the popular vote separated the two candidates. Botswana has undergone a remarkable transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1960s to a middle-income country with one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Sierra Leone has emerged from a decades-long, bloody civil war, and it held its first free, fair and largely peaceful elections in 2007. Last year, Rwanda became the first country to have more female than male Members of Parliament. In Liberia, the arrest of Charles Taylor for war crimes sent a powerful signal, and the first female African Head of State was elected in 2005.
Over the last decade, Africa has registered its highest and most consistent economic growth.
Average growth rates of 5.3 per cent., now sustained into a second decade for the 15 best performing African countries.
Dr. Murrison: Will my hon. Friend add to his list Morocco, which has strong and increasing trade links with this country and defence links with Europe and ourselves? In particular, will he congratulate Trowbridge in my constituency and Oujda on being twinned 10 days ago? We look forward to improved cultural exchanges as a result. Morocco is, I think, something of a beacon of hope, so will my hon. Friend add it to his list?
Jeremy Corbyn: Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried away with paeans of praise about Morocco, would he care to cast a thought for a moment on the poor benighted people of the western Sahara who have spent the last 30 years in refugee camps in Algeria? Does he not think it time for a referendum to be held among them so that they can decide their own future?
Mr. Simpson: As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am very conscious that caveats may be expressed about all the countries I have mentioned. At this stage I am trying to emphasise the positive aspects, although I recognise that there are negative aspects to many of those countries. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for attempting to help me on that particular point.
Let me deal with UK policy towards Africa. We recognise that taking a joined-up approach towards conflict prevention and management in Africaacross the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defenceis the right one. However, there is concern that UK policy towards Africa has in some respects lost its way and that the Foreign Office has perhaps not taken a lead in defining policy.
The London director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Porteous, argues in his book, Britain in Africa that a shift occurred under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), as British policy towards Africa began to be led by aid policy and not diplomacy. He argues that
just at the moment when donors began to recognise the importance and centrality of governance to successful economic development, the UK government was transferring decision-making from a department that had the political and diplomatic skills and tools to improve governance to one that
DfIDs ascendancy on African issues came at the cost of a significant decline in the FCOs diplomatic and analytical capacity in Africa.
This must a concern when an understanding of the extremely varied history, culture and politics of African countries is surely the prerequisite for sound policy making. Porteous continues by saying that in the very year2005
that Tony Blair declared to be the year of Africa... the FCOs directorate responsible for Africa was forced to slash its budgetclosing embassies in Swaziland, Madagascar and Lesotho.
Mr. Tom Clarke: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that I am slightly worried by his remarks. He said earlier that these matters should be Foreign Office-led, and we then had one brief reference to the Department for International Development. Can he assure me that, in the event of his party being elected, DFID will still remain an independent Department, responsible for international development, with a spokesperson in the Cabinet rather than being consumed by the Foreign Office?
Mr. Simpson: I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to make that point quite clear. He will, of course, have read with great interest the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, on 29 June 2006. In that speech to Oxfam, he made it quite clear that
an incoming Conservative government will keep DfID as an independent department.
Mr. Lewis: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm not only that there will be an individual Department, but that it will have a separate and distinct Secretary of State speaking on development issues in the Cabinet? Will he give an unequivocal commitment? Yes or no?
Mr. Simpson: I used to have cadets like this at Sandhurst. They were in the bottom 10 per cent. of the intake. Watch my lips! What does the Minister not understand about There will be a separate Department for International Development which will have as its senior Minister a Minister in the forthcoming Conservative Cabinet? Does he wish to intervene again?
Tony Baldry: Are not the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and the Minister pursuing the wrong point? In the view of many of us who are supporters of the Foreign Office, the point is that the Foreign Offices budget has been squeezed. This is not an attack on the Foreign Office. Ministers, including the Secretary of State, need to understand that many Conservative Members recognise that its resources are being continuously stretched. The Foreign Office consists, literally, of resources, people and buildings, and people are very important. Where the Foreign Offices budget has been squeezed in recent years is in its resources for Africa, and that is cause for concern.
Mr. Simpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because that is a point that I want to develop. A great deal of sympathy is felt with members of both the International Development Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee
Mike Gapes: I am pleased that the Opposition agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee, which expressed concern when the high commissions in Lesotho and Swaziland were closed. We said that there were problems because whereas the DFID budget has increased significantlyin fact, trebledthe Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had to deal with a budget that is at a standstill or is declining in real terms, and that has consequences.
May I, however, return the hon. Gentleman to the quotation that he read out earlier? I believe that he was quoting from a speech made by the Leader of the Opposition in September 2006. Is it not the case that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was not Leader of the Opposition at that time? [Hon. Members: He was.] He was?
Mr. Simpson: I am always prepared to hold a seminar on the history of foreign affairs for the benefit of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Indeed, I am about to produce my Easter reading list, and I will happily copy it to the distinguished Chairman of the Committee.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that, as part and parcel of some of the reduction in Foreign Office input, there is apparentlyso it is claimeda compensation. As the European Scrutiny Committee has observed recently, European Union representatives are being appointed who are effectively subsuming many decisions, and unfortunately, on a confidentiality basis, are taking instructions directly from Javier Solana. Does my hon. Friend see that as a move in the right direction?
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will join me in paying tribute to the hard work done by officials of both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID in some of the most appallingly difficult circumstances that arise in missions to Africa. Many not only experience difficult working conditions but, at times, face direct threats from local people who wish to endanger their lives.
There are now 22 African countries where Britain does not have resident diplomatic representation. We recognise that in some instances, such as Somalia, the absence of an embassy is a question of security, but, as was pointed out by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), other decisions appear to have been driven by
cost. The closure of the embassy in Mali has seen Britain lose its diplomatic foothold in a strategic country that borders Algeria, Niger and Côte DIvoire for a saving of about a quarter of a million pounds annually.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee raised a very important point about the Africa conflict prevention pool. As Members will know, in 2006-07 it was allocated more than £64 million, but the Foreign Secretary revealed just last week in a written ministerial statement that that budget will be cut to £43 million. The Foreign Secretary has said that, on one level, the rise in our compulsory subs will more than match the fall in our discretionary subs, but many Members will nevertheless be concerned about that cut. Among other things, it involves shifting resources away from western Africa. According to the UKs sub-Saharan strategy for conflict prevention, western Africa includes Nigeria as one of the strategys four key target countries. When the Minister winds up, will he confirm whether funding for programmes in Nigeria will be cut? Will he also confirm whether the Government believe they have met their specific targets for Nigeria, or have they been abandoned? In his written ministerial statement, the Foreign Secretary gave very little information about the impact this dramatic budget reduction for conflict prevention in Africa will have in the affected countries, or any details of which programmes will be cut. Will the Minister provide more information on this vital subject? Will he also say when the Government plan to publish details of the revised strategy for Africa, as well as of UK conflict prevention funding for other regions?
As the Foreign Secretary has said, those cuts have been made because of the combination of a fall in the value of sterling and a rise in the number and extent of EU and UN missions, but, nevertheless, that combination has drastically reduced the purchasing power of the Foreign Offices budget. That decline follows the Treasurys decision to withdraw from the overseas price mechanism, which protected the Foreign Office budget from currency fluctuations. That gives rise to the question why this impact was not foreseen and why that self-inflicted wound was allowed to be sustained. Ultimately, the impact of that means that the Foreign Offices ability to carry out its vital work in Africa will be constrained.
The Foreign Secretary also knows that we believe that the Government have not paid sufficient attention to the opportunities presented by the Commonwealth, which has 18 member states in Africa. Sadly, the only place where the Commonwealth was mentioned in the FCOs most recent strategic plan was in the title of the document. It is striking that a country such as Rwanda, which has no historical ties to Britain, is currently seeking membership of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth offers Britain the chance to widen its circle of influence, as it can be used to strengthen relations in Africa, and such partnerships are crucial to promoting good governance based on the values we espouse.
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