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30 Mar 2009 : Column 740

John Bercow: I accept that that appears to be the case in the short term. I still maintain that the ICC decision was right. I appreciate that there can be a balance between doing what is just and what is immediately convenient and expedient. Nevertheless, I would rather not be drawn too far down that track because I would like to say something about the background to the issue.

The House should be reminded—and we should remind those attending to our debate—of what spawned the terrible humanitarian crisis. It is the six-year catalogue of horrific human rights abuses: aerial bombing, mass shooting, widespread rape, the disruption of crops, the theft of livestock, the calculated poisoning of water supplies and the chaining together of human beings and burning them alive. Those are all part and parcel of the story of savagery that has shamed and disfigured the Government of Sudan in the eyes of the world.

There was a response from the international community —on my reckoning, there have been no fewer than 12 United Nations Security Council resolutions, which specifically refer to the need, among other things, to deploy troops and logistical support. My mind turns immediately to UN resolution 1769, which was passed on 31 July 2007, the terms of which—calling for a total deployment of 26,000 joint, hybrid UN-African Union troops—were supposed to be completed by the beginning of 2008. We are now 14 months on. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who informed me by written reply last Thursday that the Government estimate that 18,300 people are currently deployed in the region. We are therefore still way short of the figure that should have been reached a long time ago.

However, as other hon. Members have said, the problem is not only the inadequacy of the size of the force, but the lack of anything like the logistical back-up to effect the limited but important mandate that has been conferred on it. We have not yet been able to get a single helicopter. Despite the formation of friends of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, with several countries rhetorically speaking in support of the importance and urgency of the mission, few have contributed much by way of practical assistance. Although in many ways I admire the contribution of the Department for International Development, and the Foreign Office is doing its best, it is not particularly impressive that we as a country have, as I understand it, to date provided only four—I repeat: four—military personnel to the region. There are big problems, and it seems to me that a step change is needed if we are to achieve something.

Moreover, there has been a flagrant infraction of the status of forces agreement between the Government of Sudan and the United Nations, when recently the deputy commander of the UNAMID mission wanted to go to Darfur to conduct an assessment of the security situation and was prevented from doing so—would you believe it, Madam Deputy Speaker?—by Sudanese security officials on security grounds, despite the fact that part of the raison d’ĂȘtre of that deputy force commander is to make such assessments himself.

I simply make the prosaic but valid point that the longer we wait and the less we do, the greater the burden and the bigger the cost will be when the day of reckoning comes and the challenge of reconstruction confronts the international community. I cannot but feel that we must invest the debate with a degree of
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urgency, because sometimes, quite understandably, we can all become numbed by the seeming inevitability of it all, to the extent that things do not shock us quite as much now as they did when first the cocktail of barbarity was unleashed, principally—although not exclusively—by the Government of Sudan, in concert with the Janjaweed militias. A more mendacious bunch of mass murderers it would be difficult to find anywhere, but they continue their work to this day. We should use the good offices of the Foreign Office and DFID, acting multilaterally, to try to achieve a step change in the speed with which the necessary deployment of personnel and munitions is delivered.

I want to finish on a point that I know the Under-Secretary of State for International Development could very properly say was a matter not for him but for the Home Office. He might be tempted to do that—I have almost given him his get-out clause—but I implore him to take the point a bit more seriously than that, because we are supposed to believe in the attempt at joined-up government. I am not trying to make a partisan point, as he knows me well enough to recognise, but a humanitarian point.

I am very concerned about asylum policy in respect of people coming to this country from Darfur. In about the middle of 2008, the Government decided not to return failed Darfurian asylum seekers to Sudan, pending a judgment from the courts and the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal that it would be prudent to resume such returns. My understanding is that the Government are looking to the tribunal next month for a ruling, but I exhort them not to undertake such returns.

In 2007, Sadiq Adam Osman was returned to Sudan. In March 2007, he was savagely beaten up—people do not visit upon themselves disgusting weals; that was done to him. The case was covered in The Guardian on 29 March 2007 and, if I remember correctly, in a Channel 4 programme at about the same time. That was a dangerous return. More recently, there was a case of a man called Adam Osman Mohammed from south Darfur, who came in pursuit of asylum in this country, did not get it and returned in August 2008. Subsequently, when initially—and perhaps unwisely—he ventured to move from Khartoum to Darfur, he was followed by Sudanese agents and shot dead in front of his wife and small child.

I put it to the Minister that we have a legal obligation, as well as, I would argue, a moral duty, to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement. That is to say that we should not return people to countries where they are at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three. It is my submission to the Minister that that is what we would be doing if we returned Darfurian asylum seekers to Sudan. It is frankly not acceptable for the Home Office to say, “Well, they can’t go back to Darfur, but it’s all right if they go to Khartoum.” The place is crawling with state agents. Darfurians bear tribal scars that make their allegiance explicitly obvious to the Sudanese Government. It is a highly risky process to send them back and then simply to hope that they will be all right.

The truth of the matter is that, in this conflict, too many people have suffered too much for too long, with too little being done to help them. It is an inescapable
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fact that the numbers of dead, dying and destitute are rising daily, and we cannot simply look the other way. I feel passionately that the responsibility to protect has to be embraced and that acceptance of the doctrine and its practical implications for conflict resolution must be vigorously pursued by our Government in international forums. Where necessary, we must talk not of peacekeeping but of peace enforcement. It is the enforcement of peace that is now necessary in Darfur.

I have probably rather bored the House over the years by emphasising that we have to decide what we mean by the responsibility to protect. Is it to involve a serious attempt to avert war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, or is it simply to be a rather futile exercise in vacuous moral posturing that has no implications for policy? I want it to be the former, not the latter. The Government cannot do this all on their own, but I appeal to Ministers to catapult the subject of Darfur from the back of their minds to the front, and to seek the improvement in the condition of the long-suffering people of that benighted region that they need and deserve.

8.56 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I guess that we do not need reminding—although it is always worth doing so—that the economic tsunami that is now engulfing our world metes out its worst effects to those who are the least able to defend themselves. That includes many of the nations of Africa, including Sierra Leone. We heard a lot about that country from my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) earlier.

I believe that we need to keep things simple. A combination of trade and aid is needed, but the sub-plot is the question of how we can best deliver this to the greatest effect. Whether we are combating climate change or relieving poverty, it starts with us as individuals. What we do can make a significant difference. I am ever impressed by the work of the fair trade advocates. For example, in my constituency, Christine and Michael Ward knock on our doors and our consciences, reminding us constantly that, for only a few pennies more, we can purchase fairly traded tea, coffee and other products, which gives hope and opportunity to the growers in the third world that would otherwise be denied to them.

I also recognise that helping to build undeveloped economies, while important, does not resolve the concerns of the here and now. Starving children cannot wait for the upturn in the economy. That is why I am delighted by the comment by our Prime Minister that, even in this difficult time, the wealthy nations must play their part. I hope that the G20 will make that resolution. The test will be that they will have failed if they do not recognise the needs of Africa as a priority. As a Labour Member, I am obviously justifiably proud that we have trebled the spend on overseas programmes over the past 12 years, and that we are now the second biggest giver of international aid in the world. However, I would still like us to go for the gold as soon as possible.

It is true that, while Government agencies and non-governmental organisations such as World Vision do an amazing job, concern is frequently expressed about how much of the aid reaches its proper destination, and about how much corruption depletes the value of the
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giving. I am often reminded of the words of the late, lamented Lord Donald Soper, a Christian socialist who was a great hero of mine. He spent much of his time standing on a soap box at Speakers’ Corner. One Sunday, one of the wags in the audience asked him why we should give overseas aid, when half of it never reached the poor. Lord Soper replied that that was a reason for giving twice as much. I think he had a point.

However, there is a better way of making every pound count, and of reducing administrative costs and the risk of corruption. I know that the British Government have been working hard on this, and if it can all be done, it will provide a better answer. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby explaining earlier some of the administrative quandaries—indeed, the nightmare of problems—that Government projects sometimes take on and their failing to produce the intended outcomes.

I modestly suggest that there is a way of pursuing those objectives, at least at the bottom end. In fact, there are probably two ways of providing direct action and support. The first is remittances. Expatriates of many African countries—and, I suspect, of elsewhere—send part of their hard-earned earnings directly back to the families they left behind. There is nothing wrong with that. Going as it does directly to the families in need, it is estimated to account for twice the value of our overseas aid budget. At some time in the future, we could perhaps consider the possibility of providing tax relief on such payments, although I acknowledge the difficulty of ensuring proper tax compliance.

The second and direct way of offering support is from community to community. Over the past eight years, I have been involved with the Hastings-Sierra Leone friendship link. If you would like to know more about it, Madam Deputy Speaker, you can look at, but I will try to tell you a little about it in the remaining minutes.

First, we are not the only town in Britain to be involved in twinning projects. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby was at the vanguard in her efforts to drive and support links between Crosby and Waterloo in Sierra Leone. Her motivational leadership—I was going to say that she chairs the committee, but my hon. Friend does not really chair anything; she motivates, harangues and ensures that things happen—helped to achieve that. That is a practical example of what can happen. I believe that a £1 million library is being built, but school libraries are already in place and 250,000 books have been delivered, all aiding and supporting the education of young people in that town.

I would like to say a little more about our twinning experience in Hastings, how it came about and what it has made possible. I hope that the Government will feel able to encourage more such links, as they really work. Back in 2001, following the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, I had cause to be in the lift—a very slow lift—just by the Dining Room with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who was a Defence Minister at the time. He told me he had just come back from Hastings, Sierra Leone, and the town was in a terrible mess; he asked whether we could do something about it. It so happened that, some months previously, the then British high commissioner, Sir Peter Penfold, had suggested that members of the peacekeeping forces contact UK towns with the same message—namely, that they should try to contact towns of a similar name in Sierra Leone and see what could be done.

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Such a message came to Hastings via a young officer known as Wayne Addy, a young man from nearby Sedlescombe. Nothing happened at that time, but when it was added to by the entreaty of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, it fell on ready ears. I approached Dr. John Geater, chairman of the local Christian charity, LOAF. The LOAF project had recently built a school in Rwanda and an orphanage in Romania, so it had experience in developing countries. LOAF adopted Hastings, Sierra Leone, as its 2001 project and enlisted the support of local engineer Derek Tomblin, who in the years since has been superb in offering his expertise and enthusiasm to the cause. Derek travelled to Sierra Leone and identified some 13 bridges that needed total rebuilding, restoring or upgrading. LOAF appealed to the Hastings and St. Leonards community—schools, Churches, businesses and so forth—to sponsor a bridge; and a generous community responded.

A group calling itself the Hastings-Sierra Leone friendship link was then organised to ensure continuity when LOAF moved on to another project. Within three years those bridges were built, assisting the locals of Hastings, Sierra Leone to move more freely around the district, to travel into Freetown and to rebuild the devastation that the civil war had caused. While the idea was that of Derek Tomblin and the plans came from him, the building was done by local labour: that was what was so important. Derek Tomblin and all those involved, however, were not content with simply a one-off project; they wanted a long-term relationship—a reciprocal relationship whereby Hastings UK could learn as well as give.

We discovered an ex-pat Sierra Leone group in London, known as the Sierra Leone-Hastings association UK. The leading lights of that organisation, Yvonne Johnson and Yvette John, were more than ready to come to Hastings UK and over the years that followed, we have regularly enjoyed community events with African music and food in our parks and in our community centres. It has been fun, but it has also enabled us not just to pay for those 13 bridges but to proceed with a major project to build a community resource centre. The centre, designed by Derek Tomblin with local input, is now virtually complete, and should be operational by the end of the year.

Most important, in 2006, Hastings borough council, under the then Labour leadership of Councillor Jeremy Birch—who is now the chair of the Sierra Leone friendship link—decided to pursue the idea of a formal twinning with its namesake in Sierra Leone. We have a number of other twins in Europe. This will be very different, but the commitment was absolute. Although political control of the town changed subsequently, the whole-town understanding was maintained. The new leader of what was now a Conservative council, Councillor Peter Pragnell—along with the deputy mayor, Eve Martin, and with the support of the mayor, Maureen Charlesworth—took part in the formal twinning ceremony on 14 February 2007 in Sierra Leone, which I was happy to attend.

This has become a genuine all-party project including people across the political spectrum. For example, the Liberal Democrats’ Paul Smith was also involved. The formal twinning gives status and structure to the arrangement, but it is the day-to-day work under the wise guidance of Robin Gray, secretary of the friendship
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link, that has enabled us to make a difference. Indeed, the social interaction between the two towns has been almost as important as the direct financial aid. For example, Roger Mitchell and his wife Margaret have been very much involved in linking schools. Seven of our Hastings schools are now linked with seven schools in Hastings, Sierra Leone. Recently, Chris Lacey of Helenswood school handed over a cheque for £6,098. That money was raised by the young people as a contribution to the cost of providing a community nurse in Hastings Sierra Leone. Of course, every penny will be spent for that purpose.

Another fine example is the twinning of Christ Church school—I stress that it is a Church of England school—with Kankaylay Islamic school in Hastings, Sierra Leone. Although Christ Church is a Christian school, when it learned that about £11,000 was needed to buy land and rebuild Kankaylay—a lot can be done for £11,000 in Sierra Leone—that Christian organisation set about raising the money. It has already raised about half of it, the land has been bought, and over the coming months Christ Church school will seek to raise the building costs.

Arrangements of that kind will work because of the involvement of local people. It is not organisational and it does not require Government intervention, although Government support would be very helpful. What matters is the existence of an organisation that is “grass roots” in the obvious way that I have described. Anne Hanney, head teacher of that school in St Leonards, was part of the original twinning party. She recently arranged for a further group from Christ Church school to visit Sierra Leone with the support of the creative partnership project. Three members of her staff—Anne Hsapolyo, Rose Pelling and Tania Kavanagh—were involved in a week of activities at the Islamic school, teaching and learning not just lessons but games, and bringing back ideas, which are now being used successfully at Christ Church. That is a fine illustration of the fact that the link can work in both directions.

The school links have been fun as well. I recall that at the time of the twinning Veriko Scrivener, a teacher from Elphinstone School in Hastings, composed a song called “I Love Hastings” . It was amazing to see all the little African children from Hastings, Sierra Leone singing in unison, joined by Hastings school children.

I could have described much more if I had had time to do so. Conquest Hospital in Hastings has been sending surplus medical supplies. Gary Walsh of the East Sussex fire and rescue service not only went to Hastings, but has since been offering training opportunities and advice to its Sierra Leone counterpart. The police have formed a link, as have Churches.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Will my hon. Friend say a few words about the benefit of the twinning to citizenship, and about the growing understanding of faiths between the two communities?

Michael Jabez Foster: It is right that in Hastings, Sierra Leone, and Sierra Leone generally, there is a two-faith society, Christian and Muslim. What impressed me was that, in all their public affairs, both the Muslims and the Christians are part of the show. I asked why it
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was that they got on so well, and a Roman Catholic priest made it clear that it was down to respect. That might be something we can learn from.

This face-to-face, town-to-town, school-to-school contact is so different from putting money in a box, and as I said at the beginning, every pound raised goes to the purpose, and it goes with love. It so happens that Hastings UK is one of the poorest towns in Britain—indeed, it is among the 30 poorest—and thus we appreciate that the cash we can offer will always be limited. But as Mr. Kamara, the head teacher of the Kankaylay Islamic school, said on the recent visit,

We certainly hope that our small contribution will make a difference to our fellow world citizens in Hastings, Sierra Leone, and I commend the twinning concept to all.

If anyone feels enthused to join in the celebration, we in Hastings UK can offer barn dances, and on 4 July there will be a town-wide sing-song in Alexandra park, to which all are welcome.

9.11 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): When attending debates such as this one, I sometimes feel that this House would be rather better received than it is at present if only those who spend their time criticising and writing about Members of Parliament could hear the range of experience that colleagues bring to their contributions, speaking with passion and considerable knowledge of people in countries far away, who can offer them not a single vote, but whose care and consideration those colleagues have at the very top of their agenda.

This has been a fascinating debate, which I have much enjoyed. Colleagues have spoken from their experience, and I am no different from others in having had the tremendous experience of having been to Africa on a number of occasions. Two of my travel companions are in the Chamber at present: the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I made many trips to South Africa together in the 1980s and ’90s, and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and I were in Mozambique not too long ago. The relevance of both those trips will become clear shortly.

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