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31 Mar 2009 : Column 891

A number of Members mentioned the G20, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt). I can tell the House that there has been very strong support in the other 19 countries for UK leadership at the G20 and very strong personal support for the Prime Minister’s leadership. Our goal is for leaders to agree immediate action to stimulate the world economy, substantial additional resources for the IMF, support for trade finance, action to protect the poorest around the world, measures to encourage credit to flow to people and businesses, firmer financial sector regulation to rebuild confidence now and prevent crises in future, and commitment to a green recovery.

John Reid: At the risk of being tedious, I hope that my right hon. Friend will add to the objectives the strengthening of transparency. How can we regulate that which we cannot discern? How can we supervise—literally, oversee—that which we cannot see? Unless we strengthen sections 14 and 15 of the communiqué, all the regulatory forums and structures in the world will not be able to operate because they will not have the necessary information from a neutral source. Will he give me a guarantee that the G20 will push on that front?

Mr. Timms: I can certainly assure my right hon. Friend that the need for transparency has been well understood in the working groups that we have set up in preparing for the G20 summit. Indeed, that is one reason why dealing with tax havens is so important. One problem has been that things have been hidden away in tax havens and there has not been any transparency. People have not known the true value of some of the things that have been going on, and that has contributed to the problems that we now see. I agree about the importance of transparency in financial services, which needs to be reflected in the regulatory system.

I agree with those who warn against seeing the summit as a panacea that will fix all the world’s problems at a stroke, but it can start an era of closer co-operation between nations so that our political structures better reflect our increasingly globalised world. It is a huge opportunity for the first steps towards a global new deal to secure recovery and long-term stability and growth.

Last February, we moved to nationalise Northern Rock. In October we prevented the collapse of the banking system with further investments in UK banks, protecting people’s savings and stabilising the system so that banks could function. Following our lead, other countries around the world took similar action, recognising that financial system collapse would be devastating. Now the Government are working with the banks to clean up their balance sheets. That is the importance of the asset protection scheme, and I am grateful to those who acknowledged that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) reminded the House, we have reached legally binding agreements with the banks that have received public support, to secure additional lending to British households and businesses over the next two years. I look forward to answering the questions that she asked me about reporting. Every major country in
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the world recognises that it is right to use the power of government to support countries’ economies through difficult times.

I do not agree with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the VAT cut, which is doing the job it was introduced to do. I point him to the comments of, for example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which described it as an increasingly effective stimulus. I also refer him to the comments of the Bank of England in its inflation report in February and to the report from Goldman Sachs, which makes the same point.

We have made investment—£3 billion—in the national infrastructure. That spending is beneficial not only to the economy, supporting businesses and jobs at a critical time—

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

Business of the House

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Schools (Essex)

10 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On Monday 19 May 2008, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, in response to a question from me about the future of the Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools in my constituency, told the House:

It transpired that Essex county council had wilfully misled the Secretary of State and the schools Minister, whom I met the next day. It had assured both Ministers that the intention was that the Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools would continue. Today, Essex county council broke its pledge, which the Secretary of State recorded and the schools Minister confirmed, by agreeing to shut the two schools.

The petition, in the name of Councillor Lyn Barton, is also signed by 492 other residents, predominantly from the Berechurch ward, but also from other parts of Colchester, including Old Heath.

The petition states:

that is fully in accordance with the wishes of Colchester borough council—


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UK Aid (DRC)

M otion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—( Helen Jones.)

10.3 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): When it comes to mobilising enormous resources and making huge interventions that have the power to change the world, nothing compares with the power of government. This week’s G20, led by our Prime Minister, will seek to do exactly that, following on from the Gleneagles summit and other major initiatives.

Of course, Governments lead by consent and, in general, they must reflect the priorities of the people. Although the people of the UK can be astonishingly generous, it is also a harsh reality that international aid and development rarely sit atop people’s list of priorities, especially in these difficult times. Moreover, there is great competition for people’s attention with regard to international development, and there is sometimes a risk that if Governments attempt to highlight too many problem spots in the world, people can suffer a sort of fatigue on the subject.

That is why the ability of some people and organisations, such as the Make Poverty History campaign, to influence and mobilise public opinion is crucial to giving Governments more power to their elbow to help the least well-off in the world. It is also possible for highly motivated people, sometimes with bags of media savvy, to make a targeted intervention aimed at changing the lives of many for the better.

In the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I would like to mention an initiative that has the power to alter the lives of millions of women in one of the hardest places—perhaps it is the hardest place—in the world to live as a woman: the eastern DRC. In my view—I am not the most qualified to say this, but I have been out a few times—the best prism through which to view life in the eastern Congo is that of the experience of women who potentially face unspeakable sexual violence every day.

When somebody goes out to the Congo, as I and members of the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention have, they are struck by the many great efforts of the non-governmental organisations in the region and by how enormously challenging a task they face. The Congo has a population roughly the same size as the UK’s, and it is roughly the size of western Europe. It is covered in tropical rainforest and it is a difficult country from a communications perspective.

The Government in Kinshasa were democratically elected through a great triumph of organisation, both by the Congolese and the international community, which made a great effort and contributed lots of cash. However, when visiting, one is struck by the fact that the Congo has a sophisticated body politic in Kinshasa, but an area of utter lawlessness in the eastern Congo. Many hon. Members from all parts of the House are familiar with the things that have taken place there, even in recent years—not just in the past 10 years, but in the past year or so, most recently with the CNDP getting the Congo on television by having, in effect, a kind of civil war. That is now being sorted in diplomatic terms, although Bosco Ntaganda, the man who now runs the CNDP, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court as an alleged war criminal. That will have to be dealt with in due course.

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That is the politics of the matter. The reality on the ground is absolutely stunning, albeit in a very bad way. The first time I went to the Congo some years ago with a former Member of the House and good friend, Oona King, we were taken to a health centre where we were told that we would visit a ward. I was expecting a new build, Tesco-type thing, funded by a number of NGOs. What we came across was a kind of hut. The clinic comprised one room with a fridge, which had nothing in it because there was no power, and another room, which was an operating theatre and had some basic utensils—shiny instruments, sharp implements and things for holding hot water—that had been donated by NGOs.

There was a ward, and in the ward was a woman, apparently waiting to give birth to a child. The child, we were told, would be a breech birth—it was in the wrong place. A number of other hon. Members were with me at the time, but there it is: a mother was sitting there. It was one of those branding experiences that has not left me. We asked how long the birth would be and the nurse—a man who had had some rudimentary training—said, “It be may be tomorrow morning. She might last until the next morning.” We said, “What do you mean ‘She might last’?” and he said, “Well, she’s going to die. There’s nothing I can do about a breech birth. I’ve got the skills taught in some basic courses, but I don’t know what to do about a breech birth. The nearest doctor is 2 miles away.” Two miles in the Congo, through tropical rainforests and with all the logistics problems, which as my hon. Friend will know—possibly he is my right hon. Friend—

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas) indicated dissent.

Mr. Joyce: Well, in due course. My hon. Friend will know that 2 miles in the Congo can be a long, long way.

In a way, we did that classic thing that politicians do. Arriving on the scene in lovely long-wheelbase Land Rovers, we had the potential to change the situation, but we had to make a judgment. In due course we made the judgment that other people in our circumstances would have made, which was that we should move the woman, but that would have disturbed many aspects of how local people were being treated with those limited resources. The point was that that woman expecting a breech birth could have been quite readily dealt with here in the UK, but she was simply going to die, because there was nothing that could be done for her there. As it was, she did not die, but many other women in her situation would have done.

What I want to talk about this evening, if I can, in the minutes left—a fairly generous number are left, actually, so I will wax slightly rhapsodic—is violence. I go about my constituency occasionally with the cops on a Friday or Saturday night. We see a bit of violence in the streets and recognise where it comes from, what is happening and who the bad guys are—who has been caught up in things because they have drunk too much and so on. All the incidents involve men, and the violence is mainly between them. I am also aware, as are all Members of this House, that behind the scenes in people’s homes, violence is being inflicted against women. There is a fabulous women’s aid organisation in Scotland, as indeed
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there is fabulous women’s aid provision across the UK. Such violence is a more hidden thing. In a privileged position and with a certain lifestyle, as it were, I do not see anything of it, but many people do. It is a hidden thing, but it exists.

It occurs to me—psychoanalytically, I might be miles off on this—that when I go and talk to young men in the Congo who have been involved in astonishing acts of violence against women there, they show traits similar to those of the young men involved in the much lower-level stuff going on in my own constituency. In such an area, however, there is a kind of civilising influence and a series of constraints in the law—there is a legal system and the cops are going about. All sorts of things are civilising influences, such as families, including extended families and so forth. Such an influence is brought to bear on many people—it does not apply to everyone—who get involved in violence, particularly violence against women early in their lives. They can change their ways, but some people do not and such behaviour continues throughout their lives.

When we look at the Congo, what we kind of see, in a bad way, is a Platonic ideal of violence against women. It is completely unmitigated by any mediating institution or mediating experience, and it can be the most brutal thing imaginable on the planet. When we look at the Congo in context, as DFID has to do, it is with the realisation that all sorts of countries in the world need our help and could do with our assistance—the collective assistance of the international community. The best way to look at the situation, however, is through this very easily understandable link between the kind of violence exerted against women in our constituencies at a certain level, and the astonishing dehumanising violence exerted against women in the Congo.

I have just read the complete works—they are not a big bunch; there are about 10 books—of Cormac McCarthy, a great writer. It is boysy stuff; there is a bit of violence and a bit of lovely stuff. He is a fantastic writer, as I have said. There is a scene in “Blood Meridian”, which is an especially boysy book—a bit cowboy-ish, if I can put it that way. This scene occurred to me as I was preparing for tonight’s debate. A young boy called “the kid” is being recruited into a kind of militia. It does not have any legal status or legal authority. It is a militia formed of a brutal bunch of guys who go about in 1849 taking what they want and what they can. They have got enough power and enough resource; in a way, they are beggars in the land, but they are quite heavily armed.

At one point, the kid is asked by the recruiting sergeant of the militia if he would like to join it. The kid says, “What do they give you?”, and the recruiting sergeant says, “Every man gets a horse and his ammunition. I reckon we might find ye some clothes in a case.” The kid says, “I ain’t got no rifle” and the recruiting sergeant says, “We’ll find ye one”. The kid says, “What about wages?” and the recruiting sergeant says, “Hellfire, son. You won’t need no wages. You get to keep everything you can raise.” Essentially, he is saying, “If you’ve got a horse, some kit and a weapon, you’ll be fine; you can take whatever you want from anyone.”

That is an almost exact parallel with the situation for young men in parts of the eastern Congo today. Viewed as a human experience for young men—this is certainly not to sanitise the kinds of things that some of them get
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up to—that is a useful way, to say the least, to understand the way things are for them and for the victims, with the lack of any kind of justice or legal system in the eastern Congo. Before moving on to issues such as health or education, we should start by trying to establish a coherent justice system. Lord Mance, who is a member of the all-party group and an Appeal Court judge, has compiled a fantastic report of which the Government have taken note. I hope it will play a part in helping to create an effective justice system in the Congo in the coming years.

It also behoves us to look carefully at what articulate and able individuals in the UK can do to give the Government more power in saying, “Look, we want to spend extra cash on these difficult places.” As I said at the beginning of my wee speech, the reality nowadays is that if we say we want to spend an extra £100 million on the Congo, people will often say, “Hang on, but all these people in our country have just lost their jobs and charity begins at home.” People are decent, but they very often look after their own first, and we can all understand that.

There is an initiative at present that extends from an initiative my hon. Friend the Minister will have heard about. It is called V-Day and it essentially comes out of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues”, which is played all over the world to great effect, including in the Congo. V-Day is focusing on the Congo for the next five years, which is a significant period for such an important campaign that operates all over the world. V-Day is headed in the US by Jane Fonda, and in the UK Lynn Franks and Gail Rebuck are leading lights, and Tamsin Larby organises many of its activities. They currently have a campaign that is designed to enhance the facilities of Panzi hospital in Bukavu. The hopsital is led by Dr. Denis Mukwege, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows. Many of us have met Dr. Mukwege, an inspiring character who travelled around the US recently raising cash for the “City of joy” project. The campaign is essentially aimed at both the treatment of the women who find their way to the hospital and other places like it, and also their rehabilitation. It is entirely focused on the gender issue because that offers the best political perspective, and it is where the greatest need is.

Once a justice system and the rule of law is established, or progress is made towards that, the next thing to deal with is health. In terms of women who are the victims of violence in the Congo, all these strands come together, because until we start to deal with the way in which men instinctually behave towards women—because they can and they are not subject to the educational learning influences that we in the west are—we will essentially get nowhere.

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