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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 May 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. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s spending through the UN Development Programme in Afghanistan. [274658]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Given that the question relates to Afghanistan, may I begin by expressing—on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House—my condolences to the family of the brave officer of the Welsh Guards who passed away today as a result of injuries sustained in Helmand? He is the fifth UK serviceman to have given their life in Afghanistan this month, and they are all in our thoughts and prayers.

The UNDP is an important partner for the Department for International Development in Afghanistan, providing expertise in areas such as voter registration and support for the democratic elections. The Department’s funding has helped to ensure the success of the voter registration process. It also helped to launch the Afghanistan national development strategy, which unites the Governments of Afghanistan and the UK, and other partner Governments, behind a common vision to help to build a new Afghanistan.

Mr. Harper: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, and I am sure that all Opposition Members join him in passing on our condolences to the family of that brave soldier. My local regiment, 1st Battalion the Rifles, lost seven men in Afghanistan on their recent tour of duty. When I visited the battalion, I saw for myself their dedication and commitment to rebuilding that country. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that our international development efforts and those of our NATO partners match the dedication and commitment shown to Afghanistan by members of our armed forces?

Mr. Alexander: I am unyielding in my admiration for our armed forces, having had, like the hon. Gentleman, the great privilege of seeing for myself the extraordinary sacrifices that they make, and the professionalism and dedication that they bring to their task. Frankly, the international community could have done a better job over recent years, and we are working tirelessly with partners in the international coalition to ensure that we strengthen the degree of co-ordination that is necessary if the aid operation is to be as effective as it should be.
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For example, we spend a significant proportion of our money with the Government of Afghanistan, recognising the challenges that that poses, but also the potential benefits. We also spend a significant proportion of our funding in country. Regrettably, that is not the case for all our principal partners.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I welcome the Department’s publication of the new country plan for Afghanistan, and the Government’s ongoing commitment to providing aid to the Afghan people, but will my right hon. Friend say what his Department is doing to ensure greater co-ordination of the international aid effort in Afghanistan?

Mr. Alexander: I have met Kai Eide of the United Nations, and have discussed the matter with our American counterparts. We account for a significant contribution to the international effort, and we use whatever forums are available to us to argue that where best practice is established by any country, it should be replicated by other countries. We are, of course, working closely with the Government of Afghanistan, who also have a heavy responsibility. I assure my hon. Friend that the matter is also a subject of conversation between our Prime Minister and the President of the United States.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Secretary of State rightly paid tribute to the efforts of the British forces in Afghanistan, but stability is crucial to successful development there. What discussions has he had with the American authorities on how their new military stance will be used to reduce civilian casualties, and so ensure a more stable environment in which to deliver development?

Mr. Alexander: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, has announced a change of command in recent days. I was not privy to the discussions in the Pentagon and the Department of Defence, but I am confident that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister discuss those issues at every appropriate opportunity. They discuss both the significance of the regional response—there is recognition now of the significance of Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, to security in Afghanistan—and the need to take forward a genuinely comprehensive approach that involves political reconciliation with those who are willing to be part of the democratic process, genuine development work, and the necessary element of force in security.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the energy and hard work that he puts into ensuring that development cash gets to where it is needed, but how confident is he on the issue of corruption among officials in Afghanistan, and about the commitment by President Karzai’s Government to do something about it, to ensure that money gets to where it is needed most?

Mr. Alexander: Let me return the compliment by paying tribute to the work of my hon. Friend during his service in the Ministry of Defence. I know that he had a tireless commitment to the interests and welfare of our troops, and I pay tribute to that. Only in recent weeks, I had the opportunity to meet the new Minister of Finance in Afghanistan, and the subject—including the terms of the assurances that he could offer and the work that he
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was determined to take forward—was at the top of the agenda. I was heartened by the response that he offered me, but clearly we will need to keep working on the issue, although principal responsibility rests with the Government of Afghanistan.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in sending our condolences to the friends and family of the Welsh Guards officer who died in Selly Oak this morning.

The Secretary of State will know that the National Audit Office has criticised his Department for handing over £20 million of taxpayers’ money to the Afghan Counter-narcotics trust fund, which the UNDP was too inexperienced to manage effectively. Was DFID aware of the serious concerns about the competence of the UNDP when it handed over that money?

Mr. Alexander: It is for exactly those reasons that we withdrew support to the underperforming counter-narcotics trust fund as soon as we became aware of the scale of the challenge that was faced in the delivery of a very difficult programme in a very difficult environment. It is right to recognise that that is a challenging environment and to be subject to the scrutiny of the National Audit Office, and where evidence was brought to our attention, action was taken.

Mr. Mitchell: So can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that the extra £14 million that he had just signed off for the UNDP in Afghanistan is subject to proper, independent, effective impact evaluation so that British taxpayers know they are getting value for money, and British troops know their bravery is reinforced by an effective and successful aid effort?

Mr. Alexander: On the evaluation of the UNDP, an internal evaluation unit has recently been established which reviewed the work of the UNDP. It concluded that many of the UNDP’s programmes are effective and delivering, particularly in the areas of public administration and support for democratic institutions, but the hon. Gentleman is correct in recognising that there needs to be substantive progress from the UNDP in certain areas. The next opportunity for us to raise those concerns, which we will raise, will be at the UNDP board later this month. That is an undertaking that I give to the House.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I, too, send the condolences of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the family of the solider who died this morning, and remember those who have given their lives in Afghanistan. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the bravery, professionalism and dedication of all our armed forces in Afghanistan, and also to the members of his Department who work in incredibly difficult circumstances on our collective behalf.

Two weeks ago the Prime Minister set out a welcome new joint security strategy that linked Afghanistan and Pakistan. Separately, the Afghanistan stabilisation fund has been pooled with the conflict prevention fund for south Asia, which has a broader remit, including crisis areas such as Sri Lanka. Can the Secretary of State share with the House how the new Afghanistan-Pakistan joint focus will be helped by these new broader arrangements?

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Mr. Alexander: Let me thank the hon. Gentleman both for his remarks about the officials of the Department, who do outstanding work, and for the tribute that he paid on behalf of the whole House to the service and heroism of our service personnel. On the joint approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is right to say that there is a fundamental recognition that Pakistan needs to be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation in relation to Afghanistan. That is why we have worked so closely with the American Administration in recent weeks to ensure that there is a genuinely common approach to the issue, why I will take the opportunity this week to meet President Zardari of Pakistan, and why it is not coincidental that we published our Afghan country plan simultaneously with the Prime Minister making a statement to the House on the regional response. Whether it be through our programme in Pakistan, our programme in Afghanistan or the close joint working that is now established with both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is a genuinely co-ordinated approach.


2. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What steps he has taken to increase the delivery of humanitarian aid throughout Burma. [274659]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): In March the Government decided to provide an additional £20 million to Burma over two years. We will continue to address cyclone recovery needs in the Irrawaddy delta, as well as expanding our programme across the rest of the country, and we will also increase our aid to Burmese refugees in Thailand.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that illuminating reply. As he will know, the International Development Committee’s 2007 report on assistance to internally displaced people and refugees on the Thai-Burma border recommended that DFID support cross-border aid into eastern Burma, in particular for the Karen people. Will the Minister now pledge to act on that recommendation?

Mr. Thomas: As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited some of the camps to which he refers. He may also be aware that we have increased our funding to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium by some 10 per cent. this year, on top of an additional 30 per cent. last year. We have also increased our funding to other organisations that work with Burmese refugees—some £1.8 million over the next three years—so we have continued to follow through on the spirit of the recommendations of that Select Committee inquiry.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for his commitment on aid to Burma and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who has tirelessly campaigned on behalf of the Burmese people. I support the hon. Gentleman’s question, because, although I welcome the money that is going to Burma, given the difficulty of the situation there must be a resolution in respect of the thousands
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of people who have been marooned for months and years on the border. That situation cannot be left to the Thai Government. Could we take more action internationally, in terms of humanitarian support and from without to resolve the situation in the longer term?

Mr. Thomas: My right hon. Friend alludes to a much wider problem with Burma: the basic lack of civil and human rights in that country and the need for major reform by the Burmese authorities. We want to see, first off, the release of all political prisoners in Burma, starting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary continue to raise that issue—the need for reform, starting with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi—at every opportunity. Most recently, we used the G20 summit to continue to press that point with a number of key partners.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In Burma, Sudan, Darfur, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, we are seeing the continued shrinking of humanitarian space. DFID and other agencies are having to work around de jure Governments, not in partnership with them. Is it not time that the United Nations Security Council did more to make a reality of the theoretical concept of the responsibility to protect?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman raises a significant issue—that of humanitarian space and ensuring that humanitarian organisations such as the Red Cross, and many other non-governmental organisations, have the opportunity to continue to provide humanitarian support to people in desperate situations as a result of conflicts and other disasters. One thing that the Department continues to do is to work extremely closely with the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance, the key UN body that leads on these issues. We are working with OCHA and other partners on how we can get a better international humanitarian system precisely to help on the delivery of aid, and to try to achieve the humanitarian space that the hon. Gentleman quite rightly says we must continue to champion.


3. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): What his latest assessment is of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. [274660]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Ivan Lewis): There has been a modest improvement in the humanitarian situation. The cholera epidemic is under control and there are signs of an improved harvest this year. However, basic health and other welfare services have broken down after years of neglect. Consequently, Zimbabwe faces ongoing humanitarian challenges.

Mr. McGovern: I thank the Minister for that answer. Obviously, all Members will be aware of the lack of political and judicial reform in Zimbabwe, but will the Minister confirm that he has received a communication from the Elders, urging the UK to offer Humanitarian Plus funds to Zimbabwe? Humanitarian Plus differs from long-term financial assistance, which will be linked to reform, and would allow immediate rehabilitation of the water and sanitation infrastructure in Zimbabwe.

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Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the important contribution that the Elders are making to securing progress in Zimbabwe. We recently announced £15 million to strengthen health system support, improve sanitation and further strengthen food security, but we make it very clear that, on the pace of reform, there are certain non-negotiables. We make that clear in our conversations with the new Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, whom my right hon. Friends the International Development Secretary and the Foreign Secretary met recently. The United Kingdom provides humanitarian and Humanitarian Plus support, but we still await further improvement in terms of the necessary reforms.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Unfortunately, Zimbabwe has been put on the back burner again, because other issues are dominating Parliament and international affairs. Does the Minister not agree that one of the most helpful actions that the Government could take would be for the Secretary of State for International Development to visit Zimbabwe and meet the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, to give that very courageous man the credibility and support that he deserves? He seeks to lead his country out of poverty and deprivation.

Mr. Lewis: Of course, it is not for me to arrange my right hon. Friend’s travel itinerary. However, my serious response is that he recently met the Finance Minister, in whom we have a lot of confidence, and he has also met the Prime Minister in the past. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister for Africa, was at the inauguration of the new President of South Africa and recently met Morgan Tsvangirai and the new Foreign Minister of Zimbabwe. There is constant engagement and dialogue with the Government of Zimbabwe. We are clear about the support that we stand ready to provide and we have announced the resources that I mentioned in my earlier response. However, there can be no slacking in the message about the importance of political and economic as well as human rights reform. We remain concerned that, for example, political prisoners have recently been returned to prison. In those circumstances, we need to send strong messages about the pace of reform.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating my constituent, Richard Pantlin, who recently cycled round Zimbabwe, raising funds for an orphanage there? Does he share my constituent’s conclusion that we need to find ways of increasing humanitarian aid and support for the people of Zimbabwe, without strengthening ZANU-PF?

Mr. Lewis: My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the contribution of individuals, which demonstrates that no way is Zimbabwe on the back burner in respect of how the British people feel about our relationship with that country or in Department for International Development staff’s excellent work on the front line. My right hon. Friend is right to say that, as a result of our support, 7 million people were fed in March who would not otherwise have been fed; the cholera outbreak has been brought under control; and we are moving towards more support for Humanitarian Plus. Equally, we expect the Zimbabwean Government to fulfil the obligations they have entered into with the international community on a clear and transparent reform agenda.

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