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Mr. Amess: My hon. Friend has immediately got to the heart of the matter. I am sure that his words are not lost on the Minister.

Since 2005-06, DFID has provided no bilateral overseas development assistance to the Maldives. In the past three years, United Kingdom net bilateral aid to the Maldives totalled only £103,000 out of a total South Asia programme worth more than £2.1 million. None of that £103,000 came from DFID; it came from other UK official sources, including the British Council. DFID offers development assistance indirectly to the Maldives through a multilateral aid programme, whereby funding is channelled through international organisations such as the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): The new President of the Maldives has inherited a difficult fiscal position, as my hon. Friend is aware. It is extraordinary to note that, for a country of its size, the Maldives has a relatively large fiscal deficit and inherited debt is high. Yet in absolute terms, relative to DFID's entire budget, the sum needed would be relatively small to begin to address the matter. Just to support my hon. Friend's point, this is the youngest democracy in the world and in the Commonwealth, and we owe a great deal to it.

Mr. Amess: I understand my hon. Friend's points. I do not want to beat up the Minister too much, because if I do we will get nothing out of this debate. The whole point of an Adjournment debate is to achieve something at the end of it.

The amounts are still tiny in international development terms. Total aid to the Maldives by multilateral agencies is currently around £10 million annually, to which DFID contributes about 5 per cent. This is no substitute for dedicated UK development assistance to the Maldives through a structured bilateral programme and a specialist person operating in DFID's south Asia desk.

DFID now classifies the Maldives as a lower middle-income country, and as such it is not on its priority list of low-income countries. However, although it is not one of the world's poorest countries, it is one of the lowest lying, and as such is one of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. More than 80 per cent. of the nation is less than 1 metre above sea level and, according to a 2007 study by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a rise in sea levels of 7.2 inches to 23.2 inches by 2100 could render the Maldives completely uninhabitable. The Maldives will participate in December's UN climate summit in Copenhagen, which will be a chance to seal a deal on a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol. This is an important issue for the residents of the Maldives.

The UK made a significant contribution to aid relief following the 2004 tsunami. DFID committed £50 million in aid, providing assistance in the form of landing craft, vehicles and humanitarian relief supplies, such as bottled water. I visited last year and saw some of the assistance that was given. The effect of the disaster was phenomenal: two thirds of the country disappeared momentarily into the Indian ocean, and when the sea withdrew, it took 62 per cent. of the country's gross national product with it. Electricity, communications and freshwater supplies on many islands were destroyed by the salt water.

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Such disaster scenarios have the potential to multiply exponentially as a result of climate change and rising sea levels. Financial assistance is urgently required to fund adaptation and mitigation strategies, technology development, capacity building and preparation of national plans to deal with these threats. Although natural disasters can never be completely averted, it makes much more sense to support the country's investment in planning and preparation than to rely solely on emergency relief and clean-up operations further down the line.

The Maldives national adaptation programme for action, adopted in January 2007, identifies the most urgent and immediate adaptation needs of the country with regard to predicted climate change. The cost of that alone is estimated at about $100 million. The Maldives has pledged to become the world's first carbon-neutral country within 10 years. The country is showing leadership in mitigation actions to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions and demonstrating its commitment to stopping climate change. The British Government should reward such nations for leading and setting an example.

The Maldives has an international reputation as a tropical paradise of white sands and wonderful waters, as we all know. Tourism is the main economic activity in the country; it contributes about 30 per cent. of gross domestic product. The annual number of tourist arrivals is greater than the total population of the Maldives, and 70 per cent. of the foreign exchange that flows into the country comes through the tourism sector.

However, the very things that attract tourists to visit the country are some of those most under threat. I am referring to land and beach erosion and damage to coral reefs, for example. I hope that the United Kingdom Government will help the Maldivian Government to act now to prevent the loss not only of the special ecology of the islands, but of the country's most vital source of income. Rising water levels pose a threat to livelihoods, infrastructure, food security and health-for example, through the flooding of homes and agricultural land, contamination of ground water and an increase in waterborne diseases.

The Maldivian Foreign Minister met representatives of DFID and secured 50 per cent. funding for the V14 meeting next month; the 14 countries most vulnerable to climate change will meet in the Maldives on 9 and 10 November. I fully acknowledge that that is a most welcome contribution, but I hope that the Minister will pledge that he will see whether even more can be done.

The Maldives' programme of economic reform presents new opportunities for United Kingdom businesses. The plan to make the Maldives carbon-neutral within 10 years offers particular possibilities for co-operation, as UK companies have expertise and know-how in the field of renewable and low-carbon energy.

The British Council has done a great deal, and I hope that it will do even more. It does not have a dedicated presence in the Maldives, although there is an office in Sri Lanka. The Voluntary Service Overseas programme in the Maldives closed this year, as the country's rating on the UN's human development index has considerably improved in recent years. Adult literacy, for instance, is almost 100 per cent. However, there is a huge shortage of teachers in the Maldives, which follows the United
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Kingdom's GCSE and A-level system. Some 3,000 students sit A-levels each year, but the Maldives has no university for them to attend. My colleagues and I are working to address that issue and establish links with individual British universities, and I think that we are making some progress. However, additional assistance from the relevant Department and the British Council would be highly beneficial in meeting the Maldivian Government's higher education objectives.

The main scholarship scheme promoted by the British Council in Sri Lanka is the Chevening scholarship scheme, which the British Government created in 1994. The Maldivian Government would also like to institute a volunteer programme for United Kingdom graduates to teach at schools in the Maldives, as part of the international wing of the Maldives volunteer corps. I hope that many graduates will take advantage of that opportunity, which is being promoted by the high commissioner. I think that the British Government would like to take that forward and ensure that more graduates set an example with that initiative.

DFID global school partnerships promote partnerships between schools in the United Kingdom and schools in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Again, such partnerships provide a wonderful opportunity. The UK international health links funding scheme is a Tropical Health and Education Trust and British Council funding scheme supported by DFID and the Department of Health. The Maldives would definitely benefit from such assistance in the health care sector. The acute scarcity of skilled health personnel is a major constraint in the sustainable development of the Maldivian health sector. The links between environmental and human health are not unknown, and the Maldives finds itself in a precarious position in that regard.

To continue the educational theme, having worked to promote and strengthen educational links between our two countries, I am shocked and appalled by the situation in which many Maldivian students find themselves. As there is no British diplomatic mission in the Maldives, applications for United Kingdom student visas must be made in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Maldivian citizens enjoy visa-free entry to the UK as tourists. That has been causing delays in visa processing, and as the university year has commenced, some students are in danger of losing their places. Last year, out of 113 student visa applications, 86 encountered problems, which caused considerable delays and financial cost to the students.

It is absolutely ridiculous that citizens from the Maldives must travel to Colombo to apply for a visa. That is unacceptable. I hope that the appropriate Department will reconsider the present arrangement. I see no reason, if it is not possible to post a UK Border Agency official to the Maldives, why it should not be a condition of the outsourcing contract to have, at the very least, an approved officer in the Maldives to collect the necessary information, which could then be forwarded to staff in India for processing. I simply do not understand the situation, and I have written to the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary on the issue.

To conclude, I am delighted thus far with the assistance that the Government have given the Maldives, but given our historical links, I hope that the Minister will be persuaded to do even more.

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4.56 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this important debate. I welcome his genuine concern and interest, which he has shown over a long period, in the Maldives and in pursuing the interests of the people of the Maldives. I am sure that we would all acknowledge the genuine passion with which he made his contribution-I also have to say that I hope that he continues to enjoy many a holiday in what is a beautiful country.

Our relationship with the Maldives remains a very important priority for the United Kingdom. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present, as well as our friends in the Maldives, that we as a country are fully committed to providing all the support that we can to the Maldives at this transitional and crucial moment in its history.

The debate is an important opportunity to applaud unashamedly the Maldives for its impressive progress on both development and democratic reform in recent years, of which all Maldivians can be incredibly proud. The hon. Gentleman rightly welcomed the first multi-party presidential elections in 2008 and parliamentary elections earlier this year. I commend the success of those historic elections and I recognise the role played by the new Government and the outgoing Administration in ensuring the smooth and peaceful transition of power that followed. The elections were undoubtedly an important step on the path to establishing an effective, accountable and functioning democracy.

We as a country played an important role in supporting the elections. We maintain regular contact with Government and opposition parties and encourage cross-party dialogue. It is vital that the new Government continue to consult and involve the opposition parties and the Maldivian people in the important decisions that they are making to continue to strengthen democracy.

I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) for his personal contribution to and support for that smooth transition of power and for his contribution to emphasising the importance of sustaining that responsible approach from the new President and Government in an environment of reconciliation. The hon. Gentleman deserves tremendous credit for the role that he has fulfilled.

I want to draw attention to the President's visit to Manchester-my home city-only last week. I want to put it on record that the President's speech was by far the best speech heard during the entire period of that conference in Manchester. With the funding that we have provided, we have continued to help the Maldives to consolidate and strengthen its democratic institutions, and to raise awareness of the rights and responsibilities of civil society and the democratic system. As part of the European Union, we have taken part in election observation and contributed to projects on democratic reform. The hon. Member for Southend, West was right to raise the specific question of climate change, and I will come on to that in a moment.

Our contacts with the new democratic Government reflect our support for political reform and economic development. The Prime Minister and the Minister with responsibility for Asia met President Nasheed in April specifically to discuss democratic reform, climate
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change and the economy. As the hon. Gentleman said, Ministers from the Department for International Development have recently held talks with the new Government to discuss development issues. Through regular visits to the Maldives, the British high commission in Colombo maintains strong relationships with the Government, opposition parties and civil society.

The country undoubtedly faces development and economic challenges, but there is no question but that over the last three decades it has made significant progress on development. It has moved from being one of the 20 poorest countries in 1978, to having one of the highest per capita incomes in south Asia. The economy has expanded at an average of 7 per cent. per year for the last 25 years through effective development of the tourism and fishing industries. The powerful progress that the country has made on provision for education and health is indisputable.

The hon. Gentleman was right to recognise the serious fiscal challenges that the country now faces. Those challenges threaten to overshadow recent economic and political progress. President Nasheed has made it clear that he has inherited a large fiscal deficit. We recognise the vital importance of the reforms that the Government of that country seek to implement during a difficult time of economic downturn.

During the debate, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the UK should offer more financial support to the Maldives at this particular time, and that we should reopen a DFID bilateral programme. He was right to say that DFID has not provided any bilateral development assistance to the Maldives since 2005-06. As a former DFID Minister, I can say that DFID unashamedly prioritises its overseas development assistance to the lowest-income countries where it believes that it can make the most difference to poverty levels. The Maldives has an impressive record of poverty reduction, and will shortly graduate to middle-income country status. It has achieved all but two of the millennium development goals that world leaders signed up to during the Gleneagles conference.

In a spirit of bipartisanship, I say gently that it is not the position of the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, or the Leader of the Opposition, to change development policy regarding where the UK targets its resources, which is on those countries that most need support for the elimination of poverty, and those countries that have made very little progress. It would be entirely inconsistent for the Government to single out the Maldives and make it an exceptional case; we must apply the criteria in a consistent way. It is not only a question of my Government taking that position. In my view, based on his previous policy statements, the shadow Secretary of State for International Development would adopt exactly the same position if he ever had to make such a decision.

The UK is a major donor to the Maldives and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is important that we calibrate that through significant contributions to international financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. We have encouraged the Maldives to approach those financial institutions and we have helped with technical assistance to enable it to do so. Only this year, the UK funded a fiscal policy adviser who assisted the Maldives with its recent negotiations with the IMF. When an application is
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presented to the IMF board, the UK will work to ensure that it contributes the necessary resources for economic stability and development in the Maldives. We will use our influence with the IMF to get the right outcome, providing that the bidding process and the application meet the necessary business standards.

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, bilateral co-operation must mean more than just financial assistance. The UK helps to build capacity through targeted interventions in a range of areas to help the Maldives tackle some of the serious challenges that it faces, the greatest of which is climate change, an issue that has been well reported in this country in recent times.

The effects of climate change are devastating for the fragile environment of the Maldives, especially since 80 per cent. of its 1,200 islands are no more than 1 metre above sea level. That makes it an almost unique situation in the context of the climate change debate, and that is why it is crucial that at the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December, we see an ambitious deal that is comprehensive and equitable for all countries. We believe that a global deal that addresses carbon emissions, funding flows and technology represents the best way to protect countries which are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as the Maldives.

As hon. Members will be aware, our Prime Minister will be leading the United Kingdom delegation and demanding that the international community does the right thing on climate change, in the same way as he led the international community in ensuring that we did exactly the right thing during the economic crisis that we have just faced.

We welcome President Nasheed's leading role on the international stage in highlighting the impact of climate change on vulnerable countries, and we fully support his recent announcement of a forum for leaders of countries vulnerable to climate change, which will be held in the Maldives in November. I also applaud the President's announcement in May about his ambition for the Maldives to become the world's first carbon neutral country by 2020. That is the kind of ambition we want from other players.

In terms of adaptation funding, the UK continues to support the least developed countries fund and the
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special climate change fund, and we encourage the Maldives to seek further support from both those funding mechanisms. The United Nations framework convention on climate change adaptation fund is due to become operational early in 2010, and we hope that the Maldives will be able to benefit from funding very soon.

I will deal specifically with the hon. Gentleman's concerns about student visas. I was unaware of that issue before this debate, but I will be more than happy to take the matter up and see whether we can make progress across Government with all the agencies that bear responsibility for the issue, to see whether we can remove some of the unreasonable, unnecessary obstacles and red tape that prevent student visas from being processed in a more efficient way. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and make him aware of how we intend to approach the matter, and I will keep him fully informed.

There is no doubt that the Maldives is heading in the right direction. We applaud the fact that President Nasheed and his colleagues are making significant progress in consolidating what is a new democracy. The Maldivian Government have shown domestic leadership and vision on the reform agenda, but at an early stage they also showed international leadership on climate change. The UK is a staunch friend of the Maldives, and we shall continue to help and support it along its path. As friends, we shall encourage it to make further progress on sustainable economic development and human rights, so that the Maldives can secure its position as a progressive and democratic country.

It seems to me that the reconciliatory approach taken by the President, with its lack of vengeance and revenge for some of the human rights abuses that he and many of his associates suffered, is of great credit. One could argue that it follows the model demonstrated by Mandela when he assumed leadership in South Africa; it shows the importance of reconciliation, of building bridges and of not looking backwards. I end today's debate by paying tribute to the President for that; the United Kingdom will stand alongside his Government in dealing with the economic, social and climate change reforms necessary for the future. We look forward to remaining a staunch friend of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

5.9 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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