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House of Commons

Wednesday 21 October 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-

Sri Lanka

1. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What his most recent assessment is of the humanitarian situation of refugees in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. [294269]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): Two weeks ago, I visited Sri Lanka to see for myself the situation of the 250,000 internally displaced people detained in camps. Conditions have improved there compared with my previous visit in April, with basic needs such as food and shelter being met. However, health care and humanitarian access remain inadequate and we are concerned about military oversight of the camps and family separations. We also believe that conditions will deteriorate during the monsoon season, which is about to start. While I was in Sri Lanka, I repeated the United Kingdom's call for freedom of movement for all the IDPs so that they can go back to host families, relatives or their places of origin.

Mr. Cunningham: May I ask my hon. Friend whether he has been able to get a time scale for the Tamils to go back to their homes in Sri Lanka? Also, how has the aid been distributed?

Mr. Foster: The Government of Sri Lanka were committed to having 80 per cent. of those detained in camps going back to their places of origin by the end of the year. To facilitate that process, I am pleased to announce today an allocation of £500,000 to the HALO Trust for mine surveillance and de-mining in the Mullaitivu area. That work has started and will make the area safe for homes and for land use for the people who were put in the camps.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Minister look into whether further pressure can be put on Sri Lanka by the Commonwealth? If Sri Lanka continues not to let people return or go home from the camps, perhaps it should be suspended from the Commonwealth.

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Mr. Foster: It is important that the international community makes clear its position with regard to the number of people still in the camps and the importance of freedom of movement. We believe that that is happening, but, as far as the Commonwealth's position is concerned, I know that the Government of Sri Lanka are keen to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in a couple of years' time. That might have some bearing on their response to the developments for people who are in the camps.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): May I thank the Minister for his statements and for his visit to Sri Lanka on behalf of my Tamil constituents? May I also ask his Department to support the EU Trade Commissioner's GSP-or generalised system of preferences-plus report, which was issued on Monday, to ensure that preferred status will be withdrawn from Sri Lanka should things continue as they are?

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend has long been an advocate for her Tamil constituents and I applaud her for her commitment. As regards the GSP plus and the announcement made this week by the European Commission, there is a process that should be followed to maintain the integrity of the GSP plus system. We believe that in the meantime the Government of Sri Lanka should look at the findings and act on them swiftly.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): As someone who visited the camps earlier this year, along with you, Mr. Speaker, I welcome the Minister's report on the basic conditions in the camps. Does he agree with me, however, that the Sri Lankan Government would better serve their interests if they gave full unrestricted access to the camp to the media and all the agencies and fulfilled their promise to allow people to return home before Christmas? What are the chances of that happening?

Mr. Foster: The right hon. Gentleman knows the situation well from his own experience and from his experience as Chairman of the Select Committee. I agree entirely with his assessment that it is in the Government of Sri Lanka's interest to allow open access to the media. During the visit that I undertook two weeks ago, I had people from the BBC with me. It had full access to camps and individuals within those camps to do whatever reporting it felt necessary. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman an indication of the scale of the transfer that is needed. We have had a request from the International Organisation for Migration for transport assistance to help 41,000 people from the camps go back to Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, in addition to the 32,000 who we know left the camps in September.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I had the very distressing experience with the all-party group of visiting the camps at Menik farms zones 2 and 3 at Vavuniya. In spite of that distressing aspect, there was an uplifting side to the visit because of the attitude of the people and their hope for the future. Will the Minister ensure that any aid that is forthcoming from the Government is directed primarily at the welfare of the people in the camps and their displacement back to their own homes, which have been out of reach, to be joined with their families? Secondly-

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not wish to be discourteous to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that one question will do.

Mr. Foster: When I was in Sri Lanka, I made it clear to the Government that from the end of this year, when the monsoon season was brought to a conclusion, we would no longer be funding aid for closed camps and that our aid would be directed towards facilitating movement from the camps. That includes the de-mining to which I have referred and means that I can announce £250,000 for predictable, safe and dignified transport for people from the camps back to host communities, as well as a further £220,000 to the Food and Agriculture Organisation to provide bushels of rice seeds to enable people to have a decent livelihood when they get back to their homes.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Minister has confirmed this morning that a package of rehabilitation measures is being put in place by the Department. That is welcome, but he has also confirmed that emergency aid will be redirected away from the camps. The Government also voted against the $2.5 billion International Monetary Fund package in July and are now considering ending the EU's special trade privileges that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned. Is that really the most constructive way to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to promote a long-term reconciliation process, and to meet their stated pledge that 80 per cent. of displaced people should be returned by Christmas? That is what members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, and all Sri Lankan people in the UK, desperately want.

Mr. Foster: We were speaking up for all the people I saw in the camps two weeks ago. It was clear that they wanted to be returned to their homes as quickly as possible, but the nature of the closed camps, with their restrictions and military oversight, is wholly wrong. That is why our assistance will be geared to the de-mining, transport and livelihood programmes, as they will enable people to move safely and securely from the camps back to their homes, where they will be able to get on with their lives. I think that that is what the diaspora community here in the UK wants to hear.

East Africa

2. Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): What steps his Department is taking to alleviate food shortages in east Africa. [294270]

7. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of levels of availability of food in east Africa; and if he will make a statement. [294275]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced an extra £39 million of additional humanitarian assistance to the region, bringing our total contribution this year to some £83 million. That will help to supply food aid, emergency nutrition, water and sanitation, and will be delivered by the World Food Programme and UNICEF, and agencies such as Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières.

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Mr. Reed: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and for the additional moneys that he has announced. However, he will know that it is 25 years since the first Band Aid concert brought the Ethiopian food crisis to our attention. Local Tearfund visitors say that even the weeds are not growing in some areas. This is a long-term problem, not just a short-term one. Will the Minister describe the specific steps that he is taking to address the long-term climate change issues affecting the region, and Ethiopia in particular, as well as the immediate food programmes that are so desperately needed?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I congratulate him on his work with Tearfund and other similar aid agencies in his constituency. He will recognise that we are in a very different place now from where we were some 25 years ago. There has been a substantial increase in the numbers of people getting help. The proportion of people in Ethiopia in need of emergency assistance is lower than 25 years ago, not least because of some of the support that we have provided through in-country productive safety net programmes and humanitarian assistance. We continue to work with African leaders to make sure that their voices are also heard in the climate change negotiations that are under way at the moment, and which we desperately hope will lead to a new global deal to replace Kyoto.

Mr. Robertson: Ethiopia is one of the worst affected areas. The Government have provided welcome emergency relief, but the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) made a good point when he spoke about the long-term problems. I spoke to the ambassador just a few minutes ago, and he stressed the importance of providing development aid. I understand that Ethiopia receives a smaller proportion of such aid than a number of other countries in the region. Will the Minister look at what can be done to provide the financial and technical assistance to Ethiopia so that these terrible famines do not keep happening?

Mr. Thomas: We continue to provide a substantial assistance programme to Ethiopia. I hope to visit the country shortly to see for myself the challenges the hon. Gentleman describes. When we published the White Paper in July we set out our determination to do all we can to help developing countries such as Ethiopia increase agricultural production. We are therefore increasing our research budget for the types of crops that can survive climate change and so prevent people from needing emergency support. We also want to put further investment into the type of social protection schemes that are already making a difference and preventing people from needing emergency assistance. We are determined to provide more humanitarian assistance, and will keep up the pressure on other international donors to do more to help countries like Ethiopia, and other countries in the region as well.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that children who are hungry in east Africa face particular problems? Will he therefore commend the work of the Schools for Africa School Meal Deal, and the School Food Trust's Really Good School Dinner campaign? They provide practical support for children in school and community-based feeding schemes and also persuade children here about the importance of providing long-term support for children in developing countries.

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Mr. Thomas: I certainly will praise the work of the organisation that my hon. Friend describes and has worked with. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who attended the launch of the programme that my hon. Friend describes, was also impressed by its work. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we continue to work closely with organisations such as UNICEF which provide support to help to make sure that children are not forgotten in the delivery of emergency assistance, and that we help to tackle the levels of malnutrition that still exist among children in the region.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The situation in east Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, is dire. We welcome the additional support that the Government have offered to the Governments there but, as the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) highlighted, it is 25 years since the famine that killed a million people. Is it not a scandal that the World Food Programme has barely half the funding that it needs to feed the 100 million people it estimates are starving, and is it not time to stop relying on emergency appeals and get proper funding in place for that programme?

Mr. Thomas: As I said in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and other Members, we accept that a series of steps need to be taken. We have to continue to provide emergency assistance to organisations such as the World Food Programme, and indeed we continue to campaign internationally for more humanitarian assistance to be provided. At the same time, we need to put in place a series of further long-term steps to help to increase agricultural production in countries in east Africa and elsewhere so that they can better tackle their own needs, thereby preventing the need for emergency assistance. We have said that we will increase our agricultural research budget, but we also continue to put pressure on other donors, some in Europe and some outside Europe, to do more to increase humanitarian assistance and to put in place long-term development programmes to help countries away from the type of problems that we are discussing.

Ethical Investments

3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What ethical criteria are applied to investment decisions made by CDC Group plc. [294271]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): CDC capital is invested in accordance with CDC's updated investment code. It aims to ensure that CDC applies appropriately strong environmental, social and governance standards to its investment decisions. Specifically, it prohibits CDC investment in businesses involving hazardous products, endangered and protected wildlife, the production and trade of arms, gambling, pornography and tobacco products.

David Taylor: The United Nations, Hillary Clinton, NGOs and others have called for urgent investment in food production to relieve poverty in the developing world, yet CDC executives enjoy a bonus culture that would be the envy of Fred Goodwin. Will the Minister apply ethical tests to the CDC decisions that have led to
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just 5 per cent. of the development money received from the UK taxpayer going into agricultural projects, yet much more into financial services, shopping malls-

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say to the Back Bencher of the Year that he is deservedly Back Bencher of the Year, but that was a "War and Peace" question, and I do not want "War and Peace" questions.

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for more investment in agriculture, as other hon. Members have done in previous questions. We are working closely with the Americans. In particular, the G8 and others have committed more than $20 billion over the next three years for food security and agricultural development. We are committing some £1 billion over the next three years. With reference to CDC, it has invested in 33 agri-businesses, as well as a series of other businesses in Africa and other developing countries. We need it to continue to invest in those businesses to help to generate more jobs so that developing countries can plot their own path out of dependence on aid.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): But the damning National Audit Office report last year found that Ministers failed to demand real evidence of the impact of CDC, and that this multi-billion business was overseen by the equivalent of just one and a half full-time members of staff from the Department. What is the Minister doing to get his act together and ensure that CDC delivers on the key development objectives that we expect?

Mr. Thomas: Unusually for the hon. Gentleman, he somewhat exaggerates the findings of the NAO report. Since its publication, we have put in place a further series of steps to respond to the NAO's concerns-in terms not only of monitoring pay, but of ensuring that there is independent verification of CDC's investment code. We have further asked CDC to shift more of its total investment into low-income countries and, particularly, into sub-Saharan Africa.

Copenhagen Summit

4. Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to ensure equitable treatment of developing countries in negotiations which are taking place before the Copenhagen climate change summit. [294272]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Climate change today poses the greatest risk to the poorest countries. To achieve a fair and equitable outcome at Copenhagen, it is therefore essential that the most vulnerable countries have a voice in the decisions that are taken. The UK has provided considerable financial and technical support to developing country negotiators and civil society, helping them to prepare for and engage in high-level meetings in the run-up to Copenhagen.

Helen Southworth: The world's poorest countries are already being hurt by the leading edge of climate change, and people are calling out for help. Will my right hon. Friend be absolutely resolute in making sure that their voice is heard at Copenhagen and we get urgent action on their behalf?

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