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9 Feb 2010 : Column 227WH—continued

Among the issues that have not yet come up in the debate, the role of women cannot be overestimated. I am pleased to have been an officer of the all-party
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group on women, peace and security, which is known in the trade as the 1325 group, after the UN resolution. We can criticise the Ministry of Defence, but it has been very good about recognising the importance of training our troops in such issues as how to deal with women in a conflict zone, including recognising sad instances of rape, abuse and mistreatment. That has a lot to do with cultural awareness-raising, and we have embraced that approach.

As for Sudan, I congratulate the Government on our being in there for the long term. This is a key year in the history of Sudan. The forthcoming elections are of course debatable and dubious, but they must nevertheless take place if we are to get to the referendum on the potential secession of the south in 2011. I am optimistic that we can get through the process, but it will be devilishly difficult. A point that has not come up yet is the crucial role of British diplomats in Sudan. They are part of the troika with the US and Norway, and they are shuttling about-that is not good for the climate, but nevertheless vital-keeping the talking going and trying to deal with conflict resolution, if not prevention.

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

To give the situation context, and to show how difficult the task is, the comprehensive peace agreement, which is continually questioned and under threat, has not prevented the events in Darfur, which represent, in my view, the first climate change war. It was all to do with nomads coming in and trying to settle where the pastoralists were, and then, as always, the north went in with two boots and to some extent the south reacted. There is always the problem with the east, where there is the potential for conflict easily to spin off from events elsewhere in the country.

What have we learned? We have learned that to bring peace to a country means being in it for the long term. There are no quick fixes; it is necessary to be there reinforcing the peace strategies. We must recognise that the problems are local as well as national. Often civil society capacity building must happen at an incredibly local level. We like to think that peace is breaking out in the south of Sudan at the moment, but there is a huge number of conflicts there, all to do with the usual things such as animal rustling and people falling out over who has taken whose bride. That can easily trigger a much bigger conflict unless we get in there and do the business. Resources have been mentioned, and water is crucial.

We must get hold of the small arms trade, which is a legacy left by the west. The arms might not be coming from the west any more but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) said, the problem is being fuelled by all sorts of most unhelpful interventions. There is a need to bear down on those and eventually stop them. Of course, we must have views about how Governments fuel the conflicts, using small arms to repress their populations in their own way. We must keep reinforcing how important it is to stop those trades.

I wish to make two final points. First, our country has, of course, moved forward by signing up to the International Criminal Court sanctions. That makes an awful lot of difference in Sudan because it has an indicted president. It is not easy-some find it quite difficult-to determine how to take that forward, but as
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we have signed up to the ICC sanctions, we must recognise their importance. Secondly, development must always go alongside conflict prevention, because without development, people will never have the time or space for us.

12 noon

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate. The time spent by the House debating conflict prevention pales in comparison with the time that we spend discussing conflicts that have not been prevented. Perhaps that balance needs to be adjusted. I wholeheartedly support the idea put forward by my hon. Friend that there should be an annual debate on the subject rather than relying on the random nature of the ballot to secure debates in Westminster Hall.

It was excellent for the quality of debate that so many contributed, including the co-chairmen of the all-party parliamentary group on conflict issues and those involved in other groups that deal with specific parts of the world. Also welcome, of course, is the great consensus that exists across the Chamber on the question of conflict prevention. I particularly liked the idea expressed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) that the matter should be removed from the political knockabout in the run-up to the general election. The all-party group would have done a great piece of work if it could get all parties to agree on some key priorities after the election, whatever the result may be, so that we have a long-term strategy and continuity.

It almost goes without saying that conflict prevention is essential. It has a clear and obvious humanitarian objective. Another factor that came out clearly in today's debate was the economic imperative, which is important given that we are in a recession. I was staggered by some of the figures; $64 billion is the average cost of each conflict, and when multiplied it gives a total of $175 trillion. The figures are mind-boggling. Indeed, for every dollar spent on conflict prevention, $2,000 is spent on military defence. Saving money in future by spending more on conflict prevention would seem to be wise.

I want to touch on a few key elements of conflict prevention as it affects foreign policy. They include the support given to other states, particularly to fragile states; the peace-building process and how it relates to preventing future conflict; the role of women in conflict prevention; and the future strategic threats that were mentioned by various Members, particularly climate change and access to resources.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) was right to say that we often ignore the warning signs that there is about to be a massive problem in another corner of the world, and that if we take action it is not taken swiftly enough. The responsibility to protect was supposed to make things a little easier, but the world still sits back far too often when conflicts arise.

I have listed the various parts of the world mentioned today where conflict is likely or could occur, and it is a long list. There are all the countries in the middle east, and Yemen has come very much to our attention. There are the ongoing problems in Cyprus and the Balkans.
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There is the Caucasus; and there are a range of issues in Africa, south America and Asia. Such a list brings home the scale of the problem.

Resourcing is important. My hon. Friend asked a good range of questions, and I look forward to the Minister's response. There is genuine concern about the cuts that have been made to the United Kingdom's civilian contribution to peacekeeping, and about the recent scaling back of this year's Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget-for example, for counter-terrorism in Pakistan-as a result of the change in the exchange rate.

The FCO is facing budgetary difficulties because of the Treasury ruling that when the exchange rate changes the FCO has to find the funds from within its budget. That difficulty, of course, is caused by the strength of the pound. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's response on such matters. It seems sensible to spend in order to prevent future conflict and future expense on that front. Even in a recession, we should not make such cuts. It would be a false economy.

Peacebuilding is usually seen as an aspect of bringing conflict to an end. However, getting it right is essential to prevent conflict from starting up again. We have seen intervention in far too many places, with sticking-plaster solutions, where once the resources are removed the conflict revives because the underlying issues have not been resolved.

One cannot overestimate the importance of taking a proactive stance on building peace rather than taking the UN's traditional peacekeeping role. It is about involving not only regional partners in the country or area in question but stakeholders within communities. In that way, a peace can be built that reflects the needs of local people-not, dare I say it, an idea from many thousands of miles away of how it should be done. The UN recognised that when it set up the peacebuilding commission in 2005. With fellow MPs, I was fortunate to meet representatives of the commission on a visit to the UN sponsored by the FCO in 2008. We look forward to the UN review of the commission's work so that we can learn what is successful.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the role of women, particularly in communities. It is most important when building structures for peace. Last year, the UN passed Security Council resolution 1889, which reaffirmed the principles laid out almost a decade ago in Security Council resolution 1325. Among other things, it recognised the important role that women need to play in conflict prevention. Despite making up more than half of the world's population, women are often absent from negotiating tables and decision-making circles.

I recommend Gender Action for Peace and Security, a network of NGOs. It recently produced a short parliamentarian's guide to women, peace and security, which is most instructive. One statistic sticks out for me. Over the past 25 years, only one in 40 peace agreement signatories have been women. That shows their lack of involvement at that crucial stage, which I believe has an impact on whether conflicts recur. The UK is one of only 14 countries with a national action plan for implementing Security Council resolution 1325. I am glad about that. The plan is under review, and it will be released next month.

It is important that we take matters forward. In October, someone from the FCO told the all-party
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group on women, peace and security that the Department was finding it difficult to involve women in senior positions in conflict prevention and resolution, including in the UK. I would welcome it if the Minister updated us on progress on that front.

Finally, I touch on the question of climate change-again, something mentioned by various Members. We need to look ahead to the likely drivers of future conflicts. They will include access to energy, to water and to land that can be used for crop production. The changes likely to happen to all aspects as a result of climate change make it a priority to consider them in connection with conflict prevention.

The Oxford Research Group report "Sustainable Security for the 21st Century" states:

That puts the scale of the threat in stark terms. It should go hand in glove with the Government's policies on assisting with adaptation to climate change and preventing further dangerous climate change through mitigation. I hope that the FCO is working closely with the Department of Energy and Climate Change on those issues; I know that climate change is another of the Department's strategic priorities.

In conclusion, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss such important issues. I welcome the constructive spirit of the debate, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

12.9 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate, and welcome the "tripartisan" approach that he took in his opening remarks. My party supports the idea of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and other Government Departments working closely together to plan conflict prevention activity in the national interests of the United Kingdom. However, we need to go further and institutionalise such practice by creating a national security council at which common strategies can be agreed to which all Departments are firmly signed up.

However, it is difficult to define where conflict prevention starts and ends. It is inherently difficult to measure, partly because we are dealing, in most cases, with policies that aim at change over the long term-going beyond any one budgetary or electoral cycle-and partly because we can never be confident about what would have happened had we not taken particular action in another part of the world.

It is important to remind ourselves that if conflict prevention is to be effective, it has to rely on other aspects of the Foreign Office's work being of high quality. Public diplomacy is one obvious example. Work through public diplomacy, including the work of the BBC World Service and the British Council, seems to be essential if we are to make contact not just with Governments and bureaucracies, but with wider civil societies. Moreover, we should not neglect that old mainstay of the FCO, the nurturing of diplomatic relationships over many years.

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I know that the Minister has recently returned from a visit to Yemen. There is agreement across the House that any successful work to prevent the conflict in that country from getting worse will depend on not what this country does but the extent to which effective action within the region, particularly by the Gulf Co-operation Council countries, can be co-ordinated. If we are to persuade our old friends in the Gulf that that should be a priority and that they should work with us to stabilise the situation in Yemen, we need to be able to act on the basis of friendships that have been nurtured over many years. We cannot expect to snap our fingers and see an instant response.

I could use the same argument in respect of other parts of the world. Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I have recently been to Tokyo as a guest of the Japanese Government, and it became very clear to me that Japan's influence in many of the Asian countries where there is conflict, and its ability to exercise economic influence and to be a major provider of development assistance is something to which we should have great regard in our diplomatic policy, but that means we must spend time, energy and effort on nurturing and improving our relationship with Japan.

I want to put three points to the Minister, to which I hope he will find time to respond. First, for effective conflict prevention we often have to work through international organisations. It is also clear from what the Foreign Office itself has published in its annual reports that those international organisations do not always deliver in the way that we might hope. For example, the United Nations is obviously a key institution, but the Foreign Office annual report for 2007-08 stated that too often UN peacekeeping missions are not adequately planned. The report cited the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur as an example of that. Do the Government think that there has been some improvement in the UN's performance in that regard or do they think that we still have difficulties there?

Secondly, in addressing some of the challenges of conflict prevention around the world, have the Government considered trying to make greater use of the Commonwealth as an institution? The Commonwealth has an advantage in that it has a very diverse membership across continents and that its countries, while all committed to ideas of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, have many different ethnicities and religious traditions. As such, it seems to me that it has a part to play.

Simon Hughes: I strongly associate myself with what the hon. Gentleman says. May I remind him of what the Queen said after the last Commonwealth conference about the relevance of the Commonwealth to the climate change agenda? Will he join me in making a request to Government-I have made it before and sometimes they have responded-to hold an annual debate on the Commonwealth in the main Chamber, which we have not had in the last year or so?

Mr. Lidington: That would be a very good way of enabling the House not only to assess the Commonwealth as an institution but to review relationships between the United Kingdom and individual Commonwealth countries.

May I say a few words about regional bodies, because again they will be of great importance in conflict prevention work? In particular, I want to ask the Minister about
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Africa. Turning again to the FCO annual report for 2007-08, the Foreign Office says that in that year it invested

Yet on page 154 of the same report it said that progress on the African Union Standby Force

The capacity of the African Union is clearly of great importance given the points that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made about the situation in the Sudan and the tensions that may well arise around the forthcoming referendum on the possible secession of the south. It would be helpful if the Minister gave us an update on the Government's assessment of the capacity of the African Union.

Finally, I want to ask the Minister about the budget. In his written statement on 25 March 2009, the Foreign Secretary announced an increase in the budget for preventing and resolving conflict. However, he qualified that announcement by saying that in part it was driven by the declining value of the pound and the necessity to add to the budget in sterling terms to ensure that it continued to buy the same value in programmes. Of that budget of £627 million, £456 million was said to be ring-fenced for assisted peacekeeping, leaving £171 million to fund all discretionary peacekeeping, conflict prevention and stabilisation work.

We know from various press reports and leaked documents over the past few months that the Foreign Office is having to look very hard at its budget in the light of exchange rate movements. We know that the FCO was trampled on by the Treasury when the risk deriving from exchange rate movements was transferred from the Treasury to the FCO a couple of years ago. We also know that the permanent secretary at the FCO has written to heads of mission and FCO directors to ask them to draw up contingency plans for possible significant further cuts during this calendar year. So I would like the Minister to tell us whether the conflict prevention programmes that the Government have planned for are likely to be reined back or cut significantly as a result of those undoubtedly severe financial pressures.

12.20 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing the debate, on his very thoughtful contribution, and on his long-standing work on conflict issues. I also want to pay tribute to the all-party group on conflict issues for quite rightly raising the profile of conflict issues in Parliament.

I am certainly willing to take the idea of an annual debate on conflict prevention to relevant colleagues and ask them to give it serious consideration. I shall also say at the outset that I do not think that I will have enough time to do justice to all the contributions that have been made to the debate. Therefore, I want to offer to attend a meeting of the all-party group on conflict issues so that we have the opportunity for a more in-depth and serious discussion. However, I will do my best to try to answer some of the questions that have been put.

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