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House of Lords

Monday, 15th December 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Zimbabwe: Aid Distribution

The Lord Bishop of Rochester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are able to use non-governmental organisations in the delivery of aid to the needy in Zimbabwe.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, non-governmental organisations are a vital channel for the UK and all other major donors in the delivery of humanitarian aid in Zimbabwe. The Department for International Development's funding to NGOs is provided either directly or as part of our contribution to UN agencies in Zimbabwe, notably the World Food Programme. Such organisations have been extremely effective at reaching the most vulnerable communities and delivering aid without bowing to political pressure.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Can she tell us the balance of international, British and Zimbabwean NGOs being funded? Will Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the Commonwealth affect that balance? Does she see any role for faith communities and their NGOs in delivering aid to the needy in Zimbabwe?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate asked about the NGOs being funded. I can speak only about those that we fund. For example, we have funded CAFOD and Save the Children UK. I am aware that organisations such as the Zimbabwe Red Cross, HELP Germany and the Zimbabwe Women's Bureau also provide food for vulnerable schoolchildren and under-fives in some areas of Zimbabwe. John Snow International is also involved in work. There is a role for faith communities, and that will undoubtedly continue to be the case.

The position relating to the provision of humanitarian aid remains the same, despite Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the Commonwealth. What will cease is Zimbabwe's access to technical and other such co-operation from the Commonwealth.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, given the authorities' manipulation of aid distribution, has not the time come to go to the UN with a resolution asking for independent monitors? Despite the continual resistance of the noble

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Baroness the Lord President of the Council, there is growing support for such a move among NGOs distributing aid.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that a memorandum of understanding was recently signed by the World Food Programme and the Government of Zimbabwe. It was hard fought over, precisely because of the dispute about attempts by the Government of Zimbabwe to politicise food aid. As I have said before, I cannot answer for the food that is distributed through the Grain Marketing Board, which is managed by the Government of Zimbabwe. Last Friday, we had a meeting with 12 NGOs operating in Zimbabwe. There were no complaints about politicisation, although they all said that the operating environment could be difficult.

The noble Lord asked about independent monitors. He will know that we have given additional money to the World Food Programme for its monitoring programme. We ourselves have local monitors, watching what is done with our money.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, we acknowledge the important role that NGOs can play and have played in the distribution of food aid to the needy in Zimbabwe, but is it not the case that, all too often, food cannot reach the needy because of ZANU-PF roadblocks? In that regard, is it not the case that the call of the needy in Zimbabwe will be truly met only when President Robert Mugabe hands over executive power to a government of national unity? What are Her Majesty's Government doing to ensure that the commitments and promises given earlier this year by President Thabo Mbeki to our Prime Minister, as well as to President Bush, that there would be a resolution of the crisis in Zimbabwe by mid-2004 are met?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Lord asked about how food aid reached the needy. What has happened this year in particular is that, increasingly, we have had to target food aid at areas that are usually food-secure, such as Manicaland and the Mashonaland provinces, not just Matabeleland, because they have some of the highest rates of malnutrition, due mainly to the impact of HIV/AIDS.

With regard to the dialogue that is being overseen, if you like, by the Government of South Africa, my understanding is that they continue to push for talks behind the scenes. I have not seen any date for the resolution of those talks. We all know how difficult such situations can be.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, has the Minister seen the report that was issued at the end of last week by 10 South African Church leaders on interference with the distribution of aid, including interference with World Food Programme aid? Has she also seen the report by C-Safe, a consortium of three large international donors, that it is conducting a reverification programme to ensure that aid reaches the most needy?

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Does not the Minister think that it is difficult for NGOs and for organisations such as the World Food Programme to complain, given that they must all register under a scheme promulgated by the ZANU-PF regime in July 2003? If such bodies make too much noise, their registration can be withdrawn.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I have not read the report, but I saw the first page when it was shown to me by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I am aware that in the report there are allegations about the World Food Programme distribution. However, I am not aware whether they are old or new allegations. In this House, we have discussed the fact that when the World Food Programme has become aware of any issues with respect to diversion, it has dealt with them promptly and immediately. I shall repeat what I have said in this House in the past: if any noble Lords have any information, we will investigate it.

English Grammar and Punctuation

2.43 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to improve the usage of English grammar and punctuation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the development of language is key to children's learning. The study of grammar and punctuation feature in the national curriculum from the foundation stage onwards. We have invested considerable resources in the National Primary Strategy and the Key Stage 3 Strategy in order to raise standards in schools and to improve teaching and learning in English.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive Answer. Her belief in the correct use of English language and punctuation is clearly shared by a large number of people. Lynn Truss's excellent little book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is top of the best seller lists this Christmas with a print run that has been extended from 15,000 to 400,000 copies. The title is a joke about pandas, which I do not have time to explain.

Does the Minister not agree that regrettably few people know how to use commas, apostrophes and figures of speech properly and that the Government and Parliament should set an example? For example, there is a notice not far from your Lordships' Chamber which gives "Fridays" a possessive apostrophe. Will she also impress on her colleagues how important it is that the comma is used correctly so that the sentence "A woman, without her man, is nothing" is corrected to "A woman: without her, man is nothing"?

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in anticipation of my noble friend's Question, I obtained Lynn Truss's book and read it over the weekend. I recommend it to any noble Lord who is interested in pursuing grammar. Perhaps I shall receive a free copy now! Of course, the panda went into a bar and "eats, shoots and leaves". As noble Lords will know, it depends on where the comma is placed; indeed, as it does in the phrase about women and their requirement for men, which is in the same vein.

My noble friend raised a serious point. It is important that we ensure that children and adults—we have a huge basic literacy problem in this country—learn to speak, to read and to use English correctly. It is very important that people can converse and write in the tongue of this country, but it is also a useful tool in terms of learning other languages.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, as a grammarian by trade, I obviously declare an interest since anything that sells my books must be good. But would the Minister not agree that classroom emphasis ought principally to be on addressing the poverty of children's vocabulary; on helping them to enjoy and use the unparalleled riches of our lexicon; and on savouring the nuance of the mot juste, as we say in English?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the mot juste is a very important phase. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. I do not think that these ideas are in contradiction. We know that children who do not have access to a good, high quality teaching of vocabulary, and who do not have parental input that gives them the quality of vocabulary, tend to become poor readers and can end up in a downward spiral that leads to severe problems in the future. I could not agree more. It is part of the work being carried out in the Sure Start programme; that is, working with parents to help them to become the best educators that they can be for their young children.

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