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House of Lords

Monday, 19 January 2004.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Zimbabwe: British Food Aid

Lord Watson of Richmond asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What arrangements exist for the distribution of British food aid in Zimbabwe now that the country has withdrawn from the Commonwealth.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the Commonwealth has had no effect on the levels of humanitarian funding or the way in which British food aid is distributed. The UK Government remain committed to supporting the people of Zimbabwe, who are suffering as a result of their government's disastrous policies, erratic rainfall and HIV/AIDS. DfID continues to work in close collaboration with the UN World Food Programme and NGOs to ensure that food distribution is carried out in an apolitical manner and targets those in most need.

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply and for her clarification. Does the Minister not agree, however, that there is a real danger that Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth can also be Zimbabwe out of the public eye? Given the complete apparent failure of all attempts to persuade Mr Mugabe to follow another course, including the so-called "too little, too late" sanction on his financial assets held abroad, has not the time now come for the international community in the Commonwealth and beyond to consider new and tougher measures with regard to Zimbabwe, if that country is to avoid ruin and the world is to avoid the danger that Zimbabwe seriously begins to destabilise South Africa itself?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, and in particular the view that Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth could mean Zimbabwe out of the public eye. We have a responsibility in the international community to ensure that that does not happen. Noble Lords have pressed the Government several times with respect to the issue of a UN resolution, and we have taken soundings on that. The temperature is not right for it at this point in time, but I agree with the noble Lord that the international community really has to continue to put pressure on Zimbabwe.

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Lord Acton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the current appeal for vulnerable Zimbabweans by the UN World Food Programme has fallen short by 40 million dollars? Is she aware that, as a result, in this month the World Food Programme can feed a totally inadequate diet to only 3.2 million people and cannot feed a further 300,000 people at all? Britain has been very generous in this matter, but can the Government try to find some more money? Can they encourage Germany, Japan and other countries to do the same thing?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. The WFP appeal for Zimbabwe is currently 80 per cent funded, with a shortfall of some 39 million dollars. However, I have to tell my noble friend that we are hopeful that the shortfall will be reached, in the sense that we expect an announcement from the European Commission shortly. We are continuing to monitor the situation and, if it continues to deteriorate, I assure my noble friend that we shall look again at our own contribution.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the local churches in Zimbabwe were disturbed at the directive last year that gave local councillors a leading role in deciding who would get food aid? Does she know whether the subsequent understanding negotiated with the Zimbabwean government, which precludes such political interference, has been honoured?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my understanding is that that memorandum of understanding between the World Food Programme and the Government of Zimbabwe has been honoured. There have been one or two minor incidents that have been dealt with promptly, but the kind of political interference that the Government of Zimbabwe tried to introduce into the system has not occurred.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords, will the Government give particular support to the women of Zimbabwe on 14 February, St Valentine's Day, when they take to the streets to protest at the situation in which their families find themselves? On that particular day, very vocal and high-profile government support would be enormously helpful and supportive to them.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. The women of Zimbabwe are under particular pressure. We all know how difficult it is to see families and children go hungry. We shall continue to do all we can with respect to the humanitarian situation. Of course, we are one of the only countries that continues to give support with respect to HIV/AIDS problems in Zimbabwe.

Lord Laing of Dunphail: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that Mr Mugabe, considering the destruction that he has caused in that great country, could be embraced by the title of a "weapon of mass destruction"?

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Baroness Amos: My Lords, we have all agreed that Mr Mugabe's policies have been disastrous for Zimbabwe and for the people of Zimbabwe. I am not sure that I entirely agree with the way in which the noble Lord has phrased his question.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, has the Minister read the reports about the collapse of the currency in Zimbabwe and the difficulty of paying local aid workers there? Could she elaborate on what is happening to ensure that aid workers who are trying to get food aid into the country are being paid and that the food is, therefore, getting through to the people?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, is quite right. Inflation is rife and this is one of the reasons behind the increase in the number of Zimbabweans who require additional food support. People can no longer afford to buy food in the shops. With respect to the impact on the pay of aid workers, I was not aware that this is a particular problem. I shall take this information away and write to the noble Baroness.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lady Amos for confirming that the situation is kept under constant review. Is she aware—I am sure that she is—of the reports over the weekend of grave food shortages in South Africa itself? A drought is affecting the whole of the region and we must not allow distaste for the Mugabe regime to deflect us from making sure that the aid programme is carried out to the fullest extent.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. This is an issue that affects southern Africa as a whole, although Zimbabwe has suffered disproportionately because of disastrous economic policies. We are keeping the situation across the whole of southern Africa under review.

Iraq War: Strategic Communications Networks

2.43 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether strategic communications networks functioned satisfactorily during the Iraq war.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, overall our communications equipment worked well in Operation TELIC, as outlined in the recent National Audit Office report. The Bowman personal role radio was a great success. However, the rigorous lessons process conducted by my department has identified that the very high level of information exchange requirements between the United Kingdom and the Gulf, coupled with the very dynamic operational situation, meant that there were occasions on which

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the maintenance of strategic communications links proved challenging. However, these difficulties did not significantly affect the overall outcome of operations.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he not agree that if the strategic tasks set out in Essay 2 of the last Defence White Paper are to be discharged, effective—indeed, perfect—strategic communications are essential? Can he now give an answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, in the recent defence debate? Will there be someone in the Ministry of Defence who is specifically charged with ownership—that is to say, responsibility—for communications between home and expeditionary forces?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about the importance of strategic communications in a conflict such as this. It is important to realise what the NAO said, which was that,

    "the majority of communications equipment worked well on the operation, although the force sometimes had difficulty maintaining strategic communications between United Kingdom and units in theatre".

There was a difference between the Gulf conflict of 1991 and last year's conflict. The total information exchange requirement was increased by a factor of at least eight. It is not surprising that things did not go perfectly, but I repeat that, on balance, they went entirely satisfactorily and I can confirm that there will be a position in the Permanent Joint Headquarters that will be responsible for dealing with the issue of strategic communications.

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