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House of Lords

Tuesday, 9 November 2004.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.


Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, my colleague, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for Africa, Chris Mullin, met the Somali transitional president in Nairobi on 20 October and the head of the Somaliland authorities in Hargeisa on 23 October. He encouraged both parties to engage in an early dialogue with each other to reject military solutions to the resolution of differences and to demonstrate a commitment to mutual respect, reconciliation and peace.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I warmly welcome the efforts that Mr Mullin has made in the region in his visits to Somalia and Somaliland, and in his press conference with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and President Abdullahi Yusuf in Addis Ababa, but are not new efforts required in the light of the aggression by Puntland, the former territory of the president, against neighbouring Somaliland and the occupation of part of that territory by the militias? What steps will either we or the international community take through the United Nations Security Council to put an end to this aggression?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words about Chris Mullin, which are well deserved. On 29 October we received reports about the outbreaks of fighting on the border between Somaliland and Puntland, to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred. Staff at our embassy in Addis Ababa are urgently trying to clarify what the situation on the ground really is. We urge both sides to show restraint and to cease hostilities. As for the international community, I understand that the United Nations believes that it is important to stay engaged on this issue and to support the transitional federal government, and it is seeking to do so through appropriate channels.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that Somalia's mothers, because of all the troubles, are suffering an alarming healthcare crisis? According to the World Health Organisation, obstructed labour in childbirth, with its side-effects, accounts for a third of all maternal deaths. Even UNICEF estimates that as many
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as 97 per cent of the women are affected. Can the Minister say what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to address this issue?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. Instability combined with the difficulties of the climate mean that Somalia suffers from some of the worst socio-economic indicators anywhere in the world. The malnutrition rates for children are running at around 15 per cent and the child mortality rate is one in four, which is extraordinarily high. The Department for International Development is in the final stages of drawing together a country engagement plan which identifies a number of areas on which to focus, including health and education, issues around HIV/AIDS and the all-important issues around conflict prevention, which often are the root cause of some of these difficulties.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, in light of the Minister for Africa's commitment of 22 October to help to disarm Somali militia, have Her Majesty's Government asked the United Nations for an investigation into reports that Abdullahi Yusuf has imported weapons from the Yemen, contrary to the UN embargo?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not believe that a direct approach of that nature has been made, but, as I am sure the noble Baroness will understand, the fact that Somalia has been without an effective, functioning government since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991 means that many parts of the country have been largely anarchic and that there are frequent outbreaks of violence. It is very difficult to tell what is going on the ground; indeed, we do not have a mission there because there has not been a recognised government for so long. Issues surrounding terrorism and the way in which the country may attract the passage of illicit weaponry are very much at the top of the agenda of my honourable friend Mr Mullin.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in pursuing the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, does the Minister agree that conflict, the violence and the communal fratricide taking place in Somalia, Sudan, the Congo and throughout that part of Africa have already been responsible for the deaths of millions of people and for the destabilisation of the region? Does she further agree that unless we can stop the flow of arms and weapons into that part of the world, development will be almost impossible and that poverty, AIDS relief and all other related questions will be extraordinarily difficult to tackle while conflict remains unresolved?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I strongly agree with that; indeed, I spoke yesterday at a conference dealing with the way in which we might restrict the flow of weapons around the world, including the small arms that cause so much damage. Sometimes we tend to concentrate on the big weaponry, but it is often the small weapons that do so much damage.
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Somalia is a particular case, simply because it has had no functioning government for so long. Given that there has been a change with the transitional government, there may be a way forward. There does at least seem to be a willingness to engage and a possibility of real dialogue in future, both between the factions within Somalia and with Somaliland. The noble Lord is quite right—conflict prevention runs at the root of these issues.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, given that the peace process in Nairobi was not complete, will the Minister consider asking the African Union whether it might invite the faction leaders to a meeting in Addis Ababa or elsewhere at which they might agree on a new measure to halt all fighting so that President Yusuf could return to his own country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I did not catch the first part of the noble Lord's question, but I think that he was saying that the peace process was not working. I take issue with that, if that was the purport of his question. We believe that the current transitional federal government may offer one of the best chances for some time for moving forward on the peace agenda. My honourable friend Mr Mullin, when he was in the region, felt that in Somaliland real progress was being made and he also felt that the willingness to engage among the leaders of Somalia that he met gave some hope that these issues would move forward.

Passive Smoking

Baroness O'Cathain asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, health Ministers have been clarifying aspects of the committee's report. The report reviews previously published scientific literature on the health effects of second-hand smoke. It updates the committee's 1998 report on this subject. It will be published alongside the White Paper on public health.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which he will not be surprised to learn I do not think is very satisfactory. Could he at least confirm that the report contains the most devastating indictment yet of the danger of second-hand smoke? Is it true that the report states that as a result of second-hand smoke there is an increased risk of 25 per cent for lung cancer and 24 per cent for heart disease; and that it recommends that no infant, child or adult should be exposed to second-hand smoke as it is a substantial public health hazard?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Baroness will have to wait until the report is published.
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I have always found that deferred gratification makes the enjoyment of reading documents even richer. Over the past year the Government have taken a number of steps to raise awareness of the health risks associated with second-hand smoke. We funded the UK's first ever substantial campaign to raise public awareness of the health risks from second-hand smoke. Many noble Lords may have seen those advertisements on the television.

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