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Volume 473: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2008

3. What steps his Department is taking to promote free and fair elections in developing countries. (193264)

Free and fair elections are central to better governance and accountability in developing countries, with primary responsibility resting with the relevant Government. Support is given by the UK at elections, including election observation and voter registration, as well as in between elections to Parliaments, civil society and other institutions.

This is all very valuable work, but does the Under-Secretary think that her efforts have been helped or hindered by her boss’s involvement in elections at home, which were criticised in a report from the Electoral Commission as overlooking voter interests—[Interruption.]

Further to that, the Under-Secretary wishes to be fair. Given that the Council of Europe, for example, has taken up concerns about our own electoral arrangements in relation to postal voting, will she assure the House that when she advises foreign countries and electoral authorities, she will have regard to the need to be scrupulous in terms of best practice rather than some of the practices that may have characterised recent elections here?

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman has concerns about matters in the UK, he will raise them with the appropriate Secretary of State. It is important that we support not just free and fair elections at election time, but underlying systems and processes. We work hard with Parliaments, media and civil society, and the hon. Gentleman will want to know that we have established a governance and transparency fund to support accountability and governance in developing countries. We will soon be announcing the recipients of that fund.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that we get free and fair elections in Tibet? What pressure can be placed on China to ensure that Tibet gets those free and fair elections as soon as possible?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working with, and will continue to work closely with, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on that. I will bring his concerns to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.

May I caution the Minister against putting too much reliance on Governments to patrol and police their own elections and encourage her to put more effort into strengthening the capacity of Parliaments to hold the Executive to account? The catastrophe in Kenya happened when President Kibaki stuffed the electoral commission of Kenya. Surely it is for the cross-party forum, the Parliament of Kenya, and not the Government of national unity to reform the law so that the electoral commission of Kenya represents all parties in civil society and has credibility when the next elections come?

My hon. Friend has a creditable record in this area through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I commend his leadership of that organisation and the work that it does. We support the building up of the capacity of Parliaments and political parties in many of the countries in which we work. That includes transparency and support in terms of the selection of candidates and how campaign issues are articulated. I can assure my hon. Friend that we believe that continued work will be very important in building Kenya.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), the hon. Lady will be aware that the Department for International Development has spent more than £50 million in Kenya this year, including £600,000 on election monitoring. What lessons have she and her Department learned from the recent events there?

Perhaps I could put on record once again the fact that nobody could have predicted the scale of post-election violence in Kenya, and our approach is very much that it is not business as usual. We did much work before the Kenyan elections, and we now need to move from the not-business-as-usual approach to a transitional period. We are currently providing £50 million in aid, and we are keeping our programme continually under review. I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not providing that assistance through a general Government budget, but instead we are ensuring that it goes direct to the Kenyan people who are most in need.

Is not one of the most significant lessons the importance of building civil society and holding politicians to account over the long term? Why then, according to the last Kenya country assistance plan, was spending by DFID on governance and accountability cut?

Of course, our key role is to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable people get the aid they need most, so we are ensuring that health and education are receiving such aid. The setting up of the governance and transparency fund, worth some £130 million, will ensure that we increase support for activities that focus on accountability, which I know is of great concern to the hon. Gentleman. We have had many applicants, including Oxfam and other such organisations, and I look forward to making an announcement on that soon.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many people understand that the situation in Kenya was extremely difficult and very worrying and wish to congratulate the Secretary of State and his colleagues on the British contribution to finding a solution? Is she also aware that many people would plead with the Department to continue to support Kofi Annan in the excellent work he is doing?

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s words of congratulation. We have been supporting the Kofi Annan mediation process and will continue to do so. The Government very much welcome the announcement of a peace deal. This is an optimistic and challenging time for Kenya, and it is important that we continue to work within that country to rebuild it so that Kenyans can look forward to peace, stability and further growth.

What action are the Government taking to guarantee free and fair elections in Zimbabwe? It is important that those elections are fair and free in order to bring about a change of Government in that country.

The hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that there need to be free and fair elections, and the reality is that the conditions are not in place. I met with the UK ambassador to Zimbabwe last week, and I discussed that matter with him. The UK will continue to provide support for the poorest through non-governmental organisations and the United Nations. We do not accept the list of observers, so we are working closely with civil society organisations to strengthen the process. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we will continue to monitor and work on the situation with the international community.