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Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2008

The whole world is watching events unfold in Zimbabwe, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the situation as we understand it. I hope and believe that the people of Zimbabwe will hear one message from this House today: we stand with them at this moment of opportunity for their country and we share their demand for a democratic future.

For obvious reasons the fragility of the current situation means that I and, I am sure, all hon. Members will want to choose our words carefully, given the risk that what we say will be distorted. That does not mean that there are not some fundamental truths that need to be expressed.

I have within the last 30 minutes spoken to our ambassador in Harare. The situation is obviously fluid and a Movement for Democratic Change press conference is in train as we speak. Zimbabwe’s political, civic and economic leaders are clearly considering their next moves and each others’ next moves. The full results of the parliamentary elections are still unclear. The latest tally, as of 10 minutes ago, is that 189 seats have been declared and 80 remain to be declared. The two main parties are running neck and neck, at least according to the official figures.

There is still no formal announcement about the presidential election. Many hon. Members will have seen the comments made by Opposition Leader Tsvangirai last night. His comments and demeanour were statesmanlike. He committed himself to following Zimbabwean law, providing all the more reason for the results to be announced promptly.

Although the situation in Harare is tense, there is no suggestion of crowds massing and no reports of violence. But it is not business as usual: many schools are still closed and people are watching and waiting to see what will happen. Let me assure the House that through both political and official channels there has been a high degree of contact and consultation between the UK Government and our international partners. The Prime Minister, Lord Malloch-Brown and I have been in touch with Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers in southern Africa and around the world. There is international consensus that the will of the Zimbabwean people must be properly revealed and respected.

Last Saturday, the people of Zimbabwe made their choice. Outside the 9,400 polling stations, the tallies have been posted. The Zimbabwean electoral commission knows what those results are and has a duty to announce them. The delay in announcing the outcome can be seen only as a deliberate and calculated tactic. It gives substance to the suspicion that the authorities are reluctant to accept the will of the people. They have a responsibility to do so, and Zimbabwe’s neighbours, who have borne a significant share of the burden of Zimbabwe’s collapse, have a responsibility to do all in their power to ensure that that occurs.

No one in the House would want me to hand ZANU-PF a propaganda coup by endorsing one candidate or another, or by taking it on myself to announce the result. In truth, in spite of what President Mugabe would want the world to believe, the crisis in Zimbabwe has never been about personalities. It is not a bilateral dispute between British and Zimbabwean politicians or anyone else. It is, and has always been, about the policies that Robert Mugabe and his Government have chosen to follow and the terrible destruction that has been wreaked on the Zimbabwean people. Now the choice is between democracy and continued chaos.

The situation preceding these elections was shocking. The conditions for free and fair elections were certainly not in place. The playing field was tilted heavily in favour of ZANU-PF. Up to 4 million people who had fled Zimbabwe’s crisis could not vote. In some areas, between 18 and 20 per cent. of those who tried to vote were frustrated by an inaccurate electoral roll. We will probably never know how many dead people on that roll cast ghost votes. In that context, it is worth saying that if a second round of voting is deemed necessary, it must be held in a way that gives far greater respect not just to our standards but to the Southern African Development Community electoral standards. We remain in contact with our SADC partners on the issue.

We do know, however, that in spite of those problems, millions of ordinary Zimbabweans still queued peacefully and voted. Now they are holding their breath: will their country reverse the spiral of decline or exacerbate it? The facts speak for themselves: life expectancy has halved to an average of 34, nearly 2,500 AIDS-related deaths occur each week, inflation is practically incalculable and day-to-day abuse of human rights and freedoms is commonplace.

Britain has always supported the Zimbabwean people through the pain of their national trauma, and must continue to do so. We are the second largest bilateral donor, and spent more than £40 million last year on aid. Our support provided HIV treatment for more than 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients and helped the World Food Programme to feed up to 3 million people, about one quarter of Zimbabwe’s population.

We want to do more to encourage development within Zimbabwe. When there is real and positive policy change on the ground, the House has my assurance that Britain will play a full part in supporting recovery. We know that the Zimbabwean people face a massive rebuilding task. We will help them to do that, with EU and international colleagues, but that can happen only when and if there is a return to real democracy and good governance in Zimbabwe.

We will continue to do all that we can to encourage that to happen and to encourage other countries in the region to exert what influence they have over the situation in Zimbabwe. Those with the greatest influence are of course those closest to Zimbabwe, but we are clear that the situation will not be one that Africans alone have to carry the burden of supporting.

The House will want to know that our ambassador and embassy staff are safe. Both UK-based and local staff are working tirelessly in very difficult circumstances. They are in very close contact with a wide range of Zimbabweans and stand ready to offer consular assistance to the many British nationals in Zimbabwe.

Many hon. Members in all parts of the House have been tireless advocates for the true interests of Zimbabwe over many years. The people of Zimbabwe have suffered for too long. Every hon. Member and every British citizen will yearn with them for that suffering to end, and for it to end now.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House to make this statement. He said that he hoped and believed that the people of Zimbabwe would hear one message from this House—that we stand with them at this moment of opportunity. I absolutely support him in saying that so that they do hear that one message from this House, and we strongly support the Government’s calls for the immediate and full release of the results of the election.

This is obviously a crucial but dangerous time for Zimbabwe. As we saw recently in Kenya, contested election results in highly charged circumstances can lead to a very dangerous situation. In Zimbabwe, the combination of brutality and repression for many years, a desperate humanitarian crisis and decades-long stifling of political opposition create the circumstances of a political pressure cooker.

As the Foreign Secretary said, it is not about personalities. Mugabe is the author of Zimbabwe’s catastrophe, but it will no doubt take much more than his departure for the country to recover. However, there is now hope for change: the Mugabe Government may attempt to cling to power, but they may just be unable to resist the force of an overwhelming public rejection—if that is what has happened in the election.

I turn now to some specific questions. Is the Foreign Secretary aware of whether President Mugabe has spoken to any of the leaders of neighbouring countries? It does not seem so, but has he given those leaders any indication of his intentions?

There have been reports of negotiations between the Zimbabwean Government and Opposition leaders. Has the Foreign Secretary been able to confirm any of those reports? He rightly referred to our very hard working embassy officials, but have they been able to speak to Morgan Tsvangirai or his senior colleagues? What assessment has he made of the threat to Opposition figures, many of whom are reportedly in hiding in anticipation of a crackdown?

One of our immediate concerns, of course, is the safety of British citizens in Zimbabwe in the event of an outbreak of violence. The Foreign Secretary touched on that in his statement, but will he assure the House that our ambassador in Harare has well developed contingency plans if the situation suddenly deteriorates? Even before the crisis, it took Z$10 million to buy a loaf of bread, and 4 million people were dependent on food aid. Are the British Government liaising with the UN about preparations for emergency food and medical support, as well as for coping with a sudden outflow of refugees into neighbouring countries?

The Foreign Secretary mentioned continuing British support for the people of Zimbabwe. Does he agree that we must prepare actively now for the rehabilitation of Zimbabwe at the appropriate time—that is, when it is set on a clear course towards the rule of law and democracy? Whenever that happens, does he accept that Britain, with the international community, must be preparing a major programme of assistance now?

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that such a programme could include holding a donor conference, under the auspices of the European Union and the African Union, to develop a programme of assistance that is tailored to Zimbabwe’s needs? The programme could include setting up a contact group to provide sustained diplomatic support, and an offer to assist Zimbabwe in the move from being a culture of violence to one governed by the rule of law. That could be achieved by supporting thorough reform of the security sector, training officials in civilian policing and human rights, and assisting with the orderly return of the Zimbabwean refugees to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred. Could not that programme of assistance, in the event of a major deterioration in the situation in Zimbabwe, also include making preparations for an international observer mission or over-the-horizon humanitarian force, under the auspices of the AU and backed by the major powers in the world?

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there might be something of a golden hour—a window of opportunity—when the international community ought to be prepared to take rapid and decisive steps to help the people of Zimbabwe in rebuilding their country’s economy and society? To succeed, that country will need support from its neighbours, international organisations and its friends. Will he do his utmost to ensure that all of those stand ready to help?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words today, not least because the speed of change in the situation in Zimbabwe has made it difficult to give him as much advance notice of the contents of my statement as would normally be the case. A number of his questions would be very interesting to discuss, although probably not in the full glare of publicity in the House of Commons, so I hope that he will accept the following answers.

I think that the right thing to say about President Mugabe is that he has been conspicuous by his absence from the air and telephone waves. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned reports of negotiations, and we have seen them as well. In my statement, I said that senior figures in Zimbabwe were watching and waiting, and it is clear that discussions have been taking place both within and between parties.

The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about the security situation and the security of Opposition figures; that is obviously a great source of concern. There is also the issue of the security of Zimbabweans of all backgrounds. He asked about consular planning. Of course we try to stay in close touch with as many as possible of the 10,000 or 12,000 British nationals in Zimbabwe. We have reached some far outlying areas, but of course we cannot be complacent, given some of the doomsday scenarios that have been mooted. I can assure him that there has been a serious degree of activity on our part, and on the part of the Department for International Development, to deal with that contingency.

The other side of the coin is, of course, a brighter future for Zimbabwe. As I suggested in my statement, it is important that the whole international community is ready, when it has a decent partner Government in Harare, to take part in the sort of comprehensive economic, social, political and security engagements that will help to rehabilitate—I think that was the right hon. Gentleman’s word—the country. The rehabilitation will be on a scale not seen by almost any country for a long time. I cannot remember the exact levels of inflation in the Weimar Republic, but he mentioned that a loaf of bread cost Z$10 million; I think that four weeks ago it was Z$1 million. That is a degree of chaos that is almost unknown. However, I can certainly assure him that discussions are taking place.

It is incumbent on the Government to try to prepare for all eventualities. One can never have perfect foresight, but it is important to refer to the second round of elections that might be deemed necessary. If they are, we want them to take place on a fairer and freer basis. The humanitarian situation also needs to be prepared for as far as possible, and I am grateful for the fact that on that matter, at least, there is cross-party support.

When the change in Zimbabwe comes, there will be, as the Foreign Secretary says, 4 million people who are outside their country. Many of them are in South Africa, but there are quite a large number of Zimbabweans in this country. Will he have urgent discussions with his colleagues in other Departments, including the Department for International Development, and with the people responsible for the Border and Immigration Agency, about providing assistance and help, in a careful manner, to those Zimbabweans—doctors, nurses, teachers and others—who wish to go back to Zimbabwe to help to rebuild their democratic country?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are not yet ready to cross that bridge, but hopefully the time will soon come when we are, and I assure him that we will seek to do so in an effective and efficient way.

Although the House will clearly want to debate Zimbabwe, and although I understand why the Foreign Secretary felt that he needed to make this statement today, in doing so does he not run the risk of being deliberately misinterpreted? Will he share with the House the exact reasons why he decided to make the statement, and why he did not contact the Opposition parties to see whether we would agree on whether to delay the statement? Will he reassure the Opposition parties that when there is something solid to comment on he will update us, especially during the recess?

The whole House will share the great hope and excitement, expressed by many voices coming out of Zimbabwe through blogs and other media, that we may be about to witness historic, positive change in that wonderful country, which was brought to its knees by misrule of the most odious kind. I therefore agree with the Foreign Secretary that the Zimbabwean electoral commission must publish all the election results without further delay. Is not the most striking and fantastic aspect of the Zimbabwean general election the strong showing of the opposition parties, despite the massive electoral fraud and despite the political corruption? May I therefore associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Foreign Secretary’s expression of solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe? We have a shared belief that the true democratic will of the Zimbabwean people must be heard and acted on. As I have made clear, I understand that the Foreign Secretary wishes to tread carefully, but will he confirm that the targeted EU sanctions will be maintained and toughened if the current regime tries to hold on to power in the face of a confirmed democratic verdict?

The Foreign Secretary has begun to outline some of the Government’s thinking on the help that Britain and the international community are already organising for a fresh Government. Will he assure the House that such support for recovery and reconstruction will be rapid and generous? Does he recognise that there must be no delay in providing support? Proposals such as new World Bank support and donor conferences are of course sensible, but assuming that those proposals go ahead, will he ensure that matters are so organised that international pledges of help actually materialise once the summit headlines have gone, as the record in Iraq and Afghanistan is not encouraging?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the support that the international community supplies also flows into Zimbabwe’s neighbours, as their populations and economies have sheltered the vast majority of the refugees and exiles escaping Mugabe’s tyranny?

I hope I may suggest, in the nicest possible way, that the fact that the hon. Gentleman has been able to ask four or five perfectly sensible questions shows that perhaps it was not completely ridiculous to make a statement today. However, I do not want to fall out with him about that. I will check with my office, but I would not want it to stand on the record that there had been no contact with the Opposition parties over the last two days; it is important that there is contact.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point: one reason for being here today is the fact that the recess beckons, and I shall ensure that we stay in touch, even if not in quite such proximity, over the next two weeks.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me into a series of perfectly legitimate hypothetical situations, either where democratic will is frustrated and sanctions continue or where democratic will is respected and rehabilitation and reconstruction are necessary on a grand scale. It is important, particularly given what he said about the danger of misrepresentation, that we keep saying that the onus is on the Zimbabwean electoral commission to announce the results and that the international community shoulder its responsibilities as it does so, although we must be clear that we are prepared for a range of eventualities. I hope he understands that to go beyond that could be seen as not terribly helpful. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the impact of Zimbabwe on its neighbours is important, however, and many people will scratch their heads at how countries surrounding Zimbabwe have had to cope with such an influx of Zimbabwean refugees and how they have tried to manage the politics, as well as the social and economic consequences, of that.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State for International Development and I try to look at southern Africa regionally, as well as nationally and locally, in relation to how our aid and other programmes work. We will continue to do so.

First, may I endorse everything the Foreign Secretary has said and, secondly, put to him the following? One of the few things that Mr. Mugabe has been successful at is representing his difficulties as a bilateral dispute between him and the UK and a legacy of colonialism. He has succeeded in convincing many of his African colleagues of that. Therefore, those who consider themselves friends of Zimbabwe should, as my right hon. Friend said a moment ago, be cautious in what they say at this delicate time to ensure that our position is not misrepresented, as it will be if we put a foot wrong.

My hon. Friend speaks with the authority of a former Minister for Africa, and in short I agree with him. I know that he is a true friend of the Zimbabwean people, and in everything he has said and done he has shown that.

It certainly appears that the prayers of those of us in the House who have taken an interest in Zimbabwe over many years may finally have been answered and that, despite an election that was clearly anything but free and fair, a majority of the people of Zimbabwe have clearly indicated that they want change. I agree with everything the Foreign Secretary said, as I do with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said.

Will the Foreign Secretary give the House further information about the immediate aid that we can give to the people, not a Government, of Zimbabwe to reduce starvation and to help in relation to health and with AIDS, as well as the problems associated with it? That would give them hope that what they have done so bravely will be rewarded by a country that was in part responsible for bringing Mr. Mugabe to power.

The hon. Gentleman speaks with real passion, born of long engagement with the struggles of the people of Zimbabwe, or long sympathy with their recent struggles. He will know that the aid programme is now almost £50 million. It is paid through the United Nations, whose role was highlighted earlier.

The best thing might be to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to put a note in the Library before the rise of the House tomorrow afternoon. I hope that there will be a double purpose in that: first, to inform hon. Members, but also to help to make it clear to the British people what difference their tax money is making today to the people of Zimbabwe.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one fact is crystal clear—Mugabe has lost? First, if he had won, he would triumphantly have proclaimed that fact, as he did on all previous occasions. Secondly, for the first time we have an aggregation by independent monitors of results posted up outside local polling stations, and they show that he has lost. That being the case, it is vital that the international community stand together with the UN, the European Union and the southern African countries to ensure that an orderly transition of power takes place, and that there is an end to the prevarication and, frankly, the complicity with Mugabe’s murderous rule, which there has been from Beijing to southern Africa for far too long. Mugabe has shown consistently that he will not go unless he has no alternative but to go. Quiet diplomacy has never worked with him.

My right hon. Friend, I am sure, is right about the significance of international unity, and seeking that international unity across the EU and the southern African countries is important. I very much concur about the significance and stress that he placed on the role of the civil society organisation ZENS—the Zimbabwe Election Support Network—and the highly innovative mobile phone-based photography it has produced of results posted outside polling stations, under quite some threat to the individual security of its members. I choose my words carefully: like my right hon. Friend, I have seen the results that came out of the sample—540 of 9,400—that the civil society organisation chose.

There will be time for a post mortem on how we got here, and no doubt there will be different views on which countries played what role. At the moment, however, I would prefer to stick with the importance that my right hon. Friend placed on unity and the role of civil society organisations.

I commend the Foreign Secretary for his restraint. Does he accept that although we here may feel a sense of responsibility, the harsh truth is that our influence is necessarily limited by the fact that we are the former colonial power? Is it not therefore the case that these events are a test for Zimbabwe and its people, but that, in a political sense, they are a real test for the countries of southern Africa—in particular, South Africa? Will he assure us that he has taken every opportunity to communicate our views to the Government of that country and, in particular, to Mr. Mbeki?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point. As I think the Leader of the House said at Prime Minister’s questions today, our Prime Minister spoke to President Mbeki on Monday. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that that conversation is about not only communicating our views, which is the phrase he used, but trying to discuss with President Mbeki how both our countries can play an appropriate role in addressing this situation. I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with that.

As I said in my statement, the people who have suffered most are those in Zimbabwe. Those who know best the need for change are in Zimbabwe, but of course the neighbours close to Zimbabwe are greatly affected by these events.

In respect of our own role, it is important that we do not in any way—I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not do this—fall into the trap that was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). We should not say things that play in the wrong way.

Equally, we should not be at all ashamed of the aid and other programmes that we have sent to Zimbabwe over the last 28 years, destined to help the people of that country. In fact, we should try to be proud and to stand up for the fundamental truths that we have tried to express in the actions that we have taken. That is a difficult balance to strike, and I know that that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman was referring to. Certainly, it is the balance that we are trying to strike. We are concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe because of the wrongs that are being done to people who deserve better.

I welcome the statement. This is an opportunity for us to send a simple message of support to the people of Zimbabwe without getting into any of the details that might be awkward. I also welcome the fact that both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have spent a great deal of time over the past few days on the telephone doing the work necessary to keep the international community and the European Union together on the issue. Does he agree—this follows on a little from the previous question—that the role of South Africa in the next couple of days will be crucial, and can he assure me and all those in this country who have supported South Africa and who have links with South Africa and President Mbeki that this is the opportunity for President Mbeki to show that he is a true world statesman?

My hon. Friend, like the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), has played a valiant role in highlighting the situation in Zimbabwe and campaigning for effective international action on the issue. The international unity to which she refers was brought home to me at the meeting that I held in Paris on Monday. When I suggested to my six EU colleagues that we should interrupt a meeting about the French European presidency to talk about the situation in Zimbabwe, they wanted that to be the first item on the agenda because they saw the importance of it. I took heart from that that the matter is not seen just as a bilateral issue. Of course my hon. Friend is right that South Africa has the opportunity to be a powerhouse, economically and politically, for the whole of southern Africa, and the partnership with South Africa is extremely important. It is important to register the fact that many South Africans would say that the elections would not have happened at all without their intervention. Hopefully, those elections will allow the democratic will of the Zimbabwean people to be expressed.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Although we must indeed be cautious about what we say today, those many of us in the House who have campaigned over the years for the democratic rights of the Zimbabwean people must hope and pray that this is the end of the long dark night of Zimbabwe and the breaking of a new democratic dawn. The lesson of history is that democracy can very quickly be undermined by chaos, and that the only way that can be avoided, as we have learned painfully in another area, is by having a comprehensive plan for reconstruction and aid in place, to be put into action immediately. While we wait for the result, can the Foreign Secretary, along with his international colleagues, begin to put that plan together so that once democracy is restored in Zimbabwe, as I hope it will be, there is no delay before that plan goes into action?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. I think he agrees with me that it is possible to be diplomatic in what one says without obscuring the fundamental truths that need to be expressed. He has expressed them in his own way. I have expressed the same sentiment. The shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), referred earlier to Kenya. We want to try to avoid a Kenya situation. We are in a pre-Kenya situation in one way, which could easily become a Kenya situation, with the violence to which the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was referring. That is a huge challenge. Every time we describe the chaos that has taken place in Zimbabwe over the past few years, we dramatise the difficulties of precisely the sort of operation that he mentioned, but he can be assured that although we are trying to engage on the immediate issue, we have an eye on tomorrow as well as on today. We will do our best in that respect.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his sensitive approach to the matter. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) that had President Mugabe won, we would have known about it by now. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary may not be able to answer this question exactly, but I hope he will understand what I am trying to say. Mugabe has had five days to move his money, resources, diamonds and the oil that he owns outside the country. Can my right hon. Friend reassure us that all the international banks will have a letter from us if not today, then tomorrow, asking them to search the electronic records to make sure that no money is moved in any of the hundreds of accounts that Mugabe owns, especially those in Cairo?

The important thing to say is that our focus is on the interests of the people of Zimbabwe. That is the foundation of what we are doing. It is better if I just say that.

Can the Foreign Secretary outline further what the Government will do to help the development of proper democracy in Zimbabwe and a move away from the corruption that has been endemic in that nation? Will he indicate what steps we can take to try to ensure that the 4 million refugees who had to leave Zimbabwe are allowed to return to help democracy flourish in that benighted land?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is worth remarking just how deep the democratic spirit is in Zimbabwe. Despite everything that has been thrown at them, far from forgetting how to vote or dispensing with their democratic rights, millions of people were determined to vote.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) is right. The Zimbabwean people’s faith in the ballot box has, remarkably, been undimmed by the traumas and travails that they have been through. In some ways, the nurturing of the democratic spirit is far ahead of the nurturing of democratic institutions in that country. In respect of democratic institutions, I know that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) is committed to the work of the Westminster Foundation and other party-to-party links, which are important in building a decent civil society. That will be very important in the difficult task of reconstruction.

I warmly welcome the statement made by the Foreign Secretary today and the fact that he and the Prime Minister have telephoned so many African leaders. May I press the point made by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee? Will the Foreign Secretary speak to the Home Secretary about the Zimbabwean citizens in this country, many of whom do not wish to go back until the situation is secure? Will he ensure that there is no change in Government policy and there will be no removals until the situation is secure?

I am happy to speak to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about the matter in due course. It has been a pervading aspect of all our discussions that no one should do anything precipitate. That is the approach that we will take.

There will be a great welcome when Zimbabwe again becomes a full member of the Commonwealth. When the election results come, may I commend to the Foreign Secretary two quick words? The first is from Kenneth Kaunda, who said when he stopped being President of Zambia, “You win some, you lose some,” and secondly, the words of the Lord Privy Seal 26 years ago who, when criticised for the result of the elections after Lancaster house, said, “With free and fair elections, you can’t always predict the result.”

Those are good points. An hon. Member referred earlier to the result that we had produced in the first elections of Zimbabwe. The result was produced by the Zimbabwean people, but the democratic spirit has lived on. Although I have been lucky enough in my political lifetime only to win some, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that one wins some and loses some. Hopefully, we will not be able to enjoy that experience in the near future.

During 2004 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee was somewhat surprised, during a visit to South Africa, at the level of support for President Mugabe and the criticism of the United Kingdom for the comments that we were making at the time in criticising his regime. African leaders have acquiesced in Mugabe’s tenure of office over the past few years. It is crucial—I echo calls from other Members around the House—that my right hon. Friend does all he can to engage those leaders and, if there is a result that represents the return of democracy to Zimbabwe, to ensure that it is implemented. That is the key. At present, democracy no longer exists in Zimbabwe.

My hon. Friend leads me towards an important point. The temptations of the megaphone are very large indeed, especially where terrible things are being done, but sometimes the megaphone is not the best tool of diplomacy. Equally, to be timid is not right. To be silent is therefore to become complicit. The challenge for us all is to find a way to be effective without resorting to the megaphone, which, in the end, becomes ineffective. We all need to recognise my hon. Friend’s point about the striking support that continues or previously continued to exist for Robert Mugabe. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), there will come a time for analysis. One of the things that will come out of that is that the megaphone that plays well here does not necessarily play well in the place that really matters. The challenge for us all is to make sure that we find the right implement.

In his discussions, has the Foreign Secretary had time to speak to President Seretse Khama Ian Khama, who was sworn in as President of Botswana only yesterday? I know that the President is a close personal friend of the Secretary of State for International Development. Will the Foreign Secretary be specific about the Commonwealth? If and when Zimbabwe returns to the road of democracy, as the Foreign Secretary describes it, will it be welcomed back into the Commonwealth immediately? That is one organisation to which the front-line states do belong and it could really participate in the rebuilding of civil society in Zimbabwe.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In answering the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), I did not give due attention to that issue. This is an opportunity for the Commonwealth to show its real worth in the modern age. I will certainly be in touch with the new Commonwealth secretary-general, who started yesterday, at the appropriate time.

I believe in the Commonwealth. An organisation that covers a quarter of the world’s population—north, east, south and west, and all races and religions—has the opportunity to show what it means for different countries to work together and make the phrase “the international community” mean something. This situation is a good example.

I think that I am right in saying that it was Zimbabwe that pulled out of the Commonwealth, rather than the Commonwealth that kicked out Zimbabwe in the beginning. But I very much hope that, first, a new Government in Zimbabwe would want to rejoin the Commonwealth, and, secondly, that the Commonwealth would give the country a very warm embrace.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Although I recognise the need for caution, does he not agree that the international community has a key role to play in standing absolutely firm and sending a clear message to the authorities in Zimbabwe that we recognise that this is a defining moment in the country’s history, and it is inconceivable that there cannot be change of some sort? There is also a role for us to step up to the plate with the funds and the support for development. I am sure that, with those, the many extremely able and talented Zimbabweans will more than succeed in rebuilding their country.

I agree with my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about these issues. She is absolutely right about the potential of the country. It is a tragedy for any country to do as badly as Zimbabwe; it is a double tragedy when it has the natural resources and people to make a great success of itself.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that there is enormous good will between the ordinary people of the United Kingdom and the ordinary people of Zimbabwe, no matter how they voted? Will he also agree that the front-line Southern African Development Community states have an important role to play, in particular in reversing the brain drain—to encourage ordinary hard-working people to go back to Zimbabwe and build the country back to its former success?

The hon. Gentleman makes good points. As I said, we do not want to do anything precipitate. However, the outflux of refugees to the neighbouring countries has certainly been a huge drain on Zimbabwe and a huge burden for South Africa and other neighbouring countries. It is important that Zimbabwe returns to the equilibrium that it deserves.

What direct contacts has the Foreign Secretary had with his opposite numbers in the front-line states at this critical time before the election results are formally announced, so that they may encourage recognition of the wish of the Zimbabwean people for the rule of law and democracy?

I am happy to give one of a number of examples. The first call that I had was with the Foreign Minister of Tanzania. Our conversation was precisely about the respective responsibilities of the states closest to Zimbabwe. The Minister’s President was deeply engaged on the issue. I shared with the Minister our hopes for the resolution of the situation, and we had a strong measure of agreement about the respective responsibilities of the different countries concerned.

In the past few days, constituents of mine with strong connections to the rural areas of Zimbabwe have brought me accounts of orphanages and elderly people’s homes in dire distress. In some cases, staff have already left and elderly people, often with serious geriatric conditions, are left wandering around to try to feed themselves. The children in the orphanages are left untended and, in many cases, unfed.

May I echo the plea of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to the Government? When the will of the people of Zimbabwe is known and, as we all hope, Mugabe is removed, a programme of emergency relief must be immediately available from this country and we must not forget the elderly people’s homes and orphanages, particularly in the often forgotten rural areas.

My earlier comment to the shadow Foreign Secretary about the particular needs of British—as it happens—nationals in far-flung areas was a reference precisely to the issue of children and, especially, elderly people. I would prefer not to wait in respect of elderly or young people who are in the situation that the hon. and learned Gentleman describes; if he gets the details of those cases to my office, I will forward them to the embassy in Harare straight away. There is already a food aid programme with significant British taxpayers’ money behind it. It is administered through the UN. We need to know who the people whom the hon. and learned Gentleman mentions are, and find out why they are not part of the humanitarian support network.

Some of us warned many years ago that Mr. Mugabe was not a fit person to be entrusted with the governance of Zimbabwe. We have looked on with increasing dismay and horror as he has systematically gone about destroying his country—almost with the connivance of the South African Government, as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) said.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary a specific question about what he said about aid? Will he ensure that the British taxpayer, having already contributed a substantial amount of money to Zimbabwe, does not contribute more aid unless it is specifically linked to good governance in Zimbabwe in future?

The position that my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary and I have taken consistently is that the amount of aid should be governed by the situation of the people of Zimbabwe and our ability to make a difference with that aid. As the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) suggested in the previous question, we would not want to stand aside if pressing needs could be met through available aid.

As I keep on referring to the UN, I should say that we are not paying money through the Zimbabwean Government. If the concern of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is that our money is being used for illegal or corrupt purposes, I should tell him that significant measures are taken to avoid that.

Although nothing that we say or do today in the House should in any way endanger attempts to persuade Mugabe to retire peacefully, will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that the Government will not condone any deal that would eventually put Mugabe beyond the reach of The Hague?

Our position on that issue is well known; we are very committed to the role of the authorities at The Hague. I do not want to get into the issue of individual negotiations and discussions, but I can certainly say that they are not something in which I am involved.

Those of us who have been involved in this issue for many years might wish in our hearts to see a Ceausescu moment, when the world sees fear in the eyes of a despot. However, like all of us in the House, I recognise that such emotions are self-indulgent. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, looking forward, one of the most important things that we have to do is stop the Zimbabwe central bank printing money like confetti? To do that, we need to implement the International Monetary Fund plan on which Mugabe reneged some time ago. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that will require huge will from the international community? It is something that we really can do to bring about a rapid turnaround—I hope—in the Zimbabwean economy.

The situation has got significantly worse since that plan was rejected; I would want to be sure that the plan was appropriate to the circumstances. However, I know that my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, and the Chancellor when he goes to the IMF spring meetings, will ensure that the issue will be on the agenda so that there is a proper plan when the time comes.