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International Development

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Guyana

1. What work his Department is undertaking with the Government of Guyana to promote the preservation of the rain forest in that country. (266024)

We regularly discuss forest protection with the Guyanese. We are working directly with the Government of Guyana, and through the World Bank, to help Guyana to conserve its rain forests. We expect a national consultation on that work to begin in Guyana next month.

Will the Government consider proposing at the Copenhagen climate summit at the end of the year—as has been suggested in Guyana—international oversight of the Guyanese rain forest, so that it can become an important carbon sink and present a potential low-carbon investment opportunity?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes, but, if I may, I shall give him a slightly longer answer. We need to get right the international oversight and the whole question of deforestation and forest degradation. The hon. Gentleman will know that a number of other rain forests are hugely important internationally, and we need to think about how best we can work with countries. We are giving resources not only directly to the Guyanese but to a number of other countries, to help them to deal with exactly this issue.

Does my hon. Friend recall that in January, in a reply to a question from me, his Department said that some of its officials would be meeting their opposite numbers in Guyana? Was that meeting fruitful, and has it been followed up? The question is all the more important because, as he will know, the loggers are not the easiest people with whom to deal.

My right hon. Friend is right in saying that the loggers, particularly the illegal loggers, are very difficult to deal with. We have been working for some time, not only in Guyana but in a number of other developing countries, to help Governments to tackle illegal logging. As my right hon. Friend says, we have been meeting the Guyanese regularly, and we are helping them to develop a national strategy to manage their rain forest. As I said to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), a national consultation on those measures will begin shortly in Guyana.

In 2005, floods caused economic damage to 60 per cent. of Guyana’s GDP as a result of changing weather patterns. What is being done to help the poorest developing countries to adapt to the effect of changing weather patterns and climate change?

We are working with a range of developing countries, including Guyana. The Department is not only providing resources directly through its bilateral budgets but is working closely with international organisations such as the World Bank. We are providing a number of developing countries with staff with expertise who will be able to help them to develop their own strategies for tackling climate change.

As the Minister knows, the great majority of the world’s remaining rain forests are within the boundaries of developing countries. We have heard about the international supervision that may emerge in Guyana. What is the potential for a carry-over to other nations? I am thinking not least of the difficulties that can be caused by bribery, corruption and instability in the regimes of some of the countries where rain forests are located.

My hon. Friend makes a key point, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) before him. If we are to tackle the problem of deforestation, we must work with those countries to improve forest governance. We have already been working with the forest Ministries of a number of developing countries, and with other parts of their Governments, to tackle corruption and improve the quality of governance. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to learn that from 1 April we shall be strengthening still further our public procurement guidelines on the use of timber from rain forests in developing countries more generally.

The Minister has described the support that his Department is giving to various areas, including Guyana. The Norwegian Government have just provided $1 million for the land regularisation scheme in Brazil, which is another area of concern. Does the Minister support that scheme, and is the Department funding it as well?

We are not funding it directly as yet, but we are working with the Brazilian national bank, which is looking into the issue. The Brazilians have dramatically stepped up their work to tackle deforestation, and we have been working with a number of players, including the national bank, to support that work. The hon. Gentleman might recall from previous discussions that money is available from the climate investment funds at the World Bank. When it comes on line, Brazil may well wish to apply for direct help of that kind.

HIV/AIDS

2. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on global efforts to tackle HIV/AIDS. (266025)

DFID Ministers and officials maintain an extensive dialogue with key international partners. I have recently discussed AIDS issues with senior figures at the global fund, the World Health Organisation, the UN Population Fund and the World Bank, and with Ministers during recent country visits to Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Thanks to the co-operation of branded pharmaceutical companies, generic competition in HIV drugs has reduced first-line drug prices for patient treatment from more than $1,000 a year to less than $100. As well as persuading his other Government counterparts to take HIV seriously, what more can the Minister do to persuade more companies to adopt an enlightened, co-operative approach and help reduce prices for second-line HIV drugs, which are so desperately needed as they do save lives, but which remain very expensive?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Our aim is to reduce the cost of HIV/AIDS drugs by £50 million a year over the next few years. Only this week, I wrote to UNITAID asking it to set out a timetable for the launch of a patent pool for HIV medicines. I welcome GlaxoSmithKline’s recent commitment to explore the potential for patent pools to make the development of new medicines for neglected tropical diseases easier, and I believe the time has now come for other pharmacological companies to respond positively to this initiative and join forces so that we can make the contribution to driving down prices and improving access to HIV/AIDS drugs.

Antiretroviral drugs are rightly being made more affordable and generally more available, thanks to the support of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Education is vital, and we should be focusing some of our attention on prevention. What discussions has the Minister held with his opposite numbers about ensuring that education is made available so that the message about how people can avoid getting HIV in the first place can be communicated, and particularly about trucking routes in some countries, such as India, and in Africa?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The new American Administration’s recent announcement about removing some of the ideological and philosophical barriers that prevented us from engaging internationally on prevention and education presents an opportunity for the world community to come together and make a greater impact. We have announced an unprecedented commitment of £1 billion for the global fund and £6 billion to strengthen health systems, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must look innovatively and imaginatively—perhaps through community leaders, faith group networks, informal networks and peer influence—at educating populations in every country. We have to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that we get across the strongest conceivable message about HIV/AIDS. I also believe that the South Africans’ change in policy will significantly help us in Africa.

My hon. Friend knows that HIV/AIDS particularly affects women and children in the poorest countries. What are he and the Government doing to work with other countries to make sure that at a time when the economic situation is giving such difficulty, particularly to the poorest countries, the international community none the less keeps up its commitment to supporting the poorest in tackling such tragic diseases as HIV and AIDS?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the tremendous work she has done over many years on these issues. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that this is not the moment for the world to retreat from its commitment to the developing world, such as through his advocacy through the World Bank of a vulnerability fund to ensure we protect the most vulnerable at a time when the recession will hit them the hardest, and the reform of international institutions to make sure they are far more responsive to the needs of the developing world, and our hosting last week in London of a meeting of senior African leaders to ensure that they have a strong and clear voice in the forthcoming G20 summit. It is important that as we fix the international economic system we make sure that that fixing advantages, rather than disadvantages, the developing world.

The Minister, to his credit, is known for his outspokenness. Will he make sure that his international counterparts recognise that confronting the dreadful disease that is HIV/AIDS is not just about access to drugs and condoms, important though those things are? If we are to tackle this disease, we must confront, head-on, the true cause: men behaving in a sexually promiscuous manner in too many countries throughout Africa and elsewhere. Will he impress upon his counterparts the fact that issues of public awareness and education are vital if we are to get under the skin of this disease?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that I was not outspoken any longer—I rarely disagree with him, and I am not going to start now.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the important issue of the role of women in society, and highlights the fact that the way in which men in many developing countries see relationships is a major part of the problem. In that sense, we need strong political leadership to make clear the appropriate role of women in society and to empower women in local communities. We must make it clear that we give them the opportunity to fight for their rights. We also need a very clear zero-tolerance approach to violence against women to be enshrined in developing countries’ legislation.

Organisations such as Concern Worldwide stress the need for conditional linkages between the issues of HIV/AIDS, and nutrition and food security. Will the Government do more to support efforts to integrate HIV prevention, mitigation, care and treatment with programmes dealing with livelihood, nutrition and food security?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point; we need to make a link between rural communities, agricultural development, food security and diseases. We want increasingly, at a local level, to integrate our responses, bringing together health, education and food security. The aim is to operate in an integrated way, rather than in silos.

The global downturn makes health care in the least developed nations increasingly problematic. Will the Minister reassure the House that the UK Government will press ahead with prevention programmes and will not be deflected either by the falling value of the pound or the sincerely held but mistaken views of others?

The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that our commitment in respect of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income by 2013 remains as strong as ever, so there will be no retreating from our commitments. We are the second-largest bilateral donor in terms of health systems and the attack on diseases in the world—as I said in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), this Government will not retreat from our commitments. More importantly, we will provide leadership on occasions such as meetings of the G20 and the G8 to make sure that other international leaders do not walk away from the commitments that they have made, largely as a result of leadership shown by our Prime Minister and this country.

Gaza (Reconstruction)

3. If he will take steps to ensure that funding under pledges for reconstruction in Gaza made at the Egyptian donor conference will not be channelled through Hamas. (266026)

5. To which programmes his Department plans to allocate the £30 million announced on 1 March 2009 for the reconstruction of Gaza; and if he will make a statement. (266028)

Participants in the Sharm el Sheikh conference expressed their intention to deliver reconstruction aid to Gaza through existing international and regional financing mechanisms. The £30 million that I announced will be spent through those mechanisms and through non-governmental organisations that are not affiliated with Hamas and have robust monitoring systems. Priority programmes will include the repair of homes and schools, the clearance of unexploded ordnance and the short-term creation of jobs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I commend the British Government’s commitment to getting aid into Gaza to support the urgent reconstruction. Given that Hamas recently stole United Nations aid and has allowed unexploded weapons under its guard to go missing, does he agree that it is now important to get an increased Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza to monitor the crossings and to free up the aid so that it gets to ordinary Palestinians, who desperately and urgently need that help?

My hon. Friend raises a number of different points. When I was in Gaza recently, I took the opportunity to discuss with John Ging, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency there, concerns about the misappropriation of any aid resources. He was able to assure me that at the point at which we met the supplies were getting through, and that we had robust monitoring mechanisms and continue to do so. On the Palestinian Authority, we of course welcome the fact that, under the auspices of the Egyptian Government, reconciliation talks are under way. On the specific issue that my hon. Friend raises about authority at the border posts, it is, of course, the European Union’s position that we have offered assistance through the EU border assistance mission. We hope that we will be able to find a way through by a combination of the political reconciliation talks that are under way and maintaining in the minds of the international community the continuing importance of the Palestinian Authority.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about additional aid for Gaza, but what steps can he take to ensure that dual-use materials such as metal pipes do not fall into the hands of militants to be converted into weapons, but are used to improve the lives of the people of Gaza?

There is of course a long-established and trusted list of dual-use materials. It is a matter of great regret, therefore, that that has not been the basis on which the Israeli Government have made judgments in recent weeks, when there have been long disputes about whether rice should be allowed into Gaza, although pasta is allowed in, or about whether paper should be allowed in. That gives a sense of the scale of the challenge that the international community continues to face. We have been clear and unequivocal that we do not want the misappropriation of any materials and in our condemnation of the continued rocket attacks on the Israeli population, but we have been equally robust in saying that there needs to be full and unfettered access for those items that constitute humanitarian provision.

I am slightly surprised to hear the Secretary of State say that when he was in Gaza the head of UNRWA, John Ging, said that supplies were getting through, because that is not what he said to me when I was in Gaza recently, nor what he said to a cross-party group in this very place yesterday afternoon. He did say that UNRWA is unable to go about its business in Gaza because of a lack of armoured vehicles. He also said that UNRWA was chronically underfunded. Given that this country pledged £47 million at the outset of the crisis—very little of which has got into Gaza—will the Secretary of State now show some leadership by talking to the Israelis to insist that UNRWA armoured vehicles get through to Gaza?

The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension following my previous answer. The point that I was making about John Ging was that he was clear that the aid that he was supervising was getting through to the people of Gaza who required it and was not being misappropriated by Hamas. Consistent with the position that the British Government have taken, John Ging—speaking on behalf of UNRWA—has very deep concerns about the range of items being allowed through the crossings and into Gaza.

When I visited Gaza, I took the opportunity to meet Isaac Herzog, the Israeli Social Affairs Minister, and press directly the case about the armoured vehicles and the wide range of items that are not being allowed to enter Gaza. Only as recently as yesterday, those efforts were reinforced by one of my colleague Ministers who made the point again directly to Isaac Herzog. Of course, a new coalition is emerging in Israeli politics. Let us hope that the dialogue that we have begun in recent weeks—although it has not achieved what we would all wish to see—makes more progress in the weeks ahead than it has done so far.

It is essential, of course, that every assistance possible be given to the innocent people in Gaza, but can the Secretary of State assure people in the United Kingdom that that assistance will not be misappropriated by those who caused the problems in Gaza in the first instance?

I have just explained that we use tried and tested mechanisms that provide robust supervision. Oxfam, an organisation with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar, now distributes drinking water by water tanker to up to 60,000 people every day in the worst-affected parts of Gaza. Since 27 December and the outbreak of the conflict, the World Food Programme has distributed two months of rations to more than 296,000 people in Gaza, and UNRWA, the organisation led by John Ging, is reaching up to 1 million beneficiaries with food assistance. Those are practical examples of the difference that the generosity of the British people and others in the international community is now making to the lives of ordinary Gazans.

My right hon. Friend personally, and this Government, have a magnificent record in assisting Gaza, but is it not lamentable that the money that he provides simply goes to rectify the wanton devastation inflicted savagely by Israeli forces in Gaza? Does he agree that the real obstacle to reconstructing Gaza is not Hamas, loathsome though it is, but what is about to become the most extremist Government in Israeli history?

We have been unequivocal in our condemnation of the rocket attacks that have continued from Gaza into the Israeli population, but we have been equally clear that the Government of Israel have heavy responsibilities. One of the most dispiriting aspects of my visit to Gaza was sitting with a group of Palestinian business people who told me of their investments in factories in Gaza in recent years—at a cost of being called quislings by the Hamas authorities because they were willing to trade with Israel—and of how, during the final hours of the conflict, ahead of the unilateral declaration of the ceasefire, they watched the devastation of the industrial region of Gaza when there was no apparent activity from Hamas forces in that part of the territory. There is a huge amount of work to be done and it is vital that the humanitarian effort continues, but, beyond the humanitarian effort, it is critical that a comprehensive middle east peace plan emerges in the weeks ahead. I hope and trust that the new Israeli Government under formation at the moment will take that forward.

The Secretary of State will be aware of growing concerns in the NGO community about the apparent contradiction between EU and UK law on whether NGOs can continue to support public officials such as teachers and nurses. Will the Secretary of State offer some clarity and confirm that British NGOs will be able to continue to provide vital services in Gaza without the fear of prosecution under EU law?

The position that the British Government have adopted for some time has not changed. We urge the agencies involved to maintain the greatest possible distance from Hamas. We recognise that there might be circumstances in which there is proximity within Gaza, given Hamas’s present role, but none the less we are clear that those mechanisms that I have spoken of already need to be upheld. We need to be able to offer assurances to the British people that the aid to which they have generously contributed is not being misused and misappropriated.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind in these exchanges that the appalling devastation in Gaza was brought about by Israel? More evidence has come to light in the past few days that Israel has in fact committed war crimes in Gaza—crimes against humanity. Although I have no time for Hamas at all—obviously not—the fact remains that far more should be done by the international community first and foremost to help the people of Gaza and secondly to try to ensure that those who have committed war crimes are brought to justice.

I hope that my answers today have given some comfort to my hon. Friend that we are taking decisive action in providing the humanitarian support for which I know there is widespread support on both sides of the House. We are extremely concerned by the reports of killings of innocent civilians during Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli Government are carrying out an investigation into the allegations, led by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and he has stated that the findings will be examined seriously. It is important that these investigations are carried out, not least given the severity and seriousness of the charges that are being levelled.

Two months on from the end of the conflict, as hon. Members have pointed out, the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains absolutely desperate. We all accept that we must take every measure to avoid aid being diverted by Hamas to other ends, but the Secretary of State himself has expressed concerns about the Israeli Government, who are allowing through only about a fifth of the humanitarian assistance that the NGOs and others say they need. Is it not time that the Secretary of State spelled out what steps the Israelis must take to let that assistance in and what will happen if they do not do that? For the sake of the NGOs, will he spell out the difference between legitimate co-ordination with officials in Gaza and illegitimate engagement with Hamas?

I have of course met the NGOs that are working in Gaza. I reiterate at the Dispatch Box today that if they have concerns they can come and talk to us directly in the Department. In relation to the point on the Israelis, the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that we continue to have deep concerns about the level of access that is being denied—in terms not simply of the quantity of aid, but of the range of products that are being allowed in—and about international aid workers’ inability, in certain circumstances, to enter Gaza to offer their expertise in the light of the continuing humanitarian situation. That is why I have raised that issue with the Israeli Government and why, only yesterday, we once again raised it with Isaac Herzog, the Social Affairs Minister.

St. Helena

We expect the consultation to start in April and take 16 weeks. The consultation document will set out details of the timetable and of how people can participate. We will run the exercise in line with the Government’s code of conduct for holding public consultations.

As my hon. Friend is aware, Swindon has the largest St. Helena community outside London. What hope can he give my constituents, who are British citizens, that their families will not be left stranded and that the consultation will not delay the introduction of 21st century transport links for that very remote island?

My hon. Friend is always a keen advocate for her constituents, especially the Saints in Swindon. I reassure her that the consultation document, when it is produced, will make it absolutely clear that we remain fully committed to providing access to St. Helena.

Is the Minister aware of the view across the House that the Government are guilty of a breach of faith and of dithering in their handling of this matter? What will the new consultation tell him that he does not already know from the past nine years of this process?

I do not recognise the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the consultation exercise, but I look forward to reading his contribution—and perhaps that of his constituents on the Falcon Lodge estate in Sutton Coldfield, for instance—to see whether they think that it is right, in the current economic circumstances, to spend the amount of money that is being considered on an airport for St. Helena.

Does the Minister not understand that Ministers’ handling of this matter has been shameful, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), the respected former Foreign Office Minister, has eloquently explained? The people of St. Helena are British citizens, so do we not have a duty to them to resolve this issue? Is not it time that he and his colleagues got a grip?

At a time of global downturn, we are talking about 50 million people around the world being unemployed. An extra 90 million people will earn less than $1.25 a day, and it is expected that an extra 3 million children will die as a result of the global downturn. We have to take all those circumstances into account when making a decision about spending the amount of money that we are talking about on an airport for St. Helena.