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International Development

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pacific Islands

The Department for International Development does not provide direct support to Pacific island countries. However, we provide direct support to Pitcairn, a UK overseas territory in the Pacific. In 2013-14, it was approximately £3 million.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Given that many small island states in the Pacific face severe threats from climate change and will fail to meet millennium development goals on education and health, and given that this year sees the once-a-decade small island developing states conference, will she take a lead on the Government’s involvement in that conference, and will she ensure that the House is kept updated on what this Government can do to support such countries, which are suffering?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I will write to her with fuller details, but, in summary, we do a significant amount of work in supporting Pacific islands. She mentioned climate change, and we in fact fund the World Bank group that is doing a pilot programme on climate resilience; we are a major donor to it. We also provide support through the European development fund and the Commonwealth. If I write to her with more details, perhaps she will get the reassurance she seeks.

Syria

2. What recent reports she has received on the humanitarian situation in and around Syria; and if she will make a statement. (902820)

The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions. The UN now estimates that 9.3 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid in Syria. At least 6.5 million people in Syria have been forced to flee their homes to other areas of the country, and there are now more than 2.5 million refugees in the region.

Two key issues now face children in Syria: first, polio is rife, and vaccination levels are extremely low; and, secondly, UNICEF confirmed to me only yesterday that 2.5 million children in Syria or in refugee camps are receiving no education whatsoever. I know that those are major challenges, but will the Secretary of State tell me what the British contribution might be on those issues?

We have already been part of the effort to vaccinate more than 200,000 children against polio in Syria—I think that I am right to say that—as part of the emergency support. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight that issue. In relation to education, the UK has played a leading role in designing the no lost generation initiative, which is all about making sure that we do not forget the impact of this terrible crisis on children, not least the lack of education.

The UK contribution to humanitarian relief in the middle east has been unparalleled. Indeed, the United Nations would have had difficulty coping without it. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge, however, that it is difficult to sustain, and what is she doing to ensure that other countries, including France, make comparable contributions?

We regularly raise our concerns about the lack of full funding for the UN appeal in relation to the Syrian crisis both in the European Union and more broadly internationally. My right hon. Friend is right to say that the UK has played a leading role: we are the second largest bilateral donor after the US, and we have already committed £600 million of funding to provide the vital humanitarian services and supplies that people need.

Nobody can fail to have been affected by the heartbreaking scenes from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus last week. Will the Secretary of State update us on the situation now, as I understand that the ceasefire has broken down and the risk of starvation is very real?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to flag up the terrible situation in Yarmouk, which has been under siege for many months. He will be aware that since 18 January, UNRWA has been able to deliver just over 6,000 food parcels, which have provided some support. I was also shocked by the scenes that I saw. I assure him that one of the most important things to work on now is to make sure that the Security Council resolution on access is adhered to by the Syrian regime and, indeed, by the opposition.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent Project Maja trip, which some of us took part in, to the Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey. The wonderful and formidable Ali Gunn was a key player in making that trip happen. Sadly, Ali died recently. She was trying to ensure that there were books in Arabic for many of the children and young people in such camps. Would it not be a wonderful tribute to her if we were able to do that and, at the same time, help those refugees?

I would like to pay tribute to Ali’s work not only in organising that visit, but more broadly in this whole area. Turkey now has more than 600,000 refugees, many of whom are children. As part of the work that we are doing with UNICEF, we are focusing on making sure that the children affected get education, including by funding textbooks in places such as Lebanon.

The Secretary of State, like everyone else, will not want the understandable focus on the political crisis in Ukraine to result in a lack of focus on the situation in Syria. It is three years since that dreadful conflict began and I will be travelling to Jordan and Lebanon next week. She rightly says that there are 2.5 million refugees. What is her assessment of the capability of neighbouring countries to continue to absorb those refugees? Parliament sensibly agreed that there should be a UK resettlement programme so that a small number of refugees could come to the UK. How many refugees have been resettled as part of that programme?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, he is right that one of the biggest challenges we face is the flow of refugees over the border to neighbouring countries. We must help those countries to cope with the refugees who are in camps and, critically, those who are in host communities, which is the overwhelming majority of them. We are doing our best to work with countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to ensure that they can cope.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, we are getting the vulnerable person relocation scheme up and running. We will be working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ensuring that we target the most vulnerable refugees whom we can support.

We look forward to hearing news of the first refugees arriving in the UK.

As the Secretary of State knows, food is being used as a weapon. That is not an innovation, but it is utterly unacceptable. There is news this morning that people in Yarmouk are resorting to eating cats to survive. What is being done to ensure the passage of humanitarian supplies and food into the cities that are under siege? Women and children have been allowed to escape from Homs, but men are being detained for further questioning. What is her assessment of those who have been freed from the sieges?

It is deeply concerning. The passing of the UN Security Council resolution was potentially a major step forward. It is now incumbent on all people who are involved in the crisis to work alongside that resolution, not least the Syrian Government and opposition. I spoke to the head of the World Food Programme, Ertharin Cousin, only yesterday about what progress she thinks can be made now that the resolution has been passed. It is critical that we seek access to provide humanitarian support where it is needed, including in places such as Yarmouk.

Tunisia

The Department for International Development is working closely with the Foreign Office to support the democratic process in Tunisia. Through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, UK funding is being used to train parliamentarians to better represent their constituents, and to support civil society in holding its Government to account.

Although the Arab spring has, in part, been disappointing, does my right hon. Friend agree that there are signs of hope and encouragement in north Africa, not least in Tunisia, where, as he has just said, democratic development is taking root and progressing? Is not reinforcing such success the sort of thing that this country should be doing?

Yes. May I acknowledge all the work that my hon. Friend has done over the years for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy? Through the WFD, we supported the drafting of the new Tunisian constitution, which was adopted on 26 January. The constitution protects freedom of expression and the rights of women, and is considered to be one of the most progressive in the Arab world.

In a bleak region, will the Minister commend the work of Mr Mustapha Ben Jafar in securing the constitution to which he just referred? Does he accept that Tunisia can be a beacon across the region as a broad, inclusive democracy that can achieve real progress?

I fully agree with the good sense expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Tunisia is a beacon and is well ahead of many other countries. I am delighted that DFID and Her Majesty’s Government have played a strong part in helping it on that journey.

The Arab spring started in Tunisia, so what can my right hon. Friend do, in conjunction with the Foreign Office, to embed democracy through local elections, as well as through national elections, in such countries?

We are actively working on the electoral processes, primarily through the United Nations Development Programme and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, to support the independent electoral commission and the Government of Tunisia to implement free and fair elections this year.

The Minister will be aware of the massive displacement, disadvantage and persecution of Christians in the north African region. In his discussions with the Tunisian authorities, will he ensure that that country’s role as a beacon extends to fair play and democracy for Christians to encourage their liberation in other countries that are close to the Tunisian people?

The hon. Gentleman is right that in a proper liberal democracy everyone should be treated equally and fairly. That includes people of different religions, including the Christian communities to which he refers.

Mali

4. How much her Department gave in aid to Mali in 2013; and how much it plans to give to that country in 2014. (902822)

The UK gave £23 million of bilateral aid to Mali in 2013, supporting some 650,000 people. We also pledged £110 million over four years for long-term resilience work in the Sahel region. The UK provides assistance through multilateral contributions, and we are considering additional bilateral funding for 2014.

I welcome the fact that the Government are considering additional funding. To date, most of the money has been used for humanitarian relief because of the political weakness and the terrorist threat not just in Mali but across the region. Should we not now put money into development to provide livelihoods for young people, so that they do not turn to the terrorists and can make a future for themselves in their own countries?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Livelihoods and jobs are a key focus for DFID, and we are doing a great deal of work on them. Some of the money that we are providing is built into resilience work, because the problems in the Sahel are about drought and climate change. It is what we can do for the long term that matters most.

Does the Minister agree that although Mali is not within our normal sphere of influence, it is critical to the future stability of the Sahel? Is she aware that there was a lot of devastation to agriculture during the recent civil war? What can DFID do to help multilateral organisations that are working to help communities there?

We put a great deal of our money through multilaterals right across the Sahel, and we have committed £83 million in humanitarian support through the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and international non-governmental organisations across five countries—Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

Flooding (UK)

5. What consideration she has given to making funds from her Department’s budget available to people in the UK affected by flooding. (902823)

The Government fully understand the need to help those in the UK affected by recent flooding, but Britain does not need to make a false choice between spending money to tackle flooding in the UK and spending it to save lives overseas through the aid budget. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has pledged that all immediate practical support and assistance will be provided to deal with the floods in the UK.

When natural disasters take place in other parts of the world, the Government are always quick to respond. At a time when money is tight and the Department’s budget is the only one not under any financial pressure, surely if people in the UK need aid following a natural disaster, the aid budget should be made available to them. Charity begins at home, and the Government should not treat people abroad more favourably than people in this country.

I quite understand what my hon. Friend says, and I fully share his wish to give proper assistance to those in the UK affected by flooding. The international development budget, within our 0.7% of gross national income commitment, has to be used for official development assistance as defined by the OECD. It is not possible for us to redefine ODA in a way that would allow it to be transferred immediately to domestic purposes. The assumption in his question is therefore a false choice. I am pleased to say that the Government can help flood victims at home as well as abroad.

We know that the greatest risk that the UK faces from climate change is flooding, but the developing world will be hit even harder, so we all need a global climate deal. Will the Minister commit the Prime Minister to attending Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit in September, as other world leaders will, and to pushing for a stand-alone climate change goal in the post-2015 process?

The hon. Gentleman strays ever so slightly from the question on the Order Paper, but I understand his point. I am not privy at this stage to the Prime Minister’s diary, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the priorities that we set in our overseas aid programmes focus on climate change to a large extent and are doing an enormous amount of good.

The clue is in the name—overseas aid. I am sure the Minister agrees that organisations such as Tearfund, of which I am a vice-president, that work with flood-prone communities to build capacity can help to save both lives and livelihoods at home and abroad.

I have no doubt that Tearfund is lucky to have my right hon. Friend as its vice-president. I can confirm that a lot of expertise can be shared by countries across the world, and I like to think that the Department for International Development is very much in the lead in ensuring that flood defences and preparations and emergency response are of the best sort.

The coalition Government should be proud of having finally achieved 0.7% of gross national income going to international development. Alongside that, instead of having false arguments such as this, could we look, with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, at the £30 billion tax gap and do even more to clamp down on tax evasion?

I understand the issue, and we have addressed it on many occasions in this House. Part of our activities abroad is to ensure that we build up the tax base of impoverished countries, so that from their own resources they can ensure that their rich people pay a fair share of their income, and so that they can help their own poor people.

Bost Agri-business Park and Airfield

The Bost airfield and agricultural business park project was designed and approved in 2009 at a time when Ministers did not approve any spend under £40 million. In 2012 it became clear that the business park would not be completed within the original time frame or effectively, so to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money, I decided that further UK funding would be cancelled.

This is my 35th question on this subject since February 2013. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has given me a little bit of information today, but it is not unreasonable for the House to know who was responsible, how much taxpayers’ money was wasted in total, what when wrong, and whether anyone will be held accountable. Would the Secretary of State care to say what she and her officials are so desperate to cover up?

I can say that the hon. Gentleman’s Government were responsible because they designed the project. Indeed, Ministers failed to sign it off because they did not sign off projects of less than £40 million. The only money we are spending on it now is in answering his 30-odd parliamentary questions, which have so far cost the taxpayer £5,000.

Syrian Refugees

7. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the UK’s programme of support for Syrian refugees. (902826)

The UK has allocated £265 million to support refugees in countries neighbouring Syria, providing food for more than 320,000 people per month, 71,000 medical consultations, and an improved water supply for more than 40,000 people. We are working closely with Governments, the UN and others to ensure that the overall international response builds resilience and is implemented effectively.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Syrian refugees about their hopes of returning to Syria?

I have had many discussions, not least in my most recent visit to a UNHCR registration centre in Lebanon earlier this year, which is handling 1,000 refugees a day. Those I spoke to are determined to go back and rebuild their country, and they want to get their lives back on track. The work that we are doing both with humanitarian support and in pushing for a political settlement will help them to do that eventually.

Given that the Assad regime has been targeting journalists, aid workers and medical staff, are we getting a full picture of what is going on in Syria and the refugee system?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, access has been incredibly difficult when getting humanitarian support to refugees, and we therefore do not have a full picture. What we do know, however, is shocking and horrific, which is why it is great news that we finally have a UN Security Council resolution to get access after many months of trying. I assure him that the UK will be at the forefront of ensuring that we help people affected by this crisis.

Topical Questions

In the week of international women’s day, I offer warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), whose International Development (Gender Equality) Bill completed its progress through Parliament yesterday. The Government have been proud to support that Bill. Since the last session of International Development questions I set out a new approach to economic development in a keynote speech at the London stock exchange. Yesterday, in a speech hosted by Plan UK I set out the UK’s determination to play our role in tackling early and forced marriage, alongside female genital mutilation. [Interruption.]

Order. It must be quite difficult for right hon. and hon. Members to hear the Secretary of State, and it is discourteous. Let us have some hush for the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley).

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what she is doing to ensure that economic partnership agreements prioritise development, and that if developing countries do not meet the EU deadline of October this year, they will not lose preferential access to the EU market?

I assure my right hon. Friend that we are working extremely hard to make sure that we achieve as much progress as possible on the EPAs before the deadline he mentions. We have been influencing stakeholders on both sides of the negotiation. He will be aware that some progress has been made in parts of Africa, but there is a long way to go. He is right that it is critical to get this work successfully concluded.

T4. Ahead of international women’s day, could the Secretary of State explain the cuts to maternity services and primary education for girls, detailed in DFID’s mid-year report? (902852)

I can assure the hon. Lady that work on the maternal health millennium development goal means that it is at the centre of what we do, and we put a huge amount of resources into it. In fact, as I set out yesterday in my speech at the south bank centre about early and forced marriage, having a holistic approach to tackling women’s rights, health and education is key.

T2. Nothing has undermined popular support for international aid more than the perception that aid has been given to countries too wealthy to need it. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give us that that will not happen in the future? (902850)

When we came into government, we had a bilateral programme with 43 countries. We have now targeted that on 28. My hon. Friend will also be aware that I have announced the ending of our financial aid programmes to both South Africa and India.

T8. Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), will the Government support the inclusion of a specific target to increase women’s participation and influence in public life in the post-2015 international development framework? (902856)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Prime Minister co-chaired the high level panel that did a huge amount of work in that area and produced what could be a draft framework. It had much more focus on women and girls, and significantly develops the original MDG on gender equality. We will fight to make sure that we get as many specific targets on women’s rights and participation as we can.

T3. HIV and tuberculosis co-infection is a priority for action for the Government. Ministers will be aware of the 12 World Health Organisation recommended collaborative TB-HIV activities, but will they ensure that these are systematically integrated into all DFID HIV programmes in countries with high burdens of both HIV and TB? (902851)

Yes, we can make sure that over time we integrate all those guidelines into our programme, and it is a key priority for us to make sure systematically that we do so.

The Burmese Government are preventing Médecins sans Frontières from providing health services in Rakhine. What is the Secretary of State doing, especially as the Rohingya Muslims are now left with practically no access to health services?

We are urgently discussing the situation with Médecins sans Frontières, the UN and other donors, and we have made our concerns very clear at senior levels of the Burmese Government. The health situation in Rakhine state is already on the brink of crisis and there must be no deterioration in the provision of health services of which MSF was a crucial part.

T5. For Britain to succeed in international upstream engagement, humanitarian missions and stabilisation missions, does my right hon. Friend agree that DFID must co-operate strategically and tactically with the MOD, and this must include allowing the MOD to claim back all funds spent that meet official development assistance criteria? (902853)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that DFID and the MOD work closely together on upstream conflict prevention, humanitarian relief and stabilisation, as seen in our response in the Philippines. Only last year we completed a joint analysis with the MOD to make sure that there was full recognition of the MOD’s contribution within the internationally agreed official development assistance definition.

While the Government are rightly focused on supporting development in Somalia, can the Secretary of State assure me that DFID will continue to support effective and impactful development in Somaliland?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and of course the UK has historical links with that part of Somalia. We have put in place the Somaliland development fund, and I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman more details of that. I had the chance to discuss the fund with the Somali community in the UK when I went to an event in Ealing recently.

T6. Can the Secretary of State tell us how much of her Department’s annual expenditure she estimates is wasted, poorly targeted, goes on corruption or is siphoned off by Governments and dictators? (902854)

As I said earlier, when I see waste, I am determined to cut it. We have targeted our bilateral programme on fewer countries and we are taking aid out of countries that we think can afford the development themselves. On corruption, only 5% of our bilateral aid goes as budget support direct to Governments, but if I have concerns about corruption I stop that budget support, as I have done in Uganda and Malawi.

A news report today states that only 12% of women in India use sanitary pads because they are not available, and that a school drop-out has invented a sanitary pad that can be made in communities. What support is the Department giving to women’s health across the world?

The MDG relating to maternal health, in particular, is critically important. We know that investing in women’s health, whether family planning, antenatal or post-natal, gives an extremely good return on investment. It can help women to have a more productive life, perhaps enabling them to go out to work and reinvest their income in their homes and communities. That is absolutely key and the hon. Lady is right to raise the issue.