Skip to main content

International Development

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Humanitarian Situation (Northern Iraq)

1. What recent assessment her Department has made of the needs of people affected by the humanitarian situation in northern Iraq; what steps her Department is taking to help people affected by that situation; and if she will make a statement. (905124)

Before I reply, may I welcome the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), to his role? May I also pay tribute and give warm thanks to his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who did an outstanding job in that role and is well known across the House for his expertise on the middle east?

The Department for International Development is deeply concerned about the situation in northern Iraq; the UN’s latest estimate is that 1.8 million people are displaced across Iraq. My Department has played a leading role in the response. I visited both Baghdad and Erbil last week and announced a further £10 million of funding, bringing our total UK support now to £23 million.

I did not hear an answer, but I would have been grateful if I had. I am sure we look forward to seeing the new Minister, and I hope we appreciate his performances as much as we have appreciated his silence over the past years.

The NATO summit will start tomorrow in the splendid city of Newport, and it will be followed by a Newport declaration. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that although the Newport declaration will contain some military recommendations, there will be an emphasis on soft power? Military power leaves a legacy of antagonism; soft power—the one she is mainly responsible for—leaves a legacy of good will.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Clearly, in dealing with ISIL we need to look at all the measures necessary to make sure we can tackle the threat it poses. Alongside that work on stability in Iraq, not only does political progress need to be made in forming an inclusive Government, but, as he says, there needs to be humanitarian support for people who have been affected by this crisis on the ground. I met many of them last week, and many of them have awful tales of how they have had to leave their homes overnight, with almost none of their possessions. We are doing our best to support them, but that work has to line up with a military and a political strategy.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is keen to give humanitarian help to the Kurds in the north of Iraq but is finding great difficulty in getting aid through. In particular, it took a month and a half to get a field hospital to the north of Iraq, which is a ridiculously long time. What can the Secretary of State do to bring pressure to bear on the Iraqi Government to allow Jordanian overflight above the Kingdom of Iraq?

My hon. Friend rightly points out that co-ordination between the Government of Iraq—I had the chance to meet the Prime Minister-designate when I was there last week—the Kurdistan Regional Government and the UN agencies is crucial. One sticking point has been on making sure we can transport supplies and equipment quickly; many flights need to stop in Baghdad, and that is part of the delay. We are seeking to make sure that those operations run smoothly.

Quite rightly, there was a huge fuss in this Chamber a few months ago about the abduction of the Nigerian schoolchildren. I have continually asked about the plight of the Yazidi women, nearly 3,000 of whom have been gang-raped and sold into sexual slavery. I do not have a clear idea what we are doing to help those women or why we are not making it a strong issue that we should be doing something about.

I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady’s raising of this issue. As she will know, we worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Defence to make sure that we could get humanitarian supplies to Yazidis who were trapped on Mount Sinjar. When I was in Iraq last week, I announced £10 million in extra support, part of which was specifically allocated to making sure that we can support women and girls, not only by protecting them from violence, but by providing the trauma counselling and support they need to help them after those experiences.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s visit to Iraq. What DFID, official and diplomatic presence do we have in the country to ensure that we are well informed about the developing situation there after her return?

First, when this crisis commenced, we quickly embedded an official humanitarian adviser in the Kurdistan Regional Government. I had a chance to ask the Regional Government for an assessment of the work that they are doing. Secondly, we have also had somebody working on the ground with UN agencies, ensuring that the initial work setting up the operations was well organised. Thirdly, we will now look to provide further official support as the team and operation on the ground in northern Iraq get going. As my hon. Friend will be aware, most of our work happens through UN agencies and non-governmental organisations, but, as I have just outlined, we also provide technical assistance and support.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) on his promotion. He has a tough act to follow in the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who brought real passion and commitment to the job.

The murder of Steven Sotloff and the reports of the taking of a British hostage remind us of the bravery and dedication of those who go to the region to save people’s lives or to report the news. Over recent months, there has been a move of 850,000 internally displaced civilians into Kurdistan. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about what has been done to support the Kurdistan Regional Government, and to make sure that public services do not collapse under the strain?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. When I visited Iraq last week, I was keen to ensure that I went to Erbil, and I had the chance to meet both the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Deputy Prime Minister. I was impressed by the work and the team that is in place to respond to the crisis. I met not just those at a senior ministerial level, but the mayor of Erbil who, alongside having to continue to provide basic services to people in that city, is now coping with around 100,000 displaced people who have arrived there. The camps and facilities are now being set up to cope with them. The teams are well organised, and we have a humanitarian adviser working alongside them, and we will look to see what more we can do over the coming weeks and months to support the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The whole House will look forward to hearing those updates and how we are supporting the Kurdistan Regional Government. Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen Shi’a have lived side by side in that region for centuries, and yet ISIL is now targeting non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim populations and communities. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that in the distribution of life-saving aid that sort of discrimination is not unintentionally repeated and that all minorities have equal access to life-saving aid and support?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in co-ordinating our humanitarian assistance, we do it solely on the basis of need.

Relief Effort (Gaza)

2. What her Department’s role is in the relief effort for people affected by the situation in Gaza. (905125)

3. What her Department’s role is in the relief effort for people affected by the situation in Gaza. (905126)

5. What her Department’s role is in the relief effort for people affected by the situation in Gaza. (905128)

The United Kingdom is one of the largest donors. We have spent some £17 million in emergency aid. We are providing food and essential supplies to families in desperate need. We are repairing the water infrastructure and providing counselling to those who have been traumatised.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion and thank him for his answer. As the House knows, children have borne the brunt of the recent conflict: 500 have died, 1,000 are permanently disabled and half a million cannot go to school. Yet the UN’s appeal is only half funded. What is the Department doing to get other members of the international community to play their part?

The hon. Lady is quite right. From our rapid reaction facility, we have specifically earmarked funds for the assistance of children. With respect to encouraging others to step up to the plate as we have done, there will undoubtedly be a donors’ conference soon, but that will be immeasurably assisted by a meaningful peace process.

The conflict in Gaza has displaced almost 1.8 million people—one quarter of the inhabitants of Gaza—and they are of all ages. Will the Minister say what his Department is doing to provide relief for the mainly disabled and elderly people in Gaza who have been displaced?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Some 58,000 people are currently sheltering in UN relief agency schools, and 100,000 people have no home to return to. Clearly, there must be a rebuilding effort, but that will require substantial movement on access into and out of Gaza, and that will require a peace process that can proceed.

The answer to that question was helpful, because the people of Gaza have been denied the right to the essentials of daily life for many, many years because of the illegal blockade, and they now depend on the Israeli Government or the tunnels in order to get aid. Does the Minister agree that it is a necessity to end the blockade, and what will his Department and others do to achieve that?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The UN report suggested that even before this latest round of hostilities, Gaza would become uninhabitable by 2020—before it had started to be smashed to smithereens. Clearly, there must be movement on access if Gaza is to have a viable economic future. What are we doing about that? We are contributing to a peace process, and our primary aim in this Department is to bring relief to those who are in want.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the work that his Department is doing with the Foreign Office to help address the underlying causes of the conflict in Gaza, and to work towards a two-state solution?

We believe that a two-state solution is the only realistic game in town, and to that end we are spending considerable sums of money in support of the Palestinian Authority, in order to get it into the habit of good governance, so that democratic institutions can flourish. We are also investing considerably in private sector development so that there will be economic growth, in order that a future state should be both stable and prosperous.

The Minister mentioned the UN relief agency schools. Is he as appalled as I am that those so-called safe havens were bombed and people within them killed, and what is his Department doing with others in the international community to ensure that those are safe havens?

As I said, some 58,000 people are now sheltering in these schools. It is absolutely right that breaches of international law on both sides be investigated, and we will be vigilant in that process.

12. I very much welcome the Minister’s comments about the provision of aid, but has any consideration been given to the fact that much of the damage may have been caused by weaponry, or parts of weapons, that were sold to Israel with UK Government approval? (905135)

As the Prime Minister made clear in his statement on Monday, there has been a thorough review of export licences and proper procedures have been put in place. In fact, 12 licences were identified where a component part could possibly have been used in an offensive capacity. Those licences will be suspended if there is a return to significant hostilities.

May I press the Minister a little more on the question of the blockade? If I understood him correctly, he said that a peace process needs to be got going in order to lift the blockade, but my understanding of the ceasefire is that an easing of the blockade, at least, comes first. That is a way of getting to the peace process. The aid needs to be going in now. What is the Government’s position? Is it pressing for the blockade to be lifted now?

My understanding of the ceasefire arrangements is that they, in effect, restore the status quo ante with respect to the Rafah crossing. But if we are to see a significant easing of the restrictions and economic development, there must be much greater access, and that means that Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be taken into account and allayed.

10. My right hon. Friend has rightly highlighted that even before the latest Israeli action the people of Gaza faced a pressing humanitarian crisis, caused, for example, by the salination of the aquifer, with all drinking water becoming undrinkable quite soon afterwards. Is there anything that his Department can do now of a practical nature, not dependent on the peace process, to improve the longer-term situation in Gaza?

(905133)

We are taking action now: we have deployed funds from our rapid reaction facility precisely to deal with the water issue. But in the long term, the salination and desalination has to be taken into account, and that will require a very substantial investment in the infrastructure.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role and pay tribute to his predecessor. The 3,000 injured children in Gaza and the 100,000 Palestinians made homeless whom the Minister mentioned need uninterrupted help from humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross. The situation is still urgent. What specific steps has he taken with the Foreign Office and others to encourage both Israeli and Palestinian actors to ensure safe, continuous access for those working to aid the recovery in Gaza?

We continually make representations to the Israelis with respect to making access easier. The hon. Lady is quite right: many of those children have life-changing injuries. The NGOs who have to negotiate access to Gaza currently incur costs of some £6 million a year to do so, and that is not acceptable.

13. Although I recognise that both the Israelis and the Egyptians have offered humanitarian aid during the crisis, I am keen to press the Minister on what his Department could do immediately to ensure supplies of medicine and medical aid to the people of Gaza. (905137)

We have supplied emergency aid to the International Committee of the Red Cross, to which we gave £3 million, and through our rapid reaction facility to other NGOs.

Humanitarian Situation (South Sudan)

I returned from South Sudan early this morning and have seen that the humanitarian situation there remains precarious: 1.8 million people have been displaced by the conflict, 1.3 million of them within the country. Although aid has helped to ameliorate the food security situation in some areas, there is still a high risk of famine in early 2015.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for updating the House on her recent visit to Juba. The House wants reassurance from her that the international community has got a grip on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in South Sudan and will, as far as possible, be able to abate what looks as though it could turn into a humanitarian disaster.

My right hon. Friend is right to be worried about the food security situation. There are 3.9 million people facing alarming levels of food insecurity, and the UN estimates that up to 50,000 children could die this year from malnutrition. Humanitarian access is impeded, but I can assure the House that the international community is together on this issue, and I press Ministers in South Sudan most strongly to allow humanitarian access. It will depress the House, however, to learn that there is a lack of will from the leaders of South Sudan to care about the people of the country rather than themselves.

The Minister said that 1.3 million people have been internally displaced in South Sudan. What steps is she taking to ensure that whatever assistance we can make available there is being specifically targeted at helping that very large number of at-risk people?

I flew up to Ganyiel myself to see the internally displaced people. They are being accommodated although there is an issue between the host community and the IDPs. We have given £12.5 million to those refugees who have gone to the region, and we work with international partners to ensure that food and assistance reach them.

11. Twenty-three Members of Parliament in South Sudan have recently been removed. What can the Government do to help to support the parliamentary process in South Sudan?

(905134)

I met Ministers, and it is quite clear that the Government of South Sudan is not functioning in a manner that we would recognise. They are closing down radio stations and inhibiting access to humanitarian agencies. As I said, the case is extremely depressing, but we urge them to observe the new 45-day deadline that they have to put in place a transitional Government because only peace can help the people of South Sudan.

Ebola Epidemic

7. What humanitarian relief efforts the UK is undertaking in connection with the Ebola epidemic. (905130)

The UK is playing a leading role and working with the international community to combat Ebola. In total, around £25 million of British funding is supporting the global effort to contain this disease. That includes £5 million of direct funding to help partners working on the ground such as Médecins sans Frontières and the Red Cross.

Many of us have been shocked by the devastation that Ebola has brought to west Africa. Will the Secretary of State update the House on how closely we are working with the United States and France?

We are working very closely with other UN agencies, but also with the US and France. The UK is very much leading the efforts to respond to Ebola in Sierra Leone, with the US leading in Liberia and France in Guinea, but we continue to encourage other international partners to join those efforts.

Topical Questions

After visiting Zambia in July to see its work in tackling child marriage, my Department led the successful Girl Summit and #YouthForChange event with the aim of helping to end female genital mutilation and child early and forced marriage in a generation. My Department has also been focused on the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, Gaza and Syria, and the spread of the Ebola virus in west Africa.

I have heard young constituents talk about the National Citizen Service programme and its transformational effect on their lives, and I believe that the International Citizen Service proposals will have an equally transformational impact on people who might otherwise never have such an opportunity. Will the Secretary of State tell us more about how this programme will evolve, and how we can spread the word about its opportunities to people?

More than 5,600 UK volunteers aged between 18 and 25 have now taken part in the International Citizen Service. It is a fantastic scheme giving young people wonderful opportunities, and we plan to expand it and grow those places.

T2. In the Central African Republic, the humanitarian situation remains dire. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to help there, including the situation for refugees to Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of the Congo? (905139)

The UK has provided £23 million in humanitarian assistance to the Central African Republic crisis since mid-2013, as well as £2.5 million in development funding through central programmes. We are the second largest bilateral donor and some of that money goes to the region for refugees.

T4. What humanitarian assistance has DFID afforded to the Iraqi town of Amerli, which until recently was surrounded by ISIL militants, resulting in thousands of Shi’a Turkmen being threatened with starvation and death? (905141)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK supported international efforts to deliver aid to thousands of people trapped by ISIL in the Iraqi town of Amerli during the weekend. DFID provided supplies of 8.5 tonnes of water and 3 tonnes of food, which were dropped from the air by the RAF C-130 aircraft. I would like to take this opportunity to thank our RAF personnel for doing such an outstanding job in providing those life-saving supplies.

T5. World Vision has told me that half a million children did not begin a new school year last month because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How does the Department intend to support efforts to ensure that we do not see another lost generation and that these children get to school? (905142)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. One of the challenges has been that many of the people displaced within Gaza went to schools that were empty because of the school holidays. I recently spoke to the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency about how we can ensure we create the homes and the refuges for people to leave the schools so that the children can get back to school. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; we need to make sure that they do not lose their education.

T6. What are the British Government’s plans for development goals as part of the UN General Assembly later this month? (905143)

We will be pushing our vision for a compelling new set of development goals in relation to post-2015, and in our August presidency of the UN Security Council, we have been focusing on conflict prevention.

T8. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Ministers of both parties will be voting in favour of the Bill enshrining our 0.7% commitment to development in law? (905145)

The most important thing is that for the first time ever, this country and this Government have met their pledge to hit 0.7%, which is an achievement that we should be proud of, and we support the Bill.

T7. Many people are still stuck in camps on the Burma-Thai border, unable to return home and in a precarious situation, without enough food or supplies. Will the Minister meet Kidz in Kampz in my constituency, which does a wonderful job helping people to understand the problems on the ground? (905144)