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House of Commons Hansard
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International Development
09 January 2019
Volume 652

The Secretary of State was asked—

Syria

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1. What steps she is taking to provide humanitarian assistance to people in Syria. [908413]

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14. What steps she is taking to provide humanitarian assistance to people in Syria. [908426]

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The United Kingdom is at the forefront of the humanitarian response and has been providing life-saving support to millions of people across Syria from the start of the conflict. To date, we have committed £2.71 billion, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. This includes the provision of more than 27 million food rations and 10 million relief packages since 2012.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Just before Christmas, I had the rather humbling honour of meeting two Syrian families who fled the horror of that country to find sanctuary in Shaftesbury in my constituency, where they are making their new home. The pictures that they showed me and the stories that they told were indeed horrible. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, notwithstanding everything else that is going on, Her Majesty’s Government has not forgotten Syria and the underlying and ever pressing need for peace?

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I can assure my hon. Friend that no one in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development has forgotten Syria. We are all shocked and moved by the plight of those who have suffered so much, and I am familiar with some of the pictures that my hon. Friend describes. We are engaged diplomatically and in humanitarian terms every day in relation to Syria.

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Although Daesh is significantly weakened in Syria, a US departure could leave a vacuum that could cause more misery. Does the Minister expect the focus of humanitarian assistance in Syria to change as a result of the withdrawal of US troops?

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The full details of the impact of the US withdrawal have yet to be worked through. Our focus on humanitarian aid will not be changed, and we continue to monitor the situation closely as it develops. Our focus on providing humanitarian assistance to millions of people displaced both externally and internally will remain.

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The possibility of a US withdrawal raises serious concerns about civilian protection. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to work with agencies on the ground to ensure that, particularly in the Kurdish-controlled areas and in Idlib, as much as possible is done to protect civilians?

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Yes indeed. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, who is the Chair of the Select Committee, we are very concerned about the potential implications, particularly on the Turkish-Syrian border. We are in constant contact with our partners in relation to this and with humanitarian agencies, which are fully abreast of the consequences of actions that have not yet happened. Everything is being done to try to encourage a peaceful resolution of the political conflicts there.

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Are any plans in place to deal with what will be, I suspect, the increasing humanitarian needs of Syrian Kurds in particular, especially if they are attacked by the Turkish military?

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As I indicated to the Chair of the Select Committee, we are all extremely concerned about the potential implications of US withdrawal and what it might mean on the Turkish border in relation to Kurdish areas. Humanitarian agencies are very alert to this, but politically we are doing what we can with partners to minimise any risk of confrontation there.

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What assessment is it possible to make of the number of lives that have been saved in Syria as a result of the historic financial contribution to the aid effort by the United Kingdom?

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It is difficult to put full figures on this, to be honest. We believe, as I indicated earlier, that we have provided 27 million food rations, 40 million medical consultations, 10 million relief packages, and 10 million vaccines. If we look at all those whose lives have been protected—the 3.5 million in Turkey, the 1.5 million in Lebanon and the 1 million in Jordan— we can see that United Kingdom aid has played a significant part in that.

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Last year the UK Government cut funding to aid programmes in rebel-held Syria, instead shifting focus to this valuable humanitarian work in the region. Nonetheless, groups such as the Free Syrian police, whom we supported throughout the conflict, continue to face a number of threats from the regime as they continue their valuable work. Will the Secretary of State assure me that her Department has not simply abandoned these people and that their ongoing protection is still a matter of serious concern for the UK Government?

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DFID’s aid has always been focused on humanitarian need, regardless of who has been in control of territory. Provided we can be assured that aid and support are not diverted for terrorist or extremist purposes but get through to those who are in need, that is the guiding principle on which we work, and will continue to be the principle on which DFID will provide humanitarian aid.

Gender Equality

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2. What steps her Department is taking to improve gender equality for women throughout the world. [908414]

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Gender equality is considered in the design of all DFID’s programmes, and is essential to achieving the sustainable development goals. Between 2015 and 2018, UK aid provided 16.9 million women and girls with modern methods of family planning, and helped 5.6 million girls to gain access to a decent education.

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Action on Poverty, a charity based in my constituency, has done some tremendous work in Africa and Asia, including helping thousands of women to set up their own businesses. What more can the Department do to assist charities like Action on Poverty?

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I pay tribute to the work that Action on Poverty has done, and, indeed, to my hon. Friend’s support for that organisation. We are currently helping it, through UK Aid Direct, to improve livelihoods and food security in Sierra Leone, but, more widely, we want to increase the number of small and medium-sized charities and other organisations with which we work to deliver the global goals.

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Let me ask the Secretary of State a pertinent question about empowering women. Does she agree that all the research shows that allowing them to start their own businesses and have control over their own lives is one of the best ways of empowering them, and that that often means giving them the finance that will enable them to start a small business?

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I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Not only the future of womankind but the future of mankind depends on that happening.

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Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that in many parts of the world women and girls are still not being given the education that they deserve, or the same education as men and boys? What is her Department doing to help to alleviate that discrimination and highlight the need for equal opportunities?

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Globally, 63 million girls between the ages of five and 15 are out of school. Under the auspices of the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), we are supporting the global education partnership and, within that, the education challenge. We have refreshed our own education strategy to ensure that it is not just about girls in classrooms, but about the quality of education that they are receiving. Only through a concerted effort in that respect, and by asking other partners to step up, will we ensure that every woman and girl has a decent education.

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I welcome the Secretary of State’s ambitious strategy on gender equality, which is a heartening step towards Labour’s feminist approach to international development, but these commitments will remain just warm words if, as we learned last month, 20%—600—of DFID’s staff are to be reassigned to other Departments to help to manage the Tories’ Brexit shambles. Will the Secretary of State tell the House very specifically what impact she expects that huge cut to have on her gender equality strategy, and, indeed, on all her Department’s work?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role and sincerely wish him well in it, but his assertion is incorrect. That is not the number of staff who have been redeployed. I think that, currently, the grand total of DFID staff who are helping other Departments is 25. However, if the hon. Gentleman is concerned about a no-deal situation, he knows what he needs to do: he needs to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her warm words, but I note that she did not rule out the possibility of 600 staff leaving the Department.

Many Members will have been deeply concerned by reports in the media last week that DFID’s independence may once again be up for debate in this summer’s comprehensive spending review, although merging DFID with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would fly in the face of the evidence of how our aid budget can make the greatest impact. Given that more UK aid money is already being spent by other Departments, given the brazen attempts to use aid to win trade deals, and given that 600 staff are on their way out, is the Secretary of State not overseeing the managed decline of the Department for International Development ?

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The hon. Gentleman quotes many statistics and figures at me, so I will help him by quoting some back. All of what he says is not true so, as he starts his new role, I encourage him to talk about the 17 global goals that I hope everyone on both sides of the House is looking to deliver. What he said is not correct.

HIV/AIDS

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3. What steps she is taking to help eradicate HIV/AIDS in developing countries. [908415]

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The United Kingdom is a world leader in efforts to end the AIDS epidemic, including through our major investment in the Global Fund, which provided 17.5 million people with treatment in 2017. We are working to expand access to treatment while reducing new infections, particularly among adolescent girls, women and other groups who face stigma and discrimination.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. Along with medication, education has been transforming the spread of HIV in the UK, with infections falling by 28% since 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, three in four new infections among 15 to 19-year-olds affect girls, and globally young women are twice as likely to be infected with HIV as men their age. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to curb HIV infections within the most vulnerable and susceptible groups?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Women and young girls are indeed a vulnerable group in relation to AIDS. Ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 is a priority for the UK, which I was able to re-emphasise when speaking at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam earlier this year. Tackling AIDS is possible only if we target the most vulnerable populations, which we are doing by focusing on adolescents in the sexual and reproductive health programmes that we support.

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Analysis from the STOPAIDS coalition shows that, despite increased funding to multilaterals, overall DFID funding for HIV programmes has been falling, with bilateral funding for HIV programming falling from £221 million in 2009 to just £13 million in 2017. What steps is the Department taking to fill the funding gap created by that cut? If the Secretary of State is to shift spending to multilateral mechanisms, will the Minister confirm whether the Department will continue to invest in the Global Fund at the sixth replenishment conference in October 2019?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. There is sometimes a difficulty with comparing spending when taking a snapshot, because programmes last for different lengths of time, but she is right to recognise our strong commitment to the Global Fund. We invested £1.2 billion in the current replenishment process, and we also provided extra assistance to the Robert Carr civil society Networks Fund during the course of this year. We will ensure that funding continues to go to programmes, and we do our best to track it when it goes into the wider programmes where the AIDS spending will actually happen. That remains a priority for us.

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10. The Uganda Virus Research Institute does a huge amount of work on HIV/AIDS and, of course, was jointly set up with the British Government back in 1988. What work is the institute doing? What can the Government do to strengthen both that work and the institute’s Ebola research? [908422]

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that programme. In fact, my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa visited the programme recently and was able to see its valuable work on both AIDS and Ebola. That sort of ministerial commitment demonstrates our support on the ground, which will continue and intensify.

Afghanistan: Hazara Community

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4. What steps her Department has taken to provide humanitarian support to civilians from the Hazara community displaced by the Taliban’s recent offensive in central Afghanistan. [908416]

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UK aid provided 2 million people in Afghanistan with life-saving support last year, including members of the Hazara community. The provision of humanitarian assistance is based on need and is delivered across the country, and it includes food, shelter and clean water. Humanitarian partners have been assisting displaced people in central Afghanistan, but they have not requested new funding.

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On 4 December, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific said that British embassy staff had met Afghan Government representatives from the affected area to discuss the situation. Can the Secretary of State update us on the progress made on the humanitarian front and on any developments since that meeting?

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Obviously I do not know the precise meeting to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because of course we frequently meet regional representatives, as well as meeting representatives based in Kabul. We are assisting people, particularly in that region, because of the territorial changes and the new pressures. At the moment there has not been a further call on us to provide any further assistance in that respect, although in other areas of Afghanistan we have leaned in because of the drought.

SDG10: Reducing Inequality

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5. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the UK meets sustainable development goal 10 on reducing inequality. [908417]

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The Department for International Development’s mission is to reduce inequality by ending extreme poverty.

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We often talk in this place, at least on this side of the House, about the importance of universal public services like the NHS and inclusive education in ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, has access to essential services, which will bring about more equal societies. What is the Department doing to ensure that UK aid better supports the development of universal free public services in the countries in which it works?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right that that forms a core part of our work not only on ending extreme poverty but in providing access to essential, lifesaving services. Whether it is helping with infants and preventing maternal mortality or providing 12 years of quality education, the Department is working around the world on those opportunities.

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My hon. Friend will be aware that I am a member of the independent commission on sexual misconduct set up by Oxfam following the Haiti issues and that the commission is about to produce its interim report. Does she agree that the way in which staff are treated by non-governmental organisations, showing proper respect and reducing inequality, is an important step towards meeting this development goal?

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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the work he is doing on this important issue. Last year the Department took a leadership role on addressing such issues not only within the Department but within the providers we work with around the world.

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11. What progress has the Department made in engaging with children and young people to achieve sustainable development goal 16.2 to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children? [908423]

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Through our own work, through the International Citizen Service and through our work with many of our partner organisations, including UNICEF, we are working extensively on this issue. I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the UK is the largest donor to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.

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Does the Minister agree that it will be impossible to meet sustainable development goal 10 unless people with disabilities are included in all our humanitarian and development work?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this, which is why last year the UK held the disability summit and launched the disability strategy to make sure that those people are truly included in all our development work.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [908463]

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The current Ebola virus outbreak has claimed 377 lives in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to date, and more than 600 people have tested positive for the disease. The response effort has been good, but it has been hampered by terrible insecurity in the region, with many humanitarian workers under fire while trying to initiate vaccinations. More than 200 people have survived the virus and the rate of infection is slow. Yesterday, I spoke to Dr Tedros of the World Health Organisation, who has just returned from the country, about what more we can do to contain the outbreak over the next several months. The UK has stepped up its support in response to the situation in the DRC and its preparedness throughout the region. It is a critical time for other nations to do the same.

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T3. The good news is that once we leave the European Union we can get rid of tariffs on products from our friends in the African world. What discussion have the Government had with African countries about increasing trade and development after Brexit? [908465]

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We have not heard from Mr Charalambous. We must hear from the feller!

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The all-party group on vaccinations for all, of which I am a member, will release a report next week that highlights the fact that globally one in 10 children do not receive any of the 11 essential World Health Organisation-recommended vaccines. Does the Secretary of State agree that ensuring that all children are fully immunised should be a priority of this Government and vital organisations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance?

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I am extremely glad that the hon. Gentleman got to ask that question, because Gavi is our highest performing multilateral partner. It is absolutely right that we keep the programme strong. I shall visit Gavi’s Bognor Regis facility next week. Between 2016 and 2020, UK Aid will have vaccinated 76 million children, saving 1.4 million lives.

Mr Speaker, I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is ready to answer Topical Question 3 without its having to be repeated.

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Indeed. Let us hear from the Minister for Africa.

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May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) that there will indeed be scope not only to copy across the existing favourable trade arrangements but to increase the favourability in terms of access to the UK market for many of the poorest countries in the world post Brexit.

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T2. Pregnancy and childbirth are incredibly dangerous times for women throughout the developing world, where the vast majority of maternal deaths take place. What more will the Secretary of State be doing this year to ensure that pregnant women and those in childbirth receive the same basic level of healthcare support that many of us here are able to take for granted? [908464]

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Our commitment to global health is designed to ensure that focus is placed on the most vulnerable, and our support for sustainable health systems ensures that the work that is going on to improve maternity and pregnancy services in so many parts of the world is supported and bolstered by the work that we do both in country and multilaterally.

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T5. Sadly, Ethiopia has one of the worst neonatal mortality records in the world. Will the Minister join me in thanking all those in Colchester, including the CHUFT Blanketeers, who have been busy knitting in support of my campaign to send thousands of knitted hats for newborn babies in Ethiopia? [908467]

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Ethiopia is one of the countries in which the Department for International Development has extensive programmes. I am very pleased to hear that the good folk of Colchester are supplementing that work with this wonderful project to knit hats for babies.

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T4. Without realising it, many Members of this House will own an item of clothing made by a slave from an overseas country. What more will the Secretary of State do to make sure that her Department, along with the Department for International Trade and its independent trade policy, tackles modern slavery not only at home but abroad? [908466]

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Under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we have led the charge on tackling modern slavery globally, including at the United Nations General Assembly this year where we increased our financial contribution to £200 million to combat the issue. Critically, we have also held events with the private sector, because it is only with the private sector and by ensuring transparency, knowledge and security across all of its supply chains that we can eradicate this terrible practice from the world.

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T7. Will the Minister explain to the House what steps she is taking to improve primary education in Pakistan? [908469]

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As the House will know, we work worldwide, including extensively in Pakistan, to fund education. Literally millions of children are accessing 12 years of quality education thanks to the work of the Department for International Development.

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T6. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much of the international development budget has been diverted to the Ministry of Defence? [908468]

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I have good news for the hon. Gentleman because, even with our immense skills, it is impossible to spend any of the 0.7% on anything that is not official development assistance-eligible. I encourage all Opposition Members, as they hopefully join us to deliver the global goals, to start working for a change with the private sector and the armed forces, without which we will not be able to deliver the humanitarian relief that we wish to deliver or achieve those goals.

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The US decision to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency support to Palestine risks vital education and healthcare services there. I welcome DFID’s decision to increase funding in the short term, but is that sustainable in the longer term?

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We and other donors have moved very rapidly this year to seek to cover a shortfall in UNRWA funding. Work is going on to ensure that, in the long term, UNRWA is sustainable. Ultimately, though, the issue is not UNRWA, but the unresolved situation of refugees.

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T8. Does the Secretary of State see the huge contradiction between the vital work that DFID does helping countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change and UK Export Finance continuing to subsidise billions of fossil fuel projects? [908470]

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I assure the hon. Lady that, on climate change, we continue to improve access to clean energy for millions of people worldwide. That is an important part of the work that we do within our UK aid budget.

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Order. Just before we begin Prime Minister’s questions, I hope that colleagues across the House will want to join me in welcoming to the House of Commons today the former Member of Parliament for Glasgow Central and now the Governor of the Punjab, our friend Mohammad Sarwar. Welcome Mohammad.