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Charities: Landmines

Volume 816: debated on Monday 15 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to provide funds to charities based in the United Kingdom that work to remove landmines and dismantle improvised explosive devices in other countries.

My Lords, over the next three years, the UK’s demining work will continue to save lives, limbs and livelihoods across the world, supporting those most in need and delivering our treaty commitments. The Global Mine Action Programme 3, due to begin in 2022, will involve landmine clearance and risk education to help affected communities keep safe, and capacity development to help national authorities manage their landmine contamination. We are currently working towards finalising funding and country allocations for this programme.

My Lords, I declare my interest as an ambassador for HALO, which has an agreement with the Taliban to continue to carry out mine and IED clearance in Afghanistan. It employs 2,500 locally engaged staff with financial support from Germany and the United States for this work. However, there is no support from the United Kingdom. Why not?

My Lords, in Afghanistan, since 2018, the FCDO’s funding to UNMAS has cleared landmines and unexploded ordnance in 27.2 square kilometres of land. It has released a further 211 square kilometres of land by assessing it as no longer being dangerous. That has directly benefited nearly 1.5 million people. UNMAS has also delivered landmine-risk education to at least 1.2 million people, including more than 450,000 women and girls. The UK has a long track record in Afghanistan.

My Lords, a long time ago, back in 1982, while the Argentinians had a short occupation of the Falkland Islands, they laid a number of landmines there. These were mostly still there when we retook the islands a few months later. What is the present position? Is everything now safe?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I shall have to write to him with an answer on the current assessment.

My Lords, in September, the United Kingdom assumed the presidency of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Since then, the FCDO has removed funding for mine-clearance operations in Vietnam, South Sudan and Zimbabwe, some of the countries worst blighted by cluster munitions and landmines. Will the Minister explain how this decision will help the UK achieve its objective of the universal application of the convention? From outside, it looks as though we are failing to put our money where our mouth is.

The noble Lord is right that the funding has currently been reduced in relation to demining. The Global Mine Action Programme, which I mentioned earlier, will begin next year. We are reviewing funding and country allocations and hope to be able to share our plans for the programme in due course.

My Lords, further to the last question, is not the truth that the cut in our support for clearing landmines, cluster bombs and cluster munitions will result in thousands of people either being killed or having their legs blown off? How can we justify such a cut?

My Lords, the UK has invested really significant sums; it is one of the most generous countries in the world when it comes to funding demining. We have saved, as a consequence of taxpayers’ contributions to programmes backed by the Foreign Office, the lives of many, many hundreds of thousands of people. As I said, the FCDO recognises how critical this work is. That is why we are reviewing the decisions that were made: we are reviewing funding and country allocations and we will come back with details as soon as possible.

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of the Zimbabwe APPG. I may be able to help the Minister with the answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. Last year, landmine clearance in the Falkland Islands was completed, with Minister Wendy Morton paying particular tribute to the brilliant contribution of the team of Zimbabwean deminers. In the context of this assistance, does the Minister recognise that it is absolutely unacceptable for the Government to cut entirely our mine-action funding to Zimbabwe, which has some of the densest and most dangerous minefields in the world? Will he review this decision and restore funding so that Zimbabwe can meet its goal of being landmine-free by 2025, and will he meet me to discuss this matter?

My Lords, as I said in answer to the previous two questions, we are reviewing the funding decisions. We are reviewing country allocations and we will come back with figures when we can. No one disputes the importance of this work to people’s lives and to the stability of countries. Yes, I would be very happy to meet the noble Lord.

I think it is worth repeating this really important point so that the Minister hears: there has been a 75% cut in our landmine clearance work. That will result in deaths. While the Minister is waiting for another nine months, many children and women will be killed as a consequence of this action. It is no good talking about the past; it is the future we are concerned about. Will he, therefore, go back to his department and say, “Restore these cuts now”?

My Lords, the department is currently—not in nine months—reviewing funding decisions in relation to demining. As I said, none of my ministerial colleagues and no one in the foreign office disputes the importance of this work. Every penny that we put into this programme is a penny that will contribute to saving lives and we are very aware of that.

My Lords, as a qualified bomb disposal officer, this is an area in which I have some experience. I confirm that it is difficult, dangerous and challenging work, and often poorly paid. The HALO Trust is an exemplar, offering a five-week training package. I witnessed its people finishing clearing the Falkland Islands back in 2019. What assurances has the department put in place to ensure that all charities offer appropriate training packages for their workers and—crucially, should the worst happen—appropriate insurance and compensation packages for their workers as well?

I thank the noble Lord for his question and for his work in this area. All FCDO contracts and NGOs are held to the highest standards. GMAP 2 partner organisations have robust training and monitoring processes in place to ensure the safety of their staff and of the beneficiaries. The FCDO conducts due-diligence assurance checks on all areas of their work, including staff training and safeguarding before any funding is released.

My Lords, in April 2017 the then International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, standing alongside Prince Harry at a Landmine Free 2025 event, announced the UK’s funding commitment and said of humanitarian demining:

“Global Britain has a historic role in tackling the indiscriminate and lethal legacy of landmines … We have a moral duty to act - and it is in our national interest to act.”

Until we discharge that moral duty and until it is no longer in our interests, we should not reduce our investment in either of them by one penny.

My Lords, the UK remains a leading donor in this sector, notwithstanding the recent cuts, and our demining work will continue to save lives. We are committed to all of our international treaty obligations. We are finalising our plans for GMAP3—the global mine action programme. As I said a few times, we will release details as soon as we can.

My Lords, it has been only in the last few weeks that NGOs have heard that the cuts they will face will be between 75% and 80%, so I welcome the confirmation from my noble friend the Minister that this is being reviewed. Could he tell me when this review will be completed and assure the House that we will be informed of its findings?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I will have to get back to her in writing when I have a date that I can share.

The Indo-Pacific is a region that is heavily contaminated with landmines and unexploded bombs, and is set to lose UK funding despite the Government’s ambition to strengthen their relations and influence there. In fact, Vietnam will no longer receive any funding at all. What assessment has been made of the impact this will have on UK relations in this region? Will the Government commit today to reinstate Vietnam’s funding to rid that country of its dreadful mine legacy?

The legacy in Vietnam of live mines that are still in place is appalling, of course. I know that our funding has been valued by the Vietnamese Government and the Vietnamese people, and has helped to support wider diplomatic objectives. I cannot make any commitments on funding today, other than to say that those decisions that were recently made are being reviewed. I hope they will be reviewed as quickly as possible and that we will be able to continue the work that this House is rightly proud of.

My Lords, some 15 years ago I was chairman of the Halo Trust, which has been mentioned, and a very good organisation it was too. I was also on the DfID Select Committee for some six years. I have seen that not all international aid from Britain is well spent: a lot of it ends up in overseas bank accounts, fast cars and weaponry. However, the Halo Trust got the money and spent it on exactly what it said it would. I plead with my noble friend, when the Government review it, to look at what is achieved. I saw the Halo Trust achieving fantastic things around the world.

The noble Lord is right. There will never be enough public money to resolve the various issues we are committed to help resolve around the world—this being an important one, but just one. It is incumbent on us to ensure that, when we invest money, it is invested as well as it can be. The point he makes about the Halo Trust is a view that I know is shared by colleagues in the Foreign Office. I will convey his words back to colleagues.