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8. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): When he last met his counterpart in South Africa to discuss the security and economic situation in Zimbabwe. [23248]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I last discussed Zimbabwe with South African Foreign Minister Dr. Zuma on 21 September. I will see her again on 7 November at   the   EU-South Africa Co-operation Council in Brussels. I will again impress on her the very fast deterioration in conditions in Zimbabwe. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans remain homeless after their Government's callous eviction campaign and nearly 3 million people are in need of food assistance over the next six months. Inflation has reached 360 per cent. in the past year and is still rising, but the Government of Zimbabwe have just seen fit to reject offers of United Nations assistance. I discussed that yesterday with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and I strongly endorse the statement that he issued yesterday which expressed profound concern about the situation in Zimbabwe. While sanctions imposed and tightened by the European Union and the United States are necessary, southern African nations have a key role to play in pressuring the Government of Zimbabwe for change.

Mr. Evans: With inflation running at 360 per cent., GDP set to fall by 7 per cent. this year, 700,000 people being evicted from their homes, 75 per cent. of people   living below the poverty level, the Government refusing food aid, 3,000 people a week dying of AIDS-related illnesses and ambulances running out of fuel, Zimbabwe is a paradise lost. What extra action does the   Foreign Secretary believe that South Africa in particular, and sub-Saharan African nations in the regions generally, should take to give the people of Zimbabwe some help and some hope for the future?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is right to be angry and concerned about the situation, and his feelings are shared on both sides of the House. The situation is
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frustrating, because southern African nations are the   ones suffering the most—apart from the terrible   plight of the Zimbabweans—from the wrecking of Zimbabwe's economy and society by Mugabe. However, trying to persuade them to take action or even to put strong pressure on the Mugabe regime is hard going. We will continue to do so and to take every opportunity to do so. I just hope that southern African leaders understand the urgency of the situation, not only for the people of Zimbabwe, but for their own societies which are now suffering high levels of unemployment, asylum seekers and infections such as HIV/AIDS, which   now infects a quarter of the total population of   Zimbabwe, as a result of Mugabe's criminally irresponsible policies.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments, but in view of the continued atrocities and the ban on Ministers travelling, can he explain why two officials from his Department and three officials from the Home Office, who visited Zimbabwe recently to examine the asylum seekers issue, paid a courtesy call to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the immigration department? In answer to a written question, I was told that those were courtesy visits.

Mr. Straw: We do have diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe. I happen to believe that that is right and is also a way to ensure that the interests of the 70,000 to 80,000 British passport holders in Zimbabwe are protected. It also ensures that we have a good flow of information and understanding about the situation in Zimbabwe. That being so, I am afraid that we do have to follow common courtesies in respect of our relations. The other option would be to break off those diplomatic relations. The visit by the officials was not a courtesy visit: it was to see whether—and if so, in what circumstances—those who are returned to Zimbabwe as failed asylum seekers suffer as a result of the regime. My hon. Friend will know that those circumstances were the subject of a recent judgment by the High Court.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I received a fax this lunchtime from six Zimbabwean asylum seekers who are currently detained in my constituency at Yarl's Wood. They travelled on South African passports, which is a well-known escape route and they are due to be deported to South Africa, despite the current ban on returning Zimbabweans to that country. They are terrified by the prospect because of the known close relationship between the Zimbabwean and South African security forces. Can the Foreign Secretary guarantee the safety of those women if they are returned to South Africa; and if not, will he intervene to stop their deportation?

Mr. Straw: I know of no circumstances in which individuals returned to South Africa have been in danger from the Zimbabwe Government. So I hope that I can give that assurance, and I will check on it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary straight after this session of questions. This is a difficult issue. I, too, have failed asylum seekers in my constituency. In every case where failed asylum seekers have been returned to Zimbabwe, to the very best of my knowledge, they have not come to any harm. I understand the concern on both
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sides of the House, but the House is very insistent when in a different mood that, while we give a safe haven to genuine refugees, we do not provide a refuge to those who cannot justify their claim to refugee status before independent judicial authorities.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend has concerns about Zimbabwe, but the big issue is what role the African nations can play. What role is our new high commissioner playing in trying to persuade South Africa to use some sanctions, which is what it will take if we are to break the evil regime of Mugabe? What else can we do, and what role is our high commission playing?

Mr. Straw: His Excellency the Right Hon. Paul Boateng is playing a very fine role in South Africa, as all   of us would expect. There is a constant dialogue with   the South African Government at every level. The South African Government fully understand what is happening. What they will say is that their view of what should be done is different from ours. I happen to take a different view. That dialogue must continue, and we will continue it, not least in the meeting at which I shall see Dr. Zuma next Monday.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): President Mugabe has failed not only the Zimbabwean people, but the whole African continent. Clearly, the Foreign Secretary's diplomatic efforts are simply not working. From being a net exporter of food, Zimbabwe is now completely dependent on food imports. In spite of a damning UN report, no further action has been taken after the atrocities of the urban clearances. EU sanctions appear not to be working because most of the legitimate efforts are being channelled elsewhere. Will he please use his good offices to impress on the South African high commissioner to this country that our patience is rapidly running out?

Mr. Straw: I will certainly do so. Of course, as I have said already, I understand fully the concerns on both sides of the House. Our EU sanctions have been strengthened. They are working. They were targeted at individuals at the top of the regime, not at ordinary people who are suffering under the regime. We have also had a discussion in the Security Council. I wish that we could have a resolution in the Security Council; but so far, we have not been able to persuade at least nine of our colleagues on the Security Council to move for a resolution. We shall continue at every opportunity to push for such a resolution.

EU Presidency

9. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What benchmarks he has set against which he will assess the effectiveness of the UK's presidency of the EU. [23249]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): My hon. Friend will recall that the work programme for the United Kingdom presidency was set out in detail by me in White Paper Cm 6611, which I presented to the House on 30 June.
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Keith Vaz: May I welcome the progress that has been made in achieving those benchmarks? May I also congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his bonding session with the US Secretary of State recently and ask him whether he would be prepared to repeat that exercise with his EU counterparts, so that they can be persuaded of the need to ensure that the benchmarks on the Lisbon agenda are met? In the last eight weeks of our presidency, could we possibly have a little less Rice and a little more concentration on the bread-and-butter issues of economic reform?

Mr. Straw: What my hon. Friend describes as my bonding session with Secretary Rice I performed only because of what is said at the top of page 4 of the work programme—namely, that the EU should strive for a better relationship with the United States—so it was just work, work and work, I make that clear. On the issue of rice, my hon. Friend will know that there are problems with the subsidisation of rice in the EU, and that issue is being raised in the Doha development round.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend raised this question in that way. He always does his prep, and if he went down the list for the programme, he would see that, on better regulation, we have made major progress: 68 regulations have been withdrawn in the EU and 100 have been simplified. The post-financial services action plan, which is intended to secure a much lighter touch over regulation of things such as the City, has been agreed. On development in Africa, there have been major improvements, with a doubling in the promises of aid to Africa. Sugar reforms should be agreed by the Agriculture Council in November. On enlargement, we had the historic decision on time, in the United Kingdom presidency, to start negotiations with Croatia and Turkey. The UK presidency is working.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Secretary of State has indicated that he thinks that the   boycotts and sanctions against Zimbabwe should be fully implemented and honoured. Does he believe that those boycotts and sanctions are being implemented as they should be by all countries of the European Union? How is it that Mr. Mugabe and his other fellow travellers from that brutal regime may go to France and Italy almost at will? Is that showing the effectiveness of our EU presidency?

Mr. Straw: It is not true that those people go to those countries at will—there is a proper procedure. However, under this sanction regime, as is the case under any sanction regime throughout the world, there is provision to allow members of the Zimbabwe Government to have visas when they are attending international organisation meetings, just as the United States has to allow all sorts of world leaders against whom they deploy sanctions to attend meetings of the United Nations in New York.

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