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20 Mar 2008 : Column 1121

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I agree that it is sad that the Commonwealth has not been more involved in Zimbabwe. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is also sad that the African Union, and South Africa in particular, did not press for Commonwealth observers at the elections being held last week? That would have helped to give some credibility to what will be a totally flawed election process.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Lady is quite right. Indeed, Human Rights Watch has produced a report and concluded that the elections will be deeply flawed because of factors such as people not being allowed to register to vote, dead people being allowed to register and the repression of opposition parties. The situation there is very difficult. One chink of light may be the former Finance Minister, who is challenging Mugabe and could provide another way forward. Perhaps that is a vain hope, but the electoral process has to be the bedrock of a country’s stability. When that is flawed, as we saw in Kenya, the consequences can be dire. Zimbabwe is one country in respect of which we cannot bask in the glow of success of what we have achieved internationally, and I press the Government to use every available channel open to them to take further action.

The theme of Commonwealth day 2008 was “The Environment, Our Future”, and it is right for an international organisation such as the Commonwealth to focus on climate change. I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which is undertaking an inquiry into the international context after Kyoto. One of the things that we have found is frustration caused by the UN negotiations—how slow and bureaucratic that process can be. After speaking to some of those who take part in such negotiations, one begins to wonder whether we will ever find a solution and get international agreement.

We have to welcome, therefore, any other international bodies that can be used as a forum through which to push for progress, to encourage countries to take UN negotiations more seriously, and to allow unilateral action by countries, or groups working together, to cut carbon emissions. Most importantly, in the context of Commonwealth countries, that may allow for good adaptation measures. Countries such as India have an important role to play and I hope that it can be encouraged, as a rapidly industrialising country, to consider how it can learn from our past mistakes and create a far lower carbon economy than we have managed to.

Scientists tell us that it may not be possible to keep to a 2(o) rise in temperature; the figure may end up being higher. The impact of such change will be felt most harshly in many of our Commonwealth friends. Indeed, the small island states—the Tuvalus and Vanuatus—and some of the larger states, such as low-lying Bangladesh, are under great threat. Australia is already experiencing extreme weather patterns and just a small change will make those events more extreme, with really difficult consequences. Thankfully, its Government are now looking more seriously at what they can do to address climate change, after almost a decade of denying its existence.

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I feel that the world is beginning to wake up to the threat of climate change, but the analogy that I would use is that rather than its being a case of someone rolling over in bed, looking at the alarm clock, thinking, “Oh my goodness! I’ve slept in,” and rushing out of the door to act immediately, it is more like someone waking up, having a stretch and a yawn and thinking, “Maybe I’ll go and have some breakfast.” The sense of urgency demonstrated by all the international institutions, and even, I would contend, by this Government, does not seem to match the scale of the challenge that we face. I urge the Government to act with a sense of greater urgency on this issue and, importantly, use their influence with our Commonwealth partners.

I turn finally to the rights of Commonwealth citizens in the UK. We have all spoken about the importance of the Commonwealth, and I am sure that we will hear more on that, so it is right that we think seriously about how we show Commonwealth citizens living in the UK that they are valued members of the community and that we value the network that is the Commonwealth. As the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) mentioned, the proposal to get rid of ancestry visas has come back twice in four years. That is very worrying.

Meg Munn: I am glad that the hon. Lady referred to that because I would like to correct something that I said earlier. I mixed up my consultations—the consultation on the visitor visa finished in March, and the consultation on the ancestry issue does not finish until May, so there is still plenty of time for hon. Members and others to respond.

Jo Swinson: That is a welcome clarification, and I hope that the consultation responses will show that it is important to retain ancestry visas in order to keep our links with Commonwealth countries. I also hope that as a result of the consultation, the Government will decide that that is the right way forward.

Simon Hughes: The Minister was helpful in making that correction. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful if all colleagues found out how many Commonwealth citizens were in their constituencies? In mine, probably about one in five of the community are such citizens. We have an obligation to ensure that those resident in this country understand the proposal, because if they understand it, the Government will get a significant response.

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend makes his point clearly and well.

The other issue concerning the rights of Commonwealth citizens in this country is their right to take part in our elections. The recent review of citizenship by Lord Goldsmith, which was published this month, seemed to question whether that right should be retained. I think that it should be. It is important, and I would go further. As we have heard, many Commonwealth citizens work and live in the UK and contribute to our society, and for a variety of reasons, they retain citizenship in their own country. Often, they do not know that they are eligible to vote in this country. Rather than just preserving that right, which we should do, we should make a concerted effort
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to ensure that people are aware of it so that they can play a full role in the democratic process of this country. I urge the Government to promote that right, rather than remove it.

The Commonwealth is a hugely important organisation and a key part of UK heritage. It is also a vital part of the UK’s future.

1.59 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), with whom, as she said, I shared an excellent visit to Sierra Leone. I shall talk about that visit in a few moments. I would like to offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), the chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. My involvement with both organisations has been tremendously positive and it is the reason why I am speaking today.

I am going to talk about my experiences of a specific country. That may seem rather mean when so many are available, but as I look around the Chamber and see other hon. Members in their places, I know that others will willingly cover other countries. I shall talk in depth about Sierra Leone.

I first went to Sierra Leone in 2003 at the request of the then MP for Bridgend, Mr. Win Griffiths. I do not know whether friends and colleagues will recall him; he was a stalwart of the Back Benches, always sat at the back, and he was chairman of the all-party group for Sierra Leone. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association had been kind enough to fund a visit and Win Griffiths was looking for Members to go.

It is true that Sierra Leone has a significant amount of both sand and sea, but the problem is that it does not have very much else, which does not it make it a very attractive proposition. I had to have 17 inoculations to go there, which quite frankly would have put off most Members, and the warnings that came with the various malaria drugs alarmed everyone in the family. The requirement to carry insect repellent everywhere put the tin lid on the suggestion that this was some sort of beano that we were all going on. It was quite a serious undertaking. Win Griffiths particularly wanted me to go on the trip because there were huge issues to do with genital circumcision in Sierra Leone, which was just beginning to be talked about, and he felt that it was right and proper to have a woman accompanying him, so I went.

Sierra Leone had just emerged from a civil war in February. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of York said, it was a devastating war. It is an extraordinary country, amazingly mineral-rich with plenty of diamonds and sapphires, but in many ways, that has proved to be its undoing. If we reflect on the antecedents of the civil war, we can see there were huge issues around the control of the diamond and sapphire mines. They were fantastic repositories of wealth, but even today, very little of that wealth permeates through to the people of Sierra Leone. There are several companies involved, but they play no role in reinvesting the benefit that they have taken out of the country. With international help, the UK has contributed to returning Sierra Leone to peace, but it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

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Mr. Keith Simpson: The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, based on her experiences. I would like to put it on record from the Opposition side of the House that, although many people criticised the previous Prime Minister Tony Blair, I believe he was quite right to take the decision to use British armed forces to intervene in Sierra Leone. It provided a perfect example of proper intervention against an appalling regime and of the sheer professionalism of our armed forces, some of whom are still there doing training. I just wanted that put on the record.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: What a lovely and generous thing for the hon. Gentleman to say. That was very true. All over Sierra Leone, many children are called Tony Blair. When he went to receive the country’s highest award, he was greeted by a group of children who had been named after him. Undoubtedly, when British citizens go to the shores of Sierra Leone, they are greeted with tremendous love and affection. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire also felt that. Without a shadow of a doubt, these people realise that we helped them to exit from a horror acknowledged by a war crimes tribunal as one of the worst, if not the worst, that this world has ever seen. The degree of mutilation that took place during those 10 years beggars belief.

I was saying that Sierra Leone is vying to be at the bottom of all the tables of statistics. In the World Health Organisation’s statistics, for example, the country is held to be 176th out of 177 countries, but it is right at the bottom of others. Perhaps the most significant statistic is that Sierra Leone has the worst maternal and child mortality in the world, with one in four children dying before their fifth birthday. Even today, it is a very grim place to visit, yet the degree of optimism that ones sees while walking through the streets is truly uplifting and inspiring.

Ms Abbott: I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. I have never visited Sierra Leone, but it is worth putting on record the fact that before the horrors of the civil war, the country had some of the best standards of education in west Africa because of its history as a state in which freed slaves originally settled. Freetown, in particular, had very high standards of education, which makes its plight now even more tragic.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My hon. Friend is quite correct. In fact, our nations share a great love of education and a desire for all our children to do well. If we were to transfer ourselves to Freetown, families, mothers, brothers and sisters would be having exactly the same conversation about what school to send their children to and what they were going to do when they grew up. I know that the Sierra Leone Government are very keen to capitalise on their former reputation and develop their educational provision. We have a role to play in helping them to do that.

On the subject of conflict, nearly a quarter of the population—5 million people—were either displaced or forced to flee during the war, but the good news is that, following the very successful recent election, 12 members of Parliament who are citizens of the UK have now gone home. That is a tremendous accolade
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for a country so soon out of its civil war, and it augurs well for the future. As was mentioned earlier, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy funded the visit and we had the opportunity to meet some constituents who are now serving in the Sierre Leone Government. That was very encouraging, too.

About 10,000 children, some as young as eight, were forced into the various armed forces, but once again there is another good news story. I want to tell everyone here that 53 per cent. of the Sierra Leone Government’s budget comes courtesy of us: that is, 53p in every pound paid to a Minister there comes from British taxpayers. That is a staggering commitment. I can well hear some people wondering why we are doing that, but the only answer is that people must visit Sierra Leone to find out. If they went, there would be no argument about why that funding was necessary.

That is not the sort of funding that we provide to all our Commonwealth brothers and sisters, because there are various agreements about which countries throughout the world we should support. We have been fortunate enough to be allocated, or to agree to support, Sierra Leone in considerable measure. Next door, in the Côte d’Ivoire, there is French support and Liberia has the US, for example, so everyone is bearing a share of the responsibility for supporting vulnerable countries that are either in conflict, post-conflict or now considered to be fragile states.

The consequences of the war are, of course, still being felt and will, in my opinion, be felt for generations. It is not possible simply to recover from a civil war, in which terrible atrocities and the rape of a nation were committed, in just a generation. That is impossible. A huge number of people who were either murdered or sent out of the country comprised the technical capacity required to grow the country back after the war. Growing that technical capacity is a matter of great concern to me.

I have already said that the UK has spent large amounts and supported the nation enormously. Military intervention was requested by the then President Kabbah, and Tony Blair, the Government and the House responded magnificently. The civil uprising was put down very quickly. It was a war that was waiting to end; there were no protracted problems. Crucially, a plan was in place to manage the peace. When we reflect on other wars being prosecuted in different parts of the world, it is the absence of a peace plan that makes people despair so much. In Sierra Leone, however, they got the peace plan right. We negotiated and received support from the UN for a peacekeeping mission. We assisted and advised the demobilisation and integration programme through which 50,000 former combatants were disarmed and given the opportunity to start a life.

A good half of those former combatants were young people—over 50 per cent. of the population in Sierra Leone is under the age of 15. There are arguments about life expectancy, but it ranges from 32 to 40. It is not unsurprising, therefore, that the rebel armies were full of children. I have visited dozens of schools in Sierra Leone, and children who are former murderers—some of them have murdered their own
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parents, some have raped their own parents, and some of them have done both—can be found in the classroom. They were taken back, not ostracised, by the very communities in which they committed those terrible crimes. They were embraced as victims of a terrible time, and have been brought back into the fold. Let me give hon. Members one salutary fact: Sierra Leone has not one child psychologist to deal with any of the trauma that those young people have experienced. An atrocity has simply been put to one side, and the country has got on with the future.

The British Government have donated a huge amount of aid to Sierra Leone. We helped to set up the special court staffed by the British, Americans and people from all over the Commonwealth and the EU, to try to bring justice to people who had had terrible crimes perpetrated against them. As has been mentioned, members of the British armed forces still serve in Sierra Leone, and act as expert advisers to the Sierra Leonean army. Many members of that army now serve in the British armed forces to take back good practice. As I said in an intervention, however, it is a two-way street—we also learn about the challenges faced by countries the size of Sierra Leone and how better to position our armies, so that when we fight, and support countries, in similar conflicts, we can share the experience gained.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is an excellent foundation. Will my hon. Friend the Member for City of York tell us whether the Speaker has agreed to fund just the CPA, or will the Westminster Foundation for Democracy also be funded?

Hugh Bayley: The funding that comes from the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords is for the CPA. The Foreign Office provides grant in aid to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and other bodies fund particular programmes of work—for instance, DFID funds work on Sierra Leone.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: May I therefore extend, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my warm thanks to the Speaker for agreeing to take the CPA under his wing? That is quite right and proper. I also thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its support for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which does extraordinary work.

The foundation has taken to Sierra Leone a number of delegations of Members of Parliament, not just from this House but from the Scottish Parliament—we were fortunate to visit with Mr. Iain Smith, a Liberal MSP. We sat down with newly elected members of the Sierra Leonean Parliament to talk to them about what it was to be an MP, both in power and in opposition. That was an extraordinary event, simply because 72 of the 120 MPs elected in the recent elections were brand new—many of them had never engaged in any political activity before. Many of them had got in on the ticket, signed up to a particular party, got through the election and found themselves members of Parliament.

We had a Herculean task, in which we failed dismally, in terms of the number of subjects that can be covered in three days. The notion that we could be
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taught everything about our roles in three days is a little farcical, and yet for the Sierra Leonean members of Parliament, we are the only show in town. Nobody else is riding in to help them with the difficult task of managing themselves in government and opposition. There were many conversations about the Americans possibly doing something, but the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was it. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker came to see us and said that such education was tremendously important because the people of Sierra Leone want to retain democracy and peace. The democratic process is the way for them. I commend the foundation and applaud its aims and objectives. I hope that the FCO continues to sponsor it, because if members of Parliament do not understand their role, there will be serious problems in government.

Some of our conversations with colleagues in Sierra Leone were tremendously interesting. It is all very well to criticise some of these nations for being corrupt, but when one meets members of Parliament who receive a salary of £400 a year, have no travel or accommodation allowance, and some of whose constituencies are 1,000 miles away, it is difficult to tell them it is inappropriate to pay for children’s education or somebody’s funeral. They turn around and say, “But we earn more than anyone else in our community. Would you walk over a dead body in your community?” We found such conversations extremely challenging, because if that is the definition of corruption I would probably be equally corrupt in that sense. Sierra Leone has an acute shortage of money, and the Government need all the support that can be provided.

Let me deal with the role of DFID, which has done a tremendous job. After the war, the first priority was to get a grasp on democracy and all the civil governance organisations. Half the army had defected to the rebel groups, and half the police were in the pay of the rebel groups. As for the courts, one could buy one’s way out of a murder charge quite easily because of the acute shortage of money—people are extraordinarily poor, living a hand-to-mouth existence on 26p a day. In Freetown today, we would find 1 million people shuffling around the streets because unemployment runs at 90 per cent. The role of the British Government was to secure those instruments of control, management and freedom that we all take for granted. They have done a fantastic job.

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