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House of Lords

Thursday, 20th November 1997.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

Great Lakes Region, Africa

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Following the downfall of President Mobutu in Zaire, what arrangements they are making for an integrated policy towards the Great Lakes region of Africa.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we recognise that the humanitarian problems in the Great Lakes are regional in nature, and therefore require a regional approach wherever possible. However, resolutions ultimately depend on political action in the countries concerned.

We are working closely with the EU and UN to promote conflict resolution, progress towards democratisation, the rule of law, respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. We fully support the work of the UN as the one organisation which straddles all the complex issues of economic and political development, human rights and refugees.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does my noble friend agree that perhaps the most testing challenge is how to balance a convincing stand on human rights and condemnation of ethnic killing with the need not to punish the innocent and to speed meaningful reconstruction based on accountable political systems? Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government will use their forthcoming presidency of the European Union to work with fellow member states in overcoming fragmentation, which has been present in policy in Europe in the past, and to achieve a co-ordinated approach not only in Europe but in the international institutions, not least on debt, arms control and issues of that kind? What will be the Government's position at the forthcoming meeting organised by the World Bank on 3rd December in Brussels?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of the balance to which my noble friend referred. My noble friend raised two specific points on the presidency and the World Bank. We shall of course seek to use the presidency to ensure co-ordinated EU action in support of stability and economic development in the region that takes account of humanitarian concerns, human rights issues and the need for improved and more accountable government.

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As regards the World Bank, the meeting is planned, although as yet not confirmed, for 3rd and 4th December. We shall reiterate our desire to work with the new Government in Kinshasa to bring about a better future for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and for its people. But to enable the international community to have real confidence that it is right to do so, we need to see progress in addressing the issues of concern; namely, those of human rights to which my noble friend referred.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, having returned overnight from a conference in southern Africa which was attended by four heads of Government, is the Minister aware--I was not--that the heads of Government in that region are greatly concerned that the new Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been left high and dry by the international community? Following what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, is it not a question not only of pursuing the human rights abuses of the past but also of assisting in the reconstruction of civic society in that tragic country after the mess left behind by President Mobutu?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I was not aware of the specific concerns to which the noble Lord refers. However, I hope that those who voiced those concerns will be to some extent reassured by the news of the welcome arrival in Kinshasa on the 11th of this month of the team leaders of the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights. I understand that the team leaders have already had a meeting with two of the Cabinet Ministers in Kinshasa and have plans to meet Kabila later this week.

I think the feeling that the Government have been left high and dry may not be entirely right in the context of the UN's recent activity.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that her honourable friend Mr. Lloyd will visit the region in the not-too-distant future? As my noble friend Lord Judd said, Zaire needs to be thought about in a regional context. Will my noble friend therefore ask the Minister to endeavour to meet all representatives of different political parties, including those not currently represented in the parliament? I am thinking in particular of UNITA, which is not presently represented in the Zambian parliament but is represented among the populace.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware of my honourable friend's forthcoming trip to the area. I am happy to convey my noble friend's message to him. It is worth noting that the UN has an inter-agency consolidated appeal operating in Tanzania, Uganda, DRC and Burundi, so there is a co-ordinated approach through the international agencies. However, I am happy to relate the specific point to my honourable friend.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, in the spirit of the Minister's initial response, is there any suggestion that

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the East African Association would be prepared to accept Rwanda and Burundi into its midst and, if so, under what conditions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am afraid I do not have details on that point, but I am very happy to take delivery of it and will write to the noble Viscount.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, given the Government's human rights-centred approach to foreign policy, what weight do the Government attach to the recently published report of Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights, which provides evidence of the mass slaughter of Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire? Was the issue raised when the Secretary of State for International Development visited Rwanda last month? What lead do the Government intend to take to ensure that President Kabila addresses international concerns about human rights?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the DfID is never found wanting in raising these important humanitarian issues. It is a matter that has been put to the forefront of the agenda in DfID as well as in the FCO.

Alleged human rights abuses are extraordinarily worrying to the Government. But much of the evidence is second hand, because the UN Special Rapporteur was prevented from examining on the ground some of the alleged serious abuses. It is therefore all the more important that the UN inquiry team to which I referred is able to establish the truth behind the serious allegations of human rights violations in DRC since 1993.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, is the noble Baroness prepared to say more than she said just now about the Government's attitude to debt relief in the context of the UK presidency of the EU and of the work with member states and others next year? In particular, will she say whether the Government are prepared to seek alternative mechanisms, over and above the HIPC initiative, to bring debt relief to Rwanda in particular, which I believe will not qualify for many years for debt relief under the HIPC initiative? Will the Government clearly link additional debt relief to action for poverty reduction and education and health support programmes?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government's attitude to debt relief was dealt with to some extent in the recently published White Paper. That White Paper makes it clear that debt relief will be looked at most sympathetically in those parts of the world where there is a demonstration of a clear commitment to human rights and democratisation. The criteria for debt relief will not be any different in the

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Great Lakes region to any other part of the world. But it will of course be focused on where there is greatest poverty, as the White Paper makes clear.

Prescription Charges

3.16 p.m.

Lord McColl of Dulwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the present level of prescription charges.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced in June that prescription charges were to be one element of the Department of Health's comprehensive spending review. We aim to complete the review by next spring. I reaffirm to the noble Lord and the House that that spending review is taking place in the context of our manifesto commitment on the health service that the NHS will be there to help if you are ill or injured and access to it will be based on need and need alone, not on ability to pay.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does she agree that what Prime Minister Attlee had in mind in introducing the concept of prescription charges was that they should act as a deterrent in an effort to reduce excessive and unnecessary use of the NHS? That being so, does the Minister further agree that it has been quite reasonable that the prescription charge, expressed as a fraction of the total expenditure of the NHS, has remained constant over the past 40 years?

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