Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:36 pm on 19th May 2003.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development 10:36 pm, 19th May 2003

I congratulate Chris Grayling on securing the debate and his presentation of the issues, which was clear and helpful. I assure him of two things: first, the concern about the plight of the Zimbabwean people, especially in the rural areas that he described, is shared equally across all parties. We on the Government side certainly are not complacent about the position of people in Zimbabwe, and I welcome the chance to set out some of our approach, because quite a few issues are worth rehearsing and explaining.

Secondly, I understand why the hon. Gentleman is protective of the contact with his constituents. I pay tribute to them and the work that they do in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and at considerable risk to themselves to meet profound humanitarian needs. Labour Members would not look to increase the pressure on them any further.

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's points, but, perhaps at the end of my speech, I will give reassurances on how the information that he has provided will be treated and fed back into the system. Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis is, of course, part of a wider political and economic crisis. Unfortunately, the suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans will continue, despite the best efforts of the international community, until the appalling failures of the Mugabe regime are reversed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that at the heart of the matter is a profound political problem. It is not just humanitarian.

I assure the hon. Gentleman of the Government's commitment in relation to Zimbabwe. We have pressed extremely hard for reform and will continue to do so, but we cannot secure change on our own. Therefore, we strongly welcome the recent initiatives that have been taken by the Presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi to start a dialogue between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change. Pressure from the African Governments is essential to deliver the change of policies and a return to legitimate democracy that Zimbabwe so badly needs.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Zimbabwean Government's disastrous land reform programme is at the heart of the crisis. Far from improving agricultural productivity or helping the poor, it has contributed to a humanitarian crisis that is deeper than any in recent times; far from learning from elsewhere, it ignores international recommendations and the Zimbabwean Government's own principles, which were adopted at international conferences.

It was clear at independence that land reform was needed. Since independence, Britain has provided £500 million in bilateral support for development work in Zimbabwe and £47 million specifically for land reform, of which £3 million was returned because of a lack of specific proposals on land reform. We have not reneged on the Lancaster house commitments and we continue to want land reform, but Zimbabwe needs reforms that benefit the poor, not Mugabe's henchmen, which is one of the reasons why there are particular problems in rural areas.

The situation of the ordinary people in Zimbabwe in rural and indeed urban areas is increasingly difficult. Food shortages affecting nearly 7 million people—more than half the population—have been well publicised but that is just one aspect of the crisis facing the poor. Access to official assistance for education, Government food aid, justice and medical treatment can depend on where people live and, as the hon. Gentleman said, which party they support. Constitutional rights are being abused by the very institutions of state responsible for their protection.

Zimbabwe has the fastest collapsing economy in the world. Falling exports mean that there is little foreign exchange to buy food, fuel or power. Jobs are disappearing. Officially, inflation is 228 per cent. and growing at about 10 per cent. a month. Even for those with cash, prices are rising rapidly and basic goods are often unavailable except on the black market. Attempts to control prices and to operate subsidies without making financial provision have served only to distort markets and cause shortages and fuel inflation.

In total, about 70 per cent. of people live below the poverty line. People are increasingly dependent on informal livelihoods and food aid. Many skilled Zimbabweans are opting for emigration in the hope of a better life.