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Africa

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:52 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:52 pm, 30th March 2009

My hon. Friend always makes an interesting European point at this stage in a debate. I shall look into what he has said with a great deal of interest.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will join me in paying tribute to the hard work done by officials of both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID in some of the most appallingly difficult circumstances that arise in missions to Africa. Many not only experience difficult working conditions but, at times, face direct threats from local people who wish to endanger their lives.

There are now 22 African countries where Britain does not have resident diplomatic representation. We recognise that in some instances, such as Somalia, the absence of an embassy is a question of security, but, as was pointed out by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes, other decisions appear to have been driven by cost. The closure of the embassy in Mali has seen Britain lose its diplomatic foothold in a strategic country that borders Algeria, Niger and Côte D'Ivoire for a saving of about a quarter of a million pounds annually.

The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee raised a very important point about the Africa conflict prevention pool. As Members will know, in 2006-07 it was allocated more than £64 million, but the Foreign Secretary revealed just last week in a written ministerial statement that that budget will be cut to £43 million. The Foreign Secretary has said that, on one level, the rise in our compulsory subs will more than match the fall in our discretionary subs, but many Members will nevertheless be concerned about that cut. Among other things, it involves shifting resources away from western Africa. According to the UK's sub-Saharan strategy for conflict prevention, western Africa includes Nigeria as one of the strategy's four key target countries. When the Minister winds up, will he confirm whether funding for programmes in Nigeria will be cut? Will he also confirm whether the Government believe they have met their specific targets for Nigeria, or have they been abandoned? In his written ministerial statement, the Foreign Secretary gave very little information about the impact this dramatic budget reduction for conflict prevention in Africa will have in the affected countries, or any details of which programmes will be cut. Will the Minister provide more information on this vital subject? Will he also say when the Government plan to publish details of the revised strategy for Africa, as well as of UK conflict prevention funding for other regions?

As the Foreign Secretary has said, those cuts have been made because of the combination of a fall in the value of sterling and a rise in the number and extent of EU and UN missions, but, nevertheless, that combination has drastically reduced the purchasing power of the Foreign Office's budget. That decline follows the Treasury's decision to withdraw from the overseas price mechanism, which protected the Foreign Office budget from currency fluctuations. That gives rise to the question why this impact was not foreseen and why that self-inflicted wound was allowed to be sustained. Ultimately, the impact of that means that the Foreign Office's ability to carry out its vital work in Africa will be constrained.

The Foreign Secretary also knows that we believe that the Government have not paid sufficient attention to the opportunities presented by the Commonwealth, which has 18 member states in Africa. Sadly, the only place where the Commonwealth was mentioned in the FCO's most recent strategic plan was in the title of the document. It is striking that a country such as Rwanda, which has no historical ties to Britain, is currently seeking membership of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth offers Britain the chance to widen its circle of influence, as it can be used to strengthen relations in Africa, and such partnerships are crucial to promoting good governance based on the values we espouse.

Let me now briefly turn to some specific areas of concern. The importance of the UK pursuing an active and consistent policy is nowhere more apparent than in the horn of Africa. In this Chamber and in Westminster Hall we have had a series of debates on the situation in Somalia, Yemen and the gulf of Aden. Ungoverned regions are providing opportunities for al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks to consolidate, raise money and plan operations. There are reports that the money that pirates extract through hijackings is helping to pay for the war in Somalia. While there is no sign of a strategic alliance between the pirates and Somali Islamists, that future possibility cannot be excluded. In the same way as drug trafficking and production have been funding the Taliban in Afghanistan, the loot from piracy could be used to finance radicals in the region. It is therefore crucial to prevent such a link from being established, and everything must be done to ensure that that unstable region does not turn into a failed one, with the consequences reaching far beyond the horn of Africa. When the Minister replies, I hope he will be able to tell us in more detail about the Government's strategy for the region and their attitude towards the increase in piracy.

I am sure that many colleagues will be eager to mention the dreadful situation in Darfur, which, tragically, is now in its sixth year. Following the expulsion of the 13 largest aid agencies by President Bashir, it is estimated that water shortages will occur in the next two to four weeks and more than 1 million people will not have food by May. The Foreign Secretary has emphasised the pressure that the Government, along with our partners, are trying to bring to bear on the Government of President Bashir, and we support that. Can the Minister give us any hope that that pressure will lead to any attempts by the Sudanese Government to reverse their decision? Does he not agree that this callous act by President Bashir compounds the situation and makes life even worse for the poor people living there? Surely we can also all say that we support the action taken by the International Criminal Court to place President Bashir in the dock, and that we should resist any proposed delay under article 16 of the Rome statute that would allow him to escape the due processes of justice.

I also wish to raise the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although we welcome the capture of Laurent Nkunda in Rwanda in January and the signature in Goma of peace agreements between the Congolese Government and the CNDP, and the Government and other armed groups in North Kivu and South Kivu, on 23 March, the immediate protection of the civilian population remains uncertain. When does the Minister expect the 3,100 additional forces for the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which were authorised by UN resolution 1843 on 20 November, to be deployed? The resolution calls for "immediate deployment", but some four months have now passed, so what progress has been made in eliciting commitments from countries to offer peacekeeping troops for the mission?

I come to what we believe British policy towards Africa should be and how it should be underpinned by five important guiding principles—on this, we come very close to the line taken by the Foreign Secretary. The first principle is that we must recognise that we need African-led solutions to the region's problems if the solutions are to endure and to have legitimacy.

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