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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 9:11 pm, 30th March 2009

When attending debates such as this one, I sometimes feel that this House would be rather better received than it is at present if only those who spend their time criticising and writing about Members of Parliament could hear the range of experience that colleagues bring to their contributions, speaking with passion and considerable knowledge of people in countries far away, who can offer them not a single vote, but whose care and consideration those colleagues have at the very top of their agenda.

This has been a fascinating debate, which I have much enjoyed. Colleagues have spoken from their experience, and I am no different from others in having had the tremendous experience of having been to Africa on a number of occasions. Two of my travel companions are in the Chamber at present: Simon Hughes and I made many trips to South Africa together in the 1980s and '90s, and my hon. Friend John Bercow and I were in Mozambique not too long ago. The relevance of both those trips will become clear shortly.

At the beginning of the debate, my very good friend the Minister tried to probe my Front-Bench colleague by asking about the future structure of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. He was trying to find out something that might give him a thread of comfort as he and his party head towards an election. I remember doing something similar in 1996-97: we tried to probe the Labour party to find out about some procedural issue that we believed we could then fling to the public and which would act as some sort of lifeline to us. It was like holding up an umbrella in a volcano; it does not work. It does not matter what the Minister thinks will be the structure of Departments under a future Conservative Government. When a Government start to worry about what an incoming Government of a different political party are going to do and start to talk about it, that betrays a certain lack of confidence, and I worry that the Minister might have fallen into that trap in his earlier questioning of us. In any case, he did not get the response he might have been hoping for.

I shall now turn to the meat of my remarks, and I shall be brief. I, too, wanted to make the point that in speaking about Africa we all too often concentrate on problems, rather than on the good things that are happening. We have all had great experience in Africa of things that go well and of the tremendous excitement of being in different places. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey and I were in South Africa in some awful times, and we went back to South Africa after the transition and change. We had stood together as the Caspers cruised up and down a road in Crossroads just after a camp had been evicted, and some years later, in 1999, I went back as an election observer and saw the tremendous difference in the country.

I had the good fortune to go to Rwanda with my party a couple of years ago to see the change taking place in that country, and we will be going back again this year. Mike Gapes made reference to the great work done by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I would also like to pay tribute to that organisation and to the work that the political parties do through it. I simply say that the Conservative Women's Organisation has recently visited Uganda and has worked with the opposition parties there. The selfless work that our political parties do abroad, working with those who are fighting to create fledgling democracies and to make sure they have strong foundations, is rather unsung. That work, which is done by politicians and the WFD, has much to commend it. Almost all of us have taken part in it in some way and we should celebrate that.

I recognise that a couple more hon. Members wish to speak, but the particular point that I wish to make to the Minister briefly relates to the work of aid agencies—my point is supported by comments made thus far—and I am thinking, in particular, of the work of faith-based aid organisations, especially Christian ones. My reason for doing so is that from time to time there is a struggle in this country involving those who fear that Christian-based organisations are too powerful and have too many privileges and those who believe that an increasing secularisation would be of benefit and who seek to squeeze out the influence of faith organisations. Whatever the circumstances in this country, and whatever debates we may have about the influence of faith and about rising secularism, in Africa faith is really important—in many places the Christian faith is very powerful and the work of the Church is crucial.

I wish to discuss two or three aid agencies in particular, but first I should like to comment on the scale of the Church's work, because it is one of the few movements that is global and local. Through its larger organisational structures, it is robust enough to support national health services and its influence is such that it can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to lobby on issues such as climate change and debt relief, yet much of the work of the Church is hidden and undocumented. Outside communities where it has a presence, its work at the grass roots is almost invisible.

Tearfund has worked with and through evangelical Churches from across the denominations for 40 years, and it believes that the Church's greatest potential lies in local congregations rooted in the local community and local structures. The local church is the poor—its members share in the suffering—and its work is exemplified in many ways: it does work on HIV/AIDS—we have mentioned that before and I shall say a little more about it later—it provides water and sanitation, bringing sanitation and hygiene to areas not reached by the state; it provides advocacy, because the Church is one of the few agencies able to disseminate information from the grass roots in countries such as Zimbabwe; and it does work on gender equity, because the local Churches' deep roots in local culture mean that they are often uniquely placed to tackle discrimination.

May I mention two particular agencies? I went to see the work of Habitat for Humanity in Kenya and Tanzania some years ago. Habitat for Humanity is involved in building homes, and for over 30 years or so it has built some 53,000 homes in 28 countries for some 300,000 people, but it is about more than just the building of houses; the process that Habitat for Humanity goes through involves the local community and its work has moved on from the mere building and repair of houses to the consideration of tenancies in slums, the right of tenants to remain and the efforts of those in slums to get some sort of civic governance and civic recognition for what they do, thus giving them stronger rights. The work of an organisation such as Habitat for Humanity is so much more than just providing a roof over people's heads; it is getting to the roots of poverty by tackling the injustice that has gone along with the absence of people's rights to the very basic privileges that the rest of us take for granted. In a speech recently, Ian Walkden, the UK director of Habitat for Humanity, said:

"The home is the centre of all human development. Decent housing drives individual well being, economic development and strong community. In short it is the most influential intervention we can choose in transforming individual lives, local economics and community development. If you live in a shack made from rubbish and scavenged material, your children get wet when it rains and they are cold at night. You are vulnerable to eviction, enforced migration and infection and your poverty exposes you to the most brutal forms of abuse and control. The impact of unfit housing goes well beyond the physical. Rubbish housing crushes the human spirit, wrecks lives and creates a damaged environment. It locks people into insecurity and dependence. At Habitat for Humanity we think that can be changed."

The work of World Vision, which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and I saw when we were in Mozambique, was equally moving and effective. Some 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Some 2 million children are living with HIV worldwide, and almost 90 per cent. live in sub-Saharan Africa. The work that needs to be done to support those who have been orphaned through AIDS is critical. I ask the Minister to recognise the need to set out specific criteria for the support of those orphaned by AIDS and ensure that the message is clear. We also need to support national Governments to deliver comprehensive and integrated prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV, which is all too often not specifically set out in the targets that people need to reach. I urge the Minister to change that.

I understand from Tearfund that about a year ago DFID began to work on a strategy for working with faith-based and Christian organisations. How far has that work gone? I understand that a guidance note was in preparation for use by DFID staff on how to engage with faith groups. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us how far that has got, with which groups the Department is involved, and when they will be able to see the guidance.

In closing, I wish to quote Archbishop John Sentamu, who said:

"The church...does not drive in to places of strife in the morning and leave before the lights go down. The church remains as part of the community, and where there is hurt, the church shares that hurt, is part of it and is hence uniquely placed to be part of the solution."

I ask the House to recognise the immense work done by people of faith in Africa, to support them, and to ensure that as many as possible are brought to the table when development proposals are being discussed, so that they feel an integral part of the development needs of the countries in which they serve so selflessly.

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