Zimbabwe — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 10th June 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour 3:00 pm, 10th June 2010

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, for introducing this debate and for doing it so very well. It was a real tour de force. Like him and so many noble Lords who have spoken today, I regret the sad loss of Lady Park and Lord Blaker, who made such well informed contributions to our debates on Zimbabwe in the past.

Zimbabwe has been of particular concern, especially in your Lordships' House, for many years. The opportunity to discuss the current situation there and how it may develop is therefore very welcome, because, as we have heard from so many who have contributed to the debate, there are some signs that change is under way. That creates an opportunity for a better future for the people of Zimbabwe, and indeed for the British relationship with Zimbabwe. There are obvious political changes in Zimbabwe with the formation of the Government of National Unity, as well as changes in the leadership of Zimbabwe's most influential neighbour, South Africa. In the United Kingdom's relationship with Zimbabwe, too, we must consider the implications of the change of government in this country. New Governments anywhere can, if they are sufficiently imaginative, create real opportunities for change if the circumstances merit it, and the British coalition now has the challenge of how it will respond to some of the changes that we have been discussing and begin to make a real step change in the way in which Zimbabwe relates to the United Kingdom.

In all the years that I have been part of the debates on Zimbabwe in this House, concern has centred on four main destructive and interrelated crises. First, there has been the economic crisis. Secondly, there has been political deterioration in the country and in its relationships with many countries overseas. Thirdly, there has been the HIV/AIDS crisis. Finally, there has been the humanitarian crisis, which has been the inevitable consequence of the first three crises.

As we have heard today so graphically from the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, for years Zimbabwe's economic and social indicators painted a really alarming picture. Over half the country required emergency food aid and other humanitarian aid simply to survive. The contrast with the former years of plenty as the breadbasket of Africa was indeed stark. The United States aid department calculated that over that period more than a third of the adult population of Zimbabwe was HIV positive, and that more than 10,000 people were dying every month from AIDS. Meanwhile, the GDP was in an unstoppable downward spiral, and inflation was way out of control. Official figures for unemployment were in excess of 60 per cent, and shortages in medicines and fuel as well as in food were evident everywhere.

Most people with marketable skills left the country as soon as they could in the early years of this century. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, there were teachers, health workers and many with professional skills who simply moved away and did not return. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, emphasised the importance of the diaspora and asked how they might now be encouraged to return to Zimbabwe. This is a scarred and miserable story with which we are all only too familiar. The analysis of why this happened has varied. From Mr Mugabe's point of view, the blame is placed squarely on Britain's shoulders as the former colonial power, although Zimbabwe never had a colonial civil service; it had its own internal service. Meanwhile from the point of view of many commentators outside the country, the blame lies with Zanu-PF for running a regime that totally failed its own people in terms of economic competence, political inclusion and social cohesion. Others, notably South Africa, have been for many years very ambivalent. They have been unable to criticise the self-evident shortcomings of Mr Mugabe's Government and have impeded some of the efforts of the international community to deal with human rights abuses and disease control, not only in terms of HIV/AIDS but also, latterly, in terms of the cholera outbreaks.

As we have heard from many noble Lords in this debate, there have been real changes in the economy. I am sure that all of us welcome the fact that at long last there is real improvement in what the IMF has to say about the Zimbabwean economy. In its announcement on 26 May, it recorded that for the first time in more than a decade there has been economic growth. The gross domestic product rose by 4 per cent last year, which was the first expansion for 11 years. At the same time, prices rose by 6.5 per cent. In previous years, as we have often remarked in this House, inflation was measured in millions of per cent and the economy regularly shrunk year on year by 5 per cent to 10 per cent.

The IMF attributed the improvements to strong taxation policy and strong administrative measures following implementation of its own advice. It went on to stress the importance of further strengthening of financial management with the World Bank's assistance and noted that, sadly, many social programmes in Zimbabwe are still grossly underfunded and in danger of failing completely. I agree with my noble friend Lord Triesman that years of neglect cannot be righted without a huge effort within Zimbabwe and from its friends.

What is the British Government's assessment of the IMF report? Is the UK coalition now able, or willing, to give bilateral advice to the Zimbabwean Government on the future strengthening of such things as their manufacturing and service industries, and very particularly on the budgetary messages that need to be put in place in the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

I am sure we can all express pleasure that Zimbabwe's eligibility to use the resources of the IMF's general resource account have been restored, which is good news and significant. What does the Minister think the practical impact of the restoration of such eligibility will be? It is clear that the economic policies have improved significantly, but what assessment have the British Government made about the way in which the improvements are sustainable or whether the recovery is too fragile to survive without further important policy changes in the economic outlook in Zimbabwe?

I turn to what I described as the political crisis. The continuation of the Government of National Unity is the bedrock of providing the stability necessary for any continued economic improvement. The IMF was pleased that during its visit in March its meetings with Prime Minister Tsvangirai and other Ministers were matched by access to representatives from the diplomatic and business communities, and, very significantly, in its meetings with civil society organisations as well as trade unions. The IMF noted the improved respect-its own words-for property rights and for the strengthening of labour markets. Today we have heard about the welcome licensing of the newspaper industry, which is another significant move.

The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, about the recent acquittal of one of Prime Minister Tsvangirai's allies, the former white farmer, Roy Bennett, also need to be noted. I think that we all hope that this acquittal will ease some of the self-evident tensions in the Government in Zimbabwe. On the charges of terrorism against him, Mr Bennett said that,

"the judgment gives hope that we are returning to justice and the rule of law".

Can the Minister give us the British Government's assessment of the current state of stability in the coalition; that is to say, whether Mr Bennett's judgment that this was a significant move in consolidating the coalition is one with which they can agree? Also, is he able to tell us whether Mr Bennett has now been installed as the Deputy Minister for Agriculture, as was originally mooted?

Can the Minister comment on the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, regarding the new law requiring all companies owned by foreigners and racial minorities to cede 51 per cent of their shares to indigenous people? There seems to be genuine confusion on this point. Some Zimbabwean Cabinet Ministers have said that the law is still firmly in place, but of course the Prime Minister's own spokesman has given a very different point of view, saying that the whole of that law is now under revision.

I turn to the AIDS/HIV epidemic, a matter that was not raised by many noble Lords during the course of the debate, but which nonetheless plays an important part in achieving stability in Zimbabwe. Is the Minister able to give us up to date figures for mortality rates? The figures were very high a few years ago and I wonder how they have changed, or indeed if they have changed at all. Further, is he able to tell us what the United Kingdom is currently doing in terms of providing aid to combat AIDS and HIV in Zimbabwe? Clearly we are not alone in this: Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands have also made significant contributions, but in recent years there has been some reluctance on the part of other Governments to deal with the issue.

The humanitarian climate seems to have improved at least in some measure, although I was concerned by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, regarding the points made by the Friends of Zimbabwe and about what the Zimbabwean churches have had to say. I am sure that many of us were pleased to see the ban on all diamond exports until senior politicians accused of human rights abuses are cleared of any wrongdoing. In its assessment made on 17 May this year, the IMF said that the humanitarian situation had improved with schools and hospitals opening, better food security and a declining rate of cholera around the country. But the IMF continued to emphasise the importance of the enforcement of property rights and the maintenance of the rule of law. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, pointed out, the abuse of gay people is absolutely unacceptable and needs to be addressed urgently.

The fact is that these are all bedrock issues. Democracy without the rule of law tends to become the licensed tyranny of the majority over the minority, and human rights are the hallmark of any decent and civilised government. As the noble Lord, Lord St John, remarked, the drawing up of the new constitution will be a key element, but as many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, many questions are being raised in relation to whether the constitution will indeed get a fair hearing and whether in the end there will be a fair vote on it.

The Minister has a terrific record on his support of the Commonwealth, and as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, in the past he has been a persuasive supporter of it. Given that, is he able to say anything about how he sees the future role of the Commonwealth in relation to Zimbabwe? In short, can he tell us how the UK Government intend to respond to all these changes? As my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside pointed out, the coalition document supports better trade with Africa. Is the Minister able to tell us in what ways this might be done? Would it be through, for example, help with small businesses and for entrepreneurship, and programmes of assistance such as those that were provided by British Executive Services Overseas? In particular, do the Government have any practical ideas for ways in which to help Zimbabweans in this country return to their homeland in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Luce?

We have had a wide-ranging debate. The question I leave with the Minister is whether he believes in the picture that has been painted by the IMF, taking into account all the difficulties raised by noble Lords in terms of human rights? Does he believe that the future of Zimbabwe is now set on the right course and that it has a sustainable and secure future planned ahead for its people?