HC Deb 22 June 1992 vol 210 cc114-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boswell]

10.15 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the problem of human rights abuses in Brazil. I particularly want to draw the House's attention to the problem of the street killings of Brazilian children and the selling of other children into sex slavery.

I am pleased to see that a number of other hon. Members are in their places who I know hope to speak in the debate. I should especially like to thank the hon. Members for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) and for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), who, with me, have formed the all-party group to fight for the rights of Brazilian street children. They hope to be able to speak.

In the past months, in conjunction with the Jubilee campaign, we have endeavoured to raise the plight of the children who have been dying by their thousands in Brazil. I thank the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who is in his place to answer the debate, for the personal interest that he has taken, and in so doing I link officials in his Department who were good enough to arrange the visit of Paulo Melo—a deputy in Rio who was a street child—to London in May, when he met the hon. Members for South Dorset and for Edinburgh, South and briefed us on the position first-hand.

I should like to thank the Prime Minister for taking time during his visit to the Rio summit to visit Sao Martinho—a Catholic home run for Brazilian street children—for taking the trouble to make representations to the Brazilian Government and for taking time to see Paulo Melo.

The purpose of the debate is to underline the widespread all-party concern about the killings and the sending of young children into sex slavery. I hope that the debate will encourage the Government to persist in their efforts to bring the killings to an end.

What are the facts? It is estimated that about 7 million homeless children live on the streets of Brazil. There are thought to be a further 10 million children on the streets who are not technically homeless. They are the victims of disease, hunger, drugs, vice and violence. They are preyed upon by criminals, the police and gunmen hired by local business men to clean up the neighbourhoods. In Rio alone, there are some 800,000 street children, of whom 20,000 have no homes. The rest have either run away or have been forced into begging or selling by their families. Many come from dispossessed peasant families who have lost their land and have moved to the sprawling favellas that surround the city. Church leaders estimate that in the past three years alone 5,000 poor children have been murdered in Brazil.

In his meeting with the hon. Members for Edinburgh, South and for South Dorset and myself, Paulo Melo produced official figures confirming more than 300 killings of children in Rio in the past year alone, with another 10,000 suffering from the effects of violence. Last week, an independent research group in Rio, the Centre for the Mobilisation of Marginalised Populations, put the number of adolescents and children murdered in the state of Rio in the past year at the even higher figure of 700.

In addition to the killings, the Anti-Slavery International group made a submission to the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights in May this year. It highlighted the trafficking of young women and children into sex slavery and prostitution. State deputy Joao Batista repeatedly raised the issue. For his pains, he was shot dead in 1988. Paulo Melo told us how he had been forced personally to finance the publication of his parliamentary commission's report because the authorities disapproved of its contents. He also said that he had been threatened by a senior judge when he gave support to a grieving family who were seeking justice.

The complicity of the police, of the judiciary and of the highest reaches of Brazilian society has meant that the killings have continued and that the murders have gone on with impunity. Paulo Melo showed us in this building photographs of some of the children who had been butchered and dumped like vermin on the streets. The newspaper reports he gave us have a chilling familiarity, daily cataloguing the deaths of little children. Usually a child's body is found with several knife wounds or bullet holes. Torture is followed by a final, fatal wound to the head. Some children simply disappear. The allegation has also been made to me that in some cases the youngsters who have disappeared have been used as spare parts in expensive organ transplant operations in the United States and in Europe.

In addition to all those abuses of human rights, Brazil faces endemic, grinding poverty. It has a colossal foreign debt of $114 billion. Despite having ample means with which to feed its 144 million people, the world's eighth largest economy is unable to do so because it is also the most indebted. The result is that in some areas, 200 of every 1,000 children born may die in infancy. Last year, 350,000 children died of preventable diseases and one third of Brazilian children suffer from malnutrition.

What are we to do in the face of all that? First, the Government must continue to use every possible diplomatic and economic measure against Brazil until it brings to justice the perpetrators of the violence. Secondly, we should link our aid to measures that will create a more just society. Thirdly, we should demand to know what has happened to the children who were swept off the streets in preparation for the Rio summit. Fourthly, we should support practically places such as Sao Martinho, which feeds 200 children daily. It is desperate for food and resources. The Prime Minister himself visited it during his recent stay and it was previously visited by the Princess of Wales. Fifthly, we should ask our officials in Brazil—I hope that the Minister will be able to give this undertaking tonight—to monitor and to continue to investigate the allegations concerning racketeering in human organs for transplant, the selling of children into sex slavery and the complicity of the authorities in the murders of children.

Men such as Paulo Melo run huge personal risks in exposing those acts of barbarism and cruelty. By supporting him, Parliament will act true to the spirit of William Wilberforce, our greatest ever champion of human rights. He once said: It is a barbarous policy which confronts the troubles of a turbulent land by the extermination of its own inhabitants. This is the calm, not of order, but of inaction; it is not tranquillity, but the stillness of death. So it is in Brazil today.

10.23 pm
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

People may wonder why Members of Parliament become especially passionately involved in a particular cause. My eyes were opened to the issue because an individual constituent was brought face to face with the problems, which is often the reason why Members of Parliament become involved.

Bruce Harris is the South American director of Casa Alianza, or the convent house. He is a constituent of mine who lived in Wareham and now works in South America. He made a plea for help to me because he was being shot at in Guatemala simply for trying to bring to the public's attention the sort of problems that we have also witnessed in Brazil and other countries.

The House can do a great deal to urge the Government to talk to their counterparts in Latin America. The spotlight has already been switched on. The Government should keep it focused on the problem until it is tackled properly by the people on the ground. There is no question but that all the people of Brazil will need to concentrate their minds and efforts to make their Government work towards solving the problems.

I pay tribute to the Minister, whom I know has visited various Governments and discussed the problem. I also pay tribute to the Prime Minister. When he attended the conference in Brazil a fortnight ago one of his main acts was to show that street children are of great concern to this country. We do not want to be over-critical this evening. We want to offer the hand of friendship to the people of Brazil and to their Government. We are trying to help them and this evening's spotlight will help to illuminate the problem.

My colleagues, who started the all-party street children group, will continue to work until we feel that the problem has been properly tackled.

10.26 pm
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

As we all know, the Earth summit has moved on from Rio, but visitors to it, including the Prime Minister, and the world press saw a great deal and focused attention on the plight of the street children there.

As many of the world's wealthy countries gathered there was genuine shock at the plight of street children, which has been highlighted in the excellent report from the Jubilee campaign on street children in Brazil and Guatemala. I believe that its campaign to protect children's rights did a great deal to ensure that street children were not subject to wholesale clearances and slaughter when the summit took place, although I accept what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) said about the unanswered questions. I pay tribute to him for his work and for securing this Adjournment debate. As he rightly said, it is a question not merely of murder but of sex slavery.

I pay tribute to Mr. Wilfred Wong of Frederick street in London for his efforts to draw the matter to my attention and to that of other members of my party. The concern showed by the Government is greatly appreciated. The Brazilian Government must take action to stop child poverty, child prostitution and killings, to bring traffickers and murderers to justice, and to provide proper accommodation and education for those children.

The western banks and financiers must relieve the crushing burden of debt. We will welcome the Minister's comments on those issues and his support in progressing the matter to end human misery on a massive scale.

10.28 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) who has done a great service to the House in raising a matter that we must all be troubled about.

I have been to South America. I attended the world conference of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, about 19 months ago in Quito, Ecuador. Although that is not Brazil, I saw street children. I saw the extraordinary contrast between Members of Parliament from all over the world, attending a conference with all the razzmatazz, and staying in a wonderful hotel provided with every conceivable comfort, and the children who were sleeping on the pavement outside that hotel all night.

When we went out by bus we had police protection from the children. When we went out to various engagements and occasions at night and we returned to the hotel at midnight, hundreds of children surrounded the coaches asking for anything that we could provide for them.

Brazil is a relatively prosperous country compared with some of the other South American countries. But I want to make it plain to the House that the problem of street children goes right across South America. It is the result of over-population. The national and local governments cannot fulfil the housing and economic needs of large families. Most of the street children come from excessively large families. The parents can no longer care for the young so the children are pushed out on to the street, where they form their own street gangs. It is extremely difficult for those young people ever to have normal lives again. They protect, feed and help each other but it is not surprising that in Sao Paulo in Brazil four fifths of today's prison population comprises former street children. It is an epidemic problem.

At the Quito conference I found it disturbing that, although I and the British delegation raised the problem of street children, the South American countries did not want to discuss the matter. One country said that the problem was being dealt with and hostels were being built. But none of the countries was comfortable discussing or seeking to deal with the problem of street children.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has undertaken an important task in asking the British Government what they can do about street children. It is a hideous, bizarre and horrific problem. I suggest that the British Government have to decide whether they can take a position. I do riot believe that they can do much on their own. I understand that the British Government gives £1.4 million in support to Brazil. Together the European Community countries give £47 million to Brazil. The institution of the EC gives £1.4 million. Altogether, Britain, the EC countries and the EC give almost £50 million to Brazil.

I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), here tonight. I know that he is interested in the matter and will be anxious to do what he can. I would have thought that it would do a great deal of good if that £50 million were directed to the Brazilian Government on the condition that they did something about the problem and came back to the EC with practical proposals.

The problem of street children is a problem of over-population and large families. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider whether grants could be made to help the International Planned Parenthood Federation to do its splendid work. That would do a great deal to help street children in the years to come.

10.33 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones)

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for bringing this subject to the attention of the House. Its importance has been underlined by the number of hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) and for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths). The Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), has also remained here specifically to listen to the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently visited Brazil. That visit drew attention to not only Latin America and the environment but the problem of street children. My right hon. Friend reported to the House on 15 June on his visit to Rio. A passage in that report contained information about his discussions with President Collor about street children. I shall return to that later in my remarks. We are all very much aware of, and distressed by, the human rights situation in Brazil, which the hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House this evening.

The plight of street children is particularly tragic. Human rights abuses are always a matter for concern, particularly when children are the target. We hope that the attention which the Earth summit has brought to their existence will serve to act as a catalyst to action to improve their situation.

To pick up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams, Ministers of the EC and the Rio group, which includes Brazil, agreed at their meeting in Santiago on 29 May, which I attended, to pay special regard to the needs of children. But we should not overlook the efforts which President Collor and his administration have begun to make—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset.

The Brazilian Government adopted the Statute of the Child in 1990. A parliamentary commission into the assassination of street children has been set up and its report recently adopted. While confirming the gravity of the problem, it has made a number of practical recommendations, for example, on the carrying of firearms by security firms.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) said in the House on 2 June, the Prime Minister, who visited a refuge for street children in Rio, raised the subject with President Collor and expressed readiness to continue to help. As President Collor told the Prime Minister, the federal Government are pressing those states most affected to take steps to defend children against abuse.

Hon. Members will be interested to know that municipalities now do not get Government help unless they have a programme in place for street children. The Attorney-General is taking steps to correct the position where members of the military and the military police cannot be tried by civil courts, and is seeking to punish those responsible for deaths. The private sector is also helping. A number of companies in Brazil have adopted street children's centres. All that gives us some modest reason for hope for the future as far as these children are concerned.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset said, the phenomenon of abandoned children is not confined to Rio de Janeiro. It is acute in other parts of Brazil but also prevalent in many other countries, not just in Latin America. It stems principally from poverty and lack of education.

We are discussing with the Brazilian authorities a number of urban health care projects, and we are assisting the non-governmental organizations—the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Oxfam—in their work in that area. Child Hope UK has just received some £100,000, and Flowers of Tomorrow £20,000 during Baroness Chalker's recent visit to Rio de Janeiro.

As the hon. Member for Mossley Hill is well aware, we invited Dr. Paulo Melo, the President of the Rio state commission on the extermination of street children, to come to the United Kingdom in May as a guest of Government to discuss the problem. He has a number of interesting ideas in mind—for example, the expansion of professionally staffed legal centres which make it possible for people to lodge complaints against the police in an effective way. My officials and I shall keep in touch with him to help where we can. As the hon. Member for Mossley Hill said, Dr. Melo—a former street child—said that the United Kingdom has done more to help than any other nation. I recognise that, given the scale of the problem, that should not and will not make us complacent. But in view of Dr. Melo's standing in his subject, we can take some satisfaction from it.

We cannot bring about change single-handed and it is the Brazilian authorities that have the first responsibility. UNICEF is already working with the Brazilian authorities, assisting with police training. We have impressed upon the Brazilians the need to control child abuse. Some of the problem stems from the fact that children under 18 cannot be held responsible for criminal acts under the law, so very young children are often encouraged by their elders to embark on a life of criminal violence. I visited street children in Guatemala and can say that not all street children are young innocents. But the problem is that the fear that they instil in the public ensures that punishment falls on innocent and guilty alike —and often very terrible indeed it is.

It will take time to eradicate ill-treatment by vigilante groups, but I believe that a start is being made. The Brazilians themselves and the Brazilian Government are those we must look to for prime action, although we shall continue to encourage and support them. We are well aware that street children are not the only problem. The fate of young girls recruited as domestic staff in the mining camps is also beginning to cause serious concern. That problem will be even more difficult to control because abuse tends to take place in districts far removed from the rule of law. Once again, the solution is education and training which would allow those girls to earn a proper living. Their plight is a familiar phenomenon of under-development. We have just heard of similar problems in Mozambique. I hope, as I am sure do other hon. Members, that the Rio debate on sustainable development will lead, in time, to conditions in which the pressures that create the problems of street children and rural exploitation begin to fade.

Abuse of human rights is, alas, widespread, and I hope that the House will allow me to mention rural workers, whose problems we have not either forgotten or ignored. After the interest created by the Chico Mendes trial, we have continued to monitor the position closely, particularly the annulment of the sentence of one of the accused, Darly Alves da Silva, who is due to be re-tried. We are in close touch with the Rubber Tappers Union and the Amazon workers centre on that. We have also arranged with the procurator general to be present at other impending, but less publicised trials, wherever possible.

I have listened with care to the views of hon. Members tonight and I share their concerns. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made those concerns known at the highest level in Brazil. We are doing what we can, but there is no simple or quick solution to the problem. The answer lies in tackling the problems of poverty and poor education. We will continue to encourage the Brazilian authorities and work with them and the admirable NGOs to help to find a solution to the terrible problems that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill brought to our attention tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.