HC Deb 12 March 1998 vol 308 cc832-48

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

9.9 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am grateful for Madam Speaker's choice of tonight's subject on the Adjournment, which is the situation in Sierra Leone. I first sought a debate on the subject some weeks ago. It is of great encouragement to me that, since I first started seeking this opportunity, things have improved considerably in Sierra Leone. Although it is taking events in somewhat the wrong order, we meet tonight in the context of the liberation of Sierra Leone from its military junta and at the beginning of what I hope—like, I am sure, all colleagues in the House—will be a hugely positive and constructive new chapter, with a democratic Government installed, supported and made secure.

My first reflection is that, instead of having the debate that I feared we would have—one critical of a military regime and setting out the horrors that were inflicted a couple of weeks ago, in one of the poorest countries in the world—there is now a substantial shaft of light.

Secondly, I have used the opportunity of tonight's debate to gather together some people who know much more about events in Sierra Leone than I do. It is clear that the general view is that the British Government—especially the new Government—have signalled their intention to be a strong and renewed supporter of the Commonwealth. It is clear also that they have wanted to be helpful and supportive—supportive of the President in exile, supportive of our mission in exile with him and intensely keen to try to bring about a satisfactory resolution.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), and his colleagues have the respect of the Sierra Leonean community, both there and here. I therefore hope, that we can all contribute constructively and positively to the debate, as I know the Minister personally and his colleagues have sought to do. I think that I am right in saying that the Minister has plans—he will probably tell us more formally—to go to Sierra Leone in the near future. That visit will be greatly welcomed.

My third introductory comment is that I come to the debate entirely ill equipped, in a way, to be introducing it. 1 love Africa greatly and I have been there relatively often, but I have never been to Sierra Leone. My interest does not spring from my experience of the country in either its peacetime or its wartime. It comes instead from friendships with and the interests of my constituents, who form part of the significant Sierra Leonean community in this country.

I do not know the accurate figures, but I have read that there are about 180,000 Sierra Leoneans here. Parliamentary colleagues from Hull, north London, including the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), and others, like me, represent significant numbers of people who have come from Sierra Leone. Many of them have been in this country for a long time in settled communities. Others have been here for a short time; those people have come because they could not stay at home.

One of the issues on which I shall touch is that, together with the Minister of State and his Department, there is a Home Office interest in the debate. Last year, as a result of the coup and the situation in Sierra Leone, the Home Office declared that Sierra Leone was a country whose nationals in this country would not in any circumstances be sent back, because it would be unsafe for them to return. I welcomed that decision. My constituents who are from Sierra Leone also welcomed it greatly.

Within days of the beginning of the restoration of democratic government, questions arose concerning when, how and in what way it would be appropriate to change that process. Clearly that is of great concern to Sierra Leoneans in This country.

Before I knew that Madam Speaker had selected this subject for debate, one of the first unsolicited letters that I received at the beginning of the new year was from an organisation that I had not heard of before. It may have written to other colleagues—certainly to Ministers. The letter was from a small group of people based in this country who call themselves the Movement for Peace in Sierra Leone. I shall read the beginning of the letter, as it sets the scene for the situation in Sierra Leone at the turn of the year: I am writing to you about the lack of public awareness of the deteriorating events in Sierra Leone and the distressing plight of its refugees as a result of a prolonged seven year civil war culminating in the recent military coup of 25 May 1997. Words are extremely difficult to find to describe the carnage which has resulted from this military coup. Sierra Leone now lies in ruins and is ungovernable. With a population of 4.5 million of which 150,000 or more have been killed in the civil war: the exodus of Sierra Leoneans to the relative safety of neighbouring countries has reached epic proportions, estimated at around 750,000. This has created a humanitarian crisis along the west coast of Africa and beyond and the litany of suffering, destitution and degradation encountered by Sierra Leonean refugees would bring tears to your eyes…we were impelled to do something on their behalf. The organisation was impelled to write to colleagues and to me.

That message at the beginning of the year made me think that I should do something. I know that such a thought has always been in the mind of Government, and in the minds of colleagues, many of whom have asked questions in the House and in the other place.

Those who do not represent Sierra Leone or who have not worked or lived there, or who have not been involved directly with the agencies or previous missions to Sierra Leone, may wonder whether this is a big issue on the world stage, because we have not heard about it in the same way as we have heard of Rwanda and Burundi—we have not had pictures on our news in the same way—but occasionally the tragedies of the lack of a democracy in such countries impact here.

Colleagues and others who later read or hear our debates may remember a true-life story which was reported in this country: that of a little girl from Makeni, north of Freetown, who came to this country from a children's home, where she could not get the treatment she needed after a bullet was shot into her head, between her eye and her brain. She came here, to Norwich hospital, two years ago, for her life to be saved. Tenneh Cole, "the girl with the bullet in her head", encapsulated for a moment the tragedies that occur when the democratic structure of countries such as Sierra Leone is completely overturned. Only weeks ago, it was reported that everybody from the home from which that little girl came had gone missing. It had been looted and it was not known whether any of the children were alive or dead. Mercifully, later reports confirmed that the children had escaped into the bush.

We are talking about a country that has been ripped apart and ravaged, where the most indescribable things have happened to the most vulnerable in the most vulnerable of places. The least we can do is reflect on that and get the maximum agreement and support from the Government to bring help, succour and consolation.

I shall not spend a long time tracing the history of what has happened; nor will I spend long getting involved in the debate—although it has merit—about how the forces of liberation came to the rescue in recent days. I shall do that summarily.

After the military coup, attempts were made by the EU, within the United Nations and by Governments in west Africa, to bring about, by means of sanctions, diplomacy and so on, a peaceful resolution and an end to the military regime. That did not succeed; therefore, ECOMOG—the military observer group of the Economic Community of West African States—intervened.

I think that it is widely accepted that, technically, ECOMOG intervened outside the remit of the United Nations. That is not something that we would usually sanction, and I am not seeking to do so now. All I can say to the Minister, as I am sure he has been told, is that the first response in Sierra Leone was that the Nigerian-led troops were welcome. They have allowed the President to return. Whatever we may think about the regime in Nigeria, and whatever we may wish for that country, it would be wrong to be distracted tonight by those issues when, thank God, things have moved on and that intervention has taken place.

The implications of the way in which the President has been allowed to return, and the deputy commissioner and now our high commissioner have gone back, are matters for us. There are two sorts of issue which I hope will concern the House. I shall illustrate those, ask a few questions and leave the House with a few reflections which have been picked up from Sierra Leonean citizens who have lived and worked there and which they have been good enough to share with me.

There are two principal areas in which we can assist, and I speak to the Minister as he is wearing both his British Government hat and his European Union presidency hat, which he has for six months. First, we need to consolidate, bolster and secure democracy, civil liberty and the rule of law in Sierra Leone. Since independence, it has had two military regimes and it does not want any more. It wants to continue in a democratic tradition. Therefore, we must go about building that democracy.

It emerged clearly from a meeting that we had not many minutes ago that local government is one of the respects in which Britain may be able to help. I have a practical example which relates well to other experiences that I have had in other African countries.

If, for example, one is seeking to distribute aid or organise other matters locally, it is far more likely that an elected local government structure, rather than appointed or self-appointed local organisations, will have the confidence of the people. If we are seeking to build a regime of security, supporting the Government and people of Sierra Leone, there are various ways in which to proceed.

We need to give support to the United Nations to regularise the position of any external forces which may remain in the country. It is important that what has happened is put right, made legitimate and then made secure within a United Nations context.

It is clear that, if people feel insecure, there cannot be a democratic regime and the fair chance of a beginning of prosperity. Most important, the country's borders and, in particular, its border with Liberia, must be secure. The frontiers must be known to be secure and there must be protection against the risks that many believe triggered the initial civil war—the spilling over into Sierra Leone of issues that originated in Liberia. External and internal security go together. If one is not secure, both may fail.

We must ensure that human, political and civil rights, as well as economic and social rights, are looked after. In a study on wealth carried out about 10 years ago, Sierra Leone came 186th out of 186 or 187 in the world league table. One destabilising factor, which is more tragic when it occurs in a poor country, is the great injustice that remains between the affluent and the poor. Economic injustice results in economic and social imbalance, which detracts from a stable political, civil and social community.

As we think about how we can proceed in terms of securing a political and democratic regime, I want to make a specific suggestion. Given that the Commonwealth secretariat is based in this country, as soon as is practicable in Sierra Leone an organisation such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy could seek to facilitate a constitutional and civic discussion so that the ideas of people of experience who remain in Sierra Leone or have been exiled can be taken into account and used in the rebuilding process. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has done good work in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa, so perhaps it, as well as other organisations, could be used.

Secondly, practical assistance is desperately needed to build up a country that is on its knees. I refer to humanitarian aid in the first place, but a reconstruction programme is also needed. Earlier today, I was listening to friends and colleagues in a Committee Room speak of their experiences. If I were a Sierra Leonean, I would want the world to help with a sort of Marshall plan for my country. That is the level of investment and commitment that is needed. A country of 4.5 million people is not an insignificant one to rebuild.

Sierra Leone has one or two crucial industries. If it is to have a diamond industry that produces wealth for all, not just for the few, it must be incorporated into a reconstruction programme. In many areas, agriculture has been devastated and the infrastructure is non-existent. Although it is a small country, there have been repeated pleas for a decent rail system. Pleas are heard in all countries, but they are all the more crucial in a country that has suffered both civil war and then a repressive and cruel regime. Hardware is needed to allow agriculture to take off quickly. The land for growing rice exists, but without tractors and tools, the rice cannot be grown, so people are not as self-sufficient as they would like to be.

I hope that the Government will draw up a list of the practical humanitarian measures that they can take and co-ordinate a response. It would be helpful if the Minister will not just say that the United Kingdom Government will continue to respond and be keen to help, but mobilise our colleagues in the European Union and the Commonwealth to respond appropriately, too. If this Parliament has noticed how unsatisfactory and oppressive the regimes in Sierra Leone and Nigeria have been, we must respond with speedy action when the chance comes for those regimes to end.

Measures are needed that go beyond the immediate and short terms. In response to what our Sierra Leonean partners tell us, we could help to co-ordinate training, support and back-up for their education and teaching, judicial and local government systems. "Training" is one of the words I hear most when people are asked what is needed in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leonean voluntary sector organisations, some based in this country and some based in Sierra Leone, already have the appropriate people who are willing and able to work, and they should be supported. People from Sierra Leone who are based in Britain need help to enable them to go back and contribute to the rebuilding of their country, because they face complicated problems. The Government must consider also how they can respond sensitively and appropriately to the problems of those who are so unsettled, upset, physically hurt and bereaved that they are not ready or able to go back home in the near future.

All I can do is hint at the enormity of the task facing us. Britain was the colonial power, and since 1961 has been regarded as the principal non-African friend of Sierra Leone. If ever there was a time for us to do our post-colonial duty, it is now; if ever there was a time for the Government to respond generously and win the sympathy and support of all hon. Members, it is now.

On behalf of a community that has suffered far more than any community has ever deserved to suffer, I say to the Minister that there is an opportunity to rebuild. The President and the Government want to get on with the job, and the people of Sierra Leone are looking to us to respond. I hope that tonight's debate shows that we are ready to listen, and to respond most generously.

9.32 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on his good fortune in securing the debate.

The city that I represent is twinned with Freetown in Sierra Leone, and that is particularly important to us. Twinnings between cities are often occasions for junkets, with a little education and a few visits thrown in, but, because of the city's connections with William Wilberforce and his connections with Sierra Leone and the abolition of slavery, we deliberately chose to twin with Freetown to draw our citizens' attention to responsibilities outwith Europe.

Our relationship with Freetown has been tenuous, not because of any lack of good will among the people of Freetown or the citizens of Hull, but because of the unhappiness that has hit Sierra Leone and the reaction of previous British Governments to the issues of trade, aid and assistance. We welcome the return of democracy to Sierra Leone and hope to see the country prosper.

I want to put two points to my hon. Friend the Minister, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may go into further detail. First, I shall take up the point about training in local government made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Representatives from Freetown's town clerk's department have frequently worked in our town clerk's department. In turn, we have sent administrators to Freetown. Much could be achieved by Her Majesty's Government if they examined the small and narrow, but fundamental, issue of training. Helping people works two ways: we learnt a great deal from the Sierra Leoneans who worked with us in Hull. That is something that can be built on at relatively little cost. It provides important infrastructure for a decent and civilised life. We should look at that.

Secondly, we should make more use of our voluntary organisations in this country and the voluntary organisations in Sierra Leone which have contacts and relationships with one another. It might be through CAFOD—the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development—War on Want or some other organisation.

That country is facing terrible devastation as it recovers from the ravages of the terrible civil war. At grass roots level, help can be provided with small projects, small sums of money and limited but important ambitions to rebuild the local economy, and to help people regain the ability to sustain themselves and provide something for a cash crop to maintain the economy. Despite the civil war, the invasion and the restoration of democracy, the voluntary organisations have maintained specific and deliberate connections. Throughout that time, money has been going to Sierra Leone to buy things that are desperately needed. Above all, those voluntary organisations have the confidence of local people. In many cases, it is local people who are administering the work and assistance.

I would like to think that the Foreign Office and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will look at ways in which to help. Great sums of money and great schemes will not do anything immediately, but we should concentrate our attention on myriad small schemes, deliberately targeted on the agencies and the people who know how to achieve the regeneration of the countryside.

9.37 pm
Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for initiating the debate and for allowing us to participate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) has said, Hull has a long association with Sierra Leone and we are twinned with Freetown. Our constituents have watched with concern the events of the past decade. According to the United Nations, 30,000 people have been killed in Sierra Leone since 1991, and 350,000 people have been made refugees.

There was optimism in February 1996 when the elections produced a mandate for the Sierra Leone People's Party and for the presidency of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. That turned quickly to despair. The Minister will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North and I wrote to him on 10 December last year drawing his attention to an Amnesty International report on the abuse of civil rights and the collapse of the rule of law following the military coup which took place in May last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North said, hopefully the reign of terror is over, but the scorched earth policy of the fleeing terrorists is causing great suffering to people who have already suffered so much.

I know that the Government will do everything they can to ensure that the fledgling democracy survives. I should like to quote from a report sent to us in Hull by a very brave man, Father Peter Konteh, who is based at the Sacred Heart cathedral in Freetown. He wrote to us recently via the local press saying: How do people feel about the future? People are generally optimistic; Sierra Leone seems to have a lot of confidence in President Tejan Kabbah. This is partly due to the fact that before the May 25th obstruction, there were evident signs that the economy of the country was on the mend. People believe that with his reinstatement things may continue for the better. Others feel that life will continue to be difficult for a while, because the AFRC have done so much damage to the economy and the infrastructural basis of this nation, but none the less they believe that Tejan Kabbah is well capable to rebuild this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North and I are here because we believe that Ahmed Tejan Kabbah cannot do it alone and that the people of Sierra Leone need assistance. In Hull, we are doing our best to provide what help we can to our friends in Sierra Leone because we recognise the suffering that its people have endured and the immense courage of those who have stayed to struggle for the restoration of democracy in that beautiful country.

9.39 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I congratulate the Speaker on choosing this subject for today's debate, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on the way in which he has introduced it, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) on the excellent work by Kingston upon Hull council as part of a real twinning arrangement.

Like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, a considerable number of people from Sierra Leone live in my constituency and in nearby areas of north London. The reality for them of a conflict that has gone on for a long time is the horror and fear of trying to find out what has happened to their families: whether they have been killed, where they have been forced into exile, and which place has granted them refuge or which has not.

To try to put it into context, the civil war in Sierra Leone has gone on almost as long as this country's population endured the second world war. That is the reality of life for Sierra Leone's people. Thirty per cent. of the population have been displaced and well over 15,000—possibly as many as 50,000 people—have been killed during the war. The loss is tremendous and horrific, and it tends to be of the most able sections of the population during fighting. The problems of economic redevelopment and reconstruction of the whole country are further hampered by the loss of so many able, fit and skilled people. As a result, the damage is even greater.

The number of people who have sought refuge in this country has been considerable. Although the Home Office has not removed anyone to Sierra Leone and, as far as I know, has no plans to do so, I would be pleased to hear from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), that he will pass on to Home Office Ministers concerns that many of us have that, although—I hope—the war is behind us and a period of peace and stability is ahead, it has not all happened yet. We hope that there will be no removals back to Sierra Leone in the foreseeable future, and that we shall instead have some sympathy for the people concerned.

I have in front of me a sobering booklet called "The armed conflict in the world today: a country by country review". I do not propose to read it all because it would take a long time. The booklet is, in part, sponsored by the all-party group on human rights, of which I am one of the vice-chairs. In the section on Sierra Leone, it outlines the problems, conflicts and losses, and the hope that, following the accords that were signed after hostilities ended—which we understand is the case—some Government of national unity will be installed. I hope that that Government are successful and able to achieve the national unity that is required for reconstruction to take place.

Although I recognise everything that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said on that point, the question of the UN's role in this conflict and, indeed, in others needs to be examined closely. The UN takes a high-profile role in certain places. At times, it almost looks as though CNN is following the UN, or the UN is following CNN; I am not sure which way round it is. This conflict never quite reached the proportions of Kate Adie being parachuted in to report it to us. As a result of the almost complete media ignorance of the events there, the Nigerian army was acting—or believed it was acting—on behalf of the UN in both Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Do not get me wrong. I am glad that the conflict is over in Sierra Leone, but I do not believe that it is right to allow armies from countries that, in no sense, can be described as democratic or respecting human rights in their societies, to act, in effect, under a UN mandate. I would rather that the UN had a much more hands-on involvement in tackling the problems of west Africa. A conflict, be it in Bosnia, Iran, Iraq or West Africa, results in thousands of deaths. If the UN is to mean anything, it has to be properly involved. I hope that the House will return to the issue of what the UN does.

I conclude on a point that I find quite horrifying. It is possible to find out very quickly what is happening all around the world. Worldwide web sites and other technology mean that we can get day-by-day accounts of the starvation and destruction that is taking place. All that technology makes it possible for us to sit at home in our front rooms, tap into a computer and find out exactly what is going on, but tragically, we cannot get food, aid or help there in time; we can only get the information back.

I hope that the Government recognise that the massive refugee surges from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria will have to be dealt with and that unless food aid is got there quickly and agricultural aid and infrastructural help shortly afterwards, the conditions that led to the war in the first place and resulted in the coup and all the corruption that went with it will be repeated. We have to get help there very quickly. I hope that the Government and the EU will play their part in that, but above all, I hope that the United Nations will show real determination to get involved in that part of the world, and support movements that bring about long-term peace.

There are vast natural resources all along the West African coast. It was plundered by the Europeans as part of the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is now being plundered again by international mining companies that are not necessarily concerned about democracy, the rule of law and human rights; all they want is a stable environment from which they can extract enormous wealth.

I wish the new Government of Sierra Leone well as there are enormous problems ahead of them. We can help them overcome some of those problems by sending aid from the west to develop a sustainable and democratic society. I fear that, if we fail to do that, the same disasters will recur in 10 years' time. I do not want that to happen—nobody does—but there is responsibility on western countries that have the knowledge, power and money to do something about it and quickly.

9.46 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr.Tony Lloyd)

I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on introducing tonight's important debate. I am delighted that he chose to debate Sierra Leone. Britain and the rest of the world have to take account of the tragedy that took place there, and its changed circumstances.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the role that the British Government have consistently tried to play since the coup in Sierra Leone last year. I am acutely aware of the fact that Britain's ties with Sierra Leone go back over a considerable period. I also have many West Africans, particularly from Sierra Leone, living in my constituency, including a former lord mayor of Manchester, Councillor Yomi Mambu, with whom I have been in constant touch, along with many other constituents from Sierra Leone who were frightened beyond reason by the uncertainty of the plight of their families and friends while the junta was in control of the country.

Last October, I was privileged to address a seminar in London with President Tejan Kabbah, who was still in exile, entitled "Restoring Sierra Leone to Democracy". I expressed our clear wish to see the people of Sierra Leone free to determine their own Government and future. The return of President Kabbah to Freetown on 10 March—just two days ago—is a vital step in that direction, and we warmly welcome his return.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey talked about tragedy turning into joy, referring to the case of Tenneh Cole, and saying that she had gone into the bush. She is now back, and, although traumatised, she is at least safe, and hopefully secure.

It is equally a matter of fact that the tragedy that unfolded on the streets of Freetown and throughout Sierra Leone turned to joy a few days ago when President Kabbah returned to Freetown. I am told that about 500,000 people were on the streets of Freetown to welcome him on his triumphal journey to the stadium, where 50,000 people had waited from the early morning and through the heat of the day until his arrival to hear his speech. Quite rightly, a hero's welcome was bestowed on him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) asked about the position of the Home Office. The best I can do is to pass on the remarks that hon. Members have made tonight to Home Office Ministers. However, I put on record my belief that the reign of tenor is now over. In his address on his arrival in Freetown, President Kabbah spoke of the need for reconciliation and to establish a broad-based Government. Despite his own suffering—his house was destroyed by the junta in an act of petty-minded nastiness—he said, speaking of the tragedy: our image as a civilised nation will be greatly enhanced if we are seen to be promoting reconciliation. It is that tone of reconciliation that is so important.

President Kabbah continued: Also of great concern to me is the spate of revenge killing and other forms of violence that followed our liberation. I am aware that people were hurt and are still being hurt in other parts of the country by the atrocities of the RUF rebels and the remnants of the junta. However this negative era in Sierra Leone's history can be used as a redefining moment for our country as we move towards the millennium. With that sort of spirit, which demands of himself and works with his people for reconciliation, Sierra Leone can look forward to a different era.

The priority now is for the whole of the international community to work with President Kabbah, the Economic Community of West African States and the people of Sierra Leone to underline the fact that a long-term peaceful future can be assured only through that reconciliatory and inclusive approach. That approach formed the basis of the Abidjan peace accords and the Conakry agreement, and it remains as valid today as when they were drawn up.

In his speech, President Kabbah was kind enough to pay tribute to the role the British Government played in bringing about his return. He said: The British Prime Minister and his Government also deserve our special thanks for their support and assistance in every respect, and for the generous hospitality accorded to me and my delegation during the recent meeting of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers and Heads of Government. We appreciate those words.

Let me take this opportunity to set out our position and record in this respect. We have been committed to working for the restoration of President Kabbah's Government because we regarded them as the only legitimate Government available to the people of Sierra Leone. We were instrumental in drawing up the UN Security Council resolution 1132, which imposed sanctions on the military junta. Through the Department for International Development, we provided support for the Government exiled in Conakry, to enable them to draw up a programme for the reconstruction of their country following their return to office. That 90-day programme includes specific reference to local government, and President Kabbah has made it clear that he still intends to implement it.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister personally invited President Kabbah to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—uniquely, given that he was not actually in situ as the working Head of Government. We recognised that the situation in Sierra Leone was unique, so inviting President Kabbah was the right act, and it sent a strong signal. In January, the Foreign Secretary appointed Mr. John Flynn—a former ambassador—to act as his special representative on Sierra Leone to galvanise international support for the restoration of democracy there.

Since February, the position has changed following the intervention of the ECOMOG forces. Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that, while we welcome the fact that the rule of the military junta had been brought to an end, we were unable wholeheartedly to endorse the ECOMOG action. We believe that any use of force should be based in international law. It is important to place on record our recognition of the sacrifice made by the ECOMOG forces, which saw young lives sacrificed in the cause of restoring democracy. Co-operation is needed by all those who have the interests of Sierra Leone at heart.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North talked about the need for a process of reconstruction to prevent a return to the situation which allowed the coup to take place, and he is right. In that vein, our immediate priority had to be to assist in providing humanitarian relief to the people of Freetown and other cities in Sierra Leone that had seen fighting.

To help with that immediate assistance, HMS Cornwall arrived in Freetown on 1 March, and will remain until 20 March. HMS Cornwall has played an invaluable role, delivering food and medical supplies to cities in Sierra Leone which were unreachable by other means. Her crew are providing emergency assistance to hospitals, schools and other institutions and people in Freetown. Cornwall's efforts are being co-ordinated through the UN humanitarian office with the efforts of the Sierra Leone Government, aid agencies and non-governmental organisations on the ground.

In addition to the role played by HMS Cornwall, we have provided a donation of £2 million to the UN trust fund for Sierra Leone; I shall return to the trust fund later. The DFID has funded a humanitarian adviser, who is now in Freetown working with the Government, UN agencies and NGOs to assess how best to help those who need it. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North about the need to look at the small schemes, which are so important.

The DFID has already sent supplies worth £1 million, together with logistical and technical support, to the task force established in Freetown to restore civilian government to Sierra Leone. DFID has provided another £1 million in addition to the £1 million given in November last year to enable the International Committee of the Red Cross to continue its humanitarian work and protection and human rights activities. That is where the initial focus has been. Clearly, all hon. Members who have spoken referred to the need for long-term reconstruction. We want normal economic activity to return, and there is a role for the EU, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) said.

In that context, President Kabbah said: we shall adopt means to safeguard our fishing industry and stop the smuggling of our diamonds. He referred to corruption, which was part of the tragedy which befell the nation. We very much welcome his statement: But you should each be a vigilante for good government and the elimination of corruption in our society. That is part of the rebuilding process.

Mr. Simon Hughes

There are two other pieces of the longer-term economic picture that the Minister might look at. He should try to make sure that the IMF and world financial agencies do not go in heavily—as they sometimes have done in African countries recently—to try to get the regime balanced more quickly than is practically possible. Secondly, if ever there were a case for debt wipe-out in the context of Jubilee 2000 and the role we can play, Sierra Leone must be it. Perhaps the Minister will reflect, now or later, on whether one of the signal things that we could do is to wipe out the international debt of that country, and to negotiate for that internationally.

Mr. Lloyd

I cannot give an easy answer to that, except to point out that the World bank has recently changed considerably—the culture has changed enormously—and it is now seen to be playing a much more constructive role. Moreover, the British Government are playing a key role in trying to ensure debt write-off throughout the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says, and I hope that he will allow me to reflect on that, rather than give a glib answer now.

On the internationalisation of the process, hon. Members have referred to the role of the United Nations. We have made it clear that we believe that the United Nations—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Lloyd

That is the first time that I have ever had to give way to the occupant of the Chair for the 10 o'clock motion, but this has been a week of many firsts for me, including having to respond to two Adjournment debates.

As I was saying, we believe that the United Nations has a vital role to play in underpinning the return to democracy in Sierra Leone. On 13 March, which is tomorrow, the Secretary-General will report on UN deployment. I cannot anticipate what the report will say, but we believe that future peacekeeping by ECOMOG forces—this relates to points that have been made—should be brought under UN auspices through a new Security Council resolution, which will authorise the deployment of UN military liaison officers to assist ECOMOG in the disarmament and demobilisation of all armed groups, including local militia. Inevitably, the UN will have a key role in helping to develop the country.

Mr. Corbyn

I was making a wider point about ECOMOG as a whole. Will my hon. Friend's concerns apply also to the operation of ECOMOG forces in Liberia, and perhaps in any other country in the region? Clearly, the report of the Secretary-General must cover the whole region—one cannot deal with Sierra Leone in isolation.

Mr. Lloyd

I was going to put my hon. Friend's point into the context of the overall security situation. Inevitably, we have to take a wider view of the security of Sierra Leone in the region. We need to debate what that means specifically, but we believe that the legal authority of the UN is needed both to ensure an adequate mandate for all those involved and to allow for long-term security internally and in the region as a whole.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Britain is actively involved in the promotion of the UN trust fund, which we strongly support. I believe that the fund is the Marshall plan for Sierra Leone that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey requested. We have started the fund with a contribution of £2 million, and we intend to use every device available to us to encourage the international community to be generous. The fund is designed to support the rehabilitation and development programme in the longer term. We shall play a full and active role in achieving those objectives.

I also believe that the Commonwealth has a key role to play relating to the democracy agenda. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was kind enough to mention the Government's support for the Commonwealth. We believe that the Commonwealth is reinventing itself, and that it can play a vital role in upholding standards of respect for human rights and of support for democracy. We believe that the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth as an institution, have an important role to play in the context of Sierra Leone.

I had the privilege of representing the British Government when Sierra Leone was discussed at the Commonwealth ministerial action group in London on 2 and 3 March. In the concluding statement, we welcomed the fact that the rule of the junta had been brought to an end. We commended the role played by ECOWAS and, at the time, we looked forward to President Kabbah's return and called for humanitarian assistance for the people of Sierra Leone.

We also agreed to send a ministerial-level mission to Sierra Leone as soon as possible to explore ways in which the Commonwealth could assist in the reconstruction of the country. Constitutional arguments were advanced by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, and by my hon. Friends who contributed to the debate, about the need to rebuild a civil society. The Commonwealth can make a genuine contribution, because we have experience of institutional systems that overlap with those that Sierra Leone had in the past and will enjoy in the future. I am pleased to confirm that the mission plans to visit Sierra Leone on 30 and 31 March, and I look forward to being a member of the mission and examining the situation in the country.

I wish to defend the Government and one of Britain's representatives against an ill-informed and scurrilous article that appeared in The Observer on Sunday. Indeed, I am slightly surprised that no one has referred to it. It talked about Britain's talks with hired killers, and about the Foreign Office admitting our ambassador's link to notorious mercenaries plotting against the Sierra Leone Government. Ironically, that was wrong, because the Sierra Leone Government referred to was the illegal junta. That is a bizarre situation for The Observer, but perhaps accuracy was not its main intention.

The suggestion that Britain was conspiring with hired killers is wrong, and I wish to make that clear on behalf of the Government. As a result of the article, the high commissioner, Mr. Peter Penfold, has confirmed that on no occasion did he attend any meetings at which Sandline—the company mentioned—and President Kabbah were present together. I reject the insinuations in the article except in one regard—the high commissioner and President Kabbah became close to each other when they were in exile together in Conakry.

We do not regard the fact that the high commissioner did his job and offered tangible and practical support to President Kabbah as something for which he should be criticised. The opposite is true, because we believe that he played an important role, and President Kabbah agrees. We reject the nonsense in that article, and it is a pity that the journalist did not take the trouble to talk to me directly.

Sierra Leone now has a new opportunity and a new future. If that future is an improvement on the past, we can only rejoice. If anyone is in any doubt about the nature of the junta, its activities in the past weeks have revealed the full horror of its rule. The stories that have come out since the junta took over have been horrendous. The stories of brutality meted out to innocent people have been daily fare.

As the junta retreated, it systematically looted villages, and mutilated and murdered innocent civilians. It left a legacy of misery behind it that will traumatise Sierra Leone for years to come. It has been reported that 500 people in the town of Bo, one of the last strongholds of the junta, were slaughtered. We do not know when that happened, and we can only record the outrage and note that it is justification for the condemnation of the junta and rejoicing that it has now gone. It is time to draw a line under that sad chapter in the history of Sierra Leone, and to work together to support the efforts of the new Government and the people to rebuild their country.

If I have missed any of the points that have been raised by hon. Members, I apologise, and I shall reflect on them and return to them.

I conclude by setting out what we see as the priorities for Sierra Leone. The first and most immediate is the provision of humanitarian assistance to the population and to make a start on long-term economic reform and development. It is for President Kabbah to re-establish immediately an autonomous, democratic Sierra Leone Government based in Freetown. It is for future peacekeeping by ECOMOG forces to be brought under the United Nation's auspices through a new Security Council resolution authorising the deployment of UN military liaison officers to assist ECOMOG in the disarmament and demobilisation of all armed groups in the country, including the local militia.

It is for the international community to begin to work with President Kabbah, with ECOWAS and the people of Sierra Leone to reinforce the view that a long-term peaceful future can be assured only through the process of reconciliation, as envisaged in the Abidjan peace accords and the Conakry agreement. The United Nations will play a crucial role, but I believe that President Kabbah will also do so. The words that he has spoken in Freetown over the past few days are an important signal of his intent, and of the possibilities for the people of Sierra Leone.

President Kabbah and the people of Sierra Leone face a daunting task in the rebuilding of their shattered country. It is one that will require the support of the international community. The pledge that Britain makes, has made in the past and will make in future is that we stand ready to play our full part to ensure that Sierra Leone achieves that aim and that dream.

10.11 pm
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I should like to say how much I endorse the Government's approach to the return of democracy to Sierra Leone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on introducing the debate. What we have been discussing is vital, not just to Sierra Leone, but to the whole of west Africa, and even east Africa.

The United Nations' reaction to the situation has been less than satisfactory, and we must find a way to boost its activity in Africa, particularly west Africa. It is ironic that Nigeria, which has been suspended from the Commonwealth because it has not conducted itself in a democratic way—in fact, it is a military dictatorship—has restored democracy in Sierra Leone. We cannot avoid that curious turn of events; I am delighted by it, because I think that Nigeria is fundamentally a democracy and that the people of west Africa—indeed, of all Africa—acknowledge the ideas of democracy that respect the ordinary person's need to live his life with dignity, to earn his own living and to vote, and to control and bring his Government to account. That is an African as well as a European position.

We are right to support what has happened in Sierra Leone, which will need even more support than the Minister has suggested. I do not think that we have the capacity in Britain alone to support the new President in Sierra Leone; it must be an international effort. The effort must involve the United Nations, the European Union and the United States of America, and all donors, including the many excellent donors in the individual countries of Europe and elsewhere, such as the European development bank, the World bank and the International Monetary Fund. I agree that the conditions that have to be applied to Sierra Leone in terms of the international financial institutions must be tailored to Sierra Leone's needs.

I do not endorse the cry of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey for total debt forgiveness in Sierra Leone, because we must enhance and support a return of confidence in that country. We want not just international organisations but Sierra Leone people who are considering returning with their money to know that, if they invest in the country's future, their investment will not be wiped out but will be respected by the new democratic Government and repaid on time, with interest.

One cannot reassure people by simply writing off all the old debt. None the less, we must reorganise and negotiate to achieve something that has not been achieved in many countries. Undoubtedly some debt must be written off. We must enable the country to have a sustainable debt profile, which it can handle. That will induce confidence in the people in Sierra Leone, and encourage people living outside Sierra Leone, in many constituencies in this country, to return and invest their money.

We want them, with other groups of people, to set up businesses and start training, and thereby enhance and start to rebuild the economy. That will increase the capacity of Sierra Leone to look after the poor, to educate, and to improve women and children's health. That will start to rebuild the vibrant society that we know Sierra Leone to be perfectly capable of achieving.

We must be careful how we tackle these problems. I know that the Minister knows these things. I have spoken to him and worked with him in many capacities, and I have confidence in him.[Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I nearly said "my hon. Friend", because we are fellow warriors in this matter.

Mr. McNamara

On past occasions, when we shared a great common interest in overseas development, I was flattered to be addressed in that manner by the hon. Gentleman.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that the western world should make a sustained effort to wipe out debt for most sub-Saharan countries, as a mark of the millennium, of the jubilee, of a new start for countries that have been especially exploited. That would be especially appropriate in the case of Sierra Leone, after the traumas that it has been through.

We should not expect a country of that size, with a population of 4.5 million people, to contemplate continuing a debt for which many of the people were not responsible, to carry forward something that would be an increasing burden on them. It is right and proper, if aid and help is given, if loans are made, that provision should be made for repayment and so on.

However, surely the hon. Gentleman would agree that part of the problem was that money was lent, and money was given in circumstances when no—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)


Mr. McNamara

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. No sensible lender would have given that money in those circumstances, and the present population should not suffer for that. It is far better to start with a clean slate.

Mr. Wells

The hon. Gentleman's sentiments are entirely my own, but I want to sound a note of caution about total write-off of debt, because I want confidence in Sierra Leone to be restored, by whatever method. We must stop those policies.

Mr. McNamara

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps this is an opportune time for me to intervene. Adjournment debates are an opportunity for Back Benchers to raise a matter with the Minister, and the Minister gives a reply. I know of the keen and long-standing interest of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) in the question of overseas development, and I have allowed him to speak, but 1 thought that he would do so briefly, because the Minister has spoken; and the hon. Gentleman should have caught my eye before the Minister rose to reply to the debate.

With that in mind, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would perhaps wind up his remarks. I am sorry to do this, but, had he caught my eye before the Minister, I would have allowed him to make his case.

Mr. Wells

I do not think that you could have put that point more courteously and kindly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are absolutely right, and I shall certainly conclude my remarks in the manner that you suggest. I understood that the debate could continue until 10.30 pm, and I thought that it would be beneficial to use that time discussing this matter. However, I certainly respect your judgment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Members for Hull, North and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I shall have to find another occasion to discuss the complications and difficulties of resolving debt.

In conclusion, the whole House has expressed its concern to support the return of democracy to Sierra Leone. I welcome that very much. I hope that we can continue to express our concern and find tangible means in the immediate future—which the Minister outlined to the House—and even more ways in the medium and longer term, through the Commonwealth and through our international connections, to support the new democracy of Sierra Leone.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Ten o'clock.