HC Deb 29 March 2000 vol 347 cc328-30
5. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

If she will make a statement on progress in the supply of aid to Mozambique. [115433]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

The search and rescue phase of the emergency in Mozambique is over. Relief operations continue to progress as access improves. The priority remains to stabilise the conditions of the flood-affected population by providing sufficient shelter, food, water, sanitation and health care, both in accommodation centres and to those able to return home. We are also committed to refocusing and driving forward our growing development programme. Mozambique remains one of the poorest countries on earth—between 30 and 40 per cent. of its children are severely malnourished even when there are no floods. The recent crisis must not be allowed to derail Mozambique's recent progress in economic reform and poverty reduction.

Mr. Burns

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. Will she confirm that one by-product of the recent flooding and disasters in Mozambique has been the shifting by floodwater of huge numbers of land mines, which are left over from the civil wars and represent a lethal threat to the population? Does any of the relief that she is giving that country include either financial or practical aid to help deal with the on-going land mine problem resulting from the floods? Will she confirm that the strong and good work that she and the Government have been doing with the Halo Trust will continue and that there might be additional funding to deal with the new threat?

Clare Short

I can confirm that, in the Zambezia province, which was not affected by the flooding but was a centre of the civil war, and where the United Kingdom has been asked to lead, we have been working, through the Halo Trust, to clear mines, and that province has been cleared. A very small team of workers is left there because mines are occasionally found in bushes and so on. The suggestion that, in the flooded area, land mines have moved and become dangerous is being taken seriously. There is a United Nations expert team there, but I do not know the outcome of the review that it is conducting. I shall find out and let the hon. Gentleman know.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, quite apart from the problem of land mines, there may be great problems in the supply of suitable land for planting once the flood waters have receded? What efforts are being made to identify suitable land and to provide seeds to grow food for the future in Mozambique?

Clare Short

Many people have lost absolutely everything—their homes, crops, seeds and tools. What we must do—we have learned this—is not just feed those people, because they then become endlessly dependent, but help them to get home, and provide materials so that they can build their own houses, as most African people do, and seeds and tools so that they can plant. However, they need to be fed until crops grow, and that is what we are doing.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the lack of heavy-lift equipment in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in Europe hampers our response to natural disasters such as the one that has just been experienced in Mozambique? What talks or discussions has she had with the Ministry of Defence and other such Departments in Europe in order to rectify the matter and make a rapid response force a reality?

Clare Short

I do not agree with the hon. Lady that we should buy military equipment in the UK in order to respond to natural disasters across the world. That is just not the most efficient way of spending money or of getting assistance to people rapidly. If there is a military case for more heavy-lift equipment for MOD forces, it should be made in those terms. Our Department and all those who help in emergencies must always commission the best equipment that can be moved the fastest and is the most effective use of aid resources. As the hon. Lady knows, in the case of Mozambique that meant, first, helicopters from southern Africa and then those from the MOD once the price that it charged was reduced. I do not think that spending money on the MOD for heavy-lift equipment for aid is the right way of going about such matters.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

As well as the legacy of land mines, the civil war left huge gaps in Mozambique's road, rail and communications network. Before the flood, the Government and the authorities were developing a careful, rational plan for improvement, which has obviously now suffered a severe setback. What role will the Department play in helping the longer-term reconstruction of Mozambique?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right; Mozambique is a large country, with good land but few roads. The main north-south road has been breached and needs repairing. There are plans for a link to South Africa, which would help develop the economy. In Zambezia province, we have been helping to find local contractors to build rural roads, which will increase production of crops, because farmers can get to market, and enable more children to attend school and more people to access health care. Mozambique needs much of that assistance right across the country in order to develop its economy.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that we should all learn from our experiences, however painful. Since haggling with the Ministry of Defence over the cost of hiring helicopters, what changes has she made in departmental procedures?

Clare Short

I am sorry that those who speak for the Conservative party cannot seem to understand rationality and facts. It has been made absolutely clear in four presentations to the Select Committee that it is the duty and the job of my Department always to commission equipment that can get as rapidly as possible to people affected by disasters. When the Ministry of Defence first made an offer, the price was very high and the time that it would have taken to get its helicopters to Mozambique was greater than it took to commission other helicopters elsewhere. Therefore, we did not commission the Ministry of Defence's helicopters; we commissioned others. There was thus no delay in getting help to Mozambique.

Later, the Ministry of Defence cuts its price. There was no haggling; it cut its price and it has said so on the record. Therefore, it was worthwhile commissioning its helicopters. That is how we shall always proceed. The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that it will set its price depending on whether the exercise has training value. That is a matter for that Department.

Forward to