HC Deb 30 January 2002 vol 379 cc277-9
4. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

What further action she is taking to improve the access to electricity of isolated communities in Africa. [29127]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

In many sub-Saharan African countries less than 10 per cent. of the population have access to electricity. That means that most rely on wood for fuel, which uses up forest resources and causes much ill health through pollution caused by cooking indoors. Africa needs massive new investment in infrastructure—in electricity, water, sanitation, transport and telecommunications. To achieve that requires a reduction of conflict, and stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors.

We have therefore been working with other agencies to create a new facility, which is known as the public-private infrastructure advisory facility, to advise Governments on how to create conditions to attract private investment in infrastructure. I am this evening launching an investment fund designed to leverage more private investment into infrastructure in Africa.

Mr. Thomas

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that renewable energy options such as small-scale windpower plant and solar power offer an environmentally friendly, affordable and reliable means of generating power for the schools, health clinics, irrigation systems and other vital services on which those communities rely? What further action will her Department take to promote the roll-out and easy accessibility of such power options?

Clare Short

I do not particularly agree with my hon. Friend. I am in favour of the deployment of modern technology and as many renewables as possible, but Africa needs basic electricity supplies, telecommunications, water systems and sanitation. Sometimes people bring their greenest agenda to the poorest countries. Yes, let us use the best possible technology, but Africa needs the basics, and we should do all in our power to bring investment in modern infrastructure to countries across the board, not just some nice renewables in odd projects.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

This is a first. For the first time, I totally agree with the right hon. Lady. She is absolutely right because the cost of photovoltaic cells and windmills would be prohibitive, particularly in the developing world. Does she agree that the work of many of the British privatised companies, now providing not only networks for electricity but self-contained electrical generating units in portakabins, is possibly the short-term answer for those countries that so desperately need electricity in their rural areas?

Clare Short

I should like to enjoy agreeing with the hon. Gentleman—I see that he is wearing his red tie today, so perhaps that explains it. Let us be clear that we should all favour the development of renewables, but we should drive forward that technology in countries such as our own, rather than trying to get the poorest countries to pay for the experiments and the development of the new technology. Self-contained generators are used in many poor countries because the basic national systems are so poor and tend to be more expensive, and firms have to use that kind of technology when their national systems do not work. But we really need proper privatisation under good regulation so that we can get private sector investment and better energy provision, and therefore access to telecommunications and the internet, which most Africans lack at the moment.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the completion of the European Union reform programme will make a difference to the EU development programme for the poor countries?

Clare Short

I agree with my hon. Friend that an important start has been made in reforming the European Commission's very poor quality development programme, but we have a long way to go until that reform agenda is implemented. New figures are available if we do the calculations. EC funding to poor countries has gone from 70 per cent. down to 50 per cent., and it will be 38 per cent. this year. That is disgraceful, and more EC resources need to be allocated according to need and poverty. I am afraid that we still have a long way to go.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

In considering access to electricity in isolated communities in Africa, I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that among the most isolated communities at the moment are those in Zimbabwe that are at the mercy of Mugabe's thugs. What is her view of the way in which electricity is currently being supplied from South Africa? Does she feel that she and her Department have any role to play in exerting effective pressure to stop Mugabe and his thugs grabbing land from those who are the legitimate owners?

Clare Short

I do not agree that Zimbabwe's isolation is the problem, but it has virtually every other problem, and the situation is disastrous economically and politically. We all have to work as hard as we can for free and fair elections. That looks difficult and we cannot be optimistic, but we have to sustain our efforts. There is no magic answer; we can call for all the tools of international pressure—indeed, as the hon. Gentleman will know, they are being deployed as we speak—but the situation continues to deteriorate. I do not know whether it gives any comfort to the hon. Gentleman to know that President Mugabe finds our Government very much more objectionable than the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. President Mugabe objects to me in particular because I took the view that land reform should be transparent and benefit the people, rather than be used to give land to cronies.