HC Deb 28 January 2004 vol 417 cc297-9
4. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on the efforts that his Department is making to improve standards of living in Zimbabwe. [151166]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)

The disastrous policies of the Government of Zimbabwe have led to economic collapse and a major humanitarian crisis. Zimbabwe has been suspended from the IMF, and maize production is a fraction of what it was a few years ago. The UK and other donors are trying to relieve the increasing suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans through humanitarian aid. DFID has contributed £62 million for humanitarian assistance since the crisis began in 2001, and provides further funds to help tackle HIV/AIDS.

Mr. Cunningham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but can he assure the House that there is a fair distribution of that aid in Zimbabwe, and that it is not used for political purposes?

Hilary Benn

I can assure my hon. Friend that the international community, which is providing support to meet the crisis in Zimbabwe—the UK is the second largest contributor of humanitarian aid—is very clear and very firm in not tolerating any political interference in the distribution of food aid. A memorandum of understanding has been agreed with the Government of Zimbabwe. The same cannot be said about the operations of the grain marketing board, which is under the control of the Government of Zimbabwe. If any hon. Members have particular concerns about the operation and distribution of food aid, I ask them to draw them to my attention, and I repeat my pledge that I shall investigate them. So far, despite the concerns, the system appears to be operating reasonably well.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

When inflation in Zimbabwe is running at approximately 600 per cent., 6 million people in that country face the prospect of starvation, and one quarter of all adults there are HIV positive, what assessment has the right hon. Gentleman made of the extent of currency manipulation of aid moneys by ZANU-PF officials and their business allies?

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the scale of the economic catastrophe. I would add to the list that he has just given the fact that GDP has collapsed by 40 per cent. in the last three years. I have not, and the Department has not, made an assessment of the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman raises about currency speculation, because we are rightly devoting our effort and attention to feeding the people who need to be assisted. The latest statistics indicate that the number of those in need this year will be higher than was previously thought, in particular because the assessment from!rural areas indicates that there are now more people in need.

Mr. Bercow

I respect what the Secretary of State said, but I urge him to conduct an assessment, given that the European Communities Court of Auditors Report for 2002 shows that no less than 89 per cent. of EU aid money is wasted because ZANU-PF spivs buy hard currency at official rates, sell it at black market rates and pocket the exorbitant difference between the two. What plans can the right hon. Gentleman develop to ensure that donor states and the European Union can take control of the conversion of aid moneys into local currency, in the interests in Zimbabwe of the long-suffering people of that beautiful but beleaguered country?

Hilary Benn

I shall gladly look further into the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. But the most important step that we can take, and that I can take as Secretary of State, is to ensure that the development assistance that we give directly is not used in that way. Most of it goes on humanitarian aid. The other projects relate to health and HIV/AIDS. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have very strong systems in place to make sure that the problem he refers to does not occur in relation to UK aid.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab)

Sadly, the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans has gone off the main agenda globally, but they continue to suffer intensely, particularly on food aid—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask that the House allow the hon. Gentleman to be heard.

Mr. Olner

Has my right hon. Friend had talks with Zimbabwe's neighbouring countries with a view to their intervening to ensure that food aid is distributed fairly and is not distributed by ZANU-PF people?

Hilary Benn

As I said in answer to an earlier question, we and the other donors work very hard to ensure that the aid that the international community gives is not diverted in the way that my hon. Friend is concerned about. In all of our conversations and discussions with neighbouring countries, we raise the problem of Zimbabwe, because in the end this is a catastrophe for the people of that country. We are doing our bit to assist and to make sure that the people do not suffer any more because they happen to have a rotten Government, but a resolution within Zimbabwe itself is required if the situation is to be brought to an end.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State consider airlifting food aid to opposition areas if it can be proved that the corrupt regime in Zimbabwe is, for political purposes, stopping those people being adequately fed?

Hilary Benn

As I said earlier, if hon. Members or others have any evidence of interference in the proper distribution of the international food aid, including that which the UK supports, I shall be happy to consider what needs to be done. I can only say that so far the system that we have, and the strong and determined response of the international community in making clear to the Zimbabwean authorities that we will not tolerate such interference, indicates to me that distribution is working reasonably well; but I will continue to consider all measures that are necessary to ensure that the food gets to the people who need it.

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