HC Deb 14 July 2004 vol 423 cc1397-9
5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

When he next expects to meet representatives of aid agencies to discuss ways of ensuring that aid to Zimbabwe reaches the poorer districts. [183722]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)

I discussed humanitarian needs in Zimbabwe with the head of the World Food Programme earlier this month, and we are in regular contact with other UN agencies, major donors and non-governmental organisations. Recent Government claims of a bumper harvest are simply not credible. If large amounts of food aid are needed later in the year. UN agencies have warned that the international response could be delayed until there is more openness and co-operation with the UN. The Department for International Development and other agencies will continue to provide targeted help to the most vulnerable districts and sections of Zimbabwean society, including people affected by HIV/AIDS and vulnerable children.

Mr. Bellingham

I am grateful for that reply, but there is now overwhelming evidence that Mugabe and ZANU-PF, having destroyed their own agricultural sector, are preventing food from getting through to the poorest communities. Surely more can be done to supervise the distribution of food, or this evil dictator will have succeeded in his strategy of getting re-elected on the back of systematically starving the Opposition.

Hilary Benn

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the situation in Zimbabwe. He will be aware that the Government of Zimbabwe predict a 600,000 metric tonnes maize surplus We do not agree with that. The international assessment is that there will be an 800,000 metric tonnes shortfall. It is the people of Zimbabwe who will pay the price, as he just said, for their Government getting it wrong. We retain the procedures that we have in place to ensure that the food aid that the international community gives is not used for political purposes, but none of us controls the distribution mechanism run by the, Government of Zimbabwe.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab)

Can the Minister tell the House just how robust the intelligence is about the situation in Zimbabwe? It is essential that food gets through to the poorest people and is not used as a political weapon by ZANU-PF. Are we enlisting the agencies in South Africa to assist in gaining that robust intelligence?

Hilary Benn

I agree about the importance of having access to reliable information about what is going on. That is not helped by the fact that both the crop and food assessment surveys were cancelled by the Government of Zimbabwe—one can only assume because they do not want to know the real position. However, our estimates are based on the best intelligence and information available.

We continue to provide help to the poorest households—those that are suffering greatly. We are also running a clinic-based feeding programme for the under-fives, to help those who are most affected.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

Through the Government's investigation, they have accepted that the Mugabe regime stole a great deal of aid in the past. Will the Minister also accept that aid workers in Movement for Democratic Change areas have been attacked and food distribution centres forcibly closed, and that ZANU-PF is delivering food to its supporters? Given that most of Zimbabwe's close neighbours are heavy recipients of aid from this country, when will the Government put some real pressure on them to assist us in getting Zimbabwe out of the dark ages? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the United Kingdom Government have been very strong in their condemnation of what is going on and very robust in their conversations with Zimbabwe's south African neighbours about the steps that they need to take to bring the current intolerable situation to an end. In that respect, I welcome what Kofi Annan said to the AU summit last week. I also welcome the summary of the fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe, carried out by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, which speaks openly about the testimony it received from witnesses who were victims of political violence and other victims of torture while in police custody. There was evidence that the system of arbitrary arrests took place. It is a welcome sign that the African Union is beginning to take responsibility for the action required to bring an end to the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe.

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