HL Deb 22 March 2004 vol 659 cc461-4

2.47 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have made to the Brazilian Government about the killing of street children and about their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we engage frequently with the Brazilian Government, both bilaterally and with our partners in the European Union, on a broad range of human rights issues, including about the situation of street children. Together with our European Union partners, we call for all states parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to implement their reporting obligations.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Would she confirm that the new dimension that has emerged in the Brazilian favelas is the proliferation of drugs and small arms and that between four and five children and adolescents are murdered in Brazil every day? Does she agree that there needs to be an end to the cycle of retaliation, fear and violence that dominates the streets in Brazil and that the Brazilian authorities need assistance in honouring their obligations under the United Nations convention which they signed in 1990?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that the prevalence of drugs and small arms has the effect the noble Lord has detailed to your Lordships. I thank him for the excellent report he produced after his recent visit to Brazil. Its description of what is going on was horrifying but very vivid.

I agree that the Brazilian Government need some assistance in trying to deal with these terrible problems. They are showing a great willingness to do that. We are engaging with them. Only last month a further round of talks between officials and Brazilian authorities took place. We are trying to help them in relation to prisons, the police and in particular small arms issues.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, having seen something of the awful miseries suffered by street children in Rio, I plead with Her Majesty's Government to increase assistance to all aspects of help for them, not least projects working with street children in Brazil such as the Sao Martinho Princess Diana Centre for orphaned girls, which the wife of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister opened a short time ago. Recognising the terrible human suffering of all sorts, surely we could make a greater effort to be of help directly and with our European partners.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, DfID's Latin America bilateral programme focuses on several issues. DfID will provide about £41 million for the period 2004–05 to 2006–07. The Government fund a number of projects in the human rights field that are aimed at tackling some of those very difficult problems. As I told the noble Lord, Lord Alton, we are tackling issues associated with the police, prisoners and small arms, but my noble friend rightly points to difficulties with orphaned children. Child prostitution is also a very difficult problem in Brazil.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether, since his administration took over, President Lula has taken any steps to deal with the problem of street children? I should declare an interest as having a son who works with street children in Sao Paulo. Could she also say a little more clearly what help we could give the Brazilian Government in the matter beyond advice?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are providing quite a lot of money. The noble Lord asks about President Lula. As he will know, under the president's predecessor, President Cardoso, a special secretariat for human rights was set up. I can tell the noble Lord that President Lula has continued that work and made the human rights secretariat directly responsible to him as president. So that is strengthening the human rights dialogue.

There have been several discussions. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr Rammell, raised the issue last May. His discussions were then taken on by Sir Michael Jay, the Permanent Under-Secretary, when he visited the country in October. I mentioned the visit only last month by FCO officials, but that was a second visit to follow up one in December 2003. So we are providing advice on a wide range of issues but also financial help.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the problem of killing street children is by no means confined to Brazil? The All-Party Group on Street Children has heard from a number of NGOs working in several countries, including Honduras and Guatemala, that hundreds of children are being killed in those countries every year. The judicial system is simply not following that up. People known to be perpetrating those crimes are not being prosecuted or the cases fail in court. Does the Minister feel that it is time to call a special meeting of the United Nations to discuss that widespread issue?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. When I was discussing the issue with officials, I was regrettably told that Brazil is by no means the worst example of abuses of children. On the question of overdue reports, I understand that Brazil is not alone. It currently owes about 13 reports under the six core UN human rights treaties, but 226 reports are overdue from various nations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The UN has an important role to play here. I take on board the point made by the noble Baroness about some sort of meeting and will talk to my colleagues about it. The UN is the forum where those matters ought to be discussed and where pressure can be brought to bear, as well as through the bilateral help that we are trying to give.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, as the Minister rightly said, street children anywhere in the world need help. What support has DfID given to such highly successful organisations as the Bulgarian alliance for children and youths, which helps street children to receive food, clothing, medical treatment and to take part in general education and training programmes? Will Her Majesty's Government tender some suggestions to the Brazilian Government along those lines to help to set up a sister organisation in that country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me when I say that the Question is about Brazilian street children, so I fear that I do not have any information about the Bulgarian alliance. I can tell the noble Baroness that our bilateral programme takes a regional approach. It is moving away from a country focus to problems; we are trying to deal with them in a holistic way. I have already said that we are approaching a number of problems, including the way in which prisons operate in relation to children and the issue of firearms. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, told us, many of those difficulties spread through drugs and firearms. One of the most telling phrases in the noble Lord's report was when he was talking to a young boy who told him that there was no way that he could advance from his parlous state in life without recourse to illicit trade in drugs and firearms. We are trying to concentrate much of our help in those areas.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, does the Minister agree that corporate social responsibility is yet another approach? Will the Government therefore encourage government-led and government-sponsored trade missions run by the British Council and other organisations in the field to raise the issues with companies in Brazil, in order to avoid allegations of indifference or acceptance of the terrible plight of those children being made by the population at large?

On a recent visit to Brazil, I did just that and. without exception, the companies that I met could point to positive action that they were taking in education and training to help children and young people and to alleviate the problem. But, of course, much more could be done.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that a practical approach to this issue is enormously important. We try to do that by going into the.favelas, as has the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to talk to young people about alternatives to their involvement in violence and organised crime. The noble Baroness is right: that is an interesting approach that we may try to adopt through our trading partners. I shall certainly bring that suggestion to the attention of my honourable friend the Minister for Trade and Investment.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether there is particular concern about HIV infection with those children? If so, are they being provided with the advice and means to protect themselves from HIV infection?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there is a real problem with young people being drawn into prostitution. I would deduce from that that there are almost certainly problems with the spread of all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases, which would include HIV/AIDS. I do not have any particular information about work being done on HIV/AIDS, but I will see whether there is anything more helpful that I can tell the noble Earl and write to him accordingly.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that running through the excellent report by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, is an indication of the breakdown in the country's administration concerning the police force, which appears to cause many of the problems that it is called on to solve? Whatever may be the position regarding corporate responsibility, the government of that country should be getting their own house in order.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with a lot of what is said in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, but we must be careful not to be too condemnatory of the Brazilian Government's efforts to deal with the problem. There is no doubt in my mind that sincere efforts are being brought to bear on the problem, from which I would not want to detract; rather, I want to encourage the Brazilian Government to do more. Part of the problem is based on the fact that Brazil has a federal set-up. The implementation of policies has to go through state police forces because there is no national enforcement. So although we lobby and try to persuade nationally, implementation is done at state level.