HL Deb 17 May 2004 vol 661 cc509-12

2.44 p.m.

Lord St John of Bletso asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are taking to assist in securing political and economic sustainable development in Sierra Leone.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the UK is the largest bilateral donor to Sierra Leone. We have set out our commitment to support Sierra Leone's long-term reconstruction and development in a 10-year memorandum of understanding under which we will provide up to £120 million over the first three years. This assistance takes the form of support for security sector reform, improved economic and political governance and direct budgetary aid. In addition, UK forces are providing training and advice to the Sierra Leone armed forces.

Lord St John of Bletso

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for that extremely encouraging reply. Her Majesty's Government are to be congratulated on the pivotal role that our Armed Forces have played in restoring peace and stability in that country. Can the noble Baroness outline the drawdown schedule of the United Nations troops, British troops and military observers in the light of the fragility of peace in and along the borders with Liberia? How confident are Her Majesty's Government that the Royal Sierra Leone Military Forces and police are sufficiently trained and equipped to avert a resurrection of violence, whether it be through banditry or is organised?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that an agreement has been made to extend UNAMSIL's presence in Sierra Leone until 2005, so some 3,500 troops will remain until then. On our own contribution, through the British Military Advisory and Training Team we are giving advice to the Sierra Leone armed forces on security sector reform. The Sierra Leoneans are currently heading up a review on that, which we are assisting. We are confident that the training that we are giving with others in this area will mean that the security sector in Sierra Leone will be able to take on board over a period the considerable difficulties regarding the security environment in Sierra Leone.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the Minister give us any idea of how much is being done to restore the infrastructure—roads, power and water—so that agricultural development can take place? One hopes that Sierra Leone will then become, if not exactly self-supporting, at least hopeful of being so. What is being done in that regard?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Baroness touches on a very important point. Over 10 years of civil war the infrastructure was ruined. The World Bank and the European Union in particular have taken the lead in this area, which has included work on roads. I would be happy to send the noble Baroness further details on the specific projects supported by those two organisations.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, what help is being given to Sierra Leone to combat its growing health crisis, which has resulted from the increasing incidence of HIV/AIDS and in particular drug-resistant malaria?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, will know that health is one of the areas on which we have depended particularly on the work of civil society organisations such as Oxfam, Action Aid and Save the Children because the health infrastructure in Sierra Leone is so poor. The figures for the percentage of those infected with the HIV/AIDS virus differ widely, partly because the data are so poor. We are very conscious that on some of the figures it looks as if Sierra Leone is at that jump-off point from where the infection rates could reach epidemic proportions. We are supporting civil society organisations and looking at ways in which we can support the Government of Sierra Leone themselves to put in place infrastructure to support health.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that the legitimate government now have full control over the diamond mines, and that child soldiers are being effectively rehabilitated?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, in relation to full control of mines, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will know that the sanctions against Sierra Leone have been lifted, as Sierra Leone is now part of the Kimberly process. The percentage of legal exports of minerals has risen considerably, but we are still concerned that this may be only one-fifth or one-quarter of the actual exports from that country. This issue really needs to be tackled.

With respect to the issue of child soldiers, there is a concern about the high levels of unemployment of young people in Sierra Leone. The United States Government are working with some of the communities in those mineral areas, trying to build community development and promote employment in those areas, but we need to do a great deal more.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I declare an interest, as my sister was a medical missionary in Sierra Leone. and she worked for a good many years at the hospital in Segbwema, the Nixon Memorial Hospital. That hospital was almost destroyed and members of staff were murdered by the rebels. That hospital had provided great services to the local community. What has been done to restore the services of hospitals such as that in Segbwema in the rural areas of Sierra Leone?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the rural areas in Sierra Leone are particularly badly served. I said in response to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that health is one area where we face particular challenges. That remains the case with respect to hospitals. In rural communities, we have a difficult task in delivering health services. We do that through NGOs. On the specific hospital mentioned by the noble Lord, I will investigate and write to him.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that Sierra Leone is continuously tropically hot, that the people are divided and somewhat backward, and that it really will be a tremendous effort for this country to secure political and economic sustainable development there? We would need to have large forces, and it would be a considerable task.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is right in that historically Sierra Leone has been divided. It went through 10 years of war. Since peace was declared, we have seen national presidential elections, upcoming local elections this weekend, and the intervention by this country's military to help to ensure security in Sierra Leone, which was important at that point in time. There is no doubt that there are huge challenges ahead, but we remain confident that with the Sierra Leone Government putting poverty at the top of their agenda, and with the work that we and other donors are doing on security, we can help Sierra Leone through these difficult times.