HC Deb 15 July 2003 vol 409 cc1-22WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting he now adjourned.—[Paul Clark.]

9.30 am
Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for making time for this important debate. This is the 13th time that Zimbabwe has been debated in this Chamber during this Session, which is a testament not just to the importance that we attach to Zimbabwe, but, alas, to our impotence to do anything about that country.

I shall begin with some personal reminiscences. In April 2002, I went to Zimbabwe unobtrusively as a tourist. In the company of the redoubtable Peta Thornycroft of the The Daily Telegraph, I decided to see at first hand what Robert Mugabe's policy of land reform actually entails. Peta took me to the Mazowe region just north of Harare to a 5,000 acre farm that had been started in 1936 by Tom Bayley, who was in his 90th year when I met him. When I went to see the Bayley family, they had been under siege for two years and had suffered about as much as the human spirit can endure. The war veterans, as they call themselves, were camped on the Bayleys' land and were burning lumber for fires, roasting and eating the seedcorn, constantly intimidating the Bayleys and making it impossible for them to bring in their crops. The cattle were infested with ticks and dying, and nothing had been sown for years.

The siege was intensifying because the war veterans, as they style themselves, were forbidding the older Bayleys from being visited by their son and daughter-in-law who lived in a separate house. They had been completely cut off for more than a month by a bunch of thugs wielding knives and pipes. Those people had the overt encouragement not only of the Mugabe regime, but of the police. A policeman was milling around and giggling. He was wholly complicit in the operation and refused to do anything to protect the Bayleys' basic right o property.

Thanks entirely to the bravery of the redoubtable Peta Thornycroft, we plucked up our courage and walked the 500 yd from the main Bayley farmstead to the little cottage where the old parents lived. It was very spooky because we had to run the gauntlet of the malodorous, tough-looking "war veterans". After a while, we got through the fence and into the cottage. The old Bayleys were thrilled to see us because they had not seen a friendly face for a month while they had been besieged. They sat us down at their kitchen table and told us what it was like. Tom Bayley said, "We are being tortured." He also said that he had been on the farm for 70 years and had come from Chelmsford in Essex aged 20; everyone had told him that he should go out to the empire, so he did. He said that if he did what the thugs wanted and walked out of the house, they would take everything. He then produced a tray of medals that he had earned for military service for this country during the second world war. He also produced a British passport. At that moment, I felt overcome with shame, embarrassment and pity. I wondered what I as an MP could do for that guy—a British citizen, a British subject. What could the House of Commons and this country do to protect the rights of a Briton who had fought for his country and who had a British passport? I thought how fallen, how changed, this country was that we could do two thirds of zilch to protect a man in such circumstances. He started crying, and it was very upsetting.

The only person who seemed to have a plan in those deeply sad circumstances was the redoubtable Peta Thornycroft, who marched out, confronted the ZANU-PF thugs and said to one, "If you were my son, I'd bend you over my knee and beat you." These correspondents from The Daily Telegraph are pretty tough. As I recall, the man replied, with a signal lack of logic, "If you were my mother, you would not be my mother." I did not quite follow his argument, but in any case we parted with expressions of a mutual lack of esteem.

I returned to London and this place and set about trying to get some Sinemet for the old lady, Mrs. Bayley, who had Parkinson's disease, but there was absolutely nothing more that I could do. There was nothing that the Government could do and nothing that anyone could do—not a sausage, not a bean. That was very depressing.

Within a few months, the old couple were dead. People may say that they were hounded to their graves. He died of a heart attack, and she died of grief shortly afterwards. The younger couple also met tragedy: they were involved in a car crash in which Trish lost her life and her husband was badly injured. Their land was taken away.

When I think of that episode, it fills me with rage. People should think of the economic consequences of that episode alone. They should think of the madness and the economic destruction that the policy of land reform has brought to Zimbabwe. Danbury farm near Mazowe could, in good times, produce enough seedcorn to feed 1 million people. It could produce 47,000 litres of cooking oil. That is what the old boy told me in his misery. It could produce 90 tonnes of edible beef a year. Now those people were to be kicked out and given nothing. They were not going to be paid for the value of their land; they were going to be paid a quarter of the value of the improvements that they had notionally made to the land, and moreover they were going to be paid in Zimbabwean dollars.

Although I had that experience of meeting a white farmer who was being dispossessed of his land, that is not the whole story; it is only a fraction of the story of what Mugabe is doing to his people. It is not a story of black on white oppression. It is the story of one man systematically tyrannising his people: 800,000 black farmers and farm workers have been driven off their land, with catastrophic consequences for the country. If people go to Zimbabwe, they will see that the disaster is of almost biblical proportions. Inflation is running at 300 per cent. According to Save the Children, 5.2 million people need food aid. The economy is contracting. I think that the figure was 12 per cent. for last year alone.

Mugabe spends a great proportion of his time flying around the African continent in increasingly desperate efforts to barter the patrimony of Zimbabwe for vital oil supplies. He is always off in Tripoli trying to persuade Gaddafi to supply him with oil. He is mortgaging Zimbabwe's future, as I am sure the Minister knows, by trying to do a deal involving the pipeline from Beira to Mutare. He basically placed that pipeline in the hands of the Libyans in exchange for short-term oil supplies.

Harare is a glorified car park. It is paralysed. There is simply not enough fuel for people to move around. That is to say nothing of the AIDS situation. I think that HIV affects about one in three—perhaps 35 per cent.—of the adult population. That is to say nothing of the routine torture and intimidation of members of the opposition, the expulsion of journalists and all the stuff that we have read about: the mayor of Harare was suddenly descended on by 15 policemen the other day and ordered to leave his office, and above all, ZANU-PF use what food supplies there are as a political weapon. Grain stocks are being used to bully and coerce, as was described not long ago by Peter Oborne, the political editor of a magazine in which I must declare an interest.

I do not think that this is the place for just another recitation—although I have just given one—of the charges against Mr. Mugabe. We do not need any more tub-thumping denunciations from this House about the black Hitler and all that sort of jazz. We have done all that. My aim is to see what we can do to begin to find a way out for that country and its people. By way of praeteritio, I want to deal with a solution that we will certainly not employ, agreeable though it might be for red-faced colonels in the home counties to speculate about it. There simply will not be—unless the Minister corrects me—a military solution to the Zimbabwe problem in the short term. Delightful though it may be to conjure up images of 2 Para investing Harare airport and the Special Boat Service going up the Limpopo, I do not think that that will happen.

I am sure that the Minister has had many discussions with his constituents about Iraq, and there comes a point in any discussion about Iraq when people say, "Well, what about Zimbabwe?" They say that it is inconsistent to displace a tyrant in the middle east but to leave another tyrant in place in Africa. There is some force in that argument, and it may be true that if cars were powered by bananas, Africa would have greater strategic importance in the eyes of the Pentagon than it does now. We all agree, however, that a military operation would be much harder than people think, chiefly because the lines of supply would not be guaranteed from any neighbouring country. That explains politically why the military option has been ruled out. Mugabe does not stand in relation to his neighbours as Saddam Hussein stood in relation to his.

What does that leave? It leaves diplomacy. I think that it will be common ground in this Chamber—unless the Minister corrects me—that British and global diplomatic efforts have been marked by catastrophic failure. If we are to get anywhere in this business, we must not just put ourselves in the shoes of people such as the Bayleys, easy though it may be to identify with them; we must also try to understand the mindset and the rhetoric of the thugs to whom I talked, who were besieging the farm. We need to go back into history, look at the origins of the crisis and discover whence Mugabe emerged as a liberation leader whose power emanated from the barrel of a gun. In the imagination of his people, he triumphed over the regime of Ian Smith, which was, let us make no bones about it, odious in its own way. We have to go back and understand the history of Zimbabwe and whence Mugabe emerged.

I am in some ways a defender of colonialism. I believe that there were some good things about the British empire. I say that with no shame. I take a Whiggish view of the empire, which I think brought great benefits to many parts of the world, but there is no doubt that what is now called Zimbabwe was acquired by expropriation. The pioneer column crossed the Limpopo in 1890 in search of gold and, failing to find gold, grabbed what land it could. As Martin Meredith has written in his excellent book on Mugabe, the scramble for land became little more than plunder. Farms were pegged out regardless of whether local people were living there. Arriving in 1896, a new administrator, William Milton, was appalled by the scale of the land distribution. As he said: Jameson has given nearly the whole country away to Willoughby's whites, and others of that class so that there is absolutely no land left which is of any value.

The result was that by 1980, at the time of Zimbabwean independence, most of the productive land was still possessed by the whites. At the time of the Lancaster House talks, 6,000 large-scale white farmers owned 39 per cent. of the land and 8,000 small-scale black farmers owned 4 per cent. of the land. The remainder—inferior land—was held in common. In communal areas, the population density was three times greater than it was in what were thought of as the white areas.

There always has been—and still is—an overwhelming case for land reform in Zimbabwe. That should be common ground for all hon. Members in this Room. As Lord Carrington said at the time of the Lancaster House talks: We recognise that the future Government of Zimbabwe, whatever its political complexion, will wish to extend land ownership. Mugabe embarked on a desultory programme of land reform, partly financed by the British Government. It was not a wholly successful programme. Partly because Zimbabwe was doing quite well during the 1980s, the programme did not advance very far. Indeed, Mugabe relied very much on the white settlers to keep the Zimbabwean economy going. There then came the problem of his excessive longevity in power and his need to maintain his position.

During the referendum in 2000, Mugabe tried to accelerate the process of land reform constitutionally. He tried to play the anti-colonial, anti-settler card in order to buoy up his popularity and shore up his position in power. Failing in that referendum, he began the terrible pogroms of the sort that we have seen during the past three years. He incited the war veterans to begin despoiling the farms in the way that I saw last year.

If one wanted to be polemical about the way in which the Labour Government have handled land reform and Mugabe, one could say that they have made a pretty poor fist of it. One could say that they have oscillated between apathy and a kind of megaphone diplomacy that simply played into Mugabe's hands because he was able to claim, "The big white chiefs are making a frightful noise in London. They are trying to boss us and bully us as they always used to. Why should we pay any heed to them?" One could make a case that the Government's handling of the issue has not been altogether brilliant.

On the other hand, one has to accept that Mugabe is largely to blame for the corruption of the land reform process and for a disgraceful episode that will go down as one of the most brutal and cynical acts of political manipulation in the past 20 years. It is a great disgrace. The question is what we do now.

There are several actors in the matter. There are the Europeans. In a hotly contested field, the most creepy example of recent French diplomacy was the decision to invite Mugabe to a summit in February, the day after European Union sanctions expired. I do not think that we can expect much real support or action from other EU countries.

A lot of hope is reposed in the other African countries. People often hope that Thabo Mbeki will do the business and pull the plug on Mugabe in the way that the apartheid regime in South Africa pulled the plug on Ian Smith. One has only to consider what Mugabe's fellow African leaders say about him to understand that they see Mugabe and the issue in a very different way. On his re-election in 2002, Daniel Arap Moi sent his congratulations and best wishes to his dear brother. Benjamin Mpaka in Tanzania said Mugabe was "a champion of democracy" and added that the people of Zimbabwe have spoken loudly and clearly. The more one listens to Thabo Mbeki, the clearer it becomes that the South Africans will not pull the plug. It is difficult for Thabo Mbeki to turn on a man whom he regards as a liberator and as his senior in the struggle for freedom for black Africa. Dismayingly, Mugabe attracts considerable support among black South Africans.

That leaves the Americans and us. The Americans are at last beginning to take notice. I was heartened by President Bush's recent visit and by the decision to stoke up interest in the subject in America, but we should not underestimate what we can do in Britain.

Who is Mugabe's greatest enemy? His greatest enemy is himself and the increasing damage that he is seen to be doing to Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwean economy. From talking to people in his regime, I am sure that he wants out. He wants to step down quietly at the age of 79 after 23 years in power. With at least half of his mind, he is aware of his failure and, more importantly, large numbers of people in ZANU-PF also recognise that he is their and Zimbabwe's leading liability.

The question for Members and the Government is whether we should make an exit for him. I have no doubt that ZANU-PF would like to restart dialogue with the British Government. Dialogue collapsed during the long row about land reform and was replaced by megaphone diplomacy, which I discussed earlier. An offer, which my hon. Friends will discuss in a moment and of which the Minister will be aware, will be put on the table. Mugabe, attended by all ceremony and dignity, will disappear from the scene. In return, he will achieve agreement on the following points: the acceptance of land reform with abuses to be dealt with; the recognition of the presidential election, which will be difficult; and the supply by Britain and other countries of substantial and immediate funds to pay for land reform and to assist Zimbabwe in its current plight.

Members and the Government must make a choice. We must work out whether Mugabe is bluffing in offering that so-called deal or whether there is a reason to open discussions. It may be that the deal is a typical ruse by a hardened tyrant who is trying to prolong his period in power. In my view, however, Mugabe's position is desperate: in 2000, some 660 British companies had investments in Zimbabwe; now 440 British companies invest in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, unemployment is running at 70 per cent. It would be a desperate thing for him to cling on, but desperate men may use desperate means.

Should we take the risk that Mugabe will continue to abuse his country until 2008, when his presidential term expires, or should we risk re-engaging with ZANU-PF, which may be seen as legitimising some of the monstrous things that he has done? One way or another, Zimbabwe will need our aid, which we are morally obliged to provide, to help to rebuild the country, which was once the bread-basket of Africa. One way or another, Mugabe will go and it will be sooner rather than later. It is a question for him: does he want to go like Ian Smith and continue to live in Harare or does he want a Ceausescu moment? We must think of the speediest method of removing a man who has done so much damage to his country. The tools at our disposal are limited, but as anybody who has travelled in sub-Saharan Africa knows, we are far more influential in that part of the world than is commonly supposed.

It is no longer good enough for the British Government to say that they are powerless and that anything they do makes matters worse. A policy of standing on one side is no longer good enough, and it is time for us to re-engage for the good of Zimbabwe and for the suffering people of that country.

9.54 am
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on securing the debate. He said that it was the 13th debate on the matter, and it may also be the 13th to take place in Westminster Hall. That is indicative of the Government's position and their embarrassment about the issue. It is a shame that we have never had the opportunity to debate the matter in the House.

I am the new chairman of the all-party Zimbabwe group, and this afternoon, the Zimbabwean high commissioner will meet it for the first time. I must, incidentally, apologise in advance as I am also on a three-line Whip and am expected to be in Select Committee at 10 o'clock, so I shall not be in the Chamber for the winding-up speeches. The Minister for Europe rather than the Minister responsible for Africa, attended the last debate. We did not, therefore, get much change from his speech or the subsequent debate.

We have a money laundering sub-committee in the Commonwealth secretariat, and we know from Transparency International that perhaps as much as $2 billion has been taken by President Mugabe and placed in banks. From Transparency International, we think that the money is largely in Malaysia and the City of London. Is it beyond the wit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to organise with the Financial Services Authority an investigation into money laundering from Zimbabwe? I have raised this point before and will raise it again: if we can stop the flow of money, we can stop his future. When I went to UBS in Zurich, I was very impressed as it had 8,800 leads on Mugabe, his family and his Ministers going back 23 years. Not one of them led to UBS, and its representatives said in our meeting that all roads led to the City of London or Malaysia. We can raise the issue of his laundered money in this country.

I also want to press the Minister on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Will he explain what we are doing with CHOGM and the Commonwealth Secretariat? Don McKinnon is in Mputu this morning and he has been to the African Union Heads of State meetings over the past couple of days. CHOGM is due in Nigeria in December. It cannot be in President Obasanjo's interest to have the President of Zimbabwe arrive unannounced and uninvited to wait to be called on an airstrip in Abuja. The President of Nigeria and the secretary-general of the Commonwealth hold the cards. What conversations have the Government had with Don McKinnnon? We have a window of opportunity between now and December in which to resolve the Zimbabwe question.

I was a proud member of the London branch of the African National Congress for 10 years. Donald Woods, when he was alive, suggested a visit in the mid-1980s by eminent persons to South Africa, and that delegation published a report on its visit. Is that not a solution that would at least start the process of replacing Mugabe? By an agreement with the Commonwealth secretariat rather than the Government, could we not send a delegation of eminent persons to Zimbabwe before the CHOGM meeting, so that it can report on what it finds? It would be independent, untarnished by our colonial past and should be a proper, high-level visit by eminent people. I commend the Minister to follow that route.

President Obasanjo, President Mbeki and President Muluzi of Malawi met Morgan Tsvangari in Harare recently. Can the Minister confirm the four points that they discussed about President Mugabe's future? I believe that they discussed where he would live and a guarantee of his security. They discussed the idea that, if he stood down, there would be no court cases into any fraud, human rights abuses or money laundering. The case involving the former President of Kenya, President Moi, is now on its way to the High Court, and the former President of Zambia, President Chilumba, is on his way to the High Court in Zambia. It would seem remiss if President Mugabe were not also on his way to the High Court in due course. I would still like to know whether that was on the agenda when the three presidents met Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai.

Thirdly, I gather that President Mugabe is prepared to stand down if he can keep his money. I have raised this point before and will raise it again. Could we just turn off his money laundering?

Finally, President Mugabe wanted to name a successor. I understand that the Movement for Democratic Change realises that if there is going to be a shift in Government, there will have to be an interim Government. It is considering that and does not think it a bad idea. However, it will not accept all the other things on the agenda that Mugabe raised during the visit. Will the Minister confirm that?

Members who read The Independent will have seen that it features a front-page story reporting that Mugabe is involved in negotiations and that there seems to be some movement. Is that true? Will the Minister comment on that?

The disappointment for black Africa is the lack of black leadership. That is what we find difficult, given that it was, largely, a white colonial power that took Africa. The most disappointing person is President Mbeki. It is really depressing to hear him play up President Mugabe. He must know, through his own diplomatic sources and evidence, of the criminalisation of life in Zimbabwe. The hon. Member for Henley has already given statistics, and I do not want to go over all of them. He talked about the mayor of Harare, who was arrested twice last week. We should also consider that 800 opposition activists, some of whom have been beaten and tortured, have been arrested in the past six weeks. We have met some of the activists in the House. Some are held in police custody and have no access to the law, and 150 have been hospitalised. Mugabe does nothing to stop that. If the perpetrators are not prosecuted and there is no investigation, there is a breakdown and we have a failed state.

If it is right to bring about regime change in Iraq, it is also right to consider Zimbabwe in that context. We should not back away from the matter or be embarrassed about our colonial past. We are talking about the most disgraceful abuse of human rights anywhere in the world. It is shameful that it is allowed and that black presidents in neighbouring countries do not stand up to it. That is part of the disappointment.

Time is running out for Zimbabwe. A political settlement is needed as a matter of urgency. We might disagree about the exact figures, but about 5 million people need food aid, and fuel and electricity are short. Official inflation is running at 300 per cent., but I think that it is substantially more than that. The country has something of the Germany of the 1920s about it. There is no foreign currency, there is a shortage of bank notes and there is unemployment—employment is never a given in any African state—of between 70 and 85 per cent.

Zimbabwe was once the bread-basket of Africa. Over the past 50 years, it could have fed not only itself, but many surrounding countries. It is sad to see what a desperate state the country is in, and it is sad that we just stand by. We cannot support that policy any longer.

We need to engage President Mbeki and President Obasanjo. They are the two key elements in the jigsaw. We have about five months before CHOGM in Abuja on 5 to 8 December. We need to pressure Mugabe now to enter into unconditional negotiations.

10.3 am

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

I am both pleased and saddened that we are debating Zimbabwe again. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on securing the debate. It is timely because this afternoon sees the inaugural meeting of the all-party Zimbabwe group, which I hope to attend. If nothing else, it will show the broad cross-party support that exists, as demonstrated by the comments of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), with which I completely agree.

In spite of the fact that we have debated Zimbabwe 12 times in Westminster Hall since February 2000, we are here for the 13th time today, because we still take the matter extremely seriously. However, while we debate the issue, the situation in Zimbabwe worsens by the day and by the hour. I wonder, somewhat sadly and forlornly, whether we will be here again in weeks and months to come to debate the matter for the 14th time and to repeat the same impassioned, frustrated and desperate pleas, as we watch what was once the grain basket of Africa rapidly become its basket case.

I shall not rehearse the arguments that have been made today and in previous debates, but, before I come to the main thrust of my comments, I wish to discuss something with which I believe many others have struggled. In a statement on Iraq, the Prime Minister said, let us at least not forget the 4 million Iraqi exiles, and the thousands of children who die needlessly every year due to Saddam's impoverishment of his country—a country which in 1978 was wealthier than Portugal or Malaysia but is now in ruins, with 60 per cent. of its people on food aid. Let us not forget the tens of thousands imprisoned, tortured or executed by his barbarity every year. The innocent die every day in Iraq—victims of Saddam—and their plight, too, should be heard."—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 125–26.] On the very same day, at Foreign and Commonwealth questions, the Minister for Trade and Investment stated, in his remarks on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe: The situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. The leader of the opposition is on trial for treason. Arrests and torture of those opposed to President Mugabe's regime continue unabated. The economy is in crisis: unemployment is at over 70 per cent., inflation is above 200 per cent., the currency is in free fall, there is a critical shortage of foreign exchange, and more than 7 million Zimbabweans now need emergency food aid. The rhetoric and barefaced facts in both statements are powerful. In the eyes of many, including me, the former was justification enough to go to war. Yet on the latter, the Minister for Trade and Investment concluded: We are doing what we can to feed the population", and, later, if a regime is determined to destroy its own country and its own people, there is a limit to what the international community can do."—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 105–07.] In a previous debate on Zimbabwe some time ago. the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw)—he has moved ministerial posts since then—accused me of advocating military intervention in Zimbabwe, although I was not advocating that at that time. I am not certain that I share the views so artfully articulated, as one would expect, by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, because, if there were a genuine desire to use military intervention in Zimbabwe— which, again, I am not advocating this morning—I do not believe that it would pose the problems that my hon. Friend described.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin)

I am confused. Is the hon. Gentleman advocating military intervention?

Mr. Swire

I am sorry that the Minister is confused. I am not necessarily advocating military intervention, but I am saying that, if there were a desire for military intervention, it would not involve the problems suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. In other words, it would be possible to intervene militarily, but I am not saying that that is the answer.

Mr. Johnson

Since my hon. Friend has invoked my point about military intervention, perhaps I could clarify it? My intention was to describe the world as I see it, rather than as I would like to see it. I do not believe that military intervention in Zimbabwe is likely; I sought to get that point out of the way and then to consider the diplomatic possibilities. I share my hon. Friend's martial enthusiasm in principle, but believe that it is unlikely to be reflected in practice.

Mr. Swire

I should not wish it to go on the record that my martial enthusiasm extended to a full-blooded invasion of Zimbabwe, because that is not what I suggested. However, it is worth pointing out that the European Union President was keen to create an African peacekeeping force, the aim of which was boldly stated in the mission statement as being an African solution to African problems. That force was to be accompanied by a European Union funding package of £170 million, but the President was thwarted in his intention because, as he said: We face a wall in any contacts, and that wall is Zimbabwe. I leave it for others to comment on whether there is a message in that statement.

By drawing attention to the consistency or inconsistency between the statements made about the humanitarian raison d'être for using force in Iraq, and the lack of action in Zimbabwe, I was questioning whether the reactions to Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe were proportionately consistent. I am sure that many others struggle with that problem and think along similar lines, but that is not the central issue that I wish to pursue.

The issue on which I shall question a Minister again—although it will be the first time that I question the new Minister on it—is that of the Zimbabwe public service pensions for those who were in government service. Over the past few months, I have received visits at my surgeries and considerable correspondence from a number of Zimbabwean pensioners as well as the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association, about the cessation of their pension payments. Although no agreement was made on public officers when the Zimbabwean Government was formed at the time of independence, the then Minister in charge, Lord Trefgarne, wrote in December 1979 that the Zimbabwean independence constitution would contain full safeguards for public service pensions and their remittability. The 1979 Lancaster House agreement ensured that the Zimbabwe constitution would contain provisions relating to pensions payable in respect of the service of a public officer, and that pension benefits would continue to be paid to those no longer resident in Zimbabwe.

Nevertheless, as we have heard this morning, Zimbabwe has continued to be ravaged by Robert Mugabe, who presides over a country in which inflation has risen to 260 per cent., and where pessimists suggest that the figure may soon rise to 500 per cent. He is bankrupting the country and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, he has mortgaged the strategic oil assets to Libya, and plundered the country's exchequer. As a result of that and the rampant inflation, those pensioners' pensions have been rendered almost valueless. Those people, servants of the Crown, have been told by the Zimbabwean Government that payment of their pensions has ceased because the Government have no foreign currency. That has been the case since February.

Unlike Mr. Mugabe, those pensioners are not in a position to raise their salaries from 3 million Zimbabwean dollars to 20.2 million Zimbabwean dollars, with an additional 2 million Zimbabwean dollars in annual cash expenses, as he has done in the past few weeks, It is far easier to stay ahead of such colossal inflationary rises, when one is in a position to award oneself a 600 per cent. salary rise.

The assurances given at the time of Lancaster House were taken at face value, and we must remember the exceptional circumstances of that period. It seems that the Government, through a disingenuous argument, seek now to renege on a promise given in good faith. The reason why there is no safeguard for the former servants of the Crown is explained in a letter from the Foreign Secretary to Lord Waddington on 25 June. In it, he claims that because people were recruited on "local terms", the British Government therefore had no responsibility for matters connected with public administration". The Foreign Secretary disavows any form of responsibility that we may hold towards these people, concluding that: Responsibility for payment of these pensions therefore rests with the Zimbabwe Government", and hence, I fear that until the Zimbabwean economy improves, pension payments will continue to be intermittent at best. He can say that again.

There we have it: because the people who once served our country were allegedly recruited locally by the then Rhodesian Government, they are no longer our responsibility. If that were the case, it would be at best unsatisfactory for us to try to wash our hands of what are blatantly our responsibilities, but even that premise has been robustly challenged by Lord Waddington. In another place on 27 June 2000, responding to a Minister's letter to the chairman of the OSPA, he was right to say that what the Minister was conveniently ignoring is that many of the Zimbabwe pensioners were in fact recruited here, on what were expatriate-type terms broadly similar to those of HMOCS"— Her Majesty's overseas civil service— officers in other dependent territories. Their passages were paid out to the territory, they took their leave entitlement back here and now, at the end of their service, they have retired here. It really is disingenuous to pretend that local people recruited locally in the colonies are in like case. Clearly they are not."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 June 2000; Vol. 614, c. 854.]

When the Under-Secretary, Baroness Amos, wrote to me in June last year, she was as unhelpful as the Foreign Secretary: I fear that until there is an improvement in the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, and the value of the Zimbabwean dollar on the foreign exchange market increases, there is unlikely to be any improvement in the level of pensions paid to pensioners. I know this will be of little consolation to your constituent". That is dead right, although I do not even need to answer that further because the constituent who has had his pension frozen, Mr. Wade, answered it for me when he wrote: The situation is daily becoming more desperate, not just for the whites, but for the whole community, and just what are we doing politically?—Sweet nothing! It is also worth remembering that the British Government have continued to pump money into Zimbabwe—some £51 million since 2001, and an estimated £35 million in contributions this year alone. Mr. Wade's sentiments are echoed by another constituent, Mr. Bibby: It seems that Mugabe will be allowed to carry on intimidating and murdering all who stand in his way, and, no doubt, we will spend tax payers' money feeding the starving inhabitants of that benighted country which is entirely attributable to Mugabe's megalomania. We live in strange times".

Mr. Mullin

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should not be feeding the starving in Zimbabwe?

Mr. Swire

I am not, and if the Minister had been paying attention, he would realise that I was quoting a constituent's letter that merely showed the exasperation felt by many of the pensioners who cannot understand the Government's inactivity. If the Minister allows me to conclude my remarks, I will answer the point in due course.

What does the Minister intend to do to help the people whose pensions have been effectively wiped out? It is no good keeping his head down and hoping that an economic miracle will take place in Zimbabwe. Those people need help and deserve the good faith of a Government who so far appear happy to have turned a blind eye to the problem. Will they consider doing what they did with Aden and Somalia? For other reasons, it was not possible to make a public officers' agreement with the emerging Government, so a loan advance scheme was set up that protected the pensioners for as long as necessary.

The 1,200 pensioners living in this country, 700 of whom were recruited through Rhodesia House—the then Southern Rhodesian Government office in London—are in desperate circumstances. They are owed not only an explanation, but prompt action. The Overseas Pensions Act 1973 would allow Her Majesty's Government to protect the pensions of Zimbabwe public service pensioners in the same way as those of British colonial pensioners. Contrary to what has been stated by Ministers, some groups of pensioners are not covered by public officers' agreements, through which pensions are protected by the Government, and I would welcome the Minister's remarks on that.

The Minister asked whether I thought that we should cease aid to Zimbabwe and allow people to starve just because pensioners in this country are not receiving their pensions. Of course I am not suggesting that. I remind the Minister that I have tabled a number of questions and repeatedly asked what the Government are doing to trace the millions stolen by President Mugabe—the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey suggested earlier that that figure was as much as £2 billion. It is no good saying that whenever we suggest taking action, we are exacerbating the situation politically or economically, because people do not believe that.

I concede that the most important thing to do at the moment is to rid Zimbabwe of the benighted influence of its self-elected President. I am heartened by reports from Pretoria last week that President Bush met President Mbeki to discuss a £6.2 billion reconstruction package over an unspecified time and perhaps elections in 2004 that could involve the exit of Mugabe. I do not wish to discuss my own views on what should happen to Mugabe—whether he should be pursued by a high court, whether all his international assets should be sequestered, or whether he should not be given domicile in this country—because it is more important to get rid of him first on almost any condition that he takes.

However, we are talking about 2004, which is a long time for those who are not receiving their pensions, and a deal between the Americans and the South Africans, with, yet again, Britain playing no role. I find that humiliating. The point that I am trying to make is that, although the Government can continue to deny legal responsibility for the pensioners, they can no longer ignore their moral responsibility.

10.23 am
Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

It is extremely depressing to meet again, for the 13th time in a few short years, to discuss a matter that seems only to get worse without any decent progress being made. Like others, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) for securing the debate and setting out a range of issues and points of view, which deserve serious answer from the Minister. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), who has had to leave the Chamber, also set out important questions, in particular about money laundering to which I will return. As the new chair of the all-party Zimbabwe group, he has tackled his brief with enthusiasm and vigour and already instigated a series of initiatives that will hopefully add a perspective, which has been lacking until now, on Parliament's role in the whole sorry saga.

The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) commented on many of those issues, but also highlighted the serious case of those people in Britain whose pensions are in some difficulty. I hope that the Minister will shed light on that, not least because the 1,200 or so affected are spread throughout the United Kingdom.

Many of the developments have been set out by other speakers, each of them apologising for repeating a well-known story. The seriousness of that story is none the less such that it bears repetition and requires us to confront uncomfortable facts. Every current measure in Zimbabwe is designed to hold on to the power that was stolen in last year's election. Measures may be legal, although they are mostly illegal. They involve torture, rape, murder and a huge list of atrocities. There have been sustained efforts against the Movement for Democratic Change. There have been charges against its leader Morgan Tsvangirai for an alleged murder plot against Mugabe or for organising the stay aways over the past few months.

We must not lose sight of the fact that despite all that intimidation and the real dangers to themselves and their families, thousands of people in Zimbabwe keep taking to the streets. Everywhere they turn, ZANU-PF is waiting with some trumped-up charge or some simple, ugly violence. Only a few days ago the mayor of Harare was the latest to bear the brunt of that. This is more than just a political crisis. It entails serious abuses of human rights that have been documented here this morning and by many international groups.

Amnesty International in its 2003 report sets out the catalogue of violations. They include extra-judicial executions by the Zimbabwe defence force, impunity for state or state-backed groups who commit atrocities, intimidation of the judiciary, and the repression of freedom of expression, association and assembly, which are basic freedoms that we take for granted here in Britain and elsewhere in the west. More than 1,000 cases of torture were reported to Amnesty in 2002.

We must never lose sight of that stark figure, not least because it happens against the backdrop of an economy that adds humanitarian angles to the human rights abuses and the political disgrace of Zimbabwe. It is an economy on its knees. Maize production from the once great producer in Africa now feeds barely 50 per cent. of Zimbabwe's people. Two million people still need food aid. The United Nations estimates that perhaps as many as 5.5 million will need humanitarian assistance by the end of this year.

Responses from across the world have been inadequate. Indeed, the whole world community has been paralysed. It has been taunted by a dangerous dictator and ridiculed by a regime that, despite its lack of public support, its bankrupt economy and collapsing Government infrastructure, still manages to outmanoeuvre and outwit its neighbours, the European Union, the United States and the entire UN. It is the people of Zimbabwe who pay the price.

There is a major responsibility on the African countries, which was highlighted earlier this morning. President Mbeki has claimed that there is a dialogue between ZANU-PF and the MDC, a claim that is rejected by the leadership of the MDC itself. The African Union shows how seriously it takes this crisis by awarding Zimbabwe a prominent position in its secretariat. The New Partnership for Africa's Development, the great hope for Africa and Africa's ability to take these issues on itself and to sort out its own problems, now seems doomed with its hopes dashed. As the Amnesty International report puts it, efforts to promote Zimbabwe as a test of the efficacy of the newly launched African Union and NEPAD have failed, following the reluctance of most African leaders to condemn the Zimbabwean Government's human rights record. That is not being said by some partisan politician in the UK or elsewhere, but by Amnesty International.

Africa's failure has been supported—if that is the right word—by the European Union. We have anguished about it and wrung our hands, but we have implemented only limited sanctions. Our political position has been undermined by the French, who allowed Mugabe to visit their country—that leaves a bitter taste in many people's mouths. In the United States, we have heard increasingly strong words from Secretary of State Colin Powell, yet in South Africa last week, President Bush's comments appeared to soften the tone and to weaken the position that America had begun to develop.

This morning's report in The Independent, referred to earlier, hints at the prospect of a deal. If there is such a prospect, I hope that the Minister will clarify the situation. I make it abundantly clear that this country is not interested in some kind of mediated handover from one ZANU-PF thug to another. If there is to be a transition in Zimbabwe, it must be on the basis of fresh elections.

The UK Government have been strong on rhetoric but they suffer from paralysis. The Minister is new to his portfolio; I hope that he brings a new perspective to it. During his career, he has gained the reputation of being a renowned champion of human rights causes, and there could be no greater challenge than Zimbabwe. The Government must back up their denunciations with efforts, clamp down on exemptions to existing sanctions, extend those sanctions to cover the wives and families of those on the list, and widen the pool of ZANU-PF officials who are covered by it.

As the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey mentioned, the Government must focus on the regime's business partners based in the EU. There are huge new powers in the UK to investigate money laundering. Much is at stake in the City of London, yet there is precious little evidence that any money has been tracked down.

We must broaden the Government's diplomatic operations, and take more action at the United Nations. The Foreign Secretary has argued that there is no majority at the UN in favour of action, but—as was demonstrated during the Iraq crisis—this is surely not a Government who should be cowed by being in a minority. They should be taking the debate to the UN and ensuring that we know who is opposed to sanctions and other actions against Zimbabwe.

Perhaps most fundamentally, we must make up our mind about the MDC. There are major issues concerning any Government intervening in another country's politics. Elected Governments must respect other legitimately elected Governments, but does anybody seriously believe that ZANU-PF is properly and democratically elected, or that Mugabe is the rightful President of Zimbabwe? If the British Government cannot change their position, they should explain why not, but they should not stand in the way of other bodies that could and should be seeking to promote democracy in Zimbabwe. The MDC has routinely demonstrated its credentials and has withstood intimidation on a grand scale; it should have our support.

The post-colonial guilt trip is played against this Government all the time. Rather than continuing to be blinded by it, they must see past it. Rather than being conned, the UK Government should be challenging Mugabe and his regime, holding up the MDC as the hope for the future and agitating on the world stage for real and effective change.

10.34 am
Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

I warmly welcome the Minister to his new role. He carries with him a fine reputation for human rights awareness, so we will be very interested to hear what he has to say today. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on introducing this important debate. Over a long period he has directly and indirectly highlighted the tragedy of Zimbabwe, and we are grateful for the very forceful way in which he has brought the matter to the House's attention this morning. I also very much welcome the establishment of the all-party Zimbabwe group.

As we have heard, Zimbabwe remains in the grip of terror. It is locked in a horrifying downward spiral. Zimbabweans suffer unparalleled economic hardship and brutality, which has come about directly because of the Mugabe regime. When farm occupations started, we knew exactly where they would lead. A legitimate desire for land reform was used as an excuse. Illegal seizure of farmland, coupled with increasing violence, was simply the start of a process of collapse and chaos that has continued unabated. We have seen destruction coupled with economic implosion and starvation, all to a terrifying and sinister backdrop of violence. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who raised the tragic plight of pensioners who worked as civil servants for the Crown. I hope that the Minister will respond to his points.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), called for action to halt Mugabe's thuggery at each stage at which it became worse. We called for specific action each time, and we are sad and regret that the Government, indeed the whole international community, have reacted very slowly. The Government initially pleaded for caution, then moved on to say that firm action was being taken. We must ask what action that was. Targeted sanctions and travel bans were introduced only after enormous prompting from Conservative Members and others, and they are, even now, sporadic and unfocused.

In spite of all that, Zimbabweans have come validly as refugees to this country, and some to my constituency. The Home Office appears to believe that Zimbabwe is a place to which it is safe for asylum seekers who seek to stay in the UK to return. Is that really what the Government believe? We need some clarity on that.

My hon. Friends and others have talked about the terrifying economic statistics that provide the backdrop to the situation in Zimbabwe, so I shall not rehearse them. How the country has deteriorated is almost beyond description. The once thriving agricultural sector collapsed last year after confiscation of commercial farms. That was done supposedly for the poor and dispossessed, but land reform actually benefited Mugabe's cronies, the apparatchiks of ZANU-PF and his stalwarts. It certainly did not help landless peasants. On money laundering and the acquisition of properties and moneys abroad, the point made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) was very telling.

The productive land of Zimbabwe lies idle and uncultivated while starvation bites deeper. I saw that for myself last summer when I visited Zimbabwe with my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary. Human rights have been routinely abused. Recently., the persecution of opposition MDC supporters has intensified, and everyone is suffering in consequence. I heard about that, in the most graphic and moving detail a matter of weeks ago from Archbishop Ncube of Bulawayo, who, when in London, spelled out what was happening, so tragically, in Matabeleland. Last month came the arrest of the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. He was paraded in a courtroom in shackles and leg irons before being released on bail on 20 June. His offence was to call for work stoppages and demonstrations to protest non-violently at the economic suffering and political repression. His supporters have been targeted equally.

I echo the points of the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore). For many months we have pressed for the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. I recognise the difficulties involved. We have been told that the UN could not get involved because events in Zimbabwe were an "internal matter". We were told that it becomes involved only when civil war, genocide and wanton destruction spill into surrounding countries. I put it to the Minister that all the ingredients for civil war between the two major tribal groupings are already in place. Indeed, there have been warnings of genocide from Archbishop Ncube and others. There is absolutely no doubt that the crisis in Zimbabwe is spilling into surrounding countries, leading to a dramatic drop in inward investment and considerable numbers of refugees.

South Africa and its African partners understandably fear the repercussions of the state collapse that is happening before their eyes. Two million Zimbabwean refugees are now in South Africa, and we know the effect on the South African economy and its reputation. Damage has been done to the entire continent's admirable efforts to establish new political and trade relationships with the rest of the world through the New Partnership for Africa's Development, part of which deals with good governance.

No matter how brutal state-sponsored violence is, it is no longer great enough to produce compliance among the civilian population. We have seen that recently. Civil rights groups, trade unionists and ordinary people are taking to the streets, staying away from work and challenging the legitimacy of the Government. Despite claims that it was taking a strong line in imposing targeted sanctions and travel bans on leading figures in Mugabe's regime, the so-called common position of the EU was shown to be a sham when Mr. Mugabe visited President Chirac—a point made by the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale. To those who think it right to establish a public dialogue with Mugabe, I say that it simply leads to a further deterioration in the situation and reinforces the leadership of that individual, as we have seen over and over. It has the reverse effect from the original intention.

Yesterday, President Mbeki spoke on radio and television in the UK during President Bush's important tour of Africa. He was explicit in his revelation of discussions between ZANU-PF and the MDC. I was perplexed when I listened to his talk of discussions and Mugabe stepping down. Frankly, we have heard it before, and all too often. I find it hard to believe that Mugabe will willingly surrender power after all that he has done to preserve it. Both ZANU-PF and the MDC have specifically contradicted President Mbeki's view.

Mugabe has been named as the African Union's ambassador for southern Africa. That sends a message merely of acceptance and tolerance of Mugabe's crimes, which should not be the underlying intention of the AU. It is quite extraordinary. Each time we have been told that progress is being made, we have seen precious few results. If there has been softly-softly diplomacy and people believe that progress might be made after so many false dawns and contradictory messages have emanated from Harare, it is not unreasonable that we should look for some sign from Mugabe. The violence must end, and be seen to have ended. That must be concrete, and a clear message must be sent that something positive is being achieved. If President Mbeki is sponsoring some unofficial dialogue, he must continue to press for cessation of the violence as part and parcel of the process, and he should say so openly and publicly.

What light can the Minister shed on recent events and President Mbeki's comments? If there is an agreement in the offing to end the downward spiral of thuggery and economic misery, it will, of course, be welcome, but there can be no resolution until the downward spiral is brought to a halt, Mugabe steps down and free and fair elections take place. Until we see some clear signs of that happening, pressure from the international community must continue.

10.45 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin)

May I make it clear at the outset that the Government share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and his colleagues about the dreadful situation in Zimbabwe? We welcome constructive contributions to the debate on how to deal with the matter and we share the widespread frustration of all decent people that there are no easy or immediate solutions to the plight of Zimbabwe and its people.

During the past two years, there has been a great deal of huffing and puffing from some Opposition Members. As the hon. Member for Henley said, this is our 13th debate on the matter and there has been a marked absence of constructive suggestions. I was pleasantly surprised by the hon. Gentleman's demeanour, but not by that of the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). In the Opposition's wilder moments, military action has been suggested, which, as the hon. Member for Henley hinted, may play well in the saloon bars of Henley and East Devon, but which makes us a laughing stock in the real world.

Mr. Swire

I sought earlier to put the record straight. I was not arguing for military intervention in Zimbabwe, but pointing out its feasibility and disagreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley about that. It is disingenuous of the Minister to repeat what is not the truth.

Mr. Mullin

I was not entirely clear what the hon. Gentleman was suggesting, but he raised the possibility of military action and some of his colleagues, who are not present today, have also done so. I am pleased to hear that the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), after some hesitation, has confirmed to the Foreign Secretary that he, at least, is not proposing military action. I hope that we shall hear no more of such folly.

I have read the contributions of he hon. Member for Henley to The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph which, understandably, focus on the plight of white farmers whose land has been brutally and illegally expropriated. I do not want to minimise the plight of families such as the Bayleys, which he described so movingly, but, outrageous as it is, it pales into insignificance when compared with the plight of the hundreds of thousands of black farm workers and their families who worked on the appropriated white farms, many of whom face destitution and starvation.

Before I move on, I could perhaps make another point. The worst atrocities in Zimbabwe occurred not during the past two or three years, but during the early years of the Mugabe regime when his army slaughtered thousands of people in Matabeleland. It is a matter of record that the Government in power at that time were Conservative. It is also a matter of record that they had little or nothing to say on the subject. They were unable to summon even a tiny fraction of the outrage that they have managed to summon over the dispossession of white farmers. Indeed, I am told that Mugabe later registered his appreciation for the understanding that they had shown over the problem in Matabeleland. So let us have no more nonsense of the sort that we sometimes hear—not necessarily today—from Conservative Members about the Government walking by on the other side of the road.

I utterly refute the assertion that we do not take the situation in Zimbabwe seriously enough. That is manifestly not the case. We have lone as much as or more than any other country to draw the world's attention to what is happening in Zimbabwe. From the outset we have worked with the Commonwealth, the European Union, the United States and—most importantly—other countries in the region to isolate the ZANU-PF regime. We have helped to secure Commonwealth sanctions, EU sanctions and Zimbabwe's suspension from the International Monetary Fund. We will not support sanctions that make the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans any harder than they are at the moment. I assume that we can count on the Opposition to support that position.

EU sanctions, which include a travel ban, an asset freeze and an arms embargo, are targeted at the guilty rather than the innocent. In addition, on 6 June, the IMF suspended Zimbabwe's voting rights—the only time that that has happened to a country not involved in conflict. In effect, Mugabe has imposed his own sanctions on Zimbabwe. It has been suggested that sanctions should be extended to business people with alleged connections to ZANU-PF. The EU has so far not taken that step, but it remains an option that cannot be ruled out.

The hon. Members for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) and for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) suggested that we should move a resolution at the UN Security Council. Hon. Members will know that the UN Commission on Human Rights is the major forum for addressing human rights abuses. The EU, with the support of the UK, has proposed resolutions on Zimbabwe at the commission in each of the past two years. On both occasions the resolutions were lost to no-action motions. Of the 11 Security Council members on the commission this year, six—including all the African countries—supported no action. Hon. Members may find that frustrating, as do I, but if Zimbabwe's neighbours do not consider that its problems merit UN discussion, there is not the slightest chance of a draft resolution being passed by the Security Council, and even to propose one would be an own goal.

We are working closely with the South Africans, and it is right that they should have the lead role as they are, after all, in the front line. They are playing host to perhaps 1 million Zimbabwean refugees, so they are as aware as anybody of the ruin that Mugabe and ZANU-PF have brought upon Zimbabwe. They have as much interest as anybody in a peaceful transition to a stable and democratic Zimbabwe.

The South Africans have not been inactive. In May, the South African President together with the Presidents of Malawi and of Nigeria went to Harare to discuss with all parties the prospects for a peaceful transition. That dialogue continues; the Prime Minister saw President Mbeki yesterday who again confirmed that there are informal contacts between the Zimbabwean parties, some of which are mediated by the South Africans and some by church groups. President Bush saw President Mbeki on 9 July and noted that the US and South Africa share the same objectives and that he would not second guess President Mbeki, and I do not think that we ought to either.

Mr. Spring

That is an extremely important point, and we all agree that South Africa has a lead role. If President Mbeki is sponsoring those unofficial contacts, that is good. I hope that the Minister, through the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister, will make it absolutely clear that there should be no dialogue while physical persecution is directed against the MDC. There is no encouragement for the MDC to act while their lives and 1 hose of their families are at risk every day.

Mr. Mullin

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. There are some informal contacts, because I guess that some members of ZANU-PF know that the regime is ending. Not all of them approve of what has been going on over the years and they may be looking for an exit strategy. It is not unreasonable to suspect that informal contact is being made. It is in the interests of both parties, with a view to providing some kind of transitional Government prior to free elections. However, I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale that free elections must be the ultimate goal so that a new democratic regime can be installed.

Mr. Spring

The Minister has not addressed my central point. I accept what he says, but I merely pointed out that there is no basis for the MDC to have confidence in an ongoing dialogue if its supporters are subject to persecution. The British Government must say to our South African friends, who may be sponsoring the dialogue, that if it is to prosper, there must be a clear indication from Mugabe that he will stop the persecution.

Mr. Mullin

I do not want to speak for the MDC, which is on the front line: indeed, none of us should. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I would not encourage formal contact if persecution took place daily. However, such contacts are taking place informally, and I hope that they will be formal before long.

I will now say a word about the humanitarian crisis and our contribution to dealing with it. Last year we helped to feed more than 7 million Zimbabweans: this year we expect about 5.5 million to require food aid. In addition, about 35 per cent. of the population is HIV-infected. The UK Government have led the international response to the humanitarian crisis. We are the largest European bilateral aid donor and the second overall after the United States. We will continue to contribute significantly to humanitarian relief for the foreseeable future. It is not without irony that Britain and the United States—the two countries most regularly singled out for criticism by Mugabe—are doing more to feed his people than he is. In addition to feeding programmes, we maintain a substantial programme to tackle HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, and we expect to spend £26 million on the project over five years.

I will briefly touch on some points raised by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt). If I am not able to deal with all the points made, I will write to hon. Members. Like others, my hon. Friend asked about money laundering. If he or anyone else has evidence that Zimbabwean money is being laundered through the City of London, he should give it to us and we will pass it on to the Financial Services Authority—that point has been made to him before. We require evidence before we can proceed.

I agree that it is highly undesirable that Mugabe should be present at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and President Obasanjo of Nigeria, who is hosting the conference, is well aware of that and active on the subject. I will meet the Commonwealth secretary-general on Thursday, and we will undoubtedly discuss that issue.

The hon. Member for East Devon asked about pensioners. The fact is that many of those affected are not servants of the Crown. I am sorry if that argument is disappointing, and I understand he will be disappointed for those concerned. There is no obligation under the Lancaster House agreement, which the Government made clear at the time. The Government are responsible for paying the small number of colonial pensioners now resident in Zimbabwe, who were recruited by or on behalf of the Secretary of State for the Colonies to serve on expatriate terms. We also pay British state pensions to some British citizens living in Zimbabwe.

We do not think that it is safe for refugees to return to Zimbabwe. I am involved in discussions with the Home Office about the letter that has been distributed.

In conclusion, although it can sometimes be frustrating, we must work through international institutions and with our international partners. It would be absolute folly for the UK to act unilaterally, and the Zimbabwean opposition groups are not asking us to. On the contrary, they recognise, as most sensible people do, that unilateral action by the UK would play straight into the hands of Mugabe and his henchmen—he would like nothing better. Indeed, he never tires of trying to blame the problems of his country on Britain, and we should not provide him with a further excuse for doing so.

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