HC Deb 08 June 2004 vol 422 cc1-22WH

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

9.30 am
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab)

I have to say that there has been quite a wait for this debate. I first applied for it in January, which was the second anniversary of the end of almost 11 years of fighting. Unfortunately, the lottery system that we have for such things—I am not complaining about it, but simply placing the matter on the record—meant that there was a six-month delay before I was finally lucky enough to have my name pulled out of the hat.

My desire for the debate arose partly as a result of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation visit to Sierra Leone from 10 to 17 November 2003. The delegation included my hon. Friends the Members for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), Lord Freeman and Lord McColl of Dulwich. I pay tribute to the delegation, because we had an extremely action-packed programme, and it was sometimes a little difficult to get to every place, but we all stayed good-tempered and had extremely good relations with everyone we met.

I should also thank the CPA staff in this country, who, in liaison with the Sierra Leone CPA and other bodies, organised an excellent programme for us. Likewise, I thank the Sierra Leone parliamentary staff; the Speaker, Justice Edward Cowan MP; and the acting Speaker—the Speaker was away for part of our visit—Elizabeth Alpha-Lavalie MP. Finally, I thank the Clerk of the Parliament, Mr. Joseph Carpenter, and all his staff—three parliamentary Clerks were with us for the whole of our visit.

Our visit was absolutely outstanding. The programme that was arranged for us—several changes were made to it as we were preparing for the visit—was absolutely impressive. If Sierra Leone can work with others in the same way that people there worked with us, the road to success is virtually certain.

Let me quickly run through our programme. Interestingly, many of our visits were called courtesy calls. One would imagine that a courtesy call would be a matter of, "Hello. Nice to meet you. How are you? Thank you for sparing a bit of time for us." However, each visit involved quite an intensive discussion of the problems facing Sierra Leone or a particular Department. Everywhere, there w is appreciation for the role that the British Government are playing in helping Sierra Leone on the road to recovery.

The delegation had a briefing with the High Commission. We had a substantial meeting with President Kabbah, followed by visits to the truth and reconciliation commission and the registrar of the United Nations special court. We met representatives of the army and went to the Horton academy, where great work is being done with the Sierra Leone armed forces. We went to the Milton Margai college of education and technology, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone and to the Guma Valley Water Company, which supplies water for Freetown.

We also visited the British Council, which was excited about a major refurbishment that was about to begin—it was the first for 30 or more years. This week, I received a letter saying that the refurbishment was virtually completed. The British Council is working closely with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to help strengthen and develop civic society, and it is playing a vital role. The Department for International Development and other Departments need to look a bit more closely at how they can support the British Council's work.

We then met Members of Parliament and talked about human rights in Sierra Leone. We had quite a debate about the world scene. I leave all that to hon. Members' imagination.

We visited a secondary school, the Prince of Wales school, and a major Sierra Leone company, Shankerdas, to see how it was doing. We saw a limb-fitting enterprise in Aberdeen village in Freetown. We made a call on the police and the chief justice. We went on an extensive tour of projects run by the national association for social action and reconstruction in and around Freetown. We also went to a place called Bumbuna, the site of a major hydroelectric project that was almost finished at the start of the war, to see what more needed to be done to bring it on stream and provide power for Freetown and many villages along the route to Freetown.

We had a little free time, but even that had an association with the future of Sierra Leone. On the Sunday we went to Lakka beach. Of course, questions arose about tourism and what could be done to make Sierra Leone a tourist destination and earn it many dollars. We had an exciting evening with the Sierra Leone national dancing troupe—again, arranged through the British Council. We saw a preview of the show that the troupe put on for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nigeria. Our programme was action-packed.

Of course, visitors to the country see the legacy of war immediately, in the number of people on the streets of Freetown who are without arms or legs or are in wheelchairs. One is aware not only of the 75,000 or more people who died during the fighting but the thousands whose lives were wrecked by the disfigurement of the loss or arms or legs, or sometimes both.

A peace was made in January 2002. We were impressed by the huge effort of reconciliation and the forgiveness that is being shown in Sierra Leone, towards reconstructing the country and avoiding war in future. At the Aberdeen limb-fitting centre it was amazing to see the dedication of the staff, and the way in which people who had suffered in the war were trying to get on with their lives.

We are aware, too, of the huge importance of international aid for Sierra Leone, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. Part of the purpose of the visit was to discover how aid could be a basis on which Sierra Leone could generate its own wealth, and escape the vicious circle of poverty and aid that seems to be a permanent aspect of the existence of many African countries.

From the evidence of our visit and of the six or seven months since, I would say that so far the recovery has been successful. I do not say that problems do not remain. There are still massive problems. The Government in this country say that things are getting better, but there is much more to do. However, in Sierra Leone that is true, multiplied by 100 or even 1,000.

One reason why I feel that we can speak of success in Sierra Leone is that there has been peace for more than two years. In May 2002 successful, peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections were held, in which the opposition accepted the outcome even though they were disappointed with it. Everything has gone well. I was pleased, having feared that change was occurring too quickly. In the presidential and parliamentary elections, the Sierra Leone People's party virtually swept the board. President Kabbah had a huge majority and that of his party was overwhelming—akin to that of the Labour party here.

Although I do not think that this will happen in the United Kingdom on Thursday, it was interesting that in the local government elections—which went ahead successfully, so far as I could see; there was not a single item in the British press about them—while the governing party won convincingly outside Freetown, inside Freetown, where about 40 per cent. of the population live, the Opposition won the day. Although the Government are not too keen on it, that is a healthy step in the development of democracy in Sierra Leone. There was no news in the newspapers—in a sense, that was good—and I did not receive any faxes or phone calls from the politicians I know saying, "It is terrible, the electoral commission is fixing the election and the government are influencing it." It is clear that the elections were free and fair. That is another step on the road to successful recovery.

What elements did we consider to be important? The first thing that struck me was what I would call stability, although I note that last July, when President Kabbah was here and gave a speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society, he focused on national security. The two are linked—one needs stability; that is the basis for a continuing peace and for people's hopes for prosperity.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman at this early stage. He made an important point about the local elections being free and fair. In so far as that is so, it is extremely welcome, and I appreciate the importance that he attaches to it. However, is he aware of, and what thoughts does he have about, the report in the FreetownChronicle of 25 May, which says that the turnout in those elections was low? It went on to suggest that the elections were relatively badly organised, with candidates' names being put down for the wrong parties and so on. I do not cavil at the success of the elections in terms of freeness and fairness, but has the hon. Gentleman any concern on that front?

Mr. Griffiths

Local government elections generally have a poor turnout; I am not sure what the turnout was there. Let me take the opportunity to say something about the press in Freetown—I am not sure what happens elsewhere. The press in Freetown is thriving, and some elements of it might be regarded, particularly by the Government, as rather scurrilous. Nevertheless, it is allowed freedom of expression and there is no doubt that the paper that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is concerned about strengthening democracy.

There might have been problems, and they might have been accurately reflected in the report that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. However, consider this: in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections, I had several phone calls and faxes asking me to look at A, B and C. I contacted the National Electoral Commission and tried to help however I could to deal with the problems. During the local government elections, I did not receive a single fax or phone call from any of the parties expressing concern about how things were going. I accept that there might be criticisms of the nature that the hon. Gentleman has described, but overall, the people it Sierra Leone were pleased that the local elections happened as they did.

On the issue of stability and the Government's confidence in the whole process, the support that we are giving through UNAMSIL is due to be drawn down by December. We discussed how easy that might be, particularly with countries like Liberia, and others a little further away such as Guinea and the Ivory Coast that still have an element of instability. Of course, it was the Liberian incursion into Sierra Leone that started the whole terrible process.

We had the feeling that UNAMSIL was aware of the need for flexibility. We are trying to create armed forces and a police force that can operate in a democracy, especially as they have been operating for many years in a free-for-all and have no real concept of how to work in a democracy. We were there when the Horton academy opened; there, the international military advisory and training team will provide invaluable training for officers in the Sierra Leone army on how to work in a democracy. Indeed, the vast of majority of the team—98 of its 114 members—are British officers. We stepped in on a group involved in an interesting conversation about some of the moral issues that people involved in the civil war had to deal with, and how such people should be treated in places such as the United Nations special court.

A lot of investment in stability is going on. The Sierra Leone truth and reconciliation commission, whom we met, is due to report this year. I have not yet seen its report; it had hoped to publish by the beginning of the year. Interestingly, it was also going to produce a report aimed at children, because so many children suffered in the war and were dragged directly into the fighting. I shall be interested to see that report. I imagine that the process will be rather like what happened in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela.

There is some controversy about whether there should be a United Nations special court. As it is voluntarily funded, it has not been able to match the heavy expenditure of some of the other special courts. The United Kingdom has given about £500,000 out of a £3.5 million budget to the court, but people were still concerned that it might not be sufficiently funded to try the nine to 11 people who were likely to be brought before it. However, I understand that that has now been done; perhaps that can be confirmed this morning.

We also met the chief justice. A major programme of law reform is being funded by international institutions and the British Government. That is important, as it gives the people of Sierra Leone the feeling that justice will be delivered in their country; the fact that there will be good governance is another part of that important process. In particular, corruption should be eliminated. There is an anti-corruption commission, and there have been new judicial appointments, including judges from the United Kingdom. Although I have not heard any reports lately, it appeared at the time of our visit that the process of dealing with corruption had begun to speed up. People were being investigated, and their cases were coming to court.

It is not connected with the fact that I had this debate, but I was interested to receive an e-mail from Victor Sylver, the editor of theSierra Herald in Freetown. He raised the issue of corruption in the context of something that the Americans have done, which I regard as rather odd. On 25 May, the Americans announced that there would be visa bars for corrupt officials in Sierra Leone. Some had already been placed on the list due to their corrupt practices, but the Americans were not going to tell the Sierra Leone Government who those people were. They were also looking at additional cases. Getting on the list did not require a conviction for corruption; the United States Government just had to have a reasonable belief that the officials were corrupt.

The editor of theSierra Herald, Victor Sylver, has expressed concern that we are not using sufficient strength to tackle corruption. and asks that our Government play a more proactive part in dealing with corruption. He thinks that there are about 300 corrupt officials in the system; however, that is only his guess. There is the important issue of whether our Government could speak to the Americans to try to ensure that the process is a bit more open. That might help to speed up the tackling of corruption in Sierry. Leone. Certainly, President Kabbah, in his speech to the Royal Commonweath Society, attached great importance to dealing with the problem.

On economic management, the record so far looks pretty good: there has been 6 to 7 per cent. growth in the past two years; inflation has remained relatively low; and agricultural production is up by about 6 per cent. The Government have a national recovery strategy and a poverty reduction strategy. Also, there is a partnership between the Department for International Development and the Sierra Leone Government. That long-term partnership for development has within it benchmarks and checks, and hard work is being done on it. I would like the Minister to comment on what he thinks is the longer-term future of British aid to Sierra Leone, because in 2002—03 there was a dip in aid spending. I will be interested to see what happens in future. There is also a privatisation programme, in which British advice is being given—I hope that none of the advisers had anything to do with Railtrack—and there are priorities for economic development.

Diamonds are obviously seen as being very important for the Sierra Leone Government. They want to make sure that they are producing clear diamonds that go through official channels, so that tax can be collected and Government programmes for redevelopment can go ahead. I was interested to read an article by Peter Penfold inThe World Today. It dates back to April 2002, just before the elections. He ventured to say that diamonds need not be seen as critical to the future of Sierra Leone. He mentioned its fertile soil, mineral resources, rice production, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, the fishing off its coast, and the oil deposits that are currently being explored. There is also the potential to develop the Mano River Union—bringing Guinea and Liberia into an economic union—and to exploit rutile deposits. With such natural resources, Sierra Leone has an excellent chance to recover.

Towards the end of his article, Peter Penfold said:

In Sierra Leone, Di Wor Don Don",

as they would say in Freetown. He transmutes that into his English:

The flames of conflict have been extinguished, but the embers are still warm and the wood remains tinder dry. More than two years after that article, I think that we can say that we have overcome the worst problems to do with the reignition of fighting in Sierra Leone, and that things are going well.

We visited the Shankerdas factory, which is run by a Sierra Leone company. We were all impressed by the commitment of the owner to investing, despite the fact that much of the factory had been destroyed in the war. He gives a good example of having the confidence to invest in Sierra Leone, which British industry should take on board. There is the recently formed UK-Sierra Leone business forum, in which Lord Freeman has played a critical role. At the beginning of this year, we had a visit from the vice-president of Sierra Leone, Solomon Berewa, underlining his Government's commitment to get foreign investment—in particular, British investment—into the country.

A small company anxious to develop a significant project in Sierra Leone raised an issue with me recently. It found that when it made its first approaches to DFID, no one told it about the African infrastructure fund, which is organised by the Standard Bank but officially supported and sponsored by DFID. The company found out about the fund only through a meeting with a DTI official, and it will receive significant help for the project that it wants to develop.

The company also found that no one in the United Kingdom trade and industry body, which exists to help companies to invest abroad, had specific responsibility for Africa. I know from my work on Indonesia that there is certainly a consultant in that body with specific responsibilities for Indonesia and south-east Asia. This company felt that it needed someone, but that the DTI in its view of the world outside does not have a specific person with responsibilities for Africa. It would help if it did.

The small company also found that, although there was general advice and assistance, unlike in other countries, the Government did not stand by or give direct help and support to get its project off the ground. In the United Kingdom, the Government stand by and support both companies in the UK and companies investing in the UK in those areas that require special help. They are almost like sponsors if they think that a project is good. However, the company has found that it has not been given the extra hands-on help that other countries provide for their small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government could usefully look at that.

In infrastructure terms, we went to see the Bumbuna hydroelectric project, which was 95 per cent. completed when the civil war started. It now looks as though the Italian Government will provide the additional support to get that project off the ground, which will make significant improvements in providing the power needed not just for households but for economic development. Guma valley is a fantastic setting for the reservoir that supplies Freetown. Additional projects have also been spoken about because of the way in which Freetown is growing. I hope that we look at that again.

Besides all the natural resources and physical infrastructure are the personal resources. We visited Milton Margai college and a secondary school. When we consider that teachers and lecturers wait months for their salaries, and that it is incredibly difficult for children to afford to go to school, we should remind ourselves of people's commitment and determination to succeed. We have pulled back a little from secondary and university-type education funding and have focused on primary education, although I am pleased to say that all children in Sierra Leone now have access to such education.

I conclude by quoting from an early-day motion that I tabled after the successful presidential elections. It gained 400 signatures, which is the second highest ever in the history of Parliament; it is a tribute to Sierra Leone that so many hon. Members signed it. The motion was That this House…looks forward to the new Government of President Kabbah extending democracy to local government, rooting out corruption, promoting freedom justice and prosperity with continuing international support for the rebuilding and renewal of the Sierra Leone economy and civic society; praises the opposition parties for committing themselves to the democratic process and looks forward to them playing an effective role in Parliament and in helping to strengthen civic society. All that is happening to some extent, and my best wishes go to the Sierra Leone Government and our own Government as they provide continuing assistance to make that a success.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members wishing to speak should bear it in mind that the wind-ups should start no later than 10.30 am.

10 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has done us all a service in persistently balloting for this debate and giving us an opportunity to comment on Sierra Leone. As the Register of Members' Interests shows, I am still a practising member of the Bar. I am now joint head of my chambers, and we are proud that President Kabbah was formerly a member of our chambers.

My predecessor as head of chambers, Desmond Da Silva, is prosecuting the war crimes in Sierra Leone. His connections go back a long time; many years ago he defended President Kabbah in a treason trial in Freetown. It is appropriate that Desmond should be prosecuting war crimes in Freetown now.

The war crimes were horrific. The hon. Member for Bridgend gave a summary of them. What happened during the years of conflict in Sierra Leone was horrific, and the indictment goes to many pages. It is important that a clear signal should go out to the world that those responsible for war crimes, whether perpetrated in Rwanda, the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone or wherever, will be brought to justice.

I have a concern, which I have raised in the House before, about the most serious indictment against Taylor, who has been given asylum in Nigeria. I understand the realpolitik of getting him out of Liberia, but there is a valid UN indictment against him. I hope that the Nigerian Government will find an appropriate time in the future to ensure that Taylor stands trial in Freetown. After all, all of us who support the Commission for Africa and the New Partnership for Africa's Development put great store on peer review. Nigeria is a leading member of the Commonwealth and one of the architects of NEPAD. If peer review does not work to bring Taylor to justice—if Nigeria does not ensure that he is brought to justice—that would be a great sadness. No one in Sierra Leone will feel fully safe until Taylor is brought to trial.

I am slightly more pessimistic than the hon. Member for Bridgend, and that may be because I had the opportunity of travelling outside Freetown. Sometimes we underestimate the impact of the war on Sierra Leone. I do not gainsay anything that the hon. Gentleman said. However, we must recognise that Sierra Leone is right down at the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme leagues of development.

The conflict led to two things. First, it led to double migration. There was substantial migration from the countryside—the rural areas—into Freetown. People with initiative and get-up-and-go, got up and went to Freetown. That has meant that there is little leadership left in the countryside. I was fortunate enough to spend several days on an island south of Sierra Leone called Bonthe. I am patron of a small non-governmental organisation caller Friends of Africa, which has provided funding for two community bakeries and a new fishing boat in Bonthe; many of the fishing boats were destroyed.

Bonthe was really prosperous in years gone by. It produced large amounts of rice, palm oil, piassava—the material from which brooms are made—and coconuts. The Wellesbourne research station helped with the development of a particular sort of coconut. There is no agricultural production in Bonthe at present, but the area is fertile and can produce large amounts of rice. I suspect that one of the reasons why the Opposition parties have done so well in the Freetown local elections is that the cost of rice there has been at record levels recently—the highest that it has ever been. That is because Sierra Leone is having to import rice; that is a crazy situation.

Leadership is not something that one can just whistle up. However, I suggest to the Minister that perhaps we ought to engage with non-governmental organisations such as Farm Africa to see what can be done in the countryside in Sierra Leone to get agriculture moving again. I asked a taxi driver in Freetown where he came from. He told me that he was a tractor driver in Bonthe. There are no tractors left in Bonthe and it has no electricity. The power station has gone, as has the infrastructure. The only people showing any real leadership are the Members of Parliament, many of whom are very impressive. I mean no criticism by that; the people have gone through a terrible war.

There has been another migration from Freetown to the UK and to Baltimore in the United States. The Select Committee is carrying out an inquiry into migration development, and held a fascinating meeting, organised by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), with the Sierra Leonean diaspora in Southwark town hall. One of the things that we want to understand better is the work and the role of diasporas in development.

I do not know the size of the Under-Secretary's private office. I suspect that he has four or five people working for him. He has three or four officials here today. I do not criticise that. That is fine; the Cabinet Office is a huge Department. I suggest, however, that he visits Solomon Berewa, the Vice-President of Sierra Leone, who has one Secretary. That is no criticism of Solomon Berewa; it is simply the resource that is available. The burdens on him, on President Kabbah and on other Ministers are phenomenal. They desperately need officials who can help to formulate policy. The Department for International Development will soon move to budget control, but all that we require is people to write the cheques. We should be training all these good officials to help to develop policy elsewhere. I have other thoughts on the matter, which I shall express another time.

We should think about the possibility of a fund to help to recruit Sierra Leoneans in London and in Maryland who would like to return to Sierra Leone to help to rebuild it but who, in the intervening years of conflict, have taken on obligations here such as mortgages, families and schooling commitments, and would be reluctant to return to earn the money that one can earn as a civil servant in Sierra Leone, but who have a great amount to offer to their country.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is making a series of interesting and original observations. Given the importance of leadership by example, is he politely suggesting that the Under-Secretary should second at least half his private office to Sierra Leone so that it can do the sort of work that he has in mind?

Tony Baldry

I was not being quite as mischievous as that. Rather, I was saying that vie in Whitehall are privileged to have some very able civil servants. Indeed, I believe that DFID has the highest number of fast-stream entrants in the civil set vice. The Under-Secretary's private office has about four times the resource available to the Vice-President of Sierra Leone. It sometimes falls badly from our mouths and the mouths of colleagues in the US to make allegations about corruption when often there is not corruption but gross inefficiency born out of a lack of resource. How can one or two people be expected to grapple with the policy issues of a whole country?

In an earlier incarnation as a junior Minister, I was privileged to help to privatise the electricity industry. I know how complex these things are. The privatisation bureau in Freetown simply will not work with a tiny number of staff. Perhaps we could think of ways of encouraging by financial means members of the Sierra Leonean community in this country, without financial prejudice to themselves, to return to Sierra Leone to help to rebuild it in key areas of public policy with a shortage of skilled resource.

Diamonds were the root cause of the conflict. Notwithstanding the best efforts of many—not least of President Kabbah—Sierra Leone is still receiving far too little of the proceeds of diamond wealth. It has some of the best diamonds in the world. It is suggested that a 3 per cent. tax should be levied. That is a tiny amount, but if it were levied on all diamonds, it would make a huge difference to the income of the Sierra Leonean Government. We must address this issue. DFID has been working hard on the development of a new diamond code and new systems, but we cannot be allowed to fall back to a system where outside influences simply spirit the diamonds over the borders into Liberia and other neighbouring countries.

One of the reasons that there was great pressure for a war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone—I suspect that the Sierra Leoneans, left on their own, would have preferred a truth and reconciliation commission, as in South Africa—was that when people started trying to find the bank accounts for al-Qaeda, they could not. One of the reasons was that al-Qaeda had been using a lot of conflict diamonds for arms sales and other sales. Conflict diamonds are easily transportable and one does not require bank accounts. In these days of heavy regulation and heavy money laundering, diamonds are moveable. We have to encourage a system in Sierra Leone where there is transparency about diamond sales and where more of the proceeds of the sale of diamonds go to the benefit of the people of Sierra Leone.

I know that DFID is on a watershed as far as Sierra Leone is concerned. It did excellent work in the post conflict period. That involved a great deal of work helping ex-militia members to do worthwhile jobs—rather like the community service programme in the UK—and a lot of repair to the immediate infrastructure. DFID has now to decide whether it will move to budgetary support and which bits of the economy it will support by way of budget help. I suspect that it will be a case of different countries providing support—for example, Italy supporting electricity. I want to recommend two areas that I hope that DFID might support.

There was much destruction in the schools. Rebel troops had used schools throughout the countryside as headquarters and many school buildings were destroyed. Non-governmental organisations such as Plan International have done excellent work, but the schooling system has been devastated. One of the consequences of people not going to school in a country such as Sierra Leone is that people fall back on their own language. English is a great—excuse the oxymoron—lingua franca in Sierra Leone. It brings people together, and gives them access to the outside world. If people do not have the opportunity to get to school they are cut off, not only from the outside world but from the other parts of Sierra Leone. It is a disuniting feature. I hope that we can think in terms of offering budgetary support for education in Sierra Leone.

The other area of concern is primary health. Sierra Leone is an unaccompanied post for Foreign Office officials. Why? It is considered unsafe by the FCO for wives and children to go to Sierra Leone, not because of rebels or the dangers of muggings on the street, but simply because of the lack of basic health care, even in Freetown. At the moment, the international community is supported by a field hospital run by the Jordanians, which will probably pull out when the UN peacekeeping troops start to run down. Frankly, outside Freetown, if anyone gets sick, they die. It is as simple as that—they die. If there are any complications—gallstones, any slight problems—there are not the medical resources to deal with them.

The EU has built a number of clinics around the country, so the physical buildings are there. However, one day I spent some time resting in a clinic because the car in which I was travelling had broken down. There is no kit, no equipment, no drugs and no support. Some very good ladies are working as community midwives, but there is no support.

I would make the following requests to the Government and the Minister. First, so far as war crimes are concerned, the job will not be complete until Taylor is brought to trial. We have to recognise that there has been a considerable movement of leadership from the countryside to Freetown and from Freetown to the rest of the world. We need to think of ways to reinforce civil society and the machinery of government in Sierra Leone. We need to give thought to how we will give budgetary support to health and to education, and to how we will ensure that the wealth of Sierra Leone—primarily diamond wealth—is used to the benefit of the people of Sierra Leone and is not ripped off for the benefit of others in other parts of the world, who make no contribution to the people of Sierra Leone.

10.14 am
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)

I would like to start by thanking the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for organising an excellent and worthwhile visit. I particularly want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) who was assiduous and tireless in keeping us together and focused on the job in hand. That was done with good humour and we formed a positive and friendly group. He is right to put a positive approach on our findings in Sierra Leone, because it is a country that is emerging from a horrendous anti vile conflict. Until the embers and difficulties from that finally start to be put to rest, it is tough to put together an emerging democracy that will go places and will capitalise on the immense wealth and potential that there is in that country.

I believe that the satisfactory conclusions of the recent local elections bode well and that there is an overwhelming determination among all people in civic life to ensure that they do not descend back into civil war. Without that determination it is difficult to be hopeful. Wherever we went, whether it was to see the emerging police force, the schools or the colleges or to the rural areas in Bumbuna, the determination not to return to that situation was evident. That is a hopeful sign.

Following some work that I had been doing earlier last year with the British Council in Malawi, I was interested to look at the work being done by the 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone. I was impressed at the way in which Sierra Leone and the 50/50 Group, which, for those who do not know, aims to get 50:50 gender representation in most areas of democracy and public life, are going about it.

In a debate about at the international role of women, which I think took place in March in Westminster Hall, I used the example of Sierra Leone and what we were hearing from the ministry that is responsible for economic affairs about its policy on grants and small loans for small businesses. It was increasingly focusing on small businesses and small agricultural concerns that were headed by women or run by a co-operative group of women in local communities. It said that in that way there was far more certainty that the grant or small loan would be put towards growing the vegetables or towards making the clothes or textiles for the community for which the money was sought and, indeed, that the loans would be repaid. Therefore, it now has a conscious policy of working through small businesses that are headed by women. The meal that we had at one of the best restaurants in Freetown, which was mentioned in our report, was a tribute to how successful some of those small businesses are.

The restaurant was run by a member and key organiser of the 50/50 Group. That group has produced a good Sierra Leone women's manifesto. Some of the proposals took me back to the work that we have done in this place on the post-conflict situation in Northern Ireland. I will quote a couple of those that relate to peace-building. It urged its Government

to include at least 30 percent. of women in all Peace Missions and conflict management teams. That took us into the detail of quotas. In addition it wanted them to train both women and men in mediation, lobbying and negotiation skills.

We saw some of that in the peace and reconciliation movement that was taking place. Similarly, in the move towards democracy, the parties are taking steps to include more women candidates in the elections. I have not heard what the results of the local elections are in terms of gender representation, but if anyone has those figures, I would be interested to find out. We also all felt that we should pay tribute to the work of the British Council and Mr. Rajiv Bendre, who was doing a superb job.

My main point is about the value and sustainability of democracy. I was left concerned that, in a country where resources for anything in the public sector are so scarce, democracy is underfunded. The way in which Sierra Leone Members of Parliament were struggling with the resource side of their jobs was risky to say the least. Such a situation can so easily lapse into corruption and a lowering of esteem among the population. When we were planning to visit the half-finished hydroelectric project at Bumbuna, the woman MP who was hosting the trip said, "I'll have to leave the day before, of course, because although I may have the opportunity of a ride in the official Land Rover today, normally I have to use public transport, which might take one or two days". We have problems going to and from our constituencies, but we are not crowded on to buses for two days.

I came away feeling that the difficulties, hardships and problems faced by the elected representatives whom we met in the Parliament there were massive. I urge the Minister to take on board the point about finance, both in relation to the Government's own funding and in consultation with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the British Council and any other bodies that are there actively to support such work. Funding should not just go into salaries—they are very low indeed—but into the resources available to Members of Parliament and local councils.

Mr. Win Griffiths

May I add something? My point has nothing to do with the physical movement of people around the country, but the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in association with the National Democratic Institute, is developing an internet resource for Members of Parliament in Sierra Leone.

Helen Jackson

Yes, I appreciate that point. As many Members there told us, training programmes in how to make best use of resources and link them with offices in constituencies are an absolute must.

We also discovered that an understanding of both NEPAD and the overall policies for Africa were not filtering through to ordinary parliamentarians there. The parliamentarians whom we met made very little mention of HIV/AIDS, although the problem is not so acute there as it is in sub-Saharan Africa. On those two issues, I wondered whether there were not positive signs for the future, including the increasing importance of the Economic Community of West African States—ECOWAS—and the regional element of government in Africa as a whole, in improving the infrastructure of democracy. People may say, "It's bureaucracy and a waste of money". However, in an emerging continent such as Africa, such programmes are not a waste of money and are a way of making progress, rather than reverting to civil war or corruption. Our Government and DFID rightly place great emphasis on good governance, but the seeds of corruption are laid when public expectation is much greater than the politicians' capacity to deliver. The politicians then look for other means of maintaining their status within their communities, which can lead them down the road of lining their pockets, giving jobs to their families and so forth.

Huge resources were rightly going into the development of the police and the security forces in order to solidify the move towards democracy. I agree with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that they now need to be linked more closely with the democratic process and to start to be matched by the necessary investment in the public service sector—the education and health services. Most of all, it is important to recognise and pay tribute to the huge determination that is being shown by the elected representatives and the people in all areas of civic government throughout Sierra Leone to make a go of things and to take the country forward to prosperity— well, prosperity is perhaps a long time in the future for them, but a little more prosperity is something that they can aim for and achieve.

10.27 am
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD)

I thank the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for securing the debate. This is riot the first time that he has kept Sierra Leone on the agenda in this place. Unlike him, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), although I have been to a number of African countries I have never been to Sierra Leone, so I will bow to their expertise and first-hand experience.

The nightmare that has been lived through by the old and young in that country has left many scars, both physical and emotional, and it will take years for them to heal, if they ever do. Sierra Leone is a country with a long and tragic history that stretches back to the slave trade. The flow of slavery was reversed in 1787 when freed slaves were returned to Sierra Leone. Thousands of liberated slaves made their way to Freetown, and many stayed there. It became one of Britain's first colonies in west Africa.

That history is important. Other African nations lost their youngest, strongest and best to slavery. One would have hoped that Sierra Leone, where the reverse effectively happened, would be different from those other African nations, which have ended up with long civil wars. The people have experienced the worst of human nature because they were the victims of slavery and they must have relished plans for the start of a new life in a new country, yet that was not the case. Crimes against mankind have been committed in Sierra Leone, bringing the country close to hell on earth, with executions, amputations of limbs, ears and lips, mass rapes and more.

The story of the boy soldiers sums up the tragedy of Sierra Leone. I recently read about one 12-year-old boy who said:

The rebels told me to join them, but I said no. Then they killed my smaller brother. I changed my mind. The rebels trained me for a month. They gave me an AK47. I was good at using the guns. The first time we went out on patrol, we attacked a village and we killed so many people. I don't know how many people I killed, because I was just shooting. I couldn't see anything. They just told me to shoot. He also said that they always gave him blood to drink before he went into battle, and that they encouraged him to kill people. There are stories of children being injected with cocaine before they carried out their roles as soldiers. That is not a childhood; no child should start life like that. We must do what we can to ensure that Sierra Leone puts the past behind it and moves on to the future. With that start in life for some, what hope is there for a future?

I share the optimism of the hon. Member for Bridgend. We must all have hope for the future, or we would we give up. That applies to parliamentarians, including those in the Department for International Development and the Government generally, as well as non-governmental organisations—many NGOs are doing good work out there—the EU and the UN. We must keep the flickering flame of hope alive and hope that it will burn brighter for those who were child soldiers, so that when they put down their guns they can play in the sunshine like children anywhere else in the world.

The history of the country and its civil war is important, because what is happening now in Sierra Leone is a direct result of that. Much attention has been paid to the special court—the first war crime tribunal to sit in the country—but many are asking whether the guilty will get away with murder. I certainly hope that they will not. If the tribunal is to deliver justice, and the chief prosecutor, David Crane, is to deliver what Sierra Leoneans expect, there must be full and open trials. They should be no less than we would expect here, or anywhere else in the world.

If many people continue to go hungry and without clean drinking water or basic education while money is being spent on justice, the court will have even more to prove, because those with aching stomachs and no shelter at night want to see that the money has been well spent. With a budget of $85 million, and having been four years in the planning, it must now get on with the job. The UN has a lot riding on the court: war criminals must not go unpunished.

While the court gets on with the job, those involved in the judicial process are taking a real risk with their personal security. We should pay tribute to them, and hope that they remain safe throughout the process. What can the Government do to help to ensure that adequate security is maintained for those people so close to the end of the process, which must be effective and thorough?

Is it true that only 13 people have been indicted and that only nine are in custody after one of the greatest human tragedies of all time? After 11 horrendous years of violence, what can our Government do to bring all those responsible to justice?

The nightmare that was the reality for the people of Sierra Leone unfolded over 11 years and is well documented, yet, to some degree. it is forgotten by many. I have said many times in this House that it takes television news crews to make a difference because, try as we might in this place to keep an issue on the agenda, nothing does it better than having an image on TV. Fifteen years on from Tiananmen square, who can forget the image of the student standing in front of a tank? Why was there so little coverage of the trouble in Sierra Leone? It was not so much forgotten by the west as never really given the appropriate volume of coverage. It may well be that the news crews were in Kosovo at that time, where battles were being fought over human rights violations and the systematic killing of an entire race by the Serbian-led army of Milosevic. Whatever the reason, few cameras followed the struggle in Sierra Leone, where the same human rights violations were occurring in the most depraved of ways over long periods of time.

Sadly, more and more of those who obtain such images for our newspapers and television screens pay an ever-increasing price. On Sunday BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers paid with his life. We wish his colleague, who is critically ill, a speedy recovery.

There are still too few images of Sierra Leone on our televisions, but, hopefully, the world will become more aware of what is happening there, so that the court can not only do its job, but be effective enough to ensure that this is the last time that Sierra Leone experiences anything like its recent past. Although some of the main culprits are dead, others such as the former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, who is exiled in Nigeria, must be brought to justice. What is being done to put pressure on countries that can help to ensure that Charles Taylor and others are brought to justice?

The UK and the UN deserve credit for their involvement in Sierra Leone, which has been a success, but it is time to support that success with peace and security. Can the Minister detail any future plans to train forces to support democracy in Sierra Leone? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has reaffirmed Lib-Dem support for U K Government action on a number of occasions. A well trained police force is as vital as trained armed forces. Will the Minister say what future plans he has for continuing with police training in Sierra Leone?

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned AIDS. It is true that the percentage of people suffering from HIV and AIDS in Sierra Leone is not yet as high as in other sub-Saharan countries, but there is always a risk of the increasing prevalence of AIDS. Once a country gets back on to its feet, mobility and transport increase, people have more disposable income, move around more and ate more economically active, so there is a danger that HIV and AIDS will spread. Education is the key to stop that happening. If our Government, through DFID and NGOs, can support educational projects to teach people how best to avoid AIDs, it will be money well spent.

Has DFID assessed the food aid requirement for Sierra Leone? As the hon. Member for Banbury said, there is the capacity dramatically to increase production in the country, but it has not been used often. Basic support, like basic technology, can make a huge difference. The same is true of the mining industry, which stopped completely in some areas of the country during the civil war. What support is available to get the mining industry up and running and avoid corruption as the income starts to flow? Sierra Leone has been working with other countries through the Mano River Union, but that needs to get back on track and be revitalised so that the hope and optimism can be turned into reality for the people.

UNICEF's humanitarian action document reveals that only 35 per cent. of the requested funds have materialised. By a December 2003, only $4.4 million of the $12.4 million was received. What can our Government do to help UNICEF achieve its funding target? The scale of the problems facing Sierra Leone is daunting. About 70,000 people died as a result of 11 years of civil war. Another harrowing fact is that every year approximately 100,000 children die from immunisable diseases—malaria, measles and so on. During the civil war, almost 3 million children died. Funding for health must be a priority, and within that must come access to clean drinking water, which is only available to about 40 per cent. of the population and is urgently needed.

Sierra Leone has suffered too much in the past. We must play our part co help its children have a peaceful future.

10.38 am
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

I begin by warmly congratulating the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), both on his persistence in seeking to secure the debate and on the compelling speech that he made on introducing it. Similarly, I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who made a characteristically thoughtful contribution to the debate, and the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), for developing some of the key features of the problems facing Sierra Leone.

As all who have attended the debate will know, the fighting in Sierra Leone has been savage. The human rights violations that took place during the civil war are as mind-boggling as those that have been witnessed in any country in the world. The damage to the country's infrastructure and its population has been immense. The challenge of change and reconstruction is monumental and urgent. I shall focus on a number of specific points, to highlight the issues for the Minister, in the hope of a useful, informative response.

First, the Under-Secretary will know that his Department is committing £5 million over three years to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation; it is mentioned in its 2004 annual report. That project is important to Sierra Leone, because it supplies affordable agricultural technology to African farmers. The economy of Sierra Leone and the people generally would greatly benefit from a rejuvenated agricultural sector. Can the hon. Gentleman offer some indication of the output so far achieved as a result of the welcome input that his Department has made on that front?

Secondly, the Department funds a community reintegration project to provide employment for ex-combatants and to resettle internally displaced persons, while rebuilding essential infrastructure in the Port Loco and Kambia districts. I think that I am right in saying that that project has now been running for three years. It is an important project, and its purposes are laudable. It would be useful to us arid to others outside to know the Minister's assessment of what progress has been made through that project.

Thirdly, I am concerned to know what assessment the Minister has made of the law development project. At the heart of the country's problems are the phenomena of lawlessness and corruption, and an absence of the transparency that we take for granted as a necessary condition for a healthy, functioning democracy. The objective of improving and strengthening the country's legal institutions, which is supported by DFID, is of the first importance. What can the Minister tell us about progress in that respect?

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury made an important point when he said that the absence of schooling in substantial parts of the country was effectively a force for fragmentation—and, at its worst, for disintegration. Health, too, is important. My hon. Friend spoke about primary health care, and a number of those hon. Members who referred to the importance of the fight against AIDS acknowledged that the problem was not a pandemic on the scale found in other countries, notably in sub-Saharan Africa. It is important to focus also on malaria in Sierra Leone.

The Minister will be aware that Médecins Sans Frontières has urged donor countries to help Sierra Leone introduce new drugs in order to overcome local resistance to traditional malaria treatments. The disease has reached a truly critical stage in the country, and whatever the Minister can tell us about his Department's efforts on that front would be of interest to all hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West referred to the need to train the police. He was right to do so. The reality is that the Sierra Leone police force is fundamentally weak. It has too few personnel; it suffers from inadequate funding; and, to date, it has received relatively poor training. That is a problem for the force, but more of a problem for the population. If the force is thought to be weak, fragmented and under-trained, it will not be able to deter potential civil uprisings, and it will be poorly equipped to cope. Again, whatever reassurance the Minister can offer on the scale of Britain's contribution to the force would be of interest.

The Minister will be aware that as many as 66,000 Liberian refugees remain in Sierra Leone, predominantly in eight camps in the south-east of the country. Returning those refugees safely to Liberia is crucial to the internal politics of the country and to the regional picture. What can the Minister tell us on that front?

I endorse what a number of hon. Members said about the importance of eventually extraditing and indicting Charles Taylor, but I cannot improve on what has already been said. However, I flag up a couple of further points.

The Minister will know of the recommendations of the International Crisis Group, which is the beneficiary of direct financial support from his Department. He will know that the recommendations to the British Government and the Commonwealth include a reference to the importance of continuing to support the international Military Advisory and Training Team…by focusing attention on training to handle border areas and threats of incursion, champion high standards to keep unqualified 'political' candidates out of the armed forces, and help the armed forces reduce size and weed out unqualified soldiers and officers as well as remaining troublemakers. That is of the essence to the integrity of the reform process. What progress is being made on keeping unqualified "political" candidates out of the armed forces?

The Minister will know that the recommendations to donors urge the use of explicit benchmarks as the criteria for distributing…aid and, where necessary, for its periodic suspension. They also refer to the importance of securing demonstrations by officials that they are increasing their capacity to function independently…that accountability and transparency measures are in place

and that officials will stop funding projects until benchmarks are met. The recommendations go on to talk about the importance of assisting the government to create and implement new investment", advance "land ownership" and develop corporate laws to encourage international investors to return. Of all the practical steps that are important to sustaining and bolstering the country's movement towards democracy, prosperity and self-sufficiency, those must rank pretty high.

Solemn commitments have been entered into, and I am sure that work is being done to translate those important words into practice. However, the Minister will not be surprised to know that I would like a progress report and I would like it now.

10.47 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas)

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on securing the debate and on the assiduous way in which he continues to keep the issues facing the people of Sierra Leone on the agenda of the House. I also pay tribute to the contributions by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett). We have had an interesting and useful debate, which has covered the panoply of issues facing the people of Sierra Leone.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend that Sierra Leone has successfully emerged from conflict, although as the debate has clearly demonstrated, it has a long way to go down the development road. The two elections that have taken place since peace was successfully concluded and the end of the war was officially announced highlight that progress. In one case, the country held its first local elections since 1972—it had spent 30 years without democratically elected local government. That is an indication of the progress that has been made.

All parts of the country are now accessible, and, as we heard, the press and media are thriving. Furthermore, the international financial institutions are pleased with the economic management of the country.

The removal of Charles Taylor and the putting in place of a national transitional Government in Liberia have removed the main external threat to the security of Sierra Leone. Several hon. Members asked about Charles Taylor's trial before the special court in Freetown, and we continue to put pressure on the Government of Nigeria to return him to the court. As hon. Members have said, it would be a powerful demonstration of the process of reconciliation to bring to justice the people who were responsible for the atrocities that marked the 10 years of conflict. We continue to exert pressure to encourage the Nigerians to bring Charles Taylor to justice.

Britain is committed to Sierra Leone's long-term progress. There has been positive and successful cooperation between the British military and diplomats and those working in development. The 10-year memorandum of understanding signed at the end of 2002 demonstrates the UK's commitment to the longterm development of Sierra Leone. 'We have committed 120 million over the first three years of that memorandum of understanding. That does not include the considerable cost of the international military advisory and training team, nor our share of the costs to the UN mission in Sierra Leone. We remain committed to Sierra Leone because the success that has been achieved so far is fragile, as hon. Members have pointed out.

The key to building on the progress that has been made, as some hon Members have suggested, will be the development of an effective security sector that will be able to take over responsibility from the UN mission and British troops in the long term. The international military advisory and training team is working hard training the armed forces of Sierra Leone so that they can take over responsibility for the security of their country.

We have put substantial investment of £26 million into the Sierra Leonean police and are also working hard to support the development of a politically impartial intelligence system—again to support Sierra Leonean security needs. We also want to build capacity with respect to the Ministries responsible for security sector reform.

Hon. Members raised issues about the special court, which is also an essential part of the security process. The UK's strong support for the special court was demonstrated by the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State Mended its opening in March. We remain one of the main funders of the court, having put in a total of £6.6 million. There is funding for the court until the end of 2004. We shall keep the court's funding needs in view, given its importance to the process of reconciliation in Sierra Leone.

Several hon. Members were concerned about the capacity of government in its wider sense—the Parliament, the civil service, or local government. The remarks of the hon. Member for Banbury gave rise to an interesting suggestion, which may perhaps be attractive to members of my private office. More seriously, a series of measures is under way to try to deal with the capacity issues that the hon. Gentleman in particular alluded to. They are not unique to Sierra Leone. They are, unfortunately, a feature of countries emerging from conflict. Afghanistan comes to mind as experiencing something similar.

We are supporting a programme of civil service reform and training. Similar efforts are being led by the World Bank, with our support, to develop the capacity of local government. The local elections were the first part of the process of decentralising responsibility for government and helping with the provision of services such as education and health in rural communities and urban communities outside Freetown. However, we must clearly continue with the development of capacity.

The hon. Member for Banbury also alluded to the considerable difficulties facing the President and Vice-President. We have offered to support a programme of reorganisation and strengthening within several ministries, including the presidency and the vice-presidency. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough also referred to the capacity issues facing the Parliament. We are about to give support to a 30-month programme to support parliamentary committees so that they can hold the Sierra Leone Executive to account more effectively.

A number of hon. Members also referred to the considerable importance of minerals in Sierra Leone: one thinks not only of diamonds, which get all the headlines, but rutile, which is a key mineral. In that context, the re-establishment of Sierra Rutile is a welcome, albeit slow, sign of the country's increasingly encouraging economic development, and it will potentially offer scope for new jobs, which is also welcome.

The economic development of Sierra Leone is beginning to take off. The hon. Member for Bridgend alluded to the steady economic growth in the past two years. The Bumbuna project, which is now fully funded, will provide access to cheap electricity, which is a key precursor for the development of business. We are funding a consultant to consider the liberalisation of many state-owned enterprises to try to get them re-established and up and running. That will send positive signals about Sierra Leone's economic prospects.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way at this crucial point. He may come to this issue, but given the sterling work that has been done by the high commissioner in London to develop the Sierra Leone-UK business forum, has he anything to say about issues relating to the specific focus on Africa in the DTI and in UK trade?

Mr. Thomas

I was just about to welcome the fact that a Sierra Leone-UK business link has been established. The Birmingham chamber of commerce has already visited Sierra Leone to look at opportunities. The hon. Gentleman made a specific point about concerns identified by the one business with which he has had links. I will write to him about that.

The hon. Member for Banbury mentioned minerals, and specifically diamonds. A consultant is helping the Sierra Leone Government to develop a comprehensive strategy for diamonds. We are working on revising the legislation governing the diamond industry. Progress is being made. The revenue coming into Government funds from diamonds is steadily increasing. The sanctions on Sierra Leone diamonds have been lifted, because the export certification systems have been revised, are in place and are delivering more effective, transparent regimes. However, the Government must continue to speed up these improvements, and we are committed to supporting them in that process.

A number of hon. Members referred to corruption. It is interesting to note that a series of national surveys carried out in Sierra Leone have identified that the people view corruption as the single most important issue for the security of their country. The UK has been the leading donor supporting the fight against corruption through the Anti-Corruption Commission. We are working with the Commonwealth secretariat to try to establish a number of expatriate judges to deal with the backlog of corruption cases and put in place a prosecutor who can deal with corruption and specialise in it in the long term.

Crucially, later this year we expect to see the publication of a poverty reduction strategy, which has taken a bit longer to surface into the light of day than we wanted. That strategy offers the Government of Sierra Leone an opportunity to set out for its people how they will deal with the education and health needs referred to by the hon. Member for Banbury and other hon. Members. We do not work specifically on education and health, but other donors do. We will review what we are doing in the light of the poverty reduction strategy. We will work to encourage all donors to align themselves with it, so that we can make sure that all the issues identified in the strategy are properly addressed.

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