Former Shadow Cabinet member Nigel Evans (right) posed a question on AIDS in Africa. This issue has been given prominence recently following the Pope's assertion that condoms could make the AIDS crisis worse.
Mr Evans asked:
"Antiretroviral drugs are rightly being made more affordable and generally more available, thanks to the support of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Education is vital important, and we should be focusing some of our attention on prevention. What discussions has the Minister held with his opposite numbers about ensuring that education is made available so that the message about how people can avoid getting HIV in the first place can be communicated, and particularly about trucking routes in some countries, such as India, and in Africa?
Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The new American Administration’s recent announcement about removing some of the ideological and philosophical barriers that prevented us from engaging internationally on prevention and education presents an opportunity for the world community to come together and make a greater impact. We have announced an unprecedented commitment of £1 billion for the global fund and £6 billion to strengthen health systems, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must look innovatively and imaginatively—perhaps through community leaders, faith group networks, informal networks and peer influence—at educating populations in every country. We have to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that we get across the strongest conceivable message about HIV/AIDS. I also believe that the South Africans’ change in policy will significantly help us in Africa."
Gary Streeter has held the International Development brief in the past. He asked a bold question on the same subject:
"The Minister, to his credit, is known for his outspokenness. Will he make sure that his international counterparts recognise that confronting the dreadful disease that is HIV/AIDS is not just about access to drugs and condoms, important though those things are? If we are to tackle this disease, we must confront, head-on, the true cause: men behaving in a sexually promiscuous manner in too many countries throughout Africa and elsewhere. Will he impress upon his counterparts the fact that issues of public awareness and education are vital if we are to get under the skin of this disease?
The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the important issue of the role of women in society, and highlights the fact that the way in which men in many developing countries see relationships is a major part of the problem. In that sense, we need strong political leadership to make clear the appropriate role of women in society and to empower women in local communities. We must make it clear that we give them the opportunity to fight for their rights. We also need a very clear zero-tolerance approach to violence against women to be enshrined in developing countries’ legislation."
David Evennett - Bexleyheath and Crayford MP and Shadow Minister for Innovation, Skills and Universities – asked about flooding in Guyana:
"In 2005, floods caused economic damage to 60 per cent. of Guyana’s GDP as a result of changing weather patterns. What is being done to help the poorest developing countries to adapt to the effect of changing weather patterns and climate change?
Mr. Thomas: We are working with a range of developing countries, including Guyana. The Department is not only providing resources directly through its bilateral budgets but is working closely with international organisations such as the World Bank. We are providing a number of developing countries with staff with expertise who will be able to help them to develop their own strategies for tackling climate change."
Hugo Swire (yet another former Shadow Cabinet member) was incredulous at the Secretary of State's assertion that:
"When I was in Gaza recently, I took the opportunity to discuss with John Ging, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency there, concerns about the misappropriation of any aid resources. He was able to assure me that at the point at which we met the supplies were getting through, and that we had robust monitoring mechanisms and continue to do so."
Mr Swire said he had heard differently:
"I am slightly surprised to hear the Secretary of State say that when he was in Gaza the head of UNRWA, John Ging, said that supplies were getting through, because that is not what he said to me when I was in Gaza recently, nor what he said to a cross-party group in this very place yesterday afternoon. He did say that UNRWA is unable to go about its business in Gaza because of a lack of armoured vehicles. He also said that UNRWA was chronically underfunded. Given that this country pledged £47 million at the outset of the crisis—very little of which has got into Gaza—will the Secretary of State now show some leadership by talking to the Israelis to insist that UNRWA armoured vehicles get through to Gaza?
Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension following my previous answer. The point that I was making about John Ging was that he was clear that the aid that he was supervising was getting through to the people of Gaza who required it and was not being misappropriated by Hamas. Consistent with the position that the British Government have taken, John Ging—speaking on behalf of UNRWA—has very deep concerns about the range of items being allowed through the crossings and into Gaza.
When I visited Gaza, I took the opportunity to meet Isaac Herzog, the Israeli Social Affairs Minister, and press directly the case about the armoured vehicles and the wide range of items that are not being allowed to enter Gaza. Only as recently as yesterday, those efforts were reinforced by one of my colleague Ministers who made the point again directly to Isaac Herzog. Of course, a new coalition is emerging in Israeli politics. Let us hope that the dialogue that we have begun in recent weeks—although it has not achieved what we would all wish to see—makes more progress in the weeks ahead than it has done so far."
Shadow DFID Minister Mark Lancaster wanted to know about the role of NGOs in Gaza:
"The Secretary of State will be aware of growing concerns in the NGO community about the apparent contradiction between EU and UK law on whether NGOs can continue to support public officials such as teachers and nurses. Will the Secretary of State offer some clarity and confirm that British NGOs will be able to continue to provide vital services in Gaza without the fear of prosecution under EU law?
Mr. Alexander: The position that the British Government have adopted for some time has not changed. We urge the agencies involved to maintain the greatest possible distance from Hamas. We recognise that there might be circumstances in which there is proximity within Gaza, given Hamas’s present role, but none the less we are clear that those mechanisms that I have spoken of already need to be upheld. We need to be able to offer assurances to the British people that the aid to which they have generously contributed is not being misused and misappropriated."
Shadow DFID Secretary Andrew Mitchell asked about the delay in funding for an airport in St Helena (a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic Ocean:
"Is the Minister aware of the view across the House that the Government are guilty of a breach of faith and of dithering in their handling of this matter? What will the new consultation tell him that he does not already know from the past nine years of this process?
Mr. Foster: I do not recognise the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the consultation exercise, but I look forward to reading his contribution—and perhaps that of his constituents on the Falcon Lodge estate in Sutton Coldfield, for instance—to see whether they think that it is right, in the current economic circumstances, to spend the amount of money that is being considered on an airport for St. Helena.
Mr. Mitchell: Does the Minister not understand that Ministers’ handling of this matter has been shameful, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), the respected former Foreign Office Minister, has eloquently explained? The people of St. Helena are British citizens, so do we not have a duty to them to resolve this issue? Is not it time that he and his colleagues got a grip?
Mr. Foster: At a time of global downturn, we are talking about 50 million people around the world being unemployed. An extra 90 million people will earn less than $1.25 a day, and it is expected that an extra 3 million children will die as a result of the global downturn. We have to take all those circumstances into account when making a decision about spending the amount of money that we are talking about on an airport for St. Helena."
And so the session ended with a story on Labour spending cuts!