International Questions: Darfur

International Questions today before PMQs – and I go in on Darfur:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Secretary of State has just said that pressure was important. Bashir’s agreement for the deployment of the force does not come into effect until 2008, so has the Secretary of State considered using the international spotlight on China, owing to the Olympics, as leverage to encourage China to use its influence with Khartoum to end the genocide and stop Darfuris being killed between now and when Bashir may or may not allow troops to be deployed in 2008?

Hilary Benn: We certainly have encouraged China and all members of the Security Council and other nations to play their part in encouraging the Government of Sudan to do the right thing. I welcome the fact that the Chinese have now appointed a special envoy, Liu Guijin. That, plus the effort made by China in November when we had the meeting in Addis Ababa, chaired by Kofi Annan, which came up with the proposals for the hybrid force that have now been agreed by the Government of Sudan, demonstrates that China has taken a greater interest in trying to play a part. But the truth is that every single country has a responsibility to do more and to use all the influence that it has, including, if required, the threat of sanctions, to ensure that fine words are turned into action, because action is what is needed.

So – he didn’t really answer the key point – whether the Government has the guts to apply the screws to get China to help focus Bashir’s mind on delivering on his promises – and earlier than he wants.

International issues: water and Darfur

Water, water everywhere – but not where it’s needed. Speaking for the Liberal Democrats in the Water and Sanitation in Developing Countries debate in Parliament yesterday, I went on two main themes: firstly that at some point in the future there will be a major war (or wars) over water. Water wars will dominate the next decades as scarce supply send millions into migratory patterns in the developing world.

There are 263 rivers that cross borders – and as the supply shortens the temptation for countries to divert a river their way and cut off the river from another country will become greater and greater.

Back in 1997 the UK sponsored a UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Waterways – which basically put rules around this tinderbox issue to prevent the looming disasters that would arise as countries fought for access to scarce supply. Ten years on – the UK has not ratified the Convention. I asked Hilary Benn when it would be done. He failed to answer – albeit he said that I raised a truly important point. One has to wonder if it was that important – why has Labour failed to see this through?

Second issue I pursued was on the funding we give to the PPIAF (a public private group that is supposed to deliver infrastructure projects in the developing world). I had previously question Benn in Parliament as to why we were funding this organisation as Norway had withdrawn because its projects kept failing. Benn had answered that some projects fail and some succeed – and he would take a look at it. Clearly – no progress had been made by the debate today as he once again simply re-iterated that some projects succeed some fail.

Personally, given the level of funding with tax from our hard-earned wages you would think he would be a little more careful and caring about the effectiveness of that spend. Italy too has now withdrawn.

Later same day – we had a debate on Darfur. For the most part all speakers wrung our hands and demanded instant deployment of the AU / UN troops, a no-fly zone, targeted sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes and some suggestions that China is being pretty damn brave – propping up and supporting the Sudanese Government (thereby perpetuating and paying for the killing fields) when the Beijing Olympics are coming down the track!

We will see what action is taken at the G8 as we are all fed up with fine words as genocide continues unabated.

How should the President of the World Bank be selected?

The World Bank President site has picked up on my exchange in Parliament with Labour minister Hilary Benn on this topic. Given the huge powers that the World Bank has, it’s President should be appointed in an open-way – and based on the merits of the candidates. It’s too important a job to dish out on buggins turn regardless of who could do it best.

Teachers Without Borders: update

Thought this might be a useful point at which to update progress on my ‘Teachers Without Borders’ campaign. It’s the Liberal Democrat proposal to make education to part of the humanitarian response to disasters and crises – and something that Save the Children have put at the forefront of their campaigning this year.

Affectionately now called the ‘Ed Cross’ – as it is to some extent an education version of the Red Cross – I have had a pretty good response from people emailing in via the website.

Basically there was a real welcome for the idea. There was some debate about whether it needed teachers and teaching skills as opposed to other sorts of skills. Some concerns were raised about the importance of having sustainable solutions – and just a short burst of teaching – and also not being colonial in our approach.

I have to say that the whole idea is to form part of the humanitarian response and is about filling the gap while local services are put (back) in place with local personnel. Many like the idea of this being an international force, where member states can supply volunteers to be deployed. Some suggestions were made that it would work best via the big five NGOs, who already coordinate their own humanitarian responses well when they need to spring into action. I’ve lobbied Hilary Benn (the minister) on this and got positive responses. Also pleasantly surprised by how many teachers said they would wish to go. All in all, a very good start and more consultation with NGOs to come.

Water supplies in the developing world

Water pipeInternational Development Questions and I have a go at Hilary Benn over water supply in the developing world.

Norway has withdrawn its funding to the Private Partnership International Advisory Facility because its water projects (which involve introducing private companies into the supply of water) keep failing and it is widely criticised – not surprisingly.

Given that the UK also funds the PPIAF I asked Hilary if we would be following Norway’s lead? Professing no preference for private, state or voluntary providers so long as stuff gets delivered, Hilary did then offer to look into the issue I had raised. Well I hope he does – as the point was exactly that – what is getting delivered for our public money? We wouldn’t want it to be water down the drain – or actually – no water down the drain.

The Doha trade talks: my first question time

Today was the first International Development Questions since I’ve taken over as the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. The ways the questions work is that there is a list of questions that will be orally asked of the International Development Secretary of State or his Ministers and they are published on what is called the Order Paper. We precede Prime Ministers’ Questions and have half an hour for questions and answers.

Each question on the Order Paper is answered by the Minister or Secretary – and then the author of the oral question can ask one supplementary, and also other people can join in. As Shadow Secretary of State – I get called by Mr Speaker to chip in on any question on the Order Paper that I choose – but with such a time limit it would be risky not to go on one of the first three questions as it can be quite a long time on one question if there are a lot of people standing to catch Mr Speaker’s eye.

I decided to come in on Question 3 on the Doha Trade talks:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)
There have recently been warm words from Europe and America about reinvigorating the Doha talks, but I am not convinced that there is any real political will behind that. It was certainly not at the top of the agenda of the President’s “State of the Union” speech last night. What new and different steps has the Secretary of State taken recently to break the inertia and take advantage of the different political landscape that now exists in the American Congress?

Mr. Thomas
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment as shadow Secretary of State for International Development. Let me repeat what I have said in response to earlier questions. The EC representative, Peter Mandelson, has taken part in constructive discussions, as did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his visit to the United States just before Christmas. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry held useful and productive discussions with their Indian counterparts last week, and we continue to talk to our allies in Europe with the aim of advancing the EC’s position further.

There are signs of progress, but we still have some way to go. Obviously we need to do more to lock down the deal which, as I think is recognised by Members in all parts of the House, is fundamental if developing countries are to make the progress that we all want in order to achieve the millennium development goals.

We are also after the Government over the BAe scandal (dropping of corruption inquiry by Labour). Hilary Benn is the ministerial champion for combatting international corruption. So we asked him whether he had been consulted by the Government over their decision to drop the prosecution. No – said Hilary – they hadn’t consulted him and that was OK because they did not need to. Now if I were Hilary I would be livid to not be consulted. We (my colleague Martin Horwood more accurately) were then hoping to get called in PMQs that followed so that he could then ask Tony Blair why he hadn’t consulted his champion for combatting corruption – but sadly – Mr Speaker again failed to call a single LibDem on a supplementary. He hasn’t called one this year!

A busy day

I went to the Save Community Hospitals’ lobby in Westminster Hall yesterday. In Haringey we are not so much trying to save a hospital and get a new one on the site of the old one – which wasn’t saved!

I also had Question 4 on the order paper in Foreign Affairs Questions.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)
What recent assessment she has made of developments in the situation in Darfur; and if she will make a statement.

Margaret Beckett (Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office)
President Bashir has now accepted UN support for AMIS—the African Union Mission in Sudan—and has allowed the first UN military personnel into Darfur. That is important, but it is only the first step. We urge the Government of Sudan, the UN and the African Union to work for full implementation of the joint support package and an urgent resumption of the political process. All sides need to observe the ceasefire, too, particularly the Government of Sudan, who have been bombing the rebels, as that is vital for progress on the humanitarian front.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply, but has a timeline been developed for the United Nations and the African Union to be on the ground? At what point will that protection start to be provided for people in Darfur?

Margaret Beckett (Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office)
There are three stages to the deployment: first, light support, in which 180 personnel, 34 of whom have already arrived, are expected to be involved; secondly, heavy support; and, finally, the establishment of a full hybrid African Union and United Nations force. There is no specific timescale, but everyone who wishes the position in Darfur to improve is anxious that as many of those people as possible should be deployed as soon as possible, and that is something for which we are all working.

Ironically, had had to move my meeting with Secretary of State for International Development from 3pm because of the question. It’s like a ballot – so until a couple of days before you have no idea that the question you have tabled has been selected. Anyway – Hilary Benn’s office were very accommodating and moved the meeting which had been initiated by Hilary as a meet and greet me in my new role.

I went to DFID unarmed. Having heard tell that Hilary Benn doesn’t have an enemy in the world, I judged it safe. Which meant I found myself not just with Hilary as I had expected – but with four of his key aides. Five to one! The first thing you notice is that it is nothing like the Home Office – they are nice and civilised. I think in the year and a half I was on the front bench for Home Affairs – Tony McNulty (Labour’s equivalent) only said hello about twice!

Anyway – we had a chat about the Department and the work they carry out. I look forward to working with him – as we say.

Then it was straight on to Haringey Civic Centre for the presentation by the four bidders for the new school to be built in my constituency. This is one of those insane Government forced bids to bring in an Academy. Boroughs of all political persuasions have seen these privately sponsored new schools take over. I suppose the original idea was enabling the Government to intervene where schools were failing and the LEA was appalling (understandable).

However, this is about businesses really getting hold of Government funding. Listening to the four bids – from a variety of sponsors – it was clear that there was very little to guide one as to which one would deliver exactly what. The crying shame – and actually complete travesty – was the lack of real people at the meeting. There were the bidders, the councillors, some heads, the press – but only six (other) members of the community.

So one has to wonder about Haringey’s efforts to publicise the event (not much). Gail Engert (Lib Dem Education Spokesperson) asked that they consider a better-advertised second meeting. The consultation period needs to be longer and there is a problem with the timing of the decision – which is going to be in the Easter holidays. That is not good – as people can come and present to the decision making meeting – but at that time lots of people are away.

And of course – home to watch Big Brother. This has turned political as a Labour member has tabled an EDM. I am not sure that is the way forward in this case. If there is anything that has broken our laws – then it is really a police matter. However, I am not sure whether it is that clear that it would result in a successful prosecution. It is more the bullying by a gang of girls on one who is different. I can only assume they were jealous of her and because she is posh and classy (as well as non-white) they focused their nastiness on her difference.

I wonder if their punishment won’t be ending up pariahs when they come out. If only the world was that fair!!!

Hilary Benn for leader?

Labour’s continuing leadership problems have made me think about who I would pick to succeed Blair. Hilary Benn would be my man. No enemies (that I know of) but more importantly a new sort of leader – one with a genuine manner and devoid of the Blair-style demeanour that is soooooo yesterday. That will be Cameron’s problem – he is emulating a past the country is getting fed up with. Benn could supply an ideal heritage transmuted to fit a modern agenda. Perhaps that way could lie Labour renewal. Perhaps it is not really for me to intrude on private grief – but it certainly is gripping.

More basic, four and a half hours yesterday of surgery, meeting residents individually about their particular issues. It always serves to remind me of the parade of problems and challenges that never seem to lessen. After which I had my regular meeting with Cllr George Meehan, leader of Haringey Council. I had a raft of issues to raise with him:

– an update on CPZs: there will now be a second phase of consultation, where they discount the roads that didn’t want a CPZ and go back and consult with those that did.

– Noel Park Recreation Ground delays – suffice to say that the poor children have had the summer without their play equipment replaced (it was taken away during building work of a new children’s’ centre and not replaced). I had categorical assurances from the Council about finish dates that were never met. Anyway – I now have the update which promises that the work will be finished by the end of the month.

– I raised the issue of the astronomical amounts of money paid in Housing Benefit for temporary accommodation. I have had two recent cases where the tenant has been placed in quite frankly unliveable one bedroom accommodation (with man, wife and child) at a cost of around £400 per week – and this in areas where normally even in the private market you wouldn’t pay more than £200 I reckon. I know there’s a premium because of the supposed short tenure – but inevitably a temporary placement for 20 days turns into months and sometimes year. Factor that up – and the costs are unbelievable. And it keeps the people who are meant to be helped with benefits in poverty as with that high price of rent they often can’t afford a job because they would then lose so much in housing benefits that they wouldn’t be able to afford to carry on paying the rent. There are some moves to make it possible to place tenants in the private sector – but I think this needs looking at. Some landlords are raking it – and it’s not as if they are taking a risk – as the rent is paid by the state!

– business recycling is next on my list. Businesses are largely untouched by recycling – so I have ‘called on’ George to look into it. In fact, as the Council has decided (controversially) to take back recycling under their own auspices – this is an ideal moment to push home the Lib Dem campaign to introduce business recycling into the borough. And while I was at it – I lobbied for bigger recycling boxes (again)!

– I also raised some issues about the Chocolate Factory with him – but more about that later.

– and last, but not least, I have offered (as the Council hasn’t used me yet) to lobby on behalf of the Council at Parliamentary level. As I had flagged this up on the agenda prior to our meeting, George had one ready for me – the cost of asylum seekers to this borough – or more accurately to get the Government to fund the deficit between spend and available government grant. Will do. In a borough like Haringey (and when I talk to colleagues from other parts of the country who rarely see an asylum case – you can see how uneven the destinations are) we happily have more than our share of the asylum seekers who come to London – but we should not have to bear those extra costs and pressures without full Government assistance.

Last meeting of the day is with Richard Sumray about Hornsey Hospital. Once again Richard stated his commitment to the project and the Primary Care Trust of which he is Chair is hosting a public meeting on 13th. I am stirring a campaign to coincide with this with the view to adding pressure and enthusiasm to support a bid for funding. A bid is being prepared – and I think we need to go for it big time. But we will hear the detail publicly next Wednesday.