Benn aims to stamp out corruption

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Indy Politics

The scandal of children dying in Iraqi hospitals because of a lack of equipment that costs just 95p drew a pledge of action from a cabinet minister.

Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, said that the graphic details in yesterday's Independent of how children were dying in Iraqi hospitals for the lack of equipment such as oxygen masks for babies made "very sobering reading".

He admitted that there were "problems" over the "weak" financial control of the development funds, which were meant to go into hospitals in Iraq. Mr Benn promised to act to stop the money meant for health care being lost through incompetence or corruption.

The plight of the thousands of children who are dying in Iraqi hospitals was raised by nearly 100 doctors in the UK who signed an open letter to the Prime Minister. They accused Britain and the US as the occupying powers of breaking the Geneva conventions on humanitarian care.

The doctors called for action to halt the deaths of more children by pouring in $2bn (£1bn), which they say has disappeared from the Iraqi health service.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the allegations would be taken seriously by Downing Street and a reply would be made to the doctors.

In a letter to The Independent today, Mr Benn said that the Government is raising their concerns with the Iraqi authority. The Development Fund for Iraq, paid for by Iraqi petroleum export sales, is run by the Iraqi government, he said.

"They have sole control over how these funds are managed and spent. It is overseen by an expert committee appointed by the government to ensure that oil revenues are governed transparently and for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

"The most recent international audit of the Fund, however, highlighted a number of problems, including weak financial controls in some parts of the Iraqi government."

But Mr Benn, who is running for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party when John Prescott steps down with Tony Blair, said the single most important thing that would help Iraq's children now would be to end the violence. He said that Saddam Hussein's regime was the cause of terrible the conditions. The decline in health indicators for Iraq meant that it was comparable with some of the poorest countries in Africa.

Last night an expert in international law who also signed the letter said the UK could be guilty of war crimes under the Geneva Conventions because of the lack of proper treatment for children. "A case can be made ... that in relation to Iraqi children in hospitals during that period grave breaches of the Geneva Convention IV were committed," Bill Bowring, a professor of law at Birkbeck College, said.