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Mr. Salmond: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is this travesty in order? It has absolutely nothing to do with the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is such a wide-ranging debate that, at the moment, the Minister's speech is in order.

Mr. Robertson: Therefore--if the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan is serious about the issues that he raised today, and serious in bringing them to the attention of the House and the Government--he will take this opportunity

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to disown the obscene and xenophobic filth produced by his party's youth wing. My right hon. Friend Secretary of State has challenged him on two occasions to dissociate himself from the remarks. I now give him a third opportunity, in the House, to dissociate himself from his party's youth wing and from that leaflet.

Mr. Salmond: I will give the Minister the opportunity to tell us what he will do about the 900-year history of feudal obligation in Scotland. What measure will be in the Government's legislative programme, and when will the Minister start addressing the issue instead of delivering his mindless abuse?

Mr. Robertson: It is now on the record, for the third time, that the hon. Gentleman will not dissociate himself from that leaflet, which, as I said, is nothing short of obscene, xenophobic and anti-English filth.

A great deal of nonsense has been talked about land ownership and management in Scotland. A landowner who does not live on his estate is not necessarily a bad manager of the land. There are those who enjoy harmonious relationships with their tenants and the local communities. Their estates are well-managed and are they able and willing to maintain and develop their estates and consequently continue to support or even expand local employment. Conversely, there are those who reside on their estates who may be less satisfactory landlords.

I repeat my belief that Scotland's system of land tenure and land ownership is flexible, resilient and capable of being adapted to meet the needs of the next century. The Government are committed to doing just that on the basis of advice from the Scottish Law Commission. We are also prepared to take direct action, where appropriate, to ensure that general policy on land ownership is adapted to meet the needs of particular areas of Scotland where the normal mechanism of the market is unlikely to work effectively. We have had a good debate, and I am confident that the Government have found the best way forward.

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World Poverty

11 am

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a sphere of policy and practice that is of the greatest concern to the Government, to many charitable organisations and to the overwhelming majority of people in Britain--our commitment to overseas aid and the initiatives that we are taking to relieve world poverty.

The timing of the debate could not have been more fortuitous, as we are at the time of year when my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor is doing his pre-Budget arithmetic and making difficult decisions about the best way to balance the many and inevitably competing priorities and demands on public expenditure. He will be seeking, quite rightly, to exercise the prudence for which he is renowned--from which our economy is now reaping the rewards--and to ensure that sound public finances are maintained, delivering sustainable growth and permanently low inflation.

Against that background, a hardy perennial feature of political life in Britain is that rumours about cuts to some key Government budgets and boosts to others abound. Civil servants--and others, I suspect--often set hares running to persuade campaigning groups to lobby on their behalf with at best speculative and at worst downright mischievous and misleading reports of reductions in spending on important elements of policy. Allegations that the axe is about to fall on overseas aid always seem to peak in October and early November. If those rumours had regularly proved accurate, our overseas aid budget would not be at its current substantial level.

This morning, we have the opportunity to raise the quality of the debate beyond rumour-mongering about the forthcoming Budget, to put on record the size and character of the overseas aid that the Government provide on behalf of the people of Britain, and to identify the principles against which the effectiveness of our aid programme should be assessed. We have the opportunity to make it clear that an effective overseas aid programme is about more than arguing about the amount of money that is spent on taxpayers' behalf: it is about making sure that our nation gives what it can to that important work, that those valuable, but inevitably scarce, resources are used by those who can derive the greatest benefit from them and that, where possible, the scope for abuse or waste is minimised.

I shall put on record the basic facts of our aid programme. The United Kingdom has, rightly, always been proud of the assistance that it makes available through official sources to people in other countries who are far less fortunate that us in economic terms. We maintain a substantial development assistance budget of £2,154 million in the current financial year. I do not deny that such spending was down in cash terms by about 5.4 per cent. on the previous year, but such a reduction was the inevitable result of the public clamour that we all witnessed for last year's Budget to concentrate resources on education, the national health service and the fight against crime. It is important to remember that expenditure on overseas aid can be committed only at a level that is sustainable by our economy and which takes into account public feeling on how different sectors of service provision should be prioritised.

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The overseas development aid budget, however, is planned to increase by £47 million to £2,201 million in 1997-98 and by a further £69 million to £2,270 million in 1998-99. That commitment makes the United Kingdom the world's sixth largest donor by volume, behind Japan, France, Germany, the United States and the Netherlands. The programme is recognised internationally not only in terms of its size, but in terms of its effectiveness, its focus on poverty and its emphasis on encouraging private sector involvement.

The British Government, on behalf of the British people, have signalled their commitment to move towards the United Nations recommended level of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product to be spent on overseas aid as soon as economic circumstances allow. Although we certainly have considerable progress to make in that direction from the 0.28 per cent. of gross national product that has so far been achieved, the House will note that average expenditure for all donors remains at about 0.27 per cent., and that, among the wealthier G7 nations, we devote a larger share of our GNP to aid than Japan, the United States and Italy.

One fact that is often overlooked is that the British people do not expect the Government to arrogate to themselves all responsibility for overseas aid. We have a proud tradition of voluntary giving to some of the world's best and most effective charitable agencies: Oxfam, CAFOD--the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development--and Christian Aid, to name but three. There are many more. Such voluntary giving means that individual donors can decide for themselves which projects to support and which causes to prioritise. In addition, individual contributions can be enhanced as a result of a provision that was introduced some time ago whereby the charity can claim back tax at the basic rate. For example, if someone donates £1,000, the charitable organisation can claim back tax at the basic rate, and so receive £1,240. That is a considerable advantage to charitable organisations.

Individuals can exercise the rights of, and fulfil the responsibilities laid upon, that informed Christian social conscience that has characterised our society for so many years and which, at least recently, seems to be making something of a comeback in the political popularity stakes.

The net effect of the tremendous amount of voluntary giving is that the United Kingdom exceeds the much less publicised United Nations target on total aid. United Kingdom combined private and official aid flow to developing countries exceeds the United Nations recommended level of 1 per cent. of GNP. That is a good news story to which we should give greater attention.

I seek an assurance from the Minister that, building on the past developments of the Overseas Development Administration, it will remain a clear policy priority that public official budgets do not subsume that most important voluntary element of our nation's giving.

We are rightly seeking to ensure that our overseas aid budget works constructively to support the development of sound democratic institutions free from corruption, to serve the needs of developing countries and to support the development of sound economies to increase prosperity and create more opportunities for British businesses.

The success of the British economy--the direct result of the Government's prudent economic management policies--has led to British private investment in

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developing countries being at a record level. The United Kingdom is the third largest source of private finance capital to the developing world. That means that British businesses and the British people are investing in the future of the world's poorer nations, enabling them to step on to the first rungs of the ladder of economic growth with confidence.

Our aid is well targeted: 75 per cent. of United Kingdom bilateral assistance goes to the poorest developing nations--well above the average for all donors. A substantial proportion of our bilateral programme is devoted to meeting the basic needs of the poorest communities--basic education, primary health care, mother and child health, nutrition, water and sanitation. Considering our record, there can be little doubt that the British overseas aid programme is among the most generous in the world and, more important, among the most effective.

There have been changes in the level of overseas aid funding and the way in which control over that expenditure is exercised. Whereas in the past we concentrated on bilateral aid programmes, there will be a continuing shift towards multilateral projects, particularly through the European Union and the United Nations.

Knowing my views on those two august bodies, my hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised to hear that I shall take this opportunity to seek some specific reassurances. First, those organisations, which are notoriously inefficient in administration and bureaucracy, must be forced to improve their efficiency and effectiveness to ensure that funds go to the needy, not to the administrative machine. Secondly, any corruption in official international agencies must be stamped out ruthlessly. Anyone found stealing from the mouths of the world's poorest people should be punished severely, no matter how senior their position. Thirdly, the international agency concerned should acknowledge the British contribution to its aid budgets in its dealings with recipient nations so that those benefiting from British generosity know that the British people have put their hands into their pockets, either through taxation or through voluntary donations.

In my experience, bilateral aid is often better targeted, more effective and more visibly British than multilateral projects. It gains more political and commercial credit for the United Kingdom, and is of more practical help to the recipients.

Despite my reservations, multilateral bodies will play an increasing role. For example, the work of the World bank in co-ordinating policy dialogue on economic reform is vital. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that, in charity work, small projects often deliver a better return on investment than grandiose schemes.

Many of the developing world's poor people live in countries with a policy and institutional framework that is not conducive to the rapid, broad-based growth and human development needed to make significant inroads into poverty. Many have suffered from civil conflict. To respond effectively to that challenge, we must take into account the relevant historical, cultural and social factors, as well as economic considerations, when designing and implementing poverty-reducing programmes.

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Recent World bank poverty assessments, which take into account the perspectives of poor people, have shown that, in addition to material deprivation, poverty includes social and geographical isolation, vulnerability to natural or man-made shocks and powerlessness. The ODA's poverty-focused development assistance seeks to tackle all those important issues. That will be achieved by giving more effective support to strengthen the capacity of institutions that work directly to extend economically and socially sustainable benefits to those sections of society with the greatest need and the least access. We must also support institutions that stimulate self-help and encourage the poor to take control of their lives to improve their living standards and quality of life.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure me that resources and energy will be concentrated on three areas: first, projects designed to influence and shape broader policies on direct poverty reduction; secondly, projects designed to enhance the capacity of poor people to stimulate effective responses from services, while enhancing the capacity of service deliverers to respond appropriately to the demands of poor people; thirdly, direct assistance in emergencies designed to save and protect livelihoods, support effective coping mechanisms and achieve a smoother return to long-term development.

In furthering such aims, my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues at the Foreign Office, with the Secretary of State for the Environment, have played an increasingly active international role, setting the lead. My right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development will shortly set out for the world food summit in Rome, the aim of which is to give new impetus to international discussions on food security to prevent starvation. The House will wish her well in seeking to take forward British aims to secure international policy on food security, to secure the full and efficient involvement of all the relevant United Nations and other organisations, and to build on the outcomes of previous summits.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear with me if I reiterate concerns that I have previously expressed in the House on such international summits and the way in which their agendas and conclusions are manipulated by others. I note with interest the understandable and growing opposition voiced by developing nations at the recent United Nations meeting in Istanbul, at which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment gave an inspiring address, rejecting the culture of negativity and death. I also note the reference made at the Rome meeting of the Committee on World Food Security to the unqualified promotion of the phrase "reproductive health", with its unfortunate connotations of abortion on demand according to the definitions provided by the World Health Organisation.

I am delighted that the texts agreed in Istanbul and Rome rejected the approach bulldozed through the United Nations World Conference on Women, which promoted abortion on demand--in the guise of reproductive health--as a human right. The G7 nations, the developing nations and the Muslim nations have rightly insisted on a formula linking the phrase "reproductive health" with the report and programme of action of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The Cairo document insisted on national sovereignty on abortion and that abortion was not to be promoted as a method of family planning.

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I seek the Minister's assurance this morning that this approach--rejecting definitions of reproductive health with connotations of abortion on demand--will be endorsed by the British Government at every opportunity. My hon. Friend must leave no stone unturned in the battle to prevent British taxpayers' money from being used to fund programmes in China that involve compulsory abortion and sterilisation, which must be repugnant to all right-thinking people.

I am concerned at the growing acceptance in the Foreign Office of the mantra that any link between aid and trade is contrary to Britain's interests. I know that many expensive reports on the matter from the Treasury, the ODA and Touche Ross have argued that tying aid is counter-productive, but I remain to be convinced by that argument. If we could rely on all other donor nations--both in theory and, more important, in practice--to untie entirely their aid budgets, the free market thus created might on balance create marginally more opportunities for British businesses than it destroys.

We know from experience that, when it comes to shifts in international practice, the United Kingdom will lead the way, while others will lag behind or fail to move at all. As a result, British businesses will lose out. In other words, we live in a practical world, and we must ensure that our competitors and partners live up to what they say. I see no reason in principle why aid and trade should not be linked where it is in Britain's interests so to do, provided that the effectiveness of the aid programme itself is not compromised. In short, if British taxpayers' money is to be used to buy vehicles, it should be used to buy vehicles from Land Rover rather than from Mercedes-Benz. I do not need to tell the House that the product would be better and its cost lower, or that the benefit to the recipient nations and the British economy would be greater. I do not think that anyone can argue with that.

I have sought this morning to highlight a number of important principles and to put on record a number of key facts. Above all, I hope that I have created an opportunity to raise the quality of debate on overseas aid in a manner that will help the House. It might assist my hon. Friend the Minister if, in closing, I summarised by saying that we have a record on overseas aid of which the United Kingdom can be rightly proud, but we must seek to improve on it as economic conditions allow. We must continue to ensure that aid is carefully targeted to those who need it most, and we must resist the move away from bilateral to multilateral projects. We must use aid programmes to enhance democracy and encourage sound economies, and we must stamp out waste and corruption in international organisations.

We must reject abuses in the aid budget to fund the spread of abortion, and we must move away from tying aid to trade only when we are satisfied that other countries will--in practice as well as in platitude--do the same. Words are cheap, but actions always speak far louder.

In my short speech, I have attempted to highlight how the action taken by the United Kingdom to aid the poorest countries in the world and those far less fortunate than ourselves speaks volumes. We must continue to build on our excellent record.


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