Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.1 pm

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): I join in the genuine congratulations to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) on securing this debate and on her diligence is pursuing the issue, although we are not in agreement on every point.

This has been a summer of change in overseas development. I pay genuine and warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) who has done a sterling and splendid job not only as a Front-Bench spokesman on overseas development but in a lifetime of political service: she is a model and inspiration to us all.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) to her new post as principal Opposition spokesman on overseas development. She is with Baroness Chalker at the moment at an Action Aid launch. People have already realised that she brings her usual dynamism to her new portfolio; in the past couple of weeks she has raised the profile of development almost single-handedly and, as the Americans say, "We ain't seen nothing yet."

I welcome the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to his new position as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Government have made a good appointment and I am optimistic for his future, short-term though it may be in office. As a Scotsman from East Kilbride, he will bring good sense and intelligence to his new responsibility. The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) has undergone an even more spectacular change and we welcome him to our side of the House, where he seems much more at home.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1190

At the Tory party conference a great deal was heard about opportunities--with the catch phrase "opportunities for all"--but lost opportunities would be a more appropriate description of the past 17 years. As some of my hon. Friends have said, the lost opportunities both at home and abroad could stand as a fitting epitaph for the Government.

Morality, we hear, is high on the Government's agenda. The real morality of the Government on the issue that we are discussing will be judged later this month, when, as the hon. Member for Congleton said, we get the results of the public expenditure round. I fear that there will be yet another cut in overseas development, at the same time as the Government continue to offer more tax cuts to the privileged of this country. To reduce inheritance tax for the rich while assistance to the poorest both at home and abroad is cut further is typical of the Government's lack of morality.

It is unacceptable to live with such huge inequalities within and between nations. Those inequalities breed poverty, disease, suffering and conflict, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) said. We in the Labour movement believe that morality consists in ensuring that people throughout the world have their basic rights upheld.

What are those basic rights? They are the basic right to food, when 800 million people do not get enough food every day; the basic right to water, when 1.3 billion people lack access to safe drinking water; and the basic right to a home, when 27 million people have fled their homes as refugees and a further 15 million are displaced within their own countries. Those are the rights and that is the morality that we want from the Government. That is where the opportunity and the challenge lie for the British aid programme--a programme which can and should make a difference.

Opportunities abound for Britain, which retains a privileged position in international institutions: we are a member of G7 and of the Commonwealth, and we have a place on the boards of the International Monetary Fund and the World bank. Labour will institute a change in the World bank and appoint an executive director who is an expert in development rather than in finance. The IMF's structural adjustment criteria for the developing world seem almost designed to increase rather than to reduce poverty in the developing world.

The Government are losing the opportunities that their position gives to influence responses to poverty. They have ideal springboards for action, another of which is a permanent seat on the Security Council, which allows us to play a significant role in the United Nations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham welcomed the re-election of President Clinton, as I do. I hope that the Americans will now support the United Nations much more strongly in its peacekeeping and peacemaking role, in early warning and in conflict resolution, because conflict is one of the principal causes of poverty, as my hon. Friend said. Let the Americans ensure that their contributions are up to date.

The Government have various opportunities in the coming weeks and months. The world food summit in Rome has already been mentioned. Can the Minister tell us what the Government's approach will be there? Will they press for an end to the dumping of European Union

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1191

agricultural surpluses in developing countries, ruining food production in those countries? That would be a step in the right direction.

The World Trade Organisation conference in Singapore in December would be an ideal opportunity for the Government to show their commitment to the developing world. Will the Minister follow up what my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said and argue the case for a social clause to be added to international trading agreements to ensure that all countries in the world trading system uphold the human rights standards enshrined in the UN convention, to prevent child exploitation, forced labour and prison labour and to guarantee the right to join a trade union?

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham told the moving story of Kali; such inspiration should motivate the Government at the Singapore conference. It is astonishing that the American Government are far more progressive on the social clause than the British Government. I hope that we shall get a more positive statement from the Government today. Beyond that, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh next year is a great opportunity for further progress.

I hope that we shall get a more positive statement from the Government today on development education. We hear too much in education about bringing back the cane. That is a very English term. As the Minister knows, it would be the strap in Scotland. Let us hear less about that and more about development education. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood said yesterday to the Development Education Association, development education should be an integral part of children's schooling to give them the opportunity to learn about the challenges and causes of poverty and the opportunities to eradicate it.

The hon. Member for Congleton said that we must take account of public opinion on spending. The public care about development. Opinion polls consistently show that nearly 80 per cent. of Britons think that aid should be given to the developing world. We have heard in the past few weeks about the Defence Secretary fighting in Cabinet for his spending commitments, about the Health Secretary fighting for the health budget and the Transport Secretary fighting for the transport budget.

The problem is that the Minister for Overseas Development is not a member of the Cabinet. She cannot argue the case for overseas development where the real decisions are made. That is why the budget has gone down year on year. It was 0.52 per cent. of gross national product and rising when Labour left office; now it is 0.29 per cent. of GNP and set to fall with the Tory Government. That is why Labour will restore the Minister for Overseas Development to a position in the Cabinet to argue the case for overseas development alongside the other Secretaries of State.

I want briefly to mention recent events in Zaire, on which I hope that the Minister will also touch. Many minds in the House and in the country have been focused by the awful pictures on television of refugees fleeing their homes as the crisis grows deeper day by day. We know that that region of Africa has had a long and bitter political past. The eastern and western sides of the former split in the world of cold war politics allowed the people of the region to be abused and made the crisis almost inevitable. Our past actions, as well as basic morality, make it a duty on us to assist those in need.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1192

I welcome, of course, Baroness Chalker's statement and her commitment of £130 million over two years, but I want to ask the Minister to go a bit further. Will he undertake to use the Government's influence in the UN Security Council and the European Union to press to ensure that our excellent non-governmental organisations, to which the hon. Member for Congleton referred, have access to help and have some security assistance? They have been in severe difficulties in the past few days, as the Minister knows. Will he bring pressure on the Governments of the region to seek a regional political settlement? Will he push to strengthen the international war crimes tribunal to ensure that those responsible for the genocide are punished and that justice is seen to be done?

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to dissociate himself from the remarks of the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who said at Foreign Office Question Time:

That is an appalling attitude and illustrates the attitude of some Tories to British aid. It undermines the work of our non-governmental organisations in the region. I hope that the Minister, who is a bit more intelligent than his colleague, will dissociate himself from it.

We heard about tied aid and the aid and trade programme. We want to reduce the amount spent on consultancy: 32 per cent. of our bilateral programme is spent on payments to consultants. That is an appallingly large amount. I hope that it will be reduced; it certainly will be with a change of Government.

I want to mention the scandal of the delay in the publication of the National Audit Office report on British aid to Indonesia. That investigation was begun in the wake of the Pergau dam scandal, but the final report is a year behind schedule. I understand that it is being held up in the Foreign Office while Ministers search for excuses to explain it away. The Opposition and the public will not tolerate another cover-up. Ministers have promised that the Government will abide by any recommendations in the report. I hope that it will be published as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned human rights abuses and coercive population practices in China. For two days, I was able to join an Overseas Development Administration independent assessment team that carried out in September an assessment of the policies and activities in China of the ODA, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. I ask her to await the publication of that report, which is imminent, before rushing to judgment. Knowing her preconceptions, I fear that my request is vain. I hope that she will realise that it is wrong to infer from the presence of those bodies that they in any way support and tolerate such practices. That is not the situation. When she sees the report, she will realise that her comments were over the top.

The Government will be judged not by their fine words today, but by their actions: their actions in the public spending round, at the world food summit and at the World Trade Organisation. If they miss any more opportunities, the British people have not much longer to wait. They will soon have the opportunity of putting that right and giving a Labour Government the chance to put Britain's overseas policies back on the right track.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1193

Next Section

IndexHome Page