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5.47 pm

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): I shall begin by justifying the need for an International Development Bill. Some have regarded international development as a handout aimed at gaining political advantage, and at enabling the money to be used as an

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adjunct to political and diplomatic objectives. Others have regarded it as a method of getting rid of otherwise unsaleable equipment, such as the Westland helicopters that were given to India for "humanitarian purposes". Incidentally, they were recently returned to us as "junk".

The real justification, however, goes much deeper than those passing needs of Government. For me--and, I believe, for not only the Conservative party but the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties--this is a deeply moral question of human beings' responsibilities to their fellow men. It is the issue that faced the good samaritan. For a Conservative, it involves the issue of the responsibility of those with skills and wealth for those who were not born with such advantages.

Regrettably, in feudal and early Victorian times that attitude could be deeply patronising. I believe, however, that if people are able to make money and become wealthy, it is the result of God-given skills and hard work. Such wealth brings with it responsibility for using the money wisely to create employment, train others and enable people to help themselves. That should be regarded not as patronising, but as a God-given duty.

If what I have said applies to individuals, it must also apply to countries and Governments whose wealth is gained through taxing the product of the efforts of hard-working subjects of the Queen or citizens, for the public good and for equitable reasons. Often, Britain has become wealthy because of the efforts of thousands of people toiling as slaves in the sugar industry of the West Indies, the importation of bananas produced by thousands of ill-paid and ill-housed banana farmers on plantations owned by huge American companies in Central America, the harvesting of latex in Malaysia and Indonesia to make rubber, or the mining of gold from the bowels of the earth in some of the world's deepest mines in South Africa, in conditions that can only be described as close to hell.

Britain has become rich also by the mining of diamonds in Angola and in Sierra Leone, and by exploiting the skills of the tea pickers of India and the teak loggers of Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. With that wealth from overseas has come responsibility for those who live and work overseas. We have a responsibility to them.

Why do hundreds--now thousands--of people risk their lives to come to Britain and claim political asylum? Most of them come as economic migrants fleeing the intolerable conditions that they must endure in their own countries. Some of them come to avoid persecution and are seeking a safe haven. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) confirmed in his policy speech to the Conservative party meeting in Harrogate that we should always welcome those people to our shores.

Dr. Tonge: Ha!

Mr. Wells: That is what my right hon. Friend said in Harrogate, and I am going to keep him to his word.

We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to those who come for economic reasons as well. Britain cannot accommodate them all, but we can help them to provide a better living for themselves in their own countries. We have not only a moral duty to do so, but a practical and common-sense reason for doing so. That is why

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Conservative Members must soften their rhetoric by recognising our duty, with others, to provide the means by which the wretchedly poor of the world can help themselves out of their misery and hopelessness. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, Conservative Members have a proud record. Nevertheless, that record is insufficient and more needs to be done. I should like to hear all parties give a commitment to do more and to grow the development budget.

The British people understand that something is going badly wrong when tens of thousands of people are crossing the entire length of the European continent, travelling through safe countries en route, suddenly to plead for asylum when they arrive in Britain. Something is going badly wrong when desperate people hide in the undercarriages of Eurostar trains or Boeing 747s. What is going wrong is our failure to offer investment, management and skills training in the countries from which those people have fled. In short, it is a matter of international development. I wholeheartedly welcome the new International Development Bill because I believe that it emphasises the duty of us all to promote that development.

My own conviction was triggered when, at 19 in Karachi, I saw the so-called houses that thousands of people had built on the sewage-covered banks of the Sind river. They were built of refuse such as Kelloggs cornflakes packets and anything else that they could scavenge from the river or that had been discarded by richer people. They had lived in that condition for eight years, since 1947, when the sudden and brutal division of India was agreed in a hurry by Lord Mountbatten on the instruction of Prime Minister Attlee, to settle the issue of Britain's relations with India.

What did India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom do to help those wretched people? They did very little indeed. Those people were put in that position by men who took political decisions without doing anything about the consequences for them. We could have helped them to rebuild their lives, but we did nothing. As poverty in this world is largely man made, it can be remedied by man. The appalling condition of those people made me resolve to try to build a better world that cared for them. That is why I believe that today's debate is overdue, and why we need to consider the Bill in much greater detail.

Clause 1 enshrines the poverty focus--which the Secretary of State wishes to be the core and main objective of her Bill--in legislation for the first time. The poverty reduction strategy is absolutely right, but nowhere in the Bill is there a definition of poverty. I have been in this place long enough to know why it has been omitted. The Bill's drafters would not have wanted to provide any opportunity for judicial review, so they did not define poverty.

The problem with that omission is that in very many cases, poverty is a comparative term. In just the past fortnight, for example, the Child Poverty Action Group published a paper stating that 25 per cent. of children in this country live in poverty. The abject poverty that we are discussing, and on which I think the Bill intends to focus, is--except in very exceptional and criminal situations--a life that no child in this country lives. The type of life lived by children who are born on rubbish heaps in Dhaka or in many other places around the world is a hideous life of great danger to which no human being should be subjected.

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I therefore think that in Committee, we shall have to discuss further whether we need a definition of poverty. It is a very important issue if we truly want to find a way of constantly and continuously ensuring that future Secretaries of State for International Development really do concentrate the resources that are available to them on those who are in abject poverty--which I know the Secretary of State and many other hon. Members understand only too well.

Clause 3 is the humanitarian assistance clause and is a new type of provision. We sometimes wonder why it was thought necessary to include it in the Bill. The right hon. Lady explained that in cases where emergency assistance is necessary, she would like to be relieved of the poverty focus. I appreciate that in emergencies, the poor and the rich may be equally in need of humanitarian assistance. However, when we describe something as "humanitarian assistance", we have to know what we mean by the term.

Traditionally, we have intended that humanitarian assistance should be given to people without regard to whether they are on one side or the other of a war or any other situation. That is the basis on which the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and other humanitarian agencies have always operated and been welcomed by both sides. Regardless of the action that has been taken by the individuals or groups involved, those agencies have offered assistance--health assistance, medical assistance, food, shelter and warmth--to both sides, and that is how the agencies have been able to operate. We have to prevent any degradation of the term "humanitarian assistance".

I am concerned that the term has already been degraded, most recently in the Kosovo crisis. For the best of reasons, the European Union decided that it would provide winter fuel and what it called humanitarian assistance--which was funded by the European Community Humanitarian Office--to two towns in southern Serbia. The reason was that the mayors of those two towns supported democracy and opposed the continuation of Milosevic's rule in Serbia. I entirely agree with that policy, but to regard that aid as humanitarian relief is a degradation of that term. If we undertook to provide fuel, we should have provided it to all towns and to all those who were suffering from the cold and the lack of electricity as a result of the Kosovan conflict. That was not done. In my view, we risk using aid that is meant for humanitarian purposes in a political way, thereby undermining the concept of humanitarianism and destroying the capacity for emergency relief to be offered objectively and impartially.

The Bill should include a definition of humanitarian aid that puts in statute that it has to be provided impartially in order to prevent the perversion of development assistance into a politically dominated and politically motivated policy. That view is supported by the research carried out so well by Dr. Joanna Macrae, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute. Her arguments are compelling. She refers to:

We should consider that in Committee, and decide whether we need to amend the Bill.

I have some further points to make about issues raised in the Bill. The additional powers that the Secretary of State is seeking to assign, to hold shares or to offer

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guarantees, must relate in some way to the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1999. If and when shares are offered to the public under that Act, the Department for International Development will need the powers that are envisaged under clause 6.

I refer to our debate on 14 July 1999, when, as is recorded in column 529 of Hansard, I discussed how the CDC would change in the light of that Bill. That is now beginning to come to a head. I understand that the CDC is sacking many of the people involved in managing direct projects, and, indeed, that many direct projects, mainly in the agricultural sector, are being disposed of at less than cost. I warned the Secretary of State that such a tragedy might result from the nature of the CDC Bill, which I supported in principle. We now need the kind of provision that I suggested in that debate. A fund is necessary to bring about greenfield development, which can no longer be established through the CDC because it does not offer sufficient return, but is vital to kick-start economic development, particularly in agriculture, from which most people in the third world derive their income.

I urge the Secretary of State to consider how she can help that development to take place--not on the basis of an input from big companies or funds in this country, but to help the people concerned as we help people in depressed areas of this country when they have been put out of work, for whatever reason, and need a start, and just as we offer through the Welsh Development Agency, the Scottish Development Agency and so on, help to re-start businesses and so enable people to earn a living.

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