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3.21 pm

Mr. Wells: I, too, welcome the Bill, which will sharpen the focus of the Department's work on the reduction of poverty. This is the first time that that has been set out in statutory form. The Secretary of State and her Department are to be congratulated on introducing the Bill and getting it on to the statute book this parliamentary Session. I know that there were difficulties in persuading our business managers to allow sufficient time for it to come before us. It is much to the credit of the Department that the Bill will reach the statute book, and I hope that it will have a swift passage through the other place, so that it can inform the Department's work in the next Parliament and for many Parliaments thereafter.

It is a great credit to the Secretary of State also that during this Parliament she produced two White Papers, whereas none had been produced for more than 20 years. The first White Paper set out the poverty focus, and the latest one dealt with globalisation. In terms of legislation and publications, the Department for International Development has been extremely active and well served by the Secretary of State throughout this Parliament. I congratulate her on her achievements and those of her Department.

There are one or two problems with the Bill, which I pointed out on Second Reading and about which I have been nagging away today. Let me elaborate on the definition of humanitarian aid which is missing from clause 3. That could get the Department into difficulties in the future if it is challenged legally through the judicial review process, which I hope it will not be.

A definition of humanitarian aid should contain various elements. Content is not a primary issue, as it was in the definition given to the Select Committee. The demands of working in diverse conflict situations mean that a single definition of assistance is neither feasible nor desirable. More important are the issues of context, objectives and principles.

As regards context, according to the existing Development Assistance Committee definition, an emergency is a situation where the capacity of Government or other authorities and the community is overwhelmed and the population is unable to meet its basic needs. In conflict situations, an emergency may be created by the magnitude or gravity of the humanitarian needs, or by the fact that the acts that have given rise to the needs are very recent. The situation then requires emergency tools.

The objective of humanitarian assistance should be to prevent and alleviate human suffering, to protect life and health, and to ensure respect for the human being. Arguably, such a definition provides for protecting and re-establishing livelihoods, not just saving life. In other words, unlike development assistance or political

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intervention, humanitarian assistance is concerned with the preservation and dignity of individuals on the basis of their humanity, not on the development of particular political or economic systems, or on the basis of political affiliation. Clause 3 rightly absolves the Secretary of State from adopting pro-poor policies in respect of humanitarian assistance.

The principle of impartiality, which follows from the argument that I have set out, is crucial to humanitarian aid. Humanitarian actors should not discriminate on the basis of nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. Resource allocation should be guided solely by people's needs, with the most urgent cases of distress receiving priority, on whatever side those in distress are fighting.

The ability of humanitarian organisations to operate legally and safely in a conflict situation is determined by their ability to demonstrate their independent character. Actual and perceived involvement of a donor Government in the workings of international humanitarian organisations potentially compromise that independence.

A definition of humanitarian assistance would not provide a quick fix to the complex dilemmas facing humanitarian actors, including donors, but it would reaffirm in law existing policy commitments and provide a benchmark against which policy could be assessed. It would reiterate in UK law the existing DFID policy commitment to uphold international law. It would put in place a central plank in a rights-based approach to development, which I know the Secretary of State supports.

A definition of humanitarian aid would complement an ethical dimension to foreign policy, which I believe the Government still support, and it would cement the independence of the Department for International Development from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That is an important principle. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) stated, should the Conservative party be elected and he be the Secretary of State, the Conservative Government would maintain those as separate Departments. I welcome that.

A definition of humanitarian assistance would provide a statutory base for policy, in place of the soft policy of internal statements. Finally, it would conform to public expectations and understanding of the purpose of humanitarian aid. Those are forceful and important arguments for making sure that humanitarian aid is used for humanitarian purposes, and that we do not undermine the essence of humanitarian aid, which is given so effectively and generously, notably by the Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations, with Medecins sans Frontieres and others. To undermine that would be a serious mistake.

I shall not take up much more of the House's time on Third Reading, as I know that others want to speak. I congratulate the Department, the Secretary of State and the Minister on the departmental report 2001 which, for the first time, as a result of work between the International Development Committee and the Department, presents in readable form the policies being pursued by the Department. The report makes that available to a much wider audience than ever before.

I take the opportunity to tease the Department a little about a circumlocution in the introduction to the report. The Secretary of State refers proudly to a 13.8 per cent.

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increase in real terms, about which I am delighted, and claims that the Department's budget is at its highest in real terms. She states:

However, the Secretary of State does not mention what the aid budget is as a percentage of gross national product this year. I am not good at mathematics and I probably have the wrong start figures, but I believe that it has risen from 0.26 per cent. in 1997 to 0.31 or 0.28 per cent.--I have been given both figures, but I am not certain which it is.

Mr. Mullin: It is 0.31 per cent.

Mr. Wells: Well, I offer many congratulations, but I should like to tease the Government a little.

That figure means that the aid programme has not reached the average that was achieved under 18 years of Conservative Government. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh, but we achieved an average expenditure of 0.33 per cent. of gross national product. I know that many people find that difficult to believe, but it is the truth.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): The hon. Gentleman's use of statistics is hilarious. He is saying that it took him 18 years to reduce the level significantly, after which we have taken four years to raise it to its current level. The previous Labour Government achieved a figure of 0.51 per cent., and it took the Conservatives 18 years to get down to 0.26 per cent. We have got it up to 0.31 per cent. in four years, and we will certainly reach a much higher level in future.

Mr. Wells: I wanted merely to bring to the House's attention a little-known figure: during the Conservative Government's years in office, an average of 0.33 per cent. of gross national product was spent on aid. I hope that we shall reach that level within the next year; indeed, I hope that we will exceed it. I know that that is the Government's policy, and I congratulate them on it. I wanted only to point out those figures.

Mr. Mullin: I know that the hon. Gentleman means extremely well, but he is being a little naughty. As he said, he is teasing us. Does he recall the figure when Labour last left office in 1979? I shall help him. It was approaching 0.5 per cent.

Mr. Wells: I remember that level, which was the highest that had been achieved by that time. Of course, the figure to which the Under-Secretary refers was not an average, but spending approached, if not matched, that level in 1979. I wanted to point out that the Conservative party is not completely neglectful of the needs of overseas development, and that we contributed to those needs an average of 0.33 per cent. of gross national product.

The worrying figure, which is not a tease, is the fall in private flows. I think that we will have to examine how we can improve that figure. Private flows form a major part of British assistance to developing countries, and always have done. In 1996, they accounted for £11.3 billion, but they fell to just £3.8 billion in 1999.

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That is a serious problem for us all. If we have the ambition to improve that figure, we must take measures to encourage private flows. After all, private investment is designated by the White Paper as the engine of development. The departmental report also contains private investment measures that will have to be considered.

Bribery and corruption are another major problem. I commend to the House the report on corruption that was produced by the Select Committee on International Development. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon said, there is a need for the Government to introduce legislation as quickly as possible to ensure compliance with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention on bribery of public officials overseas. Indeed, we must also press on with trying to get the private and public sectors to adopt anti-corruption measures both in this country and overseas. Without those efforts, we will not achieve good governance either here or overseas, and we will not get the development that we would like to see as a result of our increased public sector investment in the third world.

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