Standing Committee B
Tuesday 13 March 2001
[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Chris Mullin): I beg to move,
(1) during proceedings on the International Development Bill the Standing Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at five minutes to Ten o'clock and between half-past Two o'clock and Five o'clock.
(2) 4 sittings in all shall be allotted to the consideration of the Bill by the Committee;
(3) the proceedings on the Bill shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 and 2, Schedule 1, Clauses 3 to 9, Schedule 2, Clauses 10 to 13, Schedule 3, Clauses 14 to 19, Schedules 4 and 5, Clause 20, Schedule 6, new Clauses, new Schedules.
(4) the proceedings on the Bill shall be brought to a conclusion at the 4th sitting at Five o'clock.
I look forward, Mr. Butterfill, to serving under your wise stewardship. I am a veteran in Committee, but this is the first time that I have had sole responsibility for steering a Bill through Committee. Last year, from mid-January until the end of June, I was continuously in Committee; at one point I was on three Committees simultaneously, each of them dealing with a major Bill. I could have walked down the Committee Corridor, and been made welcome in almost any Room. I thought that those days were past when I came to the Department for International Development, but again I find myself introducing a Bill in Committee.
This is a small but important Bill that entrenches in law the principles that underlie the Government's development programme. Its main purpose, set out in clause 1, is to provide a new core power to ensure that all future United Kingdom development assistance is used to reduce poverty and to enable sustainable development. We believe that the Bill will prevent a future Administration using development funds to serve short-term political or commercial ends, and, in particular, that it will prevent the tying of aid.
I am glad to say that the Bill appears to be uncontroversial, and I am grateful for the support that was expressed by both sides on Second Reading. It is also widely welcomed by those outside Parliament who take an interest in development issues. I therefore believe that the four sittings that were agreed upon after discussion through the usual channels will be more than adequate. I look forward to a constructive, civilised debate.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): The Minister said how busy he was in his former life, and spoke about the importance of the Bill. I am not sure that we particularly need the Bill, but I agree that it deals with an important issue. The Department has been extremely supportive about another important issuethat of HIV-AIDS.
Four members of the Select Committee on International Development are also members of this Committee. The Select Committee is no longer able to clear its report for publication because it is now inquorate; the four members here today are unable to attend the Select Committee. Is it helpful to rush the Bill through when other important matters need to be discussed?
Mr. Mullin: That is a matter for the usual channels. They have discussed the matter. We are here today as a result of that discussion. I cannot assist the Committee further on that point.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I associate myself with the Minister's remarks, Mr. Butterfill. I am sure that it will be a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I shall try not to give you and your co-Chairman too much trouble.
The Minister rightly said that the Opposition support the general thrust of the Bill. It is surprising, therefore, that the Government should have chosen to act as they did over the Bill's progress. The Bill was not included in the Queen's Speech; it was not considered sufficiently important. I am bitterly disappointed about that. The Bill is very much an afterthought because it was printed, a few months after the Queen's Speech, on 15 February 2001, and it received its Second Reading on Tuesday 6 March. That is indecent haste by any standards. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about why it was left out of the Queen's Speech, why it was printed in such indecent haste and introduced so quickly.
In the good old days, even when there was an enormous Conservative majority in the House, there was a convention that two weekends would pass between Second Reading and Committee stage. I believe that all members of the Committee would recognise the advantages in that, except perhaps those who became Members of Parliament at the last general election. The pattern of scrutiny has changed dramatically under this Government. Those two weekends gave both Government and Opposition the opportunity to muster their forces and do their homework, something which is even more essential when a Bill is printed so late. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) pointed out that the International Development Committee is currently sitting but has become inquorate because some of its members are required to serve on this Standing Committee. That is alarming because I believe that the Select Committee was supposed to be scrutinising its major report on AIDS, which I mentioned in the House on Second Reading.
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): It is only fair to point out that the International Development Committee requires only three members to be quorate, yet it has 11 members, so if it is inquorate, we have only ourselves to blame.
Mrs. Gillan: That makes it even more dreadful because it means that the Labour Members of the Select Committee have not turned up.
Mr. Robathan: As my colleague on the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), said, the Select Committee has 11 members. However, two Conservative Members of that Committee are here and the other Conservative Member chairs the Select Committee. There are two Labour Members of the Select Committee here and one other Labour Member there. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrat Member and four Labour Members seem to be absent at the moment.
Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enlightening the Cttee on that. My point is mademore in sorrow than in anger, because I am not trying to be acrimonious.
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): On a point of order, Mr. Butterfill. Is it really necessary for us to discuss the workings of the International Development Committee? I suggest that those are matters for the Select Committee, not for us. Hon. Members who are present in this Committee are anxious to get on and discuss the Bill.
The Chairman: That is a matter for my discretion, in so far as it might be relevant to the motion before the Committee. My patience was being tried severely, and I hope that we will now return to the programming resolution.
Mrs. Gillan: I would not want to raise your temperature so early in our proceedings, Mr. Butterfill. I had intended to make less of the point until I was courteous enough to give way to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. The point was taken further in that intervention than I would have gone in making my argument. As I have said, I did not raise the point in a spirit of acrimony, but it is as well to put on record what has happened. I believe that the legislation will suffer as a result of the undue haste with which we have been catapulted into Standing Committee.
As will be seen from the pattern of voting throughout our proceedings, I do not intend to press Divisions on the main substance of the Bill. However, we have tabled amendments in a spirit of co-operation either to improve the legislation or to ensure that certain subjects are aired and put on the record. After all, we have not had a debate on international development since 1997. That is regretted by the Secretary of State, as well as by me and by Labour Members. I do not doubt that the Minister, although new to his postwhere I am sure that he will do an admirable jobalso regrets the absence of an opportunity to air matters where there is a spirit of commonality across the House. The House operates at its best when there is such agreement.
The amendments have, therefore, been prepared in hastewith great help from the Clerk of the Committee, whose role in framing them I should like to acknowledgeto get discussion going on important issues and to see whether the legislation can be improved. However arrogant the Government becomethey have become particularly arrogant in the past 24 hours; I do not know why we are here as, under the motion that was passed last night, we could be deemed to have scrutinised this Bill, and it would not be necessary for us to be here at allwe genuinely hope that our suggestions will improve the legislation.
There is a further aspect to the legislation that the Minister may not fully appreciate, as he is new to the post. In the area of development there is a tradition of consultation, particularly with non-governmental organisations. The speed with which the Bill is being rushed throughespecially the speed with which it has come to Standing Committeehas prevented many organisations from scrutinising what is, albeit small, an important piece of legislation. Size is not everything. When something is small, the devil is likely to be in the detail and in its interpretation.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Bill is intended to be important; it is the first such Bill for more than 20 years and it is intended, as the Minister has said, to tie the hands of succeeding Governments. It seems extraordinary that the huge group of NGOs on which so much of the delivery of our overseas development aid depends have had no time in which to comment upon a Bill that might restrict or constrain their behaviour during the next 20 years.