International Development Bill

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Gillan: I could not have put it better. My hon. Friend makes my point for me, and I hope that the Minister will respond in kind. He might have had the opportunity to consult, as might his colleagues, his predecessor, or the Secretary of State. However, it was a great surprise to us when the Bill was printed in February, having not been in the Queen's Speech. Whenever anyone gets hot under the collar in Westminster Hall, I am reminded that that is meant to be a venue where there is agreement across the Benches. If, as they often claim, the Government seek co-operation and agreement to parts of their programme, they could have handled this matter better.

To make matters worse, there is a David and Goliath situation in this Committee. There are serried ranks on the Government Benches, whereas on the Opposition Benches there are four redoubtable Conservatives and a Liberal Democrat. I think that there is a Liberal Democrat absentee, but that does not surprise me.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady is straying rather wide of the matter.

Mrs. Gillan: I accept your admonition, Mr. Butterfill.

Mr. Rowe: Look who won.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend takes up my point from a sedentary position—we should always remember who won in the David and Goliath story.

The Chairman: I hope that we shall leave David and Goliath.

10.45 am

Mrs. Gillan: I am sure that there is a lesson there for us all.

The Bill has been introduced as a fig leaf to cover the Government's embarrassment because there has not even been a debate on international development since 1997. They want to be able to say that, for the first time for 20 years, they have proposed legislation, which will cover a catalogue of examples of the Secretary of State being ignored by Cabinet colleagues. She has not had a look in; she has been brushed aside. She tried really hard to get an annual debate, but failed. The two White Papers have been a sop to the Secretary of State; we have not debated them on the Floor of the House. She can publish, publish, publish; she can publish and be damned; she will not get time on the Floor of the House.

The Programming Sub-Committee for the Bill, which was my first experience of such a Committee, can only be described as a constitutional farce. We turned up in a Room, without the advantage of our extremely valiant Hansard reporters who report the proceedings of Committees; we were kept waiting by the Minister, who was late; I believe that I am right in saying that the Chairman had not even received a copy of the Government programming motion; and we sat down and rubber-stamped what the Government wanted. That is not right, and, in his previous incarnations, the Minister would not have thought that that was right either. He was always a great champion of freedom in his days on the Opposition Benches and Government Back Benches, and I look to him for slightly better behaviour than that.

I shall not move an amendment to the motion, because I am using the time allotted for this debate to put our perspective on the record, but I want the Minister to think hard about what he is participating in. Given the Government's majority and the Opposition's attitude to the Bill, the Government have a prime opportunity to behave in a grown up and mature fashion in relation to an important piece of legislation, which, after all, is about people's lives. The Minister has missed that opportunity, and the whole process of scrutiny of the Bill will be much poorer as a result. My hon. Friends may want to add to what I have said, but at least I have had the opportunity to put on the record my disappointment in the Government's behaviour.

Dr. Tonge: I apologise, Mr. Butterfill, for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), but because of the vagaries of the electoral system, unlike the other two parties, we have only 47 Members of Parliament to cover the work of the House.

It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham talk about not having had an opportunity to debate the Bill. As usual, the official Opposition have wasted time complaining about not having time properly to debate a Bill. I appeal to them. This is an important issue and we are anxious to do something about development. We want to help; we do not want to waste time continually listening to such idiotic filibustering from the official Opposition. That has made me feel a lot better.

The Bill is excellent. One remarkable thing about it is that we have not had the usual paper storm from the NGOs suggesting various amendments from all directions. They are pretty good at scrutinising legislation, so it is a tribute to the Bill that we have not received such a storm of paper from them. I have little to add. I still feel strongly about some issues. I feel strongly about the position of the overseas territories, and question whether it is appropriate for the Department for International Development to deal with them, because in my understanding, they are part of the United Kingdom and should be dealt with by the appropriate UK Department. We shall come to that matter later.

We must consider how much the Treasury contributes to humanitarian aid. It is a sore point with me and, I suspect, DFID, that sometimes disasters created by NATO or the Ministry of Defence have to be mopped up by DFID. That deprives the third world and poor people of valuable resources. I hope that we shall debate that.

There are worries about tied aid, which is a mysterious subject that always seems to be avoided. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Bill is intended to eliminate tied aid for ever. I doubt that it will, but we must try.

I welcome the Bill. I hope that it has the co-operation of all Departments. I shall stress the importance of such co-operation as long as I am in the House, because other Departments have so often undermined the work of DFID. I hope that we can now move the debate on in a spirit of co-operation. The issue is huge and emotive. Whenever we think that we are coming to grips with development and poverty, something, such as the AIDS epidemic, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Blaby, throws all the predictions awry. I hope that the official Opposition will take our debate completely seriously.

Mr. Robathan: I shall be brief, because we should move on to the substance of the Bill. I am glad that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) now feels better.

Dr. Tonge: Only temporarily.

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Lady accuses people of idiotic filibustering, but I am sure that you would not allow that, Mr. Butterfill.

The Bill is small but important, which makes it all the more curious that the Government should wish to programme and restrict the time given to discussing it. Most hon. Members in the Committee spoke on Second Reading, which is not always the case. Committee members, especially Back Benchers, are often—[Interruption.] I could comment on what the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) should do about his gut, but never mind.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be provoked into comments of that nature.

Mr. Robathan: My apologies, Mr. Butterfill, but I do not feel that I need any lessons in sartorial elegance from the hon. Member for Harrow, East.

Hon. Members on the Committee are generally those who take an interest in international development. We all want the Bill to be enacted as a good piece of legislation, which makes it all the more surprising that the Government should want to restrict debate and inflame passions by rushing the Bill through. The Minister has probably made speeches against programme motions—

Mr. Mullin: No.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister says not, but many of his colleagues have done. If we want the Bill to be enacted as good legislation, hon. Members from all parties should have the opportunity to scrutinise it carefully.

Mr. Rowe: One of the features of the debate on Second Reading was that hon. Members from all parties raised serious issues on matters such as definitions and the sense of the sector-wide approach. The Bill is essentially non-controversial, as it is not a party matter, but a range of issues of extraordinary importance to international development was raised during that debate.

Mr. Robathan: Indeed. Hon. Members sometimes make cheap party political points on such matters, but our point is not party political. On Second Reading, there was general agreement, but some different and important points were raised, yet five and a half days afterwards, we have entered upon a rushed Committee stage. That is not the way to achieve good legislation. I shall not oppose the programme resolution, but the Minister should say why it has been necessary to deal with the Bill at such speed.

Mr. Mullin: I think that I can assist with inquiries. Hon. Members should regard the Bill as a bonus. It is true that it was not in the Queen's Speech, but we seized an unexpected window of opportunity. I expect most people who take a serious interest in such matters to welcome that decision.

There is no need for people to be surprised by the Bill. It had a lengthy gestation. The 1997 White Paper committed the Government to consider the case for a new development Bill. The issue was debated in regional policy forums over two years and there was strong support for a Bill to place poverty reduction at the heart of United Kingdom development assistance. Extensive consultation has taken place with civil society and the development community. Officials have met representatives of the major NGOs to discuss the Bill and its implications for our development effort.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park, for whose contribution I am grateful, was right. We have not encountered a storm of paper from NGOs, demanding all sorts of changes, because all those with a serious interest have known for a long time what would happen. They knew that the Bill was on the cards and have been pressing for such a measure. They are happy that it has come to pass.

The reason we have not received many suggestions is probably general happiness about, and good will towards, the Bill, which I hope the official Opposition will share.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 13 March 2001