International Development Bill

[back to previous text]

The Chairman: Order. I must point out to the hon. Lady that we are not debating the timetabling motion, so will she please return to amendment No. 12?

Mrs. Gillan: After your wise intervention, Mr. Benton, I shall return immediately to the amendment. However, you must agree that I was sorely tempted by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent.

Technical assistance, as we all know, is a vital part of British development assistance. It is also the aspect in which the British people have the most confidence. Technical assistance has provided developing countries with valuable know-how and skills that they would not otherwise have had. As one of the world's premier financial centres, the UK has a unique role in assisting developing countries with their economic development as well as with their social development—something with which the Minister agrees.

The British public support technical assistance. That is proved in a survey conducted by the Department of 1,772 people, who were chosen at random. It found that 18 per cent. of respondents thought that providing financial assistance was the most important way to reduce poverty. The Department also found that the majority of those who supported aid for development believed that technical assistance and training nurses, doctors and engineers were more important than financial aid.

Economic development is crucial to future development, particularly the future of the environment. Paragraph 25 of the globalisation White Paper states:

    ``Poverty and environmental degradation are often linked. Economic development gives countries improved access to new, less resource-intensive and less polluting technologies. Over the last fifty years, it has been more closed economies—such as the former Communist countries—that have had the worst record of industrial pollution and urban environmental degradation.''

If the Government truly care about the global environment, they must reinstate economic development into technical assistance.

The White Paper also highlights the importance of multinational companies and transnational corporations in economic development. It states:

    ``TNCs can contribute significantly to economic development in host countries through their technology, specialised skills and ability to organise and integrate production across countries, to establish marketing networks and to access finance and equipment on favourable terms.''

If the Government support the role of transnational corporations in contributing to economic development, they should include economic development in the meaning of technical assistance in the Bill, so that they, too, can support developing countries through technical assistance in technology and specialised skills.

Technical assistance has been vital in the past 20 years and we should like the same definition to be used in the Bill as in the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980. In summary of this unambitious little amendment, I want to know why an altered definition of technical assistance has been used in the Bill. What does the Minister think are the implications of the changes that have been made, and why does the Bill not mention support for economic development, when, to judge by the Government's own statements, they believe that that is essential to poverty reduction? The amendment is a probing one, designed to get to the root of the drafting. Perhaps the Minister will allow me to hope that at least one Opposition suggestion will be taken into account.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I do not want to add too much to my hon. Friend's remarks. However, I, too, should like to know in what way the Government see the definition of technical assistance in the Bill as an improvement on the definition in the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980. I do not say that being 20 years old makes a definition better than one that is produced now, but the new definition seems to be rather more restrictive than the old, and it might not be beneficial to the Bill. I do not think that it is as good as the earlier one.

The Minister should deal with the issue clearly and in detail. Although the draftsmen and DFID civil servants who have been hard at work on the Bill do an excellent job, people sometimes get things wrong. Will the Minister explain what is better about the new definition and to what he objected in the previous definition?

Mr. Rowe: One aspect of the administration of our development programme that bothers me is that, entirely understandably—out of prudence and the need to safeguard itself against such criticism as hon. Members, including members of the International Development Committee, level against it—the Department has, over the years, made it so complex and difficult to apply for its support that it is worth while for large NGOs and even university departments to employ consultants to make grant applications. The Department is by no means unique in that respect; the same is true of the big United Nations organisations, such as the World Health Organisation.

I am concerned for two reasons. The approach in question does not necessarily provide the safeguards that the organisations think it does. I often liken it to the situation in the EU: every time incompetence is found, the response is to create a whole new raft of theoretical hurdles through which an application or project evaluation has to pass. The EU structure involves so many people in vetting applications that the ownership of responsibility for a decision is too diffuse. It does not really work. The DFID is in danger of developing a similar structure.

11.15 am

One of the effects of the system is that a great deal of time is taken up, and that is something that the Department needs to examine. The British Consultants Bureau tells me that independent consultants, NGOs, university departments and others spend many hours concocting their proposals to obtain financial support; that is hugely expensive and uses scarce professional time. The system also militates against indigenous NGOs' receiving direct assistance. If we are to make development assistance effective worldwide, we have to transfer it from expatriates, mainly from the north, to indigenous professionals and organisations in the south. Such people therefore need a much easier passage—a lower hurdle to jump—to obtain the support that they require.

I considered raising my next point in clause 7 stand part, but I think that now is the appropriate time. I am increasingly concerned about the charges that are levied by this country on overseas students. The cost of sending professionals here for a year or two to improve their skills so that they can go home and run a service for, say, a huge area of sub-Saharan Africa is too high. The result is twofold: first, NGOs and other organisations find it difficult to raise the money—not only for fees, but for accommodation and living allowances—that is needed for the students, many of whom have a huge contribution to make to their own countries; and, secondly, in countries where the method of selecting students is not as transparent as we would like, one finds that the people sent are not the most appropriate students, but are those whose turn it is to be rewarded by whichever organisation in their country provides access to DFID or other British scholarships. I hope that the Department is taking more care about that than it sometimes has in the past.

On Second Reading I suggested that even if the Government or the Treasury decided that they were not prepared to reduce overseas students' costs, they might consider rebating a proportion of them if a student returned to his or her home country. That is tremendously important and would constitute a huge incentive for such people to return home. The Minister did not have time to comment on the matter then, so perhaps he would like to do so now.

It is interesting to note that the previous Government greatly accelerated the ending of tied accommodation, such as student hostels, nurses' accommodation, and so on. To some extent, the freeing up of the housing market, which has greatly benefited many people, needs to be re-examined. It is clear that in the south-east in particular, the ability of young policemen, nurses and doctors to buy a house is constrained, so perhaps we should consider providing tied accommodation once again. In politics, matters constantly shift and this one is particularly relevant to overseas development. Many students who come to this country are stretched to the limit by huge fees and associated costs, and can afford only the grottiest of accommodation. They are not being looked after as well as they deserve, which makes it harder for them to study. Moreover, they and the families who sometimes accompany them are often preyed on by their neighbours. To that extent, the amendment deals with some serious underlying concerns.

Mr. Mullin: The main point from the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham concerned why we are changing the definition of technical assistance. We have repeatedly made it clear that the Bill's approach constitutes a departure from previous legislation. Our key aim is to narrow the purposes of development assistance but to broaden the means available to the Secretary of State to fulfil those purposes. Unlike its predecessor, the new definition is not exhaustive. We believe that it complements the definition of financial assistance and will allow a wide range of actions. For example, it will allow the Secretary of State to grant scholarships, which the present definition does not. The old definition confused areas of assistance with means of assistance, but the new one does not. We do not need to refer to economic development because the purposes described in clause 1(1) will ensure that that subject is covered. The hon. Lady asked about the implications of a lack of reference to economic development, and I can tell her that there are none.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent mentioned rebating costs associated with students who return to their own country, but a number of factors would first have to be demonstrated. For example, where the money came from the aid budget it would be necessary to demonstrate a specific relationship to the reduction of poverty and the Bill's other main focuses. Moreover, a number of other Government Departments would doubtless have to be consulted. The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to give him a satisfactory answer off the top of my head, and I suggest that he writes to me in a little more detail.

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 15 March 2001