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House of Commons

Wednesday 4 July 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be further considered on Wednesday 11 July.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Arms

1. Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): What measures her Department is taking to reduce the availability of small arms in developing countries. [679]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): In the post-cold war world, conflict and the suffering arising from conflict are concentrated in the developing world. The widespread availability of small arms is feeding conflict and blocking development. The United Kingdom supports stronger international controls on the supply of such weapons and supports local programmes to destroy weapons and resolve and prevent conflict.

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Next week, I will attend the United Nations special session designed to agree an international programme of action.

Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she agree that one of the major problems is the lack of licensing controls on arms dealers? Can we expect her to take advantage of the forthcoming Export Control Bill to give us much tougher regulation of this unsavoury business?

Clare Short: Yes, I agree. There are two sets of problems. Many small arms are circulating, for example, in Africa, so we need to extract them. However, arms are also being exported—particularly from the former Soviet countries that have big arms industries—and they are not controlled. Some of those sales do not come through Britain—people are not allowed to sell arms without a licence from Britain—but they are brokered from Britain. We shall take control over that in the forthcoming Bill, and that is a very important change to clean up our act.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): In the previous Parliament, four Select Committees, including the Select Committee on International Development, recommended that there should be prior scrutiny by a Committee of the House of the United Kingdom's defence sales, including small arms sales. Does the Secretary of State support that approach?

Clare Short: No, the Government's view is that that would not be helpful. The hon. Gentleman might know that, since our Government were formed, we have been allowed to object to a licence on the ground that an arms sales would prevent development and the proper spending of money even if the arms were not to be used for external aggression or internal repression. As yet, we cannot cumulate those sales, so the power is not as effective as it might be. That is my greatest concern, and if he could help me with that, I would be very grateful.

EU Development Programmes

2. Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): What action her Department has taken to improve the quality of EU development programmes. [680]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The European Community's record on the efficient delivery of aid has been poor. That is why the United Kingdom has pressed hard since 1997 to improve the effectiveness of EC development programmes, focus their range of activity and make poverty reduction their central objective. The reforms now put in place go some way towards achieving these improvements, but we intend to keep up the pressure.

Mr. Luke: I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. What plans does he have to raise these serious issues with Members of the European Parliament and Commissioners, so that we, the Council, Commissioners

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and the European Parliament together can strengthen the EU's significant contribution to poverty reduction and to development?

Hilary Benn: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. In return, I welcome him to his first International Development questions.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the central problem is that, over the past 10 years, the proportion of EC aid going to low-income countries has fallen from 75 to 51 per cent. We have managed to achieve an agreement that poverty reduction should form the central focus of EC development aid. I will be in Brussels next week to meet Members of the European Parliament to say to them that the EC has now accepted an agenda for reform, but the whole House will want the changes to be implemented in practice.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to ministerial office. Is he aware that the 1998 Court of Auditors report into EC aid to South Africa showed that significant proportions of money for the AIDS programme went unspent for nearly four years? Does he not think that, if the EU were to add its support to the new global AIDS fund, yet another layer of bureaucracy would be created? Can he also ensure that EU spending on AIDS goes on improving existing projects on health care, education and the development of vaccines and not on delivering cheaper drugs?

Hilary Benn: I also thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. As she is well aware, the basic problem with EU spending is precisely that the EU cannot spend the money that it has. She gave the example of South Africa, which is one of a number to which we could refer. We certainly wish the EU to make a contribution to the global health fund, but the most important thing is to make sure that the money that is allocated is spent effectively. That is what we are working to achieve.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his portfolio. Does he recall that the European Union played a significant part in the removal of Fujimori from Peru and in the democratic elections that followed, which led to President Toledo being elected? Given the earthquakes of the past few weeks, and our bilateral contribution, as well as that of the EU, does my hon. Friend welcome the policies to improve the relationship between Peru, the EU and this country?

Hilary Benn: I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome. The action taken in response to the earthquakes in Peru, both bilaterally and through the EU, was very important, and it gave me an early insight into the effectiveness of the Department's disaster response arrangements. He makes the important point that the EU has considerable potential to make a difference, which is why we are putting so much time and effort into trying to make sure, through the reform process that has begun, that the EU can fulfil more of that potential than it has in the past.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): On behalf of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, may I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his no doubt rightful

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place on the Front Bench? I know that he is carrying on a proud family tradition, and I think that he is a sound addition to the International Development team.

One point on which the Secretary of State and I see eye to eye is our desire to end the appalling inefficiencies of the EU aid programme, so I hope that the Under-Secretary will keep up pressure on the EU. Is he aware of the Auditors report of 12 June, which says that the EU decision-making procedures do not allow for a rapid reaction to emergencies? Is he satisfied that the reforms that have just been implemented will speed up the reaction? Does he believe that it is desirable to place a ceiling on emergency payments of 3 million euros per crisis, or does he agree that crises should be evaluated individually? Will he join me in calling for an evaluation? If not, we will be in the absurd position of having an arbitrary financial ceiling elevating bureaucratic rules above the saving of human lives.

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome—at the risk of boring the House. I agree that it makes sense for ourselves and the EU to examine the way in which the European Community Humanitarian Office, in particular, operates. ECHO has probably been more successful than other parts of the EU in spending the available resources, but not as good as it could be. There is, in Ms Adinolfi, a new director general who is very committed to implementing the agenda for reform. We will need to reflect on that. The hon. Lady makes a good point about the EU's effectiveness and about the limits on spending to deal with humanitarian disasters.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East): I, too, would like warmly to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and Leeds colleague—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We now come to Question 3.

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