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9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate, to which many right hon. and hon. Members have contributed. It has just been summed up by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) with his characteristic skill. May I say to him and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) that I very much welcome the spirit of their remarks. As the hon. Lady said, we have a common goal; that has been demonstrated in speeches from both sides of the Chamber.

The hon. Lady asked how the principles established in the Bill will be expressed in joined-up government. We had a good illustration of that earlier today when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a statement about Doha. Those who were in the Chamber to listen to it will have heard her speak almost exclusively about Doha's potential to make a difference to developing countries.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) and the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) referred, all in different ways, to the potential power of trade to make a difference, and I very much endorse those remarks. I particularly endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill and others about developing countries' capacity to engage in the process. We must be clear that the World Trade Organisation is a body of sovereign Governments and we should not talk down the capacity, in a true sense, of developing countries to engage in that process and ultimately to shape it as they want. My Department is trying to assist them in that process.

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The hon. Member for Meriden asked whether the Bill would adversely affect our work on good governance, which has been one of the themes of the debate, or on issues such as efficient revenue collection. I take this opportunity to reassure her that that will not be the case. Both of those will be supported and permitted.

I welcome the hon. Lady's commitment, on behalf of her party, on tied aid. I am delighted to hear that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) is now reassured on that question. As she asked me to repeat the remarks of my distinguished predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), let me say that the Government believe that, under the Bill, a policy of tying aid would not be sustainable.

Clare Short: Or legal.

Hilary Benn: Or, indeed, legal. Any future Secretary of State who tried to act illegally would be subject to the powers of the courts. We think that that offers sufficient protection.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) spoke with his characteristic depth of knowledge about disability. He also mentioned maternal mortality. I had a chance to look at that subject at first hand last week when I was in Malawi, where I had the opportunity to visit a safe motherhood project that the Department is supporting. It is a practical, down-to-earth project that is trying to encourage discussion within the community about the importance of getting women experiencing difficulty in labour to specialist help as quickly as possible. It includes talking to the ambulance service and dispatchers about the need to prioritise calls on behalf of women who find themselves in that position.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned the Ilisu dam. They will both be aware that that is an export credit guarantee issue and is not covered by the Bill, but I shall undertake to convey to the Minister responsible their request for further information.

A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), discussed the effectiveness of European Union aid. Indeed, that has been a theme of the debate. The Bill covers only the European development fund element of European spending, but I think that the whole House is agreed on the need to improve further the effectiveness and the poverty focus of EC development programmes.

As we have said on various occasions—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been particularly vigorous in pressing this point, as has the Select Committee on International Development—the scale and the scope of the EC's development aid budget means that it should have enormous potential. I think that all hon. Members will agree that it has failed to fulfil that potential, which is why the current reform programme has to succeed.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) did not disturb the bipartisan spirit of our debate. Indeed, I think that he added to it when he said that poverty reduction should concern the conservative philosophy as much as it should other political philosophies represented

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in our society. I very much welcome his statement and the way in which he said it, because I think that he was absolutely right.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of human rights. I undertake to look into the three specific cases that he identified: Vietnam, Egypt and Burma. I should add, however, that Vietnam has been able to make significant progress in poverty reduction. He was generous enough to acknowledge the support that we are already giving Burma. However, as a Government, in making decisions we can and do distinguish between the policies of a particular Government and the needs of people who—as I am sure all hon. Members will agree—should not suffer because of the Government under whom they happen to live or whom, in the case of Burma, they have had no part in choosing.

The hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for Ceredigion mentioned the devolved aspects of the legislation. The Northern Ireland Administration and the Welsh Assembly both recognise that international development is a reserved matter. The Northern Ireland Administration is not accountable for any of the statutory bodies listed in schedule 1—although I notice that the Wales tourist board is so listed. However, the Bill makes provision for consultation with the devolved Administrations before we enter into any arrangements with either Welsh or Northern Irish statutory bodies. I hope that that offers some reassurance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) said that John Vereker, the permanent secretary at the Department for International Development, is one of his constituents. I am glad that he did so because, as hon. Members may be aware, John Vereker will be moving on to take up new duties before the end of the year. This debate therefore gives me the opportunity not only on my own behalf, but probably more significantly on behalf of my right hon. Friend—who has worked very closely with him since she became Secretary of State in 1997—to thank him for the distinguished contribution that he has made in the past eight years to the work of the Department and to international development more broadly. In the short time that I have been a Minister in the Department, I have certainly valued his enormous depth of knowledge, his intellect and the way in which he conducts himself. I am sure that the whole House would like to wish him all the very best in the new duties to which he will be moving.

The issue of sustainable development was raised in this debate, and it was debated at some length in the Bill's previous incarnation. I think that we have to ensure that the concept is not captured either by those who take an entirely economic view of sustainable development or by those who see it principally as an environmental concern—something that I learned forcefully when I was in Indonesia, where the economics of sustainable livelihoods in a forest community are about trying to balance those two sometimes competing demands. I think that clause 1(3) is not so much a definition as a safeguard against the narrowing of that concept by anyone who has a particular definition favouring one concept or the other.

The hon. Members for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)—in an east London-Essex alliance—urged us to examine the definition of poverty. I

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am not sure how much would be gained by entering into a long debate—although I should be happy to do so in Committee—on precisely how we define poverty. I think that the most important consideration is that the international community has defined the goals of poverty reduction that it wishes to reach and that it wishes to work on by means of both the millennium development goals and the international development targets.

Our debate this evening, if not overshadowed by the events of 11 September, has been very much influenced by them—and that is precisely as it should be, because we have all had a lot of thinking to do in the last few weeks, and a great deal to learn. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West made the point when he spoke of the importance of development education.

One of the most important lessons of that experience is directly relevant to the Bill. It is simply this: a world scarred by poverty, injustice and inequality will never be a safe world. If the case for what the Bill seeks to achieve was strong before 11 September, as indeed it was, it is much stronger now.

When the individuals who took up Osama bin Laden's invocation to go and kill Americans, picking as their target the symbol of the international financial system—the twin towers—they in fact killed people from 62 countries across the world. In that respect, I think that the twin towers symbolise something else that is just as significant: the extent to which this very small and fragile world of ours is now more interdependent and interlinked than it has been at any time in its history.

This is a world in which what happens in one country affects those who live in another. For example, conflict in Afghanistan results in refugees in Leeds, Birmingham and other cities of the United Kingdom. It is a world in which events that occur in one country are instantly seen by those of us living in other countries, because of the power of television to shrink the globe. I believe that it is a world in which, as a result of all those things, we have a responsibility for each other.

For all the reasons that I have given, international development can no longer be regarded as some kind of good-hearted add-on to real politics. It is now the very heart of political debate and political argument, not least because of my right hon. Friend's efforts to make it so, and the way in which she has put the case over the past four years. The moral case, to which many Members have referred, is now reinforced by the political case.

The hon. Member for Banbury hit the nail on the head when he said that we have an unprecedented opportunity. I believe that passionately, because the world is now more alive to these issues. The world has been forced to be more aware, and the world must now respond to that greater awareness by making decisions that will make a real difference.

Having entered the 21st century with half the world living on less than $2 a day and one in five of our fellow men and women living on less than $1 a day, we simply cannot afford to leave it with such high levels of poverty. That is why the reduction of poverty, which is what the Bill is about, must be our overriding aim.

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The level of aid matters enormously, of course. It is a source of pride that the UK's development aid budget is increasing, and that my right hon. Friend will have been responsible for delivering a 45 per cent. real-terms increase between 1997 and 2003–04, when the budget will reach £3.6 billion—the highest development aid budget in the history of the United Kingdom.

A number of Members asked how we would move towards the 0.7 per cent. target. I welcome all their comments, and will ensure that they are passed on to the Chancellor of the Exchequer—who, I am sure, will read them with great interest.

The UK's role in debt relief has delivered, for 23 of the world's poorest countries, the potential of $53 billion of debt reduction. In this year alone, that is freeing $1.7 billion that would otherwise have been spent on interest payments but can now be spent on, for instance, education and health.

The Bill will provide a legal framework that will support our development assistance by ensuring that the reduction of poverty is at the centre of politics in this country and in the world. I think that the House can be truly proud of what we have been able to achieve together so far. Progress has been made: we must acknowledge that, not least because it enables us to redouble our efforts to make further progress. What we have done is a start, but it is what we have yet to do that will really make a difference.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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