Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Baron: I am not making a black and white case for bilateral or multilateral aid, but I suggest that if a multilateral agency is clearly failing in its objective to help the poor, a Government should have the right to consider whether to redirect that agency's aid and to do so effectively themselves to help the poor rather than play petty politics with the EU agencies.

Roger Casale: I am extremely grateful for that intervention, which supports my interpretation of what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said from the Conservative Front Bench, although she denies that when challenged. Through the new clause, the Conservative party wants the ability to repatriate not just the aid, but the power to monitor and control its use. I submit that there is little difference between that and returning to bilateralism—a point made by many Members.

Such a situation would undermine not only British influence in the multilateral bodies—it is so important that our influence and the emphasis on poverty eradication within those bodies remain strong—but also the multilateral approach itself. Full engagement in the multilateral institutions is the way to ensure that multilateral programmes are effective. We should not isolate ourselves or threaten to withdraw from those institutions every time we spot an imperfection. That is why I hope that the Opposition will withdraw the motion.

23 Jan 2002 : Column 955

Mr. Baron: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important debate. Britain directs about 30 per cent. of its international aid through the EU. I support the new clause because the EU's overseas aid package is dominated by politics rather than concern for the poor, and because the little aid that is directed toward those most in need takes far too long to arrive.

I hope that reform will take root in the EU, but there is little doubt that political considerations dominate where and how it directs its aid. Why else does Poland receive twice as much aid as Latin America and Asia combined? Why else are the top 10 recipients numbered among eastern Europe, the Balkans and north Africa? In order of aid received, they are: Poland, the Czech Republic, Morocco, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Egypt, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Hungary, ex-Yugoslavia and Russia. Why else do Asia and Latin America combined receive only 12 per cent. of the EU overseas aid budget when a third of the people living in absolute poverty are in India alone?

This country allows nearly 30 per cent. of its overseas aid budget, which amounts to between £750 million and £800 million, to be directed through the EU. This country should therefore be ashamed of itself. We support an EU policy that, in effect, plays petty politics with the poor of the world, although the Government are aware of the problem.

The International Development Committee's second report, published in 2000, says:

On 9 January, in response to my question, the Prime Minister could not deny that he was aware of the situation. I hope that the House will forgive me for quoting, but in answer to my written question, the Secretary of State was honest enough to say:

I put it to this Government that we are elected to try to change things for the better. We are not here to accept matters that are unsatisfactory because they are too difficult to change.

The Government are clearly acquiescing in the shameful policy of politics over poverty. That policy is not only marked by dishonesty and hypocrisy, but is inefficient and ineffective, as the small amount of aid that reaches the genuine poor often arrives very late. According to the International Development Committee's paper entitled "The Effectiveness of EC Development Assistance", published in August 2000, the average length of project or programme implementation has continuously increased over the past few years. During the past five years, the average delay in disbursement of committed funds has increased from three to four and half years. The Committee concluded that that sort of backlog was untenable.

7.45 pm

The Committee was told of a number of examples of delays and inefficiencies in disbursement. Population Concern gave the Committee two examples of such

23 Jan 2002 : Column 956

delays. The first was a delay of 13 months in the disbursement of funds for four mini-projects in Bolivia and Peru. In the second example—a community-based distribution programme in Karachi—the funding situation became so dire that the director of a local NGO in Pakistan took out a personal loan to pay staff salaries, using her residence as collateral. As a result, partner NGOs have requested that Population Concern should seek no financing from the European Community in future.

Britain has an enviable record, built up over many years and many Governments, when it comes to international aid, and our aid agencies enjoy a similar reputation. Yet the Government seem to be attempting to sacrifice our good name on the altar of the EU overseas aid package.

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Gentleman is keen to lecture this Government, but will he reflect on the position when his party was in government? Does he recall that the proportion of the aid budget going through the EU when the Conservative Government left office was not 30 per cent. but 50 per cent. and rising? The reason it was rising was the Conservative Government cuts to our bilateral aid. Why did not the Conservative Government take the sort of action that the Labour Government are taking, together with the Commission, to improve the quality of British aid, when they had the opportunity to do so?

Mr. Baron: I find Labour Members' tendency to try to cover up—

Hugh Bayley: Answer the question.

Mr. Baron: I shall answer the question in my own way. Labour Members attempt to cover up their own failure by referring back to what happened five years previously and to the Conservative Government's record. I do not know about the hon. Gentleman, but I am more interested in the future than in the past. What is clear is that this Government, who are now in a position to do something about this, have done nothing about it in the past five years.

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Gentleman is generous enough to give way again. I simply make the point that these problems were manifest when his party was in government. Indeed, the problems were greater then, as a larger proportion of British aid went through the EU because the overall aid spend was lower, but the Conservative Government did nothing about it. We now have a Labour Government who, together with partners in other member states, are doing something about it. For instance, in May last year we got all the member states represented in the Council of Ministers to sign up to a declaration that poverty relief should be a prime goal of the EU aid programme. The Conservatives never did that, so we are making improvements. Will the hon. Gentleman support the Government in that?

Mr. Baron: Let me respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that the position with regard to the EU overseas aid package has been getting gradually worse. In 1987, for example, some 75 per cent. of the EU overseas aid package went to low-income countries. Today, that figure is 50 per cent. In reality, therefore, matters have been getting much worse in recent years. That is why it is important that the House focus its attention on the

23 Jan 2002 : Column 957

future rather than the past, and on what we can do to put matters right. There is no point in harking back to what happened five years ago. If anything, the situation is now worse and there is an even greater need for this Government, who have been in power for the past four and a half years, to put things right.

The Secretary of State has called the EU overseas aid package a "disgrace", yet it appears from press reports—I look forward to clarification of this when the Secretary of State addresses the House—that she has allowed the Government to distribute our Afghanistan reconstruction aid through the EU. That can only encourage the EU.

Meanwhile, the only target that the Government have published in their White Paper to measure the effectiveness of EU aid is for 2006. We must wait another four years before we can determine whether things are getting better. That is another four years during which money will be wasted, mismanagement will persist and lives will continue to be needlessly lost.

I believe that one of the main priorities of politics should be the relief of poverty, wherever it exists. I am sure that the vast majority of Members on both sides of the House agree: it is just that we differ as to the means of achieving that objective. When dealing with one of the most powerful tools to alleviate poverty, international aid, the Government allow the EU to play petty politics with the poor of the world. That shameful policy is costing lives today. We need the Government to act now to put that right before too many more lives are needlessly lost. I hope and pray that that happens. I remind the Government that actions speak louder than words. If they refuse to support new clause 3, they will be sending out a clear message that they are not prepared to act.

Next Section

IndexHome Page