International Development Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): I fully concur with the hon. Member for Richmond Park. In truth, if we were to include reconstruction in the clause, the entire humanitarian aid budget could be taken over by one country's need for reconstruction. That is not the purpose of the clause. It deals with humanitarian assistance. Of course, reconstruction is vital; but I agree that it must be paid from another budget.

Hilary Benn: I believe that all members of the Committee agree with what the hon. Member for Richmond Park said about reconstruction. However, as she will be aware, clause 3 provides for assistance to be given as an immediate response to disasters or emergencies in a way that may not necessarily contribute to a reduction in poverty. That is precisely why clause 3 is separate from the test that applies to general development aid provided under clause 1.

We should do nothing to put at risk our capacity to respond speedily and flexibly to humanitarian crises, but to achieve that the exception has to be carefully defined. That is our worry about the amendment. Reconstruction after immediate emergencies can cover a wide range of activities, and it can take a long time, but it is not easily distinguishable from normal processes of sustainable development. The restrictions that we place on the purposes of development assistance should apply equally to reconstruction.

One reservation that we have is that the amendment could be used to allow the tying of assistance to the reconstruction or rehabilitation of infrastructure. Clause 3 is not tied to the definition set out in clause 1. We had an extensive debate about the Bill's poverty focus, and about promoting welfare and sustainable development, and concern was expressed on both sides of the Committee that tied aid should not be permitted. Clause 3 is not subject to the test laid out in clause 1, so the amendment would allow a future Secretary of State to say that assistance was being given for reconstruction in order not to be fettered by the provisions of clause 1. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Meriden to withdraw the amendment.

11 am

Mrs. Spelman: I hear what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee are saying, but they can see that I am driving at the fact that we have not always been good at reconstruction. We seem not to have learned the lesson: we may intervene in countries, as we have just done in Afghanistan, but the ordinary people there will never believe that we are serious about meaning them well if we are not prepared to repair some of the damage left behind—even if it was not all the result of military intervention and even if much of it preceded the events of 11 September.

The amendment seeks to probe the Government on where in legislation we can show our resolve; we must ensure that when we talk about Marshall plans for other countries, we see them through. However, I do not want to undermine the purpose of clause 3, which is to allow the Department to respond to disasters rapidly and with resources. For that reason, I shall not press the amendment. However, we shall probably seek another opportunity to raise the question of reconstruction, because deep down, I am not satisfied that it is properly catered for. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Spelman: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 11, at end add—

    `(2) The Secretary of State shall make arrangements to ensure that humanitarian assistance provided under subsection (1) which is provided via other agencies or bodies shall comply with the standards as to effectiveness and probity set down in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 14A, in page 2, line 11, at end add—

    `(2) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the provision of humanitarian aid shall make no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinion.'.

Mrs. Spelman: Amendment No. 7 aims to ensure that humanitarian assistance provided by agencies and bodies complies with internationally agreed standards. My thinking has been shaped by recent events, and aid agency reports that the refugee camps in Pakistan, where a big influx of Afghan refugees was expected, do not meet internationally accepted standards. When I looked into the matter, I discovered that the aid agencies were signed up to minimum international standards on disaster response known as the Sphere standards. I feel strongly that this is an important aspect of the Bill. Taxpayers' money provides humanitarian assistance, but we will obtain a bad name if the standard of assistance is not acceptable. I am sure that we can all remember the public response to the sight of refugee camps in the Balkans, which clearly did not meet acceptable standards; we were discomfited by the pictures and said that we should not let it happen again. The amendment would ensure that internationally accepted standards were achieved in refugee camps.

In the White Paper ``Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century'', the Government said that a multitude of factors involved in humanitarian work underlined the importance of international co-operation based on sound principles. Hence the Government were going to encourage a ``system-wide agreement'' on common performance standards and a ``code of ethical conduct'' for organisations involved in humanitarian work and would seek to implement guidelines already agreed within the OECD. The Government said that they would work for and co-operate with the more efficient multilateral humanitarian system, building on the organisations and NGOs. Acceptance of the Sphere standards would allow us to put those fine words into practice.

The Sphere project was launched by a group of humanitarian agencies in 1997, the year that the White Paper was published. The project has developed a humanitarian charter and a set of universal minimum standards in core areas of humanitarian assistance, including water supply and sanitation, nutrition, shelter and site planning, food aid and health services. The aim of the project is to improve the quality of assistance provided to people affected by disasters, and to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian system in disaster response.

Those aims are entirely laudable, and I hope that the Minister might feel that it would be possible to incorporate such an improvement in the Bill.

Hilary Benn: First, on amendment No. 7, I want to talk about the structure of the Bill. Clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to provide humanitarian assistance in response to a disaster or other emergency. Assistance under the clause is not limited to ``development assistance'', as defined in clause 1, nor is there any requirement for the assistance to be likely to contribute to the reduction of poverty. In fact, clause 3 does not use the term ``humanitarian assistance'', which is as a consequence not defined in the Bill. Instead, the clause refers to ``natural or man-made'' disasters or other emergencies, and limits the purpose of assistance to alleviating their effects on the population of a country outside the United Kingdom.

Amendment No. 7 would place the Secretary of State under a duty to apply standards of ``effectiveness and probity'', with specific reference to the Sphere standards. DFID supports those standards, to which we are signed up. However, as hon. Members may be aware, they provide a detailed manual on the running and operation of humanitarian assistance and refugee camps.

How desirable is it that the Bill refer to those detailed standards? It would be unwise for it to do so. What would happen if the Sphere standards were overtaken by new standards? We would be stuck with the legislation and its specific references to Sphere. That could put a Secretary of State in difficulty.

I accept the motivation underlying the amendment, but it would be better not to include such a reference. The Secretary of State can provide that specific conditions are attached to the aid that we give, which allows us the means to lever up standards and to encourage the following of requirements such as those in the Sphere document.

I understand that amendment No. 14A is grouped with amendment No. 7.

Mrs. Spelman: The two amendments are separate but I understand why they have been linked, as they both deal with the incorporation of the idea behind the Vienna proclamation of the international conference of the Red Cross. It was made in 1965, and the idea behind it was that acceptable standards should be reached and there should be no discrimination when public money was given to provide humanitarian assistance to refugee camps.

Hilary Benn: I am grateful for that explanation.

I want to make a further point about the Sphere standards. We could write into the legislation the fact that we subscribed to them, but we should remember that we did not draw them up. If they were to be changed in future by their authors in a way of which we did not approve and to which we did not consent, we would be committed to follow standards that we might not support. That is a further reason why it is undesirable to accept the amendment.

The second point relates to amendment No. 14A and the need to impose strict standards of impartiality. The Secretary of State already imposes standards on those who carry out activities on her behalf and is accountable to Parliament for the exercise of those powers. DFID devotes significant resources to ensuring that its systems and procedures and those of its partners are effective and transparent. All direct and indirect expenditure is subject to scrutiny by our internal audit department, the National Audit Office and Parliament, through the Select Committee on International Development and the Public Accounts Committee.

It may help the Committee if I say that the Secretary of State has consistently affirmed her commitment to impartial humanitarianism and has made it clear that we do not see humanitarian assistance as a political lever in situations of conflict and conflict management. We have published an ethical framework for our humanitarian assistance, which includes the principle of impartiality and a commitment to seek to relieve the suffering of non-combatants without discrimination on political or other grounds and with priority given to the most urgent cases of distress.

To embed such principles in legislation would, however, require our response to every disaster to be formally appraised to ensure compliance with strict impartiality. Amendment No. 14A could make it impossible for DFID to contribute to a multilateral relief effort in a complex emergency in which different donors focused on different geographical areas and, therefore, on different groups of people in need. The legal duty of impartiality that the amendment would impose could also open up the possibility that individual decisions about humanitarian relief could be subject to challenge in the courts. One group might believe that it should have received a larger share of assistance than it did.

Both amendments would create difficulties by placing statutory constraints on the Secretary of State's response to a crisis, which could prevent her from taking quick and effective action. They could also place a layer of bureaucracy on top of the process, which, as all members of the Committee will agree, we do not need in humanitarian emergencies. The hon. Member for Meriden and others who saw the Select Committee on International Development take evidence from relief agencies on the current emergency in Afghanistan will have heard Catherine Bertini of the World Food Programme, Carol Bellamy of UNICEF and others praise the speed and flexibility of the DFID response. The Committee should think carefully before unintentionally imposing layers of bureaucracy or the potential for legal challenge on top of a system that is designed to enable the Secretary of State to take decisions—and, therefore, the country to respond—as swiftly and effectively as possible to humanitarian emergencies. Such decisions will be taken bearing in mind the commitment that the Government have clearly given to act on a non-discriminatory basis and with regard to the issues that the hon. Lady rightly raised. I think that we are at one on the issue, but given the practical difficulties, I urge her to reconsider pressing the amendment to a vote.

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