Barcelona Process and Assistance to Palestinian Society

[back to previous text]

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Mine is a simple procedural question. Not for the first time recently, there has been a long delay between the reference from the Select Committee and the meeting of this Committee to discuss matters. Delay is understandable in the present instance, but can my right hon. Friend expand a little on the reasons? The matter was referred in July and some of the documents date from a year or even two years ago. We should scrutinise such matters more quickly.

Peter Hain: I understand my hon. Friend's concern; perhaps it would help him and the rest of the Committee if I set out the chronology. The debate was originally requested before the general election. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was happy for it to take place. However, as scrutiny clearance was not required—the document was an information only document—we were content for the debate to happen in due course, when it was mutually convenient. As you will be aware, Mr. Amess, the Scrutiny Committee linked together two documents, one from DFID and one from the FCO. Today was the only day on which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development and I could find time, at

Column Number: 5

the convenience of the Committee, to attend the debate. Otherwise it would have been put off until late February. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) that there was no evil intent. It was just one of those things.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Can the Minister enlighten the Committee about the state of the infrastructure for the reliable supply of water to the Palestinian National Authority? Are there any projects in which the process that we are considering might be used to improve things? To what extent is the PNA dependent on third parties for its water supply, putting it at the mercy of any action by them?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn attention to a matter of concern. We are working on the issue through the United Kingdom bilateral programme, which will this year total £14 million in the West Bank and Gaza—an increase on last year's figure of £8 million. We are also offering increased support to UNRWA, which will total £25 million this year. That includes work on water supply, including a particularly important project on which we are co-operating with the Palestinian authority in Hebron.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): I am grateful for the reply that my hon. Friend the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North. It is one of the frustrations of work on this Committee that we sometimes find that we are scrutinising historical documents. However, that is better than the alternative, when we occasionally find that we are to scrutinise documents that have not yet been written, or that exist only in a French version in Brussels.

Given that the document is a year old, will my hon. Friend comment on whether improvements have been undertaken in the past year to the European Union's management of its foreign aid budget, which might go some way towards tackling the questions raised in the documents?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak about the process of the reform that the European Union has undertaken. For reasons that I outlined a moment ago, considerable and understandable concern has been expressed, and is reflected in the documents, about ineffective operations in the past. There is especial concern about the programme in Gaza and the West Bank, where there is an increasing disparity between the commitments and the actual expenditure, which has grown increasingly large.

There has been structural reform, with Relex taking responsibility for the overall strategy for aid, and EuropeAid, which was set up last year, the responsibility for managing the programme.

As for the backlog, a concerted effort has been made to reconsider commitments that, more than five years after their instigation, have not been spent, and to write them off the books. That backlog was cut by 51 per cent. last year. Discussion is taking place about a possible new financial regulation that would introduce a sunset clause, as the jargon has it, which would bring that five-year wiping-off timetable down to two or

Column Number: 6

three years. That would create a pressure to ensure that money that is committed is spent without inordinate delay.

There has been a reduction in the number of contract types: there used to be 30 different contracts, and now there are four. A streamlined system has been created to deal with the process of tendering for aid. ECHO, the EC's emergency response organisation, has been restructured.

In addition, there is a process that the EC describes as ''deconcentration'', although I would prefer to use the word ''delegation''. Our experience in DFID has been that one can increase the effectiveness of an aid operation by having those responsible for administering the programme on the ground in the country in question. In relation to the EC office in Jerusalem, it has been agreed in principle that deconcentration and the process of increasing the number of staff should take place this year. That will lead to a significant increase in the number of staff on the ground who have responsibility for overseeing the programmes and providing technical support.

Having said all that, I should add that it remains to be seen how effective the new arrangements are in overcoming difficulties of which all members of the Committee are aware. We shall continue to monitor carefully, as it is in everyone's interest that we spend as effectively as possible the substantial sums of money that the EC makes available for aid generally, and especially in relation to Gaza and the West Bank. We must make sure that that money is spent in the interests of the people who really need that support.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): My party and I are committed to support for the Palestinian Authority, and we recognise the effect of the intifada and the unwarranted actions of the Israeli state. As a new member of the Committee, I have considered the documents and I have read about the sorry tale of under-management or non-existent management of some projects. The staff resource on one project fell from six to one. Given the Minister's last answer, how confident is he that that is in the past, and that projects will be managed better in the future?

Hilary Benn: As I said a moment ago in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, our view is that the Commission is moving in the right direction. Recognition has been made that the weaknesses, to which the hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention, need to be addressed. The right structures are being created but, as is often the case with a reform process, much depends on how effectively it is implemented and to what extent the arrangements that are put in place are carried through.

Success depends especially on the quality of staff on the ground—a point that we have discussed with the Commission. Someone whose job in Brussels was to process paper—such jobs need to be done, and I mean no disrespect—will find that the responsibility for managing a programme is a different challenge. The Commission has recognised the need to ensure that staff with the right skills and attributes are put into

Column Number: 7

such positions, especially in the delegated offices, because that is the best way of ensuring that there is the capacity to manage projects effectively.

Richard Burden: I too want to talk about staffing. I fully accept what the Minister said about management being a multi-faceted problem, involving processes, skills and many other factors. Will he, however, comment on the issue of staff numbers? Paragraph 4.11 on page xxiii of the Scrutiny Committee's seventh report, which refers to paragraph 31 of the Court of Auditors report, says:

    ''The report records that in 1994 the Representative to the Occupied Territories, who had been based in Brussels, moved to Jerusalem. As the Israeli authorities were not prepared to allow the Commission Representative to open and operate an office in that capacity, the European Commission Technical Assistance Office—ECTAO—was set up to manage the aid programme. Its activities were taken over in 1998 by the EC Representative Office—ECRO. It took the Commission five months to appoint a new Representative in 2000, leaving one official to manage all the activities.''

Is my hon. Friend aware of any other situation in which an administrative authority, let alone an occupying authority, says to the EU, ''It's up to us to determine how many people you send over here and what you will be allowed to do to operate your projects.'' Is that attitude not problematic?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. He rightly draws attention to the particular difficulties with the Commission's representative office in Jerusalem. It might be helpful if I tell him, in addition to what I have already said, that delegation/deconcentration is due to start this year.

Reinforcing the number of staff was dependent upon the negotiations. Those were concluded in June 2001 and clearance was given by the Israeli authorities to increase the staff in the current year. It was agreed that the office could employ up to nine more expatriate staff, consisting of two additional officials for contract and financial management and seven sector experts replacing the current MEDA technical assistance team. That would increase the total number of European expatriate staff in the office to 17, to be assisted by a more than equal number of local staff. The total number of staff in the office would then exceed 35. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that when implemented, that will represent a considerable increase in the available resources.

In addition, in 2001 the staff of the Commission's Jerusalem office was reinforced by what is known as a detached national expert—the term does not reflect on the nature of the postholder's application to their task—from the United Kingdom, and an additional technical assistant.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 23 January 2002