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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 December 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Queen's Speech (Answer to Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows: I have received with great satisfaction the loyal and dutiful expression of your thanks for the Speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.

Double Taxation Relief

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows: I have received your Address praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Georgia) Order 2004 be made in the form of the draft laid before your House on 17 November in the last Session of Parliament. I will comply with your request.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of multilateral aid programmes on malaria eradication delivered through the European Union. [204696]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I welcome the European Community's pledge of more than €460 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which, together with the contributions of member states, makes the European Union the largest donor to the fund, 30 per cent. of which goes to malaria. The Commission has also allocated more than €350 million for research on vaccines, strengthened prevention methods and better treatment. Given that between 1 million and 3 million people die of malaria each year, however, clearly the international community, including the European Union, needs to do more. That is why we will take forward this issue next year, particularly during our presidency.
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Bob Spink: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, which shows that he understands the importance of malaria eradication. Malaria kills more children in Africa than HIV/AIDS. If we are to control our aid priorities and the effectiveness of that aid in tackling malaria and poverty, in Africa in particular, how can the Government justify giving control of a quarter of our aid budget to the European Union, which mismanages and hideously misallocates those funds on such a massive scale?

Mr. Gareth Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of making progress on tackling malaria. Some 90 per cent. of the 200 million to 500 million malaria cases each year are found in sub-Saharan Africa. I want to place on record my welcome for the all-party group on malaria that has been formed. On his wider point about the European Community, however, the hon. Gentleman needs to recognise the substantial progress that has been made in strengthening the internal management systems of the European Union, and needs to give a little more credit to the EU for the huge progress that it is making in helping to tackle poverty. As I said, the international community needs to do more on malaria, and we will take that forward next year.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The figures that the Minister has announced are most welcome, but does he accept that there is a lack of democratic control and accountability in relation to how EU funding of this kind is spent? Does he agree that such initiatives tend to run against the long-term, predictable aid flows that countries need, so that they can plan effectively over future years?

Mr. Thomas: I am afraid that, on this occasion, I do not agree with my hon. Friend that there is a lack of democratic scrutiny. He is well aware of the scrutiny processes in this House. I also want to pay tribute to the work of MEPs such as Glenys Kinnock, who are helping to push the European Union to do more on such issues. As I have indicated, we need to do more on this matter, which will be a priority for us during our presidency of the European Union, and I look forward to further discussions with my hon. Friend and other Members who are concerned about this issue.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh) (LD): I am grateful for the Minister's reply so far. He may recall, however, from a previous occasion in the House, that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and I have visited the Francophone parts of west Africa where malaria is rife, and the refugee camps in particular. It was pointed out to us that there was at least a 90 per cent. chance of refugees catching malaria within one year. The essence is avoiding the complacency that is sweeping into this area. A focus on aid is necessary, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in particular is making a plea now for this Government to work more closely with their counterparts in Liberia, from where the refugee crisis emanates, to help to eradicate these health problems. Will the Minister take that message back to his colleagues and do something about it?
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Mr. Thomas: There is absolutely no complacency in my Department or across Government about the threat that malaria poses. That is one of the reasons why we want to step up the work of the European Community and ourselves next year. I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that in Mozambique, for example, at the beginning of next year an £8.5 million programme will start to increase access to bed nets. We need to do more, including getting better progress on a malaria vaccine, which is some 10 years away. We are working with initiatives such as Roll Back Malaria to step up access to bed nets and artemisinin-based combination therapies and to find a malaria vaccine.

European Union Budget

2. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What action he will take following the European Anti-Fraud Office's fifth report on the European Union's budget concerning direct expenditure and external aid. [204697]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We take very seriously any accusations of fraud in European Commission aid programmes. Since 2000, we have made support for the reform of the EU's aid programmes and policies a central feature of our own policy. We will continue to support that process, in particular with a package of measures to continue to improve the Commission's financial management and accountability, and by pressing for the continued reform of the Commission's external assistance budget.

Angela Watkinson: The OLAF report on EU overseas aid contains some shocking examples of fraud. For example, £2 million intended for a water project in Lesotho ended up in the Swiss bank account of a local official. There are many other incidences. Instead of concentrating on reforming the procedures, would not it be better to take robust action to ensure that British overseas aid money actually reaches the poorest people in the world?

Mr. Thomas: I welcome the OLAF report from the anti-fraud office, which, as the hon. Lady says, highlights a number of very worrying examples, including the one from Lesotho. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased about the robust action the Lesotho Government are taking to deal with the allegations of corruption, with the support of the anti-fraud office. No doubt she will also be pleased that the European Union is seeking, with our support, to strengthen its financial management systems and modernise its accounting systems—including its computer systems—still further.

Although those systems need to be strengthened further, we should recognise that the vast bulk of European Community aid goes where it needs to go, and is making a substantial difference to the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): As probably the only Member who has actually written an EU development aid budget, I fully appreciate the
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deficiencies and problems involved, but there are also benefits. Perhaps my hon. Friend could identify some of them.

Mr. Thomas: We must continue to champion reform, but the European Union and member states are already making a difference, particularly through the contributions to the global fund. That has levered in substantial extra money from the United States and other donors for the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The humanitarian and development assistance that the European Community is helping to fund in countries as diverse as Haiti, Kosovo and Sudan is, as I said, making a genuine, important difference to the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): No one denies that some of the EU money is well spent, but the OLAF report gives other examples, such as the £10 million that has disappeared through one Italian non-governmental organisation, and the disappearance of 90 per cent. of the money intended to help water projects in Paraguay. The OLAF report refers to

Is not it time we repatriated some of this money so that it can be better spent where it should be spent?

Mr. Thomas: Repatriation of EC aid would be a complete disaster. It would lead undoubtedly to lower levels of development assistance world wide. Given that we are currently off track to meet the millennium development goals, that is probably just about the worst thing we could do.

We need to make more progress in tackling fraud and, as I have said, the EU is taking steps to strengthen its financial systems with our support. The vast bulk of EU aid gets to where it is needed. Given that the Conservative party was responsible for the worst misuse of British development assistance, the Pergau dam affair, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman and his party are in any position to dish out lectures on development.

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