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House of Commons

Wednesday 2 February 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Education Provision

1. Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): How his Department is helping to provide education for the poorest children. [212228]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The Government are committed to help to get as many boys as girls into school by 2005, and all children into primary school by 2015. Last week, I published "Girls' education: towards a better future for all", which sets out our plans to spend £1.4 billion on education over the next three years. That money will support partner Governments, including those that want to get rid of school fees, as well as the fast-track initiative and UNICEF's girls' education initiative.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and congratulate him and his Department on their work. It is, however, a sobering thought that more than 100 million children are currently without education, over half of them young women. Will my right hon. Friend expand on what education projects he is involved in to help young women who face barriers that young men may not face?

Hilary Benn: That is an extremely important question. Most children who are not in school with a teacher, a classroom and a desk are indeed girls. A practical example of our projects is the one on which we are embarking with UNICEF in Nigeria, focusing on states in the north of the country. It will involve, for instance, buying school uniforms to help to get girls into school. That is one of the obstacles that families face—not just formal school fees, where they exist, but the cost of books, materials and uniforms.

We need people to knock on the door in the morning and say, "Come on, we are off to school", to make sure that girls attend. It is also important to deal with problems of water and sanitation. If there are no separate toilets for girls, many parents will not let their
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girls go to school. The same applies if there is no clean water. There is also the problem of girls who have to work.

We are trying to deal with all those issues and we are increasing investment substantially to give Governments the capacity to provide the education that children deserve.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD): The Secretary of State will know that to qualify for debt relief, Uganda had to introduce fees for primary education. As a result, many children, especially girls, did not receive any education during that period. Will the Secretary of State assure us that other countries and other children will not suffer the same fate to qualify for debt relief ?

Hilary Benn: Whatever has been done in the past, there is absolutely no point in providing debt relief if one of the consequences is that it becomes more difficult for children to go to school. That is why we have said that if the developing country Governments whom we are helping to send more children to school with our increased investment want to abolish fees, we will support them.

I can give another example of what we have already done. When Kenya's new Government, elected in 2002, wanted to get rid of school fees, we helped to pay the cost—Britain paid £10 million—along with other countries. As a result, 1.2 million more children are now at school with desks, textbooks and teachers than was the case in 2002. That is a practical expression of our commitment.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend look into the lack of provision of village schools in Mirpur, an area in Azad Kashmir? In fact, I am motivated by enlightened self-interest: the provision of such schools where there are none would assist the economic well-being of my constituency.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend raises an important point about the need to ensure that education is provided everywhere, including in rural areas—not least because we know that sending girls to school improves their health. They will have fewer children, who will grow up healthier and will be more likely to go to school themselves when they reach school age.

We are working with the Pakistan Government, helping them to improve health and education. We are currently working with particular states on which we are focusing our effort, but I am very conscious of the importance of rural education everywhere, including in Azad Kashmir.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that policy on development assistance is not just a matter of the total quantum of development aid from the Government? Is it not—perhaps more important—also about the quality of the aid programmes that are supported? What the right hon. Gentleman has said about the importance of education as part of the development programme is welcome, but can he tell us what he is doing to ensure that the same importance is attached to education in the
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aid programmes of our multilateral aid partners, particularly the European Union and the United Nations?

Hilary Benn: I agree about the importance of not just increased but better, more effective aid. In the near future we will meet in Paris to address precisely the question that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, to ensure that all aid—including the increased aid that is being provided—is used as effectively as possible.

In ideal circumstances, if a developing country partner Government have the capacity to use aid effectively to implement their own plans to get children into school—and much of our work is intended to improve that capacity—that is the best course of action. If we have to work in other ways because the capacity is not there or because we cannot trust the other Government to use the aid effectively, we will use other methods as well. As the right hon. Gentleman says, however, all of us—bilateral and multilateral donors—must ensure that every pound, dollar and euro that we put in has the maximum effect in achieving objectives that the whole House will share.

UN Reform

2. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the implications for international development of the high level panel's recommendations for reform of the UN. [212229]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I welcome the report of the high level panel, which, together with the report of the UN millennium project, will be discussed at the UN millennium review summit in September. Both reports stress that security and development are closely interlinked: neither is possible without the other. In particular, I welcome the proposal for a peacebuilding commission to enable the UN to help prevent or resolve conflict. The Government plan to launch a public consultation on the panel's findings later this month.

Chris Bryant: The panel's excellent report makes the point that poverty and infectious diseases pose just as much of a threat to international security as serious crime and terrorism. It also makes the point that there is not enough co-ordination of international development around the world and that the UN still has some way to go to ensure that co-ordination is always effective. How do the Government view proposals to change the UN, so that we can ensure that international development is at the top of the priority list?

Hilary Benn: The millennium summit in September will provide an opportunity for the world to focus on all those questions. The UN is only as strong and effective as its member states permit it to be. That is certainly the case when it comes to taking decisions in the UN Security Council about what action to take in respect of states that are failing. From a development point of view, we must be interested in the issues that were raised by the high level panel in dealing with conflict. Many poor people live in states that have failed, are failing or are being destabilised by AIDS, TB, malaria, systems that do not work and Governments who do not function
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effectively. All of us have a responsibility to use the opportunity that the debate around the high level panel will present to ask ourselves questions about the effectiveness of what we do and the effectiveness of the international system that we have created.

On humanitarian issues, my hon. Friend may be aware that I have made some specific proposals to reform the way in which the UN works because I think that we could do it better.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he accept that we have gone through a period in which the United Nations has been destabilised and devalued because of unilateral decisions on security, and that there is an opportunity now to establish the UN again as the principal organ for international development and aid and to deal with the problems in a balanced way, so that security considerations for individual countries do not undermine its power in the international development sector? Will he give a commitment that our Government will try to do everything possible to put the UN back at the centre of international politics?

Hilary Benn: As my hon. Friend knows, Britain has for a long time been a very strong supporter of the UN. It is the best instrument that we have for trying to deal with the difficult questions that the world faces. However, that does not take away from the responsibility that we face collectively, through the UN, to live up to the principles in the charter that was established at the end of the second world war to provide protection, support and help to those in need. As he knows, those are very difficult questions, on which member states sometimes disagree, but we must ask how we can make the system more effective. The UN should be in the lead, as it has been in responding to the earthquake and tsunami on Boxing day.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): When the Secretary of State launches his consultation, will he ensure that there is extensive consultation on the panel's call for global public health capacity to be rebuilt, and that the Indian Government in particular are involved? Their Health Minister stated yesterday that emigration of health specialists from India to the United Kingdom is having a damaging effect on their health system. Indeed, no fewer than 9,000 of them emigrated in 2003 to the UK.

Hilary Benn: We certainly welcome participation in and responses to the consultation from all who want to contribute, including other Governments if they are so inclined. The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue about health capacity. The question that developing country Governments are increasingly asking themselves, rightly, is: why are people leaving? He knows the answer. It is to do with poor pay, working conditions and the lack of opportunity to use the medical knowledge that their training has given them. In some cases, it is to do with the lack of accommodation to work as a GP in a rural community. We must address those questions, as well as strengthen, as we are doing, the code of practice in the UK to ensure that we do not recruit directly from developing countries. However, unless the factors that drive people to
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leave developing countries and to work elsewhere are addressed, countries will find it difficult to hang on to the skilled health professionals whom they have trained.

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