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House of Commons

Wednesday 29 June 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—


1. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Whether the UK's position on aid for Ethiopia has changed as a consequence of (a) border hostilities with Eritrea and (b) uncertainty over the recent election results; and if he will make a statement. [7781]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The UK's position on the border question between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains that the boundary commission decision is final and binding and that both parties should discuss the issues that separate them. On the Ethiopian elections, we have made clear our view that the complaints investigation process should be completed as soon as possible, that the deaths resulting from civil disturbances should be investigated and that those detained should either be released or charged. Until the situation is clearer, I am putting on hold plans to increase budget support this year by £20 million.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for the Secretary of State's answer, because those of us who are familiar with Ethiopia will know that the most progress that has been made in that country has come since the end of 21 years of conflict with Eritrea and a return to democratic processes of sorts, and yet 100,000 Ethiopian troops are posturing on the border, and almost two months after a general election there is no result, with many anticipating that it was won by the opposition. Can he tell me what steps he will take in the future to remind the Ethiopian Government that British and other aid is in part contingent on an avoidance of military conflict and a promotion of democratic processes in that country, which are most of all in the interests of the Ethiopian people?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. When I was in Ethiopia two weeks ago I spent an hour with Prime Minister Meles discussing those issues. The decision that I have taken to hold for the time being the increase in budget support is in recognition of the real crisis there. Currently, there is no election result, with
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many claims and many complaints about the electoral process. The only way to resolve those, and to allow the voice of the Ethiopian people to be heard, is for the national election board to complete its work. In the meantime, we very much hope that the countries will not return to fighting each other, because the real issue in Ethiopia is fighting poverty.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): As someone who has also been to Ethiopia and met Prime Minister Meles, as I understand it, the general election results will be made known on 8 July. Is the Secretary of State saying that, notwithstanding those results, he will give no further aid until he is satisfied in relation to those who are in prison?

Hilary Benn: A large number of people who were      arrested have now been released—about 2,700 according to our best estimate—and about 1,500 people are still in detention. My hon. Friend is right that 8 July is the date by which the result is supposed to be declared, but given that 140 complaints have now been approved by the national election board for investigation, and that there is a full process to allow those investigations to take place, including rights to appeal, it is hard to see the results being declared by 8 July. What everyone wants is for the process to proceed to a successful conclusion—namely, the voice of the people being heard and the results being declared. In the circumstances, it is right to wait and watch and to see what the outcome is.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I would normally pay tribute to the Secretary of State's deep interest in Ethiopia, and he has carried out a great deal of useful work. I am concerned, however, that he has now put on hold the increase in assistance to Ethiopia. It is true that there has been an unfortunate incident, which is being investigated, but we need to recognise how far Ethiopia has come in the past few years, and we ought to encourage that country. Elections have recently taken place in Ethiopia, and yes, there are complaints, but we must recognise that for the first time those elections were open to international observers, many of whom were complimentary. Can I therefore suggest that the Secretary of State examine the situation closely? Can I also—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Hilary Benn: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's close interest in Ethiopia and agree with him that until polling day and what happened afterwards, the election process was quite remarkable, with 1 million people demonstrating in Addis and the opposition winning every seat in the capital and having access to the media for the first time. In the context of the history of Ethiopia, that was an extraordinary change, which makes the violence and arrests, including of workers of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the main opposition party, who are needed to participate in the national election board process, a source of such concern. I can assure him, however, that I will keep a close eye on the situation and that we remain firmly committed to our development partnership with Ethiopia, as the challenges are enormous.
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Currently, through support to the safety net programme of £70 million over three years, we are helping to give food and money to people so that they can improve their lives.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State agree that irrespective of boundary disputes or elections, the overwhelming, underlying problem in Ethiopia is the starvation of ordinary people? When he was visiting the country two weeks ago, did he share the experience of some people from Northern Ireland, teachers and past pupils, who went there to build a village school? When they got there and saw young children falling by the wayside, suffering from malnutrition and blind from lack of nurturing, they decided that their role should instead be to come home and raise money to feed those people. On their way out of that village, mothers pleaded with them to take their children back to Ireland. Will the Minister make every endeavour at the G8 summit to ensure that, irrespective of Government interventions and misdeeds, ordinary people get food in their tummies?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. According to the current estimate, about 10 million people need food aid. The number goes up or down each year, depending on the harvest and the rains.

The safety net programme that I mentioned in my last answer is a practical expression of our determination to work with the Ethiopian Government to provide support. I applaud all who are working in whatever way—whether helping to provide education or raising funds for relief and humanitarian support—because this is a country in which many people live on the margins of existence every single day of every single year. That is why the chance of development for Ethiopia is so important, and that is why a proper outcome of the democratic process would be the best way of helping the country to have a better future.

Good Governance

2. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that UK aid rewards good governance in the developing world. [7782]

3. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that UK aid rewards good governance in the developing world. [7783]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Good governance is essential to reducing poverty, and we take account of governance in allocating UK aid. DFID is supporting action against corruption, the reform of public financial management and improved accountability and transparency, through, for example, the extractive industries transparency initiative. We are also assisting the African peer review mechanism.

Alistair Burt: The Secretary of State's suspension of the increase in aid to Ethiopia is a mark of his concern about governance there. It contrasts markedly with the Home Secretary's failure to make a similar gesture in response to concern about Zimbabwe. But in the event of a major humanitarian crisis involving famine and homelessness in Zimbabwe, how will the Secretary of
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State achieve the difficult balance of supporting those in need while not indirectly rewarding the perpetrator of the original injustice?

Hilary Benn: We do that in Zimbabwe. In the past we have supported a programme of food aid, along with others in the international community. Following the disgraceful demolition of homes, which has cast people out on to the street in the cold, we have so far given $570,000 to the International Organisation for Migration and, most recently, to UNICEF, to provide practical assistance for those who have lost their homes. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we also have an HIV/AIDS programme in Zimbabwe, which we operate through non-governmental organisations and others. As he will also know, we do not give any financial assistance directly to the Zimbabwe Government.

Mr. Mackay: May we have an absolute guarantee that in the case of a barbarous regime like Mugabe's in Zimbabwe, which is doing horrendous things to its people—as we see with the demolition of all those homes—all our financial aid goes only to NGOs, and nothing whatever is allowed to go to a Government who would politically manipulate aid to their own ends?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to give that assurance. We work through others. The case of Zimbabwe demonstrates that our concern for good governance is reflected in the decisions that we make through our aid programme about the way in which we give our support, but ultimately the fact that the people of a country have a rotten Government should not prevent them from receiving appropriate financial assistance, and we will continue to provide it.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend had more time to consider last year's report from the International Development Committee, which referred to the Africa Commission's work on good government? In particular, has he noted the Committee's views on the Swedish model and its recommendation on systematic reporting to Parliament on these issues?

Hilary Benn: My right hon. Friend has raised an important point. This is one step that we are taking: our agreements with aid partners, in which each side undertakes to make commitments, will now be displayed on the DFID website. That is our own act of transparency, showing people the basis on which we make decisions about aid.

The report adopted by the Swedish Government also reflects the importance of ensuring that all the steps that we are taking, involving aid, debt relief and trade, are consistent so that we can support development, including good governance.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Whilst it is enormously important to support good governance in developing countries, along with the building of integrity structures, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that the rich countries in the   developed world stopped poaching medial staff from the developing world? Does he further agree with
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the chairman of the British Medical Association that the G8 ought to support a commitment to ensuring that the developing world is self-sufficient in medical staff?

Hilary Benn: This is a very important issue, and my hon. Friend will be aware of the code of practice that the Department of Health has adopted, which has recently been extended, by agreement, to the private recruitment agencies. It is leading the world in saying that we will not recruit directly from developing countries, but we must recognise that the second step that we can take is to support developing countries in trying to address the causes of doctors, nurses and others leaving those countries and taking their skills elsewhere. As the House will know, those causes are principally poor pay, poor working conditions, and lack of opportunity for career and professional development. So what will really make a difference in the long term is the aid that we give to support developing countries in building their health services, paying their doctors and nurses more, and providing better working conditions, housing and the drugs with which to work.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I recently attended a presentation in Northern Ireland on the report of the Commission for Africa. Some of the non-governmental organisations represented at that meeting expressed concern about the failure of international Governments to address the issue of education, even though targets have been set. Last year, I, like many other Members, visited schools to promote the objectives that the international community has set to improve education in developing countries. Can the Minister give us an update on what our Government are doing to ensure that education is a priority in the effort to improve governance in the continent of Africa, and in other developing parts of the world?

Hilary Benn: The first thing that we are doing over the next three years is investing, bilaterally and through our contributions to multilateral development agencies, £1.4 billion in education. We are seeing some progress, including in Kenya, which has abolished school fees in the past couple of years. Kenya now has a million more children in school, and we helped to pay for that through our increased aid, with the support of other donors. That shows that such countries do want to make progress in tackling the obstacles that prevent children from attending school. But in Africa, more than 40 million children are not where they ought to be today—in a school classroom with a teacher and a desk. That makes the discussion in the run-up to the G8 and the increased aid to which Europe is now committed so important. It is a way in which—along with debt relief—we can provide very practical assistance, so that finance and education Ministers can be confident that they have the money they need to employ the teachers, build the classrooms and buy the textbooks, thereby getting those remaining children into school.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State explain a little more about the criteria for good governance, and can he name a few of the countries to which he will apply those criteria?

Hilary Benn: The criteria are first, that the money that we give in aid should go towards poverty reduction;
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secondly, that human rights and international obligations are upheld; and thirdly, that there is strong financial management and action on corruption. We write such conditions into our aid agreements. We have already discussed Ethiopia, and I have decided to hold back some of the budget support in respect of Uganda and Sierra Leone, because progress there has not been sufficiently great. We are also working in countries such as Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Zambia to provide practical support for the anti-corruption commissions, because tacking corruption is fundamental to good governance.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that while everyone at Live8 in Edinburgh on Saturday and around the country will be wishing the British agenda every success at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, hard-working British taxpayers will insist that extra money for aid be spent precisely in the way intended, rather than being siphoned off—as has happened all too often in the past—into the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt African leaders?

Hilary Benn: I do indeed accept that British taxpayers and those attending the concert will want to be reassured on that issue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Britain has, in truth, a pretty good record in this regard. We take decisions on the way in which we give our aid according to our assessment of the circumstances, and we are very vigorous in monitoring how that money is used. The hon. Gentleman will also recognise that there has to be a strong lead from the developing countries themselves. That is why I welcome the steps that Nigeria, for example—a country that has suffered grievously from corruption in the past—is now taking to bring those who are acting corruptly to book, and to reform the running of public finances.

Mr. Mitchell: We all strongly agree with that. If we are to build on the good governance provisions first set up under the last Conservative Government by Chris Patten and Lynda Chalker, will the Secretary of State consider additional structural ways of promoting the audit, accountability and, above all, the transparency of aid spending so that taxpayers around the world, as well as poor people in Africa, can be reassured that aid funds are being well spent?

Hilary Benn: I agree: there is an obligation on all of us to be able to demonstrate to our constituencies and our own Parliaments, as we do in the UK, how our aid money is used. I am committed to transparency, but I am also committed to it on the part of our partners. That is why the UK launched the extractive industries transparency initiative, which is all about encouraging oil and mineral extracting companies to be open about the payments they make to developing country Governments, and encouraging those Governments subsequently to be open about the money that they receive. With that openness comes a better functioning democracy, because it means that people in developing countries can ask their Governments what they have done with the money.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we followed the advice of Conservative Members, we could end up removing aid
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from some of the most vulnerable people in the third world? If they really believe what they are telling us, perhaps they should appear in front of the conference centre housing the G8 conference with placards saying, "Make Poverty Permanent"!

Hilary Benn: I would say to my hon. Friend that we all want to make poverty reduction permanent. I believe that good governance is fundamental to making progress in reducing poverty. There is no question about that whatever, and we should all be in favour of transparency and openness about the way in which aid money is used. We are giving increased development assistance because we want to help developing countries, but progress will sometimes be fitful. In the end, we have to make a judgment about whether a country is moving in the right direction. That, in the end, should be the fundamental judgment that determines the aid that we give, and I hope that the Opposition will support that approach.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): While hectoring others on governance, will the Secretary of State reassure the House that Britain will itself sign up, and will encourage other G8 nations to sign up, to the United Nations convention against corruption? Will he also assure us that the Government's practices on arms sales will ensure that—in future, unlike at present—we do not provide arms to regimes in developing countries that are persistently abusing human rights?

Hilary Benn: On arms sales, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Export Control Act 2002 provides a very strong framework, under which we take decisions based on the purpose for which the weapons will be used. If they are to be used for conflict or internal repression, we refuse licences. On the UN convention, we are committed to ratifying it, we have tightened up our money laundering legislation and we have given the UK courts jurisdiction over UK nationals who engage in bribery overseas. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 will allow for the speedier freezing of assets and we are now putting in place better arrangements to help developing countries to repatriate money that has been stolen from them. All those are indications of our commitment to act to tackle corruption.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept, as I think he will, that the issue is extremely complex? To anticipate today's Question 6, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), does the Secretary of State agree that we also have to avoid imposing unreasonable restrictions on how the Governments of developing countries perform? What we are trying to do is to make them honest while respecting their right to independence. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Hilary Benn: Yes, I do. When it comes to economic policy conditionality, the new policy document which I published in March makes it very clear that it is inappropriate for us to enforce particular policy choices. However, when it comes to human rights and good governance, I believe that it is right and proper—to ensure that our money is used for the proper purposes—to attach appropriate conditions. In the end, it is about getting the balance right and finding the right type of conditionality.
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