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House of Commons

Wednesday 7 December 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. Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to promote economic growth in Africa. [34883]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): It is good to see so many Members in their place in anticipation of International Development questions, is it not?

Economic growth is fundamental to reducing poverty in Africa. The continent needs more private sector investment, better roads to link producers to markets and fairer global trade. At Gleneagles, the G8 agreed a comprehensive plan to support Africa's economic development. As part of this, the UK has recently announced £17 million for the African Union-New Partnership for Africa's Development investment climate facility, and a trebling of UK "aid for trade" to £100 million a year by 2010 to help poor countries boost exports.

Christine Russell: I thank the Secretary of State for that very positive reply, but does he agree that one of the best ways to promote economic development in Africa is to unlock the continent's vast agricultural potential? Will he therefore assure the House that at next week's World Trade Organisation ministerial talks in Hong Kong, he will lead the way in lobbying for the removal of, or a reduction in, the unfair trade barriers that deny African farmers access to world markets?

Hilary Benn: I agree with my hon. Friend. Some 70 per cent. of people in Africa work in agriculture and if their lives are to improve, they need to have a better chance of exporting their products to the rest of the world. She can rest assured that the Government will go on doing what they have been doing: pressing for changes that will unlock that potential, so that Africa can have a better future.
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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Commission for Africa stated that developed countries must complete

So what are Ministers expecting African countries to do at the WTO talks to ensure a deal on unfair trade barriers? What pressure is the Secretary of State putting on Peter Mandelson and what does he expect from African countries at the talks in Hong Kong?

Hilary Benn: It is more a question of what African countries are expecting from the Hong Kong talks. They are looking for recognition of the need to improve access to their agricultural markets and of their different starting point. They are looking for special and differential treatment, and those are the proposals that they have tabled. They are also looking for a special safeguard mechanism that will enable them to protect themselves against surges in imports. In the end, their contribution is to look at a deal and to decide whether it will be in their interests. The truth is that we have a long way to go if we are to achieve the outcome next week that all Members want; but that does not mean that we should stop trying, and we will not.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): Given the Government's opposition to forced liberalisation in African countries, as in other developing countries, what is my right hon. Friend's attitude to International Monetary Fund conditionality, which seeks to impose precisely that in many African countries—for example, Ghana?

Hilary Benn: The Government's position on conditionality was clearly set out in the policy document that we published earlier this year. I have been working to get the World Bank and the IMF to review the use that they make of conditionality. In the end, it is about enabling developing countries to take their own decisions, but all Governments have responsibilities in deciding how they are going to spend their money, such as managing their economies effectively and keeping inflation low, because high inflation impacts on poor people in particular.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Secretary of State was entirely right to identify Conservative Members' intense interest in International Development questions today. As the Prime Minister made clear in his recent Guildhall speech, the engine of economic growth in Africa and elsewhere is free and fair trade. Does the Secretary of State accept that the WTO meeting in Hong Kong next week, which both he and I hope to attend, is in danger of being derailed by the European Union's subtle yet blatantly protectionist negotiating position, particularly on agriculture?

Hilary Benn: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am very glad to see him still in his place this morning? I share his aspirations for the outcome of the world trade talks and his frustration at their current state. The EU has tabled one offer and then a second, but in order to unlock these negotiations there needs to be movement on all sides. The question is: can we, in the short time remaining, enable that movement? The effort currently being put into those major negotiating issues means that
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the issues that the poorest developing countries are concerned about, to which I referred a moment ago, are not getting a look in. There is one exception: the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, which I welcome greatly.

Mr. Mitchell: None the less, the position that the Secretary of State sets out is a serious and depressing one for the talks next week. Will he press the European Union negotiators, even at this late stage, to put on the table a meaningful real-terms cut in trade barriers, rather than the current phoney offer, which cuts tariff headrooms but not the actual tariff levels? Do not those tariffs prevent some of the poorest countries on earth from starting to trade their way out of poverty?

Hilary Benn: They certainly do prevent the poorest countries on earth from doing that. The fundamental problem, as the hon. Gentleman is only too well aware, is that there are 25 member states of the European Union and not all of them share the perspective that he and I share. That is part of the problem, and it would help the EU to move if there was some movement by others in those negotiations. At the moment, however, we are stuck, because everybody is waiting for somebody else to move.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that economic development also depends on secure and sustainable public access to water. Across Africa, there have been huge and growing protests against water privatisation, which has priced the poor out of access to water resources. He will also know that there has been a growing counter-movement to develop public-public partnerships in water management provision. Can he tell the House what involvement the UK Government have had in those public-public water resource management projects?

Hilary Benn: I share my hon. Friend's concern about the need to ensure that more people get access to clean water, not least because it will improve children's health and enable more girls to go to school. Some 95 per cent. of our bilateral spending on water goes to support public provision, community-led provision or humanitarian provision of clean water supply, and that demonstrates where the Government's priorities lie.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD) rose—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps I may point out to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) that it is not the done thing to stand in front of a Member who is addressing the House.

Andrew George: Although I exonerate the Secretary of State from my criticism, how can the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer trumpet the so-called success of the Gleneagles agreement and claim historic debt write-off when, this year, African countries will pay back a great deal more in debt repayments than the UK will provide in monetary aid?

Hilary Benn: The Government are right to take pride in what we have been able to achieve, with the support of others, in obtaining support for a multilateral debt
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cancellation deal, because it will mean, for between 18 and 38 developing countries—14 of the initial countries are in Africa—that up to $55 billion worth of debt is cancelled for ever. That was not the case when 2005 started. However, the process of debt relief and cancellation is a continuing one. At the beginning of the year, few people thought that it would be possible to get a deal on that scale and it is a result, in particular, of the efforts of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to which I pay tribute. When that deal comes into effect, African countries will have to spend less of their precious resources on servicing debt that is not sustainable.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): In the spirit of congratulating the Government when they deserve to be congratulated, will the Secretary of State accept that some Opposition Members think that the Government have taken a positive initiative towards improving the lot of those countries in Africa and the developing world? But does he recall the Bill that I introduced earlier this year to deal with corruption in Africa? He mentioned conditionality, so will he impose a condition of external audit, if the countries concerned are not prepared to agree voluntarily, to eliminate corruption?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and I know that he takes a real interest in these questions. Tackling corruption and promoting good governance are absolutely fundamental to economic growth, which is the subject of the original question, especially in Africa. Many of the poorest countries, are those in which there has been corruption and a failure of governance. We have to try to achieve a position in which countries audit their own spending, so that they can be accountable to their own people. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I take seriously the responsibility that we have to ensure that the funds we use are audited and tracked properly, so that we can account to the House for the way in which that funding has been used. I look forward to continuing the discussion that we have already started on that subject, because it is a very important issue.

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