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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 March 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.



Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Developing World (Good Governance)

1. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote good governance in the developing world; and if he will make a statement. [53958]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The ability of developing countries to eradicate poverty will depend greatly on good governance. DFID works with partner countries to help them to promote safety and security, to encourage investment and growth, to improve public services and to build greater accountability, but, ultimately, developing countries themselves have to take responsibility for improving governance.

Mr. Amess: What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the American millennium challenge account, which seeks to promote good governance by directing aid towards Governments who govern justly, try to promote economic freedom and govern in the interests of their people?

Hilary Benn: That very much reflects an American approach, which is to impose a number of requirements to enable countries to get access to the millennium challenge account funding. One consequence of that has been that the account has found it very difficult to spend money. As donors take decisions about what we do, we have to make a judgment that balances progress—because it is direction of travel that really matters—against ensuring that our
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money is not used corruptly or goes to purposes for which it is not intended. We make a different assessment and do it in a different way, but I think that we are all trying to achieve the same objective.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State will be aware that good governance is essential for good economic management and encouraging the development of the country. On several trips to African countries, Opposition and Government MPs have stated to me that they are interested in ensuring that the budgetary process is transparent and that they wish to follow the money. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is essential and does he have any ideas about how we could encourage African parliamentarians in that process?

Hilary Benn: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. That is why part of DFID's programme of work is to provide support to parliamentarians to improve accountability and scrutiny of public expenditure, working with public accounts committees in several African countries and helping to strengthen national audit functions, which allow expenditure to be assessed independently. I pay tribute to the work that organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank are doing. We should discuss among ourselves what more we might be able to do as a country, and as parliamentarians in this House, to work with colleagues in other countries to help them to build their capacity and to share experiences.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): In respect of good governance, can the Secretary of State reassure the House that his Department is not becoming a respectable front for lax and unacceptable practices by other Departments? I expect that he will be aware that Oxfam today published a report showing that a UK subsidiary based in South Africa has been exporting military equipment to Uganda—about whose Government the Secretary of State has expressed serious concerns—thereby bypassing normal export approval processes required in the UK. Can he assure the House that the Government's welcome words about an ethical dimension to the export of military equipment will be applied in practice across all Government Departments?

Hilary Benn: I am aware of the report in today's press. The first thing to say is that were BAE Systems in the UK to have taken part in any deal, that would have been caught by the UK's trade controls. Subsidiaries cannot always operate entirely outside the UK controls—it depends on the circumstances. On the other hand, we have to recognise that exports from South Africa to another African country, with no UK involvement, are rightly a matter for the South African Government, not for the Government of the United Kingdom. The truth is that it depends on the circumstances and on the nature of the subsidiary and the extent to which it is controlled by the company in the UK.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend comment on the governance, good or indifferent, of Sudan? Following his visit to Darfur last week, will he comment on the welfare of the people in the camps? I am
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particularly concerned about the welfare of women, who frequently cannot leave the camps because of the fear of being raped.

Hilary Benn: I had a conversation on that very matter with a group of women in Abu Shouk camp when I was in Darfur last week. Overall, conditions in the camps are much better than they were two years ago because of the huge international humanitarian effort. However, security outside the camps is deteriorating, which affects women who have to go out to collect firewood. I heard complaints about a lack of help and support to protect them while they do that. Jan Pronk and the new African Union force commander, Major-General Ihekire, confirmed to me that security in Darfur has deteriorated since my last visit there in June. That is why the decision that we anticipate that the African Union will take in the next two weeks to ask the United Nations mission to take over the African Union mission is so important. More troops and a stronger mandate are needed to provide protection while the parties to the conflict in Abuja get around to negotiating a peace deal. It has been going on for two years and they have not done that yet. The international community is paying the cost.

The message that I gave last week, and that the Foreign Secretary conveyed when he was in Abuja and spoke to those taking part in the peace talks, was that we have to do a peace deal now because it is the only way that those people will go home.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I support the idea that the right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Mr. McFall) proposed and we welcome the Secretary of State's decision to reduce British budgetary support to the Government of Uganda because of the President's failure to adhere to the principles of good governance and show respect for human rights. How did the Secretary of State respond to the Ugandan President's intemperate letter in which he complained that British aid was a "paternalistic arrangement", which held his country captive in a "beggar relationship"? Did he make it clear that we have every right to say how and where hard-earned British taxpayers' aid money should be spent and under what terms and conditions it should be disbursed?

Hilary Benn: I did indeed receive a letter last year from the President of Uganda. In correspondence and in the last conversation that I had with him in Malta at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, we made it clear that we will make our decisions on the basis of our assessments. Concerns about governance and especially the locking up of Kizza Besigye, the Opposition candidate in the presidential election, although he was subsequently released, led me to reallocate £15 million to helping the humanitarian situation in the north of the country, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is acute. We have retained £5 million and nothing will deflect us from taking the right decisions.

Mr. Mitchell: Is the Secretary of State aware that we also support his decision to reduce British aid to the Ethiopian Government? The Ethiopian Prime Minister's attitude to legitimate opposition was to gun down protesters on the streets of Addis Ababa. Does the
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right hon. Gentleman regret the Prime Minister's decision to include the Ethiopian Prime Minister in his Commission for Africa and to fête him at the launch of its report?

Hilary Benn: No, I do not regret that.

Mr. Mitchell: Why?

Hilary Benn: I shall explain. One should judge our development partners by what they do, and until the moment of the elections in June last year—the Commission for Africa concluded its work in March when the report was published; the hon. Gentleman must get the time scale right—the election was, in the historical context of Ethiopia, relatively free and fair and the Opposition won many seats. Subsequently, there were difficulties on the streets, people were shot dead and those who had won the seats were locked up. That is a breach of the principles on which our relationship is based. Having said that, Britain does not propose to walk away from people who are poor. That is why, like other donors, I am considering ways in which we can continue to provide help with water, sanitation and education. The people should not be punished for bad governance in their country.

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