Previous Section Index Home Page

5 July 2006 : Column 309WH—continued

4.33 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing the debate and on the work that he and his colleagues on both sides of the House do in the all-party group on Nigeria. They have kept us debating Nigeria. It is a country that, as he said, is vital to what happens in sub-Saharan Africa for the simple reason that its population is 130 million and constitutes one fifth of Africa’s population. Nigeria is a big country and what happens there is crucial if we are to have a chance of achieving the millennium development goals. Some progress has been made but there is a long way to go.

On Nigeria's oil resources, some people have the misconception that because it has a lot of oil it is a fabulously wealthy country. The truth is that its oil revenue amounts to only around 30p per person per day. Nigeria is actually a poor country, particularly when account is taken of the large population where 70 million of the 130 million population live on less than $1 a day. That is the third highest number in the world and shows the scale of the poverty.

As my hon. Friend noted, the social indicators of that poverty are appalling. Colleagues who have visited Nigeria with the all-party group, as I have, know because we have seen it with our own eyes. One in five children die before the age of five—one in five. Seven million children of primary school age are not where
5 July 2006 : Column 310WH
they should be—in school. There are 1 million AIDS orphans. Fewer than 30 per cent. of children complete a full course of immunisation. One reason why one in five kids die before they are five is that they have not been vaccinated against the diseases that will claim their lives.

We all know that Nigeria has suffered from monumental bad governance, which has certainly been a major source of the country's troubles. It is also true that with a Government who are committed to reform, as we have seen in recent years, governance in Nigeria is turning a corner. For example, the federal Government, for the first time, has produced a home-grown poverty-reduction plan that gives the Government and the donors who are working with them a framework within which to operate.

That commitment to reform was responsible for the biggest single debt cancellation deal in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. It was agreed last year for Nigeria and its creditors wrote off 60 per cent. of its debt: $18 billion. The UK alone will cancel £2.8 billion. That deal frees up an additional $1 billion a year for Nigeria to spend on a range of things, including the employment of an additional 122,000 teachers and putting 3.5 million children into school. I pay tribute to former Finance Minister Ngozi and to President Obasanjo for having said that they will ring-fence that money in what they have called a virtual poverty fund with oversight, including from non-governmental organisations, so that the public can see the benefit of debt cancellation.

It is fair to say in passing that the UK played an important part in helping Nigeria to achieve that deal, which would not have been possible if people’s perceptions of Nigeria and the fact that there is now the beginning of a process of reform had not made it possible to unlock that arrangement through the Paris Club deal.

DFID is the leading bilateral donor in Nigeria and will spend £80 million this year, rising to £100 million in 2007-08. The help that we are giving is focused on the Nigerian Government’s plan to improve governance and contribute to the millennium development goals. The impact of the Government's reforms and DFID's programme is already being seen.

My hon. Friend asked about non-oil growth. Improving macro-economic stability is essential for sustainable development in Nigeria. We have provided technical assistance and it is worth making the point in passing in view of ActionAid’s report, which was published yesterday and reported in one or two newspapers this morning, that technical assistance of the right sort helps to fight poverty. To describe technical assistance as phantom aid is rubbish and it is important to put that on the record. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for obtaining this debate and giving me the chance to do so emphatically.

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend was right to make the point about the reforms that the Government are trying to introduce, but people are asking whether there are still elements in the Government who are travelling weekly to this country—there is anecdotal evidence of that—to buy property, particularly in London and the south-east, with money taken from
5 July 2006 : Column 311WH
people in Nigeria. What are my right hon. Friend’s Department and other Departments doing to scrutinise those people who are coming from Nigeria and buying property in this country at the expense of people in Nigeria?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend raises an important point and if he will bear with me for a moment I will come to it directly when I speak about corruption. I want to finish what I am saying about economic development.

Technical assistance has helped to improve the way in which the federal Government’s budget is managed and the way in which they handle debt. It has created the mechanism to allow the benefit of the deal to be ring-fenced for progress towards millennium development goals. It is also worth saying that a fiscal responsibility Bill will come before Parliament shortly and covers the way in which oil revenues should be used. One of Nigeria’s problems is that when oil revenues go up it spends the extra money, but when the revenue falls it has a problem in sustaining that level of expenditure because it does not have quite as much money as it had previously. Legislation to impose discipline on boom-bust expenditure is important and the world, including people in Nigeria, will look at that to assure themselves that the commitment to reform is continuing in the country.

We are increasingly focusing on non-oil growth. We have launched the PrOpCom programme—Promoting Pro-poor Opportunities through Commodity and Service Markets. That is a bit of a mouthful, but the programme is trying to look at improvements in Nigeria’s agricultural market system, to which my hon. Friend referred, so that it works better for small producers. One of the things it is doing to start with is asking what are the obstacles to more rice being grown, and what are the problems that get in the way of transporting that rice, because Nigeria is a rice importer. If more rice could be grown it would be good for those who are growing it and good for those who buy it.

The shared growth framework is looking at the regulatory and legal environment for business. State-level investment climate surveys are being done, asking the question, “What is it like if you want to invest in a business here,” and if it is not good and people are investing elsewhere, asking what we can do to change it, because that is the best way to secure investment from within Nigeria and Africa and from outside.

We have also given a bit of support through. A report in the newspapers recently said that it was shocking that CDC is spending money on building a shopping centre in Nigeria. But let us pause for a moment and ask, is that really shocking? The answer is that it provided jobs for Nigerians. Who will work in the shopping centre? The answer is that people will work serving the public, who will buy things in the shopping centre. That is an example of economic development that in time helps people to have a better life.

I turn now to the subject of governance. Although there has been progress in the fight against corruption and in promoting improved accountability, we have a long way to go. My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, North-West and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) made very important points.

5 July 2006 : Column 312WH

The progress that has been made in auditing Nigeria’s oil and gas revenues under the extractive industries transparency initiative has been significant; for the first time this year figures were published and openly debated. If one clarifies the oil revenues that the Government are receiving and people can see it they can ask the important question, “What have you done with the money, and are you going to spend more of it in my community?” A process can then start. First, we are introducing a Bill that will institutionalise the EITI principles, with regular auditing to show how the money flows. I very much hope that it will be enacted.

Secondly, we are working very closely with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission —Mr. Ribadu is doing a magnificent job—and there have been prosecutions. However, it would be helpful if Nigeria were to lift the bar on serving state governors being prosecuted for corruption, which is, frankly, extraordinary. Despite the position we hold, if any of us behaved in a corrupt way and there was evidence we would be charged, and prosecuted. What justification is there for having immunity from prosecution just because one happens to occupy a certain position?

That is another example of a further step that Nigeria itself could take to help in the fight against corruption. However, the former inspector-general of police was convicted and imprisoned and the former governor of Bayelsa state, who is now facing prosecution for corruption, was impeached, because that was the only way to get to him.

We have worked with the Nigerians on the reform of the payroll. One way of improving public financial management is to ensure that one does not pay ghost civil servants, something to which Finance Minister Ngosi was very committed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North asked what we could do to play our part. We have ratified the United Nations convention on corruption which allows us more effectively to freeze, confiscate and return the proceeds of corruption. We are establishing the new unit with the Metropolitan police and the City of London police, and the Department for International Development is helping to pay for it. Why? Because it is a really good use of aid money. If we can be more effective in finding the proceeds of corruption and giving it back to the people from whom it was stolen in the first place it helps development, and it is right and proper that we should support the work in that way.

We also have money laundering legislation. In answer to the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, those who run money transfer companies and banks are now under a clear legal obligation. If the cash that comes into an account is not consistent with what they know about that person’s business activities and they have concerns in that respect, they should report it.

Finally, we take the issue of human rights extremely seriously. We have a security and justice programme which has funded research on women’s rights in northern Nigeria. We are also supporting a widowhood rights initiative and citizens rights.

5 July 2006 : Column 313WH

We are funding a £7 million elections programme to ensure that Nigerians’ right to participate in the elections next year is as free and fair as possible. We have also been supporting the census financially, because that helps people to be counted and therefore to be registered to vote.

We are investing in a very big way in improving access to health care, education and water services. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) mentioned people not having clean water. Another reason why one in five children die before the age of five is because they drink dirty water, get diarrhoeal diseases and die. Clean water really would make a difference.

5 July 2006 : Column 314WH

Motorway Noise

4.45 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Marshall.

I start by declaring an interest: in the right climatic conditions, the motorway can be heard from my home. I secured the debate to draw attention to the increasingly desperate pleas of communities in my constituency that are close to the M4, where traffic noise has been steadily increasing. The issue is being closely followed by communities such as East Ilsley, Compton and Enborne along the A34. The junction of the M4 and A34 is the crossroads of the south of England and the growing number of vehicles that use these routes are having a major impact on the lives of local people.

Traffic levels in the United Kingdom overall have been on the increase since the M4 opened in 1972. Nationwide, road traffic rose 142 per cent. between 1970 and 2002 according to Transport Department figures. The figures also show that in 1999, 70,177 cars a day on average used the stretch of the M4 between junctions 13 and 14. By 2004, that number had risen 26 per cent. to 88,443 vehicles in any one 24-hour period.

The problem will only get worse. As the previous Secretary of State for Transport admitted earlier this year, the population will grow by 10 per cent. and

but he said that simply building more and more roads was not the answer. Whichever way we look at it, traffic volumes on roads such as the M4 will go up.

Although it is generally understood that those villages that are close to the motorway will inevitably be subject to high levels of noise, others further afield are also suffering. The rolling nature of the Berkshire downs effectively acts as a conduit, funnelling traffic noise from the M4 and A34 to communities in that special part of the North Wessex downs area of outstanding natural beauty.

The impact on people's lives has been significant. David Smith of Upper Basildon moved house 10 years ago to be far enough away from the motorway not to hear the noise. Where he lived previously was a mile away from the motorway and the noise was so loud that it kept him awake at night. Where he lives now is 2.5 miles away from the motorway and he notices the same level of noise and the same effect as he did in his previous home.

Motorway noise has worsened so badly for Michael Taylor, a parish councillor who has lived in the village of Oare since 1966, that he tested the levels with a decibel meter. As a comparison, Mr. Taylor held the meter in a room with the vacuum cleaner on, which produced a similar reading to the level of motorway noise coming through his window. That gives some idea of what he hears every day.

In the village of Wickham, some families live in houses only 80 yd from the M4. The section of motorway near the village is on an overpass, which
5 July 2006 : Column 315WH
increases noise levels considerably. David Hunt, chairman of Welford parish council, has been campaigning to have that stretch of the M4 resurfaced with “quiet” tarmac but he has been told by the Highways Agency that it could be many years before the M4 is eligible to be resurfaced. Those are three examples of a deluge of e-mails and letters that I have received, especially since I was told that this debate would take place.

Mr. Hunt, the chairman of the parish council, was right to identify quiet tarmac as the solution. I do not want to waste precious time considering other noise abatement measures such as acoustic walling or tree planting, which make a minimal amount of difference. I shall focus on the key measure that really achieves noise reduction: the replacement of the traditionally used hot-rolled asphalt with a quieter road surface.

One of the proven alternatives, which has been laid on a number of stretches of road, is porous asphalt; it is very effective for a number of reasons. The small grain size creates an even surface that reduces the rolling noise of vehicles. It also absorbs some of the noise emitted by vehicles. Much more importantly, there are safety reasons for laying porous asphalt: it allows rainwater to drain away much more quickly, and that makes it much less likely that vehicles will aquaplane when there is heavy rain. Good drainage increases safety, as it reduces spray and reflections in wet conditions.

Travellers on the infamous Newbury bypass know exactly when they are going from hot-rolled asphalt to porous asphalt. As soon as they hit the new bypass, it is quieter in the car and consequently, of course, quieter for people living nearby. However, the industry is increasingly using thin-layered surfaces. Used widely across the continent, even in concrete-loving Germany, it is now the surface of choice, rather than porous asphalt, because it offers better noise reduction, a better quality of ride and more skid resistance; it is also much better for maintenance. Interestingly, it costs about the same as porous asphalt. Applications of thin surfacing in the UK, for example on the M876 near Stirling, have proved very successful.

An April 2005 paper by the US Federal Highway Administration in Focus praised the UK’s wide use of quiet surfaces, and particularly of thin-layered, textured asphalt mixes. It praised many aspects of recent UK Government transport policy. Today, I particularly want to hear from the Minister on following through on those policies. The paper said:

That does not appear to be happening. At a meeting with the Highways Agency on 25 January this year, Boxford parish council members were told that current funding levels and the criteria set nationally meant that no measures could be taken to reduce road noise on their stretch of the M4 in the foreseeable future. That was despite the conclusion of a noise consultant for Mott MacDonald, who advised that noise levels along the M4 were broadly in excess of acceptable levels.

5 July 2006 : Column 316WH

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing this debate. Every Member of this House knows just how important the issue of motorway noise is to our constituents; it causes them great distress. In passing, I must say how grateful many of my constituents are to the Government for all the funding that they are giving the Highways Agency to provide noise barriers along the A419, a trunk road along the wards of Covingham and Stratton St. Margaret in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the importance of road surfacing in providing relief. My experience of the A419 very much bears out his experiences, and I am grateful to him for raising the subject. The Government agreed to resurface the A419 near the village of Latton, which suffered a great deal from the noise of that road. There is some uncertainty about when that resurfacing will occur. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even if everyone accepts that there are inevitably resource constraints, and that money cannot always be found immediately—

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief.

Mr. Wills: I am just coming to the point; thank you, Mr. Marshall.

Does the hon. Member for Newbury agree that even if the money cannot be found immediately, certainty about when resurfacing will take place is important, because it provides relief to those suffering from that distress?

Mr. Benyon: That is precisely what I hope to achieve by this debate. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) on that point. Many of the surfaces of the M4, both in the hon. Gentleman’s area and mine, have not been resurfaced since they were first laid in 1972. We seek an assurance from the Minister that a programme in which local people can feel confident will be rolled out, that new quieter road surfaces will be laid and that people can have clarity about when that will take place.

At the Highways Agency’s meetings with the parish councils, a figure was put about of £5 million nationwide for noise reduction measures similar to those described by the hon. Gentleman. That is obviously an inadequate sum for a nationwide road network, but we ask that the sum be used on the mitigating measures that I am about to put forward.

To pre-empt what the Minister may say about noise mitigation, compensation for noise pollution is available, potentially, only for buildings within 300 m of the motorway. However, many of my constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman live a greater distance from the motorway, yet suffer untenable levels of noise because of such factors as open ground, lack of trees, the motorway being part of an elevated section, and prevailing winds. That uniform band of 300 m seems daft, given that local topography, trees and foliage could mean that a property only 200 m from the motorway could suffer less noise pollution than one almost 1000 m away.

Next Section Index Home Page