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House of Commons

Wednesday 25 October 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

international development

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What support his Department is giving to Vietnam. [96570]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Our budget for assistance to Vietnam this year is £50 million, which includes support for improvements in basic education, preventing the spread of AIDS, supporting economic development and strengthening governance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently signed a 10-year development partnership agreement with the Government of Vietnam, and committed some £250 million in aid to Vietnam over the next five years.

Ben Chapman: That is a very significant sum, which acknowledges Vietnam’s achievements in addressing key issues and lifting 30 million people out of poverty. It also addresses the challenges of dealing with corruption, of accountability and of governance. But what measures are being taken to minimise the overheads involved in that large sum, not least in the DFID administration and in the Vietnamese Government, so that the amount of assistance going to ordinary people is maximised and the costs are minimised?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the achievements of Vietnam. Economic growth has averaged about 7 per cent. in recent years, and since 1993 the Vietnamese Government have reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty from nearly 60 per cent. to just under 20 per cent. Those are considerable achievements, and I hope that the aid we have committed—to which my hon. Friend rightly referred—will help to lower the figure even further.

I can reassure my hon. Friend about administration costs. Ours amount to less than 3 per cent. of our programmed funds, and we expect them to fall further over the next 12 months as we make a number of staffing changes and review the way in which various back-office functions are provided.

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Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the Vietnamese Government have been responsible for a campaign of censorship that has seen the internet filtered and two newspapers closed down. He will also be aware that the Vietnamese Government are conducting a campaign against the Montagnard people of the central highlands, and that they are responsible for a campaign of harassment and detention of pro-democracy activists. What are this Government doing to ensure that the Hanoi regime respects the human rights of its people?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we still have key human rights concerns in the context of our discussions with the Government of Vietnam. I shall deal with the specific concerns that he has raised in a second, but I hope he will acknowledge that there have been significant improvements in human rights in recent years. Freedom of religion is an example: more churches are being built. There is also more reporting on corruption and on political affairs more generally, and there is more transparency in the way in which the Government operate, which includes more democracy at local level and more non-party candidates standing for election.

I accept that the Vietnamese Government have more to do in terms of human rights. The ever-present security apparatus keeps too effective a lid on dissent. As part of the development partnership agreement signed by my right hon. Friend, we intend to continue to raise our continuing and legitimate concerns about human rights with the Government of Vietnam.


2. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the impact of the poppy eradication programme on the sustainability of livelihoods among farmers in southern Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [96571]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Information on the impact of poppy eradication is limited, but we know that it works best if it is properly targeted at those with a real alternative livelihood. A survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—with a relatively small sample size—showed that in 2006, 81 per cent. of farmers re-planted legal crops following eradication. Only 2 per cent. re-planted poppies, and 56 per cent. of farmers who had their poppy crop eradicated said they would not plant it again next year. The success of the 2006 poppy eradication campaign will become clear only at the end of the planting season.

Mr. Mullin: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the south of the country at least, the poppy eradication programme is not working? The larger farmers are paying bribes to avoid the destruction of their poppy crops, while the smaller farmers, who cannot avoid the bribes, are losing their livelihoods and as a result facing hunger and destitution, which is pushing them into the hands of the Taliban. Has not the time come to contemplate some of the alternatives, such as the one suggested by that very reputable organisation the Senlis council?

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Hilary Benn: I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says about the difficulty of poppy eradication. We can see what has happened in countries elsewhere in the world that have been successful in that regard. In Thailand, it took 30 years. It is clear that what is required is what the Government of Afghanistan are trying to do: the targeting of eradication where there are alternative livelihoods, pursuit of the drug barons, seizure of the drugs, improvement of governance, enforcement of the law and the provision of greater security and improvements in infrastructure.

I am of course aware of the Senlis council’s proposal, but the Afghanistan Government’s view of it is clear. They do not agree with it and do not consider it to be the right approach for Afghanistan, and I think that we should respect their judgment.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The elimination of poppy growing in Afghanistan will require development. Can the Secretary of State tell me how much of the UK’s development aid budget is being spent on security for aid projects rather than on reconstruction and development? Is there not a risk that funds for development will be dissipated on security, just as they have been in Iraq?

Hilary Benn: It is the case that some of our funds will be spent on providing protection for Department staff and others who are working in Afghanistan, but the vast bulk of the money that we give in development assistance goes to the Government of Afghanistan. They have requested that we and other donors give our support in that way because it is the best way to build their capacity to deliver services to their people. That is why we are the largest contributor to the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which helps to pay the salaries of teachers, nurses, doctors and others.

The hon. Lady makes an important point about security, which is a precondition for development. In Helmand, where British troops are now deployed, the security situation is more difficult than we anticipated, but we need an improvement in security to be able to work with Afghan partners—because that is where the bulk of the work will be done—to try to help the people of Afghanistan to improve their own lives.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): The sustainability of farmers in Afghanistan is crucial, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the sustainability and quality of life for many in our communities in this country is of equal importance and is threatened by the drugs imported from Afghanistan? Will he join me in congratulating our troops who have seized 115 tonnes of opium in the past year from Afghanistan and saved communities here?

Hilary Benn: I certainly will join my hon. Friend in offering my congratulations to our troops and all the other staff from the UK who are doing an extraordinary job in very challenging circumstances in Afghanistan. He is right about the demand for poppy which fuels the industry about which we have been speaking. Afghanistan is a very poor country: one in four children do not live to see their fifth birthday, and a third of those children die before they reach 12 months. That is the reality. The country has been impoverished by conflict and many
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other problems over decades and it will take time for the Afghan people to change their circumstances. However, there are some signs of hope, with 4.5 million refugees returning, the economy growing, and 6 million children in school—a third of them girls—and it is right that we and many others in the international community should provide support to the people of Afghanistan as they try to change their lives for the better.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): One of the criticisms of our activity in southern Afghanistan has been the lack of co-ordination between projects. For example, the short-term nature of the recent USAID project for drip irrigation for farmers has only helped them to grow poppy. We have taken some action by trying to promote provisional development plans, but that project appears to have stalled, with no plans coming forward from southern Afghanistan. What action is the Secretary of State taking to try to push forward the provisional development plans?

Hilary Benn: First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the interest that he takes in Afghanistan and the excellent speech he made in the Westminster Hall debate last week. I respect his views greatly. He draws attention to an important issue. I cannot claim responsibility for USAID programmes—I will resist the temptation—but a balance must be struck between building capacity for the long term and demonstrating progress in the short term. The governor of Helmand has expressed some frustration about the latter and that is why we have redirected some of our efforts—as the hon. Gentleman knows—towards quick impact projects, so that people can see change beginning to take place. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that point completely. One of the reasons why the Government of Afghanistan have asked donors to provide more of their support through Afghan mechanisms—in particular, through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund—is so that the Government can provide that co-ordination. If we get our act together—and I urge other donors to follow the lead that we have given—we have a better chance of addressing the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies.

G8 (Gleneagles Summit)

3. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to ensure that the G8 continues to pursue the aims of the Gleneagles Summit agreement. [96572]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Since Gleneagles, we have seen progress on debt, humanitarian funding and increased aid, and the UK has been leading efforts to monitor progress. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has launched the Africa Progress Panel to be chaired by Kofi Annan, and we are supporting the Africa Partnership Forum and the civil society African Monitor. The Department’s White Paper set out in detail what the UK will do with the international community to deliver on our 2005 commitments.

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Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and for the work that he and his colleagues are doing to ensure that the aspirations of all those who supported the Make Poverty History movement are realised. What role and scope does he think that co-operatives and mutuals will have in taking that work forward? Will he draw on the experience of the co-operative and mutual movement in this country to make sure that that happens?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind words. She draws attention to the really important contribution that the co-operative movement can make, and we have entered into a strategic grant agreement with it precisely so that we can draw on its experience. Our programmes around the world support co-operatives because they are one of the ways in which people can take more control over what happens to them. Co-operatives mean that ordinary people’s resources, energy and innovation can be used to change their lives.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that the report from the International Development Committee on conflict and development was published this morning. It stresses that one conflict’s impact on increasing poverty can wipe out the entire world aid budget, and focuses on the role of conflict resources and how they can prolong and exacerbate a conflict. Will he co-ordinate with other donors in conflict countries and regions to try and ensure that we find a way to identify those resources and choke off the supply of funds that can sustain wars, prolong conflicts and prevent the eradication of poverty?

Hilary Benn: I accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I have not had a chance to read the report yet, but I very much look forward to doing so. Dealing with conflict is fundamental to developing countries making progress. We are already taking various initiatives, and he will be aware of the Kimberley process and the extractive industries transparency initiative, both of which we have supported. He makes a good point that we must make sure that donors work together effectively as, ultimately, the problem is one of governance. If countries had good governance and were able to regulate the extraction of their natural resources and raw materials—such as diamonds, wood or, in the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, coltan—they would be in a much better position to provide the security on which any development must be based.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that more than 7,500 people around the world die from AIDS every day. Will he reassure those of my constituents who have written to me to express their concern about the progress that the G8 has made following the Gleneagles summit to ensure that AIDS treatment is available for all developing countries by 2010?

Hilary Benn: The fight against AIDS is one of the most important fights that developing countries are engaged in, as for some it represents an economic catastrophe as well as a human tragedy. The great achievement at Gleneagles was that the world signed up to trying to get as close as possible to securing AIDS
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treatment for all people in the developing world by 2010. Since then, plans have been drawn up to try and make that happen.

In sub-Saharan Africa, three times as many people are now on antiretrovirals compared with 12 months ago. We have not dealt with the problem yet, but we have made some progress. That shows what we can do when we put our minds to it.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the Secretary of State concede that we are a good way short of fulfilling the G8 pledge of increasing aid by $50 billion by 2010? Will he use his good offices to encourage Governments to stop double counting debt relief in their aid packages, and to set clear targets so that the $50 billion is put in place?

Hilary Benn: I accept that we need to work very hard to ensure that all countries honour their commitments, and the UK Government will certainly honour our pledges. The sort of civil society campaign evident in the run-up to Gleneagles must continue in all the countries that have made pledges to ensure that they are honoured, but I do not accept that debt relief is double counting. The Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is the body that counts aid. The measure that it uses enables people to see both the aid element and the debt cancellation element in the aid that is given.

The fact is that, in the 15 months since Gleneagles, 20 of the poorest countries in the world have had written off all the debt that they owed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank. That money is now available for the things that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and I know are important—getting children into school and improving health care. Debt cancellation really makes a difference.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that Africa will remain top of the agenda in next year’s discussions in Germany, notwithstanding that country’s change of Government?

Hilary Benn: I can, indeed, assure the House because the German G8 presidency has confirmed that Africa’s development will be one of its priorities, particularly in respect of the fight against HIV and AIDS, which we discussed a few moments ago. I welcome that enormously, because Germany has a huge opportunity during its presidency to provide leadership to the G8 and the wider world to ensure that we continue to make progress on honouring the commitments that were so hard fought for at Gleneagles.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): The G8 summit agreed immediately to implement a plan of action on climate change that will promote access by developing countries to low-carbon energy and improve their resilience to the impact of global warming. Climate change could undermine developmental assistance by reducing available water, decreasing agricultural outputs, exacerbating disputes over resources and extending regions in which diseases thrive. What progress has the Secretary
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of State made since Gleneagles to incentivise environmentally sustainable technology transfers, and does he agree that there needs to be an expansion of tradeable greenhouse gas permits, creating an international market to cut emissions and promote spending by developing nations on cleaner fuels and energy?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that climate change presents probably the greatest threat to the developing world—the part of the world that did least to cause the problem and that will have to cope with most of the consequences. That is the first point. The second point is that the energy investment framework, which we have been working hard with the World Bank to develop, is all about trying to provide financial support to developing countries that quite legitimately want to increase their supplies of energy. What is most striking is how developing countries are recognising their need for more energy supply, which is crucial to the economic development on which tackling poverty will depend. We have to help and incentivise them, including through tradeable permits. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point because the market has an important role to play in helping the world to adjust to the changes that we all have to face up to.


4. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on international co-operation in providing humanitarian relief to those affected by the earthquake in Pakistan. [96573]

6. Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): What ongoing assistance his Department is providing to people affected by the earthquake in Kashmir. [96575]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): In addition to £55 million for the immediate relief effort, we have committed £70 million to help with reconstruction and rehabilitation; and £5 million has already been spent, for example, on reconstructing bridges, training teachers and mental health services. Two weeks ago, I confirmed that we were releasing a further £44 million of that money.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) asks his question, I urge those who are not listening to these questions to be quiet. We are dealing with an important matter and the noise is unfair to hon. Members who are participating.

Jim Dobbin: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I pay tribute to the Department’s efforts to support the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan, but there are bound to be future disasters on the same scale, so will my hon. Friend tell the House how the Department is galvanising international support in case of future disasters so that action can be immediate and responsive?

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