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House of Commons

Wednesday 28 March 2007

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—

Clean Drinking Water

1. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What measures his Department is taking to provide clean drinking water in developing countries. [130160]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): We will double our investment in water and sanitation in Africa, where the millennium development goal is most off-track, to £95 million a year by 2007-08, and then more than double our funding to £200 million a year by 2010-11.

The Department for International Development's global call to action on water and sanitation is pushing for more investment, for money to be better spent and for the right structures to be put in place to help to make that happen.

Gordon Banks: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that the voluntary sector and the Churches have a significant role to play in providing clean water in developing countries? May I bring to his attention one such project, which is run by Auchterarder parish church in my constituency? Through its endeavours, it is providing clean drinking water to 1,000-plus people in the villages of Debele Kejima, south-west of Addis Ababa. Will he take time to come to Auchterarder to speak to Stewart Robertson and other people from Auchterarder parish church to see the good work that they have done and are planning, and to see their future plans on sanitation and hygiene education, which are vital to developing countries?

Hilary Benn: I will do my best to accept my hon. Friend’s kind invitation to visit his constituency. I congratulate the members of the Auchterarder parish church on the efforts that they are making. In the fight to bring clean water and sanitation to more of our fellow human beings, we need all the help we can get.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): As the Secretary of State will know, the Select Committee on International Development is about to publish a report on water and sanitation. Sanitation itself is often under-valued. It is
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key to achieving many of the millennium development goals. Will he undertake to ensure that his Department’s money goes to training and educating people in developing countries to enable them to deliver appropriately water and sanitation and to enable the millennium development goals to be achieved?

Hilary Benn: I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I look forward to receiving the report when it is published. People tend to focus on water and to forget about sanitation. What we really need are taps and toilets. He is right that education is important. That is why, in investing in education, we ensure that we invest in toilets in schools. As we know, without toilets, girls will often not go to school as they get older. Those programmes include education about the importance of washing hands. On a recent visit to Malawi to see one such programme, we saw a brand new toilet block that we helped to fund with our development assistance. There was a big sign over the seat that said, “Now wash your hands.” That makes precisely the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Further to that question and answer, may I ask my right hon. Friend to recognise the role of women in African villages in the management of water and sanitation projects? Will he in particular commend the health extension workers scheme, which the Select Committee saw in Ethiopia? We are prepared to provide much more money, but it is also necessary to encourage African Governments to make that a priority within their own spending Departments.

Hilary Benn: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend on the last point. One of the puzzles in all this is why Governments in some developing countries have not got the message more loudly about the importance of clean water and sanitation. In my experience, as she says, it is women in villages and elsewhere who are most concerned about that matter, not surprisingly, as they spend most of their day fetching and carrying water. If girls have to do that, one of the consequences is that they cannot go to school. We know the impact that that loss of opportunity has on the lives of girls. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do all the things for which she asks.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I commend the Secretary of State for the work that he is doing on clean water. However, is it not true that the United Nations has 23 agencies dealing with water in one way or another? Would it not be better if there was much more focus among the donor communities and the organisations trying to help in that situation, so that we could really try to tackle the problem and some of the 6,000 children who die every day of diarrhoea would not have to die?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is right. That is why, in answer to the original question, I said that we need to get the right structures in place. This year’s “Human Development Report” was all about water. It was a cracking report. First, we need one every year to keep our eye on the ball. Secondly, we need the international community to come together and say, “What are the gaps? How are we going to fill them?”
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Thirdly, directly relating to the hon. Gentleman’s point, we are arguing that in each country there should be one UN body that takes the lead. As a Government, we will put our money through the one UN body that is nominated in each country. That would be a powerful incentive to the UN system to get its act together. It is good that all those bodies take an interest, but when it comes to helping countries to make progress, they need one plan, one body and one way in which the international community provides help.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware from the correspondence that we have had of the concern of many of my constituents about water issues in developing countries, and I thank him for his response on water privatisation in particular. What have his Department’s budgets been for water and sanitation over the past five years?

Hilary Benn: We have just published a further report looking at the total effect of our investment in water and sanitation, and in the last year for which the figures are available we spent bilaterally and multilaterally £242 million. I have a lot of correspondence about water and sanitation, which I greatly welcome. When it comes to public, private or community-led provision, I am interested in investing more of our money in what works to bring clean water to people, and that is where we should put our effort.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware that Norway has withdrawn its funding for the public-private infrastructure advisory facility, because its projects involving water have so often failed and been so widely criticised? How does the Secretary of State scrutinise the use of UK taxpayers’ money? If we are unable to do so effectively, is he likely to withdraw British funding from the PPIAF?

Hilary Benn: The PPIAF is having a real impact, not just in relation to water, but in other areas. The one example that I can think of is that it has helped to improve the availability of mobile phones in Afghanistan, which is good for helping the economy there to grow and develop. As I said a moment ago, in the end I am interested in investing money in what works. There are examples of private sector water provision that work and there are spectacular failures. There are examples of public provision that work and there are those that have been spectacular failures. The conclusion that I draw from that is that it does not matter so much whether it is one or the other, we should be putting cash, effort and time into what really makes a difference. I will assess our contribution to the PPIAF on that basis.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Hon. Members have come up with many useful suggestions that will improve the situation and my right hon. Friend understands the issues of water pretty well, but does he agree with Tearfund, which in its report “Making every drop count” states:

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in this particular case referring to Ethiopia? All the improvements would make a difference, but can he assure me and other hon. Members that he will make every effort internationally to pump up the amount of money that is available to tackle the situation, so that we get somewhere near the 2015 millennium development goals.

Hilary Benn: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is exactly why in Africa where the problem is greatest, as I told the House a moment ago, we will double and then double again our investment. We need more investment, but we also need to help countries to be able to spend it. Apart from rural areas, the big challenge will be to provide clean water and sanitation to the growing cities and towns of the developing world, because in the next 50 years, first in Asia and then in Africa, that is where a majority of people will be coming to live. Just as in the 19th century in Britain local authorities were responsible for providing the sewers and putting in the taps, we need to find ways of getting more funding to local authorities in developing countries to make the investment and to regulate the provision of water and sanitation, because it is on them that the burden of dealing with the problem will fall.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I have recently observed in Bangladesh that it is possible to make progress on water and sanitation with, for example, microcredit schemes, enabling the manufacture of sanitation facilities in small, rural communities. The Secretary of State has admitted that DFID has not performed on the issue and has taken its eye off the ball. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) rightly pointed out, the UN has 23 unco-ordinated agencies working on water and sanitation, and the EU water initiative has been excruciatingly slow and mired in bureaucracy. For the sake of the 2.6 billion people who do not have access to water and sanitation, what steps is DFID taking to improve its performance, international coherence and donor co-ordination to ensure the replication of such schemes across the developing world?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman might give a bit of credit for the change that has been taking place over the past couple of years. It was the international community that took its eye off the ball, but that is beginning to change too. The World Bank is now investing more money, in part supported by our efforts, and we have a large programme in Bangladesh, which I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had a chance to see.

The EU water initiative has been pretty patchy. Much more impressive is the EU water facility, because that allows countries to bid for funding to invest in the kind of things that I was talking about a moment ago, both rounds of which have been oversubscribed. In the global call for action, I am now arguing that we should embed funding from the EU in an EU water facility on a permanent basis through the next round of the European development fund, because it is about increasing the quantity of investment and about putting the right structures in place. That is why at the World Bank spring meetings we will have a gathering, at which Paul Wolfowitz will be present, in order to make progress.

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Africa (Sustainable Forestry)

2. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase sustainable forestry in Africa. [130161]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We are committing more than £73 million for forestry work in Africa, including £50 million announced last week by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for a Congo basin forest fund. Our funding is helping to improve governance and secure environmental benefits, and potentially could help to safeguard the livelihoods of more than 50 million poor people.

Paddy Tipping: Does the Minister accept that one of the important steps that could be taken is for the Government and the wider public sector to buy only legal and sustainable timber? Is he confident that the central point of expertise on timber procurement is properly resourced and that its messages are widely understood across the public sector?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with my hon. Friend that there is much that the Government, through public procurement, can do to send strong signals about the need to use sustainable and legal sources of timber. At central level, the Government have set an example by setting out through the CPET what we want to see happen. We need to work with local authorities to help them see the benefits in that direction, and we need to encourage other Governments across the European Union and across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries to do so, too. Yesterday, I met my Norwegian and Swedish counterparts and we are encouraging them to look at exactly that issue.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Minister is right to say that there is huge importance in maintaining forestry—quite apart from anything else, to stop land slips and other forms of erosion. Has he had any meetings with the Waitrose Foundation, which is doing valuable work in southern Africa training people not only in horticulture and maintaining farms, but in sustainable forestry?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight one particular benefit of forests. He may know that about 2 billion people worldwide depend on forests in some shape or form, so not only do donors and development agencies such as ours have a responsibility, we also need to work with the public sector, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, and with the private sector, to which the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) referred. I have not yet met members of the Waitrose Foundation, but if he wants to bring them to see me, I shall be happy to meet them.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the Secretary of State’s visit to the university of Wales, Bangor last year. When considering sustainable forestry in Africa, will he look at the work being undertaken at the university of Wales, Bangor on the impact on forests of climate change and elevated carbon dioxide levels?

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Mr. Thomas: I welcome the work that is taking place at Bangor and I know that my right hon. Friend’s visit was useful. I will of course discuss with him the research benefits that were explained to him, as my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) described. We need more effort from public sector and private sector bodies in terms of research into the importance of deforestation and what we can do to counter it. We need to work with bodies in the private sector and with other Governments around the world to step up the effort to combat deforestation.

British Aid

3. Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote the independent evaluation of British aid. [130162]

4. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote the independent evaluation of British aid. [130163]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): UK aid is subject to external scrutiny through independent monitoring by the Select Committee on International Development, audit by the National Audit Office and peer review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. DFID’s policies and country programmes are evaluated by external experts and findings are published. However, we can and should go further, so I intend to establish a mechanism to ensure more independent evaluation of DFID’s impact and I will inform the House of my proposals in due course.

Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Assuming that he wishes to see recipient countries spend aid in an effective and accountable manner, when the Department is extending its aid reach into fragile states with often limited democratic credentials, why are the Government not doing more to show that they are responding and producing external scrutiny? Given that the Secretary of State says that the quality of governance has a huge impact on development, surely it is time for the Government to get its own house in order.

Hilary Benn: I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened to the answer that I just gave before asking a supplementary question that he may have written before he heard what I had to say. I accept entirely that we can do more to ensure that there is independent evaluation of the work that we are doing, but there is a considerable amount of scrutiny currently and in the more difficult places in which we work we take seriously our responsibility to ensure that we can demonstrate an impact. That is why, in those cases, we often do not give direct budget support, but provide assistance through programmes and projects in other ways.

Angela Watkinson: I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement that he is going to follow Conservative party proposals to have an independent aid watchdog in this country. Does he agree that as the Department for International Development is set to double its budget, we owe the British taxpayer a zero tolerance policy on corruption in aid budgets?

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Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Lady. I take with the utmost seriousness my responsibility to ensure that every penny of our aid goes to where it is intended. Every Member of the House, regardless of what party they belong to, should be interested in ensuring that a rising aid budget has the best possible impact.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the business of scrutiny of aid in developing countries must be carried out by the Parliaments of those countries and their public accounts committees? Will the Secretary of State tell the House how his new governance fund will be used to strengthen the capacity of Parliaments to do that work and scrutiny, and will our National Audit Office look at their reports and use them in its independent audit of his Department’s work?

Hilary Benn: I agree with my hon. Friend completely on that point. The governance and transparency fund that we are establishing will in part be used to support parliamentarians in building their capacity to hold their Governments to account. The Public Accounts Committee and the work of the National Audit Office are really good examples of how to do that. We enjoy the benefit of their wisdom and experience, and occasional probing from time to time. I do not see why our colleague parliamentarians and Ministers in developing countries should not enjoy the same experience.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I hope that his Department will look in particular at evaluating the spend on orphans and vulnerable children. I wonder whether he would agree that the untying of aid from trade, and the introduction of the poverty focus by the Labour Government was probably the single most effective step in improving the effectiveness of UK aid.

Hilary Benn: I agree with my hon. Friend. They were important decisions, taken for exactly the right reasons. On spending on orphans and vulnerable children, one of the reviews that we have been carrying out has been into the impact of our approach to HIV and AIDS and that is one of the issues at which it has been looking.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Some £50 million of unearmarked aid will be given to the Afghan reconstruction trust fund this year. Having been a part of the process of paying that aid, I know that it involves handling large bundles of cash and taking them down to the provinces in Afghanistan. Given the current levels of corruption to be found in some provinces in Afghanistan, what specific measures are in place today to ensure that that money is being well spent?

Hilary Benn: The most important measure that is in place is the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is managed by the World Bank on behalf of all the donors that put in funding, including the United Kingdom Government, and it pays out only in response to certified expenditure. What is that money being spent on? As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is being spent on helping to pay the salaries of teachers and other public servants who are trying to build the capacity of the Government of Afghanistan to respond to the needs of their people.

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