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Westminster Hall

Thursday 28 June 2007

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

India Country Assistance Plan

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting the subject of our future aid programme to India for consideration today. As hon. Members know, India is a great nation, rich in history. The world’s largest democracy, it has strong economic growth and understandable ambitions, which we support, for a seat on the UN Security Council. However, despite its progress, the country is still scarred by terrible levels of poverty.

Although it is often poverty in Africa that makes the headlines, and with good cause, poverty in India is also stark. Let us consider some comparative figures. Some 30 per cent. of children under five years old in sub-Saharan Africa were underweight in the five years up to 2005; the figure for India was 50 per cent. In 2003, some 320 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were living on less than a dollar a day; in India two years ago more than 350 million people were in that position, and a further 500 million people live on between $1 and $2 a day. Despite its image, India is still a low-income country, yet on a per capita basis, India receives little aid from the rest of the world. Total aid to all sources is only the equivalent of $1.50 a head, which is very low compared with other aid-recipient countries. On average, low-income countries receive about $17 a head in aid and middle-income countries just $15 a head, but, as I said, India receives just $1.50 a head.

The Government of India are committed to reducing poverty, and I wish to put on the record my appreciation of the strength of leadership in that area from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Chidambaram. India continues to welcome funding and dialogue from international donors and the UK accounts for about a quarter of all aid to India. Our combined financial and technical assistance allows us to play a key role in supporting India in its large health and education programmes and in its efforts to generate income and jobs. The job of being the UK Minister responsible for promoting development in India, which is by some way our largest country programme, is a privilege because India is a remarkable nation of myriad landscapes, cultures, traditions, languages and people. It is an extraordinary place.

In two months’ time, all those different traditions will come together to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. As the Government, we look forward to joining in those celebrations and, in so doing, recognising a relationship between our two countries that runs far deeper than the many treaties and summits that we have signed and taken part in with
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the Indian Government. There is a shared history, and a shared set of values and institutions. There is also a rich cultural exchange that has produced arguably some of the great literature, music and architecture of the last century. It is a relationship of interdependence, which, I suggest to hon. Members, means that we have a responsibility to do something about the poverty, injustice and inequality that still faces much of modern India.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Minister refer to the Government’s approach to the problem of discrimination by caste and descent—in other words, the treatment of Dalit peoples in India? What influence can the British Government bring to bear on the disgraceful situation that faces 200 million people around the world, the majority of whom are in India?

Mr. Thomas: I recognise that my hon. Friend has been a great champion of the need to do more to support Dalits’ aspirations to be part of the success of modern India. If he bears with me, I will come to that later in my speech.

When I was last in India in January with our new Prime Minister, it was impossible to miss the jarring contrasts that it presents. On the one hand, there is a vibrant hi-tech sector that services global businesses and, on the other, there are vast numbers of landless people in rural areas who have hardly enough to eat. India is home to world-class universities, but struggles to get all children into primary school. There are luxurious hospitals for medical tourists, yet half of women in India still give birth without a midwife.

That is a side of India that many forget or simply do not see. Our TV screens and newspapers are, perhaps understandably, awash with India’s many successes. However, I suggest to hon. Members that it is our responsibility not to forget that India is also home to more than 350 million poor people, which is more than five times the size of the entire UK population and represents one in three of all the poor people in the world. People live in misery and have to scrape some kind of survival from one day to the next.

The broader truth that the international community also needs to recognise is that the millennium development goals to which all parties in the House subscribe will simply not be achieved without more progress in India. Given India’s size and the uneven progress that I have described, it is a particularly complex country for donor agencies to engage with.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I welcome the changes to the machinery of government that have been made today, as they mean that trade policy is now shared between the Department for International Development and the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. In that context, will the Minister address the important role that fair trade can play in the development of India and the alleviation of the poverty that he has described?

Mr. Thomas: I will digress at this point to answer the hon. Gentleman. India has a crucial role in the current Doha round of world trade talks. Through work that we have funded with the United Nations Conference
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on Trade and Development—a key UN agency that works on trade issues—we have supported some of the research that India has wanted to do to understand the implications of particular negotiating positions that it might present as part of those trade talks. That is an issue on which we will continue to engage with India, because it is significant not only to India’s population, but to India’s position on the talks in relation to the many poor people in other countries.

There are, broadly, three Indias that we need to acknowledge as part of our future aid programme and three different types of development challenge. First, there is global India where people participate in a dynamic economy, are often connected to the rest of the world and enjoy comfortable incomes. Relatively speaking, that India consists of a fortunate few. The challenge there is how to work with India on some of the big global development issues such as the Doha round, as the hon. Gentleman made clear, and on issues such as climate change and access to medicines, where India’s actions and views matter for its own poor and for the poor in other countries.

Secondly, there is developing India, where people still live close to or below the poverty line, but for whom there are options and the possibility of links to the growing economy. There, the development challenge is how to work to drive better links to economic success, improve access to public services and tackle the governance challenges that have perhaps held back some parts of India from enjoying the same success as those who can be counted as part of global India.

Finally, the third and greatest challenge is poor India, where people struggle to survive from day to day and have no obvious way out. Their plight is made worse because they are often the same people who are shunned on the basis of their ethnicity or caste, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made clear.

I suggest to the House that in looking forward, we need to continue to engage with all three Indias and to work with our partners in the donor community behind India’s own development priorities. We have achieved a great deal in the past five years through the £1 billion of aid that we have delivered.

Jeremy Corbyn: I welcome the Minister’s comments on discrimination. I am sure that he is aware of the Ambedkar principles on investment strategies in India, to which a number of British companies have voluntarily agreed. He will be aware also that many people who suffer discrimination have no real recourse to law in India because of the lack of infrastructure for them to do so. Are our development plans related to those problems?

Mr. Thomas: Indeed. I commend those principles and the companies that have signed up to them and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to encourage more companies to do the same. We engage with businesses and want them to be socially responsible; signing up to those principles and putting them into practice is a further demonstration of that point.

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I was mentioning briefly progress made as a result of our aid over the last five years. Polio is close to being eradicated in India. Each year, partly as a result of our aid, some 1 million fewer women and infant children die. More than 5 million people living in the slums of Calcutta and other major cities in India now have access to water and sanitation and other services. Indeed, our slum upgrading programmes are being used as a model by the federal Government across India. Some 7 million people, mainly women, have been given the finance that they need to kick-start their own businesses, and there are some 15 million more children in school today than there were three years ago, again, in no inconsiderable part thanks to our aid programmes. Those are significant results and a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of aid in general, and British aid in particular.

We cannot afford to relax, however, and challenges remain: to improve the quality of education by, for example, ensuring that more children complete their education; to work towards eradicating the invisible barriers that mean that a young Muslim girl or young Dalit boy have less chance than their peers of receiving a decent education; and to work to secure a better health service and to drive down still further maternal and infant mortality rates. After all, how is it still possible that half of India’s children are undernourished, or that every five minutes a woman dies giving birth because she has no medical help?

Thankfully, HIV numbers might turn out to be lower than previously estimated, but we know from experience elsewhere that this is the moment in a burgeoning epidemic when decisive intervention can make a real difference. We recognise that now is the time to support the Indian Government’s efforts to close down the possibility of a full-blown epidemic. Clearly, we must keep pushing the international community to act on polio, because although it is contained, there are seasonal outbreaks in poverty-stricken areas, which means that we have not yet gone far enough. India’s eradication of the virus would benefit not just its own people, but the world. We are close, but have not yet completely succeeded in meeting that challenge.

Tuberculosis—a menace across the globe—thrives in a country where millions of people still live in squalid slums and cram on to packed trains in search of work. Treatment is available, but we need to increase access to it to prevent the 370,000 deaths that result every year in India from the disease. Again, we propose to continue to support the Indian Government’s nationwide diagnosis and treatment programme.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North made clear, certain groups face discrimination and exclusion. Women are usually worse off and despite India’s vast affirmative action programme, which I commend, lower caste and tribal people suffer still from marked discrimination and deprivation. A recent report by the Indian Government drew attention to the unequal opportunities for many of India’s 150 million Muslims. Some 20 million severely disabled people face enormous challenges in accessing public services and the sorts of incomes that we want them to have. The Indian Government have welcomed our continuing support—not only our money, but our style of working—in providing Government partners with the
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resources that they need to tackle their priorities. Those priorities are inevitably about meeting the most basic needs of the Indian people, giving them the opportunity to learn and a fighting chance when sickness strikes.

That is why I was pleased to announce earlier this month that we will spend an additional £250 million on a series of new health initiatives across India over the next five years and a further £35 million for the expansion of the Indian Government’s highly successful programme for the empowerment of women through education. I draw hon. Members’ attention also to the announcement by our new Prime Minister back in January of a further £200 million of assistance for investment in primary education.

Against that backdrop of renewed commitment to basic services for today’s most needy, and in looking ahead to the India that we want to see in 2015, we will ask those in India and in the UK who know about India—civil society groups such as Oxfam and Indian non-governmental organisations—as well as other donors, for their views on questions such as how to ensure that India’s phenomenal growth is shared by all of its citizens; how to help slum dwellers have a say in the quality of services that they receive, or, too often, do not receive; how to tackle India’s appalling under-nutrition rates, and what can be done on issues of global significance affecting the poor, such as climate change.

As part of that consultation exercise, we will ask also how we should provide aid. We have a substantial £27 million programme—the poorest areas civil society programme—that channels support directly to Indian NGOs and community organisations to help people to access Government programmes, the benefits of which, of course, are theirs by right. That programme operates in 100 of India’s poorest districts and has helped people to claim their entitlements to food and employment programmes.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I was pleased to be at the launch of the consultation process a few weeks ago. The figures that the Minister is announcing for these new programmes are very impressive indeed. On the health initiative, will the money be focused primarily on the sorts of killer diseases that he mentioned, such as AIDS and, more likely, TB, or on local work in the villages and slum communities—at a real grass-roots level—to reach the very poorest people?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend makes a good point: too often, large amounts of donor assistance go towards particular diseases, as opposed to building up the health system more generally. We hope that our aid will do both and enable us to tackle killer diseases such as AIDS, TB and malaria, as well as to strengthen health systems more generally, because without doing that we cannot reduce infant and maternal mortality rates.

Furthermore, we are starting a £20 million programme, channelled through international NGOs, that will work with the most socially excluded groups to advocate on their behalf and to ensure that Dalits, Adivasis and other minority groups can participate in India’s growing economy as well. Most of our aid, however, is channelled
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through Government systems, both centrally and at state level—in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal—because we recognise that the Indian Government are responsible for ensuring access to basic services and fostering the right environment for improving people’s incomes. Only the Government can enable the supply of services on the vast scale required. We believe that our job is to support them in that endeavour and, in that way, to help India progress towards the millennium development goals.

Jeremy Corbyn: I support the direct aid for national and state government in India and all the other aid programmes. The Minister mentioned the problems with discrimination. Has he been assured by the relevant recipients of aid and aid programmes that they will not allow any discrimination on the basis of caste, descent or anything else when the British aid is disbursed to particular education or health projects?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend raises an important question about tracking aid to ensure that it gets to where we want it. For the national aid programmes, we have a series of targets and indicators that are monitored twice a year. He will be pleased to hear that one target, particularly for our education programme, involves the extent to which socially excluded groups such as Dalits—a particular concern of his—are reached. We also have a poorest areas programme, which targets the areas of most need.

Our analysis of the government system in India is that there is a positive trend in the development of the Government’s capacity to deliver basic services but, as the Government of India recognise, a huge amount remains to be achieved.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Almost since 1948 and the inception of the national health service in this country, it has been immensely fortunate in attracting a huge number of Indian doctors and health professionals. Every single person who values the NHS values the contribution of doctors and health professionals from south Asia. However, is my hon. Friend the Minister comfortable with the problem that may exist in some areas whereby doctors are trained and graduate in India but then leave the country? Does his brief include working with federal, state and national agencies to ensure that there is not a skills deficit in India because of our needs, and perhaps the needs of the west?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the skills deficit in many parts of India in respect of health care. One aspect of the role that our technical assistance advisers play in health involves helping the Government to ensure that they are clear about their human resources needs—that they are examining how many nurses and doctors they need and that they have the right training programmes in place.

More generally, my hon. Friend draws the attention of the Chamber to the fact that there is a problem internationally whereby developing countries too often see their nurses and doctors poached by developed countries. Thanks to the agreement that we have in the UK, poaching by the NHS or by private recruitment agencies that serve the NHS has stopped. We are
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seeking to encourage other countries in Europe and around the world to develop similar codes of conduct. That is being debated in the European Union and we hope that we will secure agreement on it later this year.

Stephen Pound rose—

Mr. Dismore rose—

Mr. Thomas: I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound).

Stephen Pound: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for answering my question extremely comprehensively and I do not wish to divert the Chamber from the main subject of today’s debate, but has the Department for International Development received from Indian doctors or nurses or their representatives any representation expressing concern about the current changes in immigration rules, which will certainly have an impact in this respect?

Mr. Thomas: I know that there is concern more generally, and we continue to explore these issues. I was remiss in not joining my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the considerable talents of those of Indian origin who work in our public services and, in particular, in our health services. My own constituents, like his, benefit from that commitment.

Mr. Dismore: I wanted to raise a similar point. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister, because he has a large Indian community in his constituency, as I have in mine, has received representations about the changes in the immigration rules, which have affected trainee doctors in particular. The issue cuts both ways. It is our responsibility to help to train doctors who may ultimately return to the subcontinent to work on the type of projects that he is talking about. Has his Department had discussions with the Home Office about the changes? Will there be any light at the end of the tunnel for those who have been caught, in particular in the transitional period?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend draws attention to an issue that I think will become increasingly important internationally—global migration. There is increasing dialogue internationally on that issue, in which we participate along with colleagues in the Home Office, considering not only short-term issues and immediate concerns, such as the ones that he describes, but longer-term trends. With the rise in the world’s population, India will have a very sizeable increase in population. It is clear that migration is likely to increase.

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