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2.7 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for not being present for the first few minutes of the debate; it started five minutes before I thought that it would. That was a lowering of my standards, for which I ask forgiveness. I support the motion moved by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), and I am grateful for the chance to have learned what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said.

There are two or three points worth making, in addition to recognising the merits of the appointee and the way in which Sir Philip Mawer carried out his job. It is worth the House remembering that we do not
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always have to agree—and indeed have not always agreed—with what commissioners put forward. To take one relatively small example, during the investigation of complaints about Neil Hamilton, the Standards and Privileges Committee explicitly voted not to endorse one of the findings of the commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey. That did not cause a row and it was not done in a sensational way; it was just a matter of consideration of the commissioner’s report.

In the case of the second commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, I believe that those who write the histories of these matters will notice—I intentionally put this delicately—that sometimes those on what is now the House of Commons Commission intervened in ways that were unjustified. Even if they had been justified, and I do not think that they were, they were unwise. The House of Commons Commission has learned the lessons from what was clearly a series of errors during Elizabeth Filkin’s period as commissioner. For example, in the week before she gave up her post, in the times when there was the possibility of reappointment—I think that I am right in saying that her predecessor had been reappointed, but she was not—it turned out that she had been underpaid by almost a year’s salary. I may have got the figures wrong, but she had done an enormous amount of unpaid work, although some people in authority in the House believed that she did not have enough to do, or was taking too much time to do things. I think that that period has gone, but while I am in the House I shall be vigilant to make sure that it does not happen again.

My final point follows on from the remarks of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) about the change in the arrangements for using the House of Commons banqueting facilities, although “banqueting” is a rather strong way of describing what is sometimes a constituency tea party. It is offensive to the people who take part in politics that, as I understand it, a group of women, who may be part of a Member’s political party and who may be active in supporting that Member or may just be members—we want to encourage members of political parties—apparently cannot pay for their own tea and have it arranged by their own Member—

Mr. Kevan Jones: They can. Read the report.

Peter Bottomley: I may reread the report, but as I understand it, that was one instance in which the recommendation made by the commissioner was hardened up. If I misunderstand it, I do not think I am the only one. I hope that I shall be able to put myself right and get my constituents to come up again, as they used to do.

Question put and agreed to.


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International Development

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2007-08, on the Department for International Development Annual Report 2007, HC 64-I and -II, and the Department for International Development Annual Report 2007, HC 514.]

2.10 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I beg to move,

It is right that the House should concern itself with ending the injustice of global poverty, and that it should debate that issue today. I am grateful for the experience, expertise and scrutiny that many Members bring to the issue, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). He has been, as I am sure the whole House will agree, a tireless campaigner against global poverty for many years, and the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006, which originally carried his name as a private Member’s Bill, is and will prove an excellent contribution to my Department’s reporting. That Act will help the British people to hold Government to account for promises made, and the Department for International Development’s 2007 annual report, which we have tagged to today’s debate, is the first to be produced according to the provisions of the Act.

Today the International Development Committee published its response to the Department for International Development’s annual report, and I thank the members of the Committee for their detailed consideration of these issues. My Department will formally respond to the IDC’s report in the coming months, but in the course of my remarks this afternoon I will highlight the recent comprehensive spending review settlement and its implications for my Department’s work, highlight emerging challenges that I believe we must address in order to see progress towards the millennium development goals, and briefly touch on the main conclusions of the IDC’s response to the Department’s annual report.

Yet amid all those discussions of funding and financing, of policies and programmes, we must recognise the scale of the human suffering that we are called to address. In a world that is eight times richer than just 50 years ago, every three seconds a child still loses their life simply because they are poor. Every 11 seconds, a person still loses their life from AIDS, an illness that should no longer be a death sentence, for we have the medicine to manage it. Every minute, a woman dies because of complications during pregnancy or childbirth—500,000 women are losing their lives each year simply because they sought to give a life.

Although those figures reveal the scale of the challenge that we face, I suggest to the House that with courage, ingenuity and commitment, real progress can be achieved. In the past 40 years, life expectancy in developing countries has increased by a quarter. In the past 30 years, illiteracy rates have halved. In the past 20 years, 400 million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. We are close to eradicating the disease of polio from the face of the earth.

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Such work has been the mission of the Department for International Development for the past decade, since we brought international development from the periphery of Government to the Cabinet table. We again showed our commitment as a Government to global poverty eradication in last month’s comprehensive spending review. Today marks the first opportunity for the House to discuss fully the implications of that comprehensive spending review settlement for development.

Through that settlement, the Government will provide more than £9 billion of aid a year by 2010, four times as much as back in 1997. That keeps us on track to meet our timetabled commitment—the first such commitment made by a UK Government—to spend 0.7 per cent. of gross national income on aid by 2013. This increase in aid will enable Britain to deliver on our promises to help developing countries make faster progress towards the millennium development goals.

We will double aid to Africa by 2010, as promised at Gleneagles. We will meet our pledge to spend £8.5 billion on education by 2015, providing enough resources to pay for 10 years of education for 15 million children. We will provide £1 billion for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, to tackle three diseases that together account for 6 million deaths a year. Our contribution of £1.4 billion for the international finance facility for immunisation will help to save the lives of 5 million children by 2015.

The scale of the increase in official development assistance provides new opportunities to tackle disease, illiteracy and poverty, but with these enhanced opportunities come enhanced responsibilities. The IDC’s report today raises the issue of ensuring aid effectiveness while my Department simultaneously reduces administrative costs. I believe that the British people would expect efficiency savings in a Department that received such a generous increase of resources in the comprehensive spending review. They have a right to know that their money is being well spent on their behalf, and the nature of DFID’s work does not, and should not, exempt us from such scrutiny. Indeed, when the very pounds that we spend can mark the difference between life and death, between schooling and illiteracy, it is all the more urgent.

In recent years, while my Department’s overall budget has increased, our overall staff numbers have decreased, yet the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s authoritative Development Assistance Committee review last year described the period as

for the Department for International Development. The IDC says that our work in the poorest countries and in fragile states requires particular resources. I can assure the House that we keep such staffing under review. By way of example, I draw the House’s attention to the fact that our staffing in the Democratic Republic of Congo has more than doubled in the past two years, from 18 to 39, and our staff in Sudan has increased from 15 to 27 in the past year.

As I hope my remarks at the Dispatch Box today have reflected, I am determined that the Government’s aid, whether bilateral or multilateral, should aim to deliver maximum impact and represent value for money.
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So to provide further scrutiny of my Department’s efforts, I am pleased to announce to the House today the appointment of David Peretz as chair of the new independent advisory committee on development impact. Mr. Peretz brings great experience to the committee from his work as an independent consultant and senior adviser to the International Monetary Fund independent evaluation office, the World Bank, and the Commonwealth Secretariat. I have placed details of the membership of the committee in the Commons Library, and Members of the House will note that it contains leading experts on development and evaluation. The committee will meet for the first time next month, and I am confident that it will provide effective scrutiny of DFID’s evaluation, and in so doing help to ensure the continued quality of our aid spending.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State kindly expand a little on what the committee will do? Is it to evaluate projects once they have been completed, rather like the National Audit Office, to see whether the money has been wisely spent and how effectively it has been spent, or will it simply confirm that the money that DFID says will go to particular projects has gone to those projects? The House would be greatly helped if the Secretary of State could explain in greater detail the methodology of the committee.

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for seeking that clarification. The committee would in no way prejudice the ongoing scrutiny of the Department for International Development by the National Audit Office. Essentially, it has three purposes. It will determine which programmes and areas of UK development assistance will be evaluated. It will then identify any gaps in the planned programme of evaluations and make proposals for new areas or other priorities, as required. Finally, it will check that international standards are being applied and comment on the quality of the evaluation work.

In line with its role, the committee will operate in a transparent and independent way. The chair will report annually to me as Secretary of State on quality and independence of studies, what needs to be done to improve evaluations and how far the Department for International Development is following up on them. All findings will be published and the committee will have its own website to ensure that that information is made available to the widest possible group of people.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What consideration has the Secretary of State given to greater parliamentary scrutiny of that body and the reports that it produces? Will the Select Committee have a particular role in examining those reports, rather than their going to the Secretary of State and potentially being delayed, not by him, but perhaps by other Secretaries of State?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful for that ringing endorsement of both my motives and the effects in respect of the receipt of those reports. Of course, it is a matter for the Select Committee to determine the scope of its inquiries, and, indeed, the time scale for its investigations. As I said, the fact that the findings will
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be published and that there will be a website, which can be accessed by all members of the Committee, means that we can be confident that if the IDC so chooses it can turn the gaze of its inquiry to that matter.

The future of those living in developing countries will not be determined solely by the work of evaluation. It will be affected, above all, by the choices made by the leaders, institutions and citizens in the developing countries themselves. While it is for each society to forge its own path to good governance, we can support them in that endeavour. That is why, under the terms of the comprehensive spending review, my Department will continue to use our aid to support good governance, as set out in last year’s White Paper. In doing so, we will not only help to build more capable states that better serve the poor, as we will also secure our investment in aid as countries become increasingly transparent and accountable. We can help to build up the sustainable governance institutions, such as independent judiciaries, that are vital for long-term development success. We can also support efforts to tackle the corruption that we know harms countries’ development prospects.

In July 2006, my predecessor announced a new £100 million governance and transparency fund to help civil society and the media to hold Governments to account. I can report that there has been an overwhelming interest in the fund and that we have received more than 250 applications from non-profit organisations around the world. In the light of that tremendous response, I am pleased to announce today that we will provide a further £20 million for the governance and transparency fund further to extend our work to increase accountability in developing countries.

Even where governance standards are at their worst, we will not abandon the poor, for that would be doubly cruel. Britain will continue to support the people of Zimbabwe with some £40 million of humanitarian assistance this year, delivered entirely through the UN and non-governmental organisations. I announced recently from this Dispatch Box that we will double our aid to the Burmese people from £9 million to £18 million a year by 2010-11. I am aware that some hon. Members believe that we should commit now to providing more over a longer period, but I do not consider the announcement to be the limit of our spending for Burma in the coming years.

There is no greater collapse of governance than when countries are embroiled in conflict.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the good governance programme. I have witnessed it at first hand in Uganda, Kenya and, particularly, in Afghanistan. It is important to stress accountability in countries that are receiving a great deal of aid, so that everyone can see that it is being delivered on the ground to the people who need it. We also need to build the capacity of MPs in those countries themselves to scrutinise where the money is going.

Mr. Alexander: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s experience and expertise in this field. I travelled to Afghanistan in August—next week I will be in both
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Tanzania and Kenya—to see for myself the difference that British taxpayers’ resources can make to the development efforts within those countries. We have shared peer-to-peer review and a whole system of accountability mechanisms directly with Governments, but little proves to be more effective than ensuring that there is a strong and effective Parliament capable of holding an Executive to account. In addition, the strong support of civil society can throw the torchlight of transparency on to expenditure in those countries. That is why I was pleased to announce that additional £20 million today to help assist the efforts of non-governmental organisations in countries such as those we have described.

To return for a moment to the issue of Darfur and Afghanistan, our aid is helping communities that are affected by conflict. Indeed, just last week, President Karzai announced that, thanks to improvements in health care supported by DFID and other donors, almost 90,000 children who would have died under Taliban rule will now survive. The new cross-government stabilisation aid fund, together with the conflict prevention pool set out in the comprehensive spending review, will provide nearly £600 million over the next three years to prevent, manage and resolve conflict. By doing so, we can create the conditions needed for effective state-building and economic development.

The comprehensive spending review will enable Britain to meet its promises on increasing aid for basic services, to improve governance—as we have just discussed— and to reduce conflict. But tackling global poverty of course requires more than simply more aid. I am determined that my Department will build on its successes in aid agency in recent years to tackle the challenges facing developing countries at the beginning of the 21st century. Two of those greatest challenges are how to increase growth and trade and how to tackle climate change. Let me deal with both those issues.

The importance of growth to development is clear. About 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 20 years alone and 80 per cent. of that poverty reduction has been due to increased economic growth. To increase growth, we must support poor people to maximise their economic activity. For seven out of 10 Africans, that activity remains agriculture. The IDC report today highlights the importance of agriculture to the developing world, to which I now turn my attention.

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