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15 Nov 2007 : Column 886

I welcome the Select Committee response, published today, to the Department’s annual report. As we have already heard, it made some interesting contributions. I believe that the Department for International Development is one of the finest Departments of Government. The annual report highlights that fact. I welcome the fact that in the past decade the focus in the House on international development and issues that relate to it has improved immensely. We have seen that the public awareness that that has influenced has itself led to a greater focus on the kind of policies that we have debated this afternoon and will continue to discuss, but also on the achievements on the big issues of aid, trade and debt. There are still problems to be addressed, but there are achievements to be noted, and I believe that the British public have played their part.

One example lies in Bangladesh, which has already been discussed. Once famously described by an official in Henry Kissinger’s department as an international basket case, today the country enjoys an annual growth rate of around 5 per cent. Child mortality has fallen from 133 per 1,000 in the early ’90s to about 75 per 1,000 today. Funding provided by DFID has helped to lift more than 500,000 people out of extreme poverty. That represents progress indeed.

I also want to applaud not only DFID’s clear endorsement of the UN target of 0.7 per cent. of GNI, to which the report responds, but Government’s strong commitment—repeated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am delighted to say—to achieving it by 2013. The Government are entitled to be congratulated on where we are, because Britain is the second largest contributor of overseas aid in real terms. Indeed, if the current American trends continue, we will find ourselves in first place.

I hope later to talk about the role of other nations in dealing with world poverty. However—I say this to all parts of the House—I hope that when the target of 0.7 per cent. of GNI is reached, it will be seen not as an end in itself but as a platform upon which the House can collectively build. I hope that the consensus that is emerging, certainly in this debate, will continue. I hope, too, that the Opposition parties—the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and others—will take the opportunity to underline what the Government have made clear: namely, that if and when we reach that figure, we will not go back on it. I hope that we will not see the kind of scenario we saw in the past, with reductions in the figure—in this case restored by us in 2006 to 0.52 per cent., which was the rate in 1979.

It is right that there should be that commitment. For example, HIV/AIDS is still a big problem. To look at the broader picture, 270,000 people in Botswana are HIV-positive. That is in a country of just 1.75 million people, meaning an infection rate of 15 per cent. In the UK, where around 70,000 people are currently infected, that would be the equivalent of 9 million people. HIV/AIDS remains a huge problem in sub-Saharan Africa. We know that 60 per cent. of the global problem of HIV/AIDS applies in those countries. Statistics are not readily available, but it is obvious that we will not achieve millennium development goal 6 in that respect. That remains a challenge to us all.

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I welcome the positive aspects of the report and what my right hon. Friend has said this afternoon. For example, Nigeria will receive £52 million for reproductive health and other issues. That might be regarded as a bilateral commitment. Multilaterally, £15 million will go to UNITAID, to help poor countries to benefit from new drugs to treat AIDS and other preventable diseases.

We must take seriously the demographic evidence presented in the report—I refer to page 326 in particular—of the impact of HIV/AIDS on young women. A positive approach to maternal health is clearly of the essence. We cannot continue with a programme that means, for example, that we will not achieve millennium development goal 3, as it does, especially if that creates an impediment to reaching other millennium development goals.

The challenges remain. We must ensure that we are addressing health care problems, that we are providing clean water, that we are taking education—particularly the education of girls—as seriously as we should, and that we are seeking to ensure that the wealth of nations is fairly shared.

The Government are on course with regard to addressing effective governance. For example, they have deplored again and again the fact that so much money—about 60 per cent. of the GNI—is being spent in Darfur on armaments and on what amounts to warfare against a country’s own people.

Today of all days, as we sit here on the anniversary of the birth of Aneurin Bevan, we are entitled, on the basis of our own record, to appeal to other countries to join us in challenging the obscene image of world poverty that we see on our television screens. To those who are unconvinced of the relevance of this argument, perhaps we should suggest that enlightened self-interest might have its own appeal.

3.16 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Liberal Democrats very much welcome the opportunity presented by today’s debate. I should like to put on record our congratulations to the Department for International Development on the work that it does. I never cease to be amazed by the scope and range of need in this world, and addressing that is a monumental task. DFID does a good job in that regard. I would also like to thank the International Development Committee for its work in scrutinising the Department. I shall try not to cover any ground that has already been covered today.

As we enter the first full parliamentary Session under the new Prime Minister, who has rightly prided himself on his work on debt relief and international aid, this is an opportune moment to consider the wider performance on development, not just within DFID. I suppose that I expected a bit more of a revolution in the Government’s approach to international development with the advent of the new Prime Minister. He has rightly lectured us on redoubling our efforts to make poverty history. Before he became Prime Minister, he promised that Britain would meet its international obligations in full. In New York earlier this year, he sternly wagged his finger at the
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world and told the United Nations that the pace of progress on the millennium development goals was too slow. The Liberal Democrats agree with him on that.

Poverty was, however, reduced to a single line in the Queen’s Speech:

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will support that laudable sentiment. But let us consider what the Government’s contribution to the millennium development goals could be, and how it could be better. The lack of clarity and consistency in their approach to development not only inhibits development projects but results in the ineffective use of taxpayers’ money, as Conservative Members have already pointed out.

We can do little about some of the natural disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes, that befall the world, but we can do something about what I term the three Cs—corruption, conflict and climate change—if there is the political will and, most importantly, joined-up thinking between the Departments. Those are three areas in which the means to bring about change lie close to hand and close to home.

Corruption adds heavily to the cost of development aid. We should not underestimate the extent of local corruption, which needs local solutions. I was pleased that the Government announced more money for the governance programme, but Britain appears far too closely entwined in far too much corruption. I shall not go into the al-Yamamah deal—the billions of pounds of arms sales to Saudi and the money in Swiss bank accounts. For national security reasons, the Serious Fraud Office investigation was dropped although, thankfully, that decision is to be investigated by the High Court, and BAE’s dealings are being investigated in several countries. We should fully support the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention against bribery. We should be seen to support it, rather than trying to wriggle out of its strictures when it suits us.

We were comprehensively compromised by dropping that investigation, at the request of the Saudis. How does that square with our efforts on the millennium goal to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women? I noted with concern the Committee’s findings that DFID has problems in practically implementing the gender equality policy, and it is not alone. At what point did the Prime Minister raise the issue of women’s rights with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia? Was it when he apologised for the SFO getting as far as it did with the investigation? Was it when he was touting for business for arms deals? Was it during the King’s state visit—the highest honour that can be bestowed on a country?

I very much appreciate the idea that we should work constructively with countries where there are fundamental human rights failings. Indeed, our role in the west should not be constantly to hector and castigate developing nations. That would be to risk alienation and push them further away from the values that have brought us relative peace and prosperity; but rolling out the red carpet to give the absolute ruler of a country that is so far from achieving gender equality—

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Lady that we are dealing with countries where we are involved in terms of international development, rather than Saudi Arabia.

Lynne Featherstone: I apologise if I strayed too far from the track, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Al-Yamamah is not the only problem. I fully concur with the Committee’s support for DFID’s new strategic objectives, especially the promotion of good governance, but I have to return to a consideration of how we operate in the UK. When the Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, was looting billions from Nigeria, $1.3 billion ended up in 23 London banks, making them a profit at the expense of the neediest people in Nigeria. Much that is honourable and good is done in the City, not least the creation of jobs and wealth, but there is a dark, rotten secret—complicity in financial crime and its concealment.

Offshore tax havens play a key role in corruption, and the vast majority are based in countries closely connected with the UK, because they are Crown dependencies or overseas territories. Many of those financial operations are run by the subsidiaries of major international banks operating in the UK. The tax havens may not be within immediate reach of a memo from No. 10, but there is no doubt that the British Prime Minister wields huge influence. The UK Government must do more to put pressure on our companies, our financial systems and our dependencies and overseas territories.

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Lady is right to focus on corruption. May I ask her to read the report, “The other side of the coin”, published by the all-party group on Africa about 18 months ago? We pointed out that although it was important for the UK to do its part in undermining collaboration with the corrupt misuse of money in Africa, the problem is overwhelmingly an African one. If we create excuses for Africans not to improve their governance, the problem will never go away.

Lynne Featherstone: I welcome that intervention and I agree. Nevertheless, it is very hard for us to lecture Africa on corruption when we have some issues to clear up ourselves. I wish that the Government would turn their attention to one of the financial methods that has raised its ugly head and appears to be making a mockery of our own efforts on debt relief: the vulture fund. There has been no shortage of warm words on this subject. As far back as 2002, the Prime Minister, the then Chancellor, told the International Monetary Fund in Washington that

He was right.

Vulture funds do not tell us who they really are or pay our taxes, but they are happy to use British courts to extract money from heavily indebted countries. I am sure that hon. Members will be as horrified as I was to discover, when I finally obtained the figures from the World Bank, that more than £230 million has recently been reclaimed fully or in part through British courts from developing countries by vulture funds.

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Surely, British courts, in the same way as they afford rights and responsibilities to consumer debtors, should act to protect the rights of the poorest nations. We should tell those funds that if they want to use British courts they ought to play by our rules, and then we need to make those rules. We can no longer turn a blind eye, and as legislators we should move to outlaw that practice. I ask the Government to explore ways of negotiating an internationally binding agreement—not a voluntary code, because that is not working—to ensure that companies cannot prey on heavily indebted poor countries.

In the interim, because binding international agreements cannot be created overnight, I would love the Government to start looking at how our national laws can be changed to bar vulture funds from using Britain as a tool to milk heavily indebted poor countries. We need to draw a legal line in the sand between legitimate secondary debt and what is happening in those areas. Perhaps sovereign debt could be held in non-tradeable securities. The Government have many legal advisers and I do not have any, so I suggest that the Secretary of State for International Development and the Prime Minister put their great minds to work on this. We cannot go on being a country that purports to have high standards of ethical behaviour while seeming to condone bribery, corruption and greed. That plea for joined-up thinking and action extends across almost all that we do.

If we turn to the International Development Committee’s findings, we find worrying reports that DFID is, as has been mentioned already, often focused on inputs, not on outcomes. That problem is made even worse by conflicting inputs from other Departments. If we consider the millennium development goal to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty, which is the baseline for all the millennium development goals, we see that a worrying global trend has been undermining what we seek to achieve.

Some hon. Members might recall the Mexican tortilla protests in June, following the reported 400 per cent. rise in the price of corn. The rise was linked to the increasing demand for corn from America, as the Americans increase their bioethanol content for vehicle fuel. There is no doubt that biofuel, when it becomes a mature technology, will have a crucial and significant part to play in the urgent fight against climate change. Parties on both sides of the House are making climate change central to the fight for international development. As soon as bioethanol can be made efficiently from non-foodstuffs and is proved to use less carbon dioxide than it takes to make, biofuel will be at the forefront of the next generation of energy supply. However, given the current state of biofuel technology, foodstuffs are being diverted from human consumption to produce biofuel.

We must question the logic of taking food out of the mouths of the poorest communities on our planet, so that Americans can fill up their sports utility vehicles. I am concerned about the Government’s response to that development conundrum. It seems that we are busily signing the UK up to the EU targets on biofuels, without considering the disastrous consequences that those targets might have in driving up food prices. The Government have said that they are committed, quite rightly, to reducing the number of people living on less than a dollar a day, but what is the use of even a dollar
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a day when it is not enough to feed a family because of astronomical food price rises? So the evidence of the Government being focused on an input without regard for the outcome is rightly identified by the Select Committee.

The second of the three Cs, climate change, is rapidly becoming the greatest threat, not only to us, but to the developing world, as the reports note. The parts of the globe that have done the least to bring about climate change will suffer the most. As the world’s resources become scarcer, energy and water supplies will become the battlegrounds of the future and will give rise to more conflicts. We have to face up to our complicity in hurting the developing world. I concur with the Committee that mitigation is an urgent task, but we should not give up the game on prevention yet. That means radically and drastically cutting our impact on the globe, and it means developing countries playing their part in terms of their own emissions. We need a powerful climate change Bill with real teeth—I am a bit concerned that the one we are getting has dentures.

I come now to education. The Prime Minister is committed to educating the children of the developing world, but more than half of the 77 million children of school age around the world who are not in school are from conflict-affected fragile states. That damage to education will last for generations. The skills and education to recover from the devastation of years of conflict just will not be there. Some 80 per cent. of the 20 poorest countries have endured major conflict in the past 15 years. Conflict completely wrecks development progress—all that work and funding—almost overnight, leaving a terrible, long and painful legacy.

I was pleased when the then Chancellor said that he would support a special teaching emergency force to go into conflict areas to ensure that children whose family, home and life are torn away by war have the interim support of schooling and teachers. Coincidentally, that was almost identical to my idea for an education version of the Red Cross. I can only assume that great minds think alike, because we do not nick policies in this House. But where is that force? Have the Government delivered on that? Perhaps the Secretary of State will be able to confirm the reports I have heard that, one year into a five-year programme, only £2.5 million of the £50 million promised for the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been delivered. That does not seem enough.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): It is worth while reflecting that, when we give aid to a country, it has to be able to use the aid properly. The Congo is a very large country with a very low capacity to deliver anything at the moment. I was just reflecting on the effect that the Government have had on Africa as a whole. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government have played a pivotal role in the universal provision of education in Rwanda, and other central African states such as Uganda?

Lynne Featherstone: Yes, of course I do. I have already congratulated the Department on that and on the genuine commitment to education in the developing world. That is absolutely pivotal.

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