Previous Section Index Home Page

25 Feb 2008 : Column 772

I would argue that the explicit reference to the eradication of poverty—in the immediate term, the primary objective of the reduction of poverty, and in the longer term, its eradication—itself provides the reassurance that the hon. Gentleman is seeking, in terms of having confidence as to the basis on which aid is going to be spent.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alexander: I will make a little more progress, then I will happily give way.

As I have said, important reforms of the European Union were made in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade. Brussels, the Kinnock reforms of the European Commission, and Chris Patten’s work on reforming the European Council’s external assistance have helped to make aid better targeted and more effective than it was in the past. Indeed, the improvements in EC aid have been recognised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s development assistance committee and by the House of Lords European Union Committee. In a 2004 report, the latter noted that the European Commission had made significant improvements in aid management and organisational effectiveness, and, as I have said, in 2005 the United Kingdom, as holder of the European Union presidency, was instrumental in designing the European consensus on development. The consensus defined a common European approach to development based on the pursuit of the millennium development goals, and clarified how the Commission works within that common approach.

Some Members may believe that the UK’s contribution to aid through the EC would be better spent through our own bilateral channels—indeed, that has already been said today—but I believe that such a retreat from our European aid commitments would act against the best interests of the world’s poorest people. By providing a proportion of our aid through the European Commission, we encourage other member states to raise the level of their commitment. The focus on development and Africa during the UK’s presidency of the G8 in 2005 unquestionably galvanised European support for the breakthrough commitments by the 15 richest member states to spend 0.7 per cent. of national income on development by 2015. I simply do not believe that that commitment would have been achieved had this not been an issue on which we work together in Europe.

James Duddridge: One of the Department’s successes has been in focusing on lower-income countries, on which 81 per cent. of its money is now being spent, while the comparable figure in Europe is 32 per cent. Does the Secretary of State fear that some of the Department’s excellent focus will be diluted by the treaty?

Mr. Alexander: I do not recognise the percentage given by the hon. Gentleman. Certainly European support continues to be provided in the European neighbourhood, not least as a result of the changes that have taken place since the accession of the A10, but I understand that in the European development
25 Feb 2008 : Column 773
fund, which has already been mentioned, the figure is closer to 90 per cent. I do not think that any embarrassment should be felt about the fact that the European Union, whether it is working in the Balkans or in north Africa, has a considerable interest in ensuring that there is greater stability and prosperity on the EU borders. That in itself has merit and is important work.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Given that the European Union is such a large donor, disbursing about $10 billion of aid in 2006, does it not make more sense to get the EU aid policies right by staying in there? Does the treaty not help us by focusing on poverty alleviation?

Mr. Alexander: I could not agree more. I think that to act otherwise would genuinely constitute a retreat, not just in terms of Britain’s national interests—I see the European Union as a means by which we can effect change on a broader canvas and more globally—but in doing a disservice to the world’s poor. They need not just a successful bilateral aid programme from the United Kingdom, but the delivery of effective aid over a number of years from major players in the European Union. That is the intention behind the work in which we engage regularly with other development Ministers.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): May I take up my right hon. Friend’s point about aid effectiveness? He will be aware of today’s coverage of the impact of higher food prices on the provision of humanitarian aid, especially food aid. How does he expect not just the UK but the EU, with its big responsibility for agricultural food production, to be able to deliver food aid to the neediest people?

Mr. Alexander: I sense that my hon. Friend is referring to Josette Sheeran, the director of the World Food Programme, who spoke on the radio this morning. I have had an opportunity to speak to her within the last month, when we discussed the issue of globally rising food prices. She said then, and repeated today, that she considers the World Food Programme’s stocks to be cause for concern.

I think that we shall have opportunities to work with ECHO, the European Humanitarian Aid Office, but many of us in the development community are turning our minds to the issue. For a number of years there have been relatively low commodity prices, including relatively low food prices, but given that the global population was 2 billion back in 1927 and will be 8 billion by 2027, continuing to provide decent and affordable food will pose a challenge to the international community.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con) rose—

Mr. Alexander: I will give way to my former shadow.

Mr. Brady: The Secretary of State has made a case for the division of aid between expenditure through the European Union and direct expenditure. Can he confirm that the proportion of British aid being spent through the EU is approximately 40 per cent., and, whatever the proportion, is it Government policy for it to be maintained in the future?

25 Feb 2008 : Column 774

Mr. Alexander: I fear that I am not able to offer the hon. Gentleman a precise figure or recollection, but I will ask a ministerial colleague to confirm the figures. However, I do not believe the proportion to be anywhere near as high as 40 per cent. My recollection is that the United Kingdom contributes approximately £1 billion through a combination of European development fund and general European contribution, but for the sake of providing clarity to the House I will ensure that the specific figures are offered later.

On our policy moving forward, there are certain obligatory payments in terms of the European budget, but we have been strong supporters of the European development fund, which of course exists outside the mainstream European budget, because we have been convinced as a result of both its focus on low-income countries and the effective influence we have been able to wield over it, that it provides a useful tool in our armoury for influencing other European countries to deliver aid effectively.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): On the subject of delivering aid effectively, does the Secretary of State welcome, as I do, article 210 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, which appears on page 135 of the consolidated text of the EU treaties? Paragraph 1 states:

That kind of co-ordination should, one hopes, do away with overlapping aid programmes, which we have sometimes seen in the past. In that sense, it is a great step forward.

Mr. Alexander: I agree with my hon. Friend. I was in Sierra Leone on Saturday, and when travelling through Freetown one sees literally dozens of signs representing different aid programmes that over time have worked in the country. As I said in a speech to a broad cross-section of Government Ministers and civil society, I hope that the next time I visit Sierra Leone I will see fewer signs and more co-ordination. It seems to me a basic aspect of best development practice that there is a great interest in all of us securing effective co-ordination between donors.

Beyond showing the level of Europe’s dedication to addressing global poverty, providing aid through the European Commission is beneficial in a number of practical ways. The EC works in developing countries where the UK does not. Because the EU represents 27 member states, we are stronger when we speak with one voice—whether on trade policy or other matters. Also, the EU collectively takes a leading role in many aid areas, including humanitarian assistance.

Today, the European Union plays a major role in tackling poverty.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that EU aid not only benefits people in Africa and Asia, but has played a vital role in places such as Kosovo? Does he not also agree that the
25 Feb 2008 : Column 775
NATO intervention in Kosovo has helped that country move towards a fairer, more democratic society, and that it is not an unpardonable folly, as it has been characterised by the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)?

Mr. Alexander: I remember vociferously disagreeing with the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan back in the happy days of May 1999, and I continue to disagree with him not only on the conduct of the Scottish National party’s policy, but on the policy that he advocated in relation to Kosovo. When Minister for Europe, I had the opportunity to visit Kosovo on a couple of occasions, and it is clear to me that it makes the case for so-called “soft power” on behalf of the European Union. We have a direct national interest in ensuring a degree of stability and prosperity in the Balkans. I defy any Member of any party to explain how we could have been as effective in influencing the western Balkans without the prospect of stabilisation in the first place, and the eventual prospect of a European future for many of those countries.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alexander: I shall make a little progress before giving way.

I do not particularly mind whether the principal magnet for those countries moving towards democratic standards and norms was the prospect of joining the world’s largest single market and thereby securing prosperity, or the fact that the EU is now a beacon of modernity, because the engagement of the EU in countries such as Bosnia and Kosovo will be benign in years to come, as it represents an effective deployment of soft power.

Mr. Streeter: I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that last point, as I hope to make clear later if I am called to speak. However, I wish to address now a point on which we did not agree a few weeks ago. I raised with the right hon. Gentleman the question of the linkage between aid policy and foreign policy and diplomacy. He ripped into me— [Interruption.] Yes, he did—and in a very unkind way, I thought. He reverted to discussing the “aid for trade” link that there used to be in this country, although that was not the issue I had raised. Surely he understands that the EU links aid with trade, as well as with foreign policy. He thinks that is the wrong thing for this country to do, so why should we put so much money into an EU aid policy that makes those linkages?

Mr. Alexander: It says something about the hon. Gentleman’s standing that in response to his suggestion that I had ripped into him, I said that I hoped I had not done so—although the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), said that he hoped that I had. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if any discourtesy was extended to him in my earlier answer. His substantive point is important. He wants to know whether we can be sure that aid policies, be they the UK’s or the EU’s, have a firm
25 Feb 2008 : Column 776
foundation of poverty reduction. The insertion into the treaty of specific language on poverty reduction should give him, and hon. Members on both sides of the House, the assurance that they seek.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Surely it is incredibly important to have an EU perspective, so that we can influence the approach of other groups, agencies and partners. I am thinking in particular of other big aid donor countries, such as the United States. Surely a united European position helps us to influence what countries such as the United States do.

Mr. Alexander: The point is well taken, although I would draw the House’s attention not to the example of the United States but to that of the new EU member states. When I was Minister for Europe, I had the opportunity to visit a number of the so-called A10 countries. Partly because of their lack of historical engagement in Africa, for example—I say this with the greatest respect to them—they would not have naturally alighted on development assistance as a measure of their commitment to modern global society, but for a collective and individual judgment that supporting international development was part of being a good European. Notwithstanding the cultural differences across the EU’s 27 members, that is why we are all collectively strengthened by working together on an issue such as international development. We bring the collective strength not of one country but of 27 countries to tasks such as tackling global poverty, which are big enough for us all and demand the engagement of us all.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in areas of conflict, and particularly in fragile states, the division between defence, security and development becomes increasingly blurred and the need to interlink those policies becomes more pressing? The European Union has a specific advantage in that role, because it can co-ordinate the approach of 27 different member states, as opposed to states acting separately.

Mr. Alexander: I agree with my hon. Friend. In July, I had the opportunity to visit El Fasher in northern Darfur, where I saw the work being done by, among others, the European Commission. In Bangladesh, the Cyclone Sidr effects were mitigated by support provided by the European Union. Thus in fragile or conflict-affected states the European Union has a role to play. It can often complement the work being done by member states.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most important and decisive things the European Union can do to assist the developing world and create that level playing field is to reform the common agricultural policy? In 2005 Tony Blair said that he wanted not only to reform the CAP but to abolish it. What progress has been made towards that laudable aim, and how does this treaty help?

Mr. Alexander: There will be a fundamental review of the European Union’s budget, and I should also mention the so-called CAP health check. On the basis
25 Feb 2008 : Column 777
of my experience as Minister for Europe, when I was party to the previous series of negotiations on the European Union budget, I respectfully suggest that if the hon. Gentleman is serious about having an impact on that budget, the last thing he would wish to do would be to rip Scotland out of the United Kingdom, in which we are one of the decisive and major players in the European Union, and render himself less relevant to the central discussions about the CAP or the EU budget.

As I suggested, European aid is helping to make a difference in the fight against poverty. In India, the Commission has helped to construct more than 77,000 school buildings and reduce the number of children out of school from 25 million to 14 million in just five years. Humanitarian principles will for the first time be enshrined in EU law, ensuring that humanitarian aid is allocated purely on the basis of need, without consideration of the recipient’s origins or beliefs. This is aid that really matters, because the EU is the world’s leading humanitarian aid donor, helping some 18 million people in more than 60 countries every year. Indeed, last July when I visited northern Darfur I saw the kind of support being provided for people by the European Commission.

Thirdly, the Lisbon treaty will improve coherence across all the EU’s external actions—the source of some discussion already—ensuring that development objectives are taken into account in policies likely to affect developing countries. Such reform is as important as the changes to European aid, for although aid assistance will be necessary to tackle poverty in many developing countries, it will not be sufficient. Eliminating global poverty will require, beyond aid, the establishment of a global environment that allows developing countries to lift themselves out of poverty. The European Union can play an important role in creating such a global environment, through helping countries to manage the risks of conflict and climate change and to maximise the opportunities of international trade.

Economic growth is the surest path out of poverty, and trade is crucial to growth, as has been borne out by experience within the European Union.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alexander: I have been generous with the House, so I shall make a little progress.

By 2006, the single market had boosted gross domestic product by an average of £360 for every person in the EU. Nearly 60 per cent. of the UK’s trade is with other EU member states, and 3 million British jobs are linked to the export of UK goods and services to the EU. As well as being our most important market, the EU is of course the major trading partner for many developing countries and a major player in international trade negotiations.

Next Section Index Home Page