Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1007

Mr. Alexander: Let me deal with each of those points in turn. We have set criteria in respect of looking to support countries. We consider their commitment to reducing poverty in their own country, and we examine their systems of public financial management when we consider whether budgetary support should be provided. We also examine the issue of human rights, which is why, for example, the UK is involved in the EU dialogue on human rights in China.

The health indicators for China—in particular, western China—show significantly high continuing levels of tuberculosis, as a consequence of the significant number of people who continue to be afflicted by poverty in that country, and India still has more poor people than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In that sense, we face a real choice. If, as I have stated, we are serious about meeting the challenge of the MDGs, we are required to work in India, which has a significant number of poor people.

It is worth bringing another dimension of this matter to the House’s attention. The global rebalancing of economic power that will take place in the years ahead means that it is strongly in this country’s national interest to maintain strong partnerships with both India and China. This is not simply about development, where it is unquestionably the case that a country such as China will have a long and continuing engagement with Africa—we have real opportunities to influence how China seeks to exert its influence in that continent—but about the British national interest. It would be precisely the wrong time to communicate a message, whether advertently or inadvertently, to either India or China that somehow we did not recognise the fact that there is a continuing partnership between the United Kingdom and those countries.

Of course, we will be closing our programme in China in the years to come, but there is a continuing challenge to be met in India, given the high levels of poverty of which I have spoken. We have an obligation to continue to work on the programmes that are in place to ensure, for example, that we help to secure the eradication of as basic a disease as TB and that we combat infant and child mortality in India, the effects of which I shall see for myself when I travel there next week—we have a continuing obligation to work in that country too.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): That was an extensive reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on the subject of India and China. Will the Secretary of State explain why, in these difficult economic times, we continue to give aid to Russia, a country that has more than $500 billion in reserves and sits on some of the world’s largest oil supplies?

Mr. Alexander: Programmes were put in place in Russia at the time of the change following the fall of the Berlin wall and the change to the Commonwealth of Independent States, as was. [Interruption.] I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I finish the point. The reason I answered the question on India and China was because it was what I was asked. That may be an unconventional approach for some, but I endeavour to answer the question that is put to me.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1008

We do not see ourselves having a long-standing development relationship with Russia, but, once again, it is a country that we want to continue to influence within the international environment. If Russia is looking, as it certainly is, on the basis of the progress that it has made economically in recent years—notwithstanding the recent fall in the stock market and the difficulties that it will face with a falling oil price—to exert its influence internationally, there is a case for having a dialogue with Russia about how it will engage in development issues. In the same way, it is important that we engage with Russia on nuclear proliferation issues and on a wide range of strategic concerns.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): In the Secretary of State’s response to the question about aid to India, China and Russia, is he not falling into the trap of blurring the distinction between international development policy and foreign policy? Money spent by his Department is not supposed to be used to support the latter.

Mr. Alexander: I am always happy to be challenged on whether our aid is tied, but it is interesting to receive such questions from members of the Conservative party, which is well remembered for having tied British aid, for having halved British aid, and for being upbraided by no less an institution than the High Court for not having upheld development principles, for example in relation to the Pergau dam. If the hon. Gentleman is asserting that the Conservative party is a repentant sinner and recognises that it was wrong to tie British aid and to halve it—we have doubled it—in the past, I welcome his support today.

There is no contradiction between a clear focus on poverty reduction—writing that into law and ensuring transparency in the provision of that aid—and recognising that that relationship allows us an opportunity to engage in dialogue with countries with which we are working. In that sense, it is not an especially difficult point to grasp to say that if one is in dialogue with developing countries, we should seek to influence them benignly in terms of the international environment. That is fundamentally different from an approach that seeks to use British aid money to support British commercial concerns, as was the case under the previous Conservative Government, and that led inexorably to the embarrassment and shame of projects such as the Pergau dam.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Secretary of State may have misunderstood the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), who was making the point that a decision radically to change the nature of our aid programme to India would be a matter not just for the Secretary of State’s Department, but for the Foreign Office as well.

Mr. Alexander: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in close dialogue with our colleagues in the Foreign Office. I last saw the Foreign Secretary about two hours ago, and I will see him again later this afternoon. There is a close working relationship between my Department and the Foreign Office, and I will work closely with our high commissioner in India next week as surely as I will work closely with the head of my Department’s programme there.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1009

The fundamental point is whether the centrality of the need to untie aid is recognised on both sides of the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity today to confirm that that is the policy. I am also sure he will confirm that there is no contradiction between seeking to maintain a policy dialogue with the countries in which we work while also seeking to maintain the clear poverty reduction focus for British aid.

Mr. Mitchell: The leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has made it clear that we support the decision to untie aid, and that remains the settled position of our party.

Mr. Alexander: I am glad to receive that assurance. If we are in the business of offering assurances this afternoon, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will reiterate the commitment to budget support, given the press coverage in The Daily Telegraph today. At least one of his colleagues, when introducing the debate on global poverty in this House on 24 July, was only too happy to do so. It would be regrettable if the development community in the UK were left with the mistaken perception—as a result of a search for headlines—that the Conservative party had changed its approach to budget support.

Mr. Mitchell: I can reassure the Secretary of State that he can look forward to my contribution to this debate with enthusiasm.

Mr. Alexander: I think I will make up my own mind on that point.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that 90 per cent. of DFID’s aid is targeted on low-income countries? I have read the article in The Daily Telegraph and I wonder whether he shares my concern that some of the information in it—and some of the questions from Conservative Members—may be leading to a change in Tory policy that would mean a cut in the Department’s budget?

Mr. Alexander: I listened with care—whether I listened with enthusiasm is another matter—to the speech by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) at the Conservative party conference this year, and I did hear him make a commitment to 0.7 per cent. of gross national income. However, I noted that he did not give a timetable for meeting that target. Perhaps he will take this opportunity to confirm that to the House today.

Mr. Mitchell: I am very happy to give the Secretary of State that confirmation.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: I am happy to receive that assurance.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) is right to recognise that, perhaps understandably given the tenor of some of the observations that have been made by Conservative Members, there are still concerns about whether, in these challenging economic times, the commitment that was made previously to seek to match the global leadership that the Labour Government have offered in recent years will be delivered in terms of continuing policy commitments by the Conservative party.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1010

From our point of view, I can assure the House that the global leadership that we have taken in recent years—I will say some more about that this afternoon—reflects a genuine and deeply held conviction on the part of this party that we have obligations as well as shared interest and enlightened self-interest in having a more prosperous, peaceful and sustainable world. That is why it is a matter of consistency that the Government have prioritised international development, not a matter of electoral tactics or a desire to catch up with others. In that sense, I sincerely hope that the work we have undertaken to ensure that every section of British society recognises the importance of development expenditure truly extends to both sides of this House.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Will the Secretary of State not accept that in these difficult times, it is crucial that there is strong cross-party support for the objectives that the Government have set out? It will be difficult to keep the British people with us, but they have shown that they strongly support international aid and development. Now is not the time for parties to break away from the fundamental commitment to delivering what we have collectively promised.

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in complete agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, who brings great authority and experience to the debate. That is why it was a matter of such regret to me to read the comments ascribed to the Conservative party this morning in The Daily Telegraph. To bandy about suggestions that there are somehow no strings attached to hundreds of millions of pounds worth of British aid does a disservice to the quality of debate that we have reasonably come to expect from all parties. We have a responsibility to ensure the highest levels of propriety in how British aid money is spent—I will be happy to speak about that in the course of my remarks—and, at the same time, to ensure that the search for headlines does not get in the way of the truth. We are recognisable as a Department that has shown real leadership in ensuring that British aid money is spent effectively and wisely.

Daniel Kawczynski: Can we get back to the core of this debate, which is transparency? Nobody is saying that we should cut aid, but this year we are going to borrow more than £40 billion for the deficit that the socialists have got us into— [ Interruption. ] We are more than £800 billion in debt already, excluding the private finance initiatives— [ Interruption. ] The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), laughs as he always does in such debates, but when we are talking about our country borrowing huge amounts it is important that members of the public should receive an explanation of why we should continue to give aid to countries such as Russia and China.

Mr. Alexander: Let me endeavour to answer the question, in as much as I am able to understand it. If the hon. Gentleman is genuinely saying that the socialists in Lehman Brothers— [ Interruption. ]—in the Mississippi mortgage markets and in the White House are responsible for the global financial crisis, which, of course, afflicts not just this country— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Could we conduct the debate in the usual manner?

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1011

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to continue where I left off. If the hon. Gentleman is genuinely suggesting that the socialists in the White House, in the form of Henry Paulson and President Bush, the socialists in the Federal Reserve, including Ben Bernanke and others, the socialists who were responsible for Lehman Brothers and the socialists in the New York stock exchange and the American mortgage markets are responsible for the global financial crisis, I fear that he might not carry his Beck-Bench and Front-Bench colleagues along with him in that analysis, never mind the Government.

It does a disservice to the seriousness of the global financial crisis to offer such a superficial critique of what has actually happened. That causes me concern. When one gets to the core of Conservative party thinking, one sees that as the intellectual tide has turned against Conservatives they have been left defenceless and uncomprehending about the true nature of the problem. That is why, at a domestic level, they have opposed the steps we have taken on short selling and to protect mortgage holders, and why they did not initially support the significant steps that our Chancellor and Prime Minister have taken. I understand that this is a moment of acute intellectual peril for the right, given that we cannot nudge, privatise or deregulate our way out of the international financial crisis. However, I still thought that we could do better than the quality of debate that we have enjoyed from the Opposition today.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I had not expected to intervene in my right hon. Friend’s speech at all, far less on what seems to be a partisan point. However, given that some people here today are new to debates on international development and that there appears to be a gap between those on the Opposition Front Bench and some of their Back Benchers, will he assure the House that he will continue his support for development education? Will he therefore keep in touch with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and the various devolved Administrations on that matter?

Mr. Alexander: I am happy to give exactly the assurance that my right hon. Friend seeks. In many ways, he is the embodiment of the constancy, consistency and passion with which many Labour Members have fought, argued and campaigned for development over so many years, in good times and bad. I assure him that we on the Front Bench remain as committed as he is to ensuring a commitment to development education and the cause of international development more broadly.

We have a duty, especially in these straitened economic times of which I have just been speaking, to show British taxpayers where their aid money is invested, and the results being achieved by our international development assistance. This House therefore has a pivotal role in holding this Government to account for the effectiveness of the aid that we provide. In that regard, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the International Development Committee, and to acknowledge that its report on aid effectiveness, which was published earlier this Session, was a genuinely valuable contribution to such scrutiny.

I was pleased that the report recognised that the UK has performed well against the targets in the Paris declaration on aid effectiveness, and that the development assistance committee of the OECD has acknowledged
13 Nov 2008 : Column 1012
the UK’s leadership in aid effectiveness. I also find myself in complete agreement with the Select Committee’s assertion that

The impact of aid in relieving poverty can be greatly increased if everyone can see where aid funding comes from, who is spending it, and what it should be achieving. That is an issue well understood by Members of this House and particularly, as I have just had the opportunity to acknowledge, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). His International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006 obliges me to report annually to this House on the UK’s provision of aid. It is an obligation that I am happy to fulfil, for we know that transparency improves the effectiveness of aid.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I am sure we all agree that transparency in aid is extremely important. In that regard, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he plans to examine the amount of aid given by the British military? We are more heavily committed to Afghanistan and Iraq than any of our European neighbours, yet the aid that we provide in kind for things such as protecting and building dams and bridges does not appear to feature at all in his plans for transparency. Does he not think that that is an omission?

Mr. Alexander: Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence—with whom I met President Karzai only this morning—is accountable to this House, which has plenty of opportunity to question him about the conduct of his Department. As I recollect, he appeared only recently in a joint session with the Foreign Secretary—it was before either the Defence Committee or the Foreign Affairs Committee—to answer exactly that sort of question in respect of Afghanistan. The House has significant opportunities to hold the Defence Secretary and his ministerial colleagues to account over their conduct of the Department in Afghanistan, other theatres, and elsewhere.

Transparency helps developing country Governments to plan and manage their budgets. In Rwanda last year, just half of all estimated aid flows to that country were recorded in the national budget, which made it difficult for the Rwandan Government to channel resources to the areas of greatest need.

In addition, transparency enables citizens to hold their Governments to account. In Uganda, a campaign to give information concerning education funding to the citizens of that country helped to increase the share of funds reaching schools from just 20 per cent. in 1995 to more than 80 per cent. by 2001. Transparency limits the scope for corruption in developing countries. The extractive industries transparency initiative, launched by the Government in 2002, requires Governments, as well as oil and mining companies, publicly to declare the value of contracts. That initiative has helped Nigeria to increase revenue collection by $1 billion—money that is now available to spend on meeting the needs of the Nigerian people. In recognition of the power of such transparency to increase the impact of aid, the Government launched a new international initiative in September. The initiative was intended to make information on aid flows more easily available and accessible, so that citizens of both donor and recipient countries could see where and how aid was invested.

Next Section Index Home Page