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My experience of DFID led me to table a few parliamentary questions. One of the first was about the number of offices that it had. Now, I shall give the Minister credit for one thing, which is that DFID’s mission statement, when compared with most Departments’, is—surprisingly—absolutely clear and, I might add, a refreshing change. Its website states that DFID is all about handling Britain’s aid to the world’s poorest countries, so I looked through the list of places where DFID has offices, and I was surprised to find that among the places that are presumably considered poor are Paris, Vienna, Geneva and Brussels. The United
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States of America obviously suffers from a great deal of poverty, because it has two DFID offices, one in Washington and one in New York.

I should like to know from the Minister why we have a base in sunny Barbados, where the average GDP is $19,000 per head. It also benefits from the munificence of the British taxpayers and the presence of a DFID office, which, the website states, is there to draw up regional development plans. No doubt if any staff take offence at my speech, they will demand that I come over and see how hard they are working. I might be available around about Christmas time, if the Minister wants to sanction that one.

There are other offices about which I have questions, and other Members have already mentioned some. Those offices are located in cities in Brazil, South Africa, Thailand and Russia. Poverty exists in all those countries; there is no doubt about it, but those countries also have huge amounts of wealth. They are not really the poorest of the poor, but countries where, if there were a will, something could be done about the existing poverty. In the case of Russia in particular, I find it extraordinary that, on the one hand, we make bellicose statements to its Government about what they have done in South Ossetia, even though it now appears that the whole thing was started by another country, while, on the other, we hand out aid to them. It seems to be a remarkable contradiction. Yes, people are dying of tuberculosis in India, and that is an absolute tragedy, but there are people dying of starvation in British hospitals, and that is also an absolute tragedy.

The fact is that we should send our aid to countries where we can make a difference. Why on earth, therefore, do we bother to send millions of pounds in aid to China, for heaven’s sake? China is likely to overtake America as one of the world’s great superpowers over the next few decades; it is spending millions of pounds on its space programme and on its nuclear weapons; it has just announced that it is going to try to build a bigger navy than America’s; and, irony of ironies, we saw plenty of evidence of China’s own aid programme in Uganda, where it is building Government offices. We give money to the Chinese, and the Chinese give their money to African nations, securing all sorts of concessions in return. The idea that in 20 or 30 years’ time, the Chinese, as one of the world’s pre-eminent superpowers, will look back and think, “Oh, we’ll treat the British slightly differently because they gave us what in relative terms was a small amount of money,” just shows the left-wing, colonial and patronising attitude that is all too prevalent in some parts of the Government and, dare I say it, in Departments. They think that because we give out relatively small amounts of money, somebody is going to care or remember in a few decades’ time. It is complete and utter naiveté, and as someone who has a Chinese family, I can assure the House that the Chinese must be laughing up their sleeves at it.

One of my basic concerns is that we are spending a vast amount of money paying first-world salaries and first-world rents for offices in countries throughout the world. The parliamentary answer that I have before me is about two years old, but it is simply a list of all our DFID offices. I totted them up, and there were about 80.

Mr. Lewis rose—

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David T.C. Davies: I am more than happy to give way to the Minister. Perhaps he could try to be more polite when he makes his point this time.

Mr. Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that even his own party’s Front-Bench spokesman refers constantly to DFID being a world leader in development? For all the legitimate questions that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) raises about the direction of policy, that is a point that his own Front-Bench spokesperson—from the shadow Cabinet—makes time and again. Will the hon. Gentleman apologise for being so offensive about the role of DFID front-line staff? I do not mind what he says about me.

David T.C. Davies: I point out to the Minister that this is an opportunity for me to put questions to him through the Chair; if I want to raise issues with a Front-Bench spokesman, I can do that in a different way. I do not mind how offensive the Minister is to me. I meet people far more offensive than him every Friday night when I work as a special constable, although he is coming close in some respects. However, as a Minister of the Government, he might care to reflect on the fact that we are allowed to express ourselves and raise criticisms in this place. I am surprised that he finds that so offensive.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I make an appeal for the debate to return to a more even tenor. The personal aspects on both sides are jarring to the general theme of the afternoon.

David T.C. Davies: I am more than happy to return to the subject of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The point that I was trying to make—I am sorry if the Minister finds it offensive—is that DFID has a large number of offices and staff, and a limited budget. We can argue all day about whether that budget should increase, but we should all agree that it should be spent as wisely as possible. I am suggesting that rather than having 80 offices all around the world in places such as Paris, Geneva and Brussels, we concentrate on a dozen or two dozen of the very poorest countries in the world, perhaps those with previous links to Britain. We should concentrate as many of our efforts as possible on reducing the overheads and spending the money—whatever the budget—on those who need it.

Mr. Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in this context the most important thing that this country can do, apart from being a donor country, is to influence international institutions and other donors so that they step up to the mark and make the right decisions on international development? That is why we need offices where the international institutions are located. It is important and in our national interest that we should lead on influencing development policy across the developing world.

David T.C. Davies: The Minister overlooks the fact that that is the role of embassies and the Foreign Office. Earlier, he made it clear that he condemned the idea of giving out foreign aid with strings attached about how Governments should run themselves. He needs to make up his mind about his own policy; he has contradicted himself throughout this debate. If we give out money with no strings attached, we should not concentrate on foreign policy at all but simply make sure that the money goes to those who need it most.

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I put it to the Minister, with respect and courtesy, that we would do far more if we concentrated on 12 or 20 of the poorest countries in the world, rather than trying to spread ourselves thinly throughout the world and making what in many cases will be a very small difference. The Minister gets angry when anyone criticises his Department, but I tell him that the role of a Member of Parliament, who is elected by taxpayers, is to ask difficult questions about how Government money is spent. I have a concern about the attitude of some DFID members of staff—not least because of my own experiences, but also because of the experiences of constituents.

I recently met a retired eye surgeon from Abergavenny. Over the years, he had done some work in Ethiopia. Having retired, he wanted to work for free. This was not some naive 21-year-old just out of university knocking on the door and asking to work on an aid programme, but a retired eye surgeon who wanted to give up his time for free and start a project training people to undertake basic surgery to enable people with certain eye diseases to see again. He told me that he got no help whatever from DFID and was treated as something of an inconvenience. The very idea that Government money could be given to an individual, even one with enormous skills and expertise, to do what the mission statement says the Department is all about, was simply incomprehensible to the officials involved. I believe the gentleman concerned because he is highly respected and because he went out and set up the charity himself. He is now training people in Ethiopia to go out and give people their sight back. In other words, he is exactly the sort of person whom we should be supporting but were not able to—presumably because people were busy drawing up action plans instead of giving practical help.

My points are that we are spread too thinly across the world and that we are in many of the wrong places. Many of the countries in which we are present are perfectly able to help themselves if they wish to and our presence will not make any difference to their foreign policy over the next few decades. If we concentrated our efforts on 12 or 20 of the poorest of the poor countries of the world, we could make a significant difference to people’s lives.

4.54 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I certainly do not intend to try to follow that pub rant from the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), which seems to be considerably at odds with the views of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and gives a degree of discomfort to the idea that we have a modern, reformed, liberal-minded Conservative party that wants to engage in these issues. Of course, there is an entirely reasonable debate to be had about how DFID should deploy its staff and its resources and in how many countries, and what its priorities are. My Committee, the International Development Committee, regards its prime function as to call the Department to account, challenge it on its policies and make constructive recommendations, which I hope that we do.

Transparency is one of those issues that is very easy to talk about and a lot more difficult to deliver. It is not always possible to turn every expenditure of cash into a
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measurable result, but we must try to do it, as far as possible, for exactly the reasons that have been stated—to reassure taxpayers at home that the money is being spent effectively to achieve the objectives and to reassure people in the countries on the receiving end that their Governments are using the money to good effect.

As I understand it, a significant aspect of providing direct budget support is to try to enable the developing country to build up the capacity to control its own budget and expenditure and to deliver services, ultimately to the point at which the revenues that are generated allow the development support to be phased out and withdrawn. Whenever my Committee and I visit DFID offices in various countries, we always ask the staff to what extent their budget is being distributed under direct budget support, and what engagement they have with the people with whom they are working in government to ensure that as far as possible—allowing for the fact that it is their choice, not ours, what the money is delivered for—it is being spent properly. That is a difficult ask, and the situation needs to be consistently and constantly monitored and improved. Several of the Government’s initiatives represent at least an attempt to put in place processes and procedures that will improve the quality of that process. I do not think that they will be offended if I say that we have some way to go, but that is not necessarily to suggest that we are doing the wrong things.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield expressed concern about some of the countries that are receiving direct budget support and suggested that our Committee might investigate that, and we are happy to discuss whether and how we might do so in future. I assure him that we continually discuss and ask about direct budget support. We are going to visit Kenya and Tanzania in pursuit of our inquiry into sustainable development in a changing climate, but also with an awareness that Tanzania is the largest recipient of direct budget support in Africa. The Committee will want to ask about that and try to provide reassurance, which I hope might be helpful to the Department as well.

The new Administration in the United States should not be lost sight of in this context. The US Congress and the present Administration have argued that they do not approve of direct budget support and will not give it. It is sometimes argued that they are hiding behind the idea that congressional rules will not allow it, but Congress has the capacity to change its rules. It has been suggested that under the new Administration the United States might be willing to move, albeit gently, towards giving direct budget support in partnership and co-ordination with other donors, and we must not say anything that deters them from doing that. We should not say that it is fundamentally wrong, only that it is challenging and that we must ensure that it is effectively delivered.

Indeed, it is in that context that co-ordination among donors is important. If we can get all the European donors, the United States, Canada and perhaps even Japan to agree to a set of rules, or even to channel aid through the same vehicles, as we are trying to do in Afghanistan, there will be a much greater chance of delivering better accountability, better transparency and better quality aid, and we will do so in such a way that the country on the receiving end will have the capacity to absorb aid more effectively.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Chairman of the Select Committee make two particular inquiries about direct budgetary support transparency? First, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned substitution, whereby giving aid to a country allows their leaders to spend money on jets, for example, which is undesirable. Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman examine how much money is getting to the projects it is supposed to support on the ground, rather than being creamed off in corruption at the centre?

Malcolm Bruce: I am perfectly happy to do that, but I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that those are the sort of questions that we have asked. On Uganda, about which questions have been raised, it is interesting that the Ugandan Government had an agreement with the community about money being spent on education in which they undertook to nail on the school door a breakdown of the budget allocated, where it was coming from and how it would be spent so that the community could monitor the situation.

That brings me to my second point: we have to develop countries’ capacity to monitor their own expenditure effectively. That means working with Parliaments and with civic society. When we have a debate about ownership of aid and development by developing countries, we have to understand clearly that we are talking about ownership not only by the Government, but as far as possible, by the people. We need to give Parliaments information that allows them to call their Governments to account, and work with civic society to challenge MPs and inform the public. That is probably the best defence against money being misappropriated, although we have to accept that in many cases it will take many years for a strong and sophisticated capacity of that sort to develop.

It has sometimes been argued that there is a sort of perverse, inverse relationship between aid and development. Professor Collier calls it the Dutch disease; he asserts that in some cases, the more aid a country is given, the less responsive it is—the poorer it gets, in other words. His argument is that the purchase of local currency creates a drain, which cannot be offset if there is no strong economy. To counter that, I would say that his is an argument for ensuring that the aid is of high quality and is well targeted, not an argument for not giving the aid.

Mr. Tom Clarke: The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. On Uganda, I remind him that during the visit I mentioned earlier, we had the opportunity to meet the Minister of Finance. He opened the books, and one of the most glaring aspects of what he told us was debt repayment. It was absolutely astonishing. We found that developed countries were already benefiting a great deal from the poorest countries in the world, and given the right hon. Gentleman’s experience, I am sure that he would want to acknowledge the progress that we have made in that field.

Malcolm Bruce: I do. It is always difficult when one gets drawn into a detailed debate about an individual country, because of the complexity within. It is absolutely true that debt repayment, and in some cases the liquidation of that debt, has been a key part of the process. At the end of the day, it is important that future arrangements
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do not sink into that sort of relationship. Countries should be able to borrow, but on their own terms, not unfair terms, and with debts that can be properly serviced, not what might be called odious debt. We must avoid returning to that situation.

Two or three topical concerns have already been raised, but one has not been, and it is one on which I suspect the Minister cannot make any immediate comment. I was somewhat horrified, just before I came into the Chamber, to see John Ging being interviewed live from Gaza on BBC News 24, saying that 750,000 people there are desperately in need of food aid from the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, and that they have had no supplies delivered since yesterday. He says that the food is on the Israeli side of the border and that the Israelis are refusing to allow it to pass, which is contrary to their international obligations and the law, which permits humanitarian relief.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will at least use his good offices to ensure that the UK applies appropriate pressure so that the food gets through. Those who need it are mostly destitute women and children and unemployed men, who have no other form of income in a small territory where there is no other food to be had. That is not usually the case—even in the poorest countries, it is amazing how food can sometimes be obtained. However, given that Gaza is shut in, the problem is serious.

Yesterday, members of the Committee had the opportunity to ask the Secretary of State about the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We did not get a clear answer—he undertook to write to us—about the reason for the extent of the delay in reaching some people, or even identifying them. It was disturbing to read about and see television pictures of people who had had no food for two or three days, and sometimes up to six days. Clearly, the consequences do not require stressing in the Chamber.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: The problem is that people are not fleeing to semi-established or established camps. They are fleeing, in the clothes that they stand up in, into a most inhospitable jungle territory. That is why it is taking so long to get desperately needed support to those who are suffering.

Malcolm Bruce: I understand, and I am grateful for that intervention. I am simply trying to say that we can imagine the consequences if we cannot reach those people soon.

Several of us attended the round-table briefing at the Foreign Office this morning about Afghanistan, which brought us up to date. The results of a BBC poll, based on a stark and rather silly question, were published yesterday and showed that 68 per cent. of the British people wanted our troops to be withdrawn within a year. The question did not provide any context, but revealed a problem. Liberal Democrat Members—and, I believe, most Members—believe that engagement with Afghanistan is necessary. It is in the interests of British security and right for the people of Afghanistan, even if it is a difficult and challenging place to be. There are concerns about the way in which we communicate that.

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