It is understandable, given that the United Kingdoms military commitment is in Helmand and that significant numbers of men and women in our armed forces are dying in that engagement, that the British people question
the reason for putting our troops in harms way to that extent in such a far-away place. That tends to lead to an exclusive focus on what happens in Helmand, and does not take into account the fact that Afghanistan is a substantial country, and that not everywhere is in the same position as Helmand. Indeed, approximately 75 to 80 per cent. of British aid and development expenditure happens in other parts of the country through the national Government to help achieve important development objectives, such as getting children, including more than 2 million girls, back into school, and impressively providing at least basic health care throughout the country. Other objectives include improving communications and roads and are mostly financed by the United States. In other words, the picture is not all negative and bad.
The nature of society in Afghanistan means that it has never had a unified Government and bureaucracy running the entire country. It has always been run through some form of agencylocal leaders, warlords, tribal chiefs and so on. It is therefore not surprising that that continues to happen to some extent. It does not mean that the country is not being governed, that state money is not being properly spent or that services are not reaching the people. However, as our Committee found when we visited, the people of Afghanistan are all too often unaware of what is happening. It is simple for a local governor to pretend that all the largesseit is not much largesse; we are considering a very poor countryis somehow his creation rather than something that has come from the central Government. Similarly, central Government want to claim the credit, rather than admit that the help comes from the international community.
That is a dilemma. It is a problem if we cannot win the Afghan peoples hearts and minds and show them that we are in a genuine partnershipa partnership between the international community and the people, to try to achieve the stability and ability to develop that they want, and between the people of our country and Afghanistan to enable it to build up a viable state.
That is a challenge for us, but we all have a responsibility to fulfil it, at least so that the great sacrifices of our forces will have been made not in vain or for a failed project, but for one that, however difficult, might ultimately be achieved. I suggestI say this with the Secretary of State in his place once morethat there is scope for more explanation of the interaction between the military and DFID in Afghanistan and of how things work. Those of us who are engaged in the debate understand that, but even in the House and certainly among the wider public, there is a lack of understanding about how those aspects interact. There is a form of transparency that is not about just money, but about understanding aims and objectives and what is happening.
The Secretary of State quite understandably mentioned the undertakings that were made in Accra and has probably read, as I have, Simon Maxwells blog. Having honestly said that he was not sure what Accra was all about when he went, Simon Maxwell paid tribute to the Secretary of State for the energy that he had expended in trying to secure an agreement that contained real commitments, rather than just platitudinous statements, which is what people told the Committee they feared it
would contain when we visited earlier in the year. I am happy to share that acknowledgment. As Simon Maxwell also said, it is fine to get a lot of countries signing up to a big commitment, but people will want to see what that means in terms of ownership and buy-in.
That leads me backI am happy to conclude on this pointto the relationship between the donors and the developing countries and the people living there. The reason why DFID was created as a distinct Department was to separate foreign policy from development and to focus on poverty reduction, so that development policy would not be compromised by being an instrument of foreign policy or by commercial interests. That has been a success, both in persuading the British people that our aid programme is worthy of support and in determining our approach, which has helped DFID to achieve a position of leadership throughout the world.
I must also echo what the Under-Secretary said. The entire staff of DFID comprise about 2,500 people, which includes foreign nationals employed in overseas offices. That corethe UK part of it, at leastis under the same strictures of staff reduction as staff in other Departments are. That is a challenge for the Department and there is no doubt a shortage of expertise. There are ways around the problem, ingenious or not, that need to be pursued. There are also questions about how one might prioritisein terms not only of money, but of staffwhat we do and do not do, both sectorally and in individual countries.
Although I did not take too much to the style of the speech that the hon. Member for Monmouth made, it is always perfectly possible to conduct a proper review of the number of countries we engage in and how effectively we do so, although I understand that a significant number of offices have been closed this year.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the constraints on numbers that operate across Whitehall, including DFID. Let me reiterate that we think it is absolutely absurd that DFID staffing figures are being restricted at a time when the budget is rising significantly. The staffing level should be set to meet that rising budget, not the reverse.
Malcolm Bruce: I take the hon. Gentlemans point. The Committee has not completed its report this year, but we certainly acknowledge the pressures and have expressed our concerns. The permanent secretary is obviously constrained by the rules across Government, but she conceded that the Department was struggling. That is something that we should take to heart.
I want to pick up the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the website, which I believe has some merit, and to ask the Department to consider it. Perhaps the Secretary of State could give some thought to the exact purpose of the website. Whenever our Committee visits countries in which we have an engaged programme, we visit DFID. I am sure that other Committees visit their relevant Departments. We usually get an extremely thorough, detailed briefing from the DFID office, showing what is being spent, what the priorities are, the breakdown, and an honest question-and-answer session. A lot of that information could be in the public domain. It would help if we could go to the website and find out exactly what the budget is and what the priorities are in more detail and in a more up-to-date way. That would
make the website more interactively beneficial and the Department more transparent. It could address some of the concerns: it is not that people are against what is being done; they just do not know what is being done, which makes them either suspicious or inclined to ask questions. Will the Secretary of State consider whether more could be done to make the information more accessible and transparent?
The Committees report looked at how we as a country and the international donor community could work more effectively together. It became clear in that process that how effectively we can work depends on whom we are working with. The Committee, in choosing which of our European partners to have a dialogue with, made a journey from Rome to Berlin to Copenhagen and then, via video link, to Stockholm. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am glad that we did it in that order, because the reverse process would have been deeply depressing.
The reality, as far as I can see, is that the Italians have pretty well opted out of supporting the commitment to international aid and development. The previous Italian Government were in the process of setting up their own development agency; the present Italian Government have abandoned it. I am grateful that they are continuing to support the multi-national organisations, but that is probably about saving face among their peers. They support the Rome-based institutions but, beyond that, there is very little commitment.
I do not want to do a qualitative analysis, but there is a group of countries that we, the Foreign Office and DFID call the northern liberals, and which the Scandinavian countries refer to as the Nordic-plus countriesbasically, the Scandinavian countries, plus the Netherlands, the UK and Ireland. We are definitely like-minded and work together. Doing so can have a huge impact in driving the right kind of development. By that, I mean development that is designed to reduce poverty, to give poor people in developing countries a degree of ownership and control over the quality of aid and development, and to help them to call their Governments to account. In that way, they can be part of the process of lifting themselves out of poverty and achieving the success and development that they have been denied for so long, but that they richly deserve.
It was slightly regrettable that the Secretary of State injected a rather partisan tone into his contribution. Under his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), we had some really good international development debates in the Chamber. There was space for disagreement about how to achieve objectives, but there was a large measure of cross-party agreement on the commitment to reducing poverty. We lost a lot of time earlier in the debate with a rather artificial quarrel that was picked by Labour Members about our commitmentor our alleged lack of commitmentto tackling poverty in the worlds poorest countries.
There are two backdrops to the debate, the first of which is the ongoing effort to achieve greater transparency on international aid. Tribute has been paid to the right
hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who introduced a private Members Bill on the matter that made strides in that direction. However, the agenda clearly has a long way to run to establish good linkage between, on the one hand, the high-level rhetoric that we use in the Chamber about development, the commitment to tackling poverty around the world, and the nature of our interventions and assistance, and, on the other hand, the hard outcomes such as the lives saved, the children educated, and all the things that members of the public would understand.
The second backdrop is the current economic crisis, which is not just a crisis for the developed world, but very much for the developing world, too. Other Members may not share my experience, but I am no longer receiving letters or e-mails from constituents urging me to do more to tackle global poverty. When I was elected three and a half years ago, I was flooded with postcards, campaign letters and e-mails as part of the Make Poverty History campaign. The agenda has moved on, so where we agree on the promise to give 0.7 per cent. of our gross national income in overseas assistance and to do more to tackle global poverty, it is now incumbent on us to remake the case for more and better aid.
There is still a cross-party consensus on this issue, but the mood of the public has changed discernibly and understandably, at a time when many of my constituents are fearful of losing their jobs, when many jobs are being lost up and down the country and when people are having their homes repossessed. Quite rightly, their first thoughts and concerns are about their immediate livelihoods. There remains a huge amount of public good will and residual support for doing more to tackle global poverty, but it is understandable that peoples immediate concerns have moved on. We have to remake the case, as I said, for this rather large and quick ramping up of overseas aid spending that the Secretary of State has announced.
Let me deal briefly with a couple of other points. On aid to China and India, if hon. Members of any party choose to question whether continuing our overseas aid programmes to those countries is the best use of our resources, particularly given that they are both making big strides towards reaching middle-income status, that does not necessarily imply that they are any less committed to tackling global poverty. It is arrogant, however, to believe that the £40 million or £50 million of overseas aid that we give to China each year makes a jot of difference to the countrys progress towards reducing poverty. Its success in doing so is almost all down to the remarkable economic growth rates that the country has achieved.
I do not agree that we should cut our aid programme to India, on the other hand, because the country still has the worlds largest concentration of poor people, and a third of the poorest. We will need a substantial programme in India for some time to come. We can still ask about the nature of our programme and whether enough goes to support judicial or police effectiveness, for example, which might do more to reduce the propensity towards communal violence that we saw this summer when the Christian community was attacked in Orissa state. Those sort of measures might help to further Indias trajectory of growth and rising prosperity, but I
do not think that large-scale poverty reduction programmes funded by ourselves will be what does it for a country the size of India.
I want to conclude with some points about Zimbabwe. In last weeks International Development questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) asked about aid to Zimbabwe, and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) replied:
The aid that we give to Zimbabwe goes directly to the United Nations and does not go through any governmental organisations within Zimbabwe.[ Official Report, 5 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 238.]
He and Ministers before him have gone to great lengths to demonstrate to the House and the public that we have not supported Mugabes regime with overseas aid. However, the answer he provided to my hon. Friend did not paint quite the whole picture. He tried to maintain that our aid does not go through any of the Zimbabwe governmental organisations, but the global funda multilateral initiative to which we are a major donor; we have some leverage over its policyis about to make a very substantial contribution to Zimbabwe. It is going to be deposited directly in the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which is controlled by one of Mugabes henchmen. It is entirely legitimate to raise that issue in the context of wanting greater transparency about the aid we give to that country. I hope that when the Minister concludes the debate he will return to this point and clarify whether he is satisfied that an adequate assessment has been made of the risk attached to this considerable sum of money, which the Government of Zimbabwe will shortly receive.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Holding the Government to account is the job and the responsibility of us Opposition Members. It is also our duty. Scrutinising overseas aid effectiveness today, given the economic crisis that we are experiencing in our own country, is therefore of paramount importance.
I am helping many of my constituents whose homes are being repossessed or who are losing their jobs. I am fighting to save rural primary schools, and, on a regular basis, fighting to obtain life-saving drugs for many of my constituents. We all support international aid for the poorest countries, but, given the constraints that our country faces, it is important for us to scrutinise the Government on how the money is spent and to whom it goes.
What I have seen today has shocked me and caused me genuine concern. I refer to the arrogance of the Government. After 10 years in power, they have become truly arrogant. That could be seen in the way in which they have behaved during the debate. My hon. Friends and I have tried to raise a number of important issues, but in my three and a half years as a Member of Parliament I have never seen a Minister behave as the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) has behaved today. The constant laughter sounds like someone strangling a cat; it is a very strange laugh. I have never seen any behaviour like that. I feel like showing it on my website so that people can see the reaction of this Minister when we are raising very, very important issues. I worry
about the credibility of the Chamber when Ministers of the Crown behave in such an appalling, shocking way. He demeans not only himself but the entire Chamber and our parliamentary process.
The Secretary of State impliedhe almost agreedthat we were giving aid to China to try to influence that country. That is simply wrong. Whatever happened to Robin Cooks ethical foreign policy? China has the fastest-growing economy in the world. Its expenditure on arms is the second largest in the world. It has a major space project and a huge, thriving economy. Why we are giving money to China at a time when our own constituents are sufferingat a time when our own constituents are not receiving life-saving medical treatment and operationsis simply beyond me.
India has the largest number of billionaires in the world. It has nuclear weapons, and is experiencing huge economic expansion. Moreover, many Indian companies are currently buying up United Kingdom companies.
Finally, as I mentioned in an intervention, there is Russia, a country which has recently invaded Georgiaa helpless, defenceless countrywhich has $500 billion in reserves, and which is building up one of the worlds great military powers. The fact that we are giving aid to Russia is simply unacceptable. When I tell my constituents that we are still giving aid to Russia, they look at me in bewilderment. They simply do not understand how we as a country can afford to do that. As I have said before, our country is borrowing £40 billion this year alone just to keep our budget afloat.
In a very long speech, the Secretary of State did not refer to the European Union once. A huge amount of British taxpayers money is channelled through the EU. How do we scrutinise that aid and its effectiveness? The EU is notorious for mishandling grants and aid: its accounts have not been signed off for 13 years.
What is the Minister going to do? How does he propose to explain to our citizens how this money is spent? Surely our citizens deserve to be briefed in a far better way about the transparency of the EU, and about how it spends British taxpayers money abroad. I have no doubt that some of the work that the EU does is important and vital, but I shall be asking the Chairman of the Select Committee to invite the relevant Commissioner from Brussels to come before our Committee to explain to us how the EU budget is spent. We also need an independent aid watchdog, as my hon. Friends have
said, to provide impartial and objective analysisa watchdog that will report to the Select Committee, on which I sit, and to Parliament, rather than, as at present, organisations reporting directly to the Minister.
What tangible progress has the governance and transparency fund made to allow citizens to make their voices heard? Conservatives are committed to publishing full details of all British aid spending on the DFID website. Why will not the Government follow suit?
Many articles have appeared in our national newspapers about corruption, which has been referred to. One which took me aback was that the President of Congo-Brazzaville has many luxury apartments in Paris and Monte Carlo. Why do The Daily Telegraph and other media cover this? It is simply because it sells newspapers. Why does it sell newspapers? Because it is a travesty; it is strange for the President of Congo-Brazzaville to have yachts in Monte Carlo and luxury flats in some of the best residential parts of Paris while aid is going to that country. Is the Secretary of State raising the issues directly with the President of Congo-Brazzaville?
The King of Swaziland has bought a huge luxury jet. What amazed me is that he spent more on his birthday party celebrations than the entire amount of UK aid to that country. He spent the equivalent of all our aid that we gave to Swaziland on his 36th birthday party. I find that simply unacceptable when I am fighting tooth and nail for life-saving drugs for my constituents. That is why it is so important to hold the Government to account on these matters.
I have been extremely upsetI have never been so emotionalby the Governments arrogance in dismissing our genuine concerns. The conduct of the Under-Secretary towards my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) was breathtaking to say the least. We need to challenge corrupt leaders and make them realise that we will continue to give aid only if they clean up their act and are not prepared to be corrupt any more.