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5.32 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in a debate that takes place in a climate of world economic turmoil and that is therefore even more important. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) was exactly right and said probably the most true thing in the entire debate: our constituents, faced with difficult economic circumstances, will be looking at how our Government spend our money including our international development budget, and saying “Yes, but we want to make sure the Government spend it properly.”

That is why I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), whom I have known for a long time. He makes a valuable contribution to this House on international development matters and has done so for a long time and from a genuine perspective. However, I have to say to him that he was joining the Secretary of State in a little bit of political banter in trying to cast doubt on our very strong commitment—repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell)
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on many occasions—to the international target of 0.7 per cent. of GNI by 2013. I want to make that absolutely clear.

Mr. Tom Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I tried to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman earlier but he quite reasonably said that he was reaching his peroration. Perhaps he will answer the following point when I give way to him in a moment. I was interested in his motive for promoting his Bill. What did he think DFID was not doing that it should do? Was it just merely presentation or were there things in the Department that he thought it could do better?

Mr. Clarke: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, as I wanted to do, for not giving way. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) made the point that a lot of people were making speeches and others wanted to get into the debate, and it was for that reason alone that I did not give way.

I find it very flattering that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) puts that question to me. When a Back Bencher is given the opportunity to introduce a Bill, he does so hoping that he will get the support of this House and the other place. So the hon. Gentleman’s question is really to Parliament: why did it feel the need, as it did unanimously and rightly, to pass that Act? I hope that the legislation is helping us to make the progress that Members on both sides of the House have identified is needed.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his reasonable explanation, as always, and for his apology.

There was a certain amount of scoffing during the debate that the Opposition international development team were not robust or inquiring. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) cited a blog that said that the policies of Her Majesty’s Opposition were merely a “derivative” of the Government’s policies, but she failed to read out the entire quotation. During the course of the debate, our excellent research team have been able to find the full quote, which goes on to state that the Opposition’s policies contain

and that there are

If we are to get the quotes right in this debate, we must cite them in their entirety and not just partially.

The international transparency commitment largely stemmed from what happened in Accra, as the Secretary of State made clear. We wholly concur with the view that there should be better aid co-ordination, publication and effectiveness, and he cited the example of Mozambique in support of that. It must be right that both donors and recipients have their performances well and truly scrutinised, but I make no apology for any criticism that I make in summing up in this debate, because any Department can always do a little better.

A number of good speeches have been made this afternoon, but the one by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield was important in one respect: he has had a long-standing commitment to ensuring that
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our aid is properly scrutinised and audited, and that there should be a proper, independent audit watchdog. That is paramount to Conservative party policy.

A number of things have been said about how and where our aid is spent, and which countries receive it. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned Russia and the fact that it has built up a sovereign wealth fund of $500 billion. I think that the British Government have now stopped all aid to Russia, but I ask the Minister to confirm that. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome it, if it is true. Of course, the Conservatives also wish to curtail UK aid to China. In no way do we wish to resile from our 0.7 per cent. target, but we simply feel that a country such as China, which has a GNI that works out at more than $2,500 a head, should be coping with its own problems from its own huge surplus. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire that the UK should continue to give aid to India, because it has the greatest concentration of poor people on earth; it will shortly have more poor people than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa put together. It must be right that we continue to give aid to that country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield also mentioned the responsibility to protect. In the short time available to me, I wish to raise a few issues with the Minister. If we cannot encourage the international community to come up with a solution to dreadful problems such as the vast suffering in the Congo, in Darfur, which was mentioned by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), in Zimbabwe, which has been mentioned by other speakers, and in Burma, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned, by intervening at an earlier stage on the basis of the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, which was introduced by the United Nations in 2005, that doctrine will shortly mean very little. All in the civilised world need to pay close attention to that.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, was right to mention President-elect Obama. We were delighted by that outcome and, like the Secretary of State and the Government, we look forward to a positive agenda and relationship with the incoming Administration. In that connection, two important multilateral discussions are going on. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one—the trade round in Doha. The third world—the poorest people on earth—has more to gain from a successful Doha round than do richer nations. Therefore, it is important that we breathe new life into those negotiations. To all those countries and areas—India, the US, the EU and Argentina, for example—that have, at some point in the negotiations, put up blocks that have meant that the negotiations have not so far succeeded, we say that they need to be prepared to compromise so that we can have a successful round.

The Government could give those talks much more impetus. The international trade round is so important because it means, among other things, that a small country can take one of the largest countries on earth to the world trade court and, through a relatively informal process, obtain a judgment against it.

The second round of multilateral talks is on climate change, with the summit in Potsdam next month, culminating in the summit in Copenhagen neat year. It
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is important to try to reach agreement on those, because if we do not manage to agree on carbon emissions—and limit the increase in external world temperature to just 2 per cent. in the next 50 years—world temperatures may spiral much higher. To put that threat in context, I would point out that the last ice age was only 5° below the present temperature. Again, it will be some of the poorest countries on earth that will suffer, and we have begun to see that in famine, flood, tsunamis and other events attached to climate change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) raised the problem of DFID not being prepared to meet his delegation from the CPA. The Opposition’s policies would prevent that situation from happening, because officials in DFID would have to be fully immersed in the communities to which aid was being given, instead of sitting in the capitals.

The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the Chairman of the Select Committee, made several important points. I cannot go over them all, but one of his themes, which has been echoed throughout the debate, was about direct budgetary support. As the Secretary of State said, aid funding is up to 75 per cent. of the national budget in some countries. Indeed, in Rwanda, which several of us visited in the summer, total development aid is about 50 per cent. That is undesirable. We should give these countries a hand-up so that they can start to wean themselves off international help.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Afghanistan, a country that needs more of a hand-up than most. This morning, he and I attended a round-table conference at the Foreign Office on Afghanistan, and one theme that emerged was that the international effort there is not being disseminated to the public very well. If our constituents only see the worst coming out of Afghanistan, they will be very sceptical about our efforts. The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that what the public do see is very Helmand-centric. However, there are many things happening, not least of which is the number of girls going back to school, which is wholly to be welcomed. Other positives include the number of roads and hospitals being built, which are very welcome indeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire made some important points, not least about the world economic situation. At a time when we are all running into deeper and deeper economic problems, even recession, it is regrettable that several countries are thinking about reducing their international aid efforts. The Chairman of the Select Committee mentioned the possibility that Italy will do so. That is highly regrettable. If we are to make proper progress with some of the world’s worst problems, we have to bear that in mind. We all want to meet the millennium development goals that were mentioned by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, but we are a long way off meeting some of them—most notably the goals on universal education and climate change. That is highly regrettable. We should breathe more life into that.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, if the doctrine of responsibility to protect is to be worth anything, we have to find solutions to the dreadful problems in such places as the DRC, Zimbabwe and Darfur. It should not be beyond the wit of the civilised western world in the 21st century to find solutions to those problems and to intervene at an earlier stage, so
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that hundreds of thousands of people are not displaced from their homes and killed needlessly. There is a lot to be done, and I look forward with interest to hearing what the Minister has to say about what he is doing.

5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Ivan Lewis): On the whole, this has been a high-quality debate. I want to reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the importance of maintaining global support for development despite the economic downturn. Now is not the time for either the United Kingdom or our international partners to turn our backs on the world’s poorest people. As developing countries are hit by the global economic downturn, they need our support more than ever, and we need theirs. If we are to tackle global challenges such as climate change, resource shortages and growing demands for energy, we will not be able to do it alone.

Now is not the time to undermine confidence and support among the British people in investment in development, either in pursuit of a cheap headline or as a manifestation of a future hidden agenda. It is essential that we work together with developing countries and that we keep our promises to deliver more and better aid and to meet the millennium development goals by 2015. In order to do that, donors need to make sure that every penny we spend is put to the best possible use. As my right hon. Friend said when he opened the debate, DFID is playing a key role in improving the effectiveness of our aid and ensuring that other donors provide aid as effectively as we do.

Our leadership at Accra meant that developing countries can now expect to receive longer-term support from donors that is better co-ordinated and makes better use of their budget systems. We secured agreements that donors and developing countries would hold each other more accountable for the use of aid and we pushed hard to improve the global transparency of aid through the international aid transparency initiative.

We are leading by example. We have already met seven of the 10 Paris declaration targets on aid effectiveness and are on track to meet the remaining three. We have developed an independent advisory committee on development impact to provide a serious challenge function to DFID’s work, with independent membership and National Audit Office observation. We have strong systems in place to control and monitor the expenditure of UK aid and are supporting developing countries in their efforts to fight corruption. By putting such measures in place, we can be confident that UK aid is having the greatest possible impact. Later this month, we will once again be at the forefront of the fight against poverty at the financing for development conference in Doha.

Let me turn to the contributions that have been made in the debate. First, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) took the opportunity, once again, to describe DFID as a world leader in the field of development. I thank him for recognising that on behalf of all those who work incredibly hard on the front line in some of the poorest countries in the world. His comments were in stark contrast to some of the contributions made by Back-Bench Members of his party. He said that we should remove this subject from the realm of party
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politics. As a new member of this team, I am delighted to see that we appear to have political consensus on the importance of this country’s leadership in international development.

Equally, I would say that the Conservative party has a record and form from the time it was in government. It is also true—let us make it clear—that this Government and, more specifically, this Prime Minister have led the world in demanding that the richest countries fulfil their responsibility to the poor. That is not party politics, but a statement of fact in a world where people ask every day, “Does politics make a difference? Are politicians all the same?” Well, this is one area where we have not been all the same: we would not be leading the world in international development if we had not had a Labour Government in power for 11 years and a Labour Prime Minister who has this matter at the heart of his moral compass.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: May I gently say to the Minister that people watching him make these remarks will regard them as disgraceful? We are talking about some of the poorest people and most difficult issues on the planet and he is playing party politics. I have made very clear the Conservative party’s stance on the matter, as well as our commitment to the aid budget.

Mr. Lewis: I very much welcomed the contribution made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, who speaks on these matters for the Opposition, and the fair way that he paid tribute to DFID’s work. That was my starting point, but I am proud of the fact that international development demonstrates most clearly the virtues of having a Government who have at heart a commitment to social justice, both in this country and around the world. I do not apologise for that.

The term “no strings attached” was used in the debate, but the string between the Opposition Front and Back Benches is so thin that it causes me serious concern. I shall say for one last time that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) has every right to raise concerns about getting access to DFID staff in a particular country. If he felt slighted that a member of staff was not available at the time, I apologise—although I do not know the details, and there may well have been good reasons for that. However, I have to say from this Dispatch Box that I will not tolerate his using that incident to cast aspersions on the commitment of our staff, who are often working in the most difficult circumstances in the world.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) talked about DFID staff sitting in offices in capital cities, but what impression is that designed to give of the contribution that our staff make? I have worked in a number of Departments, and I have never seen a group of people so mission-driven. I am proud to work with them, but that does not mean that we cannot do better. Although we are the world leaders in this area, we can still ensure that every day we improve what we do. That is the basis for any organisation that seeks to do its best—a recognition of the need to improve continually. However, I will not have the organisation that is DFID, or its staff who work so hard, demeaned and undermined in the way that has happened in this debate.

May I also say to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that I welcome his support for the overhaul of the DFID website? He asked some valid questions
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about how it should operate in future, and I hope that he will give us full support in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman talked about independent scrutiny, but I refer him to the work of the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the International Development Committee. Also, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, he is required to make an annual report to Parliament—in terms of independent scrutiny, that is a pretty high level of transparency in how we account for the resources that we spend in the name of the UK taxpayer.

I remind the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that his party is on the record as saying that it supports budget support, and that we should go even further in future. However, he cannot give the impression that sustaining budget support will not mean that tough judgments will always have to be made, on a country-by-country basis, in very difficult circumstances and about very difficult political and security matters.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: I am most grateful to the junior Minister for giving way. I have set out very clearly my party’s attitude to budget support, and explained that, in principle, it is the best form of aid. However, I made it very clear why it has to be made more accountable— [ Interruption .] For the second time, the Secretary of State has muttered from a sedentary position “Daily Telegraph”—referring, I think, to an article written by the Whitehall editor in today’s edition of that newspaper. Although we support the thrust of what DFID is doing, the Under-Secretary must not expect us not to investigate, debate and discuss these issues. In the context of supporting the general thrust of British development policy, it is possible to argue across the House about how best to deliver it.

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is fully aware that there are no circumstances in which we give aid with no strings attached; there are minimum standards that every Member of this House is fully aware of and signs up to, so he should not have used the term “no strings attached”. Even a junior Opposition Member would never have used such a misleading term in an interview with a national newspaper.

I now turn to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). I pay tribute to him for the leadership he displayed on the issue long before the mainstream majority believed that it should be a priority for the Government. I echo his point that we must maintain our commitment despite the global economic turmoil, as our Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made clear.

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