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6 July 2009 : Column 700

Speaker’s Statement

3.49 pm

Mr. Speaker: I wish to make a brief statement. Last Thursday, at the end of the statement on swine flu, by which time I was no longer in the Chair, the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) raised a point of order about the apparent leaking earlier that day of the contents of my own statement announcing that the deputy speakership posts would be subject to election in the autumn. The Chairman of Ways and Means gave a holding reply to that point of order, and I now wish to respond substantively to it.

I share the dismay of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford that this leak occurred after I had, as I pointed out in my original statement on the deputy speakerships, consulted Government and Opposition Whips, as a matter of courtesy. I am confident that this leak did not come from my staff, and I know that it did not come from me. I wish in future to feel able, in advance of any comparable statement, to consult others before making it. However, I give notice today that if such a leak occurs on any future occasion, I shall no longer feel under any obligation to hold such consultations in advance. I am sorry that I have to be so blunt so early in my speakership, but this sort of behaviour is precisely what harms the reputation of this House, and I do not intend to tolerate it.

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Building our Common Future

3.50 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the White Paper on international development that I am publishing today. Copies of both the White Paper and this statement have been placed in the Vote Office.

We stand at a critical juncture for international development. Although millions have been lifted out of poverty over the past decade thanks to sustained economic growth, reforming Governments, debt relief and increases in aid, much of that progress that we have seen is now imperilled. The global recession, the climate crisis and ongoing conflict and fragility in many countries threaten now to turn back the clock on the development gains made since the beginning of this century. The White Paper therefore sets out how the Government will pursue the fight against global poverty, and places new emphasis on four key areas: supporting growth; tackling climate change; tackling conflict and fragility; and improving the international system. I will say more about each of those areas in turn, but I will first set out the context for the White Paper.

The past decade has, of course, seen real achievements in the fight against global poverty: aid increases and debt cancellation have helped to get 40 million more children into schools around the world; the number of people with access to AIDS treatment has increased from just 100,000 to more than 3 million today; and the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen from a third to a quarter. Yet it is clear that with 9 million children dying each year, 70 million denied the opportunity to go to school, and a billion people around the world still without enough to eat, the world remains far from meeting the millennium development goals set in 2000.

Now the global recession threatens to trap as many as 90 million more people in poverty, which would push back progress towards the first MDG—the goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger—by as much as three years. The likely impact of the economic crisis is a stark reminder that the gains made in moving towards the MDGs can indeed be fragile. Those gains are also threatened by the advance of climate change—if temperatures continue to rise at current levels, an extra 600 million people will be affected by malnutrition by the end of the century—and by the effects of conflict and poor governance. Each year, at least 740,000 people are killed as a result of armed violence, with many more injured or disabled. So unless all three of those global challenges—the recession, climate change and conflict—are tackled, the MDGs will be pushed further out of reach.

Now is therefore not the time to turn away from the mission to tackle global poverty. I am proud to say that the Government are keeping the promises that we made to dedicate 0.7 per cent. of national income to development assistance by 2013. By next year our assistance will be equivalent to 0.56 per cent. of national income, in line with the European Union’s collective commitment, and by next year we will have nearly trebled our bilateral and multilateral aid to Africa since 2004. Half our global bilateral aid will be invested in public services,
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helping to get 8 million children into school across Africa, and delivering not only our promised 20 million anti-malaria bed nets by next year, but an additional 30 million treated bed nets by 2013. We will work with others to help developing countries provide free health care to their citizens, and we will press the international community for more support to save 6 million mothers and babies by 2015.

We will continue to tackle sickness, hunger and illiteracy across the developing world. We will also support developing countries to pursue economic growth, to protect their citizens from the impact of climate change, to help resolve conflicts and to build capable, accountable and responsive states.

Let me take each of those challenges in turn. I am sure that we would all accept that growth is the exit route out of poverty and aid dependence. Fifty years ago, income rates in east Asia were equivalent to those in Africa; today, incomes in east Asia are five times higher. In the midst of this recession, we will help to protect 50 million poor people in more than 20 countries from the worst effects of the present downturn. We will press for the rapid delivery of the commitments made by the G20 at the London summit to provide further financial support to the poorest countries. We will work towards concluding a successful and equitable Doha development round that would boost the global economy by more than $150 billion a year.

We will help developing countries to build fairer and more sustainable economic growth, double our agricultural research funding, and provide investment for infrastructure and reforms that will help African countries to trade with each other and the world. The Fairtrade label now certifies more than £1 billion-worth of goods, helping more than 7 million producers and their families around the world. We will continue to support that success story, and indeed quadruple our support for Fairtrade and ethical trading.

We will advance our work with law enforcement agencies to clamp down on bribery and corruption, which have a parasitic effect on many economies. DFID support to the Metropolitan police has already led to the recovery of £20 million of assets and the freezing of £131 million of assets. We will now triple our investment in these efforts, supporting the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service, and helping the Met to pursue more investigations across more countries.

The scale of the economic crisis and its impact on the developing world is now clear, but climate change presents, if anything, an even greater long-term threat to the prospects of alleviating poverty in the developing world. Two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change launched the UK’s Copenhagen manifesto, setting out our detailed proposals for an ambitious deal in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

This White Paper will ensure that new and additional finance is made available, over and above our aid commitment to reach 0.7 per cent. of gross national income. We will also increase our investment in helping developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but set a limit of up to 10 per cent. of official development assistance.

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We will also give countries practical support to help in that process of adaptation, including by supporting the world-renowned Hadley Centre to model the effects of climate change in developing countries. We will also encourage low carbon development by investing in clean technology and tackling avoidable deforestation.

Alongside the climate and financial crises, the third great threat to continued progress in reducing global poverty is the continuing and enduring level of conflict and state fragility. One third of the world’s poorest people live in conflict-affected or fragile countries. Half of all children who die before their fifth birthday live in such places. If we are to make further progress towards meeting the millennium development goals, we must work differently in those countries and directly address the causes of war and weak government. Half of all our new bilateral aid will go to fragile and conflict-affected countries. We will place security and justice alongside other basic services—tripling spending on those areas and addressing violence against women in particular as a priority. We will also create jobs, benefiting 7.5 million people in five fragile countries by 2013. In all fragile countries, we will help to develop joint strategies with our colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. Internationally, we will press for the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union to provide rapid assistance in the aftermath of conflict.

It is increasingly clear that global challenges demand global solutions. If we want to make real progress in solving the economic crisis, the climate crisis and the persistence of ongoing conflict, we will need to work more, not less, through the international system. But if international institutions are to live up to these new responsibilities, they must become more accountable, more responsive to and more able to address current challenges, and more representative of all their constituents.

The White Paper sets out our strategy for improving the effectiveness of international institutions in tackling global poverty in the years ahead. We will invest a higher proportion of our new aid resources through the international system in return for securing key reforms. Our funding for the United Nations will be subject to performance and will be increasingly channelled in ways that encourage UN agencies to deliver as one in developing countries. We will push for the creation of a single, powerful UN agency for women by merging existing structures and will at least double our core funding for work on gender equality to the UN.

In Europe, we will press for the EU to create a single development commissioner, to re-prioritise resources towards fragile countries in Asia and the middle east and to make poverty reduction a primary aim of all EU external policies such as those on climate and security. We will continue to press for improved governance and performance of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the regional development banks so that they can do more to support poor countries during the downturn. To meet growing humanitarian demands, we will lobby internationally for a stronger humanitarian system and humanitarian access, including through increasing the UN’s central emergency response fund.

In turn, we will maintain our own rigorous focus on aid effectiveness and the effectiveness of DFID as an organisation to deliver on its mission of poverty reduction. At this time of economic challenge, we will work harder than ever to ensure that every pound of UK aid contributes
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to direct and tangible results. We will prioritise our efforts and work in fewer countries. We will deliver an additional £155 million of efficiency savings by next year by making value for money improvements in our research budget and other areas.

As well as meeting our commitments on aid effectiveness made in the Paris declaration and in the Accra agenda for action last September, we will further improve the transparency of the projects we fund through a new searchable database on our website. We will set aside at least 5 per cent. of budget support funds to help developing countries’ Governments to improve accountability to their citizens. We will establish deeper and broader partnerships with civil society organisations and the private sector, doubling our central support to civil society to £300 million a year and launching a new innovation fund to help community groups and individuals in the UK to support small but innovative development projects.

Finally, as the Select Committee on International Development noted in its recent report, signs that the downturn is beginning to undermine previously strong support in the United Kingdom cause concern for all of us who are concerned about development. The White Paper sets out our plans to do more to help show the UK public how Government assistance is helping to fight poverty, including through the use of the new UKaid logo to increase the visibility of our work.

In conclusion, the mission of the Department for International Development, as clearly set out by the White Paper, will remain reducing poverty and supporting sustainable development. A world in which too many countries lack not only the basics of life but the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations diminishes us all. For the Government—and for many people across the United Kingdom—this is a profoundly moral cause, but in the 21st century development is not merely a moral cause: it is also a common cause.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am extremely grateful, and I am sure that the House will be. However, the Secretary of State modestly exceeded his allotted time. I hope that the House will take it in the proper spirit when I say that in future, in accordance with Standing Orders, I am keen to enforce those time limits, principally in the interests of Back Benchers.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. There is much in the White Paper that we welcome, not least since it adopts a number of themes and specific ideas that the Opposition have been championing now for more than four years. We welcome his commitment to do more on agriculture and to focus on women, who bear the brunt of conflict and poverty. We look forward to hearing how he will breathe new life into the very important Doha process.

This time of economic crisis, which particularly affects the world’s poor, is a time not to withdraw our support but to redouble our international development efforts. Poverty breeds extremism, incubates disease and drives migration and conflict. Tackling poverty and deprivation is not merely a moral duty that we must discharge with passion and rigour—it is also in our best national interest.

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It is also a matter of relief to many of our fellow citizens that this is no longer a Labour or Conservative agenda but a British agenda that commands widespread support. The Government are clearly listening to Conservative arguments on international development, particularly on the need to improve our performance in fragile states.

Over the past few years, I have seen for myself the impressive work done by DFID staff in a number of conflict-affected countries—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Burma, the Somalia border, Iraq, Afghanistan and the west bank—and I pay tribute to DFID’s brave staff, who put themselves in harm’s way in those places. One thing that has emerged from those visits is the intense difficulty of operating effectively in such environments. Security costs are often astronomic. The capacity of the Governments with whom we work is frequently, by definition, very low or non-existent. Insecurity makes monitoring and evaluation difficult. The risk of corruption is high. Local politics is often opaque and complex, and there is a real risk of aid exacerbating tensions.

As the recent highly critical evaluation of DFID’s performance in Afghanistan has shown, we need a dramatic improvement in the effectiveness of our aid in conflict and war zones. What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the increased security cost to his Department of working more in fragile states? He will be well aware of the National Audit Office report that found that only half of DFID projects in the most insecure countries achieve their aims and that almost a quarter suffer from fraud or financial problems. Does he accept that, if we are to get value for money from our spending in those countries, we need radically to improve the quality of our aid effort and demonstrate that through independent assessment and validation, so that any lessons can be learned?

The Secretary of State is rightly keen to raise the profile and visibility of British aid, but he will be aware that, in this age of austerity, spending on rebranding will be very carefully scrutinised. How much does he estimate that the rebranding exercise will cost? What value-for-money inquiries and cost-benefit analysis did he undertake before announcing this policy? Does he recognise the risk that UKaid could be confused with USAID. Does he agree that the most effective way to raise awareness and public support for British aid is to focus on the outcomes and achievements that it generates, rather than on the inputs so beloved of the Government?

The White Paper has been launched during the dying days of this Labour Government. The country and Britain’s international development effort need a renewed sense of direction. There are some good points and sensible suggestions in the White Paper that we strongly support, because many of them originated on this side of the House. I hope that we will all have the opportunity to debate them at more length over the coming months, for the prize of a more effective British international development effort is clear: a better life for millions of people and a safer world for Britain.

Mr. Alexander: I thank the hon. Gentleman both for his welcome of the White Paper and his warm words of congratulations to the staff of the Department. It has
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been a great privilege for me over the past couple of years to work with an extremely expert, experienced and dedicated staff, and I think that there is a consensus on both sides of the House that they are among the best of British and that they deserve our congratulations.

Although the challenge of climate change is a key theme of the White Paper and we all recognise that recycling is a necessary part of responding to climate change, the hon. Gentleman will notice that we did not accept all the Conservatives’ proposals—for example, the recycled assisted places scheme, under which British aid money would be spent on promoting private education in developing countries. By contrast, the key theme of the White Paper is extending access across the developing world to public education that is available to all. It has not been because of ideological dogma that DFID has come to be recognised as a global leader over the past decade; it is because we have undertaken the hard yards of investing in new schools, new classrooms and new teachers and worked closely with Governments and a range of other organisations, including non-governmental organisations, to deliver those changes.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his brass neck in suggesting that there is widespread support for the DFID budget, as his statement comes only a week after it was exclusively revealed on the Conservative homepage that only 4 per cent. of endorsed Conservative candidates support the protection of DFID’s budget—less than one in 20 does not seem to me to be a commendation of the proposals advanced by Opposition Front Benchers. However, I am confident that, if we take the right steps, there will be a broad consensus in favour of the proposals set out in the White Paper.

The rebranding—the use of the UKaid logo—is a necessary step in response to concerns that the public have expressed not just to the Department but to the International Development Committee about the profile of UK development expenditure. Frankly, perhaps in the past, DFID has been the best-kept secret in the British Government, and I make no apology for the expenditure that has been incurred in making sure that we have branding that will, I believe, resonate with the British public in time, as a reflection of their long-standing commitment to the concerns of international development.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the quality of international aid. Perhaps the most obvious example, given the question that he posed, is Afghanistan. He asked what the independent assessments were. I reflect on the recent Oxfam report on Afghanistan, in which the Department for International Development was highly commended for working, albeit in challenging circumstances, with the Government of Afghanistan. We will continue to pursue that course, with all the necessary caveats relating to corruption and the protection of British taxpayers’ money, because we believe that it offers a better, more sustainable way to deliver aid. Finally, I genuinely believe that there is potential for public consensus on development in the future. I believe that the White Paper takes a significant step towards answering the questions that the British public have had in their minds.

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