Draft International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill - International Development Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Number 120-136)


24 FEBRUARY 2010

  Q120  Mr Hendrick: That is clear on the 2002 Act now that you have this definition, but what about the enforcement of the 0.7? What does the Bill add in terms of strengthening the commitment to the 0.7 target if there is no legal enforceability?

  Mr Thomas: There is a clear distinction between the ability to go to court to question whether or not particular bits of spending are eligible under the 2002 Act and the overall spending commitment and our overall adherence to the international obligation, which we think constitutionally has been up to now the preserve of Parliament and should be in this context too.

  Q121  John Battle: I am a little bit confused about the power of the Bill. Is it a legal, enforceable duty or not? I put it in the context of the Child Poverty Bill that I was involved with. We had some of these pre-hearings in my own neighbourhood, in inner city Leeds, where people were discussing the Bill. Generally, a good idea but people said, "Is it an aspiration or is it a legal obligation?" I asked why they asked the question and somebody in the audience rather unhelpfully suggested, "Yes. What this Bill means is that if we do not get our money we can sue our MP". I was left a bit confused about what the legal obligation was. In the context of this Bill, what is the point of it if it is just an aspiration? Is it legally enforceable or is there a cloudy legal area here? I have learned there is a phrase in law, "ouster clauses", that say it is a law but it is not really a law. Is it a law or is it not a law? On the courts, I completely agree with the Minister. I want to keep stuff out of the courts and have either mediation at local level or Parliament sorting it out. People do go to court. They could even go to court and challenge contracts on the grounds that you say it is not working for poverty reduction and they claim it is. I could see court cases over the definitions of poverty reduction and even the older definition of whether they are counted in or not, if somebody were to be minded to go down that route. What is the clarity on the legal issue? Is it a law or is it an aspiration?

  Mr Thomas: If it is passed by Parliament, of course it is a law. To link the question of courts and the reporting to Parliament, I suppose you could imagine a scenario a" la Pergau Dam where there was such a huge amount of money spent on one particular project it was challenged in the court, the court ruled that it was not permissible spend and could not be therefore counted towards the ODA-GNI ratio. One would hope that the Secretary of State would have to acknowledge that in the report to Parliament. One would certainly assume that Parliament in one guise or another would have the gumption to challenge the Secretary of State over that particular court case. I think there is a difference between this Bill and the Child Poverty Bill. To use another bit of jargon, this is very much about inputs, about the total spend on development assistance. The Child Poverty Bill was about achieving a series of outcomes. Parliament has traditionally fought for all sorts of reasons, as Members will probably know only too well, for the right to hold the Executive to account on spending commitments and on adherence to international obligations. This Bill is drafted in that spirit.

  Q122  John Battle: I would not like to see government time spent with Treasury solicitors in the courts arguing over ODA definitions in the next five years. Would you envisage that could happen at all?

  Mr Thomas: I would hope not under any government I was part of.

  Ms Rattee: There is precedent in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was passed on 23 February and given Royal Assent, for these ouster clauses. I think there is a difference in that it is not trying to enforce individual rights. What this legislation is clearly trying to do differently from that is to provide parameters for policy development and to ensure that there is parliamentary accountability and a focus for parliamentary accountability. That is what this Bill is doing as opposed to questions of fines and power which will still be available for challenge as they would be now under the 2002 Act.

  Q123  Mr Hendrick: Could I ask if there is the right division of responsibility and power here? It would seem to me, if the Secretary of State has to come to Parliament to report why the Department has not met the 0.7 and in fact there are not sufficient funds coming from the Treasury for the Department or any other section of the government that is contributing to ODA, how can the Secretary of State be held responsible for what is the Treasury's responsibility?

  Mr Thomas: It is the Secretary of State's responsibility to lay the report. It is for Parliament to decide who it wants to bring before it or how it wants to take action in response to the report.

  Q124  Chairman: The danger is he is going to turn up and say, "The Chancellor of the Exchequer would not let me".

  Mr Thomas: There are a series of other ways in which Parliament can hold other ministers to account for decisions that have been taken elsewhere in government. It is not for me to tell Parliament how to do its job in that respect. With respect, there are a number of committees other than just this particular Committee that could look at development funding.

  Q125  Chairman: There was, we understood, before this Bill was published—and it was slightly later than expected—some to-ing and fro-ing as to whether it was going to be a DFID Bill or a Treasury Bill. You could argue that it is more of a Treasury commitment than a DFID commitment. You could argue that it is the wrong minister who has been made accountable to Parliament when the minister does not hold the purse strings.

  Mr Thomas: We actually moved pretty quickly to publish draft legislation after the Prime Minister made the particular commitment. I accept the point that this relates in part to an area of responsibility for the Treasury but, given it is very specifically about official development assistance, it clearly must be the responsibility surely of the department that leads on development assistance and for it to be our Secretary of State who takes the responsibility for laying any report before Parliament. It is for Parliament then to decide what it wants to do to hold not just our Secretary of State but government in its entirety to account for progress on 0.7 or not.

  Q126  Mr Hendrick: You are saying if the Secretary of State comes along and says, "It's not me, guv. The Treasury would not give me the money", then Parliament has to set about the Chancellor?

  Mr Thomas: It would certainly be an interesting conversation but that is not what I am saying, no.

  Q127  Chairman: Maybe that is not the right language.

  Mr Thomas: It would be a brave Secretary of State who said that.

  Q128  Richard Burden: One of the things that has been put to us is that, whilst the Impact Assessment on the draft Bill does say there will be a short-term impact on DFID of the costs of the Bill process, there has not been a proper cost benefit analysis in the Impact Assessment about the draft Bill. How would you respond to that?

  Mr Thomas: Let me try and give you some more sense of what might be achievable with the extra money that the Bill essentially flags up. We estimate that in 2008 we spent as official development assistance £6.35 billion. That rose in 2009 to roughly £7.5 billion. That is a provisional figure and we think we will be around £9 billion by the end of this year if spending levels are maintained. It is very provisional. On projections around GNI, in terms of 0.7%, if in 2013 it was met, there would be a £12 billion budget for official development assistance.

  Q129  Chairman: Is that money of the day or currency prices?

  Mr Thomas: These are very, very rough figures.

  Q130  Chairman: It would be cash value at the time?

  Mr Thomas: Yes. That implies, roughly speaking, an extra £3 billion being available for development assistance. That could potentially buy an extra 400,000 classrooms in developing countries. It could potentially train an extra three million teachers or buy an extra two billion textbooks. That is just to use education as one particular example. On health, it is potentially an extra 600 million bed nets, immunisation of another 250 million children or another 500,000 lives saved by strengthening health systems. It is not a perfect science about the potential impact but I think it does give a flavour of the huge potential difference that achieving 0.7% could make in developing countries.

  Q131  Chairman: Are those not the best selling points of the Bill? Why not put them into the Impact Assessment, even if only as examples?

  Mr Thomas: I think I knew that I was going to have the chance to appear before the Select Committee and I wanted to save some of the best lines for this Committee.

  Q132  Chairman: The starting point was why have the Bill. The ending point is if you are to have a Bill how are you going to sell the merits of it. What you have just told us, that £3 billion of extra spending is delivered, is a much more exciting outcome than increasing it from 0.52 to 0.7%. Can I suggest that politically turning it into cash and outcomes is much better than defining it in terms of inputs.

  Mr Thomas: I hear the point that you make and I take it on-board. I hope that we will see this Bill on the statute book because, as you quite rightly say, I believe it will make a huge difference. There is a very strong moral case for doing what we are proposing. I also believe there is a very strong case that this is in Britain's self-interest for the very reasons that you started to talk about: state building, the sheer number of countries that do not have the type of effective state that we have and the problems that brings in its wake, not just for its own citizens but internationally as well. One thinks of Afghanistan as being a classic example where it is both morally right to do development but it is also in Britain's self-interest to get a more effective state and to help people, for example, move away from growing opium and poppy and finding alternative livelihoods.

  Q133  Chairman: I do not think the Committee is going to dissent from that in principle. Our job is to produce a report on this draft Bill and any suggestions or recommendations that seem appropriate. What is needed is a greater public understanding of what development is about. If the Bill can help that, that is a positive outcome. That is why we have had the questions about definition and accountability. Otherwise, there is a danger that we are just increasing the money going to dubious places with dubious outcomes. It really is pretty important that it is not just about spending more money on overseas aid development; it is about spending it more effectively. That is what both the sessions this morning and this afternoon have activated in the Committee's mind. You will see that flavour in the report when we produce it. Is there anything you want to add?

  Mr Thomas: I hope that there will be cross-party consensus on the Committee at least to support the Bill. There certainly has not been to date in terms of the comments of the different political leaders. I repeat my concern that the Leader of the Opposition said he does not think there is a need for this particular Bill. I hope the Committee's consideration might help to sway his particular mind as well as the minds of any other sceptics about this Bill.

  Q134  Chairman: I suppose the first stage is for this Committee to come to some agreement on what we think about the proposals. The wider discussion is obviously for others to take forward. I think I can speak on behalf of the Committee rather than the wider political circles. The Committee would not wish to see this piece of proposed legislation become a cause of contention on cross-party agreement that we all want to achieve 0.7%. I am not saying it is intended as such but I think the Committee would not wish it to become such. I certainly hope that what we say will be reflected in our report. As you well know, these committees have to agree their reports behind closed doors and produce results in the end, so I cannot prejudge it.

  Mr Thomas: I respect that. I do not believe that there is the scale of cross-party consensus on the issue in general that you describe. I hope in the coming weeks that changes but I do not believe it is there on the scale that you have just described.

  Q135  Mr Hendrick: Is it an issue as to whether or not we should have legislation or is it just on the 0.7%?

  Mr Thomas: With respect, I think that is a question for others, not for me.

  Q136  Mr Hendrick: In terms of your interpretation of what other party leaders are saying?

  Mr Thomas: There is a clear quote from the Leader of the Opposition that he does not believe the legislation is necessary. There is also evidence that candidates of one particular political party, 90% of them plus, do not think the international development budget should be ring-fenced.

  Chairman: To be fair, the position of the Conservative Party, as I understand it, is that they are committed to achieving the 0.7%.

  Mr Hendrick: The leader is.

  Chairman: It is not our Committee's job to determine that. That is for other people. We can internalise our discussions but, having said all that, thank you very much for providing us with your views and helping us learn a little bit more about the thinking that is behind it. We have had a couple of very useful sessions. I hope we should be able to produce a report that will add some value to the discussion. Thank you.

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