Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
European Committee Debates

Millennium Development Goals


The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: John Robertson 

Dodds, Mr Nigel (Belfast North) (DUP) 

Duddridge, James (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)  

Glindon, Mrs Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab) 

Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton North) (Lab) 

Lancaster, Mark (Milton Keynes North) (Con) 

Lazarowicz, Mark (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op) 

Macleod, Mary (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con) 

Maynard, Paul (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con) 

Nokes, Caroline (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con) 

O'Brien, Mr Stephen (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development)  

Pound, Stephen (Ealing North) (Lab) 

Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow Central) (Lab) 

Williams, Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD) 

Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended ( Standing Order No. 119(6) ):

Cryer, John (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab) 

McIntosh, Miss Anne (Thirsk and Malton) (Con) 

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European Committee B 

Monday 18 October 2010  

[John Robertson in the Chair] 

Millennium Development Goals

4.30 pm 

The Chair:  Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the documents referred to the Committee? 

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab):  It might be helpful if I explain a little of the background to the documents and why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended them for debate. We are all familiar with the eight goals to be achieved by 2015 that are drawn from the actions and targets contained in the September 2000 millennium declaration. The Commission describes the situation thus far as “patchy”. Progress has varied greatly among both millennium development goals and regions, with economic growth, good governance and the quality of domestic policies being key variables for progress. 

Globally, there has been strong and sustained progress on reducing extreme poverty, as well as on other goals such as access to water, universal primary education and gender equality in primary education. However, around 1.4 billion people still live in extreme poverty, with half of those in sub-Saharan Africa. One sixth of the world’s population is under-nourished. There has been almost no progress on reducing maternal and child mortality, and prospects for access to sanitation are described as “bleak”. 

With only five years remaining before the 2015 deadline, world leaders gathered in New York between 20 and 22 October for the UN millennium development goals review high-level plenary meeting. The aim was to ensure that there was a comprehensive review of successes and gaps, and agreement on concrete action to speed up progress. 

The Commission notes the EU’s singular position as, collectively, by far the biggest donor. Its contribution forms 56% of global overseas development aid, which has almost doubled since the adoption of the MDGs and now amounts to €49 billion. Nevertheless, the EU is behind schedule to reach the collective EU intermediate target of 0.56% of gross national income to official development assistance by 2010, as a step towards devoting 0.7% by 2015. At the UN HLPM, the Commission said that the EU 

“needs to show how it will keep its promises, proving that developing counties can trust us. This includes tackling new global challenges by providing financing from resources additional to ODA.” 

With that in mind, the Commission communication sets out a 12-point action plan for the EU, with specific medium-term actions in support of the MDGs. It includes: first, honouring EU aid commitments; secondly, improving aid effectiveness; thirdly, targeting the most off-track MDGs; fourthly, mobilising developing countries’ domestic resources through better taxation systems; and, fifthly, enhancing regional integration and trade to boost growth.

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The action plan is intended to constitute a unified EU contribution to a UN action-oriented outcome on MDGs for 2010 to 2015, and to provide a basis for outreach and dialogue, before and beyond the HLPM, with key and strategic partners, whether in the context of the G8 and G20, or in forums such as the third Africa-EU summit next month. 

On 14 June, the Council endorsed lengthy conclusions on the EU’s position at the UN meeting. They stated that the EU remained firmly committed to supporting the achievement of the MDGs globally by 2015, and regarded that as 

“still possible, if all partners in the international community demonstrate strong political commitment, implement necessary policy changes and take concrete action.” 

The Council also saw the need for considerable work on prioritising the most off-track MDGs. Secondly, it regarded progress as depending 

“to a great extent on the quality and coherence of development partners”. 

Thirdly, it underlined the interdependence of the MDGs with human rights, gender equality, democracy, good governance, development, peace and security, and the important role of non-development policies in achieving the MDGs. Fourthly, it strongly favoured 

“a concrete and action-oriented outcome of the HLPM.” 

Although the European Scrutiny Committee had no concerns about the communication per se, it felt that the importance of the issues and of the September 2010 UN MDGs review meeting warranted a debate in the European Committee about the outcome of the HLPM and so that the EU’s role and effectiveness in fulfilling the MDGs, both hitherto and in future, could be discussed. 

4.34 pm 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson—I think for the first time. I am delighted to be in the Committee today. 

I welcome the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Luton North and thank him for them. He gave a helpful introduction to the debate and a good summary of how it sits in the context and the timeline of what has taken place both internationally and among European member states. 

The European Scrutiny Committee requested that we examine the European Union’s position in the run-up to the UN MDGs summit, which took place in New York last month. I will start by giving this Committee an update on the summit’s outcome. I can only apologise—on behalf of the House, rather than the Government—that we were not able to hold this sitting in advance of the MDGs summit in New York. That had been the Committee’s hope, albeit probably against expectation because the parliamentary recess and the conference season meant that it was just not possible to schedule the sitting earlier. However, I hope that this sitting will prove useful. 

More than 140 world leaders travelled to New York on 20 and 21 September to reaffirm collectively their aid commitments and to provide a new momentum for achieving the MDGs by 2015. Those attending included the eight Ministers in Her Majesty’s Government who were in New York at the time. Although we have seen

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progress towards some of the goals, such as reducing overall global poverty levels, under MDG 1, and getting children into school, under MDG 2, such progress has been very uneven across sectors and regions, as the hon. Member for Luton North indicated. For example, the goals for maternal health and access to sanitation are hugely off-track. We can still achieve them, but it will take a step change in our collective efforts. 

The summit was a significant step forward. It secured unprecedented commitments from both developed and developing countries, which will make a real difference to millions of vulnerable people around the world. For example, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, launched a global strategy for women’s and children’s health that aims to save the lives of more than 16 million women and children. With strong UK support, the Secretary-General mobilised a total of $40 billion to support that initiative. There were also significant new commitments from developing countries. Tanzania, for example, committed itself to spend 15% of its national budget on health, and Liberia promised to provide universal coverage of bed nets by the end of this year to combat malaria. 

The summit gave President Obama a platform to launch his new US global development policy, which will focus on growth, breaking the cycle of aid dependence and delivering clear results. We strongly support those areas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also committed her personal leadership to the 1,000 days campaign that was launched in New York, which will tackle malnutrition in the crucial first three years of a child’s life. 

The EU played a key role in New York, including through co-ordinating the outcome document in the run-up to the summit. That was based on the EU’s collective position set out in the 12-point action plan, which is the subject of our deliberations today, and the subsequent June Council conclusions. EU leaders also played a strong role at the summit, with attendees in New York including Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and José Manuel Barroso, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister. 

As the world’s largest provider of aid, the EU is critical to achieving the MDGs. For example, EU aid has helped to enrol 9 million children in primary education, which falls under MDG 2, and to connect 31 million households to better drinking water, which relates to MDG 7. It is also the only group of countries that has collectively committed to meet the UN aid target of 0.7% of GNI by 2015. We should be proud of the example that the EU has set, but this is no time for complacency. Going forward, we must press our European partners to stick to those promises. Before the summit, we secured a commitment to review annually member states’ progress against their aid promises, which will be an effective way of holding us all to account. 

President Barroso also announced at the summit that the European Commission will allocate up to €1 billion from the current European development fund to accelerate progress towards the MDGs in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. We welcome that initiative and will work to ensure that the funds are focused on the most off-track MDGs and that they deliver real results on the ground. 

I am particularly proud of the role that the UK played in making the MDGs summit a success. Our pledge to double our efforts on maternal, newborn and

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child health will save the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth, save 250,000 newborn babies and enable 10 million couples to access modern methods of family planning. We also promised to help to halve the number of deaths caused by malaria in at least 10 African countries by 2015, through increasing access to malaria prevention, diagnostics and treatment. 

Our leadership and focus on demonstrating concrete results and value for money have helped to create new momentum for achieving the most off-track MDGs, despite the challenging economic environment. Ban Ki-moon described our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid by 2013 as “brave” and “encouraging”. 

The Government will continue to provide international leadership on development and will press our European partners to fulfil all their promises. We will improve the way in which UK and EU aid is delivered so that it achieves the greatest possible impact. We will spare no effort in ensuring that every pound of British aid reaches the people who need it most. 

I look forward to discussing and, indeed, exploring the issues with the Committee today. 

The Chair:  We now have until 5.30 pm for questions. I ask Members to make the questions as brief as possible. It is open to a Member, subject to my discretion, to ask a supplementary question. If there is a vote in the House, we will suspend for 15 minutes and then come back. 

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op):  I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Robertson, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North and the Minister for the very helpful introductions that they have given. 

In broad terms, Labour Members welcome any efforts to ensure that EU institutions and member states work together more effectively. We want to play our part in working towards the millennium development goals, and my questions are directed towards that end. 

The Chair:  Order. The hon. Gentleman can make his statement in the next part of the sitting. At the moment we are on questions. 

Mark Lazarowicz:  Indeed, and I shall turn to those questions. I have a number, Mr Robertson, if in due course you allow me to come back once or twice. My questions are directed at the action plan, which is the main subject of our debate. 

On page 18 of the bundle, the first point in the action plan calls on EU member states—I assume—to: 

“Establish realistic, verifiable annual action plans for reaching individual targets…and publish the first plans before September 2010”. 

Has this been done? Have any member states failed to do so? Do the Government consider the plans published—assuming they have been published—to be realistic and verifiable? 

Perhaps I should leave it there, Mr Robertson, or do you wish me to carry on? 

The Chair:  No, that is fine. We will take them one at a time. 

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Mr O'Brien:  I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. He is quite right that one of the key outcomes from the millennium development goals summit was an annual progress review, but it would of course be premature for one to expect that in advance of the commitment being given. 

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the EU is not on track to meet its overseas development aid targets and, therefore, while we have made it absolutely clear that we will keep our promises on ODA, we are content—we believe this is right—to challenge the rest of the international community to do the same. It is vital that we welcome the June EU Council confirmation of ODA targets and its decision to discuss delivery of ODA annually. EU leaders have demonstrated unprecedented political determination to be accountable and to take ownership of their commitments. As yet, I am not aware that any action plans have actually been issued or published. However, the right answer to the question, certainly, is that the June EU Council’s confirmation of EU ODA targets is the platform on which the position is based. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Robertson. 

What proportion of the total ODA provided by the European Union is provided through the EU itself, and what proportion is provided by individual member states? Does the Minister have the figures to hand? 

Mr O'Brien:  Collectively, the EU provided 0.42% ODA to GNI in 2009. It will miss its 2010 intermediate target of 0.56%. The six off-track EU15 countries are Italy, Greece, Portugal, Austria, Germany and France. I can give the percentages if the hon. Gentleman wishes, but perhaps we could set those out at another time. Most of the new member states—the so-called EU12—are also off-track on reaching their 2010 ODA target of 0.17%. The European Commission’s expenditure as a whole, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, makes up 20% of EU ODA. While I have given him the individual breakdowns, particularly of those who are falling behind, he will be aware that there are a number that are doing considerably better than that. 

Kelvin Hopkins  rose—  

The Chair:  Is this a supplementary question? 

Kelvin Hopkins:  Yes it is, Mr Robertson. 

It used to be the case that aid delivered by member states, and particularly by Britain, was regarded as being better directed and more efficiently delivered than aid delivered through the European Union. Is that still the case? Is there still a argument for ensuring that the majority of aid comes from member states, particularly in the case of Britain? 

Mr O'Brien:  It depends a little on the destination and the goals for the spend. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to recognise that there are some areas in which it has been clearly demonstrated that there has not been the same linkage between money going in and some form of outcome. He will have seen our new ministerial team driving agendas towards outcomes and measuring those outcomes. 

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The EU—we have to look at the balance sheet; it is not a straight yes-or-no answer—helps to pull hundreds of millions of people across the developing world out of poverty every year. Working through the EU enables us to help more people in more countries than we would reach on our own. While the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we make significant contributions through our bilateral aid, the essence of his question is to ask whether it would be better to adopt that approach exclusively, rather than the current blend under which a significant proportion goes through the Commission. We can safely say, however, that our contribution to the EU has helped to provide clean water to 14 million people in Africa and 60 million textbooks for school children in Bangladesh. 

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the EU—the Committee might wish to explore this point—also supports middle-income countries, which are where 75% of the world’s poorest live. Another debate could take place about that, but the EU is in a better position to deal with that than the UK alone, even though we have by no means ruled out support to middle-income countries, although our emphasis must be on the lower-income countries. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some flavour of the situation. We are trying to get that blend right so that we can support the best attempts to eradicate poverty where it exists, which is something in which the EU has a real role to play. 

Mark Lazarowicz:  May I ask one supplementary on the answer given by the Minister? From what the Minister said, I understand that the first plans were not published by September 2010 by most countries. Point 4 on page 20 of the bundle says that the list of priority countries for education health activity would also be published by the end of September. Has that been done? If not, when will it appear? 

Mr O'Brien:  Again, while I have been forcing myself to study it in as much detail as I can, that information has not crossed my desk. I dare say I will receive a piece of paper any moment—it has in fact just happened. Basically, the answer is that the Commission is still working on it. 

Mark Lazarowicz:  I have another supplementary question on progress. It refers to the issue listed as point 12 on page 25. I see that the Commission has raised the issue of global governance. It recommends: 

“a swift and adequate implementation of the increases in developing and transition countries’ voting shares in the World Bank and IMF; work towards a single European seat as an ultimate objective and strengthen EU coordination, particularly with regional development banks.” 

What is the Government’s position on that and what progress has been made towards that objective? Is it supported by the Government within the European Union? 

Mr O'Brien:  In advance of my specific answer, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that when I was in opposition, I repeatedly argued, under many guises, that in terms of discussions on global governance or other issues considered by any of the international forums in which so many of the developing countries are not only encouraged to take part but are very much constitutionally part of, it has been difficult for those

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countries to have the capacity to match their arguments with those advanced by the developed world. The developing countries lack the funded research and the evidence base available to the developed world. For that reason, we will be pursuing the launch of an advocacy fund—I am sure the hon. Gentleman has already picked up on that—so that a more equal playing field is established that enables those countries to match the developed world’s level of representation 

In relation to point 12 on page 25 of the Committee’s bundle, that is not part of the final Council conclusions. Given how the hon. Gentleman framed the question, and rather than go through the arguments, I basically need to say that it is a red line for us. Therefore we do not wish to see it transgressed. 

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab):  As a fellow Glaswegian, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for a second time, Mr Robertson. On the point about the European Union, we have seen countries such as Germany and Italy scaling back their assistance to overseas development. What representations have the Government made to the Governments of those countries to ensure that they are keeping up with the commitments that were made? 

Mr O'Brien:  As it is the first time that I have had the opportunity, may I say that it is a pleasure to welcome the hon. Member for Glasgow Central in this new Parliament? I congratulate him on his election. 

Representations are being made through European institutions. I was in Brussels on Friday, and I was in Norway last Thursday. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that a host of meetings take place with Ministers from various Departments at various levels. There is a constant stream of opportunity to make such representations. In addition to the briefings that we are given and the points that we are asked to make as Ministers, as well as those that we wish to make, we encourage those who might be regarded as slightly laggardly and suggest that it may be time for them to step up. That was the important point of the millennium development goals summit, which had a powerful effect on making people focus on where they had achieved and where they had fallen short. Was it possible to achieve the millennium development goals by 2015? Answer: “Yes, provided”, and the “provided” is that people step up with an instant pledge for cash and move up to the contribution rate that has been promised. It is important to recognise that the UK has demonstrated a certain leadership. 

We must be careful not to claim moral authority or a holier than thou status, but to demonstrate genuine leadership. We have made a commitment to hit 0.7% of GNI by 2013, two years ahead of the EU commitment, and we are keen to ensure that others follow that example. However, as yet, we have not heard or received any commitment from Italy or Germany. They stress the need for additional sources of finance, which is one of the areas that is covered in part of the documentation. 

Anas Sarwar:  On that point, I know that the Secretary of State is leading on the aid review that is being conducted by the Department, and I wonder whether, as a result of that review, we might see a reduction in the amount of aid that we spend through the European

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Union. Will that impact on our leverage on other EU countries to help influence their goals to match their own past commitments? 

Mr O’Brien:  The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have a raft of reviews taking place in the Department at the moment. It is an opportunity for me to pay tribute to all the people in the Department for International Development for their enormous tenacity and hard work in having to meet a large wall of demand. 

Bilateral aid, multilateral aid—and the regional dimension of both—as well as humanitarian aid are currently subject to review. The multilateral aid review in particular will offer a definitive answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but let us be absolutely clear: it is not our intent to do anything to reduce our commitment to 0.7% of GNI by 2013. That includes moneys going through the EU. That pledge has been clearly stated. An interesting political dimension would be added if we sought to reduce our pledge in order to encourage others to do more. That would be counterintuitive, and most people would probably consider it better to match that contribution rate rather than consider that we should reduce it. 

We are currently conducting in-country reviews. We are collecting evidence from not just professionals within DFID and our in-country teams, but from representatives of civil society. We are making sure that all the think-tanks, international organisations and charities right across government are involved. External reviewers are looking at everything that is being produced in a proposed form, and a lot of iteration is going on. We are keen to respond to the external reviewers’ challenges and to make sure that we quality assure everything that we are producing. All that information will be produced; I know that the Secretary of State has announced that we hope to have it by earlyish next year. 

The main thing is that the outcome of any reviews like that, if it is to be genuine, must be that it could have an impact on our level of support, especially to the EDF. That is a possibility, but I do not want to give an indication one way or the other, because the review is genuine rather than prescriptive. 

Mark Lazarowicz:  I have one more question. Returning to the action plan, on page 24 of the bundle, point 10 of the action plan refers to climate change and calls for the implementation of the 

“EU commitment to provide €2.4 billion fast-start funding annually for developing countries”, 

Which indicates that the Commission has already taken a role of facilitating the implementation and monitoring of co-ordinated decisions in the EU’s fast-start funding agreement? It may be that the decision of the Council is contained somewhere within the bundle, but if it is, unfortunately I have not been able to find it. Perhaps the Minister will indicate what has happened with regard to that recommendation from the Commission. 

Mr O’Brien:  The hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight the importance of climate change within the overall recommendations and points for action. Climate change cannot be effectively tackled by individual nations acting alone. That is clearly one of the areas where the EU can add value—by fostering a secure, competitive and resource-efficient low-carbon economy, including supporting better functioning and better connected EU

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energy markets. Clearly, we regard securing long-term finance as crucial, to underpin the Copenhagen accord and to enable developing countries to grow in a low-carbon, climate-resilient way. 

On the EU’s position, and in particular in relation to point 10 to which the hon. Gentleman referred, we are right in the midst of the negotiations over the next EU financial perspective. We are pressing for a greater proportion of the EU’s contribution to climate finance for developing countries to be delivered via the EU budget. That would certainly increase the certainty of financial flows to recipients. It would effectively pool resources across Europe and utilise economies of scale, and improve the average quality of climate spending by the EU. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that, in that context—it is a contextual point—we are all very committed to working towards an ambitious global deal to limit emissions. We believe that the EU has a genuine opportunity to demonstrate leadership, but at this point he should recognise that the main thing relates to the negotiations for the next EU financial perspective. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  May I pursue my earlier line of questioning? I have taken note of what the Minister said about climate change and the collective effort through the European Union, but the fact is that, in the past, it has been the view that aid delivered through the nation states, particularly by Britain, has been delivered more efficiently and has been better directed at member state level rather than through the European Union. In other fields, does the hon. Gentleman still think it right that we maintain a majority proportion of our aid being delivered directly by the British Government rather than through the European Union? 

Mr O'Brien:  In many ways, I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman’s question because it pays a rather quiet compliment to the efficiency of the bilateral aid flows. He did so particularly by drawing comparisons between that and the aid that is being delivered by the EU. I would be cautious in agreeing with his characterisation that the aid that we deliver via the EU is inefficient. As I said earlier, that depends on the goals that one is seeking to target. As part of the forthcoming discussions, and in order to achieve much greater transparency, it is perhaps more helpful to look at funding that is going via the EU to focus on some of the regional aid issues, such as infrastructure and power. 

Clearly, power is one of the things that matters enormously to developing countries. I was recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country the size of Western Europe. We had to fly everywhere mainly by helicopter under the protection of the UN because of security concerns and the fact that, despite saying that it is at the crossroads of Africa, there are no roads. We then have to analyse who would be best to build the roads. Through DFID, we are building a road going south from Kisangani, the town on the bend of the River Congo, which will help to link markets and then onwards towards the mineral resource-rich areas of south-eastern DRC. However, it is not very long in terms of the totality of what needs to be done so there is an increasing recognition that perhaps the EU has a role in the discussion with, for instance, the east African community—another bloc, and bloc to bloc they could then look more effectively at, say, infrastructure projects. 

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As part of our review we are looking at where we can best have the effort geared to the goals and the outcomes, but at ones that will aid transparency at all times. What matters clearly to the hon. Gentleman matters to all of us: where money is spent, we have confidence that that money has been well spent and that it would have been difficult to spend it better. Clearly, the bilateral aid review gives a direct connection. On the multilateral issue, it is more difficult because it goes into a more pooled resource. 

As for aid effectiveness, the hon. Gentleman drew a comparison, but at the absolute level, I am sure that the European Scrutiny Committee will want to look carefully at the way in which the EU continues to play a leadership role in the run-up to the 2011 high-level forum in Korea. That will be a significant event in looking at aid effectiveness particularly as it will hold discussions on the Paris declaration targets and how they will be underpinned. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  I thank the Minister for his very full answer. One other criticism that used to be levied at the European Union was about targeting and the directing of aid. There was a suggestion that the European Union tended to give too high a proportion of its aid to countries that are not the poorest. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The EU tended not to focus all its aid on sub-Saharan Africa and the poorest countries, whereas Britain did. Will he continue to use his best efforts and good offices to make sure that the European Union does focus on the poorest countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa? 

Mr O'Brien:  I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question because such matters are an important part of the discussion. We are in the middle of thinking this through as part of our review processes. If we can concentrate bilateral and multilateral aid effort—primarily through the EU but also through the other multilateral agencies—on low-income countries, it is most likely to have the greatest impact on the greatest number of lives. That might, however, create the danger of either producing cliff edges, or giving rise to a reverse phenomena in some middle-income or aspiring middle-income countries for which the tap cannot simply be turned off because there must be a graduation from aid. These are difficult technical and strategic—and even politically philosophical —discussions about the best use of aid money. 

There has been a debate about whether the greatest impact—for instance on diseases such as malaria, which a subject about which I know a little—should be achieved by simply shrinking the map. The unit cost of eradicating malaria altogether in certain countries is high compared with the cost of saving an enormous number of lives, be they of children under five or pregnant mothers, by focusing on the high-transmission sub-Saharan African countries north of the South Africa-Botswana border. That is what we are wrestling with. 

A recent Institute of Development Studies report showed that 75% of the bottom billion are now in middle-income countries. One must be extremely cautious about rushing to judgment on this. We have to be keen—as we all are—to design programmes that are technically ODA-compliant, as they must be. However, all parties in the House—and this is reflected by opinion in Europe and globally—broadly have the unifying wish to relieve poverty where it exists. It is dangerous to be

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over-prescriptive. At the moment, however, 43% of the relevant European Commission budget, including the EDF, goes to low-income countries. The EU, as the hon. Gentleman knows, also supports middle-income countries where, as I have mentioned, 75% of the world’s poor live. 

The answer is not black and white—it is discursive. However, that is primarily because he has touched at the heart of what we mean as “most effective” in relieving poverty. I do not pretend that it is an easy answer, but it forms part of our rigorous, detailed and drilled-down review process of aid—whether bilateral, multilateral or humanitarian—which is intended to try to provide some more shape and strategic direction. 

The Chair:  If no more Members want to ask questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion. 

Motion made, and Question proposed,  

That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8910/10 and Addenda 1 to 5, A Twelve-Point Action Plan in Support of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); and supports the efforts the Government is making through the EU to improve the MDGs, secure Official Development Assistance (ODA) levels and improve aid effectiveness and accountability.—(Mr O’Brien.)  

5.8 pm 

Mark Lazarowicz:  Labour Members generally support the approach recommended by the Commission and the Government’s response. The European Scrutiny Committee took a good step by advancing the documents for debate, because although their contents are not controversial, wider issues are raised that it is right to scrutinise, as we are doing today, and to bring to the attention of a wider audience. 

We believe that it is desirable for the development policies of the European Union and its member states to be co-ordinated when possible to ensure their most effective delivery, as long as the co-ordination efforts do not add extra complications to the process. One of the objectives of the Lisbon treaty, as stated in article 210, is that there should be greater co-operation among member states on the issue. In that respect, I am sure that the Minister is glad that we did not have to face a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which might have raised some questions over our ability to co-operate in this area. 

My concern—in common with that of Members on both sides of the House, I am sure—is that the ambitions set out in the action plan are fulfilled. Although we and some other member states have a good record, and the Commission has certainly tried to move forward, some member states have fallen far short of their commitments. We want to see all member states meeting their commitments so that the European Union can carry out the leadership role in the world community that we want it to have. The previous Labour Government placed development at the heart of their international policies, and we encourage the Government to continue to engage actively in the EU process to try to ensure that all member states, as well as the EU as the whole, can play a leadership role in development issues. That is why the 0.7% target is so important. I know that the Government have confirmed that they intend to make that legally binding in due course, but it is an area in which we can take a particular lead. I note that the action plan urges member states to 

“Consider enacting national legislation for setting ODA targets, based on the experience in Belgium or the United Kingdom.” 

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We are being given a bit of a pat on the back there, so we should respond to that positive comment by going forward with the legislation as soon as possible. 

It is important that the UK sets a good example in other areas as well. On page 24 of the bundle, the action plan states: 

“No development is possible without security…Most countries in fragile situation are behind on MDGs, and special effort is needed to deliver aid to such countries in a cost effective way.” 

I was concerned by some of the weekend’s press reports—I think in The Independent on Sunday—about the withdrawal of British support, through DFID, for the de-mining programme in several countries in southern Africa and elsewhere, which has caused the HALO Trust to begin winding down its Angolan de-mining operations. I cite that as an example of a cost-effective small-scale project that can make a real difference on the ground. It is important that such projects are not undermined by actions taken by DFID, which would undermine our own standing and ability to take a lead on such issues worldwide. 

The papers that accompany the action plan point out that developing countries have been hit particularly hard by the global economic and financial crisis. One of the staff notes supporting the papers in the bundle states: 

“Virtually all developing countries have been struck by the global financial and economic crisis much harder than expected initially.” 

We are told that the World Bank estimates that the financial and economic crisis could have pushed around 64 million more people into extreme poverty by the end of 2010, and UNESCO estimates that, as a result of the crisis, child malnutrition and infant mortality might increase, with between 200,000 and 400,000 additional deaths in 2009. 

All that is a reminder that the choices that Parliament makes over the next few days, and the choices made by other richer countries, will have an impact on not only vulnerable people in those richer countries, but people worldwide. That is another reason why the Government should not take the course on which they appear to be set for spending and deficit reduction. It is not just vulnerable people in this country who will suffer, but many vulnerable people throughout the world. 

We are considering a group of comprehensive documents. On page 611 of the bundle, we read that the Minister, in his comment on the EU report on development and external assistance policies, says that the report’s 

“length and layout make it a somewhat wearisome document to navigate.” 

He also calls for further efforts to make the report more “reader-friendly”. Many of us would have some sympathy with that particular comment, but we should not hide from the fact that the report sets out the major steps being taken by the European Union and the UK to address issues that affect many countries. The previous Government set an example in that regard and we hope that it will be continued by this Government. We want to see the EU and this country working together strongly and efficiently towards achieving of the millennium development goals. In so far as the Government want to proceed in that direction, they will have our support, which is why we will support the motion. 

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5.13 pm 

Kelvin Hopkins:  We are all rightly positive about overseas aid for the poorest people and nations in the world. However, the object of such debates is to attempt to focus on some of the problems and concerns that we might have about aid, on whether the process can be better, and on the economic relations between the developed and poorer nations. As I mentioned earlier, I have certain concerns—this has been stressed by others—that the European Union might not direct its aid as effectively or as efficiently as its member states, particularly Britain. On the other hand, it has been argued that some member states would do little about aid were it not for the EU. In addition, some European member states tend to think of aid as an instrument of strategic politics, rather than simply a way of helping people for altruistic reasons—out of concern for one’s fellow human beings. There are countries that want to provide aid to countries around the Mediterranean rim rather than those in sub-Saharan Africa. I have, however, raised such concerns before, and I want to speak about other issues, too. 

One of the criticisms that I have made, as have a number of people on the left, is that aid has often been tied to certain policies within member states. For example, countries have been required to privatise their public services or to allow access for multinational corporations to take over their water industries. Countries that have resisted have been warned that if they do not go along with our philosophies of globalisation, free trade and free movement of capital, they will not get the aid. I strongly feel that, if they wish, poorer nation states should be free to impose a degree of protection to build up their economies. Such protection could relate to currency, tariffs, or whatever they may choose. A few years ago—this might not be the case now—dumped EU-produced sugar was sold in Malawi to people who could easily produce their own sugar. That was reprehensible, because those people could not compete with dumped EU sugar at rock-bottom prices. 

On page 221 of the bundle, there is a reference to 

“a reduction in developed countries’ trade-distorting domestic support” 

which, I think, is code for the common agricultural policy. There still is a common external tariff and a focus on producing food within the EU. For strategic reasons, that is no doubt a good idea, but many countries in the developing world can produce food much more cheaply than we can. It would be economically beneficial for us as well as them if we bought more of that food and perhaps did not produce quite so much heavily subsidised food ourselves. We can debate that issue, but there is a strong case for that approach. 

Years ago we had the Lomé convention, which sounded cosy and nice as it was an agreement between third-world countries and the EU. However, the EU imposed strict controls on the value that a number of the poorer countries could add to some of their products. For example, a hardwood-producing country could export its hardwoods, but could not manufacture hardwood furniture, or even hardwood components for furniture. Such countries had to export the hardwood to the EU, where the high value-added parts of production would take place to those poorer countries’ disbenefit. Trade-distorting domestic support and restricting imports from

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poorer countries have gone on in the past. Those policies have been criticised and one now hopes that they are well under control and that we have moved on. 

There is still a view that poorer countries cannot restrict trade in any way but that we can. That is reprehensible. We are the rich part of the world and if we really want to help poor countries, we should let them develop their economies as best they can using a degree of protection, if they need it. Let us be generous about buying from them and allowing them to develop high value-added modes of production because that could raise incomes in those countries and make the world fairer. 

When the Minister goes to EU Council meetings, I hope that he will ensure that we are being progressive and taking action that will be genuinely helpful to poorer nations and the poor of the world. He emphasised that 75% of the poorest people live in middle-income countries. I would argue that the free market approach to economics should not be forced upon countries such as Brazil, which is a rapidly developing country but still has desperate poverty in the favelas, where families sell children into prostitution just to make a living. Such countries should be free to choose what kind of economics they wish to operate. If I were there, I would argue for a much more interventionist and redistributive approach, although that might not be to the taste of the free marketeers in the developed world. One hesitates to use words such as “socialism”, but a socialist approach in those countries would, I think, be admirable as well as beneficial to their people. 

The final point I want to make is about the common fisheries policy, which is something I have gone on about a lot. It is a complete nonsense; it should be abolished. Fisheries should be husbanded by the member states in their own seas. At the moment, the European Union in general is over-fishing seas around some of the poorer countries. We are also over-fishing the seas around our own countries because we do not have a sense of responsibility, possession or commitment—we say, “It is not our fish, it is everybody’s fish and therefore we can fish as much as we like.” I have argued over and again in this very room that we should repatriate fisheries to the member states because that would be by far the best way to protect fish stocks for the longer term. We have to do something about the over-fishing of the seas of countries in the developing world. It is about not just poverty in those countries, but the future of the seas for all of us. Damage is already being caused by allowing anybody to plunder the seas for as much fish as they can get out of the water, but if we do not stop that soon, there could well be a catastrophe in our oceans. 

I wanted to raise my concerns because it is right that we do not just say warm words about overseas aid and suggest that everything is wonderful because we are all helping and poor people are getting money from us. We should focus occasionally on the things that might not be quite right. I hope that our Minister will take note of what I have said. If he thinks that I have overstated the case, I am happy to be corrected, but I hope that he will take some of these thoughts with him when he goes to Brussels. 

5.22 pm 

Mr O'Brien:  I am grateful to all those who have attended and taken part in discussing an important subject, in which there is a real sense of common

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purpose and will. It is not a question of whether we do what we are doing collectively as a nation, but how we do it is what matters, to be most effective and achieve most impact with, after all, UK taxpayers’ funds. 

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith because, having demonstrated that he had nobly ploughed through the whole bundle by quoting from page 611, he picked up on my comments in the explanatory memorandum. The hon. Gentleman will know European explanatory memorandums are regular features of the ministerial red box. I caused that particular paragraph to be written with some feeling, as I had ploughed through the whole of the document and felt that it was important to recognise that we need to try to elucidate the amount verbiage that comes out of Europe. I am grateful to him for drawing attention to that. 

The hon. Gentleman also raised a couple of important points. He quoted paragraph 2.9 on page 24 of the bundle about development and security having a relationship. He particularly cited the question in relation to a developing country. I would answer that in two ways. The first is that the relationship applies at both ends of the spectrum. It is a significant step forward that under the coalition Government there is a new council, the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, upon which the Deputy Prime Minister and many senior Cabinet members sit. Importantly, the Secretary of State for International Development also sits on the National Security Council, a recognition that ensuring we do our best to relieve poverty in the most effective way has a genuine connection with the conditions that people survive in, their sense of security and, therefore, over time, confidence. Equally, he cited the example of Angola. While he will need to be patient as we go through our review process, we will, of course, communicate as soon as we are in a position to do so. 

Picking up one of the points that we have discussed, perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman if I were to outline the difficulty between seeking to continue to do the right things—for instance, continuing to support those countries that need to de-mine—while, at the same time, focusing our aid effort where it is most effective and targeting where it will have the greatest impact, so that we can drive towards, and achieve, outcomes that will be of the greatest scale. When a country has become, or is on the point of becoming, a middle income country and is starting to be less dependent on aid, there is a fair question about when one begins to withdraw aid, so that these democratic states—it is important to support the democratic institutions—can use their internally generated revenues and make choices to help their own people. 

In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about de-mining—and while this Committee should not take any time over a leaked document that may be out of date— the main thing is that the discussions on future funding for de-mining and the discussions that have been taking place between ourselves and mining experts depend very much on ensuring that we have a greater focus on results, on using competitive tendering to promote value for money and on ensuring that we have the funding allocated to countries. We will announce the countries that have become our main focus following this extensive review. I hope that hon. Members will accept as a sincere point that we need to look carefully at how we balance the way that a country graduates

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from aid, while at the same time not wanting to destabilise what are unquestionably important programmes, in which we have been proud to be a part, helping to improve the condition of people in challenged areas. 

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the ring-fencing, or more particularly the commitment to 0.7% of GNI by 2013. He was generous in his congratulations to the coalition Government on making that a clear and central policy position. He rightly suggested that the position contained within it a real sense of leadership. We will seek to exercise that leadership, but always carefully and not in any holier than thou sense, which is off-putting to everybody concerned. That is where the 12-point action plan, the real subject of what we have been discussing, is important. More important than that is that the European Scrutiny Committee chose the subject for debate, and to give us this opportunity. That, I can assure the hon. Gentleman, will re-enforce not only my will, but the position of Her Majesty’s Government, as I—or any other Minister who is in the European Councils—can say that we have had this debate and that this is the importance that we attach to this issue. The fact that we can say that the 12-point action plan was particularly looked through and that particular points were raised gives us a greater authority and ability to hold our peers and our collaborators in Europe to account, which is important. 

The hon. Member for Luton North gave us an interesting, perhaps a touch historical, essay on some of the policies which we thought belonged to the past century. None the less, I say that with some respect, because he and I have often been together in Committees before. We have not always agreed, but we certainly had some common ground. The hon. Gentleman is right—there is a big debate to be had about ensuring that efficiency is never lost sight of for the sake of wanting to do the institutional things. The institutional things may not produce the best outcomes, which is part of what this rigorous review is intended to deliver. I was struck by what he said about the EU’s over-focus, particularly in the past, on, as he put it, strategic politics or the Mediterranean rim. However, countries, which have been legitimately either aspirant or applicant, have been supported. Poverty must be relieved in such countries and we must ensure that we help to do that. 

Equally, however, there are other perspectives. Outside my ministerial parameters, from my business perspective before I was a politician, I found it striking how Germany had no charity world to match the UK’s. Germany’s broad approach is that people pay their taxes and it is up to the Government to do the philanthropy on their behalf. That is not exclusive; of course there are some charities, but there is not the developed trust law or charities in that country. That makes for a different dialogue, because we are often in partnership with NGOs and others, compared with Germany, which will want a more direct approach to programmes and will be contracting to see that done. That is not a criticism, but one is dealing with different practices and cultures, and the hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to that. 

I was less persuaded by the hon. Gentleman’s argument for protectionism writ large across the face of the world. I went back to Mtwara in Tanzania the other day—I say “went back” because it happens to be my birthplace. DFID, coincidentally, was holding some programmes there. Importantly, given that it is the site

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of the failed groundnut scheme of the post-war years, it now has a huge company called Olam, which is processing and employing 5,000 people and is a real success. It can do that because it does not have protectionist policies and it is in a position to trade and export. Those who financed it knew that there would not be the difficulty of protectionism. That is a good, progressive example. 

Kelvin Hopkins:  Obviously it is good to hear of successes such as the one that the Minister has mentioned. One cannot argue, however, from the particular to the general and I was not arguing for protectionism in general. However, where countries wish to protect particular industries, such as agriculture, to help them grow, that should be accepted. Rather than having a general free trade policy and a general protectionist policy, we should

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have horses for courses regarding individual industries. I am pleased to hear of the scheme that he has mentioned. 

Mr O'Brien:  I am delighted that our arguments are edging towards each other, but we will have to continue arguing about that particular point. It has been an extremely worthwhile debate. Hon. Members can be assured that the ministerial team at DFID will continue at every possible opportunity to urge our European partners to live up to their aid commitments. We will do everything that we can to ensure that our aid, be it through Europe or elsewhere, continues to deliver value for money and is the most effective, with the highest impact that we can achieve on behalf of the UK taxpayer. 

Question put and agreed to.  

5.33 pm 

Committee rose.