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7.44 pm

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important and long-overdue debate. I am also glad to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). I am sorry that he will not continue to serve on the International Development Committee; he has made an invaluable contribution, his understanding of the issues is huge, and he will be much missed.

Having been a member of the International Development Committee since 1997, I have had the privilege of scrutinising the workings of the first Department for International Development to be introduced by the United Kingdom since its inception. I am glad that time has been found for the Bill in the last month of this Parliament, as it entrenches the Department's poverty-focused approach and ensures that the UK's international aid contributions go to those who need them most--the poor. In combination with the ground-breaking work on debt relief done by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for International Development and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that approach puts Britain at the forefront of the fight to reduce global inequality.

The Bill is based on another first: Britain's first-ever White Paper on international development, which was produced by the Department within months of its creation. The White Paper committed the Government to introducing new legislation, as the provisions of the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980 were not sufficiently poverty focused. As someone who has spent much of her life working among the poor of Africa, I welcome that focus unreservedly. However, it is interesting to note that the Bill, whose explicit focus is poverty, does not provide a definition of that concept.

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I remember people arguing about that definition when I worked in South Africa in the 1960s. In Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Peter Townsend contributed hugely to that debate. I realise that the lack of such a definition gives my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State greater discretion and flexibility, but I am concerned that it could allow a less committed Secretary of State to dilute the Department's poverty focus. I would not like that to happen. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary consider carefully in Committee how that might be remedied?

Like the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), I am concerned that, while 25 or 30 per cent. of the United Kingdom's aid budget is being channelled through the European Union, the House does not have the ability to ensure that that money is being spent on poverty-focused projects. Even more important, we do not have the ability to ensure that it is being spent at all, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. Obviously, that arrangement could undermine the UK's poverty-focused programmes and I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to redouble her already formidable efforts to reform the European Community's development assistance programme, which has the capacity to do great good. I know that she will do all she can to ensure that it also has the necessary ability and the will.

Another definition that is absent from the Bill is that of humanitarian aid, as the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford pointed out. Like him, I feel that that lack should be remedied and should have been influenced by a report published by the Overseas Development Institute. The report compares humanitarian aid agencies to the ambulance men of the world. As it graphically illustrates, we do not expect ambulance men to decide which victims, if any, were involved in a car crash or who was responsible for it; we want them to help anyone who was injured. The job of deciding who was responsible is for the police and the law. In international terms, responsibility lies with the UN and other international bodies and agencies, such as jurists and courts. I believe that a definition would help them to do their job.

The poverty focus of the Bill and of the Department should reassure those who are especially concerned about the welfare of women and children. They will benefit from poverty-focused aid, as they make up 70 per cent. of the world's 1.3 billion poorest people. Women also account for two thirds of the world's 1 billion adults who cannot read or write, and girls account for 200 million of the world's children who will never get the chance to go to school. A poverty-focused Department with poverty- focused programmes cannot but help them. They are the poorest of the poor--the people whom we aim to help.

Despite my right hon. Friend's warning about her resistance to special pleading, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), will tempt fate by ending with some special pleading for Africa, especially for the 24.5 million men, women and children on that continent who suffer from HIV-AIDS. Most of those people are desperately poor, as are most of the towns and countries in which they live. Surely such a special case merits special measures. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, HIV-AIDS is a factor in increasing poverty.

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In South Africa, 1,500 people are infected with HIV-AIDS every day and 4 million people already have the disease. The United Nations estimates that the disease will take 17 per cent. off the country's GDP by 2010.

In Malawi, more than a third of the teachers are infected with HIV-AIDS. The country's future and that of its children do not bear thinking about. Education is the way out of poverty, but what will people do without teachers? Malawi is not a solitary case; a similar percentage of teachers are infected in Zambia.

I welcome the Bill, just as I welcomed the creation of the Department for International Development in 1997. I look forward to welcoming more aid for Africa and its millions of HIV-AIDS sufferers. As Graca Machel said, Africa is the biggest challenge. I know that we are up to it.

7.52 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) was right to speak about Africa, where it is difficult to see any bright spots. It is in serious danger of becoming a lost continent.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, not least because I am vice-chairman of the all-party group on overseas development. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) for his comments about my role as a junior Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when it was responsible for the then Overseas Development Administration. I worked there with my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Chalker of Wallasey.

At the beginning of the 21st century, one of our greatest challenges is the enormous number of people who live in extreme, grinding, unremitting poverty. The World Bank estimates that more than 1 billion of our fellow citizens live on less than $1 a day. No genuine progress has been made in reducing that number in the past 10 years.

Television brings us flashes of the worst humanitarian disasters, such as flooding in Mozambique, hurricanes in central America, genocide in the Balkans, starvation in the horn of Africa, the impact of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and earthquakes in India. However, it does not adequately describe or reflect the desperate daily drudgery of so many of our fellow citizens. Poverty, poor health and desperation make up the lives of many people.

The Bill is unobjectionable. The Library briefing on it states:

The White Paper that was published in November 1997 states:

All the Government's objectives could therefore be achieved under that measure, which was steered through the House by my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Banbury, Sir Neil Marten. I hope that I am not being uncharacteristically churlish if I say that the Bill is unnecessary and that perhaps it constitutes pre-election window dressing, which tries to give the impression that more has been achieved than is genuinely the case.

No reasonable person would quarrel with the objectives in the more recent White Paper, "Eliminating World Poverty: Making Globalisation Work for the Poor".

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They include: working with others to reduce poverty systematically; promoting effective Governments and efficient markets; investing in people; sharing skills and knowledge; harnessing private finance; ensuring that gains from trade are made for developing countries; tackling global environmental problems; using development assistance more effectively; and strengthening a more open and accountable international system in which poor people and countries have a more effective voice. It would be surprising if any person of good will did not fully support those objectives. However, we do not need the Bill to achieve them. I shall make some comments about the way in which we can make progress on them.

How much money does the Treasury make available to the Department for International Development? How large is the United Kingdom aid budget? Let us consider the figures for 1999, the last year for which they are available. In that year, the UK was the fifth largest cash donor country in the world after Japan, the United States, France and Germany. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines overseas development assistance as a percentage of gross national product. Sadly, when ranked in those terms, the UK is towards the bottom of the list. Current UK spending on overseas aid is approximately a quarter of 1 per cent. of our GNP. As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) said in his excellent contribution, that is a tiny amount.

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