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8.46 pm

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): I am delighted to have the opportunity of contributing to what has been described as an historic debate. Other hon. Members have pointed out that this is the first such debate

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for 20 years. [Interruption.] They have pointed out that this is the first such debate on an international development Bill for 20 years.

Mr. Wells: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Browne: I have hardly started, but I will.

Mr. Wells: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. May I explain the circumstances surrounding the Bill 20 years ago? It was late at night when the Bill was introduced by the Solicitor-General, who said that it was something to do with the consolidation of many Bills and that the House might like to consider it with alacrity. The House did just that--the proceedings were over in three minutes.

Mr. Browne: I do not know whether I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) for his intervention because, to some degree, he has stolen my thunder. I was intending to point out that my research has revealed that the debate on the last Bill, which was a consolidation measure, took up one column in the Official Report of the House of Commons and half a column in the Official Report of the other place.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). The four years that I have been in the House have not been peppered with much common ground between us, but I found some tonight. It is appropriate to put on record my admiration for the work of the Halo Trust and my commendation of the hon. Gentleman and his fellow trustees for their contribution to that great work. I share his belief that there is a moral basis to development, but I also share the view of other right hon. and hon. Members that self-interest comes into it in that we want a peaceful future for the world and for our children.

It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend--in all senses--the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins). We travelled together to Colombia as part of a delegation of European parliamentarians in 1999. As my hon. Friend drafted and redrafted the final statement, I was exposed to his considerable skills in language and diplomacy. I have heard him speak on many occasions since, and tonight he lived up to his own high standards. I agreed with almost every word that he said.

On Sunday night in Kilmarnock, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State addressed a meeting of more than 500 people of all ages. It was the biggest public meeting in Kilmarnock for many years, and was bigger even than a full meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, which is quite difficult to achieve these days. The meeting was supported by Oxfam, Christian Aid, Fair Trade and the only Scottish-based international development organisation, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund. It was organised, with help from Unison and the GMB, through the office that I share with my colleague, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. It provided my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State with an excellent opportunity to see the extent of support in my constituency for her Department's policies.

I must encourage more of the people who attended that meeting to visit the Department's website to answer the poll questions on that website. Their numbers alone would

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help to dispel the myth of disillusion peddled by the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) from the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Douglas Alexander (Paisley, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that one virtue of such meetings lies in their making clear the link between international debt reduction of the kind that Jubilee 2000 has campaigned for and the poverty eradication strategy essential to the Bill before us?

Mr. Browne: I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that good point. He was anxious to contribute to tonight's debate, but his responsibilities elsewhere have precluded him from doing so. I know of his support for international development, and that he has marshalled informed support in his constituency, which mirrors the support in my own. As an aside, I may add that his constituency is served by Bishop John Mone, who leads SCIAF and who is a powerful advocate for the rights of the poor throughout the world. The bishop is known throughout Scotland for his contribution to international development objectives.

The meeting gave my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State an opportunity to explain the policies that underpin the objectives set out in both the White Papers published by her Department since the general election and in her speech today. It was more than a meeting; it was an event. My right hon. Friend's inspiring speech was set alongside performances by the Stewarton academy senior wind ensemble, the Kilmarnock concert brass and the Aeolian male voice choir, all of which are fine examples of the phenomenon referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). There were additional contributions, including personal accounts of the challenges and opportunities faced by some of the world's poorest people, which were read by Ailsa Henderson, who works extensively for Christian Aid in Ayrshire, and by Paul Chitnis, the director of SCIAF.

The importance of the meeting lay in the fact that all who participated left the hall recommitted to the work of development. Messages, cards and e-mails from people who attended are coming thick and fast to my office in Kilmarnock. All express thanks for the event, but they also ask what more can be done. If there is any need for evidence that our Government's change in development policy--moving it from, as my right hon. Friend put it, a policy subordinate to commercial and short-term political interests, to one based on the reduction of poverty and a national and international commitment to meet the 2015 international development targets--is a proper one, the turnout and response at that meeting was enough evidence for me.

There is growing public awareness of our objectives, and approval and support is, to my knowledge, 100 per cent. among non-governmental organisations. From the number of different departmental publications circulated by my office alone, I know that the information contained in them has contributed greatly to the understanding that permeates my community. All the schools in my constituency have received teaching aids from the same source. An understanding of development is a component of good citizenship, so I am grateful for that contribution. I encourage the Department to continue to produce such valuable materials--they are much appreciated.

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It is therefore opportune that we should be debating a Bill that establishes poverty reduction as the central aim of UK development assistance. Some people ask why we should have the Bill. I welcome it. I do not have the experience or expertise of many of my hon. Friends or of other hon. Members. This debate and the fact that it has exposed me to that expertise is a good argument in support of those hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently of the need for more such debates--or at least for regular and compulsory debates on the matter. When the proper policy targets are established and agreed across the House--as they are in this matter--they should be set out in an appropriate legislative framework. If the Bill did no more than that, it would merit introduction.

Although I accept that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, poverty is a complex phenomenon, its complexity lies principally in the fact that the poor of the world live in vastly different ecological zones from the rich. The poor face different health conditions and limitations in their agriculture; they have fewer economic opportunities. That fundamental cause of their persisting poverty is often further complicated by the fact many of them live in corrupt or conflict-ridden societies.

However, that does not detract from the importance of recognising that different ecologies are the fundamental cause of poverty. The 30 countries with the highest incomes lie overwhelmingly in the world's temperate zones. By contrast, of the 42 HIPCs, 39 are tropical or desert societies. Although the climate of the remaining three--Laos, Malawi and Zambia--is substantially temperate, those countries are landlocked and isolated; they face unique challenges.

One of the world's most important challenges is to mobilise science and technology to address the key differences, and the fact that opportunities are afforded to the rich but denied to the poor. The necessity of using science and technology to improve health, to increase agricultural productivity and to combat environmental degradation is one of the factors that lies at the heart of the Government's second White Paper.

Important though that is, however, it is a compelling irony that as science and technology create new wealth and well-being in the richer countries, the conditions in many of the poorest are growing significantly worse. It is not only life but death that differs in those countries. We in the north enjoy a life expectancy of 70 years or more. Although we complain about them, we can largely thank our winters for that. In the HIPCs, average life expectancy is about 50--in some of those countries, it is falling. That is caused by the burden of diseases such as malaria, hookworm and sleeping sickness, which overlays poverty. That combination creates a vicious circle. Short life expectancy can be a result of poverty, but it is also a cause of poverty.

All the rich countries research on rich country ailments such as cardiovascular disease and cancer will not solve the problems of malaria; nor will biotechnology advances for temperate-zone crops easily transfer to the conditions of tropical agriculture. To address the special conditions of HIPCs, we must first understand their unique problems.

The inequalities of income across the world are exceeded by the inequalities of scientific output and technological innovation. Despite the fact that many of the scientific and technological breakthroughs are being

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made by poor-country scientists, they are being made in rich countries. Global science is directed by rich countries for rich countries, even to the extent of harnessing much of the scientific potential of poor countries. Indian and Chinese experts are numerous in silicon valley. The result is a profound imbalance in the global production of knowledge--probably the most powerful engine of divergence in global well-being between the rich and the poor.

Malaria kills more than 1 million people a year--perhaps as many as 2.5 million--but because it is concentrated in the poorest tropical countries, no one even bothers to keep an accurate count of clinical cases or deaths. Recent advances in biotechnology, including the mapping of the genome of the malaria parasite, suggest that a malaria vaccine is possible, but that is not high on the agenda of the international community and the pharmaceutical firms. The Wellcome Trust estimates that only $80 million a year is spent on malaria research; the big firms see no profit in it.

The AIDS epidemic, to which hon. Members have already referred, is an even more stark example. Two thirds of all HIV-positive people live in sub-Saharan Africa, but, yet again, science stops at that ecological divide. Rich countries control the epidemic through new drug treatments, which are much too expensive for the poorest countries, but vaccine research, which may be more cost-effective, is poorly funded. The same is true of tuberculosis, which still takes the lives of more than 2 million poor people each year and would probably be treatable with a vaccine, but little or no research is carried out; there is no market for it or profit in it.

A proper poverty focus will compel us to work together with our poor neighbours to mobilise science and technology for the poorest countries. World institutions must fund research directed at the needs of those countries, not at the best return from the market. We must build on policies, such as the research and development tax credits announced last Monday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and spread them throughout the world. At the same time, we must reconsider intellectual property.

It has been suggested that the current struggle over AIDS medicines in South Africa is an early warning shot in a much larger struggle over access to the fruits of human knowledge. Global decisions will be needed to resolve that struggle and, as a lawyer, I say that we cannot afford to leave it to lawyers and courts. Politicians must take responsibility for resolving those issues internationally.

Fergus Henderson of Stewarton--one of my constituents who attended the meeting on Sunday night--has written to me, posing questions that he did not have the opportunity to ask. Some of them have been answered by the very basis on which the Bill is set--the elimination of poverty. However--this is relevant to the comments that I have just made, especially to the South African case--he asks whether the Government will work to change World Trade Organisation rules to ensure that new medicines are available to those who need them, at a price that they can afford, as soon as is practicable. That issue goes to the root of the problem, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will address it in summing up.

In response to an intervention, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to my visit to Burundi and Rwanda, as a guest of Christian Aid, in late July and

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August last year. I was in the company of my hon. Friends the Members for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) and for Gloucester (Ms Kingham). We had originally intended to visit the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but for reasons that I am sure all hon. Members who are present will understand, we were unable to do so--certainly, no sensible person would have done so at the time. However, Christian Aid's partners came to us. They bravely travelled across the border into Rwanda, where they told us the most harrowing stories of a people brutalised by all the many protagonists in the bloody conflict that rages throughout that country.

I mention that experience in the context of this debate not as part of a travelogue, but to illustrate my view. Armed with the evidence of the reality for those people, I was persuaded that we would have no difficulty in persuading any court--I hope that this reassures those on the Opposition Front Bench--that any aid that we could give to those people for the benefit of conflict resolution, human rights or good governance could easily be categorised as meeting the objectives of poverty reduction.

The Bill raises issues that are specific to Scotland. Development is a reserved matter, and the Scottish people are content that it remains so--certainly, so long as the primary policy is one of poverty reduction and the attaintment of the 2015 international development targets. The strength of the Jubilee 2000 campaign in the United Kingdom was the shared common purpose of the people of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to deliver speedy and substantial debt relief to the poorest countries to reduce debt burdens to sustainable levels.

The Scots are as proud as other United Kingdom citizens that their Government took the lead in that process. They are acutely aware that what has been achieved has been dependent on our Government having a seat at the top table of the institutions that needed reform to improve their transparency, efficiency and accountability. They do not want to give up that role.

Scots have an admirable reputation for contributing to government and intergovernmental organisations and to NGOs involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and development aid. They will welcome the opportunity provided by clause 9 for their statutory bodies to enter into and carry out agreements for those purposes.

Clauses 9 and 10 contain a proper recognition of devolution. For the first time, there is also an interesting statutory attempt to define a Scottish body. It is appropriate that powers exercised by the Scottish bodies that have responsibility for devolved matters should be subject to an order made by a Scottish Minister. However, will my hon. Friend the Minister advise me whether legislation in Scotland will be required to enable a Scottish Minister to make such an order? If so, when does he expect that legislation to be introduced?

Clause 9(6)(b) envisages

in certain circumstances. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us what the mechanism for obtaining that consent will be and reassure us that it will not create any delay in allowing the sort of agreements that we all want between our health care bodies and partners in developing countries?

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For my final point, I return to the objective of poverty reduction. I draw on the reference that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) made to drug eradication and on one of the "whys" asked by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure the House that, when enacted, the Bill will preclude any contribution to Plan Colombia? That plan has been focused improperly on a military plan involving the Colombian Government and the United States. Will he assure us that, until it is refocused as a development plan, the objectives at the core of the Bill will preclude us from spending one penny of our aid budget on it?

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