International Development Bill

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Mr. Robathan: I wish that I had in front of me some of the evidence that the Secretary of State has given to the Select Committee on International Development. I am sure that the evidence states that from good governance comes the ability better to tackle all those problems. I am making a genuine point.

Mr. Mullin: It is a perfectly reasonable point, but I have said that nothing in the Bill as drafted will affect our ability to assist good governance.

The amendments would be damaging in another way. The setting up of specific additional purposes for development assistance would be a statement that they do not have to comply with the requirement to further sustainable development or improve the welfare of the people. If we were to admit that such purposes were desirable for their own sake, we would be undermining the principle that underpins the Bill and our policy on development assistance.

For example, amendment No. 3, which relates to conflict reduction, would have an effect that I am sure was not intended. To insert the words

    ``reducing conflict or the potential for conflict''

as a purpose for development assistance would allow the Secretary of State to support such activities without any consideration for the welfare of the population of the country. That would allow development assistance to be used to shore up undemocratic regimes and possibly to suppress human rights. As drafted, the Bill allows assistance to promote the welfare of the population, which we believe must encompass conflict resolution, but with proper regard for the interests of the people. There is no need and no place for a power of assistance that does not recognise those interests.

Mr. Rowe: For the first time in all the years that I have listened to the Minister, I have not the faintest idea what he is talking about. [Laughter.] It seems to me that he is saying that the Bill does not need to be amended because everything that the Secretary of State wants is already in the Bill, and that adding any form of explicit example would instantly put her at risk of behaving extremely badly. I do not understand the logic of that argument.

Mr. Mullin: I am not saying that. In my inadequate way, I am trying to make the point that was made so well by the hon. Member for Richmond Park this morning. I do not resile from anything that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) was saying about the need to deal with conflict resolution and good governance, but one could add to the list indefinitely—the treatment of women and education were mentioned.

The Bill's primary purpose is to deal with the reduction of poverty. It is not about the reduction of conflict: even though that can be related to the reduction of poverty and the sustainable development of the welfare of the people, it cannot be an end in itself. We could become involved in trying to reduce conflicts that would not necessarily help the welfare of the people.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister will not be surprised that I do not share the mutual admiration between his party and the Liberal Democrats. Although I usually get on extremely well with the hon. Member for Richmond Park and agree with her on many issues, I do not think that she made her point well this morning.

To return to the substance of the Minister's argument, which is a perfectly good one, I accept that by adding things we may undermine the Bill, but that is not our intention. His argument is reasonable, but he is spoiling it by suggesting that the Secretary of State will give arms to undemocratic organisations. As we have said, that is exactly what we do not want to happen. The drafting of the amendment might be incorrect because the Opposition do not have hordes of draftsmen available to provide assistance, but the Minister is undermining his argument, which was a good one until he got on to such dubious ground.

Mr. Mullin: If that is a problem, I shall move on to matters that are not.

The hon. Gentleman said that my argument for not diluting the core purpose of the Bill was a good one. That is the Government's key argument, plus the fact that on several occasions I have been able to give Opposition Members the assurance they wanted that just about all the projects in which we are currently engaged would be permitted under the Bill. I understand why hon. Members have asked that question and I have given an assurance in that respect.

Mrs. Gillan: If ``just about all'' the projects currently receiving support from the Department for International Development would be covered, which ones would not be permitted under the Bill?

Mr. Mullin: Okay, let me row the boat out further and say that all the projects currently covered would be permitted. If the hon. Lady can suggest some that might not be covered, we shall consider them, but we are confident that the Bill covers everything that she and I want it to cover.

To conclude, there are risks in adding lots of new purposes and we should not take such risks, so I request that the amendment be withdrawn.

Mrs. Gillan: The Minister has made a valiant attempt to read out the brief prepared by his officials. I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent because I, too, thought at one stage that the Minister was losing his grip on reality. To suggest we want our amendments to this important and substantial clause to allow our overseas development aid to fall into the wrong hands, such as those of a violent regime, is preposterous.

I am disappointed with the Minister's response, not least because he chose to dismiss a genuine attempt by the Opposition to improve the Bill. He has not seen fit to accept or even to consider the amendments or some other way of incorporating their spirit into the Bill.

Mr. Mullin: With all due respect, the spirit of what the hon. Lady wants to achieve is incorporated in the Bill. That is my argument.

Mrs. Gillan: Perhaps the Minister will let me finish. If he has no intention of changing a word of the Bill because he is satisfied with every part of it--even though we have only just started to discuss the first group of amendments--it seems pointless to continue. It is rather sad that he should suggest that the Opposition want to achieve a specific purpose when it is obvious from our amendments and our speeches that that is not our intention.

I am pleased with the Minister's assurances that he believes that nothing that the Department is currently doing will be outlawed by the Bill, but that begs another question--why is the Bill necessary? If everything that the Department is doing is covered by the Bill, it seems otiose.

Mr. Robathan: The Secretary of State said in the House:

    ``The flexibility of our current arrangements makes the United Kingdom one of the most effective development organisations in the world.''--[Official Report, 6 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 167.]

I emphasise the word ``current''.

Mrs. Gillan: That is a helpful intervention, because it reiterates the question why has the Bill been introduced if current policy is already in line with its provisions? Yet another piece of legislation is being hurriedly put on the statute book at this late stage in the parliamentary timetable.

The Minister's remarks about amendment No. 1 are inaccurate. The amendment is an attempt to ensure that if an activity were perceived objectively to be peripheral to poverty reduction but would in fact reduce poverty, the wording of the legislation would safeguard the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 2 relates to good governance, which is one of the key planks of our policy. I had thought that it was also one of the key planks of the Government's policy. It is clearly necessary to establish a commitment to good governance on the face of the Bill. Why does the focus on the reduction of poverty make it unnecessary to put good governance on the face of the Bill? The Government have adopted a pick-and-mix attitude and their rhetoric does not match the reality of the Bill. I am disappointed that there has been no give or take on that point.

I know that I am not isolated in my view because the Minister referred to non-governmental organisations and other interested parties which have contributed to the development of aid policy not only under this Government, but under the previous Government. There is a strong feeling that good governance should be on the face of the Bill.

The Minister disingenuously suggested that amendment No. 3 would enable the propping up of regimes. If the amendment has unintended consequences, I should be happy if he were to reconsider its drafting. As we explained, it is only thanks to the good offices of the Clerk of the Committee that we have been able to draft our amendments.

Mr. Mullin: I did not suggest that the hon. Lady had tabled the amendment to prop up unsavoury regimes. I merely suggested that that was a possible outcome if the amendment were accepted. I did not impugn the motives of Opposition Members.

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. I did not think that he meant that; none the less, his comments implied a lack of forethought on our part.

I would like some assurances from the Minister. Can he assure me that funding for something like the Patrol Task (North) guard ship, which I mentioned earlier, would be included? I want assurances that military trainers, election observers, education programmes on democracy building and police projects all fall within the ambit of the Bill. What would happen if such projects were deemed not to contribute to poverty reduction in a certain country and other Departments were unwilling to spend money on them even though they complimented other direct programmes to reduce poverty?

Mr. Mullin: The matters that the hon. Lady lists would have to be matched against the core purposes of the Bill and judged on whether they were likely to contribute to a reduction in poverty, whether they would further sustainable development and whether they would help to improve the welfare of the population. As I have said, the criteria can and would be interpreted fairly broadly. I gave the example of Sierra Leone, where some of the interventions that she wants have been justified. However, any suggestions for current and future aid would have to be matched against the core principles.

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Prepared 13 March 2001