International Development Bill

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Mr. Robathan: I agree to a large extent. We accept that the amendment is not of the best, but our aim is to make it a statutory requirement to have the report—which is already published anyway—and to bolster that report, which, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park pointed out, will make examination easier.

In debate, there is no difference between members of the Select Committee on International Development. The Department's work is worthy of exposure to the public gaze on the Floor of the House. Occasional debates in Westminster Hall—

The Chairman: Order. We are in danger of slipping into a debate about amendment No. 17, which I ruled out of order. The reason for my ruling is that we cannot in Committee bind the House in respect of the subjects of future debates. Perhaps we could now return to the amendment under discussion.

Mr. Robathan: I apologise for being out of order, Mr. Butterfill. My enthusiasm carried me away.

If a copy of the report is laid before the House, the Government and the usual channels—God bless them—might wish to introduce an annual debate on the Floor of the House in which the report can be exposed. That is important and not controversial. I hoped that the Minister would say that he might table an amendment along those lines. He may find our amendment deficient, but I think it is perfectly good as far as it goes. Ensuring that the Department's received greater exposure would be better than the occasional debate on a Select Committee report in Westminster Hall, as such debates are widely ignored rather than widely reported.

Mr. Rowe: It is important that we continue to have an annual report. I hope that the International Development Committee of the next Parliament—of which I, sadly, will not be a member—will do as it does now and produce that report, as the exercise has to date been mutually beneficial.

I am ambivalent about the criteria that should be laid down. A sensible part of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham was to suggest that if the Department declares that its principal objective is the reduction of poverty, we should be able to measure its success in meeting it. There is much to be said for calling the Secretary of State to account for the expenditure of public money. I feel strongly that those involved in international development should not allow themselves to become pessimistic: optimism is a sine qua non of effective work.

In future, it is unlikely that the Department—which is concentrating on the poorest countries in the world—will be able to demonstrate that it has relieved poverty over the piece. For example, we know that by 2005 or thereabouts, infant mortality in South Africa will be 60 per cent. higher than it would have been if not for HIV-AIDS. The statistics are horrendous. We already know that life expectancy in Tanzania has fallen by 10 years and that it is set to fall further. To measure the success of the Secretary of State and her Department against the criteria suggested in our amendments or other such criteria is almost to ask the Department to set itself a hurdle that it might fail to clear. I am worried that the choice of criteria will be a central issue in how we call the Secretary of State to account in the future. Enormous importance attaches to the choice.

5.45 pm

Let me give an absurd example. The measurement of poverty in this country changed out of all recognition when Peter Townsend's formula became generally accepted. The idea of relative poverty being the way in which to measure poverty has changed the nature of the debate in this country. I shall not argue today about whether that is a sensible or foolish way of proceeding. To apply the Townsend formula to some of the countries to which we are actively providing development assistance would be a travesty. We are talking about people who do not know where their next bowl of rice is coming from, so the concept of relative poverty is unhelpful in those circumstances.

If we are not careful, we will face the paradox that the greater a country's failure to run its affairs properly, the stronger the argument for UK development assistance. That makes the hope of a sector-wide approach more difficult to realise. That is another element in the importance of the criteria to measure the success of the Department.

There is a danger of this country letting Zimbabwe fall by the wayside because of the perceived difficulty arising from Mugabe using its former colonial status as an excuse for his behaviour. We have allowed ourselves to become paralysed, even though black Zimbabweans are now suffering even more than most white Zimbabweans. The project of which I have direct knowledge has become almost impossible to carry on because of the destruction of local government, which has been closed down in one of the provinces of Zimbabwe.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend will know that I was in Zimbabwe a mere two weeks ago. I saw at first hand many of the black people who have been put out of their homes and deprived of their livelihoods by the activities of ZANU-PF. Until as recently as a year ago, those people were thriving, their children were going to school and they lived in houses attached to the farms, but they now live almost like animals. The tractors have not been used for a year and they have been unable to plant a seed. They are having difficulty continuing a normal life, even though they are being paid by the farm owners. Their slide into poverty has been inevitable and frightening.

Mr. Rowe: I share that perception, but I am not talking only about people working on farms. I am referring to people working in the education service in Zimbabwe who, because they come from a district that voted overwhelmingly for the Movement for Democratic Change, have been closed down. The suggestion that the Zimbabwe Government is targeting only the white population and that we must keep our mouths shut is demonstrably untrue.

We must ask ourselves how future Secretaries of State will deal with such a paradox. I am uncertain that definition under the Bill does not create a bottomless pit: the worse the Government, the greater the need for United Kingdom aid. I am worried about how that would be reported and how such a report would be evaluated. The measure of success will be central to any new report based on the Bill and I suspect that in many cases it will be claimed that decline has simply been slowed.

The other criterion that should be included in an annual report is the extent to which the control of development assistance is in the hands of local people. I referred to that crucial point this morning. We must find a way to measure the extent to which our development assistance is being administered by local people rather than by ex-patriots.

Mr. Mullin: We have had a long debate on a simple amendment. I detected nothing in the contribution made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham to suggest that she was aware that the Department already publishes an annual report and that the next one is due on 26 March. I hope that she will accept as good news that she does not have long to wait. The report will include a summary of progress on international development targets broken down by region, as well as a detailed report on the Department's performance in respect of the public service agreement.

That is not all. The Department for International Development complements its annual report with publication of each and every evaluation study. Later this year, it will publish a synthesis of the findings from project completion reports for the period 1986 to 1999. That will consist of a detailed assessment of the effect of projects over a long period, so I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that we are already on the case and that an amendment about annual reports is unnecessary.

Mr. Rowe: I share the Minister's view that detailed evaluation reports of projects are essential in assessing the Department's success. As we move from project work to a sector-wide approach and partnerships with Government, it will become harder to provide them.

Mr. Mullin: We may have to change the way in which we evaluate the usefulness of projects; that may become more difficult in some cases, but detailed assessments are already possible on the basis of material that is published regularly by the Department. The report is scrutinised by the International Development Committee and the format of the report is informed by its recommendations. The Treasury requires annual departmental reports from all Government Departments and it is neither sensible nor necessary to enshrine that practice in legislation for one Department.

I have a lot of sympathy with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, which covered the burden of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham. We could do with more scrutiny on the Floor of the House of our Department's work, and I am sympathetic to the amendment tabled in that respect, but as you explained, Mr. Butterfill, it is not a matter on which we can legislate. There is the mechanism supplied by the usual channels, which is a two-way street.

The Opposition have not pressured us to debate the issues, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I would welcome such an opportunity. Indeed, we are keen to have a regular debate on our Department's work because we have a good story that we are anxious to tell. Many hon. Members would have important contributions to make to such a debate, which would provide them with a suitable platform. However, that is another matter. We are dealing with amendment No. 5, which is unnecessary, and I request that the hon. Lady withdraws it.

Mrs. Gillan: I have poured myself a glass of water and I have not fallen off my chair.

I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park for having the grace to support the intention behind the amendment, despite its imperfect drafting. I also thank the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie because we intended not only to link the Government's activities to clear, measurable targets, but to give the Department a boost in the bear pit of demand for days for debate in the House.

I was unable to state baldly my intention in the amendment, but that is why I suggested that

    ``The Secretary of State...shall lay a copy of the report before Parliament.''

I am sad that the Minister has failed to grasp with both hands the opportunity to take the amendment away and refashion it. It is imperfect, but his vast team of officials could have worked on it and we could have created something that would have been acceptable to both Government and Opposition Members.

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