Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.45 pm

The hon. Member for Meriden mentioned Burma. She knows that the UK provides targeted humanitarian assistance for the most needy in that country, working strictly through the United Nations or international NGOs, and not with the military regime. That is a good illustration of the extent to which the Government use their judgment to decide on the nature of engagement depending on the regime or Government with whom we are dealing. Each case has to be dealt with on its merits. It is not a matter of having a policy that is black or white, yes or no, for or against; the issue has many shades of grey.

The new clause gives rise to practical difficulties because it adopts a black-and-white approach. First, drawing up a list of countries that engage in or tolerate gross violations of human rights would raise controversial, difficult and practical issues in defining what "gross" means in that context. For instance, some countries may have reasonable human rights records in general, but commit serious violations of specific rights. Any attempt to draw a line between the gross violaters and countries with less than perfect records could lead to inconsistency, controversy and judicial review of the Secretary of State in exercising that discretion.

The second practical difficulty of a black-and-white, either-or approach is that, on the one hand, countries that are not on the list might think, "Oh well, we're okay. We've somehow got a seal of approval. We don't have to worry about our performance." On the other hand, those countries that are on the list might become less willing to listen to public and international opinion. It is often in those countries where violations are most persistent that we are keenest to engage. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate made a powerful case for engagement.

The House will be aware that when we can work with Government officials, we seek to do so. If that is not possible or effective, we work with NGOs and other organisations to promote mutual understanding and tolerance. A genuine dialogue on human rights is the best way to achieve lasting change. The restrictions in the new clause would limit the range of approaches that we could take, and we would run the risk of diminishing our

23 Jan 2002 : Column 942

capacity to work in the interests of the people who are suffering from human rights violations. A number of my hon. Friends made that point forcefully.

The object of the elimination of poverty must extend to people who might be discriminated against for their thoughts, their conscience or their religion. We have to be able to work with the Governments of countries where human rights are being abused if we are to improve the rights of the poorest people. Bangladesh is a good illustration of that. None of us would think of putting that on the list, but its landless have been fighting for years to win their rights for land. The law provides for that, but they are not able to access it because the existing landowners have hired heavies to make their lives difficult. In some cases, according to the landless labourers that I met, the local police had beaten them up when they tried to exercise their rights. We have a big programme in Bangladesh. Part of that relates to police sector and security reform. On the basis of my visit there last week, I believe that it is right and proper, despite those difficulties, that we should be fully engaged in supporting the Government of Bangladesh who are keen to make progress in overcoming those problems.

My final point relates to subsection (4) of the new clause. The hon. Member for Castle Point came close to acknowledging that the wording of the new clause leaves something to be desired. That was reflected in the fact that, with the best will in the world, he had some difficulty in answering the pertinent questions put to him by a number of my hon. Friends about how we would interpret the provision in relation to specific examples. To take Zimbabwe, to which the hon. Member for Meriden referred, the fact that the proposed exemption for humanitarian assistance refers specifically to

is significant, because one programme that we are supporting there is trying to deal with the scourge of HIV/AIDS devastating that country, as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, in part by working with Government agencies or bodies. Clearly, medicine and medical equipment would not be affected by the new clause, but what about awareness programmes? On any interpretation of the wording of the new clause, one could not describe an awareness-raising programme to get people to think about the dangers of HIV/AIDS as constituting

The way in which we respond to the terrible problems in Zimbabwe will rightly be a matter of continuing debate inside and outside the House, but the kind of activities that we are currently supporting in that country, such as developing a standard training curriculum for family carers in local languages for HIV/AIDS, and producing mass information self-help materials on managing health, for example, to prevent a cough from turning into TB or to make sure that safe sex is practised, would, I am afraid, be ruled out by the wording of the new clause. For that reason, while I freely acknowledge the importance of our debate and the fact that the hon. Member for Castle Point and the Opposition have rightly raised matters which must continue to occupy our minds and need consideration, I am afraid that the new clause is deficient and would

23 Jan 2002 : Column 943

create all the difficulties to which my hon. Friends have drawn attention. For that reason, I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press it to a vote.

Bob Spink: I listened to the Minister carefully and am grateful for his kind words, particularly about the principles behind the new clause, and the thoughtfulness with which the House has considered the proposal. I am disappointed that the Government are not yet ready to give the people of this country a more sensible and purposeful means to distribute aid, which would support sustainable improvements to human rights while protecting humanitarian aid.

My proposal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found good in principle but difficult, and so has not been tried. I tabled the new clause in a genuine effort to improve the Bill, which I generally support. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has regularly suggested to the Government that they give more aid to Iraq, but the Government rightly continue to refuse to do so for the reasons set out in the new clause. Are not the Government, when they choose, already adopting that provision as policy?

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): My hon. Friend touched on an important point. I have been struck by the fact that, in many cases in the past 10 years, we have started to deliver humanitarian aid on the back of conflict, as we have seen in Bosnia and most recently in Afghanistan; that has certainly been the case in a number of places in the middle east. Does my hon. Friend not feel that in such situations it is helpful to have the kind of guidance proposed in new clause 1?

Bob Spink: My hon. Friend is right; the new clause would provide yet another mechanism for the Government to promote both human rights improvements and democratic governance around the world.

I believe that the arguments that I have made tonight are sound, and I trust that they will shape Government policy in future. With that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 3

Conditions applicable to aid disbursed via third parties

'The Secretary of State shall make arrangements to ensure that no United Kingdom Government aid for a developing country or countries which is to be dispersed via a third party (including multilateral development banks, United Nations agencies, the European Development Fund, and institutions of the European Union) is made available to that third party unless he is satisfied that it is likely to contribute to the achievement of the objectives set out in section 1 above applicable to development assistance.'.—[Mrs. Spelman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Spelman: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

On Second Reading, the common ground between Members of all parties was apparent and arose largely because the Bill puts poverty reduction at the heart of the Department's spending. New clause 3 was tabled in that spirit and seeks to ensure that any British aid disbursed

23 Jan 2002 : Column 944

via a third party is focused on poverty reduction. In its current form, the Bill allows the Secretary of State to provide funding for bodies that do not have poverty reduction as their primary aim.

Clause 1 says:

That is the purpose of the Bill—to limit, or rather to clarify, which individuals or bodies are entitled to funding from the Department for International Development. In Committee, the Minister told us that the Bill's clarity and simplicity were one of its virtues. However, the clarity of clause 1 is lost in clause 4, which states that the Secretary of State may provide funding to

or may

Our new clause would try to restore clarity to the question of which bodies can receive funding, and which cannot. It would ensure that no future Secretary of State could provide funds to bodies that do not contribute to a reduction in poverty. It does not necessarily constitute a criticism of bodies that we currently fund, but provides a safeguard, so that future spending is provided only to bodies that share our development objectives.

In almost every case, bilateral aid programmes provide better value for money than those of multilateral agencies, especially the European Union. The new clause would seek to ensure that our aid budget was not wasted on projects that did not uphold the same standards as bilaterally funded projects. There is no good reason why we should expect or accept lower standards from multilaterally funded projects. I should point out that the Conservatives recognise the value of multilateral aid, and do not think that Britain should act alone on international development. No single country can end world poverty; only by a concerted effort from all donor countries and multilateral institutions will we be able to tackle global poverty. It would therefore be wrong of the Secretary of State to provide UK funds to bodies that do not share that objective.

The new clause is important because we spend a high proportion of our development budget on multilateral aid. In 1999-2000, DFID spent £1.3 billion on multilateral aid; in the last five years, it has spent nearly half its annual budget on multilateral aid. The largest chunk of multilateral aid is provided via the European Union. Indeed, between a quarter and a third of the entire development budget is given to the European Union to disperse. Many Members have serious reservations about whether that is the most useful way in which to spend our overseas aid. It is true that a reform programme—British Commissioner Chris Patten is largely in charge of it—is under way, but its fruits have yet to appear in their full glory.

We currently provide nearly one third of all that development assistance, nearly £800 million worth of British taxpayers' money, through the European Union. When the International Development Committee

23 Jan 2002 : Column 945

conducted an inquiry into the future of the European Community development budget, it was deeply critical. It identified

On the management of development assistance, it said that

Next Section

IndexHome Page