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Hugh Bayley: The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) is trying to achieve an aim that I wholeheartedly support. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties agree that the administration of European Union overseas development assistance should be improved. The International Development Committee has stated that in three reports. Members of the Committee returned yesterday evening from meeting Poul Nielson, the Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, and other officials to ascertain progress on the reforms. The Committee will shortly meet Chris Patten. I therefore support the hon. Lady's aim to improve the quality of EU aid.

Like the hon. Lady, I want the poverty focus of the EU to be as sharp as that of the Department for International Development in this country. The Bill rightly gives that objective statutory backing. However, the new clause will frustrate rather than facilitate that objective.

In 1997 I introduced a private Member's Bill on overseas development and co-operation. It got nowhere, but it sought to amend the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980 to make the alleviation of poverty the prime focus of British aid. That measure went the way of most private Members' Bills, and I am delighted that we have a Government who introduce legislation in Government time to achieve the end that I sought in 1995.

When I promoted my Bill, I tried to achieve the aim that the hon. Lady is trying to achieve in new clause 3. I wanted to make the alleviation of poverty the primary objective of our bilateral aid and to ensure as far as possible that it also applied to agencies through which Britain channelled multilateral aid. It is the right goal for which to strive.

7.15 pm

When I tried to draft the Bill, I experienced the same difficulty as the hon. Lady. Her new clause provides that

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no UK aid for developing countries should be disbursed through a third party such as institutions of the EU

It is inevitable that part of the work of multilateral agencies, including European institutions, the World Bank and others will not have a poverty focus, so the new clause would prevent Britain from being a partner in such multilateral agencies. That would be a disaster because the Department's good, progressive policies have pushed a poverty focus to prominence in many of them. For example, the World Bank has adopted a poverty focus.

In May last year, the European Union agreed to make poverty a primary aim of its development work, not least because of the Select Committee's work in the previous Parliament and pressure from the Department. If the new clause was accepted, we would be unable to contribute through the multilateral agencies. We therefore would have no voice or influence in the EU and we would not be able to ensure the positive changes that the hon. Lady seeks.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised the issue with which new clause 3 deals. When I drafted my Bill, the best that I could do to make that point was to insert in the 1980 Act a provision that stated:

Clause 1 in my Bill established the poverty focus. The Secretary of State has been using her best endeavours in the Council of Ministers. She has argued for a greater poverty focus for the European Union and that has led to the good policy change that the hon. Lady mentioned in her speech.

If our contributions through multilateral agencies, including the EU, were proscribed, we would not only fall foul of our treaty obligations, but it would be impossible for the Secretary of State to argue for good, progressive changes to which she has been so successful in getting our bilateral aid and some multilateral agencies to subscribe.

I say "well done" to the hon. Lady for raising such an important issue, which we must continue to debate in the House and to pursue with the multilateral agencies through which we channel aid. However, I do not support the new clause. Although it is a vehicle for a good debate, it would be a disaster if it was accepted. I hope that she will withdraw it.

Dr. Tonge: I have some sympathy for the new clause. At the beginning of her remarks, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) asked whether bilaterally funded aid was better than multilaterally funded aid. That is an important question, which we must consider. From my limited experience as international development spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, I have concluded that we need more multilateral aid and bigger, more co-ordinated projects. It is quite remarkable to see—for example, as the Select Committee did when it visited Rwanda a couple of years after the genocide—the dozens, if not hundreds, of different agencies all working in the same country, often duplicating some tasks and not

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covering others. There is often an air of chaos, with a Government unable to get to grips with what is going on in their own country.

My answer to the hon. Lady's proposal is, therefore, no, I do not want to see a lot more little bilateral projects going on. The world has to join together through the multilateral agencies to provide aid on a much bigger scale, with much more ambitious projects that do not duplicate one another.

As we heard from the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), the multilateral agencies are taking on the poverty focus. It is remarkable what has happened in the short time that I have been spokesman on these issues for my party. Certainly, the World Bank, under Wolfensohn, has taken on the poverty focus in a big way. A wonderful example of that is the fact that the World Bank was the first to pull out of the Ilisu dam project—about which many hon. Members were concerned—and say, "No, this is not sustainable. This is not a good project, and it must not go ahead." The World Bank led the way, followed—as it happened—by Balfour Beatty, but we shall never know what our own Government would have done about that, because it is no longer relevant.

The multilateral agencies are showing signs of adopting the poverty focus. The European Union is another case in point. I castigate the Government over the Ilisu dam because they were very slow and behaved appallingly over it, but they have certainly moved the European Union's poverty focus. I well remember sitting on a committee looking at Court of Auditors reports into how the European Union spent its money—I have told this story many times—and being horrified that a project dealing with HIV-AIDS prevention in South Africa had had its money earmarked five years earlier, yet that money was still sitting in a bank five years later; nothing had happened. It was absolutely appalling, and I asked at the time how many people had contracted HIV and AIDS and died during the delay in that project.

I do not, therefore, view the European Union development budget through rose-tinted spectacles. It has had huge deficiencies, but it has also made great progress. In fact, Chris Patten is one of my constituents, and I am very proud of him, even if he was—is—a member of the Conservative party, and of the work that he has been doing with other people in Europe. Things are moving there, and there are signs that the process will become much more efficient. We will not make the European Union more efficient by threatening to withdraw our funds, or by getting difficult when it is facing huge problems such as the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

I have massive reservations about the European Union, but we must press ahead. By being there, and by being more engaged in what Europe is doing, we shall see huge improvements over the next few years. I have to castigate the Conservative party over this. If it had not been so indifferent and uninterested in the European Union from the very beginning, perhaps the aid budget would have been better spent; perhaps there would not have been all the bureaucracy that has held up the disbursement of aid. If the Conservatives had only been there at the beginning, framing provisions in the way that they think they should have been framed, things might have been very different.

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It is no good their criticising the European Union, when they failed to engage at the important time when it was being formed.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Tonge: No, time is short and we need to get on.

There are good points to this proposal. It has made us think, and put on record that hon. Members are seriously concerned about how the multilateral agencies operate. We must, however, go on supporting them, because the way forward is through every country in the world, not just the multilateral agencies, joining together to do something about poverty in the rest of the world.

Tony Baldry: I always enjoy listening to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) because she reminds me of why I could never be a Liberal Democrat. I shall tease her just a little by asking her who she thinks it was who led the United Kingdom into the European Union. It was the Conservative party. We were there at the beginning; I was there, and many of my hon. Friends were there. We were all involved in the Britain in Europe campaign during the referendum, so let us have fewer lectures about Conservative involvement in Europe. But I am just teasing the hon. Lady.

I entirely agree with every word that the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) said, and I do not wish to repeat any of his arguments. He and I, and the hon. Member for Clydebank and somewhere that not even Labour Ministers can pronounce—

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