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8.2 pm

Hilary Benn: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As has been said many times during the passage of the Bill, it is simple but profoundly important. As the House knows, the reduction of poverty has been the guiding principle of all United Kingdom development assistance since 1997. It is right, therefore, that that principle should be established in legislation.

One in five of the 6 billion people with whom each of us shares this planet still live in conditions of extreme poverty, with shortened lives, inadequate food, lack of education, health care, clean water and sanitation; 10 million children die each year from malnourishment and preventable illness; 500,000 women die during child birth for lack of simple medical help; 800 million people cannot read or write; and 113 million children of primary age can get no education because they have no classroom and no teacher.

With the abundance and knowledge that exist in the world, it should shame and disgrace us that such poverty and inequality continue. So long as we fail as a world community to deal with such division and inequality in our increasingly globalised world, we will never achieve the stability that each of us wishes to be able to pass on to the next generation.

Following the events since 11 September, there is much greater understanding of the force of that argument. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said on

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Second Reading, there is a window of opportunity. I agree with that wholeheartedly. It is an opportunity that we must seize.

The Bill makes poverty reduction the test of what we do, and it ends tied aid. There is now an all-party agreement that tied aid has had its day in the UK, and will not return in any form.

The Bill ensures that we can provide effective humanitarian assistance and allows us to promote good governance, to support security sector reform, to encourage conflict resolution and prevention, and to support financial management reform. It continues to offer support to our overseas territories.

I shall be brief, as the Bill has twice been through this House and the other place over the past 12 months. I want to place on record my thanks to all the hon. Members who have contributed to our debates—on Second Reading, in Committee and again this evening. Whatever has divided us, it is clear from our discussions that there is a deep concern among hon. Members of all parties for the cause of international development. That has been reflected in the constructive spirit of our discussions at all stages.

For those reasons, and in that spirit, I commend the Bill to the House.

8.6 pm

Mrs. Spelman: I begin by reaffirming that the Opposition fully support the aims of the Bill. We have supported the Bill through all its stages and I hope that the Minister will accept that, on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, our approach has been constructive and in the spirit of the Bill.

Certainly, I want to place on record the contribution that has been made by Sir John Vereker, permanent secretary to the Department. Today, he addressed the all-party parliamentary group on overseas development, and that was an unfortunate clash of timing. There have been almost too many goodies on offer today for those hon. Members with a passionate interest in international development. It was not possible to be in two places at once, but I am sure that the Minister will join me in placing on record our thanks for the work that Sir John has done in his career with the Department. To some extent, he played the role of midwife in bringing the Bill into being. We wish him well in retirement, and his successor well in assuming his role.

The events in Afghanistan provide an interesting backdrop for the debate on the Bill's effectiveness. We must consider what help can be given to Afghanistan, which is now defined, regrettably, as a failed state. I hate the term "failed state", but it has caught on. It does not match the spirit that I detected in the Afghan aid workers whom I met on a recent visit to Pakistan. The quality that characterises the Afghan people is their resilience. I have every confidence that, with the right assistance from countries such as ours, Afghanistan will get back on its feet. However, that will require the sort of commitment, focus and contribution that have been at the very heart of our discussions of the Bill.

Since my visit to Pakistan, I have become even more convinced that international development needs to be high on the political agenda. It is in some ways depressing that

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it takes a disaster to make people take notice of international development. I told the Secretary of State that one of my aims was to help her keep international development high on the agenda.

We need to tackle failed states before they fail, and we need to tackle the grinding poverty that brings them to that condition. I hope that the Bill confirms Britain's commitment to tackling global poverty.

Afghanistan is not the only example facing us. Around the world, poverty is intertwined with the absence of education, decent health care and human rights. It is right that the Department for International Development should tackle poverty. If other countries and institutions adopted similar strategies, the millennium targets for changing things would be much more firmly within our grasp.

We touched on the role of the EU in our discussion of new clause 3. The EU is the sixth-largest donor of official development assistance, and the second-largest multilateral donor, in the world. However, it has not focused its development effort on the poorest countries. It has only recently announced the need to focus on poverty. We pay tribute to the Secretary of State's role in helping to bring about a shift. The lion's share of the European Union's aid budget still goes to help countries in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, central and eastern Europe and north Africa. I accept that there are huge numbers of relatively poor people in those areas, but if we are serious about tackling global poverty there needs to be a drastic change of focus.

From Commissioner Patten I gain the impression that the will is there but that it will take a long time and much effort before there will be any major improvements in the budget. I know that the Select Committee on International Development maintains constant scrutiny of the progress of the reform of the European aid budget, but I urge the Secretary of State to keep a firm hold on the powers that the Bill will confer on her to ensure that multilateral giving is used in a way that chimes with the Bill's overall focus and objective.

In our deliberations in Committee, we did our level best to persuade the Government that more attention needed to be paid to the whole issue of reconstruction. I remember the serious reservations that the Minister expressed on that point. He said that if reconstruction were an explicit objective mentioned in the Bill, it could have the possible consequence of breaking the bank in terms of international development. However, before we leave discussion of the Bill I want to re-register with the Minister the fact that it is part of the new policy of the Conservative party that a successful refugee policy must include a commitment to reconstruction in those countries where, as a result of man-made or humanitarian disaster, the population is faced with problems of the type that are manifest in Afghanistan now. I remain concerned that the Minister's answer to me—that such an objective could not be incorporated in the Bill—left hanging in mid-air the question about the ultimate responsibility for reconstruction: with which Government Department does that rest? That remained an unanswered question, and in a way it remains unanswered today. It will be a very stern test of joined-up government in future if our fine words on the need to reconstruct Afghanistan are to have real, practical success in that country.

We have of course had reservations about the Bill. We were worried that many worthy projects—projects to build up civil society and good governance—would not

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be eligible for funding under the Bill or in future, and we have tried to have them explicitly mentioned in the Bill, lest those very important areas should suffer future neglect. The Secretary of State and the Minister have both said several times during the Bill's passage that their funding status is secure. I hope that officials in their Department will bear that in mind when allocating funding.

We have also tried to make the Bill reflect the need for greater accountability. The performance of the Department would inevitably improve if it constantly measured its progress against specific targets and if that performance was more open to the scrutiny of the House. Our amendments may not have been made, but I hope that the Secretary of State has taken their import on board.

Lastly, if we are truly to tackle global poverty, Government as a whole need to take development seriously. The Government need to re-energise their commitment to reform of the common agricultural policy, which currently holds out considerable economic opportunities for developing nations. When the Department of Trade and Industry is giving consideration to export credit guarantees, it needs to think seriously about development issues. We were very disappointed in that respect when our amendment on sustainable development to the Export Control Bill was not accepted.

We were disappointed that the Government did not feel able to support our amendment to make the seeking of poverty reduction a focus across all Government Departments, because we believe that, using joined-up government, we could be much more effective with that focus.

To an extent, our disquiet was vindicated in the example of the Tanzanian air traffic control system which attracted attention in December, when, against the recommendations of the World Bank and others, a British system was sold to Tanzania at what the World Bank regarded as an inappropriately high cost. Most important, what happened to the good intentions to direct resources in countries that we have relieved of debt to health and education rather than defence procurement? In that Tanzanian test, the Government seem to have fallen at the first fence.

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