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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 May 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second Time on Wednesday 22 May.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Poverty Reduction Strategy

1. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of her poverty reduction strategy in reducing poverty. [54737]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): The Government's strategy for reducing global poverty is set out in the 1997 and 2000 White Papers on international development. Our commitment is to mobilise the international system to meet the international development targets and to work to make globalisation work for the poor by making international governance more equitable. These are massive challenges but progress is being made.

Mr. Rendel: The Secretary of State will know that education plays a very important part in the reduction of poverty. What discussions has she had with the International Monetary Fund with a view to including within public spending targets the freeing up of any charges for primary education, so that we can have universal primary education by 2015?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In the countries where we have driven forward and supported local efforts to get progress towards universal primary education—Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania and Rwanda, for example, have made significant progress in recent years—dropping all charges is absolutely key. In very poor countries, when there are charges, poor children are excluded from school. At the recent spring meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, there was an agreement for

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10 major countries to work together in the international system to fast-track progress. Our recommendations also included no charging, so we are moving forward.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, recently, the interim chemical review committee of the United Nations Environment Programme recommended that there should be strict international controls on asbestos because of the risk associated with that material? Will she therefore, at the Monterrey conference on financing development, and at the world summit in Johannesburg on sustainable development, press for a ban on the use of asbestos in projects in the developing world as part of a strategy to tackle poverty? The use of asbestos causes ill health, deprivation and poverty.

Clare Short: I confess that I was not aware of that ruling by the United Nations body to which my hon. Friend refers. The Monterrey conference has taken place, but I take very seriously what he said. I went to Sverdlovsk in Russia, where asbestos is still being mined and its extraction and export is still being promoted. I tried to tell its mayor that that is not approved of in our country, and he had never heard of the argument that asbestos is damaging to health. Clearly, therefore, a great deal remains to be done to strengthen international controls. I shall look into the proposals that my hon. Friend has made to see what can be done.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Would the Secretary of State agree that those who suffer most in a corrupt society are the poor, and that her poverty reduction strategies are torpedoed by the poor governance, ineffectiveness and corruption of Governments in the developing world? Will she underline to the House her determination, which I know is strong, to ensure that developing countries' Governments take responsibility for their actions, and that they do not always blame donor countries for their poor actions?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman is right that corruption corrodes economic growth, means that resources are misused, and leads to debt problems. The poor pay the price in terms of poverty, suffering and lack of public facilities. Corruption is a two-way street: companies from countries like ours have corrupted, bribed and helped to bring about some of the imploded and corrupt state institutions that exist in some countries. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention now makes it a crime to offer a bribe to a public official abroad, and bribes are ceasing to be tax deductible in those OECD countries where, to our disgrace, that used to be the case. Under the poverty reduction strategy, we are giving financial support to Governments to help them with development if they tighten up procurement and management of the public finances. We are therefore putting much more focus on that, and we are getting progress. I agree that that is crucial.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): I welcome the way in which the Secretary of State has focused the Department's attention on poverty reduction, and particularly the role that country strategy papers have played in that. With particular reference to the Cameroon

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country strategy paper, which has focused on forestry as a key way of bringing people out of poverty in that country, will she comment on the importance of assessing natural resources such as the forest, and the bush meat that it contains, when considering how best to bring some of the poorest communities in west and central Africa out of poverty?

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. Forests are crucial to Cameroon. The country has a long history of terrible corruption, but we have been working on the issue of forestry for some time. Some types of tree are unique to Cameroon and they are of value to the whole international community. We have made progress recently. We have learned from what has happened in Nepal, Cameroon, Indonesia and other places where we support forestry that the way in which to protect the future of the forest is to empower the people who live in the forest and on its resources. In most parts of the world, criminal and corrupt groups misuse the forests. However, when one changes ownership and control of the trees and the animals, people live better and conserve the future of the forest. That is what we are trying to achieve in Cameroon.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): Will the Secretary of State outline what can be done in post-conflict countries? Some of the poorest people live in countries where it is most difficult to get aid through to the most needy.

Clare Short: Yes, indeed—although it has to be said that people living under conditions of conflict are even more oppressed and in trouble. We have to do better at resolving conflict. Some 20 per cent. of the population of Africa live under conditions of conflict. Often that conflict is not a war in the classic sense, but reflects the problems found in weak states with rebels and semi-criminal groups. We have to bring such conflicts to an end and start building the institutions of a state so that the economy can be properly managed and that people have a better future. We are doing that in Sierra Leone, where elections took place right across the territory and the conflict is over. However, there is much more to do in Sierra Leone.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. If we work only in countries where there is an orderly Government to carry out development, the wretched of the earth will not be helped. We must be better at ending conflict and helping build decent institutions in post-conflict failed states, so that the poor of the world have a better chance in life.

Universal Primary Education

2. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): If she will make a statement on progress towards the goal of universal primary education. [54738]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Recent World Bank analysis indicates that 67 developing countries have achieved universal primary education or are making sound progress. However, 88 countries—34 of them in sub-Saharan Africa—are not on track to achieve this goal. We agreed at the spring meeting of the World Bank in April that 10 countries would be selected for an international effort to fast-track progress. I am very concerned to try to ensure that we should select countries where we face a major challenge, such as

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Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan and India, and not, as has been suggested, countries such as Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania where we are already making progress.

Fiona Mactaggart: My right hon. Friend has half answered the question that I was about to ask, so I shall push her further on the issue. It is estimated that Africa will have 75 per cent. of the world's out-of-school children in the next decade, so how will she consult the less-favoured countries there that have not made progress until now? How will she involve them in the 10 fast-track programmes? Ensuring that those countries become involved and can construct education plans is the best way to get universal primary education in Africa, which is where it is most needed.

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. One in five children of the world and half the children in Africa are not in school. Africa is in deep poverty, and the future will be poor if children cannot get to school and improve their lives. It is often said that the only problem is a lack of aid, but there is a lack of will in many countries to prioritise universal primary education. Education resources are spent on higher education for the elite, and there is no primary education for poor children.

We must not only provide money for the reformers—that is the easy part—but push the countries that are not reforming and that are not leading to make progress. For example, Ethiopia, which is terribly poor and very populous, is just beginning to make such progress, and we must back its efforts. Nigeria is the big worry: one in five of all Africans are not making progress, and we certainly need a big effort in Nigeria.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): The Secretary of State knows that the 2015 goal of universal primary education is unlikely to be achieved unless finance for development increases rapidly and substantially. Although I welcome the assurance that the United Kingdom's development assistance will rise from 0.33 per cent. of GNP by 2004, does she not agree that the figure is misleading because it includes all debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries, including the Export Credits Guarantee Department debt that currently stands at £1.1 billion? The actual increase in aid will be much smaller than it seems. Is that not another example of double counting by the Government?

Clare Short: The hon. Lady is half right. There is no subterfuge on the part of the United Kingdom Government. She is aware of the budget increase of £2.2 billion to £3.6 billion, which I hope will rise significantly as a result of the comprehensive spending review. All that money is under my control: it is disbursed by my Department, and there is no double counting. But the OECD development committee is responsible for keeping the international statistics on aid, including what counts as overseas development assistance and how much each country deploys. It has decided that when debt is written off, and half of the debt of the heavily indebted poor countries is ECGD debt or the equivalent, that counts towards overseas development assistance. So the figures for all countries are growing as debt is written off without

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extra money being spent on aid. There is no subterfuge in the UK, but the figures look better than the income for disbursal.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the many schools in this country on calling to the attention of students—this country's future electors—the importance of the drive to ensure that there is universal primary education by 2015? In particular, will she join me in congratulating children from St. George community college in my constituency who came to the House a fortnight ago and met me and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development to press the importance of the drive to educate all the children of the world by 2015?

Clare Short: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the children from St. George community college in her constituency. When I visit schools, I find that our children are globalising themselves. They are looking at the world not in terms of nation states, but in terms of the planet and the interdependence of people, both morally and for the good of the poor. They are aware that if we do not do better on poverty, the future is dangerous for them all.

We have incorporated in the national curriculum the idea of global citizenship because children are entitled to understand the world that they are inheriting and to take some control over its future. We also have twinning schemes between schools in the UK and overseas which are enormously popular. It is moving to see the generosity and curiosity of our children, and their determination to have a more equitable and safe world for the future.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): How confident can the Secretary of State be that British Government aid that is allocated to assist with the provision of primary education, especially in Africa, is not syphoned off improperly as a result of corruption so that it never gets to the children who need educating? She will be aware of the estimate that 75 million Commonwealth children lack basic education. The Government announced a Commonwealth education fund to assist with the aim of educating those children. That is fine in theory, but only £10 million is involved, which works out at 15p per child. Is that anything more than a political gimmick?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman is so graceless, and always wrong. First, we have tight systems in place and do not put funding into the budgets of countries to support their primary education systems without helping them with procurement and public sector financial management. The prize of that is that our money is secure and they have better systems for their own resources. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take enormous care.

Secondly, as ever, the hon. Gentleman has not read his facts properly. Since 1997, the UK Government have committed £650 million to driving forward universal primary education, and we will do more. The Chancellor announced a £10 million scheme to mark the Queen's jubilee—graceless, again, to attack that—to back British non-governmental organisations that work in countries where there is a lack of progress so that we help

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marginalised children and increase the demand for progress in universal primary education. That is what the £10 million is for.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware of the importance of the G8 summit in Canada later this year. Will she ensure that she backs the calls by the Canadian Finance Minister for a review of the HIPC initiative so that poverty reduction and educational programmes are put in place, which will free up more money? She is of course aware that, post-11 September, the fall in commodity prices, for example, has made a big difference to debt sustainability in the poorest countries. Will she throw her weight behind the calls to review the HIPC initiative to make it work for the world's poorest?

Clare Short: Those calls come not just from the Canadian Government; the World Bank, the IMF and all of us have been saying not that HIPC should be reviewed but that we must ensure that it is properly funded. It has a formula for debt sustainability which takes account of what a country earns in exports to pay its foreign currency debt. Because of the falling commodity prices, Uganda, for example, has exited because the process is not sustainable and the old formulas do not work. We need an extra £1 billion of resources to get sustainability, and we are working hard on that.

I hope that the argument about the replenishment of the International Development Association facility, the concessional lending arm of the World Bank, results in a grant being allocated which will solve the problem. I am hopeful that that will be done by the time the G8 meets, but I cannot be certain.

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