International Development Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Leigh: Would a future Minister not be able to rely in court on the fact that his primary purpose was, as set out in the Bill, to reduce poverty, even though a subsidiary purpose might be to promote the interests of a certain political or commercial outcome beneficial to a company in this country? I want a reassurance that such subsidiary purposes would not be covered by the primary purpose of reducing poverty.

Hilary Benn: The answer is that the Minister can have regard only to the purposes laid down in clause 1. If a Minister in the hypothetical circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes were to have in mind the secondary or lesser consideration of promoting the interests of British companies, it would not be permissible and would indeed be challengeable in court. As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, a great deal of care and thought has gone into the drafting of this provision. We are very clear about the objective that we wish to achieve, which is to ensure that tied aid cannot be reintroduced. The application of minds far greater and more experienced than mine have been given to the problem in order to achieve the outcome that we desire. In that spirit, I offer the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks.

Dr. Tonge: I want to ask a question in relation to something that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said earlier. Once the Bill is enacted, would future Governments not be able to give the sort of extra aid and debt relief to Pakistan that the present Government recently gave that country for political purposes—or would that not be covered by the Bill?

Hilary Benn: No, that is not the case. That aid and assistance was given first to support the communities in Pakistan that have welcomed and given shelter to refugees from Afghanistan and secondly to support the Pakistan Government in their development programme. Both of those are entirely appropriate purposes under the Bill. That aid and assistance would be permitted under the Bill, but I repeat that the granting of that aid would have to be for the purposes set out in clause 1, which is the heart of the debate.

3.45 pm

Mr. Khabra: I want to find out whether the Department will pursue the principles of the Bill with the Government of Pakistan in order to ensure that that Government restores democracy—not in the diluted sense in which the President of Pakistan says, ``I am holding elections.'' They are not proper elections; all the parties are not involved. By holding any election, he is trying to hoodwink the international community. He says, ``I am introducing democracy.'' He is not introducing democracy at all. Will the Department, with the help of the Foreign Office, ensure that Pakistan restores democracy, human rights and the rights of the ethnic minority communities, before the Government take a final decision to continue to give aid to Pakistan irrespective of what happens there?

Hilary Benn: We are doing so. Most importantly, we were doing so prior to the events of 11 September. Members might recall that on—I think—14 August, President Musharraf made a speech in which he set out what he described as his road map towards the return of democracy. That is an essential part of what the Government are seeking to do to encourage good governance, which applies to Pakistan as well as to many other countries with which we work.

Jim Knight: I hope that it is helpful to mention that clause 3 refers to humanitarian assistance and seems relevant to the help given in Pakistan and in Iran in recent months, largely before 11 September as well as after. It refers to

    ``alleviating the effects of a natural or man-made disaster'',

and we have seen both in the context of Afghanistan and the refugee crisis that has had an impact on Iran and Pakistan. That provision would give adequate powers to the Secretary of State.

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He anticipated what I was about to say, but his intervention is helpful because he is absolutely right in his reading of the Bill. That is why it is drafted as it is. All the areas that are the subject of the amendments are, as I think all Committee members accept, vital to development. The sustainable reduction of poverty requires good governance, a lack of corruption, the absence of conflict, private sector growth and foreign direct investment. As one would expect, the Department is heavily involved in all of those areas as a means of achieving sustainable development and the improvement of welfare.

I hope that I can reassure the hon. Member for Meriden that, for those reasons, the amendments are not necessary. The Bill has been drafted to ensure that the Secretary of State can support activities that strengthen governance, reduce corruption, tackle the causes and consequences of conflict and promote private sector growth from foreign investment in developing countries, as well as promoting health and education and all the other points to which members of all parties have drawn attention. All such support is possible in the context of the two purposes of, first, sustainable development and, secondly, welfare, under the overarching poverty requirement. To that extent, further specific purposes are unnecessary.

The Bill imposes no constraints on the type of activity that the Secretary of State can support. Indeed, it increases the range of instruments that is available to her. However, it does impose a clear test of the purposes for which assistance can be provided. As has been pointed out, with the exception of two cases—humanitarian and emergency assistance in the case of a disaster, and assistance to overseas territories for which we have a specific responsibility—assistance can be provided only if it is likely to contribute to the reduction of poverty by furthering sustainable development or promoting the welfare of the people. In other words, the Bill will enable a wider range of activities to be followed in pursuit of a more focused purpose.

Mr. Leigh: I want to pursue what might be called the Ealing, Southall point, because I think that it is terribly important. Let us take the case of Burma, an impoverished country, which is in that state because of a brutal military regime and for all the reasons that we know. In future, will a Minister be able to use the Bill to say to the Burmese military junta, ``I believe that your country is impoverished. I want to help you. I am prepared to give you money, but there must be steps towards democratisation or you must treat some of your ethnic minorities better''? How will the process work?

Hilary Benn: That dilemma is not new so far as international development is concerned. In making a judgment under the current and new powers, Ministers have to weigh several matters in the balance, including those to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As he will be aware from our stance in certain circumstances, when we fundamentally disagree with the activities of a Government because we think that their policies do not contribute to sustainable development and the reduction of poverty and do not enhance the welfare of their people, we are left with the decision to give only humanitarian aid.

That decision is made for the good reason, which the hon. Gentleman will understand, that in those circumstances it makes no sense to penalise the people of the country—he cited Burma as an example, and Afghanistan would be another—for a Government whom they had no part in choosing. That is why the Government have invested £32 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan since 1997, and aid had been given before that as well. We made the judgment and decided that we wanted to continue to provide support to people in difficult circumstances without condoning the activities of their Government.

We debated engagement this morning. A balance has to be weighed and a judgment made of what is best in the circumstances. Another current example in which such considerations are being carefully weighed is Zimbabwe.

Tony Cunningham: Let us say we reached the point at which we said that we would penalise the people of a country because their Government were not to our liking. They would already have been penalised by having to live under that Government, so humanitarian aid should continue. Could we not provide that aid through non-governmental organisations—multinational organisations such as the Red Cross—as opposed to the Government, to ensure that humanitarian aid was received by those whom we wanted to receive it?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, because he highlights another mechanism that the Government can use to promote development without necessarily using Government agencies. In several developing countries, NGOs play an important part in helping to promote the principles that the Bill aims to enshrine in law.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset cited another topical example: Sierra Leone. The Bill will enable the Government to continue our work there, which is designed to end the vicious circle of poverty by promoting security, supporting the police—that aim was mentioned by the hon. Member for Meriden—helping civilians, making the country's defence ministry accountable and helping to reintegrate ex-combatants into civil society. We provide budgetary support to help meet the direct costs of running the country and delivering Government services. We also seek to strengthen governance by supporting the Anti-corruption Commission to reform the judiciary and help in the conduct of elections. The Secretary of State will be able to continue to support all those interventions under the Bill, because they are all aimed at reducing poverty through the two tests in clause 1(2).

Dr. Lewis: I have visited Sierra Leone recently and seen how people in the amputees' camp struggle to make themselves artificial limbs. Will the Minister suggest whether he regards it appropriate, under the provision of such aid as he envisages, for us to send some specialist teams to assist people to recover? If the Bill does little more than its predecessor to help that tragic group of people, perhaps it is not all that it is cracked up to be.

 
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Prepared 22 November 2001