International Development Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Spelman: I have listened carefully. My desire to bring guarantees into the quality of our humanitarian assistance may arise from my inability to see such assistance in practice. I am sure that the Minister is aware that I have unsuccessfully sought the Secretary of State's authorisation to visit the refugee camps in Pakistan, although the Select Committee is there this week and will return with more information.

Hilary Benn: The hon. Lady referred to the Secretary of State's authorisation. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State passed the hon. Lady the security advice that she has been given. I do not want the Committee to get the impression that it is up to the Secretary of State to decide whether the hon. Lady goes.

Mrs. Spelman: As I am sure the Minister appreciates, the practical point is that I have not been able to go, but the Select Committee has. If I had been able to go, I might have been able to discover what happens on the ground. Our money is being sent to provide humanitarian assistance, but hon. Members who served on the Select Committee will be aware of the practical problems that the relief agencies mentioned. For example, in some of the established refugee camps the water is 400 m down through granite. The provision of adequate water and sanitation is one of the standards that I sought to secure through the amendment. On the other hand, I do not want to slow the process of providing aid in a disaster.

11.15 am

It occurs to me that another route may be possible. I have never seen the conditions attached to an agreement that has been struck between a Department and an aid agency that spends public money in the provision of humanitarian assistance. It might be reassuring to see what is contained in the conditions to which the Minister referred. That would be another way of achieving an assurance that we seek to enshrine good standards.

Another way of achieving some assurance on the provision of humanitarian assistance to acceptable international standards would be to provide an annual report. It is good that we have forced the issue of the annual report, because that report could contain an appraisal of the standards to which humanitarian assistance was provided. However, I entirely accept that the Sphere standards might be altered in aspects on which we might not agree, which is the weakness of accepting a set of international standards that are agreed outside the country and without consultation with the Government.

For that reason, and because I do not want to obstruct the provision of humanitarian aid in an emergency, I will not press the amendment to a Division.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Before my hon. Friend asks to withdraw the amendment, may I ask the Minister a question? Let us imagine that the Minister wanted to provide specific aid to a racial minority such as the Karen people in Burma. If the amendment that we are debating were made to the Bill, would it prohibit him from doing so? Would it prevent him from helping a specific group who were persecuted because of their race by the military junta? I am thinking of amendment No. 14A, of course.

Hilary Benn: Amendment No. 14A relates to humanitarian assistance. To be honest, I am not sure whether the particular help to which the hon. Gentleman refers would come within the definition of humanitarian assistance when the Bill is enacted. I think that it probably would not fall into the category of assistance in case of ``natural or man-made disaster''. It would be a form of assistance under clause 1. Therefore, I am not making that argument in resisting the amendment.

Mrs. Spelman: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Meaning of ``assistance''

Mrs. Spelman: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 36, leave out from first `assistance' to end of line 39 and insert

    `means assistance in the fields of economic development, administration and social services, consisting in the making available of the services of any body or person, training facilities, the supply of material, or the results of research undertaken in any such fields.'.

The amendment would classify economic development as an important element of technical assistance. The description of technical assistance in the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980 sets out the definition of technical assistance to include assistance with economic development. The Bill makes no reference to economic development.

Technical assistance is part of British development assistance. Our capacity to help in this area is also the part in which British people have most confidence. Valuable technical assistance has been provided to developing countries, including know-how and skills that they would not otherwise have had. We also believe that, as one of the world's premier financial centres, the UK has a unique role to play in assisting developing countries with their economic development as well as their social development. For example, Afghanistan has no financial institutions, which will make it difficult for it to secure the necessary assistance for its reconstruction. That is a good example of a situation in which our help will be very much needed.

A survey of opinion for the Department for International Development, involving 1,800 people chosen at random, shows that just 18 per cent. thought that providing financial assistance was the most important way of reducing poverty. In a survey of children, the Department found that the majority of support for development was for technical assistance, such as the training of nurses, doctors and engineers, rather than for financial aid. One of the reservations that the public have about the provision of financial assistance is whether it reaches the intended recipient, which takes us back to the delicate question referred to by the Minister earlier, of auditing what happens to assistance. I entirely accept the Minister's point that the process should not be so onerous for the developing country that it becomes burdensome, but there is no doubt that the public are anxious about money not getting to the desired recipient, especially when it is subsequently proved to have been used in an abusive way or to have been dispatched to the overseas bank account of someone for whom it was not intended.

Economic development is also crucial to the future of the environment. The globalisation White Paper states that

    ``Poverty and environmental degradation are often linked. Economic development gives countries improved access to new, less resource-intensive and less polluting technologies. Over the last fifty years, it has been more closed economies—such as the former Communist countries—that have had the worst record of industrial pollution and urban environmental degradation''.

If the Government feel strongly about the global environment, they must put economic development back into the meaning of ``technical assistance''. If the developed world seeks to take the lead on tackling some of the fundamental problems of global warming, we must give assistance to developing countries to help all of us to tackle that kind of global, environmental problem.

The globalisation White Paper also highlighted the importance of multinationals in economic development. They can contribute significantly to economic development in host countries through their technology, specialised skills and ability to organise and integrate production across countries, establishing marketing networks and accessing finance and equipment on favourable terms. If the Government support the role of the multinationals in contributing to economic development, they should also include economic development in the meaning of ``technical assistance'' in the Bill, so that Government, too, can support developing countries through technical assistance in technology and specialised skills.

The Bill comes at an important conjuncture in business terms, since many multinationals are increasingly aware of their need to demonstrate corporate social responsibility and responsibility towards developing countries. Many of them have appointed a corporate social responsibility director. When multinationals are becoming more conscious of their need to demonstrate, in practical terms, their assistance to the developing world, it is all the more important to include a statement of economic development in Bill for the purposes of encouragement.

Hilary Benn: Not for the first time in the Committee, I agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said about the importance of the issues that she raised. Clearly, economic development and technical assistance in an appropriate form is essential to enabling developing countries to prosper and succeed in the future. The Bill in its current form permits all such assistance to be given. My reservation about the amendment relates not to the intention behind it but to its unintended potential consequences, which arise from the way in which it is drafted.

The purpose of the definition in clause 5(2) is simply to describe the form and nature of the technical assistance. It would therefore be undesirable to attempt to use it as a definition that restricts what technical assistance may be provided for. The distinction is important. If one restricts what assistance may be provided for, everything not mentioned in the amendment may be deemed as something for which assistance cannot be given.

Although the definition in the amendment appears inclusive rather than exhaustive, it cuts across the purposes of development assistance set out in clause 1(2). It does not strictly prevent other forms of technical assistance, but the specification of some types and forms of assistance begs the question why others are not mentioned.

As for the proposed list of forms of assistance, the amendment would—I am sure that it is unintentional—remove the power of the Secretary of State to give assistance by way of scholarships under clauses 1 and 2. The way in which the amendment is worded would cut out clause 5(2)(b), which reads:

    ``is provided in the form of a scholarship''.

That paragraph would be removed if we were to agree to the amendment, although doing so would not affect the separate powers set out in clause 14(5).

The lack of the word ``know-how'', which qualifies the basis on which services, training and the results of research are to be provided, also opens up the meaning of ``technical assistance'' to a substantial and unwarranted degree. I accept the point that the amendment makes, but the supply of material is provided for in clause 5(1)(b), so its repetition in the amendment is unnecessary.

I accept the intent and the spirit in which the amendment was tabled, but it would be undesirable to accept it for those practical reasons.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 27 November 2001