International Development Bill [Lords]

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Tony Cunningham: The problem with the amendment, as with many of the Opposition's amendments, is that it is prescriptive. Aid is not about protecting British charities. I spent some time in Eritrea, where the Government concluded that its dependence on charitable organisations as well as the United Nations and other organisations meant that many white faces were seen in Land Rovers driving around with nice badges on the side, which was not particularly what they wanted. So the Eritrean Government threw out all the NGOs. They feared that they would become dependent on foreign aid.

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That is just one example. My point is that every country is different. The arbitrary figure of 15 per cent. might work in one country but not in another. The important thing is to ensure that the aid that is sent is as effective, and as well used, as possible.

Norman Lamb: We are sympathetic to the motivation for the amendment, but not necessarily to the effect that it might have. The hon. Member for Meriden argued that the amendment would place charities on a more stable financial footing. Although we all want that, it cannot be a direct purpose of the Bill, which must be directed towards the purposes set out in clause 1. I pay tribute to the vital work of charities and NGOs, but it must be wrong to set an arbitrary limit of the type suggested.

It must be our ambition to empower the recipient Governments through the development of plans for the use of the aid. It must be right to empower them as much as possible to be responsible for the aid, rather than to impose it on them. For those reasons we oppose the amendment.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Like my hon. Friends, I understand where the hon. Member for Meriden is coming from. We all share enormous regard for the aid agencies and NGOs. Of course Governments do not behave as well as they should. The input from the organisations concerned is crucial. However, I wonder whether the hon. Lady's objective would be secured if we accepted the amendment. I do not think that it would.

The hon. Lady described the percentage as hypothetical, but once a provision is included in legislation it ceases to be hypothetical and becomes statutory—an obligation. The things that she argued for, with some conviction, with respect to reconstruction, would suffer. From my limited experience of visits to northern Iraq and Kurdistan, I would say that the enormous transformation that I saw there was in the main due to the United Nations and its various agencies.

The NGOs and charities had a role, but I should be very surprised if that involvement came anywhere near 15 per cent. Therefore, sticking to the amendment would inhibit the hon. Lady's objectives with respect to reconstruction. We all appreciate the vital role of charities and NGOs, but I think that even the hon. Lady would not want to impose the straitjacket of that 15 per cent. figure on the Bill and on the activities of Government, NGOs, United Nations agencies and others.

Hilary Benn: This has been a useful debate, giving the Committee the opportunity to tease out some of the issues that the Department—and any Government—grapples with regularly in deciding the most appropriate form of development assistance to give. Incidentally, the power under the Bill to support NGOs is clearly set out in clauses 1 and 8.

The Government obviously have the power to fund those organisations. As the hon. Lady acknowledged, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, civil society has an important role to play in eliminating poverty. We channel a substantial proportion of our resources through United Kingdom civil society groups. The hon. Lady referred to the £195 million paid out in the year ended 2000. That is 8 per cent. higher in real terms and 17 per cent. higher in cash terms than in 1996–96, and it is a rising trend. That figure should be compared with the £170 million that we gave the World Bank and the £151 million that we gave the United Nations for the same period.

It is important to note that, because those figures relate to UK civil society groups, they do not capture the substantial sums that we channel through civil society groups in developing countries; Bangladesh is a good example. We are supporting organisations such as BRAC and Proshica, which are working in primary education, primary health care and micro-credit, and we are in the process of launching a programme in Bangladesh to enable, encourage and support civil society organisations in that country to engage more in society, and to enter into dialogue with the Government about what is needed in order to further development. We have no argument about the important contribution that civil society organisations have to play but, for reasons that other hon. Members have rightly alluded to, the Government feel that it would be wrong to prescribe an artificial 15 per cent. limit.

I want to mention a matter that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, who is not currently in her place: the decision on where best to give that support. I appreciate her argument about the difficulties of corruption, which continue in some places, but the view is increasingly taken that if the Governments of developing countries are evidently committed to making progress on the reduction of poverty, the provision of education, the promotion of health care and so on, and have in place credible mechanisms for doing so, it is right and proper that donors, ourselves included, should be prepared to given them budget support. It is a very practical way of supporting those Governments to help them acquire the means to enable the development of their countries to take place.

The Government's view is that it should not be a contest. It should not be a fight between the different means of promoting development. It should be about forming a judgment on each country's particular circumstances; as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) rightly said, the circumstances will differ. It is therefore necessary to have flexibility in the legislation, and the Secretary of State needs the discretion to exercise his judgment appropriately. In the end, it is right to weigh up all those circumstances, and to decide which is the most effective form of aid and assistance, so that we can achieve the objectives that we are all signed up to.

Mrs. Spelman: It has been an interesting discussion; that was one reason for moving such a probing amendment. I have heard what I wanted to hear—that there is a rising trend in the provision of funding to NGOs and charities. I hope that my thesis that it will continue proves true, because the Department's review of the effectiveness of development assistance—an important exercise—will make apparent how effective the NGOs and charities are. I am encouraged to hear that the trend is rising. A number of hon. Members have placed on the record the high regard in which the work of those organisations is held. It was important to state that during our debates.

The hon. Member for Workington said that, in the eyes of the Governments of some developing countries, the way in which the NGOs had conducted their work had not been good. In the short time that I have held this brief, many NGOs have taken that lesson on board. For example, it is plain that in Afghanistan they provide an increasing amount of assistance through local partners, who conduct themselves with greater sensitivity to the local population, mindful of ways of behaving that can send entirely the wrong signal about the spirit in which help is given. That was an important point to bring out in the debate. However, the amendment was a probing one, which has allowed us to touch on the relationship between the Department and NGOs and charities. I am satisfied that the Government intend to continue growing that relationship, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Spelman: I beg to move amendment No. 15A, in page 3, line 31, at end add—

    `(3) The arrangements made by the Secretary of State with third parties shall include a separate specific amount to be used for administrative purposes only.'.

We can probably discuss this probing amendment relatively briefly. The amendment is designed to ensure that we dwell for a moment on the subject of containing the amount of public funding spent on administration. I am sure that all hon. Members will remember a lot of public disquiet relatively recently about the amount of money that is spent on the administration of development assistance.

Charities in particular have had to become much more assiduous in that regard and account for the percentage that they spend on administration. I believe that we all understand why such procedures are necessary. The public were concerned that too much of charities' and taxpayers' money was being spent on the administration of projects and that, as a result, less was being spent on the relief itself. The amendment is designed solely to ensure that, as time dulls the memory of that hiatus, we do not overlook the importance of containing the cost of administration.

Mr. Leigh: As the Minister knows, I have a lot of time for the way in which he is attempting to deal with many of the amendments, but I hope that in dealing with this one he will not come out with his usual blanket comment. Saying, ``The aims of the hon. Member for Meriden are laudable, but I could not possibly put such a specific injunction in a piece of legislation,'' is, of course, perfectly acceptable. The Minister is quite right. That is why the amendment is intended only to probe. One cannot frame legislation in such a way that it tethers Ministers' hands by determining that they must provide a certain amount of money to be distributed by charities or that they must ensure that charities involved spend only a certain amount on administration; everyone accepts that.

However, I hope that the Minister will not simply dismiss the amendment, but will accept it as a probing amendment and use the chance that is being offered to him in this short debate to deal with many people's serious concerns about the amount of money that charities spend on administration. Many people believe that, of the money that they give—the criticism may be unfair; I do not claim to be an expert in such matters—too much is spent on administration and too little goes to the world's poor.

The Minister has a real opportunity to tell us in more detail what the Government are doing to counter that perception, how they are applying pressure to charities and how charities' practice is developing. What proportion of charities' spending is spent on administration, how are things improving and what can the Department do? I hope that we may have a short, positive debate on those matters.

 
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