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24 Jan 2007 : Column 1401

House of Commons

Wednesday 24 January 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Islamic World Group

1. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Whether he plans to support from his departmental budget the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Engaging with the Islamic World Group. [110689]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We have no plans to offer financial support over and above the increased support that the Engaging with the Islamic World Group already receives from the FCO budget. However, we work closely with the FCO on poverty reduction, improving governance and education reform, which all contribute to progress on the group’s objectives.

Mr. Blunt: I think there is a problem. Engaging with the Islamic world is a central British policy objective. The Foreign Office budget is under enormous pressure and will be reduced in the comprehensive spending review. The Department for International Development’s budget is increasing, so would it not make sense for it to help fund the policy of engaging with the Islamic world, which would surely make its work in relieving poverty in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen and Jordan, to name but a few, much easier, and would also support wider British policy objectives that are of central concern to this country’s security? Surely they involve the Department.

Mr. Thomas: I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman recognised that our increasing aid programme in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Yemen contributed to engagement with the Islamic world and the broader objectives of the Engaging with
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the Islamic World Group in the FCO. The Prime Minister announced a doubling of our aid programme to Pakistan only last year. One of the key priorities of that increased aid will undoubtedly be investment in education. Given the focus on and concerns about madrassahs in Pakistan, that is a positive example of the way in which DFID support complements other broader Government objectives.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): For Arab nations in the Islamic world, the best way of communicating is undoubtedly through Arabic. If the Under-Secretary agrees, what is the Department doing, in liaison with the Foreign Office, to increase the number of Arabic speakers in both Departments?

Mr. Thomas: We have a substantial number of staff based in, for example, Yemen, and we have plans substantially to increase our aid programme there. The head of our office in Yemen has to go on a course to learn Arabic and other members, some of whom we employ locally, can also speak Arabic. Training in Arabic is offered and, as our aid programme in such countries grows, having Arabic speakers is, as the hon. Gentleman said, essential. It is part of the training that our staff are given.

Rising Sea Levels

2. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What help his Department is providing to help communities in developing countries threatened by rising sea levels. [110690]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): We are providing assistance to improve climate monitoring in Africa and develop climate risk screening in both Africa and Asia. We are giving support to help Governments to reduce the risks when disasters happen, for example, in Bangladesh. The Department is also the largest donor to the United Nations adaptation funds, which help developing countries to assess and manage climate change risk, including rising sea levels.

Norman Baker: The Secretary of State will know that a one-meter rise in sea level could make 200 million homeless, that the leaders of Tuvalu are already in the process of abandoning their homeland and that 300 Pacific atolls could disappear under water this century. That will cause a huge refugee problem. What will the Government’s response to that be? What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman held with his European Union counterparts on the matter?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is right about the potentially devastating consequences, above all for the poorest countries of the world, if sea levels rise as predicted. First, we must support the Governments of the countries that will be affected to work out how they will manage that process. Secondly, we must get international agreement on a new climate change treaty, which will have to involve all the countries of the world, including some of the larger developing countries and China. Before long, China will become the largest carbon emitter in the world, although not in per capita terms, for obvious reasons. We must respond
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urgently to the problem, and all of us, globally, will have to consider the way in which we manage the movement of people. People will not stay where they live either to die of thirst or to drown because sea levels are rising.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the important role of the UK space industry in accurately mapping some climate movements, especially water levels, throughout the country? Will he ensure that some African countries get the benefit of the research and data that the industry provides?

Hilary Benn: I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the industry’s skill and expertise. One of the other practical things that we do is support countries in Africa better to understand the changing nature of their climate and its impact on them. Not only south and south-east Asia, which the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned, but parts of west Africa and coastal areas in east and southern Africa, including some large cities, would be similarly affected if sea levels rose.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Do the Secretary of State and his Department—or, indeed, the United Nations—distinguish between rising sea levels and sinking land masses? The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) described the circumstances in the Pacific, but those areas that are just 5m above the sea are in fact not influenced very much by climate change. It is a geological phenomenon in the Pacific that causes those atolls to sink. What really matters, of course, is what happens to the people, whether as a result of rising sea levels or of sinking land mass. However, there is an important distinction between the two phenomena, and it devalues the debate about climate change if people muddle them up.

Hilary Benn: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as he acknowledges, the net result for the people who are living there is the same. It is important that we understand the nature of the changes that are taking place; but notwithstanding the phenomenon of sinking land mass to which he referred, the biggest global problem that we face is the impact of human activity on our climate, including the effect that it will have on rising sea levels.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Treasury Committee is looking at climate change following Sir Nicholas Stern’s report for the Treasury. One of his conclusions was that it is the poorer countries—particularly in Africa—that will suffer if we do little or nothing about this. What strategy does DIFD have for a climate change element in its negotiations, particularly with African countries?

Hilary Benn: We are doing four things. First, we are providing support, so that better information is available about the nature of the change that is taking place. Secondly, we are providing help with adaptation. We are a significant contributor to the global environment facility, and we are also supporting United Nations funds. Thirdly, we are strongly backing the World Bank’s energy investment framework. One of
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the dilemmas that developing countries face is that they need, and will invest in, more energy—China is a good example of this—but they need to do so in a way that does not add to the problem. Fourthly, we are looking at our own programmes and asking ourselves what impact they will have on climate change and whether we could do things differently. At the moment, we are doing that specifically in four countries: Bangladesh, China, India and Kenya.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Rising sea levels create significant challenges, including conflict prevention, security, infrastructure degradation, water-borne diseases, soil salinisation and the potential for 50 million environmental migrants by 2010. The Department for International Development must provide assistance in incentivising environmentally sustainable technology transfers and building adaptive capacity in vulnerable communities. The Department has regularly and recently been criticised for not focusing sufficient time and resources on adapting to climate change. Despite what the Secretary of State has said, it is clear that his Department has much more to do. When will he make the interaction of climate change and international development spending one of his Department’s top priorities?

Hilary Benn: Being a fair-minded person, the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that that is exactly what we did in the White Paper that we published in July. A central theme in the White Paper was that we all need to take the challenge of climate change more seriously. I have already set out the practical steps that we are taking. We are building capacity, including taking on additional staff with expertise in this area, so that we can respond to the challenge. With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman’s strictures are a bit unfair.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), may I ask what work is going on between the Departments and British science to deal with catastrophic events that cause a rise in sea level, such as tsunamis? What work is being carried out to develop predictive science in this field?

Hilary Benn: One of the consequences of the terrible tsunami that struck recently is that arrangements are now being put in place for a system that enables countries to have reasonable warning that catastrophic events of that kind are likely to occur. The second practical step that we are taking is to set aside 10 per cent. of the money that we put into disaster relief to enable countries better to prepare to deal with the consequences of any subsequent disaster. In that way, we can help them not only to deal with the immediate consequences, but to prepare for the consequences of the next disaster, should it occur.

Doha Round

3. Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): What steps he is taking to secure further progress on the development aspects of the Doha round of trade talks. [110691]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We welcome the recently renewed discussions on the Doha round and are working closely with EU member states, the US and other World Trade Organisation members at all levels to help to break the deadlock in negotiations. We continue in particular to push for progress on the issues of greatest concern to developing countries, especially improved market access and a reduction in trade-distorting subsidies.

Anne Main: I thank the Minister for that reply, and particularly for his comment on improved market access. Farm subsidies and tariff barriers cost poor countries twice as much as they receive in aid. Does the Minister agree that only through fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy will the EU fulfil its moral obligation to make poverty history?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with the hon. Lady’s first point about the need to make further progress in reducing subsidies. One of the great examples to demonstrate the veracity of that is cotton, as subsidies to US and EU cotton farmers have helped to depress cotton prices. The World Bank estimates, for example, that farmers in west Africa lose some $75 million to $100 million per year as a result. In relation to her second point, we have already seen progress on common agricultural policy reform. We have said that we want to do more on that, and preparatory work has started. Substantive discussions will take place at the mid-point in the current EU budget review process in 2008-09, when we hope to see further evidence of progress.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that giving the least developed countries the technical support that they need is one of the best ways to ensure good development outcomes at Doha? What support is the Department giving to those least developed countries, because, despite the extremely good work of the South Centre, for instance, they are generally woefully under-resourced at those talks?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point: the whole international community has a responsibility to make sure that those least developed countries have proper representation in the World Trade Organisation negotiations. That is one of the reasons why we have provided direct financial support to the LDC group, including help in Geneva, where it is based, to commission research and analysis to define its trade positions. Through our direct country programmes, we have also helped Lesotho and Zambia, for example, to secure the analysis and expertise that they need to formulate their own policies in country. We continue to provide resources to help those developing countries which need to recruit negotiators, such as £1.6 million worth of support to the Caribbean to fund its regional negotiating machinery.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad depend on cotton for between 30 per cent. and 40 per cent. of their export earnings, but that the United States spends more than $3 billion a year subsidising 25,000 inefficient but politically
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powerful cotton producers, does the Minister agree that the United States should recognise that its policy is morally objectionable and has the effect of exacerbating the plight of some of the poorest people on the planet?

Mr. Thomas: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I hope that he will accept, in light of my answer to his hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), that we believe that substantial progress on cotton can be made in the WTO talks, to make an immediate difference to some of the poorest people in parts of Africa. We need our American allies to show flexibility and to give some ground in the talks. We also need the European Commission to do so. I know that constructive discussions have taken place between the Trade Commissioner and his American counterpart, and we will continue to do all that we can to help to further those negotiations, get the necessary progress and end the deadlock that we have seen up to now.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What reports have Her Majesty’s Government received about the outcome of talks over the weekend between the European Trade Commissioner and the US trade representative? Irrespective of the outcome of Doha, will my hon. Friend continue to press colleagues in Europe for more aid for trade, so that developing countries get the maximum benefit from concessions such as “Everything but Arms” and are able to export more to Europe?

Mr. Thomas: As I indicated in my answer to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), the discussions that have taken place between Peter Mandelson and his American counterpart seem to have been constructive. More progress and flexibility in the American position is needed, and I hope that we will soon see further evidence of that. I also accept my hon. Friend’s point about the need for further progress on aid for trade. That will be particularly important to help the least developed countries to take advantage of progress in the WTO round. He will be aware that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a further increase in our target for aid for trade spending back in September. Obviously, we will continue to encourage our allies in Europe to make similar commitments.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): There have recently been warm words from Europe and America about reinvigorating the Doha talks, but I am not convinced that there is any real political will behind that. It was certainly not at the top of the agenda of the President’s “State of the Union” speech last night. What new and different steps has the Secretary of State taken recently to break the inertia and take advantage of the different political landscape that now exists in the American Congress?

Mr. Thomas: I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment as shadow Secretary of State for International Development. Let me repeat what I have said in response to earlier questions. The EC representative, Peter Mandelson, has taken part in constructive discussions, as did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his visit to the United States
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just before Christmas. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry held useful and productive discussions with their Indian counterparts last week, and we continue to talk to our allies in Europe with the aim of advancing the EC’s position further.

There are signs of progress, but we still have some way to go. Obviously we need to do more to lock down the deal which, as I think is recognised by Members in all parts of the House, is fundamental if developing countries are to make the progress that we all want in order to achieve the millennium development goals.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Given that the Doha development round was always meant to be about development, does the Minister not feel that there is a marked lack of urgency and vigour in the way in which the negotiations are being pursued? Why does he not inject some momentum by pushing the European Union to offer—in addition to cuts in agricultural protectionism—complete duty-free and quota-free access to European markets for manufactured goods? Apart from benefiting European consumers, would that not help countries such as India, which, after all, contains more poor people than the whole of Africa put together?

Mr. Thomas: As I have said in answers to earlier questions, I welcome the renewed round of constructive discussions with the United States. Until that development, we were blocked from achieving the outcome that we all want, but now we are seeing progress towards agreement in the negotiations.

I acknowledge the truth of the hon. Gentleman’s comment that the European Commission and EU member states need to give ground. We are continuing to work with allies across Europe to encourage the Trade Commissioner to do just that. We all recognise that more progress is needed. The Government do have a sense of urgency: this is a priority for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and for other Ministers. We will continue to do all that we can to ensure progress in the negotiations.

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