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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). The debate was opened by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) with that combination of intellect, erudition and courtesy
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that are his defining characteristics and that command the respect of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

There is no doubt that the fact that more than 1 billion people in the developing world exist—I will not say live—on less than a $1 a day is a scar on the face of humanity that disfigures and in a very real sense diminishes every single one of us. In seeking to tackle that appalling human tragedy and to offer hope for the future, there are three points that at this stage in our proceedings and in our national deliberations we need keenly and authoritatively to address.

First, if we believe in more aid—we do in each of our respective parties; I have argued for it from the Front and Back Benches, throughout the last Parliament—we must recognise that there is at least as important a duty on us to recognise and fight against corruption. Indeed, I would argue to the Secretary of State in a non-partisan spirit that that obligation is more important at the time of a rising aid budget.

Of course we want more transparency, accountability, scrutiny, support for Parliaments, exposure of wrongdoing and appropriate punishments. We also have a duty to recognise that corruption must be fought wherever it rears its ugly head, whether it is in the practice of recipient Governments or the behaviour of corporate entities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is to be warmly congratulated on the suggestion that we work towards the formulation of an EU common code on this subject, to which individual countries and perhaps businesses would sign up. We should give real teeth to our commitment to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention on bribery by translating its essence, spirit and provisions into domestic legislation. That has not happened and it is overdue. There is a compelling case for it and there is now an opportunity for it to happen. I hope very much that it will.

My second point is that, notwithstanding the efficacy of, and the case for, increased aid, there is a real opportunity to improve economic development and a demand for that. That requires a new focus on, and commitment to, infrastructure in two forms: commercial and physical. I emphasise commercial infrastructure. We should seek to foster the creation of what I would call the institutional infrastructure of competitive capitalism in the developing world. That means the creation of clear systems of property rights; a recognition of the concept of credit; transparent, simplified and intelligible taxation systems; the enforceability of contracts; and courts through which we can give effect to that principle.

Physical infrastructure is important too. Okay, the past was disappointing. There were failures. Mistakes occurred under successive Governments. Prestige projects went wrong. Too much money was spent and it was very badly accounted for. Scandals resulted. But that does not in any sense reduce—still less obviate—the responsibility upon us now to go forward seeing the merits of decent infrastructure. Without decent roads, decent rail, decent transport and decent communication systems, the aspiration to economic improvement, to individual fulfilment, to national development in the developing world remains just that: an idle aspiration. So, yes, we need to have economic development. That must be a prime objective of British, European, and multilateral aid policy.

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Finally, we must have a massive expansion of trade, because the catalyst that it provides for economic development is potentially enormous. There is a compelling argument for unilateral initiatives, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has so rightly proposed, and, yes, it is about the removal of trade barriers and the elimination of trade-distorting subsidies. It is also about doing what we give the impression that we intend to do. We must mean what we say and say what we mean.

I give the example of duty-free and quota-free access. I say to the Secretary of State that it is no good international leaders saying that 97 per cent. of tariff lines will be of benefit to the developing world because there will be duty-free and quota-free access, if the more than 300 individual product lines—the 3 per cent.—that are of most importance to the countries, and offer the most potential benefit, do not form part of the equation. Bangladesh has to be able to export its textiles to the United States, and other countries that specialise in footwear, or, for that matter, fish or leather products, have to be able to sell those products.

It is time that the developed world ceased its nauseating hypocrisy of preaching free markets while practising protectionism on a truly industrial and breathtaking scale. As a consequence of the failures of multilateral policy and a lack of imagination, too many people in the developing world have suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them. That situation must change, and it will better change with cross-party support in the House and multilateral backing in the international community.

9.38 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is a privilege to sum up this debate and to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) for his seminal work entitled “In it together: the attack on global poverty”. That is an apt title and a good place to start. There have been some excellent speeches from the hon. Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), but I am going to concentrate on the speeches made by my right hon. Friends the Members for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and for Hitchin and Harpenden, and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), and on the excellent speech made just now by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). As always, he was erudite, concise, and said a great deal in the time available to him.

A consensus is developing across the House about what we need to achieve with the UK aid effort. I used to be chairman of the all-party population and reproductive health group, and long ago there was a campaign to achieve the target of having 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product given in aid. At long last, the consensus in the House is that we should move towards that target, and one of the very few monetary pledges made by my party is that we should achieve it by the year 2013. Incidentally, that would mean that DFID’s current budget of £5.9 billion would rise to £8.6 billion by that date.

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When the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), winds up the debate, I hope that he will deal with some of the very serious proposals in this report. We need to use aid money more effectively to lift out of poverty the more than 1 billion who live on less than $1 a day—something that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham rightly called a scandal. We must all work to that end, and neither the Opposition nor the Government have a monopoly of wisdom about how that can be done. I hope that the Minister will not spend his entire speech trumpeting the Government’s marvellous success at achieving that.

It is critical that aid is effective. To ensure that it is, we must concentrate on what people in recipient countries want. As my hon. Friends have said, that means that we should concentrate on outcomes rather than inputs. Above all, our policy should be intelligible, and easy to operate in the countries for which it is intended.

I remember having a conversation with the UN ambassador to Sierra Leone, in which he told me about what happened after the election there. We all know that there was a huge campaign and a civil war before the British Government eventually succeeded in getting that country to move towards democracy, but three days after the election the UN agencies wanted to know what the new Government’s next 10-year plan was. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden says, we must stop bombarding countries like that with requests and targets—and he used the very good example of Tanzania being required to produce 2,400 reports.

In the short time available, I want to concentrate on the effectiveness of our aid. As the report proposes, it can be delivered in a simpler way, through partnerships that involve various international donors and Governments acting on a multilateral basis. In that way, we can offer an aid package to countries that is much simpler to operate.

The hon. Member for City of Durham drew on the experience that she and I gained on our visit to Afghanistan. There, as she will recall, we found that most European Governments give their aid directly to the Government, in a deliberate attempt to bolster that Government’s capacity. Sadly, we also found that the US—whose aid budget, estimated at £9 billion this coming year, is by far the biggest—gives most of its aid unilaterally, through USAID. That has caused much confusion, and it would be much better if all donors were to operate in concert.

I want to press the Minister a little to find out how he sees our part of the EU aid package operating. Does he agree that it should be on a unilateral basis, so that the EU can offer concessions to the poor donor countries? Those concessions could take the form of reducing tariff barriers and obstacles to trade, although we should not expect the poor donor countries to introduce similar cuts themselves, as to do so could leave them devastated. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.

The second part of the report sets out how trade should encourage growth. Ultimately, it is only through growth that most countries will be lifted out of poverty. Vietnam offers a good example of that. After the war, it was poorer than most African countries, but today it
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has a flourishing economic base and is about to apply to join the World Trade Organisation—a real success story.

With effective aid, there is no reason why many African countries should not be able to do exactly the same thing. It was a great sadness to the Opposition that the Government were not able to complete the WTO’s Doha round. There is no doubt about it: a successful WTO round will put billions of pounds into developing countries’ pockets, so it is one of the most effective ways of lifting countries out of poverty. I hope that, even now, the Government will put every effort into trying to persuade our EU partners to complete the Doha round successfully.

If aid is to be delivered successfully, it must be seen to be properly scrutinised, and I welcome the proposals for independent scrutiny in the report produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. In particular, I welcome the suggestion that Parliament should debate our proposals on partnerships. It is through debate, scrutiny and proper publication of the goals and aims of each donor project that we can deliver aid more effectively.

I agree with the Liberal amendment to the motion. Eliminating or reducing climate change is critical, just as aid is, because if we do not try to reduce climate change, we cannot hand on a better world to our children and grandchildren, and I came into politics to do just that. If each and every one of us makes a little bit of difference to the world and passes it on in a better state than we found it, we will have achieved something in our political careers.

9.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I welcome the debate, which provided the House with a further important opportunity to consider what further steps the international community can take to make progress in the fight against global poverty. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, given that more than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, we in the developed world have a particular responsibility to help to tackle that poverty.

Our aid is already having an important impact. Over 10 million more children in India are in school as a result of aid that we have provided over the past three years. There are some 700 more nurses in Malawi, and the number of people who have access to antiretrovirals in southern Africa has more than trebled in recent years as a direct result of our aid. Under the former Prime Minister, and indeed the current Prime Minister, our leadership across the world, and within the European Union and the G8 in particular, has resulted in a debt relief deal worth up to $55 billion for the poorest countries of the world. Aid levels are rising, too, but clearly more needs to be done in some countries in the European Union. Our aid has trebled since 1997, and we are the first Government in the nation’s history to set a timetable for reaching the UN’s 0.7 per cent. goal.

We will continue to champion a Doha round of world talks that is genuinely in the interests of developing countries, as hon. Members have asked us
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to. We will also champion economic partnership agreements that genuinely offer hope to our friends in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and new trading opportunities on fair terms with the prospect of new jobs to come. We will also champion an “aid for trade” package of support that genuinely helps countries to exploit the market access offers that such talks will eventually secure. We recognise that there is more to do, and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) gave one important example of the challenges that we face in the negotiations.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was right to highlight the new role that China plays as a donor, particularly in Africa. He rightly highlighted the importance of engagement with China on that activity—a point echoed by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). I am sure that both Members will be reassured to hear that we are indeed engaging with the Chinese. We are meeting delegations in the UK and in Beijing to discuss how aid resources are spent and climate change, a common challenge for us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) raised the important issue of continuing to work in countries that have been devastated by conflict. He will know of the particular importance that we attach to helping fragile states. He may know, too, of the recent visit that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made to Darfur to continue to explore what we can do to help address the terrible situation in that country.

The tragedy of the report is its timing. It is 20 years too late. Twenty years ago it would have been radical. The views on trade would have been particularly revolutionary. We can ask how many fewer children would be out of school now, how many extra nurses would be helping to fight HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, and how many extra miles of roads and metres of water pipes would have been laid, had the report been published 20 years ago. Instead, we saw the Conservatives continuing to cut the amount of aid available to be spent on development in poor countries.

I say gently and with sadness that we on the Government Benches will find it difficult to take seriously the pledge on 0.7 per cent., when at the first sign of pressure from the right wing of the Conservative party, the Leader of the Opposition caves in. Can we have any confidence that the Opposition will be able to resist the temptation to raid the development budget to find tax cuts for the few and appeal again to the party’s right wing?

John Bercow: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Thomas: The right hon. Member for West Dorset was right to say that aid from one country will not make enough difference fast enough. It is also true that the right policies on debt relief from one country will not make enough difference fast enough.

John Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Hon. Members: Give way!

Mr. Thomas: It is true, too, that the right policies on trade on the part of one country will not make enough
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difference fast enough. A collective international effort is required, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly pointed out, the Opposition do not have the record or the credibility with other leaders and parliamentarians in Europe and beyond to put that international coalition together.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Thomas: The Opposition are isolated in Europe—

Hon. Members: Give way!

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister does not seem to want to give way. [Hon. Members: “He should give way.”] Whether he should or not, he does not want to give way.

Mr. Thomas: The truth is that the Conservatives cannot come to terms with the fact that they are isolated in Europe, isolated in the international community, and isolated on their own Front Bench. They lack the ability to give international leadership on the issue. To be advised by the Opposition about spending aid money well has shades of King Herod advising on child care. They, after all, were responsible for the worst misuse of development assistance that our country has seen—the Pergau dam affair.

I turn to the comments of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone). She rightly raised the issue of corruption and governance. She will know of the considerable effort that we have made to help countries put in place the robust financial systems that they need to ensure that our aid money, and their own tax revenues, are well spent. She will know, too, that on occasion we have withheld aid from countries which we did not think had made enough progress in putting such financial systems in place.

On governance, we know that charity is not enough. The point did not seem to have been properly grasped in the report. NGOs have a crucial role to play, but on their own they are not enough. In the end, it is Governments whom we must help—not Governments in Sudan, of course, or in Zimbabwe, and certainly not in Burma, but yes, Governments in Ghana, Zambia, Mozambique, in Rwanda definitely, India, Afghanistan, Tanzania and Botswana. We must help Governments so that they can help their people. In the end it is Governments who have to create health services for all their people, build an effective civil service, and put in place the mechanisms to ensure that their countries have a strong Parliament, free media and a vibrant civil society. It is Governments who can create the economic stability necessary for the private sector to thrive.

John Bercow: I thank the Minister for giving way. If the consequence of a trade deadlock is to cause the poorest countries in the world to lose $5,000 million a month, does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is merit in trying to persuade the European Union unilaterally to abandon its trade protectionism?

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