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1 July 2010 : Column 1038

Let me turn to the crucial issue of basic services such as health, education and clean water. I am concerned by what I know to be the ideological approach taken by many on the Government Benches about the role of the private sector in the provision of basic services. Instead of seeing steps forward such as those that were recently taken in Sierra Leone, where health care was made free for pregnant women and babies, I fear that we could see ill-advised and ideological voucher schemes, or other forms of private subsidy that fail to catalyse wider change and are more likely to exclude the marginalised and the poorest. Does the Minister of State intend to continue promoting the removal of user fees, including through the establishment of a centre for progressive health financing? Can he also assure the House that he will make efforts, as we pledged to do, to raise the crucial issue of water and sanitation further up the international agenda?

Related to that, there is the question of our effort and engagement on those vital issues. As we have already revealed in these exchanges, when it comes to international negotiations and diplomacy, it requires real and sustained effort and personal engagement at the highest levels to make the sort of difference that is demanded by the scale of the challenges that we face. So it was, again, sad but revealing that, when questioned in the House last week, the Prime Minister could not confirm whether he had even spoken to President Zuma, other African leaders or even other donors before the crucial summit on education in South Africa in a few weeks' time. Perhaps the Minister of State could tell us what efforts the DFID ministerial team has been making to ensure that the summit is a success.

The Secretary of State has launched a review of multilateral and bilateral funding from DFID. I do not disagree with that approach-indeed, we regularly undertook similar reviews-but he needs to be clear about whether this is a serious review or whether he is merely creating straw men before destroying them. At the announcement of the bilateral programme review, he simply got it wrong by talking about Russia, when DFID has not had a bilateral programme in Russia since 2007. Clearly he is now belatedly catching up with the facts on China, too, since as recently as 28 May he wrote to The Daily Telegraph acknowledging that

He also knows full well since coming into office, thanks to the reviews that I and other Ministers regularly undertook, that it was already the case that 90% of our bilateral aid was focused on just 23 countries, and the vast majority of that on the poorest people.

The Secretary of State has spoken of taking the Prime Minister's idea about the big society to the global level, saying that his

Frankly, the idea that DFID or many of Britain's leading charities, to which the Secretary of State has paid generous tribute today, "do" development to poor people bears little relationship to reality and how much has, thankfully, changed in the development community over past years. Country-led development was a principle that a Labour Government established when DFID was created, not to mention ending the Tory policy of tying our aid.

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The Secretary of State talked a lot today about change, but I believe that the new Government have found that much of what they see in DFID shows that it is working effectively. Indeed, as he was forced to concede in one of his first speeches:

We are told that the Minister of State, who is sitting next to him, has also been focused on change in the Department. However, according to the newspapers, that appears to have been more about ministerial accommodation. Out went the pictures of Africa and those whom we were helping and partnering; in came a flagpole, a velvet curtain and a framed photo of the hon. Gentleman beaming his inimitable smile with the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher. That is hardly inspirational to the staff of a Department that, under her Government, watched the percentage of gross national income halve after 18 years in which aid had been trebled. In all seriousness, however, what concerns me is not what is on the Government's walls, but what is not in the statements that they have made so far.

What concerns me most about this Government's approach to global poverty, even in these earliest weeks, are the limitations of the vision, and, indeed, of ambition, that have so far been revealed. With the greatest of respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I was deeply disappointed by his speech to the Carnegie Foundation in Washington last week, despite the fact that it dealt with vital topics such as gender and development. There was nothing particularly wrong with many of the assertions it contained, but it was a series of assertions in search of an argument. Indeed, I cannot recollect someone travelling so far to say so little.

I therefore ask the Secretary of State: what is the clear forward agenda, beyond the re-packaging of existing policies? With just weeks to go, where are the Government's clear and concrete proposals and red lines for the UN millennium development goals summit in September? Where is the detailed vision about how we tackle climate change and promote development, and how those can be effectively aligned? Indeed, where are the serious commitments on issues such as climate finance?

The Secretary of State rightly talked about the importance of measures "beyond aid", but where is the crucial strategy on issues such as taxation and development, highlighted, even in recent weeks, by the excellent work of charities such as Christian Aid and ActionAid? For example, how can we take forward steps on multilateral and automatic exchange of tax information or measures on country-by-country reporting?

Leadership in international development involves more than having a bonfire of straw men. It involves serious ideas and serious action. Benedict Brogan, writing in The Daily Telegraph last week, revealed:

so much so, apparently, that he is now being

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Surely the true lesson of leadership in international development can be drawn from the experience of Gleneagles five years ago. At that time, there was a dynamic, independent and vibrant global civil society campaign-connected with politics and politicians who instinctively shared the same values and ambitions-that had the ability, the tenacity and the willingness to work for that shared vision so that great things could be achieved. Sadly, at the moment, we see little sign of those dynamics at work in the most recent summit.

For the sake of those with whom we share a common bond of humanity, of those who today continue to be afflicted by needless and avoidable poverty, and of those with whom we share a common interest in a safer, more sustainable and more equal world, we on this side of this House will continue to scrutinise and challenge this Government where required, and, yes, support them, where deserved. The seriousness of the issues we debate today demands nothing less of us.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. A number of colleagues have asked to speak in this popular and important debate. We also have a few maiden speeches to be delivered. We will not get everyone in if Members speak at inordinate length. We have three and a half hours: I will be in the Chair and I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 5.30 pm, so that we have a decent time for the debate to be answered. Will Members please show some restraint? If they go wildly over 10 minutes, the Chair will have to look again at whether to impose any time limits.

1.53 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker, given your role on the International Development Committee in the last Parliament. Indeed, having both Mr Speaker and a Deputy Speaker as ex-members of that Committee, I feel that international development will have the kind eye of the Chair during this Parliament.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his position. I believe that the speech he made-whatever the debating points arising out of it-showed that he is someone with a deep commitment to, and passion for, international development, who has a real desire to make an impact and make a difference.

Although Labour Members are entitled to challenge and criticise, I was a little disappointed with the tone of the speech by the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander)-not least because I wanted to open my remarks by paying a genuine and warm tribute to the Labour Government and the Labour party. I believe that the establishment of the Department for International Development and the International Development Act 2002 set the basis for reforming the mistakes made in the past. I think we should recognise that they are now a long way in the past, and all parties now acknowledge that that older style of overseas development has gone for ever. In DFID, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we created a Department that has provided world leadership in development, and it has made a huge impact. I give credit to Clare Short, the first Secretary of State of the Department, and to
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the right hon. Members for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, who have all made a contribution to that development.

It seems to me that we are trying to accept that we have perhaps the best Development Ministry in the world, but that it has to move forward and that there is scope for change, innovation and development. The new coalition Government will inevitably want to bring its own ideas to bear. It is certainly my hope that we will build on that, develop it and take it forward. I am the Chairman of this cross-party Select Committee, and we will of course monitor progress, ask questions and make periodic reports to the House.

On the exchanges we had about the 0.7% commitment, we should all be grateful that there is complete consensus in the House over the commitment to deliver that by 2013. In an informal conversation I had with the Secretary of State-I hope he will not mind my saying this-we realised that it is not this House that lacks commitment; the problem is the engagement with the wider public, which requires the House to maintain its united commitment and to engage the public to ensure that support remains for achieving this goal.

In that context, the Secretary of State clearly read out-as, indeed, did the shadow Secretary of State-what it says in the coalition agreement about enshrining the 0.7% commitment in law. I do not want to labour the point. I just want to say that the Select Committee took evidence on the draft legislation that came before us under the previous Government-I have to say it came very late in their programme, and the previous Government should acknowledge that-and it raised a number of questions. No one denied the value of having this legislation. If the present Government have the same commitment, I look forward to taking it forward, but some refinement will need to be made, in the light of the evidence our Committee took, if the legislation is to be fit for purpose. I hope that in due course the Secretary of State will give us an indication of how and when that legislation will be brought into law.

As a final point on this issue, the commitment does not require legislation-and neither does the lack of legislation in any way bring the commitment into question. What it does is set and reinforce the example, demonstrating to the public that Parliament is united over this achievement.

The Secretary of State set out a number of priorities that he wants to bring to bear on development in the future. Of course, there are some questions in the development community, and rightly so. He said that his primary aim is for aid to be transparent and accountable and that he wants to set up a new mechanism for achieving that. In due course, further details will no doubt be brought to the House. I appreciate that the Select Committee will have an important role to play in the process.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the more we can demonstrate the outcomes from our investment and aid, the more we can convince people that the programme is effective, that it works and that it does deliver. I add the cautionary note that not every aspect of aid can be so easily measured or monitored, and certainly not in the same time scale. I support the objective, but it is important to recognise that not every aspect of the budget can be subjected to the same objective criteria; we need some other ways to evaluate it. The principle, however, seems to me to be fundamentally sound and right.

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There is perhaps also some concern about the definition of official development assistance, how it is applied and how it will be controlled across Departments. The vast majority of overseas development assistance currently goes through DFID, and I hope that that will continue to be the case; but the House needs to be sure that ODA which does not go through DFID meets the same objective criteria.

Mr Thomas: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that transparency of development assistance is not something dramatically new? Does he recall, as Opposition Members do, that when the Conservatives were in opposition they used independent evaluations of DFID programmes to ask perfectly reasonable questions on the Floor of the House? Further measures may be welcome, but the right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that the last Government also took a series of measures to increase transparency.

Malcolm Bruce: I certainly accept that there was not only a lively debate but activity in the Department and the evaluation unit. The Committee visited the unit and met its representatives.

I do not suggest that there was a monopoly on one side of the House in this regard, but a permanent problem with aid and development is establishing what works, how the extent to which it works can be measured, and how people can be reassured that it works. We have all observed it in journalists' correspondence, and in what is said by people we meet around the place. The bottom line is that people think that billions of pounds of British taxpayers' money is being put into Swiss bank accounts on behalf of corrupt politicians. We all know that that is not what happens to the vast majority of UK aid-indeed, we hope, to any of it-but we must constantly improve presentation so that we can reassure taxpayers that that is demonstrably not the case, and that the aid really is making a difference. If it is possible to improve the existing mechanism, there is no reason why we should not try to do so.

The summit on the millennium development goals will take place later this year. The current Parliament is due to end in 2015, the year in which the MDGs are set to be delivered. We know that they will not be, but during this Parliament we must determine exactly how much we can prioritise them, and what we must do about those in regard to which we fall farthest behind.

Let me say something about MDGs 4 and 5. The Select Committee paid particular attention to maternal health in the last Parliament, and I was horrified by what we learned during that inquiry about the appalling and needless suffering of so many women in so many parts of the world. As has been said by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), whom I welcome back to the Committee, the problem is often the treatment and status of women rather than our inability to deliver services that could meet the needs of women in poor countries. Certain societies do not recognise the importance or necessity of such services.

I was particularly shocked, when the Committee visited northern Nigeria, to be told that the education of girls involved learning the Koran by rote, on the grounds that that was all that they needed to know because they would be married by the time they were 12 and pregnant by the time they were 13-and, in many instances, dead before they were 14.

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We should not even think of girls in societies of that kind in the context of girls in our own society, who, at 12 or 13, might be regarded as far too young to give birth, but who might none the less be quite well developed. In countries where nutrition is poor, many girls aged 12 or 13 are not fit to give birth to children, which is why they die. Worse, those who do give birth are expected to deliver their children alone, without any form of attendance or support. I consider that appalling. I welcome the commitment to treating it as a priority, but I think it reasonable to suggest that the health of children up to the age of five should be linked to it. While the welfare of women has a very big impact on children, an awful lot of children die at the age of three, four or five. Unless we consider the two issues together, we may not be able to achieve the results for which we hope.

I was slightly surprised that the Secretary of State did not say more about the role of economic development and the role of the partnership between the public and private sectors, although there was a passage in his speech about it. Unlike the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, I am not talking about the role of the private sector in delivering social programmes and the like. I am talking about how we can deliver economic development better in partnership: how DFID's engagement can create a climate in which businesses, whether indigenous or external, will invest and commit themselves to developing countries, so that those countries can grow their economies and revenue bases and reduce their dependence on aid.

The Secretary of State mentioned CDC in passing. The way in which CDC operates-as a kind of arm's length "fund of funds"-is very easy to criticise, and Private Eye has had a field day doing so. However, CDC has clearly delivered a substantial amount of investment at no cost to the taxpayer, and has increased our development capacity because of the profitability of the fund. There are question marks over the use of tax havens, although I see the logic of the argument that that releases even more money for investment. I do not particularly want to develop that argument, but I have felt for some time that there is a gap between DFID's development activity and CDC and the business sector that could be addressed constructively.

Mr Andrew Mitchell: The Chairman of the Select Committee has made an extremely good point, but if he reads the report of what I said today, he will see that we are very much on the case. We are restructuring the way the Department handles the issues to which he has referred, and we are looking specifically at CDC to ensure that we secure as much development gain and value from its work as we possibly can. We aim to do more rather than less.

Malcolm Bruce: I shall be interested to see how that develops.

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