Standing Committee B
Thursday 15 March 2001
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brienand it is with great surprise, as well as delight, that I welcome you to the Chair this afternoon. The Committee has just witnessed an unprecedented turn of events. This is our fourth sitting on the International Development Bill and there is some feeling that insufficient time has been allocated. I have not been able to put to the Minister all the points that I would have done had we not faced a 5 o'clock guillotine.
I hope that no untoward event has befallen our expected Chairman. I expect that all hon. Members share my concern about his welfare, which will continue until we have further news of him. However, as the Committee sitting has begun eight minutes late, how should we go about reclaiming the eight minutes that we have lost? What recourse is available to us?
The Chairman: I understand that the decision on the timetabling of the Committee was taken by the House. If an extension of time is needed, it is necessary to return the matter to the House and to recall the Committee that made the decision on the dates and times of sittings. I am afraid that I cannot say, ``Yes, the Committee can have extended time.''
As for the eight-minute extension, that is a matter for someone who is not present. The time has been set. The decision was taken by the Committee at an early stage and I am afraid that we have no permission to extend the time now. That is unfortunate, but that is the position as I see it. If we need extra time, the matter must go back to the House.
Mrs. Gillan: Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I thank you for that ruling, which is a novel and precedent-setting one. I am sure that every hon. Member will take notice of what you said. That ruling is rather alarming, because it means that once the House has fixed the time for debate by means of one of these new and badly received programming motions, valuable time to consider any Bill can be eaten into by the House itself, the authorities of the House or the failure to be present of the relevant member of the Chairman's Panel. [Interruption.] I am not filibustering. I am making a valid pointthe Chairman would rule me out of order if I were filibustering. I will not take what the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) is saying from a sedentary position. This is a serious point.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien.
Mrs. Gillan: I am making a point of order at the moment. As a precedent has been set, it is important to make sure that it is on the record so that the House authorities can consider it. I am not being disrespectful to any member of the Committee, the Chairman or the House, but that should be on the record so that the House authorities can consider the matter in the light of the restricted time that has been given, not only to the Bill that we are considering, but to others.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien.
The Chairman: Order. May I deal with the first point of order and give the Committee the benefit of my experience? At the Committee's first sitting, it decided that the business would be dealt with from a certain date to another date. Within those two dates, the Committee can meet as often as it wants and it can have as much time as it wants. It is unfortunate that the end of that period is this afternoon, but if the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) wanted to have more time to debate the amendments and our business, it would have been wiser to raise the matter last week or the week before, when the Committee that decided the timetable could have been called. You could have arranged more hours; you could have sat through the night; you could have sat whenever you wanted between the starting date and the end. Unfortunately, this is the end.
Mr. Tom Clarke: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. You are, of course, absolutely right to remind the Committee that the House has already decided matter. Am I therefore correct to point out to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, who lectured us on the subject of arrogance for half an hour this morning, that her intemperance does not stand her in good stead, and that we really should not waste another eight minutes debating the lost eight minutes?
The Chairman: That is not a point of order for me.
Mr. McFall: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. Like other members of the Committee, I am delighted that you have come along. I noticed that you took the Chair at 14.37. It is now 14.42. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham complains about losing eight minutes, but she has wasted five minutes with typical waffle. If she would get on with the business we might get some decent
The Chairman: Order. That is not a point of order for me. I should like to move on. I understand that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham was winding up on the amendment.
Mrs. Gillan: Further to my point of order, Mr. O'Brien. May I just make one swift, brief point? The programme motion specifically names the time for the sitting as between half-past 2 and 5 o'clockthis is the one sitting for which times are specifically mentioned. That is why I have raised valid points of order that ought to be considered in the light of the precedent that you have now set. This appears to be yet another occasion when our time is eaten into. Unless you want to reply to that supplementary point of order, Mr. O'Brien, I shall continue.
Meaning of assistance
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 12, in page 2, line 32, leave out from `assistance''' to end of line 35 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.'.
Mrs. Gillan: We had reached the stage at which the Minister had responded to the amendment, which would include in the definitions the term ``economic development''. The wording was taken from the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980.
I must admit that the Minister did not convince me by his brief response that there was anything wrong with the old wording, and I cannot for the life of me understand why we must embark on a new definition. The attitude adopted appears to be ``out with the old and on with the new'' for no good reason. I will therefore withdraw the amendment, because I should like to explore the matter on Report and Third Reading. I hope that by doing so I can make up for lost time, and that the Minister will give me credit for having done so. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mrs. Gillan: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 3, line 2, at end insert
`(2A) The value of loans made available to a country by way of financial assistance shall not, taking one year with another, amount to more than 10 per cent. of development assistance to that country.'.
It is apt that I rise to propose amendment No. 13, which stands also in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter). It will probably please the Committee to learn that I can make my points about the amendment fairly swiftly.
The amendment would prevent countries from running up substantial debts to the UK Exchequer by limiting the proportion of development assistance that is provided to them in the form of loans. In proposing the amendment, we hope to ensure that development aid is provided mostly in the form of grants. We are concerned that a new drive to make loans to developing countries could lead to their getting into debt again, so we want to establish some sort of device to ensure that the Department of International Development is limited in the proportion of grant aid and loans that it is able to give to any one country. I am sure that the Minister would regard that as a sensible approach.
When in government, the Conservatives cancelled £1.2 billion of loans owed to the then Overseas Development Administration by developing countries. That helped to relieve their burden of debt. Conservative Members are genuinely concerned that a new push to provide loans to projects could lead to the debt burden becoming an issue again. The progress made under Governments of both parties would be reversed, because there will no limitation on the actions taken by the current Government or a future Government when the legislation comes into force.
We are also concerned that the British taxpayer will not get value for money from the loans. The Government must be sure that payment will be forthcoming and is guaranteed, and that a proper risk assessment is undertaken before projects are considered. We are also concerned about the countries that are eligible for loans from DFID. Will the Minister tell the Committee whether the Government plan to make loans to projects in countries that have failed to pay back debts to the United Kingdom: for example, will the Government supply loans to heavily indebted poor countries?
We have included a limit of 10 per cent., but I shall not be hoist on that petard. The figure seemed reasonable when we drafted the amendment, but we do not have to live or die by it. I hope that the principle of the amendment will appeal to the Minister and that he will be able to comment on it. If he cannot accept our suggestion, can he make some critical and qualitative comment on the percentage of development assistance given by way of loans to any individual country and tell us how the Department arrives at such decisions?
In the past, many developing countries got into serious debt. We should not condone that or contribute to it through any of our mechanisms. If we tie the hands of future Secretaries of State by setting parameters that will, if they take advantage of them, afford them some safety, it is likely that they will be grateful. The voluntary imposition of controls on the Secretary of State through this legislation will give him or her added protection against outside criticism.
Nothing in the clause states that financial assistance should be provided on a project basis. If the Minister can reassure us about that now, it will cancel the necessity to discuss it in connection with another part of the Bill. Are there any means of protecting the loans or grants by ensuring that they go to projects rather than directly to Governments? If funds are directed at projects and delivered through, for example, non-governmental organisations, there is far less likelihood of abuse. The problem of Zimbabwe was raised at International Development questions yesterday. It provides a prime example of aid funds going directly to a Government who have then managed to spend vast amounts of money pursuing a local war that is of no direct benefit to any Zimbabwean citizen.
I have posed several questions to the Minister, including whether the Government have placed any limit on the value of loans to individual projects. The Government have said that they do not envisage the loans being widely used, but if that is the case, why is there no limit in the Bill? I will not be hoist on the 10 per cent. petard, but I should like to know. Most important is the question of what precautions have the Government taken to ensure that the Bill does not lead to further indebtedness in poor countries?
I see the relief on the faces of Labour Members as I say that, at the moment, that is all I want to say on amendment No. 13.