Standing Committee D
Tuesday 27 November 2001
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
Amendment proposed [22 November]: No. 5, in page 1, line 16, at the end to add the words—
`(4) The Secretary of State shall publish an annual report on the performance of the development assistance programme against stated poverty reduction targets and shall lay a copy of the report before Parliament.'.—[Mrs. Spelman.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking new clause 1—Reduction in poverty: co-ordination within government—
`(1) The Secretary of State shall make arrangements to promote a focus on reduction in poverty throughout all government departments and agencies in their relations with developing countries.
(2) The Secretary of State for International Development shall, jointly with ministers responsible for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry, prepare and lay before Parliament an annual report on the work done in pursuance of the arrangements made under subsection (1).'.
I believe that Dr. Tonge was speaking, so I call her to continue.
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Thank you, Mr. Griffiths, but I think that I had finished my remarks. I cannot remember my last sentence, but I think that it was pretty conclusive, as hon. Members will be pleased to hear.
The Chairman: Very good. The Minister, then.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Thank you, Mr. Griffiths.
I am sure that no hon. Members will need reminding of the debate that we almost concluded on Thursday afternoon. I have the opportunity to respond to the points raised by the hon. Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge).
First, I address the question of the need for an annual report, which is the substance of one of the amendments. As the hon. Member for Meriden acknowledged, when I lifted the weighty copy of the annual report and waved it in her direction, the Department for International Development publishes an annual report, the latest copy of which relates to 2001.
It might help if I point out that that departmental report is published under an arrangement established in 1991, when the Treasury required each Department to prepare an annual report as part of the public expenditure survey process. The Treasury sets out the core standard requirements each year and, together with the Public Accounts Committee, takes a close interest in the reports and their formats. Before 1991, each Department's activities were described in a chapter of the public expenditure White Paper. The current system was introduced in response to concern from Parliament that more information was needed about the activities of Departments. That concern may lie behind the hon. Lady's comments, and I am sure that all members would agree that such a need exists. Following the establishment of the Department for International Development as a separate Department in 1997, we began to publish our own report.
One might describe the requirement of 10 years' standing that an annual report is made as a relatively long-standing requirement. To that extent, the requirement is part of our unwritten constitution. After the report is published, it is scrutinised by the Select Committee, as the hon. Member for Meriden knows. This year, it contains a lot of information relating to the international development targets or millennium development goals, and to the public service agreements.
The hon. Lady referred to degree of detail, and to under-five maternal mortality and the percentage of children in primary education. I guide her to page 26 of the Department's annual report, which reports indications of the progress that we are making against the public service agreement in respect of those three targets, in relation to the United Kingdom's top 30 development partners. The report contains a lot of information, and we are keen that information of that type should be available to the House for scrutiny.
I address, too, the point raised my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) about the need to follow up the benefits of spending—a point that was referred to by the hon. Member for Meriden. I accept my hon. Friend's point, but we must clearly strike a balance between our desire to follow through the process and to audit the use to which the money has been put—in other words, to achieve the accountability that all hon. Members would like—and the need to do so in a way that constructs systems that do not overload the Government of the developing country.
That problem became apparent to me on my recent visit to Malawi. We are the largest donor to that country, but there are other bilateral donors and multilateral institutions as well. In countries where capacity within government is a big issue—Malawi is a good example, not least because of the scourge of HIV/AIDS on a range of occupations in that country—we must consider the extent to which donors can unwittingly impose an excessive burden, because of the different forms of accountability that we seek to our own Parliaments and institutions. To ensure that we do not create difficulties for the developing countries instead of assisting them to make progress, we need to work further on ways to bring together donor activity and donor accounting and accountability systems.
The hon. Lady drew attention to the issue of the effectiveness of the spend. We will produce a more comprehensive review of the effectiveness of our development assistance in a new publication early next year, which will be called ``Development Effectiveness Review''. It will not only assess the performance of continuing projects, but bring together the results of evaluation studies. We all rightly have an interest in ensuring that the money that we invest is used in the most effective way possible.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I am grateful to the Minister for what he said about the development of methodologies to assess how effective the funds that we deploy in other countries are. However, I acknowledged that the collection of information could prove onerous, not least because the individuals required to undertake the task may not have had appropriate training. They may not be there at all. I meant that it was right to set about identifying the limits that prevent nations from producing such information. We know that aid has sometimes been given but used for purposes other than those specified. That was my point, and I am pleased that some progress will be made in tackling such a difficult task.
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, as I think that we are at one. My comments about the further review of effectiveness are an acknowledgment of her point.
New clause 1 relates to joined-up government, the second matter that we are debating. I accept the case made by the hon. Member for Meriden, and point to two examples where the Government try to live up to the desire for joined-up government. One is our action on Sierra Leone. I came into the Department as a new Minister, and one of the first meetings that I attended was about Sierra Leone. It was striking to sit around the table and see representatives of DFID, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office working as a group, in as joined-up a way as one could imagine, to try to ensure that we tackled the problems that face the country. Each representative of a Department had a specific contribution to make, but we worked as a team and shared information. That is a living, breathing example of the hon. Lady's point.
The second example was the statement made to the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry before she went to the Doha summit, which the hon. Member for Meriden acknowledged was a welcome development. The statement was almost entirely about the development potential of the summit. It was a perfect example of what we seek to achieve. Twenty or 30 years ago, it would have been difficult to envisage the person in her position making a statement about future trade talks that related so much to the interests of developing countries. That is another indicator of the extent to which the need for a joined-up approach to development issues is reflected in practice.
Dr. Tonge: I thank the Minister for that explanation. I accept that there have recently been welcome examples of co-operation between Departments. None the less, I support the hon. Member for Meriden because we need a provision in the Bill. It is all very well benevolent Ministers being prepared to co-operate with their colleagues in other Departments, but that may not be the case in another Administration. We should, therefore, make it clear in the Bill that we expect such co-operation.
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Lady because she pre-empted what I was about to say about the wording of the amendment and about why the Committee should not proceed with it.
First, a duty should be imposed as a matter of law when that is necessary to achieve the goal in question. Secondly, it should be cast in sufficiently precise terms to make it plain that it is being met. I do not mean this as a slight on the drafting of new clause 1, but the duty ``to promote a focus'' could lead to difficulties with definitions. What does promoting a focus mean and how would the term be interpreted when deciding whether a future Secretary of State—I note the hon. Lady's point in that regard—has fulfilled that requirement?
The only way to improve the wording would be to formulate specific directions as to how Departments must carry out their business. Even if we could do so, it would not be a desirable step. We might end up placing constraints on the co-operation that the new clause seeks and which all members of the Committee support.