INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT – 25 April 2002
Dr Julian Lewis: As this is my first and, quite possibly, only outing at the Dispatch Box, it is a great pleasure to be called on to summarise a debate on a subject that enjoys such general agreement on both sides of the House. The only significant clash has been, once again, over the former Commonwealth Development Corporation, and I hope to have time to return to that a little later.
I should like to think that some of the remarks from those on the Opposition Benches made during the Westminster Hall debate on the CDC on 10 April encouraged the Government to make more time available to debate international development, and all hon. Members present today have benefited from this debate.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) drew on his detailed knowledge of extremely primitive conditions in African villages. He made an excellent analogy between a snooker game and the way in which selfish protectionism can cost jobs at home on the rebound from blocking jobs abroad in poor countries.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr Jenny Tonge), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, was in reflective mood. She posed some serious questions about whether giving aid is merely to fight a losing battle, but resolved such doubts by an overriding sense of moral obligation. Her fears that we are sometimes told that more is being done than really is being done, because debt repayments are left out of the equation, struck a chord on both sides of the House – if not her reference to "bounders" in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department of Trade and Industry.
The hon. Member for Putney (Tony Colman) stressed fair trade, the provision of basic services via foreign investment and the need to reintegrate ex-militias into civil society in all too many damaged poor states.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, applied his encyclopaedic knowledge to many aspects of international development, not least the dumping of excess EU produce on poor countries as a result of the unreformed CAP, the scourge of AIDS, the long-term political goal of democratisation and the need to keep sight of what all the policies, pledges and statistics really mean in individual human terms.
AIDS was the main topic taken up by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Piara Khabra). He explained, with great seriousness, that arguments about patents for anti-AIDS drugs largely missed the point that it would often still be too expensive to distribute them, even if they were given free to poor countries, and that interrupted courses of treatment help to cause the virus to mutate and become much more resistant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Andrew Robathan) painted a depressing portrait of squalor, disease, corruption and intimidation in major unsettled African states, and referred to the prospect of terrorist training camps in Sudan, the time-bomb ticking in Nigeria and the decline in Zimbabwe caused primarily by the absence of anything approaching democracy and good governance. It was a powerful indictment of some of the problems that are largely beyond the reach of mere financial aid.
The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) – another member of the Select Committee – showed his considerable expertise on the way in which trade trends adversely affect the welfare of the least developed countries. He made a plea for the liberalisation of economies on both sides of the development divide and mentioned the support for political extremism in France. He may be interested to know that Aloïs Brunner, the man who organised the war-time deportation of the French Jews to Auschwitz – a terrible event, to which the hon. Gentleman referred – was sheltered for many years by the Syrian regime and may still be alive in Damascus even today. That is a salutary reminder of the morality and values of some Governments with whom we still have to deal.
The theme of trade liberalisation was taken up by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Simon Thomas), but I trust that he will forgive me for saying that my abiding memory of his speech will be what he told us about the role of Welsh enterprise and Welsh sheep in producing anti-snakebite serum for the developing world.
The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) stressed that sub-Saharan Africa is falling seriously behind and set out a worrying list of problems with his characteristic blend of thoughtfulness and thoroughness. As in Westminster Hall on 10 April, he expressed concern about the new direction of the CDC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Robert Syms) pointed out that what we used to call the "second world" countries of eastern Europe will inevitably rank high in the priorities of EU states. He highlighted the problems of ordinary businessmen in reaching potential markets in Africa.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Hilton Dawson) rightly praised the calibre of today's debate and spoke movingly about the privations that he witnessed in Angola and the need for an end to strife in the Sudan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who has shown a consistent interest in international development, brought his usual robust approach to the subject of international development and the European Union in general.
The hon. Members for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) made valuable contributions, although they were inevitably foreshortened by pressure of time. One of them previously intervened to ask whether the Opposition had ever committed itself to the UN target of 0.7 percent of GNP to be devoted to aid and had ever given a timetable for achieving that. The answer is yes to the first and no to the second question. Neither the Government nor the Opposition have ever given a time-frame for that great task to which we are all committed. The Liberal Democrats would be foolish to try to do so in advance of taking power, which I hope will be long in coming.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Caroline Spelman), the Shadow Secretary of State, covered six topics of primary concern. At the outset, she pressed powerfully the question of the CDC and brought out the problem, which was first aired when the Bill was going through in 1999, about the potential conflict between the CDC and DFID as providers of aid to underdeveloped countries. That conflict was denied at the time but, unfortunately, seems to exist now.
My hon. Friend drew attention to aid via the EU and the way in which distortion is taking place: even as the Government creditably put emphasis on providing aid to the right countries, the EU is falling massively behind and, indeed, reversing the priorities. In the report published yesterday, the Government proudly point out that their main donations are to sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and East Asia and the Pacific. The European Community, however, has been developing a strategy that has shown diminishing support for those priority areas and an ever-higher proportion of support going to what might be called the near abroad – the countries in the middle range of development, not the poorest countries, which should be our main concern.
My hon. Friend also touched on the BAE deal in Tanzania, her experiences in India, the problems of fair trade and, in particular, the question of debt. She is greatly concerned, as are others, that aid that is given with one hand should not be negated by the removal of a country's wealth in debt repayments by the other.
The Secretary of State gave what can be described only as a sombre review of life on a dollar a day, or at most two dollars a day. She said that terrible poverty in an age of excellent communications is a recipe for conflict, bitterness and hatred. She referred to the danger of Africa becoming a failed continent and pointed out that it was on the basis of failed states that terrorist regimes take root and prosper. That put me in mind of what was said in the first report from the Select Committee this Session about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The report states:
"We hope the Government's response to this report will address the issue of failing states, how they are monitored and what level of preparedness the international system can maintain to respond to problems in these failing states."
The Government's response has merely been to acknowledge the importance of that and to say:
"DFID is working in the OECD Development Assistance Committee study to identify best practice in how to promote change and reduce poverty in failed states and how to ensure that the international community remains sufficiently engaged with such states."
When the Minister replies I hope that he will expand on that and explain a little more precisely what the Government are doing to head off the potential of failed states leading to terrorist development.
Finally, the CDC issue was examined in great depth in the Westminster Hall debate on 10 April. It has been pointed out that, apart from the Minister himself, everyone who spoke in that debate was unhappy, dissatisfied and seriously alarmed about the CDC's change in direction. In his closing remarks in that debate, the Minister said:
"The CDC plays an important role and it is right that there should be scrutiny, but we must crack the fundamental problem – private capital does not want to invest in the poorest countries." – [Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 April 2002; Vol. 382, c. 21WH.]
If that really is the Minister's view, he must admit that the Government have taken a wrong turning with the CDC. The sooner they revisit mistaken action in connection with that important organisation, the sooner we will achieve unanimity, not on almost all the issues that have been debated today, but on every one of them.
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[NOTE: For THE TIMES’s account of the Government’s subsequent change of policy on the CDC, click here.]