Overseas Aid

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th November 1975.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Geoffrey De Freitas Mr Geoffrey De Freitas , Kettering 12:00 am, 7th November 1975

I am pleased to be able to give my welcome to the hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Tugendhat) in his rôle as Opposition Front Bench spokesman today, associating himself for the first time, as he put it, with hon. Members in all parts of the House who have taken an interest in aid for many years. The hon. Member referred to us in the Western countries watching suffering in the poorer countries on television. He reminded me of another horror—the possibility, first mentioned by Aneurin Bevan, of the distortion of development as a result of which people in developing countries might sit at television sets watching people in other developing countries starving to death. We have at all times to beware of this distortion.

The hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South referred to aid and trade. Aid I always present as being good in itself and essential. Trade I relate to my constituency. The two principal industries in my constituency are steel and footwear. I have always told my constituents that we cannot sell steel products and shoes to people who live in mud huts and go around barefoot.

It is deplorable that we have had so few opportunities in recent years, under both Governments, of debating this subject. I was interested to note that when, a week ago at business questions time, I asked the Leader of the House whether we could look forward to more general debates in future, there were murmurs of support from all quarters of the House. That is something which the Minister ought to bear in mind and carry back to his Department.

I am Chairman of our Select Committee on Overseas Development. We have particularly regretted this lack of debate. At present we are nearing the end of what we think is an important inquiry into food prices and rural development. I stress rural development in view of what the hon. Member said about steel mills. We have tried to get down to real rural development. I cannot speak on this for the Committee but I am fairly certain that all members of it support the White Paper as far as it goes. Certainly we support the Minister, as we supported his predecessor. The White Paper does not go far enough in bringing out the appalling effect of the oil crisis on the developing world. It gives general support but it does not deal with the dramatic points we brought out in our report presented last year and published at the beginning of this year.

Paragraphs 16 and 19 of our Select Committee's report on the oil crisis cite as an example the dreadful results for India from the high costs of oil imports in 1974. I quote India because the scale of suffering there is so enormous, but its problems are shared by other developing countries. The cost of oil imports in 1974 was twice the cost in 1973, and the figure for 1975 will probably be greater. Even allowing for an increase in the prices obtained for the exports of commodities, the poorest countries are suffering greatly. I have seen an estimate that from 1973 to 1975 India has probably had a net balance of payments loss of over $3½ per head of population.

In paragraph 24 of our report we say with careful and deliberate understatement—we follow the pattern of most Select Committees and we do not indulge in over-emphasis—that the prospects for the next five years are alarming. However, we are encouraged that the Government realise this. We welcome the Government's reference on the cover of the White Paper to the fact that there has been a change in emphasis and that we now set out to give more help to the poorest countries.

I am disappointed that more is not said in the White Paper about the voluntary agencies. Members of our Select Committee felt that the voluntary agencies would have an even more important rôle in future. That view was reinforced by members of the Committee who had heard at first-hand of the experience of the North American agencies. We were all greatly impressed to hear about the close co-operation between the American voluntary agencies and the American Overseas Development Council—this is something which we should learn—which together have considerable influence on opinion in Congress and among the public. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to say more about the voluntary agencies. Our Select Committee talked with many people in the national and international aid agencies. We found that their problems were similar to ours, and we felt that if we worked together more we could achieve more.

My right hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South referred, as does the White Paper in Chapter IX, to the European Economic Community. I welcome what is said in Chapter IX, particularly as I serve on the European Parliament's Committee on Development and Cooperation. However, I wish that I had more cheerful news from the European Community. The Minister referred, although not in great detail—I do not suggest that he should have done—to the discussions which he had had with his fellow Ministers in the Community. The hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South referred to the fact that many of us believed that if this country were to remain in the Community the totality of aid would be greater than the sum of the individual contributions.

Earlier this year I campaigned hard to persuade people to vote for this country remaining a member of the European Economic Community, and I had to meet the argument that the Community was a rich white man's club interested only in the prosperity of Western Europe. I had spent some years working in black Africa—as British High Commissioner in West Africa, and in East Africa in Kenya at the time of independence. Because of the enormous size of the British community and of the Asian community, my main concern in Kenya on independence was that of law and order. Fortunately, as things worked out, the problem did not develop and we were able to concentrate on a programme of technical assistance and co-operation and on turning the colonial link into a Commonwealth link.

My experience in Africa was known to many people and so, during the referendum campaign, I was questioned at public meetings and in interviews. I was repeatedly asked about aid and whether our membership of the European Community would allow us to continue to help our fellow Commonwealth countries on the same scale as before. I replied that our continued membership would enable us to increase development aid to the poorer Commonwealth countries. I was encouraged in that belief because of what I understood to be the policy not only of the British Government but of all the Governments of the Community.

In recent months many people in this country—I am one of them—have come to dislike what they believe to be a change in the attitudes of the Governments of the Community. The Council of Ministers appears to be going back on the brave attitude which it adopted only a few months ago. I said in the European Parliament last month that I should find it difficult to make speeches on this similar to those which I made only four or five months ago, and I do not like being in such a position.

I do not argue that it is the duty of the British Government or of any other Government to worry about my political conscience, but the Governments of the Nine must not appear to be going back on their former brave attitudes. Fortunately, my right hon. Friend the Minister can have a clear conscience in his dealings with the other Governments, but right hon. and hon. Members must ensure that the Council does its duty to the Third World, because the Community is a rich white man's organisation and it has enormous opportunities to help the Third World. In furthering that aim, my right hon. Friend can be assured that he will have the support not only of many hon. Members of this House—that he knows—but of many members of the European Parliament.