The Brandt Commission Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:22 pm on 18th April 1983.

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Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Beeston 10:22 pm, 18th April 1983

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis). He will understand that I cannot match his experiences in Central America, but some of the facts that he gave to the House confirm the Select Committee view of that part of the world. I have enjoyed listening to many speeches from both sides of the House. I enjoyed in particular the speech by the hon. Member for Waltham Forest (Mr. Deakins) who argued in a reasoned way and gave the House valuable additional facts. My speech will not echo all that he said, but it will some of it.

I join hon. Members who thanked the Foreign Secretary for opening the debate. We are grateful to him, because it reflects the importance that he attaches to this international debate.

My right hon. Friend said that, whether we like it or not, the world is interdependent, which affects relationships throughout the world. Some of us like that. Some of us have a sense of positive responsibility for other parts of the world and a sense of positive identification with peoples in all parts of the world, although not necessarily with their Governments. We certainly have a sense of criteria by which we can judge the problems of the world, the degree of those problems and the desire to influence events so that many more people have the chance of the good life. I shall not go into the moral arguments, but they are strong within the House and outside. It is that positive approach that I want to encourage.

There are others, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend), who do not like the fact that we live in an interdependent world with all our relationships advancing one on another. He suggested that low commodity prices help to defeat inflation, yet he does not want to see people dying from starvation. That is so elementary a conflict that one is led to wonder how he ever came to such a conclusion. Perhaps he believes in monetary theory and the Malthusian principle.

When we consider the programmes of change that "Common Crisis" calls for, we must realise that we face a problem with some of our constituents and some of our colleagues. One of the problems is the complexity of agencies and the lingo of the aid programme. In a previous incarnation, as Under-Secretary of State for Employment, I became familiar with acronyms such as YOP, STEP, and CEP, but they pale into insignificance when compared with those that form part of the aid programme and the developing world. However, the sales of the first Brandt report and "Common Crisis" show a much wider interest in Britain and in other countries than many would have us believe.

I support entirely the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who gave us a brilliant analysis and suggested positive ways in which we could do something. I support his call to my right hon. Friend for skilled initiatives from probably the most experienced team in the developed world in moving forward to "Common Crisis". Labour Members have talked about a change of tone in the Government. My right hon. and hon. Friends have talked about political will—I think that we have the necessary political will in our team. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been widely praised by independent people for his commitment to aid. They have rightly supported his action on the quota as chairman of the IMF interim committee. Few who know him well would doubt that he has as great a commitment as anyone in the Chamber.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a positive speech and is not a slouch in these matters. When he addressed the Royal Commonwealth Society recently he said: Co-operation is easier to talk about than to achieve. But it was never more important than now. There is no question about the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has already established his interest in aid and demonstrated the energy with which he pursues it. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is now a senior Western leader, is in a position to bring influence to bear on President Reagan. She is being asked by many to do that at the Williamsburg conference, and I hope that those who have already written it off as a tea party or a wasted exercise will be shown to be wrong. My right hon. Friend is a capable and energetic lady and I am sure that she is capable of springing a surprise, even on this issue. I hope that something will emerge from the Williamsburg conference that is very much stronger than tea.

I support the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Prentice) that it seems impossible to discuss world economic order at Williamsburg without discussing the second Brandt report at the same time. It is clear that they are indivisible. I support his comments about what we can do individually or collectively to influence our colleagues in Congress and in the Senate.

The hon. Member for Waltham Forest brought out some interesting facts about the proportion of aid. It is a cause of sadness to those who support the United States and many of its citizens that it seems to be very much the odd man out on this issue. We should miss no opportunity to tell our friends in that country that they should not underestimate our sense of sorrow at the growing isolationism that we see in their country by the adoption of its present attitude.

Brandt 2 does not replace Brandt 1, particularly in the important areas of water, health and food production. That highlights the continued importance of development aid and I welcome the fact that the Government have increased it and are continuing to do so in the current Estimates. The Government rightly concentrate their aid on the poorest nations, saying—and this is proven by the figures—that two-thirds of our aid is going to the poorest nations. But I hope that that does not become just a general incantation, because many people are concerned that not only should the aid go to the poorest nations but that it should go the poorest in those nations. A doctor recently suggested that the measure of health in any country should be the number of taps and clean water wells per 1,000 of the population, rather than the number of hospital beds.

Those of us who support the development aid programme and seek to extend it want to see it used efficiently and effectively, and that means that we need a constant review of the methods and means by which it is applied, be it bilateral or multilateral, or provided through United Nations or European agencies. We should be cautious to make sure that whatever the channel, the aid goes through and in the end, is effective. We therefore welcome the ODA Sub-Committee selecting Bangladesh as a country in which we need to look at the total aid programme from all sources and evaluate it, with the help of hon. Members and all who are interested in the subject, so as to get a sense of independent direction.

The reason for constant review lies in the fact that we see a constantly changing pattern in the 160 countries that have received aid. Hon. Members have referred to the newly industrialised countries, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington suggested that they had not really received any aid. If he looks at the facts he will see that many of them have had tremendous amounts of aid and have in the main justified the aid programme. It means that those countries need to adjust and cannot retain the protection they have had in the past. Equally, other countries for as far ahead as we can see will need basic food aid if they are to survive and maintain those minimum standards which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) mentioned, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another reason why we need constantly to review our development aid is to ensure that the purpose of it going to the poorest countries—to help the poorest in those countries — is being achieved. Many infrastructure projects, for instance, sound fine, until one realises that they are not revenue-generating and are high in maintenance terms. Many of the poorest countries are not capable of supporting that level of maintenance. Those who have seen the Tanzanian railway know how difficult it has been to maintain the transportation on that system—because they have not been able to maintain the trains that were given to them.

Equally, we are concerned in terms of the green revolution, which is essential for food production. We must ensure that it does not benefit the better-off peasants and increase the number of landless and really poverty-stricken in those countries. In Brazil, for example, we have seen fast growth and the problems of poverty becoming increasingly chronic, with practical solutions seeming to be almost impossible.

When we recognise the principal condition which motivates most of us—the condition of hunger and the need to end hunger—our main concern must be that those who do not have enough to eat should have the incomes to buy adequate food or the means to produce it. That means our reviewing closely the way in which our aid goes forward. I have a reason for speaking in that way. I have evidence to show that if we can prove a direct relationship between the aid we give and the benefit to the poorest of the poor in those countries, we shall find a wide measure of support in this country that has not yet been tapped.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) mentioned the valuable work being done by a small group of dedicated people in eradicating polio. I went to the United Nations and heard about the medical breakthrough in oral rehydration salts, which is a way of treating the 13,000 children a day who die of dehydration, who can survive only by medication. There is now a pack of people's medicine—a pack of salts that any mother can give a child to help it over that critical period of two hours when it can die from dehydration and diarrhoea. It costs 5p a pack.

As a result, I have launched an appeal in my area with the active support of Radio Nottingham, Radio Leicester, Radio Derby and the Nottingham Evening Post to raise £25,000 to buy 500,000 packs of these oral rehydration salts—there they are, 5p—for a province in south Sudan to help 80,000 children for a year.

We launched this appeal on the "Afternoon Special" programme on Radio Nottingham with a man called Dennis McCarthy, who has a tremendous record of help and support in this area. It was humbling to receive the telephone calls, and it is heart warming to see the donations of £5 and £10 coming in to the bank. We have been going for just over a week only and we have already exceeded about £1,800. Many groups of disabled people, students and all sorts of other people, have telephoned and offered to start a project to raise enough money to help to buy 500,000 of these packs and to see them distributed by UNICEF to the most critical area in the Sudan, which many hon. Members will know has also about 500,000 Ethiopian refugees.

It has proved to me that if one can define the problem and put forward a technique that appeals an a way in which the public can help, they respond generously. It seems to be a lesson for all forums, whether it is a local voluntary forum, our national debate or the great international debate that we are interested in tonight.

I should like to put forward with the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells) the view that in Brandt and "Common Crisis" we see the problem and its urgency. I am convinced, from what we have heard tonight and from a variety of sources, that international resources exist to act on Brandt 2. I hope that the debate will give the Government the will to find the machinery to deliver in the highest traditions of internationalism of the House.