Co-operation and Economic Development in the Commonwealth

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:17 pm on 21st November 1983.

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Photo of Mr Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich 8:17 pm, 21st November 1983

I am delighted that this subject is being debated. My one regret is that the debate is taking place at the wrong time. My information is that the Prime Minister took off for Delhi at 2.30 pm today, and is presumably now winging her way across Saudi Arabia. Therefore, she has been unable to hear the speeches tonight. I think that perhaps she should have heard them before going to the Heads of Government meeting, which starts on Wednesday, though she is unlikely to take much notice of what we say tonight, even if she were willing to do so. It is vital that the Prime Minister should take the conference seriously. She should come out with a positive attitude and do something to correct the appalling impression that she made in Melbourne in 1981.

I am glad that the debate is about the Commonwealth and Britain's relationship with the other 47 members. Alas, such debates are rare. I do not believe that we have had a debate about the Commonwealth since Britain entered the Common Market. Any hon. Member who visits any Commonwealth country will soon realise the degree to which support for the Commonwealth exists. There is much more support for it abroad than there is here. I have just returned from a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Nairobi. I was reminded again and again of the enthusiasm for the Commonwealth which exists in other Commonwealth countries and I wish that it was reflected here to a greater extent.

There has, however, been a greater recognition of the role of the Commonwealth over the past four or five years, which has been reflected on both sides of the House. The Minister mentioned the Commonwealth's role in Zimbabwe. I can go back further than that, because I believe that the Rhodesian settlement and the independence of Zimbabwe were major achievements by the Commonwealth. We could not have done it by ourselves, and we did not do it by ourselves. The Commonwealth is entitled to most of the credit for settling a problem which was almost as serious as that which the French had to face in the late 1950s in Algeria, and the Commonwealth was probably more successful. A major part was played by the Presidents of the front-line states, by the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, and by Michael Manley the former Prime Minister of Jamaica.

The Commonwealth, as I know from having seen it, has played, and is still playing, a major role in helping Uganda back to democratic government and the rule of law. That country's aspirations—as I know from contacts that I have had—are firmly democratic and Commonwealth-oriented.

There has already been some discussion between the Front Benches about the three reports that have been published by groups of experts. I wish to say a little about two of them, although all are of enormous value. The first is "North-South Dialogue; Making it Work". I believe that that was a valuable contribution to world negotiations. The document on protectionism, which was published last year, was of great value, and we can learn an enormous amount from the recent publication of the Helleiner committee.

I believe there is a danger that unless Delhi points the way forward the Commonwealth will begin to run out of steam. I noticed with interest that Mr. Derek Ingram said recently: The trouble with the Commonwealth today is not that it is in any way in danger as far as its survival is concerned (it is not), but that it is in danger of sending its members to sleep. The international position is alarming enough. The Commonwealth is uniquely qualified to play a significant role, but this week it begins a Heads of Government meeting in Delhi still needing to work out where it is going in the international order of things.

I wish to illustrate that in a number of ways. The first is Grenada, which promises to be a major issue at Delhi. I believe that part of the reason behind the crisis of the past month or two was a failure by the Commonwealth and the Government. What political objective did the Government believe they were serving when they cut our aid to Grenada by three quarters? Was it done because of political prejudice? I believe that the Government must bear a heavy responsibility for their cold-shoulder treatment of the Bishop Government. The reason must have been political, because, according to the World Bank, Grenada had an excellent developmental record.

The Commonwealth also has a responsibility for the crisis. About half the Commonwealth countries are small island states, some of them maintaining stability and integrity with difficulty. That fact was recognised at Chogm in 1981. It is ironic, is it not, to recall that at that conference Grenada and St. Lucia proposed the setting up of a Commonwealth Select Committee on small island states and other specially disadvantaged areas? That proposal was rejected. I wonder what the right hon. Lady's position was on that?

The Commonwealth is the only international organisation of any size with a strong bias in its membership towards small island states. I believe that that gives it a special responsibility in that area. It is no accident that Sir Shridath Ramphal was able to speak with authority on behalf of the Commonwealth during the Falklands crisis and say: In making a firm and unambiguous response to Argentine aggression, Britain is rendering a service to the international community as a whole. During the Grenada debate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) claimed that grave damage was done to the unity of the Commonwealth by recent events in the east Caribbean. Patrick Keatley in The Guardian today predicts a split in the summit on that issue. I think that that division arises because of the Commonwealth's failure to act in time.

The other nettle that Delhi must grasp is the desperate plight of the poorest countries, of which the Commonwealth contains a high proportion. The three reports to which I referred earlier gave practical suggestions about the way forward and guidelines for the Commonwealth and other Governments to follow.

The Helleiner committee, echoing the words of "Common Crisis", called for the OECD countries to achieve 0·7 per cent. of GNP official aid in the 1980s. The Minister's response to that aim, which we heard this evening, is pathetic, complacent and even self-satisfied. We are told that we are doing all that we can until we have our house in order. The Government have used that excuse for five years and it is wearing a bit thin. Moreover, their performance is not, despite the Minister's fine words, getting any better. It is becoming worse. The Minister repeatedly uses cash figures, but it is clear from the public expenditure White Paper that in real terms our aid programme this year is £936 million at 1981–82 prices compared with £1,108 million in 1979—the Labour Government's last year. The Government have no record of which to be proud.

I can point to one example of gross dereliction of duty by the Government in relation to aid. One of the best multilateral programmes in existence is the UNDP. Its work is supported not just by words by the developing countries. They subscribe 60 per cent. of its budget. The Government slashed the contribution to UNDP by no less than 56 per cent. in real terms. The small increase offered by the Government at the pledging conference the other day, hardly makes up for so massive a cut. That fund is vital to the needs of the poorest countries. Many of them are Commonwealth countries. I believe that the Government have a duty to restore their contribution to the previous level.

There are two issues which relate directly to the role of the Commonwealth—technical co-operation and finance. I was glad to hear what the Minister said about the Commonwealth fund for technical co-operation. I know how highly it is respected by his Department. That fund has been operating for well over 10 years. It sprang from the concept of third party aid. It exists on a relatively small budget of only about £20 million a year. Technical aid for the poorest and most disadvantaged countries is certain to be a continuing need for many years to come.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that we in Britain will be able to continue to provide the bilateral technical assistance personnel of the quality that have been available in the past. The reason is that for about 20 years we have been able to employ ex-colonial specialists—ex-agriculture, forestry and livestock officers—whose training and experience on the ground cannot be matched today. They are now retiring in significant numbers and are not being replaced by people of similar training and experience.

Last week, on 17 November, a written answer showed that Government plans to reduce the Civil Service will mean a cut in ODA strength from 1,793·5 on the staff to 1,500 in 1988, a fall of 16 per cent. over four years. The first 12·5 per cent. of the fall comes in the first year. Meanwhile, I gather that the Home Office expects the number of its staff to rise from 35,755 to 41,132 over the same four-year period, an increase of 15 per cent. in its manpower. There will be 5,000 extra people. What is the logic behind that? When he is asked why there is a cut, the Chancellor of the Exchequer usually replies, "For more efficient use of manpower." This is happening at a time when the ODA is losing some of its most experienced and valuable staff. I hope that the Minister will answer my question, because I am concerned about the strength of the ODA, which will be affected by the staff cuts which appear to have been approved by the Cabinet.

For some time I have been critical of the administrative set up of the ODA in the field. I have high regard for the development divisions. They do a first-class job and at present are well staffed, although many of them cover much too wide an area. The ODA needs to administer its own programme overseas and not to be dependent on the diplomatic service to do that for it, although the diplomatic staff whom I have met, who have been charged with that responsibility, generally do a good job.

Our competence, which is lower than in the past, leads me to ask whether there is a widening role for the Commonwealth fund for technical co-operation. Is it not time that the Commonwealth began to think seriously about greatly increasing its budget? Serious thought should be given now to the possibility of setting up under the fund a Commonwealth development service. Such a service could recruit staff from all over the Commonwealth, including Britain. Many ex-volunteers from VSO, its Canadian equivalent, and others, would want to apply, and would come with two years' experience in the field.

India, Malaysia and other countries have a fund of experience that would be highly relevant to the needs of other tropical countries—experience gained from the green revolution, and knowledge about irrigation, pest control, forest management, co-operative development and appropriate technology. I emphasise that the purpose of the service would be to supply people to work on the ground and gain a knowledge of tropical conditions. However valuable visiting experts may be, they cannot compensate for the lack of experience on the ground that has been available in the past from people with years of experience in tropical countries.

A terrifying food crisis is developing in the African continent. What is called for is an imaginative and bold initiative of the sort that I have described, because there will be a continuing need in that continent for a high level of technical co-operation and assistance for many years to come.

I was fascinated by an idea put forward recently in an article by Guy Arnold. There is no time to refer to the recommendations of the Helleiner committee, but Mr. Arnold's suggestions could make a contribution. The article deals with the problem of indebtedness. He proposes a new Commonwealth initiative. I have no doubt that it will not be considered in Delhi this week, but I hope that it will be considered one day. His idea is a Commonwealth development bank. The bank would be funded by capital and interest repayments to Britain and other rich members of the Commonwealth instead of being fed back to the general funds of the donor countries. Debt repayment and forgiveness during 1981–82 amounted to no less than £68 million to Britain alone. I suggest that that money should go to the bank. It would mean that all our aid to Commonwealth countries would be in the shape of grants, and as a consequence the Commonwealth bank would have a regular income, which it could employ in the same way as the World Bank and the IDA do at present.

It is all very well to rail against Congress for its failure to ratify replenishment of the IDA, but the Commonwealth can, and should, give a practical example, through practical action, because of the urgency of the position facing the world. In "Common Crisis" there are references to the role of groups of like-minded countries and the possibility that they could help to break the logjam in global negotiations. The Commonwealth report "North-South Dialogue; Making it Work", is a valuable contribution to that end.

There are practical contributions which a group of nations such as the Commonwealth could make to help to heal more sick people, help more starving people and give hope to the poor who at present have little or no hope. The value of that contribution, although it may be relatively small in world terms, can go much wider. It can shake the Americans and the Russians out of their present complacency. It can demonstrate what can be done, and should be done, in the alarming position now facing the world.