Adjournment (Summer)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:26 pm on 24th July 1986.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , Daventry 6:26 pm, 24th July 1986

I do not intend to follow the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), and I do not see why anyone else should. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that in many ways his speech was an abuse of the House.

The motion before us affects the dates of the recess. The short debate that we traditonally have on this occasion is used by Back Benchers to express briefly their concern that certain matters that they think are important should have further debate. It is essentially a Back Benchers' occasion. The right hon. Gentleman did not simply tell us why he thought that there should be a debate on the Westland affair but made the speech that he would have made in opening a debate on the subject. In doing so he took far too much time.

This is an issue which the minority of our constituents who were interested a few months ago have forgotten. Again it merely shows how far the Labour party is out of touch with the real concerns of people and how obsessed it is with fighting yesterday's battle.

I want to refer to one aspect of the timing of the summer recess. We go into recess just as Ministers have begun the annual process of the public expenditure review. We do that at about this stage every year. We shall come back from the recess when the review is either completed or nearing completion. That also repeats the pattern of previous years.

I wish to put a general proposition and a specific point. My general proposition is that the public expenditure review is among the most important decision-making processes that affect any Government in any year. It determines the shape and size of all our main spending programmes. It affects our national economy and to a large extent determines the shape of the Chancellor's Budget.

Because of our timetable, the public expenditure review is largely immune from parliamentary reaction. It is immune from any process of debate by which Members of Parliament can voice their views on expenditure priorities while the discussions on public expenditure take place.

A radical review of the timetable of the House during the 12-month period is required. The public expenditure review and the priorities contained within it demand far more of our parliamentary time. Having made that general point, I wish to make a specific plea to the Government to pay close attention, in the coming months and in the context of public expenditure, to the overseas aid programme.

The programme is much too small, has been too small under successive Governments and ought to be increased. The irony is that last year and the year before we had debates on the overseas aid programme, as outlined in the public expenditure review. On 22 November 1984, we had a day's debate on the subject when the House commented on the aid programme for the coming year. That programme was criticised on both sides of the House because it was inadequate. Last year we had a foreign affairs debate during the debate on the Loyal Address in which we largely concentrated on the overseas aid programme. Similar criticisms of the inadequacy of the programme were made but, at that time, the expenditure figures had not been announced—they were announced three days later. However, they were generally known. The criticisms were retrospective criticisms of the policies made by Government.

I had hoped that, somehow, we could have adjourned a little later this year in order to have a full scale debate on overseas aid. In that way the views of hon. Members on both sides could concentrate on the need for a larger programme. I do not wish to repeat the traditional arguments for the overseas aid programme but I believe there are overriding moral arguments and arguments of enlightened self-interest. Most hon. Members who speak on this matter agree with the general argument—there is no difference between political parties. There is the simple recognition that successive Governments have not measured up to their promises.

I shall make four points for increasing aid this year, and my arguments are especially applicable this year. First, the crisis in sub-Saharan Africa has not gone away and will not go away. Only last week, the Overseas Development Administration announced a new initiative to help with an airlift to people in the Sekota region of Ethiopia. People are starving there because of what has become the all-too-familiar sequence. Earlier poor levels of rainfall led to a low yield of crops. This was followed by flash floods which led to the interruption of transport facilities. Therefore, an airlift had to be mounted —this time by the Belgian air force and supported by contributions from this country and other donor countries. That case is typical of the announcements which have been made by the ODA and its sister organisations in the western world. Such announcements have been made week by week over the past two years and they will continue to be made. We are giving help but what is wrong — many other hon. Members agree—is that the help we are giving is within the scope of a small aid programme and is therefore at the expense of other recipients. We have not recognised that this crisis in Africa presents a new dimension to the problem and it demands extra resources from all the major donors.

Secondly, public opinion is readier to support a greater aid effort from this country. The success of Live Aid, Band Aid and Sports Aid and the success of hundreds of local initiatives demonstrates people's concern. People are prepared to give and are prepared to work for fund-raising activities and they want the Government to do more. It is pure coincidence that, today, Her Majesty the Queen has knighted Mr. Geldof, but the fact that she has done so underlines the message that I am trying to convey.

My third point is something of a paradox. We could do substantially more for the aid programme at the cost of a tiny amount in relation to general public spending. At the moment, the net aid programme is costing something less than £1·25 billion a year, while total public spending is £140 billion a year. We are talking about less than 1 per cent. of the total expenditure. About a year ago, I wrote to the Prime Minister about this and pointed out that a 50 per cent. increase in the aid programme would mean an increase in public spending of less than 0·5 per cent. However, the Prime Minister said that this would mean an extra £500 million and was an unthinkable amount. I do not believe that that is an unthinkable amount. If the political will were there it would and should have been done then, and it can be this year.

My final point is that it is time our actions lived up to our words. This Government, like previous Governments, have supported, at special assemblies of the United Nations and numerous other international conferences, the case for a larger transfer of resources from the developed countries. The summit meetings of the seven leading economic powers have made that appeal. We were part of that when the summit met in London, two years ago, in June 1984. Paragraph 15 of its communique states: Ministers urged all donors to make determined efforts to increase aid flows in line with agreed targets". If we are committed, on paper, to making increased efforts, I suggest to the Government it is time we increased it. We could do so this year and we could accompany it with an appeal to other developed countries, not only in the west but in the Soviet bloc, to do more. We could give a bold and imaginative lead to the world in the most important question now facing people.