Orders of the Day — International Development Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 7th November 2001.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 6:18 pm, 7th November 2001

While my hon. Friend was speaking, the conundrum of Burma came to mind. Its Government have an unacceptable human rights record, and we know that within it there are persecuted minorities in desperate need of humanitarian relief. That is the kind of acid test that I would like to address in Committee, to ensure that the drafting allows us to find a way to meet the real needs of the minorities in a country whose Government have a record of obstructing relief for those who need it. His intervention has drawn attention to an important test against which the Bill must be measured, and that is what we shall do in Committee.

We are all concerned that the right schemes should get funding for the right reasons. As I have said, we endorse the aim of reducing poverty, but we are concerned that some projects that do not have poverty reduction as their first and foremost function may be adversely affected by the Bill. One way of ensuring that they continue to receive funding would be explicitly to mention good governance as contributing to poverty reduction. Schemes that work to reduce corruption or to support customs and excise functions would then be secure.

We should seek a clearer definition of certain terms in the Bill, which relies heavily on the Secretary of State's interpretation of what would reduce poverty. I understand that that allows flexibility; she explained that that was the benefit. Ultimately, however, it is her interpretation that will decide where her Department can and cannot allocate spending. No doubt we shall be told that that will be set out in guidance to the Bill, but we rarely have sight of such guidance when we scrutinise legislation.

The other term that might be worthy of definition is "humanitarian". I remind hon. Members that one of the chief aims of the Bill is to ensure that aid is not used for political or diplomatic leverage. With humanitarian aid it is easier than with most other kinds of aid to misuse aid spending to serve a wider political agenda.

Humanitarian aid, like other forms of aid, should help all who are in need, whatever their political or religious standpoint. It might be better if the Bill reflected that principle. We are concerned that, without a proper definition of humanitarian aid, some necessary help may be prevented.

One example is the war aim of the coalition partners in the present crisis to reconstruct Afghanistan—an aim that we wholeheartedly support. We do not know at what time reconstruction may be able to commence, although we have pushed hard for it, because it must happen if ordinary Afghans are to believe that our war is not with them. We need to think carefully about what form it should take. May I suggest to the Secretary of State that, cost and risk permitting, we might jointly visit Pakistan to make a better assessment of how British aid could be deployed in the rebuilding process? Given the destruction in Afghanistan, even before 11 September, it is likely that reconstruction will be a long process, going well beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis. It would be a pity if the process of reconstruction were curtailed prematurely because of the way in which humanitarian aid was interpreted.

The principal reason why we support the Bill is that it will ensure that the Department for International Development's spending goes on worthy projects. It is the policy of both main parties that international development spending should increase to the UN guideline of 0.7 per cent. of GDP. It would be tragic if the funds that we have were wasted on projects that sustained poverty or did not focus on development.

In another place, their Lordships raised the issue of overseas development aid being used to help regimes that perpetrate human rights abuses. The right hon. Lady referred to a certain amendment and its outcome in the other place. This is a difficult area, and I choose my words carefully when I reiterate what Baroness Rawlings said. Although we want women in developing countries to have access to the best possible help with family planning, we do not support a policy of coercive abortion and sterilisation.

We must be careful that any change to the legislation that we might propose would not prevent much of the good work done by organisations such as the UN Population Fund, to which the right hon. Lady referred. No one, I am sure, would wish to see a suspension in the help to victims of HIV and AIDS, as they are provided with advice on their sexual health. It is significant, however, that the United States Congress Committee on International Relations is holding a series of public hearings on the subject. As far as I am aware, our International Development Committee has never held an inquiry on this. Might I suggest that we would be in a better position to judge what impact the Bill would have if a Special Standing Committee could briefly precede the Standing Committee and take evidence beforehand? That is not a ploy to delay the Bill's passage but simply a way of getting to the bottom of this important issue upon which, as far as I am aware, Parliament has not received direct evidence.

I am glad to have the opportunity to debate international development and what we are spending our budget on. It is supremely important that we make the right choices in this matter. Important steps have been taken in the reduction of poverty. More people have been relieved from poverty in the past 50 years than in the previous 500. We support, without stinting, the aim of reducing poverty in the third world. We want a drastic reduction in crippling poverty as one of the defining features of the 21st century. To achieve that will require consistent and determined effort on the part of the Governments of the world. I hope that the Bill, once we have improved it in Committee, will help the UK Government to play their part in this most important process.