Department for International Development

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 6:01 pm, 1st July 2019

It is a genuine pleasure to follow Patrick Grady. I was glad that, towards the end of his speech, he referred to the amendment. I must say that when I saw it I was very disappointed that we would be playing with the question of whether this Department, in particular, was to have the budget that would enable it to proceed. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I think I understand a bit more clearly why the signatories include a member of his party, Chris Law. However, I am disappointed that such an amendment should have been tabled, on any of the estimates budgets but especially on this one, because—as many Members have pointed out today—the international aid budget is attacked on a regular basis, especially in the press and especially by those wanting to cause mischief by saying that we could be spending the money elsewhere.

It is dangerous to use the aid budget as a political football in relation to our own needs. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that it must be led by objectives laid down internationally to ensure that we are all pulling in the same direction, but it is also true that this country’s contribution is a real lever of the soft power we have in the world. That is at the heart of international development.

As the international chairman of the Conservative party, I go around the world—for instance, to southern Africa and South America—and see the difference that has been made by work of various kinds, whether it has been done through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy or through direct international development projects. The impact of that work becomes clear when one talks to Governments in other countries, as I know Stephen Twigg will have done. I have an enormous amount of respect and praise for the hon. Gentleman, who has done fantastic work as Chairman of the International Development Committee, but ours is clearly a strong power, and I was disappointed by the amendment because it seemed to suggest that if we ended up leaving with no deal on 31 October, we would not have an international aid budget. If amended, the motion would effectively say, “If you leave, we will cut that budget and you will not be able to spend it.” I do not want to get into a Brexit argument now—that is not what this debate is about—but I did think it odd that those who are worried about the influence that we may lose during Brexit should also want to end the funding for one of biggest contributors of soft power.

At the heart of international development is the fact that it is morally right. I class myself as a Christian, and the second commandment is “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, and that is how we are in this country. Whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or part of any other religion, most people want to “love thy neighbour as thyself”, and to look after one another. Ours is one of the richest economies in the world, and it is nonsense to suggest that 7p out of every tenner is too much and we cannot afford to spend it. However, we must ensure that it is spent in the right way. This is almost a nationalisation of people’s charity, and we must therefore make certain that every penny is used as efficiently as possible.

I have no problem with the scrutiny that is levelled at the Department, but I do have a problem with how it is abused to try and get cheap headlines and cheap stories. I do not blame constituents who write to me saying that they think we should get rid of international aid, because they are picking that up from certain quarters, but I write back to them and explain the impact that aid has. As I said earlier, it is all very well for a headline to say, “Your international development taxes did this in, for example, the Gaza Strip: we were funding terrorist organisations”. However, that was not a bilateral project. When it comes to multilateral projects, it is right for us to be part of world-governing bodies, because if we were not, what would happen to our soft power? What will happen to our influence in the world if we say, “I was not happy about one particular project, so I am cutting the funding for everything”?

Let me touch on some matters that have been touched on before. In 2016-17, humanitarian aid made up about 15% of the bilateral budget. I believe that an area the size of the United Kingdom was flooded in Pakistan, and millions of people were displaced—some of the poorest people on earth. We should stand up and be proud of the fact that this country was there, along with other countries, giving aid when it mattered. Let us be honest about what will happen if we stop giving that aid. That is how to breed the hatred and discontent that will end up back on our own shores if we walk away from these parts of the world, saying, “Not interested, your problem, don’t care.”

That leads me to the refugee crisis that has resulted directly from the Syrian conflict. I am immensely proud of the amount of money provided by this Government— well, let us say “this country”, because this is not a party political issue, but something of which we in the House should be proud. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, this country—from this House—has given more money than the rest of Europe put together. There are 6 million people in refugee camps; imagine what would happen in those countries if we were not able to provide that money.

Back in 2016, I went to Lebanon and saw the real hardship with which it was struggling in trying to absorb people. We are well aware of the millions taken in by Turkey, which is trying to help people on its borders. The Jordanians are doing incredible work, doubling school shifts and class sizes to ensure that a generation of children who have been displaced through a brutal war do not lose their childhoods and therefore their futures. Our aid money is supporting countries which would not be able to do that work without it. I challenge anyone to come up to me and say, “No, I would rather fix the potholes in my road.” There is really no question about it.

One of the most important aspects, which has already been touched on briefly, is the work that we do in connection with government and civic society. We take for granted the way in which our country operates, and the way in which the countries around us operate. We take it for granted that we can go and do business in another country that will have a rule of law and will understand about the civil service, about who can collect the taxes and about how they will be spent, but that does not apply to many of the countries that have emerged from dictatorships and are, in relative terms, young democracies. We lead much of the world in being able to provide the necessary expertise and training.

As a result, countries such as India have developed to an extent that we have massively reduced our aid. In fact, I think we are in the low millions now as we finish off a few international development projects. However, many people say to me “We give all that money to them but they have a space programme.” That is great, however; guess where they are buying the components—guess where the trade areas have developed. We should be proud that we have put a nation of over 1 billion people in a position where it can pursue these programmes. There is still a lot of work to do, and there is a lot of poverty in India, but, again, we have moved these things forward.

Health is a very important issue, but for too many people, especially when we talk about the African continent, it is an issue that seems to be thousands of miles away and is therefore not important. But as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield earlier, these diseases are but one flight away. Our Scottish colleagues will know of the brave nurse who caught Ebola and is still suffering the consequences to this day. These diseases are but one plane journey away of just a few hours: these are not distant problems that we can just ignore and say, “Nothing to do with me, guv.” These are things that could have a massive impact on our health, and this comes back to the point that this is an investment in our own country as much as anywhere else.

I understand that people get concerned when the money is being spent, and we absolutely must make sure it is spent in the most efficient ways possible, but I would argue that DFID is one of the Government Departments which spends it in the most efficient way possible and has the closest scrutiny of all Departments. Again, I do not mean to be controversial when I say this, because I do not want to demean the debate today, but we all know that there are inefficiencies in the NHS, schools and elsewhere. We may argue about where those inefficiencies lie, but according to one estimate there were £2 billion of unnecessary X-rays in 2016. In Leeds alone, over £30 million is locked up in surpluses in schools through previous management and it is not being let out so we are making cuts. We do not stand up and say, “Get rid of the school budget because millions of pounds in surplus is locked up,” or “Forget about giving any more money to the NHS because it has not worked in the most efficient way.” Of course we do not say that, but international development money seems to be the first target. Critics come straight to it and say, “It wasn’t efficient here; get rid of it, and I would rather spend it on a revenue project outside my backyard.” This just goes to show how much we have to emphasise what this money does and what it moves forward.

I wonder if the Minister can develop the following point in summing up. At the climate change lobby on Wednesday, I was asked a question by some of my constituents and I did some research at the Library. The statement made is not actually correct, but I will come on to that. It was said that 90% of our development projects use fossil fuels. I went to the Library and asked some questions, and I will read out two sections from the reply, which I think the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby) might recognise:

“Research conducted jointly by CAFOD and ODI shows that, between 2010 and 2014, the UK disbursed around £6.13 billion for energy support in developing countries, including £4.201 billion of ODA. Of this ODA support, 22% went to fossil fuels.”

That was over a four-year period. The Library response goes on to say:

“In 2017/18, 96% of UKEF’s energy support to high income countries went to renewables and 4% to fossil fuel projects. By contrast, just 0.6% of UKEF’s energy support to low- and middle- income countries in 2017/18 went to renewables and 99.4% went to fossil fuel projects.”

I ask the Minister to go away and look at where we can perhaps shift the balance in the middle to lower income countries, because clearly we want to make a big impact on climate change. My hon. Friend Mr Robertson said that in trying to make a difference in the world we can reduce our carbon emissions but that that is a small drop in terms of what happens; however we have the ability in the international development budget to have a far greater reach than to just those changes we do here in climate change. The Minister may not be able to answer that point from the Dispatch Box tonight, so I ask her to go away and see whether a balance can be struck to get more renewables into those projects and move away from fossil fuels, because ultimately that will give far more sustainability to the ongoing energy needs of those countries than just bringing in what is rapidly becoming a very old technology.

The one message I would like to send tonight is that this is not just about giving away our money to poor countries; this is an investment in our own country and in the world, and therefore in the futures of our children and ongoing generations, and that it all adds to our bigger security picture, our bigger climate change picture and our bigger moral duty, which allows us to lead this world in a way that not many countries can.