First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Robertson on securing the debate. As many people have said, this is not a party political subject, and I think that is a very important part of it. I also congratulate Stephen Twigg, who chairs the International Development Committee, on which I sit. It is a very interesting Committee, and many people today have made excellent speeches about the value of international development from this country’s point of view.
I would also like to compliment my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, who was a distinguished Secretary of State when we first came into power in 2010. He also championed Project Umubano in Rwanda for many years, and he saw at first hand—as many of us on this side of the House did—exactly what we needed to do and how we were able to contribute to development in Rwanda. That was a valuable lesson for me before I came here, and for many of the Members of Parliament who have supported the project, which has now been completed in Rwanda. It changed the lives of a lot of people there following the terrible genocide, and it was an important lesson for us all to learn.
There have been some really good speeches today, and I do not want to cover the same ground again, so I am going to keep my remarks fairly short. I want to compliment the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, and the Department for starting the conference last year following the Oxfam scandal and the problems with Save the Children and sexual exploitation and abuse. I think it was well received by the aid industry, which needed shaking up, and the then Secretary of State had some good ideas as to what should happen in future. Sadly, however, the abuse continues, and we have to act firmly to produce an ombudsman that people can go to if they have problems. We also have to support the whistleblowers who feel that nobody will listen to them. They often lose their jobs following their whistleblowing, yet they are the victims.
I have spoken to the Secretary of State about this, and I think we need to have a survey to see exactly how widespread the abuse is, because we do not have a baseline. We know that what we hear is probably just the tip of the iceberg, and we need to find out the actual impact this is having on the aid industry. We do not know how it is affecting the industry, and the perpetrators need to be brought to account. The victims also need to be supported, because there are so many victims out there, and, of course, the vast majority of them are women. We need not only to help those women come to terms with what has happened to them, but to stop people going from one NGO to another without anybody sanctioning them, because they can just leave—often with a reference. I think that the situation is getting better, but it was a big problem.
We should be proud to be a global leader in international development. We were at the forefront of negotiating the sustainable development goals because, of course, David Cameron was on the high-level panel that came up with them, and they followed on from the millennium development goals. Of course, there are far more goals this time, but every single one of them will have an impact on people in the world’s poorest countries, and we need to be aware of how to help them. If we do not tackle climate change soon and at scale, people in developing countries will be forced to migrate, which will be in nobody’s interest if they have to keep moving from country to country. We need to address that problem, and we need to address it now.
Mention has been made of the voluntary national review, which we will be submitting to the United Nations later this month. I am disappointed that ours is one of the later submissions. The 193 member states are expected to review their national progress towards the sustainable development goals at least once, and we have left things late, but it is better late than never. Having read the draft that was published last week, I am rather disappointed that a lot of what we are saying is about international development, because the voluntary national review is supposed to be about what we are doing in this country and how we are leaving nobody behind. I want more focus on what we are doing here. We are doing a good job abroad, we are helping developing countries, and we are helping some of the poorest people in the world, but this voluntary national review is about what we are doing here. There does not seem to be enough a disaggregated data or evidence from civil society groups that cater for women only. We need equality both in this country and around the world, so we need to take more evidence from civil society groups that concentrate on women-only issues.
The UN has set five focus goals for us to report on, and I know that we will be covering them in more depth. They include goals on education, work and economic growth, and reducing inequality. Education is vital for every single person in the world and, as we heard earlier, people will not get out of poverty without work. As for reducing inequality, we still see that women experience more of an impact both in this country and around the world. We need to reduce the gender pay gap. We need to help women be more successful in their careers—if they choose to do that. I have already mentioned climate action, and we need to work really hard on that. Peace and justice is another of the UN’s goals. All those issues have an impact on women, and there needs to be a focus on women when we report to the United Nations. As I said, I am disappointed that we have waited so long, but it is better late than never.
I would like to see much more emphasis on what we are doing in this country. It appears that DFID has been given the lead on this, which is great because it is a fantastic Department, but what about all the other Departments? I do not think that they have taken this as seriously as they should have done from early on. The report seems a little cobbled together, yet DFID will have to lead on it now, because it is too late to do anything else. However, I want to see more emphasis on what we are doing to improve the lives of women in this country, in addition to all the fantastic work that we do in other countries.
I do not believe that this country should allow girls as young as 16 to get married with parental consent, and I am passionate about trying to change the law. Girls under 16 can only get married with parental consent, so they are not adults; they are just girls. I am told that not many people are affected by the issue, but of course there is an impact on people from other ethnic groups who will often take girls out of this country for forced marriages, which are illegal here. However, if they come back when they are 16 and the parents say, “Oh, we agree to it,” there is nothing we can do. Girls Not Brides is keen to raise the age to 18, which is something that we ask other countries to do to stop child marriage, but we allow something different here, so we should be working hard to change that anomaly in the law. I am passionate about giving girls the opportunity to carry on studying and not lose out on joining the workforce and therefore end up in much poorer situations. I want the Government to do something about that as soon possible. It is not an international development issue, because we tell other countries not to allow children to get married, but they can come back and say, “But why should we make girls not get married until they’re 18 when you allow it at 16?”
My three main things to act on are climate change—that is absolutely critical—sexual exploitation and abuse, and the minimum age for marriage. We need to be doing far more to ensure that abuse cannot exist in the aid sector any more, and we need a study to find a baseline of where we are, so that we can make things better for girls. As for marriage, if someone has to be in education or training until they are 18, how on earth can they be married? That seems a nonsense to me, so I shall continue to campaign on that until the law has been changed.
I thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.