Department for International Development

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:11 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North 7:11 pm, 1st July 2019

I have thoroughly enjoyed the last couple of hours. I think this has been a high-quality debate. Too often, when it comes to DFID, we talk about things in the deficit—whether it is about the 0.7%, the existence of the Department in and of itself, or a particular aid project that has not gone very well—so it is very nice to have had the chance to listen to hon. and right hon. colleagues talk about the positives in DFID and the reasons to be proud of it. I commend Mr Robertson for his leadership in that and for the way in which he set the tone. He started by saying that he feels lucky to be born in this country. I know that he, like me, loves his country and that he, like me, is a patriot, but he, like me, looks at the things that we have and wants that for others, too. That was the right tone to set. He talked about not only doing the right things ourselves, but the permission that it gives others when we do so. That was an important point to make.

The hon. Gentleman was followed by two towering figures in this field: my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg and Mr Mitchell. My hon. Friend talked about those of us who are passionate about this having an added responsibility to justify value for money. Interestingly, Jim Shannon made a similar point, but came at it in a different way. It shows that, across this place, we often start in different places, but arrive at similar conclusions. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made an articulate defence of a separate but co-ordinated DFID, to which I am sure we will refer.

When Patrick Grady rose to speak, I hoped that he would reference Malawi and he did not disappoint. When I was in Lilongwe last year, people locally spoke positively about that proud connection that they have with Scotland. My take-away phrase of the debate came in an intervention from Alec Shelbrooke when he said that we should sell the principle of aid—sell it like it could go tomorrow. That was a call to action, which, again, I will come back to.

My two near neighbours, the hon. Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and for Erewash (Maggie Throup), made characteristically articulate points. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire made some points on whistleblowing and I liked what the hon. Member for Erewash said about the Global Fund. On Wednesday, I was at an event with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Dr Murrison, whom I shadow, talking about the need to make an early decision on the Global Fund. I have to say that it felt like it was more in hope than expectation, but he had a little twinkle in his eye and now we know why.

Stephen Kerr mentioned his strongly held view that enterprise and trade are the way forward for development and we agree with that, but what we would say, which is why we are so focused on public services, is that without decent education for boys and girls, without reliable healthcare, and without access to good nutrition, people will not be able to enter those jobs. Nevertheless, that was an important point to make.

We should be proud that the UK is one of the biggest aid donors in the world, and one of only five countries to have met the UN target of 0.7% of national income on overseas aid. In the two decades since the Labour Government established the Department for International Development as a stand-alone independent Government Department, DFID has become a global leader in its field. Every year, it spends UK aid in ways that make life-changing, material differences to people’s lives across the world. DFID has helped some of the world’s poorest people to access health and education services. It has provided humanitarian aid in times of crisis and led the way in putting gender equality at the heart of international development work. We know that spending money in this way is the right thing to do and that, as one of the world’s wealthiest countries, we must play our part in creating a fairer world. We also know that, as a country that has sometimes contributed to some of the inequalities that we see today, that duty is made all the stronger. So it is right that we set aside a fraction of our wealth to help to bring about a world where humans are all granted basic dignities such as health, education and nutrition. The UK public should be proud of the important poverty reduction work that our money has supported in recent decades.

The tone of the debate was so positive that, in trying to measure my remarks, I thought that I had better be careful that I did not push my points too hard. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was right in saying that it is important to be reflective and to be critical where necessary. So that is the spirit in which I go into the next section of my speech. We should be worried about, and act on the steady decline in the proportion of the ODA budget going to DFID. It is now at one quarter, as we have heard, which weakens the Department and weakens our ability to scrutinise it. We have heard that the front runner to be the next Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has been on record about dismantling the Department altogether; it is not beyond the pale—far from it. Instead of maintaining an independent DFID, he has suggested repurposing the aid budget so that it would no longer be directed towards poverty reduction; Chris Law referred to that. Members should not take this just from me. Just last week, the Secretary of State told the Select Committee that there will be, at the very least, a reorganisation in which there would remain a Department and a Secretary of State, but with more influence perhaps exercised by the Foreign Secretary. That is what is to come, but there are challenges now on which we should reflect. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.

In the past, we have had Members leading the Department who do not actually believe in it themselves. The former Secretary of State for International Development was reported as saying that the aid budget is unsustainable—Sir Peter Bottomley drove a coach and horses through that idea very effectively indeed. Her predecessor was on record as saying that she did not believe in an independent DFID. It does feel slightly strange sometimes to defend from the Opposition Benches Government Departments from Government Ministers. That seems a little tangled up. There have been lots of ten-minute rule Bills from Opposition Members on the issue of folding the Department or cutting and repurposing the aid budget. Clearly, those are disastrous ideas. Folding DFID into the FCO or any other Department would be catastrophic for our country’s aid programme because it is only DFID that has that explicit sole purpose of achieving poverty reduction overseas. To care about that is to care about an independent DFID. Any such merger would undermine that.

The International Development Committee, under my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, insisted that all ODA must be directed primarily at reducing poverty, rather than

“being used as a slush fund to pay for developing the UK’s diplomatic, trade or national security interests”.

It goes further, recommending that the Secretary of State should have the ultimate oversight of the UK’s ODA and that the Department should have the final sign-off. Let me take this opportunity to state clearly on the record that Labour will oppose any attempts to merge, shut down or dissolve the Department for International Development. Furthermore, we believe there should be a freeze on the proportion of ODA being spent outside DFID and we of course stand by the commitment to maintain 0.7% of GNI as a minimum spend for our aid programme.

That is not to say that, within that, there is not scope for making changes. Too often, aid is still prioritising helping UK companies to enter overseas markets, or on security projects that have actually endangered people and undermined human rights. There is an increasing and worrying trend of aid being spent in ways that are not about poverty reduction—we heard that from a number of hon. Members. This is a downward spiral—the opposite of a virtuous circle—because these are the discreditable projects on which the media pick up, which further undermines confidence in the budget.

It is clear that anyone who wants this country to play its part in international development must stand ready to defend the Department and the budget, as if they could go tomorrow—that is a good way to think about it—and I am ready to do that. I am proud that Labour is an internationalist party that believes in global solidarity. We must never turn our backs on problems, especially when sometimes we have helped to make them. We must step up and take action to make the world a fairer place. The least we can do is spend a fraction—less than a penny in each pound—of the country’s income on this.

Of course, aid alone will not solve the world’s problems, as many hon. Members have said. There are many other things we can do on the international stage to help to address global poverty fully. The Opposition’s approach is to commit to dealing with the root causes of poverty, and to be prepared to rewrite trade policies, put an end to debt burdens and clamp down on corporate tax avoidance, all of which are vital for creating a more global economy.

I will finish with four questions for the Minister, on which I hope she can give some guarantees. First, does she agree that, now that we are being told by former Foreign Secretaries and Tory leadership contenders that there is £26 billion of so-called headroom, there is no possible excuse for abandoning our commitment to 0.7%? Secondly, will she commit to standing up to any attempt to undermine our country’s commitment to that target, wherever such attacks come from, including her own Benches? Thirdly, does she agree that the best way to manage this spending is through a dedicated Department for International Development standing on an independent footing? Finally, will she commit to ending the misuse of aid as a slush fund for other Departments’ priorities and as a means of expanding commercial interests overseas, and instead commit to focusing all aid spending on its core objective of poverty reduction?

This has been an excellent debate. We should all be very proud of the work that we have talked about. We must now come together to make it even better.