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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:14 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 6:14 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. The noble Earl and I are usually in agreement, and he did not disappoint today. I pay tribute, too, to the other many fine contributions from noble Lords across the House. It is a privilege to take part in this debate.

This is obviously the international development slot and I intend to confine my remarks to it. The truth is that if we are to maintain Britain’s standing on the international stage and claw back the prestige that has already been jeopardised, we must use every lever in our arsenal, and there is none so powerful as the moral authority of our position as an undoubted leader in the humanitarian aid and development arena.

Curiously, or maybe ominously, the Tory manifesto masquerading as the gracious Speech is silent on dedicating 0.7% of GNI to the aid budget. We have heard some positive noises from the Government, but will the Minister give a sure undertaking today that this Government will match the Liberal Democrats’ unequivocal commitment to continue to dedicate 0.7% of GNI to the express purpose of alleviating poverty in the poorest countries of the world?

I wonder how many noble Lords took notice of the cover of the Economist just a few weeks ago. It showed a sort of stripy red, white and blue flag which colour-coded the average temperature for each year starting from the mid-1800s to the present day, as measured against the average temperature from 1971 to 2000. The colours range from deep blue, signifying very cold, to deep crimson, signifying very hot. It is, quite frankly, frightening to see the cumulative effect. Since the 2000s, we have been in red territory. Two out of the last three years have been deep crimson. The planet is warming at an accelerating rate. It is no wonder that people have taken to the streets. Like the suffragettes a century ago, they have right on their side.

Back in 1989, when I was doing my master’s in environmental technology at Imperial College, Gro Harlem Brundtland’s report, Our Common Future—I am sure that many noble Lords are familiar with it— was a sort of bible for those of us who wanted to make the world a better place. It recognised, even then, that environmental degradation had become a survival issue for developing nations and linked it directly to poverty and inequality.

Today, we see more starkly the catastrophic damage that extreme and unusual weather is wreaking across the world, and of course it is the poorest who always suffer the most. Their fragile existences are blown or washed away, often with devastating loss of life and livelihoods. Sometimes, the devastation comes with the slow but relentless drying out of the land that feeds them. Drought and famine stalk the Sahel, and recovery time between droughts is decreasing. All the while, the Amazon burns, destroying the lungs of the Earth that are vital carbon sinks and taking with them flora and fauna that have not even been catalogued yet. It is therefore right that the Liberal Democrats have undertaken not to ratify the Mercosur-EU free trade agreement until the Brazilian Government have put in place effective measures to protect forests and their indigenous peoples.

Here in the West, we shamelessly continue to support fossil fuel infrastructure in developing countries—infrastructure that will continue to pump out CO2 well after 2050 in contravention of the Paris agreement. Where is the sense and justice in that?

In June this year, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s report into UK Export Finance’s support for fossil fuel infrastructure in developing countries found that, over a five-year period, it spent £2.4 billion supporting fossil fuel projects in low and middle-income countries. Liberal Democrats will stop that and replace it with support for renewables. The argument for gas as a transition fuel is becoming less compelling by the day. The move in the West is to stop the use of gas, so why are we exporting production to developing countries? Let us face it: this infrastructure will soon be defunct, and stranded assets help no one.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, in his opening remarks, mentioned both the International Development Infrastructure Commission and the Ayrton Fund for climate innovation. Turning first to the IDIC, I say at the outset that I welcome any honest initiative to encourage the private sector to invest in developing countries, because how else are we going to move from the billions to the trillions that are needed to achieve the sustainable development goals? These announcements are all well and good but often the devil is in the detail, so let us have the detail in the public domain. Can the Minister say when the website will be up? I have not been able to find it. Can he also say how the commission will deliver for the poorest people, which countries it will work in and, really importantly, how it will guard against corruption and make sure that tax receipts from the new enterprises stay in-country?

Turning to the Ayrton Fund, which I understand will be administered by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I again ask the Minister: when can we expect the website? We need transparency to be sure that ODA money is not diverted from essential pro-poor programmes in developing countries. My concern is that it will be,

“poorly designed to deliver its primary purpose of addressing development challenges and advancing development for the poorest people and countries through research and innovation, and does not ensure its spending is a good use of UK aid”.

So said ICAI—the Independent Commission for Aid Impact—in its evaluation of the Newton Fund, a similar £735 million research and innovation partnership fund managed by BEIS.

It does not inspire confidence that the £1 billion Ayrton Fund is anything other than a ruse to keep aid money in the UK to make up for the dropping of EU funding for science and innovation. Let us face it: it should not cost £1 billion of UK aid money to research how to tackle climate change in developing countries—just stop backing new fossil-fuel infrastructure. There would be £2.4 billion straight away to fund the fight against climate change, going straight to the people who know what to do with it.

I am going to move off at a tangent to a different but equally important subject, as I want to say a few words about building longevity into DfID’s programmes. Too often, when I have visited projects in developing countries, the feedback has been, “That was a great programme while it lasted, but what next?” This “What next?” question is a vexing one. Would it not be sensible to design long-term sustainability into a programme as an integral and essential element at the outset, for all DfID-funded projects? I would welcome the Minister’s remarks on that.

To conclude, I will say a few words about the sustainable development goals. The SDGs are a transformational vision, one that recognises the interconnectedness of all life on Earth, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and every latitude in between. To quote Our Common Future:

“The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs”,

and we cannot “defend it in isolation”. Climate is a matter for the whole of government and cannot be shunted off to one government department. Can the Minister say what this Government will do to ensure coherence of policy across government departments to tackle the climate emergency? Will he also give an assurance that the autonomy of DfID will be safeguarded so that the UK’s much-respected expertise in the development arena is readily available in this crucial coming decade, in which progress to reach the SDGs must be accelerated? This will be of the utmost importance. In order to realise the SDGs, we will need leadership of the highest calibre, and it would be a wanton act if this Government were to sacrifice DfID on the altar of the right-wing press at this moment in time.