Clause 3 - Humanitarian assistance

International Development Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 27 November 2001.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 10:45, 27 November 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 2, line 8, after `assistance', insert—

`and, where necessary the means for reconstruction,'.

We will try to be helpful this morning in moving quite quickly through the clauses. We are conscious that the debate on clause 1 was extensive and covered a wide range of issues. It is my intention to focus on our amendments.

The amendment is important and topical. It aims to allow the Secretary of State to provide the means for reconstruction following natural or man-made disasters or other emergencies in addition to providing general assistance immediately following such an emergency. Reconstruction is becoming an increasingly common need following disasters and conflicts. We want to make the ability to provide for such reconstruction explicit in the Bill. Countries that have recently required reconstruction include East Timor, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Following the conflict in Afghanistan, there is a clear need for reconstruction, which will require assistance and resources from the outside world. It is now estimated that that reconstruction may cost up to $30 billion. I am concerned about how that money will be provided. We should not get into a position in which the new Afghan Government have to borrow so much money from the World Bank for reconstruction that they end up with unpayable debts. Many aspects are in need of urgent attention, including the rebuilding of the infrastructure—or, indeed, the provision of infrastructure. We are becoming aware that Afghanistan has little infrastructure in place. An integral part of that will be the establishment of a broad-based Government, on which subject we hope for some success in Bonn today.

We are concerned that without explicit mention of reconstruction in the Bill, provision for the means of reconstruction may be neglected. Reconstruction obviously takes a long time—probably beyond the short-term memory of the disaster. The amendment would ensure that the fine words spoken and the promises made to countries that face man-made or natural disasters are borne out in practice, especially as reconstruction may take a long time.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

When I first read the amendment, I was struck with shock and horror. There is no question that reconstruction is needed after natural and man-made disasters, but man-made disasters are usually the result of war. The Balkans, East Timor and Afghanistan are good examples of that. I agree that huge reconstruction is usually needed; and I wonder where is the Marshall plan for the Balkans that we heard so much about during the Kosovo war.

During the Kosovo war, I constantly questioned which budget would be used to pay for reconstruction. If a country is damaged as a result of military action, is it right to expect the Department for International Development, which should be focusing on the relief of poverty and on sustainable development, to offer assistance with reconstruction after something that it could be argued was the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office?

I have great reservations about the amendment. I cannot support it because reconstruction costs should clearly be paid from another budget than that of DFID, which should have as its emphasis the relief of poverty.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I fully concur with the hon. Member for Richmond Park. In truth, if we were to include reconstruction in the clause, the entire humanitarian aid budget could be taken over by one country's need for reconstruction. That is not the purpose of the clause. It deals with humanitarian assistance. Of course, reconstruction is vital; but I agree that it must be paid from another budget.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

I believe that all members of the Committee agree with what the hon. Member for Richmond Park said about reconstruction. However, as she will be aware, clause 3 provides for assistance to be given as an immediate response to disasters or emergencies in a way that may not necessarily contribute to a reduction in poverty. That is precisely why clause 3 is separate from the test that applies to general development aid provided under clause 1.

We should do nothing to put at risk our capacity to respond speedily and flexibly to humanitarian crises, but to achieve that the exception has to be carefully defined. That is our worry about the amendment. Reconstruction after immediate emergencies can cover a wide range of activities, and it can take a long time, but it is not easily distinguishable from normal processes of sustainable development. The restrictions that we place on the purposes of development assistance should apply equally to reconstruction.

One reservation that we have is that the amendment could be used to allow the tying of assistance to the reconstruction or rehabilitation of infrastructure. Clause 3 is not tied to the definition set out in clause 1. We had an extensive debate about the Bill's poverty focus, and about promoting welfare and sustainable development, and concern was expressed on both sides of the Committee that tied aid should not be permitted. Clause 3 is not subject to the test laid out in clause 1, so the amendment would allow a future Secretary of State to say that assistance was being given for reconstruction in order not to be fettered by the provisions of clause 1. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Meriden to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 11:00, 27 November 2001

I hear what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee are saying, but they can see that I am driving at the fact that we have not always been good at reconstruction. We seem not to have learned the lesson: we may intervene in countries, as we have just done in Afghanistan, but the ordinary people there will never believe that we are serious about meaning them well if we are not prepared to repair some of the damage left behind—even if it was not all the result of military intervention and even if much of it preceded the events of 11 September.

The amendment seeks to probe the Government on where in legislation we can show our resolve; we must ensure that when we talk about Marshall plans for other countries, we see them through. However, I do not want to undermine the purpose of clause 3, which is to allow the Department to respond to disasters rapidly and with resources. For that reason, I shall not press the amendment. However, we shall probably seek another opportunity to raise the question of reconstruction, because deep down, I am not satisfied that it is properly catered for. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 11, at end add—

`(2) The Secretary of State shall make arrangements to ensure that humanitarian assistance provided under subsection (1) which is provided via other agencies or bodies shall comply with the standards as to effectiveness and probity set down in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.'.

Photo of Mr Win Griffiths Mr Win Griffiths Labour, Bridgend

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 14A, in page 2, line 11, at end add—

`(2) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the provision of humanitarian aid shall make no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinion.'.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

Amendment No. 7 aims to ensure that humanitarian assistance provided by agencies and bodies complies with internationally agreed standards. My thinking has been shaped by recent events, and aid agency reports that the refugee camps in Pakistan, where a big influx of Afghan refugees was expected, do not meet internationally accepted standards. When I looked into the matter, I discovered that the aid agencies were signed up to minimum international standards on disaster response known as the Sphere standards. I feel strongly that this is an important aspect of the Bill. Taxpayers' money provides humanitarian assistance, but we will obtain a bad name if the standard of assistance is not acceptable. I am sure that we can all remember the public response to the sight of refugee camps in the Balkans, which clearly did not meet acceptable standards; we were discomfited by the pictures and said that we should not let it happen again. The amendment would ensure that internationally accepted standards were achieved in refugee camps.

In the White Paper ``Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century'', the Government said that a multitude of factors involved in humanitarian work underlined the importance of international co-operation based on sound principles. Hence the Government were going to encourage a ``system-wide agreement'' on common performance standards and a ``code of ethical conduct'' for organisations involved in humanitarian work and would seek to implement guidelines already agreed within the OECD. The Government said that they would work for and co-operate with the more efficient multilateral humanitarian system, building on the organisations and NGOs. Acceptance of the Sphere standards would allow us to put those fine words into practice.

The Sphere project was launched by a group of humanitarian agencies in 1997, the year that the White Paper was published. The project has developed a humanitarian charter and a set of universal minimum standards in core areas of humanitarian assistance, including water supply and sanitation, nutrition, shelter and site planning, food aid and health services. The aim of the project is to improve the quality of assistance provided to people affected by disasters, and to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian system in disaster response.

Those aims are entirely laudable, and I hope that the Minister might feel that it would be possible to incorporate such an improvement in the Bill.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

First, on amendment No. 7, I want to talk about the structure of the Bill. Clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to provide humanitarian assistance in response to a disaster or other emergency. Assistance under the clause is not limited to ``development assistance'', as defined in clause 1, nor is there any requirement for the assistance to be likely to contribute to the reduction of poverty. In fact, clause 3 does not use the term ``humanitarian assistance'', which is as a consequence not defined in the Bill. Instead, the clause refers to ``natural or man-made'' disasters or other emergencies, and limits the purpose of assistance to alleviating their effects on the population of a country outside the United Kingdom.

Amendment No. 7 would place the Secretary of State under a duty to apply standards of ``effectiveness and probity'', with specific reference to the Sphere standards. DFID supports those standards, to which we are signed up. However, as hon. Members may be aware, they provide a detailed manual on the running and operation of humanitarian assistance and refugee camps.

How desirable is it that the Bill refer to those detailed standards? It would be unwise for it to do so. What would happen if the Sphere standards were overtaken by new standards? We would be stuck with the legislation and its specific references to Sphere. That could put a Secretary of State in difficulty.

I accept the motivation underlying the amendment, but it would be better not to include such a reference. The Secretary of State can provide that specific conditions are attached to the aid that we give, which allows us the means to lever up standards and to encourage the following of requirements such as those in the Sphere document.

I understand that amendment No. 14A is grouped with amendment No. 7.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

The two amendments are separate but I understand why they have been linked, as they both deal with the incorporation of the idea behind the Vienna proclamation of the international conference of the Red Cross. It was made in 1965, and the idea behind it was that acceptable standards should be reached and there should be no discrimination when public money was given to provide humanitarian assistance to refugee camps.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful for that explanation.

I want to make a further point about the Sphere standards. We could write into the legislation the fact that we subscribed to them, but we should remember that we did not draw them up. If they were to be changed in future by their authors in a way of which we did not approve and to which we did not consent, we would be committed to follow standards that we might not support. That is a further reason why it is undesirable to accept the amendment.

The second point relates to amendment No. 14A and the need to impose strict standards of impartiality. The Secretary of State already imposes standards on those who carry out activities on her behalf and is accountable to Parliament for the exercise of those powers. DFID devotes significant resources to ensuring that its systems and procedures and those of its partners are effective and transparent. All direct and indirect expenditure is subject to scrutiny by our internal audit department, the National Audit Office and Parliament, through the Select Committee on International Development and the Public Accounts Committee.

It may help the Committee if I say that the Secretary of State has consistently affirmed her commitment to impartial humanitarianism and has made it clear that we do not see humanitarian assistance as a political lever in situations of conflict and conflict management. We have published an ethical framework for our humanitarian assistance, which includes the principle of impartiality and a commitment to seek to relieve the suffering of non-combatants without discrimination on political or other grounds and with priority given to the most urgent cases of distress.

To embed such principles in legislation would, however, require our response to every disaster to be formally appraised to ensure compliance with strict impartiality. Amendment No. 14A could make it impossible for DFID to contribute to a multilateral relief effort in a complex emergency in which different donors focused on different geographical areas and, therefore, on different groups of people in need. The legal duty of impartiality that the amendment would impose could also open up the possibility that individual decisions about humanitarian relief could be subject to challenge in the courts. One group might believe that it should have received a larger share of assistance than it did.

Both amendments would create difficulties by placing statutory constraints on the Secretary of State's response to a crisis, which could prevent her from taking quick and effective action. They could also place a layer of bureaucracy on top of the process, which, as all members of the Committee will agree, we do not need in humanitarian emergencies. The hon. Member for Meriden and others who saw the Select Committee on International Development take evidence from relief agencies on the current emergency in Afghanistan will have heard Catherine Bertini of the World Food Programme, Carol Bellamy of UNICEF and others praise the speed and flexibility of the DFID response. The Committee should think carefully before unintentionally imposing layers of bureaucracy or the potential for legal challenge on top of a system that is designed to enable the Secretary of State to take decisions—and, therefore, the country to respond—as swiftly and effectively as possible to humanitarian emergencies. Such decisions will be taken bearing in mind the commitment that the Government have clearly given to act on a non-discriminatory basis and with regard to the issues that the hon. Lady rightly raised. I think that we are at one on the issue, but given the practical difficulties, I urge her to reconsider pressing the amendment to a vote.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I have listened carefully. My desire to bring guarantees into the quality of our humanitarian assistance may arise from my inability to see such assistance in practice. I am sure that the Minister is aware that I have unsuccessfully sought the Secretary of State's authorisation to visit the refugee camps in Pakistan, although the Select Committee is there this week and will return with more information.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Lady referred to the Secretary of State's authorisation. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State passed the hon. Lady the security advice that she has been given. I do not want the Committee to get the impression that it is up to the Secretary of State to decide whether the hon. Lady goes.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 11:15, 27 November 2001

As I am sure the Minister appreciates, the practical point is that I have not been able to go, but the Select Committee has. If I had been able to go, I might have been able to discover what happens on the ground. Our money is being sent to provide humanitarian assistance, but hon. Members who served on the Select Committee will be aware of the practical problems that the relief agencies mentioned. For example, in some of the established refugee camps the water is 400 m down through granite. The provision of adequate water and sanitation is one of the standards that I sought to secure through the amendment. On the other hand, I do not want to slow the process of providing aid in a disaster.

It occurs to me that another route may be possible. I have never seen the conditions attached to an agreement that has been struck between a Department and an aid agency that spends public money in the provision of humanitarian assistance. It might be reassuring to see what is contained in the conditions to which the Minister referred. That would be another way of achieving an assurance that we seek to enshrine good standards.

Another way of achieving some assurance on the provision of humanitarian assistance to acceptable international standards would be to provide an annual report. It is good that we have forced the issue of the annual report, because that report could contain an appraisal of the standards to which humanitarian assistance was provided. However, I entirely accept that the Sphere standards might be altered in aspects on which we might not agree, which is the weakness of accepting a set of international standards that are agreed outside the country and without consultation with the Government.

For that reason, and because I do not want to obstruct the provision of humanitarian aid in an emergency, I will not press the amendment to a Division.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Before my hon. Friend asks to withdraw the amendment, may I ask the Minister a question? Let us imagine that the Minister wanted to provide specific aid to a racial minority such as the Karen people in Burma. If the amendment that we are debating were made to the Bill, would it prohibit him from doing so? Would it prevent him from helping a specific group who were persecuted because of their race by the military junta? I am thinking of amendment No. 14A, of course.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

Amendment No. 14A relates to humanitarian assistance. To be honest, I am not sure whether the particular help to which the hon. Gentleman refers would come within the definition of humanitarian assistance when the Bill is enacted. I think that it probably would not fall into the category of assistance in case of ``natural or man-made disaster''. It would be a form of assistance under clause 1. Therefore, I am not making that argument in resisting the amendment.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.