Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: poverty reduction

Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 6 December 2016.

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“After section 15 of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1999 (limit on government assistance), insert—

(1) The Secretary of State may only lay a draft of regulations under section 15(4) before the House of Commons if he has also laid before the House of Commons a review in accordance with subsection (2).

(2) A review under this subsection must provide the Secretary of State’s assessment of the extent to which the increase in the limit on the Crown’s assistance to the Corporation is likely to contribute to a reduction in poverty.

(3) In this section, “reduction in poverty” shall have the same meaning as in section 1(1) of the International Development Act 2002.’” —

This new clause would require any draft regulations to increase the limit on government assistance under section 15(4) to be preceded by a review, also to be laid before the House of Commons, of the extent to which the increase in the limit will contribute to a reduction in poverty, the aim of development assistance.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I mentioned during the evidence session that nowhere in the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1999 do we find the words “poverty” or “impact,” or even the phrase “international development”. We have heard much on Second Reading and in Committee—in evidence and during our debates—about the robust business cases, policies and decision-making procedures that are in place in DFID and CDC, but at the end of the day, that is all they are: policies and procedures. New clause 1—and perhaps some of the other new clauses—attempts to make it much clearer in the legislation that governs the CDC that it must meet the same high standards set for DFID and all the other Departments that spend money towards the ODA target. The new clause would require any proposal by the Government to raise the limit on Government assistance to CDC to be accompanied by a report to the House about how such an increase in investment was expect to lead to a reduction in poverty, as defined by the International Development Act 2002.

As we have just heard, the Government are asking for authority to increase their investment in CDC to up to £12 billion by statutory instrument. That is both a significant amount in itself and nearly 10 times the current investment cap. As I said a minute ago, I wonder how many other arm’s length bodies have received or have the potential to receive such an increase—800%—in their funding from the Government by statutory instrument without any additional information justifying that being required to be laid before Parliament.

If Parliament is to be asked to increase the funding cap, it should have information at its disposal to help it make that decision. Ministers keep telling us that robust business cases will be presented, but—

Photo of Phil Boswell Phil Boswell Scottish National Party, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

My hon. Friend quite rightly focuses on the robust business case that is required. New clause 2 would better enable transparent goals and practice in terms of checks and balances to be implemented prior to a commitment on funds—

Order. The hon. Gentleman mentioned new clause 2. We are debating new clause 1.

Photo of Phil Boswell Phil Boswell Scottish National Party, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

My apologies, Ms Ryan; I meant new clause 1. Given the previous concerns about potential bad practice, which were raised on Second Reading, does my hon. Friend recognise the potential for misuse of this substantial fund as an enticement in titanic and desperate international trade negotiations due to Brexit? Should not a serious, transparent and fully accountable stage-gate approval review be implemented before any funding is approved on a case-by-case basis?

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said, Ministers have told us that robust business cases will be presented, but that is an assurance from the current crop of Ministers and the current generation of CDC officials. Putting reporting requirements in the Bill would help to future-proof against any risk of CDC backsliding into the kinds of questionable behaviours that were raised on Second Reading. My hon. Friend also raises interesting points about precisely how this massive potential investment in CDC relates to the Government’s ongoing trade agenda and their interests in trading with different parts of the world, especially in the light of Brexit.

The mechanism proposed in the new clause may not be perfect, and some of the other new clauses are, in some ways, a bit more robust and may place a heavier burden on the Government, but are the Government prepared to use this opportunity to make it clear in the Bill—as they seem to be doing in debate and in the evidence we have heard—that the primary purpose of the CDC and the taxpayers’ money that it spends is to reduce poverty around the world, and that people come before profit?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth 3:30, 6 December 2016

I am interested in this new clause. I think it will be very helpful to have the CDC more tightly linked to the terms of the International Development Act 2002. That set an important legal framework, which has guided the use of our ODA aid over the past 14 years, and therefore there are important safeguards within it that need to be closely looked at as regards the CDC. One of the issues is with the transparency around the CDC. Perhaps the Minister can clarify some of these, but when someone delves into the detail of some of the projects, organisations and programmes that we are funding, although there are a significant number of projects that are clearly focused on poverty reduction and are in some of the poorest countries in the world, there are others where it is questionable as to what the poverty-focused role is.

We heard this morning about the private healthcare provider in India. We could, but will not at this stage, get into a lengthy debate about the merits of private and voluntary healthcare versus public funded healthcare in developing countries, the role in transition and so on. It concerns me that CDC appears to be investing in a private fee-paying hospital without a focus on access for some of the poorest patients, for example, or some explanation as to why that money is focused on poverty eradication rather than as just a generalised investment.

I looked into one of the others called Qiming Venture Partners, which is a Chinese-based entrepreneurial fund. It describes itself as one of the top funders of entrepreneurs in the internet and consumer products; I struggle to see how that relates to poverty reduction. It has some very interesting pictures on its website of its staff sitting on tanks in Mongolia. I am happy for the Minister to clarify the nature of that investment, and if it is something completely different I will happily withdraw my comments about it, but it is very odd.

Another one we heard about this morning was Feronia. Clearly that is an investment in agribusiness, and we can see links there to poverty reduction and jobs in the agribusiness sector. However, there are also questions about the potential negative effects on livelihoods and poverty eradication because the investment is in palm oil. There are questions about land grabs, the rights of people living in the area and whether that is even a sustainable product to be investing in. Again, it seems odd that we are investing in fossil fuel projects when we are told that climate change is one of the biggest threats to developing countries and people in the poorest countries. I know that that is not just a problem to CDC; it applies to some of our investments through other development finance institutions, and is something we ought to look at much more closely.

I feel that tying CDC more closely to the wider terms under which DFID operates, and the wider terms in which our ODA is spent, would be helpful. Otherwise we might get some very interesting challenges and could even have legal challenges—judicial reviews—on some of these projects, particularly if we were to put in large sums of new money. I am sure that some of the campaigning organisations would take great interest in seeing whether some of these projects actually adhere to the principles that we set out for the Department and the spending of our ODA. I am encouraged by the new clause, and am certainly interested in the Minister’s comments on it.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Department for International Development

This is an important principle—we should be focused on poverty reduction and the particular aspect of poverty reduction through job creation and economic development. I absolutely agree, and that is central to the mission of the CDC and its investment policy, but we are circling around a bigger issue: where is the appropriate place for this to happen?

I think that the only disagreement between myself and the hon. Member for Glasgow North is that this is a straightforward Bill, which is designed to lift the cap. We believe that the appropriate place to determine spending decisions and exactly how strategy works is through the normal departmental process. That would be true for our investments in the World Bank and in Unicef, money we would give to Oxfam or Save the Children, or anybody. We have procedures and processes to do that, which do not happen through primary legislation. We will continue to present that five-year strategy in December for the hon. Member for Glasgow North and other right hon. Members to interrogate. We will continue to present the business cases. We will be held absolutely accountable in law. In 2015 we passed a law that we would spend 0.7% on overseas development assistance as defined by the OECD. The money we are giving is governed by that legislation, which commits us legally to make sure that that money is driven precisely in the directions that the hon. Member has raised.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth continues to raise many different issues. I am struggling to work out in which sequence to answer them, because many of them are things I thought the hon. Gentleman was attempting to raise in later amendments. I hope that we are not going to keep hearing again and again about the same caseloads.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

It seems to me that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has raised interesting points about individual investments by the CDC. He is concerned about where the geographic spend is. The figures probably suggest that it has been 48% in Africa over the last few years, but there is an interesting question there, on which the Minister might want to comment: if one invests in a business that is, for the sake of argument, based in Mumbai but investing in east Africa, is that geographically described as an Indian investment or an east African investment? The hon. Member then had questions about sectoral investment. There are interesting questions there, because if someone is building hospitals, they are also in construction, and therefore there are jobs for people building the hospital. Is that classified as an investment in health, in construction, or both?

Order. This is an intervention. If the hon. Gentleman wants to speak longer, he needs to indicate—

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

I will bring it to an end almost immediately. It struck me that the Minister might want to confirm that the CDC can be held to account directly before the Select Committee and that that is the place to ask specific questions on specific investments and their sectoral and geographic emphasis, rather than in this Bill Committee.

I think it is for me to decide where the best place for the questions is, and I have allowed them.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Department for International Development

To conclude, and to follow up from my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, the questions about poverty and the impacts of our investments need to be asked again and again, right through the process. They need to be asked in Parliament; they can be asked through urgent questions; they can be asked through this process. They also need to be asked primarily in details about the CDC’s mission, its investment policy, the ex ante decision making based on the development impact grid, through the development impact theory on each individual investment, and we have to do it in a way that gets a very difficult balance right, because the National Audit Office has been very clear that it does not want the Department micromanaging and interfering in individual business cases and decisions. We are supposed to be setting the overall strategy, driving where the money is meant to be and driving it towards exactly the kind of indicators that right hon. and hon. Members have raised. Given the number of measures that the Government will be taking to address exactly the issues raised, not in the Bill but through all the existing other processes, within both the CDC and the Department and the wider parliamentary and public accountability process, I ask politely that the new clause be withdrawn.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

That was an interesting and helpful response from the Minister. He has repeatedly said throughout this process that the CDC is different from all the organisations that DFID disburses funds to, precisely because of the way it is constituted in statute and the historical legacy, going back 70 years. This is an important opportunity to include in the Bill some of the assurances that the Minister continues to give us, to make it clear that poverty reduction is one of the purposes of the CDC. I hear what the Minister says about withdrawing the new clause at this stage. If I do so, I hope that he will understand if we choose to come back at a later stage with more detail. Perhaps the Government would indicate that they are willing to work on how we can build into the legislation some of the reassurances that we keep asking for and they say they are going to give us. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2