HC Deb 28 June 1963 vol 679 cc1912-9

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

I should like to raise with the Minister the general level of CD. and W. aid proposed by this Bill over the years immediately ahead. Members of the Committee will recall that on Second Reading last week the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies said when replying to the debate: The latest estimates which I have for 1962–63 give a total of £160 million of Government aid alone. We had expected the figure to be a good deal more, and if all the commitments which we had undertaken had been drawn upon by overseas Government, if would have been more."—[Official Report, 19th June, 1963; Vol. 679, c. 599.] The debate had hardly concluded before there was a letter in The Timesfrom one of the officials of the Overseas Development Institute pointing out that in the latest issue of the Government's "Financial Statistics" the figure of Government aid for the year 1962–63 was not £160 million but was only £147.9 million.

The first point I want to raise is that this does seem an extremely bad piece of briefing of the Minister, that he should have given the House a figure which was more than £12 million out. As we waited for this debate to start I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) saying in shocked terms that he had heard a Minister talk about "only £80 million" and he hoped that he would never be guilty of such a phrase. Well, the Government in this case have been quite unnecessarily wrong about £12 million, which is a very substantial amount in relation to the aid programme, and I think that we are entitled to some explanation why this mistake was made.

But there is more than the question of inaccurate information given to the House. There is also the fact that this figure of £147.9 million for 1962–63 is very substantially down on the 1961–62 figure of £160 million and is also down even on the 1960–61 figure, so that over the last couple of years the total sum of Government assistance to developing countries overseas has dropped.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, in his winding-up speech, referred to the statement by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) in 1961 when he put a ceiling of £180 million on our total Governmental overseas aid. I well remember that at that time some of us in the House protested against the Chancellor's imposing a restriction on this form of aid and at developing countries of the world being made victims of our incompetent financial policies at home, but the astonishing fact which emerges is that we have never gone near £180 million since 1961. Last year we spent less than we did in the two previous years. I gather that the reason for this is the reason given by the Minister in justifying his inaccurately high figure, and that is that although the money was allocated, in a number of cases it was not, for various reasons, taken up and used.

As Mr. Mackintosh, Director of Studies of the Overseas Development Institute, argued in his letter to The Times, this raises for the Government a point as to whether the arrangements with regard to this aid are adequate and flexible. If there is a £12 million drop in the total sum over the last 12 months does this mean that the type and the terms of the aid we offer are of the wrong kind in certain cases?

A more immediate point which is raised is that if in fact particular terri- tories are unable to use the aid which has been allocated to them is the Governmental machinery flexible enough to transfer this aid to other places where it is urgently needed? I think everybody in this Committee could tell the Minister of places where there are urgent priorities which are unsatisfied because they have not been able to be brought within the current budget.

Just before this debate I was talking to somebody from Swaziland about the operations of C.D.C. in that country. He tells me that in Swaziland, where there has been a good deal of trouble recently, literacy among the number of children at school is about 26 per cent, and that there are more than 30,000 Swaziland youngsters who do not get any schooling at all. He tells me that in this small but very important country nowadays there are only l6 people who emerge from secondary school in any year with the matriculation standard which would take them on to higher education. This is just one simple example which came to me casually before this debate began. One could give other examples of urgent needs in every colonial territory for which we are responsible.

It seems sad that if at the end of the day we find ourselves with £12 million under spent of the not very generous total, we have no arrangements to have this transferred to other places, and I think that the Committee is entitled to an explanation why the House was misled about the total figure and is also entitled to some sort of indication from the Government that they are considering their machinery for giving this aid so as to make sure that if in future years the targets announced are not achieved as announced they may be achieved in other ways and will not necessarily remain as figures on a slip of Colonial Office paper.

2.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Nigel Fisher)

It is perfectly fair of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) to take up the point about the letter. I confess that I was a little embarrassed to see the letter in The Times. It was published almost exactly one week after our Second Reading debate. Although I have infinite confidence and faith in my advisers, I began to wonder whether I had received a not altogether perfect briefing.

But I think I did, because it is fair to say that that was the latest estimate available in the Colonial Office at the time I gave the figure to the House. The letter gave a later but still provisional figure which, I agree, indicates that the outturn for 1962–63 may be only £148 million. This is not confirmed yet but is only a provisional figure, and even the provisional figure was not available to the Colonial Office the week we were debating the matter. That is my explanation why I gave the figure of £160 million, which was what we were working on at that time, and not the figure of £148 million.

As to the shortfall of £12 million—which is, as the hon. Gentleman says, a large figure—I have the exact breakdown. It is rather detailed, and perhaps it would be more convenient and suitable if I sent it to the hon. Member in a letter rather than read it out now. I would just tell the House that, broadly, of that shortfall £4 million is attributable to aid under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act, and £3 million of it takes the form of Exchequer loans. I will write to the hon. Member about the other items.

As to the Exchequer loans item, the £3 million represents a re-phasing rather than an actual fall in expenditure. The commitment to provide these loans remains and will have to be discharged later. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that point. Exchequer loans are, in fact, administered very flexibly in that commitments to provide them are not entered into until the actual need is clearly shown.

With regard to the CD. and W. grants, which are in a quite separate category, allocations have to be made—as I know the hon. Gentleman understands—to the territories well in advance to enable them to plan forward. Therefore, one has to have them in the form of territorial allocations in advance. But, in so far as there can be flexibility within that framework we do our best to make sure that they are administered flexibly within the allocations. I think the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that one has to give the territories the chance to plan forward, and, therefore, there have to be the territorial allocations which could in a sense, I suppose, be considered rigid if the hon. Gentleman wishes to put it that way.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

I accept that that is the explanation of how the hon. Gentleman gave the figure of £160 million, but I still suggest that it is worth looking at the machinery which produced the figure, because the letter which I quoted was written on 21st June, two days after our debate, and the writer was quoting from the June issue of the Government's own financial statistics, which I gather became available that day to the writer and must certainly have been available within the Government machinery some time before that. In the case of a Bill of this nature which deals with the total figure of Government assistance, it is rather surprising when a mistake of £12 million is made in a global figure which was crucial to our whole discussion, because there was the usual discussion about what percentage of the national income we were devoting to overseas purposes.

I should like the hon. Gentleman to clear up another point. Let us assume that when the final accurate figure is established the shortfall is about £12 million. Does this mean that when we receive next year's figures, whatever they are, they will include the £12 million, or will next year's figures be an entirely fresh start and will the £12 million go on being spent separately related to its year of allocation and not concealed in a future apparently inflated figure?

I appreciate the practical difficulties about flexibility in this matter, and it is certainly very important that each project should be argued out on its own merits and closely examined. I do not deny that. But let us assume that as a result of Colonial Office experience it is discovered that there is bound to be a certain shortfall. Would it not be worth while for the Colonial Office to have a floating reserve available for urgent action where money may have to be spent quickly so that over the financial year the Colonial Office is able fully to spend the amount of money which it has finally been able to wring out of a reluctant Treasury?

Mr. Fisher

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I asked him to accept—and I know he will—that the error of £12 million was not known to me at the time, nor to my senior adviser upon whom I rely for advice in matters of this kind, although it came to his knowledge later and he drew my attention to it the moment it became available. I will look into the question of whether it was known at any level in my office. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that it looks as if it might have been, and if it were so known, then it should have been conveyed to me. I do not really know the answer, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not press me for an answer now, but I will look into it.

The £12 million will go on. It will not be lost to the territories.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

Will it be in next year's total?

Mr. Fisher

The point is that this amount of money has been allocated and is available to the territories. I do not know quite what the hon. Gentleman is getting at.

Mr. Thomson

If we are discussing this subject at this time next year and the hon. Gentleman is still—I think it is an unlikely contingency—in office and tells the House, "I am proud to say that our aid figures have now risen to £172 million; this is a wonderful increase", will it mean that it is really £160 million of 1963–64 aid plus the £12 million that he failed to spend in 1962–63?

Mr. Fisher

I am sure that if I am still fortunate enough to be here at that time I shall not mislead the House in any way but will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said and will not fall into the error, simply for presentational reasons, of presenting an inaccurate picture. I shall give the actual amount by which the aid has gone up and not take credit for the, so to speak, "lost" £12 million.

We get a small reserve, wrung, as the hon. Gentleman so graphically put it, from a reluctant Treasury. It is not very large. I do not know whether I am supposed to reveal this sort of thing from the Dispatch Box but it is a reserve to cover such contingencies as hurricanes and goodness knows what—things which happen for which one cannot possibly plan, things which suddenly hit a small territory. I would point out that many of the colonies are within potential hurricane areas. It is for that sort of thing that we have a reserve. Indeed, we must have one to meet cases where immediate action and immediate cash to help are required.

But the reserve is of that nature and of that size, and I am afraid that in those circumstances it does not give a great deal of scope for much assistance over and above the territorial allocations which have been made to specific and individual territories.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

2.40 p.m.

Mr. Tilney

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill will give to the Colonial Development Corporation a new name and a new lease of life and a new freedom to invest in the independent countries, where it has done such good work in the past. I believe that there will be much for it to do. Its method of co-operation with Governments or private enterprise in promoting development in Commonwealth countries is a good example of Commonwealth co-operation at its best, and I am confident that it will make an important contribution to the economies of the various Commonwealth countries. It will also show that this country does not lose interest in a member of the Commonwealth after it becomes independent.

The main burden of development must rest on the shoulders of the people of the developing countries themselves—it is self-help—but this Bill shows that we are glad to help where we can. There has been a general welcome for that part of the Bill which extends the period of the Colonial Development and Welfare Acts and increases the amount of assistance given under it. I believe that both sides of the House recognise the special responsibilities that we have for helping our dependent territories, and these Acts have never been subject to party controversy.

There has been some criticism, especially during Second Reading, that the period covered by the new CD. and W. arrangement is only three years rather than the five which has become customary. The reason is solely that, in present circumstances, it is difficult to foresee requirements for longer ahead. We recognise, however, that there will be a continuing need. I am confident that the aid provided by this Bill will ease the economic and social progress of lands for which we are still responsible.

2.42 p.m.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

We welcome the opportunity of passing this Bill and to pay tribute to the work of the Colonial Development Corporation. We are glad that it now ceases to be the Colonial Development Corporation and becomes the Commonwealth Development Corporation. We think that this is a recognition, perhaps belatedly but none the less important that the developing countries of the Commonwealth, although their political status changes completely at the point of independence, still have an economic relationship to us and that our responsibility for their welfare does not cease.

We look forward to the Corporation being able to do well through its increased responsibilities, but we are sorry that the provisions for colonial development and welfare are perhaps rather more limited than on previous occasions. We hope that these will be extended to give colonial territories ample opportunity to plan well ahead. We hope that this will be used by the Government for a fairly wide consideration of the kinds of aid under CD. and W. and the method of giving it. We very much welcome this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.