HC Deb 13 June 1979 vol 968 cc432-5
36. Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will examine the forward commitments made by the previous Government in respect of the bilateral aid programme; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Neil Marten

Yes, Sir. Firm bilateral commitments by the previous Administration totalled some £824 million at the end of March. Expenditure will spread for the most part over the next three to four years. There is also a commitment to write off payments due on outstanding aid debts from a number of the poorest developing countries. These will total some £900 million over the rest of this century.

Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

Will the Minister look particularly closely at the figures for India, which is the largest single recipient of United Kingdom aid, in the light of the Select Committee's report published today on aid to that country? That report raises important questions about the quality of aid to India in the past. Will my hon. Friend also urge the Leader of the House to reconsider the appointment of a Select Committee on overseas development so that he may have the benefit of advice from such a Select Committee on this and other subjects?

Mr. Marten

On the second point, I am sure that the Leader of the House will take note of what my hon. Friend has said. Certainly I shall give him a little push in that direction on my hon. Friend's behalf. On the first part of the question, I have not had a chance to read the report of the Select Committee yet, but I take note of my hon. Friend's point. The Indians are now better geared to receiving United Kingdom aid than they were in the past, and I hope that the problems will be overcome.

Mr. Spearing

Will the hon. Member confirm that the Government, together with other Western Governments at the UNCTAD conference at Manila, which has just ended, committed themselves to increase aid to underdeveloped countries? Can he comment on that in the light of the Budget Statement yesterday? If the representative of our Government made some qualification after the conference at some time, will he see that that is published either by his Department or the relevant Department in the Official Report?

Mr. Marten

We certainly agreed to both first and second window aid. We did not give any specific cash pledges because, like other countries, we said that we were reviewing Government expenditure, and therefore obviously could not make any firm commitments.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Is my hon. Friend aware that many who believe in the concept of overseas aid do not always feel that such aid is applied in the right way? Would he, as a new Minister, who is known on both sides of the House to have an independent and refreshing mind on this matter, guarantee to have a full overhaul of the whole question of overseas aid in the next two years?

Mr. Marten

Yes, I recognise that there are people who take that view. However, on investigation, when one looks closely at the matters raised, one sometimes finds that they are not always as bad as they might seem. Nevertheless, I shall certainly look very deeply at the various projects in the pipeline.

Mr. Kaufman

Bearing in mind that the previous Government made commitments on the use of overseas aid to obtain shipbuilding orders for Britain's shipyards, will the hon. Member reiterate the readiness of this Government to use overseas aid to help obtain orders for British shipyards? Will he undertake to report to the House on the possibility of using such aid to obtain an order from Tunisia?

Mr. Marten

No, I will not give that commitment, because the review of the aid cuts is still taking place.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my hon. Friend have discussions urgently with the Secretary of State for Industry, and perhaps even the chairman of British Shipbuilders, because surely this is not the time for the United Kingdom to sell subsidised ships to Vietnam?

Mr. Marten

Yes, I propose to have talks with my right hon. Friend.

Dame Judith Hart

Is the hon. Gentle, man aware of the deep regret and anger of the Opposition about the Chancellor's announcement yesterday of a £50 million cut in the aid programme? Is he aware that we believe that the interdependence between ourselves and the developing countries is essential to the economic recovery of Britain?

Secondly, will he agree with the need to recognise the commitments that have been made? That is absolutely essential. I support the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) in believing that the appointment of a Select Committee on overseas development is essential if we are to explore these questions fully and adequately.

Mr. Marten

The last matter is for the Leader of the House, and I have already mentioned it to him. I note the right hon. Lady's regrets about the cuts. I, too, regret them, but I must remind the Opposition—and I do not take pleasure in doing so—that in December 1976 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer announced cuts of £50 million—

Dame Judith Hart

That was under the right hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Prentice).

Mr. Marten

The fact is that the then Government cut £50 million for each of the years 1977–78 and 1978–79, so this happens to Governments of both sides of the House.

Mr. Newens

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that cuts in aid hit not only the developing countries which otherwise would receive that aid but the British firms seeking to export to those countries? Will he recognise that many firms in competitor countries get enormous support from their own Governments which is just not available in this country? By cutting aid, we are limiting the possibilities of our own firms developing their exports.

Mr. Marten

I recognise the two points made by the hon. Gentleman, but the need to make cuts would not have come about if the Labour Government had not left our economy in the position in which we found it. No doubt the same thoughts ran through members of the Labour Government when they made cuts in 1977 and 1978.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Since the whole House is properly concerned with the ultimate destination and total scale of British aid, may I ask my hon. Friend, whose appointment has given great pleasure to all his friends, whether he can give any idea of the net balance of British aid to the so-called five front-line States, and say how that compares with the net real cost to those States of supporting terrorism in Zambia and elsewhere?

Mr. Marten

The answer is that I cannot do so. However, if my hon. Friend tables a question on the matter, we shall have a shot at answering it.