HC Deb 17 March 1981 vol 1 cc213-8 4.23 pm
Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the clear indication of the limit of my remit. I was hoping that your successor would be in the Chair by now and that he would not know quite as much about the limit of the discussion.

I see that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, are now in the Chair. I shall apply myself as best I can to the task before me. It is the first time that I have spoken in the House since you were appointed to that illustrious seat. It is, therefore, appropriate for me to offer you my sincere congratulations.

This subject is the only one in the so-called series of debates. It is appropriate to raise it shortly after a statement has been made on Belize. My purpose in raising the subject is to try to ensure that that little country does not get a raw deal in the months and years to come.

Aid to Belize has been given by the British Government for a long time. In 1975 the net transfer of aid was about £2¼ million. By 1979, the last year for which I have figures, the amount had increased to over £7 million. The £7,454,000 gross comprises almost £7 million of financial aid and £½ million of technical co-operation. Included in the financial aid is £6,771,000 of project aid—aid to establish new or expand existing production and infrastructure facilities—leaving only £95,000 of non-project aid, all of which is used for disaster relief.

I am informed that disaster relief is one matter to which I may refer this afternoon, but let me first point out how important money for that purpose is to a country such as Belize. Belize suffers many natural disasters. It is frequently hit by hurricanes, often of great intensity. In 1961 hurricane "Hattie" devastated large areas, including Belize city, which I visited three years later, in 1964. The disaster caused over 300 deaths, and that in a country with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants at the time.

The Supplementary Estimates allow for small increases in the proposed aid for Belize. They come under three sub-headings: Assistance after disasters", development grants and "Service overseas and Regional Technical Co-operation Programmes". The reference to "Assistance after disasters" appears in the Supplementary Estimates (Classes II-XVII: Civil) at page 17. Belize is grouped with Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Fiji, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mozambique, Nepal, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. The sum allocated for all those countries is very tiny. What proportion of the allocated increase will go to Belize?

As far as I can make out, the development grants for Belize appear at page 45, under the heading "British dependent territories", either under the sub-heading "Loan" or "Grant", or perhaps both. The overall sum is substantial, but, again, what will be the apportionment to Belize?

I am not sure where I can find the third group. It is supposed to be concerned with service overseas and regional technical co-operation. Will the Minister tell me where I can find the previous apportionment and the increase, if any, earmarked for Belize in the Estimates that we are discussing. In 1979, £587,000 was spent on regional technical co-operation and service overseas; £114,000 was spent on student training, £460,000 on personnel overseas and £13,000 on other services. May I have more information from the hon. Gentleman on that matter?

The Minister is the first to recognise the importance of overseas aid. I am sure that the whole House greatly appreciates both his present interest in these matters and the interest that he has shown over many years. We derive satisfaction when we know that aid is put to good use. There has been a great deal of criticism, some of which is not particularly justified, about overseas aid that finds its way into the coffers of people for whom it is not intended. Belize is a democratic, multi-racial country, which has a parliamentary system similar to ours. It is intensely pro-British and intensely preoccupied with maintaining British links. I am sure that any aid that is accorded to it from the British Treasury is appreciated and put to good use.

I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that this small country of about 150,000 inhabitants, with few natural resources apart from the willingness of its people to work, deserves our thanks for its long-standing accord with Britain and the British people and our assurance that we shall not forget it when it proceeds to independence.

When a director of a firm leaves after long and good service the custom is to give him a golden handshake. I ask the Minister to accord a similar golden handshake to Belize, so that she will not be disadvantaged in the new world in which she will find herself when she becomes independent. The people of Belize are worried about their future. There are certain matters over which the British Government have no control and about which they cannot concern themselves, but the Government have considerable control over overseas aid. I ask the Minister to accept the necessity of retaining the good will of this small country and of helping its people in every way that we can as a nation.

4.35 pm
Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

I am sorry to learn that the Minister for Overseas Development is to leave the House at the end of this Parliament. Although I do not agree with his views on the Common Market, he has been a brilliantly resourceful anti-Market gladiator for many years. He is a master of the art of parliamentary questions in Opposition. My only regret, now that he is a Minister, instead of a Back Bencher, is that he had so much more liberty to entertain us on the Back Benches than the discipline of Government allows him now. He will be sadly missed by both sides of the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) on introducing this topic and being successful in obtaining the debate. One of the more endearing characteristics of the House of Commons is that it can spare time from issues involving millions of people to consider issues involving small numbers of people—in this case the country of Belize with a population of about 140,000 and one of the smallest capital cities in the world, Belmopan, with a population of only 4,500.

I understand from figures that I have seen that the cost of maintaining a British Army presence in Belize to defend the country is about £25 million annually, whereas the total gross revenue of the country is about £36 million. So we are dealing with a small country with a small population, I understand, although I have never been there, few streets are paved, there is no television—some people might think that a blessing—and a great deal needs to be done to develop the infrastructure to help the people to get on their feet. As I understand that 63 per cent. of all money for capital development projects comes from Britain, the continued assistance of Britain in that area is crucial.

Earlier this afternoon the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office spoke of the heads of agreement that had been reached, one of which involved exploration for minerals. Reference was also made to oil and the possibility of joint efforts between Guatemala and Belize in this respect. I hope that British aid will be available for facilitating the search for and the discovery and development of these resources, which will be of great value to those countries and to the world at large.

The Brandt report bears generally on the problems of countries such as Belize. The West has a duty and a responsibility to ensure that such countries are enabled to develop and to build up their standard of living. There is a bonus in that policy for the West. An increased standard of living in Belize will mean that Britain can hope for a share of the orders for goods which a higher standard of living will enable the Belizeans to buy.

I hope that Britain will continue to discharge its responsibilities in that part of the world and will continue to support the Belizeans, not only in relation to their security but in relation to their development, not only as a moral duty but from self-interest, for the sake of the stability of that part of the world and because Britain has been there an awfully long time. There was a considerable period when we did nothing to assist the improvement of the standard of living and the conditions of life in that country. Our record in recent years has been considerably better, and I hope that independence will not prevent the continuance of those efforts to improve the situation in that small and rather impoverished country.

4.41 pm
The Minister for Overseas Delevopment (Mr. Neil Marten)

I first thank the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) for his kind remarks about my decision not to stand at the next election. It was most courteous of him. When I came into the House 21½ years ago I remember going into the Tea Room and being surrounded by some over-70s who offered me "very sound advice, my boy". I shook my head and decided that I was not going to be here when I was 70. If I were to stand at the next election that would be the case, so I decided that I had better hand in my notice to my constituency in good time.

I am sure that the people of Belize will welcome this debate, initiated by the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller). I think that much of his interest came about through four visits, I believe it was, on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. That illustrates the great value of the CPA, which I hope will go from strength to strength.

Dr. M. S. Miller

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I also visited Belize with the Select Committee on Defence, and therefore saw another aspect of the country and its problems.

Mr. Marten

I hope that Select Committees, too, will go from strength to strength.

I am sure that the people of Belize will welcome what has been said in the debate. We shall certainly take great notice of what has been said by people who know Belize.

There is just one point that I should like to pick up from what the hon. Gentleman said—that the benefits of aid sometimes do not go to the people for whom it is intended. That may have been so many years ago—we have all heard many stories about that sort of thing—but I assure him that now we very carefully appraise any aid project and monitor it, cost it and watch the costs very carefully, so I hope that that sort of thing does not happen now. Of course we cannot control everything all over the world when we are giving aid to over 130 different countries, but we do our best to monitor it and see that nothing goes astray.

First, I propose to explain the reason for the Spring Supplementary Estimate provision required for Belize in the Overseas Aid Vote. The sums in question are not large. There is an item of £792, which was provided under the disaster sub-head C7 to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and covered the use of a Ministry of Defence helicopter for flood relief operations. I pay a tribute to those who take part in these operations, because we have a very high standing in the world in providing aid following disasters.

Secondly, the provision for development aid under subhead C2 of the Overseas Aid Vote requires increasing by £164,000, to £4 million. This is to provide fully for expenditure arising from existing commitments, including hurricane rehabilitation aid agreed in 1979–80 but not all spent in that year.

Thirdly, there is an increase for technical co-operation under sub-head D1 from £700,000 to £925,000, mainly to permit the engagement of consultants to help plan a new Belize city hospital.

In calling for a debate on Belize the hon. Member for East Kilbride has provided an opportunity to discuss the question of aid following independence. Figures have not yet been decided, but I assure the House that aid will continue for a number of years and that we are considering a suitable aid package, or what is sometimes called a golden handshake, on independence. This will need to be discussed with the Belize Government when the date for independence is fixed. That is the usual way of going about it.

An important factor to be taken into account is the signing of the heads of agreement for a settlement of our dispute with Guatemala over Belize, which heads of agreement were published yesterday and announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) this afternoon. I stress that the full implications of the settlement will not, however, be known until the detailed arrangements have been negotiated over the coming months.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

I have been to Belize recently. We are all grateful for the incredible ability of my hon. Friend the Minister of State—the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley)—in achieving what he has. My hon. Friend has just said that aid will be limited, and I think there are two things that really matter. The first is that aid will be given over a reasonably long period, because it will take a long time for the people of Belize to get on their feet. Their economy is by no means strong. Secondly, the assurance that British troops will be there for a long period will provide some form of stability. If that is combined with a long-term aid programme it will enable Mr. Price, or whoever succeeds him, to establish a much stronger base for the Government.

Mr. Marten

I am grateful for that intervention because it enables me to reaffirm that our aid programme will be a fairly long-term one, and one in which the people of Belize can have confidence. On the question of troops, my hon. Friend will have heard my hon. Friend the Minister of State. We cannot give any commitment at this stage.

Our existing aid to Belize is given in the context of a healthy and expanding economy. There was strong economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, and with a per capita gross national product of US$ 870 in 1978 Belize is one of the richer developing countries in the Commonwealth Caribbean. It has tremendous potential for development, and with under-population in rural areas there is considerable scope for agricultural expansion on land not yet cultivated.

The major crop at present is sugar, which accounts for over 20 per cent. of the gross domestic product and 60 per cent. of domestic exports, but there are also prospects for increasing exports of citrus fruits, bananas and livestock. The economic and social infrastructures are adequate, but there remains a real need for continuing aid in this area.

We are already helping with roads, the Caribbean Development Bank has assisted with a deep water port, and the Canadians and we have both helped with projects to provide mains water to the major towns. The Belize Government have plans for a new hospital in Belize city, for which finance may come from the European Development Fund, which is the fourth major donor of aid to Belize.

Our project aid in 1978–79 and 1979–80 was £3.6 million and £5.7 million respectively, although these figures include about £3 million rehabilitation aid following hurricane "Greta", in addition to the normal aid programme. Technical co-operation expenditure in the same two years was £516,000 and £642,000.

All this aid is administered by the British Development Division in Bridgetown, Barbados, and Belize also benefits, as I have already indicated, from British aid provided through the Caribbean Development Bank and the European Development Fund.

Most of the project aid in the last few years has been spent on a major road project, hurricane rehabilitation and a rural development project in Toledo, the southern part of Belize. Other projects include town water supplies, smaller road projects, a police training school, the Belize river ferry and radio equipment.

The technical co-operation includes training in the United Kingdom and the Caribbean region, and financial assistance, with nearly 40 British expatriate staff.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

Will the staff that are sent from Belize to Britain in future have any cover under the National Health Service? Will the hon. Gentleman's Department be prepared to take up health insurance? What will happen to these people?

Mr. Marten

That one has bowled me middle stump. I shall write to the hon. Lady when I have researched the issue.

I return to aid following independence. I repeat the assurance that I gave earlier, that arrangements will be made for development aid and technical co-operation to continue for a number of years yet. We hope and expect that aid to Belize from other sources will increase as a result of full independence. I do not envisage that that will affect British aid expenditure.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride has done a service to the House in raising this issue in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. It has enabled me to explain what aid we are currently giving to Belize and to state clearly that there is some way to go yet before we finalise any aid settlement on independence.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House; immediately considered in Committee.

Clauses 1 to 3 agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 93 (Consolidated Fund Bills) and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.