HC Deb 07 July 1982 vol 27 cc389-97 10.43 pm
Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (Norfolk, North-West)

I welcome the introduction of this order by the Government as being a further demonstration of this country's commitment to assisting the developing countries in Africa with concessional finance. However, I feel that this method of discussing this expenditure of public money is unsatisfactory.

This is the third debate that we have had on the replenishment of the African development fund. What is interesting, if one looks back at previous debates, is the different systems by which the House choose to look at this problem. The debate on the first replenishment took place on 26 July 1977. There was a general debate for one hour on the Floor of the House during which, I regret to say, hon. Members who contributed—there were not many of them—did so on general aspects of aid policy. To an extent, that is understandable, but it shows a lack of capacity by the House to get down to the nitty-gritty of what is a serious attempt by successive Governments to transfer funds to the developing countries. The House does not give itself the opportunity to come to grips with the real technical problems of making disbursements from funds of this kind.

On 25 July 1979, when we had the second debate on the fund, and the second replenishment, it was grouped together with three other replenishments for three other regional development funds and taken in a Statutory Instruments Committee. The combined speeches of everyone on the Committee lasted less than one hour, considering disbursements to four important funds and major tranches of public money.

Tonight we are considering, at the Minister's request, a proposal to transfer a further £24 million to the African development fund for the purposes for which it was set up. I counsel the Minister, my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House who serve on the Overseas Development Sub-Committee to make a rule of bringing these matters before that Select Committee before the replenishment order comes before the House. The House would benefit from a regular perusal of the progress that is being made in these regional development banks, so that much more technical information could be available to those of us who do not serve on that Committee when the House debates these matters.

In the few moments that I have at my disposal, I want to press the Minister on the subject of mathematics. In 1977, Mr. John Tomlinson, who was a member of the Labour Government at that time, introduced the debate on the first replenishemt. He told us that at that stage we had spent £2 million. He said that he planned to spend a further £2 million as a payment to the capital stock, and an additional £8 million to the capital stock for the fund's second operating period of three years, beginning on 1 January 1976. According to my mathematics, the House was being asked on that occasion for authority to spend £10 million. Presumably, at the end of the debate, without a Division, that authority lay with the Government of the day.

When the House returned to the subject in the Statutory Instrument Committee upstairs on the occasion of the second replenishment, on 25 July 1979, we were told by the Minister that the United Kingdom had contributed a total of £12.4 million to the African development fund. On that occasion, he said that we were corrunitted to contributing £18.5 million. Now, £18.5 million, and the £12.4 million that we were alleged to have spent, add up to the £31 million which the right hon. Gentleman's Department's press release of 14 June this year announced was our commitment to date. It went on to say that £7.8 million of that amount had been spent already. If one takes £7.8 million from £31 million, one ends up with precisely the sum that the right hon. Gentleman is now asking the House for further authority to spend. What is the basis for that further request—or is my mathematics all that bad?

There have been three major debates—major, in terms of overseas development being discussed in the House at all—and commitments of £31 million have been made. Only £7.1 million has been spent. We are entitled to know why the flow of funds has been so slow.

I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he proposed to introduce a further order in the autumn authorising the United Kingdom to become a non-regional shareholder in the African Development Bank. I assume that that means that he, as a governor of the fund, and the senior member of his Department who is an alternate governor of the fund with him, will become governor and alternate governor of the bank. By taking a more active part in the bank, will he be in a position to accelerate the rate of disbursement of funds? We shall look to him to achieve that.

There remain only two further questions for me to ask. First, will the cost of becoming a director of the bank be the £63 million that the Minister told the House a year ago that it would cost? His intention then, if I recall it correctly, was to pay £15 million down and four equal instalments of the balance over a total period of five years. The House would like to know the updated figures, and the extent to which the House would be invited to commit itself to a substantially larger sum.

At that time the House will want to hear from the Minister positive proposals on how he believes the disbursements can be accelerated. The problem lies mainly in identifying projects that are suitable for the type of soft loans on which the various development banks lend. One of the areas in which recipient countries are least able to cope is in establishing what are viable projects, who are reliable entrepreneurs to whom to lend money, what type of technical assistance they require and what type of management back-up they require. I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) that in this connection, although it is peripheral to the debate, a decision on educating the most able people from the poorest countries is vitally important. If one adds to the identification of projects the absence of technical expertise and management skills, there is immediately a constraint on lending.

Secondly, I invite the Minister to consider seriously how we can encourage new private investment from Britain and Europe in developing countries which, in association with loans available through the regional development banks, could begin to expand rapidly the small business element of the developing countries. The Minister will agree that there is a shortage of entrepreneurial skills at the very lowest level in the poorest countries. It is impossible, however able the planning committees and the departments of their Governments are, to plan down to the grass roots. What is needed is encouragement to local entrepreneurs on a small scale to start building up businesses that can provide local employment and cash to people who are otherwise locked into subsistence farming to their detriment and to the detriment of food production in the countries concerned.

Are there not some imaginative proposals for encouraging private investment flows, the transfer of management technology and technical assistance and the education of the right cadres of people to operate at the grass roots in the developing countries to ensure that the development banks are able substantially to increase the disbursement of their funds? It is, if I may make a rather cheap remark for me, very easy for a Government to come to the House and ask for a pledge for a large sum of money. The Government of the day feel good about it and we all believe that we are doing the right thing, but the real test is whether that money is being disbursed to the grass roots and is playing the part that it should be playing in developing an infrastructure for local economies at the lowest level in the recipient countries.

10.53 pm
Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

I was relieved when I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) announce at the beginning of his speech that he did not intend to divide the House on this order—nor, I presume, on the order that is to follow—because, although I have my criticisms of the order, I should not wish to vote against it.

I found the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Waltham Forest (Mr. Deakins) extremely interesting and informative. With an inspiring array of statistics he was able to demonstrate his theory about the need for population control in Africa, and he also mentioned other parts of the world. Most of us agree with my hon. Friend, but he said that some African leaders still had reservations on the subject. That is true, and there is another side to the argument. It is arrogant for us in the West, with all our wealth and in the light of all the resources that we consume, to say to the poor three-quarters of the world "You must control your population so that we can conserve our resources."

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh, one of the great leaders of the East, who was murdered by the CIA because of his progressive views, once told me that all that his people had in the world was the pleasure of their families about them and the consolation that there would be someone to look after them when they grew old. The West was asking them to deny themselves even that small pleasure, while Western nations were thrusting ahead with their ever-growing consumption of the world's resources.

I do not accuse my hon. Friend the Member for Waltham Forest of being arrogant, but it is arrogant of the West to make such demands.

Mr. Deakins

I was speaking only about developing countries. There is another speech that I could have made, though it would not have been appropriate on the order, about the need for population policies in countries such as Britain. I am joint honorary secretary of the population and development group in the House which has been trying to press the Government and the Prime Minister to ensure a proper population policy for Britain as one of the richest countries in the world. One child in Britain will consume during its life about 30 times as much of the world's resources as the average African child.

Mr. Lamond

That was a timely intervention, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to clarify his position. I know his views and that is why I said that I would not describe him as arrogant.

We were pleased with the appointment of the right hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) to his present post, because we knew that he would bring to that position the compassion that we had observed in him when he was a Back Bencher. I have seen him at his office and tried to persuade him to give extra aid to some countries. He has been receptive to those pleas but not often able to respond to them. He has said that the total allocation had been reached and that although there were many outstanding and deserving demands, we were spending as much as we could. He meant that we were spending as much as there was the political will to spend; we are certainly not spending as much as we could.

I was pleased to see you take over the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because your immediate predecessor had the misfortune to be in the Chair when I spoke in Thursday's debate on the defence Estimates. I am about to repeat some of what I said in that debate and I should not have wanted your predecessor to have to listen to it again.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman's remarks be relevant to this debate?

Mr. Lamond

Obviously they were relevant to the previous debate and I am sure that if I am out of order you will draw my attention to that fact.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps I should have said that I hope the hon. Gentleman's remarks will be relevant to this debate.

Mr. Lamond

So do I.

Last Thursday we were also discussing Government expenditure. Many hon. Members spoke then, and almost all of them called for more expenditure on defence. I pointed out the disparity between what we spent on arms and on overseas aid, which includes the money that is contributed to the African development fund.

The order will replenish the fund to the extent of just over £24 million, and the next order provides for a sum approaching £13 million. That makes a total of about £37 million. I am well aware that that is not the total amount of our overseas aid. Nevertheless, if we look at page 9 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1982" we see that the figure that we are discussing tonight—with which we hope to bring to fruition many of the hopes of African people and subsequently those of people throughout the world—almost coincides with the cost of one Hunt class mine countermeasures vessel—£35 million.

That we are planning to spend £14,000 million and more on defence next year is made worse by the fact that the sudden crisis of the Falklands was solved by the expenditure—quite apart from the dreadful loss of life on both sides, which I deplored—of about £1,000 million from the Contingency Fund.

The Contingency Fund stands at well over £2,000 million, so we are assured that no harm will come to us if it is raided to the extent of £1,000 million. However, that contrasts with the Minister's response to my approach and that of others on matters relating to the African development fund. I do not blame him. I know that he does his best to provide as much money as he can, but he is in a straitjacket created by the Government's monetary policies. He told me that not another penny could be found anywhere. I think that I was trying to get some assistance for Vietnam on that occasion, although I know that that does not come under this order.

A country that is eligible for aid from this fund is Ethiopia. I have visited Ethiopia and had the opportunity to see a co-operative farm, several of which have been set up under the new Ethiopian regime. It was very interesting. They were trying to discover new cash crops, and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for Waltham Forest suggested that one of the best ways to assist these people would be to guarantee a reasonable price for their crops and not leave them to the wide market fluctuations. Most of the time prices seem to go down.

The farmers in Ethiopia are happy with the new regime and the opportunity that they have to try to develop agriculture for their own benefit. They took me to see what they regarded as their proudest possession—an electric water pump. I am sorry to say that it had been manufactured in Germany. I should have preferred to see one manufactured in the United Kingdom. After much debate and thought they had decided to buy the pump. They told me that it would remove 25 per cent. from their total income from the co-operative farm for the next five years. That is what they had to balance. That was the sacrifice that they had to make to get the pump to assist their agriculture and irrigation. However, they had done it and they were proud to have done so.

Those farmers felt proud, but I felt humble. The cost of the pump was about the same as the cost of a fuse for a bomb. The cost of a fuse was not mentioned in this year's defence Estimates, but it was mentioned last year. I noted the cost especially, because the fuse was manufactured in my constituency. Of course, I have told the workers that I do not support that sort of manufacture. I should like to see my constituents manufacturing pumps that could be provided for farms in Ethiopia under the scheme. I know that we do not deal with the fund direct, but it is the sort of equipment that we hope is bought to assist developing countries in Africa, such as Ethiopia.

Another example in Ethiopia was a large children's farm that had been set up to assist the orphans of a number of wars. There were many thousands of orphans with nowhere to go and no one to look after them. Sweden had provided $25 million to set up the school farm, where children are educated until the age of 16 years. At the same time, they are taught to look after animals on the farm. The scheme seemed to be working extremely well. There are criticisms of it, as there are of everything, but the general principle seemed to be excellent.

Last night Conservative Members were saying that they felt that the esteem in which the United Kingdom is held abroad has increased markedly since our great victory in the Falklands. I do not take that view. I think that our esteem rises in the world if we show compassion and the desire to assist those who are on the verge of starvation, who are illiterate and who need medical help. A far better way of spending the £14,000 million that we spend annually on arms—I accept that some must remain to be spent on defence—would be to spend part of it on projects such as the school farm that is financed by Sweden. This would assist those in African countries to remember what we have done to help them. They would remember it for the rest of their lives. That is the esteem in which I should like to see British people held throughout the world.

11.9 pm

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

On 11 February 1982 I intervened in one of these rare aid debates to refer to the problems of blindness in the Third world. I shall refer especially to that problem in Africa to ensure that I keep in order if nothing else. It is an accepted fact that there are about 40 million blind people in the world and that malnutrition destroys the sight of a quarter of a million children every year. A fair proportion of the children are in Africa. It is accepted that by determined action the problem could be controlled internationally in 10 years.

The 1979–80 annual report of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind contains a telling report of a speech by Sir John Wilson, the RCSB director.

He said of the effort made to solve the problem: This work could be justified economically: the modern world spends billions on preventable blindness. It could be justified politically; amongst human rights must surely be the right to see. But, what we really appeal to is not profit, philosophical right, or even the fulfilment of a realisable scientific goal, but the sense of value built into our contemporary civilisation. Such debates attract me if only because all hon. Members who take part are genuinely concerned about Third world problems. The Prime Minister would not feel at home. She regards such help as a hand-out. She believes that people should fend for themselves. That is the Minister's problem. His heart is in the right place, but his bottom is in the wrong place. He is on the Front Bench and he must do as he is told by his masters and mistresses. When he comes here he speaks with a forked tongue. That is the nature of his job.

In an earlier debate on blindness the Minister in his glib way said that the Government were helping. He generalised. I followed the debate up with a question. The Minister had explained the technical aid and advice that we were giving. I asked him: if, further to his reply to the hon. Member for Fife, Central on 11 February … he will list the countries to which the United Kingdom provides ophthalmologists and equipment under the technical co-operation programme; and what is the estimated annual cost of such assistance. From what the Minister said when winding up the earlier debate, I thought that we were spending millions of pounds, if not tens of millions. We should consider the Minister's reply in the context of what has been said about missiles. I carry the "blue book" with me for such debates as this. The Minister said: Including the provision of experts, equipment and training, we are currently helping in the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Zambia"— All of which are in Africa— St. Helena and Costa Rica, and have recently done so in Honduras, Jamaica and India. That is nine countries, four of which are in Africa and two others near enough. The Minister went on: The total value of our aid to combat blindness is of the order of £475,000 a year."—[Official Report, 1 March 1982, Vol. 19, c. 17.] That is a disgrace. It is indefensible.

The cost of 68 Milan anti-tank missiles at £7,000 a piece would add up to the total aid that we are giving to cure blindness in the nine countries. The same sum would buy 68 Milan anti-tank missiles or eight anti-RADAR shaft dispensers for Harrier aircraft, which cost £55,000 each. Politics in general is about priorities. If one spends a given amount of money on defence, one can spend that much less on curing blindness in the Commmonwealth and elsewhere.

Hon. Members of all opposition parties are united in their condemnation of the Tory Government's approach to the aid programme. World peace is more endangered by world poverty than by the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is on that basis that we regard the Government's policies on these matters as indefensible. They are inadequate for the challenge that faces us.

11.15 pm
Mr. Neil Marten

The debate qualifies for the traditional description of wide-ranging. It frequently ranged outside the subject intended for discussion—the order. I have about a quarter of an hour to answer some of the points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) referred to students' fees. That subject is outside the range of the order. As I said the last time that I answered questions, we received the Overseas Students' Trust report and we are now working on it. When interdepartmental discussions have been held, we will go further than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs did in a written answer when the report was published in May.

The hon. Member for Queen's Park asked why so little is spent on health and education. Before anything else, it is important to give people a means of living and feeding themselves. We and other donors agree with the fund management that agriculture in all its forms should be the top priority. Because of the problems that were mentioned at the Nairobi conference to which the hon. Gentleman referred, agriculture and food have top priority, not merely with the fund but also with other bodies such as the World Bank. The fund must also follow the priorities of member Governments as we do in bilateral aid giving. Health education received 15 per cent. of loans in 1981 as compared with 10 per cent. in 1980. The trend is up, if one can judge a trend over two years. I hope that it will continue.

The hon. Member for Queen's Park also mentioned land reform. That is a matter for individual African States. Most of the fund aid to agriculture goes to integrated rural development and similar schemes that primarily benefit the peasant communities. He then mentioned Zimbabwe which we have often discussed at Question Time.

We have said consistently that although we have allocated £30 million out of our independence settlement with Zimbabwe—it is a lot of money—much of it has not yet been used.

When I saw Dr. Chidzero, the Minister for Development, on his recent visit here, we had a long discussion about the matter. He is trying to initiate a new plan not only for land resettlement, but also for infrastructure on a village community basis, such as schools, water and electricity, which I am sure is the right approach. We want to get other countries to join in allocating funds for this. So far, Zimbabwe has not been very successful in getting other countries to contribute to the fund. Some people say that there has been a hold-up due to our administrative arrangements. That is not so, but we are looking at this with the Zimbabwe Government and if there is any way in which they think that we are holding things up we shall try to rectify it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned transport and specifically vehicles. I think that when the fund refers to transport in its report it is more in terms of upgrading rural roads and maintaining a basic road network. The more I see of developing countries, the more I realise the importance of those aspects so that farmers can get their produce to markets and so on. That is where the money goes, on transport rather than on vehicles, however good they might be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells) said that it was entirely up to the Africans to say how the fund's money is spent. The position appears to be that the fund has agreed sectoral priorities and it is up to its management to ensure that projects are sound. We and other donors can influence policies and individual decisions through our directors on the executive board. At present, with Yugoslavia, we are represented by the United States, but we provide the alternate director.

My hon. Friend also referred in his excellent speech to housing and the Shelter Afrique. That was launched at this year's annual meeting of the African Development Bank, but it is largely a creation of the African States themselves and non-regional countries such as our own have not really been involved in it.

The hon. Member for Waltham Forest (Mr. Deakins) dealt with his well-known subject, on which I very much share his views. I think that we shall now be in a stronger position to influence expenditure from the bank and the fund and I will draw the attention of those responsible to his comments. I entirely agree that this is a tricky subject to deal with for a variety of reasons of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware. I assure him that my heart is certainly in it because the problems that he raised are so obvious.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) made an interesting point about not having really had the opportunity to debate these matters. He suggested going to the Overseas Development Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to extract the information on the kind of questions that have been put today. We might then debate that report with the order or other measure before the House. I think that that is a good idea and I will draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mathematics is not my strong point at the Dispatch Box, but perhaps I may write to the hon. Gentleman on some of his questions. He asked what was the basis for the £24 million that we are now pledging as against the £31 million already provided. I am advised that the £31 million has been used to cover commitments so far and that the £24.7 million will cover new commitments for 1982–84. If we withheld this, the fund would have to cut down its lending to new projects and we have continually stressed the need to improve project implementation and monitoring.

Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

Can the Minister confirm that the money that has been committed has been drawn down in the form of promissory notes but not disbursed?

Mr. Marten

I shall have to look at that. I should not like to answer that question off the cuff.

We have had an interesting debate on aid. Many useful points have been made. I was fascinated by them. The debate shows the interest that the House takes in the subject and in the problems of Africa. I stress that there has been no questioning of the draft order itself. On the contrary, our intended contribution to the African development fund has received wide, even unanimous, support. I am sure that that message will not go unnoticed by our friends in Africa and that they will draw encouragement from it.

I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft African Development Fund (Third Replenishment) Order 1982, which was laid before this House on 21st June, be approved.