HC Deb 01 February 1988 vol 126 cc697-8
80. Miss Mowlam

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what was the value in current prices of official aid flows by Her Majesty's Government in 1979 and for the latest available year.

The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Chris Patten)

In 1986 prices, gross public expenditure on overseas aid was £1,623 million in 1979 and £1,358 million in 1986.

Miss Mowlam

In view of the poor record that the Minister has reported to the House, does he accept that there is a case for raising the total level of aid, particularly in view of the billions locked up in the Treasury, which his Government are unprepared to spend elsewhere—even on the National Health Service?

Mr. Patten

As for our record, as the hon. Lady will know, the Labour Government left a number of public expenditure programmes in 1979 which they could not conceivably have sustained at the then current levels. If the hon. Lady does not believe that, perhaps she should read the autobiography of the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

As for the future, I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that our aid programme is set to grow in real terms over the next three years.

Mr. Jack

Will my hon. Friend tell us whether any of the flows of aid finance went to Panama in respect of programmes to counter international concern that the destruction of the country's rain forests may be affecting the future of the Panama canal?

Mr. Patten

That is the first question that I have ever been asked about Panama. I am delighted to say that we have been able to make contributions towards the protection of rain forests in other countries. I do not believe that we have yet done anything in Panama, but I shall look up the details for my hon. Friend. We do a fair amount in Central America through the European Community programmes.

Sir Russell Johnston

The Minister is continually defending the Government's record on aid. Surely, however, a proper criterion is comparison with other countries. Is it not a matter of some concern to the Minister that the recent OECD figures demonstrate that the Soviet Union has now passed us in the proportion of its national income that is spent on aid?

Mr. Patten

I have not always been as convinced by the figures produced by the Soviet Union as the hon. Gentleman clearly is.

Miss Mowlam

Look at the OECD figures. The Government usually accept them as a correct record.

Mr. Patten

According to the OECD figures—which greatly impressed me, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Redcar (Miss Mowlam) will be impressed as well—whereas about 60 per cent. of the money provided by other donors goes to the poorest countries, the United Kingdom figure is 75 per cent.

Mr. Soames

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the handsome progress that he has made on the aid budget. Will he tell the House what steps he and his Department are taking to discourage some of the countries to which we give large amounts of aid from some of their more lunatic financial excesses?

Mr. Patten

As my hon. Friend may know, we have given increasing amounts of support to the structural adjustment programmes being pursued by a number of African and other countries. We have also made a substantial contribution to the enhanced structural adjustment facility, which will encourage developing countries to follow sensible policies.

Ms. Lestor

May I refer back to the answer that the Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Miss Mowlam) on the level of aid? The Minister has suggested that the Labour Government, had they continued in office, would not have been able to sustain the plans that they had in the coffers. Bearing that in mind —and in view of the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) stressing the need for a timetable to reach the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product for aid, and the various calls on the aid budget—will the hon. Gentleman put pressure on the Foreign Secretary to have an open debate in the House of Commons, in Government time, to discuss the aid budget and future Government allocations to it?

Mr. Patten

That sort of question is more normally put on Thursday afternoons, but I shall always be more than happy to have a debate on our overseas aid programme, during which I can tell the House about several matters, for example, the Chancellor's debt initiative.