HC Deb 29 April 1998 vol 311 cc316-8
7. Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

What the priorities of her Department are for European co-operation on international development matters during the United Kingdom presidency of the European Union; and if she will make a statement. [39065]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

During the United Kingdom presidency, we are seeking to improve the poverty focus and the effectiveness of the European Community's aid programmes. Our top priorities are to agree the European Union negotiating mandate on the future of the Lome convention and to secure commitment to the international poverty eradication strategy and international development targets as a framework for all the European Community's development programmes.

Ms Stuart

What is the timetable for renegotiating the Lome treaty? Does my right hon. Friend expect the renegotiated mandate to be in place by the end of the UK presidency?

Clare Short

Our target is to get the mandate agreed by the end of our presidency. We hope that it will be agreed at the General Affairs Council towards the end of June. We will hold negotiations on that mandate with representatives of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. The renewal date is 2000. Our thinking is that we will be able to reorganise the aid part of the agreement within the international poverty eradication strategy by that date. We will probably need to roll over the trade arrangements for five years while negotiating improved arrangements to be put in place thereafter. That is our hope, and it is highly likely that we shall achieve it.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

If Britain can lift debt repayments for countries such as Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos islands and some other Caribbean islands, as we have done for 12 months, how much better could the European Union do if it acted in concert? Will the Secretary of State consider how the whole of the EU can lead the rest of the world in lifting debt repayments, so that, towards the new millennium, we can give the poorest countries with the biggest debt a fresh start?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is right. Since 1978, Britain has been writing off aid debt, and last year we agreed with some of the poorer, if not the poorest, Commonwealth countries, including Jamaica, that, if they adopted good governance and poverty eradication strategies, we would write off more debt.

The European Commission as an institution does not have much aid debt because it is not an old institution, but many of the member countries do, so we strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Commission should contribute to the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, which it has done, and that we should try to mobilise all the efforts of the European Community and the European Union countries, which constitute 60 per cent. of the world's donors. If we had an effective alliance, the European countries could lead the world in a great step forward in poverty eradication.

Ms Tess Kingham (Gloucester)

Morocco receives substantial development funding from European Union member states, including the United Kingdom, despite the fact that it has illegally occupied Western Sahara since 1975 and that there were widespread human rights abuses against the Saharawi people in the run-up to the referendum this year. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to bring up with our partner states the situation in Morocco before any more money is released, and to ensure that adequate funding goes to Saharawi refugees, who are the injured party in the dispute?

Clare Short

I promise my hon. Friend that I will look into that matter in detail. My understanding, from memory, is that current disbursements in the Mediterranean programme are all halted because of inefficiencies in the methods of disbursing and accounting for the funding. I read this week that there has been some help for the refugees, but I cannot speak on the matter in any detail or with any authority, so I undertake to write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

During their presidency of the European Union, the Government have rightly played a central role in the contact group on Kosovo. At the time of the Foreign Secretary's statement, the Secretary of State said that she had no plans to increase aid to Kosovo, but she may know that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy hopes to become involved in democracy-building measures there. Given that violence, and thus suffering, are increasing at a disturbing rate in Kosovo, does she have plans, with her EU counterparts, to direct further aid to it?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is right; the position in Kosovo is dangerous again, and there is a haunting sense that conflict might break out in the Balkans, as it did when we thought we were making progress in Bosnia. It has never been suggested to me that development assistance from my Department could help in Kosovo, but if contributions from EU programmes would assist and if the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions, I should be more than happy to look into them and to do anything we can to help.