HC Deb 16 December 1998 vol 322 cc949-51
2. Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

What plans she has to offer assistance to Nepal. [62743]

6. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

If she will make a statement on her recent visit to Nepal. [62747]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

We have recently published a new country strategy paper and I also visited Nepal in November. Our conclusion is that development efforts in Nepal over the past 30 years have largely failed the people of Nepal. There has been some progress, but poverty is still deep and widespread, and social indicators are some of the worst in the world. We can and must do better.

We believe that donors must co-ordinate their efforts around Government-led strategies to reduce poverty. The Government need to tackle deep-rooted problems of corruption and patronage, increase the efficiency of Government systems and improve the quality of basic services, particularly for poor people. We are prepared to increase our efforts and spending in Nepal, but only if there is stronger commitment to poverty reduction in Nepal.

Mr. Corbett

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which showed that there is still widespread poverty and deprivation in Nepal. As a result of her visit, can she say by how much she plans to increase resources and by what means she hopes to change the attitude of the authorities?

Clare Short

Nepal is an incredibly beautiful but desperately poor country, and its people deserve better. For many years, and in very high proportions, it has been a major recipient of overseas development aid from across the world, and the impact should have been greater in reducing poverty and improving the conditions of the people.

We have analysed the failures of the past and set down a strategy for doing better. We will put a dedicated office into Nepal, but we will not increase the spend unless we can spend more effectively. We have said to the Government that we will increase our spend if we can work more effectively together, but we must reform the system, deal with corruption and get more effective government, otherwise there is no point in big flows of aid.

Helen Jones

I thank my right hon. Friend for what she has said so far, but what steps is her Department taking to promote better governance in Nepal, and to help bring about the fundamental changes that are necessary if poverty is to be eradicated in that country?

Clare Short

There was a great struggle in Nepal to obtain democracy, and the people united proudly and won it. There is a widespread sense of disappointment there that democracy has not lead to better governance, and there is rising anger about corruption. For example, there is great interference in the civil service and in political appointments, and therefore not the efficiency in Government systems that is required. I have had frank discussions with the Government of Nepal, all the parties and some of the leading organisations in civil society. There is a lot of disgruntlement and we need to put that into a positive agenda for change. There is also a Maoist insurgency because of the anger of the people, and clearly that will not lead Nepal anywhere. We alone cannot deliver improvements, but we will work hard if there is any will in Nepal to do so.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

I welcome what the Secretary of State has just said about Nepal, but now that she has had a few days for thoughtful reflection after her visit to the far east, does she accept that it was an error of judgment on her part to refuse to promote the interests of British companies on that visit?

Clare Short

No, I absolutely do not accept that. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, having had some time for reflection on the Conservative party's record of having misused aid to promote and assist British exports, of having been taken to the courts and found to have behaved illegally, should be standing there, in the job that he has, suggesting that aid should be linked to the promotion of individual contracts. That is always wrong. What we do do all over the world is help to promote the conditions that will generate the economic growth that will reduce poverty. We are working increasingly strongly with major British businesses who want us to do that job and consider that the selling of individual contracts is a job for them or those Departments that exist to do that job.

Mr. Streeter

No one is talking about aid for trade. Everyone accepts that the Secretary of State's primary role on her visits abroad is to promote development and human rights. Does she not realise that all of us, whether Ministers, shadow Ministers or Back Benchers, all of whose salaries are paid for by the British taxpayer, have an intrinsic obligation, when we travel abroad to Nepal, China or anywhere else, to do our best to promote British interests? Will she give the House an assurance that, on her next visit abroad, she will bother to promote the interests of British companies and British jobs?

Clare Short

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has an old-fashioned attitude to what Ministers should do to assist British business. If the hon. Gentleman bothered to consult British business—major parts of British business are, in increasing numbers, making contact with my Department—he would know that it explicitly asks us—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would stop heckling, I could answer his question. British business explicitly asks us to promote more stability, development, the enforcement of contracts and proper regulation so that business can trade and thrive. That is what they want of us. To go to a poor country and say, "Here we are assisting with improvements in education for the poorest children", or, in the case of China, "Here we are assisting with state-owned enterprises beginning to market, so you need skills in accountancy, modern banking, or whatever, and by the way, would you have X contract rather than Y", is a disreputable linkage. It does not promote Britain's interests for Ministers with responsibility for international development who are promoting development world wide to promote individual contracts. That is wrong.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I understand that my right hon. Friend was able to raise repeatedly the issue of good governance during the course of her successful visit, which was well reported in the local press in Nepal, as my right hon. Friend knows. Has my right hon. Friend anything to report on the request by the Speaker of the Nepalese Parliament for help through not only the British agencies, but the international agency network for a research facility to be set up to aid Nepalese Members of Parliament? That would be a major contribution to good governance, certainly in the Nepalese Parliament.

Clare Short

I am aware of my hon. Friend's visit to Nepal and of his enthusiasm for the proposal, about which he has written to me. I also met in Nepal people who had met him and who remember very well his visit there. The Government are extremely keen to support developments that improve governance and the Parliament's effectiveness. However, throwing money at things is not always the right way of achieving change. There has to be a real, committed will to make change. I had meetings with the World bank, the International Monetary Fund and other big donors, and we shall get behind such proposals if they are realistic. We shall not just throw money around.