HC Deb 14 March 2001 vol 364 cc1004-7
2. Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

If she will make a statement on efforts to combat corruption in developing countries. [152210]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

Since 1997, I have greatly increased my Department's anti-corruption work. We are increasingly helping Governments to strengthen their financial management systems, anti-corruption authorities, customs and tax authorities, and civil service and legal systems. Denunciation will not halt corruption: we need to build systems that prevent and catch it, as we can learn from our own history.

We are also working with the World Bank Institute and with Germany, Norway and the Netherlands to help to extend anti-corruption work across the developing world. The Proceeds of Crime Bill will strengthen the United Kingdom's capacity to seize and return assets plundered by corrupt Governments. We are helping the Governments of Pakistan and Nigeria to make use of existing legal systems to seek the return of such assets. We are committed to legislating to strengthen UK law against bribery and corruption abroad in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention against bribery of public officials abroad.

Mr. Fraser

I thank the Secretary of State. On 10 April last year, the Government said that they would implement the OECD convention as soon as possible. The globalisation White Paper goes on to say that poor people suffer most from corruption. Why, then, does the International Development Bill contain no provision on that point? Has the Secretary of State abandoned the Government's ethical foreign policy?

Clare Short

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has not researched his question thoroughly enough. We are committed to introducing such legislation, but it will be a large Bill and would not fit into the slim International Development Bill. If it had been combined with that Bill, we should not have been able to introduce that Bill in this Parliament. The legislation to which the hon. Gentleman referred is important, and it will be introduced as soon as possible. I do not know whether the Conservative party has committed itself to legislation; in the past, it argued that that would be unnecessary since the existing law was enough. The Conservative party was wrong about that, as it was about much else.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know that there is far too much corruption and far too much expenditure on defence in many of the poorest countries, which means that they are not able to tackle the problems of poverty, which I know are of such concern to her. How many countries does she feel also do not have truly independent judicial and legal systems to apply proper checks?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right. In Africa, for example, many countries were often supported with big arms supplies and had large armed forces. The end of the cold war has led to the creation of very large armed forces that are not properly democratically controlled or resourced in order to protect the countries' real security interests. That has been the cause of coups and instability, which Africa needs help to deal with.

I agree that properly accountable security forces of the right size to cope with a real threat, transparent financing and independent judiciaries and magistracies are all very important. We are driving forward such systemic reform, rather than the pattern of tokenistic gestures of the past, but there is a lot to do. Effective modern state systems are needed to catch and prevent corruption.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Will the Secretary of State tell the House who pays for corruption, and how they pay for it?

Clare Short

As the hon. Gentleman knows, overwhelmingly, the poor pay the price of corruption. According to the very moving "Voices of the Poor" study published by the World Bank, which covered 60,000 people in 60 countries, and which we helped to fund, the poorest everywhere are really angry about corruption. It prevents them getting their children to school, opening a little market stall, being able to transport their goods or getting any drugs when members of their family are sick. On top of that, grand-scale corruption distorts the use of economic resources, therefore preventing good economic development and the improvement in lives that the poor so badly need.

It is astonishing that the issue was never dealt with in international development until Jim Wolfensohn took over at the World Bank. We, as a Government, have strongly followed that lead. I am afraid that it had not been a strong theme of previous British development efforts, but it most certainly is now.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

As the Secretary of State knows, I have a small interest in southern Africa. Does she think that we have a role in helping good governance through the anti-corruption model with respect to the import of computers in southern Africa, the cost of internet service providers and the way in which the internet is regulated? There is incipient corruption in that respect in southern African countries.

Clare Short

My hon. Friend will know that Africa has fewer internet connections than New York—I speak from memory—so it is in danger of being left behind in the technological transformation of the world. Africa is also the most expensive place in the world to be connected to the internet because telecom companies have not been liberalised and no new investment has been made. That is an urgent issue for Africa, and we are trying to support the reform agenda that is needed to get telecoms investment and access to information technologies, so that Africa will not be further marginalised.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

To answer the Secretary of State's earlier question, yes we have already made a firm commitment to introduce an anti-bribery Act, which should have become law by now.

Does the right hon. Lady accept that, according to a written answer on 31 July 1998, the Home Secretary acknowledged the need to introduce new laws on corruption under the OECD convention? Is she aware of the ministerial answer of 10 April 2000, in which a commitment was given to introduce legislation on corruption as soon as possible thereafter? Does she recall her globalisation White Paper published on 11 December, which acknowledged that corruption was a huge contributor to global poverty and that bribes to foreign officials were part of that? Yet, the Queen's Speech came and went and there was no room in it for such a Bill.

Will the right hon. Lady now accept her share of collective Cabinet responsibility for that extraordinary failure to legislate? It is not good enough to say that the issue is complicated. The issue of hunting is complicated, but the Government found time for that. Will she explain why her Government continue to turn a blind eye to the fraudulent and the corrupt?

Clare Short

I have been a Member of this House since 1983, but I have never come across such an extraordinary Front Bencher on either side of the House. The previous Conservative Government, of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member, took very little action against corruption in their international development programmes, and took the view that there was no need for a change in UK law in order to implement the OECD convention. We reviewed that advice, committed ourselves to legislation, and we will legislate. We have no lessons to learn from that very strange hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Streeter

The Secretary of State seems unaware that it was her Government who ratified the convention in 1998 and only since then has it become a live issue. Is not her shame compounded today by the sad fact that this very afternoon one of her Back Benchers is introducing a ten-minute Bill on he very subject of corruption, no doubt driven by his embarrassment and frustration at his Government's failure to act? We all know that that Bill has no chance of becoming law, so corruption will continue to abound while the Government sit on their hands.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make a speech.

Mr. Streeter

Here comes the question. If the Government will not act to crack down on the corruption that blights the lives of the world's poorest, will they please make way for a Government who will?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is ever stranger. I am not in the least ashamed that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) is introducing a ten-minute Bill: I am absolutely delighted. In fact, I suggested it.

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