HC Deb 17 June 2004 vol 422 cc902-4
8. Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab)

What recent steps he has taken towards the cancellation of debt in Africa's poorest countries. [179129]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown)

Debt relief of more than $70 billion has already been agreed for 27 countries, mainly African countries, under the HIPC—heavily indebted poor countries—initiative. Last week, at the G8 Heads of State meeting we extended the HIPC initiative by another two years, and it was agreed that more finance was required for debt relief. Both will be of special help to the African countries.

Andy Burnham

I welcome last week's decision of the G8, but does my right hon. Friend share my view that the HIPC initiative needs to go much further and much faster, specifically in providing 100 per cent. debt relief to the poorest African countries, and in bringing in countries currently outside HIPC, particularly Sudan, from where we see terrible images of suffering on our TV screens every evening? When Britain assumes the chair of the G8 next year, will it make this—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One supplementary is fine.

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend has taken a great interest in these matters, and I thank him. He has rightly pointed out that more help is urgently needed for Sudan, and he will be pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has not only announced more money for Sudan, but is carefully looking at what more we can do, both bilaterally and internationally. In their wisdom the G8 Heads of Government asked the G8 Finance Ministers to look further at what more could be done on debt relief. In addition to extending what was called the sunset date for the HIPC countries, and to provide the necessary financing for completion of the initiative, we were asked to consider measures that can further help the poorest countries address the sustainability of debt. I hope that we can publish a report on that and get action on it before the beginning of next year.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

Although I accept the superficial attraction of debt cancellation in African countries, I am sure the Chancellor is well aware that in many ways it gives the wrong signals to the next generation of dictators in those countries when they see debt being written off in that way. Is the Chancellor ensuring that G8 countries are not just considering debt cancellation but encouraging free trade with those countries, to allow their economies to expand in the years and decades ahead?

Mr. Brown

Debt relief is not unconditional. It carries with it certain obligations on the part of the countries concerned. The hon. Gentleman should agree with me that the initiative proposed around the international finance facility and part of the new plan for Africa is that in return for African countries opening up to trade, dealing with their problems of corruption and moving to monetary and fiscal regimes that make sense in the modern world, we will provide extra money for health, education and anti-poverty programmes. That is the right way forward. It is based on the Monterrey agreement two years ago, and it is important to understand that it is the relationship between developing African countries and the industrialised world that holds the key to the way forward. That includes a settlement of the Doha round of the world trade talks.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab)

I welcome the achievements at the G8 summit, but in view of the apparent opposition of Germany and Japan to the Government's original proposals, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of a 10-year moratorium on debt servicing, so that we can achieve those vital millennium goals?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been very active in this area over many years. A debt-servicing moratorium would place no conditions on the countries concerned to use the money for health and education as we would like. One of the great achievements of the HIPC scheme is that large sums of money have been spent on health and education that would otherwise have gone on debt servicing payments. I should like a more comprehensive agreement with the poorer countries whereby in return for the finance that we provide, including the writing off of debts, they take the action necessary to invest in their health and education systems and to deal with problems of corruption and stability. I believe that there is a wish in Africa—my right hon. Friend meets many people from that continent, and has visited it—for that new relationship to work, and that the best way forward is not unconditional support, but a new contract or covenant between the richest and the poorest countries.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his tremendous efforts involving debt relief in the international community. As he is aware, however, for many African countries there is no prospect of reaching the millennium development goals by 2015; in fact, on current projections some of them will take more than 100 years to reach those targets, to which the international community has committed itself. Given that writing off the rest of the debt would, in the case of the United Kingdom, mean only a few extra pounds per year from each taxpayer, is there not a pressing burden on us to consider further relief at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has often petitioned me on these issues. One of the millennium development goals is to ensure that primary school education is a right for all people. It would cost the world only $10 billion a year to finance that basic right for 120 million children, two-thirds of whom are girls. I believe that it is possible to do that if we devise new forms of financing, such as the international finance facility, so as to ensure that all countries contribute, that the proposal does not fail if one country is excluded or does not want to take part, and that the money comes immediately and is therefore front-loaded. That innovative way of financing the development of education, then of health and work on AIDS, is the best way forward if we are to move quickly to meet the millennium development goals that my hon. Friend mentioned.