HL Deb 21 April 1993 vol 544 cc1557-60

2.46 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the estimate by Action Aid, in their report Bridging the Poverty Gap, that the number of people existing in absolute poverty could increase to 1.5 billion by the year 2000.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Henley)

My Lords, reducing poverty, suffering and deprivation and improving the quality of life of poor people through sustainable economic and social development, is the overriding purpose of our aid programmes to developing countries.

Lord Judd

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the UN estimates that less than 10 per cent. of British aid is targeted to the poorest people? Can he explain why that is? Is he also aware that even under the World Bank's most optimistic forecasts, the outlook in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly grim with a doubling of the number of those in absolute poverty in the next seven years? How are the Government going to respond to that?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are not entirely happy about the figure of 1.5 billion that the noble Lord quoted in his original Question. However, we entirely agree with Action Aid on the central importance of tackling poverty, but do not believe that precise figures are either possible or helpful. They do rely very much on judgmental choices. As I said, one of our priority objectives, set out in our 1993 departmental report, is to help developing countries to design and implement poverty reduction strategies. We have an expanding portfolio of projects targeted on interventions which tackle poverty directly. Those projects cover many sectors including agriculture, health, education, water supply and slum upgrading. In 1991–92, about 30 per cent. of our aid to developing countries, allocable by sector, was spent in those sectors.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the very heavy commitments which are being undertaken by the Government as regards assistance in Yugoslavia and in our responsibilities in responding to the needs of the Soviet Union. Can he give the House an assurance that the aid budget will not be diminished as a consequence of accepting those responsibilities?

Lord Henley

My Lords, there are no plans to cut the overseas aid budget to the developing world as a result of commitments to the eastern European countries and the former Soviet Union.

Viscount Craigavon

My Lords, will the Minister accept that Action Aid is completely right to include in its report some paragraphs on the crucial subject of world population which, by the year 2000, is expected to have increased by about 750 million? Will he accept the statement which Action Aid makes in its report that an estimated 300 million couples lack access to the services which they need and want to plan their family size?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I agree that high population growth rates, if they continue unchecked, will prevent many developing countries achieving sustainable reductions in poverty. The ODA has made extending people's choice about their fertility a focus for the aid programme. Past experience has shown that once family planning services are widely available, fertility levels drop dramatically. My noble friend Lady Chalker has produced, with the ODA, a document called Children by Choice, Not Chance, which explains just how the ODA hopes to play the fullest of parts in this process. I can assure the noble Lord that direct spending on population projects has risen by some 66 per cent. over the past three years to some £29 million.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, the Action Aid report is about the poorest of the poor—in most cases, people with no assets whatsoever and often no clothing. Since the Minister did not answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Judd about the fact that only 10 per cent. of British aid goes to the poorest of the poor, will he answer that question now? Does he agree—and will he discuss this with his noble friend Lady Chalker—that it is time for a review of the priorities set by our aid programme given that such a small proportion actually goes to the very poorest of the poor?

Lord Henley

My Lords, in fact the figure is that some 80 per cent. of our bilateral country programmes are spent in the poorest countries. That was in 1991–92. I have to say to the noble Lord that the OECD development assistance committee has recognised the poverty focus and effectiveness of our aid programme and its high quality. But I think that the noble Lord certainly does have a point. The very point about aid is that it must be spent effectively. I can assure the noble Lord that my noble friend and the ODA will always keep the effectiveness of any overseas aid programme under review.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the figure quoted by Action Aid represents a little over six times the population of the USA? There just is not enough surplus food in the world to feed that population. Is it not ridiculous that we are taking 2 million acres out of temperate food production in this country when that necessity is so obvious to everybody who looks at the figures? May I ask the noble Lord one other question? Does he know that Intermediate Technology, which is a charitable body interested in and doing a tremendous job in helping such countries to develop, is worried that the Government will cut its grant this year? I hope that that is not the case.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot answer the specific question on Intermediate Technology and the level of its grant; but I can assure the noble Lord that it is possible under the joint funding scheme for any non-government body to apply for 50 per cent. help with any specific projects to the ODA. As regards the first part of the noble Lord's question, I agree that obviously food production is very important. As regards the second half of the first part of his question, I believe that the noble Lord has a Question down on that very subject in two weeks' time and I think that the noble Lord can wait until then for an Answer.

Lord Rea

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that international debt and structural adjustment programmes are actually making poor people poorer in poor countries—and that is the great majority of people in those countries—rather than richer? Does not that result in a loss of important markets for our manufactured goods and services?

Lord Henley

My Lords, again, the noble Lord does have a point and I would not disagree with Action Aid's fundamental analysis of the debt situation. Current terms cannot meet the needs of the poorest, most indebted countries. We shall certainly continue to press other countries for further improvements on a case-by-case basis.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent 43 billion dollar aid package for Russia demonstrates what can be done when the will is there and that that compares with a mere 55 billion dollar programme spent by the main donors on aid to the entire third world? Is it not time for the Government to publish a White Paper setting out their strategy for dealing with world poverty so that we are not constantly overtaken by the latest crisis in the absence of a strategy?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend will note the suggestion that a White Paper should be published. But I do have to stress—and to some extent repeat some of the remarks made on the earlier question—that we spend as a country something of the order of £2 billion on overseas aid. These are very large sums of money indeed and they have to be viewed in the context of the whole of government spending and all the other priorities and demands on the taxpayer and taxpayers' money.

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