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Overseas Development

Volume 174: debated on Monday 18 June 1990

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Un High Commissioner For Refugees


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what was discussed when the Minister for Overseas Development last met the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and if he will make a statement.

I met the new High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Stoltenberg, in Geneva on 5 June. We had a most useful and wide-ranging discussion, focusing particularly on Mr. Stoltenberg's plans for reorganising UNHCR and improving its operational effectiveness. I also announced new British contributions totalling £5 million, which will help UNHCR over its current financial difficulties.

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask whether she believes that Mr. Stoltenberg can take a firm administrative grip on the affairs of his new command, and ensure that adequate resources are made available for the ghastly and growing worldwide problem of refugees?

Yes, I do. Mr. Stoltenberg has been in post for only four months, but in that time he has already begun a serious reorganisation of the Geneva headquarters. His aim is not only to improve overall efficiency, but to cut unnecessary expenditure. We strongly support him in his efforts, and will continue to do so. He will have a high chance of success if other donors follow our lead.

Has the Minister raised with Mr. Stoltenberg conditions in the Whitehead camp in Hong Kong where 22,000 people, 3,000 of whom are children under 10 years of age, are living on an 8-acre site in utterly deplorable conditions? Just what is happening? What assurances can the Minister give the people in those camps about their future? What initiatives are the British Government taking to ensure early screening of those people? Has the Minister visited the camps?

I have not visited the camps, but my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office has done so. Not only is my Department supporting UNHCR in all its work, particularly because we remain committed to the UNHCR comprehensive plan of action, but the diplomatic wing of the Foreign Office is putting money into improving conditions for the people who are waiting to be screened and is seeking to speed up the screening process.

Although one has the greatest sympathy for the refugees in the camps in Hong Kong—I have visited them——

If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) had a passport, he might know something about the world on which he continually comments.

Although one has great sympathy for these people, is not it a tribute to Government policy that the number of boat people coming over on the monsoon has declined considerably? To what can one possibly attribute that decline except the forthright policy of the Government in returning those people?

The number of Vietnamese boat people arriving in Hong Kong is markedly lower than it was this time last year, but there are still nearly 55,000 people in the camps in Hong Kong, which is the point that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was making. I believe that we have got through to many elements in the Vietnamese Government that it would be much wiser to look after the people in Vietnam—that is what we are doing through our aid programme through the non-governmental organisations—rather than many of them taking to the seas and perishing at sea as happened in the past.

Aid Target


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what percentage of gross national product is currently spent on overseas aid; and if he has any plans to raise this to meet the United Nations target for such spending.

As I informed my hon. Friend the member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on 15 June, the United Kingdom's ODA/GNP ratio in 1989 is provisionally estimated at 0·31 per cent.

The Government continue to accept in principle the UN target of 0·7 per cent. of GNP to be allocated to official development assistance. Our prime concern is to ensure that our aid programme is planned to continue to increase in real terms, and is used to maximum effect. Levels of aid spending will continue to depend on economic circumstances and on other claims on public resources.

Will the Minister explain why we are giving such a miserly amount of overseas aid when the French, the Swedes and the Danes can all give more than the United Nations recommendation of 0·7 per cent? Is it that our economy is in such a mess that we cannot afford it, or do we just not care?

We care very much. It is interesting to note that of the 18 western donors only five achieved the target in 1988, and of those only France had a larger aid programme than the United Kingdom. There are two other important UN targets: the 1 per cent. of GNP for total flows and the 0·15 per cent. of GNP for the least developed countries. We meet those targets. The most important point is that between 1985 and 1988 British direct investment in the developing countries was more than half the combined EC total and the United Kingdom exceeded the 1 per cent. target six times in the 1980s.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although official aid is only one element of our overseas aid programme, it is extremely important and meets life-supporting and life-saving needs that cannot be met by commercial sources? Will she continue to do her utmost to ensure that that percentage is increased?

Indeed. I intend to ensure that our aid programme continues to grow. It was 0·31 per cent. in 1986, but since then the GNP has grown by 11 per cent. in real terms. It is better than it was, but I intend to make it better still.

Will the Minister admit that if the Government had maintained Labour's 1979 level of overseas aid the third world would be better off by £8 billion? Does she recognise that just one fifth of that sum would prevent 7·5 million children from dying each year from diarrhoea and other preventable infectious diseases? The Minister, who once had a reputation as a Conservative wet, must be thoroughly ashamed to have presided over a cut in overseas aid of 24 per cent. since 1979.

As I took on this job last July, I hardly think that the hon. Lady's latter comment is relevant. The funds being spent on children, particularly to prevent infectious and tropical diseases, are increasing and we intend them to increase further. It would do the developing world no good if we continued the economic policies that prevailed in 1979 because the third world would simply not benefit. If we have had to curtail our aid while we put our house in order it has been to spend better on sound economics, as we intend to do in the future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would he better to get away from this extraordinary United Nations figure and to concentrate on doing what we do well—delivering a high quality of aid? That is what matters.

My hon. Friend is right. The development assistance committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that the quality of the United Kingdom's aid programme is better than others. We deliver, pound for pound, more help through our aid and we intend to continue doing so. The quality of aid is paramount and we intend to ensure that it continues to be targeted on the poorest. In 1988, 70 per cent. of our aid was given to the poorest 50 countries.



To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he intends to send another British delegation to review the current situation in Cambodia.

I have no immediate plans to send another delegation to Phnom Penh. However, we are implementing our commitment to provide support to British NGOs and multilateral agencies active in Cambodia, and a further visit may he desirable for monitoring and other purposes later this year.

Have not things changed since last year, and is not substantial aid required by the Hun Sen Government to tackle the Khmer Rouge and to deal with the serious economic consequences of war? Should not the Government change their policy, recognise the Cambodian Government and offer bilateral aid? Is this another issue of which, as a former wet, the Minister is ashamed?

We are well aware that there have been changes since last year which is why I announced new aid in January. I shall make an announcement soon about the details of that new help to Cambodia. We have no relations with the Hun Sen regime, so there will be no Government-to-Government aid. The Government are working, with our friends and partners, for a comprehensive political settlement and for free elections. I strongly support the current diplomatic activity, including the work of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The recent meeting in Tokyo increased understanding and we shall continue to work for a political solution.