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Debt Relief

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 26 October 2006

In addition to debt relief of $38 billion to 20 countries, 20 additional countries may qualify for relief of up to $50 billion. As a unilateral act, the UK is offering the equivalent of our share of 100 per cent. debt relief to a total of 80 countries and we call on other countries to follow.

I thank the Chancellor for that answer. Last Friday, I met Dudley borough churches forum to mark the start of One World week. While welcoming the work that the Government have done to tackle the problem and the international leadership of my right hon. Friend, my constituents rightly want further progress in more countries. What is he planning to do to accelerate the debt relief process and move us more quickly towards the millennium goals and justice at last for the world’s poor?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she, like many others, has done with churches in her constituency. We should be clear that, as a result of debt relief, Uganda has increased the number of children in education from 2 million to 6 million. In addition, Zambia has just announced the abolition of health charges, which means that health is available to all members of the population, however poor they are. As a result of aid and debt relief taken together, in one week 1 million children turned up for school and were given education free of charge in Kenya. Countries all round the world are able to spend on education, infrastructure and health as a result of what has been achieved by the write-off of debt. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that many poor countries are not heavily indebted poor countries. That is why we have made the unilateral gesture of saying to 30 or 40 more countries that we will be prepared to pay our share of 100 per cent. debt relief. We urge other countries to follow so that a higher share of debt relief can be paid as a result of international effort. I hope that we can persuade other countries to do exactly that as part of the international campaign that is being mounted.

May I ask the Chancellor about debt relief and personal indebtedness at home? Is he worried that both secured and unsecured borrowing stand at record levels? At the end of August, a total of £1.247 trillion was owed.

I am happy to answer a question about domestic debt relief, if that is the reading of the question. The biggest guarantee that people will not find it impossible to pay their debts will be maintaining the economic stability on which the British economy has grown over recent years. It is only when interest rates get out of hand—they rose to 15 per cent. under the previous Government—that people are unable to pay their bills. The debt advisory services for people who have personal problems are greater than ever before. When people are up against loan sharks and those who exploit their indebtedness, they need the protection of Government measures to regulate the pensions, mortgage, insurance and loans industries, so the hon. Gentleman had better look at his party’s proposals to abolish that protection.

Debt relief is of course extremely important to developing countries, but it must be accompanied by growth. What does the Chancellor expect must happen to get the Doha round of trade talks back on track?

My hon. Friend takes a big interest in this matter. As she knows, Africa has grown faster in recent years than it did previously, but there are still many people in poverty. One reason for that is that developing countries are unable to trade their products with the richest countries, which is why it is really important that the Doha trade round is resumed. I believe that it will be possible in the next few months to bring together the parties that have been unable to agree so that we can reach an agreement. Europe and America could make concessions on agricultural protectionism—I believe that it is the will of the House that that should happen—and the other major countries, which are Brazil and India, and the developing country bloc could also make the concessions necessary for agreement. We will do whatever we can in the next few weeks to get the trade round going again.

Critical elections are taking place this month in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) and I saw on a recent visit, it is the poorest country in the world and its civic society has all but collapsed. Will the Chancellor outline his plans—I am sure that he will have the support of the whole House—for helping the Democratic Republic of the Congo with debt relief and generally increasing aid and help?

Debt relief is possible when a country has a working Government who are capable of managing its affairs. One reason we have had problems with debt relief has been that even when the will has been there on the part of the richest countries in the world, some countries had such a broken-down system of government and history of conflict that they were unable to manage the transition, so we need to give them extra special help to do so. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are prepared to give extra help. We are prepared to put in place measures that will make it possible for the republic to benefit from debt relief. Of course, our other measures to enhance educational and health expenditure in Africa will also be put in place, but that depends on the country having a stable Government who are able to manage their affairs.

As the Chancellor has said, debt relief is not an end in itself, but merely a way of improving the position of the poorest people in the poorest countries. Will he therefore join me in congratulating the children of Burtonwood primary school in my constituency, who recently did a project on the exploitation of child labour and discussed it with me, showing a great deal of knowledge and fluency? Will he explain to those young people what is being done to ensure that we improve the incomes of the poorest families, so that their children are able to take advantage of the education that we hope to offer them?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Once again, links are being developed between schools in Britain and schools in Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and many other of the poorest countries. I know that the Department for International Development is very willing to help expedite those links, whether they are teacher exchanges or schools just maintaining contact with schools in Africa and the rest of the world.

With reference to child labour, next year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. One of the ways in which we could commemorate that is by making people aware of the extent of child labour around the world and the use of children as slaves. Over the next few months we should attempt to educate the public about the problem and do more to ensure that, instead of being in work during their early years, every child is given the proper chance of education. I want to see the 110 million children who are not in school given that chance of education over the next few years.