Skip to main content

International Development

Volume 634: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Tax Havens: Developing Countries

1. What steps her Department is taking to mitigate the effect of tax havens on the tax receipts of developing countries. (903325)

Mr Speaker, I start by paying tribute to Rebecca Dykes, the DFID staff member killed in such tragic circumstances last month in Beirut. Becky was passionate about helping others, and through her work has improved the lives of some of the most marginalised people in the world. Becky’s family have set up a charitable fund in her name to advance some of the causes Becky cared about so deeply, and my Department is providing support; we will also hold a commemoration next month to celebrate her life. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends during this difficult time.

The UK continues to lead efforts to strengthen international tax transparency. DFID supports developing countries to benefit from and influence new international standards which help them to tackle tax avoidance and evasion.

Lesotho has severely underfunded public services, in part due to high rates of HIV and AIDS, yet our Government have just concluded a tax treaty with Lesotho that severely constrains its ability to levy taxes. Does the Secretary of State believe that that is consistent with promoting international development?

One of my first actions, which I set out this week, is to establish a new team to help countries that we are seeking to develop and that are transitioning out of poverty to improve tax collection systems and set up public services. We need to focus on that as well as on alleviating crises and immense poverty. I will be happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Lady, and it will be one of my priorities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that aggressive tax avoidance involving tax havens can be tackled effectively only by collective global action? Will her Department therefore keep the issue high on the agenda at future G8 meetings and will she do all she can to ensure that the UK continues to take a lead?

It is vital that developing countries have an effective tax collection system. What bilateral action are the Government taking to support countries to achieve that goal?

As I just said, I think we need to do something more hands-on and more practical, so I am dedicating some resource and a team within my Department to focus on that for every nation we work with.

Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of Conservatives in government to crack down on tax havens, including the leadership shown by David Cameron in making that a centrepiece of the UK’s G8 summit in 2013?

We have made considerable progress—for example, all our overseas territories that have a financial centre are now committed to global standards on tax transparency.

Modern Slavery: Libya

Eradicating modern slavery is a top UK priority. We are helping to build Libyan capacity to tackle this abhorrent crime, and providing humanitarian aid and protection for migrants and refugees, not just in Libya but on the whole route of those travelling to that country. Last year, the UK supported more than 20,000 emergency interventions for migrants and refugees in Libya.

Over 2,000 people in my constituency signed the petition debated last month and the issue is of great concern to us all. What update can the Minister give my constituents on the implementation of the plan agreed by African Union and European Union countries at the end of November? Specifically, how many migrants have been repatriated?

After the debate, I asked the organiser of the petition to come in to my office to see me, and she, one of the supporters of the petition and I had a meeting last week, which gave my officials a chance to talk with her about the huge interest and concern that the petition demonstrated. Briefly, the matter worries us considerably. There is work going on across Government in relation to the criminal aspects of the slave auctions, but at the meeting I was also able to outline what we are doing to build capacity, such as—

Order. Minister, we have quite a lot of questions to get through, so we need shorter answers. Sorry, but we do.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the significant investment from the aid budget that the Department has made available to tackle modern slavery in Libya and across all migration routes from sub-Saharan African into Europe, and will he reaffirm his commitment to this work?

Even though time is tight, I must thank my right hon. Friend for the remarkable support he gave to the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development when he was a Whip and his remarkable contribution to Government over the years.

My right hon. Friend is right. We have a £75 million programme focused on migration along routes from west Africa via the Sahel to Libya. This includes an allocation of £5 million in Libya aimed at providing that aid. He is right to raise this.

I have repeatedly raised in this Chamber the abuse endured by migrants in the camps in Libya, including sexual violence against women, girls and men. Will the Minister confirm that Libya has been designated a priority country under the UK preventing sexual violence initiative? It should have been.

My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary yesterday inaugurated exactly the programme the right hon. Lady mentions. It is a matter of great concern to the UK, and we are in contact with the Libyan Government about it. I had a high-level meeting in Geneva last week about the issues she raises.

Will the Minister commend the work the Church of England is doing on modern-day slavery with its We See You campaign to help us all identify victims, including from Libya, more easily? All too often they are invisible to us.

My right hon. Friend is quite right. Modern slavery is a key part of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s agenda—we have allotted £150 million to it—and the work of the Church of England, in making sure that people see victims and are attuned to their needs, is vital.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Rebecca Dykes. All our thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues during this difficult time. I also congratulate the new Minister for Africa on her appointment.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but in truth we must do much more. This is not modern slavery; it is just slavery—pure and simple—alive and flourishing in the 21st century. It is racist and a stain on our humanity. The African Union says that hundreds of thousands are at risk, so repatriating a few thousand will never be enough. Will the Secretary of State address the root courses and re-examine the UK and Europe’s migration policy in the Mediterranean and across Africa?

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks about Becky Dykes, who was part of the middle-eastern team in Lebanon. She, like my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, spoke for all of us.

The hon. Lady is right to keep the attention on slavery, but I want to do as much as I can to reassure her that we have this very much in focus, although of course there is more to be done. There is a closer connection now between the EU, the UN and the African Union, and we are working with international partners on the whole route and, specifically in relation to Libya, on the criminal aspects. It is complex—Libya is a difficult state to work in; and this is a £150 billion criminal operation moving people around and putting them into slavery. We will continue—

Small Charities: Funding

3. What steps she is taking to help small charities access funding from her Department for international development projects. (903327)

Small charities are vital to the UK’s funding for international development. Last July, the small charities challenge fund was launched to support the work of small, UK-based charities in international development. The fund will enable these organisations to increase the reach and impact of their projects.

Scottish Borders makes a significant contribution to the UK’s overseas aid effort, often in the form of fundraising or volunteering for larger national charities. Local grassroots organisations can play a crucial role in some of the world’s poorest countries, but applying for funding can be challenging, and some worthy organisations might not be aware of opportunities such as the small charities challenge fund. Will the Minister reassure me that the Department is doing all it can to promote these funds and make applying for them as easy as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I agree that we need and have tried to make the process as simple and streamlined as possible. We have publicised it through a range of different regional events and—importantly—written to every Member of Parliament, because excellent local MPs such as my hon. Friend can publicise these opportunities to the great grassroots charities.

During the Rohingya crisis, the Rochdale Council of Mosques, with its local Bangladeshi roots, made a material difference to our ability to convey aid to the area quickly. Could that be built into the framework for dealing with future disasters and emergencies?

Indeed, and I am grateful for the work that was done in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to raise money during that appalling crisis. As he will know, it is possible to secure match funding from the Department when local communities are able to do such an impressive amount of fundraising.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Given that larger charities are necessarily more bureaucratic, and given that the UK aid grant scheme was set up to help smaller charities, are Ministers satisfied that the due diligence processes for applications from smaller charities are entirely appropriate and cost-effective?

We do carry out due diligence for small charities, and we have received more than 100 applications to the Small Charities Challenge Fund. The cut-off in relation to size is an annual income of £250,000. I look forward to the announcement of the results of the first round of applications.

Will small charities that are particularly innovative in sub-Saharan Africa, providing clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people there, be able to avail themselves of the fund, and will the Minister actively promote it to them?

They will indeed be able to avail themselves of the fund, provided that their annual income is less than £250,000 and provided that they are working in one of the 50 poorest countries in the world. Larger charities can apply to other sources of funding.

The Secretary of State may talk up the £4 million Small Charities Challenge Fund, but the truth is that the Government are failing international charities and the people whom they serve. Civil society funding is being squeezed, the programme partnership arrangements and flexible funding have been scrapped, and the right to speak out has been restricted under the draconian Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. What plan has the Secretary of State to reverse that?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment: we look forward greatly to working with her. We are proud of our track record on the 0.7% commitment, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce her strategic priorities shortly.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

4. What steps she is taking to improve access for humanitarian organisations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (903328)

9. What steps she is taking to improve access for humanitarian organisations in the occupied Palestinian territories. [R] (903333)

I will answer briefly, Mr Speaker.

The UK Government consistently call on the Israeli Government to ease movement and access restrictions in the OPTs. Since 2011, we have been funding the United Nations Access Coordination Unit to work with the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians in the occupied territories face significant barriers to access to healthcare. Some have even died as a result of delays at checkpoints. Will the Minister urge the UK Government to recommend to the working group of the United Nations’ universal periodic review of Israel’s human rights record that Israel lift restrictions on the movement of Palestinian patients and healthcare workers and Palestinian-registered ambulances?

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to a serious aspect of the difficulties of restrictions. It is much in the UK’s mind, and we will continue to raise it.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The overnight announcement from the United States of the largest cut in aid for Palestinian refugees for 70 years follows the Israeli Government’s ban on 20 international organisations entering Israel, including three from the UK. Does that concern the Government, and what do they intend to do about it?

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has a unique role in protecting and providing essential services for 5 million Palestinian refugees. We are deeply concerned about the impact of potential cuts in US funding on stability in the region, and about the continuity of UNRWA’s vital services. We will go on supporting them.

What action is the Minister taking to ensure that no taxpayers’ money from DFID ever ends up in the pockets of convicted terrorists?

What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the funds given to the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli non-governmental organisations are used to promote peace in the area, so that we can see a peaceful co-existence between Israel and the state of Palestine?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have just this year allocated £3 million to co-existence projects so that those from the Palestinian community and Israelis can work more effectively together. One of the problems in recent years has been a growing divide between communities. We want to find projects that will break down barriers rather than erect them.

Will the Government oppose President Trump’s latest threat to withdraw funding from UNRWA, and will the Government attend a conference of donor countries, convened by the Norwegian Government and the EU, to discuss the imminent crisis that would result?

The answer to the second question is yes, and I am hoping to attend that conference myself. On the first question, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), that is a decision for the United States; we are concerned about the impact but our support for UNRWA will continue.

The US President’s threat this week to withdraw tens of millions of dollars from UNRWA for Palestinian refugees is an act of cruelty towards some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the world. It attacks the long-established principle that development and aid cannot await a peace deal. What is the Minister doing to strengthen the resolve of the United Nations and our European counterparts to maintain vital humanitarian work in the region?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position; we look forward to hearing much more from him. I met the head of UNRWA recently in London. Our commitment for next year to its programme budget is £38 million. It assists in the provision of basic education for some half a million children. As I have explained, we are concerned about the loss of funding to UNRWA and our support for it remains clear, but this is another example of how something will not be properly fixed until we get the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that we are all searching for, and we hope 2018 will be a landmark in that.

Yemen: Humanitarian Aid

Donor countries have spent over $2 billion in humanitarian aid in 2017. This does not capture all the aid flows to Yemen, including significant contributions from Gulf countries who channel much of their aid independently. The UK is the second largest donor to the UN Yemen appeal and the third largest donor to Yemen in the world.

The Minister will be aware that the 30-day relaxation of the blockade on Hodeidah port expires at the end of this week, and even while it has been in place, a combination of its temporary nature and the action of intermediaries has pushed up prices so many people have not been able to afford the food, fuel and medicines that have been able to come in. So what can the international community do to ensure that supplies continue to reach people in Yemen and they are able to stave off the famine that still affects over 8 million people?

We are working hard to ensure that commercial and humanitarian access to Yemen remains unhindered. It is vital that both commercial and humanitarian aid gets through. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this, and the UK is working hard to make sure that process continues to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

UNICEF’s report this week highlights the appalling impact on children of the conflict in Yemen. Will the Minister examine the proposal from War Child that at least 1% of humanitarian funding should be devoted to mental health and psycho-social support?

I will be very happy to see that proposal; I have not seen it yet. Looking after psychological and mental health used to be seen as some kind of benevolent add-on in terms of aid and support. Bearing in mind the crisis and trauma that so many youngsters go through, it is very important that it is brought right up front and the UK is a firm advocate of that. I will certainly look at the report.

As we all know, there are no winners in war, and in comments to The Daily Telegraph before Christmas the Secretary of State correctly said that Saudi Arabia has “no excuses” for blocking food and fuel shipments to Yemen. Is it not therefore sheer hypocrisy and simply inexcusable that her Government are providing billions of pounds-worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia when 7 million Yemeni people are facing the worst famine in decades?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a significant contribution to humanitarian access by visiting Djibouti and Riyadh just before 20 December, and the resulting decision has improved humanitarian access there. Arms sales are strictly controlled, as the House well knows. We will continue our support for the coalition, which is fighting a serious insurgency and armed support from outside Yemen directed against it, but we will be firm in our determination to see an end to the conflict, which is the only thing that will resolve the humanitarian crisis.

Topical Questions

Yesterday I launched the UK’s new action plan on women, peace and security, alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. Empowering women and girls and placing them at the heart of our efforts to prevent and resolve conflict helps to bring a lasting peace and a safer, more prosperous world. This is good for developing countries and for the UK.

We obviously work closely with our EU partners on the delivery of international aid. As the Secretary of State makes her plans for working with the EU after we leave, is she working on the assumption that Turkey will be a member state?

I am not anticipating that will happen. I have been clear that we will work with all our European partners. We will be much more focused on the things that matter to us and our strategic priorities as we do so, but we will continue to work hand in hand with many countries in Europe.

T8. British taxpayers can be proud that their money goes to the salaries of Palestinian teachers, but does the Secretary of State share my obvious concern that some of those teachers are working at one of the more than 30 Palestinian Authority schools named after terrorists who have murdered Israelis or at one of the three named after Nazi collaborators? (903347)

As the House knows, we constantly challenge the Palestinian Authority in relation to anything that might encourage or glorify violence. I can assure the House that we ensure that no payments are made to those who have those connections. We do all we can to encourage the Authority to understand that naming places after those who have been involved in terrorism does not contribute to the peace process.

T2. Will the Secretary of State conduct an independent review of DFID aid delivery mechanisms in Iraq in order to evaluate reports that UK aid is not reaching vulnerable religious minorities? (903341)

We look very seriously at any such allegations. There is a constant review in the Department to ensure that some of the challenges that come in on religious discrimination are evidenced. I challenge the agencies as well, and we will continue to do this. We do not have evidence of significant discrimination, but we are always on the lookout for it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that DFID money spent on repairing catastrophic hurricane damage in the UK overseas territories, which often hits the poorest the hardest of all, should always qualify as legitimate overseas aid?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. The rules that we are constrained by have not prevented us from coming up with the funds needed to help those areas hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. This is also a lesson that we should continue to invest in our defence capabilities, because we were very reliant on our armed forces to get into those places.

T3. Yesterday, officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed details for the repatriation of the Rohingya, but reports suggest that the Rohingya will have no guarantee of citizenship on their return, that they could be forced to return against their will, and that they will be vetted individually as potential terrorists. Before giving the UK Government’s support, what will the Minister do, beyond taking the two Governments at their word, to verify that repatriation for the Rohingya will be safe, voluntary and— (903342)

I think the hon. Lady for her question because it affords me the opportunity to remind the House what these people have fled. They should have a say in what happens to them, and we absolutely agree that those returns must be voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable, but those conditions are far from being met.

Would I be right in assuming that my right hon. Friend will use my International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, which imposes a statutory obligation on every penny of her Department’s budget, to protect women and children in all matters in Myanmar and Bangladesh?

I absolutely will do that. Yesterday, as has already been mentioned, we launched further policy to strengthen our humanitarian efforts in that respect, and particularly towards women and children. We have also drawn on our defence capabilities to build capacity in the Bangladesh police force to keep everyone in the camps safe.

T4. Many of my Rohingya constituents have family in the refugee camps in Bangladesh who are fleeing persecution—[Interruption.] (903343)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking about the conditions of life for occupants of refugee camps. I know there is an air of expectation, but I just remind colleagues that we are discussing some of the poorest, most vulnerable and most marginalised people on the face of the planet. I ask for due respect.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many of my Rohingya constituents have family in the refugee camps in Bangladesh who are fleeing persecution and who wish to join their family in the UK, as they are entitled to do. They continue to face obstacles and unnecessary bureaucracy, however, so what are the Government doing in the refugee camps to help to reunite families?

If any hon. Member of this House has individual cases, I would be very happy to look at them. A huge amount of effort is going into not just trying to reunite families but enabling people who have fled for their lives to identify who they are—many of them have lost documents. A very good, methodical programme is doing that, but I would be happy to discuss any cases that hon. Members have.

In relation to the work undertaken by the Department to combat modern slavery, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to praise our former colleagues Anthony Steen and Sir John Randall for the work they have done?

I am very happy to do that. They have made a huge contribution to an agenda that is one of our Prime Minister’s priorities. We are stepping up our efforts to ask other nations to lean in and follow suit.

I am keen that the myriad health and vaccination programmes funded by my Department yield more than the sum of their parts. We can also use these programmes to set up sustainable healthcare systems in those countries. One of my priorities is to join up the programmes to yield primary care services in the countries with which we work.

Will my right hon. Friend lead an international effort to support developing countries in creating jobs and livelihoods for young people?

I know my hon. Friend wants us to set up a dedicated fund for that cause, and I am looking at options for what we might do. He is right that we need to create more jobs to enable countries to collect taxes and set up public services, and he will see much more of that under my tenure.

T6. Recognising that Yemen is gripped by the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Norway recently suspended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Why won’t the UK? (903345)

Again, as the House knows, arms sales are very carefully controlled. Every case is looked at, and serious scrutiny is provided both by this House and through the law. The coalition, which is backed by the United Nations, is dealing with an insurgency in Yemen, and it faces serious challenges from rockets fired towards its own territories. We are working to apply the law rigidly.

This Government have rightly been at the forefront of the international fight against modern slavery. Does my right hon. Friend believe that we can spread around the world some of the best practice learned here?

My hon. Friend is right. In addition to the leadership we have shown and the work my Department does, there is more we can do to harness the power of technology to prevent people from falling victim to slavery and trafficking.

T7. What are the UK Government doing to address the civil rights situation in Honduras, where Jesuit priests and others are being intimidated for questioning the validity of recent elections? If DFID cannot intervene in this, will the Secretary of State raise it with the Foreign Secretary? (903346)

I speak regularly with the Foreign Secretary about all these issues, and I would be happy to discuss that one. As we look at the footprint we have across this world and wish to do more to engage with more of the world, it is extremely important that we have that oversight of what is happening on the ground. We wish to help developing nations—not just their economies, but their human rights and civil society.