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International Trade and Development Agency

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2018

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an International Trade and Development Agency to coordinate the development and delivery of policy between the Department for International Trade and the Department for International Development; and for connected purposes.

I am sure that all Members of this House will be familiar with the old adage, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for life.” But I feel that another line should be added to that: “Buy that man’s surplus fish and watch him lift himself out of poverty.”

In March 2016, I went to Sierra Leone, the country of my mother’s birth, to see the impact that UK aid has had. Sierra Leone is a country that was ravaged by civil war—a civil war that was ultimately brought to a close because of the involvement of British armed forces. More recently, Sierra Leone was hit by Ebola, a disease that was able to take hold because the social and medical infrastructure of the country was smashed during the civil war. British aid and British medical professionals were instrumental in winning the fight against Ebola. When mudslides in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown took the lives of hundreds, UK aid stepped up and supported the country once again. 

However, when I spoke to the people of Sierra Leone—a country that was hit by war, disease and natural disaster—on my visit, I found that the thing they craved most from their relationship with the UK was not further aid, thankful though they were for the aid they had received, but increased trade. They wanted to be able to sell to us and to be able to buy our products and services in return.

The Department for International Development has the remit to end extreme poverty and tackle the root causes of disease, mass migration, insecurity and conflict. I know that DIFD does look at helping countries on the journey out of poverty by supporting the development of their commercial potential and establishing the foundations for future trading relationships, but it will always feel pressure to focus on countries with the most poverty and at the times of greatest hardship. Our constituents very rarely complain when they see UK aid supporting those in the most extreme hardship. We are, at heart, a nation of people with an internationalist outlook and a desire to support people when they are at their lowest ebb. There is, however, less vocal support for our development spending when it is not targeted at the points of most extreme poverty and hardship. Yet it is this area that gives countries the best chance of becoming permanently economically self-sufficient. 

Since the EU referendum vote, the people of the United Kingdom have embraced a new-found interest in international trade policy. We have seen a significant appetite to build on our current relationships and become, once again, a global trading nation. It is right that in the immediate post-Brexit world, the International Trade Department prioritises increasing trade flows between the UK and other larger developed economies. This is the most efficient use of limited Government resources: time, money, and people. But there is a danger that countries who are neither at the poorest nor the richest end of the spectrum fall between the two. We see very little public disagreement when our aid spending is directed at countries like Sierra Leone, which has gone through such difficulties, but when it is directed at countries like Nigeria and Pakistan, we too often see negative headlines and public disquiet. Yet it is countries like these—not at the lowest ebb but certainly not yet fully economically stable—that could be permanently helped out of poverty through trade with the United Kingdom.

If the UK is going to take up its rightful position as a truly global leader in this field, we need to ensure that we have a repository for the kind of expertise necessary to look into things like trade preferences for least developed countries and how we make sure that countries growing out of LDC status are not presented with a cliff-edge change to their trade status. 

Addressing those complexities is a tall order for our civil servants, spread across two Departments, and takes deep, specialist expertise. Civil servants rotate through different jobs across Departments every few years, so we often have to rely on outside expertise, and unfortunately there is little institutional memory in this area. Equally, asking civil servants to assess the impact of policies and programmes they have designed is like asking someone to mark their own homework. Parliament must also be able to access independent evidence and analysis, be well informed about the shape of our new trade arrangements with developing countries as we leave the EU, have visibility of the impacts of those trade arrangements and, if they are performing less well than expected, call for improvements.

A similar basket of requirements brought about the creation of the United States International Trade Commission some 100 years ago. That is why we should have a similar but enhanced organisation here in the UK at this pivotal moment in our history. The agency would be a statutory body, reporting to Ministers and Parliament, probably with a staff of around 50 full-time professionals. The agency would have five main functions.

First, it would carry out analysis and consultations with businesses in the UK and in developing countries to build up a robust evidence base, monitoring our trade with developing countries and assessing the impacts on growth, employment and development, reporting to Ministers and Parliament annually.

Secondly, it would specifically review the scope and design of our trade preference systems for developing countries and advise Ministers at least every two years on how these were performing and where improvements were needed, including which countries should be included, excluded or graduated.

Thirdly, it would recommend how we can best craft our future trade agreements with developing countries in goods, services and technology to maximise the benefits for promoting shared prosperity at home and abroad and overcome red-tape barriers for developing countries exporting to the UK.

Fourthly, it would undertake sustainability impact assessments of all future UK trade agreements with developing countries, following the model that has been used extensively by the EU but for which we currently have no system here in the UK.

Finally, the agency would track our Aid for Trade programmes, assessing performance against Government targets and recommending best practices for joined-up and effective UK aid spending in this area.

We have the opportunity to create an organisation of truly global standing that could be a model for other OECD countries and an international centre of excellence. We have the chance to make a statement to countries around the world, rich and poor, that we do not just want to make poverty bearable; we want to make poverty history.

I rise to speak in opposition to the Bill. Let me start by making it clear that trade, development and ending poverty very much go together. That has always been at the heart of the Department for International Development’s agenda, having been put at its heart when the Department was established by the Labour Government in 1997. I sat in that Department as an adviser and worked with many organisations, particularly on trade and development issues, for many years. I worked alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), who served as a joint Trade and DFID Minister, on how we properly put those issues together.

I am a Labour and a Co-operative MP. Fair trade and trade justice are at the heart of what Co-operative MPs stand for. Many of us are members of the fair trade group in Parliament, and many of us have argued for support for trade with developing countries—trade that will lift people out of poverty.

The hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) mentioned the Make Poverty History campaign, in which I was closely involved in 2005. One of its three pillars was trade justice, alongside more and better aid and dropping the debt. All those things go together. While I agree with some of the principles put forward by the hon. Gentleman, his speech belied a wider agenda. This is essentially part of an agenda about Brexit and an attempt by some Government Members to undermine and take apart the Department for International Development by other means than a straight-out abolition. That has been a hallmark of some Conservative policy over the last few years, which is deeply disappointing. While we have, on the face of it, a commitment to the Department and to the 0.7% spending target, a series of measures have undermined the Department and its core objectives.

I am not sure that some of the things the hon. Gentleman suggested would be compatible with the International Development Acts. Those Acts were clear that poverty eradication had to be the foremost agenda of UK aid and development policy. He said that the Department feels “pressure” to focus on countries with the most poverty. I think that it should. That should be the primary purpose of our aid and development spending—those most in poverty.

The hon. Gentleman says that I was not listening. I was listening carefully. He is blurring objectives. The focus should be on poverty and on our common interest. There is a way of devising international development policy and trade policy that is in the common interest of both parties—of our country and of developing countries—and ensures that we move together in generating and spreading wealth and prosperity for all people in the world, including in those countries, rather than having a self-interested trade policy.

Past Conservative Governments do not have a positive record on this. I would hate to see a day when we slip back to things like the Pergau Dam scandal, or where things are tied simply to self-interested trade policies and we attempt to get self-advantage rather than to focus on common interests between ourselves and some of the poorest countries in the world.

There is a good way to go about this. It is the policy that we have practised in Government through the Department for International Development. It is the policy that has been pursued in much of our work through multilateral agencies, which do much to promote trade and development and provide trade capacity.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the EU. One of the greatest tragedies of Brexit is that we are potentially coming out of key European development agencies, the European development fund and the arrangements that exist for close co-operation with many countries, including many in the Commonwealth and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. It has been far from perfect. I have campaigned when I think the EU has got things wrong in its relationships. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West will remember he and I having lively discussions about policy in a previous life and where that went.

The reality is that, on the whole, the EU has had development and poverty eradication at the heart of its policies and its relationships with the ACP countries. We already have trade agreements with many of those countries. We already have supportive policies in aid and development. One of the tragedies of Brexit is that we will potentially just chuck all that in the bin.

The European development fund, the European Commission’s humanitarian office—ECHO—and many other programmes are some of the Department for International Development’s highest rated multilateral programmes. I previously served on the International Development Committee, and we saw evidence of that when looking at the funding of multilateral agencies.

It seems absurd to suggest that we come out of all those programmes and create something else that is hugely bureaucratic and would, I fear—whatever the intentions of the hon. Member for Braintree—be used by other Government Members and those with agendas to simply undermine the work of the Department for International Development.

There is also the crucial issue of the extra bureaucracy and cost of setting up such an agency. Why do we need it? We already have a Department. We already have UK aid. We already have the multilateral agencies that have these relationships. We already have many experts working in trade facilitation and trade and international development. Why would we create another costly agency and reorganise and shunt civil servants back and forth yet again when we already have people doing excellent work in that area, in not only this country but many of the others with which we co-operate? I do not need to mention all the names, but there are many other agencies that we have worked with for many years, such as Crown Agents.

Of course, we also have the Commonwealth Development Corporation. Mr Speaker, you will know, because I have spoken on this at great length before, that I have been a critical friend of the CDC. The CDC has got things wrong in the past. The huge extra funding given to it was premature and too much to absorb quickly, but I know that the CDC is working to look at all those issues. It is important that we stick with what we have. It works perfectly well. It has poverty eradication at the heart of it. We have excellent people working on it. We do not need to create something else.

As I said, this Bill unfortunately sits alongside a series of other agendas. We have seen attempts by this Government to rebadge aid and development spending and redraw the definitions used at an international and UK level—“Let’s say we’re keeping the 0.7% target, but we’ll undermine it in every way we can by sticking everything else under it and claiming that it’s development spending.” We have seen the repeated diversion of our aid funding to private contractors, many of whom have actually been seriously criticised for some of the work they have been doing. As I have said, we have had the huge increases to the CDC. I am not opposed to an increase to the CDC, but I have had some serious concerns about its level.

We have also seen this with the Government’s two cross-Government funds—the conflict, stability and security fund and the prosperity fund. Many parts of that work are excellent—the funds are doing excellent work—and we cannot have a purist development policy in which we do not work with other agencies. However, I certainly have some serious questions about the way in which other Departments have been spending money through the prosperity fund without reference to our development objectives and without reference to poverty eradication as the first point. Quite frankly, there has been very lax scrutiny from other Departments—including, I am sorry to say, the Foreign Office—about where that is going and how it is being spent.

I do not think that the fate of the world’s poorest people and the relationships of common interest that we should be building together, as I have said, should somehow be used instrumentally in the Brexit process. They should not be used as some sort of Brexit sweeteners for us to try and grab magical trade deals that, frankly, we already have, but are also not going to replace our excellent trading relations with our EU neighbours or, indeed, the trading relations that exist between us as an integral part of the European Union and many of the world’s developing countries.

We have to have a relationship of mutual respect: not simply one of self-interest, but one of common interest. We will truly make poverty history by supporting and working alongside developing countries, not by acting in an instrumental way in which we are putting our own interests before those of others. I therefore oppose the Bill, and I hope the House will divide on this.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

Well, in that case the hon. Gentleman is always a model of good behaviour—always. Any Arsenal fan is to be commended. We appreciate the amiable demeanour of the hon. Gentleman in the circumstances.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether I might seek your advice on this matter. The Home Office has just laid a written statement on an update of the Government’s anti-corruption strategy 2017 to 2022, which originated from David Cameron back in 2016. I have been unable to get a hard copy of it, but having this as a written, not an oral, statement denies Members of the House the opportunity to hold the Government to account on the commitments in the strategy. We are at least due by now a consultation on the new economic crime of failure to prevent money laundering—I asked the Prime Minister about that in her statement on the G20 the other day. I know that these are good days to bury bad news and that this Government like to duck big challenges, but have you received any advance notice or indication of when there will be an oral statement from the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention on the anti-corruption strategy, which would give us in this House an opportunity to debate its progress?

The short answer to the hon. Lady is that no, I have received no indication of an imminent statement on that matter by any Government Minister. This is not, strictly speaking, a point of order upon which I can rule, although I must say that in raising an attempted point of order that does not constitute a point of order, she is not in a notably isolated minority—that is to say, the vast majority of attempted points of order are, of course, nothing of the kind. They are points of frustration, points of point-scoring, points of view and points of advertisement, rather than points of order. What I would say is that it is of course for the Government to decide whether, and if so when, to make a statement on the matter and to judge what form that statement should take. Principally—I say this as much for the benefit of people attending to our proceedings who are not Members of the House as for those who are—they have to make a judgment about whether to make a written or an oral statement. That partly depends on the timetable and how much space there is in the day, and it partly depends on their judgment about the level of importance to be attached to the matter.

The hon. Lady has made clear her view that an oral statement would have been appropriate in this case, and no doubt that view will have been heard clearly on the Treasury Bench. Meanwhile, although she is disappointed not to have witnessed a statement that she thinks is appropriate, she has at least succeeded in highlighting the fact of the imminent publication—well, we think the imminent publication, but certainly the important publication—of the document concerned.

If there are no further points of order, the Clerk will now proceed to read the orders of the day.