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House of Commons Hansard
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Official Development Assistance Target
13 January 2020
Volume 669

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

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I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and recognise that he is putting in a bit of a shift on the Treasury Bench today, although he could have saved us time if he had answered a single one of the questions that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) put to him in his winding-up speech during the last debate. We might not even have needed this Adjournment debate, but as it is, this gives us the opportunity to go into some of those questions in a bit more detail.

I also take this opportunity to thank the voters in Glasgow North for returning me once again, and to my staff team, my campaign volunteers and the team in the Scottish National party Whips Office—Anne, Christopher and Kieran. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for his service in the Whips Office and welcome back my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), who is joining the team.

I am very grateful to have secured this debate so early in the new parliamentary term because, as we heard in the preceding debate, the future of the aid budget and how it is delivered is one of the most pressing matters and choices facing the Government. It is important that they hear early on in the parliamentary term of the cross-party concerns and those of many stakeholders before they make yet another decision that they may well come to regret.

We have just 10 years left to meet the global goals for sustainable development that were agreed at the United Nations in 2015. They represent an international consensus about the kind of world that is both possible and necessary to ensure a healthy, sustainable planet and society for future generations. We should give credit where it is due: the global goals agreement was driven in no small part by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. Crucial to giving credibility to his case was the progress that the United Kingdom was making towards meeting the target of spending 0.7% of national income on official development assistance. The idea that wealthy countries should aim to spend that much on aid dates back to the 1970s, when it was calculated that doing so would generate enough resources to meet the targets that were then in place to end world poverty and improve access to food, education and other basic human rights.

Thanks again to that cross-party consensus, the UK is, as we have just heard, one of the few countries in the world not only to be meeting the target, but to have it enshrined in statute. All that is very commendable, and at a time when there is considerable disagreement in other parts of domestic and international policy, it is something that should be very carefully protected.

The success has been not just the achievement of the target but how the aid has been delivered. The Department for International Development was established in 1997. Again, it might be rare to hear a SNP Member commend the actions of the Blair Government, but this was a significant and ambitious decision, and one that has, and should continue to have, the support of a wide, cross-party consensus. Over the years, DFID has evolved and changed, but it has provided a distinctive and dedicated voice within government that has championed our commitments and obligations to the poorest and most vulnerable around the world—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

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You’ve got to love some of the procedures in this place, Mr Speaker.

DFID has provided a vital link between delivery agencies and government, whether they are large multilateral institutions such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, or our own domestic agencies, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and my own former employers, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and its sister organisation, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. DFID funding has helped member organisations of the Scotland Malawi Partnership, which has provided secretariat support to the all-party group on Malawi—I hope to continue chairing that group in this Parliament. DFID support has helped its members put the network’s partnership principles into practice, building priceless people-to-people and community-to-community links between the two countries and building relationships of solidarity, mutual respect and learning that help Malawi, Scotland and the UK make progress towards the sustainable development goals and more.

DFID’s support for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy—I declare an interest, because I am still a member of its board of governors—has also helped to strengthen democratic institutions in developing democracies around the world. That in turn means that Governments become more effective in mobilising their own resources to help societies meet the global goals.

In recent years, countless lives have been changed by DFID’s Aid Match programme, which has allowed individual donors in this country to understand more clearly just how each pound they give can change lives overseas. SCIAF told me about Paulin, a farmer in Rwanda, who has been provided with access to clean water through an Aid Match-funded programme. Paulin said that

“thanks to the support, I can now feed myself and my children. The area is very dry but we can share the water we get from the water tanks and we can grow crops. I can eat and rejoice!”

We should all rejoice at the lives changed and the progress made thanks to the delivery of the aid target through DFID.

Throughout all of this, DFID has been one of the most accountable, transparent and scrutinised UK Departments. As well as the usual round of questions here in the Chamber and a heavy load of Westminster Hall debates, active Chairs of the International Development Committee over the years have kept a keen eye on its programmes, and of course it is also scrutinised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Publish What You Fund’s global aid transparency index in 2018 rated DFID as “very good” for its effectiveness and transparency. In contrast, it rated the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as “poor”. This is concerning because in recent years, particularly since 2015, the FCO has been one of the Departments spending an increasing share of the overall aid budget.

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Evidence from Australia and Canada, which have merged their foreign and development departments, has shown that this can threaten the quality and impact of aid, and detailed analysis carried out by the Overseas Development Institute has found that foreign policy and development alignment has little or no obvious benefit for either. Does the hon. Gentleman agree therefore that a merger of DFID and the FCO would put at risk the excellent work that an independent DFID has done around the world, as he has outlined in his excellent speech?

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Absolutely—the SNP, of course, promotes independence for all kinds of causes. This is at the heart of the debate. It was raised by the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson in his conclusion in today’s debate on the Queen’s Speech, it was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), and it has been raised by Members across the House, and I will come back to it as well. I hope the Minister will take this chance to answer it. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) is absolutely right to raise the international examples, because there has been regression elsewhere in the world. The UK is supposed to pride itself on its global leadership, so let us see if that is to continue.

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The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate and compelling speech in favour of overseas development. Does he agree that we are much better able to have the kind of impact internationally that he talks about when we are one United Kingdom than we would if we were fragmented into four different nations?

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I will be happy to return to that, but I would point out that 0.7% is a proportion of gross national income, so Scotland, under the Barnett formula, as an independent country or whatever, would continue to spend its equivalent proportion or possibly more.

We have yet another ministerial team in DFID. I welcome all those Ministers to their posts, especially those who have arrived via the Government Whips Office, but they should know that the trend away from the aid target for DFID spending is something that many of us have been keeping an eye on for many years, and it is a cause for concern. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling pointed out earlier, over 27% of ODA funds are now spent by Departments other than DFID, including the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. I have been particularly concerned about the increasing amount of spending that is effectively being double-counted, towards both the 0.7% aid target and the NATO defence spending target of 2% of gross national income. I know that Ministers will say that they do not mark their own homework and that it cannot be helped if some spending meets both measurements, but every effort should be made to ensure that the two targets are reached with distinct spending and that any overlap just happens to be a bonus.

The National Audit Office concluded in June 2019 that aid spending outside DFID was not transparent enough. Those concerns can only be compounded by the growing rumour and speculation in the press and elsewhere about the future of the Department and the Government’s commitment to the ODA target. The Tory manifesto in this election barely mentioned international development and made no reference to the sustainable development goals. All the other main parties committed to maintaining DFID as a stand-alone Department, but the Tory manifesto was silent on that. The Minister now has an important opportunity to clarify, on the record, the Government’s position and intentions. Members have been asking about this all day, and we do not want to hear a “wait and see” response. He has seen my early-day motion about this issue and he knew perfectly well what the subject of this debate would be from the title, so here goes.

Can the Minister give the House a categorical assurance that the Government will spend 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance each year for the lifetime of this Parliament? To do anything else would jeopardise over 20 years of cross-party consensus and risk undermining any pretence to global leadership on these issues. Can he confirm that the Government will not seek to change, or initiate changes to, pre-existing international definitions of official development assistance? If the OECD definition were to change, that should be done on the basis of an evidential need and using a consensus-based approach. At the very least, any changes would need to be agreed through a genuinely participative, consultative, global process. It would defeat the entire purpose of meeting the target if the definition of aid were to be arbitrarily or unilaterally changed, especially if it allowed aid to be used for diplomacy, military or corporate commercial purposes.

Can the Minister outline what discussions, if any, have taken place within Government about the continued existence of DFID as a dedicated, stand-alone Department? What is his response to newspaper reports that DFID might be retained as a Department, but that its Secretary of State would also be the Foreign Secretary? He must surely accept that if that were to happen, it would be a merger of the FCO and DFID in all but name. If DFID is to remain both effective and accountable, it must have its own dedicated Secretary of State, who can champion its cause in the Cabinet and answer questions on the Floor of this House.

Have any such discussions about the future of the Department been part of preparations for the Government’s proposed integrated security, defence and foreign policy review? As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton asked earlier from the Labour Front Bench, what is the timetable for the review? Will it be subject to consultation, and what other opportunities will there be for stakeholders to contribute? What is the Minister’s response to press reports that DFID country reps will be asked to report to local UK ambassadors? Does he realise that this risks politicising DFID programmes in developing countries?

Aid should be delivered without fear or favour. One of the great achievements of DFID and the global aid community since the 1990s has been the move away from conditionality of aid and the understanding that progress towards the global goals should be separated from any specific relationship issues with country Governments. We cannot allow that to slide backwards. If the Minister sees a case for integrating DFID functions with embassies, can he have a word with his colleagues at the Home Office, who are busy stripping visa functions out of embassies, privatising them and causing chaos in their wake? Either embassies are hubs for the entirety of the UK’s presence in a country or they are not.

What reassurances can the Minister give to DFID staff about the size of the workforce and the Government’s commitment to retaining their expertise, especially, but not only, for those based in Scotland?

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Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the current reports and the lack of clarification from the Ministers in charge, staff based at DFID’s East Kilbride headquarters—who are doing fantastic work in reaching the poorest people all over the world through their programmes and their specialist expertise—face an uncertain future? Does he agree that that is unfair to them, and that clarity and reassurance must be offered immediately?

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I wholeheartedly agree, and that was the whole point of my applying for tonight’s debate. We want those assurances from the UK Government.

Let me gently remind the Government, and other Conservative Members who raised this issue earlier, that in 2014 the presence of DFID in East Kilbride was touted as one of the great benefits of the Union, and it was said that its loss would be one of the great risks of independence. As I said earlier, the independence White Paper committed us to going further than the 0.7% target, and we would have wanted to retain that global expertise. It seems that—as with so many of the promises of Better Together in 2014—following Scotland’s choice to stay part of the United Kingdom, all the supposed risks of independence are being realised in any event.

What reassurances can the Minister give to the many stakeholders, charities and non-governmental organisations, here in the UK and around the world, about the future of the funds that they currently receive from DFID? Changing or diminishing aid definitions, departmental restructuring, or any wavering of the 0.7% target will put at risk the ability of those organisations to deliver their programmes and plan for the future.

No organisation should be, or wants to be, dependent on specific grant funding, but for many organisations of which I have had personal experience, DFID grants provide a foundation that allows them to develop or expand other aspects of their work. That is particularly true of the UK Aid Match programme, which I mentioned earlier. It is not without its flaws, but it has grown in popularity in recent years. The best development results are achieved when funding is provided on a stable basis over a long period rather than being chopped and changed on a whim. Such agencies should also be allowed—even expected—to challenge and lobby Governments on all of these issues, without any fear that that will affect their ability to be awarded funds for overseas programmes.

My final question to the Minister, which I have asked several of his predecessors and will probably ask several of his successors, is this: how do the Government define the “national interest”? It has been a mantra of DFID Secretaries of State and other Ministers since 2015 that aid should work in the national interest, but when it comes to aid and development, how does the national interest differ from the global interest? In what way is achieving the global goals for sustainable development contrary, or somehow supplementary, to the national interest?

It is in all our interests to end poverty, to ensure that every child is given an education, to keep the oceans clean, and to help communities adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. We are all part of one human family, and our own individual dignity is diminished when our poorest sisters and brothers are forced to live in a poverty that is not of their own making, so the global interest—the global vision of the sustainable development goals—must be in the UK’s national interest.

If the Government accept and recognise that, the logic follows that they must continue to meet their international obligations to aid and development through the 0.7% target, and they should deliver that through a dedicated Department for International Development. I hope very much that the Minister and his inevitable successors, in whatever shape or form, will agree.

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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing a debate which is very timely, given some of the press reports. I hope that I shall be able to answer all his questions tonight, but before I do so, let me put on record a few of DFID’s greatest hits. First, let me acknowledge the incredible contribution made by those in DFID’s joint headquarters in East Kilbride, and by charities in Scotland such as the HALO Trust.

We should all be immensely proud of what our continued 0.7% commitment in legislation achieves. That commitment was shared by all—I emphasise the word “all”—parties in their manifestos at the recent general election, so the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question is a categoric “yes”. We are 100% committed to the 0.7% target throughout the current Parliament, and I cannot see that changing in any future manifesto.

The UK is, and will remain, a global champion for humanitarian relief and international development. Helping the world’s poorest is at the heart of what we do. Tackling the drivers of conflict, poverty, political instability and climate change is vital to the effectiveness of that work. In that regard, the aid budget is working in our national interest and the global interest, and keeping us safe here at home. Our aid spending is also catalysing growth across the developing world, removing barriers to trade, and, in doing so, helping countries to move away from their dependence on aid and become our trading partners of the future.

We know we must maximise the good that we do with what money we have, in the interests of those we are trying to help and to create direct positive results for the UK. DFID has strict processes in place to deliver even better value for money, so that UK aid is not misspent or diverted. This includes holding aid organisations to account by tying funding to performance, closing programmes that fail to meet development objectives and increasing efficiency savings. We also have a counter-fraud and whistleblowing unit with dedicated resources assigned to investigating the misappropriation of funds.

We all know that UK aid works. To list just a few results achieved since 2015: more than 14 million children have gained a decent education, of whom almost 6 million are girls; 3.9 million people have been supported to raise their incomes or to maintain or gain a better job or livelihood; and over the past eight years, UK international climate finance programmes have supported 57 million people to cope with the effects of climate change and enabled 26 million to have access to clean energy. The crucial support our aid programmes provide at times of humanitarian crises is something we should be proud of. More than 32 million people have been supported with humanitarian assistance since 2015, including at least 10 million women and girls.

At the UN climate action summit in September the Prime Minister committed to doubling the amount the UK spends on tackling climate change in developing countries to at least £11.6 billion from 2021 to 2025, making us the first country in the world to make a post-2020 climate finance pledge. The UK is also the largest contributor to major multilateral climate funds such as the Green Climate Fund and the Climate Investment Funds. DFID funds are helping to build the resilience of people and communities to cope with climate change, including natural disasters; to support the development of low carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure; and to support new technology, research and innovation to improve the effectiveness of action on climate change. Aberdeen virologist Dr Catherine Houlihan, who treated Ebola patients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, has spoken about her belief that a vaccine developed with support from the UK has changed the path of this outbreak and saved thousands of lives. Most recently, UK aid efforts have focused on sending British medics to fight a deadly measles outbreak in Samoa over Christmas.

The UK is a world leader in preventing violence against women and girls. We are pioneering approaches around the world that have shown reductions in violence of around 50%, proving that violence against women and girls is preventable. The UK is also leading the way in tackling the illicit financial flows that enable global criminal gangs to operate. One UK aid project has supported African law enforcement officials to seize, confiscate or preserve over $76 million of illegal assets in 2017.

Advancing economic development in the world’s poorest countries is also fundamental to the UK’s international leadership. Investing in the growth of companies in Africa and south Asia creates the jobs and economic stability that lead to global security and help to end aid dependency. That is one of the reasons that we are hosting the UK- Africa investment summit, which has been mentioned in the debate, in which 21 African countries will come to London with the aim of helping to secure quality deals, create jobs and showcase the UK’s unique offer to Africa.

Life-changing progress comes from growth that transforms economies, creates productive jobs and private sector investment and spreads benefits and opportunities right across society. As we leave the European Union we will build on our strong record as a champion of trade and development. We aim to secure existing duty-free access to UK markets for the world’s poorest, and continue to support developing countries to reduce poverty through trade. Helping developing countries to harness the formidable power of trade means that we are not only creating trading partners of the future for UK businesses but supporting jobs here at home. Building a more prosperous world and supporting our own long-term economic security is firmly in all our interests.

UK scientists and cutting-edge technology are also at the forefront of global efforts, from developing new vaccines to wipe out disease, to transforming the way we do development. Diagnostic tests for TB, developed with UK aid, are now being used by the national health service. The skills gained by the UK’s emergency medical team in tackling diseases now benefit their work in the UK.

The way in which we achieve this is by harnessing all levers at the Government’s disposal. The UK aid strategy, published in 2015, signalled the need for a new whole-of-Government approach. This allowed us to draw on the complementary skills and expertise of all Government Departments to tackle today’s global challenges. For example, the UK’s response to the Ebola epidemic is made more effective by leveraging the health expertise at the Department for Health and Social Care and Public Health England, the logistical expertise at the Ministry of Defence, and DFID’s deep contextual knowledge.

Although we have made great progress in those examples, there is more to do. I am certain that right hon. and hon. Members across the House will agree that the challenges faced by developing nations are huge.

Where the UK considers the international aid rules to be outdated, we have in the past led the way in pushing for reforms. We have achieved some important reforms, including increasing the proportion of aid spending that contributes to United Nations peacekeeping operations and reducing restrictions to support countries affected by crises and natural disasters. We continue to challenge other nations to deliver on their commitments for a better and safer world.

Turing to another of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow North, we will stick to the OECD rules on aid spending. Our 0.7% will be fully compliant with those rules. However, I will not make a commitment that we will not seek to lobby for changes to be made to the rules, because we have done so in the past, for reasons that I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree were sensible.

Aid is an important part of Britain’s place in the world. As a Government we are committed to leading global efforts to tackle Ebola and malaria; to building on our existing efforts to end the preventable deaths of mothers, newborn babies and children by 2030; and to standing up for the right of every girl in the world to have 12 years of quality education.

During my time as a joint Minister—I was only appointed in July, after leaving the Whips Office, briefly via the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—I have seen for myself DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office working together to bring operations closer, to share expertise and to better co-ordinate responses to current and emerging challenges around the world.

The Prime Minister is responsible for all machinery of government changes, and he has not made any decisions on the future of DFID during this Parliament. The Conservative party manifesto sets out that we will proudly maintain our commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on development. The integrated defence, security and foreign policy review will create the opportunity to reimagine how the UK engages internationally in the context of global Britain. DFID and FCO teams work proactively in supporting this work.

As a country, we are at a pivotal moment. As we exit the EU, the UK will need to do more, not less, and we will need to become more outward looking. Our aid commitment increases Britain’s soft power and global influence. Leaving the EU has no impact on our commitment to supporting the world’s most vulnerable people. Nor does it mean that the UK and the EU should stop acting together to alleviate poverty and to tackle shared global challenges when it makes sense to do so.

Let me conclude by saying that by investing less than a penny from each pound of our income in aid, the UK is helping create a safer, healthier and more prosperous world.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.