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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 June 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

Spoliation Advisory Panel


Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of the global economic downturn on Ukraine’s need for development aid from his Department. [281790]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): On a personal note, Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to those of others on your election as Speaker?

The World Bank expects Ukraine to experience a significant recession in 2009. To counter the impact of the recession, the International Monetary Fund has agreed a package with the Ukrainian Government worth $16.4 billion. Other international institutions are standing by if needed.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for his response. He will be aware that western Ukraine has often been referred to as the bread basket of the country, yet it appears to lack the basic storage and transport infrastructure needed to improve efficiency, eliminate poverty and even out some of the inequalities between itself and other regions. Given Ukraine’s ambition to join or draw closer to the EU, does my hon. Friend not agree that there remains a need for the UK to give assistance, principally through his Department?

Mr. Thomas: I commend my right hon. Friend’s interest in Ukraine and I recognise her description of the regional needs of the part of the country to which she refers. She will recognise that there are significant costs involved in the infrastructure for which she has
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rightly made the case. I hope she will understand when I point her to the work of the World Bank and other international financial institutions on infrastructure in Ukraine and other countries. We will continue to watch the regional economic needs of Ukraine through our involvement with those institutions.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Given the strategic significance of Ukraine as a political buffer zone between the EU and Russia, does the Minister not think that it was perhaps an error of judgment to close the DFID programme in Ukraine last year? It would be an utter tragedy if Ukraine’s democracy should fail, so should we not at the very least be running significant capacity-building programmes to support it?

Mr. Thomas: We are running capacity-building programmes on democracy and good governance through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, the European Commission is also running such programmes. As I indicated in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), we continue to make the case for further involvement from donors to Ukraine. Substantial donor programmes are available through international financial institutions, and we are closely involved in the decisions that they take. Given our need to focus on the poorest countries, I believe that that is the right way forward.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Last weekend the World Bank published its global economic outlook, the development finance report, which predicted that developing countries will lose $1 trillion as a result of the economic downturn. What is the Minister’s Department doing to identify the countries that will be most badly hit and to ensure that development aid is provided to enable them to deal with the downturn?

Mr. Thomas: I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in economic growth through his work on the Select Committee on International Development. He will know from the leadership of the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we led work at April’s G20 summit to secure additional resources for the IMF and the World Bank to focus on the needs of the poorest people in countries that have been most devastated by the impact of the global recession. We will look to ensure that that support, having been committed, is delivered to those international financial institutions.


2. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What steps he is taking to assess the effectiveness of his Department’s programmes in Afghanistan. [281791]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): DFID’s work in Afghanistan from 2001 to date was independently evaluated in 2008. All DFID projects have clear, measurable benchmarks to ensure accurate and reliable monitoring in accordance with DFID procedures. The office in Kabul has established a dedicated results team to monitor the effectiveness of our work. We are also planning an independent assessment of DFID’s ongoing work in Helmand province.

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Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. NATO’s Secretary-General said that the problem in Afghanistan was not too much Taliban, but too little good governance. Over the next four years, nearly half the Department’s funding to Afghanistan will be channelled through that country’s Government. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that corruption in that country is tackled effectively?

Mr. Alexander: There are two dimensions to the hon. Gentleman’s question. First, he is right to recognise the significance of governance, which is one of the four identified priorities for the approximately £510 million that we will spend between 2009 and 2013. I concur with the view that it is not the strength of the Taliban but the weakness of the Government that poses one of the significant challenges—along with others—that NATO and the Afghan people face in the years ahead.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about corruption, which we are approaching in a number of ways. First, in relation to UK funds, we are working through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is independently audited by recognised accountants from outside the country. We have a degree of confidence in those systems. We are also supporting efforts to strengthen the capacity of the Government, because corruption is a consequence and a cause of the poverty affecting Afghanistan.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad caused untold damage to the coalition at the time. Now, allegations have been made by the BBC about the abuse of detainees at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Will he tell me what action he proposes to take?

Mr. Alexander: Not least because I heard the allegations on the radio only this morning, I am not in a position to give my right hon. Friend the detailed answer her question deserves, but I will endeavour to speak to my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ensure that an answer is forthcoming.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to you on your election on Monday, and may I wish you many happy years occupying the Chair?

Following the Secretary of State’s previous answer, may I ask him, in the context of the United States’ major reassessment of its strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of the tragic loss of life following the recent drone attack, how we are going to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan and to what extent he is reconfiguring his country plan to recognise those problems?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman’s question has a number of aspects. We recognise that there is a powerful connection between the interests of the people of Afghanistan and those of the people of Pakistan. In the statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made to the House on 29 April, it was made clear that we are taking a joined-up approach in what is colloquially called the “AfPak” strategy, because there is a strong strategic interest in having a stable and secure state on both sides of the border. It is of course necessary for the forces of extremism that threaten Afghanistan and Pakistan to be tackled not solely by military means. That is why,
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along with the development partnership agreement that we have for Pakistan, there has been a significant rebalancing of our programme in recent months towards the needs of education, in particular, in Pakistan. I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on this matter.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker. Your interest in international development is well known, and is very welcome.

At the last DFID questions, the Secretary of State claimed that his Department withdrew funding to the United Nations Development Programme—UNDP—Afghanistan counter-narcotics trust fund as soon as serious weaknesses became apparent. However, I have obtained an internal DFID memo that reveals that the Secretary of State’s predecessor was clearly warned about anticipated problems with the fund before Ministers signed off £20 million for it. Will the Secretary of State explain why Ministers ignored those warnings?

Mr. Alexander: It will not come as a surprise to the House that I am unfamiliar with the memo the hon. Gentleman describes. I can assure hon. Members that the UNDP’s internal evaluation unit recently evaluated operations in Afghanistan, and it was on that basis that ministerial decisions were reached.

Mr. Mitchell: Let me read to the Secretary of State from the memo, which Ministers received before signing off that money. It warned that, in Afghanistan, the UNDP’s reporting is “poor”, and that it suffers from a “lack of experienced people” who

Yet, so far this year, the Secretary of State has signed off another £14 million for the UNDP in Afghanistan. Will he pledge today to launch an urgent investigation into whether UK funds have been misused, and to instigate a full review of the taxpayers’ money given to the UNDP in Afghanistan?

Mr. Alexander: We are always seeking to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money is used effectively and properly, whether through the UNDP or other parts of our aid programme. It is right to recognise that the review that was published identified weaknesses within the UNDP’s approach regarding co-ordination, a focus on short-term rather than long-term priorities, and the need to simplify and strengthen financial rules. It is on that basis that we have acted. The review is not a secret document; it is available on the UNDP’s internet site, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it informs the decisions that my Department is reaching.

Humanitarian Assistance (Pakistan)

3. Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): What assistance his Department has provided to improve the humanitarian situation in north-west Pakistan in the last 12 months. [281794]

7. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking with international partners to ensure the direct delivery of aid to internally displaced persons in the autonomous tribal areas of northern Pakistan. [281798]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): My Department has made available £22 million for humanitarian assistance in Pakistan, which is helping those displaced by conflict in the federally administered tribal areas as well as those displaced in North West Frontier province. With our international partners, we are ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it most through established co-ordination mechanisms for allocating finance, clear funding criteria and careful monitoring.

Sandra Osborne: For months, the international community has been urging Pakistan to act against the Taliban in the north-west territories. Millions of people have paid the price with death, destruction and internal displacement. Given the number of people living with host communities, what support can DFID provide in the circumstances?

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is right to point out the fact that an estimated 2.4 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict, the vast majority of whom are living in host communities. To ensure that aid gets to those living in host communities, we have helped to establish 34 separate aid stations to enable the fair distribution of aid.

Mr. Clarke: In view of the importance of security in northern Pakistan to NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan, does the Minister share my concern that the aid agencies and NGOs are clearly underfunded? Can we give some thought to ensuring that proper resources are made available?

Mr. Foster: My right hon. Friend has a long and distinguished record of interest in development. The Pakistan humanitarian response plan is 35 per cent. funded and the International Committee of the Red Cross appeal is 59 per cent. funded, but it is clear that more could and should be done. We are actively lobbying with other countries, including the Government of Pakistan, to do more.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): A group of international aid agencies reckons it has a deficit of about £22.5 million in dealing with the humanitarian consequences of conflict in the Swat valley. Within that, World Vision—a charity with which you, Mr. Speaker, and I have a particular connection—reports a deficit of about £7.5 million. Is there anything that the Minister and the Department can do directly to be involved with that group of charities and the problems it faces in the Swat valley?

Mr. Foster: The UK’s bilateral contribution of £22 million is the second largest made by any nation to deal with the humanitarian crisis. On the specific lobbying on behalf of World Vision, I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and to talk to my officials to see what we can do to help him.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Aid to this region is enormously important not only from a humanitarian perspective, but politically, considering the circumstances. How is the Department dealing with the difficult challenge of the tribal regions and the fact that a lot of the region is still controlled by the Taliban, particularly the Swat valley?

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Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the difficulties in providing aid, especially in the front-line areas. To be honest, we have no real assessment of the number of people who have been displaced and are still beyond the front line. Our difficulty is enabling safe access to those areas for our aid workers.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Pakistan is different: the humanitarian situation requires help in its own right, but that country is also a vital strategic ally of this country. Will the Government put pressure on the rest of the EU to take on its own share of funding the humanitarian assistance? Frankly, our European allies are not doing enough.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend will be interested to know that just last week—at the Europe-Pakistan summit, on 17 June—the European Commission made an additional pledge of some €65 million to deal with the issue he raises.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): A few moments ago, the Minister acknowledged that British NGOs face a serious funding shortfall in Pakistan, but, with the monsoon season approaching, 45 per cent. of the money that his Department has announced remains unallocated to specific projects. Can he simply reassure the House that there is a plan and explain exactly where that money will be spent?

Mr. Foster: I can indeed give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I can also tell him that where concerns have been expressed about the speed at which aid through the UN has been allocated, we have taken the exceptional decision to fund NGOs directly to speed up the process of getting aid to those people in need.

Development Agenda

4. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): What progress has been made on implementing the development agenda from the G20 London communiqué. [281795]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The London summit achieved important development outcomes, including a commitment to provide additional funds—mainly through the international financial institutions—for many of the poorest countries. We are working closely with partners to ensure that summit agreements are now fully implemented.

Malcolm Bruce: In welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, may I say, as Chairman of the International Development Committee, that while the House has gained a great deal, I am afraid that our Committee has lost a great deal? We very much appreciate your contribution.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but does he not acknowledge that the economic downturn and climate change have mostly been caused by the G20, yet the impact is felt mostly by poor and developing countries? What steps will he take to ensure that the Copenhagen summit delivers for the poor, that there is a Doha development round, and that the pledges made at Gleneagles will be not only maintained but supplemented?

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