Improving Information on UK Development Aid: The International Development (Reporting & Transparency) Bill
Tom Clarke MP, Member of Parliament for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill
Baroness Janet Whitaker, Labour Liaison Peer
Rt Hon John Battle MP, Chair, APGOOD
Rt Hon John Battle MP (Chair), opened the meeting by welcoming everyone & thanking them for coming, including the speakers Tom Clarke MP & Baroness Janet Whitaker. He explained that Tom Clarke MP was very lucky to have his Private Member's Bill accepted by the government. He explained that on the Bill's third reading in the Commons, due to take place on Fri 16th June, one or two MPs may try to move amendments, but if there are any substantial changes and a vote is called, it will require a large number of MPs to vote in favour of the Bill for it to pass through to the Lords successfully.
Tom Clarke MP started by thanking everyone present for their interest in the Bill and for John Battle MP & Baroness Whitaker's support. He explained that the Bill's third reading would be on Fri 16th June. The second reading of the Bill had been unopposed apart from the late Eric Forth MP's honourable speech. After that the Bill passed into the Committee stages.
The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Gareth Thomas MP, acting for the government, has done a very good job at all stages of the Bill & has agreed to listen to points made at the second reading. Baroness Whitaker will sponsor the Bill through the Lords.
Fri 16th June is relatively late for the Bill's third reading, but it was felt that this would be better than the earlier slot offered in May when it probably wouldn't have survived due to timing. (Bills must be passed by 2.30pm on a Friday afternoon when Parliamentary business finishes for the weekend.)
Tom Clarke MP said that he would also undertake to listen sincerely to all comments on the Bill. During the second reading, a number of reasonable comments were made. He explained that it was necessary to consult HM Treasury & DFID on any comments/amendments that were to be made. He also explained that he could have included more detail in the Bill in terms of reporting & transparency, but that this would have been pointless unless all aspects of the Bill were acceptable to the government.
He said he felt confident that the Bill was constructive & that, by asking for an annual report rather than a departmental report to be presented to both Houses, hopefully followed by a debate, there will be a real move towards increased transparency.
The actual statistics to be reported are outlined in the Bill itself. There was a big change with regard to low income countries. Originally, the Bill has asked for reporting on 20 countries, but the Secretary of State himself had actually committed to providing statistics on 25 countries.
The late Eric Forth MP had said that some parts of the Bill were too tight & some were not tight enough. With regard to transparency, there were some calls at the second reading for the Bill to go even further than it has, but whilst wanting to deliver as much transparency as possible, the Bill did not want to enforce conditionality.
Tom Clarke explained that the Bill would aim to entrench a policy of coherence, as it seeks to assist in the delivery of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Of the 8 MDGS, he explained that goal 8 ('…to develop a global partnership for development') was most obviously the responsibility of developed countries.
Rt Hon John Battle MP asked Mr Clarke whether there had been rumours of any amendments. If not, MPs would be likely to assume that the Bill will have an easy ride to the Lords, & therefore less likely to attend the actual reading. In fact, it was essential for as many MPs as possible to remain within the House in case a vote is called, in which case the votes of at least 100 MPs would be required for the Bill to pass successfully through to the Lords.
Baroness Janet Whitaker started by describing the Bill's journey through the Lords, should it reach that point. She said she was delighted to have the honour of sponsoring it through the Lords. The Bill has enjoyed a high level of both cross-party & civil society support. It is important to make the G8 Gleneagles commitments a reality & this Bill is an important part of monitoring the progress on those commitments, as it will put accountability back at the heart of the legislative process.
She described how Tom Clarke MP had had to do a great deal of persuading to have the Bill accepted by the government, but it now enjoys support from both the International Development Secretary, the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP & the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Gareth Thomas MP. In addition, during the committee stage, a great many amendments were made to the Bill by MPs from both parties.
She outlined the process for the Bill in the Lords:
- it will have its 1st reading on a Friday (as with all Private Members' Bills), followed by a two weekend interval
- it will then have a 2nd reading, followed by another two weekend interval
- it will then go into the committee stage, to be followed by a 3rd reading
All this has to be done before the summer recess which begins on 25 July. As such, long, debate-style speeches & any amendments need to be discouraged. The Commons, together with civil society representatives, have worked hard to perfect the Bill up to this point, so it is important that the Lords now pass it.
Simon Maxwell, Director of ODI stated that Tom Clarke had done a great job with the Bill up to this point & asked what more could we all do to help its passage between now & the end of July. Furthermore, he asked Tom Clarke MP to describe what would happen at the Bill's third reading.
Tom Clarke MP thanked Simon for his congratulations & for his support for & the work he had put into the Bill so far. He said that it was highly unlikely that any changes could be made at this point without jeopardising its safe passage. He was doing his best to discourage any amendments but also encouraging MPs to attend & to vote it through. In the Lords, Baroness Whitaker's job as sponsor would be even more difficult - i.e. to persuade Peers to not to table any amendments at all. He explained that members can only move one procedural motion on a Friday in the Commons.
John Battle MP emphasized that a Bill requires the support of 100 MPs or there will be no quorum. Even if 2 MPs vote against, the Bill can't go through. Thus, MPs will not turn up to the Chamber if a vote isn't called. Therefore it was important to persuade MPs to remain in London rather than retreating to their constituencies, just in case there is a vote.
A question was also asked about lobbying MPs to attend - was there value in doing this?
John Battle MP replied yes, writing/phoning MPs you know/don't know could make all the difference & gently persuading them to stay in the building until 2.30pm in case a vote is called, as if it hasn't gone through by 2.30pm, it won't be able to go through at all.
Further questions were asked on the content of the Bill - does it address direct General Budget Support (GBS) as well as project financing?
Tom Clarke MP replied that yes, in lots of ways. It is based on the Swedish model which consists of a compact between the government & recipient countries. The MDGs were chosen as good guidelines. It will also promote transparency & promote better management, including the prevention of corruption. It also tries to take on board the views of the British people in wanting the money to go where it has been promised it will go.
A further question asked how will we know how much UK aid money was spent on GBS?
Tom Clarke MP replied that in the cases of some countries, this information is already in the public domain. Through this Bill, he wants to move towards a situation of even more transparency. Public contributions to charities have increased. There is a fine line between transparency & conditionality, e.g. NAO, OECD. This encourages countries to develop, not just to be recipients of overseas aid.
John Battle MP added that this would also act to improve standards of accountancy, both in Britain & overseas, as public accounts were scrutinised more effectively. This was also a step towards improved governance.
This meeting saw Tom Clarke MP and Baroness Janet Whitaker discuss The International Development (Reporting & Transparency) Bill.