Labour's 'patchy' content

The government needs to be radically more open and transparent about aid spending, writes Shadow Int

Yesterday we had a fantastic international development debate.

We were privileged and humbled to welcome two very different, but equally impressive, international guests to the stage.

Exiled Burmese human rights activist Zoya Phan made a dramatic and emotional speech. Holding aloft heavy iron shackles, she said:

"These shackles were smuggled out of a prison in Burma. This is what those monks who have been arrested will be forced to wear while they face torture, including electric shocks. I asked last year, I ask again and I will ask again and again until we have freedom in Burma. Why isn't there a United Nations arms embargo against the regime?"

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is the man who has led his country back from the brink of the abyss following the genocide of 1994. He made a compelling and convincing speech that included a passionate plea for rich countries to open up their markets and tear down their tariff barriers. He backed David Cameron's call for a cross-Party worldwide campaign for Real Trade.

During the debate I enjoyed hearing from many of my friends from Project Umubano, the social action project in Rwanda that I helped organise this summer. 43 Conservative volunteers worked on a huge range of development projects in sectors such as health, education, governance and sport.

One of our volunteers, Dr David Tibbutt, spent a moving fortnight in a very remote health centre, where he and a colleague worked 12-hour days and saw some 500 patients - some of whom, almost unbelievably, had never seen a doctor in their lives.

In my speech I set out plans to help more British health professionals follow Dr Tibbutt's example and put something back abroad. I announced that a Conservative Government will establish a new Health Systems Partnership Fund. Worth £5m a year to begin with, it will help fund international placements for British health workers but also support strong, enduring links between the NHS and health systems in poor countries.

I called for the Government to be radically more open and transparent about our aid spending. Well-spent aid can work miracles - but as with everything, we need to keep an eagle eye on it to keep standards high. DfID's website under Labour is almost completely useless. Check it out for yourself: compare the patchy content on the DfID website (www.dfid.gov.uk http://www.dfid.gov.uk/> ) with the wealth of information - financial statements, partnership agreements, evaluation documents, contacts for local auditors - that is up on the Global Fund's site: (http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/ http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/> ). And I also called for DfID to follow the example of the World Bank and set up an anti-corruption hotline on the front page of its website.

Finally, no one should underestimate the importance of conflict prevention and resolution. Over the last year I've seen, in Darfur, Burma and Rwanda, the devastating effects of conflicts, past and present, on the lives of ordinary people. Tackling this scourge must be a top priority for everyone who is passionate about the cause of international development.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.