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23 June 2004

HIV/aids

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)(LD): I start by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), not only for securing the debate but for presenting the background to the issue and the case for action so well. We have worked together on the International Development Select Committee for several years, and it is clear from the evidence that we have taken in our inquiries that there are few bigger issues and few greater challenges facing the world than halting and reversing the global spread of HIV.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the challenge is nowhere greater than in Africa, where, during a number of visits, I have seen at first hand the devastating impact of the illness. At the same time, I have seen positive signs of good, effective educational, preventative and treatment programmes. We know that well-funded assistance that is targeted in the right way can make an enormous difference, and the debate has rightly focused on how aid from this country can be increased and improved.

The all-party Africa group, which the hon. Gentleman did so well to set up, summed things up in the title of its report, "Averting Catastrophe". That is the reality of where we are. In many communities and countries, we are literally facing a catastrophe. The statistics that have been quoted by many Members throughout this debate are nothing short of frightening. There are 40 million people living with AIDS, 70 per cent. of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. About 2 million people in the region are dying annually. The country prevalence rate is as high as 33 per cent. in Botswana. HIV infection has risen from 4 per cent. to 39 per cent. in Swaziland in just 10 years.

However, the prevalence rates among young people are perhaps the most alarming feature. As the all-party group points out, infection is as high as 45 per cent. in the 15 to 24-year-old age group in Botswana, and as high as 51 per cent. in Lesotho. Without proper and sustained action, we run the real risk of witnessing the complete wiping-out of a whole generation in those countries. They are nations that, even without the HIV crisis, exist as very fragile members of the international community.

It is wrong to think of this as a poor man's disease, as it is often presented in the media. That is only part of the story. The other side of the story is that HIV and AIDS are hitting many educated professionals, as well. That presents even greater dangers, with teachers, doctors and nurses dying daily from the virus. It is clear that HIV/AIDS threatens the very education and health care programmes that we seek to expand in the countries. With so many farmers dying, the knowledge and experience that is crucial to farming the land is simply not being passed on from one generation to the next.

The challenge is clear. The real question, which has been posed throughout the debate, is how we respond to it. Despite the National Audit Office report last week and the negative headlines that were generated for the Minister's Department as a result, I acknowledge and commend the immense work done by DFID. Members from both sides of the Chamber recognise the enormous contribution that the Department makes to the global fight against AIDS. However, just because something is being done well does not mean it cannot be done better. The all-party report and the NAO paper lay down a case for the Government to respond to. DFID has been consulting on its HIV/AIDS strategy, and those reports and this debate should play an important part in that consultation process.

It is clear to me that the issue of HIV is so great that 90 minutes in Westminster Hall, while welcome, is simply not enough. What we really need is a full debate on the Floor of the House on the Government's strategy for tackling the disease at home and abroad. However, in the short time available today, what do I think should be done?

The Minister will know from my correspondence with his Department, which started pretty much after I was elected, that I believe strongly that the Government should raise UK aid levels to 0.7 per cent. of GDP. At the very least, DFID and the Treasury should set a timetable for meeting the UN target, and I was pleased to see that the all-party group made that its first recommendation.

I have never understood how the Department for Transport can produce a 10-year transport plan—the recent White Paper on air transport focused on the next 30 years—but when I and others raise the 0.7 per cent. issue with the Government we are told that moving beyond current targets is a matter for future Parliaments. If the Government are to sustain their position as a leading player in international development, they cannot shy away much longer from setting a timetable.

I have no doubt from the correspondence that I have received from my constituents that there is a general feeling of good will outside this place towards the 0.7 per cent. target. Unfortunately, reports such as that published by the NAO last Thursday, although important, can damage that good will. With any Government spending, what is important is not only the amount that is spent, but ensuring that it is spent effectively and efficiently. I fear that, without assurances that such money will be spent as effectively as possible, the public will question the Government spending more money on overseas aid.

To be fair, I should point out that the NAO reports what DFID is doing right in terms of giving people on the ground the flexibility and autonomy that they need to be effective. The problem is that the Department is failing with its impact analysis. As parliamentarians, we have an absolute duty to our constituents to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent well. Not knowing what impact their money is having makes the job of justifying such spending much more difficult. That is not only about the efficient use of the public purse; there is a practical side to it. Proper impact analysis is crucial to learning what works. With any programme or set of programmes, we need to know what went right, what went wrong, what had no effect and what can be done better. The Government's overall HIV/AIDS strategy must make that a priority.

This is not only about effective Government spending. There is also a case for the EU to reform the way in which it gives out development aid and to take a much more pro-poor attitude. It could do so by following the example set by DFID. My party and I have been fairly critical of the lack of transparency with which EU aid is distributed and of the lack of a proper poverty focus. That is not helped by the confusing administration whereby a number of agencies are responsible for distributing aid, such as the external relations directorate-general, the European Commission's humanitarian aid office and EuropeAid. Considering that the EU has such a considerable budget for aid, and considering the amount that we give the EU for that purpose, it is vital that the money is spent just as efficiently as any other money that the Government spend.

These are not new arguments; they have been presented to the Government and to multilateral institutions for many years. At the same time, though, the arguments must be presented to the Governments of African nations. There is a clear consensus that the people of Africa should determine and mould their own futures. Without proper action to tackle HIV/AIDS, it is clear that many people in Africa will not have a future. That is why it is so important for African Governments, civil society and others to play a leading role in formulating, with international support, their own action plans. We hope that the New Partnership for Africa's Development has a key role in that.

I could say much more, but it is important that the Minister has enough time in which to respond. No doubt we will have similar debates in future. We face an enormous challenge in tackling this disease, and history will judge how we faced that challenge not only by what we say, but by the decisions that we make and the action that we take in the months and years ahead.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.