Tommy contributed to the Report Stage debate of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill on Tuesday 10th January 2017.
You can watch his contribution here or read it below.
"Before looking at specific amendments to the Bill, I want to make a couple of comments about the political context in which this debate is taking place.
I turned on the television over the weekend to see on the tickertape at the bottom of the news channel screen the information that our Government had stopped funding a girl band in Africa. I was shocked by this—I did not realise we were funding girl bands or bands of any other kind in Africa or elsewhere—so I thought I would look into the matter a little more.
Of course, on doing so, I discovered that that was not the story at all.
The story was loosely based on a project in Ethiopia called Girl Effect, which is a huge programme aimed at empowering young women throughout that country. It has 500 direct participants and more than 10,000 participants online, and it operates from 8,000 schools throughout the country. It is designed to use music and performing arts to give young women in that country confidence so that they can take part in Ethiopian political and social life.
It is undeniably a good thing. It was set up by DFID in 2011, and every time that DFID has reviewed it, it has been given an A* rating.
It is exactly the type of project that we should be supporting, but it is unusual and unconventional. It is not the same as handing out food to people who are starving, so the case needs to be made for it. We also need to be aware of how these things can be caricatured and used to argue against the provisions that we are talking about today.
That entire Girl Effect project was described in the Daily Mail as the British Government funding the equivalent of the Spice Girls. The implication was quite clear: millions of pounds of our taxpayers’ money was being used not to feed the poor, the starving or the illiterate, but to fund five young women and turn them into rich pop stars.
That was not true.
The reporting was a good example of what we might call fake news—I believe that that is the term used these days. It was connected to reality by the thinnest threads of truth, yet for many people reading the Daily Mail and the other papers that took up the story, or looking at the tickertape along the bottom of their screen, it created the impression that they were given.
Lots of people, including some in this Chamber who ran to the press to comment on that story, will use these caricatures to denigrate and oppose any foreign aid activity by this country. They use the ridiculous argument that we should be spending money at home before we spend it abroad, as though the poverty and inequality in this country, which we must tackle, was on a par with the hell in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty, oppression and the daily grind are the normal way of existence for the mass of people in those countries. Knowing that those caricatures exist and that we need to be careful about how we present these arguments brings me to the new clauses and amendments before us today.
Of course we should also try to put money into formal education, but the importance of that project was that it understood that digital communication was a much more effective way of reaching young people in Ethiopia than the bricks and mortar of a formal educational establishment.
It also understood that music and lyrics can sometimes be better than formal texts at getting through to people, educating them and inspiring them with big ideas. That is true in this country as well.
Those things have contributed to the social education of young women in Ethiopia. As I said, the Department for International Development itself said that the project was worth supporting.
The important point in all these debates is that we can win public support for foreign aid and rally the public behind the 0.7% contribution, provided that we are transparent about what we are doing, and that we demonstrate at every turn that the people who are getting the money are those who really need it.
It is therefore important that those criteria are demonstrated through the work of CDC Group and others, and that evidence is produced.
In my 20 months in this Chamber, this is the first time that I have seen a Bill come back on Report without a single Government amendment. I find that surprising. I know that the Bill is concise and brief, but given the concerns that were expressed on Second Reading about the work of CDC Group, I would have thought that the Bill could have been tightened up a little.
I hope that the Government will consider supporting some of the new clauses and amendments because they would make the Bill more efficacious in achieving its objectives.
New clause 6 states that before CDC Group gets a major uplift in funding, the case will have to be made that it is meeting the sustainable development goals and tackling poverty and inequality in the country in which the money is deployed.
Let me put it another way. If a project was not tackling poverty or combating inequality, and not contributing to achieving the sustainable development goals, why on earth should we fund it? When it comes to prioritising when money is tight, we have to make sure that it is spent on what it is supposed to be spent on.
On Second Reading we discussed some of the—shall we say?—past mistakes in a number of the CDC’s decisions.
We talked about the shopping malls, luxury hotels and other inappropriate projects in which CDC Group invested, and we were assured—by the Minister of State, I think—that those things were in the past, that we had learned from them and that they would not be repeated in the future.
Well, if that is the case, what is the difficulty in building such a provision into the Bill so that when CDC gets a budget uplift, it will have an obligation to demonstrate that what that uplift is spent on will contribute to meeting these goals and fulfilling these criteria?
That is self-evidently a way of ensuring that we do not rely on hope by instead writing down what, as a matter of policy, we want.
Amendments 3 and 4, to which I have put my name, would link an uplift in CDC Group’s funds to the overall ODA budget. It is important to look at doing that; the formula that has been suggested is not onerous and is perfectly achievable.
There is an idea abroad that what might be happening is the outsourcing or privatisation of our foreign aid activity, and that pre-eminence is given to a market approach. We will have problems if that impression is not countered, because the truth of the matter is that there is a role for spending public money to try to support the creation of a small business sector in developing countries, to invest in such sectors and to create jobs.
But let us not kid ourselves. The vast bulk of our priority aid should be directed at people who need it in order to combat the malnutrition, illiteracy, poverty and starvation that are present throughout such countries.
That cannot be done by setting up a small business; it needs to be done through direct state and NGO intervention. That is why we should make it clear that the vast bulk of our foreign aid effort will remain in that sphere.
Although CDC Group and the market have a contribution to make, particularly in countries that are some stages along the process of development - that will not be the primary way in which we do things.
I commend amendments 3 and 4 to the House because if we were to agree to them, we would strengthen the Bill and demonstrate to people what our intentions really are: to ensure that the hard-earned taxes that they pay—people politically agree that a small slice should be deployed for foreign aid—are spent doing the things that they want to be done.
Those things are combating poverty and inequality in the developing world, and making sure that we get to a more equal world society, which of course is in our long-term interest, too."
Four weeks ago I was worried about writing this column on the eve of the last major parliamentary debate on Brexit. Anything could have happened, rendering my speculation obsolete by the time you read it. I shouldn’t have fretted. Anything could have happened but nothing did.
Here I am again. Groundhog day. It’s Tuesday. There’s a big debate tomorrow.
Tuesday. Another day spent discussing Brexit. Another day of my life I’m not getting back.
We are no further forward. As the clock ticks down to exit it’s only fair to ask: What the hell is Theresa May playing at?