Cabinet Minister’s tough answers during Marlborough visit

Written by Tony Millett on .

AAndrew Mitchell Secretary of State for International DevelopmentAndrew Mitchell Secretary of State for International Developmentndrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development

It is not very often that a senior government minister comes to Marlborough, so there was a good audience, including students from four Wiltshire schools, in The Theatre on the Hill at St John’s School to listen to the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell.

He was giving the 29th annual Marlborough Lent Lecture arranged by the Marlborough Brandt Group, following previous illustrious lecturers such as the Princess Royal, Archbishop Carey, Glenys Kinnock and a predecessor in his job, Clare Short.

Mr Mitchell spoke in detail about the coalition government’s new policies for international aid. His department is one of only two to have had their budgets protected from cuts, but a new approach to aid means there are major changes in the way aid is delivered and who receives it.

His aim is to concentrate on ‘the poorest of the poor’ – giving them opportunities to set up small businesses to provide family income, helping women’s health projects, tackling malaria, supporting education and promoting birth control.

Answering questions, Mr Mitchell was challenged as to why aid was continuing at all while, as the questioner put it and with evident support from the audience, Ramsbury’s roads were full of pot holes. Mr Mitchell stressed that continuing aid was in Britain’s national interests as it promoted peace and security.

Asked by local farmer Chris Musgrave about food supply, population growth and Genetically Modified crops, Mr Mitchell did not get himself involved in the GM controversy, but agreed that food security was becoming more of an acute problem.

The Marlborough Brandt Group (MBG) established and looks after the town’s thirty year link with Gunjur in the Gambia. Mr Mitchell had little or no comfort for MBG Trustee Lamin Manjang from Bristol’s Gambian community, who asked why Gambia with its long links to Britain was on the government’s list of countries about to lose all direct aid from Britain.

There was more bleak news when Jilly Hillier, who until recently worked at MBG’s Wiltshire Global Education centre, asked whether Mr Mitchell would continue to fund the teaching of development issues in British schools and colleges. He said he was having the use of this money audited, but his own view was that it was not right to spend the aid budget in this way.

Dr Nick Maurice, an MBG founder and now its President, commented: “We were extremely grateful that the Secretary of State came to give our Lent Lecture, particularly when his department was so busy with humanitarian crises in North Africa and Japan.”

“As far as his lecture was concerned, I would argue (and did) that it is largely because of public awareness of the importance of international development both as a moral imperative, but also as being in our own self interest that the government has been able to protect the aid budget. I therefore believe it is extremely unwise not to use a small part of the aid budget to raise public awareness in this country of poverty abroad. And school and community linking has been shown to be a very effective means to achieve this.”

After the lecture, Andrew Mitchell asked Dr Maurice and his colleagues to write two short papers for him on the role of North-South community projects and on the importance of development education. These are already on his desk in London.

Picture: Chris Caswell