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Report from political party conferences: Christian Aid's accountability

The political party conference season is supposed to provide an annual respite from day-to-day parliamentary business for political parties do some navel-gazing; hone their message and come back to Westminster refreshed and renewed.

But where the politicians go, the media, interest groups and NGOs are never far behind - and Christian Aid was no different.

So over the past three weeks, Barry Johnston, Christian Aid’s UK political advisor, has been to Brighton, Manchester and Birmingham, taking the political temperature, door-stepping ministers and advisors and sounding out party activists in an attempt to get under the skin of our main political parties and understand how they are thinking about development.

Thoughts turn to 2015

This year’s party conferences came at the midpoint of the current government and with it, parties began to shift their attention from learning from the last election to planning for the next.

Each leader came into this conference season needing to deliver strong individual performances to be assured of taking their parties into the next election, while their parties sought to begin defining agendas and staking out territory on which the next election will be fought.

Unsurprisingly, the economy dominated these debates and while that may have pushed international issues to the margins of the main conference proceedings, in the fringe events there was robust debate on the UK’s current economic position and what that means for aid and development.

Never a dull minute

It’s been an eventful run-up to conference for Westminster-watchers in the development community. The new parliamentary term began with a cabinet reshuffle that saw Andrew Mitchell, a man who has dominated the international development landscape since his time in opposition, moving to a new position and greeted with instant controversy.

His replacement, Justine Greening, was met with no less fiery a baptism with a fresh onslaught of anti-aid media attacks topping her introductory reading list.

Meanwhile, at the end of September she travelled with the prime minister to the UN, to kick off the debate on a successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

It was against this backdrop of events that parties met in the past weeks, framing discussions on development that assessed the government’s performance to date, while looking to carve out distinct positions in the coming electoral cycle and grappling with external events that are driving global conversations on the future of development.

The sections below set out the highlights from each of the three big party conferences.

The theme of the Lib Dem conference was ‘Fairer Tax in Tough Times’ and this gave Christian Aid a great opportunity to push the tax justice campaign.

The impact of Christian Aid’s Tax Bus was also in evidence as many of the MPs referred to previous or upcoming meetings with Christian Aid supporters in their constituencies.

While there were strong words from the likes of Vince Cable and Danny Alexander on tackling UK tax dodgers, Christian Aid’s campaigning will be vital to ensure that developing countries are not forgotten.

Throughout various events, Liberal Democrat spokespersons reiterated their support for the 0.7 per cent GNI target for overseas aid.

They spoke of having a stronger voice for Lib Dem policy with Lynne Featherstone’s appointment as a DFID minister, particularly on women’s rights in the developing world.

The Liberal Democrats are also working on the initial stages of a new party policy that will seek to integrate the issues of growth, equity and sustainability.

MEPs were also present. One of their number, Sharon Bowles MEP, participated in a Christian Aid co-hosted event, where she detailed the work she had done to secure strong agreement in the European Parliament for greater corporate transparency in payments to governments.

It will be up to her colleagues, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure the UK plays a similarly important role at the EU Council to ensure this becomes law.

A panel at the Labour party conference  

A panel in action at the Labour party conference

Delivering an address to party conference, shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis began to set out a new vision for Labour’s approach to international development.

At the heart of this was a desire to eradicate poverty and reduce aid dependency by 2030, with new initiatives for a global ‘sure start’, combating corruption and also singling out tax by saying there would be ‘no more hiding places for the tax dodgers who steal from the poorest people and poorest countries in the world’.

Christine Allen, Christian Aid director of policy and public affairs, spoke on a panel with Ivan Lewis discussing Britain’s role in fighting corruption and focusing on the need for greater corporate accountability and transparency by UK-based companies.

This was followed by a policy breakfast co-hosted with Action Aid and attended by frontbench spokespersons including Ivan Lewis, Rushanara Ali MP and Catherine McKinnell MP.

There it was confirmed that Labour will be carrying out a significant piece of work into tax and development as part of their wider work on responsible capitalism.

Ricardo Barrientos from Christian Aid partner Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies addressed the event, outlining the Guatemalan experience of tackling tax avoidance by multinationals.

Christian Aid also won plaudits for its campaigning from a variety of quarters at conference. In a video during his address, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said Christian Aid was one of the organisations that made him proud to be British.

Elsewhere, Alison McGovern MP spoke about the need for an attitude of solidarity with the developing world, motivated by the regular visits of Christian Aid supporters in her constituency.

Bishop Andudu Elnail talking to a man at the Liberal Democrat conference  

Bishop Andudu Elnail attended the Conservative conference

The Conservative party conference was dominated by discussion of securing the 0.7 per cent overseas aid spend in 2013.

Despite a recent barrage of media attacks and opposition voiced by some party members in fringe meetings, all senior party officials - including the Secretary of State for international development, the chancellor and Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds - confirmed that the Conservatives remained committed to reaching the target.

In her address, Justine Greening reaffirmed her commitment to the results agenda set out by her predecessor, saying support for development was ‘not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.’

She also focused on the important role of women in development and the need to use innovation and technology to improve development.

Christian Aid director Loretta Minghella spoke on a Bond (the UK membership body for NGOs working in international development) panel alongside the Secretary of State, who was making her first address to the sector after moving from the Department of Transport.

Under the heading ‘Tackling Poverty in a Resource Constrained World’, Loretta urged the Secretary of State to ‘move forward in a sustainable way, not a way that degrades the environment’ and pointed to the need of the UK to link the global conversation on the post-MDGs with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Loretta also stressed the need, alongside ensuring that current aid spending was effective, to begin thinking about a long-term exit strategy from aid.

Bishop Andudu Elnail of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan was also at the Conservative party conference. 

He met with government ministers to highlight the ongoing humanitarian emergency in the Nuba mountains region of Sudan, where civil war has left 500,000 people internally displaced and over one million people in need of humanitarian aid.

Speaking at the Bond fringe event, Mark Simmonds said the conflict was a ‘top priority’ for the UK.

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