You Ask The Questions: Douglas Alexander, International Development Secretary

So is it really all right to buy green beans from Kenya?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You seem to have risen without trace. Who are you?

Dan jobson, Lewisham

I don't recollect that was the opinion of 1.3 million road-pricing petitioners but thank you for your good wishes.

Do you think Britain should always stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States?

Victoria Mendip, Bury St Edmunds

As I said in my first speech as Secretary of State for International Development in Washington: "There are few global challenges that do not require the active engagement of the US." Our relationship with the US is our single most important bilateral relationship.

You spoke in the US about Britain needing "new alliances, based on common values", which was interpreted as Britain needing to step back from its "special relationship" with America. Do you regret what you said?

Dan Porter, Canterbury

No, because as the speech made clear challenges like climate change and tackling global poverty require the whole global community to work together. Our relationship with America has always been based on not just shared interests but shared values like liberty and democracy,

More than £1 trillion has been given in aid to the developing world in the last half century. Much of it has been wasted or stolen, so why continue pouring money down the drain, especially since many economists now believe it does more harm than good?

Alastair Burrell, Aberdeen

I'm afraid I don't share your view on the impact of aid. Every year, UK aid helps to lift 3 million people permanently out of poverty. In the past 40 years, life expectancy in the developing world increased by a quarter. In the past 30 years, illiteracy has fallen by half. However, I do agree we must monitor carefully how aid money is being spent, and we do. What's more, we help developing countries act to stop corruption and recover stolen money. DfID supported Zambia in a case against the former President Chiluba: the Judge ordered £26m to be seized and returned to the Zambian people.

I have travelled throughout Africa, and have no doubt the aid industry is little more than a form of modern-day imperialism. Do you agree, or are you a typical gutless politician who would never dare ruffle feathers?

Alex Hopkins by email

I am sorry that you feel that way – about politicians and about aid. I have spent time in Africa, most recently in Sudan, where I met refugees relying on aid to keep them alive, providing them shelter, food and clean water. Thanks to aid from the UK and other donors, in Tanzania, nine out of 10 children go to school, where before it was six out of 10. So what I see when I go to Africa is that aid is making a difference. Just this week, I was in Afghanistan and if you has been with me at the opening of a new school in Kohi Sli you wouldn't doubt the difference aid makes.

What do you think is the best way for aid to be distributed overseas – via charities or local governments and organisations?

Gareth Bowen, Liverpool

It really depends on the particular situation in each country. For instance, the UK gives aid to support the poorest people in Zimbabwe but only through trusted international partners – NGOs or the UN agencies - not the Government. In Uganda and India we provide support to a mixture of charities, local government and the national government in order to maximise the impact of our aid. Regardless of who we fund, they have to guarantee funds are used to cut poverty.

I read somewhere that your department's budget now exceeds that of the Foreign Office. Do you think DfID is accorded sufficient status?

Gordon Blaine, Edinburgh

Government – and politics – isn't about status. It is about the difference you can make. My focus is about changing the status of the world's poor, not the status of my department.

I care about the developing world and the environment. Should I buy green beans from Kenya?

Doug Davenport by email

Yes, you should. Almost a million African farmers and their families rely on the fruit and vegetable trade with the UK, and depend on their earnings to get their children through school and to care for them when they are sick. Research shows food miles alone, or the distance food has travelled, is not a reliable indicator of the environmental impact of food transport. The Government is working towards a global system for pricing carbon that will ensure the price of food and other products more fully reflect their impact on the environment.

What are you doing to ensure the EU modifies its proposed Economic Partnership Agreements with the 76 poorest African, Caribbean and Pacific to stop Europe pushing unfair trade deals on them?

Paul Vernon, Chester

Gordon Brown asked me to chair the Cabinet Committee on trade policy and make sure our policies on aid, debt reduction and trade policy fit together. We are determined to ensure the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) meet developing countries interests. Some progress has been made: ACP countries will receive 100 per cent duty and quota free access to the EU – with short transition periods for rice and sugar. Member states are also committed to providing ¿1bn in extra aid for trade assistance and we are working to see that money delivered.

Can you promise to reduce substantially the amount of flights taken by both you and your officials to help the environment, given the threat posed by climate change to the world's poorest countries?

Mike Nolan, Walthamstow

We have already introduced targets to reduce air miles flown. In 2006, an independent report stated DfID's video-conferencing generates annual reductions of two million air miles and 230 tonnes of CO2 emissions. It also saves us £700,000 a year in operating costs. DfID is also already using 100 per cent green electricity in our UK offices.

Doesn't the appointment of your fellow Scot Jack McConnell as British High Commissioner in Malawi open the government to accusations of cronyism, especially with two other ex-ministers ensconced in nice foreign postings?

Tony McNair, London SW19

Judge him by what he achieves. He has shown a long personal commitment to Malawi and is already working with the Clinton Hunter Development Initiative to tackle poverty in the country.

You are another Son of the Manse. How did this influence you and your outlook on life?

Eileen Macarthur, Newcastle

My father's work in the parish and my mother's in the NHS clearly influenced me but as they are the only parents I have ever had I can't really quantify how much. Of one thing I am certain – I owe them a lot for a happy and secure upbringing.

As a Christian, do you back Amnesty or the Catholic Church on the question of whether women raped in Darfur should be offered abortions?

Susan Phillips, Bury St Edmunds

Rape is an abhorrent crime. My personal view is that abortion should be legal, safe and rare. We must – and we are – working with the international community to bring an end to the violence in Darfur.

If he asked your advice, would you recommend to Gordon Brown that he call a snap general election?

John Reeves, St Albans

Sorry John, if Gordon Brown asked me I might answer that – but there could be Tories reading!

What do you think will be the key issues at the election?

Emily Davison, Winchester

I believe leadership, strength and experience will be a key issue. We'll address people's concerns and aspirations – to live in communities where they feel safe, get a fair deal and feel they can get on. No doubt we'll have debates on everything from global climate change to neighbourhood policing.

Will the Government have to address the West Lothian question in the end? And what is the answer?

Bill Roberts, Tonbridge

I believe in the United Kingdom. On these small islands we are stronger together and weaker apart. I believe that however power is devolved now and in the future, at the centre of the UK must be a UK Parliament where all members from all parts of the UK have equal rights.

Your sister Wendy is Labour leader in Scotland. Who wins the arguments between you?

Jim Drew, Inverness

I do – but she rarely seems to agree with that view.

Why did you not stay in Scotland and become an MSP like your sister?

Alan Kemp, Ealing

The opportunity to represent Renfrewshire – the community in which I grew up and where I still stay – arose in 1997, before the Scottish Parliament was established. In that campaign, I pledged to work for the people of Paisley South at Westminster and I've kept my word.

Do you think a career politician can ever be in touch with real people?

Harriet Clarke, London NW6

In my experience most politicians – of all parties – are real people. For myself, having a three-year-old and a five-year-old keeps you pretty in touch and your feet on the ground.

Have you ever done a real day's work (away from politics, of course)?

Kate Cunningham, Manchester

Yes – but I fear you will feel no – because I was a lawyer (representing workers who had suffered industrial injuries).

Did you learn obedience, discipline and Christian manliness in the Boys' Brigade, in line with their objectives? And will you advise your son to join?

Henry Black, Kingston

So far I think my anchor's held pretty firm in the storms of life. At the moment, my son is much more interested in becoming a footballer.

Like Gordon Brown, do you claim to support both England and Scotland at football?

Paul Brewster, Bristol

I have followed Scotland at home and abroad all the way back to the days when we qualified for World Cup finals. Like Gordon, and the vast majority of Scots, I'd support England or any of the home nations if they weren't playing Scotland. I have never believed that being positive about Scotland means you have to be negative about England.

Which current political rival do you most admire?

Chris Simmonds, Birmingham

John Bercow. On global poverty he has some good, challenging views.

Do you hope to be Prime Minister?

Anne Malcolm, Derby

Right now, I wish I was editor of The Independent.