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International Development

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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The Secretary of State was asked

Welfare To Work


What assessment she has made of the potential for the Government's welfare to work proposals to benefit the overseas aid programme. [14107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development
(Mr. George Foulkes)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue, but as the schemes are designed to help young people available for work in the UK they cannot be used to support work overseas. However, we are contacting the relevant development organisations to draw their attention to the proposals and to suggest that they examine the scope for participating in the scheme at their headquarters in Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is it not exciting that Labour's new deal for young unemployed people may lead to more young Britons helping, albeit in this country, to eradicate poverty and suffering in other parts of the world? Is it not pleasing, too, that that answer shows that the Government are capable of working corporately to meet important policy objectives? Does he think that such success might lead to a wider appreciation of and concern for suffering in less fortunate parts of the world?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Such involvement would be doubly valuable in that it would help young people and the work of organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas and Oxfam. I understand from the Department for Education and Employment that those organisations have not yet shown an interest, but we are encouraging them to do so, and I hope that from today they will take up such schemes.

Global Free Trade


What research her Department has evaluated into the impact of global free trade on third world countries. [14108]

My Department keeps abreast of most research in this sector and is particularly attentive to work by international development organisations including the World bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. We also maintain a dialogue with non-governmental organisations and academic institutions which are engaged in the sector.

Would the right hon. Lady confirm her personal commitment and that of her Department to the principle of global free trade? Will she give an undertaking that both she and her Department will work towards the principle of totally free international trade by the year 2020?

Globalisation is a fact of life; it is not a question of whether people are for or against it. It is as big a historical change as the industrial revolution and can bring great benefits to the world, but it can also have damaging consequences. Recent reports say that it will benefit many developing countries, but that there is a danger that some countries could be completely marginalised from the world economy, and that it could also cause increased inequality and marginalisation in the developed world.

Of course we favour globalisation and the benefits that it brings. We believe that we have to intervene to try to ensure that those benefits are distributed fairly. The great challenge for the industrialised world is to believe in free trade in agricultural goods also, which would benefit the developing world but means that we have to put our house in order.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is often difficult to reconcile free trade with fair trade, and that we must enhance fair trade? Following the launch of the White Paper last week, will she therefore undertake to let the House know from time to time how Members' efforts in their constituencies to enhance fair trade are getting on, and what expansion there is in that regard?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must ensure that the growth of world trade does not drive down environmental and labour standards and that it produces an improvement of life for humanity and not competition through reduced standards. I also agree with my hon. Friend about fair trade and the ethical movements that are growing and strengthening in Britain. British consumers want to know that the produce they buy and the places where their pension funds are invested are not exploiting labour or damaging the environment. Such movements have great potential impact to reach out across the world and increasingly encourage business to source ethically and improve standards worldwide.



What progress has been made in implementing the housing programme for Montserrat. [14109]

I authorised the provision of £6.5 million for new houses in July 1997. Fifty new permanent houses have been completed and are being handed over to the Government of Montserrat this week. They are due to be occupied from 12 November. A further 50 are under construction and are scheduled to be ready for occupation by the end of December 1997.

I should add for the benefit of the House that the recent scientific evidence from Montserrat is extremely worrying. There is new evidence that the north of the island may not be as safe as was previously thought. Obviously, we must press on, but we have to review the position due to those worrying developments.

No one underestimates the difficulties on Montserrat and the challenges that the Government face there. Is it not slightly surprising that the Secretary of State has yet to find time to visit Montserrat? Had she done so, some of the confusion in recent weeks might not have been quite so great.

The line from the Government has been that the slowness of the housing programme was due to an alleged strike on Montserrat, whereas the Chief Minister of Montserrat says that there has been no strike whatsoever but simply a slowness of funds from our Government to the Government of Montserrat to pay for the housing programme. Perhaps it is all part of the confusion that no one is quite sure which bits the right hon. Lady is responsible for and which bits are the responsibility of Baroness Symons. Perhaps the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to clarify the issue. Has there been a delay in getting funds to Montserrat? And for which matters is she now responsible?

The right hon. Gentleman might like to look at the dates. Fifty houses were authorised in July. They were built and handed over. There was some delay in installing the electrics because of a "sick-out", as strikes are called in Montserrat. That is regrettable in the current circumstances.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the fracturing of responsibility in Montserrat is a serious problem. My Department is responsible for expenditures from our budget for projects on Montserrat. The Foreign Office is responsible for co-ordination and lead decision making. There is an elected Government of Montserrat and there is also a governor. That creates great difficulties for efficient decision making.

When we have dealt with the present crisis, we need to review how we manage dependent territories, as there is room for improvement.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 300 people in Montserrat are still in temporary shelters? Many of them have been in those shelters for more than two years, often in appalling conditions. Men, women and children are separated only by thin curtains and there is no sanitation. Is she aware of the concern on Montserrat about the slowness of the Government's house building programme?

I am aware of those conditions, but my hon. Friend referred to a two-year delay. She will be aware that we have not been in power for all that time. I authorised a house-building programme in July, and the first 50 houses are about to be occupied. I am aware that the management of the shelters leaves a lot to be desired.

In addition, large numbers of people who live on Montserrat have expressed a wish to leave the island, and I am worried that their desires have not been properly processed. As I said in my main answer, the recent scientific advice is extremely worrying: we have to review new building in the north of the island and whether it remains safe for large numbers of people to remain there.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether, in her view, the north of the island is safely habitable? What plans are there for a large-scale evacuation while a sustainable development plan is being prepared for the island?

As I said to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), that is a decision for the Foreign Office. We received reports in September that the volcanic ash, which is predominantly in the south of the island but blows everywhere, is more dangerous than was previously thought and can cause silicosis. It was thought that the north of the island would be safe, but the ash blowing around could affect human health. We have just received new advice from the scientists that the volcano could produce droppings—clast, or whatever it is called—on the north of the island, creating new dangers. We have just received that advice, and it needs to be reviewed urgently.

Ethical Trading


What contacts her Department has with organisations advocating fair trade and ethical investment; and what consideration she is giving to further development in these areas. [14110]

As I said, I am very keen to encourage and reinforce the fair trade and ethical investment consumer movements in every possible way. My Department has numerous and growing contacts with groups interested in fair trade and ethical investment in developing countries. I especially welcome our increasing contacts with groups within the British business community, which is increasingly interested in the issue. The potential of those movements to improve labour standards and environmental protection for large numbers of people in developing countries is considerable. We are asking British companies and non-governmental organisations to work together towards those goals.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate her on what last week's White Paper had to say about fair trade. May I suggest, however, that the really difficult part will be in achieving any world consensus or action on practical ways in which fair trade and ethical investment can operate? Nevertheless, I congratulate my right hon. Friend and you, Madam Speaker, on launching a practical example in the House today showing that it is possible to drink fair trade coffee. Not only does such coffee offer production workers good wages and conditions—it tastes very good, too.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with her that it is very good that the House will now consume ethical coffee which has been produced without abusing labour or pesticides—[Interruption.] Conservative Members sneer at ethics, but the British people are interested in them. Like you, Madam Speaker, I had a cup of that coffee this morning and it was extremely good. As I have said, ethical movements and consumers' interest in such movements are potentially very influential in the world.

Currently, my Department is assisting all British supermarkets and non-governmental organisations in talks on a code for ethical sourcing so that the British people will know that everything on the shelves in those supermarkets is being produced with decent labour standards and non-abuse of the environment. The value of the produce ordered in developing countries by the top 10 British supermarkets is greater than the total income of the world's 35 poorest countries, so the potential power of this is enormous.

May I refer the right hon. Lady to section 3 of her White Paper, which deals specifically with fair trade and ethical investment? That section advocates reform of the European Union's common agricultural policy, and the first paragraph of the section stresses the importance of consistency. In the reform that she will advocate, will she advocate elimination of European Union subsidies to tobacco producers in the southern European states—or is the promotion of tobacco production in the developed world a special case?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue—which includes the issue of tobacco production. However, I prefer to deal with the matter straight on, rather than to play silly political games.

The issue of trade liberalisation extends to agriculture. Although industrialised countries frequently lecture developing countries about the need to open their markets to trade, we have highly protected and highly subsidised agriculture—dumping lots of agricultural produce on world markets and undermining the capacity of those countries to develop. I am against such subsidies in principle, including for tobacco. [Interruption.] I take no lessons from Opposition Members.

Due to the proposal to widen the European Union, there is a very good opportunity for—and a driving commitment to—common agricultural policy reform. It is the duty of my Department to ensure that the interests of the developing world, and its chance to work its way out of poverty, are taken into account in the review of the CAP.

White Paper (Representations)


What representations her Department has received in response to the White Paper on International Development in respect of its emphasis on poverty. [14111]

We had about 150 detailed written submissions from outside bodies in preparing the White Paper, many of which called for a focus on poverty elimination. Since its publication on 5 November, the White Paper has had an enthusiastic and positive reception, particularly for its commitment to work towards ending world poverty.

What mechanisms will the Department use to target investment from British companies on the poorest countries, and how will those targets benefit the poorest people in those countries?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We shall be working with our development partners to help poorer countries to create an enabling environment which will attract more investment. In particular, we shall work to reduce initial costs and the perceived risks of investments which support the aim of poverty elimination.

Does the Minister agree that it is very sad that a country as rich as ours cannot increase its proportion of aid to developing countries? I understand that the Department is to review and redirect funds over the next two years. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the review will be totally transparent and that the House will be told which countries and organisations are to be the winners and losers?

I am beginning to wonder whether the hon. Lady has read the White Paper. It commits the Government clearly to reversing the decline in money spent in development which occurred under the previous Government—a decline from 0.51 per cent. of total spending and rising when Labour left office to 0.27 per cent. and falling now.

We also intend to create a public-private partnership of the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which will put hundreds of millions of extra pounds into the development programme. It is about time the hon. Lady recognised that, and congratulated the new Government on what we are doing.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that abject poverty can be created by sudden natural disaster? What has been his Department's response to the worsening crisis in southern Somalia as a result of flooding of the River Giuba, which has reportedly caused at least 150,000 people to be cast into total destitution over the past day or two in a situation of worsening anarchy?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question. As soon as I heard about the situation in southern Somalia, I discussed it with our officials, and we have made it absolutely clear—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also made it clear—that we shall make resources available through the international aid agencies working in Somalia. As soon as we get a request we shall consider it sympathetically. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support.

Will the Minister confirm that he is making all haste to allow the Commonwealth Development Corporation to access private financial sums to invest in ethical projects such as those that we have discussed? Can he give the House some idea of the time scale for the changes that he intends to bring about?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In fact, the purpose of the public-private partnership is to access more money to help poorer countries. It will, however, require legislation, which we hope can be introduced in the next Session. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for indicating his willingness to serve on the Committee that twill examine that legislation.

Commonwealth Development Corporation


What are her plans for the future of the Commonwealth Development Corporation. [14112]

As has just been said, my plans are to propose to Parliament that private investors should be invited to invest money in the CDC, turning a state corporation into a partnership between the public and private sectors. The Government will retain a substantial minority holding and a golden share, which will ensure that the CDC remains a development organisation. The new arrangements will enable it to increase private sector investment into the poorest countries.

How long will the Government retain their golden share? Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a risk that the CDC could be acquired by an organisation not dedicated to the fullest implementation of the developmental process?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about that. We intend that the golden share will be held in perpetuity. The CDC is working on strengthening the ethical code governing its work. It wants a public-private partnership. It does not want to be an entirely private sector organisation. We do not want that, either. It can act as an important bridge for private sector investment in the world's poorest countries, which do not currently receive such investment. We hope that that will be followed by pure private sector investment. 1 give the hon. Gentleman the absolute guarantee that the CDC will not become a private investment institution. There are plenty of those. It has a different job.



If she will make a statement on assistance to Montserrat. [14113]

Since the start of the volcanic crisis, around £45.8 million of emergency aid, development assistance and budgetary aid has been committed by Her Majesty's Government to the needs of Montserrat. When I visited Montserrat in September, we agreed to produce a sustainable development plan for the northern third of the island so that people can continue to live there as long as it remains safe to do so. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, I met the chief scientist of the Montserrat volcanic observatory earlier and there are further doubts about safety which we have to consider urgently.

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Does he agree with the Chief Minister of Montserrat that it is wrong to use the same budget for assistance to British dependent territories as is used for aid to India, Pakistan and Uganda? Does not aid currently go from London offices to Barbados offices and thence to Montserrat? Could we not cut out one of those stages?

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, although I am surprised to hear myself say that. He has raised a good point about where the money comes from. If he has had the opportunity to read they White Paper, he will know that the reasonable needs of dependent territories will remain a first call on the aid budget. Barbados has been taken out of the line of decision making; there is a direct link between Montserrat and our Department in the United Kingdom and I talk regularly to the Chief Minister to ensure that things are done as quickly as possible and that the decisions made are implemented as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister look urgently into the problem faced by many people from Montserrat who have been evacuated to this country through no fault of their own but are being subjected to the three-year rule on going into higher and further education and therefore not getting grants from local authorities? Will he discuss that with his colleagues from the Department for Education and Employment to find a way to assist British dependent territory citizens while they are in this country?

My hon. Friend is a little out of date on the arrangements for citizens of Montserrat. Special arrangements have been made for them. On his most recent visit to the United Kingdom, Chief Minister Brandt discussed that issue with Baroness Blackstone and I know that the Department for Education and Employment is particularly concerned about it.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the assurance that he gave the House on 1 July that he would make strong representations to the defence review on behalf of the West Indies guard ship, which continues to play a vital role in bringing relief to the people of Montserrat? Can he explain the written answer that I have received from the Secretary of State for Defence saying that no such representations have been made? Did it merely slip the Minister's mind that he gave the House such an assurance, or does he no longer consider the role of the guard ship to be as important as it was?

The West Indies guard ship plays an especially important role, as I saw myself when I visited Monserrat and met the captain and many of its crew. I have spoken personally to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the guard ship, which is perhaps why the hon. Gentleman got the answer he did. Officials from our Department are participating in discussions on the strategic defence review, and those points and others will be made.

Child Labour


What steps the Government are taking to eliminate child labour. [14114]

We are working with the International Labour Organisation and developing countries to support programmes immediately to ban hazardous and exploitative child labour and to put in place plans to phase out excessive child labour and get the children into school. At the international conference on child labour in Oslo last month, I announced support for a new project in Pakistan and my willingness to work with other countries to reach our goal.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments. Does she agree that poverty lies at the heart of child labour and the exploitation of children, and that the way to eradicate those problems is to eradicate world poverty?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is useful to examine our history on the matter and then we learn the right lessons. We used to have high levels of child labour and low levels of child education, but improvements in living conditions, as well as the spread of education, brought child labour to an end. We must have similar programmes in other countries to ban immediately the most exploitative and hazardous labour, and to increase the number of children in education and the opportunities of their parents to gain employment. That process of change is connected with plans for poverty eradication.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on transforming the way of dealing with child labour. The worst problems of many third-world countries are not the young children who work in sensible jobs. Will she focus the attention of her Department on street children, who work on their own behalf and are often badly abused? That should be the first focus of our help; the other problems should begin to resolve as the economies of those countries improve.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The evidence in Bangladesh shows that well intentioned moves by the United States of America to ban the import of any garments produced by child labour led to many children going on to the streets as beggars and child prostitutes. That is why we need an overview of the problem to deal with the most exploitative mistreatment of children and to work with Governments to phase out child labour and get children into school, instead of having one-off boycotts.

Palestinian Authority


If she will make a statement on the level of financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority in the current year; and what is the projected level for 1998–99. [14115]

Bilateral assistance to the Palestinian National Authority in this financial year will amount to about £10 million. That is in addition to our £6 million contribution in 1997 to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees and our one-sixth share of the European Commission's 50 million ecu programme of assistance to the West Bank and Gaza. Bilateral funding for the next financial year will be decided early in the next calendar year.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he give particular attention, when he has some additional funds, to the needs of the Palestinian National Authority and projects in Palestine? I am sure that he is aware of the disappointment felt by people who live in Gaza and the West Bank at the restrictions on their borders. It is important that we ensure that progress is made in that territory to support arguments to put to those who wish to take up arms to support their cause. We need to urge them to join in the work to make the peace process effective.

I am sympathetic to the point made by my hon. Friend. Expenditure in the past three years has ranged between £3.5 million and £6 million. I am sure that he will agree that £10 million in the current financial year is a significant and welcome increase.

As the Palestinian refugee question is one of the final status issues to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by May 1999—in 18 months' time—does the Minister agree that Governments should be budgeting now for their donations to the cost of resettlement out of the 59 camps, as well as their contributions to the Palestinian Authority and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency? What initiatives does he have in mind to draw that need to the attention of Governments during the forthcoming British presidency of the European Union?

We shall certainly take account of those points, and we shall raise them on behalf of the United Kingdom Government in our discussions with UNRWA.

As the White Paper stresses the importance of private investment in helping with development effort, does my hon. Friend agree that the current closure of the west bank makes it incredibly difficult for private industry to invest there or in Gaza, because industries have almost no stable future in that environment?

Land Mines


If she will make a statement regarding the Government's intended stance at the forthcoming Ottawa conference in connection with anti-personnel land mines. [14117]

I plan to attend the ministerial conference and convention signing ceremony on 3 December, and I shall proudly sign on behalf of Britain to join in the land mine ban. I will emphasise the Government's commitment to achieving the widest possible support for a total ban on anti-personnel land mines. We shall follow up the Ottawa convention in other negotiating bodies. We shall also pursue with vigour our programme of de-mining. The British delegation will take part in the parallel round table discussions, which will include discussion of plans to speed up and co-ordinate de-mining internationally.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that answer, and I wish her well in her attempts to secure a worldwide ban. Is she aware that many land mines throughout the world are cleared by children as young as 10? What will the Government do to prevent that?

The hon. Gentleman is right; we need both a ban and a speeding up of de-mining. At current rates of clearance, it will take 1,000 years to clear the land mines already out there, and more are being laid as we speak. We must speed clearance and enlarge the capacity of the countries that have so many land mines to clear them for themselves. That is the only way to get the speed up.

I am not aware of children actually de-mining, but many children suffer grave injuries as a result of mines when they go out to play or to collect wood. We must make more urgent progress on the matter.