Column 1311Clapham junction, the busiest rail junction in the world, but still not connected to the Underground. I also agree with the hon. Member for Newham, South that my hon. Friend should speak sharply- -as severely as he likes--to the chairman of London Regional Transport. We do not want people priced off the Underground system. Nor do we want, as LRT is now describing it, the increase in passengers to be priced off. We want people to be priced on to the system, and we want the money gained from the extra passengers to be ploughed back into the system.
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East) : When I saw, on the list of the debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) was introducing a debate on the railway system, I was surprised. As a Member representing a Birmingham constituency, he is known--I suppose that he is quite proud of it--as a motoring Member of Parliament. I thought that at last the penny had dropped, and even he had realised that the private car is not the answer to the nation's transport problems, and that we might hear from him some sensible alternatives. Alas, all that we got from him was the usual collection of cliche s. It is typical of the hon. Gentleman that, a couple of days after a reshuffle that, once again, did not bring that much-desired preferment to him and others like him, he is peddling the same old song.
It is to the credit of Conservative Members that, although they are not as brutal as I about telling the hon. Gentleman, they have left him in no doubt that what he said about transport was the usual load of old cobblers. Predictably, he talked about the stupidity of one side of the rail dispute. He attacked the National Union of Railwaymen, my old trade union, but I would not expect anything better of him. He gave a nod towards the stupidity of the management. He gave no signs that he knew any more about the ins and outs of that dispute than he knows about the nation's transport problems. The hon. Gentleman talked about the massive influx of private cars into our cities every day, and came up with the not particularly novel solution of the use of number plates. Presumably, if one has a car on which the number plate ends with an odd number, one comes in on a Monday, and if it has an even number, on a Tuesday. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman is living up to his reputation of being the motorists' Member. He wants to ensure that we all have two motor cars and that motor car sales are doubled. I do not think that his suggestion will do much to curb congestion in our inner cities. There are two reasons why motorists drive their motor cars into our cities. First, it is infinitely preferable to drive than to use a congested transport system.
Mr. Snape : The Minister will have his turn in a moment. We are aware of his simplistic solutions. As he is still in his place, I suppose that he will have a few more months to peddle the tawdry wares that he has to offer.
The company car rules supreme in the United Kingdom despite the best efforts of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As long as the taxation system makes it more attractive for employers to give motor cars to their employees than to pay them properly, it is understandable that employees will continue to drive their cars into our congested cities.
Column 1312I do not know what restriction on car usage the hon. Member for Northfield would favour other than the magical number plate solution.
The hon. Gentleman's novel solution for railway privatisation would not take us very far. It seems that he wants three operating companies--east, west and south. I do not want to be accused of perpetuating the north-south divide, but the hon. Gentleman seems to think that the north is not worthy of an operating company of its own. Perhaps we should rename his constituency Birmingham East, West or Southfield. The hon. Gentleman's railway operating companies would not provide many opportunities for the north. It is a novel suggestion, but it would not work. Like most of the hon. Gentleman's suggestions, it is ill thought out. I think that we can safely ignore it.
The hon. Member for Northfield talked about buses. I am sure that we all agree that buses can make a great contribution to the provision of commuter traffic in and out of our major cities. They will not make that contribution, however, as long as we have a passion for one-person operated buses. I talk to tourists in London and they ask, "What is the point of catching a bus when it is almost as quick to walk?" If we are serious about congestion, energy-saving measures and public transport generally, we would not be moving down the road, if I may use that pun, of even more OPO buses in London. However, given the balance-sheet mentality of whatever company is supposedly running London's buses these days, that is exactly the road down which we shall move.
Anyone who spends any time in London, whether on foot or driving a car, will know that one of the greatest causes of congestion are OPO buses. Given the balance-sheet mentality, who cares that they are costing society millions of pounds? The millions of pounds do not appear in the company's balance sheet or in those of the various divisions which have given themselves such fancy titles. No solution is offered by OPO buses.
The hon. Member for Northfield spoke about the Trac Line bus in Birmingham. I did not realise that the scheme had won an award. I do know that it disappeared without trace. To say that it sank without trace would be to use a mixed metaphor. The scheme did not appear to offer a satisfactory solution to Birmingham's transport problems and it did not last very long. If the Government were serious about tackling Birmingham's transport problems, they would not be behaving as they are in relation to the cross- city line. The electrification proposal is still being passed backwards and forwards from British Rail to civil servants at the Department of Transport. The nonsensical criteria that have been set to prove the need for the electrification of a busy railway line must be agreed before the Minister even sees the proposal. I am not sure what sort of transport policy the hon. Member for Northfield thinks that is. I am sure that most of us would consider it nonsense.
Perhaps even the hon. Member for Northfield would concede that railway staff are fed up with long years of low wages, long hours and high fares. British Rail's fares are the highest in Europe, and its staff have the lowest morale. Certainly they are the lowest paid in Europe, and they work the longest hours. That is not the kind of record of which even the hon. Member for Northfield, with his one-line--or, all too often, one-word-- solutions to the nation's transport problems can be proud.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) referred, rightly, to the low morale, low pay and
Column 1313excessive overtime worked on British Rail's southern region. I hope that the Minister will, in the 10 minutes available to him, answer my hon. Friend's question, whether it is reasonable to ask low-paid workers in any industry, but particularly on the railways, given the unsocial hours that they work, to accept a pay cut for the third successive year. That is what British Rail's original offer meant. Does the Minister accept that, as British Rail's annual report showed, productivity on the railways has increased by 17 per cent. over the past two years? That is much higher than British Rail's percentage pay offers of the last two years, and certainly much higher than the amount put into railway workers' wage pockets, even though negotiations with their union representatives were still in progress.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South referred to British Rail's industrial relations, and paid tribute to BR's former industrial relations officer, the late Cliff Rose. He had the courage to defend the closed shop at meetings of the Confederation of British Industry, saying that it at least enabled him to ensure that people kept to agreements once they made them. If only that were true of British Rail's present administration.
I do not wish to cast too many personal aspersions on British Rail's management, but perhaps I may refer to its industrial relations director. Even the hon. Member for Northfield might agree that in thinking of the one company from which one would not recruit an industrial relations director, British Leyland would immediately come to mind. Yet that was the source of the executive who is now in charge of British Rail's industrial relations. He is a man who said a couple of years ago, in the hearing of several trade unionists, that the trouble with the railways was that they were too cosy. They are not too cosy now that he has taken over. Cosiness has gone out of the window, together with job satisfaction and morale. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Northfield did not acknowledge that, instead of stringing together a lot of job-hunting cliche s.
I pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). If anyone is entitled to complain about the attitude of British Rail's management, he is. Much of what he said makes sense. We cannot go on expecting the railways, uniquely among transport modes, to produce an 8 per cent. return on every investment proposal that BR's management makes. How can a sensible, modernised national railway system be developed if every piddling little scheme must be supervised by the Minister and his civil servants--who are conspicuous by their absence at 12.48 am? Presumably they are out somewhere, studying a railway scheme to establish whether it will offer an 8 per cent. return on investment. That the hon. Member for Mid- Kent should say what he did about the future of the railways despite the problems that BR management has caused in his part of the country, and in his constituency in particular, is entirely to his credit.
The hon. Member for Mid-Kent spoke of rail freight's contribution to the 1990s and to the next century. Representing as he does a constituency in the south of England, the hon. Gentleman knows that if rail freight's potential is not developed, the alternatives for his
Column 1314constituency, like others in the so-called garden of England--coming from the north, I do not view it as the garden of England--is not peace and tranquility but a tidal wave of juggernauts. I know that he recognises that.
Without national planning--that is anathema to the Minister, the survivor of the purge in the past week in the Department of Transport--the Minister's cliche s about privatisation and railwaymen being on strike will not help the hon. Member for Mid-Kent, his constituents or the south of England once the Channel tunnel opens. Unless we have a national plan and a Government who are determined to get freight back on the railway, the congestion that the hon. Gentleman foresees will come about.
Most of the contribution made by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) was fairly sensible, although I am not sure whether I will enhance his career by saying so. I find most of the contributions that he makes on these matters to be fairly sensible. The hon. Gentleman asked why British Rail does not improve the Drain. That is the one line that the Government want to privatise, even though it is the only line that ran during the strike last week. Schemes to improve the Drain do not meet the Government's 8 per cent. criteria. British Rail will tell him that privately, and that is why it struggles along with 1940s rolling stock on that line.
The hon. Gentleman asked why British Rail does not open new railway lines. The Minister, the boy wonder in the Department of Transport and the lone survivor of the purge of the past few days, demands that market forces shall prevail. The new Secretary of State, whose father, like mine, was a platelayer, will have to come up with some better ideas than his number two, the whizz kid, has.
If the whizz kid prevails, misery will prevail for the constituents of those Conservative Members who have had so many sensible things to say this evening. They are sensible indeed when one considers the contribution of the hon. Member for Northfield--the motorist's friend, the railway's enemy, the ever-ambitious and, I hope, permanent Back Bencher.
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) is never overly keen to give me my full 10 minutes, in case I prevail over his arguments. I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge of railway matters and Government policy, should be wrong about the Waterloo and City line. In the subsidised railway sector we do not demand that new projects show an 8 per cent. rate of return. We demand that the case for investment should be the most economic, taking into account the alternative of doing nothing. Where there is old rolling stock which is difficult to maintain and unreliable, British Rail could put forward a good case for reinvestment. I am expecting such a proposal to be made shortly for the Waterloo and City line.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) on securing the debate this evening and giving us the opportunity to have this interesting discussion. He began by saying that he thought that there was little difference between the National Union of Railwaymen and the management in the recent dispute. I was sorry to hear him say that, because I thought that there was a difference--that the
Column 1315management was trying to run a railway service and was content to go through the recognised procedures for settling disputes on the railways, but that the NUR took the matter to strike action none the less, thus bringing the railway into disrepute and inconveniencing thousands of customers.
The tribunal recommended an increase of 8.8 per cent. for clerical and supervisory staff when the Transport Salaried Staffs Association took its dispute to the tribunal. The other unions, including the NUR, refused to do so. British Rail offered 8.8 per cent. not just to clerical and supervisory staff but to all staff. The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and the TSSA accepted that offer. We then had to go through another two days of strike action before hearing now that the NUR is willing to accept that. During all that period the railway management has been trying to run the railway. It has provided the offer that was recommended by the tribunal. The management has always said that if strike action was called off it would be willing to discuss the other issue, which is the matter of the bargaining machinery. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East, his senior colleague as transport spokesman and the Leader of the Opposition all know that for the past 10 days the NUR has put itself in an extraordinary position. The British public has known perfectly well that the NUR has had nothing left to strike about, even given that there was any cause for the strike in the first place.
I will go further and reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield that the record of the British Railways Board over the past five years is a good yardstick by which to judge it, and the industry is in better shape now than ever before. It is carrying more people ; it is investing at record levels, and it is requiring 50 per cent. less subsidy than it did five years ago. That is a tribute to the leadership of the board and, granted, it is also a tribute to the men and women who work in the industry. It is very much to the credit of British Rail's chairman, Sir Robert Reid, a career railwayman of outstanding dedication who deserves the recognition not just of the Government but of the whole House for his services to the railway. My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield suggested that there should be some form of contract for negotiation in public sector monopolies. Perhaps that matter should be considered. I remind my hon. Friend that procedures have been laid down for settling disputes on the railways and that the NUR chose not to follow them. The NUR did not want to go to arbitration. It claimed that it could not discuss matters in the tribunal, although those matters could have been settled by the Railway Staffs National Tribunal, which is fully able to consider all aspects.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) asked whether I advocated that the men should take a pay cut. His remarks imply that people should automatically have pay rises above the rate of inflation--in other words, that there should be no reference to what the industry can afford and to what it can pay without harming its competitive position, and no reference to the effect that a pay rise might have on the number of people the industry can employ, on the rest of the economy or on inflation. I can remember exactly where such thinking led 12 or 13 years ago.
The hon. Member for Newham, South then decided--rather extraordinarily--to launch what was, I take it, an
Column 1316attack on the non-maintenance of escalators. But as there is also industrial action targeted on the escalators by the engineers who maintain them, I ask the hon. Gentleman to say that he regards the action as wrongly targeted. It puts people to great inconvenience and, theoretically at least, could have implications for safety. It is exactly the sort of industrial action that ought to be condemned.
Mr. Spearing : My response is the same as that of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis). Would it not have been sensible, however, if officers at King's Cross and elsewhere had made it clear that defects in the escalators were due to industrial action and not to bad management?
Mr. Portillo : Perhaps so, but I think that the hon. gentleman agrees with me that it is deplorable when industrial action leads to such an important part of the system being unavailable to the public.
The hon. Gentleman then launched several further attacks. He said that there was no planning and proceeded to attack every plan that we have, including the central and east London rail studies. He then attacked the idea that developers should be asked to contribute to the east London rail study, as though it was necessarily better to invest taxpayers' money than to persuade the commercial sector--the profit-making entrepreneurs--to contribute to the line.
The hon. Gentleman then complained that there would be only five platforms at Waterloo and four at King's Cross for the Channel tunnel service, ignoring the fact that the Channel tunnel service consists of no more than two railway lines. It seems to me that a ration of nine platforms to two railway lines is generous, and it is extraordinary for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that if matters were planned carefully, we should end up with more platforms than that. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) has become a noteworthy contributor to railways debates recently. He criticised the fact that there was no planned network. If I worked in British Rail, I should not be encouraged towards planning a national network by the attitude shown towards the proposals in Kent. Those must have been very discouraging. There are enormous difficulties in this country in trying to build new railway lines. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent referred to the planned line as miserable and under-protected, but the proposal contains £500 million-worth of environ-mental protection. My hon. Friend can travel the continent without finding a line with that level of proposed investment for environmental protection.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) should be aware that we are likely to see proposals for investment in the Waterloo and City line in the way that I have described, and there is also a programme of platform lengthening under way with plans for Kent, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent said, desperately needs rail improvements.
Recently there has been an enormous expansion in investment in the railways and the Government have been very pleased to see that happen. However, the success of the railways in future will depend on their reliability and their attractiveness to the public. It is highly regrettable that recently the railways have provided such a very poor advertisement of their reliability to the British public.
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles) : It is my pleasure to lead this debate about Britain's relations with Latin America, a region with which we have long historic and sentimental ties with which all hon. Members will be familiar. We also have ties of interest involving economic, financial and trading links which to some extent developed around those historical ties. The historic ties give British exporters and traders a head start to develop those ties and links further. The economic links, in purely quantitative terms, are still very small in comparison with our links with other regions and countries, but they can be developed, especially if the debt problem can be resolved. No matter how small the links, the United Kingdom needs every profitable trading partner that it can get in the present economic circumstances.
I wish to refer to two countries in particular which I believe are the most exciting countries in Latin America at the moment--Chile and Nicaragua. The juxtaposition of those two countries may appear strange and even somewhat bizarre but anyone considering the political processes in those countries at the moment, given the troubled pasts which they have had to overcome in recent years--each in their separate ways--cannot fail to be excited at the prospects. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Chile for the first time and returned full of a greater confidence and hope for that country's future than I could have imagined before my visit. It appears to me that the political process towards democracy in Chile is still proceeding smoothly. I do not think that there is any reason at this stage, given the way in which the Chilean people have organised themselves to reach this point, to be pessimistic about the culmination of that process at the end of this year.
The temporarily troublesome constitutional reforms have been approved. They are not perfect or complete, but they provide a good basis on which to go forward. The opposition parties are united, and that is a key to the further development of democracy in that country. President Pinochet has been increasingly isolated since the referendum, and that is no small contributor to the progress towards democracy. Even the Right-wing elements who have not had to practise genuine politics in the past because they have been able to rely on a dictatorial regime are increasingly working within the system, organising themselves politically, and thinking about how to mobilise their point of view within a democratic framework. If matters proceed as smoothly as they appear to be at present, we can hope that in just a few years people will look back at the period of dictatorship as a horrible aberration in Chilean history which is shameful and embarrassing to the Chilean people.
Great strengths are underpinning progress. One is the relative economic growth of Chile compared with other Latin American countries, which gives a happier context for progress to democracy. I will say another word about the economic context in a short while as it may not be so sound as it might at first appear. Perhaps the greatest strength--much greater than economic forces--is the spirit of the people, who did not cease to demand and cry out for democracy during the dictatorship. Something which was new to me and which struck me quite forcefully in Chile was the history of the technocratic approach
Column 1318which imbues much of the professional classes, the middle classes to some extent, and the civil servants working within the political system. The technocratic or professional ethos has strong historical roots.
Despite all the acts of oppression for which the dictatorship was responsible during its rule, there was a remarkable absence of petty financial corruption which can reach quite large amounts in Latin American countries. That was most clear in the dying months of the regime when privatisation measures were rushed through before the introduction of democracy and the will of the people again began to be predominant in Chilean society. One might deplore any such measures being rushed through before the new democratic era can begin and before people can express their wishes through the ballot box, but no matter how much one might deplore the privatisation scramble, it does not seem to be marked by obvious corruption of the kind that one might expect in a Latin American country.
That great strength underlies and underpins the progress towards democracy, and it is most clear in the work of the electoral commission. I had the great pleasure of meeting the organiser of the recent referendum, who will also organise the next election. I was left in no doubt about the electoral commission's integrity and ability to conduct a democratic, fair and clean election in Chile, if it is allowed to do so.
Despite those strengths, there are also problems to which I believe that our Government should be paying attention. Some of the problems are internal--for example, the difficulty that a new democratic Government in Chile will face in reconciling the need for stability in the new political framework with the satisfaction of social demands. Unions have been oppressed and hounded to a disgraceful extent, but they will find their voice in the new democratic context and the Chilean Government will have to reconcile that with the need to maintain stability.
There will be the perceived problem concerning those responsible for human rights violations, but here again the distinctive character of Chilean political culture will come to the rescue. To some extent, the Pinochet regime in the past has been able to cover human rights abuses with a veil of legality and thus has exploited respect for the legal process which exists in Chile. It is that very respect for the legal process--that tradition of legality--which will be the undoing of those who were responsible for the abuses in the past as the legal system in Chile takes its course unhindered by those who wish to cover up past abuses.
There will be problems, too, in the new political framework after democracy. There are questions hanging over the readiness of those on the far Right, who have had a clear run for the past decade and a half, to reconcile themselves not just to the outcome of democracy in Chile, but to the full vigour of democracy in Chile.
The biggest problem will be one of economics, which all Latin American countries face. There has been talk of a Chilean miracle. I have already referred to the relative growth in Chile compared with other countries. We should not be led into thinking that somehow Chile has reached the same level of economic take-up as the tiger economies of south-east Asia. That clearly is not the case. Chile is still very much dependent on the world economy. Though it has benefited nationally as an economy in a period of relative world growth, it could just as easily suffer if there is a period of relative stagnation. That is why it is
Column 1319important for the prospects of democracy in Chile that steps be taken to solve the debt problem which, in common with every other Latin American country, Chile still faces.
The British Government's policy towards Chile in these times should be to encourage the progress that has already been made. They should applaud it, welcome it and discourage utterly any thoughts of regression or backsliding after the election. Unfortunately, however, we do not gain much encouragement from the Government's handling of other matters--for instance, their rapid embrace of China so shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen square. The Government's attitude sends out entirely the wrong message. I hope that the Chilean military, having witnessed the British Government's spineless response to China, will receive a message from this debate that the same will not be tolerated in Chile after the elections.
The biggest problem facing Chile, like all Latin American countries, is its debt problem. It is no use pretending that the solution to the problem will not cost the western economies money. The debt problem is common among Latin American countries. Brazil has perhaps the most severe debt problem, amounting to £110 billion, and in terms of its gross national product is expected to pay back three times as much as Germany after the first world war. That is intolerable and unfair.
Nicaragua, too, has severe economic problems, although its achievements since the revolution have been truly momentous, as anyone who has visited it can attest. Its most notable achievements have been in the social realm, literacy, public health and democratic politics, which are sometimes not appreciated by the Governments here and in Washington. One has only to compare Nicaraguan society with other central American states to realise how open and democratic it is. Some people like to tell stories of newspapers being closed temporarily and of people being imprisoned temporarily, but we must remember that Nicaragua is or has been at war with a foreign invader. When Britain faced a similar military threat in the last war, we locked up our Oswald Mosleys. Such occurrences must be understood, if not always applauded.
The British Government's attitude to Nicaragua has been truly miserable and grudging, and it is a further example of their deplorable overseas aid record. Their grudging attitude was exemplified by the humiliating reception that President Ortega was given at Downing street. Perhaps "humiliating" is too strong--it would be more accurate to say that the reception was intended to be humiliating. The fact that the Nicaraguan revolution had survived the United States' attacks for years and that its president was received by the United States' foremost ally showed that President Ortega and the Nicaraguan people had triumphed.
Travelling in Latin America, one finds that almost everyone of every political shade is disaffected with the British Government's attitude to the region. Whether Right-wing or Left-wing, they all feel that the United Kingdom is throwing away a heritage of good will which could be put to good use. If we listened to our interests and best instincts rather than to Washington, we could develop a policy towards that region which would be more rational and humane.
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Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on joining us at this late hour to talk about the important subject of foreign affairs in general and Latin America in particular. I hope that it will be a pleasure for him, as it is for us. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) on giving us the opportunity for this debate.
This is our second debate on the subject and it is becoming something of an annual fixture. As the chairman of the all-party Latin America committee, I greatly welcome that, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who is its excellent secretary. It gives some of us the opportunity, whatever the hour, once a year to recognise the important historical, cultural, trading and political links which have existed between the United Kingdom and Latin America for two centuries. We all recognise that in recent decades those links have fallen away. We particularly lament the decline in trade and applaud the efforts of the Latin American Trade Advisory Group, Canning house and individual firms. We hope that British industry will come increasingly to understand that Latin America is by no means entirely as the media portray it. Those of us with knowledge of Latin America lament the wholly woeful and misleading image created by the extremely small handful of British journalists who concentrate on the region. I could give several recent examples, but in view of the time and the encouraging number of hon. Members who wish to speak, I shall forbear.
Latin America has serious problems. The hon. Member for Western Isles referred to the debt problem. I hope that the Brady plan, which has been given another impetus recently, will lead to progress, but it will not be easy. The problem is of a different order and character from, for example, the debt problems of sub-Saharan Africa, on which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken such an impressive and encouraging initiative. We cannot take a similar initiative in Latin America because the context is different. We need to collaborate on the debt problem and I hope that the Brady plan will show us the way forward.
We are collaborating on drugs. It is a two-way problem--the supply and demand of a market. We in the western world must recognise our heavy responsibility for creating the demand. If there were no demand in our societies, the problems associated with drug trafficking in the region would be greatly diminished or even removed. We need international co- operation, and I am glad that the Government are showing the way forward.
Sadly, too, we share problems of violence and terrorism. A number of countries in Latin America have struggled, on the whole successfully, to develop and promote democracy against a background of violence unknown to us even in Northern Ireland.
Another area in which increasing collaboration between us and Latin America is important is in respect of ecology and the rain forests. My right hon. Friend who has been elevated to the position of Secretary of State for the Environment pointed the way in his most successful and last overseas visit as Minister for Overseas Development, with his agreement with Brazil making progress in that area.
Those are the problems, but the successes in Latin America should also be recognised, especially the
Column 1321development and progress of democracy. Argentina has recently had elections and for the first time in 60 years one democratically elected Government handed over to another. In December there will be elections in Chile, and the hon. Member for Western Isles spoke of his impression of the evolution of the democratic process in Chile. There will be elections in Peru in July. President Stroessner has departed the scene in Paraguay. Uruguay has recovered its traditional stability, and even in Mexico the PRI--the Partido Revolucionario Institucional--which has for long in effect been the country's one party is now having to yield and allow alternatives in some of the provinces.
Those are important changes, but the change on which I wish to concentrate is that which is occurring in Argentina, in view of the important effect on this country. Mr. Carlos Menem frightened many people, including many Argentinians, in his election campaign. He is a Peronist and as yet nobody knows what his utterances mean in terms of political reality. Some of his campaign rhetoric, including his talk of shedding blood to recover the Falkland Islands, created the worst fears in many of us who wish to see a stable and prosperous Argentina. As things have turned out so far, however- -I accept that only a brief time has elapsed--the prospects look different. He has announced courageous policies to tackle the extraordinarily difficult economic problems that he inherited and has made appointments which have surprised everyone and appear to augur well. Sadly, he suffered the sudden death of Senor Roig, the Finance Minister, only days after he was appointed, but another executive has been appointed who seems determined to carry out the kind of policies of which Conservative Members would approve--policies which have demonstrated their efficacy wherever in the world they have been applied. The prospects in Argentina domestically, against a hugely threatening backdrop, are far more encouraging than one would have dared hope before the change of presidency.
Another area of change which affects us deeply and directly is the apparent change of policy of President Menem, his Foreign Minister and his Government in regard to the Falkland Islands, and I hope that in his reply the Minister will give an idea of the reaction of the British Government to the developments because, as I say, in the election campaign Mr. Menem spoke of recovering the islands, if necessary, "by blood and fire."
Since then the change of tone has been absolute. The Foreign Minister, Domingo Cavallo, has said in an interview :
"Our objective is the re-establishment of full relations. The idea is to find a formula so that each side can preserve the rights it has--or believes it has--in the islands. In that way the advantages that are gained from the re-establishment of relations do not prejudice either of the two countries in their rights over the islands."
Other statements in the same vein have been made by the Argentina Foreign Minister and by the Argentine President. Indeed, the President's response to the message of good will from our Prime Minister was also positive. The House will recall that it was in significant contrast to the response of President Alfonsi n at the time of his inauguration in December 1983, which verged on the churlish. President Menem has shown a different tone, so the spotlight returns to us and to our response.
Column 1322We are talking about practical improvements. I accept that the British Government's record is good. They have made a series of forward gestures in opening trade and being easier about visas, but there is now a distinct and new atmosphere which we must seize and of which we must take full advantage. I understand the concerns that such statements cause in the Falkland Islands, but the long-term interests of the islanders can be guaranteed only by a different set of relationships from those obtaining at present. The people of this country will come to expect a positive move forward.
Six months after the 1982 war, I was fortunate enough--if that is the appropriate word--to be invited to a foundry in my constituency where the war memorial to be erected in Port Stanley was being cast. It was to list the names of the 250 of our men who fell in the Falkland Islands conflict. Over that weekend, I had the privilege of meeting about 25 per cent. of the next of kin of those who lost their lives in the war. If there was one sentiment common to all those families--to the widows, the mothers and the fathers to whom I spoke--it was, "I recognise that my son died in a just cause and that he was doing his duty as a member of the regular forces, but I look to you, as politicians, so to change the position that no others need to die in that cause--there must be another way."
I believe that there is such a way, and we must not miss the opportunity that is opening up, although I recognise that we must be cautious. My hon. Friend the Minister's predecessor and the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who usually speaks on Latin America for the Opposition, have produced reactions that were on the cool and even negative side. New thinking is needed.
I close with what used to be a fairly well-known Shakespearian quotation but one which is less heard these days :
"There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune ;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shadows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures."
This is such a venture. The re-establishment of a sensible relationship with Argentina on the Falkland Islands to preserve the interests of the islanders is an opportunity that we must not lose. 1.34 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I shall be as brief as I can as this debate can last for only one and a half hours and others wish to speak. Unfortunately, the subject is yet again being debated in the middle of the night, although there is something rather special about debating Latin America before 3 am as it usually comes up at around 5 am. The debate is valuable, if only to demonstrate that one of the problems with British policy towards Latin America is that there is no policy--just a series of decisions which may or may not be made on national or economic issues. There is very little overall strategy.
I do not wish to get involved in the discussion about the Falklands, but I must say that I opposed the Falklands war and I never want there to be another one. I suspect that Conservative Members may one day realise that the fortress Falklands policy, which has so far cost £3.5 billion and will cost us considerably more, maintains only a state
Column 1323of armed neutrality in the south Atlantic. They know that at some stage there will have to be a move towards real peace, if only to avoid spending such ridiculously large sums of money, which are designed to promote the image of the Prime Minister leading the country to a great national victory when in fact she did not take the opportunities for peace that were open to her at the time. Destruction of the tropical rain forests, and the pollution that goes with it, is extremely serious because the world requires large areas of forest cover to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which sustains life. We all know that what happens to the Amazonian rain forest is crucial to the rest of the world. Any encouragement to countries in the Amazon basin to conserve the rain forest and to use it in a sustainable way so that it is a permanent resource for the world rather than something that is pillaged, as is currently happening, is greatly to be welcomed.
I recognise the deep sensitivities involved in other countries lecturing Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Guyana and Suriname on the preservation of the rain forest. President Garcia of Peru asked, cleverly, how it is that western Europe, having destroyed all its own forests, is now lecturing them about conserving theirs. That is a fair point but, like others, he has also considered the economic circumstances which lead to rain forests being destroyed. The Governments and peoples of the countries in the area do not necessarily want to destroy the rain forests--it is simply a matter of economics. We have a great deal to answer for in that respect. Through European money, International Monetary Fund money and particularly World Bank money, much destruction has been financed to provide cheap minerals for multinational capital elsewhere. There has to be a change of attitude and an understanding of the strong link between the economic policies pursued by the world's financial institutions and damage to the environment in grossly indebted countries. One cannot separate the two. I hope that there will be continuing pressure on the World Bank to adopt even better environmental policies and that support for the protection of the rain forests and the people who live in them will continue. The construction of the trans-Amazonian highway and railway and mining schemes involve the murder of Indian people in their thousands. We must do all that we can to ensure that our policies preserve the rain forest and make it a viable proposition for all time. At present, we are destroying plant and animal species by the hour, and thousands of acres of forest by the day. If this continues, it will be to the cost of all of us.
Only a short time ago the House debated the Antarctic Minerals Bill. Chile and Argentina both have substantial claims in the Antarctic. I hope that they do not ratify the convention on the regulation of Antarctic mineral resource activities, which will pave the way for the investigation and, I believe, exploitation of minerals in Antarctica. If we are serious about preserving the world's environment, we must look at equally sensitive ecosystems existing in an entirely different climate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) spoke at length about the growth of debt in Latin America. It is indeed frightening that around 1960 Latin America was not an indebted continent but 29 years later it is deep in debt--not because it is intrinsically infertile or over- populated, nor because it cannot produce food or does not contain many able and brilliant people,
Column 1324but as a result of a world economic system which seeks to take considerable resources out of the continent and to repatriate large profits from multinational capital. As a result, the poorest people in the poorest countries are suffering the effects of debt. When Peru attempted to limit its debt repayments to no more than 10 per cent. of its gross national product, the world's banking institutions conspired to home in and prevent it from carrying out that policy, insisting that Peru accept IMF conditions which it may or may not negotiate in the future. Exactly the same conditions operate elsewhere--they are always linked with what is euphemistically called economic restructuring, but is in fact our good old friend Tory economic policy writ large, involving cuts in public expenditure, large-scale privatisation of industries and damage to the living standards of the poorest people in some of the poorest countries of the world.
If we are genuinely concerned about those people, we must come up with something better than either the Baker plan or the Brady plan and start talking in terms of improving commodity prices, limiting the repatriation of profits by multinational companies and writing off and rescheduling debt. Otherwise the eternal cycle of debt, poverty, further debt and further poverty will go on and on. The Brady plan is aimed at privatising countries out of debt, but it will not work because it merely transfers political control to those who have pushed that policy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles mentioned Chile. Obviously, no one will be happier than I shall when democracy has returned to Chile, when there is genuine freedom of speech, when trade unions can operate openly and freely and the police do not have the power to gun down, tear-gas and arrest people for exercising their democratic rights. I also very much hope to see the end of General Pinochet. We should give the new constitution a cautious welcome, although it is not completely democratic. Inbuilt powers still exist for Pinochet and his successor and for the armed forces, and it cannot be called a democratic constitution according to the European model. We should also remember the thousands who lost their lives following the murder of President Allende in 1973, and those who sought refuge and asylum in other parts of the world. I hope that the nightmare in Chile is ending, but I suspect that in its death throes the military dictatorship will get up to all sorts of awful things in the next few months.
My final point on national matters in Latin America concerns El Salvador. I understand that soon the Government will welcome the ARENA president of El Salvador, President Cristiani, to Britain. I hope that when he arrives the Minister concerned will raise with him the matter of the proposed legislation which is designed to destroy popular movements in El Salvador and covers the military encirclement of trade union offices, the continuing growth of death squads, continuing violence, the disappearance of people who support human rights and democracy and the corruption, if that is the right word, of what remains of the land reform programme in El Salvador. Until there is social justice in El Salvador and in the rest of Latin America, there will never be real peace. I hope that the Government will address those problems when they welcome President Cristiani to this country.
I hope that the Government also recognise that the American approach to El Salvador is causing the problems. America pours in more military aid than it gives
Column 1325to any other country with the exception of Israel. El Salvador is impoverished, a fifth of its population consists of internal or external refugees, and most of its people live in the worst possible conditions. Yet despite those facts, all the American aid goes to support the country's armed forces. I want to see real peace and democracy in El Salvador, but the realisation of those hopes is not consistent with the amount of military aid being poured in by the United States. Until the social injustices are put right, there will never be real peace in El Salvador.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) for initiating the debate. He and I represented the House in a delegation from the all-party British Latin American group which went to Chile in May. The hon. Gentleman played a significant and fair-minded part in that delegation. I welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury). I know that he will enjoy the traditional warm good will that Latin Americans show to Britain and I wish him all success in his task.
I hope that the debate, which follows the one held last year and which was the first for 38 years on the subject, demonstrates a growing revival of interest by the House in Latin America. Britain was the godmother of Latin American independence and many regard Canning, the Foreign Secretary of the day, as the godfather. Much of the infrastructure of Latin America's economies, its transport and banking systems and industrial heritage were put in place by Britain. We have a long history of co-operation rather than domination in the continent, which provides a good base for strengthening our relationships.
Perhaps the greatest problem in Latin America for us rests in Argentina. The scars of the Falklands crisis are still too vivid to be forgotten, and we are in the absurd situation in which otherwise normal relations between our two countries are in suspense, despite historic ties of blood, commerce and culture which go back more than two centuries. Argentina is again a democracy, and for the first time for many years we have seen one democratically elected president taking over from another.
Despite the many blood curdling aspects of his election campaign, Carlos Menem is showing good signs in the direction of a resolution of the problems which currently underlie relations between our two countries. We should take encouragement from President Menem's statement about the Falklands, in which he said :
"Sovereignty is a subject which we, the Argentinians, are never going to renounce--and I do not think the United Kingdom will do so either."
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) pointed out, Argentina's new Foreign Minister is already looking at ways in which a dialogue can be opened up rapidly between our two countries. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will take full advantage of that window of opportunity to open up talks and achieve a normalisation of diplomatic, commercial and cultural relations.
When Latin Americans talk of Britain, they say that one of the principal contributions that we have made to the world is that of democratic institutions. They hold this place in the highest regard. Over the past few years, almost