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Mr. Hamilton : I shall not base my remarks on assumptions. Some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments and assertions might be regarded as strong, but they cover exactly the questions that the Director General of Fair Trading will consider before advising me on whether there is scope for using competition legislation to do anything about recent events. I shall deal with that point in some detail in due course, but first I revert to my introductory remarks for a moment.
Column 447In 1987, colour advertising in national newspapers was worth only £15.4 million, but in 1991 it was worth £155 million, so the increase has been substantial. Advertising now accounts for 50 per cent. of newspapers' revenue, but, in the face of competition from other media, printed medium publishers are experiencing a decline in advertising revenue, although that may be partly recession- related--it is very difficult to tell.
Copy sales--the other part of national newspapers' revenue--are also under increasing pressure. The circulation of popular dailies and Sundays is down, but the sales of quality titles--at least before the price war began- -were up. Between 1980 and 1990, the combined circulation of popular dailies fell by just over 250,000, despite the appearance of the new title Today in 1986. Between 1990 and 1993, sales fell by a further 836,000.
We have witnessed among existing players an intensifying competition for advertising and circulation, and not many want to enter the market where ownership is concentrated. Major groups want to diversify into other areas ; broadcasting has featured largely in the debate.
The greatest economic threat, but also in many ways the greatest opportunity, comes from electronic media. No doubt there will be rapid and significant changes in that respect in the years to come. Who knows whether the demand for printed newspapers will survive much longer in its present form, when people have access to news sources by electronic means ?
I am no great expert on the subject. No doubt the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and others who have spent a long time working in the production of news and in the publishing world generally are better informed than I, but I have certainly been impressed by the rapidity with which technology has transformed the life of the industry.
Opportunities undreamed of a short time ago are now regarded as commonplace. At this stage, we cannot forecast the dramatic impact that that may have on the important questions of public interest that hon. Members have raised during the debate--especially the diversity of supply of factual and interpretive news. That, however, is a wider question.
Past newspaper competition cases have been mentioned, so it may be worth my while to spend a couple of minutes on some of those, and especially to talk about Mr. Murdoch, as he has been painted as the villain of the piece in the debate, not only in the House but more widely.
When Mr. Murdoch acquired the News of the World , his first newspaper, he did not require consent, because he was not an existing newspaper owner in the United Kingdom. He then acquired The Sun in 1969, having been given permission to do so, when a Labour Government were in charge of competition legislation. Then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) said, in 1981 he acquired The Times and the Sunday Times , and in 1987 he acquired Today . In each of those cases, consent was given without a Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry, because the Secretaries of State at the time--that includes not only Conservatives but the Labour Secretary of State in 1969--were satisfied that the newspaper being taken over was not economic, and that an MMC reference would have jeopardised its existence.
Column 448That is a factor that one must bear in mind when thinking about the development of ownership in the industry. Those newspapers were regarded as hopeless loss-makers that would have gone out of business but for intervention--in those cases, intervention by Mr. Murdoch, but no doubt there are other cases.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : Just for the record, may I say that there was no dispute about the assertion that the Sunday Times was highly profitable and had a circulation above the trigger level ? I do not want to go back over the debate about what happened in 1981, but that is worth saying.
In December 1990, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry decided, on the basis of the information then before him and in accordance with the recommendations of the Director General of Fair Trading, not to refer to the MMC under the merger provisions of the Fair Trading Act 1973 the acquisition by British Satellite Broadcasting of Sky Television, and the acquisition by News International of a 50 per cent. share in British Satellite Broadcasting Ltd.
In May 1993, after a period of public consultation, the Secretary of State gave his consent for the sale of the Observer to The Guardian and Manchester Evening News by Lonrho. In that case, the Secretary of State was satisfied that the Observer was not economic as a going concern and a separate newspaper, and that, if the paper was to continue, the sale should proceed without a reference to the MMC. The same considerations were applied in that case.
In March this year, the Secretary of State, again after public consultation, gave his consent without an MMC inquiry to two separate applications to acquire a controlling interest in Newspaper Publishing plc, the owner of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday . That is the background to the current position on ownership.
Mr. Dalyell : Before we leave the background, may I ask a one o'clock in the morning question ? Is there any unease--I do not put it higher--among the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues that so much of the British press and media is now foreign-owned ? There is not only Mr. Black, but Mr. Murdoch and Mr. O'Reilly. I am not pointing a finger at them, but just saying that there is considerable unease among some of my colleagues about the extent of foreign ownership by people who do not have a stake in this country.
Some of us think that the European press should be European-owned. It might be sensible to talk to our European partners and to lay down some regulations, as the Americans do de facto, that the press in Europe should be European-owned.
Mr. Hamilton : Not being a xenophobe, I do not generally consider the nationality of individuals as terribly relevant in competition cases, even for newspapers, for which especially stringent conditions have to be satisfied to preserve media diversity. As the hon. Member for Livingston pointed out, the existence of conditions on nationality in the United States was not a bar to Mr. Murdoch's acquiring significant interests there. I cannot say that I share
Mr. Hamilton : That is true, but it did not stop him acquiring the assets that he wanted. The mere change of his nationality would not, I should have thought, have satisfied the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in that case. It is not terribly relevant to the questions that have been the subject of this debate about media diversity. After all, one could have a British Mr. Murdoch, who could behave in exactly the same way. Presumably he would then be subject to exactly the same strictures form the hon. Member for Linlithgow.
Mr. Dalyell : My point is that, if Mr. Murdoch now applied for British nationality, the betting is that he would soon get into great difficulty with his American ownership. He cannot have the best of all worlds.
Mr. Hamilton : We are becoming increasingly Byzantine in the processes of reasoning that we are applying here. I shall content myself with saying that I do not think that nationality goes to the very heart of this debate. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood was much more concerned about what is done with the assets, in whoever's hands they may be. That is what he wants us to address as a Government, particularly in the cases before us today.
The recent background to the current price war is that the Director General of Fair Trading held a preliminary investigation, following a complaint from The Independent that the reduction in the cover price of The Times to 30p constituted predatory pricing. On that occasion, as the hon. Member for Livingston pointed out at some length during his useful speech, the DGFT decided against taking formal action, because he believed, on the basis of the information then available, that the price cut reflected a commercial decision by News International rather than predation.
He commented at the time of his decision :
"I am all in favour of price competition, but at times there is a fine line between aggressive price competition and predatory pricing."
That has been the subject of the correspondence that the hon. Member for Livingston has had, and of his arguments this evening. Following the reduction in June of the cover price of The Daily Telegraph from 48p to 30p and the reduction in the price of The Times from 30p to 20p, the hon. Member for Livingston has argued that that fine line has now been crossed. However, that argument assumes that the actions of The Daily Telegraph and The Times are of predatory intent towards The Independent . That argument requires some investigation if it is to be proved. I do not think that these questions are ever clear-cut. Certainly, as such questions depend on defining the intentions of the parties, they are always made subject to interpretation.
After the reduction in The Times' cover price, daily circulation increased to more than 500,000 copies. Of course, the advertising revenue of The Times , or at least its potential for doing so, has increased as a consequence. It is widely believed that the fall in the daily circulation of The Daily Telegraph to below the critical 1 million mark prompted its price cut, in an effort to boost circulation and, of course, to protect the paper's extensive advertising revenue.
It is difficult to be as categoric as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and others have been about what is happening here. Rather than Governments prejudging these issues, the appropriate mechanism for deciding whether there is a case to take further action is for the Director General of Fair
Column 450Trading to conduct the investigations that he has done once before and is now doing once again in what may be the different circumstances of the later price cuts.
We have seen a Scottish price war developing more recently. News International's launch of Scotland Today on 18 July prompted similar activity north of the border. Originally, the title was to sell at 20p, but the Daily Mirror reduced its cover price to 10p for launch day ; that was immediately matched by Scotland Today . Yesterday, both papers announced that they would continue to maintain the 10p cover price in the meantime.
The biggest selling tabloid is the Scottish Daily Record , which is part of the Mirror Group. Apparently, that remains aloof and continues to sell at 27p. Its record circulation is about 750,000, which exceeds the sales of all the other Scottish tabloids combined. We have perhaps slightly different conditions in Scotland than in England and Wales, but there are marked differences between different parts of this market, both geographically and in terms of quality or tabloid. The current developments in Scotland are not subject to the current inquiries of the Director General of Fair Trading into broadsheet price reductions, although undoubtedly he is aware of them. As he is statutorily obliged to do, he keeps all markets under review.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Livingston has made representations to to the director general about the position in Scotland, but if he does so, I am sure that the director general will consider them. I am absolutely certain that the director general will read tonight's debate in Hansard when it is produced, and consider extending his inquiries to cover what is happening in Scotland as well. But that is a matter for him ; it would be wrong for me to prejudge what he might do, as I am afraid that I do not know. The Director General of Fair Trading keeps an eye on markets. He receives complaints, he examines the prima facie evidence, he conducts preliminary inquiries to determine whether further action is necessary, he refers cases under the monopolies provisions of the Fair Trading Act 1973 to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission where he believes that that is justified, and he advises the Secretary of State on remedies. At his behest, he monitors any undertakings which might be given or orders made.
The Murdoch press controls about 31 per cent. by sales volume of the newspapers in this country. That matter was investigated as part of the Commission's inquiry which took place last year. At that time, the Commission considered that that scale monopoly--any monopoly of more than 25 per cent. of the market can be investigated by the Commission--did not operate against the public interest. It may be that, in the current circumstances, the Commission would come to a different view, but that is a matter of speculation.
In answering the rather more subjective questions raised in this debate, my problem is that, as the competition Minister, I have legal responsibility, and I must be even-handed in my consideration of questions which might fall to me to decide. If I indicate that I have made my mind up in advance, or that I am partial to one party or another, any decision that I might ultimately make may be made subject to judicial review.
If, for the sake of argument, I were to decide against Murdoch's newspapers, without proper investigation and
Column 451without giving all the interested parties the opportunity to participate in that investigatory process, any decision that I made may be overturned by the courts.
Dr.Wright : I understand what the Minister has said about the need not to prejudge and the legal position, but I am not clear whether he is willing to agree with every hon. Member who has spoken, and with almost everyone else outside, who argue that, if there was doubt about the intentions behind the first move by The Times last year, there can be no doubt about the intentions behinds its second move, this year. As the Minister has already said, that thin line has now been conspicuously crossed. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there is now prima facie evidence of predatory pricing, which certainly warrants thorough investigation ?
Mr. Hamilton : It certainly warrants investigation by the Director General of Fair Trading to find out whether that evidence exists. That is exactly what is happening now. The hon. Gentleman is stating as a matter of opinion what he thinks is the intention behind the Murdoch policy on the pricing of The Times . He does not have any facts on which base that assertion ; he is interpreting what has happened and applying his judgment to the reasons for that. There is bound to be an element of subjectivity in coming to a conclusion, but I would much prefer to wait until I am advised by the Director General of Fair Trading, who will have made preliminary inquiries in the normal way. He will take a view on perhaps a rather more informed basis than hon. Members are able to take, because they will not have had the opportunity to quiz those who should give an opinion if we are to decide on a fair and rational basis. We must remember that we owe even to Mr. Murdoch the same fairness that anyone else would expect under our competition legislation in the exercise of the discretionary powers of Ministers.
I will not prejudge the issues this evening. The hon. Member for Livingston said that I am known for having a robust view of competition, which is true. I believe that competitive markets are not only the means by which we produce wealth, but the healthiest way for democratic societies to be sustained. It is no accident that diversity of opinion vanished from those countries where the economy was placed under state control and subject to political direction. I have a prejudice in favour of diversity, which is sustained by competitive conditions in the market.
I will start a general discourse tonight on competition policy and the circumstances in which I might decide that a scale monopoly or a merger might be against the public interest. That could not be decided simply on grounds of market share, because there are sometimes other considerations that should also be taken into account--for example, the threat of competition from those who may not be in the market at the moment but who might be able to enter it. If it is easy to enter a market, even a single monopoly producer may not be secure in his monopoly. The more precarious his position, the less the threat to the public.
Things are different in the case of newspapers ; that is why different provisions apply to newspaper mergers
Column 452under the Fair Trading Act 1973. We do not want to encourage monopolies, but to encourage and sustain diversity of supply. On 30 June, the Director General of Fair Trading announced that he would conduct inquiries into the recent cuts in the cover price of The Times and The Daily Telegraph . Once he has completed his inquiries, he will advise Ministers whether further action is warranted under the competition legislation. I cannot speculate on the outcome of those inquiries, nor can I announce to the House how quickly he will complete them.
I can only say that my experience of Bryan Carsberg, in the time that he has been in the Office of Fair Trading, tells me that he will conduct the inquiries as quickly as is consistent with the conscientious and fair carrying out of his responsibilities under the relevant legislation. The investigation that was held in the autumn of 1993 was carried expeditiously, and I have no reason to believe that the coming one will be carried out in any different way. As for the points made, especially by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), about cross-media considerations, I am inhibited from making much of a substantive reply because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage is conducting a review of the cross-media ownership rules.
An announcement of the outcome of that review, including any legislative implications that might flow, is likely to come about in the autumn. The hon. Gentleman will not have to wait for the Government's views to be made clear. Unless there is another reshuffle and I am luckier that I was today, it will not fall to me to answer the hon. Gentleman.
I think that we have had a useful debate, even though it has not been easy for me to respond in a meaningful way to the contributions of Opposition Members.
Mr. MacShane : We appreciate what the Minister has said about the inquiry. I would like him to tell the House whether he would personally regret in six or 12 months' time--this is not really a hypothetical question--the ending of the printing of The Independent as a result of the price war. Will the hon. Gentleman make a personal statement ?
Mr. Hamilton : I am not sure that it would tell the hon. Gentleman very much, if I were to venture an opinion upon that. I would rather have more newspapers than fewer in an ideal world. That is not the question that I shall be asked if issues are raised under competition legislation. I shall have to make a decision in a particular case. In the earlier takeovers that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, the then Secretary of State had to come to a decision on whether what was proposed was desirable in the public interest. That would apply to the monopoly provisions of the Fair Trading Act as much as to the merger provisions. I cannot give a meaningful answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.
As I have said, I think that this has been a useful debate. I am sure that the Director General of Fair Trading will have his attention drawn to it and that he will take the views of Members, as expressed in the debate, into account in coming to a decision and advising me accordingly. I am sure that hon. Members will not have to wait very long for that to come about.
Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe) : I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), the Minister of State, on the Government Front Bench. I am sad, of course, that this is his last appearance in his current persona. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in wishing him well in his new pastures in the Treasury. We look forward to my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis) joining us in our deliberations on foreign affairs in general and on Latin American affairs in particular. I hope that he will have a long, fruitful and educative tenure in his new office.
All of us--certainly those of us who are members of the Latin America group --are grateful for the opportunity to air our concerns, interests and points of view once more. It is a happy event that this is the seventh debate of this nature. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who is the chief instigator of our group, deserves great congratulations on forming what has become a national--nay, even an international--institution. He keeps us up to the mark.
Over the past six years, most hon. Members have taken a bullish and positive view of what has been happening in Latin America : its awakening from the past and what was known as the "lost decade" of the 1980s ; the casting off of the often unjustified image of unstable regimes and isolated protectionism ; and the worrisome fact that Latin American countries were not as full members of the international community as we would wish them to be. All is not yet perfect ; would that it were, in this country or any part of the world. Some of the problems in Latin America will doubtless be raised by other speakers in the debate, but most hon. Members have welcomed the significant progress made in the past five years or so. The democratic process has taken a firm hold. We can all point to areas where it has had setbacks, but, with the sad exception of Cuba, the peaceful change of political power is now the norm in Latin America. It has been particularly noticeable that those democratic Governments have taken courageous decisions in the economic sphere. Even those of us in a deeply rooted, established democracy such as Britain's know that it requires political courage to take unpopular decisions.
Conservative Members have welcomed the correction of budget deficits, bringing under control the massive inflation that was a feature of the past --in some cases, it is still a feature--the reduction of protectionism and the role of the state, the promotion of free market ideas and the privatisation of the economy. As those developments are the leitmotifs of virtually all states that are moving forward in the world, as we saw most recently at the G7 summit in Naples, they are greatly to be welcomed in Latin America. That process continues in nearly all the countries of that hemisphere. Some signs, however, give cause for concern. Those who are friends of Latin America should take note of them and, where necessary and possible, our Governments should take appropriate action to collaborate with the Governments of Latin America to ensure that those negative tendencies are checked and not allowed to damage or reverse the improvements that have been so welcomed.
The improved political position and economic situation in recent years has resulted in substantial capital inflows of
Column 454some $60 billion a year, until recent months. The extent of that capital has funded the current account imbalances, and in many countries--although not all--it has given a kick start to economic development.
However, there are signs that the level of those capital inflows is beginning to diminish. The temptation for capital to move to, or remain in, the industrialised world is increasing. In February, the United States Federal Reserve increased its interest rates, and that has significantly checked US dollar inflows into Latin America. As the west European countries, led by the United Kingdom, come out of recession, the demands on capital in our own regions may have a negative effect on those capital inflows in Latin American countries. In addition, there is the rival attraction of the rapidly developing countries of Asia.
Some observers are worried that there will be another of the boom and bust cycles that have been a feature of the development of Latin American countries. Most observers estimate that there have been five such cycles since the 1820s. I believe that it is possible to ensure that we are not in another such cycle, because fundamental improvements have been made. The capital now on the whole goes, not to Governments, but to private companies --well-founded corporations, which are soundly based and exist to make a living in the marketplace. The fiscal disciplines in most Latin American countries are much stronger, and the mobility of capital and of labour are much improved.
The fundamental wealth of Latin American countries, specifically in raw materials and energy resources, is great, and can certainly continue to be developed for the benefit of the people of those countries.
However, among the negative factors in those difficult equations is the continuing low labour productivity in most--although not all--industrial sectors in Latin America. The low competitiveness of their exports is set against the great demand that is burgeoning for imports, and that is leading to trade deficits.
Another factor that causes considerable worry to all of us is the degree of wealth inequality that exists, and possibly is growing, in some Latin American countries. I came across one estimate by Mr. Alejandro Foxley, a former Finance Minister of Chile, who said that one of the crucial differences between Asian and Latin American countries rests precisely in that area of wealth inequality. He calculated that, in Asian countries, the richest fifth of society were between five and 10 times wealthier than the bottom fifth, whereas in Chile, that ratio was 12, in Argentina, 16, and in Mexico, as high as 27.
Obviously, the political significance of such inequalities as that are considerable, and could have a serious political impact. They could strongly inhibit the courageous moves that are being, and continue to be, taken to develop free markets, to let the private sector carry the economies forward. As we in this country well understand, those moves carry political, social and economic tensions. If those inequalities in wealth are allowed to get out of hand, the consequences could be serious.
The significance of the regional groups is important and needs considerably better handling than we have so far achieved in the European Union. We welcome the development of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Mercosur, the various bilateral relationships and the general reduction of tariff barriers. But it is important that those blocks do not develop into ring-fenced hostile trading blocks, with each one acting against the other.
Column 455We in Britain, particularly in the Conservative party, have always stressed that an important contribution that we have to make in the European Union is to ensure that the danger of Fortress Europe does not materialise. Our friends in the Latin American countries have the same responsibilities, of which they are aware. There are great opportunities, particularly for the European Union and Mercosur, to develop links. That is already happening, and I urge the Government to continue to concentrate on that issue.
Having made a macro-case, I shall now make a micro-point. One part of our trade with Latin America involves Scotch whisky--a significant and increasingly important export from Britain to Latin American countries. Venezuela is only just behind Japan as the fifth most valuable export market for Scotch, with exports last year worth £83 million.
There are concerns that in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay--where together the markets were worth more than £70 million in 1993--Scotch whisky exports face severe fiscal discrimination. In Mexico, where Scotch whisky exports earned £33 million last year, the geographical description of Scotch whisky is neither recognised nor protected. That is a sphere where Her Majesty's Government should ensure that they work hard to correct what is clearly an unfair position.
There are two other areas where Her Majesty's Government should continue to develop and improve their performance in relation to Latin America. The first involves the teaching of the Spanish language, which comes a poor second to French--the first foreign language taught in British schools. I am well aware of the practical difficulties relating to the availability of teachers as well as a number of other factors, but the teaching of Spanish should be a high priority with the Department for Education. A most welcome development over the past year has been the increasing number of ministerial-level visits by British Ministers and other political leaders to Latin American countries. The high number of inward visits of Latin American political figures into this country is also most welcome. I hope that that development will continue.
My final plea to the Minister is that he and his colleagues should reconsider a point that a number of us have made on many occasions, both in the Chamber and in correspondence. There should be another Government- sponsored conference on Latin America. The last such conference was, I believe, held in 1972. It is high time that another conference was staged, not only to bring to the notice of business men on both sides the opportunities available, but to highlight our growing political links as Latin American countries take an increasingly international role in the United Nations' activities and a number of other areas. Our cultural and historical links with Latin American countries are also long-standing.
All those matters are worthy of great attention. I hope that the new Minister of State at the Foreign Office, together with our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry, will take that on board. Britain has a long and distinguished record of links with Latin American countries. Over the last generation, those links have been allowed to fade away considerably--but not, I am glad to say, to disappear
Column 456entirely. They have been diminished and weakened. It must be in our interests, in the interests of all those whom we represent in the House and, I venture to suggest, in the interests of the Latin American countries that Britain, both nationally and through the leadership we can offer many of our partners in the European Union, should give a new charge of energy and enthusiasm to our links with Latin America. I very much look forward to my right hon. and hon. Friends leading us in that direction.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : This debate is a welcome annual event. Although it is 1 o'clock in the morning here, it is only 8 o'clock in the evening in most of South America. Perhaps people there can listen to this debate live and at a reasonable hour, just as we were able to watch the World Cup at a reasonable hour. This is an important debate. Indeed, it is important that we have this sort of discussion. What divides Labour Members and the Conservative Members who introduce this debate in most years is that they believe that democracy equals a free market economy equals privatisation equals freedom for all people, whereas we are sceptical about that point of view.
We stress the way in which the imbalances between rich and poor in most of South America have actually widened and are still widening. Absolute poverty is becoming worse. The degree of rampant urbanisation, with people moving into shanty towns, is truly frightening to perceive.
The issue that has arisen during the past year has been the desire of millions of ordinary people throughout the whole of Latin America to live in a society where their vote counts for something, where they do not have to live in fear of the military, where the police are under some form of democratic control, and where their children will enjoy an available health service and will grow up able to go to school, have an education and get some meaningful job at the end of that.
Those engaged in agriculture want to get reasonable prices for their crops. There is not much point in well-meaning politicians in western Europe and North America lecturing farmers in South America and telling them that they should not grow crops that are eventually used for hard drugs that destroy the very lifeblood of children and young people on the streets of our cities, when they are paid such appallingly low prices for maize and other crops. There is a connection between the two.
The economic event of the past year has been the establishment of the North American Free Trade Area. There will be problems for much of Latin America if it is to be cut off from natural trading with North America by the growth of NAFTA. The idea of a barrier south of Mexico through which trade with the rest of South America cannot necessarily pass contains within it the seeds of the most enormous conflicts, as does the attitude of the European Community and a number of other countries.
The signing of the GATT treaty is presented as a kind of all-winners situation, but many of believe that the poorest in the poor countries will suffer as a result because much of that treaty is designed around the needs of multinational capital rather than for social improvement and environmental protection.
It would not be right to continue the debate without at least mentioning the horrors of what is happening in Haiti,
Column 457where a democratically elected President was overthrown by the military. By whatever means, if President Aristide is restored to power, he will not be able to govern and the country will be permanently unstable until the legacy of the Duvaliers, their secret police and the fear factor is removed.
The tragedy and horror for the people on Haiti, be they those living in fear of the secret police in their own country, or those dying on the high seas as they try to escape to safety, will continue for a long time. It is to the shame of many that many countries were happy to go along with the Duvaliers' regime through aid, recognition and so on down the years.
During the past year, the most dramatic events in much of the region have been in Mexico, with the Zapatista uprising in the south. That was seen as an outrageous event by many in the world community, who simply did not understand the degree of impoverishment in many parts of Mexico. When the Zapatista National Liberation Army, the EZLN, occupied San Cristobal de las Casas and a number of other towns in the Chiapas region, it issued a statement which said :
"As free men and women we are aware that the war we are declaring is a last but just resort. The dictators have been waging an undeclared and genocidal war against our peoples for many years, wherefore we urge your full participation in support of the Mexican people and their struggle for work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence and freedom, democracy, justic and peace. We shall not cease our struggle until we see these basic demands of our people met, forming the government of our free and democratic country."
The report from which I am quoting goes on to point out that, in the Chiapas states, 66 per cent. of households lack electricity, 71 per cent. of children over the age of 14 are unable to go to school, they are fourth from the bottom among Mexican states in the percentage of households with access to running water and sewers, and the mortality rate is 94 per l,000 live births. That is in a country that was being described by the World bank and others as on the road to economic success. It is hardly surprising that those things happened. It is interesting that, in later opinion polls throughout Mexico, what the EZLN had done in that region was supported by 61 per cent. of the popultion.
The horrors of what is happening in Mexico as a direct result of the World bank's intervention during the debt crisis of the early 1980s and now the North American Free Trade Agreement will not go away in a hurry and it might well break the stranglehold of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional on politics in Mexico. I hope that the British Government will support the sending of independent observers to watch the presidential and congressional elections in Mexico this year. It is essential that those involved in those elections understand that people from outside are prepared to watch what is going on.
I also want to draw attention to what has been going on in central America during the past year. There have been significant changes and earlier this this year a large number of hon. Members signed an early-day motion looking forward to the restoration of human rights and proper judical processes in Honduras. It was important to do that. It is significant that, on l3 April, the new President Reina of Honduras said :
"International human rights organisations have perceived that there could be threats to my government and they have denounced that situation . . . to prevent these threats being realised."
Column 458That is a cry from the heart for many within the central American region where some democracy has been restored, as in the case of Honduras.
There is still fear of paramilitary organisations and of the military as those Governments try to uncover human rights abuses. Unmarked graves have been discovered, people have disappeared and what may or may not have happened to them has come to light. The military is often virtually off the hook and able to do much as it pleases.
Although elections have taken place in El Salvador and the horrors of the civil war there have ended--hopefully for good, but perhaps only temporarily--one must question the policy followed by the United States in pouring vast amounts of military aid into El Salvador for a war that could not be won, to protect an elite trying to hang on to their power and wealth. The new Government have pledged themselves to work with the Opposition and other parties, but it is a matter of concern that President Calderso n Sol of the ARENA party was close to Roberto D'Aubuisson, who was closely involved with the death squads during the horrors of the civil war.
There is an economic base to many such conflicts, arising from the desire of the poorest people to enjoy a decent standard of living and the desire of the wealthy and powerful to hang on to their wealth and power at all costs. Traditionally, the US has supported the wealthy and powerful against the poor in that region.
In previous debates, I have often asked about Chile. Things have changed enormously there in the past few years. The second democratic elections will be held this year, and I was among the people who met a parliamentary delegation from Chile that came to Britain last week.
For all that, I find it astonishing that Chile's head of armed forces is General Pinochet, who was responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 people in Chile. He seems to travel around the world with impunity, aided and abetted by the British Government in entering this country using false names and false passports, to buy arms here. It is disgraceful that the Government are prepared to share in such duplicity organised by the Chilean military, led by General Pinochet. He is still on his arms-buying excursions, and flexes his muscles to demonstrate what a powerful person he is in Chile.
I had the privilege of chairing a huge meeting in Manchester last month which brought together speakers from different parts of the world to examine the new world economic order and the problems that it is creating. One speaker was Marco Aurelio Garcia, international secretary of the Workers party of Brazil. He also attended a meeting in the House, and displayed an impressive grasp of world affairs. His description of his party's programme and its hopes of winning elections later this year gives me great encouragement. He pointed out that, for all the facade and his country's brilliant success at football and wonderful cultural traditions, enormous poverty is suffered by many Brazilians. It was shown in a TV programme about Brazilian football broadcast on Tuesday, directed by Roberto Mardo. Seventy million people in Brazil are excluded from its economy and a normal life. They have a twilight existence, living hand to mouth by scavenging, begging, prostitution and drugs. The Government elected later this year will have to confront those problems. They will be elected with a mandate to change, spread wealth, and bring education, housing and employment to the masses.
Column 459All those aims are highly laudable. They would be difficult to achieve in any society in any circumstances, and well nigh impossible if the world community, through its financial institutions, continues the stranglehold on Latin America economies of the debt repayment system and underpricing of basic commodities.
We have, I hope, a humanitarian interest in the standard of living of ordinary people throughout the latin American continent, but we also have a vested interest, as does every citizen of the globe, in protecting the environment of the planet. The economic system that is being imposed on the poorest countries is one that quite deliberately damages the environment. There is not much point in lecturing people to defend their rain forest if we tell them at the same time that the only way out of their economic problems is to increase the planting of crops for export, knowing full well that that will be done on areas which were formerly covered with rain forest.
There are many countries and many areas in Latin America on which one could spend a great deal of time, but unfortunately the time allowed for the debate is fairly limited.
The issue of human rights and the image that is presented on our screens of the war against drugs is very real. I have no time for hard drugs in any way. Indeed, I see the horrors of their effects on young people in my community when they become involved in taking them. It seems to me that something is thoroughly wrong when the poorest people in Latin America are growing the ingredients that eventually turn up as hard drugs on the streets of European and north American cities, causing a cancer and a poison in societies at both ends.
Somewhere along the line, unnamed faceless people living in tax havens are making vast profits from that, and are laundering drug money all over the place. I certainly would not want to have any truck with those people.
We must also recognise that, in the facade of the war against drugs, in countries such as Colombia, some totally vile abuses of human rights are going on. The number of political killings in Colombia and the political violence there is truly frightening.
I have in front of me a copy of a paper from the US Committee for Refugees entitled "Feeding the Tiger : Colombia's Internally Displaced People". It contains a graph that has three factors : political assassinations, disappearances, and deaths in combat. From it, one can see that the figures are fairly static from 1970 to 1980, with a bit of a blip around 1977. From 1980 onwards, there was a massive increase in the number of political assassinations--up to 3, 000 a year in the late 1980s, settling down to some 2,000 a year currently. Disappearances are rising fairly steadily, and deaths in combat are rising very rapidly indeed. Those figures represent the people who are killed in Colombia.
There are many complex reasons why people are killed in Colombia. Other figures show that, in 1988, 2,738 political, or presumed political, assassinations and 210 disappearances were recorded. In 1992, 2,315 political, or presumed political, assassinations and 237 disappearances were recorded. In addition, 1,801 assassinations with a possible motive of social cleansing were recorded. Those figures are truly frightening, whichever way one cares to look at them.