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11.24 am

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) on obtaining this debate and on her thoughtful speech. She

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raised themes with which it is well known she is associated, and for which there is more sympathy in the House than she may imagine. I had hoped that, when she referred to stamping out the improper allocation of aid, she would call for the resignation of the Minister responsible for the Pergau dam aid.

She also talked about the problems of childbirth and family planning questions. My view is simply that the best way to solve such problems is to empower people by letting their economies grow. It is a fact that the best form of birth control--if that is the problem facing the world--is a rich economy. For an economy to succeed, all citizens in it must be allowed to play their part, and I shall address that subject later.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), to the Government Front Bench. He was the Whip on the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill last year, and he marshalled his troops effectively to ensure that the rich were protected while the poor were given a worse deal from this miserable Government. Now that he is a gamekeeper turned poacher, I hope that he can secure a better deal for the ODA from his former colleagues in the Treasury.

Like charity, alleviating poverty worldwide should begin at home. Frankly, a Government who have deliberately, wittingly and with cold-blooded precision drafted laws to increase poverty in our country are ill-placed to provide a lead in alleviating poverty around the world. What does the Bible tell us? In Ecclesiastes, it states:

One should add women to that, because they bear the burden of poverty more than any other section of our community. The voice of the poor is excluded in the modern world, and is not represented in the boardroom, the newsroom or the Cabinet room, where decisions are made. The alleviation of poverty around the world will come as a result of enabling and empowering the poor.

Among the poorest of the poor are the children of the world, more than 100 million of whom are forced to work. The hon. Member for Congleton may be aware of a lovely poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning, "The Cry of the Children", which reads:

She wrote that more than 100 years ago about this country, but the ambient noise of today's political circuses drowns out the sound of weeping children around the world. According to even modest estimates, 100 million children are working. Some 15 million of those children, according to Human Rights Watch, are placed in servitude to an employer to pay off a debt.

Human Rights Watch cites the case of Kali in India, a nine-year-old girl who has been working in a silk factory since she was six. Perhaps she produces the silk used to make the cheap shirts that we buy from Marks and Spencer and C and A. Kali's mother needed £75 to pay for her husband's funeral and, to secure that loan, she sold Kali into slavery. Each morning, that child leaves home at 7 o'clock and returns at 9 o'clock at night, and she

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earns £5 a month for working a 14-hour day. That story is repeated in other countries. Carpets, footballs, toys of all description and clothes are made for sale in Britain using this odious form of labour.

In theory, the liberalisation of world trade and the growth of free trade and wealth in the world should put an end to such child labour, but everyone who examines this subject reports not a decline but an increase in child labour. Far from child labour dwindling to a few isolated spots in the third world as a result of trade liberalisation, we see it increase and encroach into new areas of high-profit economic activity, such as child prostitution.

What perhaps is worse, and should concern the House, is that the use of child labour is spreading back from the third world. Not many miles from the House, and in many other big cities in Britain, there are textile workshops with home workers who have not reached puberty. According to the university of Paisley, an estimated 1.7 million children work in the United Kingdom, not delivering newspapers as we all did as kids, but in economic, gainful activity. Indeed, in the Prime Minister's constituency of Huntingdon, the meat-packing company Hilton Meats was recently fined £12,500 after pleading guilty to employing 14-year-old children. Moral exhortation about what is happening in the third world rings hollow at conferences while we allow so much child labour in our own country.

What can we do? Moral exhortation, as I said, is not enough. Law and the enforcement of law are needed. Shaftesbury and those who fought in the 19th century against child labour understood the difference between a sermon or inspiring speech at some international conference and enforceable law. Wilberforce understood that passing a law in the House against slavery was of little use unless it was enforced on the high seas and other nations were drawn into a worldwide campaign to abolish slavery.

What was true then is no less true today. The need to take global action against child labour and other forms of poverty and inequality is hampered, alas, by reaction at home which, whether in the Government or the media, first, denies the need for effective international action; secondly, actively conspires against policy proposals when they are advanced; and, finally, wallows in the smug self-satisfaction of the pretence that the market alone can solve those problems.

I should like to put forward a three-point approach to the question of alleviating world poverty. First, at the Government level, we need to work at devising international solutions and programmes to defeat poverty. Secondly, at the business level, we need a new politics of ethical business behaviour, which we can already see taking shape in some parts of the business community and which should be supported and encouraged. Thirdly, each individual--all of us as consumers, employees and shareholders--can play a part by insisting that the goods and services we buy are provided on the basis of fair trade and decent working conditions.

Let us look first at the Government level. The internationalisation of trade, which is a growing trend and one that I welcome as a strong free trader--is bringing with it a new body of international law. Commerce throughout history has worked only if contracts are

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enforced and are enforceable at law. Standards, patents, so-called intellectual property rights, market access, dumping rules and all the paraphernalia of national commercial law and regulation are being reproduced internationally. We see that process in the European Union to enable the single market to work and we see it in the World Trade Organisation, in the North American Free Trade Agreement and in the thousands upon thousands of pages of directives and regulations about which the hon. Member for Congleton and her hon. Friends sometimes complain, but which are the stuff of making any market or any commercial set of relationships work.

Endless tribunals are needed to make free trade work. But just as national economies have social and environmental costs and consequences--which, for 100 or more years, we have regulated through health and safety, clean air and child labour legislation--so the international economy has social and environmental costs and consequences. Inch by painful inch, the call for international law and regulation on social and environmental questions--the cry from the poor of the world for their concerns to be heard at the table where the new rules of world trade are being written--can be heard.

The most concrete expression of that call is the demand that the new World Trade Organisation look at child labour, workplace health and safety rights and the right of employees to belong to free trade unions, which even the World bank in one of its reports held up as the cornerstone of free economic activity.

Those are not my words or those of the new Labour party's policy programme, but a statement by Sir Leon Brittan, the former Thatcherite Minister, when he addressed the European Parliament two years ago. Sir Leon, Vice-President of the European Commission and the senior Commissioner responsible for trade, has consistently argued that the World Trade Organisation should at least agree to discuss social issues in some form through a working party--not to regulate wages, but at least to have a discussion.

The aim, in which Sir Leon is supported by the international trade union movement, is to find a non-protectionist, trade-enhancing way to enable the employees of multinationals that operate in third-world countries, and those of national companies, to have some say in the distribution of the wealth that their labour creates. That is a sensitive issue and powerful forces are ranged against it, including many multinational corporations and many third-world Governments, who represent an economic elite such as that disposed of in Pakistan earlier this week. They are ranged against the idea of a social clause because the men who profit from Government control of trade and the economies that deny social rights to too many third-world countries do not want child labour or union rights discussed at the World Trade Organisation.

Despite Sir Leon's commitment to that policy, I have to report to the House that, only last week, he was stabbed in the back by the Minister for Trade at one of the secretive Council of Ministers meetings, at which the existing European Commission policy for a WTO discussion on the issues was sabotaged. The language on setting up a WTO working party on social questions has

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gone, although the Council of Ministers' statement--which provides guidance for the EU position at the WTO interministerial conference in Singapore--referred to the importance that the European Commission attaches

    "to the efforts of the International Labour Organisation to promote the universal observance of core labour standards."

That is a small advance, but there was a retreat, under reactionary pressure from the British Government, from a clear policy position that Sir Leon had been outlining for at least two years.

At least the statement I have just cited is a positive statement that can only embarrass our Ministers, who only a year ago in the shape of the then Secretary of State for Employment, now the Secretary of State for Defence, were floating the idea of a United Kingdom withdrawal from the ILO. It required interventions in the House to the Prime Minister and an early-day motion, signed by a huge swathe of Members from all parties, to stay their hand. We welcome the Council of Ministers' affirmation of the importance of the ILO and regret that the British Government, only 12 months ago, were talking about a United Kingdom withdrawal.

In the battle to alleviate world poverty, we cannot dissociate the issue of trade from labour standards. The United States under President Clinton has made clear its commitment on that issue. We welcome his election victory last night and the defeat of the Conservative party candidate, Senator Dole. The raising of the minimum wage to a fair and decent level in the United States, under President Clinton's leadership, has undoubtedly contributed to his excellent election victory, and we look forward to that policy being implemented in this country.

If the European Union detaches itself from the United States over the question of the WTO examining social issues, we should not be surprised if the United States takes unilateral, extra-territorial action. We are refusing to work in partnership with our allies in the United States and make efforts to achieve a multilateral response through international agencies such as the WTO. I worked for some years in international organisations and I have no illusions about how useful working parties are.

If the message from the December WTO inter-ministerial conference in Singapore, from our Minister for Trade and from our Prime Minister to the world's poor, the world's child labourers and the other workers who face increasing poverty is, "We will not even discuss your problems," I warn the House that the poor of the planet will want no part in a world that excludes them. The road that they will go down instead will, alas, be the road of crime, of terrorism and rejection, and of supporting extremist solutions.

None the less, let me bring some good news to the House. Although our Ministers bury their heads in the sand, there is now a call for new ethical business behaviour at international level. Transparency International is an important organisation which, with the support of many big business companies, argues in a concrete fashion that we must put an end to corruption. I am talking about corruption such as that in the Gulf, and that exposed by the Pergau dam affair--corruption with which, alas, too many British companies' names have been linked.

Progressive British companies are now supporting European works councils, which allow their employees to have some say in those companies' international affairs.

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Swedish and German multinationals allow, indeed encourage, their union representatives to make contact with workers in overseas subsidiaries.

More needs to be done. A good example is the Rugmark scheme, which was set up to ensure that rugs sold in western shops are made in fair working conditions in the subcontinent. Unlike most carpet stores in the United States and Germany, retailers such as Ikea, Liberty, John Lewis and Bentalls refuse to sign up to the scheme. I appeal to those companies to support Rugmark.

Big British success stories such as the Body Shop now support the idea of ethical accountability and transparency. That means not insisting that one western standard be applied everywhere, but ensuring that transparent and accountable systems work, with inspections and accreditation to reinforce the ability of people in the south to raise standards in a culturally and economically appropriate manner.

The Co-op and Sainsbury are preparing to develop ethical approaches to sourcing, and are committed to work with the Fair Trade Foundation to support, through an admirable charter, the idea that what we buy in our shops should be produced in fair conditions.

That leads us to what consumers can do. There are now more and more examples of consumer and corporate pressure having an effect. We saw that in the outcry over the footballs produced for the Euro 96 competition. Those were made by child labourers in Pakistan, but FIFA has agreed that in future the footballs that it uses will be produced in fair conditions.

Textile retailers, too, are discussing those ideas, and there are fair trade campaigns. We can now buy Cafe Direct, an excellent coffee made by third-world producers in fair conditions--and I should like to see some bought and sold in the horribly refurbished House of Commons Tea Room.

In America, consumer boycotts have been effective. In Latin America, there has been a decline in child labour, as United States textile retailers have been forced to respond to such boycotts. Pepsi has now been banned in most United States campuses because of the company's refusal to draw a line and stop investment in Burma.

I have mentioned three ways in which we can alleviate poverty--Government action to support international initiatives, business action to support ethical fair trade and action by consumers to put their money where they know it will help to stamp out poverty throughout the world. Two of those processes are under way, but the third, Government action, will begin only when we have a Government committed to alleviating poverty--not only abroad, as the title of the debate implies, but more important, at home in our own country.

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