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10.39 am

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): This is the first time that I have taken part in a debate in the House on population and development. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) who, unlike me, has been an instigator of and regular contributor to debates on population growth. I pay tribute to his expertise, which was very much in evidence today. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who is a regular

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contributor to this important subject and someone whom I would consider to be an expert on it. I think that it is obvious to us all that population growth is a serious issue and a real danger, given the finite resources of our world.

In one sense, the statistics say it all. However, the evidence of our eyes as we travel confirms and underlines the statistics. As I have travelled to various parts of the world over the past six years, three things have struck me that relate to the subject that we are discussing. When I went to India for the first time, I was struck more than anything else, apart from the poverty, by the sheer volume of people in every city, town and village. It seemed that they were living their lives by the side of the road. Nine hundred million people is an awful lot of people.

I went to Nigeria shortly before Christmas. Again, I was struck by the sheer volume of people. There are 120 million in that relatively small country. A fifth of all black Africans are Nigerians; the sheer numbers are overwhelming.

The second striking feature that I have observed in my recent escapades is the staggeringly high percentage of young people in those countries. The percentage of the population below the age of 20 in Kenya is a bewildering 58 per cent. In Nigeria, 55 per cent. of the population is below the age of 20. The corresponding figure in Zimbabwe is 57 per cent. and in Uganda, 50 per cent. of the population is aged 14 and under. Those are young, fertile people who will make their own contribution to the subject under discussion.

The third fact that I have observed as I have travelled is that middle-class families tend to have three or four children, whereas poor families have eight, nine or perhaps more children. The reasons are obvious and frequently rehearsed. It is worth saying that the situation used to be the same in Britain and throughout the now industrialised world.

The inevitable conclusion is that population growth is clearly related to poverty, lack of education and lack of access to good-quality family planning and reproductive health services. The 1994 international conference on population and development in Cairo was an important event. For the first time ever, a consensus emerged among most nations on a raft of measures to be implemented over a 20-year period. A programme of action was settled.

Five years on, few of us would dispute that the right objectives were set: sustained economic growth in the context of sustainable development; education, especially for girls; and universal access to reproductive health services, including family planning and sexual health. There is no need for wholesale review or reform of those objectives, which have stood the test of time. The difficulty, as ever, is in the implementation. There is no magic bullet.

It is clear that restricting population growth in the developing world is part of the wider issues of poverty and lack of opportunity which afflict too many people around the world, although in that context, the issue requires a special focus. Population constraint should not be seen as separate from the wider development agenda; it is part of the same development challenge. As more and more communities achieve sustainable development, access to education, better health care, rising living standards and a greater sense of security and stability, as surely as night follows day, the number of children per household will fall.

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There are examples of success. In the Indian state of Kerala, remarkable progress has been made in reducing the birth rate to half the Indian average and less than that of China. Although I accept that that is not directly related to economic success, it follows an enlightened commitment to investment in health, education and more equitable social relations. Infant mortality rates are a quarter of the average for India and half that of China. In India as a whole, one in two girl children drops out of primary school. In Kerala, completion of education is almost universal. Investment in education and health care in Kerala has played a central role in reducing fertility rates to levels comparable to those of industrialised countries.

In South Korea, the combination of rapid economic growth, universal access to primary health care, education and employment opportunities have caused the population growth rate to tumble. Those are examples of best practice and progress, from which we can take encouragement. The situation is not hopeless--it is simply immensely difficult.

The issue of population growth is not a separate agenda. It should motivate us to redouble our efforts to reduce poverty, build capacity, boost health care and education, and increase economic activity and opportunity throughout the world.

I have just returned from a visit to east Africa. I have seen slums in other parts of the world, but the slums that I saw in Nairobi last week were among the worst that I have ever seen. It is offensive, unnecessary and unacceptable in the modern world that people living in such circumstances do not have choices. We must all redouble our efforts to help.

I support the efforts of the British Governments, both before and after the election on 1 May 1997. We have a good track record, and I am sure that under the current Secretary of State, that progress will continue. I take this opportunity to say something that I have said in many meetings outside the House. I think that we were wrong under the previous Government to cut the aid budget. We are a rich nation, even in recession. I understand the pressures on the Treasury, but it is important that a nation such as ours should be compassionate and generous, provided that we make sure that our aid programme is effective.

Too many millions of pounds have been wasted in the past. We must continue to give a lead through our compassion and our generosity. We are a rich nation and we can make a difference. Many mistakes have been made by Governments, development agencies, aid agencies, NGOs and all of us over the past 30 years in aid and development policy. Perhaps a new consensus is emerging. There is increasing recognition of the importance of good governance, market-based economies, capacity building, empowering women, and access to education and health care, so that we can build on the lessons of the past and do more to bring about sustainable development in the developing world.

There are grounds for cautious optimism. It is important that we do not abandon hope; if we do, nothing will change. In one of the slums in Nairobi, I spoke to a young lady called Benedict, who was a grandmother at 30. We had a long conversation, at the end of which she told me that at the age of 30, she had given up hope that her life could change, or that things would ever be any different

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for her. She had nothing. I urged her not to give up hope, but of course I felt as I spoke that my words were empty. Even if she gives up hope, we must not give up hope on her behalf. It will not be easy, but we can make a difference. Many projects, NGOs and people all over the world are making a difference. I therefore welcome this important debate.

I shall finish with a word about coercion. There is a consensus in the House, but we must spell it out. Coercion in family planning matters is always wrong. Our approach to family planning for the developing world must be guided by the values that we embrace for ourselves. Enforced sterilisation is wrong in the UK and in the developing world. Using abortion as a form of family planning is wrong in the UK and in the developing world. If we do not approach the subject from a framework of values, we will come horribly unstuck.

In the light of those clear guiding principles, I remain uncomfortable with the fact that our Government since the election, as before, continue to contribute towards the Chinese family planning programmes. We have heard horror stories for many years. I admit that I have never seen firm evidence, yet the stories and doubts continue. I know that Ministers will say, "Give us the evidence and we will look into it." Will the Minister call on the United Nations to commission an extensive independent inquiry into the matter, so that we can get to the truth? If all is well, let us reassure ourselves and continue the programme. If all is not well, let us use whatever leverage we have to bring to an end the horrendous practices that we hear about. I ask the Minister to respond to that point.

Once again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie for raising this important subject. I pay tribute to the Government's work. They will have the support of those on the Conservative Benches as they continue that important undertaking.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes): Like all hon. Members who have spoken, I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) on securing time for a debate on such an important issue and, as he said, at such an appropriate time. I thank all those who contributed to the debate, which has been well informed and almost entirely united. That is a testimony to the work done by the all-party group.

As my hon. Friend and others remarked, Cairo was a landmark agreement for international development. We cannot overestimate its impact on the way in which Governments, international organisations, donors and civil society think about and deal with population issues. The debate has made that clear.

The Cairo conference asked fundamental questions about people and poverty--as hon. Members said, we have to address issues beyond only population and reproductive health--and about the future prospect for the sustainable development of our planet. It also agreed a set of bold solutions, with a focus on individuals' right to the highest possible standards of reproductive health. The goals agreed at Cairo form the basis of many of the international development targets that inspire the British Government's strategy for improving all aspects of poor people's lives.

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In less than six months, a United Nations General Assembly special session will decide what progress the world has made in implementing the Cairo goals. As I said, today's debate has given hon. Members an opportunity to provide early input into that process. The Government greatly encourage such early debates on international discussions. As the review commences, I am pleased to share some of the Government's perspectives on progress made, lessons learned and obstacles encountered in taking forward the Cairo agenda, and on how we must do better in future.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) for his wholehearted support of the Government's action. In the House's previous debate on the issue, I was the Opposition spokesman and said almost exactly the same as he said today. That is an encouraging development--although it is even more encouraging that I am now on the Government Benches. However, that is another matter.

As hon. Members said, our planet's population has almost doubled since the 1960s. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly said, evidence suggests that the world grows more unequal as it grows more populous. The gap in per capita income between the richest and poorest fifth of the world has also doubled since 1960.

Although population growth rates have peaked, the world continues to grow by more than 80 million people a year. If our newspaper headlines are right in saying that the "population explosion" is over, they should also deal with the fact that the children of the population explosion--1 billion young people, the largest generation in human history--are now entering their reproductive years. As my hon. Friends said, the choices made by those young people will determine the prospects for a fair, healthy and stable world which is fit for future generations. We have to ensure that those young people are given a choice, and that they are not denied the means to make their choice.

As the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said, 10 years ago, we expected that, in the next century, the world population would reach about 14 billion before levelling off. Today, thankfully, the UN expects 10 billion to be the upper population limit. How did that remarkable change occur? The answer, as he said, has been in modern family planning. It is encouraging that 57 per cent. of the world's couples are now using modern family planning methods, compared with 9 per cent. 30 years ago. There has been a great improvement.

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