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15 May 2002 : Column 836

Johannesburg Summit

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.19 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I beg to move,

The motion deals with the extremely important matter of the UK's role at the Johannesburg summit in promoting sustainability. We have initiated the debate because we believe that it is vital for world order and stability for rich nations—of which Britain is one—to demonstrate a clear and unequivocal commitment to alleviating world poverty. It is because we see it in that light that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) will be winding up the debate for the Liberal Democrats. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development will then reply to the debate.

We need action world wide to prevent further degradation of the planet and reverse the damage that has been done, particularly in the past 200 years. We hold the earth in trust for future generations and should seek to use it on sustainable terms. We should not take out more than we put in.

We contend that peace and stability in the world can be achieved only if a genuine partnership between rich and poor people and nations takes a common approach to development. Developed economies must demonstrate unequivocally that we will not continue to exploit the lion's share of the world's resources and that we will create the space, in partnership, and the appropriate technology to enable the poorest people on earth to achieve real improvements in their quality and standard of life.

I observed that, with her usual courtesy, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was present at both the beginning and end of the previous debate. It surprises me not at all that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not in her place—she never shows much interest in these matters. I welcome the Minister who will reply to the debate, but the right hon. Lady does lead on the matter. No doubt she is busy packing for her trip to Bali.

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There is a serious point behind this observation. There is, in our view, a moral imperative to address world poverty, but it is also enlightened self-interest. The tectonic plates of the cold war have shifted, creating a freer, more unpredictable, unstable and risky world. Some people exploit the fears of the most deprived and create resentment so that millions of people migrate around the world in the hope of a better life. That creates the considerable problems with which we are having to wrestle.

The world summit in Johannesburg is—or should be—a crucial milestone in addressing these issues. It comes 10 years after the Rio summit started a process of addressing the imbalance of poverty and confronted the need to deal with environmental pressures. It is a question not only of dealing with climate change but of creating the potential for economic development that does not freeze the status of the developed and undeveloped world. There is a fear that we, the rich, will hang on to what we have and cannot allow the poor to develop and further deplete the planet's resources. So it is essential, if we are to address this tension, that Johannesburg be a success and produce a treaty with real commitments, not just a series of bilateral arrangements.

I believe that the whole House welcomes the Prime Minister's early commitment to attend the summit. It is right that he should be there, but it is not clear what he will say or whether the United Kingdom is prepared and able to take a lead in ensuring the necessary progress.

The Secretary of State has been under fire for the apparent extravagance of her planned attendance at the final preparation committee for the summit in Bali next month. It is ironic that Ministers and their civil servants are reported to be spending about £200,000 or £300,000 to attend a preparatory meeting in a holiday paradise for a summit whose prime purpose is to provide a beacon of hope and international action for the poorest people on earth. We are not saying that the Secretary of State should not be there, but if she believes that it is important enough to take a delegation of this size to take the matter forward, surely it is also important that she make a statement to the House about why she is going and what she is hoping to achieve. Moreover, when she comes back, she should tell us what has been done to prepare the way for the Prime Minister to lead a positive engagement for the United Kingdom Government in Johannesburg. Why does she never come to the House and tell us what she is doing? Should she not explain to British taxpayers what she claims to be doing on their behalf?

The Secretary of State claims on her website and in her circulars that she wants to involve the widest range of stakeholders in the preparations for Johannesburg, yet she has refused to meet me or, I understand, the Conservative shadow Secretary of State. She does not want to involve Back Benchers in the process, but she will be taking four schoolchildren with her as part of the Government delegation to Johannesburg. If the Secretary of State is serious and we share common values, should she not, like her counterparts in many other countries, take a broad delegation and ensure that we are all consulted and that this House has a real say in the agenda? She has shown no interest in involving the House in that way.

Attached to the motion is a reference to the report of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. I thank the Committee for its helpful report. Its verdict on the Government is mixed, as is mine. The Committee welcomes the Prime Minister's planned attendance but

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points to the inadequacy of DEFRA's resources and alerts the House to the dangers of the summit falling apart and falling far short of the legitimate expectations of the developing world. Indeed, some non-governmental organisations have become so frustrated at the way in which the agenda has become bogged down that they suggest it might be better if the whole event were cancelled. It is up to Governments to show that they have the commitment to make it succeed.

Specifically, the Committee calls on the Government to generate some enthusiasm for the event. I suggest that it is the lack of a clear explanation of why a large delegation is going to Bali that has attracted adverse criticism and undermined whatever case the Government wanted to make. Most people would be astonished to hear of this trip, but they would not have been if the ground had been prepared and an explanation given to show that this is a major event.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that if a full explanation had been given to the press reporting these matters, they would have given as much information to the public about the true purpose of the visit as we would all like?

Malcolm Bruce: My point is that it would have helped if the Secretary of State had explained to the House why she was going. She could then have benefited from pointing out that we had had a debate about it.

We accept that the Government have recorded some important achievements in shifting the balance of resources to poorer countries. We want to give acknowledgement and credit where it is due. The Chancellor's debt reduction initiative has rightly attracted wide support from the public and international agencies. The UK's aid record is better than that of many countries, and at least the commitment to a 0.7 per cent. target is welcome, although, like the Environmental Audit Committee, we would like a firm timetable as to when that will be achieved.

Of course, we support the commitment made by the Secretary of State, in one of only two statements that she has made to the House since her appointment, to ratify the Kyoto protocol. However, we are not so sanguine about the Government achieving the target and are critical that it is based on a "business as usual" approach following the dash for gas. It does not include a radical drive towards serious emission reductions as a result of innovative policies. This, in the Liberal Democrats' view, is a central issue. We have put the environment at the heart of our thinking. Environmental policies were a green thread through our manifesto. We gained credit from a number of agencies for the priority that we gave these matters.

We also believe that it has proved to be a mistake to make environment and transport the responsibilities of separate Departments, given the need to reduce vehicle emissions and the congestion that makes the problem worse. It is also strange that DEFRA, the Department responsible for implementing the Kyoto protocol, does not have the lead on energy policy, which is crucial to achieving the protocol.

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