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Bob Russell (Colchester): She is on a caravan tour around the country.

Malcolm Bruce: Well, I hope that she takes her caravan to Bali. It really is the most important environmental summit for 10 years. I should like to suggest, through the Minister, to the Secretary of State—I gather that she was hovering around the door a while ago, but has not yet had the courtesy to come into the Chamber—that if she does not come to the House to tell us why she is going to Bali or what she did there, she will find no credibility for anything that she does on those issues among my hon. Friends. She cannot expect to be believed or taken seriously if she does not take the House seriously and does not engage in the debate that we alone have initiated. No one else has initiated a debate on this important subject. The debate should have taken place in Government time; they should have wanted to tell the House what they were doing, rather than waiting for an Opposition party to raise the issue.

Where is the big, distinctive idea that the United Kingdom should take to the summit? May I suggest to the Minister and the House that we are not the only people who need answers? If the Prime Minister were here, I would tell him that he needs answers. He is the guy who will be standing up for the United Kingdom at Johannesburg in September. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may say thank goodness for that, but he has nothing to say or to offer; he has not yet explained his policy. If he does not find answers to those questions, he will be in real danger of finding himself the first to sign up to the summit with the least to say on delivery. Indeed, worse than that, he might have colluded in ensuring that the summit failed when action by him and his team could have made it a success. The danger for the Prime Minister is that he could end up with a very red face at what is supposed to be the greenest of international summits.

7.49 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on choosing to debate an issue of overarching importance, but I was saddened that he immediately chose unerringly to lower the tone by making some cheap and over-heated references to the delegation to the Bali conference, which he trivialises by making unnecessarily personal references to my right hon. Friend the Secretary

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of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am happy to tell him why my right hon. Friend is going there, as he does not seem to know. It is an international conference of key importance to the United Kingdom. The United Nations asked for three days of high-level negotiating time, and that is exactly the duration of the high-level ministerial segment, from 5 to 7 June. Outstanding negotiations need to be hammered out if the world summit on sustainable development is to be a success. Indeed, there is a view, which I think that I share, that, in some senses, if this conference focuses on and refines the key issues for Ministers to settle at the final conference, it will be more important than Johannesburg. The hard work of bringing down 150 pages of text to a manageable set of worthwhile recommendations, conclusions, proposals and decisions could be undertaken at Bali.

The hon. Member for Gordon is right—although he could have said a lot more about it—that there is a lot wrong with our world. Since 1992, the divide between rich and poor has widened dramatically. Fifteen per cent. of the world's population, in high-income countries, accounts for more than half of total consumption, while the poorest 40 per cent. accounts for only about one tenth. Aid levels have decreased. Africa's share of the world economy has declined, while its population has grown. Desertification affects 70 per cent. of all dry lands, and threatens the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people—about one sixth of the entire world population. We lost 4 per cent. of the world's forest area during the 1990s, after Rio. More than 11,000 species are at risk of extinction. I could go on. There is no question but that this summit is about matters of unparalleled importance for all countries and all people across the world.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Given the Minister's accurate analysis of the growing inequalities across the world, particularly between the very rich and the rest of the world, is it the Government's policy that, as part of creating a more sustainable world, there should be redistribution of wealth across the planet, within all countries of the planet, and within this country, too?

Mr. Meacher: It is our policy that there should be redistribution across the world, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has achieved world renown for her championship of the demand that the number of people on the Earth living in absolute poverty should be halved by 2015. That is a stunning demand to make, and she has put herself at the head of it. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the hon. Member for Gordon was kind enough to say, has again instigated major moves by the rich countries, particularly the Paris Club, on debt remission and trying to restore the capacity for growth of many of the most highly indebted poorest countries.

The summit comes on the back of the millennium declaration, which gave us the millennium development goals. They offer a set of clear targets on poverty reduction: on education, on halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and of people without access to safe drinking water, and on halting the spread of AIDS.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Will the Minister confirm that the Government are intent at Johannesburg on pushing

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issues such as poverty eradication and access to clean water rather than climate change and biodiversity, in relation to which frameworks are already largely established?

Mr. Meacher: Yes. That is a helpful intervention. The hon. Member for Gordon spoke at considerable length about climate change. There is, of course, the UN framework convention on climate change, and there is a parallel process with the conference of the parties, which effectively deals with climate change. The emphasis of Johannesburg should and will be on other issues, such as those to which the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) referred, and particularly on fresh water, sanitation and energy.

Mr. Redwood: I have a serious question that I am sure the Minister will want to answer. On debt reduction for poorer countries, does he think it wise to pay off debt in countries where there are civil wars or heavy military expenditure by the state, or does he think that those debts should not be reduced?

Mr. Meacher: That is a difficult question, and no one can give a glib answer to it. There is little point in providing aid or debt remission—which come to much the same thing in the end—if that money is to be corruptly or otherwise distorted for the purposes of the ruling elite. That is an issue to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development may refer in his reply. It is an issue for the Department for International Development in particular, and it has taken action on that basis. Good governance is an issue, but there is a real problem: such a policy can be exercised only with great care, because cutting off aid or debt remission to undermine a leadership that is perceived to be destroying a country can have unintended and inadvertent effects on the wider population that can be truly dreadful. It is a very difficult decision to have to make and it can be made only on the merits of each case and on the basis of the best available information.

Johannesburg also follows last year's Doha trade talks and the Doha development agenda, which is significant because poor countries need to be able to feel the benefits from participating in the wider global trading system. That initiated a further World Trade Organisation round, which is regarded as a pro-poor round—that remains to be seen. Developed countries committed themselves to improving market access for those goods of most interest to developing countries, including agriculture and textiles. That is vital. We live in a world in which we spend only $50 billion a year on aid but $350 billion a year on agricultural subsidies, which are very largely concentrated on the rich countries.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Surely this is the area in which we should be most critical of the United States. Its conclusion that it can save its agriculture only with a massive increase in subsidies will make an enormous difference by stopping the third world being able to trade with it. Cannot we take the lead by reforming, once and for all, the common agricultural policy to get rid of these ridiculous subsidies?

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