Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
MONDAY 4 MARCH 2002
MP AND MR
80. I do not know when it came out, but there
has been one report already which this memorandum, which is to
this Committee, draws on. What it essentially says is that by
comparison with what the Prime Minister has been saying about
(Mr Prescott) Is that the one from January 2001?
81. That is right.
(Mr Prescott) Which says Annual ReportAchieving
a Better Quality of Life?
82. There was one which came out last year.
(Mr Prescott) Reports are coming out from the Sustainable
Development Commission and there is one about to come out by Jonathon
Porritt. There are the ones we produce each year.
83. We are talking about Jonathon Porritt's
Commission, not the Government.
(Mr Prescott) I understand that has not yet been published.
You have the memorandum. I do not know. The one you have been
given which is out is Annual ReportAchieving a Better Quality
84. That is yours.
(Mr Prescott) Yes, that is the annual report which
is produced by government. If I take the indicators in that, of
the 15 indicators eight have improved, about four or five have
not materially changed and three of them have got worse. That
is over two years and shows we are meeting our targets, we are
doing well. A lot done, a lot more to do, to coin a phrase. So
what are you talking about?
85. I am talking about the criticism by the
Sustainable Development Commission, but if we may move on, have
other politicians from other nations been tasked with a similar
kind of ambassadorial role for their countries?
(Mr Prescott) Is there another Deputy Prime Minister
going round doing this job? I do not think so. In fact their ambassadors,
ministers, foreign secretaries, leaders, prime ministers, are
all in some way enunciating how they feel about this issue. Tony
Blair has made it clear that it is a very important issue for
him and has called upon them to do that. In Europe they are even
meeting today on the Environment Council talking about the targets
we need to set as Europe within those negotiations. Tony Blair
has made it clear that he thinks it is important, he wants to
set an example and has said that he is going to attend that conference.
My job is to encourage others in that process to explain what
we have in mind. What you have to remember about this conference
is that the preparatory conferences decide what the final deal
is going to be. There is also another international development
which will affect people's attitude about attending and that is
the Monterrey conference which is coming on the financing of development.
In those cases people might feel, if the conclusions of the Monterrey
conference mean you are going to have to pay money, it might influence
the attitude of some of the leaders who are going to attend. That
is what I find. At the moment I am hopeful that we will begin
to get an increasing number of heads of state going to this conference:
our Foreign Secretary, our Development Secretary, Margaret Beckett
all those are actively involved in this process of encouraging
all governments to attend at the highest possible levels.
86. To what extent have you noticed in your
discussion the north-south divide which has been spoken of?
(Mr Prescott) Yes, that is an extremely important
point and it dominated a great deal of the Kyoto negotiations.
If you cannot get Group 77 to agree, where this north-south concept
was identified, then you will have difficulty in making progress.
At Kyoto where they eventually came to that compromise and later
at Marrakesh most of the developed countries faced up to that
responsibilityexcept the Americans, as you know, because
they did not want to accept that responsibility at that time,
and the Third Worldand Group 77, identified as the south,
co-operated with it and have gone along and we think we shall
see the ratification of that protocol. That is very important.
In these negotiations we are advocating that developed countries
have a greater responsibility to help those countries more than
they have done before; they have not moved much on it since those
statements were made in 1992 at the Rio conference and they very
much want to see the developed countries playing a more positive
role in that. Our approach is to go a little further and say that
both the Doha negotiations on trade and the Monterrey conference
on finance will give us an opportunity to have a new global structure
to work towards that sustainability. If we get that we shall be
able to introduce another principle which is important to us,
that even some of the countries of the south, or the Group 77,
have advanced quite well and others have not advanced at all,
particularly in the African countries and we believe greater aid
should be given to those in greater need. These are some of the
arguments being developed in the preparatory conferences at the
moment which will not be established until June. I have no reason
to doubt that the Group 77 countries will not play as positive
a part as they did in Kyoto.
87. If I may paraphrase you, Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr Prescott) The press often do, so join in.
88. I will do since so many of them are here.
You said practical objectives will dominate the conference which
is coming up. I am interested in the relationship which you see
between the conference to come in Johannesburg and the Kyoto conference
you mentioned and also Rio ten years ago. Do you believe that
the focus of this conference will be markedly different to the
two earlier conferences? Do you believe, for example, that environmental
matters, which were very much to the fore in the earlier conference,
take a back seat?
(Mr Prescott) I would not like to put it like that
because people would feel and perhaps speculate that we were backing
up the environmental objectives. They are very important but the
Kyoto agreement and then the legal framework established at the
Marrakesh conference meant that environment was well under way.
All we have to do now is implement it and make sure we do in the
ratification of it. It has dominated most of the nations' approach
to the Rio 10, but there are many other objectives about poverty,
about access to clean water, about reducing the amount of poverty
we have in the world. Those were highlighted and we are trying
to bring them more to the fore. I believe there needs to be a
change of gear at Johannesburg which is being organised by the
South Africans and is not called the Rio 10 conference; they now
use the term People, Planet and Prosperity. That gives us an opportunity
to begin to focus on those areas where we have not done so well.
The various preparatory conferences at the moment are trying to
establish exactly what those objectives should be. We have given
a lead by saying they should be concentrating on poverty eradication,
greater resource productivity, science and technology to help
them develop their education base, access to fresh water and oceans,
for example, many of these countries which are coastal states
have been driven into poverty by the raiding of their fish stock
areas by fleets from other countries and that is extremely serious
to them, capacity building programmes, education. We have said
that if we can concentrate on those and get the agreements along
the lines of the millennium targets set by the UN we would reduce
poverty by a certain time, get more children into schools, improve
the amount of access to clean water. These are objectives set
for 2015. I rather think the emphasis at Johannesburg should be
a plan of action based around the title of the conference: People,
Planet and Prosperity. It is not moving away from the importance
of environment but is trying to bring up all the other issues
which are practical issues, which are things we can do positive
things about such as access to clean water.
89. You met Kofi Annan last week to discuss
preparations. In what respects does his approach differ from yours?
(Mr Prescott) It does not at all. When I first met
him in December in the United States he was very worried that
enough importance was not being given to the conference in the
regional reports he was receiving; people did not think it was
very important to be involved in this conference. He was concerned
about that, therefore he set up a group of people to encourage
the regional groups to participate and determine their order of
priorities and not to have too many and come to political agreements
about it. That is what the five regional groups are. His view
was that this was a conference from the grassroots up, not from
the top down and therefore you would get many, many demands reflecting
the different regions. The real challenge for us in the next few
months is to boil them down to very practical aims. Many of our
proposals have been accepted as an approach to that. We did discuss
with the Secretary General, the business of finance, the coming
Monterrey conference which Gordon Brown was extremely concerned
about. He wanted to see the Secretary General take into account
that aspect of the trust fund, the possibility of making sure
more resources were available and devoted very much to eradicating
poverty and increasing education. He very much agreed with that,
indeed he went on to make a speech which we discussed in December
saying from Doha to Monterrey and on to Johannesburg. I do think
we are now talking about a new global structure, if we can get
that framework right instead of operating just trade, just finance,
just sustainable development. We need to bring it together in
a complete frame, as indeed the Rio conference was in 1992. We
think this is now an opportunity for South Africa in the Johannesburg
conference to lay out a plan of action. The Secretary General
made that clear, it is in line with what we were saying and we
found great encouragement from that.
90. As far as Monterrey itself is concerned,
what are the particular vital decisions you think need to be taken
there to make Johannesburg a success?
(Mr Prescott) If Johannesburg is to be a success,
you want an awful lot of people to go to it and heads of state
to go to it to be honest. It is not so much about the decisions
it takes, it is the decisions it might not take. For example,
if the agreement is to increase aid to these countries or doubling
it, there will be a number of countries who will say they are
not going to Johannesburg if that is what it is about. We have
a commitment to increase the target of 0.7 per cent of GDP. We
are going to increase ours over the next couple of years to at
least half that level and many countries have actually reduced
it. If Monterrey were to identify that it was only about aid,
I think countries might shy away from it; some obvious ones. If
it is about getting a practical set of proposals which will implement
programmes better than at the moment and move to eradicate poverty
and get free access to water, I think many countries will not
want to get trapped in that. To my mind it is very important at
all these international conference not to be too ambitious in
what you are demanding if you want consensus. Remember, at the
end of the day, as with Kyoto, it is not easy to get 140 nations
to agree. They are small steps but they are important ones. The
important point is to avoid failure and that is what is important
about Monterrey: not to make too many obstacles to achieving what
we want at Johannesburg. Take Gordon Brown's commitment to the
trust fund, which you probably heard about, the idea of having
a special fund which would help these countries. That fund itself
is quite a considerable amount. If you try to agree that at Monterrey
in March, you will not find agreement. If the Johannesburg conference
were dependent on getting that agreement, it would be a pity to
approach the conference almost expecting failure because you had
not achieved success at Monterrey. It is small steps, step by
91. In your meetings with leaders of developing
countries have any of them raised the issue of entering this conference
on a level playing field? In the past, for example, developing
nations have felt disadvantaged in WTO negotiations and we have
addressed that by contributing to a fund to help them attend and
prepare properly. Have you formed any opinion on that in your
meetings with leaders of developing countries?
(Mr Prescott) I have no doubt the developing countries
feel strongly and the terms of trade have been very much against
them. Aid in some cases has not helped many countries; it has
been okay for some but the poorer have got poorer and some better.
They feel it is not a very fair way of doing it. We understand
the CAP in the European Union is something which has not been
particularly advantageous despite the Lomé agreements and
other agreements which followed from that. They feel strongly
about that. These issues, particularly the posers we are setting
here, are about how you help them with their education, reducing
poverty, access to fresh water, all these kinds of things are
things which they agree with and look to us to help deliver on
that. This conference at Johannesburg should be not only about
defining the aims and being practical about them, but at the same
time making sure they are delivered and delivered in a different
way, that is through partnerships with industry and the civil
society, so we can achieve that and on a political principle to
argue that we should recognise that some countries are not doing
well and if that is the case they should get greater help from
that. Within the Group 77 there are sensitivities about those
countries which have benefited from the international agreements
they have had and those who have not. Africa frankly belongs to
one of those groups of countries where it is not going too well.
92. Thank you for coming to our Committee, Deputy
Prime Minister. May I take you back to the meeting you had with
Kofi Annan in terms of the outcomes you would like to see from
the Johannesburg summit? In view of what you have just said about
the importance of the partnership with industry, may I ask whether
or not in the discussions you have had with Kofi Annan the issue
of a binding corporate accountability came up? You mentioned the
role of industry and the way in which you have to have a partnership
round the table with industry. It seems to me that this was one
of the issues which many people would have liked to have seen
as a long-term outcome out of Rio and it seems to be stalled.
There are many NGOs who wish to get it back onto the agenda for
Johannesburg. If we are looking at this whole issue within the
context of sustainable development and poverty, may I ask what
you are hoping will come out of Johannesburg in respect of binding
commitments from international, multinational, transnational companies?
(Mr Prescott) I am aware that people have been wanting
to make the issue of corporate accountability a major issue for
the conference. It is for the conference to decide whether they
want to accept that. I have put a great deal of emphasis on getting
the kind of co-operation to achieve the more limited objectives
I have set out and they are important for billions of people.
The corporate responsibility we are asking for as a minimum is
getting in to help us deliver the water projects, to deal with
sanitation, to help us with the education, to deal with resource
and greater energy efficiencies. All these are things in which
we look to the private sector in the south to co-operate with
us to be able to achieve that and working with a number of countries
who are the recipients of these benefits, particularly Group 77.
When you talk about accountability, I recall my discussions with
the Nigerian leader who said he pulls on the levers and often
nothing happens. Therefore he was looking to a better form of
governance and governance is an issue increasingly brought to
the fore. When you talk about accountability it is often felt
that money is put into places and not enough accountability falls
on the recipients. We want to tighten that up and the Monterrey
conference is about setting some of those standards. All these
will be competing demands to be put at the conference; the ones
being consulted upon now and the ones being prepared by different
groups. The NGOs are participants in this conference, so I am
sure they will be able to put what they wish to it.
93. Might it be possible for there to be even
further discussions at this stage with the different government
departments who are contributing to your own ministerial conference
(Mr Prescott) Yes, we are still in active discussion
in a number of those areas as we get ready to prepare for the
conference which takes place end April/beginning May where the
Ministers and the preparatory conference come together to decide
the kind of agenda and the importance of those issues. Those issues
are still ongoing but do not forget NGOs are involved in the international
discussions as well as in the national ones.
94. Will the UK Government be pushing for this
to be part of the agenda outcomes which are desired for Johannesburg?
(Mr Prescott) No, we have said we do not think we
agree with that proposal and what we want is the agenda we are
proposing at the moment. We are discussing these matters with
various groups but my own judgement is that we have made our position
clear that we shall not take that directly as one of our major
95. That is something you think can be left
to voluntary agreements.
(Mr Prescott) I should like it to be voluntary. I
should like to avoid all the excesses which have brought about
these demands for greater accountability. We are concentrating
on how much we can meet those demands and get the maximum co-operation
from people to deliver. Deliver, deliver is the important issue
of this conference and that is why we want to make sure we have
a programme which people think is practicable, meets the demands
of it and deals with those millions in poverty and denied access
to clean water.
96. May I go back to the meeting you had with
Kofi Annan? In view of the huge success many people felt came
from the fact that a convention on biodiversity was agreed at
Rio, I have looked through the papers and it does not seem to
me that biodiversity is a really central theme of what the objectives
are which are coming out at Johannesburg. Is that something you
would like to comment on, particularly in respect of issues for
example like the Brazilian rain forest and the illegal logging
of timber? Is that not something which should be maintained on
(Mr Prescott) Yes and in fact it is one of the demands
which is being made but it is a convention. We had that one on
climate change, we have this one now on biodiversity and the issue
of forests is something which is being discussed within the climate
change issues and at the UN Conference on Sustainability which
you are aware of; highly controversial, no agreement about it
at this stage. We have advanced so far to a convention: what we
should like is to advance some of these social problems which
are important at the moment, which could be solved and where there
is less controversy.
97. Will you be looking to make sure that each
of the government departments, including Customs and Excise, Department
of Trade and Industry, DEFRA and so on are all looking to carry
out the detail of what has been agreed at Rio in preparation for
what hopefully will be further agreed at Johannesburg?
(Mr Prescott) That is our obligation and particularly
under forestry. We shall be doing all we can to observe the obligations
which come from that.
98. You spoke powerfully and persuasively about
the need to achieve consensus and not to put too ambitious targets
forward. I suppose few people would have been more aware of the
problems of achieving consensus in these matters than you. Is
there a danger that we seem to be having these sorts of international
conferences more frequently now and developing an ever-widening
range of objectives at each conference? In answer to my colleague
Joan Walley just now you spoke about the problem of delivery.
Is there not a case for concentrating on a smaller number of targets
and fewer conferences and trying to ensure that we meet those
targets for delivery rather than talking about ambitions which
are empty promises if not met?
(Mr Prescott) I agree with a great deal of what you
said. May I take the point about aims, targets and objectives?
You have to be practical. What Kyoto taught me was that the European
demand for a 15 per cent cut in gases just was not possible. You
either go in and the conference breaks down or you change your
position. Fortunately we all began to change that position and
we came to an agreement at Kyoto. One of the problems with international
conferences is that sometimes everybody sets impossible demands
and you have to try to find a formula; you start working all through
the nights for the compromise. What is important is to get the
preparatory work done beforehand so that the arguments do not
come at the final conference. The example of the UN conference
in South Africa on race was a classic example where the work was
not done. If you take the Doha conference on trade, at least that
was more successful than the one in Seattle. You have to do the
work beforehand. If I presume the preparatory conferences are
not really conferences, they are trying to get a realistic collection
of demands to be put to a conference and agreed, the reality is
that if you are talking with 140, 170, 180, whatever countries
who are involved and you have to get consensus, there is no vote
in the main. It is extremely difficult to get a consensus and
it is perhaps the speed of the convoy. You need to know the speed
of the slowest ship and get everybody to agree it. The worst is
to fail. Once you fail on these kinds of conference you have put
it off for another ten years. The real priority is to get something
that everybody can accept across a diverse group of nations from
very rich to very poor and something they can agree with. What
we have settled on is this programme where I think we will find
99. Are the issues which the United Kingdom
have settled on raising ones which have a strong practical approach
which is achievable or are they shopping lists filled with pious
objectives which everyone needs to show they are supporting?
(Mr Prescott) They are pretty basic: the access people
should have to good sanitation facilities or access to clean water.
We find there is very much agreement about all those things. Do
not forget that this was agreed at the 1992 Rio summit, though
most of the effort went into the environment. What we are saying
is bring them back to the floor. They were agreed then. Implement
the rest of that Earth Summit programme but give a higher priority
to it under this People, Planet and Prosperity one being proposed
at Johannesburg and spell out what they are. The United Nations
has agreed certain millennium targets including a reduction in
the number of people suffering povertyover 1.5 billion
on less than a dollar a day. We are looking to halving that by
2015. The same with access to clean water. We have set a series
of targets which are practicable and should be ones we should
all endorse and ones which will be acceptable. We have to wait
for the preparatory conferences. We have some very ambitious demands
which I do not think we have a chance of getting accepted internationally,
but we are still in negotiation for them.