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European Standing Committee B Debates

World Summit on Sustainable Development and Aid for Poverty Diseases

European Standing Committee B

Monday 8 July 2002

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

World Summit on Sustainable Development and Aid for Poverty Diseases

[Relevant documents: European Union Document No. 7727/02; European Union Document No. 6863/02; European Union Document No. COM(02)129.]

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Ms Sally Keeble): I am pleased to serve on the Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Hara.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the world summit on sustainable development, which will take place in August, and the European Union regulation on aid for poverty diseases. I am sure that we will have a substantial debate on those important issues.

Hon. Members will be aware of the criticisms that often accompany large international summits, but the world summit is an important event that can make a difference to international efforts to eliminate poverty and achieve sustainable development. The Committee will also be aware of criticisms of the European Commission's development programmes. We should all clearly understand that the draft regulation on poverty diseases could be part of the answer to many such criticisms. The benefits of the work that it proposes will be focused strongly on the poorest countries and, as a recent report showed, the likely outcomes will have a major impact in the fight against poverty in those countries.

I will outline the Government's approach to the world summit before I talk about the European health regulation. In seven weeks' time, Ministers from across the world, including our Prime Minister, will meet in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the world summit, which is the culmination of an international process. The millennium summit in 2000 gave us the millennium development goals—a set of ambitious but achievable international targets that included the overarching goal of halving by 2015 the proportion of people living in poverty. In November last year, the Doha meeting of the World Trade Organisation placed the concerns of developing countries at the heart of the next trade round. In March this year, the Monterrey conference on finance for development led to pledges of increased development assistance from the European Union and the United States. Both meetings have been important steps in improving the effectiveness of the international system. The world summit in Johannesburg must build on those achievements. It provides an opportunity for world leaders to show the same willingness and resolve to work together in the fight against poverty as they showed in the fight against terrorism.

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The EU Development Council conclusions on preparations for the world summit on sustainable development stress the centrality of poverty reduction to the achievement of sustainable development. They emphasise the importance of completing successfully and on time the work launched under the Doha development agenda, the importance of increased official development assistance, and the need to ensure a successful third replenishment of the global environment facility. They also recognise that supporting African development is a high priority.

Hon. Members will know that the European health regulation is still being negotiated; it will be taken to the new General Affairs and External Relations Council later in the year. The United Kingdom has strongly supported the regulation. The landmark report of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, published last December, made it clear that the link between investment in better health and economic development and poverty reduction is far stronger than previously understood. The fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria—the three diseases on which the regulation focuses—is central to that effort.

The regulation will provide the basis for the Commission's future contributions to the new global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. For the past year, the Commission has worked closely with the UK and other countries to ensure that the fund was set up as an innovative and effective public-private partnership to provide leverage and to allocate quickly substantial new resources to the fight against those three diseases. The Commission's continued contributions to and involvement in the fund will be important to its success.

Elements of the regulation include: work to promote better access to medicines in the poorest countries; work on differential pricing; work with the World Health Organisation to help Governments to make the best choices about selection and use of drugs; and funding for further research into vaccines and treatment. Work to help countries to monitor health outcomes better is also proposed. Overall, the regulation envisages a cross-cutting approach, bringing together development, trade and research sections of the Commission. It is looking to work in partnership with other international partners and in countries in a way that supports their Government programmes and priorities. The UK Government support that approach wholeheartedly.

Two issues remain under negotiation. First, the European Parliament suggested changes that could be taken to misrepresent parts of the Doha declaration on TRIPS—trade related aspects of intellectual property rights—and public health. We all want rapid progress to be made on access to affordable medicines for the world's poor. Importantly, that declaration clarified a number of ways in which the TRIPS agreement could and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members' right to protect public health.

The European Parliament amendments highlight some aspects of the Doha declaration, such as compulsory licensing, over others. That is unhelpful

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and could serve to unpick that internationally agreed and broadly welcomed declaration. Furthermore, although we regard the elements that that Parliament has highlighted as important safeguards, it is clear to us that the best way to achieve widespread, sustainable and predictable access to medicines over a short time scale is to build support among all the key stakeholders for a package of measures on differential pricing. The United Kingdom has been working on that over the past year with the Commission and others through our working group on access to medicines. That group will report to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the end of the month, after which we will need to build further international support.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister give way?

The Chairman: Order. There can be no interventions during the opening statement. There will be ample opportunity for questions later.

Ms Keeble: Our concern is that a European regulation that highlights compulsory licensing could be counter-productive. A number of member states share that view, which the Commission is referring back to the European Parliament.

The other outstanding issue is the financial allocation. The letter of 2 July from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development outlined discussions about that issue to date; members of the Committee have copies of that letter. The UK continues to press for the regulation to be allocated an amount commensurate with its potential impact on poverty. If the budget council approves the budget package on 19 July, it will be for colleagues in the European Parliament to consider whether the financial allocation is adequate and to respond accordingly.

A number of us—member states, the Commission, the WHO and others—are working hard to build international consensus on access to medicines, which should result in substantial progress being made in the fairly near future. We recognise the urgency of the situation. The work of the UK working group should be a great asset in moving forward the international agenda. However, many member states, including us, feel that some of the European Parliament's proposed amendments might serve to unpick the Doha agreement and might be unhelpful to international progress. We understand that the Commission is referring member states' views back to the European Parliament.

I look forward to discussing these important issues with the Committee.

The Chairman: There is now an opportunity to ask the Minister questions, until 5.30 if necessary. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and put singly. If they wish to ask further questions, there should be ample opportunity to do so.

Mr. Hawkins: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. Before asking my brief and single-issue question, I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair.

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Do Her Majesty's Government have a view on the Khanbhai report of the European Parliament?

Ms Keeble: I do not have a note on that, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): We are all aware of the terrible experiences of people in Africa and other countries who are dying, particularly of AIDS. Does my hon. Friend not find it uncomfortable to be discussing the rights of companies to patent and profit from medicines at the same time as millions are dying? Has that issue been raised in the discussions?

Ms Keeble: There are a number of relevant issues. Clearly, the Government support the work of a number of states to combat HIV/AIDS and minimise its impact, particularly in Africa. To give the Committee an idea of the scope of the disease, in some parts of Africa, 60 per cent. of teacher recruitment is simply to replace those who die of AIDS. We are giving support to the health and HIV/AIDS programmes of different states. The time lag in the introduction of TRIPS is to ensure that developing countries can build up their own capacity and benefit from the international community's proposals. We want both a reduction in the incidence of AIDS and better treatment of the symptoms, and we are working with our international partners to do that.


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Prepared 8 July 2002