Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.38 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill): I welcome today's debate on a subject that, sadly, receives very little time in this Chamber; indeed, it would largely be ignored without the tremendous effort of the many people throughout the United Kingdom who support the Trade Justice Movement. Sadly, despite the urgent and pressing need for widespread reform of our own trading policies and a truly development-led settlement, the prospects for a meaningful agreement are currently bleak.

In February, I had the pleasure of being part of the British Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to the World Trade Organisation parliamentary conference in Geneva. For me, that event symbolised a number of the issues that are blocking real progress. Unfortunately, the United States has withdrawn its membership of the IPU and accordingly did not participate. The US Government have a political philosophy that is generally suspicious of multilateral agreements. They have placed increasing emphasis on securing bilateral agreements where it is clear that they will always hold the upper hand. If the current talks fail, the route back to bilateral negotiations is already being marked out.

Many EU member states appeared defensive about their own policies. In fact, some argued bare-faced that, because of their own economic problems, the developing world would have to wait before the EU could make further concessions on CAP. That is not very comforting for a country the majority of whose population is living on less than a dollar a day. The developing nations were exasperated and hostile about the lack of progress, and the WTO gave every impression of being completely uninterested in engaging in any form of parliamentary scrutiny or accepting criticism for the growing fault lines among member states.

How can we make real progress? As the Minister confirmed this afternoon, it is certainly not in the interest of developing countries to return to a system of bilateral trade agreements in which they will always be the junior player. Under that system, the hope of comprehensive reform of either the CAP or US subsidies will rapidly vanish. A multilateral system should offer the best opportunities for change and development, but, rather than every player hanging on to their vested interests, it needs to operate on a basis of trust and with political will to reach agreed goals.

The current round of negotiations has been termed a "development round", but there is no consensus on how development is defined, or on the process by which the details of that hugely complex group of negotiations is supposed to fit round it. Unlike the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation has not incorporated the UN millennium development goals as integral to its own doctrines. If development is truly the ultimate objective, rather than just an add-on benefit of reducing trade barriers, the WTO needs to consider a much more radical reform of its own agenda.

The test for a rule or proposal to be considered by the WTO should not be whether it is "trade-distorting", but whether it is "development-distorting". Many less developed countries quite rightly feel that they have been let down badly in previous trade deals. While they

25 Jun 2003 : Column 1142

agreed to open their doors to our goods and suffered from our subsidised dumping, the richer nations were largely shielded and successfully clung on to their trade barriers. At the same time, the world prices of many basic trade commodities, such as coffee or bananas, have slumped, with disastrous effects on the economies of poor countries. The developing countries are understandably much more reluctant to make any further concessions unless they can achieve significant concessions from the west this time.

There is, frankly, an increasing difficulty in achieving trade-offs in all sectors, and we need to consider whether the present round of negotiations should be the last permanent round, followed by a period of review and consolidation. As yet, there is no formal requirement for the WTO to review its own policies to determine which ones contribute and which detract from the goal of development. Currently, once commitments are made, it is virtually impossible to withdraw from them, however injurious they are to a nation's economic development, without severe penalty.

Given the fractious atmosphere in which the current negotiations have been conducted, there is also a need to examine the scope and mandate of the WTO. There are key world trade issues—including, as I said earlier, primary commodity markets—that the WTO is not seriously concerned about. On the other hand, the WTO has become involved in domestic policy issues, such as intellectual property laws, domestic investment and subsidy policies.

The WTO has evolved trade principles such as non-discrimination, most favoured nation and national treatment, which were correctly derived in the context of trade in goods, but there is no clear evidence or political consensus that the application of those same principles to areas other than trade will lead to positive development outcomes. Just about every developed country, including our own, expanded initially on the basis of special treatment for its own industries and Government procurement. The benefits of investment and procurement liberalisation are not likely to outweigh the disadvantages unless there is sufficient strength within the domestic economy itself and sufficient capacity to regulate foreign investment and adequately to enforce that regulation.

Liberalisation, as the Government to some extent acknowledge, should not be pursued automatically as an end in itself. What is much more important is the quality, timing, sequencing and scope of liberalisation, and how the process is accompanied by other factors. Only last week, African Trade Ministers, meeting in Mauritius, issued a statement that referred to

It also said that the Ministers

Those are clearly very different views from those held by our own Government and other western countries, but I hope that, instead of forcing that part of the agenda forward now as part of a settlement this year, we will engage with the concerns of the developing world and consider a more appropriate mechanism to deal with those matters in a systematic manner.

25 Jun 2003 : Column 1143

I know that our Government, who have taken the lead in so many development matters, will fight hard for a successful outcome at Cancun later this year and I urge them to focus their negotiating priorities on agricultural and non-food tariffs and on reaching agreement on the supply of vital drugs for AIDS, TB and malaria so that we can achieve a better world for future generations.

5.46 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I warmly welcome this debate, and in particular the introduction by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). She has made a significant contribution to her brief and we appreciate the way in which she moved the motion today. I especially commend my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor on their work in establishing the advocacy fund. In an atmosphere that can become highly charged, those in developing countries need their own voice. They do not always speak with the same voice, and those organisations that purport to speak for them do not always necessarily say what those in developing countries would wish to say. Sometimes, developing countries have different needs and sometimes they say things that we would not expect them to say, but all their voices are authentic and they deserve to be heard. The advocacy fund will make a significant contribution to that.

I wish to acknowledge the influence of outside bodies on our debate today. Most of us in political parties have bemoaned the fact in recent years that as membership of political parties has fallen, membership of single-interest pressure groups has gone up. Today is a perfect example of why that may be the case. Those in the Trade Justice Movement and the Jubilee Debt Campaign have brought the matter into the public arena with a vigour and determination that make us all think. The debt and fair trade issues that they have raised are familiar to almost all of those who will take part in this debate, but the campaigners have prosecuted those issues with a fervour that has changed the political agenda. The culmination of that in the lobby this weekend will be important to all of us. Most of us will have a chance to speak to the campaigners and I commend my local groups in Sharnbrook and Sandy on the contribution that they have made. I have been in close contact with them during the International Development Committee's current inquiry into fair trade. I wish that same energy could be incorporated into political parties, because we would all benefit if some of those who spent their time on single-issue pressure groups joined us. They might then appreciate the difficult compromises that we have to make on these matters, because they are not all capable of simple solutions.

I also wish to acknowledge the contribution that the Churches have made to the issue. For a long time, those driven by the compassion of Jesus Christ have given their careers and development expertise to developing countries. They have joined those of all faiths and none in that work, and we pay tribute to them. On the back of that work, we have seen a growing disquiet in the Christian community at what has emerged. Our concept of neighbour has widened as the world has grown smaller, and it is in trade justice that the two come together. In the same way that environmentalists tell us that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Africa can

25 Jun 2003 : Column 1144

change the climate of a continent half a world away, so we know that there is a direct relationship between those who struggle to escape disease and poverty in one place and ourselves in another. One does not have to believe that there is an absolutely direct link between poverty and terrorism to recognise that those who seek to prey on the vulnerabilities of others find plenty of material in countries where the agony is greatest and the chance of escape most remote.

Next Section

IndexHome Page