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19 June 2002

Debate on World Poverty

As several hon. Members have said, it is good to see so many people on the streets outside Parliament today. People from all parts of the country have travelled to London to make their voices heard and to hear what we have to say. I hope that we do them justice and that contributions from both sides of the House continue to be positive and constructive.

The issue we are debating has struck a chord with many people from all walks of life and with hon. Members on both sides of the House. As with the Jubilee 2000 campaign to which my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) has referred, the number of people who have become involved in this issue, who have raised it with me during surgeries and who have written letters and sent postcards, is quite incredible. For thousands of people to come to London today, something is clearly wrong – so badly wrong that people feel a sense of outrage and injustice. People outside are not asking for a better deal for themselves. They are saying, "Give the poorest of the poor and the hungry and the starving of the world a fair deal – let them have a chance to help themselves, and end a trading system that kicks people when they are down."

If life is about choices, the contrast between rich and poor has never been so stark. When shopping for food, we often have a choice of 20 different types of cheese, a wall of cereals, and teas and coffees from around the world; meanwhile others no less deserving than ourselves eat grass or sawdust, or starve to death. As if things were not bad enough for the poorest of the poor, the rules of international trade – those relating to the provision of the basics in life, such as food and water – seem to be designed to make them even worse off.

If a Jaguar fighter bomber, a combat helicopter or submachine guns is required, the wheels of commerce with developing countries spin at great speed. We have
only to look at the latest strategic export controls annual report, which details arms deals approved by the Government in 2000, to see that poverty-stricken states such as Bangladesh, Malawi and Sudan are not kept out of the trade loop entirely.
If finance and credit arrangements can be developed to fund some very dubious purchases, such as the £28 million air traffic control system for Tanzania, surely it is not beyond our capabilities to introduce fair trading rules for some of the most basic items that sustain life itself, but we have not done very well so far.

We have developed a system that undermines the price of crops in developing countries so that farmers cannot sell on the world market, because wealthy nations of the world have subsidised crop prices to a point where their crops are effectively dumped on to the world market. We have a system that can leave the poor without drinking water, while tourists at expensive resorts nearby have their thirst quenched by a water system that has been priced out of the range of local people by a trade agreement which stops their Government providing socially desirable drinking water.

We have a system under which farmers who for generations have used seeds to grow crops are told that the right to purchase that same seed is now owned by a multinational company which has purchased the patent, and that farmers must not only buy the seed from it, but must pay the new owner a royalty for using the seed. When we have such a system, we have a rotten system, and we had better do something about it, or the people outside will want to know why.

What has outraged so many people outside Parliament today is that existing trade agreements and proposals around the corner are grinding the poorest of the poor into the dust, while improving the lot of the better off. The real tragedy is that it need not happen at all. The United Nations estimates that poor countries lose £1.3 billion a day because of unjust trade rules – 14 times more than they receive in aid.
Although there are moves to write off the debts of some of the poorest countries, and some progress is being made in that direction, the scale of the remaining problem is daunting. More than half of the heavily indebted poor countries are spending more on servicing debt than on primary education, and two thirds of the world's poorest countries are spending more on debt than on health care.

In order to trade, those countries must have the shackles of debt removed at the earliest opportunity. In respect of countries to which loans have been provided, we should end the conditions that force them to open up their markets too quickly to the full strength of competition from industrialised countries, which can undermine local producers with subsidised goods or, in the case of farming, expose local farmers to competition from the relatively protected farmers of Europe and the United States. That can have a devastating effect.

Hon. Members have mentioned examples from around the world, such as Ghana, where the market for rice collapsed while rice from the US was flooding in. In contrast, there are good examples as well. For instance, Mauritius adopted a positive trade regime which resulted in a wide range of products being exported, economic growth, a reduction in income inequality and an increase in life expectancy. A targeted trade policy with the right incentives can help exporters and produce a win-win result.

The World Bank estimates that the reform of the international trade rules for developing countries could lift 300 million people out of poverty. We must make a start. In Europe, we must reform the common agricultural policy to stop dumping and agree deadlines for doing that. Pressure should be maintained on all those who attend the ever-increasing number of summits, such as the world summit in South Africa later this year.

There is no excuse for patenting any plant form that has been grown for generations, and changes must be made to stop that scandal. Markets must be opened up to developing countries and the practice of dumping agricultural products on world markets must be stopped. The EU has failed to provide access for all exports from the 49 poorest and least developed countries in the world, and that must change. Recently, as was mentioned earlier, the US Farm Bill increased subsidies to American farmers by 70 per cent. over 10 years, making it even harder for developing countries to compete or enter the US domestic market.

Trade agreements should be developed to help the poor, to protect the environment and to be a force for positive change. If that development does not take place, we shall all suffer as we help to develop a world where the obese watch the poor starve to death on television. All that is being asked for is what is fair. We should settle for nothing else.

Related items

international development
international aid
European Union
arms exports

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.