HC Deb 25 July 1986 vol 102 cc843-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maude.]

9.39 am
Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

One day, a little less than three weeks ago, the population of the world for the first time exceeded 5 billion people. Well, so what, most might reply with a yawn? In the course of the next few minutes I want to try to provide some answers to that question and to ask the Government how they are responding.

I do not know — I do not think anybody knows—what population the world can carry, but there is a limit, and whatever that limit may be we are racing towards it at an ever-increasing pace, not because the world population growth rate is increasing—fortunately, it is marginally decreasing — but because, on the basis of compound interest, the number of people throughout the world is growing at an alarming rate.

There are some people who doubt that there is a limit to the number of people that the world can carry, but in my judgment they are deluding themselves and are being quite unrealistic. Anyone who knows anything about animal populations will know that excess numbers lead to starvation, disease and sometimes strife and madness.

Among human populations the effect of starvation and disease in recent times has been self-evident. With regard to strife or madness among animals, why else do lemmings behave as they do, or even the Gadarene swine as they did?

In principle, there is no difference between the human race and other animals. Thus it is that world wide we must urgently demonstrate that the superior wisdom of the human race and the application of knowledge available to it can lead to a control of human numbers before any misfortune should occur.

Furthermore, in the immediate future we must ensure that population growth does not exceed economic growth. If it does, although total national income may grow, the standard of living per head will fall and there will be still more hardship and poverty.

Thus it is that we should take note of population growth and do what we can to control it. Ultimately, all our constituents or their successors will be affected by population growth. Our constituents may not realise it, but they will be affected simply because excess population will lead to dwindling world resources and shortages of raw materials necessary for the wellbeing even of our country, relatively wealthy though it may be.

So it is important that we should take note that it took from the beginning of time to 1830 for the world population to reach 1 billion. It took another 60 years for the population to double to 2 billion. It took another 30 years to reach 3 billion and only another 15 years—to 1975—to reach 4 billion. Today, 11 years later, it has reached 5 billion, and 6 billion will be notched up well before the year 2000.

It is true that statistics mean more in those countries where population growth is most rapid. In the past two years I have had the opportunity of visiting some of the most populous countries in the world and joining in discussions at conferences in Delhi, Mexico City and Harare, in addition to a small conference held in Britain involving parliamentarians from European countries.

In each of those conferences the population statistics became still more mind-boggling. For instance, Mexico City is scheduled to grow to 26 million people by the year 2000 and already totals 18 million people, 46 per cent. of whom are living as squatters or in slums. The World Bank estimates that India's population will peak at 1.6 billion. That is a good deal larger than the population of China today.

In both Mexico City and Delhi I had the opportunity of meeting Members of Parliament and experts from developing countries for whom rapid population growth is a day-to-day problem known to be undermining the prospects of the countries and their people.

In Africa, the population crisis has been brought home to every family in Britain by the famine in sub-Saharan Africa. The result here has been the most impressive show of public generosity to Live Aid, Band Aid and Sport Aid.

In May this year I attended the all-Africa parliamentary conference on population and development in Harare. It was attended by 31 out of 36 African countries with Parliaments and by representatives of nine African countries without Parliaments. The quality of the speeches was high and showed a strong commitment to programmes for population control. Ancient beliefs about the need for large families throughout Africa were not just questioned; they were refuted. Prime Minister Mugabe, in his opening speech, took pride in his country's family planning programme, and correctly stated that no population programme should be considered in isolation from policies and plans on health, housing, education, employment, the environment and the use of available resources.

Those words were echoed again and again by experts and Members of Parliaments alike, as well they might be, given that at present the population growth rate in Africa at 2.9 per cent. per annum is the highest in the world with a population doubling time of 24 years. Those statistics include the figures for Kenya, which has the fastest growth rate of all and which are therefore even worse. Kenya has a current growth rate of 4.1 per cent. and a population doubling time of 17 years. It is the target of the Kenyan Government to reduce that growth to 3.6 per cent. by 1989, and that is a considerable target.

In such circumstances as I have described, I am glad to note that at the United Nations special session on Africa on 28 May this year my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said: on present trends the population of Africa will approach 900 million by the end of the century. How is such population growth to be reconciled with decent living standards? Africa, if she is not careful, will find herself having to run in order merely to stay where she is. I know the sensitivities. But the problem must be faced. We shall give any help we can. My right hon. and learned Friend could not have uttered wiser words.

Therefore, I should like to hear from the Under-Secretary a little more about what help the Government are giving. The scope is unlimited. When in Zimbabwe in May, I spent one day with the local Save the Children Fund representative, Simon Metcalfe, looking at the Save the Children Fund farms health service, which provides excellent health care and education at a basic level. The weakness is that the area that it covers is so limited. Small wonder that in some parts of Africa the maternal death rate is still about 1,000 per 100,000 live births, in comparison with only 6 per 100,000 in some European countries.

In my one day in Kenya on the way home I looked at services provided by Kenya's family planning association. They were excellent as far as they went, but the size of the task and the need for better provision was emphasised when I was told that in the particular area where I was there were 16 advisers or lay educators, as they were called, to cope with a population of 1.8 million people.

It should not be forgotten that the knock-on effect of the excessive population growth is enormous and cannot be stressed too loudly. For example, although fuel wood accounts for only one tenth of world energy, and although Nigeria is oil rich, fuel wood accounts for 80 per cent. of domestic energy consumption. That level of fuel wood consumption leads to deforestation. In turn, that leads to soil erosion and to desertification. In turn that leads to less land available for food production and forestry. Therefore, there is a greater chance of starvation.

Population programmes must play a major part within the Government's overall aid programme. I am not convinced that the part that these programmes play is large enough. The increase in population aid from £7.8 million in 1984 to £12 million in 1986 to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and to the World Health Organisation is helpful and welcome, especially in the light of the highly regrettable cuts in aid to IPPF by the United States Administration and the cut in 1985 by $10 million by the United States Administration to UNFPA.

Unfortunately, in the United States there is a small minority of extremely vociferous people who have influenced the American Government to the extent that politically they are fearful of maintaining, let alone increasing as they should, aid for population programmes. I hope that the British Government will not fall into the same trap simply because there are a few vociferous people here as well. None the less, the percentage of overseas aid spent on population activities from this country amounts to only 1 per cent. of all aid. Is that enough? Frankly, I doubt it.

In 1980 the late Sir Neil Marten, when Minister for Overseas Development, directed that when development projects were under consideration full accont should be taken of, and wherever possible include, a population element. Does that policy still exist? If it does, for how many development projects has that policy been relevant since 1983? When my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs replies, will he tell me what aid and expertise ODA can offer to countries wishing to establish a better health infrastructure? Without such aid and expertise, population projects will be much less successful. What population, health and family planning projects in Africa and elsewhere are aided by the United Kingdom Government? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can provide answers to some of these questions.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

Before my hon. Friend finishes his speech, may I ask him, while he is drawing the attention of the Minister to these matters, and while he is talking about the vociferous minority, to emphasise that early-day motion 25 has more signatures to it than any other early-day motion this Session, and that more than 300 parliamentarians have signed that early-day motion calling for an increased aid programme?

Mr. Morrison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention, just as the House and I am grateful to him for his work on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. That Committee has also drawn special attention to the adverse effect of excessive population growth in developing countries.

The world is said to be threatened by two explosions, one nuclear and the other population. Due to the balance of power and, I hope, balanced disarmament, the likelihood of the first, in my judgment, is slight. However, the threat from the second grows ever larger. I trust, therefore, that the Government will do all in their power to defuse that threat.

9.55 am
Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) for allowing me to speak in the debate. This is a very important debate and I congratulate him on his choice of subject. I will be brief as I believe another hon. Member wishes to speak before the Minister replies.

I would like to concentrate my remarks on the principles that should underlie family planning programmes. As the hon. Member for Devizes told the House a moment ago, there is some concern about the way in which family planning projects are implemented in some Third world countries. It is generally agreed that, in this important and sensitive area of human relationships and conduct, we must proceed by the principle of voluntary choice. There must be no element of coercion.

The Parliamentary Group on Population and Development, of which I have the honour to he joint honorary secretary, heard a talk recently from Dr. Malik from the Ministry of Health and Family Planning in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the countries that figure in a motion on the Order Paper in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends who are critical of what they understood to be the way that family planning programmes are implemented. We talked to Dr. Malik about the criticisms that have been raised and the fears expressed by hon. Members and organisations outside the House about what is happening in Bangladesh. Dr. Malik assured us that the principles upon which the Bangladesh Family Planning Association and the Ministry of Health and Family Planning based their programmes were voluntary principles. There was no element of coercion. He emphasised the principles, and these are important as they should apply in every country and certainly in every developing country.

The first principle is full information for clients. The second is comprehensive criteria for acceptance or rejection of clients for sterilisation. Sterilisation is obviously a very big step for men and women to take. There must be full information available to those considering that step. Thirdly, clients should have to sign a form to show that they have understood the implications of the chosen method of contraception. That does not simply apply to sterilisations; it applies to the pill and IUD and so on.

Dr. Malik assured us that for the Bangladesh Government, the authorities and bureaucracy, the principle is one of voluntary choice. However, as in many developing countries, the efficiency of management below the top level leaves a lot to be desired. There is a shortage of people who can effectively manage programmes. We must admit, and this is true of many developing countries, that the people at the top do not always know what is happening at the grass roots. It is therefore essential for people at the top, in the Ministries, not to set targets that would lead people to the conclusion that they should take exceptional measures, as happened in India in 1976–77, when Gandhi put forward plans that were misinterpreted and led to accusations, which, in some cases, were justified, of enforced sterilisation. Such sterilisation is obviously out of the question and unacceptable. More must be done in the management of projects at the lowest level in Third world countries.

At grass roots level, voluntary projects as well as official family planning projects aided by the ODA can play an important part. Some of us know the actress Miss Susan Hampshire very well. She is running a project in the slums of Bangladesh, for which she has raised a lot of money and, I am glad to say, the ODA is now part-funding her programme.

When extra money becomes available for family planning programmes, more consideration should be given to the part-funding of voluntary projects. The management is rather more within the control of those supervising the project and it is possible to ensure that nothing goes wrong and that there is no question of coercion.

I would like to endorse the remarks made by the hon. Member for Devizes. If this and other Governments, as aid donors, do not make this issue a bigger part of their aid package, the scale of the problem in places such as Bangladesh will become so great as to place so many stresses on internal economies and development that Governments may be forced, even against their better judgment, into coercive measures. We do not want to see that happen. To prevent that, I hope that in this country, at official and unofficial level, we shall take family planning programmes and mother and child health care programmes in the Third world more seriously than we have done.

9.59 am
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

I wish to take just one minute on behalf of the all-party group on overseas development and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to support all that has been said in the debate. The population question is an important element in aid provision, but it is only a part of any developmental aid programme.

Those of us who know Africa and other parts of the world know that the one thing that the poorest families need and are able to create is manpower. Children are seen as a means of planting and harvesting the bare necessities of life. Population figures show that as standards improve and people can afford more things the population declines.

I make that point because it is important that any development aid programme should be designed first to relieve poverty. That will relieve hunger and the population programmes will then begin to fit in.

10.1 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) on his success in the ballot. I thank him, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) for putting their case so effectively and acting as such a responsible pressure group in the House and the country. They have a genuine commitment which, on a personal basis, I share.

There should be no doubt about the importance that the Government attach to population activities within the total aid programme. It is noteworthy that we have more than doubled our assistance in this sector from £7.5 million in 1980 to just over £15.5 million in 1985, an increase that compares extremely well with other aspects of the aid programme.

I am particularly grateful that hon. Members have linked the issues of health and family planning. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, family planning can be a sensitive subject and raises important moral and emotive questions with which society has grappled in the 20 years since modern contraception became readily available. I am sure that we shall continue to debate those issues, but in so doing we must recognise that family planning is a key preventive health measure and that in poor countries it is a real force for improving child survival and maternal health.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) has said, sterilisation is a major question, but reversible vasectomy could be a different proposition in terms of the ability to persuade people to accept the operation. Will the Minister examine that aspect?

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but there are differing views on methods and morality in this area. I shall not take time to stress the dramatic growth in world population, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes has already done so, but I should point out that the problem in Asia is different in both type and scale from that in Africa and that we must not regard the problems as being the same throughout the world.

The slackening in the rate of global population growth at the end of the 1970s represented a considerable achievement by the developed countries, international aid agencies and non-governmental organisations in the population sector, but it was most of all an achievement on the part of the developing countries. Those countries realised the considerable threat of increasing population to economic and social development, as was emphasised at the conference in Mexico City to which my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes referred.

Despite the good trend towards the end of the 1970s, we cannot afford to be complacent because the trend requires continuing reinforcement and assistance. In addition, substantial challenges remain before all individuals can enjoy the prospect of a long and healthy life. Despite the lack of reliable information, it is clear that infant mortality remains unacceptably high in many countries. The introduction of public health measures and vaccination campaigns has reduced death rates but, sadly, the improvements of the 1970s in this area have given way to a stationary or even deteriorating situation in the 1980s. Every year, 17 million children die from simple preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria, pneumonia, and so on. Virtually all those preventable diseases occur in the developing world and we estimate that between half and two thirds of them could be prevented with relatively simple measures at relatively little cost. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes said, maternal mortality is grossly under-reported. Last year, almost half a million women in poor countries died as a consequence of pregnancy and many more suffered injury and permanent ill-health.

What can the international community do to improve the situation? Many countries have already recognised the importance of population considerations in their general development. We must encourage them to turn statements into action and to devote resources to it, but in a sensible and humane way. Sadly, some countries still do not accept the need for population policies. We must encourage them to do so, but ultimately the responsibility for population growth must lie with national Governments. Developed countries and the international community can help, but their assistance is worthless without the political, moral and financial commitment of the developing countries themselves.

Our aid programme finances a number of multilateral programmes working specifically in the population and health sectors. Indeed, the largest proportion of our population assistance is given in the form of contributions to the multilateral organisations operating in the population sector. We do this because recipient Governments often find it more acceptable to receive assistance in this relatively sensitive sector from the international community acting jointly through multilateral agencies. The British Government's contribution to multilateral population agencies has risen from £5.5 million in 1980 to £11 million in 1985 and I am pleased to say that in 1986 we intend to provide a total of £12 million in contributions to the various United Nations agencies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes asked three detailed questions about the 1980 Neil Marten guidelines. I shall write to him on some of the points, but we do not keep a record of all projects in which those criteria have been applied. Nevertheless, Overseas Development Administration guidance to all staff responsible for direct spending on aid programmes makes it clear that special efforts should be made to ensure that population components are built into new aid projects wherever possible.

In the health sector, it is clear that the responsibility for developing health service facilities must rest with national Governments, but there are important aspects of health care which cannot be tackled in a nationally oriented and often piecemeal fashion. The transfer of bio-medical expertise to developing countries is a good example.

In recognition of the importance of transfer to developing countries, we support a number of health-oriented multilateral development programmes. As the House knows, we are a major contributor to UNICEF, the major United Nations agency concerned solely with improving the well-being of children throughout the world.

As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, population is a development sector in which much can be, and, in some countries, is being done by non-governmental organisations. We very much welcome that. We have recognised that trend and the advantages that the NGOs have in that sector. In recognition of that, under the joint funding scheme, our Overseas Development Administration will fund population-related projects by up to 100 per cent. of the cost, rather than the 50 per cent. which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is the rule in other sectors. The health and population projects that we have helped through NGOs are many and varied. They range from support for the Save the Children Fund to help to mount an immunisation programme in Mali to assistance with a training programme in Bangladesh to improve the skills of local midwives and traditional birth attendants.

We also support health services, medical and population research. Research in health covers both the development of the means of controlling the major communicable diseases and the improvement of delivery of existing technologies. Projects that we have recently supported range from studies on the epidemiology of leprosy in northern Malawi to a study in Nepal which pinpointed the need for reliable year-round water supplies by demonstrating the links between infantile gastrointestinal infections and contamination of water supplies during the rainy season.

In the population sector, research is broadly based. In Botswana, the Gambia, Kenya and Sierra Leone, the programme for the introduction and adaptation of contraceptive technology was contracted to research the design, production, field testing and evaluation of pamphlets, booklets and flip charts on contraceptive methods. Those materials were specifically designed and aimed at illiterate and semi-illiterate groups and developed to meet their specific needs and concerns. Hon. Members will know the importance of that. Training in those countries was also provided for primary health care workers in the use of the various materials.

Another area in which we are active is in trying to overcome the shortage of staff in developing countries, who understand the difficulties and dynamics of population growth, and to develop in those countries the necessary technical expertise to run the population and health programmes that those countries may wish to establish. We finance a substantial health manpower assistance programme designed to strengthen developing countries' health manpower and services and to help in the development of national health policies and strategies. That is complemented by a British training package under which trainees from such countries can undertake courses either in this country or elsewhere.

I have tried, in the short time available to me, to outline the various activities that the Government carry out in the population sector and to reassure members of the all-party group that we are committed to a significant contribution in that sector. I should like to make it clear that we do not in any way underestimate the importance of the different points that they have been making.

The matters that I have just outlined are not limited simply to the work that we do in the health and population sector, important though those are. They run throughout our aid programme. Our approach reflects a basic philosophy underlying the aid programme that we should meet the real needs of developing countries, focusing particularly on the poorest developing countries. Population work is an excellent example of the way in which aid can help the struggle against poverty in the world, and I am sure that that is an aim that will commend itself to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

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