HC Deb 15 June 1992 vol 209 cc649-64 3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the United Nations conference on the environment and development in Brazil. I represented the United Kingdom at the conference together with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Overseas Development and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside. I should also like to report to the House on my visits to the United States and to Colombia. During the past week, I have also had meetings with a number of other Heads of Government.

As the House will know, the Rio conference agreed to legally binding conventions on climate change and biodiversity. It agreed a declaration setting out clear principles for sustainable development, a declaration on the management of forests and, in Agenda 21, a framework for action carrying us into the next century. We also agreed to establish a Sustainable Development Commission under the United Nations to oversee the implementation of Agenda 21. My right hon. and hon. Friends played a leading part in the negotiation of these agreements. In particular, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment played a key role in negotiating a text on climate change which the United States was able to sign. The United Kingdom has been able to go further than the convention requires by making a firm commitment, provided others do so as well, to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

I was the first Head of Government of the G7 to commit myself to attend the Rio conference and to encourage others to do so. The results have not gone as far as some would wish. As in any initiative there have had to be compromises. The United Kingdom could have gone further on climate change than the convention provides. We wanted to see binding commitments on forests, but have, for the time being, to content ourselves with a declaration. But the undertakings that we have made are substantial. There is a firm commitment by all participants to further action.

There will also be a substantial commitment of new funds. The existing global environment facility will remain the sole multilateral mechanism for meeting obligations under the two new conventions. The Government support a $2 billion to $3 billion replenishment of that facility. We also plan to make available substantial financial resources, for conservation, biodiversity, energy efficiency, population planning and sustainable agriculture.

In addition to these agreements I launched three specific British initiatives. The first, the Darwin initiative, reflects our position as a world leader in conservation and the use of the world's resources of biodiversity and natural habitat. The initiative will place at the disposal of other countries the experience of, among others, the royal botanical gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, the natural history museum at London and the world conservation monitoring centre at Cambridge. The aim will be to carry out studies of available natural resources; to establish goals for research and monitoring; to develop inventories of the most important species; and to promote international co-operation and techniques for conservation.

The second initiative is for a partnership in global technology. The intention is to give developing countries better access to environmentally sound technologies, by sharing information and by direct contacts with British companies. To launch this initiative, we shall organise a technology partnership conference next year.

We were in constant touch with non-governmental organisations in preparing for the Rio conference and 12 representatives of NGOs and other organisations attended the conference as advisers to the British delegation. Their role has been a vital one in arousing public awareness and in offering expert advice. If we are to make real progress under Agenda 21 it is desirable for the NGOs to be fully involved. The third initiative, therefore, is for the United Kingdom to convene a global forum of the NGO community next year to build up their role in the next phase.

Before the conference, I paid brief visits to the United States and Colombia. President Bush and I discussed a wide range of issues, including some which will be raised at the President's summit with President Yeltsin starting tomorrow. We had a detailed discussion of the GATT round. We are both working for an early agreement. An agreement would be of enormous benefit to the world trading system, including, specifically, the developing countries.

My visit to Colombia was the first visit to south America by a British Prime Minister. Britain has a considerable stake in the country. We are the third largest investor; 22 subsidiaries of British companies work there. The recent BP oil find at Cusiana was the company's largest oil discovery for a quarter of a century. The purpose of my visit was to reaffirm our support for Colombian democracy, her market economy and her brave and successful fight against drug trafficking.

The Government are already contributing aid worth nearly £20 million to the fight against drug trafficking. It has had considerable success. Drug crops destroyed in Colombia represent lives saved in this country. I therefore reaffirmed our commitment to helping Colombia. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will visit the country later this year to assess the programme and how best to carry forward our help.

I agreed also with President Gaviria a number of initiatives to develop our trade relationship, and look forward to the President's visit to this country next year.

At the Rio conference, the countries of the world took on a substantial commitment to safeguard the environment on a global basis. In that respect, Rio was a milestone. Britain played a leading part in securing those agreements. A lot of work still remains. I am today writing to other G7 and European Community Heads of Government proposing that, at the Lisbon European Council and the Munich summit, we should adopt an action plan to carry forward immediately the agreements made at Rio. We have already gone a long way towards achieving a cleaner, safer world in which all of us share responsibility for our environmental inheritance. In that respect, Rio was a landmark.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Does the Prime Minister recall that, at the end of the conference, the United Nations chairman urged Heads of Government not to go away in a mood of self-congratulation? It is clear that that was advice which the right hon. Gentleman chose not to accept.

Will the Prime Minister understand that the success of the conference will be measured not so much by the declarations which it publishes, even less by the fancy names invented for initiatives, as by the actual result that it produces? That is particularly so when even the declarations turn out to be less positive than was originally hoped.

If, as the Prime Minister told us a moment ago, Great Britain could have gone further than the convention provides, why were we instrumental in weakening the wording of the climate convention? As the obligation to stabilise levels of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000 has been modified as an "aim", what effect does the right hon. Gentleman believe the declaration will have in practice?

How effective does the right hon. Gentleman believe the biodiversity convention will be without the support of the United States? Will he commit himself now to use what he tells us is his special relationship with President Bush to persuade the Government of the United States to change their mind? Will he make it clear this afternoon that he hopes that the United States will do exactly that? What sort of lead does he believe he is giving to the world by refusing to accept EC directives on protecting the environment and by destroying Oxleas wood and Twyford down simply to develop motorways?

Does the right hon. Gentleman support the dilution of Agenda 21 of references to the need for the rich countries of the north to reduce their consumption of resources? Does he share our view that the statement is deficient as it no longer advocates, as the first draft did, a call for a permanent ban on commercial whaling, nor urges a reduction in the number of nuclear power stations? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Earth charter is a stronger or weaker statement than the Stockholm declaration, which was explicit about the effect on the environment of the continued production of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing? Why does the Rio declaration make no reference to the banning of the international trade in toxic waste?

Does the Prime Minister realise that one of the documents signed—I believe by the Secretary of State for the Environment—actually included a commitment to freedom of information? Does he propose to keep that promise, or is it indicative of his attitude of picking and choosing from the treaties according to the Government's convenience?

Does the Prime Minister understand that the real test of his commitment concerns his willingness to provide the essential resources that will turn public relations into practical policy? Can he give an explicit answer about the promises that he made to provide £100 million to support the aims of the summit—a subject on which he did not even touch this afternoon? Was all of that new money? Was any of that new money? Or is it simply a reannouncement of funds that have already appeared in public expenditure statements?

The Government are already suspect because of their attitude towards the writing off of the debts of developing countries. The Trinidad terms, about which the Prime Minister boasts so often, amount to little more than 1 per cent. of Government-to-Government debt, and there is no provision for commercial debts or debts to institutions.

The Prime Minister must understand that his commitment in this whole area will remain in question while this country's record on overseas aid remains at its present abysmal level. It is deplorable, but not surprising, that there is no commitment to achieve the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product. The Prime Minister boasts—as he will again this afternoon—that our contribution is about to increase from 0.27 to 0.31 per cent. It was 0.51 per cent. and rising when this Government came to office 13 years ago. Until that failure is rectified, no matter how often the right hon. Gentleman attempts to pretend otherwise, no one will accept that the Government are prepared to assist the developing world in a way that is essential if the environment is to be truly protected.

The Prime Minister

Even by the right hon. Gentleman's standards, that contribution was fairly graceless and ill-informed. I shall endeavour to deal with his points. He said that I was engaged in an exercise of self-congratulation, but if he had either read my statement, which was provided to him before I made it, or listened to what I said, he would have heard me expressly say that more needs to be done. It is difficult to draw from that any suggestion of self-congratulation.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a dependency on results, and of course that is right. It is precisely what I said, not least when I spoke to the conference last week.

On the right hon. Gentleman's question about why the climate convention was changed, it was changed because, without the negotiating skills of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, there might not have been a climate convention to sign at all.

On the subject of Agenda 21, that represents a very high level of political commitment for integrating environmental concerns across a whole range of policies—industry, agriculture, land use. It gives a role to international bodies, national Governments, local authorities and businesses. It is a very far-reaching and worthwhile agenda.

The right hon. Gentleman clearly did not realise that the £100 million to which he referred is our portion of the replenishment of the global environment facility of $2 billion to $3 billion. It is new money, as I expressly stated last week and as I am happy to make clear again today.

On the question of the Trindad terms, I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should be critical of what is the largest ever debt write-off for small countries and poor countries ever proposed by any Government. It was proposed by us, agreed with the Commonwealth, pushed through the United Nations and fought for by us through the Paris Club without a shred of assistance from the right hon. Gentleman, other than carping from the sidelines.

On the subject of the 0.7 per cent. commitment, it was expressly reaffirmed that we would reach that as soon as possible. I note with some interest that, although the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) may have talked about the 0.7 per cent. commitment for some time, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) makes no commitment whatsoever to moving towards it within any measurable time.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

In his talks with President Bush, did my right hon. Friend discuss the newly proposed Franco-German military force outside NATO? If so, have any preliminary decisions been taken by Britain and the United States about our future attitude towards that force?

The Prime Minister

Yes, that was one of the matters that we discussed over the weekend. We both take the view that the Franco-German force should be part of the enhanced Western European Union, itself a part of NATO and primarily subordinate to NATO. We see the troop build-up, including troops from France and Germany, as being primarily at the instigation of NATO and of no other body.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The good news about Rio is that it is a small step forward towards facing up to the environmental challenge that now confronts us all. The bad news is that, if this is the best progress we can make, we shall, I regret, be once again doing too little, too late. The good news about the Prime Minister is that he showed an early commendable enthusiasm for joining Rio. The bad news is that, when he got there, he was able to deliver so little.

The Prime Minister has told us that money is the root of all success, so is he happy that the total amount of resources available from the developed countries to tackle this problem now amounts to around a twentieth of what the United Nations estimates is necessary? Is he satisfied that, even after he has, as he promised, raised the percentage of gross domestic product to be spent on third-world aid and development, that sum will still amount to only slightly over half what his Government inherited in 1979? The Prime Minister tells us that he has made a start. Has he any idea how much further both he and his fellow world leaders have to go in order to face up to this challenge?

The Prime Minister

There is part of what the right hon. Gentleman said with I self-evidently agree, for I expressed the same thoughts myself earlier. It is a step forward. It is not as far forward as many of us would wish to go. I cited in particular forestry and climate change—both important areas where the United Kingdom would have been prepared to go further and faster than some other countries at the summit. The summit represents an agreement that has been signed by almost all the 170 nations. The right hon. Gentleman will know and understand the difficulties of getting an agreement that is satisfactory to everyone from a gathering of that size.

The true importance of Rio, apart from the agreements made, is the fact that so many countries and so many Heads of Government attended the conference, and that they have set a new benchmark on which to build co-operation in the future. It would not be wise to underestimate the importance of that. It simply could not have happened even two years ago; It has happened now. It has happened and it has delivered some success, although not as much as the right hon. Gentleman or I would have wished. It provides a benchmark on which to build in the future.

Resources are growing. There is the commitment of both developed and developing nations to use the resources for environmental purposes, which is required so that we can make more progress. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, some of the developing countries were unable to reach agreements on some of the areas in which agreement falls short of what our ambitions may be.

On the United Kingdom's commitment to aid, I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we have the sixth largest aid programme in the world and arguably the best in terms of direction. It buys more in purchasing power terms than it has ever done, and that is what matters to the people receiving the aid.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

Will my right hon. Friend listen to those of us on this side who have taken a considerable interest in this question for a considerable time? We welcome his commitment and his involvement, and we welcome his statement and the fact that he has come straight back to the House to make it. Does he agree that, unlike the rather cavilling remarks from both Opposition parties, the truth about the convention and the agreements signed is that Agenda 21 is the real way forward, with 27 separate blueprints for action in many areas? As those blueprints are developed, the funds necessary to carry them through should follow. That is when we want to see the increase in resources. The resources will follow the plans agreed between developed and developing countries so that they can be funded to happen.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right about that. The follow-up is extremely important, and the follow-up mechanisms agreed under the United Nations will monitor that. That United Kingdom is well placed in that, because we already have an established system of annual White Paper reports such as no other developed or undeveloped country yet has. In Agenda 21, we have collectively produced a very flexible framework for countries developing their own sustainable development programmes, and for bilateral and multilateral discussions to see how those countries might be assisted.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Prime Minister ask the relevant officials or Ministers to look at the proceedings on the Plant Varieties Act 1983, and especially at the debates on the amendments moved by Mr. Frank Hooley and myself in relation to plant breeding in this country, to the concentration of plant ownership and to the iniquity of the manner in which the third world and its biological and botanical resources were being used? When the Prime Minister has that report, will he send a letter to me about it? From those debates, it becomes clear the aspirations that the Prime Minister now expresses are not compatible with the Act which his Government put on the statute book.

The Prime Minister

I never cease to admire the hon. Gentleman's memory. I undertake to examine the clauses in the Act against the agreements reached over the past few days and then to write to the hon. Gentleman. I will do that with great pleasure.

Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Would my right hon. Friend accept congratulations on his commitment and energy at the Rio summit? Does he agree that, to take things forward, a new structure for world trade is clearly vital? From his discussions with President Bush, does my right hon. Friend genuinely believe that the resistance so far shown by the American President has finally crumbled into acceptance of the need for an urgent resumption of discussions?

The Prime Minister

I am certainly seeking, as I have said both to our European Community partners and to the United States, a swift resumption of the direct discussions on GATT so that we may reach a speedy conclusion. I should have liked to see a conclusion reached before now. I should certainly like to see a conclusion reached by the end of the month, beyond which we run into timetabling troubles with the presidential election.

The matter is of immense importance, and the judgment that we make in the United Kingdom, especially after the agreement on the common agricultural policy, is that we are nearer an agreement on GATT than anybody realises or than anyone imagined just a few weeks ago. With good will, there is an agreement to be had, and I hope that all sides will come together and reach that agreement without delay.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

I certainly welcome the fact that, on this issue, the Prime Minister appeared to be following a different course from the Americans, and I hope that that trend will continue. However, I have a question about the Prime Minister's visit to Colombia. When he discussed matters of trade with the Colombians, did he raise the question of bananas? Is the Prime Minister aware that the Colombians and others are trying to swamp the European Community with dollar bananas after 1 January next year, to the detriment of our traditional suppliers in the Caribbean like the small country of Dominica, 70 per cent. of whose foreign exchange earnings are gleaned from bananas? Did the Prime Minister tell the Colombians that we did not want their rotten bananas if they were not prepared to pay decent wages to their workers? Can he confirm that he is still committed to the accord between the European Community and the banana growers about their supplies to the European Community after 1 January next year?

The Prime Minister

I did spend some time discussing bananas with President Gaviria and I had an opportunity a few days earlier of discussing them with Honduras and Costa Rica to follow up on earlier discussions with the Windward Islands and some of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. There is a way forward to protect the access to Europe of South American bananas and to protect the position of the ACP countries, for many of which banana access to the European Community remains of vital interest for there is not easily to be seen another way in which they can sustain their livelihoods. I spent some time discussing that, and we are in touch with the Commission about how an agreement might be reached that would protect both parties to it.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Whatever the achievements of Rio, does my right hon. Friend agree that, without the serious issue of control of the growth of world population, the progress that is promised from Rio will come to nothing? What has the United Kingdom done to promote the control of the world's population through the Rio conference?

The Prime Minister

I made the point in Rio that population control was an important issue, although it also touches on deep moral concerns that are of great personal interest to millions of people around the world. We have a very substantial educative and birth control programme operating in many countries around the world, and that will certainly continue.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Could the Prime Minister tell us more about the Darwin initiative, because it sounds a little like the citizens charter—bland and ineffective? Does the Darwin initiative have a missing link and no teeth?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has so little faith in the skill and expertise of the professional bodies in this country to help on questions like that. The essence of the Darwin initiative is to draw together and build on the United Kingdom strength in biology and taxonomy and to use the skills available at Kew and elsewhere—not least, of course, the natural history museum—in the interests of this country and of the world in general. We probably have more significant experience in legislative and regulatory protection of habitats, not least through the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission and the development of sites of special scientific interest, than almost any country in the world.

We expect the Darwin initiative to carry out preliminary country studies of natural resources and biodiversity in other countries and so help and advise those countries. We will clarify goals for them. We will promote international co-operation and benefit-sharing arrangements. That is just a dipstick sample of the sort of proposals that we have that will come under the general heading of the Darwin initiative. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support it. Certainly the countries at Rio welcomed it.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Would my right hon. Friend agree that it is simplistic for the Opposition parties to concentrate only on the amount of aid rather than the quality of aid, as the Government have done? Notwithstanding that, the amount of aid that the Government are proposing is a real increase, unlike the bogus figures proposed by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley).

The Prime Minister

It is simplistic, as my hon. Friend says, but it is also typical, as he will learn. We spent about £1,789 million on aid in 1991–92, which is 3 per cent. more than in 1990–91, and we plan to continue growing in real terms to £1,975 million by 1994–95.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

If the Prime Minister is so concerned about increasing expenditure on the poverty section of the world, when is he going to meet the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of GDP? Is it not disgraceful and hypocritical of him to go on, on behalf of his Government, to talk to the countries which are most vitally affected by poverty, which in turn is having adverse effects on the planet, when his Government are spending £10,000 million on Trident nuclear weapons and another £10,000 million on maintenance of those nuclear weapons—

Madam Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he used the word "hypocritical"—

Mr. Cryer

Of the Government.

Madam Speaker

No, the word to me was "hypocritical" of the Prime Minister and his Government. If the hon. Gentleman would withdraw it and make quite clear what he is saying so that we have it on record and it is correct, I should be very much obliged.

Mr. Cryer

Well, the Prime Minister is part of a collective responsibility, so it applies to the whole collective responsibility, does the charge of hypocrisy, Madam Speaker. There is no question about that. They are all in it together, and it is hypocritical of the Government—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Mr. Cryer

—to go to a conference like that being prepared to spend at least £20,000 million on the means of mass extermination. Why does he not go to such a conference by cancelling Trident and saying, "We are going to spend the money on preserving and developing the planet"?

The Prime Minister

Trident, although the hon. Gentleman has always signally failed to recognise it, is there to protect us and to deter others from attacking us. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is because of the strength of our defence commitment that he has the opportunity to stand here and make his remarks about the Government. I look forward to his continuing to do so, because ever time he expresses his views in that way, it does no good to him, no good to his party and a great deal of good to us.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

On my right hon. Friend's visit to Colombia and the appalling problem of the spread of drug taking in the world, is not one of the great problems the fact that the peasant farmer in Colombia and South America gets much more money growing drug-producing crops than any other? Did the Colombians tell him whether the crop substitution programme was actually working?

The Prime Minister

Yes, we did discuss that, and the various measures that we were able to help the Colombians with to track down the drug difficulties at source and to eliminate the fields where the drugs were growing. It is not a problem that will be solved in the short term. They need a lot of help; they are getting a lot of help. They will need a lot more assistance, I suspect over a large number of years, before we can really get to grips with the problem and remove it.

The steady growth of United Kingdom assistance has not only led to much better training of indigenous police and military personnel seeking drugs but has been of great encouragement to the Colombian Government to produce their own resources to add to those provided by ourselves. It is a problem that will go on for a long time. One of the other aspects that the Colombians were very keen to emphasise would help them would be the increasing amount of investment from overseas to provide the better quality of life that lay at the root of my hon. and learned Friend's question.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Can the Prime Minister confirm that two of the principles that imbued many of the delegates at the conference were a belief in greater equality and a belief in the need for democratic co-operative planning—two principles which he will confirm are anathema to the modern Conservative party? Can he confirm that it is of no surprise to many of us that a party which has presided over great inequality between rich and poor in this country has done so little to bridge the gap between rich and poor internationally in the 1980s? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that one lesson that we can learn from the way in which the environment has been degraded and the way in which so many people have had their lives threatened internationally, is that the problem will not be solved by the untrammelled operation of market forces?

The Prime Minister

On the substantive part of that question, the hon. Gentleman's view is not shared by Governments in Latin America or by Governments in eastern Europe. It is shared by few Governments, outside Cuba, anywhere in the world.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

As development aid of £1,800 million per year works out at a tax of more than £100 on each household in Britain, and at a time of world trade recession some of our households cannot easily afford that sum, is it not monstrous for Opposition Members to disparage it?

The Prime Minister

I believe that we make a substantial contribution in aid in terms of the size of our aid, the consistency of our aid, the quality of our aid and the direction in which our aid goes. It is uniquely well targeted. That is well understood by countries around the world. From time to time, the Opposition have called for an increase to 0.7 per cent. over five years. They have never mentioned to people that that would add £2,400 million each year to public expenditure, at a time when they have the nerve to lecture us about the borrowing requirement.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The Prime Minister knows that the value of aid programmes to the third world is largely negated by the appalling debt burden which those countries have to service. Have the Trinidad terms of which he has spoken been adopted by other donor countries? Were any further forums held and were proposals made at them to discuss debt alleviation during the programme in Rio?

The Prime Minister

The Trinidad terms have been adopted by several countries, although there are still some in the G7 which have not adopted them. I said last year that we would adopt them unilaterally if there was not a collective agreement in the G7 by the end of the year. There are still some difficulties with some countries. I hope and believe that we shall persuade all of them to adopt the Trinidad terms before too long, although some still have difficulties. Beyond that, we have to look at what is possible.

The Trinidad terms initiative builds on the Toronto terms initiative. They are the two largest debt initiatives taken anywhere in the world in the past 10 years. They are both British initiatives. The first was taken by Lord Lawson and the second was taken by myself during my period as Chancellor of the Exchequer. We shall look in future to see what more can be done, but we first need to ensure that all countries are signed up to the Trinidad terms initiative. Otherwise, there is a danger that we should go further and no longer be able to bring other countries or the commercial banks along with us. As was said in an earlier question, both of those are vital to assist the countries who need to see their debts progressively written off.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the prominence given at Rio to population growth as a cause of environmental decline? Will he assure me that a greater share of the ODA's budget will be targeted on population policies? Will he encourage non-governmental organisations not to be so timid about investing in population planning?

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, we now have a better relationship with the non-governmental organisations than for many years. I will draw the attention of my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development to the first half of my hon. Friend's remarks. We shall be able to develop many of these matters with not only the domestic but the international NGOs. That is one reason why we decided to convene a conference here in the United Kingdom at some stage next year to bring NGOs from all over the world to discuss how the matter is developing and what further they and we collectively might do.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that at the Earth summit it was suggested that the third world, which still has to pay more to the rich part of the world in debt payments than it receives in other forms of assistance, needs $125 billion to run as fast as it can to keep standing still? If it was possible for the Government in the past five to six years to allow the top four clearing banks in Britain to write off debts—that is a liability on taxpayers—of more than £4,000 million, surely it makes sense, and the Prime Minister should have said it in Rio, for the Government to say that, instead of allowing the banks in Britain to write off debt, the British taxpayer should use the money to write off the debts of the third world? In that way, we should not have been handing out money to Maxwell and those other crooks in the City.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman really should not let his obsessions run away with him. In fact, many of the debts written off by the banks to which he now objects were third-world debts.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his leadership before and at the Rio summit was widely acknowledged—not, of course, by the armchair critics on the Opposition Front Bench, but throughout the developed and the developing world? That was not least because of my right hon. Friend's insistence that Rio was a first step and not an end in itself.

Following the questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) about population, does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain's contribution should be the expansion of opportunities for population control? That means not merely birth control but enabling children to survive, so that families in the developing world—and mothers in particular—have confidence in the survival of their children, and therefore do not see any need for families to be so large. Surely, that is exactly the sort of targeted, effective aid with which Britain can give a lead in the future.

The Prime Minister

Many of the problems of population control can be dealt with to a large extent by the provision of better education, both about population control and about the opportunities that are available to people in the third world. I suspect that one of the difficulties in many countries where families are often very large is caused by the fact that, to an extent, children on working land can represent wealth. Many problems are also caused by ignorance of the mechanisms of birth control: that is why I consider the international educative programmes so important.

Miss Joan Lester (Eccles)

Talking of population control, the Prime Minister will be aware that Brazil has demonstrated a unique way of controlling its population over the years—by shooting children in the streets. I heard the Prime Minister say during a broadcast that he would raise the killing of Brazilian street children with Brazil's Head of State. Did he do that, and, if so, what was the outcome? Did any discussions take place with other countries outside the official meetings about how pressure could be put on Brazil to stop this barbaric practice?

The Prime Minister

As I believe the hon. Lady knows, there are two tiers of government with different responsibilities for caring for the street children. As I discovered whether I went to Brazil, many of the children have come down to the city from the Favellas that surround it. The climate is conducive to such action, and the children tend to leave their homes because they are deeply unattractive. There are many of them, and it is extremely difficult to deal with them.

I discussed the matters at some length with President Collor during our meeting last week, and he set out the scale of the programme to which he is committed—a programme totalling some $7 billion—to help the children. He described it as one of the Government's top priorities. The Government are seeking to take action, and to persuade the other tiers of government to do the same, although they are acutely conscious of what else needs to be done.

We are able to help in some ways, through the Government and also through non-governmental organisations bilaterally, and I hope that we shall do so. We have also invited Dr. Paulo Melo, the president of the Rio State Commission on the Assassination of Schoolchildren, to visit the United Kingdom to discuss the way forward. We may then be able to see what further action, if any, we can take.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the significant role that he played in the Rio agreements, which history will mark as a watershed in environmental action. Will he confirm, however, that sustainable, market-led economic growth is a precondition for environmental improvements, rather than an alternative to them? Will he also confirm that the success of the Rio summit will depend on detailed follow-up, country by country, of its provisions—which in turn will depend on the environmental monitoring machinery that is available in those countries? The machinery is good in Britain, but, sadly, not of the same quality in the rest of Europe.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right in each of his propositions. That is why the countries present agreed to establish a Sustainable Development Commission as the principal mechanism for the United Nations to follow up the agreements made in Rio. The essence of the commission's task will be to follow up commitments, and the details of how that can be done will be finalised in the General Assembly this autumn. Clearly —as my hon. Friend said—success will depend on the political commitment of states. I hope that they will all participate at a high level, and I assure the House that we shall do so.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the Agenda 21 proposals pale into insignificance in the light of the statement by the United Nations secretariat that $125 billion should be made available even by the end of the century? Has the Prime Minister anything to be proud of following his return from Rio, given that an inflow of $31 billion in debt repayments from the south to the north will continue?

In connection with tariff and non-tariff barriers, the third world is denied $75 billion, and each and every taxpayer in the United Kingdom must pay more than $6 for the folly—the criminality, almost—of banks that lent money to the third world in the 1970s.

The Prime Minister

I will not follow the hon. Gentleman into the obsessions of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), because I rather wonder what he would have said in the 1970s if the banks had declined to lend to the third world. These proposals are not, as the hon. Gentleman said, my proposals, but proposoals agreed by 170 nations and set out after a great deal of preliminary discussion prior to and at the conference. They point out that sustainable development is not, as the hon. Gentleman appeared to imply, the concern of Governments alone. Agenda 21 gives a role to international bodies, national Governments, local authorities, businesses, NGOs and individuals. All of them, not just Governments, have a role to play.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

The Prime Minister promised substantial extra resources, but just 10 minutes earlier his right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development announced a minuscule increase over the coming years. Who is telling the truth? What is the dipstick test for that?

The Prime Minister

Had the hon. Gentleman been listening to the answer that I gave a few moments ago, the answer to his question would have been clear to him. I announced an extra £100 million commitment to the global environment facility, a rising line of aid set out in public expenditure programmes and further resources to be considered as usual at public expenditure rounds.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Is the Prime Minister aware that 1 billion people, a fifth of the world's population, do not have access to clean drinking water, and that each year 3 million people, mostly children, die poisoned by their drinking water? What action did he take at Rio to reduce that total?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will find that problem addressed in the Agenda 21 programme, and he may care to examine it. There are a whole series of propositions in it.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the past 10 years of the world's economic policies through the International Monetary Fund and the World bank have led to an unprecedented growth in the power and influence of multinational corporations? In that respect, does he not regret that the United Nations has closed its office that monitors the activities of multinational corporations, and that he and President Bush personally ensured that any reference to the activities of multinational corporations was written out of the text at Rio? Does he not think it is time that the world monitored those who control 80 per cent. of the world's trade, dump most of the world's toxic waste and destroy the environments of most third-world countries? Does he not think that they deserve some democratic accountability?

The Prime Minister

What the hon. Gentleman says about what President Bush and I allegedly wrote out of the text is absolutely nonsense. I do not know where he gets this rubbish from, but he should go back to his source and check again.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

In acknowledging the Prime Minister's role in Rio, will he tell us why Baroness Chalker allegedly choked on her pina colada when it was pointed out that the British contribution to overseas aid was down to 0.27 per cent. of our gross domestic product? Was that because she felt ashamed of that record? Does the Prime Minister in any way share that sense of shame?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is misquoting or misunderstanding what my noble Friend said. She was pointing out the difference between the calendar year issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the financial year figure—

Mr. Skinner

Come on, Brer Rabbit.

The Prime Minister

The Bolsover tar baby clearly does not understand that we carry out our particular public expenditure commitments on a financial year basis. During the financial year, the position was 0.3 per cent., as it has been. The outturn may be slightly larger. The 0.27 per cent. figure is simply because so much of the expenditure was in the last quarter of the year.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

The Prime Minister in his speech at Rio said that money was the root of all success. Can he give an absolute assurance to the House that the £100 million that he has promised to the global environment facility is new money and will not be taken from other parts of the overseas development budget? Considering the scale of the global development problems, is not £100 million—just 0.02 per cent. of our GDP—pitifully inadequate?

The Prime Minister

The agreement was for the replenishment, by $2 billion to $3 billion, of the global environmental facility. That agreement was reached by all the countries that were there. The £100 million is our share of that agreement, and that is why the figure comes to that. The time scale will depend on the speed with which the global environmental facility actually needs that particular sum, but, yes, it is new money.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Does the Prime Minister agree with the Secretary-General of the United Nations who said at the weekend that the rich countries have a vested interest in seeking solutions to the problems bedevilling the poorer countries? Vested interests aside, surely we should be talking in terms of principles. Will the Prime Minister assure us that his Government will continue to defend the interests of those ACP cane-sugar producing countries, particularly in the Council of Ministers at Brussels? Some of the member states of the European Community seem to believe that they have no obligation to defend those interests.

The Prime Minister

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant), I set out the position on the ACP countries and the difficulties that they face over bananas under the GATT round. I made it clear that we were keen to protect their position. They have no other obvious source of income in the short term, or even in the medium-term, and we wish to preserve their position. Clearly it is right to talk about having a general interest in the remarks of the Secretary-General. That is why so many of the developed countries have such large aid programmes.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Judging from his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the Prime Minister appears to be unaware of the fact that, when a commercial bank writes down a debt in this country and claims corporation tax relief as a result, it does not at the same time have to cancel the debt to the developing country concerned. [HON. MEMBERS: "That's it."] As a result, the British taxpayer is subsidising the bank rather than the people of the developing world?

Does the Prime Minister not realise that, unless a far more serious approach is made to tackling the problem of debt than anything dreamed of in the Trinidad terms or beyond, we shall not achieve environmental progress or sustainable development throughout the developing world?

The Prime Minister

In so far as I could hear the question over the yapping coming from the Opposition Front Bench below the Gangway, the banks are writing off debt and we have put considerable pressure on them to make sure that they do write off the debt. It is important that they should continue to do so, and we shall certainly see that they do.

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

Given the Prime Minister's statements on population control, I wonder whether it is true that his Government have cut their contribution to the United Nations fund for population control by 63 per cent.

The Prime Minister

I do not believe that that is the case, and I think that the hon. Lady will find that out.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

How does the Prime Minister justify the role of the Secretary of State for the Environment, who lectured other nations at Rio on the need to improve the environment and to reduce emissions of poisonous fumes into the atmosphere, when at home he allows the use of orimulsion, the dirtiest means of generating energy? He has allowed its use without any restrictions on cleaning its emissions. Will the Prime Minister undertake to stop the use of orimulsion because of the damage it is doing to the atmosphere in this country?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman may know, all that is subject to Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. He will also know that the United Kingdom has a comprehensive strategy for the environment, as set out in our White Paper, which is rolled forward annually. It is an open process with a commitment, a report, a review sequence and a public right to information on a scale that no other country has yet managed to equal. I must say that I find it extraordinary that Labour hon. Members are so often ever ready to run down what is done in this country rather than to acknowledge the lead that is so often given by this country, not least by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

As the Prime Minister knows, I spent a week in Rio, and I was fully aware of the build-up of hope and anticipation during that time. It was fuelled by the constant briefing of the press and media by Ministers and PR men. Did not the death of the Prime Minister's supposed good intentions take place in the meaningless platitudes, weasel words, caveats and smell of back-room fixes cobbled up by him and his aides at Rio? Is it not true that the failure to agree a target date for achieving 0.7 per cent. of GNP by the year 2000 can only mean that the burden of shouldering the environment and development crisis has been left to the world's poorest countries and people? Is not the message from the United Kingdom Government, "It's business as usual—carry on polluting, and carry on dying"?

The Prime Minister

If that is so, perhaps the hon. Lady can explain why the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) would not commit himself to any extra money whatsoever for that purpose. It is about time that the Opposition looked at their position before criticising the growing British aid programme.