HC Deb 04 December 1996 vol 286 cc1031-3
12. Mr. Jacques Arnold

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what his priorities are for the World Trade Organisation summit in Singapore in December. [5792]

Mr. Lang

I have three priorities: first, the substantial work programme to carry forward trade liberalisation in the WTO; secondly, the completion at least in outline of an information technology agreement aimed at the progressive elimination of tariffs on products with the widest possible participation by WTO member countries; thirdly, real progress on negotiations to liberalise basic telecommunications, which are scheduled to conclude by February 1997.

Mr. Arnold

I am very encouraged by my right hon. Friend's reply, which shows that Britain is a leading campaigner for free world trade. When my right hon. Friend goes to the summit meeting, will he strongly oppose the Helms-Burton Act passed by the United States, which has the effect not just of preventing Americans from trading with Cuba but of imposing restrictions on third countries? I am sure that this House condemns the Cuban regime as the last remaining undemocratic country in Latin America, but the Helms-Burton Act is not the way to go about it: the way to deal with the problem is in political forums, not by damaging world free trade.

Mr. Lang

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that the matter was debated in Standing Committee recently and I agree with him. We have made it clear to the Americans in robust terms that we disapprove of that extra-territorial action on their part. As my hon. Friend will know, President Clinton has suspended title III for a six-month period, but that does not remove the uncertainty or the continuing threat of title III, and title IV continues to apply. I hope that the Helms-Burton Act will not remain in place and that the matter will be disposed of. On the broader issue of support for free trade and trade liberalisation, I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend of the Government's strong commitment to pursuing that agenda.

Mr. Foulkes

Why does the Secretary of State not support the social chapter of the World Trade Organisation, which is being promoted by a number of countries, including the United States, and would outlaw such appalling practices as child labour? Why is the Secretary of State so dogmatic that anything called a social chapter, however good it is, must automatically be opposed by the Government?

Mr. Lang

This Government defer to no other Government in our condemnation of child labour. We are signatories of the United Nations convention on human rights and we believe that such matters should be pursued through the appropriate organisations. The World Trade Organisation, however, is a body concerned with trade. The best way in which we can help to improve working conditions in other countries is to open trade with them, to increase that trade and to help prosperity to spread.

Mr. Rathbone

As my right hon. Friend pursues the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and other matters, will he remind the House how beneficial it will be for us to speak as part of the membership of the European Union?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. Membership of the European Union enables the United Kingdom to participate in a major trading bloc. Nevertheless, it is also important that we promote the free trade agenda to which we subscribe, which is not so robustly supported by some of our partners in the EU.

Mr. Bell

May I tell the President of the Board of Trade and the House that, in relation to the Helms-Burton Act, the Opposition give their full support to the Government? We did so in Committee this morning and will continue to give our full support on that issue.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), why does the Secretary of State want to build world trade on the back of human rights? Why is he not prepared to accept a working party at the WTO next week to deal with forced labour, exploitative child labour and the lack of trade union rights and collective bargaining at the workplace in the third world? Why does he not support the United States, the French Government and the rest of our European partners on that?

Mr. Lang

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support on the Helms-Burton issue. On working conditions in other countries, we have seen evidence of how the Labour party would like to intervene and control working conditions in this country and to encourage the European Community to intervene and control them, thus adding to the burdens on business in Britain. The hon. Gentleman seeks to carry that interventionism to every other country around the world. Does he not recognise that imposing such burdens—imposing rigidities on the liberalisation of trade—would reduce economic activity, employment opportunities and the quality of working conditions in those countries? That epitomises perfectly the Opposition's protectionism and interventionism and shows that they do not support the free trade agenda.

Mr. Fabricant

Is not Britain the fifth largest exporter in the world, and does not a quarter of our gross domestic product come from exports? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to promote exports is not through trading blocs such as the North American Free Trade Area or the European Union, but through global free trade? Is not global free trade jeopardised by the sort of nonsense being promoted by the Opposition with their international social chapter—another barmy proposal from the barmy Opposition?

Mr. Lang

I agree with the statistics that my hon. Friend mentioned. He is right to emphasise the importance of promoting the multilateral free trade agenda. Free trading blocs can have their place, so long as they are not exclusive and do not confine their benefits to their members. We want the free trade agenda to be spread widely. If a bloc such as my hon. Friend describes contributes to that, it can form an acceptable part of the multilateral agenda. But the globalisation of trade liberalisation is our main objective.