HC Deb 24 July 2000 vol 354 cc763-76 3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the G8 summit that I have just attended in Okinawa, Japan. Copies of the communiqués that we issued, and the accompanying Okinawa charter on the global information society, have been placed in the House Library. I give thanks to Prime Minister Mori, who hosted the occasion with great skill.

We discussed, first, the state of the world economy, which is now recovering well from the financial crises of 1997 and 1998. The reform of the international financial architecture that we set in hand when the UK chaired the G8 is firmly on track. Thirty countries have now signed up to International Monetary Fund assessment of their compliance with the new international codes and standards. The IMF's new contingent credit facility for countries in crisis is in place. We have established a financial stability forum to look at weaknesses in the global financial system, and taken action to involve the private sector more effectively in resolving crises.

We agreed at Okinawa that the next priority is to improve the existing mechanisms for crisis prevention by strengthening IMF surveillance, to reform the multilateral development banks to strengthen their focus on poverty, and to promote improved co-operation and co-ordination between the IMF and the World Bank. Although the worst of the financial crises is behind us, there is no room for complacency. Above all, there was clear recognition at the summit that we must try to launch a new World Trade Organisation trade round this year. Nothing is more important for the world economy than the early and successful conclusion of a new comprehensive trade round.

Secondly, prior to the summit, Prime Minister Mori of Japan chaired a discussion with representatives from the G7, the Organisation of African Unity, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Association of South-East Asian Nations, which underlined once again the immense problems faced by many of the world's least developed countries, particularly Africa—a debilitating, self-reinforcing cycle of conflict, poverty and weak governance.

The G8 agreed to make a renewed effort to implement the Cologne agreement on debt relief. Already, nine countries receive additional relief under the heavily indebted poor countries scheme, worth more than $15 billion. We agreed to quicken the process to get another 11 countries through to decision point by the end of this year—a further $20 billion of debt relief—and to reach out to the countries currently in conflict to see how they can be brought into the process.

We agreed to go further and faster on trade. The European Union is committed to giving the least developed countries duty-free, quota-free access to our markets for almost all products by 2005. We agreed to strengthen the effectiveness of our development assistance and, after years of wrangling, we finally secured a firm timetable for untying aid from January 2002 based on recent progress in the Organisation for Economic co-operation and Development.

We also agreed to support concrete quantitative targets for reducing deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis by 25 to 50 per cent. over the next decade and backed those up with a strong commitment to provide increased resources. We are doubling our support for international efforts to develop new drugs and technologies for priority diseases.

The G8 also agreed to take forward the UK initiative on conflict diamonds. Britain and Russia will now chair an international conference to consider an international agreement on a certification scheme for rough diamonds and to tackle the link between the trade in illicit diamonds and the conflicts in Sierra Leone and other diamond-producing countries in Africa.

At present, it costs far more to access the internet in Uganda or Kenya than it does here or in the United States. We therefore agreed a series of measures set out in the charter to close the digital divide between the developed and the developing world, with huge potential for delivering educational and medical services cheaply or free across the internet.

That comprehensive programme of action reflects the real sense at the summit that, with our own economies in good shape, the time has come to devote more attention and give a higher priority to the plight of the world's poorest countries. That is not only a matter of solidarity and justice, but a hard-headed economic investment in the markets of the future.

Third on the agenda was the enormous problem of drugs and organised crime. With the global market for drugs now estimated at up to $500 billion a year, we need to see the international cartels for what they are: major international businesses with the same need for banking facilities, working capital and investment funds as any other business. The G8 therefore agreed to a further clampdown on money laundering, tax evasion and banking secrecy. That will be underpinned by the eight standards developed by G7 Finance Ministers in a new report that we published, setting out the measures that financial centres will need to comply with to avoid sanctions in the future.

Fourthly, we discussed the issues raised by genetically modified foods and crops. Obviously, there are still differences of view within the G8 on the risks associated with the new GM technologies, but we all agreed on the need to work harder to establish a clearer scientific consensus and to base policy and trade decisions on science.

Fifthly, on the environment, we agreed to tackle illegal logging and to encourage renewable energy in developing countries, where 2 billion people still have no electricity, and we pledged to work harder on the early entry into force of the Kyoto protocol on climate change.

In addition to the formal business of the summit, I had bilateral meetings with the other G8 leaders. My meeting with President Putin was especially valuable. I also had useful discussions with President Clinton on the middle east, the Balkans and Africa.

People will, of course, always find plenty to criticise when international leaders gather, but it is worth remembering a few points. It was the decisions made following the Birmingham summit two years ago that led to a new global financial architecture that has brought greater stability to the world economy. That is good for jobs and good for living standards. It was at Cologne last year that we made a substantial breakthrough on debt and contributed substantially to ending the conflict in Kosovo.

As a result of the decisions made this year at the G8 summit, over time fewer children will die of killer diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; more children will be lifted out of poverty; more children will get access to basic education; more people in the developing world will get access to computers and electricity; and the measures agreed on crime and drugs will make a real difference in a fight that can be won only at the international level.

Britain played a leading role both in shaping the agenda and in the main outcomes of the summit. Both on the world stage and in Europe, the Government are standing up for Britain and standing up for what is right.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

We welcome much of the summit communiquéincluding the commitment to maximise the benefits of information technology in developing countries; the recognition of the importance of universal primary education; the plan to combat disease such as AIDS, malaria and TB; the renewed effort to combat international crime and drug trafficking; and the measures to prevent conflict, including those to stop the illicit trade in diamonds. We especially welcome the recognition by the G8 of the need to provide improved access for developing countries to the markets of the developed world, and the firm commitment to a new round of World Trade Organisation trade negotiations, if possible this year.

Free trade is the greatest engine of prosperity and progress that there has ever been in developing and developed countries alike. The vacuum left by the failure of Seattle will be filled one way or another. Is it not vital that it be filled by renewed momentum towards free trade? Is there not an overwhelming necessity for the UK Government to renew the commitment of the previous Government to the completion of tariff-free global free trade by 2020 to help to provide that momentum?

I agree with the Prime Minister that it is right for the richer countries to focus on what can be done to help the poorer countries, and, in particular, to free them from crippling debt repayments. The House will welcome the progress made by the United Kingdom in writing off bilateral debt. As has been made clear, some of the delays in debt relief result from developing countries being involved in military conflict, but the many campaigners who have worked tirelessly on the issue have found the lack of progress at the summit deeply disappointing.

The firm commitment to debt relief, which both sides of the House welcomed after the Cologne summit last year, has not yet been matched by firm action. Is the Prime Minister concerned that Jubilee 2000 labelled Okinawa "the squandered summit" and said that the world's leaders have blown it? Is he concerned that a Tear Fund spokesman referred to statements on debt relief as potentially the most lethal triumph of spin over substance? The Prime Minister's statement did not refer to missile defence, but newspaper reports suggest that he discussed it with President Putin in connection with North Korea. Has the right hon. Gentleman yet resolved the Government's position on that issue? The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), labels the national missile defence system untested and vulnerable, while the Ministry of Defence has let it be known that it supports it.

Are the reports correct in suggesting that the Prime Minister hinted at unease over the project in discussions with President Putin? Should not the Government be making the case in Europe for working closely with the United States on that issue? Is it not time to make it clear to the United States that Britain would respond positively to any proposal for the upgrade by the United States of Menwith Hill and Fylingdales as part of a United States-NATO ballistic missile defence, should that be necessary?

Will the Prime Minister confirm reports this morning that he took a relaxed stance on the issue of genetically modified foods, this time siding with the United States? How does he square that with his much-vaunted article in The Independent four months ago, in which he emphasised his cautious approach? He said: compare that with the position in the United States. He said then that he was leading the way in Europe on GM labelling. Does his visible support for the American line on GM crops mean that he has pre-judged the outcome of the British GM crop trials years before they have been completed? Will he ratify the biosafety protocol without delay and insist that the Americans do the same?

Bearing in mind the failure to agree concrete progress on debt relief, will the Prime Minister comment on reports that the cost of the summit was half a billion pounds, a figure that for everyone is hard to believe? Did the items of expenditure include the construction of a replica of President Clinton's Arkansas home? While recognising that such decisions are for the Japanese Government to make and to defend—[Interruption.] Yes, of course they are. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge the widespread unease that such a sum, or anything like such a sum, should have been spent, when it could have been used to fund the combined debt repayment of up to 17 developing countries for a year—or even another millennium dome?

The Prime Minister

That is what passes for the right hon. Gentleman's statesmanship, I think.

On the costs of the summit, the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that is a matter for the Japanese Government. I would simply point out however, in fairness to them, that they also made a statement at the time of the summit that they intend to offer some $18 billion worth of aid to developing countries. We should give them credit for that.

As for the GM foods position, I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman means by that. I simply restated the position that I have stated throughout. It is not a question of backing the stance of the United States—we have a very cautious approach. Despite the position that he now takes on GM foods, I remind him that we have not licensed a single additional GM food in this country. It is this Government who have acted on labelling: the Government of whom he was a member refused to act on labelling.

What we have said—and where I strongly agree with what President Clinton said yesterday—is that it is important that we take decisions on the basis of science and evidence. That is what is important and I hold to that entirely.

On the point about national missile defence, we have made it clear throughout that we understand exactly why the United States is concerned about the possibility of rogue nuclear states. We are trying to ensure that the fear that the United States has—perfectly legitimately and justifiably—is taken account of in a way that does not put at risk the substantial progress that has been made on nuclear disarmament over the past few years. It is vital, therefore, for us to continue a dialogue on what will be one of the most important issues that we shall have to face over the next few years.

I entirely agree that it is very important for us to push ahead with the WTO round. I think that Seattle was a serious failure. We must recognise that the single most important thing for many of the poorest countries in the world—as important, indeed, as many of the things that we are discussing in relation to debt—is to gain access to the richer countries markets. It cannot be justified that wealthy countries keep out the goods of poorer countries, when such access is the very best way in which those countries can have a secure future without having to depend on aid and development assistance from the wealthier countries. I cannot say that we made as much progress on that as I would wish, but the position of the United Kingdom Government, at any rate, is very clear.

As for debt relief, the money is there—that is, the $100 billion target that was set at Cologne. What we need to do is get the countries through the decision point process. Nine have already gone through, and a further 11 should be through by the end of the year. We recommitted ourselves to that at Okinawa. However, we must also deal with the countries that are currently in conflict and cannot get through the decision point process for that reason. There is a clear need for us to renew our efforts, which is why we have agreed to send delegations from countries such as ours to countries that are in conflict to tell them, "If you want to take advantage of debt relief, you must resolve some of the basic issues of conflict; otherwise, the money will simply be wasted."

The UK has a very good record of writing off debt and of debt relief initiatives. I should point out, however, that when we came to office not one country had received the debt relief. Those countries are now receiving it, very much as a result of the work done by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development. I agree that we must go much further. We are very much in the forward advance, but we are having to act after several years during which not a great deal happened.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

As I think all hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise, a welcome feature of the summit—however frustrating the rate of progress may be—is the developing recognition among wealthier nations that collectively we must do more for the poorer nations.

Let me ask the Prime Minister a couple of specific questions arising from his statement. One concerns his discussions with President Putin, which he described in his statement as "especially valuable". That is an especially interesting statement; I think we would all like to know why the discussions were so valuable. For instance, did the Prime Minister have—and did he take—the opportunity in those bilateral discussions to tackle Mr. Putin on the continuing problems and oppression that afflict Chechnya in particular?

My second question concerns the report, not referred to in the statement—it may be accurate, or it may be inaccurate—that the Prime Minister was at pains to reassure his Japanese hosts that he intended, in a future Parliament, to move as quickly as possible towards a referendum on the issue of a single European currency and to take a positive stance on such a referendum. Is that report accurate? If so, what comments did the Prime Minister's opposite numbers make?

Finally, given the emphasis placed by the summit on the need to help the developing and the underdeveloped world, and given the fact that some of us were either at school or at university when the Brandt report, for example, was under way, does the Prime Minister agree that here we are, an entire global political generation later, yet we have still made pathetically inadequate progress in the attitude of the developed world to the underdeveloped world?

The Prime Minister spoke of writing off $100 billion of debt—which was agreed at last year's Cologne summit—but only $15 billion of that debt has been cancelled. Given what he just said in response to the Leader of the official Opposition about the other countries involved, does he think that that remains a realistic target? If it is, what is the time scale for achieving it?

Does the Prime Minister agree that more work needs to be done to ensure that the heavily indebted poor countries do not have to meet such stringent economic criteria to qualify initially for eligibility for debt relief? Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have signed up to that cause with Jubilee 2000. The more that the Government can do on behalf of everyone in this country to give an impetus to achieving that goal internationally, the better.

The Prime Minister

On the issue of my bilateral talks with President Putin, we discussed the Russian economy and issues such as North Korea. We did indeed, however, also discuss Chechnya, and we made clear our concerns about human rights there. In turn, President Putin made very clear his commitment to finding a political solution. As for the euro, the position that I set out to the Japanese Prime Minister is precisely the position that I always set out. I really cannot help how that position is interpreted, although it seems to be interpreted in different ways depending on which day of the week it is. Perhaps what the Japanese emphasised to me in return was more important—that for Japanese inward investors, the important thing is that a decision on the euro is taken on economic grounds. In other words, the question is whether the decision is taken on the basis of what is right for the British economy. Of course, the position that we have set out allows us to do just that.

The Japanese are not saying that we should join the euro tomorrow. They are saying that, when the decision is taken, as investors in our economy they want to know that we will have the interests of the British economy—British jobs and investment—as our highest priority.

As for debt and debt relief, it is important that we do not put over-stringent hurdles in the way of the heavily indebted poor countries. However, it is not only a matter of economic hurdles; it is also important that we have systems of governance in those countries that make it clear that any money that is put in will go to those who really need it. That is not an unreasonable precondition. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the $100 billion Cologne target. However, only £50 billion of that is the HIPC initiative, with the rest being commercial debt and so on. I shall break down that $50 billion. Currently, with the nine countries that have gone through the process, there has been $15 billion of debt relief. If the 11 other countries get through the process by the end of the year, $35 billion of the $50 billion will be used for relief. That is very much approximating what we said at Cologne we would do. The other $15 billion is really to do with the countries that are in conflict.

Therefore, although I understand the frustration of all the campaigners on the issue and support very much the work of organisations such as Jubilee 2000—as the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been at the forefront on these issues for the past couple of years—we have to make it clear that in some countries there are problems which prevent us from getting that money through.

I should like to take this opportunity to set out what the United Kingdom has done. We are increasing our aid budget by 20 per cent. in real terms in the next three years, with our aid: gross domestic product ratio rising to 0.33 per cent. We have already written off almost £250 million of debt, and we have made a commitment to write off a total of £1.7 billion of debt to the HIPC countries. We have pledged a bilateral contribution of $375 million for the HIPC trust fund, which is another important part of the process. We have announced a doubling of the amount that we are prepared to make available to improve access to drugs and medicines in developing countries. We have also led the way in tackling the problem of conflict, and particularly of conflict diamonds. We are also establishing with other countries a new taskforce on renewable energy, to help to bring clean electricity to 2 billion people who are currently without it.

If we add up all those sums, with the additional money that we are providing to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa, it becomes clear that we have made more progress on the issue in the past three years than the United Kingdom has made for many decades. I think that we can be proud of that achievement.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

It was welcome that in his opening statement my right hon. Friend referred to tackling illegal logging. However, will he say what concrete measures will be taken to deal with this very difficult issue? Will the summit's hosts do anything about their position as recipients of many of the destroyed rain forests of Indonesia? Will Britain put its house in order in relation to the Amazonian rain forests?

The Prime Minister

That is a perfectly fair point. The most that I would say about the measures taken at the summit is that we have started a process. The matter was not even an issue at last year's summit, but it is now. All the countries involved in the summit are obliged to report back on what they are going to do to try to curb illegal logging.

That is a desperately important issue because at present we are despoiling vast amounts of the world's environment. There have already been serious consequences, and there will be more unless we take action. I do not pretend that we have done more than begin a process, but, partly as a result of UK initiatives, we have at least got the issue on to the agenda. The obligation on individual countries to report back about what they are doing means that we have a better chance of at least getting the process properly under way.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

As the Prime Minister has shared with the world his appreciation of President Clinton's qualities, will he share with the House his appreciation of the contribution at the summit of President Putin?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I would be pleased to do that. I thought that President Putin made an outstanding contribution, not only in his description of the reforms in the Russian economy, which are immensely important for us, but in his description of the talks that he has held recently in North Korea, China and elsewhere. Overall, he was extremely impressive at the summit.

One of the most important elements of summits such as the one that has just been held is the opportunity to build relationships, trust and confidence between leaders. That can be vital. As happened in Kosovo, countries' interests can be in conflict, and the ability to speak openly and frankly to people is a very important part of getting such a conflict sorted out.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his continuing efforts on debt relief, which will be welcomed by my constituents? However, with a new round of world trade talks about to begin, a new financial architecture is needed. What are my right hon. Friend's proposals for putting environmental issues at the very heart of the new trade agenda?

The Prime Minister

I shall deal first with the process of debt relief. Nine countries have now gone through the process. In Bolivia and Uganda, projects are under way and spending has been put in hand on schools, hospitals, infrastructure and jobs. The help for people in those countries is already visible as a result of the cancellation of debt. That shows how important it is to get the other countries through the process.

The WTO round will include environmental issues, but it is important that we ensure that questions to do with the environment and labour standards do not become a covert way of keeping out developing countries' goods. Therefore, I think that we must take account of the concerns that my hon. Friend raises, but we must do so in a way that is sensitive to the worry of developing countries that such concerns are merely back-door forms of protection.

I can tell my hon. Friend that there needs to be a big push to start the WTO round again. Whether or not that happens by the end of the year, the European Union has set a good example by stating that it will open up market access for the majority of its goods to the developing countries by 2005, and I urge other countries to take a similar lead.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Further to one of the questions asked by the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), will the Prime Minister explain what he really meant when he said to the Japanese Prime Minister that a British decision on the euro would not be taken on political grounds? Does he think that the biggest constitutional upheaval in this country since the revolution of 1688 could be a non-political event?

The Prime Minister

Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman again, because I am often asked that question, or a similar one, by Conservative Members: I am not saying that political and constitutional issues are not involved—of course they are. However, in relation to the Government's position, we have resolved those issues. We believe that the essential issue, therefore, is whether the euro is in the national economic interest. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I wish that hon. Members would listen. I have said that of course there are important political and constitutional questions, but the issue is whether there is a constitutional barrier to joining. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) would say that there was, and so would many other Conservative Members. If that is the case, his policy of ruling out joining for five years only is absurd. If there is a constitutional barrier, then rule it out for good. It is the Conservatives who need to resolve this constitutional question rather more than us.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

While I had my doubts about the leisure shirt in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was photographed, I was pleased, overall, with the outcome of the summit. Will he give more detail about what was proposed for tackling the AIDS epidemic sweeping Africa? Are there practical proposals to enhance public health provision, have cheaper drug costs, enhance the village hospitals in Africa and, equally importantly, get African leaders on side so that they do not say that it is all just about poverty?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a series of justified points. The target has been set for the reduction of AIDS. It is important, however, that that is backed up by concrete measures. We, for example, are increasing the amount of support that we are giving to AIDS programmes in Africa. What my hon. Friend refers to in respect of education and local hospitals is vital. I also agree with him that it is important to have a serious and open discussion on AIDS so that the measures that we are taking will be effective. At the Durban conference a short time ago, representatives from all over the world discussed the issue.

The poverty in which people live makes it more likely that they will get the AIDS virus. That is absolutely true. What is also undeniably true is that unless we take preventive and educational measures, we have little chance of dealing with this issue properly. I hope very much that having set a specific target, and put in place the process to follow it up, we will be able to take the action necessary.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will the Prime Minister tell us how many children in the poorest countries of Africa could have been educated in a primary school for a year with £450 million? Would that not have been a better use of most of the money spent on the summit? It would, after all, still have left £50 million to spend on a good few bottles of a very good wine so that delegates could get to know each other.

The Prime Minister

I have already explained the position on the cost of the summit. To ignore the additional effort that has been put into debt relief in this country and elsewhere, and to ignore the £18 billion to which the Japanese have committed themselves, is rather silly. Least credible of all is the Conservative party posturing as the friend of the developing world.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Is it not wonderful to know that Jubilee 2000 is so capturing the public imagination that it is winning new friends all over the place?

When the Government set targets in domestic politics, there are usually incentives or penalties to encourage Departments or agencies to achieve them. What steps will the world leaders take to make sure that their intentions are translated into action?

The Prime Minister

There are a variety of things that we can do, although it is obviously not the same as in domestic government. For example, on money laundering and the fight against organised crime and drugs, if we proceed on the current basis, the eight new measures that have been agreed by Finance Ministers will be implemented by each of the countries involved. There will then be a report back throughout the course of the next year on how that process is proceeding. The result of that will be substantial changes to the laws of various countries. That is an example of what we can do.

In respect of the targets on AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa, again there is a process in place. In a sense, the best thing is for us to be called to account for that. I think that, partly because of the Cologne process on debt, there is an obligation upon us to go further on debt. Even though people want us to go far faster and further, if we had not had that Cologne summit I do not think we would have even made the progress that has been achieved so far. Under a domestic Government, the matter is different, but there are none the less political incentives built into the process.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Does the Prime Minister accept that there are Conservative Members who have taken a great interest in third-world debt? Indeed, I have done so since as long ago as 1989. I am also chairman of the all-party group on Jubilee 2000.

Which countries are holding back the process and why? Is there any truth in the suggestion, which I heard recently at a conference, that it is to do with the reforms demanded by the World Bank and the IMF? As it is absolutely essential that there is immediate relief for people who are living in degrading and impossibly poverty-stricken circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman do what he can about evening out the conditionality imposed on the current debt relief proposals?

The Prime Minister

On the whole, most of the countries want the process to succeed. There are obstacles—for example, the attitude of some members of the US Congress has been a problem in getting the US to do what President Clinton wants it to do.

Some other countries are—let us say—slower than us on untying aid, which is also extremely important. Other countries are hesitant about opening up their markets to the goods of the least developed countries. However, we are making progress on all those issues.

I am happy to pay tribute to the work done by the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, individual Conservative Members on third-world debt, but I am afraid that I have to remind him that when his Government were in office for 18 years, they reduced substantially the proportion of national income going to overseas aid and assistance. This Government are raising that again. As a result, I am afraid, of decisions taken by the shadow Chancellor, the amount of money that we are now committed to putting into aid and assistance would, of course, be cut.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

I hear what the Prime Minister says about AIDS and diseases in Africa. Can he give a Labour guarantee—although I do not like to use the word—that that money, or that programme, will start this very moment, this very year? I have been to Africa. I have seen the carnage and the millions of kids who are dying of AIDS and disease. Something needs to be done now—not years later, but now.

The Prime Minister

I can tell my hon. Friend that we are indeed—now—putting in the additional money to fight those killer diseases in Africa.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

In welcoming the right hon. Gentleman's frank talks with President Putin, may I ask whether he had a chance to raise with him the question of Russian organised crime and its serious effect on many countries in western Europe? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Russians need to tackle that problem? It greatly damages the credibility of a country that we need as a strong and sensible country in the world community.

The Prime Minister

We did, of course, talk about the need to have political and economic reform in Russia. One of the problems that Russia has faced is the high level of organised crime, and I agree that it is important that it deals with that. It is a threat that crosses its borders into the rest of Europe. The single most important thing we can do is to support a process of economic and political reform in Russia that puts in place a proper tax code, a proper commercial system and a proper legal system that together allow the problems to be dealt with. Of course I agree that the problem is huge.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Fifteen billion dollars of debt relief to just nine poor countries represents an abject failure to deliver on the commitment made at Cologne of $100 billion to 40 countries this year. Given that the Prime Minister himself said that the G8 economies are in good shape, does he agree, in principle, that the priority is not closing the so-called global digital divide, but delivering on comprehensive debt relief—now? If the problem with that is conflict in the poor countries themselves, can he tell us what discussions took place at the G8 summit on how limits and controls might he placed on the arms industries—including the arms industries in the G8 countries, which, by and large, fuel those conflicts?

The Prime Minister

Let me explain again to my hon. Friend about the $100 billion. We are supposed to put three quarters of $50 billion through by the end of this year, so he can work out the figures. We have put $15 billion through and if we get the next 11 countries through, it will be $35 billion out of the $50 billion. I am not saying that we do not want to go faster and further—we do. Indeed, we would have gone further, but to describe what we have done as an abject failure is unfair.

Debt relief is important, but I am completely convinced of one thing—unless all the problems are tackled together, debt relief on its own will not do the business and will not produce the goods in Africa. We need to deal with the problems of health, trade and untying aid. We also need to deal with the problems of information technology. The truth is that if some of these countries were given access to information technology, it would have a fantastic benefit for them. We should not simply say that such an aim is pie in the sky from the richer countries. Potentially, many countries are crying out for access to information technology and it is a scandal that it costs more to access the internet in Uganda than it does in Britain or the United States of America. That issue is important, too.

The reasons for conflict in such countries have far less to do with the international arms trade than, I am afraid, the attempt by certain factions in those countries to seize control of wealthy natural resources. The dispute in Sierra Leone has one very simple basis: it is to do with the diamond industry. The Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone got the conflict going again over the past few months because the United Nations threatened to take over the diamond industry. Therefore, we need to put in place a proper system that ensures that if diamonds come from an area of conflict, they are not sold on the international market. Dealing with basic questions of conflict prevention is immensely important.

I emphasise to my hon. Friend that I do not believe that debt relief, in itself, is enough. Another issue is the system of governance in those countries, and all the issues have to be dealt with to provide a solution to the problems.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Does the Prime Minister realise what enormous targets the summit leaders have set themselves? They have set targets to reduce the number of cases of TB and malaria by 50 per cent. and the number of cases of AIDS by 25 per cent. in 10 years. Those targets are quite extraordinary. Does he realise that the summit leaders have already slipped on their targets for debt relief and that the World Bank's recent report, "Can Africa claim the 21st century?" has shown that many more people are living in poverty now than there were 40 years ago? Are not such targets just a lot of hot air?

The Prime Minister

No—that is unfair and wrong. If, in fact, we get the additional 11 countries through by the end of this year, we will have very nearly met the target that we set in Cologne last year. [Interruption.] If I could just get the hon. Lady to understand my argument, she will see that as a result of that, we will have achieved more debt relief in one year than we did in virtually a decade before. It is always possible to say, "You should have done more and you should have done this or that." I agree that we need to do more, but to say that we have done nothing is wrong.

On the targets for AIDS, malaria and TB, let us take Uganda as an example—it has virtually halved its rate of AIDS. It is possible to take action, but only on the basis of targets that are put in place to act as a spur to countries to ensure that they do their utmost.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I shall ask only for an investigation. When the G8 countries consider the weaknesses of the global financial system, will they examine currency speculation, which has an horrendous impact on third-world nations? One option is the Tobin tax, which is a tax on currency speculation that the G8 could use to handle the massive problem of poverty in the third world. No Government are in a better position than this Government to take a lead on the issue, given the position they have taken on debt.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that I can offer my hon. Friend much comfort on the issue of a tax on the financial system. Part of the work that has been done by the financial stability forum is to do with highly leveraged institutions, hedge funds and so on. However, my own view is that proper systems of transparency and proper accounting standards are the most important issues for the international financial system.

A crisis develops when a financial system is not properly transparent and does not work according to established accounting standards. Dealing with that is the single most important thing that we can do, together with helping some of the poorest countries in the world to put their financial houses in order, which does not always need to be done in the old way of imposing very stringent conditions that they cannot meet unless they cut spending on basic services. However, it does mean working with those countries to make it clear, for example, that people who invest in them are investing in a robust commercial and legal system, and that the money that they put in goes to those for whom it is meant, not into the pockets of leaders or their friends.

We have made a lot of progress in the global financial system. However, our single biggest task is to get more countries to sign up to the transparency and accounting standards that are at the heart of a decent global system.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

We understand the Prime Minister's reticence about giving all the answers that some of us would like. We all congratulate him and those who have been doing positive work in debt relief and care, including an education programme in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda which is largely led by a nurse from Northern Ireland and the Fellowship of Christian Students.

What steps does the Prime Minister think will be taken to quicken the approach of the 11 countries that could have been in the programme, as there seems to be a delay somewhere along the line, as was obvious from his statement? Does he agree that perhaps the most wealthy country in the world could do more? Allowing for the fact that individuals have done wonderful things, quite frankly there is something wrong when newspaper reports say that America will not be able to meet the Kyoto targets because of its own industrial needs.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right: a lot more could and should be done. To be fair to America, it is rarely President Clinton who blocks progress, but elements in Congress and the Senate.

There is a good chance that we can get the 11 countries through by the end of the year. We are working closely with those countries to get in order all the bits and pieces that need to be in order, so that the decision point can be reached. As I said, debt has been relieved in the first nine countries, and people going to Bolivia, Uganda and so on are already seeing the difference that that makes. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman is quite right to pay tribute to the programme led by the nurse from Northern Ireland. It is one of the best programmes that we have, and she has done a fantastic job.