HC Deb 02 March 2000 vol 345 cc548-9
15. Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

What discussions he has held with his international counterparts on future progress with WTO negotiations. [111546]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)

Since Seattle, I have been in contact with a number of my international counterparts from both the European Union and the rest of the world to discuss reform of the World Trade Organisation and the launch of a new round. Most agree on the need to launch a new round as soon as possible, and the need for reform of the WTO.

Mr. Heald

Does the Secretary of State agree that almost nothing is more important than for Britain to fight for global free trade, and to lower European Union tariff barriers? Is he aware that the Secretary of State for International Development has said that his Department will take a strong lead in trying to reform the WTO' s procedures following Seattle? Can he report any progress at all? He has told us that he has had meetings, but has any progress been made? This is a very important issue for Britain and British trade.

Mr. Byers

I agree that it is an important issue, and progress is being made.

Mr. Heald

What progress?

Mr. Byers

If the hon. Gentleman can wait, I will tell him.

The reform programme will now have two parts. There will be some specific and rather technical changes, which are being discussed in Geneva; we hope to conclude those discussions by the end of this month. We also see a need for more fundamental WTO reform, which will take longer, because the WTO operates on the basis of consensus: an individual member can block progress. The more radical reforms will take time, but I think that engaging in a dialogue—which is what we are doing—will give real opportunities for substantial reform, hopefully within a year or 18 months.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is the Secretary of State aware that only a small percentage of the money that changes hands internationally from day to day is for trade in goods and services, and that the great bulk is concerned with capital speculation? Is that problem discussed with equivalent Ministers at meetings of the World Trade Organisation? We should begin to propound the idea of an international tax on capital speculation; then we would be able to tackle some of the problems faced by third-world nations.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend has always had interesting ideas. The WTO has been considering the question of investment in the context of its rules. Issues of international capital exchanges are more correctly the remit of the International Monetary Fund, and my hon. Friend will be aware that the IMF has adopted procedures to try to restrict sudden flows of capital in and out of particular countries. That has been successful over the past 12 or 18 months, and that is probably a more appropriate path than the one suggested by my hon. Friend, which I would not want to follow.