HC Deb 15 February 2001 vol 363 cc438-9
2. Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

What representations his Department has made to the European Commission regarding the everything but arms proposal. [149000]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn)

My Department has made many representations to the European Commission about its proposals, urging rapid implementation while at the same time taking account of the legitimate concerns of those such as the non-ACP less-developed countries that might be affected.

Mr. Cohen

Does the Minister agree that the everything but arms proposal, which provides tariff-free access for 919 products, is a welcome initiative? Will he put his weight behind it so that it is approved by the Council of Ministers as swiftly as possible? Will he point out to its critics that it will cost the EU less than £5 million a year—a small price to pay, considering the substantial prosperity that it engenders in developing countries and the poorest countries? Does he recognise that, as well as helping the poorest countries to strengthen their economies, it sends out a strong message that it is better to trade in civilian goods than in arms?

Mr. Caborn

I completely agree. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made this country's position clear in his Mansion House speech. Indeed, we are taking the issue to the European Union, where we hope to be able to reach an agreement that will assist the least developed countries. We are talking about 0.5 per cent. of world share—of economies in which the gross domestic product is less than $1 per person a day. We have a responsibility to those countries, and we shall push very hard indeed on that matter in the EU.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

There is fog of Government confusion on this matter. Why, in referring to the everything but arms proposal on 22 November last year, did the Prime Minister say, in terms, "We are concerned about the proposal", when, on the same day, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development said that the Government strongly support the proposal? Which of them was off-message?

Mr. Caborn

We strongly support it; the Prime Minister made that clear in his Mansion House speech. Indeed, we have led in the EU on the issue, to ensure that we push hard for the inclusion of the three items that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, have created difficulties—bananas, rice and sugar. The Prime Minister and the Government are as one on that.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

This initiative is likely to result in only small gains for less developed countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the agreement does not come off as a whole, it will seriously call into question Europe's commitment to competition? Will he urge all his European colleagues to agree to the initiative in full, so that, at the next World Trade Organisation negotiations, our motives on trade liberalisation and competition are shown to be serious and in everybody's interest?

Mr. Caborn

That is a fair question. My hon. Friend is right: the EU must show leadership, especially as we approach another round of WTO negotiations. The vast majority of the 140 WTO countries are developing countries that look for a lead from developed countries. It is incumbent on the EU to take a lead.