HL Deb 27 April 1983 vol 441 cc938-40

Debate resumed.

3.58 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, whether we look at it from a Christian or other ethical point of view, we cannot ignore the plight of the third world. Millions are dying of starvation or are so undernourished that the children suffer permanent disability. The WHO statistics should really bring us up short: some 18 million with leprosy, 12 million or more with preventable blindness, and untold millions with debilitating diseases which make life hardly worth living.

We respond to all this by doling out some very limited aid and with a response to emotional appeals from organisations such as the Save the Children Fund. It is a bit like our grandfathers, where a 10 per cent. contribution to charity from a person's income justified exploiting labour to any possible extent. The capitalist system and free enterprise justified this and, of course, the plight of the workers was said to be their own fault. I think that the last point is a very relevant argument for developing countries today. If only they would control their birth rate and produce stable and enlightened Governments, how much more help could we easily give! But human nature is very imperfect both here and elsewhere and we cannot fall back, as our ancestors did, on the comforting idea of colour prejudice. The two Brandt Reports have highlighted the problems and suggested what might be done. They have also made the point that even if the self-interest of the West is the only criterion we cannot carry on as we are doing indefinitely.

At the moment most developing countries can hardly, if at all, service their debts, and rescheduling such debts is only a palliative. The day of reckoning must come unless there is a quite enormous improvement in the world economy. As Roy Jenkins said recently: If an immediate and imaginative worldwide initiative is not taken, present conditions may, in a year or two's time, make today's ills seem almost benevolent. The world is now interdependent and it could well be that what is at stake is not only the fate of the developing countries, but the whole of Western democracy and of capitalism as we know it. Most of us believe that in a very imperfect world the capitalist system, with all its warts, is the best that we can achieve overall, but it is working badly, and as Brandt makes clear some fundamental changes are now needed.

We have only to look at Western unemployment to realise how the economic system has become our master, not our slave. It is a truism that "the more people who work usefully and efficiently for the longest possible time, the richer a nation should be". Yet, at a time when even the West cannot afford to do what they would wish to alleviate the relative poverty of some of their people or provide many other things, such as improved hospitals and prisons, the system is creating higher and higher unemployment.

I am afraid that the economists, who almost always disagree, are primarily concerned with trying to make the present system work, rather than with how it might be improved on a world-wide basis. What we need even more than expertise is a sense of practical idealism which would mean that Britain and other nations would be prepared to make sacrifices to achieve a better world. Most people have a latent sense of such idealism if given leadership in that direction. Most certainly Brandt has shown the way.

I am not an economist and I cannot therefore comment on the recommendations in the report, certainly not without a great deal of research, by which I mean talking to many people whose views would be important. Nevertheless, I have a "gut feeling" that at least some of the recommendations are those of a committee and bear that hallmark. Increased lending by IMF or other bodies may be necessary, but I think is not, per se, a solution.

The report talks about fundamental changes. I have the feeling that this may be little more than an extension of the present system and not really all that fundamental. Do we not perhaps almost want to think in terms of barter for the developing nations' raw materials, currency being the uncertain thing it has now become? Could the wheat, butter and other food surpluses perhaps not best be treated on this basis?

What else, my Lords? There are too many international committees and organisations, and I unkindly say that the merit of some of their staff is judged solely by the amount of somewhat irrelevant paper which they produce. Could we not cut through some of this, and try to do what Brandt has done or proposes? Most certainly the Government's comments on the first Brandt Report epitomised the very worst that our Civil Service and democratic system could reasonably produce. That is in fact what the noble Lord, Lord Oram, said in rather different words. Although this speech represents my own views, my party is particularly concerned with the issues raised by Brandt and is determined to make some of his proposals a reality.

Before finishing I should like to raise one specific issue, which is that of the aged. Here the state does what it feels it can, but in the developing world the aged must rely on the family groups, which are increasingly breaking down as the younger generations leave the country for the towns. We might remember as well that if we are as concerned with the rapid increase in population, at least one reason for this is that if you are in a country where there is no security for age, the more children you can have the better chance there is of at least one of them being able to look after you later.

Brandt has highlighted this problem and proposed some solutions, and the United Nations World Assembly on Ageing has done the same. I finish by an appeal that we must really try and look into the future not only because it would pay us to do so, but with some idea of real idealism, which I feel is lacking.