HL Deb 20 December 1989 vol 514 cc277-9

3.48 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, perhaps we can return to the debate on the environment.

I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for raising this vitally important subject. There is indeed a need for urgent international action to protect the environment and to safeguard human, animal and plant life on this planet. I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, with great interest. We have been told to keep our speeches short, so if my speech does not altogether make sense, I hope I shall be forgiven because I shall omit a considerable part of it.

I have decided to concentrate briefly on the problem behind it all —that is, that the human race is increasing in number at an alarming and potentially disastrous rate, and mankind is the great polluter. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, touched on that, but that was some time back. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Seear will be speaking because she has great experience of and authority on these matters. I shall listen with great interest to speeches from all sides of the House. It would be tragic if a matter of such vital international importance were to arouse strong divisions on party lines. I shall listen with particular attention to the summing up by the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh. I hope that he can display true realism and not just a message that the Government have everything under control and there is nothing to worry about.

Despite the proud statement in the Queen's Speech that: My Government will continue to attach very great importance to protecting the national and international environment", I am not convinced that they are sufficiently alert to the vast problems which lie ahead.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has raised this matter from the Government side of the House. To emphasise the gravity of the situation without being partisan, I now quote three statements from three Conservative Members of the other place. On the environment, Sir Hugh Rossi said in the latest Inter-Parliamentary Union News that: 1 believe that the greatest problem facing humanity is whether we are treating the planet in a way that it will continue to be able to support industrial development and the drive for greater economic prosperity. We have to take care that we do not despoil the planet and its resources or poison the atmosphere of the land and the seas. Otherwise future generations will live to curse us". I would very much agree with most of that. Unfortunately, mankind is the great polluter and there are becoming too many of us. The search for ever greater economic prosperity cannot go on indefinitely. First, I am suspicious of the theory of continuous economic growth. It seems a denial of an overuse of resources and the need to share those with others less well supplied. However, I accept that that is a highly controversial point and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, holds a different view.

Also, in the recent Inter-Parliamentary News Mr. Robert Key said this on poverty: It is true that the rich nations have been careless with the environment and profligate with their resources, yet despite current awareness of the consequences of environmental degradation, two-thirds of the world live in poverty and are desperately searching for a supportable way of life". Lastly, the right honourable Member, Mrs. Lynda Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development, said recently, in summing up the critical need for population control: In simple humanitarian terms we cannot stand by and see three-quarters of the world grow poorer, unhealthier and hungrier, while we grow richer". She argued that the Government are already doing much to help, but I am not convinced that it is enough. Although Britain's overall aid has been increasing, as the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said last Thursday, the stark fact remains that it is only 0.32 per cent. of GDP or fewer than half the UN's target of 0.7 per cent. There is a great difficulty in providing an adequate quality of life for an ever expanding world population. Only 30 per cent. of the earth's surface is land and two-thirds of that is desert or ice. Global warming threatens increased flooding, and short-term demands mean that great fertile areas are becoming desert.

I was privileged to hear Dr. Halfdan Mahler address the all-party parliamentary group on population and development a fortnight ago. He is secretary general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. He has said, we pay less than due importance to world problems for there is an urgent need for ethical action if there is to be a decent quality of life for all in the years to come. I have paraphrased what he said, but I was impressed by his use of the word "ethical". He also used the phrase "debt forgiveness" to emphasise that we may have to forgo some debts owing to us to avoid deforestation required in some developing countries essentially to raise short-term finance.

Literature from Marie Stopes International provides much information on population problems. I have selected a few points which are highly relevant. First, in 1950 the population of Africa was 224 million. It is predicted that that could reach 872 million by the year 2000. Secondly, Nigeria's population was almost 112 million last year. We are told that that is expected to grow to 528 million before the year 2100. It will be five times as densely settled as modern France. That is such a remarkable forecast that I double-checked it.

Thirdly, for every heartbeat, two more babies are born. Allowing for deaths at the same time, that means a population increase of about 85 million per year.

In most developed countries such as Britain the population is stable or even falling. It is in the developing countries that enormous increases are taking place. Nonetheless, it must be accepted that this is a global problem and not just one of North versus South. We are all ultimately interdependent.

The answer to all this will not be easy, but delay will make it even more difficult. Much education is needed. There is urgent need for the widespread and general provision of adequate planning services. Many women of childbearing age want no more children but they do not use contraceptives for fear of social disapproval or for a number of other reasons. For example, prejudice, ignorance or —all too frequently —because they do not know how to obtain them. It is essential that right of access should be assured although it will often take time to overcome religious and cultural sensitivity. Compulsory family planning policies are highly undesirable. About half the couples in the world lack the necessary information on that subject and I am told that only a minute fraction of international aid is spent on population planning.

Perhaps I may end on a personal note. When my great-grandfather died in 1880 it was discovered that he had tried in his will to order the affairs of the family for centuries to come. The calm and rather unbiblical belief of our Victorian ancestors was that the world —led of course by the British Empire —would continue to get steadily better year by year until an earthly paradise was achieved. I wait to see what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, who is my bishop, will say on that.

Even as recently as 1957 my father wrote in his biography: The world is very young and man but a few paces upon his age-long journey". Today our thoughts are very different. North Sea oil will run out before long and even the so-termed plentiful supply of domestic coal could be used up in 300 or 400 years. We should never forget, as we are often reminded, that we are trustees of this planet for future generations. What sort of world shall we hand over? If we get it wrong, our children and grandchildren will not forgive us.

I end with a further comment from Dr. Halfdan Mahler who I need hardly add is a highly intelligent and knowledgeable man about world population problems and who is very anxious about the future. He said that the population of the world is now 5 billion, and unless speedy action is taken, that will reach 6 billion by the year 2000. In the natural course of events (if that is the way to express a situation where no adequate action is taken) he estimates by mathematical progression that that could reach 15 billion —that is treble the present figure —by the end of the next century. I leave it to noble Lords to consider what will be the result.

Forward to