HL Deb 19 May 1992 vol 537 cc544-7

2.45 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further initiatives they are taking to deal with problems caused by the increase in world population.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, we are continuing to increase significantly our support to population programmes and reproductive health services in Africa and Asia, to the UN Population Fund, and to non-governmental organisations. Last year UK population assistance to developing countries exceeded £26 million—the highest ever. We are also working closely with the European Commission to develop a stronger commitment to population assistance within the Community as a whole.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I welcome the Minister as she answers her first Question in this House on population, because we are aware of the great interest that she has shown in another place regarding this important issue. Is she aware that the United Nations Population Fund's report published last week confirms what many people have been saying for a long time—that is, that educating women, and giving them access to family planning and health services, is the key in trying to prevent the catastrophe which will occur if nothing is done about world population? I welcome the £26 million to which the noble Baroness referred. Does she accept that the countries involved are not doing enough, and that in our case we should be taking the world lead in this very important matter?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, to answer the noble Lord's last question first, we are increasing our support for family planning activities faster than any other country. We are also encouraging other countries to increase their support not only for the United Nations Population Fund but also for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the WHO Human Reproduction Programme and for non-governmental organisations like Population Concern. What the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, said about women is true. The more you enable women to continue in their education, to take up jobs, to start small businesses, the more you give them good mother and child health care advice, the less children they wish to have and the more likelihood there is that the children which they do bear will survive.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, following the reply of the noble Baroness, am I right in thinking that the Government recognise that such factors as clean water, immunisation, primary health care and even pensions have a strong bearing on population policy? Will the Government ensure that those factors are discussed in international dialogues?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. He is right. Clean water, which enables the milk substitutes to be properly mixed for the benefit of children, immunisation which prevents illness, and indeed some security in old age, do a great deal to discourage the continuous reproduction that many women suffer against their wishes, particularly in developing countries. That is the reason we produced a pamphlet last year called Children by Choice Not Chance. That pamphlet was used for debate in all international fora and it will form part of our discussions at the Rio Earth Summit. It is essential that it should do so.

Lord Rea

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, perhaps I may ask this. Is the noble Baroness in full agreement with me and many others who believe that the best way of providing family planning advice and supplies is through a network of primary health care being made available to all members of the population? I am aware that the Government, at least verbally, support the WHO goal of health for all by the year 2000, which I take to mean accessibility of basic health care to everybody in the world. What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking towards achieving that desirable goal?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, primary health care is the basis not only of smaller and more healthy families, but also of a happier society in the third world. We are increasing our support not only for reproductive health programmes, but also for that primary health care. For instance, our contribution to the United Nations Children's Fund—UNICEF—will ensure that this year £9.5 million, the highest amount ever, will be fed in not only bilaterally, but also through the multilateral agencies to improve women's health services alongside child survival. That is done mainly through the primary health care units.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when everything that can be done has been clone, the harsh reality is that world populations will he limited either by starvation or by birth control? By any ethical standards, particularly the Christian ethic, birth control is surely the kinder of the two.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we prefer to talk of family planning and not control. It is fundamental to our policy that family planning should not be coercive; it should be by choice. That is the reason it is right to make family planning devices and advice available, and to improve mother and child health care wherever that is needed. It is much more than throughout the third world; it is in Central and Eastern Europe and also the former Soviet Union.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that, as the World Bank said yesterday, it is not just a matter of better educational facilities for women? But there should also be improved living standards for the poor generally in the third world to ensure that those children have a better prospect and chance of surviving. Against that challenge, can the Minister give the House some reassurance that the Government will reverse the disastrous trend in our aid budget, which is down to 0.27 per cent. of GNP, and move towards the UN target of 0.7 per cent.?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the Question certainly concerns population. However, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is right that the overall economic situation affects the size of families particularly in the developing world. Let me put on record that the average over the past five years is 0.3 per cent. of GNP. We all know the reasons. In the last quarter of 1990, we did not make certain payments which were made in the first quarter of 1991, giving rise to the figure that he mentioned. I can assure the noble Lord that we are now spending our aid better; it is better targeted, and we are obtaining better value for money out of it. As growth comes, so we do more for the developing world.

Viscount Craigavon

My Lords, does the Minister accept that international organisations such as the UNFPA and IPPF estimate that within the next decade at least 200 million new couples will want contraceptives in addition to the existing users? Does the Minister also accept that that is the scale of the problem, and whatever fine words and declarations emanate from conferences, armchairs or even pulpits, that need will still remain?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I accept what the noble Viscount says. That is the reason we are engaging in new projects in those countries that particularly need family planning, clinical equipment and supplies as well as advice. We have a programme which certainly bears good comparison with others. I hope to extend it still further above the record figure that we achieved in 1991.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury made a statement of the first importance on this subject last week. Can the noble Baroness explain to the House where the Government stand, and whether or not they support that statement?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the most reverend Primate made an interesting, fundamental and important statement. We fully agree with much of it. It is fair to say that we shall continue to try to respond with all the help which is needed by the 200 million people who want family planning advice and who cannot obtain it.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many religious organisations related to the United Nations believe that where one can increase education and raise standards of living, that appears to contribute to a lessening of the huge increases in the birth rate? Therefore is it not sensible to help people achieve better standards of living and improve their education to enable us to achieve what everybody in the House wants?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, yes.