HL Deb 06 December 1999 vol 607 cc1008-10

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they will make at the World Trade Organisation talks to ensure environmental concerns are addressed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the United Kingdom and the European Union remain committed to ensuring that sustainable development is a key objective for a new round of multilateral trade negotiations. At the unsuccessful Seattle ministerial conference last week we proposed that environmental considerations should be taken into account throughout the negotiations and that negotiations should specifically include clarifying the relationship between WTO rules and trade measures stemming from multilateral environmental agreements; clarifying the relationship between WTO rules and eco-labelling schemes; and examining the role of the precautionary principle in WTO rules. We shall continue to press for these objectives in the further work of the WTO next year.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does the noble Lord agree that it is a matter of great regret that the message did not get across to some NGOs and many in this country that those issues were of great importance?

The Government say that they will take a lead in overhauling the WTO agenda: that it should reflect social, environmental and economic concerns in equal balance. Does the Minister believe that the failure to get that message across was the reason for so many angry protests at Seattle?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Baroness. We are deeply disappointed that we have lost this opportunity to take forward the process of liberalising world trade which is in the interests of the environment and of developing countries. We shall pursue this week with the European Commission and other member states our proposal for an early ministerial conference to reform the World Trade Organisation. Clearly our environmental concerns will be at the forefront of that pressure.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, are Her Majesty's Government interested in making the World Trade Organisation somewhat more democratic? People are very concerned about the lack of democracy.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords. I cannot agree with the noble Countess. In a sense the World Trade Organisation is too democratic. There are 135 member countries each of which has one vote. The outcome of a ministerial conference has to be achieved by consensus. It is precisely because it is governments, rather than multinational corporations or other organisations, who are the constituent members of the World Trade Organisation and who have to proceed by consensus that the ministerial conference had to be suspended rather than produce results. It is a matter of great regret, but it is not a failure of democracy.

Lord Elton

My Lords, were not the outbreaks of violence, not only in Seattle but also in this country, a worrying symptom of something which may grow larger? Is not the proper reaction of world governments to address the intellectual worry underlying those voiceless demonstrations so that they become no longer necessary? Is it not a function of the World Trade Organisation to render the world inhabitable by its environmental concern, and worth living in by its economic concern? Should not that debate be engaged in on newspaper front pages and in this Chamber rather than on the streets?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. I have tried hard to look for intellectual and moral coherence in the views of the protestors on the streets of Seattle. I know less about the protestors here. There appears to be a great conflict between those who hold the high moral objective of pursuing environmental issues and the problem that much of the opposition to improved environmental standards and conditions for liberalising trade comes from the developing countries themselves. That is in part due to their suspicion of the protectionism of the developed countries. The issues are complex and the noble Lord is right to say that they need careful exploration.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that genetically modified food, which was discussed at the WTO, arouses intense feeling among young people in particular? Can he assure us that during further consideration of such food and the Government's study of it, environmental issues will be carefully considered along the lines suggested by your Lordships' Select Committee?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, yes. The Government are not opposed to GM foods in principle, provided that they meet our strict regulatory requirements. Those include environmental standards.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, notwithstanding previous answers, the developing world has historically been marginalised in WTO deliberations. Does the Minister see that altering as a result of the events in Seattle and, if so, how?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Viscount is right; historically, the developing world has been marginalised. Despite the democratic structure of the WTO, there was an impression that the large developed countries, in particular the United States, were seeking to discourage developing countries from playing a full and active part in any future round. In the pressure we must exert to ensure that the WTO round of negotiations is revived, we must take care of the concerns of developing countries.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, will the Minister concede that while free trade is the best hope for prosperity and enables governments to invest in the environment, this Government are desperate to be popular with all the minority groups and liberals who do not understand that protectionism denies and stifles progress for poorer countries?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe that there is anything to concede. It is not true that this Government are desperate to seek the approval of any protectionist organisation. Our dedication to free trade and to the interests of the whole world, including the developing countries, has been consistent throughout. And it is not a party matter; I think that it was true of the previous government, too.

Forward to