HL Deb 06 November 2001 vol 628 cc128-30

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they are doing to persuade the World Trade Organisation, when agreeing and applying its rules, to incorporate appropriate environmental and social criteria on an equal basis to economic criteria.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government have long recognised the importance of launching a new trade round—especially so since 11th September. We also recognise the importance of environmental and social considerations in the development of economic policy. At the WTO Ministerial Conference, we are supporting the European Union's call for clarification of the relationship between WTO rules and trade measures to protect the environment. We arc also seeking clearer confirmation of WTO participation in an ILO-led dialogue on the social dimensions of globalisation.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that it is disappointing that the text of the negotiating agenda in Doha does not specifically address either of those issues? How will the Minister judge the success of that round of talks? If the agenda fails to address the concerns of the 49 poorest countries, it will have failed to address the concerns of environmentalists and the concerns in which she said the EU is interested. It will then be hard to see for whom the agenda has been a success.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, no one is making a secret of the fact that we face some extremely difficult negotiations at Doha. I would not wish to leave any noble Lords under any illusions on that front. It is true that the United Kingdom would like language in the Doha declaration that actively supports the work of the ILO. In particular, we want a cross-reference between that and the WTO, which has a strong regulatory system.

On environmental issues, I hope that the noble Baroness understands the enormous difficulties that we face with regard to developing countries. There are questions about multilateral environmental agreements, about eco-labelling initiatives and about the precautionary principle, all of which are important to the EU and all of which are regarded as protectionism under another name by developing countries. The way in which we negotiate on those issues will be hugely important. At the same time, we must keep a balance with developing countries with regard to their serious worries about the way in which the WTO is developing.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, I notice that my noble friend used the word "globalisation" in her Answer. For what it is worth, my experience—I have had recent discussions in India—is that we could help to remove some misunderstandings between the North and the South if all concerned acknowledged that the title "World Trade Organisation" is becoming something of a misnomer. The WTO is engaging increasingly with rules on direct investment—in other words, with rules on many of the activities of multinational corporations. Those rules will embrace a mutuality of interests with reciprocal rights and responsibilities in a broad field.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I make it clear that when we speak about developing countries, we are speaking about a wide variety of countries that, within themselves, have differing interests. For example, the differences between Africa, south-east Asia, South America and the Caribbean are very clear. My noble friend is right to say that international trade is much more complex than the mere arrangements surrounding the exchange of goods. I point out, however, that the WTO is not a global governing body—no member government, so far as I am aware, want it to be. For example, in relation to the aim of including negotiations on the environment, it is not for the WTO to set environmental standards but to try to clarify the relationship between environmental protection and trade rules. We have enough on our plates for this trade round without being twice as ambitious by trying to change the WTO's name.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, does the Minister agree that agricultural subsidies will be of prime importance at the forthcoming ministerial meeting? That issue will affect developing countries, to which she referred, and it is also an issue within which environmental and social issues can be embraced.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I certainly agree that agriculture will be of prime importance in the trade round; that matter is raised with the UK by many developing countries, and our friends in the USA have a great deal to say to us on the subject. Several members of the Cairns Group have also been robust in the arguments that they put to us. We fully support further liberalisation of agricultural markets in order to sustain development and economic world-wide growth. We shall argue robustly in relation to all of the issues that we have often discussed in your Lordships' House, particularly with regard to the common agricultural policy. We shall do that through the EU. I am sure that that, too, will take much time, effort and expertise in the coming days.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little further? She mentioned the importance of agricultural discussions in the next round of the WTO. Does she accept that it is hugely important that all governments—whether they are developing governments or established governments in the widest sense—speak the same language? A current problem is that the United States accuses the EU of subsidy, but the Americans and some other countries have a very effective safety valve that they apply themselves. Surely it is high time that we all spoke a common language.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree. I wish it were as easy as declaring that we should all speak the same language and that everyone should sit around a negotiating table and agree that, but I believe that it will be a great deal more difficult than that. To those who doubt the value of this trade round I say that if this trade round does not take place we will not have even the opportunity to speak the same language on agriculture. While I accept the enormous range of difficulties that all noble Lords are able to adduce—having worked on this for a number of months I am able to adduce them myself—I believe that the opportunity to launch a new trade round is the best shot we are likely to have at sorting out some of these complex issues, not least the agricultural ones.