HL Deb 18 January 2005 vol 668 cc644-7

2.53 p.m.

Lord Hylton

asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether government and public sector purchasing of imported products, especially from developing countries, is based on fair-trading and ethical standards.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, the Government are committed to supporting ethical trading wherever possible and through the Department for International Development they provide significant support to the Fairtrade Foundation's efforts in promoting the supply and marketing of Fairtrade products. Contracting authorities have to consider a range of factors—EU procurement rules, value for money for the taxpayer, the authority's objectives and the subject and nature of the particular contract. Guidance on fair trade and public procurement is available on the Office of Government Commerce website.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Does he agree that the Government have an opportunity to set standards for the private sector—for example, by never buying for less than the cost of production, by using long-term contracts and by ensuring that conditions of work and trades union rights in the countries of origin are of the highest possible standard?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, those principles are indeed reflected in the Government's guidance on fair and ethical trading. It is to be found on the Office of Government Commerce website and is therefore available to be followed by the private sector.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, have the Government any plans to expand the number of public sector imported goods covered by Fairtrade standards, keeping in mind, too, a fairer free trade policy?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is a balance which must be maintained. There is no restriction on the number of products, goods and services covered by Fairtrade purchasing arrangements. There is no restriction in the Office of Government Commerce guidance on these matters. Clearly the principles will be adopted wherever they are appropriate.

Lord Judd

My Lords, have the Government noticed the flourishing Fairtrade groups which are now active across the country and which are having considerable success in persuading local authorities and others to pass resolutions declaring their region of authority a Fairtrade area? Is this not again an example of the British people not only demanding with words but demonstrating by actions their commitment to international justice in trade? Is it not important therefore that the Government continue to do everything possible to demonstrate that they are at least as equally committed as local authorities across the country?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is exactly the right approach—people in local areas should put pressure on public authorities to follow the guidance on ethical trading. The Government are certainly appreciative and supportive of all the actions to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, refers.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what evidence there is that private sector companies take the slightest notice whatever of what is on the Government's website?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if I can find the information, I shall write giving the number of hits—I think that that is the correct phrase—on the website. But the question goes a good deal wider than that. In fact, the question of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is an answer to the further question of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. People do care—and when people care they can make their views felt to private companies as well as to public authorities.

Lord Newby

My Lords, following the world summit on sustainable development, the Government pledged to ensure that the £13 billion of goods and services that they buy every year were "sustainable". Within that total, have the Government contemplated setting a target for purchasing Fairtrade products? If not, will they?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it will be clear from my original Answer that it would be very difficult to set a target for purchasing Fairtrade products which did not also take account of the other considerations which have to be included in any purchasing decisions—value for money for the taxpayer, the objectives and the subject and nature of the particular contract. It is not that I am opposed to the idea of setting a target—if it was possible to do so, I am sure that we would—but I see difficulties.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the noble Lord's question was about leadership by example. Could not the Government find ways of giving preferential treatment to those countries devastated by the tsunami disaster by sourcing goods that they might need, so giving their economies extra structural support at a time when the livelihoods of so many people are being rebuilt?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that is a very constructive suggestion. Again, I do not know enough about the exporting patterns of the countries which were devastated by the tsunami. However, I shall pass back the suggestion of the right reverend Prelate.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, will the Government undertake to ensure, through the EU, that training is given to developing countries seeking to engage in Fairtrade when the EU takes a decision to raise "phsyto-sanitary" and other standards for the importation of goods? There was a recent, very serious situation, where the standards were raised on 1 January and no training was in place until some interventions were made very late in the day. It could have damaged Fairtrade in developing countries very considerably. We could put this right for the future. Can the Minister give that undertaking?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am afraid the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, is beyond me when she refers to "phsyto-sanitary". However, training forms a very substantial part of the DfID budget. Indeed, DfID was under quite unjustified attack for spending £697 million on consultants when in fact it was spending the money on training and research. I am sure that part of that research includes the matters to which the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, refers.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, can the Minister say whether these standards of practice in purchasing are observed within the House itself? While it may not be the Government's responsibility to respond to this, will he undertake to draw the matter to the attention of the authorities of the House and ensure that it is?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is not a matter for the Government, but the very fact that the question has been asked in the presence of the Clerk of the Parliaments means that it has been drawn to the attention of the House authorities.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I expect that the Minister is aware of the very disappointing reply that my noble friend Lord Newby received to the debate on Caribbean banana growers on Friday. It referred to fair trade as simply a niche market and seemed to dismiss it, rather than being aspirational and wishing to encourage it. That will no doubt greatly depress the very successful fair trade organisation that has been set up for Caribbean banana growers, on which they are working hard.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think it is a denigration to say that it is a niche market. We applaud all fair trade organisations. In order to work, they have to set up organisations of small producers in specific countries for their products. That is not done everywhere. It can be done for bananas; it can be done for coffee and tea. I see that it is being done for wine from Chile—and very good wine it is, too. These are niche markets in comparison with the bulk of international trade, but they are none the worse for that.