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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 October 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ethical Trading Initiative

1. Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): If she will make a statement on her Department's support for the ethical trading initiative. [6111]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): My Department has supported the ethical trading initiative since its establishment in 1998. It is an alliance of major British retailers, development non- governmental organisations and trade unions dedicated to the improvement of labour standards throughout the supply chain of the retailers concerned. The ETI brings together £60 billion in annual turnover, and therefore has a considerable worldwide reach. The retailers subject themselves to independent monitoring, and work

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to bring their supply chains into compliance with International Labour Organisation standards in a way that brings benefits to workers in developing countries.

Mr. Mahmood: Does my right hon. Friend agree that improving the observance of core labour standards in supply chains can help developing country workers to get a better deal out of trade? What further steps can her Department take through the ETI and other initiatives to ensure that labour standards are better observed worldwide?

Clare Short: I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. As the House knows, core labour standards include having no child or bonded labour. Some children are still working when they should be at school because their parents are so poor, and some people have to bond their future and their children into labour. That shows what desperate levels of poverty we have in the world.

The ETI is a very important initiative: a £60 billion turnover has a wide international influence. We want to build on it and spread it across the world. It is being watched, and may be imitated, in other countries worldwide.

Medicines (Patents and Pricing)

2. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): What discussions she has had with the pharmaceutical industry about patents and pricing of medicines. [6112]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): On 8 October, I chaired the first meeting of the working group on access to medicines, which brings together United Kingdom Ministers, the pharmaceutical industry, the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, among others. Our aim is to encourage research and development for new drugs, and access to existing drugs, to treat the diseases of poverty across the developing world. The group has made good progress in identifying ways in which to encourage more research and development. The second and third meetings will discuss donations, pricing and affordability.

Dr. Gibson: Does my right hon. Friend agree, on the basis of her experience, that the pharmaceutical industry is much more interested in patents than in patients? How does she interpret the current bout of philanthropy among the big pharma-companies, which, after all, measure their annual profits in millions of pounds and trillions of dollars?

Clare Short: Pharmaceutical companies are, of course, run for profit. That includes Indian pharmaceutical companies. In consequence, only 10 per cent. of worldwide research is conducted to obtain better drugs for the diseases of poverty: malaria, HIV-AIDS—for which a vaccine is needed—and tuberculosis, including new strains. The poor of the world cannot generate a market.

We are trying to spread basic health care systems across the world. At present, even if the drugs were free, most poor people would not get them, because they have no access to health care. We are trying to establish worldwide alliances aimed at conveying cheaper drugs to poor countries, allowing pharmaceutical companies to charge higher prices

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in other countries so that they achieve a rate of return, and bringing about a global partnership that will produce better treatment for the diseases of poverty. The pharmaceutical companies are co-operating, but this is a new dance for them.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Will the Secretary of State include in her discussions a specific look at the impact of the patenting of human genetic material? It is feared that, as patents are taken out on the human genetic sequence, researchers in both the public sector and developing countries—even when doing their own research—may have to pay prohibitive charges to those who hold the licences on the material that they need.

Clare Short: I have not looked into that in any detail, but we have set up a Commission on Intellectual Property. We have experts from across the world trying to ensure that the law on intellectual property—which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is strongly linked to patenting—serves the interests of poor countries, and does not marginalise them. I will ask my Department to look into whether we need to consider human genetic material, and I will write to him.

Hugh Bayley (City of York): More people in Africa die of malaria than of AIDS. It is estimated that if malaria could be abolished in Africa, the continent's gross domestic product would be increased by some 15 or 20 per cent.—four times as much as the continent receives in aid. Does not the situation cry out for a project by Governments in the rich world, Governments in the poor world and the pharmaceutical industry to work together to eradicate malaria?

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. I believe that 1 million children in Africa die of malaria every year. Obviously we want action on both malaria and HIV-AIDS; we do not want to switch between the two.

There is a World Health Organisation initiative, "Roll Back Malaria", which we are supporting strongly. Even by applying consistency to the drugs that we have, and ensuring that all children sleep under insecticide-dipped bed nets, we could massively reduce the toll on both life and health.

Ill health is linked to poverty. When people are ill they cannot work, and when their children are ill they beg, borrow and steal to obtain drugs for them. As my hon. Friend says, there is masses more that we can do, but we are also supporting international efforts to develop new drugs for malaria. When the drugs are not available, resistance develops. If the drugs could be used more consistently, they would be more effective.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The right hon. Lady will be aware of the argument presented by the pharmaceutical companies that if they cannot hold on to patents, they will have insufficient funding to develop new drugs. What is her answer to them?

Clare Short: My answer to that is that the hon. Gentleman was not listening earlier. It is a complex area. I do understand. It is the Government's strong view that we need a framework of intellectual property law across the world to achieve collaboration whereby cheaper drugs are available at lower prices in poor countries,

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pharmaceutical companies enjoy higher returns in other countries and there are international agreements on differential pricing. We need flexibility in the agreements that takes account of the needs of poor countries, but we need patents and intellectual property protection to get the research and the drugs that the poor in the world need.


3. Margaret Moran (Luton, South): What action her Department is taking to support poverty reduction and development in Africa. [6113]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Since 1997, we have doubled our spending in Africa and focused our efforts on poverty reduction. On present rates of progress, none of the international development targets will be met in Africa, but significant progress is being made in some countries, which shows that we could do better. To speed up economic growth and poverty reduction across the continent requires a much bigger effort in resolving conflict, dealing with HlV-AIDS and improving the effectiveness of economic management and public services. There needs to be a crackdown on corruption and more investment. That is what the new Africa initiative and the partnership around that is meant to drive.

Margaret Moran: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. As she will be aware, Malawi is one of the poorest nations in Africa. Is she aware that on a visit some years ago, parliamentarians were advised that the lack of education among women, and the lack of sex education in particular, were among the causes of poverty there? Fifty-four per cent. of its population live below the poverty line and 48 per cent. of its children are malnourished. What assistance is this country giving to Malawi to deal with those causes of poverty?

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. Malawi is desperately poor. Something approaching 64 per cent. of the population are chronically malnourished. It has few natural resources and is densely populated.

We have a growing programme in Malawi. My hon. Friend the Under–Secretary is to visit Malawi in the next month or so to take our programme forward. We have focused on primary education. All the evidence is clear: if a generation of girls get through school, they bring about profound development effects in their country as they grow up. They have fewer children and those children are more likely to survive, household income rises, the children go to school and receive better health care. We are working on that and on reproductive health care and reducing maternal mortality. I agree with all the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Does the Secretary of State agree that we do not need new pledges and agreements? We just need the international community to deliver on existing commitments. The international community promised at Copenhagen in 1995 that there would be universal primary education and a substantial reduction in

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child mortality by 2015. At present, it is not going to meet any of those targets. What can be done to galvanise it into meeting them?

Clare Short: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We do not need more and more conferences and meetings across the world. We need to implement what we have already agreed. I am happy to say that the hon. Gentleman is wrong to think that we are not on course to meet any of the targets: we are on course to meet the target of halving the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015, which means 1 billion people making the journey out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015. However, there will be more to do because the world population will grow.

Some of the other targets have been met in Asia but will not be met in Africa on present trends. We need to up our ambition. We have more focus and agreement on the targets. However, we need to co-ordinate our efforts so that we do not have piecemeal projects but improve governance, the effectiveness of economic management and the provision of health care and education. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and hope to work more with him on those issues. We are making more progress, but we will have to do an awful lot more if we are to have a just world and we will not have a safe world unless it is more just.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to study the UNICEF report entitled, "The State of the World's Children 2002", which shows that malnourishment among children in sub-Saharan Africa has increased in the past decade; that only 47 per cent. of children are immunised against diphtheria; and that one in 13 women are likely to die during childbirth? Is not her focus on poverty in that region absolutely right, if only because it offers the opportunity for others in the international community to follow her lead?

Clare Short: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments. Most people find it unbearable to think of large numbers of children dying before the age of one or five—before they have had the chance to develop their lives. However, in a world that has more than enough food for everyone, it is somehow even more unbearable to think of vast numbers of children being so chronically malnourished that their bodies and brains do not develop properly and their whole lives are blighted by hunger.

We have made progress in African countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Mozambique, and in post-conflict countries such as Tanzania and Ghana, but we have got to do better. Africa will not meet any of the international development targets without a bigger effort. Immunisation rates are improving, but we can do more if the world has the will to co-operate.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the answers that she has given so far. Can she assure the House that in targeting aid and encouraging investment, she will focus on countries such as Tanzania, which is already making progress in terms of good governance, democracy and the rule of law, rather than albeit understandably focusing only on countries with critical problems? To do so will encourage other countries to follow that lead.

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Clare Short: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point. Governments who are determined to drive reform by building up systems of government can prove much more effective. All the research suggests that aid proves more effective in countries where there are reformers, but also in countries where there are large numbers of poor people. We are increasingly backing reformers, and rightly so because that produces results, and we need models of success. However, some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world live under bad Governments, and we must look for more subtle ways to intervene, bring immediate help and drive demand for better governance. That is the more difficult task, but we must not neglect it.

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