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EDITIONS
Sunday, 25 August, 2002, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Margaret Beckett MP
Margaret Beckett MP
Margaret Beckett MP
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST
HOSTED BY GAVIN ESLER
INTERVIEW:
MARGARET BECKETT, MP
ENVIRONMENT SECRETARY
AUGUST 25TH, 2002

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

GAVIN ESLER:
Now optimists are calling it the most important environmental conference for a decade. Pessimists say it is 65,000 delegates and hangers-on, the generation of a lot of hot air and not much else. Either way the conference, which begins today in Johannesburg, tells us a lot about how interested world leaders are, or are not, in addressing poverty, development and the environment. A short while ago, just before she stepped on a plane to South Africa, I spoke to the Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett, who is the UK's chief negotiator at the summit. I started by asking her whether she ever suspected that the conference might be a waste of time, particularly with President Bush not going and the Prime Minister dropping in for about 24 hours.

MARGARET BECKETT:
I don't think President Bush going has anything to do with - not going - has anything to do with whether or not it's a waste of time. It is a difficult time for the American president. Obviously September the 11th anniversary coming up, he'll want to be in the States, and although the conference has been brought forward, it's been brought forward to Labor Day, which is also not a time where the US president necessarily wants to be out of the country. And Mr Blair, I mean, yes, okay, he will not be in Johannesburg for all the detailed negotiations - that's not his job. He's there to put the final seal on it but he's been working on these issues for a year, 18 months and more, and very actively so and promoting initiatives that are Britain's own specific speciality in terms of energy, water and so on. So he's been very actively involved but there's no need for him to spend more than a relatively short period of time in the final days of the summit itself.

GAVIN ESLER:
Well whatever the pressures on President Bush, one of the big political pressures is so few Americans seem to care very much about the environment. I notice that some 31 different American political groups, over the weekend, have described the agenda of the summit as anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-Western. With that kind of background it's very difficult to make the Americans move.

MARGARET BECKETT:
Well I haven't seen the list of those organisations, so I'm not entirely sure how seriously I ought to take them. But my impression is that a lot of people in the United States, and indeed in the United States business community, take climate change, sustainable development and the problems of the summit, very seriously indeed. Some of the world leaders in this field, whether it's in terms of non-governmental campaigners or, as I say, some of the corporate citizens in America, are actually from the States, they are American leaders in this field. It's true that the American government is not doing as much as we would all like to see it do, but that doesn't mean there aren't lots of people in America who take these issues just as seriously as they deserve.

GAVIN ESLER:
How are you going to handle Robert Mugabe, because he will be there and I suppose it will stick in the craw of a lot of people that a man who's apparently starving his own people is going to be lecturing the world about sustainable development.

MARGARET BECKETT:
Well no doubt President Mugabe will seek to lecture others but I think the most important and crucial thing is to make sure that the summit is not dominated by the issue of Robert Mugabe, or indeed by the terrible position that is happening in Zimbabwe. There is nothing President Mugabe would like better than to think that a whole world summit has been hijacked by his behaviour and his concerns. The summit is too important for that.

GAVIN ESLER:
But will you be there? Will the Prime Minister be there -

MARGARET BECKETT:
I will certainly be there.

GAVIN ESLER:
- when Robert Mugabe talks, though - but will you listen to what he has to say or will you boycott it?

MARGARET BECKETT:
Well I have no idea when Robert Mugabe will be scheduled to speak -

GAVIN ESLER:
I think it's an hour after the Prime Minister, I think it is.

MARGARET BECKETT:
Well that - I have heard that too, but whether there's any substance in it, I genuinely don't know because I've only heard it from the Conservative Party who are probably not an unbiased, giving unbiased evidence in this respect. But as I say, it's important, this is an important summit, it's a hugely important issue, it's very, very necessary that this summit is a success, and it will not be a success if it's hijacked by the issues of Robert Mugabe, although they are very important in Zimbabwe and it's important that as a world we do what we can to pressure the right behaviour, to pressure changes in policy - this summit is not the place to do it.

GAVIN ESLER:
Do you see, though, any merits in the Conservative view, which is that you should essentially not help those African countries that do not put pressure on Mr Mugabe?

MARGARET BECKETT:
I was absolutely astonished to hear that Michael Ancram, who I thought, though I disagree with him on many issues, was quite a sensible man, has come up with this really incredibly crass idea. There is dire poverty in Africa, as well as elsewhere in the developing world. The idea that we should allow Robert Mugabe to be such, to make such a hostage to fortune, that we turn our backs on the problems of the rest of the world, and turn our backs on what is the best opportunity for a very long time to make real progress on these issues, I've seldom heard anything more foolish.

GAVIN ESLER:
Now I wonder whether we aren't all a bit hypocritical about the environment. We all want cleaner air and cleaner water and fewer emissions and so on but we aren't prepared to make sacrifices. Do you - do you practise what you preach? I mean do you, are you off at the weekends composting in the back garden or do you take environmental measures at home?

MARGARET BECKETT:
Well I'm not off at the weekend composting because I don't, I fear, have much time for getting involved in the garden. But certainly I do try, as I think all of us do, to observe the standards of behaviour that mean that we're not contributing to global warming - and as you probably know, we have taken steps to make sure that in so far as we can calculate it, the impact of our own trips to the summit and all that goes with that, is actually offset by taking action to offset its carbon impact. And that's something that I think is very necessary and we shall continue to do.

GAVIN ESLER:
Very nice words in Rio ten years ago; very, very nice words from the Kyoto protocol about global warming and so on, but in the end it doesn't get done. Things are getting worse rather than better.

MARGARET BECKETT:
That's not actually true. What is true is that they're not getting better anything like fast enough and that's why we have to try and make a success of the discussions and the negotiations at this summit. But it is certainly not true that nothing has been achieved but what I do accept that many people think that any summit is, well, I think in the media it tends to be assumed any summit must be, a waste of time. But I think what can be different about Johannesburg is that we can have some concrete outcomes - not just fine words, although no doubt there will be some of those, and not just wise ideas and people saying oh yes we ought to do more about this, but perhaps actually some concrete agreements with outcomes that people can see and measure and monitor over time. I think it probably has been a mistake in the past, that we had the Rio summit, there was a catch up meeting five years after - I think that isn't enough, I think we do need to look at how we can set the right kind of targets and monitor them more closely to make sure that we continue to go in the same direction. That's what in this country, and in many other countries, now, in the developed, we're doing at national level. We have to see how much of that we can do at international level.

GAVIN ESLER:
Now this summit's also about poverty and many of the people attending are saying that conflict is one of the biggest causes of poverty around the world. You've been characterised this week as a bit of a rebel on Iraq. Do you, are you opposed to the idea of Britain joining the United States, if it comes to an invasion of Iraq?

MARGARET BECKETT:
Well I take very much the view that has been clearly expressed on many, many occasions by both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, which is that much of this discussion is theoretical - if there is a proposal then we shall all have to consider it in our own sphere and in our own ways. But I also share the view of those who say both that conflict in the world does contribute to poverty and also that poverty and environmental degradation go very much hand in hand. That's why the more progress we can make in Johannesburg the more good we will be doing for the future.

GAVIN ESLER:
When you said it's theoretical, or it's hypothetical I suppose, do you think that President Bush is actually going colder on this whole idea - he did seem to be backing away from it this week?

MARGARET BECKETT:
Well I think there has been so much speculation that really anything that could conceivably be said about it has already been said. And like you, I saw President Bush on television this week saying no we didn't discuss it.

GAVIN ESLER:
Okay. Well just a final thought on this summit. Do you think there's something almost obscene about 65,000 people jetting across the world to discuss poverty and the environment?

MARGARET BECKETT:
I saw a very interesting letter in our press cuttings the other day, from someone who is an engineer - I think an electrical engineer - expressing some dismay at the attitude that has been taken to the summit, not least, if I may say so, by the media, and pointing out that actually there are a lot of people like him, and his association, who will be going to the summit - a comparatively small number of politicians and officials among all of those who are going - who are going to exchange practical ideas and advice, to brainstorm with other people who have the same concerns, and who are actually engaged in trying to do something about the problems that are the core of the summit's agenda. And he made the point that although of course there's a lot you can do in the ordinary course of day to day work that actually this is a huge opportunity for people really to exchange ideas, to have an intellectual stimulus, to get the basis of really doing concrete good in the future. And he was disappointed that that was being overlooked and it's all the people like that who I think, I hope will really benefit from Johannesburg and I hope the world will benefit as a result of them being there.

GAVIN ESLER:
Okay. Margaret Beckett, good luck on a busy week and thanks for joining us.

INTERVIEW ENDS

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