Robin Cook – 1986 Speech on Housing in Livingston

Below is the text of the speech made by Robin Cook, the then Labour MP for Livingston, in the House of Commons on 11 March 1986.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of serious and growing concern to my constituents—the forward housing programme of Livingston development corporation. On the whole, I do not quarrel with the priorities of the corporation, and usually agree with the judgments that it makes within the resources available to it. My point, for which the Government must take full responsibility, is that its resources are not adequate to do the job that if faces.

There are two separate issues. The first is the amount of capital allocation available to LDC to tackle the upgrading of the existing housing stock. The second is the Government’s ban on general needs building by the new towns, including the LDC. The two are linked, as, were that ban to be lifted, the new towns would require an even more generous capital allocation than they need for the upgrading of existing stock. Both cases stand on their own merit, so I shall address myself to them as separate issues.

This debate, and my application for it, were prompted by the reduction in the capital allocation for the LDC in the forthcoming year. For the current year, it received £2–4 million net capital allocation for housing purposes. Next year, it will receive only £1.7 million, which is effectively a reduction of one third in real terms. It is difficult for those of us who know and seek to grapple with the housing problems of Livingston, to understand what possible basis there could be in the reality on the ground for that reduction in the net capital allocation for LDC.

Livingston, by its nature, has a large number of houses that were built in the 1960s, when system building was extremely fashionable among architects. Those houses have proved inappropriate wherever they have been built, but they have proved particularly inappropriate in Livingston, which is on an exposed hillside in Scotland, 500 ft above sea level. Some aspects of the housing stock desperately needs urgent attention if it is to provide acceptable housing into the 21st century, and if it is to stop deteriorating before the 20th century comes to an end.

First, a large number of houses have flat roofs. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, architects forgot that flat roofs do not allow the rainwater to run off. I have constituents who have reported 14 or 15 times that their roofs are leaking. To be fair to the LDC, quite often the tenants have been visited 14 or 15 times, and have had more patches put on the fiat roof above them. That is no solution. The only solution to the problem faced by the tenants and the LDC is to provide the houses with proper pitched roofs. If the rain does not get in through the roof, it gets in through the Bison cladding. The Minister will be familiar with the problems of Bison-built houses, and he will be aware that where such buildings are in an exposed position, as in Livingston, the case is as strong as anywhere else for urgent treatment of that form of building.

My next point concerns the provision of the heating systems in those houses. Unfortunately, many of the houses were built at a time when architects blithely ​ assumed that energy, and particularly electricity, would be cheap indefinitely. They therefore built houses that were cheap on insulation, and which are now expensive to run.

A number of houses in Livingston are recognised by the DHSS as exceptionally hard to heat houses. The LDC, to its credit, perfectly properly wants to replace the heating systems in those houses and provide heating systems that the tenants can once again afford. That is a matter of concern not only to the tenant but to the landlord as, while the houses are not heated, they deteriorate as a result of the familiar problems of condensation.

In addition to all these problems with the existing housing stock, there is the further quite distinctive issue of the upgrading programme for Knightsridge 4. I will not weary the Minister with the details of that tonight, as he was good enough to meet me and the local councillor, Maureen Ryce, a fortnight ago and we much appreciate the fact that since then he has been able to make a decision approving that upgrading programme.

That upgrading programme alone requires a capital expenditure of £3·6 million spread over two years. Therefore there will be an annual expenditure of £1·8 million. That figure compares to the total net capital allocation for Livingston for the current year of £1·7 million. In other words, that project alone would swallow up the entire net capital allocation. If we add the other expenditure to which I have referred, Livingston requires and can readily absorb a net capital allocation some two or three times the figure that has been offered for the current year.

The Minister could perfectly properly argue that the net capital allocation is not the sole capital resource available to Livingston. The LDC can also apply to capital expenditure the receipts that it obtains from the sale of houses. The fact is, however, that those receipts are on a declining profile. We are over the hump in public sector housing sales. In Livingston in the past year there has been a marked reduction in interest in purchases of corporation houses. That is not surprising, since more than half the tenants in Livingston are on housing benefit and are not in a position to purchase their houses. There is bound to be finite point to the demand for council house sales and we appear to be approaching that point.

It is possible that the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which is currently before the House, will stimulate a fresh wave of applications for purchase, should it complete its passage. That, however, will be a one-off effect. The LDC expects that its receipts from house sales will decline from £2·5 million in the current year to £1.1 million in 1990. That estimate was prepared by a development corporation which takes no view on the rights or wrongs of selling public housing and which has proved itself willing and energetic in marketing the sale of such houses. That corporation nevertheless expects to be able to achieve only a declining revenue from the sale of its houses.

In other words, the LDC is faced with a declining capital revenue from the sale of its housing stock and a declining net capital allocation from the Scottish Office. On that basis, it is impossible for the LDC to tackle the grave housing problems that it has inherited. In the immediate future that means that it does not have enough resources to meet committed expenditure in the coming financial year. In the longer term, it means that some of my constituents will continue to live with flat roofs, with Bison-clad buildings and with heating that is too expensive for them to use, until beyond the year 2000 on the present ​ resources available to LDC. That is the situation in a housing authority for which the Secretary of State is directly responsible.

It would not require resources beyond the bounds of imagination to tackle the problems at Livingston. The capital programme of the LDC in 1978–79, the last year of the Labour Government, was double the capital programme in the current financial year. Moreover, none of that expenditure was financed by sales of the housing stock.

I do not expect miracles. I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State to be able to return us to those halcyon days and the expenditure of 1978–79. I do not think that he has brought his cheque book with him. However, I ask him to give serious and sympathetic consideration to the representations from LDC and to look at them with a genuinely open mind. The hon. Gentleman has been willing—I appreciate this—to recognise the problems in the Knightsridge 4 area of Livingston. He has been prepared to admit that there is a case for expenditure. I put it to him that having recognised those problems, he must now will the means to tackle them.

I am concerned also about the ban imposed by the Scottish Office on construction of general needs housing in the new towns. That ban was imposed by the Minister’s predecessor three years ago. Since then, no general needs housing has been started in Livingston or in any other Scottish new town. The hardship caused by that moratorium has become increasingly evident during those three years.

When I was first elected to the seat of Livingston and went to my surgeries there, I had few, if any, cases of people coming to me who were not able to obtain rehousing. I have to admit that it made a refreshing contrast to my previous constituency in central Edinburgh where such cases were the stock in trade of my surgery. However, over the three years, first a steady trickle and now a steady stream of people have come to my surgeries unable to obtain the housing that they urgently and desperately need. I share that experience with local councillors. Yesterday, West Lothian district council carried a resolution requesting the Scottish Office to lift the moratorium on the construction of general needs housing in Livingston, precisely because of the experience of local councillors in finding an increasing number of constituents coming to them whom they could not assist.

To understand the pressure on the waiting list, it is necessary to remember that Livingston is a new town which has been constructed over the past 20 years. We now have a large number of second generation residents reaching their 20s, getting married and understandably seeking a house in which they can set up their family home. Forty six per cent. of the applicants on the LDC’s waiting list are under 25. The houses are just not there for them. The waiting list grew steadily until December 1984 when the LDC decided, perhaps understandably, that it would have to close the waiting list, except for priority cases. Even so, the average waiting time lengthened dramatically during the subsequent 18 months. The average time that must elapse before a first offer can be made exceeds a year. Many people on that waiting list cannot afford to wait a year. One hundred applicants a year involve cases where families have split up, often in desperate circumstances, occasionally in violent circumstances.

Bluntly, LDC is caught between the twin pressures of diminishing housing stock from the sales and an increasing demand from the new generation reaching maturity and seeking a family home of their own. The only way out of those conflicting pressures is a building programme of general needs housing. I am not asking for a massive programme. I am not seeking an enormous new estate. I am asking for LDC to have the flexibility to provide a steady responsible programme of perhaps 200 houses a year.

Some private sector house starts are being carried out in Livingston, and it is welcome, but they do not match the needs of the local community. In the past seven years, the average number of starts in Livingston by the private sector has been 137. It is estimated that we require 350 homes a year. Moreover, the people buying those houses come overwhelmingly from outside the new town. They are attracted by houses in an attractive, modern environment and are welcome to the new town. However, the houses constructed by the private sector do not and cannot meet the needs of the young couples of Livingston who cannot afford to purchase them.

I hope the Minister will agree that I have put my case in a rational, reasoned and dispassionate manner. I ask him in return to give a reasoned and dispassionate response to my case for lifting the moratorium, but I do not want him to give an instant response tonight if it will be no. He will have adequate opportunity to respond. The five district councils representing Scottish new towns have formed a joint forum which has been examining, among other issues, the housing needs of the new towns. The unanimous view of those councils is that the moratorium should be lifted, and they will be placing a report before the Minister within a couple of months.

I hope that when he receives that report, he will reflect on my remarks tonight and will, in the light of the evidence that they and I have given, be willing to consider lifting the moratorium. By definition, a moratorium should be only a temporary pause. I hope the Minister will agree, when he receives the report from the five councils, that the time for lifting the moratorium is long overdue.

Robin Cook – 1985 Speech on Suicide of a Constituent

Below is the text of the speech made by Robin Cook, the then Labour MP for Livingston, in the House of Commons on 28 June 1985.

wish to raise a matter of the greatest gravity, arising out of the suicide of a constituent. This issue has moved me deeply, but I shall try to place it before the House in as dispassionate matter and with as little partisan flavour as possible. I am anxious that when the Minister for Social Security replies to the debate he should do so not in a spirit of seeking to justify what his Government have done but in a spirit of honestly examining the effect of the regulations. His junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, was challenged on this matter last weekend but did not show a willingness honestly to examine the effect of the regulations. He said:

“The whole campaign of opposition to the proposals is no more than political brouhaha … Nobody in need can slip through that net of exemptions. Opposition is coming solely from those individuals who cannot be bothered to look for jobs and prefer to live without effort off the B and B allowance.”

I hope that it will be felt at the conclusion of my speech that that view is profoundly mistaken and gratuitously insulting.

The facts concerning my constituent can be briefly stated and are not in dispute. He was 23 years old. His mother had remarried and lived with Brian’s stepfather and stepbrother in my constituency. Brian had a history of psychiatric illness and had been a resident, on and off, for the best part of three years at Bangour village hospital in my constituency. In November he was discharged as fit and, as the phrase goes, returned to the community. He then went into board lodgings in Edinburgh, where he remained thereafter. His medical social worker drifted out of touch with him in January, but he was encouraged by the fact that Brian obviously wished to be independent and was seeking to get beyond reliance on the mental health system.

Brian appears to have lived reasonably satisfactorily for the next six months. Then on 17 May his world collapsed. He received a notice advising him that his weekly benefit would be reduced from £69·50 to £25·75 on 27 May. We know that thereafter he approached the Edinburgh housing department to seek rehousing, but for a number of years Edinburgh district council has built no new council houses and as a result has an enormous waiting list. There was no prospect of it being able to rehouse Brian and it was under no duty towards him, as a single person, under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.
Brian was put out of the hotel where he was staying at the end of the week in which his benefit stopped. He was successful in finding accommodation in another establishment for a few nights but he was put out of it on 6 June. He slept rough for the next two nights and was last seen alive in the all-night cafeteria of Waverley railway station. Thereafter, he climbed on to the north bridge and threw himself off it. He went through the roof of the railway station on to the platform below. There is no doubt that he committed suicide and there is no doubt in my mind that it was induced by the state of despair and homelessness to which he was reduced by these regulations.

One of the first lessons to be learned from this case is that it is clear that Brian Brown was in one of the exemption categories but failed to get exemption from the ​ regulations. The most alarming feature of his case is not that he was an exception but that his experience is all too common among the many other people who fail to get the exemption to which they are entitled under these regulations. Since the news that I had this Adjournment debate became public, I have received much correspondence from organisations and societies. Indeed, I have never had such a large mailbag on any single issue during the 12 years I have been a Member. All those representations frequently returned to the same point—the difficulty faced by those who are exempt in securing that exemption.

The Minister has received a list of such cases from the “That’s Life” programme, which had conducted some excellent research into the impact of these regulations. He responded on Tuesday by suggesting that those individuals who were exempt should come forward and claim exemption. There are a number of problems with that approach, and I wish to illustrate them from Brian Brown’s case.

The reason why Brian Brown could claim exemption was that he had a history of mental illness. I find it distasteful that anyone should have to seek the right to benefit by disclosure of that type of background. We know from his case that he was trying to get beyond his mental illness and his association with the mental hospital. He may well not have wished to come forward and make a claim for exemption on that basis, knowing that the inevitable effect would be to put him back in contact with the mental health system; otherwise, there was no way in which he could prove his case for exemption. The knowledge that that contact was in prospect may well have triggered a psychological reaction that predisposed him to suicide.

It is possible also that Brian Brown never knew that he was exempt. I have seen the application that he submitted to the housing department. It is clear that Brian was barely literate. I doubt that he read the accompanying literature or, if he read it, that he comprehended it.

There is another possibility—that Brian could have applied for exemption and been refused. It is clear that large numbers of cases that should be exempt have been unable to obtain exemption when they applied. I turn to one case from the “That’s Life” programme which was featured last Sunday and which has been put to the Minister. It concerns a girl with severe epilepsy, suffering frequent epileptic fits, who applied for exemption on that basis. I should have thought that no hon. Member would doubt that that was qualification for exemption. By last Sunday, she had received a further letter from the DHSS stating that this did not qualify her for exemption.

There is a wide variation in the proportion of cases getting exemption. In the north-east, 80 per cent. of claimants at one DHSS office have been granted exemption. At one Scottish local office, only 2 per cent. of claimants have succeeded in getting exemption. It is impossible to look at that extraordinary rate of variation without concluding that some people entitled to exemption are not getting it.

There is another unsatisfactory feature of relying on the system of exemptions to make these regulations humane. It places upon these vulnerable young people a strong incentive to remain in one of the exempted categories and not get beyond it. Lothian social work department, at a ​ time when it is being encouraged—indeed, forced—to reduce its staff, has hired five additional social workers to work with those rendered homeless by the regulations. One reason is the increased number of referrals of young people from the social work department because those young people can thereby claim exemption.

The position of those on probation is more acute. It is becoming impossible for social workers to consider discharging clients who are on probation if the effect of discharging them is to remove them from exemption and thereby render them homeless. What more absurd conclusion could there be to a period of probation, and what would be more likely to predispose them to return to a life of crime?

The Government appear to think that those who do not qualify for or secure exemption should return to the parental home. The problem with that is illustrated by the case of Brian Brown. He was not a youngster, but a man of 23. At 23, I was married and living in my own home. It is not surprising that people of that age wish to live an independent existence and do not readily accept that they should return home to mummy. In many cases, the cosy parental home waiting to welcome them back is a myth. Frequently, the background of homeless young people is broken. A stop-over hostel in Edinburgh which caters for young single homeless people calculated that 70 per cent. of its young people have lost a parent either through death or divorce.

One does need a degree in psychology to understand the tensions and resentment of some young people towards a stepfather who married their mother late in their lives. Sometimes, that is felt by the stepfather towards the children of the previous husband. That does not apply in this case, but it is well known among social workers that one of the main reasons why young girls and women become homeless is the sexual advances or assaults of a stepfather in the house. It is grotesque to suggest that they should return to that risk in the step-parental home because the benefit has been cut. Many of them will not go.

Large numbers of young people in Scotland are now making shift by desperate expedients. One victim in Kirkcaldy took to living in a tent on the beach there. Others sleep in bus shelters. In Edinburgh, a public house serves as a clearing house between young men made homeless by the regulations and homosexual older men who offer them accommodation for a few nights in return for sexual favours. It is incredible that late in the 20th century we are abandoning vulnerable young people to such an existence.

Brian Brown did not have the skills or the psychiatric stamina to survive the circumstances. He killed himself after two nights sleeping rough in the summer. There will be other such cases when cold autumn weather sets in, unless we change the system by then. I shall suggest to the Minister a number of ways to make the system more humane. If he cannot respond to them immediately, I ask him to consider them and to write to me later.

First, if the Minister remains convinced that there is a problem of abuse, why does he not stand the system on its head, and give wider powers to the DHSS to suspend benefit where abuse is suspected, rather than suspend everybody’s benefit and oblige those who are not abusing the system to prove that they qualify for exemption? That would put the onus on the DHSS to establish abuse, not on the claimant to establish that he is not abusing the system.​

Secondly, the Minister should consider the change, which was made between the consultation paper and the regulations, not to provide exemption for young people living locally. That has created a great deal of difficulty. Had such an exemption existed in the case of Brian Brown, he would not have been caught by the regulations.

Thirdly, on Tuesday the Minister invited organisations working with young people to help them to claim exemption and to notify the DHSS of any cases at risk. If he is serious in inviting that assistance, the DHSS should notify such organisations of those who are likely to lose benefit and to whom notices have been sent, so that they can find out whether the young people are vulnerable and at risk and could claim exemption.

Fourthly, as a minimum will the Minister consider including in the notice to young people reducing their benefit information on where to find organisations such as citizens’ advice bureaux and social work departments to obtain the advice, assistance and information that they may need to figure out whether they are exempt under the regulations?

Finally, what is so impressive about the weight of evidence that I have seen this week is that it has arisen so early in the life of the regulations, which came into force only two months ago. The first evictions began only four weeks ago, when the reduction in benefit started to bite on those caught four weeks previously. In London and Glasgow, the regulations came into effect only on Monday and the first eviction will take place this weekend. The appalling crop of cases that has been gathered so far has thus come to the surface without the metropolis even being involved. The regulations are already causing suffering to an extent of which the Minister was warned but which he did not expect when the regulations were introduced. I do not expect him to say so when he replies to this debate, but I suspect that in his heart he knows that I am right.

Robin Cook – 2003 Resignation Statement


Below is the text of the resignation speech made by Robin Cook in the House of Commons on 17th March 2003.

This is the first time for 20 years that I have addressed the House from the back benches.

I must confess that I had forgotten how much better the view is from here.

None of those 20 years were more enjoyable or more rewarding than the past two, in which I have had the immense privilege of serving this House as Leader of the House, which were made all the more enjoyable, Mr Speaker, by the opportunity of working closely with you.

It was frequently the necessity for me as Leader of the House to talk my way out of accusations that a statement had been preceded by a press interview.

On this occasion I can say with complete confidence that no press interview has been given before this statement.

I have chosen to address the House first on why I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support.

The present Prime Minister is the most successful leader of the Labour party in my lifetime.

I hope that he will continue to be the leader of our party, and I hope that he will continue to be successful. I have no sympathy with, and I will give no comfort to, those who want to use this crisis to displace him.

I applaud the heroic efforts that the prime minister has made in trying to secure a second resolution.

I do not think that anybody could have done better than the foreign secretary in working to get support for a second resolution within the Security Council.

But the very intensity of those attempts underlines how important it was to succeed.

Now that those attempts have failed, we cannot pretend that getting a second resolution was of no importance.

France has been at the receiving end of bucket loads of commentary in recent days.

It is not France alone that wants more time for inspections. Germany wants more time for inspections; Russia wants more time for inspections; indeed, at no time have we signed up even the minimum necessary to carry a second resolution.

We delude ourselves if we think that the degree of international hostility is all the result of President Chirac.

The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner – not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council.

To end up in such diplomatic weakness is a serious reverse.

Only a year ago, we and the United States were part of a coalition against terrorism that was wider and more diverse than I would ever have imagined possible.

History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition.

The US can afford to go it alone, but Britain is not a superpower.

Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules.

Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: the European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate.

Those are heavy casualties of a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.

I have heard some parallels between military action in these circumstances and the military action that we took in Kosovo. There was no doubt about the multilateral support that we had for the action that we took in Kosovo.

It was supported by NATO; it was supported by the European Union; it was supported by every single one of the seven neighbours in the region. France and Germany were our active allies.

It is precisely because we have none of that support in this case that it was all the more important to get agreement in the Security Council as the last hope of demonstrating international agreement.

The legal basis for our action in Kosovo was the need to respond to an urgent and compelling humanitarian crisis.

Our difficulty in getting support this time is that neither the international community nor the British public is persuaded that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq.

The threshold for war should always be high.

None of us can predict the death toll of civilians from the forthcoming bombardment of Iraq, but the US warning of a bombing campaign that will “shock and awe” makes it likely that casualties will be numbered at least in the thousands.

I am confident that British servicemen and women will acquit themselves with professionalism and with courage. I hope that they all come back.

I hope that Saddam, even now, will quit Baghdad and avert war, but it is false to argue that only those who support war support our troops.

It is entirely legitimate to support our troops while seeking an alternative to the conflict that will put those troops at risk.

Nor is it fair to accuse those of us who want longer for inspections of not having an alternative strategy.

For four years as foreign secretary I was partly responsible for the western strategy of containment.

Over the past decade that strategy destroyed more weapons than in the Gulf war, dismantled Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme and halted Saddam’s medium and long-range missiles programmes.

Iraq’s military strength is now less than half its size than at the time of the last Gulf war.

Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam’s forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped that the war will be over in a few days.

We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat.

Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term – namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.

It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories.

Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?

Why is it necessary to resort to war this week, while Saddam’s ambition to complete his weapons programme is blocked by the presence of UN inspectors?

Only a couple of weeks ago, Hans Blix told the Security Council that the key remaining disarmament tasks could be completed within months.

I have heard it said that Iraq has had not months but 12 years in which to complete disarmament, and that our patience is exhausted.

Yet it is more than 30 years since resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

We do not express the same impatience with the persistent refusal of Israel to comply.

I welcome the strong personal commitment that the prime minister has given to middle east peace, but Britain’s positive role in the middle east does not redress the strong sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world at what it sees as one rule for the allies of the US and another rule for the rest.

Nor is our credibility helped by the appearance that our partners in Washington are less interested in disarmament than they are in regime change in Iraq.

That explains why any evidence that inspections may be showing progress is greeted in Washington not with satisfaction but with consternation: it reduces the case for war.

What has come to trouble me most over past weeks is the suspicion that if the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops.

The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people.

On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.

They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US Administration with an agenda of its own.

Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.

From the start of the present crisis, I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war.

It has been a favourite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics.

Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this House to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support.

I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government.

Robin Cook – 1999 Speech on Kosovo


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, at the Mansion House in London on 14th April 1999.

May I begin, Lord Mayor, by thanking you for your hospitality and your invitation to join you again at this annual dinner. It is a tribute to this dinner that as I look around this room I see such a distinguished audience of people of calibre, status and wisdom in front of me. Never too early to invest in the goodwill of your audience.

As I look around I see nearly all the Diplomatic Corps in front of me, and can I say to each of those familiar faces of friends from the Diplomatic Corps, I am conscious of the heavy responsibility on me. I see in your eyes as you look at me in expectation that this speech may obtain the matter for at least one reporting telegram. I see I also have with me one of my eminent predecessors, here to see if the new man is quite up to the mark of the old. And as final confirmation of the distinguished character of this event, I also see in this room all those members of staff of the Foreign Office sufficiently senior to be paid more than the Secretary of State.

Last year I said that the Lord Mayor was one of the greatest roving Ambassadors for Britain. I have to begin this year by admitting you have more than fully kept up to that tradition, My Lord Mayor, indeed you have achieved a first, I suspect, in the history of both Lord Mayors and Ambassadors in that in one single year you have visited every capital in the European Union. And you did that in order to carry a very important message around Europe, that the introduction of a single currency for the rest of Europe does not in any way diminish the attraction and the significance of the City of London as a financial trading centre. It is a mark of the confidence that you have contributed to in the City of London as a place to do financial business that we in the City of London trade more in the euro than France, Germany, or Italy, all added together. I am proud of the fact, but I would mildly suggest that it would be helpful to our diplomatic relations if Paris, Bonn and Rome did not put that in their reporting telegram tonight.

May I thank you, Peter, on behalf of Britain for that tremendous effort you have put in, and that contribution you have made to the continuing success of the City of London. Can I balance those thanks with one modest correction. I did read in a recent interview from you that you said: ‘When I travel abroad as Lord Mayor, I enjoy the status of Cabinet Minister, so I can get up and say what I want to say.’ I am not sure that you have quite correctly comprehended the constitutional freedoms of a Cabinet Minister, so I did ring Alastair Campbell this afternoon and asked him: ‘Could I get up and say what I want to say?’, to which I got the blunt and characteristic response: ‘Who do you think you are – the Lord Mayor of London?’ But I am happy to say I have got clearance to report to you on the conduct of our foreign policy.

Unlike so many of the companies in the City, it has been a year of steady growth. We have increased the number of our posts around the world, we have increased the number of diplomats working in our posts around the world. We have put particular focus in that expansion on helping British business. We have doubled the number of diplomats representing us in the Caspian Basin where within the next few years 10 per cent of the world’s oil supply will come. We have created new consular posts to support our business work in Scandinavia, in China and in countries in between.

We have mended fences with countries where we have previously had no full diplomatic relations. I am happy to say that in the past week I have been able to announce the up-grading of our relationship with Iran to full Ambassadorial status, reflecting our success in securing a commitment from the government of Iran to take no action to further the fatwah against Salman Rushdie. And that has paved the way for us to have a dialogue with the Organisation of Islamic Congress in order to make sure that we have a better understanding between both the European world and the world of Islam.

With Libya we have achieved an historic breakthrough within the past two weeks in that we have secured the handover of those two whom we have charged with the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. It has not entirely cleared the way yet for normal diplomatic relations with Libya, there are other matters that are still to be resolved in our bilateral relations, particularly the killing of WPC Fletcher, but it has enabled us to proceed with our judicial process and has enabled us also to lift the United Nations’ sanctions on Libya through the immediate suspension of those sanctions and thereby remove what is becoming an increasing problem between us and countries of the Arab world.

I am particularly pleased with one relationship which we have also improved. We have always maintained diplomatic relations with Nigeria. I have to say until last year our High Commissioner found that the diplomatic relations that he had with the country to which he was attached was mainly being summoned in to be scolded whenever the Foreign Secretary had criticised the previous military regime in Nigeria. But nothing has given me more pleasure in the past year than the visit which I paid immediately after the Presidential elections as the first western Foreign Minister to visit the new democratic Nigeria: to sense the tremendous excitement of those people as they move into a new era of democracy and away from the recent past of military rule. The goodwill that I sensed there from the people of Nigeria in part reflected their respect for our firm position during the dark years of military rule.

While I was in Africa I also hosted a joint conference with the French Foreign Minister. Those of you here from the Diplomatic Corps from an African state will understand the full and striking novelty of the British and the French Foreign Minister hosting a joint conference in Africa. Indeed I can confirm, since the doyen of the Diplomatic Corps has pointed out, this building was constructed in 1752, even in that long time this room has never heard of a joint conference in Africa between the French and the British Foreign Ministers. But both myself and my colleague strongly feel the time has come for our two countries to put behind us the habits of competition in Africa and to base our approach to Africa on a policy of cooperation. We are both interested in securing stability and development in Africa; we both strongly believe we have a better chance of securing that if we work together rather than against each other.

This, if I may say, is a striking example of how close cooperation now is between the government of Britain and our European partners. There are other examples. We have just held this past weekend the first summit between the Prime Ministers of Britain and of Spain. The trial that we are about to hold in the Netherlands over the Lockerbie bombing would not have been possible without the very welcome and strong cooperation with the government of the Netherlands and particularly the personal interest of my colleague, van Aartsen. With Sweden we have launched a joint programme on social exclusion. With the new Germany we have secured a commitment in Europe to an annual report on European activity on human rights. And next month our Prime Minister goes to Germany to receive the Charlemagne Prize in recognition of his contribution to European development.

That strong standing in the capitals of Europe is a vital asset to us in European negotiations. I have to say also it is a vital asset as well to the companies of the City and elsewhere in British industry. It has enabled us to end the ban on our beef exports; it has enabled us to secure one of the biggest increases in support of structural funds for Objective One regions in the recent Agenda 2000 negotiations; it has secured for Britain a commitment that there will be a seat for the United Kingdom in the European Central Bank if and when we join the euro; and at the Berlin European Council it enabled us both to support budget discipline and retain the British budget rebate.

Together with our partners we are building a modern Europe, a modern Europe which has two clear futures. First, barriers are coming down between us. We have learnt that we can achieve more security for our nations by integrating our markets and our economies than we ever achieved by arming frontiers that kept us apart. But secondly, it is not an homogenised, pasteurised Europe, it is a Europe which recognises that cultural diversity is a source of strength, a Europe that respects equal rights of every citizen regardless of ethnic identity. A Europe that does not just tolerate cultural difference but treasures them as part of the richness of our communities. And those two features of a modern Europe, free of barriers with equal respect for cultural diversity, those key characteristics, explain why it is that Europe is united in support for the military campaign against Yugoslavia.

In our Grace earlier this evening we prayed for peace in our time. I hope we will secure that peace soon in our time. But meantime modern Europe cannot tolerate on its continent the revival of fascism or the doctrine of ethnic superiority and the fostering of ethnic hatred. We have seen in the past three weeks mass deportations on a scale that we have not seen since the years of Hitler or Stalin. We have seen innocent women, children and some, but not all, their men herded like cattle into railways and carried on mass deportation by shuttle service. We have seen others of their ethnic community hunted like animals across the hillside.

When I was at Rambouillet I was introduced by our Ambassador to a young woman from Kosovo who has acted as Albanian interpreter to our Embassy in Belgrade and had accompanied us to Rambouillet. I met her again last week after she had spent a fortnight escaping from Kosovo to Macedonia. In that time she had spent several days on the hillside with many thousands of others seeking to escape from the ethnic cleansing. In those days on the hillside she saw 14 babies born under the open sky. Many of those babies died and so too did some of their mothers.

Mercifully, many of those refugees have now made it over the border from that terror and I warmly welcome, Lord Mayor, the generous donation that you have announced tonight on behalf of the City of London, a donation which demonstrates the responsibility with which the City takes its international role. I also wish to pay particular appreciation to the enormous relief work that is being carried out by our and our Allied troops over those past three weeks. In two days alone, British troops constructed shelter in camps in Macedonia for 30,000 people. NATO is now emerging as a major humanitarian agency, assisting the victims of that ethnic cleansing at the same time as we seek by military campaign to make it more difficult for that ethnic cleansing to be conducted.

We meet within a City of London whose very basis is respect for the rule of law. In Kosovo at the present time we witness total contempt for the rule of law. The mass graves that have been uncovered by our photographs by aerial reconnaissance are the graves not of the casualties of fighting or of war, they are the graves of the victims of war crimes. I say to you, we will hold to account those who have carried out those unpardonable crimes. We know the names of the Field Commanders, they know their responsibility for the conduct of their units and we are passing to the War Crimes Tribunal all our information and intelligence in order that they may pursue those responsible and pursue them right up the chain of command to the top in Belgrade.

I am well aware that one should not commit servicemen to take the risk of military action unless our national interest is engaged. I firmly believe that upholding international law is in our international interest. Our national security depends on NATO. NATO now has a common border with Serbia as a result of the expansion to embrace Hungary and other countries of central Europe. Our borders cannot remain stable while such violence is conducted on the other side of the fence. NATO was the guarantor of the October agreement. What credibility would NATO be left with if we allowed that agreement to be trampled on comprehensively by President Milosevic and did not stir to stop him? Therefore we must succeed, we must succeed for our own sake but also for the sake of the refugees, we must succeed in pressing home our key objective that they should be able to return to their homes under international protection. Anything else would be a betrayal of the refugees and a reward for President Milosevic.

One of the encouraging features of the past two weeks has been the solidarity that we have received from the other seven countries of the region. I met last Thursday with the other European Foreign Ministers. All their governments are robust that a stand must be made against President Milosevic. All of them are now in a new dialogue with each other on regional solidarity. With each of them Europe is now accelerating its contacts and deepening its economic links. This is an exciting development which must not cease with a solution to the immediate crisis in Kosovo, but which we must take forward to enable those seven countries to develop a fuller integration with the modern Europe which they want to join.

By contrast, Belgrade still lives in the past. I visited Belgrade at the start of the Kosovo crisis and had a full discussion with President Milosevic on the looming developments in Kosovo. I have to report that he began by saying that I could not understand what was happening in Kosovo unless I started in 1389. There was something tragic about such a deep history perspective on current events. I am pleased to assure the diplomatic representatives here today that I did manage to choke back the observation that if we all went back to the 14th century, HMG would have very sound title to large chunks of France. But I did not believe that it would be in our national interest to assert that title, nor is it in the interests of Serbia to live in the Middle Ages when the rest of the world is moving on into the 21st century. And some day his people too will decide that they want to join the modern Europe and they do not want to be trapped in the time warp which President Milosevic offers them.

The strength of our Alliance is in no large part thanks to the continued commitment of our north American allies to freedom and stability in Europe. Just before I left for this dinner I held my daily conference call with Madeleine Albright. I will share with you the thought which I did not share with her, that for once I was very glad it was not a video conference call. The past three weeks has carried with it the very important message that vital to the freedom and security of Europe is the partnership between America and Europe, a partnership which goes back to the last war. And in 1945 when together we surveyed what we found in Europe, we found death camps, we found indecent bureaucracy of the extermination programme, pathetic survivors and millions of victims and we said then: ‘Never again’. That is the pledge that we must honour in Kosovo, because in the past two weeks we have again borne witness to forced movements by train, to thousands hungry and squalid in makeshift camps, to pathetic masses shorn of their homes and their papers for no reason other than ethnic identity. Had we done nothing in response, we would have been complicit in that evil. Had we done nothing, we would have betrayed the modern Europe we are trying to build.

President Milosevic may be beginning to grasp that we will not let him profit from the ethnic cleansing he has inflicted in Kosovo. He knows exactly what he must do to end the NATO air strikes: stop the violence, withdraw his troops and let the refugees go back with a guarantee of an international military force.

NATO was born 50 years ago out of the defeat of fascism. 50 years later we cannot tolerate the rebirth of fascism in our continent and that is why our servicemen are in action over Kosovo, some of them risking their lives tonight as we meet in the safety of the Mansion House.

This annual dinner is one of the many expressions of the strong traditions of the City, traditions that provide deep roots for the political and economic freedoms that have fostered the success of the City: the rule of law; equal opportunity on merit; transparency of information and the freedom of comment; a spirit of internationalism and security for trade with any part of the world. Because we possess these freedoms perhaps we do not sometimes prize them enough. Nobody has a better or a more bitter appreciation of the worth of freedom than those who are denied it, such as the people of Kosovo. It is in the hope that we can build a modern Europe in which all its peoples can be united by the same security and freedom that I now call upon each of you to join with me in a toast to the Lord and Lady Mayoress.

Robin Cook – 1999 Speech on the Global Environment


Below is the text of a speech made by the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, to the Green Alliance at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London on 15th February 1999.

For the past week I have been commuting to and from Rambouillet, the chateau just outside Paris where the Kosovo peace talks are going on. It is easy in foreign affairs to become preoccupied with the pressing issue of the day. But while we deal with the conflicts of today, it is crucial that we keep thinking about the kind of world we want to live in tomorrow.


If we want that world to have a healthy environment, then we have a major challenge ahead of us. For anyone who still thinks that global warming can be treated as a side-issue here are four simple statistics. The six warmest years on record have all been since 1990. Last year was the warmest ever. Thousands of square kilometres in Britain are already at risk of flooding. A fifth of the world’s population live within 30km of the coast.

The facts are just as stark in other areas. Take biodiversity. Some people still say that the extinction of plant and animal species is a natural process. So it is. But as the malign result of human activity it is now occurring at up to a thousand times the natural rate. Well over a tenth of the plant species known to man are at risk of extinction. And that isn’t just a tragedy for those who enjoy nature. It should concern anyone who cares about our health. A quarter of all prescription drugs are derived from plants. Drugs derived from tropical forest plants are worth USD25 billion a year.

In fact, last year the scientific journal Nature published the first ever estimate of the monetary value of the services nature provides for us. The figure the authors came up with was USD33 trillion. If he had to pay for their true value, even the hardest-nosed cynic might think twice about destroying them. It is no coincidence that New York City has found it is cheaper and more effective to restore the forest from which its water is drawn rather than build a new water treatment plant.

Freshwater is another issue where the position is crystal clear. The demand for freshwater is doubling every 21 years. In 1994 the UN Development Programme reckoned that there was a third as much usable water per person in the world as there had been in 1970.

Each one of these issues is a slow-moving menace with the momentum of a super-tanker bearing down on us. And I haven’t even got onto the loss of soil and spreading deserts, the state of the world’s fish stocks, the forests, the coral reefs or the ozone layer.

There is another statistic that is pretty sobering for party politicians like me. All of Britain’s political parties together have less than a million members. The largest number of them, of course, belong to the Labour Party. But there are over five million paid-up supporters of environmental groups in Britain. This is clear evidence of the immense public interest in the environment – people putting their subscriptions where they see their interests.


I believe firmly that the agenda of foreign policy should be set by the concerns of the people. I believe it should be about the things that matter to them. I have therefore pushed the environment up the Foreign Office’s agenda.

The environment is not a problem we can deal with on a national level alone. CFCs from Chinese fridges will cause skin cancer on this side of the globe. There are still sheep in Britain that cannot be brought to market because of the Chernobyl explosion in the former Soviet Union.

The response therefore to the environmental challenge must be international. We need to build a coalition that unites the international community in a determination to take the action required. And the Foreign Office has a key role to play in building that coalition.

I also believe that the environment must be central to foreign policy because it cannot be separated from other issues with which we have to grapple. The prospects for peace in the Middle East would be enhanced if the region’s freshwater were properly conserved. South-East Asia would be more stable if over-fishing were not forcing the fishermen further into the disputed Spratly islands. We strengthen our foreign policy and help make a safer world by factoring in protection for the environment.

And the converse is true. We strengthen our environmental policy by having a foreign policy that supports democracy, human rights, accountability and openness. It is no coincidence that democratic countries tend to look after their environments better than dictatorships, or that the East European Greens were in the vanguard against communism. All across the world environmental concern is driven by the people. If the people have no voice, their leaders have no interest in the environment.


We have already strengthened our environment department – it is now the fastest-growing department in the Foreign Office. I can announce today that we are taking this one step further:

We will be inviting a secondment from an environmental organisation. I want a closer dialogue between government and the environmental movement – so our foreign policy benefits from their immense expertise, and they benefit from a foreign policy that is alive to their concerns and priorities.

We will be inviting a secondment from business. This will strengthen our partnership with business both to protect the environment and to promote exports from Britain’s strong environmental industries.

We have agreed a series of secondments into our environment department for young future leaders from developing countries. The programme will be organised through the ‘Leadership for Environment And Development’ programme based in New York. The key to building a global consensus on the environment will be to break down the suspicion between North and South. We in the developed world need to convince the South that our concern for the environment is not a form of protectionism in disguise. We also need to listen to their legitimate wish to enjoy the same prosperity we take for granted, and work with them on models of economic development that are also environmentally sustainable. When the fifth of the world’s population in the richest countries are responsible for over four-fifths of the world’s consumption it is a bit much for the rich to lecture the poor about preserving the environment. We need to work with the South, and build their perspective into our foreign policy.


The other announcement I made in November was that the Foreign Office was going to put our own house in order as well. I announced a full environmental audit of our operations, so we could ensure that it wasn’t just our policy that was green, but our buildings were as well. This is moving ahead.

We have carried out an energy audit of our Embassies from Tokyo to Dhaka. The new Embassy we are building in Berlin will be a model in energy efficiency, and our new Embassy in Moscow will contain some of the latest environmentally-friendly building technology.

We are preparing a Green transport plan for all our operations. We have engaged consultants to look at our home estates and our posts overseas. And we are looking at bringing the Foreign Office and all its posts into line with the criteria of ISO 14001 – the recognised world-wide standard for environmental assessment.


Our Embassies can have a real impact overseas using their political contacts and public profile to make a practical difference on the ground. All over the world our embassies are running pilot projects, organising training courses, funding consultancies and other projects that have an impact multiplied out of all proportion to our investment in them.

In Kazakhstan, for example, our Embassy is funding a project to use British expertise to tackle mercury pollution. In Venezuela we are helping to train the National Guard and Coastguard in the enforcement of environmental law. We are providing start-up funding for the manufacture of fuel-efficient stoves to reduce chronic air pollution in the capital of Mongolia.

I am shortly going to visit Russia. When I am there I will be going to Murmansk to visit the decommissioned nuclear submarines whose waste poses a severe environmental hazard to the region. We are already working with the Russian nuclear regulator to ensure that it has the capability it needs to deal with this problem. But there is a great deal more to be done, and I will be seeing for myself how Britain can best contribute to that.


By working with business, the environmental movement and developing countries, we can break the myth of conflict between the green agenda and the growth agenda. I want British business to lead the way in showing that what is good for the environment can also alleviate poverty – it is not just a rich man’s luxury.

Today I can announce a major step forward in the way we do that work. Together with the DETR, and in cooperation with DFID and the DTI, we are launching a new climate change fund in partnership with business. It will be called the Climate Change Challenge Fund. It will help us make use of British expertise in clean technologies and renewable energies. It will fund projects that will help developing countries to build up the capacity they need to combine healthy growth with low emissions of greenhouse gases.

To start it off the Foreign Office is putting in half a million pounds into the fund. We hope British companies with an interest in energy and the environment will at least match this sum.

The Challenge Fund will enable young high-fliers in the key industries in these countries to spend time in British companies. It will pay for carefully targetted consultancies and training programmes.

The authorities in Peking, for example, tell us that they would welcome British expertise in encouraging the use of gas rather than coal for heating and cooking. And a consortium led by a British company, The Solar Century, is negotiating in China to build the world’s largest factory to make solar panels. At a stroke they will be vividly illustrating the value of environmental technology to the Chinese, helping to hold back global warming, and also creating jobs for Britain. Shell are already showing what British companies can achieve by providing solar power to the townships of South Africa.

This fund will be a model for government and business working together. It will show that being green need not put you in the red on the balance sheet. And it will show that business can be a friend of the environment and not a threat to the environment. It is a win-win solution.

I can report that I have already received business support for the initiative. For example, British Gas, Lloyds Register, Price Waterhouse Coopers, National Power, Alstom Gas Turbines, the British Consultants Bureau, ABB UK, and the Combined Heat and Power Association have all welcomed it.

Today I spoke to Sir Brian Unwin, the President of the European Investment Bank. The Bank is keen to work with us, funding appropriate projects that our challenge fund opens up through its well-established banking network in developing countries. And we could not hope for a better partner. The bank exists to fulfil the objectives of the European Union, and one of those objectives is to make the Kyoto agreement work. It already lends almost 7 billion euros a year on environmental projects, including 150 million euros in developing countries. We will be working together with the Bank to harness some of those resources for the projects opened up by our Challenge Fund.


The Foreign Office has another particular environmental responsibility, and that is for the Overseas Territories. Their ecosystems are of global significance. The British Antarctic Territory acts as a barometer for climate change and atmospheric pollution – it was there that British scientists first discovered the hole in the ozone layer. The Pitcairns contain the world’s best preserved raised coral atoll. 22 species of whales and dolphins have been recorded around the Falklands. Gibraltar is a key migration route for birds of prey.

If Britain is worried about biodiversity, then the Overseas Territories should be our first concern – they have ten times as many endemic species as Britain itself.

These ecosystems are under threat. Uncontrolled development and economic pressures are taking their toll. Foreign species of animals and plants threaten the delicate ecological balance. And few places face such a direct impact from global warming as our island territories.

We will shortly be publishing a White Paper on the Overseas Territories. It will set out our renewed determination to protect their environments. We will work with their governments, with our international partners and with the environmental community and the private sector.

Our aims are to build sustainability and proper resource management into their economies, to protect their fragile ecosystems from further degradation, and to find viable alternatives to the depletion of scarce resources.

We will step up the policy advice we have been providing, like the Caribbean Marine Biodiversity Workshop we organised last year. We will step up the financial assistance we are providing, like the 2.5 million pounds the British Government has committed, since coming to office, to environment-related projects in the Overseas Territories. And we will ensure that the Overseas Territories have access to the expertise they need to become the guardians of their own natural heritage.


One of the slogans of the Green Movement is ‘think globally and act locally’. It is the Foreign Office that can supply some of the thinking globally.

The lending policies of institutions like the IMF and the World Bank can have a direct impact on the environment. We need to make sure that it is a positive and not a negative impact. The trade policy of the European Union helps determine whether it is in the interests of farmers in the South to look after their soil or not. We need to make sure that all external policies of the European Union support its expressed commitment to safeguarding the environment.

We need to think carefully about whether there is more we can do to wire in the environment to the work of international organisations. I believe that the key to doing so is transparency. Historically, progress in the environment has been driven by the public and by their lobby groups. Concerned citizens and pressure groups can have a huge impact. Their principal weapon is fact, and so they need access to the facts.

All international bodies, from the European Union to the United Nations, should not only conduct full assessments of the impact their activities have on the environment, but open up their workings in ways that are now the norm for international treaties on the environment.

And transparency is also the key to accountability. When institutions take decisions that have environmental consequences we need to make sure that those who are affected by those decisions can hold them to account. To do that, they need to know how those decisions were made.

Let me deal with two of these multinational bodies where Britain has a leading role. First, the European Union. We used our EU Presidency last year to get agreement to integrate the environment into all policy-making. Three of its Councils must submit comprehensive environment strategies by the end of this year. Opinion polls agree that the environment is one area where the British public, along with all the other citizens of Europe, want to see more rather than less concerted action.

Today I can announce a further step in partnership in Europe on the environment. Both Joschka Fischer and I have a long commitment to the environment and we talk about it whenever we meet. We have proposed a British-German forum on the environment, to bring together not just our governments but our non-governmental organisations and our businesses as well to look at some of the strategic problems we face on the environment.

Secondly, the Commonwealth can make a stronger contribution to international partnership on the environment. It is unique in the trust it engenders between its members, and the constructive and friendly atmosphere of its discussions. It is the ideal body for breaking down mutual suspicion on the environment between North and South.

It was at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that my discussion with the Malaysian Foreign Minister led to the environment initiative at last year’s Asia-Europe Meeting in London. We will be tabling proposals to the South African Government and working closely with them to ensure that the environment is central to our work at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government in Durban.


Lastly, let me address the question of trade and the environment. We live in a global economy, and the framework of that economy will do more than anything else to determine our global future – from the spread of prosperity and the equity of global growth to the survival of the environment and the protection of biodiversity.

Economists have long recognised that markets do not function effectively when hidden costs are not taken into account. If our trading system ensures that the polluter pays, then we will have taken a major step to creating an economic framework that ensures both transparent markets and sustainable growth. And that is just as important for developing countries as it is for the West.

We have made clear our support for the High Level Symposium this year on Trade and the Environment. It will help bring together policies on both trade and the environment – not to strengthen one at the expense of the other, but to create a trading system in which growth is sustainable. It will also provide a focus for our work with our EU partners to make sure that our joint concerns for the environment are fully reflected in the new trade round.


The pioneers of the environmental movement had to work hard to persuade people that it mattered. Today the impact of environmental stress is all too apparent. There is barely a major area of public policy unaffected by it.

National security, once the preserve of diplomats and generals, must now take the environment into account. Boutros Boutros-Ghali predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be over water. Two-fifths of the world’s population live in multinational river basins. Nine countries, for example, share the water of the Nile.

Our economic future is bound in with our environmental future. Our companies now know that growth must be sustainable if it is to be commercially viable in the long-term. Farmers and fishermen the world over have learnt to their cost the economic impact of exhausting the soil and the ocean.

And the environment is a key determinant of our health. Every day our doctors see the casualties of poor air quality. It may not be too long before the hole in the ozone layer brings them more patients. And according to a recent study in the Lancet modest action on greenhouse gases now could be saving 700,000 lives world- wide a year through cleaner air by 2020.


We have made progress. Kyoto and Buenos Aires showed that the world can get its act together, set itself legally-binding targets and develop innovative mechanisms for protecting the environment. We have taken action on the ozone layer by phasing out the use of CFCs.

But we are under no illusion that this is enough. We are still piling sandbags in preparation for a tidal wave. Assuming all the Kyoto commitments are met in full, global emissions of greenhouse gases will be a third more in 2010 than they were in 1990. We have started on the road to effective international action on the environment, but we have a long way yet to travel.


It is not a job that can be delegated to one part of government. To use the vogue expression, it needs a joined-up response. And this Government is providing just that.

Whether it is Gordon Brown at the Treasury looking after our relations with the World Bank and the IMF and reflecting environmental objectives in his budget, Stephen Byers at DTI working for British environmental technology, John Reid developing a public transport policy for Britain, or Clare Short at DfID providing a record boost to our development strategy, the environment is being integrated.

It is being led by John Prescott and his staff at DETR. It was his leadership and strength of will that brought Kyoto back from the brink. It was he again that kept the process on track in Buenos Aires. We could not ask for a more effective and committed champion to lead the work which is supported through half a dozen other Whitehall departments.


But Government cannot achieve everything on its own. We are only one of many agents of change to the environment. Business and commerce have a direct impact on the environment. Together we have a responsibility to shape that impact for the good. Pressure groups and the media can be an important driving force for the education of the public. Together we need to get across the message of how their own conduct can shape their environment for the better or the worse.

I therefore end by asking you to join with me in a global partnership, to protect our global environment. It is a partnership around one clear message – ultimately, what we do to our planet we do to ourselves and our children.

What John F Kennedy said over thirty years ago applies even more strongly today:

Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world – or to make it the last.

Let’s make sure that it is the best.

Robin Cook – 1997 Speech to TUC Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, to the 1997 TUC Conference.

Thank you, Tony, and thank you for that warm welcome. I have, because of my life style, become accustomed to starting my speeches by apologising for being late. As the first speaker to present the fraternal greetings on behalf of the Labour Party and Government, I want to begin by apologising for being 18 years late. Sorry it took so long! If it helps to make up for the fact that it took so long, let me begin by assuring you that we have every intention of staying there for the next 18 years.

We began by making up for lost time. One step that I was proud to take within the first fortnight in office you have already referred to, Tony. The staff of GCHQ make a major contribution to defending the freedoms of this country. Now they are free to share in one of those fundamental freedoms, the right to join the trade union of their choice. Never again must we allow it to be accepted that you cannot be true to your country and also loyal to your trade union.

I took that step as Foreign Secretary, partly because I know that if I want to say to other countries that “you should observe civil liberties and labour freedoms”, then I have to practise what I preach in Britain first. I am proud of the fact that we have managed to bring to our foreign policy the same values of democracy and of civil liberty and trade union rights that inform our domestic policy.

Once in my travels I saw a sign in a Paris hotel, “Please check in your values at reception.” I am not one of those who believes that you should check in your values when you check in your passport as you leave the country. We are an international Movement. The rights and freedoms we demand for ourselves we should demand for others who are unable to obtain it by themselves.

That is why when I was in Indonesia last week I pressed the Government of Indonesia on the concern felt across the union Movement in Britain about the position of Mr Pakpahan, currently in prison on charges arising from his steps to organise an independent trade union ‑‑ independent of Government approval. I was told that he had actually been charged with making a speech inciting the overthrow of Government. I had to tell the Government of Indonesia that if that was an offence in Britain, Tony Blair and I would have spent the last five years locked up in prison!

I do not want Foreign Ministers to arrive in Britain, from Indonesia or any other country, to start to tell me that we have fallen down on trade union rights. That is why I am delighted that we now have made a commitment that early next year we will publish the White Paper giving effect to our commitment that unions will be recognised by companies where a majority of the work force vote for recognition.

I want to pick up something that Adair said in his fraternal greetings from the CBI, before me. Of course, it would be far better if that recognition was done by voluntary agreement between management and work force. Of course I understand the tensions that can arise where management feel that they are forced to recognise the trade union. All I would ask is that it is also recognised that tensions can arise within a work force when they feel that their legitimate aspirations are being ignored and are not being listened to.

As we enter the next century, the key to a competitive successful company will be the skills, the energy and the creativity of its work force, and you cannot ask a work force to bring their innovation, their initiative and their creativity to their work station but then say to the same work force “We are not going to listen to you when you want to talk about the conditions of work in the workplace.” It is an issue of democracy.

Democracy is one of the key values that has run through what the Labour Government has done since it took office in May. It is because of that commitment to democracy that tomorrow we will give the people of Scotland a vote on the return to Scotland of a Scottish Parliament which will enable us to ensure that the public services to the people of Scotland are delivered by people elected by the people of Scotland. And the same again next week in Wales. It will be the first time in history that Scotland has had such a democratic Parliament.

I know there are some Nationalists in my own country who will say it will be the first time for 300 years we have had a Scottish Parliament. I do not want to disillusion them about the nature of the previous Scottish Parliament, but very few of the people that I represent ever got a look in in that Parliament of 17O7. This will be a democratic Parliament, bringing decisions closer to the people. It will be good for Scotland. Devolution will be good for Wales. I tell you this, I think it will also be good for Britain because one of the problems that we must tackle is that we have inherited a state in Britain that is too over‑centralised, in which too much power is exercised by too few people at the top, and there is too little freedom for discretion, for local communities to decide the services they want for themselves.

That is why, having won that power in Whitehall and Westminster, we are determined to share that power, to return power from Whitehall, from Westminster, back to local communities, in particular to take the last remaining power away from that cast of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in the House of Lords. By the time we meet again next year, we will be on the verge of putting into practice our commitment to clear that mediaeval lumber of Parliament and to make it absolutely established in both Houses of Parliament that the people who take part in passing the laws of our country should earn their seat by the process of democracy, not by the right of birth.

For democracy to work best it needs to work within a society that is cohesive, a society in which there is social cohesion and social justice. That is why we have already set up our Low Pay Commission which has already met twice to put into effect our commitment to introduce a national minimum wage.

Yes, I accept ‑‑ and I agree with Adair Turner on this ‑‑ that we have to be competitive in the international world, we have to trade successfully in a global economy, but we will never compete on the basis of going down the cul de sac of lowering wages. There will always be somewhere in the world which will do the job more cheaply than ourselves. We will only compete if we do the job better than others, not through low pay, but through high skills, high technology, high motivation. You do not get a high skilled, motivated, committed work force on the back of poverty pay.

So we have started on our task, creating a fairer, more just, more open, more democratic Britain. We have started to create a Britain that is more at ease with itself, and also a Britain that is more at ease with its European neighbours.

I am a magnanimous personality. I wish to be generous to my opponents. I therefore wish to record the immense contribution made to Labour’s election victory by the Tory Eurosceptics. If it had not been for the constant image of division and dis‑loyalty which they paraded I might not be standing in front of you here as a Government Minister. My prize award to a Tory Eurosceptic for having his cake and eating it at the same time went to a former Tory MP ‑‑ I stress former ‑‑ who in his election address said “I shall listen very carefully to all the arguments about the single currency and then I shall vote against it”. Fortunately his electors, to their credit, having listened carefully to all the arguments, then voted against him!

On May 1st Britain rejected a narrow nationalism that looked back to the lost world of the 19th century independent nation states. It voted to look forward to the next century of interdependent states, and Britain as a result of that new Labour Government is no longer standing on the side lines in Europe, heckling from those side lines ‑‑ not a very good position from which to score any goals. Britain is now a respected and leading player in the European team. We gave an early signal of our commitment in the first weekend after that election, by announcing our determination to sign the Social Chapter, to end the unfair, unjustifiable situation in which the work force in Britain was left with the worst rights to know what was going on of any country in Europe.

If I have any concern about Europe, it is I think that too often our image of Europe is one of top politicians meeting at Summits, in top people’s hotels, talking about politicians’ obsessions about institutions and procedures. I firmly believe that if we want to make that European project legitimate, relevant, we have to demonstrate that we are participating in the European Union because it can bring real benefits to the lives of the citizens, of people, can bring them a better environment by making sure we do not dump our pollution on each other, can give them better rights at work by making sure we have minimum standards across Europe and, most of all, can tackle the biggest question facing so many families in Britain and across Europe, which is how do they obtain and how do they keep a job.

As Tony Blair has said, the key objective of our policy Europe should not be to integrate the economies of Europe but to strengthen the economies of Europe. There is no better test of the strength of an economy than its ability to offer its people the opportunity of a job and the security of a career with a future.

I therefore give you this assurance, that next January, when Britain assumes the Presidency of the European Union, we will make it our number one objective to establish the European Union as a Europe for the people, not a Europe for the top politicians. If I am going to do that, Tony, I need the help of the trade union Movement. I need your help to communicate to the British people why partnership cannot stop at the Channel; why we need to co‑operate with the other countries of the European Union. I want your help to explain during that British Presidency that Britain’s place is in Europe and that we can make Britain’s place the driving seat of Europe. Together we can do it, just as we together won that victory on May 1st.

Ours is not a tactical alliance, it is a strategic bond based on our common belief that by working together we can achieve more than we can as individuals, based on our shared commitment that for the individual to thrive the individual needs a strong community.

I am very much aware that Labour’s longest serving Foreign Secretary was Ernest Bevin who came from the trade union Movement. Having seen both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and also the trade union Movement, he said “Can the diplomats and governing classes show us anything so wonderful as this Movement which was built out of nothing?” Those of us who are now in charge of the Government and of its embassies must now show the same humility in constantly remembering that we were put there to serve the ordinary people of Britain. That is what the new Labour Government will do, that is the task we have begun, that is the job for which we will seek another renewed mandate at the next election, and that is the task that I ask our friends in this hall to join with us, to make sure that we complete it.

Robin Cook – 1974 Maiden Speech to the House of Commons


Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Robin Cook in the House of Commons on 14th March 1974.

I, too, am a new Member and I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Tom Oswald, who represented Edinburgh, Central in this House for over 20 years. I have been a Member of this House for only a very short period, but in that time I have come to appreciate how much those who worked beside Tom valued him as a conscientious and reliable Member of this House.

We in Edinburgh have long respected Tom as one who always gave the first claim on his time to any constituent with a problem. Those who knew him well will be familiar with his habit of maintaining a running serial number on all items of correspondence which he dispatched from this House. It will give some idea of how hard he worked for his constituents when I tell the House that at his retirement Tom Oswald had just reached his 40,000th letter.

We do not conduct much agriculture in the city centre of Edinburgh. Therefore, I do not intend to follow those hon. Members who have spoken on this subject in the debate. However, we have a serious housing problem. For many of my constituents the expenditure on housing is the major expenditure in their weekly budget. Therefore, I propose to address myself to the price of housing and to the increase in the price of housing which has taken place in recent years.

We have heard a lot in this debate about the increases in international commodity prices. We have heard how world market forces have pushed up prices with the inexorability of the laws of dynamics. It is worth noting that there is no world market in council houses. We neither trade them nor play the commodity market with them. Yet twice in the past 18 months my constituents have been faced with a major increase in the weekly price of their housing, their council rent, although the rent they pay is among the highest in Scotland.

Therefore, I welcome wholeheartedly the rent freeze announced by the Secretary of State last week. I do so as chairman of the housing committee of Edinburgh, an authority with 52,000 council tenants. However, very few of those council tenants actually live within my constituency. Indeed, the reason for the acute housing shortage in the city centre is that for decades we have torn down the slums and failed to replace them with modern houses. A much greater proportion of my constituents are private tenants, and to many of those private tenants that rent freeze will be of far greater benefit than to most council tenants.

I went on a number of walkabouts in my constituency around the shopping centres, expecting to meet shoppers who would talk to me about the increase in food prices. They did, but far more often we met elderly people, private tenants, who were desperately worried by the notice they had just received of the increase in their rent. In one case there was a punitive increase of £98 per annum for a room and kitchen.

I concede that in some cases the rent of privately rented property is unrealistically low, but it must be remembered that many of those who still benefit from rent control are themselves elderly people receiving the old-age pension. They have not only a low income but are least capable of adjusting budget habits of a lifetime to a situation in which their weekly rent is trebled.

It must also be remembered that we are talking of property which is the worst in the housing stock and the most neglected. Only this week I received a letter from a constituent who informed me that his rent was being increased by 400 per cent. phased over only four years. Yet this tenant has no hot water and there is no obligation on the private landlord to provide hot water at any stage in the course of those four years.

Elsewhere in my constituency there are over 100 private tenants who are faced with a rent that will treble; yet I have a letter from the factor of their landlord informing one of the tenants that he is under instruction to spend no money on the repair of the properties. In these circumstances, what possible cost inflation or conceivable wage claim could justify these price increases?

I regret the extent to which discussion on the Housing Finance Act has concentrated on the council sector. I regret it because it has concealed the greatest evil of the two Acts—the evil that for the first time since the Great War it is possible to get a good return on money invested in slums.

We have been told that we need not worry unduly about these price increases because those with low incomes—the weak members of society—are protected by rent rebate and rent allowance schemes. On Tuesday there was quite a bit of chest-beating by hon. Members who seemed to imply that because we shall repeal the Housing Finance Act we might somehow contrive to make rebate schemes illegal. The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur), who is not here tonight, referred to 149,000 council tenants in Scotland who are living rent free because of the Housing Finance Act. That is not the case. Less than one-tenth of those council tenants are living rent free because they receive a rebate. Over 90 per cent.—the overwhelming majority—live rent free because they receive supplementary benefit and always have their rent paid for them in any case.

It is worth remembering that, even before the Housing Finance Act, nine out of 10 council tenants in Scotland were already covered by a rent rebate scheme. Indeed, the rebate scheme that we in Edinburgh were compelled to drop by law was significantly more generous than the rebate scheme we then had to introduce. I do not expect that the Government intend to make it illegal for us to retain a rebate scheme. I am confident that they will restore to us the freedom to make that rebate scheme more generous once again. Repeal is only a first step and a beginning towards a more just system of housing finance.

Those of us interested particularly in housing will watch the proposals put forward by the Government with particular concern to see whether they tackle the causes of increased housing costs. I welcome particularly the commitment given in the Gracious Speech to bring into public ownership building land. Here we have one of the clear, root causes of the recent increases in the price of houses. There have been references to commodity speculation forcing up prices. There is no clearer case of that than in building land.

The hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) has already referred to speculation in agricultural land. Let me give one example of speculation in urban land which has occurred in the city centre of Edinburgh. A major industrial company wished to dispose of four acres of derelict industrial land. It was sold on a Wednesday for £137,000. On the Thursday, the company which acquired the land sold it again for £200,000. On the afternoon of that Thursday the gentleman to whom the company sold it, sold it again for £220,000—an increase of £80,000 within 24 hours.

The company which sold the land in the first place is not an innocent in business. It is a major industrial concern, well known to many hon. Members on the Government benches for the very fine beer it brews, and to the Opposition for the fine donations that it makes to their party.

Presumably, the company regarded the price as a fair one for the site. The £80,000 beyond that represents pure profit on speculation, and it has two consequences. First, it has the consequence that the site could not be used for council housing because we could not afford it at that price. Secondly, it means that every house now being built on that site will finally sell for £800 more because of the increase in the cost of the land.

It is scandalous that we should allow speculation to drive up the price of an essential commodity such as housing in this way, and I welcome the commitment to take building land out of the market. I was distressed to see in the Gracious Speech that “Proposals will be prepared”. I hope we do not take too long preparing those proposals because unless we have public ownership of land, it will not be possible to expand the house building programme.

Finally, I should like to thank the House for the courteous silence maintained throughout my speech, particularly as all I have said has not been of a non-contentious nature. However, I do not apologise for having confined myself to one topic. Housing is the major problem of my constituency, and its rising cost is the major inflationary pressure on my constituents. I am confident that they will welcome the prompt action of the Government to contain those costs.