Major accused of insult in snub to poverty summit

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The Independent Online
John Major is to snub a United Nations summit that will oblige the government to draw up an anti-poverty strategy for 1996, the International Year of Poverty Eradication.

Downing Street said yesterday that the Prime Minister had a prior engagement and was not due to attend the meeting, billed as "a global attack on extreme poverty, unemployment and all forms of discrimination and intolerance".

The Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development aims to bring the issues of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion higher up the political agenda and to mitigate the worst excesses of the free-market policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

Britain is expected to send a junior minister to the meeting, a level of representation which an Oxfam spokesperson yesterday described as "a travelling insult". Anne Widdicombe, the junior employment minister, may represent the UK.

More than 100 heads of state and government, including most EU leaders, are due to be in Copenhagen between 6-12 March, when they will commit their governments to national targets "for the substantial reduction of overall poverty and the eradication of extreme poverty".

The draft declaration also commits governments to ensure that the bank and the IMF's "structural adjustment" programmes are modified to take account of social development goals. Governments will also promise to "promote basic social programmes . . . affecting the poor and the vulnerable sections of society and protect them from budget reductions", according to the latest draft.

In negotiations, the UK and the EU refused to allow any explicit links in the text between poverty in the developing world and the bank and the fund's structural adjustment policies, but their overtly free-market policies are implicitly criticised in the summit's plan of action.

There has been dismay in the Government at the obligation on the UK to draw up a national poverty strategy but the poverty plans, which will address "the structural causes of poverty", were agreed by the French presidency as part of a common EU position.

The summit build-up has drawn attention to the yawning gap between the extremely poor and comfortably off in Britain and elsewhere in the world, where 3 billion people live below the poverty line.

Helmut Kohl of Germany and Francois Mitterrand, the French President, are expected to attend, along with most other leaders from Europe and the industrialised world with the exception of President Clinton. In the EU, Britain, Greece and Austria will not be represented by a head of government.

Jean Corston, the Labour MP for Bristol East, attacked the government's plan for a low-level of representation at the summit. She accused the Government of trying to convey the impression that the event "is a low key affair of small consequence," when "in fact it will mark a profound change in the management of the international economy."

She argues that the summit is more significant politically than the EU's Social Chapter because it gives top priority to social objectives such as eradicating extreme poverty, job creation and the reduction of discrimination in the job market.