The Trade and Industry Secretary said yesterday she shared the long-term goals of many anti-globalisation campaigners – but disagreed with their methods.
Setting out her vision of how government should interact with business, Patricia Hewitt said she would not bow to the demands of multinational corporations but would support "good businesses" that do not exploit "developing countries" and treat their customers and workers well.
Ms Hewitt said the Government was a "friend of business" but warned that it would not "give in to everything the business community wants". She angered environmentalists by claiming that bodies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which have been hit by violent demonstrations, are the best vehicle for improving fair trade around the world.
The minister said that while many demonstrators "genuinely believe that their actions will help the world's poor" they were wrong.
"It is only through institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that we can guarantee labour standards, environmental goals and a trade system that protects developing countries," she said. "Of course there are unacceptable business practices in a global economy – companies that believe they can exploit and pollute with impunity. Trying to block world trade is not the answer. I would not be doing this job if I did not think we could use global institutions like the WTO and ILO to bring forward real change."
Friends of the Earth last night accused the Trade and Industry Secretary of being out of touch.
"This illustrates a confusion in the Government's mind to put the World Trade Organisation and the International Labour Organisation in the same sentence," said a Friends of the Earth spokesman.
"The ILO exists to try to raise Labour standards and the WTO exists to try to bash flat attempts by states to set social, environmental and Labour standards which conflict with free trade principles.
"No one disputes the need for global institutions to set rules for fair trade, but critics don't believe that the WTO exists for playing this role," the spokesman added.