WORLD TRADE AND NATIONAL GOVERNMENT

Amanda Wilkinson, Regional Director for SW, Confederation of British Industry, on 30 May 2003

The theme of the discussion was that at world environment conferences national governments complain they have little control over international companies. What is the company viewpoint?

Amanda Wilkinson began by looking at the general concept of globalisation. In the area of international trade there had been both advantages and problems related to it going back to the times of the Romans. She made a robust defence of free trade and was critical of the concept of national government control. With the freeing of regulations and controls there had been a dramatic advance in prosperity in many parts of the world. She compared the different experiences of North and South Korea. In the last few years there had been dramatic advances in China.

On the environmental and social policies of British companies trading overseas she defended their record. Many followed codes of best practice and she favoured this approach rather than detailed legislation or regulators producing `red tape'.

In the discussion the question was asked ` Is protectionism justified, particularly in smaller countries to enable newer industries to become established?' But there was criticism of stronger countries doing this to the detriment of weaker ones. The meeting was critical of the USA here.

The chairman of Friends of the Earth, Bath, raised the campaign for the sale of Fairtrade coffee and tea in the local shops and urged members to buy them. By being willing to pay a small amount more consumers could greatly help this basic producers. This highlighted a theme of the meeting that if international organisations and national governments of the richer nations were to help the poorer countries it was in the field of agriculture rather than industry that most needed to be done. As always the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU was held up as a bad example.

Who could control companies or influence them to observe best practice? Amada Wilkinson answered _ "the shareholders". But there was general agreement that with most major companies the managers of pension funds and unit trusts were the only shareholders who held sway. Just now and again a campaign could have results.

For investors looking for `ethical' investments there was a Financial Times Index FTSE4Good. British companies showed up well here.

A concluding thought was that there were some areas of the world where energies needed to be concentrated and much of the continent of Africa would be included.

Rodney Tye