Previous Section Home Page

Column 659

European Union. We are in a unique position to use not just our position and policies, but our views and aims for the betterment of the world, but we can do that only if there is the political will to do so. In a rapidly changing world, we must realign our thinking and policies if we are to meet the new international challenges. There is great danger in the world because the relative stability of the cold war stand-off has resulted, to quote the departmental report, in

"a world where disorder is spreading and where nationalism is out of hand."

There is great disappointment also because the new world order, which everyone wanted to come to fruition, and the hopes that the UN could fulfil its mandate, have not been realised. However, the danger and disappointment must not be accompanied by despair. There is hope, but only if we are prepared to search positively for solutions to the conflicts in the world.

Disputes and instability, born of economic conflict, territorial claims, and ethnic, religious and nationalist fundamentalism, are all too frequent. Whether those wars involve high-technology weapons or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) has so often reminded us, small weapons such as land mines, mortars and small arms, the results are much the same. Repression replaces Government institutions, accompanied by massive refugee flows which are creating a huge burden on the rest of the world.

At present, there are more than 30 million refugees world wide. There are 26 conflicts raging in which two or more countries are at war. There are 23 other areas of potential conflict between nations and there is tension in another 24 areas, making 73 possible flashpoints throughout the world.

There is no evidence available that regional organisations can tackle regional problems. Indeed, the evidence is the other way. The European Union, Western European Union and NATO have all failed with the problems in Bosnia and in other parts of Europe. The Organisation of African Unity has failed in Africa. The same is true throughout the world. It is becoming more and more obvious that the United Nations is the only organisation that offers hope. That is not to say that other organisations cannot play a part, but I believe that no other organisation has the potential for bringing peace that the UN has.

The challenge that we have to face--this comes through in the general remarks in the Select Committee report--is that the international community must be able to intervene in new ways to head off catastrophe. The "Agenda for Peace" from the UN Secretary-General noted that between 1945 and 1987 there were 13 peacekeeping operations; in the past five years, the organisation has established a further 13. The aggregate cost up to 1992 has been about $8.3 billion. Huge sums are being spent on operations that could well have been avoided--I am not saying that they would have been, but they might well have been--if we had kept up our efforts of preventive diplomacy, as outlined in the departmental report and as mentioned in the Select Committee report.

I do not believe that military solutions can enforce political conclusions in those areas of conflict. What is lacking is not military technology, but political will. That is a problem of this Government. I believe that the Government should decisively support a number of clear

Column 660

policy areas: the agenda for peace is a good start. They should support the reform and enlargement of the United Nations Security Council and the decision-making processes there; the necessary transition of the role of NATO; the move by the USA and Russia to a nuclear test ban, which should be supported in a much more positive way, as I suggested; continuation of the important dialogues of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe; and reform of the World bank and other facilitating agencies, to which I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) would like to refer if he can catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The ideas offered in the report, "Agenda for Peace", offer the best hope by far for world peace, and in the long run they will be the cheapest option. We must decide what role we must play and then allocate the resources to fulfil that role. That is why in another area we have called for a full-scale defence review, and that is why we ask the Government to address those urgent problems and provide the resources required to solve them.

5.20 pm

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): I welcome the chance to speak in the debate, particularly because the evidence that was presented to the Select Committee was presented in late April and early May, and between that time and the Government's response, there has, of course, been quite a significant change in policy by the Overseas Development Administration. It has announced a substantial increase in funding for population programmes: the funding now available is at least £100 million over the next two years. It is not new money but a reallocation of funding. It has been made quite clear to me that we are moving away from spending on infrastructure projects and are targeting the relief of poverty.

The announcement made in July of this year was made very much in anticipation of the United Nations international conference on population development, which took place in Cairo in September, and about which I will speak in a minute. The emphasis is consistent with recommendations contained in paragraph 70 of the Select Committee's report, in which it refers to the changing nature of aid. Contained in that paragraph is the emphasis or recommendation that expertise be made available, through agencies such as the United Nations, to improve

"the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of international efforts to encourage sustainable development."

I am pleased that, in their response, the Government have accepted that recommendation. It is probably fair to say that the Cairo conference was a macro presentation of the policy that the Government are prepared to set. As a Member of Parliament, I was a fairly rare example of a member of a UK delegation at a UN conference. I pay tribute to the Egyptian Government for the way in which they laid on the conference. Some 18,000 delegates were there and it was held at the height of serious tension in Egypt--I was disappointed to see on the news last night that it still exists there--amid threats from fundamentalist terrorists to destabilise it. It is a tribute to the Egyptian Government that there was no incident whatever throughout the fortnight, as several Heads of Government were present. It was a very successful conference.

Column 661

As I sat in the opening plenary session with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), the Under-Secretary, who was representing the British Government, and as I heard the speeches of world leaders--from Mr. Boutros Ghali, the Secretary-General of the United Nations; Gro Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway; Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan; President Mubarak of Egypt; to Vice-President Al Gore of the United States--which all came in the first morning, it struck me that everything that I and the British Government have argued for in recent years was at last being realised and was coming true. There was, of course--

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): There was only a slight difference.

Mr. Ottaway: Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene? The hon. Gentleman asked from a sedentary position about the differences of emphasis. A perfectly good example would be Benazir Bhutto, who argued against abortion but fully accepted that population growth and the population explosion was a global problem which had to be addressed. In that, she differed from Gro Brundtland, but both countries signed up to the final declaration. That is what I mean by the change of emphasis.

President Mubarak, in his opening speech, said that the conference was not a separate event and that it should not be isolated from the past, that it was not something taking place in a vacuum, and that it had to respond to people's hopes and find common ground in open and free discussion.

The basis of the consensus was quite clear and, despite last-minute media criticism, there was quite clearly an overwhelming desire that the conference should succeed. The Group of Seven had asked it to come up with a solution to world population growth, and succeed it did. It has now produced a global action plan. The big difference is that, on that occasion, unlike 10 or 20 years ago, the developing world was there and asking for help. We now have common ground. Poverty is the challenge and sustainable development built around population programmes is the answer. The common ground was that there was a full understanding of the nature of the problem. There was an understanding of how to address it. There was an understanding that there are now clear definitions for aid and of the role that reproductive health can play in solving the problems, and an idea where the resources were coming from.

After all, it is quite clear that there are parts of the world, which, as a result of excessive population growth, face scarcity of resources, crime, tribalism, disease and unemployment, all of which are destroying the social fabric of societies. Rwanda is a classic example of a country in which a territorial dispute has been caused by overcrowding. The truth is that the stork is becoming the bird of war.

The conference took on a life of its own. Delegates came from all over the world, and I am pleased to tell the House that, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall), the

Column 662

Inter-Parliamentary Union held a parliamentarians' day, where members present, from throughout the world, came and spoke in full support of the aims of the conference.

The extraordinary feature of the conference was the implacable opposition to its aims and objectives, sadly, from the Roman Catholic Church. I say sadly because I believe that the Roman Catholic Church recognises the problems that are faced by the world, but is simply unable to answer the fundamental question. What does one say to an African woman, living in absolute poverty with six children, who wants no more children? In the end, the Roman Catholic Church lost the argument, because it had no answer to that fundamental question. The Roman Catholic Church did the conference a favour in that it kept the whole conference in the world's headlines for the best part of a week. Very few people to whom I have spoken since returning from Cairo in September were not aware that the conference had taken place. They are thoroughly aware now of the seriousness of world population growth--at some 250,000 new persons every day--and the significance of that conference.

The media reporting of the conference was first class. I find myself surprised to say that. The interesting reason for that--perhaps it is a lesson for many other areas of media reporting--is that the media were denied access to the main committees, because there simply was not room for the 2,000 members of the press present to go and listen. Reporters were forced to dig for their stories; they did not simply regurgitate press releases. They got in there and found out what the issues were. As a result, the reporting back from Cairo was far more sensible and more serious than much of the reporting that occurs in this country.

Mr. Waterson: With regard to my hon. Friend's previous point, does he accept that it was not just the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to some proposals that caused controversy, but the similar opposition from an entirely different quarter--the countries in which a type of fundamental Muslim creed is held? Those countries were just as plain in their opposition to certain proposals as was the Catholic Church.

Mr. Ottaway: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, those countries placed a different emphasis. From the word go, Benazir Bhutto was prepared to support the conference's objects even though she could not support certain aspects which she felt were contrary to the Koran. However, having heard the opening day's speeches, I believe that the Vatican should have piped down. Instead, it went full profile in its implacable opposition to everything that was achieved.

I pay tribute to our ODA officials who staffed the United Kingdom delegation. Their professionalism, which was quite exemplary, was recognised by most of the other delegations at the conference. That professionalism, and the recognition of it, had great influence on the European Union position. If it is not a rather hackneyed phrase, it is fair to say that as a result of the quality of our officials, Britain was able to punch well above its weight at what I believe was a very significant conference.

I also acknowledge the role of the non-governmental organisations present in Cairo. For a long time, the NGOs have treated population issues very much at arm's length because they have been nervous about them. However, I

Column 663

am pleased to say that they have shaken off their hesitancy and have made a substantial input into the thinking on that subject. Anyone who left the main conference and went to the NGO forum would have realised that that was where tomorrow's ideas were coming from. In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) emphasised the importance of bringing the private sector into aid programmes. Non-governmental organisations, such as Marie Stopes International, are advocating social marketing which basically involves persuading people to buy their own contraception. The social marketing of contraception in the third world is a good example of an area in which the private sector is beginning to play a role.

The NGOs made us address the question of reproductive health. They drew to our attention the importance of the education of women. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said, a great emphasis was placed on migration. There are about 30 million homeless people travelling around the world. However, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge the fact that that is largely the result of over population. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities report which was published last year drew attention to that point. The most significant thing to come from the conference in Cairo was the issue of empowerment of women. Everyone concerned about that subject now realises that unless women become empowered-- [Interruption.] Before the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), becomes too nervous, let me say that I mean by that that women should have the right to decide whether they want to use contraception and whether it should be available. That is the kind of language that came from the Cairo conference, which should be carried forward to the Beijing conference on women's issues which is to take place next year.

I met a female Nigerian Member of Parliament at Cairo who told me that she had six children, and that she had come to Cairo to ensure that she did not have 36 grandchildren. I am proud of what the British Government have achieved. I believe that, as a result of our efforts, she will not have 36 grandchildren. It is important that we build on the success of Cairo and that we implement the action plan, which has been agreed by hundreds of countries. For the future's sake, we must not relax our efforts.

5.34 pm

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West): I am sure that the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) will forgive me if I do not follow him down the path of contraception. Instead, I want to stick to the absolutely first-class Select Committee report, to which the Committee received a very second-rate answer from the Government. I have visited vast numbers of diplomatic posts in my work with the Employment Select Committee, or privately or on behalf of the Jewish community. I have always been impressed by the standards of our diplomats and the service that they provide. On the whole, they do an absolutely first-class job, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

I mourn the dreadful killing of one British citizen, and the injuring of others, in Egypt. I mourn the death of my friend, Gamini Dissanayake, who was murdered yesterday

Column 664

in Sri Lanka, along with some 50 other people. We salute him and we send our condolences to his widow and to the Sri Lankan people. I mourn the awful killings in Israel last week, the murders of the people on the bus and of Sergeant Wachsman.

All over the world, there are those who believe that by murdering civilians, they can kill peace. They are wrong. In the process of being proved wrong, they cause misery in a world of danger. Our diplomats live and serve in that world of danger and we are proud of them.

Paragraph 78 of the Select Committee report is right. It states: "The budgets for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Overseas Development Administration, the BBC World Service and the British Council have been cut significantly for the next three years. All provide impressive services despite these financial cuts. It will not however be realistic to expect them to go on providing services as good as they now provide if they have to suffer repeated reductions in resources. We recognise that resources are no substitute for well-focused policy. However, we urge that the redefinition of the United Kingdom's interests, policies to further those interests and the deployment of resources in the service of these policies should go hand in hand."

I have searched the Government's reply for a reference to that paragraph, but there is none. I looked for a reference to the earlier paragraphs on which it is based, but there is none. The Government's response ends at paragraph 77. When I turned over the page to paragraph 78, that page was blank.

I appeal to the Government to listen to the unanimous report of a very respected Select Committee, not just to reply to those parts with which they immediately agree, but to seek ways in which they can respond positively and maintain the resources to enable our diplomatic corps and the organisations surrounding it to do their job.

The Government's normal reaction is to say, "Oh well, we must assess the results." Unfortunately for the Government, diplomacy is not like a school or a hospital, in respect of which they can issue tables of attainment. It is not a matter of saying how many Bulgarian anglophobes have been turned into anglophiles in how long, over what period and with what results.

Diplomacy is not a shop. I am aware that the foreign service draws inspiration from Marks and Spencer, but it cannot calculate sales of British policy per square foot of shelf space in any of our great residences or embassies. It is not possible to make assessments like that. Assessments can be made in three ways: respect, human rights and business.

The respect in which our country is held abroad greatly depends on the work of the diplomatic corps. In its turn, that depends much on the resources that the Government are prepared to allow it. The closure of fine embassies is no answer when we want to retain respect, or especially when we want to use that respect for political purposes, to maintain Britain's place in the Security Council and to achieve the political results that we all want from our diplomatic corps.

I pay tribute to the great efforts of many of our diplomats working in countries in which human rights traditions are rotten, nil or very defective. Often, they handle delicate cases, and often they succeed. I know how much help not only Jewish people but many others obtained from our diplomats when the Soviet Union was a dictatorship. I know how many others today depend

Column 665

upon our embassies for a form of decent insurance in a thoroughly wretched world. Our diplomats sell Britain and our products. Recently, I travelled with the Employment Select Committee to Finland. For the first time in my life, I went on board the much-criticised royal yacht Britannia. There were no royals on board, the ceremonies were all very proper, and it was an interesting day. The royal yacht attracted top Finnish industrialists to enable us to talk to them about Britain and to promote our trade. We cannot assess the effects of that. Later, when the Royal Marine band beat the retreat, hundreds of important Finnish people were looking at something that Britain was providing them with, which was a release from the usual boring ceremonies that most countries offer on their national days.

I asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whether there was a way in which we could assess its impact on sales. It came up with an answer--in September a contract was signed between BP and the Republic of Azerbaijan estimated to be worth about $8 billion. The chief executive of BP wrote to the permanent under-secretary, Sir John Coles, saying that it would not have been possible to sign the contract without the FCO's help and representation in Baku. He gave permission for that to be quoted.

In the autumn of last year the embassy residencies in Paris and Rome were used for the successful launch of the Rover 800, one of the most successful epochs in British motor manufacturing. All over the world, our embassies and our residencies are being used to promote our commercial interests, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on our side.

My favourite FCO story involves the tourist who was standing in Whitehall and who said to a policeman, "Excuse me, but which side is the Foreign Office on?" The policeman replied, "Well, madam, it is supposed to be on our side, but I sometimes wonder." I have had wonderings, particularly about middle east policies. I have had arguments; we do not always agree. On the whole, though, our diplomats do a smashing job. It is not sufficiently recognised that they are being asked to do that job with smaller embassies and less impressive means to impress more impressive and less impressed foreigners.

While our strength diminishes, it is the height of stupidity to say to other people, "Look how small we are; we aren't great any more. We can't afford a decent embassy and we can't even afford to entertain," and then expect overseas business people and politicians to treat us as though we were still Great Britain.

We should not beat the retreat on our overseas strength. We should not cut our wonderful BBC World Service, which has a reputation for honesty which it does not always deserve but which is believed by people all over the world, as a happy relic of the war. We should look to the Commonwealth Secretariat and say, "Yes, we saved it; isn't that good?" We should build our overseas resources and accept that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report is an excellent one that the Government should implement.

Column 666

5.43 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I should like to refer to three aspects of an excellent and workmanlike report, such as we are used to seeing from the Select Committee: first, support for British trade promotion abroad; secondly, cultural diplomacy, which right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned; and thirdly, rising to the bait of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), Hong Kong.

On trade, I always believe that the old jokes are the best. I enjoyed the rendition by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) of the story about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mr. Janner: It was a classic story.

Mr. Waterson: It was a classic story, rather like a classic automobile. I wonder whether the hon. and learned Gentleman remembers the story attributed to Lord Tebbit, who is reported to have remarked that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food looked after farmers and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office looked after foreigners. It that was true, it is certainly no longer the case. In travelling around the world both before and after I came to this place, I have found that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is very much on our side, in particular on the side of British business and industry. There is great support for that in the report.

The thrust of the report is the background of reducing resources and how they are being used to best effect as they are cut. In paragraph 18, the Committee says that the FCO is making considerable use of new information technology after what it describes as a shaky start. I particularly commend the reduction in the number of home staff, so that the teeth rather than the tail of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are better deployed abroad.

One of the most convincing sections of the report relates to the increasing demands on all levels of the diplomatic service. Nowhere is that more evident than in the size and number of our overseas posts. It is impressive, albeit in attempts to reduce financial commitment, that in our policy of closing or scaling down some overseas posts, we recognise areas where our trade interests are most important. I am pleased that the report recognises the growth of representation in our far eastern posts. That is an area of almost limitless potential in terms of our exports and selling expertise abroad.

I now refer to the service that we provide for business men. Much of it has to do with the messages that we politicians send to career diplomats. There was a time--happily, long gone--when being assigned to the trade aspects of diplomacy was regarded almost as punishment, or the diplomatic equivalent of being sent to Siberia. Recently, that has changed.

It is difficult for right hon. and hon. Members when they travel the world not to be impressed by the expertise and commitment of staff in many places around the world, working for the FCO in promoting British exports. It is also impressive to see the almost seamless way in which they co-operate with the Department of Trade and Industry in trade promotion. There has been enormous improvement in recent years, but there was plenty of scope for improvement.

Column 667

I shall say a word about the messages we send. Opprobrium is no longer attached to people going into trade diplomacy, but I sometimes wonder, when speaking informally to diplomats, whether there is enough career benefit in spending time on it. Every diplomat who wishes preferment or promotion, especially so-called high fliers, should show that he has spent a significant period in trade promotion at one of our overseas posts. Only then will the business- oriented culture, which the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West supported, permeate upwards through all ranks of the FCO. That is extremely important.

Before I leave that subject, I shall talk about the costs of such an enterprise. It is, by definition, something that we cannot share with other countries. The report makes the point--if it needed making--that we are doing a great deal to share costs with our European Union partners in representation abroad, and that is as it should be. For example, sharing premises in Kazakhstan, which are used by the visa sections of Britain, France and Germany, is a sensible way of spending our resources more wisely, especially with the growth in the number of places where we must be represented following the breakdown of the Soviet Union as we knew it. Pre- eminently, one area where the sharing of costs simply is not possible is that of trade and exports. Paragraph 27 of the report states:

"These new developments may demonstrate a paradox facing diplomatic services of EU member states: on the one hand we recognise that in certain matters such as common visa requirements or common stances taken by the EU . . . they will increasingly be working together . . . On the other hand there will always be circumstances when national policy interests will prevail, in some cases in a highly competitive way: some of our EU partners are among the UK's main commercial competitors."

That is so true. As we have a scaling down of expenditure in some areas, and a scaling down of representation in some parts of the world, it is vital that we recognise that trade promotion and exports must take a larger share of a somewhat declining cake.

My second area of concern is so-called cultural diplomacy. Hon. Members have talked about the importance of the British Council and the BBC World Service. I am especially pleased that the report makes an effort to highlight the importance of those media in our relations with China. It is a sad fact that grant in aid to both the British Council and the BBC World Service is being reduced in real terms. We know that the British Council has embarked on a radical restructuring process. Despite that, there is a great deal to be said about the sort of process that it is going through; many organisations need some outside impetus to engage in such a massive review of their commitments and aims.

As one travels behind what used to be called the iron curtain, it is difficult not to be impressed by the way in which the British Council has moved rapidly and effectively to represent itself in these places. Recently, I had the benefit of visiting the council's posts in the former Czechoslovakia, particularly the Czech Republic. Support in the local community for the council's presence was impressive.

The British Council was shut down in 1948 and reopened only a few years ago. It was somewhat alarmed to find that some people were trying to return books that they had borrowed in 1948, and were worried about the size of any possible fines. I am pleased to say that the fines were waived in the circumstances.

Column 668

A tremendous feeling for Britain and the British way of life has been generated by the British Council. I wonder whether, because of budgetary constraints, the council has been obliged to look not at those countries where perhaps one could not say that its task was over--by definition, its task is never complete--but at those where it has gone an enormous way to reaching the local population, and perhaps where other media are effective. It has had to swing many its efforts and some of its best staff to new, almost virgin territories. The British Council is nothing if not impressive when one sees it up close.

I turn now to the subject of the BBC World Service. The significance of World Service radio is legendary throughout many parts of the world. The response of the Foreign Office to the report states:

"As part of its support for United Kingdom commercial services, the FCO will continue to help World Service television extend its services in all overseas markets, including China and to achieve its aim of world-wide coverage."

There is a tremendous opportunity for expansion of both the scope and the nature of programming of World Service television. As I travel around looking at CNN, I sometimes wonder what World Service television could achieve with CNN's budget. I will not go on to say what I think CNN is doing with the budget it currently enjoys--that is a matter for another debate--but it is an example of what can be done on a relatively small budget.

The Government are correct in letting World Service television develop on a commercial basis, but they make the point that they want to encourage its growth in many areas, especially in places such as China. It is difficult not to be impressed by the potential and the current performance of World Service television. Some time ago, a decision was taken in principle not to fund television as such, whereas radio receives a grant in aid. However, the Government must do everything they can to ensure that World Service television has the commercial backing to become an even bigger player in international television.

When I check into an hotel in a strange country and turn on the television, I certainly get a boost when I find that the World Service, as well as CNN, is available-- [Interruption.] I am careful to register that fact on my return to the United Kingdom. I mean CNN no harm, but sometimes it is a bit like electronic wallpaper; the World Service gets more to the heart of the matter. I endorse the response of the Foreign Office on the subject of cultural diplomacy. We should not lose sight of the importance of World Service radio, although it has cut its operations in some areas and its programming in some cases. It has been broadcasting in new languages such as Azeri and Uzbek, and increasing its broadcasts to some parts of the former eastern bloc. Those are grounds for optimism and approval by the House.

Finally, I shall touch on the subject of Hong Kong. I had not intended to raise the subject of Hong Kong this evening because, frankly, I did not think that it came within the ambit of the debate. However, as it was referred to at some length by the hon. Member for Rhondda, it is only right that I take up some of the points that he made as the Opposition spokesman.

The hon. Gentleman called for a solution. Who could disagree with that? If only it were that simple. Recently, I was in Hong Kong as a guest of the Government, and had the chance to meet a whole range of people, including the Governor, to discuss the present position.

Column 669

My first point is that there is progress at certain levels on a number of projects. The airport project is proceeding in some respects. However, as we know, there has been little progress, if any, through the Joint Liaison Group, despite the efforts of both the Foreign Secretary and the Governor of Hong Kong. Recently, in a speech to the Legislative Council, the Governor suggested that the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China should draw a line under recent events and try to make a fresh start. That will be difficult.

As I told the hon. Member for Rhondda, the main difficulty is that attitudes in Hong Kong changed in 1989 following the events in Tiananmen square. A sort of democratic enthusiasm was awakened. Attitudes in Peking also changed because the leadership got a tremendous shock from the events in Tiananmen square and, to some extent, the apparent support for the students there from many people in Hong Kong. That is what has blighted relations between China and the United Kingdom since that date.

It is simplistic for people, including some members of the business community in Hong Kong, to attribute problems that have happened since events in Tiananmen square to the arrival of a new Governor. That is far from the truth. The truth is that the foundations for the present misunderstandings and lack of progress were laid in the tragedy of Tiananmen square.

Even if there is a will, as I am sure there is, on the part of many leaders in Peking to make progress now, there is a difficulty in that there is a sense of paralysis in the Government of the PRC. I do not believe that much progress will be made for the foreseeable future unless there is a change of leadership. Such a change is inevitable at some stage.

Therefore, we must simply press on as best we can with the nuts and bolts, whether by trying to progress the airport project, tidying up the statute book or whatever. We must deal with many of the practicalities which have to be tackled sooner or later.

Despite the occasional churlishness of the Chinese Government, we shall bequeath them in 1,000 days or so a vibrant economy, a fairly new but enthusiastic democratic system, reserves which are several times greater than those we promised to leave behind, and a new airport and associated infrastructure which will be the envy of the rest of the world. If they choose to regard all that in a churlish light, perhaps there is nothing much that we can do about it, yet we have a duty, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, to the people of Hong Kong. I believe that this Government, this country and this Governor have done everything possible to ensure a smooth and peaceful handover of that miraculous state of Hong Kong to the People's Republic.

On that note, I again congratulate the Select Committee on its report. It is timely, workmanlike and detailed. We look forward to future reports of that Select Committee.

6.1 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye): I do not envy the Minister's task in replying to the debate. It has certainly ranged freely across a variety of issues,

Column 670

many of which have gone beyond what is within the blue covers of the report. There has been a certain lack of focus to some of the discussions.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) made some observations vis-a -vis Hong Kong, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) from the Labour Front Bench. Perhaps the one clear message that emerges from this small debate on the Select Committee report is what my colleague the Liberal Democrat Whip said in business questions last Thursday. There is clearly a pressing need for a full-scale debate on Hong Kong. I hope that that message has been communicated to the Foreign Office and the Government business managers, and that we can have such a debate in due course.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne said that what the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman had said was too simplistic. Equally, it is too simplistic to say that all the problems stem from Tiananmen square. When one goes to the far east and speaks to the Chinese representatives, one is left a little short for an answer when they say, "If the British now regard democracy as so overwhelmingly important, why did they take 150 years to do anything about it?" That is a good question, to which there is no immediate answer. It is not an issue that we can explore in this debate, but I underscore my view that today's debate has revealed so much parliamentary interest in Hong Kong on both sides of the House that we want to see it discussed further.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) for his chairmanship of the Select Committee, and to his colleagues for their excellent work in producing this detailed summation. An important summation of information it is, too. I wish to concentrate on two broad areas--first, the trends and developments that we have seen in overseas aid expenditure; and secondly, the cultural aspect, not least the BBC World Service.

The findings of the report show that, as a share of national income, British international aid expenditure continues to fall well below the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product. Britain's current commitments total a mere 0.31 per cent. of GNP. One must bear in mind the fact that 0.7 per cent. is not in itself the most optimistic or ambitious of global targets. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) pointed out to me earlier that, several decades ago, the target was 1 per cent., so the ambition that had been set had fallen.

As a nation, we are not even meeting half the stated target. That surely is a matter not only for regret but for considerable shame. The freeze on the aid budget means that in real terms Overseas Development Administration expenditure is set to fall fairly rapidly in the next three years. That raises a question about the priorities of the Government. That development will pose a serious threat to the amount of bilateral aid allocated to the poorest countries, especially in Africa, because such aid is the first to fall under the Government's axe when they seek to comply with European Union targets.

The ODA has insisted that the cuts in the bilateral aid programme will not affect existing commitments to the neediest, yet its own figures suggest that Africa stands to lose some £60 million, and that Asia, which has also been touched on in our discussions this evening, will lose a further £31 million. That is disgraceful in humanitarian

Column 671

terms, but it is also self-defeating for the interests of Britain internationally, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said.

If one goes right back to the work that was done by the Brandt commission, the thesis remains intact and valid that, as well as a moral need to help those parts of the globe that do not enjoy anything approaching reasonable living standards--quite the opposite--we have a long-term self-interest in providing aid. It makes sense for Britain to be seen as not merely generous but enlightened by plugging our economy into the emergent economies.

Such countries sit on greater natural resources than we command, not only in and around our shores but in the western world as a whole. It will become essential to our interests to have good relationships and good economic co-operation with such countries. In a spectacular, international, sense we are cutting off our nose to spite our face by reducing overseas expenditure. That is the first point, and the general point.

The second, more specific, point is cultural diplomacy, which has already been mentioned by several hon. Members, and not least the BBC World Service. Except among those who perhaps follow the more detailed media pages in some of the better newspapers, it is perhaps not appreciated that it has been a massive setback to BBC World Service television to have been excluded from Rupert Murdoch's Star satellite services in the far east.

We are talking about, in China alone, 1.2 billion people--between a fifth and a quarter of the world's population. That is an enormous market that will inevitably open up. One needs only to go over the border to Hong Kong and the special development zones to see the rapid commercial transformation that has taken place in the past decade.

The Governor of Hong Kong was correct to acknowledge recently that mass communication made dictatorship more difficult. That is true. The more that people see, not least through the medium of television, what can be available and what living standards are regarded as the norm elsewhere, the more people will demand that of their rulers, and the more a regime such as that in China will become unsustainable when it goes through its next change. All that means that the World Service is of particular import in broadcasting accuracy and the truth.

If we had asked people a few years ago in an international opinion poll what they rated most highly about Britain--we will leave aside the monarchy, which is a sticky subject at the moment, for these purposes--they would probably have named our university system, our national health service and the BBC World Service.

Two of those services have not fared happily under Conservative Governments in the past 15 years and, increasingly, the World Service is not faring so well either, as the figures in the report make clear. Given current fevered comment in and around the Lobbies about interests, I suppose that I and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) should place on record the fact that we have a degree of interest in that we occasionally contribute to the World Service and receive a few pennies or ecu for doing so.

Internationally, the World Service is taken as a yardstick of all that is best in this country--a sense of fairness, accuracy and fair play. Frankly, it is almost impossible to put a price on the importance of that role.

Column 672

The Government are consciously diminishing their support for the radio side of the service. The television sector now has to be funded independently and commercially; as a result, it has lost out in terms of clout and access to the Asian Star service satellite. That is a severe setback for the World Service and for what it represents, but it is also a severe setback for this country's interests. In conclusion, there are genuine and deep grounds for concern over what the report reveals about the Overseas Development budget, bilateral aid and the BBC World Service. The paucity of the response in the Foreign Office memorandum also gives grounds for concern. The Minister has a fairly broad remit to respond to; I hope that he will be able to go further, and do so more convincingly than the memorandum was able to do in response to this excellent and comprehensive report.

6.12 pm

Next Section

  Home Page