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8.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I have listened to the debate with great interest, as I am sure all noble Lords have done. Like other noble Lords, I thank and warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on introducing the debate tonight. We have touched on a wide range of topics. I shall do my best to answer the questions raised. If I am unable to get through them all, I shall write to noble Lords whose questions I am unable to answer in detail.

The economic and social progress of the small Caribbean Commonwealth countries is threatened by several global trends. Those include the erosion of preferential trade arrangements for their exports, growing competition for the tourism sector; drug trafficking throughout the region; and climate change which is likely to increase vulnerability to natural disasters. Poverty is still widespread in some countries and there are pockets of severe deprivation in others.

Britain's development partnership with the region aims to build local capacity so that Caribbean people are better able to face those challenges and achieve a sustainable reduction in poverty. At the same time we are negotiating actively within the European Union to moderate the impact of changing trade preferences, for example, as many noble Lords have mentioned this evening, in relation to bananas.

Britain maintains a significant flow of finance to the region through a number of channels. First, we provided £38 million of bilateral aid last year. Secondly, there are very substantial resources available through the European Union. The UK has contributed over £100 million to the region through this channel over the past five years. Under the eighth European Development Fund there will be an increase in EU assistance. Thirdly, we support the region through the activities of multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank. Britain contributed £11 million to the most recent replenishment of the CDB's special development fund.

In addition, the Commonwealth Development Corporation provides direct assistance for private enterprise in the Caribbean. Last year, the CDC invested £50 million.

The Caribbean's future prosperity depends on the skills of its people and safeguarding its natural resources. Through our development assistance programme we are supporting education in many parts of the Caribbean, particularly for poorer children.

Law and order is crucial to underpin development, particularly in response to the drugs threat. Drug abuse and drug-related crime is a growing problem, particularly for the poor. We are continuing our assistance to strengthen law enforcement agencies in the Caribbean, with particular emphasis on anti-narcotics work.

We are also helping to strengthen Caribbean economies so that they can withstand the growing competitive pressures of the new trading environment.

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The European Commission, with strong support from Britain, is helping the Windward Islands to restructure their banana industries and diversify their economies.

In these various ways we hope to develop Caribbean capacity to tackle the challenges ahead without the extensive reliance on external support which has been a feature of the past. Helping them to help themselves includes our support for regional organisations such as CARICOM. This will enable us to move towards a stronger and more equal partnership with Caribbean countries based on shared interests and mutual respect.

The conclusion reached by an EU Experts Group which visited the Caribbean early last year was that the drug problem had become the single greatest threat to the stability, democracy, and economic and social development of all countries (including our Dependent Territories) in the region. The growth of drug abuse in the Caribbean was also of major concern to almost everyone I saw when I visited the region.

Countering drug-trafficking and abuse of drugs is therefore a major priority for the British Government. Our West Indies Guardship is perhaps the most visible example of the Government's commitment in this area. We provide considerable bilateral assistance to the region for counter-drugs work--some £3.5 million in 1996. Britain is also active in supporting counter-drugs work by the European Union--in particular the Caribbean Drugs Initiative--and multilateral agencies such as the UNDCP. We recognise the need for a co-ordinated approach to the drug problem and close co-operation with major powers in the region. We work closely with the United States over counter-drug work. But the work on drugs and drug trafficking must be relentless. We shall continue not only to sustain these initiatives but to seek further ways of combating the international menace of this appalling trade.

The Caribbean region is vulnerable to money laundering because of its proximity to the major drug-producing countries in Latin America and the large number of offshore centres. We welcome growing recognition by countries in the region that failure to tackle money laundering cannot only damage their international reputation and drive away investors, but can also destabilise their economies.

Urgent action is needed to counter that threat. We are encouraged at the efforts now being made to criminalise money laundering, improve supervision of the financial sector and modify the strict banking confidentiality laws which apply in some countries. Britain is glad to have been able to support these efforts with advice and bilateral technical assistance both to our Caribbean Dependent Territories and to some independent states in the region.

Many noble Lords concentrated their remarks on points relating to Cuba. I should like to outline the ways in which the UK has steadily increased its range of activities and initiatives on Cuba over the past three or four years. We have revived the practice of so-called functional visits with an extensive exchange of business delegations: Ministers and officials responsible for trade, investment, health, justice and other fields. A first ever visit by the Royal College of Defence Studies took

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place at the end of last year. There has also been a flow of sponsored visitors to the UK including the Minister of Justice, and, this summer, the Minister for Agriculture. In addition to seminars and training schemes, a successful trade mission to Cuba concluded earlier this month with over 20 companies represented. Wider assistance includes annual British Partnership Scheme support for economic reform and good governance and, earlier this year, the British Council restored a programme for Cuba.

The Government's policy towards Cuba, along with our EU partners, is to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as a sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people. Proposals to evaluate and implement the December 1996 Common Position on Cuba were adopted by the European Union in June. The Common Position notes that transition is most likely to be peaceful if the present regime were itself to initiate or permit such a process. We believe that constructive engagement is the most effective way of encouraging the reform process in Cuba.

We strongly object to the use of unilateral trading sanctions which target the trading interests of our close partners as exemplified by Helms-Burton. It makes it harder for us to achieve our shared objectives with our European partners in ensuring democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba as well as economic reforms.

My noble friend Lord Rea raised a question about medical supplies. Both the Cuba Democracy Act and the Helms-Burton Act, in Section 202, contain specific provisions on medical supplies. Under the UK's bilateral aid programme to Cuba, the British partnership scheme has been used in the past to provide some limited medical aid.

I was also asked about the UK's policy in relation to Cuba's debts. We agree that Cuba's indebtedness is indeed a problem that will affect its economic prospects. That underlines the importance of Cuba reaching agreement with its Paris Club creditors on the rescheduling of its debts and establishing a track record of repayments. The ball is in Cuba's court to establish a constructive dialogue with the Paris Club. Cuba has already had two debt rescheduling agreements with the Paris Club even without an IMF programme, which is the normal prerequisite. It is only natural that creditors will expect to see some undertakings in terms of economic reform when considering further rescheduling so that they can be satisfied that Cuba will be in a position to meet future repayments. That is particularly so given that the Cubans have allowed arrears to build up under the previous agreements.

I was also asked about ECGD cover. Cover is not currently available for Cuba. That is due to Cuba's poor economic situation and the outstanding debts that I just mentioned. However, short-term cover for consumer items is available from, I understand, the private company NCM.

A number of noble Lords raised the question, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, did so in particular, of the Government's policies post-February 2000, when

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the current convention, Lome IV, expires. Negotiations on a successor, Lome V, must begin no later than September 1998. That means that the EU must agree a mandate for the renegotiations in the first half of next year, largely during the UK presidency of the EU.

I am fully conscious of the responsibility that that places on the United Kingdom. It is a responsibility that we take very seriously. Agreement of an EU mandate will be one of the external policy priorities of our presidency. We are determined to play an active and constructive role in preserving the long-standing ties that have grown between the Lome signatories. I cannot yet give the noble Baroness, Lady Young, a detailed account of the UK's approach to the individual aspects of the Lome regime. We are considering carefully how best to shape the convention for the next 10 years.

The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, raised questions relating to St Lucia, and again focused on the banana issue. Officials of the British Development Division in Barbados are in regular contact with the banana producing governments throughout the Caribbean. Indeed, they met the Prime Minister of St Lucia on 20th June to discuss this matter. We continue to promote the EU programme of restructuring and diversification for the economies that are adversely affected.

The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, raised questions in relation to sickle-cell disease and in particular in relation to the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, which provides valuable input into research into the disease.

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