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The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond already knows that I intend to spend my few minutes on a subject much nearer homenamely, the treatment of international affairs in Parliament and, more specifically, in this House.
Since I came to this House in 1995, there has been a marked increase in public interest in international affairs and especially development. One reason for that has been the growth of the articulate aid lobby and the active participation of tens of thousands campaigning on issues such as trade, justice, aid and debt relief. Simultaneously there has been a surge of interest in overseas travel and the gap year, with a corresponding growth in understanding of world affairs. With the arrival of global citizenship education, schools have organised more exchanges and study visits in line with the revised curriculum. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans rightly mentioned the role of religion.
The Government have responded positively by gradually restoring the aid budget and continuing their support for the excellent BBC World Service and British Council. Since September 11, of course, the picture has changed again, and there has been increasing public concern about our conduct of foreign affairs in relation to anti-terrorism and, more recently, Iraq. Some confusion has also arisen between our own development policy and our Government's apparent conversion to President Bush's apparent evangelism in the Middle East. On occasion, it seems that development has again become subservient to foreign policy.
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Without entering that important subject further, I shall say only that alongside that public awareness has been a pressing need for greater parliamentary scrutiny of international affairs in both Houses. My contention is that proper scrutiny in this House has been quite inadequate. We are apparently guided by a convention that House of Commons Select Committees, especially those on foreign affairs and international development, already cover the waterfront. At the same time we are reminded that two of our own EU sub-committees already handle significant areas of foreign affairs, albeit through the prism of the EU.
A number of Peers whom I have consulted, who have considerable experience of international affairs and have either held office or served in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, believe that those arguments are no longer good enough. We have carefully examined the list of subjects covered by the Foreign Affairs Committee and International Development Committee in the past three years, and found that it is surprisingly limited. Terrorism and Iraq, for example, are well covered, but security in Afghanistan was not until this month, nor was most of the Middle East. China has not been examined for four years. India, most of Asia, Latin America and even Africaexcept for Zimbabwehave been ignored. Nepal has been left out, despite our close past association and the present crisis there. There are many such examples.
A committee pattern established more than 20 years ago for the Commons cannot any longer be held to be suited to this House. It is time that we considered it again. Besides that, we now have an impressive galaxy of talent in this House. New appointments in the past few years have included former Foreign Secretaries as well as diplomats and academics. We have all benefited from the speech today of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and we look forward in due course to hearing from Ted Rowlands.
It is no good the Government saying that we have ample opportunity to speak in debates such as this, to ask parliamentary questions or question Ministers. Such reserves of talent could just as well be channelled into productive committee work and obtaining the proper evidence to back up recommendations. My suggestion is that after the next election we should establish our own Select Committee to consider specific aspects of foreign affairs that are not being covered elsewhere. That committee would not duplicate the Commons committees but would consider the neglected areas and the longer term subjects, reporting on subjects such as conflict resolution in Africa, the Commonwealth, United Nations reform, island states and intervention in failed states and in emergencies.
With regard to the EU committees, highly respected as they areand for very good reasonsit is arguable that the Lords has become a bit Eurocentric. It is not enough to view the whole world through a European window, especially when we know how much damage the EU is still doing to the trade of developing countries. However important the new European treaty is, especially to our political parties, which seem to be able to make capital out of it, this country has a wider perspective.
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Finally, the Minister may think that this is a subject for this House and not for the Governmentwhich is of course, strictly speaking, correct. However, it is also a subject that concerns the Government and on which the Government have a view, because of the additional scrutiny of departmental work. It could well be that this Government do not want to be questioned by another committee. On the other hand, I put it to the Minister that Members of this House are well informed on international affairsperhaps, dare I say, better informed than those in another place. I suggest that civil servants and Ministers might appreciate more constructively critical reports from this House in future. Above all, I believe that the public deserves a better service from Parliament in international affairs.
Viscount Waverley: My Lords, the repercussions of today's situation are as vital to global interests as any since the Second World War. We in Parliament must ensure that those tasked with safeguarding those interests are given the tools; and that those tools include transparent and strategically apt policies.
Regrettably, our centuries of experience do not always deliver as warm a relationship with some strategic partners as we might wish or, misguidedly believe we have; unrealistic priorities, tight budgets and excessive administration are taking their toll. And it must be remembered that while the Foreign Office leads, delivery is a cross-departmental endeavour, including that of intelligence agencies. This last, tasked with watching Afghanistan and Iraq, were an obvious economic casualty in the early days, and that situation must not be repeated. An immediate solution to relieve this would be to wind up the overseas divisions of UK Trade and Investment, which bring nothing of substance to the table. Instead, crucial economic intelligence and improved modus operandi could be advanced from the private sector.
Returning to the theme of global interests, today's global discontent is not generally about Islam/Christian ideological differences but rather is rooted in glaring East/West, North/South wealth distribution inequality compounded by double standards, corruption, poverty, ignorance and endemic hopelessness. An unjust world has been created that is unacceptable to increasing sections of global citizenry. And just as we have now learnt to our cost that marginalising regional issues is not an option, so we can no longer fail to deal directly with the underlying causes, finding solutions sensitive to religious and ethnic variances. No longer can global harmony be sacrificed at the altar of insularity in the name of national interest.
Dismantling insular policies would bring immediate benefit to all the troubled and troubling corners of our fragile world; from Iraq to Iran, from Palestine to Israel and, as relevant, from Nigeria to Colombia. Until we do, three issues of specific enormitydrugs, terrorism and illegal immigrationwill continue to thrive. Yet it is sometimes myopic criticism by armchair veterans who should know better, but do not, that delay solutions in volatile situations; in effect
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giving succour to lost causes against the advice and wisdom of professionals, including those of British Government representatives.
Let us consider, my Lords, the significant current Early Day Motion signed by 207 British Members of Parliament calling for the curbing of British military assistance to Colombia. I question whether the action of those MPs is derived solely and properly from the conscientious consideration of all the facts and the disregard of political patronage. Why do they have no reported interest in the bigger picture and appear satisfied with inadequate briefing before adjudicating on a complex situation?
The background of the umbrella non-governmental organisation behind this EDM would repay closer scrutiny than hitherto appears to have been the case. Indeed, I call on the Government urgently to review the funding arrangements of this, and, indeed, other similar exploitative and manipulative NGOs, thereby curbing the misinformation so readily available today.
A much-needed but fragile peace clings on within Colombia, giving law-abiding Colombians respite from a 40-year murderous civil war, with its persistent acts of kidnapping and terrorism, including indiscriminate bombings and atrocities that have extinguished more than 100,000 lives.
Do not be lulled into thinking that the issues are too far removed from UK interests. We are directly impacted through the production and distribution on to the streets of London each year of an estimated 40 tons of cocaine, which not only funds the debilitating internal war, but also fuels the global network of terrorist organizations. Were any of those MPs to suffer children who have taken, or worse, are hooked on, drugs, they would reconsider their position in short order.
Accuracy is all, so permit me to set the record straight. A little-known fact of this civil war is that there are now 2 million displaced people, giving Colombia the third largest global displacement profile. Yet through this reign of terror, democratic ideals have been safeguarded by successive administrations.
Undeniable advances are recognized by the United Nations covering general human rights by the military, which now has an unrivalled popularity rating. Another misconception being promoted within the House of Commons includes the essential role of campesino soldiers, for example, who assist in delivering local security. MPs suggest that they form part of a local militia. The reality is that they are paid for by the state, carry out essential tasks and are commanded by full-time military commanders.
Other self-defeating inaccuracies contained in the EDM fail to reflect the dramatic security improvement in the first full year of President Uribe's administration. Through misinformation, this plays exactly into the hands of those who are attempting to disrupt the rule of law.
In conclusion, British military assistance to Colombiain reality it is the Americans who supply the bulk with the United Kingdom targeting social developmentis
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certainly necessary, appreciated and insufficient. Ill-informed opinion masquerading as fact simply prolongs the grief.
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