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7.30 p.m.

Lord Thurlow: My Lords, I am not going to follow other noble Lords in adding to the agenda of recommendations for what the British presidency should undertake. The noble Baroness has quite enough already in her list. Much as I should like to, I am not going to follow the noble Baroness in a fiery response to a previous speaker, although that livens up our debates very much and we are grateful.

I shall pursue the theme that was taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Moore, as regards an aspect of Commonwealth affairs following the recent Edinburgh conference. This is the first general debate that we have had since that heads of Commonwealth government conference.

For me, as a humble worker at the coalface in Commonwealth relations for nearly 40 years, it has been refreshing to see the change of atmosphere in this

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country in the past two or three years in relation to the Commonwealth and its significance. We owe that to a considerable extent to the remarkable report of the Foreign Affairs Committee under the noble Lord, Lord Howell, two years ago. It made more than 60 positive recommendations, many of which have been accepted by successive Foreign Secretaries.

The aspect that I wish to focus on is the dynamo for continued, valuable, constructive, collective, Commonwealth action. Most of our relations with Commonwealth countries have been bilateral with particular countries. But for the past 30 years the collective efforts of Commonwealth countries have been conducted under the auspices of the Commonwealth Secretariat. I remember when it was set up. My office was very cautious about its creation. We welcomed it, but we were cautious because we thought that it would get out of hand and create embarrassing problems and make showy gestures.

The opposite has been the case. The Commonwealth Secretariat has adopted a low profile and undertaken a great deal of extremely hard work which gets very little attention. It has gone from strength to strength. Like every institution, it has had its problems. Perhaps it got a bit flabby. The staff was cut back by about 15 per cent. about three years ago. It is now a very lean organisation indeed and extraordinarily good value for money. How much money do we put into the core political and administrative functions of the Commonwealth Secretariat? This country subscribes one-third of the total budget. According to my arithmetic, that adds up to under £5 million a year. That is not an enormous problem for this country.

I recognise that there is always a problem, and rightly so, when trying to increase anyone's budget, but especially in this case because if British Ministers wish to contribute more to the Commonwealth Secretariat, it can only be done under present ceilings by raiding some other part of the Vote of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Naturally, that results in a defensive tendency. I have talked with Ministers about this in the past. For understandable reasons, in recent years the stance has been very defensive indeed when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Vote has been consistently cut back. That has happened as long as I can remember.

When I was responsible for dealing with administration I remember having to identify three posts which were to be abolished. That was very difficult indeed. We have learnt of the large number of additional posts that we have taken on with the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Resources are desperately strained.

What can be done about it? It is no good thinking that the budget of the secretariat can be increased in this field by passing the hat round in the private sector. That is quite a fashionable tendency, which I endorse, but in this particular kind of work one cannot expect the private sector to ante up. It will for particular projects. In the past few years the secretariat has managed to get helpful contributions from the private sector; but we cannot really expect to turn to it for the immensely

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valuable, inconspicuous political work which the secretariat does in exercising good offices in fending off conflict by pre-emptive talks in so many low profile, but very important diplomatic fields.

That brings us back to the old question of resource. I ask the noble Baroness to do what she can. It is nearly two years now to the next heads of government meeting. New demands were put on the secretariat at the last meeting without increases in real terms for funding the core political and administrative work. I ask her to do everything she can--in the face of what I know, from personal experience, is enormous difficulty--to get more money for the secretariat. We get wonderful value for it. By enhancing the influence, growth and development of the Commonwealth the secretariat enhances our influence. As has been pointed out, one of the dimensions of our membership of the European Union is to bring a wider global perspective to some of our partners who have not shared our historic connections in the past.

7.39 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I enter such a debate which has featured so much worldly experience, wisdom and expertise of the highest calibre. It has been a privilege to listen to the contributions, and especially to the maiden speeches. It is also a privilege for me to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate because I freely confess that I am no expert in foreign affairs. I know marginally more about budgets, constraints and the Treasury--and all that I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is that we have carefully noted what the noble Lord, Lord Wright, said about the problems. The noble Lord will no doubt have noted that the present Government are constrained by a Budget and by figures which were determined by the party of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, when it was in power.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, I have no doubt that the figures are those of the previous government, but it was a voluntary action on the part of the new Government to adopt them. Nothing in the constitution compelled them to do that.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, if my memory is correct, during the election campaign the present Chancellor stated that, if elected, the new Government would live within the former government's public expenditure figures. This Government have sought to keep that promise, on the basis of which they were elected.

I return to my main point. I am a former trade union official who does not have a great deal of experience at the diplomatic level, but as a union official I have had the opportunity of spending time with workers from around the world and with workers' representatives. As with diplomats and politicians, invariably when we come together on a global basis the theme is the common one of seeking to ensure that we have peace, that we work together for security and that, to achieve that end, we work together for economic progress, which is the basis of those other aims.

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Now that we have a change of government, perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend the Minister that we might now be able to take advantage of an opportunity which perhaps latterly has not been taken advantage of to the greatest degree. I refer to the fact that the Labour movement on a worldwide basis has an opportunity to build links. We have a good reputation and a good record for doing substantial work in terms of working for change and peace in South Africa. The Labour movement has sought hard to bring the warring factions together in Cyprus. We have done the same in Ireland. The same is true in many other parts of the world--notably, in the Middle East where efforts have been made to encourage the Israeli trade union movement, Histradut, and the Palestinian workers' representatives to try to build bridges. That is an area where over a number of years and for ideological reasons, that opportunity has not been developed as much as it could have been. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, was always a helpful Foreign Secretary and I am not making any criticism of him.

International activities also give us an opportunity to learn about how others view us in a changing world. The noble Lord, Lord Wright, referred to our imperial past. I believe that that was the only mention of it. From my experience, others around the world still seem to view us as continuing to be weighed down to some extent by our past. They see us as weary travellers, still carrying some excess baggage, still not accepting ourselves for what we are now and perhaps trying to punch rather too hard for our current weight. Some feel that, as yet, we have not quite come to terms with our new position or determined our new role in the world.

I am sorry that many who say that, and many I have met over the years, have not been here to hear today's debate. I have found it most heartening. On all sides, we have talked about moving forward in a role based increasingly on co-operation and partnership with others, especially in Europe. Although there are still many problems and incoherences in many areas of European policy, there is nevertheless an opportunity to move forward. The European Union presidency gives us the opportunity to try to give a lead in that direction.

It is particularly heartening for a newcomer to your Lordships' House that the general thrust of today's debate--even on EMU, which I know is such a sensitive subject--has none the less pointed in the right direction and in the direction in which I think that all of us believe that we shall move. It is merely a question of timing. I share that line of argument.

My contribution, like that of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, is to give support to the Government--I hope that we have all been doing that--and to sustain them in their efforts. I unashamedly speak up on behalf of the fresh approach that we have been witnessing in the past few months. Time and tide have meant that the new Government have been given the opportunity of a fresh start--and it has been a good start. It has not been perfect, but the Government are making progress. I trust that that progress will be maintained through the UK's presidency of the European Union.

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The Government should build on some of the major initiatives on which they embarked when first taking office. I believe that those initiatives have support out there, in the streets. They have captured people's concerns in a number of areas. Interest in international affairs has been heightened and people's appetites have been whetted in a way that we have not seen for quite some time, probably because of the preoccupation in recent years with internal fighting over Europe.

I cite as an example the Government's momentum with regard to arms control and disarmament, and especially the action that they have taken and the work that they are undertaking to secure a total ban on landmines. In that context, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join those on this side in applauding the actions taken yesterday by the Secretary of State for Defence and his announcement about landmines. That statement was greatly welcomed--and not only by parliamentarians. It was well received on the streets of this country.

I welcome the efforts to promote British exports and to boost British jobs. I believe that the FCO could play an enhanced role. If money is saved in some quarters, I would argue that that is a worthy area into which redeployed resources could most usefully be used for the benefit of all of us.

I hope that the Government will not lose sight of the Prime Minister's earlier statements in New York on Britain giving a lead with regard to the quality of the environment and in pressing for specific measures to protect the environment. I pray that the Government will continue to push for the environment to be higher up the international agenda.

I hope that support will be given for continuing to put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy initiatives. As the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, mentioned, that is controversial in some quarters.

Like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I only wish that poverty could be given greater prominence on the Government's agenda. I hope that in due course, as our coffers improve, the issue of poverty will move higher up the agenda so that, in partnership with others, we can make a greater contribution to helping the impoverished throughout the world.

Those are fresh approaches, as was Robin Cook's decision to open up the Foreign Office to the public. That was a welcome move. It gave a strong, good signal. I welcome and commend the efforts that the Government have made to open up the FCO so as to allow greater opportunities to women and the ethnic minorities. I welcome particularly the recent appointment of Limbert Spencer as an adviser on those issues. Those are all moves in the right direction. I hope to see more of them.

We have an opportunity to make a fresh start--indeed, it is already underway. We now have some very important tasks ahead in the coming months. I greatly welcome the changes in attitude towards the Commonwealth and the fact that countries are now queuing to join rather than wishing to leave. I hope to see the Government working for reform of the UN. I hope particularly that they will work in partnership with

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others in Europe. We have great opportunities ahead of us. I commend all those noble Lords--the majority--who have generally spoken so forcefully in support of government policy.

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