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8.25 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, it is a great privilege to close this splendid debate on foreign and Commonwealth affairs in the context of the United Kingdom presidency of the European Union. The subject is always fascinating and particularly timely in the first month of our presidency. May I add my voice to those of the so many noble Lords who have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, for initiating the debate. Lord Wright left the FCO before I joined but I have been grateful for his kind and wise advice to a very inexperienced Minister on a number of occasions since May 1st.

We are also privileged that the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, should have chosen this occasion for his maiden speech in this House, having served with great distinction in another place, especially in his six years as Foreign Secretary. His was a powerful and thoughtful speech entirely fitting for such a distinguished statesman.

May I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. His argument about the role of faith communities is, I believe, an immensely important one in promoting knowledge and understanding which are the bedrock of reconciliation and peace amongst the peoples of the world, the conclusion, I believe that the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont and Lord Janner, also reached in their contributions.

One of the first tasks of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on taking office was to publish a new mission statement for the FCO. Our over-riding mission is, of course, to promote the national interests of the United Kingdom and to contribute to a strong world community. We are pursuing that mission to

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secure for Britain four benefits through our foreign policy: security, prosperity, quality of life and mutual respect.

Since taking office we have made real progress in all four areas. On security we have agreed a landmines ban and signed the Ottawa Convention. We have established new criteria for arms sales to other countries. And I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Bethell and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that we are working to agree in our presidency a common EU code on arms transfers. We have started the process of NATO enlargement and created a new relationship between NATO and Russia. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that NATO enlargement does not seek to threaten or isolate Russia. I am aware that some elements in Russia nevertheless resent NATO enlargement. But NATO wants a real partnership with Russia and we believe that the NATO-Russia Founding Act signed in May 1997 established a co-operative basis for our future relationship. We are also working with the Ministry of Defence in the Strategic Defence Review examining Britain's defence requirements from first principles. May I assure the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that the review is foreign policy-led and based on a thorough assessment of risks and challenges facing the United Kingdom. Together these will help lay the foundations for a secure Europe in a more peaceful world.

Secondly, prosperity: we have put employment at the top of the EU's agenda. We are promoting exports and attracting inward investment. We enjoy close and profitable trading relations with countries all over the world. We are furthering free, fair and sustainable international trade and economic relations. The Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh gave the Commonwealth a business promotion role as the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote, reminded me and it is a role upon which we intend to build. All of these help to create British jobs.

Thirdly, the quality of life: we signed the European Union's social chapter guaranteeing the same rights for British workers as their Continental colleagues. May I remind my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe that at the Kyoto climate change talks my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, played a leading role in securing international agreement to tough targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We have helped fight the drugs trade in the Caribbean and signed an agreement with the Russians to work together against organised crime. We have worked with the authorities in Asia to combat child abuse. For example, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Philippines during his visit there last August and we are carrying out police training in child protection techniques in Thailand.

Our consular staff, as always, are looking after British citizens in trouble overseas and keeping in especially close touch with kidnap victims' families at home.

Fourthly: mutual respect. As the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, suggested, we have indeed put human rights at the centre of our foreign policy and started important

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human rights dialogues with individual countries, including China. We called and ran the London conference on Nazi gold, helping establish a sound body of facts. We shall donate £1 million to a new fund--a UK initiative--to help needy victims of Nazi persecution.

We are promoting free media in Bosnia and helping to bring war criminals there to justice, including the courageous action by British SFOR troops to detain indictees and transfer them to the International Tribunal in the Hague, a vital activity, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, reminded us. We are working for the establishment of an international criminal court. And I am delighted to inform your Lordships that the United Kingdom has today ratified the additional protocols to the Geneva conventions, a clear signal of our commitment to fundamental humanitarian principles.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has set out a vision for Britain:

    "It is to make this country pivotal, a leader in the world".
In the Government's comprehensive spending review we are looking at all aspects of the FCO's work to ensure that we are resourced: to achieve the Prime Minister's vision; to secure the Government's international objectives; and to provide consular and commercial services to the British people.

I should like to add my voice to the many this afternoon and this evening, including the noble Lord, Lord Wright, the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, who have paid tribute to the British Diplomatic Service. The men and women who staff our 221 posts in 145 countries are real individuals who rely on their creativity and sense of humour as much as on their professionalism, expertise and dedication, often in difficult and dangerous conditions.

The Government have made it clear that they want the UK to be a pivotal player in a strong world community. I assure the noble Lords, Lord Wright and Lord Thurlow, and the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, that our diplomatic resources will be deployed to meet that objective.

As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, we want to create an FCO which is representative of a modern, diverse Britain, drawing on the talents of all sections of the community. We have therefore taken steps, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, reminded us, to help women and men combine their careers and domestic responsibilities; to encourage the recruitment of staff from minority ethnic communities; and to make it easier to employ people with disabilities in the UK and overseas. Those are all high priorities and we have made real progress.

At the same time, we are making the FCO more open and accessible. Foreign policy affects everybody, as this afternoon's debate has shown. The Government want to hear as many different ideas and points of view as possible. And we want to make it easier for the public to get information from and about the FCO.

My ministerial colleagues and I have invited journalists, academics and non-governmental organisations to several open seminars on issues from the

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strategic defence review to human rights. We have recently published two volumes of documents on British foreign policy well before the usual 30-year time limit.

Given the cogent points which she made about our presidency, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, will be pleased to learn that on Monday my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, chairing his first meeting of EU foreign ministers, opened the EU's doors to members of the public who watched the council's open debate via a live video link. And my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe took part in an interactive debate about the UK's presidency work programme with several hundred journalists across Europe from the Canaries to the Urals.

Those are just some of the steps we are taking to open the EU's workings to greater scrutiny during our presidency and to bring more openness and transparency to the whole business of government.

The main aim of our presidency is to show Europe working for the people of Europe, to make them more prosperous, safe and free. Our presidency concerns are the concerns of the people we represent: above all--jobs, economic reform, tackling crime and protecting the environment. We want to combine economic dynamism with social justice, via a new Third Way between unbridled individualism on the one hand and old-style corporatism on the other.

We will be moving forward the EU agenda, especially as the Union prepares for EMU and for further enlargement, not forgetting the important subject of the reform of the CAP. And we want to restore the people's faith in an EU that can speak and work for them on the world stage, where the EU can and should be a major player, as so eloquently argued by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield, reminded us, the second Asia-Europe meeting is to take place in London at the beginning of April. We hope that that will reinforce economic co-operation and take forward political dialogue and develop the people-to-people contacts between Europe and Asia which are so important.

In that context perhaps I may take up some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. Her Majesty's Government are very concerned and deeply interested in the resolution of the financial problems in Asia. We fully support the programmes of reform of the IMF and World Bank which were agreed in Asia. Current problems in Asia are indeed of global concern and require a global response. It is essential to keep the IMF at the centre of action, with the United States and Europe working together.

The UK has made a significant contribution. We are a major shareholder in the IMF. We have contributed to Korea's second line of defence. We have encouraged our commercial banks to roll over Korean debt. And we have a role in co-ordinating the European response as chairman of the G7/G8 during the course of the EU presidency.

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I apologise if I do not manage to answer all the questions raised by noble Lords in this far-reaching debate. Where I am not able to do so, I assure the noble Lords that I shall write to them.

In his speech to open this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Wright, spoke from his very great personal experience of the Middle East.

I can assure the noble Lord that the Government do intend to use our pivotal role as EU president and as a close ally of the United States to develop EU and US efforts to secure a just and lasting peace in the region. We shall support US efforts to reinject momentum and ensure that EU views are heard in Washington.

But I disagree with the suggestion, as reported by the noble Lord, that the West is pursuing double standards in its actions towards Israel and Iraq. In both cases, we insist on respect for international legality and the implementation of Security Council resolutions.

With Israel, the negotiating process laid down at Madrid and Oslo is based on Resolutions Nos. 242, 338 and 425. Despite the difficulties facing the peace process at present, negotiations continue. Our efforts must go into sustaining those negotiations, which offer the best prospects for the parties involved.

But Iraq is different. There is no negotiation. The best interests of the countries in the region will be served by ensuring that Iraq complies with all relevant Security Council Resolutions and that UNSCOM is able to complete its job. Those are the objectives which the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, pointed out. After all, Iraq is led by an aggressive dictator who has actually used weapons of mass destruction against his neighbour and his own people.

I entirely agree with the noble Lords, Lord Wright and Lord Chalfont, that Islam, one of the world's great religions, dose not pose a threat. We enjoy excellent relations with many Islamic countries around the world and benefit greatly from the contributions British Moslems make to this country. We must remember too the contribution of the Islamic countries in the Commonwealth, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, reminded us.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, referred us to the final report, Words to Deeds, of the international task force chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. The Government are deeply committed to international peacekeeping and conflict prevention. We welcome this interesting and thoughtful analysis and are studying it carefully.

I turn now to points raised on the Middle East peace process. We believe that the current US led negotiations provide the best forum for progress. That is also the view of the Arab leaders closely connected with the peace process. So we shall continue to consult closely with the US to ensure that the EU's views are clearly understood in Washington during the course of our presidency.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, asked for a little specifity in that respect. Perhaps I may make the following points about some initiatives which we are pursuing, among

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others. It is not an exhaustive list but it is, I hope, an illustrative one. We are seeking to facilitate agreement on the opening of the Gaza airport, on construction of a seaport and on the establishment of transit arrangements between Gaza and the West Bank. We are also seeking to monitor closely the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and their actions in East Jerusalem. At the UK's initiative, the EU has engaged Israel in a dialogue aimed at finding practical ways of reducing the damage to the Palestinian economy caused by measures which Israel believes are necessary for its security. There has been the appointment of the EU special envoy for the peace process, Mr. Moratinos, which has enabled the EU to play a more active role in promoting the resumption of negotiations. Like the noble Baronesses, Lady Nicholson and Lady Williams, I hope and believe that we can make progress. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, I believe that we must keep trying to address the issues in which we believe.

The question of Iraq was also raised. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lords, Lord Wright of Richmond and Lord Kennet, raised points in that respect. Let us be clear: we are not ruling out any options, including the military option. However, we are actively pursuing every possible diplomatic solution to the problem. We all hope; indeed, I am sure that those of us who do so are all praying for a diplomatic solution. It is not sensible at this stage to speculate on the possible nature of military objectives. The House cannot expect me to speculate in that way. It would be counter-productive and, I beg to suggest, it would not be in the best interests of the troops in that area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked about contact with our EU partners over Iraq. We believe that the UN Security Council should take the lead in the diplomatic initiatives to resolve the current situation. We discussed Iraq with our EU partners who all agree that Iraq should comply with the relevant Security Council resolutions.

The noble Lords, Lord Wright of Richmond, Lord Healey, Lord Bethell and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, all raised questions about Iran. Current EU policy is based on the decisions reached by EU Foreign Ministers on 29th April 1997 at the General Affairs Council meeting. However, in the light of encouraging political developments in Iran, the GAC council announced a review of EU policy on 26th January 1998.

The EU and the US share a common assessment of the threats posed by Iran. As we now hold the presidency of the European Union, we are determined to work for greater transatlantic co-operation in our shared areas of concern. But, of course, there are differences between our policies and those of the US, especially over extraterritorial legislation and over the prescription. We do not believe in isolating Iran. Our long-term goal is not containment of Iran but the containment of Iran's unacceptable policies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked about the follow-on in Bosnia after SFOR. We welcome President Clinton's announcement in December, echoed in his

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State of the Union address last night, that the US will, in principle, provide troops to a follow-on force to the NATO led stabilisation force. I hope that that answers the specific point raised by the noble Baroness.

The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, asked specifically about the attendance of Turkey at a meeting in March. We hope the Turkish Government will decide to take part in that important meeting.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, raised questions about the United Nations. Her Majesty's Government believe that modernisation of the United Nations is essential. We support the Secretary General's reform package. We shall use the EU and the G8 presidencies to carry forward our points on these important reforms.

The noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, raised questions about the role of the Western European Union. The WEU is developing its capacity to handle European crisis management tasks and plays a key role in building the European security and defence identity within the Atlantic alliance. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, asked about our relationship with the US in that respect. We believe that our relationship with the US complements our role and our relationship with the EU and that the two are mutually supportive in that context.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, raised points about our friends and colleagues in the Caribbean. I have much sympathy with her worries on the question of the future of the banana regimes. The fragility of the Caribbean economies and their vulnerability to illegitimate alternative sources of income--that is, money generated from drugs or money laundering--are indeed great worries. Therefore, we are holding a special meeting in the Caribbean in three weeks' time to discuss these issues, among others, with our Commonwealth colleagues and members of CARICOM.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, also raised questions about Cuba. The point about ECGD credits is currently under consideration by the Treasury. I should remind the noble Baroness that, although no visits are planned as yet to Cuba, Ministers do not rule out such visits in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, asked about the dependent territories review. Despite what noble Lords may read in press reports, there is no question of the Foreign Secretary announcing a major policy change on 4th February. The issue remains under active consideration but no decisions on the issues that the noble Lord raised have yet been taken as regards this important and complex issue. I should also tell the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, that my right honourable friend made it clear after the Brussels process talks on 10th December that there is no compromise on sovereignty against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. I hope that that is a sufficiently unequivocal statement for noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, raised questions about Tibet. This is area of continuing concern to many in Europe and elsewhere. We welcome the recent agreement by the Chinese to allow a delegation of EU ambassadors to visit Tibet soon. We can then make an assessment of the situation.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, raised questions about DFID. We have signed up to the internationally-accepted development goals, notably the halving of the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by the year 2015. The Development Assistance Committee has welcomed the new initiatives of Her Majesty's Government and has said that it views DFID as one of the most important, innovative and professional agencies in the developing world.

The noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Bethell, raised questions about human rights. I should like to make it clear that the UK will take a leading role in our presidency at the 54th session of the Commission on Human Rights in March and April. On behalf of the EU, we will table a range of draft resolutions on thematic and country issues and we will make a range of statements about human rights issues. We will be working within the EU to prepare positions for the commission which clearly reflect the importance that we attach to human rights.

It is nine months since this new Labour Government came to power. In foreign as in domestic policy, they have been nine months in which the Government have begun to carry out their contract with the British people. We are proud of our achievements. As the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, reminded us, Her Majesty's Government are beginning their presidency of the European Union, having established a new relationship for Britain with its European partners. It is a relationship that responds to people's needs--a relationship built on co-operation, not conflict, and a relationship which looks forward to the opportunities of the 21st century, not backwards to the memories of the 19th. As the noble Earl, Lord Limerick, said, the solutions may not be obvious, but we must still strive to find them.

That, in itself, would be achievement enough. But there is much more; for example, on landmines, on NATO enlargement and on the new relationship between NATO and Russia. There is also the rebuilding of our important relationship described by the noble Lord, Lord Shaughnessy, and by my noble friend Lord Desai, with our partners in the Commonwealth and the importance of putting human rights at the centre of our policy.

Throughout all this we have sought, and we shall carry on seeking, to work for the British people and to make sure that what we do is understood by them. As part of this policy we are opening up the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and making it more representative of modern Britain. This mission will continue. The next few months are a time of great opportunity for this country with our EU presidency, the Asia/Europe meeting and the G8 summit in

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Birmingham. Solutions to the huge range of problems we have discussed this evening may not be easy to find, but it is our duty to keep searching for those solutions and to fulfil our vocation as a pivotal force for good in the world.

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