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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government also are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for introducing this debate. I must say that she timed it extremely well. It is quite clear that a number of your Lordships have concerns about the nature of the review which is taking place of our export promotion activities, particularly in Latin America and in the Caribbean. It is proper that those concerns should be expressed and should be available to Sir Martin Laing and of course in the end to the Board of British Trade International which is to consider his final report which will be submitted to them at the end of March this year.
I apologise for my noble friend Lord Sainsbury who was unable to take this debate. I assure noble Lords that he does not have specific responsibility within the department either for trade or Latin America. If he did, I might not be here. This is particularly so since my qualifications for taking part in this debate are negative rather than positive. My contact with Latin America and the Caribbean has been as an organiser of trade missions to a number of places there; in particular, Panama, Mexico and Guatemala, but on behalf of the European Commission. It felt guilty about the advantages given to the Lome Convention countries, and wanted to organise trade missions from Europe, which I organised for it, to encourage exporters from those countries to sell to Europe. So we were taking groups of importers from Europe, perhaps
Certainly, from the point of view of the Government, our trade relationships with Latin America are an important subject for the House to consider. Over the past decade the region has emerged as a growing force on the world stage, not only economically, but also politically. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, said, there are still many problems despite the political and economic reforms and the historic co-operation between countries in the region which forced the rest of the world to take notice of Latin America, perhaps in an unprecedented way.
This is particularly true on the trade and economic front where Latin American countries have been at the forefront of trade liberalisation moves. It is now widely accepted that countries in Latin America are natural trading partners for other liberal economies. Our support for this process helped to forge last year a free trade agreement with Mexico and the EU. It is also helping to move forward discussions on agreements with Mercosur and Chile. The Government intend to continue playing a full part in ensuring that British business takes every advantage of the enormous opportunities for trade, investment and business partnership with Latin America.
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and other noble Lords for their contributions over many years to the fostering of closer relations between the United Kingdom and the countries of Latin America. Although strictly speaking the Caribbean is not the subject of the debate, I pay comparable tribute, in particular, to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and to all who worked with her in CARITAG. I do not shy away from discussing the Caribbean just because it was not part of the original subject of this evening's Question.
All parts of the United Kingdom, and countless organisations and enterprises in the private sector, have been responding to this challenge. As well as the many missions sponsored each year by British Trade International with private sector organisers, others have been promoted by agencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, invariably in collaboration with British Trade International. I entirely agree with what noble Lords have said, notably my noble friends Lord Rea and Lord Luke, that personal contact is absolutely essential if we are going to make progress in this area. There has not been any falling off in ministerial visits. I do not have the full list, but my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, when he was Minister of Trade, made two visits in one year to Latin America as part of a punishing schedule. Indeed, sadly, it was a schedule which has punished him.
I return to Latin America. A central role in this process has been played by Canning House, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is the current president. I also pay tribute to Lord Montgomery and Lord Limerick who are no longer with us, but who are
When Latin America so impressively re-emerged during the 1990s, those two organisations played an important role in supporting the government in developing a closer relationship with Latin America. I thank them both, and all Members of this House associated with them. I would extend those thanks to those who have supported CARITAG. But I know that both of them, while preserving our history, also look forward to the future. We must do as much as we can to ensure that our businesses are well equipped for the task ahead. That means ensuring that the support and promotional services provided by the Government are the best available and meet the needs of business. The words of the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, on this issue were very wise. Not being very knowledgeable about guns I am not sure that I follow the metaphors about the "shotgun" or "rifle" approach, because I really do not know what they do. However, I think that someone is trying to tell me something.
Just as Britain has been forging a new relationship with Latin America for the future, so the Government have been examining ways of improving our services to exporters, as well as looking at ways of using our resources more effectively. I want to emphasise that we have done that all the time in close collaboration with business itself as we have been determined to ensure that in all we do we focus above all on customer needs. The process started in 1997 when the Government set up the Export Forum to assess the effectiveness of current arrangements with particular emphasis, as was identified by the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, on the recommendations which addressed weaknesses which were seen to reduce the effectiveness of the Government's overseas trade services. They included the need for a greater customer focus and more defined market priorities with a greater emphasis on sectors and outward investment.
A number of noble Lords seemed to feel that the Wilson review received poor publicity. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in particular said that it was not well known. When we look at the 24-page list of contributors to the review it is obvious that, whether or not they read the review to which they contributed, they knew it was taking place and must have received copies of it when it was concluded. It seemed to me to be a comprehensive list of everybody who might conceivably be interested in the review's outcome. That resulted in the setting up last year of British Trade International which brought together the trade promotion activities of the DTI and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (through its post overseas) in a unified operation under a chief executive, reporting to a board drawn predominantly from the private sector.
That is why I do not understand the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that somehow it is an organisation driven by civil servants. It consists largely of export promoters, development counsellors, as well as hundreds of commercial officers overseas, all of whom have direct links with the markets in which they are located. The emphasis was always on developing a more coherent approach with an overriding customer and sector focus combined with a shift towards trade development; that is, helping companies--particularly smaller companies to which reference has been made--to develop their capacity and ability to tackle overseas markets. It is not a bureaucratic organisation. It is a commercial organisation driven by business and the private sector. It has achieved a great deal in a short time.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene to say that I obviously did not make myself clear. I was saying that we have been informed that if the advisory groups were brought in-house, they would be managed by civil servants as opposed to people from the business sector.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we must draw a distinction as regards a secretariat. It does not matter enormously who employs the secretariat; the secretariat of LATAG has the status of home civil servants. That does not mean that they necessarily behave like civil servants even if that were a bad thing to do, which I cannot accept when I look around me. Let me assure your Lordships that it is all business-driven.
The Wilson Report then recommended that the board of BTI should review the present structure and role of the business advisory groups involved in providing advice and in carrying out promotional activities. When I heard the list of questions about the new structure which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, asked, I felt sure that I could assure her that all of those were part of the remit of the review which Sir Martin Laing, the vice-chairman of the board, agreed to undertake. The report has been made available in draft to all advisory groups and has been placed in the Printed Paper Office. It is a research-based report which goes into enormous detail. It includes all the considerations which noble Lords quite rightly demanded that it should.
If I may anticipate my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Young--of course, I shall write to her in detail about each of her questions in turn--I found myself nodding each time she raised an issue because I was confident that, when she talks about for example consultation with the Foreign Office, with Caribbean governments and ensuring that there is expertise in the region, they have all been taken fully into account. We cannot therefore be accused, as my noble friend Lord Desai accused us, of having an "umbrella" approach.
Full account will be taken of the contribution that out-housed secretariats can make to the delivery of British Trade International's objectives as well as other considerations such as efficiency and value for money. However, I must emphasise that it is not money-led. The £95,000 cost of CARITAG is hardly a sufficient justification for saving a few thousand here or there for what the noble Baroness, Lady Young--I believe wrongly--described as a potential foreign policy disaster. I can assure noble Lords that their views will be given full weight before the final recommendations go to the board and by the board itself in considering the issues debated this evening.
Meanwhile, whatever the outcome of the review and while it is still in progress, the Government have every intention of continuing with their task of promoting trade with Latin America and the Caribbean. The Minister for Trade, Dick Caborn, launched a three-year promotional campaign last month to assist British companies to develop their business in Mexico. We are in the second year of a similar initiative in Brazil and Mercosur. There are plans to mount a millennium products exhibition this year in several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Mexico accompanied by other events seeking to promote Britain as a country at the leading edge of technology, design and innovation. Throughout the region there will continue to be a full programme of supported trade fairs and trade missions which will take many companies into those markets.
I hope that I have reassured noble Lords that we place high importance on our trade with Latin America and indeed with the Caribbean and will not rashly take any steps which would put that at risk.
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