HC Deb 05 December 1985 vol 88 cc448-57 4.46 pm
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Timothy Raison)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Britain played a prominent part in the creation of UNESCO. We continue to support the ideals and objectives contained in its constitution, but the House will be aware of the Government's long-standing doubt about the effectiveness with which UNESCO has been pursuing them. Among our concerns is the degree to which its work has been harmfully politicised; the organisation has been used to attack those very values which it was designed to uphold. Then there has been inefficient management. That has led to programmes which contain vague and meaningless studies, duplication with the work of other agencies, and lack of discrimination in the creation of projects. There have been serious weaknesses in staff management, and excessive expenditure and staffing at the Paris headquaters.

Although we have put forward firm proposals for reform and worked hard, particularly at the recent general conference at Sofia, to secure their adoption, the results, in our judgment, fall well short of what we believe could justify continued British membership. The Government have therefore decided that the notice to leave given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in his letter of 5 December 1984 to the Director-General will not be withdrawn. The United Kingdom will cease to be a member from 31 December 1985.

That decision is in no way aimed at the United Nations system as a whole. But we are determined that our support for the United Nations should be seen as support for effective and efficient organisations. Unfortunately, UNESCO is not such a body.

We shall not be cutting back on international cooperation in the fields now covered by UNESCO. The money saved from our contribution will be used through the aid programme to further educational, scientific and other activities designed to benefit developing countries, particularly in the Commonwealth. In this way there will be more support for education, for the most part to be carried out through the British Council. We have particularly in mind increased allocations for training in this country for students from poor countries in the Commonwealth and elsewhere. In science, we shall certainly continue to support the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the international geological correlation programme, and make other arrangements for assisting international science, including, for example, programmes in soil and water management in arid and semi-arid countries in Africa. We shall give further details to the House in due course.

Because of the importance that we attach to the underlying principles of UNESCO's work, the Government plan to maintain observer status in the organisation. It is sad that an organisation which began with such high hopes and to which this country has contributed so much should have gone so wrong. We have to deal with what the organisation has become. We must resolutely ensure that the resources saved for the aid programme, as a result of leaving UNESCO, are spent in the most useful way.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

We have just heard a shabby and disgraceful statement. It is a kick in the teeth for the Third world and it is another step on the road to Britain's isolation in the world. Will the Minister confirm that all informed commentators reported that, at the UNESCO conference in Sofia, substantial progress was made towards the reforms demanded by the British Government? The need for reform was the basis of our notice of withdrawal. That notice should be rescinded, not confirmed.

Will the Minister concede that all the countries of the Commonwealth, our EC partners, all the members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the United Kingdom Commission for UNESCO, and all but one of the speakers who participated in our debate on UNESCO, urged the British Government to stay within UNESCO? Does he accept that the decision announced today shows that the Government's so-called consultation was a farce, a sham, and a fraud?

Will the Minister confess to the House that yesterday Mr. John Kerr, the political counsellor at our embassy in Washington, informed Mr. Milton Korner of the US State Department of this decision? That was done before the House and even the Cabinet were informed. That proves that the withdrawal is another pathetic capitulation to United States pressure. The Minister claims that the money released will stay with the overseas development budget. We support that, but it is no substitute for the effective, multilateral co-operation of UNESCO.

The Minister's heart is not in this statement as he clearly disagrees with what he is forced to say. I am surprised that he is able to continue in office. I assure the House, the country and, above all, our friends in the Commonwealth, the Community and beyond that after the next election the Labour Government will restore Britain to its rightful place in UNESCO.

Mr. Raison

The hon. Gentleman said that this is a kick in the teeth for the Third world. The details that I gave in my statement about what we will do to support science, education and culture in the Third world shows that that is simply not the case.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that there was substantial progress at Sofia. There was some progress, but not enough in many important areas; and the results of Sofia were disappointing.

Of course, there have been strong expressions of opinion against the decision to leave UNESCO, but equally strong opinion has been in favour of this decision, including the opinion of some distinguished scholars.

What the hon. Gentleman said about information given in Washington is untrue. Throughout the whole of the operation we have never been subjected to pressure from the United States Government to leave UNESCO.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

The indignation generated by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is far beyond what is reasonale and rings false. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the many distinguished academics and others who have been in favour of withdrawal? No one can accuse such people as Ralf Dahrendorf, Lord Blake or Sir Alan Cockerell of being nasty, narrow nationalists.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee hoped that it would be possible to reform UNESCO from within? We are sorry to hear that the Government do not think that that is possible and are only partly assuaged by the fact that much of the resources previously made available to UNESCO will be devoted under the national banner to the same admirable purposes.

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend is right about the rather spurious, exaggerated indignation shown by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). It is true that a number of distinguished scholars have supported our decision, including, apart from those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw), Lord Annan. I read with care and attention what the Select Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend, had to say.

Although I accept that there has been some reform, it is our judgment that the degree of reform achieved is insufficient.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

The reasons that the Minister gave today will not be believed outside the ranks of his own party. It is known that the United States wished the British Government to leave UNESCO, and to that extent reinforced the Government's hostility to the international organisation. Britain's decision to withdraw comes at a time when President Reagan, at the recent summit with Mr. Gorbachev, has announced that the United States would enter into educational, scientific and cultural arrangements with the Societ Union with a view to building a more peaceful world. At that moment the Government decide to kick the principle of universality out of their own thinking.

The damage will be done to Britain, and it will be a price that we shall have to pay. We were one of the prime founders of UNESCO and played a notable part in making it meaningful. We are perfectly able to continue to operate within UNESCO if the Government are not hostile to its real purpose, which is to build peace in the minds of men.

Mr. Raison

The right hon. Gentleman has a mania of finding conspiracy wherever he looks. We have been under no pressure from the United States Government to make this decision. They have pursued their policy quite independently of our own. I say firmly to the right hon. Gentleman that, although we have decided that this international organisation is not doing its job effectively, that in no sense means that we are opposed to international organisations or the United Nations.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

As a former senior official at the United Nations, this is a sad occasion for me. It is sad because the Government are absolutely right, not because they are wrong. UNESCO has become a disgrace to international organisations. It has a reputation which is perverted from its original intentions I look forward to the day when this nation can rejoin a truly United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend speaks with considerable authority, both as a scholar and as a former servant of the United Nations. I suggest that Opposition members listen carefully to what he says. If conditions change radically, we shall be able to think again about the matter in the future.

Mr. Roy Jenkins (Glasgow, Hillhead)

This was preeminently a Cabinet decision and I am sure that the Minister, to his credit, was almost certainly opposed to it. It would have been more appropriate if the decision had been announced to the House by a member of the Cabinet who believed in this foolish and short-sighted decision.

How can the Government pretend that they wish to advance political co-operation in Europe when they ignore the unanimous advice of our partners on a matter such as this?

Mr. Raison

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has an extremely important meeting in Madrid this afternoon and therefore cannot be here. I am the Minister who has had responsibility for dealing with UNESCO throughout the past two years and it is right that I should be making the statement.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Warrington, South)

I accept and welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that the money saved will be spent in other parts of the aid budget. However, is it not a fact that the decision will be bitterly regretted throughout the Commonwealth? Is it not in real danger of being misunderstood as the turning of Britain's back on the developing world?

Mr. Raison

I respect the views of my right hon. and learned Friend, but I put it to him that the measures that I have announced on which we shall spend the money that will be saved by leaving UNESCO will be of direct practical value to and will be welcomed by the Commonwealth. I accept that opposition has been expressed by Commonwealth countries, but it is notable that they did not raise the matter at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nassau, when they had every chance to do so.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House exactly how much practical good will come as a consequence of this decision? Does he realise that the lack of the British subscription will cut some of the most valuable work that UNESCO undertakes, that many of the abuses to which he objects will continue regardless and that we shall lose all the influence over the future of UNESCO which we have been able to exert over the past year? It cannot be true that the sort of work that UNESCO has done can be undertaken by the British Council, however good that organisation may be.

Mr. Raison

Much of the work that UNESCO is doing is not worth doing, whereas all the things that we intend to do with the money that will be saved will be thoroughly worth while.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his announcement will be received with deep sadness and will be greeted by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends with a certain degree of bitterness? We shall leave our friends in UNESCO to argue our case and continue the battle that my right hon. Friend began so well and pursued with such vigilance. The case that the British nation wishes to be argued embraces the philosophies, language and cultural traditions which we enjoy and have been able to spread throughout the world through the auspices of UNESCO. We shall leave our friends alone and they will bitterly regret our absence. I ask my right hon. Friend to accept that it cannot be in Britain's interests to reduce our influence in such an important international organisation.

Mr. Raison

I understand that my hon. Friend feels strongly about these matters. However, we worked extremely hard, as I think is recognised on both sides of the House, to secure reform within UNESCO, right up to the conference at Sofia. When it came to the crunch, the degree of reform that we were able to achieve in certain very important areas was, in our judgment, not enough. That is why we have made this decision.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Does the Minister understand that many Members on both sides of the House consider this to be a dark day for Britain and the Third world, and that the Government's decision will do nothing to further education interests? Will he tell us what areas of dissatisfaction he believes were not satisfied by the reforms over the past year? Will he confirm that the British Council has not requested that money should be transferred to it and that it believes that the money would be much better spent through UNESCO?

Mr. Raison

The British Council has expressed no formal views on this issue. Our dissatisfaction covers a number of grounds, but three of the most important are the failure to achieve the progress that we believe to be essential on the so-called major programme 13, the failure to achieve an effective switch of resources from the more useless activities to the more useful, and the fact that no one can possibly say that the deep-seated management problems which afflict the organisation have been resolved.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Since when have the views of academics invariably been synonymous with common sense? This decision is surely a victory for common sense. As one of the contentious issues has been UNESCO's push for a new world information order, will my right hon. Friend consider diverting some of the funds that would otherwise have gone to UNESCO to the coffers of the BBC's overseas service?

Mr. Raison

The views of academics are as varied on this issue as are the views of many others. It is our intention that the money saved by withdrawing from UNESCO should pass through the aid programme to fulfil functions in the realm of education, science and culture that can properly be funded by that programme. I cannot give my hon. Friend an assurance that the money will go to the BBC's overseas service.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow)

Which countries in Europe and in the Commonwealth support Britain in the disgraceful decision that has been announced this afternoon?

Mr. Raison

Singapore has announced that it is leaving as well.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

I believe that the Government have made a regrettable decision which can be blamed in part on the past neglect of UNESCO by successive Governments. Does my right hon. Friend think that this decision will make it easier or more difficult for the reform party in UNESCO to bring about the dismissal of Mr. M'Bow when his time comes up in a couple of years?

Mr. Raison

It is impossible to make a firm judgment on what the impact will be in that direction.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is ironic that a Government who introduced full-cost fees for overseas students and who have been cutting students' grants should use the UNESCO peg on which to hang their policies? Does he further accept also that the Council for Education in the Commonwealth has registered its formal opposition to the decision? Is this not another example of Britain turning in on itself and a sign of national creeping xenophobia? Is it not a bad day when an organisation such as the Heritage Foundation can have so much influence on the House and on the American Government, too?

Mr. Raison

The hon. Gentleman should try to forget the influence of the Heritage Foundation, which has been grossly exaggerated in this matter. The announcement that I have made this afternoon offers the clear prospect of additional help to Commonwealth students, especially from poor countries, who come to Britain to receive the advantages of our extremely good education system.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Opposition Members genuinely want to improve educational, scientific and cultural assistance to the Third world, they should be congratulating him on his brave decision today? The Third world will receive far better value for money in those areas by our direct assistance than our funding of Mr. M'Bow and his bloated bureaucracy in UNESCO.

Mr. Raison

I believe that my hon. Friend makes a good point. Many of UNESCO's activities are not cost effective, whereas the scholarships and technical co-operation that we provide are highly cost effective and well regarded. I am sure that they will be used to good effect.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

How many students from overseas will be able to come to Britain in 1986 as a result of this decision? How far will it go to restoring the number of overseas students that the Government have cut since 1979? What consideration has been given to the British educational book trade? The moneys that are spent on education in other countries may go to English-speaking countries other than the United Kingdom.

Mr. Raison

I cannot say exactly how many students will come to Britain through the new programmes or measures that we are taking. I shall keep the House informed.

It is not possible to give a definite answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about books. It is not possible to say that the books that are produced by British publishers and sold to UNESCO will cease to be sold to the organisation in future. That remains to be seen.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that I am absolutely delighted that more Commonwealth students from foreign countries will be given help to come here? It is crucial to our future relations with the Commonwealth both industrially and culturally. Will he, as soon as possible, give us a little additional information as to how those students will be selected?

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. I assure her and the House that I will try as soon as possible to give details of the ways in which we will implement our policy.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

There will be very deep resentment by many of the religious bodies throughout the country at the announcement that has been made today by the Minister. Is it not a fact that the very first UNESCO meeting took place in this city at the behest of our Government, and that it costs us a very small amount of money, possibly about £5 million a year, to be a member? Can we justify and pretend to ourselves that we are going to kid the Third world that the decision made today will really help the needs of those people?

Mr. Raison

I hope and believe—perhaps hope rather than believe—that the religious bodies will think very carefully about whether we can use this money more effectively for the kind of purposes that they support through the British aid programme rather than through UNESCO with all its inefficiencies.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

First, I assure my right hon. Friend that I support this sad but inevitable decision of the Government.

Are there not two lessons to be learnt? First, any international organisation, however noble its aspirations, can very easily be wrecked on the reefs of Left-wing extremism. Secondly, our constituents, although they may have the most profound sympathy for the Third world, resent it very much when institutions of this kind, largely supported by Western money, are employed by their representatives to launch a continuous, damaging and unscrupulous attack on the values of the West which keeps the whole show on the road.

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that one of the problems has been the way in which through the years UNESCO has been used to launch the kind of attacks that my hon. Friend has described. Those attacks come not only, as it were, formally at the public meetings and conferences of UNESCO, but very often through the documentation that is prepared under the auspices of UNESCO.

As to his comment about Left-wing extremism wrecking organisations, the Opposition have very good reason to know that that applies not only to international bodies, but to domestic bodies.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Since it is known that the Minister has argued privately against the decision, does he not feel humiliated by having to tell us of this shameful decision, which clearly has been taken—as everybody knows—at the behest of the United States? Does he not realise that if this is a victory, it is a victory for all the bigots, all those who are against the United Nations and its associated bodies, and that we, as a country, should indeed be hurt and shamed by what he has announced today?

Mr. Raison

I defy the hon. Gentleman to produce any evidence whatsoever that this decision is in response to pressure from the United States.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

In his capacity as chairman of the United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO, will my right hon. Friend accept that I and most of the other members of the United Kingdom National Commission will be very sorry at this decision, but that we will stay in the arena of debate and will seek to work for the restoration of Britain to full status in UNESCO?

Mr. Raison

I recognise that my hon. Friend is a member of the National Commission. I did, of course, attend the long discussion that took place in the National Commission the other day, and I listened carefully to what it had to say. The part that its members may play in future discussions about these matters in their own private lives is, of course, essentially for them.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Minister agree that, whatever the views of any individual or Government, there is one thing in common—that reforms in UNESCO are urgently necessary? In view of that fact, do not Her Majesty's Government's actions constitute an abdication of international responsibility which will be seen as such by people inside the Commonwealth and by nations and foreign offices throughout the world? In that respect, will not Britain's influence be diminished? Is he aware that the Prime Minister said earlier today that this decision was in Britain's interests? Will he tell us what interests will be gained by this decision?

Mr. Raison

We have worked throughout for reform in UNESCO. I think that that is recognised on all sides. However, the fact of the matter is that a year ago we gave notice of our intention to depart unless we could honestly see that a sufficient degree of reform had been achieved by the end of the year. It is our judgment that that degree of reform has not been achieved, and that is why we are fulfilling the notice that we gave a year ago.

Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)

I support this afternoon's statement, but will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that in no circumstances will the additional resources going to the British Council be seen as a substitute in the future for giving money to the British Council per se?

Mr. Raison

I am confident that I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Will my right hon. Friend say how much is being saved by this action? Will he confirm that all that money will be spent on Third world countries? Can he also tell the House what action he will be taking to strengthen the British Council?

Mr. Raison

Our estimate of what our subscription would have been next year is £6.4 million. As I have said, that money will be devoted to programmes connected with the purposes of the aid programme.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he will have retained the admiration which is felt for him on both sides of the House by the way in which he has handled the very painful decision he has had to announce today? Is he further aware that it is never a good idea to walk out, as the Social Democrats have discovered, because one consigns oneself to oblivion and weakens the strength of the reformers who are left? Does he recall the French saying that those who are not there are always wrong?

Mr. Raison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind personal words, but I remind him that in fact there have been instances of reform in the past which have followed from the departure of a country. I am thinking of the ILO.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that only about 30 per cent. of UNESCO's staff are out in the field and that the other 70 per cent., or about 2,500 people, are in the headquarters in Paris where the director-general, Mr. M'Bow, has surrounded himself with little Yes-men who share his prejudices and whom he has jumped up over the heads of experienced senior staff whose morale has declined catastrophically? Has not the rot gone too far so that the only answer now is major surgery?

Mr. Raison

In fact, the figure for those who work in Paris is higher than that given by my hon. Friend. I believe that 75 per cent. of the staff are working in Paris. There is absolutely no doubt that many things are wrong with the management of the organisation. We have sought to reform them. Some progress has been made, but not enough, and that is why we are leaving.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, contrary to claims that UNESCO has reformed itself, Radio Prague and other bastions of liberty have in recent weeks openly boasted that UNESCO has remained true to its "Socialist principles"? In particular, the new world information order, which surely is as abhorrent to Western ideals of democracy as UNESCO spending 70 per cent. of its budget in Paris, is abhorrent to our belief that aid should be directed at peoples of the Third world, not at the bureaucrats in the capital cities of the world.

Mr. Raison

I am not aware of the point that my hon. Friend has made about Radio Prague, but it is certainly very telling.

Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)

Will my right hon. Friend say what consideration, if any, was given by the Cabinet to the expression of opinion by the House, and what the result was of that consideration? How will this country influence developments in UNESCO after 31 December this year? Why is it that no other European country has announced its intention to withdraw from UNESCO? Finally, will he set out the precise requirements precedent to this country rejoining UNESCO, so that at least UNESCO and the rest of the world will know what has to be fulfilled and so that we can once more participate fully in international affairs?

Mr. Raison

The Government in their consideration of this matter thought carefully about what was said in the debate in the House the other day. I have said that other European countries are not going down the path that we are taking, but this is a matter on which each country has to make its own decision, and we have come to the one which we believe to be right.

With regard to stating this afternoon the conditions precedent which we would have to seek if we were to contemplate rejoining the organisation, I think that it would not be appropriate at this stage to set them out.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

As a non-academic, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this decision and ask him to note that the heart-on-sleeve doctrine of Labour Members is that it is better to spend money on international bureaucracies—provided that they are of the Left—than on human beings in need. Would it not be reasonable, if we were ever to rejoin this wretched organisation, to require it to live in the Third world, not in the middle of Paris?

Mr. Raison

My hon. and learned Friend makes a forceful point. One of the problems with UNESCO is that it is over-concentrated in Paris. That has been pointed out for some time, and not enough has been done to reverse it.