HC Deb 25 July 1991 vol 195 cc1299-309

11.1 am

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise the subject of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and in particular the need for the United Kingdom to return to its membership without delay. I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) will be allowed to join our brief debate. Both are members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and both have taken a close interest in UNESCO for many years.

The House will know of Britain's dominant influence in establishing UNESCO at a preparatory conference held at the Institute of Civil Engineers in London in November 1945. Its secretariat was initially based in London. Its first director general was British and its constitution was deposited in London. Its accounts were audited by the United Kingdom Comptroller and Auditor General.

I have no doubt that, while it was a member, Britain was especially favourably treated. A number of consultancies and contracts were placed by UNESCO with United Kingdom individuals and companies. The Library Association told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the United States and the United Kingdom have together provided the overwhelming majority of librarians, archivists and other information scientists sent by UNESCO as consultants and advisors. The United Nations Association told the same Committee: leaving aside unquantified yields to eg the British publishing industry … the United Kingdom reaps a measurable harvest from its membership. In short, the United Kingdom receipts from the UNESCO budget were substantially in excess of its direct budgetary contribution—our balance of payments benefited.

I spoke in the debate in November 1985 after the Foreign Affairs Committee had unanimously recommended continued United Kingdom membership of UNESCO, as had the officers of the Conservative foreign affairs committee. Thirteen of the 14 members from all parties who spoke after the Minister for Overseas Development supported our continued membership. The one who did not was given a brief by a Whip and invited to call for our withdrawal. He got his reward on earth and is now a Minister. I suspect that he is ashamed of that little episode, so I will not name him this morning.

Alas, the Government spurned the advice of Parliament and, I believe, the advice of the Foreign Office, and Britain withdrew from membership at the end of 1985. The Government spurned the advice of scientific, educational and cultural institutions. They also spurned the unanimous opinion of our European Community and Commonwealth partners that we should not take the easy option and back out. I suspect that the decision to withdraw was taken by the Prime Minister of the day at a time when British foreign policy was far too closely allied with that of the Reagan Administration.

For much the same reason, we also abandoned all the fine work that we had put into the law of the sea, which had also clearly been in our national interest. The United States-based Heritage Foundation was allowed to play a large part in moulding British official and public opinion. At that time, as Mr. Gough Whitlam pointed out, the foundation was running campaigns attacking the United Nations and its agencies. Many foreign policy decisions taken during that period were regarded on both sides of the House as going against our international traditions and our worldwide roles and responsibilities.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be aware that there is still a certain amount of tidying up to be done.

I should like to make it clear that I am by no means starry-eyed about UNESCO. On the contrary, I am well aware of just how badly managed it has been and of how far it strayed from its original course. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has kindly come along to reply to this debate, had not yet entered the House when I initiated an Adjournment debate on some of the wilder aspects of the new world information order, as it was then called.

I strongly support the principle of universality while much disliking the word itself. There has been bipartisan support for it in the House for many years. We make a great mistake if we go on picking and choosing which United Nations body or agency we desire to belong to. The hostile Commonwealth reaction to our withdrawal—Commonwealth countries rightly felt badly let down after giving us so much support within UNESCO—partly reflected the high premium placed by Commonwealth and third-world countries on the principle of universality in the membership of the United Nations and its agencies. Every breach of that principle is seen by many as devaluing the entire United Nations system.

The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded in its 1985 report: a breach by the United Kingdom of the principle of universality in the UN and its Agencies could have long-term, and damaging, consequences for those organisations, and not merely for UNESCO alone. I suggest that in the long run we shall put at risk our seat on the Security Council. It is already a matter of comment at the United Nations, where other countries such as Germany and Japan are seen to have a good case for Security Council membership.

Looking back on the foolish withdrawal in 1985, it becomes obvious that the United Kingdom's contribution to UNESCO was more fully appreciated in UNESCO than in the United Kingdom. There was genuine regret at our departure. Our contribution was seen as having been at a much higher level than that of the United States. Looking back, it is also obvious that much of the row was about the influence of the Soviet Union and its allies in eastern Europe. Thank heavens that in 1991 we live in a very different world.

My hon. Friend the Minister will want to tell us—no doubt he has been briefed to do so—that, although UNESCO has made considerable changes, they are still insufficient for our return. I fear that he will be in danger of sounding like Mr. Shamir, who, in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, is always in favour of talks, while always putting obstacles in the way of them—as we heard on the radio this morning. Some Conservative Members will want to argue that UNESCO has now reformed itself sufficiently to allow us to go back, but my case is different. I believe that the Government let Britain down by quitting. It is in the national interest to rejoin—the sooner the better.

All pro-European Conservative Members have used the argument that we needed to be in UNESCO so that we could influence decisions and those who make them. We have said that it was not good enough to react to those decisions. Precisely the same arguments apply in this debate. We walked off the pitch in a huff, leaving our team to continue the struggle for reform in which, up to then, we had played an honourable part. Now, we wail and whinge from the sidelines instead of returning to the vacant place in the team.

My hon. Friend the Minister told me in a letter dated 3 July: We believe that we can exert real influence on the process from where we now stand. I do not accept that. This is a crucial year in the charting of UNESCO's future. The place that we left is being filled with other national interests, to the detriment of British language users and British interests in general. My hon. Friend will no doubt say that we are monitoring, reviewing, surveying and checking. We have put up £50,000 to fund a management review by independent consultants of UNESCO's office of public information. My hon. Friend the Minister is smiling; he no doubt has a section of his speech devoted to that issue.

We must stop being a spectator and start being a player. We would be a strong player on the managerial and administrative side. The United Kingdom is badly needed, not just for financial reasons. Both the United Kingdom and America are needed if effective reforms are to be carried through. I regret the loss of the United Kingdom's input into the academic, scientific and educational programmes, of which Japan and France are rightly taking full advantage. The truth is that, while we monitor, the United Kingdom and its influence is marginalised.

I hope that my hon. Friend will refer to early-day motion 122, which shows how much support there is in the House for our return. I hope that my hon. Friends will also refer to the recent Select Committee report as I do not have time to do so. I believe that, on a free vote, the House would come out overwhelmingly in favour of our return. I also believe that the non-governmental organisations are overwhelmingly in favour of our return. We shall return one day, and we lose every day that we fail to do so.

How can the United Kingdom influence UNESCO's policies on science education if it has no part in their formulation? There must be a danger that our absence will be accepted as the norm, and a vital sector of academic and scientific activity will be closed to the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future. It is astonishing that we are failing to use UNESCO to promote English as the major means of communication in the modern world. We are setting a bad example to the world. We should announce our return and pledge our determination to help UNESCO clean up its act and return to the high standards that we helped it to achieve after world war two.

Fundamentalism is rampant today, not only in the middle east. Our country has a fine record as a practitioner of the tolerant approach. We should be demonstrating that approach in 1991 in UNESCO. The way forward for Britain is not to sulk and opt out, rather to participate, co-operate and use our special talents in Rolls-Royce diplomacy to help UNESCO to get over its undoubted problems and carry out the vital task that it has been given by the peoples of the United Nations.

11.5 am

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

It is a pleasure to support my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) in this debate. I was pleased that he gained a place in the ballot.

On a day when, because of a little local difficulty, people are talking about the value of Select Committees, this debate shows their true value. We have taken a consistent view and considered evidence from the widest possible range of participants. We did so in 1985, when the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs decided that we should not have left UNESCO. That decision was taken in liaison with some members of the United States Congress who also opposed America's peremptory withdrawal. We were to follow a year later.

In 1990, we had another review and talked to a wide range of people. We absorbed the sort of evidence that Select Committees should consider, and came to a balanced and dispassionate view, which was that much progress had been made by Professor Mayor since the original criticisms were levelled in 1985 which caused us to leave.

Although we were opposed to our leaving, believing that we would be best able to reorganise the organisation from inside, not outside, we charted the reforms which had been introduced by Professor Mayor with considerable energy, and which had then been carried out. We thought that, as wise men, we should give the Government the benefit of the doubt and said that we thought that the reform process was moving extremely well. We said that, although there was a little to do, if the process continued at the pace it had until then, the Government should consider returning within a year. We did not recommend an immediate return because we felt that our suggestion of one year was appropriate to the pace of reform. Now that year is up—this is 1991—which is why we are having today's debate.

There has been some movement in the Government, and we have said that we are moving in the same direction as the Government but at a different pace. For the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath has described, the Select Committee feels that we should return now. The Government have said that they will give £50,000 to review the work of UNESCO and then have another period of consideration.

Our original fundamental concerns remain. First and foremost, we believe that the longer we stay out, the less integrated much of what Britain has to offer in the critical spheres of education, science and culture will become. We have been out of UNESCO for six years; if we push that period to a decade, the integration achieved through our excellence in those three critical spheres, which included a better balance of payments figure, will be lost. Therefore, we are on the sidelines during the most critical decade.

Many of us recognise that the decade of the 1990s is a critical period in which we are seeking to narrow the gap between the developed world and the developing world. The process of education is critical in the developing world. In an earlier debate today we talked about mass emigration from Vietnam to Hong Kong for economic reasons. I also gather that, today, there are problems in Italy, where there are 24,000 Albanians whom Italy wants to send back. That is just the tip of a massive potential emigration to the developed world of peoples from countries where they believe themselves to be less fortunate and more deprived. That is one of the most important spheres in which UNESCO can help, together with other United Nations organisations.

Education is critical; we must ensure that people throughout the world are as well educated as possible. Only on that basis can people start to bring their own countries up to a high standard, revive the economy, and consistently provide the sort of environment in which people want to live. If countries are not able to do that, the consequences for future generations will be beyond anything that we have ever faced before.

It is for those reasons, plus the fact that we should attempt to achieve successful reform from within, that we are today arguing that my hon. Friend the Minister should shorten the pace of his interest. I am delighted that he is interested and has announced that the Government are to fund a review. However, he should shorten the pace and work to a sensible time scale that enables Britain to play a full part in UNESCO. As soon as possible in London, we should work with the people who first established UNESCO and who hold the relevant documents.

At the end of his statement at the recent 136th session of the executive board, Professor Mayor said: It has been said that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. As a scientist I respect the results. On occasions, these have made me a hopeful director general. I think that a hopeful person may either be pessimistic or optimistic, but hopefulness implies more than being well-informed. It means being committed and involved. I commend those words to my hon. Friend the Minister.

11.20 am
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) on obtaining this debate. It gives us an opportunity to review with my hon. Friend the Minister the progress that is being made with UNESCO.

It is worth reminding the House that UNESCO was founded in 1945 on the proposition that, if war is born of the ideas of man and out of their culture, peace could be born of the same. UNESCO was established in order to influence world thinking on how to keep the peace and prevent war. It is those fundamental ideas that UNESCO seeks to foster through education, science and culture. Science makes war much worse and makes it more likely to destroy mankind.

This nation is rich in culture and education. The English language dominates science and education throughout the world. However, we would be mistaken if we thought that the English language could be taken for granted. It is by no means the dominant human language—Chinese is spoken by many more people throughout the world. Therefore, our education, culture and language are at risk if we do not foster and support them and if we are not confident that they have a contribution to make to the world.

My plea to my hon. Friend the Minister arid the Government is on those philosophical grounds. If we begin to lose our pre-eminence and great fortune in dominating education and science, we will also lose out in philosophy and ideas. In doing so, we will deprive the world of what I believe is a developed form of government that permits progress and change without war. I believe that the ideas and issues of war and peace lie at the heart of this debate. Without our contribution, the world will be a much less safe place.

On the issue of universality, it is un-British to take one's ball away and refuse to play. That is what the Government did when they withdrew from UNESCO. It is British to stay in an organisation and to push for reform from within, to meet all the debates head on and put our arguments in a straightforward manner. That is in our democratic tradition. It is the tradition of the House and it is the way in which we seek to persuade and change. For Britain to withdraw is just a failure of courage. It is a failure of confidence in our own ideas and a failure to put them across and have them debated.

There were good reasons for withdrawal. UNESCO was going badly and sadly wrong and anybody who had to endure the endless executive board meetings of the annual conferences in remote parts of eastern Europe will attest to the extreme frustration that was engendered in anyone who was truly interested in promoting education, science and culture throughout the world. However, many of the reforms that we wished to see are now in place and the reductions of the programmes to which we objected, particularly the new world information order, have taken place by common consent. They have been removed from the agenda and have been replaced, in the case of the new world information order, by a commitment to the freedom and pluralism of the press and the spreading of ideas. Freedom of the press is essential for democratic forms of government and for government by consent. Against my better judgment, the shock of the withdrawal of Britain and the United States may have brought about that reform more quickly than any other method.

We have also achieved a great deal towards decentralisation of the programmes from 80 per cent. of them being carried out in Paris to a large number of offices being established overseas. More needs to be done. UNESCO has also reformed its administration and management, which was seriously in need of repair. Many of the reforms have been put in place by the current director-general who appointed the Hammarskjold and Wilenski committees to deal with the personnel administration. It is promised that all those reforms will be implemented by next October. The director-general also ensured that a concentration of programmes took place, thus eliminating many of the serious objections that we had when we withdrew.

The director-general has also appointed an administrator of great and proven worth, Mr. Sharma, who was previously with Air India. He has implemented many additional reforms in the management of the organisation. Nobody would pretend that those reforms are complete or perfect, but they are moving strongly in the right direction.

The Japanese Government have made a constructive proposal on how the board should be reformed. Over the years it has become far too large and is not capable of acting as an executive committee to control the director-general and his staff and move them in the directions in which the international community would wish. The sub-committee on executive and financial advice to the board is welcome and I hope that it will he supported.

Britain needs to be there to support Japan and the European Economic Community partners, all of whom have recently expressed to a visitor from the United Nations Association, Mr. Rashid Kareh, that they wish the United Kingdom to return to UNESCO. I should like to pay tribute to Mr. Kareh for helping to persuade the Government to return to UNESCO. He recently visited all our European partners, including France, Spain and Germany, and they said that they wanted Britain to return to UNESCO to make the reforms work. The same has been said by Japan, Switzerland and Sweden and the Commonwealth. African Commonwealth countries feel let down by Britain's absence because they see overtaking them in UNESCO councils the francophile culture and language promoted by the French and by French-speaking African countries. The English language countries of Africa feel that they do not have the support and friendship that they could expect when Britain was present.

If this is a universal call for a return from our principal allies, and if it is essentially in our own interests and the interests of world order and culture, we should return. There is one overriding reason for return which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe. If there is to be development in much of the third world—over two thirds of the world's population—education must take place. That education would be best based on the British culture and English language, carrying with it the ideas which we have sedulously matured and which we guard, not just in the form of political ideas but ideas of how one person or one culture relates to another.

If we do not do that, other cultures will take over. Much evidence shows that the Islamic culture is expanding in northern China, often with the support of UNESCO and the French; but where is the British culture, education and language? It is nowhere to be seen. That is a dangerous position for us. Without education, without the elimination of illiteracy, to which UNESCO is devoted, and without our help, we shall not bring about the development of those countries.

Britain has achieved its objectives by leaving UNESCO. It should return immediately to foster the things that we believe in, which UNESCO is pursuing. It should do so now.

11.30 am
Sir Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

May I publicly express my warm congratulations to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the honour of the award of Privy Councillorship, which has given much pleasure to the entire House?

As the House knows, I served in the United Nations for several years. It may seem strange, therefore, that in 1985 I most strongly supported our withdrawal from UNESCO, which had become a scandal and a disgrace to the United Nations Organisation. Although in principle I most strongly agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), none the less I find the reforms disappointing because the objectives of UNESCO are not being met. In the circumstances, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give a cautious response to my hon. Friends.

11.31 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for raising this subject because it gives me the opportunity to explain the Government's thinking on it. I am sad that I shall be constrained to disagree with him and with my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) and for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). I do not believe that Britain should rejoin UNESCO at present. I am sorry to disagree with them because, as they know, I have personal regard for all three of them. I am most grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Sir R. Rhodes James).

The United Kingdom was one of the founding members of UNESCO. In London, in 1945, UNESCO's constitution was adopted. The constitution is sound and I commend it to hon. Members. It refers, among other things, to the great and terrible war which has now ended", and attributes the reasons for the conflict to the denial of the democratic principles, of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races. Those are high words.

Britain's attachment to those democratic principles, and to respect for human rights and fundamental reforms, was expressed not only in our support for UNESCO but was apparent in our commitment to building the United Nations system, and through that greater respect for the rule of law in international affairs.

Any debate on UNESCO should be careful to place the organisation in that wider context. The world and the United Nations have changed much since 1945. For all the difficulties that have been faced by the UN, much has been achieved in that time, and much remains to be done. Last week, the Heads of State and Government of the Group of Seven, meeting in London, stated their faith in the future of the United Nations. They committed themselves to working for a stronger United Nations and made clear their belief that a revitalised organisation would play a central role in strengthening the international order.

We are profoundly committed to those objectives. The ideals that prompted us and others to establish UNESCO 46 years ago are still respected by the United Kingdom. It was a matter of regret that we were compelled to withdraw from it at the end of 1985, but there is general recognition, even among many of the most vocal supporters of our renewed membership, that we were right to do so. I realise that my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath, for Broxtowe and for Hertford and Stortford do not hold that view. Some of the reasons that prompted our withdrawal, especially the politicisation of UNESCO, are, I am glad to note, no longer applicable, but I am afraid that others remain.

At the beginning of last year, four years after our departure, two reviews of UNESCO were conducted—an internal review by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and a review by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Both arrived at broadly similar conclusions. They agreed that some improvements had been made since 1985 but that the United Kingdom should not return to membership.

In its report, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee decided that some more time is necessary before it will be possible to be certain of the Director-General's ability to deliver the reforms which UNESCO badly needs. Those are significant words, because the delivery of reforms is what is necessary. In his reply to the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury), agreed with that view but made it clear that we should not rejoin UNESCO until we were certain.

That shows the fundamental difference between my opinion and that of my three hon. Friends. They opposed our withdrawal in 1985. It follows that they believe that the logic of our position is that we should rejoin as soon as possible. But they lost that argument.

Mr. Wells

It was not an argument.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

In a debating sense, they lost the argument. They failed to persuade colleagues in Government of the strength of their opinions. I was outside government at the time, but I strongly supported the Government's decision. My hon. Friends want us to rejoin because they never wanted us to leave. Those who felt that we had to leave do not believe that we should return. We must use our departure to effect the best reforms. I hope to explain how that will take place.

Since last year's reviews, there have been some welcome signs from UNESCO. No one would claim that progress has been fast, but it has begun. I am particularly pleased by the clear recognition of UNESCO member states that there is a need not only to talk about but to achieve reforms. As I said, so far, the achievements have been in short supply.

The last two sessions of UNESCO's executive board discussed fundamental improvements, but so far little has been done to meet expectations. We are not, therefore, certain about the delivery of reforms. Our doubts are shared by reform-minded members of UNESCO. In that context, I was interested to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, because everyone knows that his commitment to the ideals of the United Nations is second to none.

At the executive board's last session, its 136th, in May and June, we continued to hear criticisms from members about administrative and financial matters, despite undertakings from the director-general to achieve improvements. In March, the director-general received a report—the Hammarskjold and Wilenski report—on the progress that had been achieved in implementing management proposals that were made in December 1989 and February 1990. It is clear from the report that many important proposals remain unimplemented and that little has been done to improve matters. The secretariat staff remains top-heavy. The promotion system is still unsatisfactory, and recruitment needs to be improved. Senior posts need to be pared and the status of women in the secretariat needs to be enhanced. I am glad to say that in the presence of my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks).

As well as the need to improve UNESCO's management and administration, we are convinced that greater decentralisation must take place. It is encouraging that member states have recognised and are addressing that problem. A study on decentralisation was presented to the last executive board. It concluded that UNESCO field offices often feel remote from headquarters, that they are inadequately supported and consulted, and generally underfunded. It was decided that further work should be done to indentify the patterns of decentralisation which would best serve the needs of the various regions. Of course I hope to see progress by the time of the next executive board in October, but I am concerned that it may yet prove difficult for UNESCO to translate useful, sensible recommendations into action.

What other improvements do we and others regard as important? We continue to believe that UNESCO must achieve real programme concentration. It has been difficult to gauge from the draft programme and budget for 1992–93 just how much concentration has been achieved, but there is almost certainly scope for more. I recognise that that may not always be easy. UNESCO has to establish real programme priorities, and stick to them. This inevitably means that low priority programmes, but ones that are often dear to individual member states, will not be carried out, yet this is necessary if UNESCO is to make the best use of its resources.

We were pleased that the next biennium's budget shows negative growth in real terms. This was very largely achieved by member states demanding that expenditure not absolutely necessary for the functioning of the organisation should be cut. It remains the case, however, that, as shown at the last executive board, it is not always easy to get satisfactory answers on budgetary matters.

The budget is difficult to interpret and detailed information is often difficult to obtain. The budget should be much more transparent. Member states would be able more easily to monitor budgetary and administrative issues if the functions of the executive board were improved.

We are generally sympathetic to the interest shown by the Japanese and other member states in trying to achieve a more efficient executive board. The Japanese proposals to amend the constitution are broadly acceptable to us and they have attracted widespread interest. In the middle of July the director-general had received various amendments to the Japanese proposals. It is now up to the general conference to decide the success of this important attempt at reform.

I think that our policy on UNESCO is well understood by its member states and I acknowledge that some members would like to see us rejoin. Equally, others appreciate that our close interest in the organisation may well have proved a catalyst for reform. We shall continue to pay close interest to developments in UNESCO. My hon. Friends have recognised that the recent fund of £50,000 that we have made available shows that we are not blind to the situation in UNESCO and wish to see honest and genuine progress so that one day we shall be able to rejoin a reformed organisation.

As I have said, we recently agreed to make up to £50,000 available to meet a request for help from UNESCO to carry out an independent management review study of its office of public information. This is an area where there is a clear need for cost cutting and reform. This decision clearly demonstrates our desire to see a suitably reformed body. It will be most interesting to see if UNESCO will find it possible to implement the recommendations of the consultants when they are available.

As I have made clear, we continue to support the ideals on which UNESCO—assisted by us—was founded. We shall continue to monitor developments closely and look forward to the day when we are able to rejoin a suitably reformed organisation. Before we can consider that, we must see concrete progress in several important areas. I hope that the next executive board, in September and October, and UNESCO's general conference in October and November, will lead to such progress.