HC Deb 06 March 1996 vol 273 cc329-31
5. Mr. Luff

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the role of the Foreign Office and its posts overseas in promoting British exports. [17261]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

Promoting British commercial interests is our largest single activity overseas, occupying 35 per cent. of the time of frontline staff. Our network of 218 commercial posts in 140 markets provides vital help to British firms developing their export business.

Mr. Luff

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his answer probably explains why—in contrast to a few years ago, when it was difficult to find a company with a good word to say about the role of our posts overseas—there has been an increase in the number of large, medium and small companies that are happy to pay tribute to the work done by those posts, both in trade promotion and in encouraging inward investment? In this respect—as in so many others—does not that show that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget represents excellent value for money?

Mr. Hanley

I thank my hon. Friend for that last remark. There is little doubt that the four Ministers on the Front Bench were shouting, "Hear, hear!" My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The chairman of Rolls-Royce said recently that many of his company's overseas contracts had been won with the help of Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts. British Petroleum says that the British embassy in Baku and the FCO have made a tremendous contribution to the development of its business in Azerbaijan since 1992. The British high commission in Islamabad has helped National Grid to win a contract of more than $700 million.

My hon. Friend is right: small companies need help too—and they get it. The director of a small Sussex company, Wylam Hill, says that, without the help of posts overseas, about 80 per cent. of his exports would not have happened.

Mr. Eastham

What assurances can the Minister give that, when hon. Members write to the Foreign Secretary—as I did in 1988 about some of the exports to Iraq—they will get an honest answer? I received cock-and-bull stories denouncing and denying the facts that I laid before him. Does the Minister think that we are entitled to some honesty in this House?

Mr. Hanley

Everything I just said is the truth and I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to celebrate the success of our exports and inward investments in recent years.

Mr. Batiste

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the best way in which the Foreign Office can help British exports to Israel is by bringing the peace process back on the rails? Can he confirm that he is giving all help to Israel in supplying the information needed to deal with the threat from the Hamas terrorists? Is he encouraging the United States to do the same?

Mr. Hanley

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend that stability and growth in Israel and in the economies of both Israel and the Palestinians are vital in helping to underpin the peace process. Indeed, we are increasing our exports to Israel in a remarkably successful way and I pay tribute to all of those who have increased their efforts in recent years. The answer to the other point my hon. Friend raised is yes, we will of course supply such information as comes to us.

Mr. Fatchett

While every hon. Member applauds the efforts to increase British exports, will the Minister give us some sign of the priority that his Department attaches to the human rights record of a potential trading partner? For example, is he aware that the House was told that the Government's policy was to provide no specific encouragement to British firms to trade or invest in Burma—a country with an appalling human rights record? How does he square that with the fact that, only last week, the Government sponsored a trade mission to Burma, regardless of that country's human rights record? Is not he embarrassed by the statements by the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, that the Government are more concerned with making money than with encouraging democracy and human rights in Burma? Is not it time that the Government stood for democracy and human rights, not just in Burma but throughout the world, and put it at the top of the list of priorities?

Mr. Hanley

Our absolute priority is to support democratic reform in Burma. We continue to make it clear to the State Law and Order Restoration CouncilSLORC—that the resumption of normal relations is conditional on progress in key areas, including human rights and political and economic reforms. We work very hard indeed leading the international community to help bring about change in Burma, and we will continue our efforts—including at the forthcoming session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. It is entirely wrong to suggest that our support for reform in Burma is weakening just for commercial reasons. It is not.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

Does my right hon. Friend endorse the great importance of having defence attaches with a combination of adequate rank and sufficient commercial nous to open doors at the right level in the countries to which they are posted? Will he work closely with his ministerial colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the 400,000 jobs in this country that are dependent on defence exports are protected?

Mr. Hanley

I agree with my hon. Friend. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff overseas devote more than 42 staff years each year to promoting inward investment to all parts of the United Kingdom and securing jobs through exports. Eleven overseas posts have dedicated inward investment teams as well. He is right that the number of jobs that are secured in Britain by our efforts abroad is remarkable and has increased dramatically in recent years. In addition, he has put his finger on the point that our diplomats abroad are now often specially trained in trade matters. Many of our ambassadors and high commissioners have acted as specialist trade diplomats beforehand and they now regard trade as part of their diplomatic work and not just as a chore that they have to add to their diplomatic efforts.

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