HC Deb 16 June 1998 vol 314 cc120-2
4. Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

What help is being provided through his Department to central and eastern European countries to fund political education. [44516]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Doug Henderson)

We are committed to supporting the democratic development of the countries of central and eastern Europe. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides grant in aid to organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe and the Britain-Russia centre.

The Government also fund democracy-building and civic education programmes directly through a wide range of departmental programmes, including the former know-how fund political projects fund, the Europe command project budget, the human rights project fund and the east-west contacts fund.

Mrs. Lait

I thank the Minister for that information. Are funds available to help groups that wish to improve political campaigning in central and eastern European countries? Will groups such as the European Union of Women, which next week is bringing over a group of Russian women politicians, be able to receive Foreign Office funds to help them in their efforts to improve campaigning, canvassing and fundraising among the political parties in central and eastern European countries?

Mr. Henderson

Where there are meaningful projects that could be taken up, funding could be available to all political parties that wish to link up. Through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, £411,000 was spent on central and eastern European development last year. A sum at least equivalent to that is available again this year.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford)

In welcoming any assistance that we can give to countries overseas in developing their democracies, does my hon. Friend agree with me that we should be a little cautious in this country—certainly the Tories should be very modest in any advice that they give to countries overseas about democracy—so long as we have a system where the second Chamber has more than 700 Members who have inherited the right to legislate?

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I think, as he does, that one must be extremely cautious in offering advice to colleagues in other countries. The worst thing that any of us could do would be to adopt a post-imperialist approach whereby we tell other people what is good for them. We must lay out examples of what we think we do well; it is up to others to decide whether they think they can learn from them.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

I am rather saddened that the Minister has indulged in petty politics, which is far removed from the objectives of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, of which I am a past governor, and the educational organisation to which he referred. This country has a lot to be proud of in its democratic processes. I challenge Labour Back Benchers, if they are about to reform the House of Lords, to say which of this Chamber's powers they would be prepared to transfer to an elected upper Chamber.

These are serious questions, but the principal point is that we have to transfer the deep roots of our democracy into those countries to create stability in Europe. Does the Minister understand the imperative to enlarge the European Union to embrace those countries with new democratic principles, and is he aware of the cost that achieving that will put on the wealthier members of the EU?

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Gentleman has raised a wide agenda. I have always believed that it is important to build contacts with colleagues in those countries, not only so that they can learn the technical aspects of building a democracy and of guaranteeing human rights, but so that there can be political dialogue, understanding and the building of attitudes, which are important in issues such as enlargement of the EU. The Government strongly support that, and want proper funding to be in place to achieve it.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will my hon. Friend consider the fact that the £3 million given to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is insufficient? I understand that the foundation intends to reduce its operation in central Europe because of demands elsewhere, which I fully appreciate, but there is an on-going need to train politicians and local activists in central Europe: Hungary has a new Government; there are extensive regional and local government elections; and new structures are being created in Poland, which is a key player. Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that it would be foolhardy in the extreme for us to reduce our commitment to, and support for, democratic institutions and parties in central Europe?

Mr. Henderson

The grants that are made available to organisations such as the Westminster foundation are constantly under review. What is examined is how effective those organisations have been in disbursing moneys in a meaningful way, and we shall continue to monitor that. If a case can be made for an extension, we will, of course, consider it.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Minister pay tribute to the establishment of the know-how fund by the previous Administration and acknowledge what an extraordinary success it has been? Will he accept bids for places for people from central and eastern Europe to attend political courses at English universities, where they would have the chance not only to receive admirable teaching, but to savour the atmosphere of a true and extremely sophisticated democracy?

Mr. Henderson

I very much support the hon. Gentleman's aim of an exchange of students between central and eastern European countries and Britain. There are not many things for which I would pay tribute to the previous Conservative Government—but setting up the know-how fund is one of them.

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