HL Deb 16 July 1969 vol 304 cc282-5

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in another place on the Report of the Review Committee on Overseas Representation which has today been laid before the House. The Statement is as follows:

"The House will recall that last August I invited Sir Val Duncan, Sir Frank Roberts and Mr. Shonfield to report urgently on the means of obtaining the best value for money from our overseas representation, having regard to our foreign and defence policies and the economic situation and all that these imply for Britain's role in the world.

"Their Report is far-ranging and draws many important conclusions. These concern a wide variety of matters, from broad issues of policies and priorities to quite detailed points of management. Some of them concern questions which lie outside my direct responsibility. Some are very much in line with thoughts and practices which we ourselves had been developing; others—and I very much welcome this—are novel and suggest new departures in our ways of handling the problems concerned.

"While the Government warmly welcome the Committee's general approach, my colleagues and I feel that before we can give a specific endorsement to their conclusions, we need to go further into their probable consequences, their implications for the standard and range of our services overseas, and their effect on our foreign policy as a whole. The publication of the Report will give many persons inside and outside this House an opportunity to consider these issues. I do not think it would be right for the Government to commit itself too deeply before they have had the benefit of this opportunity. I have, therefore, initiated studies and consultations on the Report. These include discussions with the appropriate Staff Associations.

"At the same time, I should like to say that I very much welcome the tribute which the Committee has paid to the high standard of our overseas services, and particularly to the competence and adaptability of Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service.

"I am sure that the House will join with me in thanking Sir Val Duncan and his colleagues for devoting so much of their time to this important task which they discharged speedily and thoroughly. They have produced a penetrating and objective survey, which has already had a valuable effect in stimulating our own consideration of these problems and which will be an essential guide through the challenging years ahead."

The Earl of DUNDEE

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating this Statement made by the Foreign Secretary. The noble Lord will appreciate that it was only three minutes ago that this Report became available in the Printed Paper Office of your Lordships' House, and apart from any of your Lordships who may have seen it in advance as members of the Government there cannot be any Member of your Lordships' House who has so far had the least opportunity of seeing what is in it. The noble Lord's Statement has really consisted of saying that the Government are going to study the Report and that they do not think they can make up their minds what to do about it until they have initiated studies and consultations upon it.

It is rather like the famous commercial company which was formed at the beginning of the 18th century, at the same time as the South Sea Bubble, which sent round a circular, asking for money to be invested for a project "which shall hereafter be revealed". But having, in the last minute or two, glanced through the headlines of this Report I see that it covers the subject of commercial representation overseas and also of broadcasting. I hope the noble Lord the Leader of the House will agree that these are two of the most important subjects to think about when we are considering the improvement of our overseas services. We may not yet have proceeded far enough in giving equal status to those overseas representatives whose business it is not only to conduct social and diplomatic formalities but to advance British export trade. Similarly, there is a very great deal which can be done to improve and amplify the effectiveness and the quality of overseas British broadcasting services, particularly in respect of getting new and more powerful stations at convenient distances for those parts of the world where we want our voice to be heard.


My Lords, since, unlike the noble Earl, I have not even seen this Report, it is clearly impossible for me to express any opinion on its merits. Perhaps I might just say that the evident quality of its authors must lead us to suppose that, as the Government appear to think, it is a valuable and constructive study.

May I say that, as I understand it, there are now several long-term Reports under consideration by the Government, including of course Redcliffe-Maud, and I have no doubt that these Reports will take a long time to consider, at any rate before the Government are in a position actually to draw up proposed measures based on them. But I should have thought that the Duncan Report, though naturally it will require considerable consideration at some time, will not take as long as the others I have mentioned—perhaps only a month or two. Would it not be in any case desirable—I merely suggest it—for the Government to arrange a fairly early debate in this House on the Report? There are, after all, many experts here on the various aspects of foreign affairs with which the Report deals, and it is conceivable that their combined wisdom may be of some value to the Government before it finally makes up its mind on what to do about the Duncan Report.


My Lords, I thought the noble Earl's remarks were a little odd, but he was only commenting on what is a rather odd traditional procedure. I have always been impressed by the ability of the Opposition to make bricks without straw, other than a sight of the Statement, which may or may not contain much information. I fully appreciate his difficulty. Against that background I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, that this would be an eminently suitable subject for discussion in your Lordships' House when your Lordships have had a chance to read the Report. I also feel that even summarising the headlines in a Report, as we sometimes do in Statements, does not really help until noble Lords have had a chance to look at the Report for themselves. But we are observing the customary courtesy of announcing its publication and expressing appreciation to the authors. Having read the Report, I must say that I am very impressed by the rapidity and thoroughness of the work.

The noble Earl raised one or two important points based on his knowledge; and of course the questions of the B.B.C. and commercial representation do feature very largely in the Report, and I think he will be interested in what it has to say on these issues. There is a reference to the importance of audibility and strength of broadcasting, to which the noble Earl referred, and the Government will review the arrangements in this field. On the commercial side, I think it is not perhaps appreciated just how much the Foreign Service has developed its commercial services. I have been impressed, and I am sure other noble Lords have, by the real enthusiasm of the Diplomatic Service and others of our representatives overseas in fulfilling their commercial responsibilities.

Before sitting down, I would also myself like to pay a personal tribute to the Foreign Service, which in the past has sometimes been thought of as an easy activity for rich men. It certainly is not an easy activity. In my times abroad I have been struck not only by the determination and thoroughness but, in some situations by the actual courage with which they, and their wives and families, have faced their often arduous duties.

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