HL Deb 05 December 1985 vol 468 cc1433-9

4.58 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place about the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. The Statement is as follows:

"Britain played a prominent part in the creation of UNESCO. We continue to support the ideals and objectives contained in its consititution. 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 are 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. This 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 headquarters.

"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 honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in his letter of 5th December 1984 to the Director General will not be withdrawn. The United Kingdom will cease to be a member from 31st December 1985.

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

"We will not be cutting back on international co-operation 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 we attach to the underlying principles of UNESCO's work, the Government plan to maintain observer status on the organisation.

"Mr. Speaker, it is sad that an organisation which began with such high hopes and to which this country has contributed so much in the past should have gone so wrong. But 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."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Oram

My Lords, it is appreciated that the noble Baroness is repeating a Statement that has been made in another place, and I thank her for doing so. But is it not a sad and disgraceful announcement that she has had to put before your Lordships? Should we not remember that UNESCO was the result of pioneering efforts in this country under the leadership of Sir Julian Huxley; and should we not remember the long line of distinguished British public servants who have served UNESCO over the years and brought great credit to this country in that organisation? Is it not sad indeed that their work should have had the unhappy outcome announced today?

Is this not yet another example of following meekly behind the United States? Are we not putting ourselves once again in a position of isolation from countries who we call our friends? Is not the action that the Government have announced contrary to the will and advice of our partners in the Commonwealth; and do not our fellow EC members take an entirely different view? Moreover, has not this country's national commission for UNESCO gone on record almost unanimously saying that it would be wrong for this country to withdraw? We should remember that that national commission is composed of scientists and people representing cultural and artistic life in this country who bring a great deal of expertise to the consideration of this matter; and they have distinctly gone on record in opposing what the Government have announced.

I recognise that the organisation has many faults, and they are outlined—I do not accept all of them—in the early part of the Statement. But if it is faulty, is not the responsible action of a leading member of the organisation to stay in and work still further to get the matter put right rather than to walk away from a difficult problem, as the Government now propose to do?

Lord Kennet

My Lords, we agree with every word that has been said from the Labour Opposition Front Bench. May I start by saying that we are glad that that part of our UNESCO contribution which is aid money is not simply to be re-swallowed by the Treasury but is to continue in aid? We regret only that it should be bilateral and no longer multi-lateral aid through the United Nations. We can agree with the Government that UNESCO has gone astray, but organisations do from time to time. Beyond that we agree with the Labour Front Bench that it is a sad, weak, shortsighted and probably thoughtless decision to give up and walk away instead of staying and fighting for the proper reforms.

The Statement said that the decision is not aimed at the United Nations family of organisations as a whole. It may not have been aimed at it, but it certainly hit it. Should not the Government ask themselves who has before left a United Nations organisation and in what circumstances? Should they not also ask themselves who left the League of Nations and in what circumstances? Is this not the beginning of the breakup of the United Nations system? Is it not as serious as that? Is it not a true parallel with the break-up of the League of Nations system? It was a grief to us that it was the United States, our nearest ally, which started this. I believe that it is a disgrace for this country that we should have followed suit.

Baroness Young

My Lords, in what they have said on the Statement both noble Lords have been critical of UNESCO. The noble Lord, Lord Oram, said that the organisation has many faults—I think that I quote him correctly—and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, said that it had gone astray. The noble Lord, Lord Oram, said that the Statement was sad and disgraceful. We would all agree that it is a sad Statement. He referred to the many British people who were involved in the inception of UNESCO. It was a great idea when it was set up, but it is not that kind of an institution today. I cannot accept the charges that the Statement is disgraceful.

Both noble Lords asked a series of specific questions. One was whether we are simply following the American lead. The answer is, of course, no. Our basic aims are similar, but we have throughout adopted a different strategy, and our final decision has been taken independently of the United States. Indeed, there has been no pressure from the United States and there have been no discussions about UNESCO with the United States at ministerial level for several months.

So far as the Commonwealth countries are concerned, as my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development has already said, the subject of UNESCO was not raised at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October and I can confirm that it was not raised at the European Council on 2nd and 3rd December. With regard to other countries, it is for them to make their view plain to us. Indeed, many other countries have worked with us for the reform of UNESCO and in so doing have made it clear that they wish us to stay in. But we have kept and will continue to keep in touch with them, although the decision on whether we should or should not remain in UNESCO is for Britain and for Britain alone. As was indicated in the Statement, we have clear reasons for taking the decision that we took.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, as someone who for 40 years has been involved in international cultural cooperation from an academic base, perhaps I may congratulate Her Majesty's Government on the sensible way in which, in the face of a great deal of political pressure of the kind that the two noble Lords who have spoken from the Opposition Benches represent, they have taken this decision. It will be widely welcomed in the British university, humanistic and scientific worlds. It is a decision that frees for use for genuine co-operation with our friends in the Commonwealth and elsewhere money that was being patently squandered despite all the efforts of Britain to reform this organisation from within. May I say how welcome that is, and how glad we are to learn the content of today's Statement?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Beloff for his intervention. He has, of course, made the points that he mentioned this afternoon on a number of occasions in your Lordships' House. He speaks with considerable knowledge and authority on this subject. I thank him for what he has said.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of one factor that has not yet been mentioned—that it was the all-party Foreign Affairs Committee of another place that advised the Government to stay in UNESCO? Is she further aware of the activities of the very Right-wing American organisation, the Heritage Foundation, financed by a number of American millionaires? When she says that this is not a blow at the United Nations institutions as such, is she aware of the fact that that foundation, about 12 months ago, came over to this country and conducted an intensive campaign among Members of Parliament and the media which apparently resulted in a series of articles and programmes hostile to UNESCO?

Is she aware that Mr. Gough Whitlam, the former Australian Prime Minister and ambassador to UNESCO, has recounted in this Palace the activities of that organisation which is very close to the United States President? Is she still convinced that this decision has not been affected by the pressure of official American opinion and the unofficial opinion that is hostile not just to UNESCO but to the whole United Nations ideal?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I was aware of the view that has been expressed by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in another place, and, of course, all these views have been taken into consideration by the Government in reaching their decision. So far as the suggestion of influence from the United States is concerned, I can confirm that there has been no pressure from the United States. So far as the Heritage Foundation is concerned, I can confirm that the Government have had no recent contact with the Heritage Foundation.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, is the Minister aware that following the United States' withdrawal from UNESCO, private contributions to UNICEF in the United States dropped substantially because of a loss of confidence in the United Nations and confusion between the two names? The United Kingdom Committee for UNICEF of which I am president fears very much that the same thing will happen in this country. Does the Minister not agree that it would be deplorable if UNICEF, which depends on private contributions and which does such important work for children throughout the world, should suffer in this way? Will she consider giving a commitment that the Government will increase their contribution to UNICEF should it happen that private contributions go down?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am aware of the excellent work that the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, does on behalf of UNICEF and, indeed, of what a very admirable organisation that is. I recall referring to it specifically when we had a debate on the United Nations in your Lordships' House only a few weeks ago, when the noble Baroness spoke on behalf of UNICEF. I can assure the noble Baroness and your Lordships that, as I said in repeating the Statement, we remain fully committed to the United Nations system. But this does not mean that it is necessary for us to remain a member of any one of its constituent bodies if we are dissatisfied with its performance. There is no evidence at all of dissatisfaction with what UNICEF is doing. I can only reiterate what I said on an earlier occasion about the value of the work of that organisation.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is there not a degree of duplicity in the Government's decision? Is it not the case that it was made clear to UNESCO, to the Commonwealth countries and to the EC countries that the fulfilment of the threat to withdraw was dependent on progress being made? Since very substantial progress has been made on almost all the demands that were made by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, can the noble Baroness say what is the justification for ignoring the unanimous conclusions of the Commonwealth, of the all-party Select Committee, as has been said, and yesterday's massive majority in the United Kingdom Commission for UNESCO appointed by the Minister himself? Is there not a degree of betrayal of our friends in this decision announced today?

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I would not accept for one moment that there has been any duplicity on the part of the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, has stated that many organisations and many countries have made representations to us. I have answered those points already. As to the reason why the Government have taken the decision to withdraw, this has been fully covered, I believe, in the Statement. It was also set out by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development in another place on 22nd November. But if I wanted to sum up the reasons I would say: over-politicisation, lack of financial stringency, poor management and poor programmes.

Lord Annan

My Lords, may I add my voice to those who support the decision of the Government? It seems to me that we have at last faced the realities of international politics instead of, as so often, wallowing in sentimentalities. Does the noble Baroness agree that when the United States withdrew from UNESCO it was like the firing of an enormously massive shot across the bows of the organisation because of the tremendous loss of income that it would suffer? Does the noble Baroness agree that in any normal organisation this would have led to major reforms being initiated at once? Would she not agree that, instead, step by step, every position was defended until, finally, some had to be abandoned in the face of opinion, although not very substantial progress was made in reform?

Would the noble Baroness not also agree that in any organisation that had received this kind of shock it would be natural for the head of it to resign or at any rate to indicate that, within a measurable space of time, he would hand over to someone else? Is not the fact that Mr. M'Bow did not do that one very good reason for the Government's decision?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for what he has said He is making somewhat similar points to those that he made about UNESCO when we debated this among other matters in the foreign affairs debate on the Queen's speech. I agree when he says that the reforms that have been instituted in UNESCO have not been substantial enough. On the specific point about Mr. M'Bow, I can only say that we believe that he is responsible for low management standards. It is, however, important to remember what has been said in the Statement about the alternatives to remaining a member of UNESCO; namely, that the money that has been 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.

Lord Caradon

My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept that the very grave seriousness of the decision announced today is fully understood? Here we have a decision taken—after some delay, it is true, during which arguments have been put forward—which is directed against the activities of the United Nations Organisation. That, in my view, is a very serious development indeed which is out of step with our Commonwealth and other friends in the world. Everyone believes that this represents (as I feel sure that it does), a reflection of the views of the United States in regard to the United Nations which many of us seriously deplore. We have other matters on which, if the actions of our Government were to imitate those of the United States, the situation would be very serious indeed. Take, for instance, the attitude of the United States on the law of the sea, where the whole organisation worked for years to achieve a purpose which was eventually denied by the United States.

If we are to follow this course of opposition, of complaint, of criticism of the United Nations efforts, rather than to improve them and to work with others to ensure that it is put to the best possible use, I believe that this is a moment of very serious concern for all peoples in this country who are genuine internationalists in that they wish to use the international organisation for the benefit of mankind. I believe that a very grave and serious movement of retrograde disgrace is being announced to us this afternoon.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can only say to the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, and can only repeat what I have said to other noble Lords who have raised similar points on this Statement: that our decision is a decision of the Government. It is not a reflection of the views of the United States. Nor indeed is this an attack on the United Nations system as a whole. I made this plain in an answer that I gave to an earlier question. Indeed, the Statement itself makes it quite clear. As it says in paragraph 4: This decision is in no way aimed at the United Nations system as a whole. But we are determined that our support for the UN should be seen as support for effective and efficient organisations". I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, that it is a sad day that UNESCO is not the same UNESCO as it was when it was established.