HL Deb 27 February 1986 vol 471 cc1212-24

6.22 p.m.

Lord Oram rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, on the basis of their observer status with UNESCO, they will maintain all possible contacts with Commonwealth and European delegations with a view to securing and monitoring further improvements in the organisation's programme and administration so as to ensure the earliest possible renewal of United Kingdom membership of UNESCO.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this Question is not so much to look back in detail to the unfortunate past concerning the United Kingdom's withdrawal from UNESCO. Rather, I have put it down to give the Government an opportunity to clarify the present situation and to indicate how they see their future relationship with UNESCO. I believe, however, that I should look back briefly, at least to record the main elements of the controversy which surrounded this issue particularly during the months of November and December last year.

We should recall that the decision to withdraw was taken despite the overwhelming body of opinion to the contrary both in this country and abroad. All our Commonwealth partners and fellow members of the European Community warned us that we would make a dreadful mistake if we were to withdraw. Our own UNESCO National Commission opposed withdrawal almost unanimously. The all-party Foreign Affairs Committee in another place was indeed unanimous in opposing withdrawal. And leading figures in the academic, scientific and cultural life of the nation were appalled at the prospect, and said so.

Moreover, I suggest that there was plenty of evidence, if one read between the lines of government statements, that there was a very strong element in the Government that was seeking to keep us in UNESCO. Why then, we may ask, did we withdraw? There is no doubt in my mind that the overriding reason was the wish to back up the United States, which had withdrawn just a year earlier. I am not saying that our Government did not weigh up the question after a year's notice of withdrawal. But I am saying that the final decision was taken against all advice and against the evidence and that the deciding factor was the pressure exerted from the United States to persuade us to follow what it had done.

Of course, the Government denied this. I have little doubt that the denial will be repeated by the Minister this evening. The Government's official and public explanation has always been that they gave notice of withdrawal because UNESCO had become inefficient, bureaucratic, over-centralised and too much of a political mouthpiece for views that were unacceptable to Britain. They proposed, therefore, in that well-known letter from the Minister for Overseas Development to the Secretary General of UNESCO, a certain number of reforms that they would wish to see brought about during the year of notice. The Government's final position was that they had weighed up all the "fors" and "againsts", that at the end the recommendations for reforms that they had put forward had not been sufficiently implemented and that therefore, with great regret, they had to confirm the withdrawal.

I do not propose this evening to state the reasons why I believe that the Government's judgment in this matter was wrong and against all the evidence and advice. I shall simply refer to the speech that my honourable friend Mr. George Foulkes made in another place on 22nd November when he detailed the achievements that had been made. I would refer also to the report in the Guardian newspaper of 16th November last year to the effect that United States observers at the Sofia conference had stated that the British delegates to that conference had been largely satisfied with the progress made by UNESCO during the year. But, looked at this evening, all that is water under the bridge. As I have said, I want to ask the Minister about the present situation and how he and his colleagues see the future.

First, I would ask about the observer status that the United Kingdom now has in UNESCO. I noticed in a Written Answer in another place, quite recently, on 22nd January, that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary stated that the Government had initiated exchanges with the UNESCO secretariat about the observer status. I wonder whether the Minister is in a position this evening to tell the House what has been the outcome of those exchanges.

What is the position now about our observer status? For example, what is, or is likely to be, the administrative machinery which we shall maintain as observers? Do we still maintain an office in Paris, or has the whole apparatus of our connection been dismantled? Do we receive the essential documents as we did before when we were members? Are we entitled to observe at all meetings, or are we confined only to the general conference? Just what is the status of an observer?

It seems to me that the evidence is that the dismantling process has been going on apace. It was very soon after the withdrawal date of 31st December that the UNESCO National Commission was so quickly dissolved. We read in The Times the other day that the Foreign Office has decided to withdraw United Nations privileges from UNESCO officials who are visiting the country. I should like to know whether the Minister can confirm that report in The Times newspaper, because it went on to say that the United States, after its withdrawal from UNESCO, left those UNESCO privileges intact. If the report in The Times is correct, I should like to know why it was that we decided to be even more ruthless in this matter than the Americans, who took the first step of withdrawal.

We appear to be withdrawing privileges from UNESCO staff despite the financial consequences. For example, it is suggested that UNESCO will now turn for its supply of books and technical equipment to countries other than Britain. The figure quoted in The Times is a loss of as much as 17 million dollars' worth of orders. I wonder whether that is a figure which the Minister can confirm. If not—he shakes his head—I wonder whether he can give us his estimate. Surely, whatever the figure this will have a most serious consequence for libraries throughout the third world. They will be deprived of books from this country which hitherto they have been able to give to their readers. I suggest that the damage will be quite disproportionate to the money which is involved in this business.

It seems to me that this is one further case of undermining British information services abroad—cases of which we have had all too many examples. This is comparable, for example, with the parsimonious attitude of the Government to broadcasting services overseas, or, in another case, to the level of fees charged for students who come from overseas. These are serious consequences of that decision that we all so much regretted just a couple of months ago.

However, let me, in conclusion, take at its face value the Government's stated reason for withdrawal from UNESCO. I have already described what I believe to be the Government's official attitude. When the announcement of withdrawal was made just before Christmas and the Statement was repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in this House, the attitude which she expressed—and it was the attitude of the Government—was that they had been most reluctant to withdraw and that they were sorrowful that they had been compelled to take that step because the reforms of UNESCO, for which they had asked, had not been adequately achieved. If that is genuinely the Government's case, surely they should welcome the suggestion which is contained within my Question.

I hope that the Minister will be able to say that he welcomes the approach which I have suggested because, although we are now outside UNESCO, it seems to me that we ought to continue to use all our informal contacts with our Commonwealth partners, with our fellow members of the EEC, to use our formal contacts through our observer status, and to use those links in order to continue to monitor what is going on within UNESCO and, whenever we can, to encourage further progress towards the kind of reform for which the Government asked. Surely we can do this, as I have said, within the Commonwealth and within the EEC. Surely we can at least refrain from taking excessive actions such as those which I have described in the case of the withdrawal of diplomatic privileges from UNESCO staff. Surely we do not need to be quite so blatant as that in seeking to disrupt our connections.

I think it was in yesterday's report in The Times that I noticed that UNESCO itself is not taking such a blatant attitude. One understands that it has provided a sum of money for a Commonwealth Conference at the Commonwealth Institute at which our own Minister for Overseas Development is speaking. Surely that is a much more progressive and acceptable attitude by UNESCO in these matters than the attitude which we ourselves seem to be taking up.

I therefore hope that the Minister in his reply will be able to say, as has been said so often before, that we still wish the good work which UNESCO does to be continued. I hope the Minister will say that we are still anxious to see further reforms in its procedures and programmes; and that we shall in some way or another continue to work for those objectives by whatever means are still available to us. I hope that he can go so far as to say that the Government hope one day, not too far distant, to be able to undo the wrong of the decision at the end of last year and get this country back into the UNESCO framework.

6.38 p.m.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Oram, for the opportunity which he has made to seek assurance from the noble Lord the Minister about some of the consequences of our withdrawal from UNESCO. I wish to restrict what I have to say to one small, but politically very important, area: that part of UNESCO's policy that is contained in the horrible phrase, new world information and communication order, which was one of the major causes of the troubles which led to the withdrawal of the United States and of Britain from that organisation.

The new world information order is simply the means by which the very large majority of governments which are members of UNESCO seek to legimate throughout the world their control over news and information. The argument about the new world information order was conducted for a period of nearly 15 years, simply in terms of a denial of freedom of information and of independence of the media. The purpose of the order was, as I said, to seek legitimation for an institution with which free societies could under no circumstances compromise.

The new world information order was fought. It was not, I may say, until the very late stages that the British Government or, for that matter, any of our allies' governments, entered the fight. The Government there had to be persuaded of the dangers of the new world information order just as the great majority of the British press had to be persuaded of the dangers. Indeed, had governments—not in particular this Government, but all the governments over the period—been alive to what was happening, the circumstances which led to withdrawal would never have arisen.

That course of events has now left us in a potentially very dangerous position. Britain took the lead in UNESCO in the last three or four years in emasculating the new world information and communiction order and very successfully reduced it from a major element of UNESCO policy to what, when we left, was very largely an aspiration. The United States left a year before we did, again very much under the initial pressure of American journalists who were so outraged by the proposals within UNESCO that they wished to express their disapproval by coming out. Out they came, and within 12 months certainly all the American editors and journalists with whom I am in touch were saying how much they regretted leaving the organisation. They say that they have lost influence there; that they do not know what is happening within the organisation and that they will not be in an effective position to combat a return by UNESCO to the ideas of international communication of the mid-1970s.

We are now in the same position as the United States. I do not know, until the Minister replies, what "observer status" means. I do not know how we shall observe. I take it that the only way in which we can do it is through other people's eyes. We shall have to ask Commonwealth countries and our allies to tell us what is going on, and presumably to consult us about the best policies.

The dangers are very serious. Let me cite one. All the way through the discussion of communication in UNESCO there has flickered proposals under the heading, "The protection of journalists". What they boil down to in practice is a licensing system internationally for journalists. They will be subject to a code of conduct. If they break the code of conduct their licence will be removed. Moreoever, associated with that is a system of the right of reply applying not to individuals but to governments, and penalties to be imposed upon delinquent newspapers. Within UNESCO there has been the strongest pressure for obstructing the collection and dissemination of news. I strongly feel that we shall see the revival of that with the departure of the United States along with our own departure.

I am seeking reassurance from the Minister that events within UNESCO will be adequately scrutinised, and scrutinised in time for effective action to be taken. I know that that will be very difficult because we have to work through other people, and it is one of the grave disadvantages of having withdrawn. However, the situtation has been serious in the past and it is very likely to become serious again. Therefore, in this particular area I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us in some detail precisely what "observer status" and "monitoring" will involve.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us in terms of interpreting the Government's statement of the circumstances in which they will be prepared to return to membership of UNESCO. They say: … we would need to be convinced that the organisation had adopted thoroughgoing and comprehensive reforms and that all member states and the secretariat were once again fully committed to working towards its constitutional aims and objectives". [Official Report, Commons, 13/12/85; col. 785.] In one sense that statement of policy is encouraging, because it suggests that the Government still have in mind the possibility of returning to the organisation. From another point of view it is disturbing, because the terms are drawn so wide and so ambiguously that it is very hard to understand what it will mean in practice. I should be grateful for enlightenment on that point as well.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Caradon

My Lords, first I should like to express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Oram for dealing with the issue so clearly and effectively. We are talking of an organisation which our country was largely responsible for forming in the first instance, and right up to the end we have benefited more in financial and in other terms than we have contributed. Therefore the action taken by our Government after some delay and uncertainty and very strong adverse feelings expressed, for instance, by Commonwealth countries, was very difficult indeed to understand or to accept.

I do not wish to keep the House long this evening. However, I want to suggest that there is something more serious in all this. It is not just a question of the actions of the UNESCO organisation; it is a question of the attitude of the United States Government. In the few minutes at my disposal I wish to justify my very serious contention that there is now a Western retreat from our international obligations. It is a retreat instituted by the United States and, I am sorry to say, followed by our own Government in recent years.

Wherever we look—whether it be a question of organisation, a question of policy or even only a question of finance—we see a situation which represents a retreat from Western international obligations. I wish for a moment or two to invite the attention of the House to that issue. If I am right, it is a matter of the utmost seriousness not only in regard to UNESCO—and the arguments have been put so clearly before us this evening—but in regard to other matters. UNESCO is important as an indication, an example, of what is happening in regard to the United Nations at this time, whether it is a question of policy, organisation or finance.

On policy, we read nearly every week of an example of the United States veto in the Security Council on many matters. But particularly when questions of Palestinian rights, or the invasion of the Lebanon, are raised the United States representative immediately exercises the veto, and in nearly every case the United Kingdom then abstains. So far as the Middle East is concerned, for example, surely the great need is for an examination of the situation there by all concerned, including the two super powers, with the opportunity for those concerned on both sides to be able to state their case; then an international concern dealt with in the way that the Security Council should work: hearing both sides, studying their needs and eventually drawing up a fair and balanced report. That should be happening, but whenever the question of the invasion of Lebanon or the rights of the Palestinians is raised, over a period not of months but of years there has immediately been an American veto, and as a result a United Kingdom abstention.

We have very much in our minds, I have no doubt, a recent example in the question of the Law of the Sea. I was there when the inquiry into the Law of the Sea was instituted. Then for more than 10 years, led by Commonwealth countries, there was an endeavour to draw up a new Law of the Sea. You will remember that eventually it was decided that there should be a great world conference at Montego Bay in Jamaica, at which all the world would come together to sign a new Law of the Sea in a way which was satisfactory to everyone, including the United States which had worked hard for the result, and the United Kingdom too. Then, to the astonishment of the world, the United States declared at the last moment that it would have nothing to do with it. It would oppose the whole proposal. This is the way things have been going, and we in the United Kingdom have had nothing to say.

Wherever we look, at the vetos of the Security Council, at the constructive work of the Law of the Sea, and in other respects in all directions we find what I have described as a retreat from international obligations. I do not think it is realised by most people. I do not think that they follow one of these activities with the others and realise what they add up to; a most serious retreat in international affairs in which our country, I am sad to say, is playing such an ignominious part.

Now it is getting worse. We read of the two endeavours in the United States Congress to cut off money. Already the reduction has been made, and it is a substantial reduction. Now there is another Bill in the Congress to reduce the provision from the United States to the United Nations by a matter of as much as £50 million at a time when the United Nations needs all the money it can lay its hands on for the good purposes it pursues.

What we are discussing tonight is not only the question of the action taken by the United States followed up by the action of the United Kingdom in relation to a United Nations agency. We see a retreat from the positions which in the past, to my own experience and knowledge, we have pursued. We see a retreat from our international obligations led by the United States, which is now going to proceed to the ultimate act of cutting off the money which is due in accordance with the arrangements that have been followed by all other countries.

When we consider the case put by my noble friend in regard to this particular matter, and the hope that there will be a readiness to reconsider and to resume our membership of an organisation to which we put forward very reasoned proposals for improvement—and many of them were acted on—it is ridiculous to suggest that we cannot achieve, with others, an improvement in an organisation of this kind. Of course we can. We attempted to do so, and we made progress.

Therefore I put to this House that this is an occasion when we can say that we in this country will have no part of the attempt in finance, in policy, and in organisation to stultify the efforts of the United Nations. This is an occasion which therefore can be put to good use. I believe it is necessary that people should realise about the retreat: a retreat initiated by the United States and followed up by the United Kingdom. I hope that this can be made an example of the genuine determination of our people that we shall not participate in any attempt to limit, to restrict, to diminish the contribution which the United Nations can make to the advancement of the world in peace.

6.58 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Support (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Oram, for giving us this opportunity to look back at the Government's decision to withdraw from UNESCO and to consider the future.

Your Lordships will recall Britain's involvement in the creation of UNESCO and the fact that its first Director General was a prominent Briton, Sir Julian Huxley. It is true that the United Kingdom has over the years made a substantial contribution to the activities of UNESCO and many British nationals have served it well, either directly, or in giving successive governments the benefit of their advice in this field. I should like to place on record the Government's appreciation of the work done by the members of the United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO—including the distinguished contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor—whose role has now come to an end.

The reference to the early days of UNESCO should not be allowed to obscure the changes which have occurred in that organisation. Not all these changes have been for the better. Indeed, it is one of our particular complaints that UNESCO has in recent years been used to attack the very values which it was originally designed to uphold, values which are reflected in its constitution, and which we in the Government continue to support. I recall particularly debating in this House the question of a new world information and communications order and the concept of licensing journalists, to which this Government—and indeed I should imagine most of your Lordships—are of course totally opposed.

This Government did not, as some have suggested, walk away from the problems of UNESCO. We made a conscious decision to work hard for reform, and few would deny the value and positive nature of the contribution we made. We had hoped to achieve changes which would have made UNESCO an organisation in which we would have been content to remain. Our main requirements for change were put forward by Ministers in 1984 and can be summarised under four main headings: better programmes, eradication of political bias, financial stringency, and improved management.

Those who argue that we should have remained within UNESCO to pursue a campaign for reform must come to terms with the fact that it was essentially the impetus of our formal notice of withdrawal which produced any movement towards change. Certain progress was achieved in some of the areas that I have mentioned. But in examining the situation following the General Conference held in Bulgaria in October 1985 the Government concluded, as my noble friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs told your Lordships on 5th December, that the results fell well short of what we believed could justify continued British membership.

In our view, the general conference did too little to achieve better programmes or a significant shift of resources and functions away from the headquarters in Paris. The draft programme and budget for 1986–87 proposed a reduction of only 30 activities out of a previous total of 477. Activities were placed in first and second priorities by the director general, but it proved extremely difficult for the government bodies to make any further adjustments. There was therefore a wholly inadequate effort to determine priorities and concentrate the organisation's resources on genuinely worthwhile activities. Despite the need to tailor the programmes to available funds following the withdrawal of the United States, there were still too many studies which were at best a waste of money, such as the fanciful and ill-defined activities entitled, "Reflections on World Problems and future Oriented Studies". Furthermore, there were others inimical to the values which UNESCO was supposed to uphold, like the new world information and communications orders, to which I have already referred.

The "Major Programme on Peace, Disarmament, Human Rights and the Rights of Peoples", which curiously counts among its supporters a range of countries whose record in these fields is at the least questionable, was spared the full effect of the 25 per cent. cut imposed on other, more worthwhile activities, and this despite the best endeavours of ourselves and our Western colleagues. UNESCO seemed determined to continue to overlap with the work of other UN bodies with competence in these fields, and we could see no prospect of a satisfactory relationship with these bodies which would ensure the avoidance of expensive and wasteful duplication of effort. Expense and waste are in evidence also when you consider that some 75 per cent. of UNESCO's highly-paid staff (paid about 30 per cent. more, incidentally, than their equivalents in the United States Civil Service in Washington) were employed in the comfortable surroundings in Paris. In terms of staff costs, over 82 per cent. of expenditure from the regular programme is in Paris.

Implementation of the approved programme and budget in 1984 and 1985 was at times appalling. We believe that limited resources were being squandered on activities of little value, instead of being concentrated on UNESCO's core activities where meaningful international co-operation can take place with a minimum of political controversy: and the general conference showed few signs of a willingness to re-assert itself as the main policy making organ of UNESCO. With regard to management, there was little evidence that executive board decisions were being properly implemented or that an effective system of independent evaluation of programmes and management techniques by outside consultants would be in operation in the foreseeable future. It must be added that even since our withdrawal there have been further indications of an unwillingness by UNESCO management to ensure that senior appointments are made on the basis of talent and appropriate qualifications for the job, rather than of political bias.

In the face of those continuing major deficiencies in UNESCO, those who suggest that we should have remained in membership to continue the fight for reform must consider what would have been the impact of a decision by the Government to rescind our notice of withdrawal. Such a decision would have sent a completely false signal of satisfaction with the situation in UNESCO and would have deprived the reform movement of any further impetus.

Following our withdrawal from UNESCO, we have closed our permanent delegation in Paris. We have established within our Paris Embassy a small section whose function it will be to act as a channel of communications with the organisation and to monitor future developments. We have submitted to the director general a request for observer facilities. Meanwhile, our officials continue to attend meetings of groups which include our European partners and Commonwealth friends, and remain in touch with members of the secretariat.

An official of the Overseas Development Administration visited Paris in January to discuss with the secretariat the financial and other aspects of our decision to withdraw and of our intention to participate, either directly or through the Royal Society and the Natural Environment Research Council, in certain genuinely worthwhile activities. These include the Inter-governmental Oceanographic Commission, the International Geological Correlation Programme and activities in the fields of international hydrology and environmental sciences. They are among the activities which, as my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development announced in another place on 19th December, we shall continue to support through the aid programme from the resources saved from our UNESCO contribution.

From this £6.4 million we shall also support a number of activities of benefit to the developing countries. These will include: extra scholarships for Commonwealth developing countries; a joint scheme for training Chinese students in the United Kindom; an increase of about 50 per cent. in the places provided under the ODA shared scholarship scheme; increased English language training, particularly in Francophone Africa; and a feasibility study for a Commonwealth distance learning scheme.

We shall also support a Commonwealth training scheme for post-graduate black South Africans; an increase in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office scholarships and awards scheme; research in and Commonwealth Africa; dissemination of results of research; and an increased grant to the Commonwealth Media Development Fund.

I now turn to some of the points made during the course of this evening's debate. The noble Lord, Lord Oram, in his opening remarks, and the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, asked me further to elaborate upon the observer facilities that we have asked for. The director general has acknowledged receipt of the letter from my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and has indicated that this will be considered at the executive board at its May meeting. We hope to receive a limited supply of all documentation available to member states on terms to be agreed, and we intend to participate as observers at meetings other than just the general conference.

The noble Lord, Lord Oram, asked me about the question of immunities and privileges, the arrangements for which will now change. I do not think that any international organisation could expect to enjoy full privileges and immunities in a state which is not a member of the organisation and where it has no permanent office or staff. But there is no reason why UNESCO should be deterred from purchasing material in the United Kingdom. After all, VAT does not apply to goods for export. I do not understand where The Times got its estimate of 17 million dollars as the amount of business placed by UNESCO in Britain. We estimate the value of supplies purchased by UNESCO from the United Kindom at 2.8 million dollars in 1985. If UNESCO brings to our attention serious practical difficulties which arise through the absence of privileges and immunities we are ready to consider these and provide appropriate advice. I should perhaps say that in addition to the 2.8 million dollars spent on supplies in the United Kingdom, there are the salaries paid to United Kingdom employees of UNESCO, but very little of that money comes back to the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Caradon, in a wide-ranging speech, if he will allow me to say so, asked about our policy towards the United Nations in general and referred to the position of the United States. I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that I would not wish to enter into a debate about the policy of another government towards the United Nations and its agencies; but our own policy is clear. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said when addressing the General Assembly last year, the United Nations has shown that it is a force for action which can help to keep the peace in a number of vital ways. The Prime Minister paid tribute, too, to those specialised agencies which have concentrated upon their appointed tasks and have not been sidetracked into political issues which belong to other fora.

But we have a duty to work for an effective and efficient United Nations system: one which stays true to its ideals and avoids double standards. The United Kindom has taken a prominent and constructive part in working towards those objectives. We shall continue to do so. Our support for organisations which are both efficient and effective is not in question.

The noble Lord, Lord Caradon, also referred to the United States and others as being embarked upon what he called "a retreat from international obligations". But, my Lords, it is not part of our international obligations to be led by the nose down paths of political irrelevance and financial imprudence such as unhappily occurred in UNESCO.

It is quite wrong to suggest that our withdrawal from UNESCO in any way suggests that we are turning our backs on the problems of the developing countries. We believe that they could be more effectively assisted by using these funds essentially through the aid programme on activities which have been discussed with the British Council and the Royal Society, among others, rather than through the inefficient organisation which UNESCO, sadly, has become. As my right honourable friend said in another place on 13th January, the British Council will be fully involved in a number of these activities.

Our withdrawal from UNESCO of course means that we could not expect to be in the forefront of efforts to bring about the thoroughgoing and comprehensive reform which we believe to be necessary. The burden must now fall on others who share our concern at the direction UNESCO has taken in recent years. We hope their efforts will bear fruit. If conditions were to change radically then the Government would think again about our membership of UNESCO; but it is unrealistic to suppose that that is a reasonable prospect in the short term. The Government regret that UNESCO is no longer an organisation which we judge worthy of our support, but we are firm in our conviction that the decision to withdraw was right.