HL Deb 21 May 1991 vol 529 cc104-7

2.47 p.m.

Lord Moran asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider their decision to close the British Consulate-General in Alberta, Canada.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, no.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to cover Alberta in future from the British Consulate-General in Vancouver? If so, does the Minister believe that periodic visits from a post in British Columbia, 500 miles away on the other side of the Rockies, will enable our people to compete effectively with the Japanese, the French and the Germans, who all have consulates-general on the spot in Edmonton pursuing their economic interests in a hard-headed way?

Bearing in mind the great reservoir of goodwill that prevails in Alberta and the Canadian prairies for this country and the enormous opportunities that exist for investment and trade, and given that the training area in Suffield is visited by 12,000 of our troops every year, does not the Minister think that the Government are in danger of losing sight of the importance of that part of Canada? I did my best to bring that home when in Ottawa and not least when I took Mrs. Thatcher to visit Alberta in 1983 on her notably successful visit to Canada.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, let me state at the outset that we attach the highest importance to our relations with Canada. This was by no means a decision taken lightly. We shall continue to pursue our economic interests in as hard-headed a way as the Japanese, the Germans, the French and the Americans. Our interests in Edmonton will be covered from Vancouver. I can reassure the noble Lord that we are providing three extra locally-engaged staff in Vancouver to cover these matters.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, how will it be possible to maintain close contact with Alberta under the new circumstances? This country has had a representative in Alberta for over a century. Now we propose to change the organisation of the consulates-genera I in Canada. Can the Minister say whether the Government have any proposals to close any other consulate-general in Canada? That would be an extremely serious matter. Can he say also whether the Canadian Government have made any representations on the issue?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can assure the House that we are not closing our posts in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. They will stay. There are regular flights from Vancouver to Edmonton. There are flights at least every two hours and flying time is about two hours. I believe that our interests can be well protected in that area.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, before my noble friend gave his terse but perfectly clear Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, had he studied the letter that the Deputy Prime Minister of Alberta sent to his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary? Did he consider the very powerful arguments contained in that letter? Is it not the case that the withdrawal of British representation in Alberta after a good many years will inevitably be construed as an indication that we no longer consider Alberta of any particular importance?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I have certainly seen the letter to which my noble friend refers. We are grateful for the understanding which the Canadians have shown in the difficult decision that we had to take. I disagree with my noble friend as regards his second point. He said that by the closure of this post our interests in that part of Canada are diminished. I would certainly not use the argument that my noble friend put forward. The Canadians have closed posts in Glasgow, Birmingham, Belfast, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, but the Canadian interest in this country is even stronger than before.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the Province of Alberta in Canada disposes of substantial energy resources and in that respect is very similar to this country? As a result of a number of visits, I can testify to the close and substantial relationship that we have had with the province in the past. Is the noble Earl further aware that a number of continental countries are maintaining their consulates in Alberta while we appear to be abdicating our role of achieving closer links between North America and the European Community?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I most certainly refute the last suggestion of the noble Lord. In no way are we doing that. If he had listened to my earlier answers he would have been reassured by what I said in that regard.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, am I not right in believing that the British Government raised no objection at the closure of the Canadian consulates in this country whereas the province of Alberta is raising the most severe objection to the closure of the British consulate in that province? Does the noble Earl not agree that that is a difference which should be taken into account? As the Prime Minister of Alberta will be coming to this country next month, would it not be better to suspend the decision until discussions have taken place with him? Finally, how much will this trifling economy save?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we all have to live within the budgets imposed on us. Nobody likes to close a post, but other countries around the world in America and Europe are having to reconsider maintaining some of their posts. The annual saving that we estimate to gain from the closure of the post is £231,000.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the argument that he has put forward that there are frequent flights over the Rockies, which are only 500 miles away, is, to put it mildly, rather foolish? It is rather like placing the consul for Glasgow in Edinburgh. There is a strong feeling of separate identity between Edmonton and Vancouver. Does the Minister agree that this move, however much money is saved, cannot do anything but harm to British interests?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I said at the beginning, the decision was not taken lightly. I can reassure the House that we are providing three extra staff in Vancouver to make sure that our interests are not diminished.

Lord Parry

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept—

Lord Morris

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the government of Alberta are displaying the same extent of public generosity by closing their consulate-general's office in London?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, no, the Canadians are not closing their office in London. Neither are we closing our other offices in Canada; namely, those in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Lord Morris

My Lords, I asked my noble friend whether the province of Alberta is closing its office in London in Lower Regent Street?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am sorry that I misunderstood my noble friend. I thought that he was talking about Canada in general. The provincial government of Alberta is still retaining its office in London to the best of my knowledge.

Lord Parry

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept that I am grateful to the House for waiting with such patience to hear what I have to say? Will he accept, on this very serious and heavy point, that what is happening to the economies of the North Pacific is as vital to the future of the world as anything that is happening today? Does the noble Earl accept that to be under-represented in an area of influence such as Canada at this time is to sell ourselves short? Will he accept from me that it is one of the most depressing experiences to travel in that part of the world and to see that while the clocks record the times around the world, there is nothing relating to London time?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we certainly do not wish to be under-represented anywhere in the world. Although the noble Lord speaks of the North Pacific, I also recommend the whole of the Pacific rim including South-East Asia, where London time is well known.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I believe that the noble Earl told us that the saving was £230,000. Does that sum include the additional cost of the three people who are to be employed elsewhere, and their travel? Does the noble Earl not agree that if those sums are not included, then the saving will be cut to a trivial sum?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. The saving takes into account the extra costs.