HL Deb 04 July 1994 vol 556 cc989-92

2.57 p.m.

Lord Finsberg asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have had recently with the Government of Switzerland.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, since the beginning of this year we have had high-level bilateral discussions with the Swiss Government on issues relating to transport, European Union and Swiss relations, defence and security policy and trade and commercial matters.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Has she recently had an opportunity of conveying to the Government of Switzerland the anger and disappointment of many people at the decision of the Swiss in a referendum not to supply troops to the United Nations for humanitarian purposes? Will she suggest to the United Nations, when next she is in touch with them, that they might remove some of their institutions from Switzerland and thus deprive the Swiss of the income?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I know that the Swiss Government share the anger and disappointment of my noble friend in this matter. We must realise that the referendum was demanded by 50,000 signatories. There was only a 45 per cent. turnout and the result of a 14 per cent. majority rejecting the request is not thought to be what would have happened with a larger turnout. However, given that the Swiss are still sending civilians and keep a great deal of effort going into the international organisations, his suggestion that UN offices should disappear from Geneva is inappropriate. Some of them originate in Geneva since before the founding of the United Nations. They have a good working relationship with the Swiss authorities, who have a most accessible and efficient local administration. One must realise also that it would be hugely expensive and disruptive to move UN agencies out of Geneva because of one referendum. Other referenda which change the situation may occur in Switzerland. We must remember that Switzerland is the fifth largest per capita contributor to the UN programmes.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, can the Minister give the House an indication of what prospects there are for a reconsideration of this matter by the Swiss Government? The decision clearly has given rise to disappointment among other European countries. Can she also tell the House what part the UK Government will be playing in encouraging the Swiss Government to see whether they can find another way of making a contribution towards UN peace-keeping?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it must be for the Swiss Government and certainly not for us to see whether there would be an appropriate time to reconsider this matter. But, given the record of other Swiss referenda, the Swiss Government might feel it wise to leave things well alone at the present time. When it comes to Swiss policy, I understand that Switzerland will continue to provide medical staff, observers, civilian policemen and many people in other fields to the UN peace-keeping, humanitarian and observer missions. Certainly, the Swiss Government, who give invaluable support across the world, are not about to run away from their UN contributions in any way whatsoever.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, would it not be an advantage to extend the dialogue in order to find out from the Swiss Government more about the working of their constitution? Is it not a stringently decentralised federation firmly based on the principle of subsidiarity,, which the Prime Minister so valuably inscribed in the Maastricht Treaty?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am very tempted to follow the noble and learned Lord down that path but it runs quite wide of the specific Question on the Order Paper. The important point about Switzerland is that, rather than just having a system of subsidiarity which works extremely well for the people of the cantons, the whole of the government process can sometimes be thrown out by this demand for 50,000 or more signatories for a referendum. While we will continue to support the concept of subsidiarity, particularly in relation to the European Union, I do not think any of us would be in favour of referenda demanded by 50,000 or more signatories.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one Swiss organisation—namely, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is a Swiss and not an international organisation—deserves considerable congratulations on the fact that it was until recently the only organisation which maintained its humanitarian efforts in Rwanda?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in saying that the ICRC has played an invaluable role in Rwanda. It has had members of the British Red Cross working alongside it and Action Aid, another British NGO, working with it, although perhaps more on the fringes and not in central Rwanda. The whole House knows that I am always in admiration of the very brave and thoroughly effective work done by the ICRC.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in the discussions with the Swiss on security policy which the noble Baroness mentioned, was anything said by them about the French decision not to extradite to stand trial in Switzerland two alleged Iranian terrorists who are wanted for the murder of Dr. Kazem Rajavi in Switzerland? Does she not agree that if we are to counter Iranian Government terrorism effectively there has to be a common stand by all the countries of Europe, including the whole of the European Union, against the use of this technique by the Iranians and that we should insist on the extradition of these two wanted terrorists to Switzerland as a condition of any normalisation of our relations with Iran?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's first question is no. I agree with him about a common stand against terrorism from wherever it may come—whether or not it be perpetrated by the Iranians. When it comes to extraditing people, one would hope that all nations would stand together in the sense of justice which is demanded in these circumstances.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I hope the noble Baroness will not tell me that the question I am going to ask is wide of the Question on the Order Paper because it asks what discussions the Government have recently had with the government of Switzerland. I wonder whether during those discussions the Government discussed the economic performance of Switzerland as compared with our own. Did they ask the Swiss Government how they achieved an unemployment rate of only 2.5 per cent., the evasion of a slump, a continuing rise in their productivity and a national income per head twice as great as that in Britain? Did they congratulate the Swiss on their grand decision not to join the European Union?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it hurts me to give the noble Lord the following answer because one of the reasons why unemployment in Switzerland is so low is that women have not traditionally had the opportunities that they have in Britain to take up professions. Though the younger ones are now doing so, far fewer of the older generation of women are in paid employment. That makes a very big difference. Switzerland has always had a vibrant economy but Switzerland also has its own bank accounts. It gets the benefit of that even if we may not always approve of the way that is done. On the noble Lord's final point, Switzerland still very much hopes to join the European Union. It will be a changed European Union when it joins because by then there will be other members who joined earlier and who have widened the European Union. Perhaps then it will be more acceptable to the Swiss people.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, as a life member of the Swiss Alpine Club, perhaps I may ask my noble friend to explain to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, that one of the features of the Swiss situation is that they took part in neither of the two world wars which have taken place in my lifetime.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble and learned friend always manages to give excellent answers hidden within his own question—but not so hidden. That of course is one of the reasons but it is also that Switzerland has never been tied in quite the same way as others are to the national economic performance of some of the weaker countries of the world.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, while it may be true that in this one instance the democratic system of Switzerland has not pleased the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, I think on the other hand that the general feeling of the House is in favour of the Swiss. When I look back at the position prior to the setting up of the United Nations at the time of the League of Nations —of which my father was the first Secretary General —the International Labour Office and the World Health Organisation, I believe that the record of Switzerland for international co-operation is almost unequalled.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, is absolutely right. We are all very much in favour of the great support Switzerland gives to all her neighbours and particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, said, through the ICRC in so many ways. I hope that Switzerland will continue to give that valuable support, throughout our lifetime and far beyond.