HL Deb 01 February 1995 vol 560 cc1490-5

2.48 p.m.

Lord Kennet

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to carry forward the review of Britain's place in the world which they began at a recent meeting at Chequers.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, at Chequers on 13th January, Ministers took a comprehensive look at the United Kingdom's interests in the world and how to make the best use of our assets to pursue them. We will continue to study how best to identify and expand the use of these assets.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, since we appear to have 19 minutes left for Question Time, would the Minister care to expand on that Answer? As a result of the announcement of the Chequers meeting, one gained the strong impression that the study was to be a continuing one, not merely that the Government would keep an eye on our future in the world. The impression was given that they would continue the study and perhaps one day finish it and make a statement.

Is it the Government's intention that the study should be carried out in-house by the usual combination of Ministers and senior civil servants, or will they consider going further afield and bringing in people from universities and other institutions who are skilled in considering such matters? Will they even—dare I suggest—include Members of both Houses of Parliament, possibly not confined to members of their party?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, sketches a very broad canvas. It is appropriate to begin by explaining that the meeting on 13th January was convened as a meeting of a relatively small number of senior people to conduct a kind of brain-storming session. From time to time it is appropriate for senior Ministers and officials to get together to try to see the way forward. In this instance, the focus was on the rest of the world other than western Europe, which seems to generate so much debate currently.

It was an informal meeting and it is intended to follow up a number of the points raised. That work runs in parallel with the wider, ongoing process of consultation and listening which the Government do in that regard. Noble Lords will not need me to explain to them that a great deal of valuable expertise and information, bearing in mind our trade interests in the wide world, is to be found outside the realms of government. It may be of interest to noble Lords to know that the 75th anniversary celebrations at Chatham House are to be celebrated with a major conference on that theme on 29th March at which, I understand, there will be widespread representation.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, will the Minister tell us who were the Ministers with brains at that brain-storming meeting at Chequers? Did they discuss the Government's policy—I assume that it is still the Government's policy—that we should be at the heart of Europe?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, that all the Ministers in the Government have brains. I am afraid that I do not have the details of all those who were in attendance at the meeting at Chequers. I understand that there were present a number of the most senior members of the Government. Noble Lords may recall that I said that the meeting did not focus on the problems of western Europe. Having said that, it is the Government's policy now, as it has been, and will be in the future, to be at the heart of Europe.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend elucidate what exactly is meant by the English word "brain-storming" when applied to meetings and how does it differ from meetings which are not brain-storming?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble and learned friend puts me in considerable difficulty because I was not present at the meeting in question. I am merely advised that it was a brain-storming session. As I understand it, the aim was to have a wide-ranging, informal discussion, if necessary canvassing radical ideas, to investigate all the options in an informal atmosphere and to see how we can advance Britain's policies to everybody's advantage.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a committee of reflection has been set up to consider the inter-governmental conference to be held in 1996 associated with the Council of Ministers? I understand from the newspapers that the Foreign Secretary is to chair a Cabinet committee on the same subject. Given the importance of the IGC for the future of this country and its role in Europe, and given the divisions in both major parties in the country, is any provision likely to be made for widening the consultation? Following on from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is there any possibility that the Opposition parties and, more widely, the general public could be invited into discussion on those issues as is happening now in the Netherlands and Germany? As another strong democracy, surely we should be able to do that here.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, there is a committee of this House which looks very carefully into matters relating to all things European. Clearly, there will be widespread debate both in this House and in another place in the run-up to the IGC. In addition, unless something extraordinary happens in relation to the temper of the media, there will be an enormous amount of debate about the subject in that department too. Bearing in mind the fact that the members of the British public never seem to be backward in coming forward in letting their elected representatives know their views on those matters, I feel confident that by the time the IGC takes place, the issues will have been widely and comprehensively canvassed throughout the land. Those taking the decisions at that time will be well aware of what is public opinion in that respect.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that that period of discussion will be extremely important? As he said, the whole future of Europe will be affected by the inter-governmental conference. We shall be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. That should not be merely a celebration; it should also provoke a thinking session as to how we fulfil our role within the UN. Will the Minister put forward to his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary the idea that there should be a continuing discussion? That may take the form of a debate in this House or a Select Committee. However, does the Minister not agree that this is the time at which we should think extremely carefully about the role of Britain in the world?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I agree. It is very much for that reason that the Prime Minister convened the meeting on 13th January. Inevitably, there will be very wide-ranging debate. In this House, that is a matter for the usual channels. As I said, I feel confident that both here and in another place there will be plenty of discussion about the matter. It is a characteristic of a free country that there is free debate about all matters political.

Lord Pym

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that one of our most valuable national assets is the English language, which is gradually becoming the language of the world? Although we already invest a certain amount in it, does he not agree that further investment in the spread of our language would show a very handsome return and would be of genuine benefit to our country?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right about the value of the English language and its widespread use throughout the globe to the benefit of all those who use it. That was one of the matters considered at the meeting at Chequers on 13th January.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, do the noble Lord and the Government agree that one of our most urgent tasks is to prevent war and genocide in Europe?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is absolutely correct. That was the reasoning behind the recent speech made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence in attempting to further the Government's thinking in relation to that.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the Government consider discussing this vitally important matter with the Confederation of British Industry, the TUC, and UNISON, which represents a great many doctors and nurses from different specialties? Those three great organisations could contribute a great deal to the Government's policies. The Government should welcome the views of all important organisations, as well as the views of both Houses of Parliament.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I feel confident the Government will take seriously any views which they consider contribute positively and constructively to the debate.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, will my noble friend tell us on what day of the week the meeting was held?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend has noticed that the meeting was held on Friday, 13th January.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I confirm my personal willingness to take part in the intellectual turbulence which appears to have descended over Chequers. Are the Government aware that one of the roles of the United Kingdom in the world is to lead it, as it has done so often during the past two centuries? Will the Government address themselves to the leadership of the nation by getting to the heart of the nation? That will avoid the necessity for periodic genuflection towards everything that comes from Brussels.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as your Lordships know, the British Government do not genuflect in a servile way to anyone.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the Chatham House conference to be held on 29th March depends upon the success of the Foreign Office in raising contributions to finance it from business? If so, what success has been achieved so far? I gather that the Prime Minister and the shadow Foreign Secretary have been booked to speak at the conference.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the shadow Foreign Secretary have been booked to speak at the conference. I understand that it is scheduled to take place on 29th March.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, will the Government reflect on their policy of placing Britain in the heart of Europe? According to my understanding of geography, that would put us somewhere about the position of Switzerland and would prevent us from using our maritime links to trade with the rest of the world. Bearing in mind the fact that the Government have presided over a rundown in our merchant marine sector over the past 10 or 15 years, can the Minister explain what action the Government propose to take to ensure, first, that we are not placed in the heart of Europe and, secondly, that we can see an expansion and development of our merchant navy?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as I explained earlier, the Government's policy has been, is, and will continue to be, that we should be at the heart of Europe. We do not concede that there is any incompatibility with that and being a trading nation all around the world.

Lord Elton

My Lords, when there are only three Questions on the Order Paper, is it really necessary to go on flogging a dead horse to complete the full half hour?

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Judd

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that central to the Government's foreign policy is continued, permanent membership of the Security Council? Further, will the Minister agree that permanent membership of that council faces us with immense responsibilities of global leadership? In that context, can the Minister explain why the Government went along with the cancellation of the planned special Security Council meeting in January to discuss the pressures on the UN system at present and the desperate need for regeneration and revitalisation of that organisation? Can the Minister assure the House that, in the Government's preoccupations, central to their thinking is the need for a pro-active foreign policy rather than a reactive foreign policy and the importance, above all, of greater emphasis on conflict resolution and pre-emptive diplomacy?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I can confirm that the noble Lord is correct. It is central to our foreign policy to remain a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. We are fully conscious of the responsibilities that rest on our shoulders as a result. I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer the specific point raised by the noble Lord, but I shall write to him with the answer.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on the relaxed and constructive way in which he has handled this lengthy Question. I hope that he will draw the matter to the attention of his right honourable friend and point out that certain parts of the debate were quite a live horse.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind comments. I shall certainly pass on that message.