HL Deb 08 May 1996 vol 572 cc103-6

2.49 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to alter their level of commitment to foreign and trade policy towards the Commonwealth.

Lord Chesham

No, my Lords. On the contrary, the Government have demonstrated their firm support for Commonwealth action in foreign policy and other fields by inviting Heads of Government to meet in Edinburgh next year, by inviting Commonwealth senior officials to meet in London this year and by being actively involved in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, established at the Auckland Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I have two questions. Does the Minister accept that in its recent report on the future role of the Commonwealth the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was generally critical when it observed that, the importance of the Commonwealth dimension does not appear always to be reflected fully in government policy", and when it recommended that a whole new strategy to reinforce bilateral ties be introduced? What positive steps will be taken by the Government?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we welcome the Select Committee's decision to prepare a comprehensive report on the Commonwealth. We want to study the important observations and recommendations carefully and will reply formally on or before 26th June, which is the due date. It would not be right to anticipate those responses now. We have been given a great many thought-provoking and significant ideas to consider.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House what action Her Majesty's Government and the Commonwealth are pursuing to restore democracy in Nigeria?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, at the meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in London on 23rd April it was recommended that the Commonwealth, with a month's delay for Nigeria to respond, should adopt a package of measures on Nigeria which mirrored those introduced by the EU at the end of last year. This is a significant move by the Commonwealth and is intended to be a strong message to the regime. At the same time, the Nigerians have been given one month to respond to the Commonwealth's offer of a dialogue. The clock is ticking. If the Nigerians continue to shun the Commonwealth, expulsion will he the only option.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the opportunities for trade and co-operation throughout the Commonwealth are many times greater than in Europe? Would it not be better if Her Majesty's Government concentrated on their role of being at the heart of the Commonwealth rather than at the heart of Europe?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I am well aware of the value of trade with the Commonwealth. Of the world's 20 leading economies, 13 are members of the Commonwealth. In 1995 our exports to the Commonwealth totalled £17.248 billion, which is 10.26 per cent. of our total exports. Encouragingly, they have been buoyant and rising in each of the last three years. This is a matter that we take very seriously.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a fundamental part of the links which join this country to other countries of the Commonwealth is the presence here of many students at various levels from those countries? Will Her Majesty's Government do their best to ensure that that flow continues unimpaired?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we certainly will. At the moment we believe that there are approximately 100,000 overseas students in this country, which is the largest number ever. We would wish to continue this.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his noble friend Lady Chalker recently told the Parliamentary Human Rights Group that the British Government were considering, in consultation with their partners in the Commonwealth, the European Union and the United States, what further measures could be taken following the refusal of General Abacha to receive the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group? Therefore, is it not inadequate for the Minister to say merely that the Commonwealth will bring itself up to the standard that has already been adopted by the European Union? Does the case not demand further measures by the European Union itself?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I am fully aware of what my noble friend has said, and I totally agree with it. However, we believe it is important that further pressures outside those that I have already mentioned should be exerted and considered in consultation with the rest of the world. If we were to take action unilaterally it would not assist in any way. The rest of the world, or certainly the EU, the US and other members of the international community, must also be involved.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can the noble Lord not muster up a little more enthusiasm for the whole issue of our trade with the Commonwealth and other parts of the world? Is he aware that regrettably during recent months exports to our partners in Europe have declined by some 5 per cent., whereas exports to the rest of the world have gone up by 6 per cent.? Would it not be best to give some priority to those other nations in the Commonwealth who, with us, succeeded in establishing the liberties that our partners in Europe still retain?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord believes that I am not supportive as far as concerns trade with the Commonwealth. It is a very important trade. It is growing and buoyant, and an increase in trade with the Commonwealth is very much on the agenda of our export Ministers.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, in view of what the Minister said earlier about the encouragement of overseas students, does he not find it embarrassing that this year the cut in funds to the British Council is greater than it has ever been?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, from behind I hear the question, "What about child benefits?" I do not find it embarrassing. On many occasions the situation of the British Council has been discussed by your Lordships. We support overseas students coming to this country and assist them as best we can. My last point is that this is rather outside the scope of the original Question.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, for the benefit of the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart of Swindon and Lord Bruce of Donington, can the Minister give the percentage of our trade with the European Union?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, trade anywhere is of great value to this country.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, although we welcome the expansion of trade with the Commonwealth and other regions of the world, can the Minister provide evidence that any single member of the Commonwealth wishes this country to detach itself from the European Union?

As far as concerns Nigeria, what reasons for optimism are there that this detestable military regime will pursue a different course when so far it has ignored every pressure that has been put upon it by other members of the Commonwealth? Are the Government considering with their colleagues in the Commonwealth additional measures that can be brought to bear upon the military junta?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, to deal with the latter point first, we are having international discussions as to whether additional pressures can be brought to bear. Nigeria has been given a strict time limit within which to respond to the latest moves. If it falls outside that time limit, further efforts will be made to put pressure on the government.

I have no knowledge of any Commonwealth country that has tried to pressurise the United Kingdom to leave the EU.