HL Deb 18 March 1997 vol 579 cc762-6

2.52 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the outcome of the recent informal European Union Development Council meeting and what will be its implications for the aid and development policy of Her Majesty's Government.

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

My Lords, Ministers discussed a wide variety of topics, including coherence of policy between development and other European Union policies, the reform of the UN, the future of the ACP/EU relations and the situation in a number of countries where there is conflict. I stressed the importance of setting up clear institutional arrangements to ensure coherence on food security, fisheries, migration and conflict prevention and management. As this was an informal council, no formal decisions or conclusions were adopted. However, we expect the issues to be taken forward in other fora, including the June development council.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure she will agree that it is important that we know what we will inherit on the European front when we take office in May.

Did the meeting make progress on better arrangements for co-ordination in responding decisively and effectively to acute humanitarian challenges, like that in Albania, as regards both short and long-term needs? What was agreed on more timely action to defuse developing crises in time and prevent human catastrophes on the scale of Albania? In relation to food security, what progress was made in dealing with the appalling way in which the common agricultural policy, with its consequential food dumping on third world countries, actively undermines the development priorities both of the Union and of individual member countries?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a whole list of questions. The evening discussion on humanitarian issues was enlightened by the presence of the EU envoy, Aldo Ayello, and the UN and OAU envoy, Mr. Mohamed Sahnoun, when we discussed in detail the questions worrying all of us on eastern Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi and the general Great Lakes problem. We also discussed Liberia and Sierra Leone, Angola, Afghanistan and Bosnia. A much greater understanding was achieved in that meeting.

In addition to those discussions, we had a useful discussion on food security, as I mentioned. Everyone agreed with the proposals that I have now put through twice on coherence, so that the decisions that are made in one committee of the European Union—such as that on export refunds for beef destined for southern Africa—should not be upset by decisions in another. The discussions on food security will need to be taken forward in the working groups of officials and will come to a formal council when decisions can be adopted. The general discussion was in a firm sense "forward" and it will be something to which I shall look forward to taking forward after the general election.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Lomé IV convention was discussed at the meeting? If so, was any agreement for refinancing reached on that? Can she say also whether the issue of negotiating the budget which is to take place in 1999 was discussed?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, there was no discussion on the refinancing of Lomé, nor on the budget. They would be proper topics for a formal development council. We had a preliminary exchange of views in November's development council on the future of Lomé. I put forward a six-point plan on practical improvements for the delivery of aid, on simplification, programming, allocation, concentration, targeting and on management. They were discussed further in the informal council.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, did the meeting receive any information about the current situation in Liberia, of a more recent date than the Minister's last letter to me in which she said that 23,000 of the troops of the armed factions had by then been demobilised and that the Government were exploring the possibility of international assistance for the forthcoming elections there? Does not the noble Baroness believe that it is time to reconsider the proposals that were made by Mr. John McIntosh for resuscitation of the rubber industry in Liberia, which we had the pleasure of discussing with her some time ago? That would implement the agreement by ECOWAS that demobilisation and development had to go hand in hand in Liberia.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, to the best of my memory, slightly higher figures than the ones quoted by the noble Lord were discussed at the meeting because more soldiers have now come forward to be demobilised. There was a general feeling that the direction of progress was positive in Liberia and there was an understanding that international development was much needed. We had no specific discussion about the rubber industry, but that is a proposal which, if security is maintained in Liberia, can be taken forward. I look forward to seeing that that is done.

Lord Judd

My Lords, can the Minister clarify whether she is content that the evidence is contained in the response to Albania that better arrangements for co-ordination are working? Can she also clarify whether she and her fellow Ministers were able to examine the tendency whereby in response to needs within—for example, France and Germany—increasingly resources are going to North Africa and East and Central Europe at the expense of the poorest countries? I understand that at the meeting the Minister bade farewell to her fellow Ministers. Can she clarify whether that was done in a personal position or on behalf of the Government?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, Albania was not discussed to the extent that the noble Lord seems to imagine in the actual sessions that were held because on 28th February the situation was not as grave as it has since become. What is absolutely clear is that all member states were minded to give whatever help was practical. At the informal General Affairs Council held last weekend in Appledorn, the Foreign Secretary took forward proposals for an EU mission to Albania which will go in. That mission will seek to find out how best further help can be given. However, given the information in the newspapers over the past few days, I should be very surprised if the noble Lord had not realised that the insecurity there will make it very difficult to give the help which we would genuinely like to give. Nevertheless, we are working on this matter, and I believe that we will be able to help Albania. But Albania also needs to decide to help itself.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, what environmental issues were talked about at this informal meeting and what environmental items will my noble friend implement after May?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, there were no specific items on the environmental agenda, but in discussing the questions of fisheries and of food policies in the developing world it was made absolutely clear that we should be ensuring that environmental concerns are considered as a mainstream issue in all the policies taken forward. That is why the discussions on coherence are so important. One of the frustrations that everyone finds is when different parts of the Commission do not exchange the information that they should which could enhance the development of the poorest countries. That is the end to which the British development programme is devoted—to enhance the needs of the poorest people. That is why we are concentrating our aid there, but we shall be discussing that matter on Thursday. In environmental terms, I can tell my noble friend only that the programme of more than 300 environmental projects across the world—some in forestry and some in looking after the flora and fauna—are all going forward. None is short-term. I hope that they will continue to grow, as they have grown very decisively in the past five years.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can the Minister give some indication as to why it was decided to hold informal meetings to discuss these matters as distinct from the calling of a formal meeting? I am quite sure the noble Baroness can give the House a good reason for it. The question is by no means hostile to her intentions. I should like to know why the decision was made to have informal meetings. Was it because, for example, one would not have to have a communiqué after an informal meeting? Perhaps the noble Baroness will explain.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it has become customary in each presidency to devote a weekend or part of a weekend to informal discussions on a topic which is not allowed sufficient discussion, particularly in the case of development, at the formal council which takes place only once every six months. During the previous two Dutch presidencies we had informal development councils. It has always been the practice of the Dutch Government during their presidency to hold an informal development council in addition to the development council. My experience is that such an informal discussion often helps to get sensible discussions out of the development council. That is because Ministers will talk freely to one another with fewer prepared briefs than they sometimes have in development councils. The costs need to be watched but it is a useful practice if there is a proper agenda with proper objectives.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, as Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe, does the Minister agree that the distribution of food aid is urgently needed? Does she further agree that at the appropriate stage it is important to offer training and advice to ensure that a stable government pay proper regard to decentralising power and strong local government as opposed to a centralised system of government? Proper training should be offered when requested to help develop a separation between the media—in particular television—and government and police.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the preponderance of agricultural work in Albania means that there are not distinct food shortages across the country as a whole. There are some localised shortages at the moment. We are watching that carefully. However, it is a mainly agricultural country and is therefore in a position on many food stuffs to continue to feed its people, provided people are devoting themselves to the land and not to fighting. The noble Baroness asked about good government. There are many ways in which the West can help good government to be developed and, as the noble Baroness knows, there are many British institutes which are willing and able to give such advice.