HL Deb 29 July 1998 vol 592 cc1499-502

2.42 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Comprehensive Spending Review will affect the number of overseas diplomatic posts.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we want to deploy resources to where they are needed most to meet today's priorities. The CSR outcome will help. It gives us a significant real terms increase in our budget, the best deal for six years. But we need to reprioritise existing activity, too. That includes strengthening some posts and closing others. We are starting to review the options and we hope to reach conclusions in the autumn.

We aim to provide additional resources for posts in areas of greatest opportunity, including in the EU and NATO applicant countries; in the Caspian region; and in priority export markets such as China and Brazil. In addition, we may want to reinforce some areas in London such as the department dealing with West Africa. The Foreign Secretary also wants to step up work in vital areas such as the fight against the drugs trade.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, that is an extremely comprehensive and interesting Answer. Is the Minister aware that many of those who travel extensively overseas on business promoting British trade and investment recognise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is the smallest and by far the most efficient department in Whitehall? As a result, they would wish to see an increase in the number of diplomats overseas in general and in particular in Latin America, which is a priority area in which I must declare a longstanding prejudice and interest.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his kind remarks about the Diplomatic Service. He is right; we want to reinforce the commercial sections of embassies in target markets where we are under-represented compared with leading competitors. Our objective in export promotion is to add value.

In my original Answer, I spoke of the particular priority export market in Brazil, and the noble Viscount has drawn attention to Latin America. The trade growth in Latin America is now outstripping much of the world and British exports to Brazil have tripled in the past five years, reaching £1 billion for the first time. But the UK still has only 2.5 per cent. of that market in comparison, for example, with the Germans who have 9 per cent. I agree with the noble Viscount that this is indeed a target area.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the Minister give the House an assurance that in view of the completely unauthorised establishment over the past few years of no fewer than 123 embassies, so called, on behalf of the European Community there will be no withdrawal of any British representation with the object of passing any of its functions or delegations on to the so-called embassies which have emanated from the European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have some 220 posts throughout the world. As I indicated in my original Answer, these posts are being examined to see whether they meet the Foreign Secretary's criteria as set out in his mission statement last year. In the autumn, there will be a report on which posts are to remain.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, when will we be exchanging ambassadors with Iran?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as the noble Viscount may know, we have chargés with Iran. He may also know that the EU is considering ways of improving across the board our relations with Iran. This country still operates under a chargé. We are doing our best to improve our diplomatic exchanges. I hope that the noble Viscount can be satisfied with that answer at the moment because I cannot tell him that there is a definite date for an exchange of ambassadors.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, in recent days, much has been made of the need to increase the numbers in the Africa section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Minister made reference to that. Will it include the possible reopening of embassies which were closed during the past 10 years in some countries in Africa which are looked after rather unsatisfactorily by the missions next door, some of which I visited recently?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are considering our relations across the board. The remarks I made in the House on Monday related to the staffing of the Africa (Equatorial) Department in London. There are no current plans to open new posts in Africa. As the noble Lord may know, we are not represented in some 19 states in Africa. I should be happy to list those for the noble Lord in writing, if he would find that helpful, but I regret to say that at present there are no plans to open posts elsewhere.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while it is important to increase our commercial strength in embassies abroad, if we are to play the role that we have set for ourselves of leadership in Europe and fulfilling our responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we must never in the future of the Diplomatic Service underestimate the importance of the traditional political work which is done by that service across the world?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes, of course I can agree with that point. I was answering a specific point made by the noble Viscount about the importance of commercial work, which certainly cannot be overlooked. But when my right honourable friend made his mission statement he did not talk solely about matters of prosperity where such commercial posts are vital; he talked also about the importance of the continuing security of the United Kingdom and of our overseas territories and about the importance of our humanitarian effort overseas. Perhaps I may also draw to the noble Lord's attention the increased emphasis that Her Majesty's Government are placing on environmental issues and on the difficulties that we are facing in combating the deplorable drugs trade which flourishes internationally.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say when the first advertised vacancies for diplomatic posts will appear? Will she confirm that the main criteria in the appointment of heads of mission overseas will continue to be merit and professional qualifications, including the mastery of relevant languages?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I was able to tell the House on Monday, we have a programme of modernisation and efficiency of which my right honourable friend spoke in his Statement. We are looking at exchanges with the private sector and indeed at bringing in some outside expertise in particular areas such as management and other areas within the London part of the FCO.

The noble Lord asked in particular about ambassadorial appointments. Those will continue to be made on the basis of expertise and merit. We shall be looking at that over the course of the next few months or so and I hope to be able to say something further about it in the autumn.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me if I take this opportunity warmly to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who, until yesterday, was the Government Whip responsible for foreign affairs, on his much-deserved promotion to full ministerial rank.

As the real increase in the FCO's budget in year one of the next three years is accounted for by the welcome additional funding to the BBC World Service and as, on the Foreign Office's own figures, years two and three see subsequent cuts in real terms, can the Minister give some indication as to where those cuts are likely to be considered during the process announced over the summer?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, first, I join the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in the tribute which he paid to my noble friend Lord Whitty who I have particular cause to value. He has been an invaluable support as my Whip over the past year or so.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, makes some assumptions about the FCO budget. I do not recognise the figures which the noble Lord has produced. He says that they are based on Foreign Office figures. I have inquired quite specifically, as I thought the noble Lord would ask me, about the increases. There is new money not only next year but the year after and the year after that. Perhaps I may be specific. After inflation has been taken into account and disregarding the money set on one side for the BBC World Service, which is indeed very welcome money—I am glad that the noble Lord recognised that—the new money next year will be £18 million, the year after that £15 million and the year after that £8 million.