HL Deb 16 February 1999 vol 597 cc541-3

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they have taken to maximise the benefits both for UNESCO and the United Kingdom of the United Kingdom's renewed membership of the organisation.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the Government rejoined UNESCO in order to support the organisation's purpose of advancing international peace through intellectual co-operation and to work with UNESCO to contribute to the international goals for poverty elimination. To that end we have maintained an active dialogue with UNESCO. We have recently put forward proposals to engage British civil society through a UK commission for UNESCO. These will be discussed at a consultation meeting on 25th February.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does she accept that the decision to rejoin was widely welcomed, not least by those of us who belong to the UNESCO forum? Does she also accept that when I attended a recent conference of UNESCO in Paris, it was good to hear senior officials speaking so positively about British participation and co-operation since we rejoined?

However, does my noble friend agree that the purpose of belonging is to enable those in the front line of education, culture and science to benefit from, participate in, and contribute towards the programmes of UNESCO? Does she therefore agree that it is most important for the new national commission to be seen to be fully representative of those communities in Britain? How will that be achieved?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments about the importance of our rejoining UNESCO. Since rejoining, we have taken a place on the executive board. We have a strong commitment to establishing a national commission but we want to get it right. We are consulting across government and with civil society. We want a commission which is cost effective and which taps into existing civil society structures. We envisage a commission which has representation from interested civil society groups, social sciences, the exact and natural sciences, environmental sciences, industry and commerce, culture and communications, and education and youth.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, is the Minister aware that over a year ago I asked her noble friend the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, when we could expect the United Kingdom to ratify the 1970 UNESCO convention on the illicit traffic in cultural property? The noble Lord indicated that he hoped to reply rapidly. Can the noble Baroness tell us when that rapid reply will become available?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I could say to the noble Lord, "rapidly"! However, I undertake to give the noble Lord as exact a reply as I can.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, will the Government use their influence in UNESCO to ensure that more is done to fulfil its educational mission? I understand that at present the organisation interprets education as being at university level and above and does not make the contribution it might to improving the literacy of the poorest countries in the world to which the noble Baroness referred in her first reply.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I should like to reassure the noble Lord that education is one of the key areas in which we anticipate working closely with UNESCO, in particular as a core area of our White Paper is the elimination of world poverty. We want to look at universal primary education and the education of women and girls. We shall work with UNESCO not only in terms of higher education but also primary education.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, taking into account that Hadrian's Wall is a UNESCO world heritage site, are the Government considering spending a great deal more on archaeological surveys of the wall and on preserving it from the ravages of tourism and neglect? A number of the outposts north of Hadrian's Wall are on the English Heritage at-risk register at present.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the United Kingdom is seeking a place on the world heritage committee which, as the noble Lord states, does valuable work in assessing which sites should be on the world heritage list. The committee has also taken important steps to achieve a more balanced list by encouraging representation of sites in areas of the world which are poorly represented. Rejoining the committee would be a positive affirmation of our manifesto commitment to play a fuller part in UNESCO's activities. If I can give the noble Lord further information, I shall write to him.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, will the Minister explain why the Government are prepared to contribute around £11 million a year to UNESCO, yet—despite the noble Baroness's answer to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the answer of the Secretary of State on 10th November saying that it would occur "shortly"—there are still no plans to finalise the funding of the national commission secretariat?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I return to the original Answer to my noble friend Lord Judd in which I said clearly that there is a commitment to establishing the commission. However, we want to get it right. We want to have a commission which is cost effective. We have consulted across government. We have also consulted with interested organisations and have received from them various indications of the kind of commission they would like to see. At the end of January this year, we wrote to a number of organisations, including the UK UNESCO forum, setting out our proposals with respect to the establishment of a commission. We intend to have a meeting on 25th February which will take us further. There have been no delays; we are interested in getting this right.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this country has probably the richest network of non-governmental organisations in the world? Will the national commission be structured to take advantage of that? In particular, will it play a part in channelling this country's participation in the United Nations Culture of Peace programme in the year 2000?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I can confirm to my noble and learned friend that it is our intention to tap into our existing NGO networks. That is a key part of the proposals contained in our document relating to the establishment of a national commission. We hope to establish a small commission which will have task groups investigating important issues. Linked to the commission will be a separate education committee, given that we focus so much on education.

As regards the Culture of Peace programme, clearly, conflict resolution and the development of peace processes form a core part of our agenda. We want the national commission involved in those issues too.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of widespread suspicion that the long delay in this matter is not so much to do with a desire to get it right as to do with a lack of enthusiasm? Given what she has said today, can one firmly reject those suspicions?

Baroness Amos

My Lords. I hope that I have made clear that the Government are committed to UNESCO. We rejoined UNESCO within six weeks of coming into power and the delay, if there has been a delay, has been in order to ensure that we consult as widely as possible and get it right.

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