HL Deb 14 July 1999 vol 604 cc327-9

Lord Walpole asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to build on the links between individuals which have already been forged by twinning with towns and cities in former Yugoslavia.

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

My Lords, twinning links between towns and cities can be a useful means of promoting reconciliation. The Local Government International Bureau (LGIB) acts as a clearing house for all forms of twinning and technical co-operation with counterparts world-wide. The LGIB has sent an officer to Kosovo as part of a Council of Europe mission on behalf of the UN, to consider, among other things, ways to mobilise partnerships between European local and regional authorities.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's statement that the war was against the regime of Mr Milosevic and not the people of Serbia, what advice does the Minister give to the people of Norwich who are twinned with the people of Novi Sad? Can she indicate whether in future it may be possible for visas to be obtained so that members of Norwich City Council can visit Novi Sad and people from Novi Sad can come to this country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as the noble Lord indicates, the relationship with Norwich has persisted for some time, certainly since well before the recent hostilities. In general, the recent hostilities have been very much directed at the regime, not al the people of Serbia. Whether or not visas are granted to people to go to that country is a matter for the Serbian authorities. Where there is a real demonstration that local authorities do not support the Milosevic regime, it is for local authorities in this country to pursue those relationships. I stress that we want to know that the town concerned is not part of any Milosevic machine.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister agrees with the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, that there is an important distinction to be drawn between our policy towards the regime of Milosevic and our attitude to the ordinary people of Serbia, with whom we have no quarrel. Further, does the Minister agree that there is much value to be gained from exchanges between citizens and elected representatives of UK towns that are twinned with towns in the former Yugoslavia, given that these exchanges help to engender mutual understanding and advance our common effort to unite the whole of Europe into one family of democratic nations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the wise words uttered by the noble Lord. We have no quarrel with the people of Serbia; the quarrel has always been with the Milosevic regime. We have debated this matter in the past, and I believe that the whole House is agreed on that point. Traditionally, twinning has been seen as a social activity that benefits those who take part and is of value to the community, but I believe that the noble Lord is right. There is a deeper potential here that involves educational and economic links, and technical assistance projects.

Lord Judd

My Lords, my noble friend refers to the educational dimension, which is obviously vital to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of post-war Yugoslavia. Are the Government looking with universities and higher education in Britain at what links can be forged there to strengthen a healthy approach to higher education and its values?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are looking across the whole spectrum of activities in the area of reconstruction. The EU is setting up an agency for reconstruction in which the United Kingdom will take an active part. As to reconstruction, the immediate tasks are the provision of emergency relief, rehabilitation, the provision of basic infrastructure, de-mining, the establishment of a proper police force, and so on. But the points that my noble friend makes about the longer term and the value of economic links, particularly educational ones, are very much ones that we take on board. I cannot give my noble friend any direct information about what is happening in the area of further and higher education, but I shall write to him if I am able to glean any further information on that particular aspect.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, we recognise the good response that we have received from the World University Service with regard to encouraging links between higher education institutions. However, perhaps I may ask the Minister to go one step further in particular with regard to Serbia. She rightly said that the quarrel is not with the citizens of Serbia, but with its government.

There are two other areas where close twinning could be encouraged. The first is the excellent work being done by the Churches in relation to their links with the Serbian Orthodox Church which, as the noble Baroness knows, rather surprisingly has strongly criticised Mr Milosevic's regime. The second relates to work with the media, in particular the struggling media attempting to be independent of the government in Serbia, where our own media—the BBC apart, which has an excellent reputation—might go a little further to be of real assistance.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. Not only the Orthodox Church, but a number of others in Serbia are now seemingly more prepared to voice their opposition to the Milosevic regime. That is to be welcomed. The work that the Churches have done is well recognised and we wish them well in furthering those endeavours.

On the media issues, we all know that one of the great problems during the recent military action was that the truth was not getting through to the Serbian people about what was being done and the appalling atrocities that were committed on their behalf. We have endeavoured to do what we can to ensure that a truthful story gets to the people of Serbia. For example, we have increased BBC World Service broadcasts to that part of the world. I believe that I have given details in your Lordships' House previously about how that is being done. But a free media in Serbia must be a key in establishing a democratic process. That must be well understood.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, have normal postal services yet been restored to and from Serbia; and, if not, when will they be?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I regret that I am unable to give the noble Lord the information that he requires but I shall endeavour to do so in a letter and shall place a copy in the Library of your Lordships' House.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, following the suggestions already made, does the Minister agree that after the disappearance from the scene of President Milosevic there is much to be said for developing between Yugoslavia and this country something akin to the Königswinter conferences set up with the Germans soon after the Second World War which have had such tremendous success, originally in helping the Germans back to democracy and later in developing mutual understanding between our two countries?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making that extremely interesting suggestion. I stress that any such suggestion could be considered constructively only after the disappearance of Mr Milosevic and those in his regime who have supported what he has done. We must remember that it was not Mr Milosevic alone who supported the appalling atrocities and the ethnic cleansing that we have seen; there have been many who have been only too willing to help him in that endeavour. But once we have seen the back of that regime, I shall convey the noble Lord's interesting suggestion to my ministerial colleagues as one which I believe is well worth considering.

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