HL Deb 24 June 1999 vol 602 cc1059-60

3.10 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider a greater role for and effectiveness of country-specific and regional all-party parliamentary groups.

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

My Lords, the Government recognise the valuable role that country-specific all-party parliamentary groups can play in the development of bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and the country concerned. The Government also appreciate that individual Members of both Houses of Parliament participate in those groups on a voluntary basis, applaud their commitment to the development of our overseas relations, and stand ready to offer support and advice to these groups as and when needed.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, the haphazard and ineffective manner in which a large number of groups conduct themselves is, in my view, a lost opportunity. Would it not be better, while retaining the independent nature of the groups, to have properly documented minutes, scrutiny of official policy, possibly in support of the over-stretched Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to address the inadequacy of influence, knowledge-gathering and understanding?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Viscount said that the committees are organised on a haphazard basis. However, it is for the members of the committees to organise their business. On occasions when my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have offered particular advice or support, it has been their experience that that was thought to be interference with the committees. Her Majesty's Government are reticent to offer some kind of blueprint in the way suggested by the noble Viscount. The suggestions he made may be very helpful to individual committees; so far as concerns the FAC, I suggest that he makes his suggestions to the chairman of that committee, Mr Anderson.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, given that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is devoted to the cause of resolving disputes by peaceful means and to promoting the ideals of democratic government, does the Minister think that there are further ways in which her department can complement and build on its work and that of the all-party country groups, especially now in the Balkans?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, the IPU and the CPA offer some modest support to the all-party parliamentary groups. As I indicated in my initial response, we stand ready to give advice and support when we are asked so to do. Naturally, given that on occasions our advice has not always been tremendously welcomed, Her Majesty's Government are rather concerned about offering a blueprint for a way forward. The suggestions made by the House might be made more directly to the officers of the 73 all-party parliamentary groups, who may themselves be very happy to pick up the suggestions.