HL Deb 14 October 1999 vol 605 cc514-6

3.27 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What qualities they are seeking in the new director-general of UNESCO.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government firmly believe that it is important that all senior appointments to international bodies are made on the basis of merit. It is essential that the new director-general of UNESCO should be effective and reformist. Her Majesty's Government believe that UNESCO's activities need to be more effectively and efficiently focused on the challenges that the world faces today.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Does she agree that this is one of the most important posts in international development and, sadly, it has been highly politicised in the past? Will the Government ensure that they support the right candidate for the job—somebody with the best qualities to manage the organisation—and that his or her nationality will not be regarded as an obstacle in that appointment?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that this is an important post. The Government are firmly committed to ensuring that the right candidate is chosen for that post. They are also committed to ensuring that that candidate will reform UNESCO so that it is an effective organisation.

With respect to the noble Earl's questions about the nationality of candidates, I can advise the House that there are 11 candidates, five are from Asia and the Pacific, three from Europe, two from the Arab world, and one from the Caribbean; so there is a number of nationalities from which to choose.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that among the front runners of the 11 candidates there is a Saudi Arabian national'? However well qualified he may be in many ways, it is alleged that he is a strong supporter of the death penalty. While one might well expect a Saudi Arabian to support what happens in his own country, if that is true it would not he right for the director-general of a great international organisation with immense ethical and charitable functions. I should be most grateful if my noble friend could tell us anything about it.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, one of the candidates is from Saudi Arabia. I am unable to respond to the other points made by my noble friend.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I endorse the Minister's comment that it is vital to have a strong leader because the recent history of UNESCO has been troubled. As the noble Earl pointed out, it is an important international organisation.

Will the Minister bear in mind the work being done in trying to establish a global Internet system of advanced education, I think being sponsored by the World Bank? Britain could undoubtedly make an important contribution to such a global Internet educational system because of the noble Baroness's own expertise in areas such as the Open University.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I confirm that the Government are working with UNESCO to ensure that the priorities of UNESCO involve a focus on education, and on communication, using the technology available. We are strongly committed to the international development targets. We feel strongly that UNESCO has a key role to play in the target of providing universal primary education. We support any way in which we can use technology and Internet access to facilitate that.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in her original reply the Minister said that the successful candidate needs to be efficiently and effectively focused. What does the noble Baroness mean?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, UNESCO is a major international organisation. It poses a significant management and leadership challenge for the individual who runs that organisation. Since the UK Government rejoined UNESCO soon after this Government came into power in 1997 we have made no secret of the fact that we feel that the organisation needs to be more effective and more focused in its priorities. In my original response I referred to the need to prioritise and the need for the new director-general to manage the organisation effectively.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that one of the candidates is a citizen of Sri Lanka? From the British point of view, might there be merits in having a director-general from a nation in the British Commonwealth?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, if we continue in this way I shall have to give all 11 countries from which there are candidates. I confirm that there is a candidate from Sri Lanka. There are candidates from three Commonwealth countries.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, However, I should be grateful if she could go a little further specifically in the context of next month's highly contentious elections. The Minister has given the House an assurance that the next director-general will be chosen on merit alone. Can she add that prejudice as to national origin, power politics and regional loyalties will not be allowed under any circumstances to play a determining role in the selection of the successful candidate?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord will expect my reply to be the same as my original response: the United Kingdom Government are committed to ensuring that the candidate is chosen on the basis of merit.