HL Deb 23 February 2000 vol 610 cc230-2

11.16 a.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the rules governing the flying of the Union flag at British embassies.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, our embassies are required to fly the Union flag— in fact, it is the diplomatic flag, which is the Union flag with the Royal Arms in the centre surrounded by a green garland— on all working days during office hours. High Commissions fly the normal Union flag, similarly on working days during office hours. Only on rare occasions, when local circumstances require it, do posts depart from that practice.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that comprehensive and entirely satisfactory reply. Is she aware of a recent broadcast report of the flag not flying over the embassy in Brussels and the embassy, when asked for an explanation, allegedly producing a number of fanciful excuses or reasons, including one to the effect that it would offend our European partners? Will the noble Baroness confirm that that was a routine piece of media trouble-making having no basis whatever?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

Yes, my Lords. What is reported by newspapers as having been said or not said by unidentified sources is notoriously unreliable. The point about the Union flag not being flown outside the embassy in Brussels is true. The position of the flagpole meant that it was difficult, if not impossible, to see any flag being flown. The embassy is now flying the flag in accordance with the rules. The embassy was already flying the flag on nominated flag days, but not on other days because it was not easily seen. We are now taking action to ensure that the flag can be visible on all working days.

Lord Selsdon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that throughout the European Union the Union flag is to be found flying upside down—a symbol, at best, I understand, of distress? Alternatively, it is an insult to the British Crown. Will she take steps to ensure that our European Union colleagues are advised accordingly?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I am not aware of instances of the British flag being flown upside down. If that happened anywhere by accident—I would be very surprised, given the expertise of the Diplomatic Service in our embassies abroad—I am sure that it would be corrected.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there are more ways to fly the British flag than to haul one up a flagpole? Is it not more constructive to pay tribute to the work of our embassy and High Commission staff around the world in promoting our country, sometimes in situations of great personal danger?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for that question. I agree that Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service works hard at home and abroad to further British political and economic interests, frequently in difficult and dangerous circumstances. I am sure that the whole House would wish to express gratitude and admiration to the professionalism and dedication of the Diplomatic Service.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I understood my noble friend to be referring to residencies other than embassies, such as other bureaucratic buildings in Brussels, which tend to fly our flag upside down. Does the Minister agree that our embassies in such locations should take on the job of ensuring that our flag is flown the right way up?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I shall take away this point. I am sure that our embassies will examine the matter. I would have thought that, when noticed, attention would be drawn to any such incident.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there are some practical reasons involved? I was in Guinea following the French withdrawal. All the street names had been removed. I arrived by lorry just before nightfall and the only way I could identify the British embassy was to look for the flag, which fortunately was flying. While there are practical reasons, I heartily endorse the noble Lord's comment about the immense courage and value of the service.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. I am sure that she also agrees with me that there are times when for security reasons it is wiser not to display the British flag prominently.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reassuring replies. Can she be further reassuring by telling the House that in future no British embassy will ever be decorated like the tailfins of British Airways aircraft?