HL Deb 02 April 2001 vol 624 cc598-600

2.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland will vacate his official residence, Glencairn; for how much the building was sold; and what was the cost of buying a suitable alternative.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have acquired a replacement residence for our Ambassador which is presently being refurbished. Our Ambassador will move to his new residence on completion of the work. It is not our policy to reveal details of price and other terms agreed in such transactions, though I can tell the House that this transaction represented excellent value for money for the British taxpayer.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I accept that there may be occasions when it is appropriate to dispose of embassies or ambassadorial residences. However, does my noble friend agree that in some countries we occupy buildings of such historic merit and prestige that they add significantly to our diplomatic effectiveness in those countries? For obvious reasons, would it not be a pity if we were to dispose of buildings in that category? I hope that my noble friend can give some assurances to that effect.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, my noble friend is right in saying that some buildings are of such enormous significance that it would be unwise to dispose of them. I can give that reassurance. However, in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office agreed an asset recycling target with the Treasury to generate £90 million through sales of properties for the triennium financial year 1999–2000 to 2001–02 and £100 million in the triennium financial year 2001–02 to 2003–04. The proceeds are to be reinvested in capital projects. Targeted properties are those which are over scale, inefficient, poor value for money, not fit for the purpose or of considerable developmental potential.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that this is another demonstration of the Blair process of dumbing down British responsibilities and influence in other countries?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will not be disappointed to hear that on this occasion, and most unusually, I fundamentally disagree with him. It is clear that there were a number of significant difficulties with the property Glencairn. The noble Lord will know that the distance from Glencairn to Dublin caused difficulty. Indeed, a notorious murder was committed on that road and therefore security issues were involved. The advantage to be gained in selling the property, buying a most suitable Victorian property to replace it and making use of the opportunity to expand and invest was nothing other than plain good sense.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, it may have made financial sense to sell the Ambassador's residence of Glencairn, with low fixed interest rates, money cheap to borrow and booming house prices which are a consequence of Ireland's EU membership. But that aside, may I seek the Minister's assurance that this costing down is not part of an overall reduction package? Do the Government have any plans to reduce the complement of staff in Ireland?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have no indication that the complement of staff in Ireland will be reduced. If that comes to my attention I shall advise the noble Baroness of it. House prices in Ireland have risen and at the time we sold Glencairn we got good value for it and were able to purchase another property at a good rate. There has certainly been no dumbing down or costing down. We are making judicious good use of the properties available to us and to the maximum advantage. We shall continue to do that.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, given the Minister's rationale for the sale of Glencairn, can she tell us whether any embassies around the world are being closed?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, unfortunately, I found it difficult to hear the noble Lord. I wish him a very happy birthday. The noble Lord referred to the closure of various embassies. I do not know whether he has particular embassies in mind. To the best of my knowledge and recollection, to date we have not closed any without giving proper notice and opening others elsewhere.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, can the noble Baroness indicate whether, generally speaking, when new premises arc required for embassies the policy is to buy rather than lease them, which was the policy in the past that did not turn out to be very cost-effective over the long term?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are trying to make the appropriate decisions. To date, the market has tended to indicate that purchase is the most stable way to proceed, but the noble Lord will also be aware that sometimes we need temporary accommodation which is conveniently dealt with by leasing. There is no hard and fast rule. We shall make the best commercial decision for the long term so that we make proper use of all our resources.

Baroness Young

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether the policy, which I believe she described as asset recycling if I understood her correctly, includes the disposal of other buildings of comparable standing and merit to the residence in Dublin? Does the noble Baroness agree that when in the past Foreign Office buildings have been disposed of, the result has been singularly unfortunate and has not helped our diplomatic representation abroad?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness that the impact on our diplomatic relations is fully taken into account before we make a decision as to whether to sell a property. The decision is not based simply on the best market price. We must look at what impact, if any, it will have on our ability to remain diplomatically in the first division.

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