HL Deb 19 May 2003 vol 648 cc487-8
Lord Hunt of Chesterton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What lessons they are pressing upon the United Nations, its agencies and its member countries about greater collaboration in monitoring international health and security dangers, including improved verification and exchange of information.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government strongly believe that an effective way to address global concerns, such as international health and security dangers, is by encouraging close co-operation throughout the United Nations. Ideally, that would involve national governments, civil society and business, as well as the UN Secretariat and various agencies and bodies.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

I thank my noble friend for that reply, but will our Ministers and officials urge all countries, even the largest, to allow international monitoring, including of bio-weapons, health, and environmental disasters? Does she agree that the selective and negative approach adopted by some countries, which I witnessed at the United Nations conference on international disasters, can have serious adverse consequences both locally and worldwide?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with much of what my noble friend said. The fact is that the United Kingdom welcomes international monitors. For example, we think that the work that the World Health Organisation has undertaken in relation to severe acute respiratory syndrome, monitoring and addressing the problem on the ground in a number of countries, has been enormously important. My noble friend addressed the wider question of other forms of monitoring. He will know that in a number of countries there are particular sensitivities. We always encourage those countries to adopt international standards and to co-operate with international monitoring where possible.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, does the Minister agree that SARS indeed shows how important international institutions are today? After all, it was the WHO that urged action on countries that were reluctant to take such action because of fear for their economic position. As she will know, the WHO's powers are limited. Will the Government press the international community to extend those powers—to start with, to give the WHO the right to go in to monitor suspected outbreaks of disease?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that the SARS outbreak shows how important the international organisations are. The noble Baroness will know that the Government have closely followed World Health Organisation advice, because it is the international health organisation and because it has the resources and expertise on the ground to deal with an outbreak such as SARS.

Yes, of course we want more countries to welcome such monitoring, as I implied in my Answer. However, if the noble Baroness is asking whether we support now the intervention of the World Health Organisation, I think that several other international organisations would similarly feel that they should have the right to enter—I am thinking especially of the International Labour Organisation. That might raise difficulties in a number of countries. So at present, I think that it is better to proceed by encouragement.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, there is a reciprocal aspect to the noble Lord's Question: how much is this country collaborating with the international community? I ask that because, as chairman of the sub-committee on fighting infection of the Science and Technology Committee, I was in Geneva several weeks ago. One comment made by the World Health Organisation was that the United Kingdom was not as good as other countries in providing experts for either the short or long term. We shall attend to that question in our report, but does the Minister have any comment to make on that?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I should like to know the detail of the claim about which the noble Lord has informed the House. In the past year, the Foreign Office has initiated regular meetings on UN issues, including with the specialised agencies, which include colleagues from all interested government departments.

In addition, the United Kingdom has played a leading role in setting up the global fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria, which was launched by the Prime Minister and his G8 colleagues in Genoa in July 2002. So there are specific examples of the leading role that the United Kingdom has taken in co-ordinating with such international bodies. I am concerned if that is not recognised and would welcome a further conversation with the noble Lord, at which he may be able to give me some details.

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