South Pacific

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:59 pm on 12th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Government Whip, Lord in Waiting (Whip) 7:59 pm, 12th February 2002

My Lords, this has been an extremely interesting short debate demonstrating a tremendous wealth of experience, excluding the three noble Lords on the Front Benches who have rather less experience than the two former Ministers who have spoken and whose expertise is well known. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, for raising the debate, in particular because, on behalf of the Government, it gives me a chance to put on the record the importance that the Government attach to the South Pacific region.

Noble Lords have outlined the many strong historic links we have with the islands of the South Pacific, and I want to assure the House that we have not forgotten our history. Government-to-government links today continue to be strong and are even expanding into new areas, including one aspect of healthcare referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings; namely, the fight against HIV/AIDS infection. There has been an increase in expenditure in that area.

Particularly important are our links with the Pacific through the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the European Union. I know, of course, from our time in the other place of the tremendous interest that the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, has in the Commonwealth. We shall continue to use our influence through these institutions and do what we can to help Pacific island states to meet their international obligations—for example, by assisting them with the process of ratifying the UN's international human rights covenants.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has a detailed, first-hand knowledge of the Pacific from heading up, on no less than three occasions, the UK delegation to the annual post-forum dialogue with the Pacific Islands Forum. I pay tribute to him for breaking new ground by attending the first dialogue in 1989. Sending a UK delegation to the dialogue is perhaps the most tangible way that we can continue to show our commitment to the region.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, asked me to let him know what our level of representation has been in recent years. We have been represented at ministerial level every year since the dialogue began, except for two occasions. One of those occasions was last year. However, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is hoping to attend this year. We are still awaiting dates from the Fijian Government about precisely when it will take place.

Another very tangible expression of our support is our continued diplomatic presence in the region. We continue to maintain High Commissions in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga, and last month we formally re-opened a High Commission office in Kiribati. This office, which is headed by a resident deputy high commissioner, reports to the High Commission in Fiji. Although we have been back in Kiribati for only a short time, we have already helped the I-Kiribati Government to host a parliamentary workshop on HIV/AIDS and have identified a key member of the I-Kiribati civil service to study in the UK under the Chevening scholarship scheme. We have no plans to change our current level of representation in the region.

As the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, outlined, the Pacific continues to experience a number of serious inter-ethnic conflicts, a point also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. Fighting in Bougainville, which lasted for more than 10 years and claimed hundreds of lives, seems thankfully to be drawing to a close with the agreement last month by the Papua New Guinean Government of the constitutional amendments required to give limited autonomy to the province. But there are many high-powered weapons still circulating there, as there are also in the Solomon Islands. Although there has not been a similar loss of life in Fiji, inter-ethnic tensions continue to simmer there too.

We have been actively engaged on a political level in doing what we can to bring an end to these conflicts. We have supported the UN's pioneering work on weapons disposal in Bougainville, and, with our partners in Australia and New Zealand, worked to ensure that elections were held on schedule in the Solomon Islands last December. As a result, we now have a new government, with a fresh mandate, in that economically desperate country. There is, however, still much to do, and we will continue to keep up the pressure on the Solomon Islands Government to address the law and order situation, end duty remissions and pass a realistic budget.

Following the Commonwealth's lead, we have recently resumed full co-operation with Fiji after a period of strained relations following the coup. We will continue, both bilaterally and with our Commonwealth partners, to monitor the situation, and, in particular, any attempts to distort the constitution in favour of ethnic Fijians and to implement policies which favour ethnic Fijians over Fiji's other peoples.

In addition to these actions on a political level, we have also been engaged in a number of practical projects in the field of conflict prevention. We have contributed to the UN's work on arms disposal on Bougainville and to the international peace monitoring team in the Solomon Islands. We are providing training for the Papua New Guinea defence force.

Another area where we have traditionally had an important role to play is in supporting the judiciary in the Pacific. As your Lordships will know, many of the legal systems in the Pacific were set up by British colonial officials and are rooted in British traditions. One of our most far-reaching projects in the Pacific has been built on our shared heritage in this area. As was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, this concerns the funding of Justice Roger Coventry, a senior British judge, to work with Vanuatu's supreme court. The attachment of Justice Coventry has been a major success in restoring public confidence in the judiciary. He has helped the court to clear a large backlog of cases and has improved the effectiveness of the court's operations. Noble Lords will agree that a fully functioning supreme court is a significant force for stability, and we have extended this successful project for a third year. We are grateful to the Commonwealth Secretariat for making this extension possible.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, in the Solomon Islands, we have helped to strengthen the country's court of appeal by providing financial support for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, who sits as its president, and we have assisted with the running of the high court by funding its registrar for a period of two years.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, asked whether the fund using residual British Phosphate Commissioner's money is still in existence. It is—although it is now called the Pacific Islands Friendship Fund. The attachment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, was funded from this pool of money, as were other projects such as electoral assistance in Fiji and voter education in Papua New Guinea.

These have been some of the main areas where we have helped, but we have also made a significant contribution to the holding of elections in the Solomon Islands and Fiji and are preparing to do the same in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, particularly mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. As he said, good governance is an extremely important issue, and we have spoken to that foundation on a number of occasions about working with us on projects in the South Pacific. So far our discussions have not led to anything specific, but we are keen to explore possibilities. For example, we may invite its representatives to a series of workshops for parliamentarians which we will shortly be running in the Solomon Islands. So that issue is on-going.

We are looking at other areas, too, such as the environment and global warming, and we are working to tackle economic crime and money laundering. We will continue to provide funding for some of the Pacific's young people to study in the UK under the Chevening scholarship scheme and to fund sponsored visits.

Let me now turn more specifically to Britain's development relationship with Pacific island countries. We continue greatly to value this relationship, but of course, as a number of noble Lords have said, it has not stayed the same over the years. There have been many changes within these countries and within Britain's own development strategy, which has evolved considerably since 1997. It now centres on the Government's commitment to the attainment of internationally agreed targets for poverty elimination. In order to achieve these targets, the Government take a global view of development issues, in which it is important to collaborate with others to help build a more effective international development system. In particular, we concentrate our assistance where there are large numbers of poor people and where we have special expertise.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, mentioned the level of expenditure per head. In areas of south-east Asia and elsewhere where there are huge populations—I have not had time to do the calculation—he will find that the expenditure per head is considerably lower. It goes without saying that we all want to spend more, but we should bear that point in mind.

With these considerations in mind, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development decided in early 2001 that we should not continue with separate British bilateral projects in the Pacific after March 2004. This means that we shall maintain our interest in the region by refocusing our contributions to multilateral institutions. We shall also continue with our assessed contribution to the Pacific community and honour our commitment to the Tuvalu Trust Fund. We also stand ready to respond to any humanitarian crisis that may arise. The noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, mentioned the earthquake in Port Vila. Immediately following the earthquake, the department agreed to fund scientific and engineering assessments by the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission. In addition, we hope to support proposals from the EU to assist with rehabilitation work, which may include the points that he raised.

DfID's contributions to such institutions as the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank already average some £8 million a year—double what we spend on our bilateral programmes—and our multilateral contributions will rise as the Pacific benefits from increased funding available under the Cotonou agreement.

To be more specific about our aid through the multilateral agencies—a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle—as I said, we are spending £8 million a year. As multilateral funding increases, particularly under the Cotonou agreement, which is a good example, so will our proportionate share. Our share will increase as a proportion of the total that comes through multilateral funding. I must say frankly to the noble Lord that it is difficult to be absolutely precise about the figures.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, asked about the Commonwealth Development Corporation. Decisions on the future of individual investments are a matter entirely for the CDC. However, I can reassure the noble Lord that the purpose of the public/private partnership is to mobilise increased investment in developing countries, including in the Pacific.

What then are the Government's current priorities in the Pacific? The region does not suffer from the acute levels of income poverty found elsewhere in the world, but Pacific island communities none the less experience plenty of poverty and exclusion. As elsewhere in the world, we wish to help build democratic, accountable government. Accordingly, education and governance are priorities for DfID assistance and attention is focused on the poorest islands—particularly on Vanuatu, of which the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, spoke so movingly and effectively, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands—and on strengthening regional organisations.

Let me reassure the House that we are committed to completing existing activities and to fulfilling our pledges of new assistance. For example, for some years we have supported a curriculum development project for primary education in the Solomon Islands. This has just been extended for one year, to December 2003, to ensure its completion. Emergency assistance to maintain primary education in the Solomons, which we agreed last year but which has been slow to disburse, will also continue beyond its original implementation period.

We shall fulfil our commitment to assist Vanuatu with basic education. But, rather than proceeding entirely bilaterally, we are now planning to collaborate with UNESCO, thereby strengthening Vanuatu's links with a multilateral organisation. Our assistance will consist of technical assistance and grant funding to support Vanuatu's Education for All Forum in developing a realistic policy and implementation plan for education, both formal and informal. I can give further assurance that the small grants schemes—around £300,000 per year—will continue. They are administered by high commissioners.

The UK actively supports the Secretariat of the Pacific community. Recent representation at its meetings has been by our ambassador in Suva and by DfID officials. We contribute to the Secretariat's core budget and support selected programmes. At present, DfID is considering collaborating with the Secretariat and any other interested donors in establishing a much-needed socio-economic regional database. This will be available to national and regional policy makers and planners, to the private sector, to civil society and to donors. It will help them to monitor the impact of programmes and population trends and assist them in formulating new policies more precisely.

DfID is also discussing with the European Commission the possibility of seconding a trade adviser to its delegation office in Suva, whose services would be particularly relevant to implementing the trade provisions of the Cotonou agreement. There is also the prospect of staff secondments or exchanges with the World Bank and the New Zealand ODA in the field of education.

These are just a number of examples by which I hope to assure your Lordships that we shall continue the commitments that we already have, and that we take very seriously the multilateral programmes that are now coming to the fore. I hope that these few examples demonstrate to the House that the British Government are working actively to help the small island economies of the Pacific. They may be far away, but we stay in close touch with events there and will continue to play our part, both bilaterally and in international fora, to ensure that they are better able to meet the challenges of global change and make the most of the opportunities that it brings.

All those who have taken part in the debate have spoken effectively about the warmth of the contacts between ourselves and these small, scattered islands with such diverse histories and communities.