Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Conservative 3:25 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, it feels quite like old times to be having a five-hour state-of-the-nation debate in your Lordships' House on a subject of extreme importance to our nation and to the whole world. I therefore add my thanks and congratulations to my noble friend Lord Marlesford on securing time for this debate, on his brilliant introduction and, indeed, on his timing. It is important, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us earlier, that Conservative thinking and priorities on foreign policy are fully understood.

Given the generous terms of the Motion, it is tempting to cover a lot of ground and touch on challenges such as the updating for the 21st century of our post-1945 global institutions, which the debate has not yet touched on. I refer to the changing role of the Council of Europe, with its 46 member states including Russia and Turkey—for 10 fascinating years, I served as a Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—and to the European Union, especially in this year of European parliamentary elections. There is also the challenge and excitement, in the United States, of what my noble friend described as the new wave of the Obama presidency.

However, as many of your Lordships will not be surprised to hear, I intend in my allotted time to concentrate on two themes that are, I believe, all too often lost and forgotten in the drama and turbulence of the Middle East and in considering the overwhelming size and dynamism of growing economies such as India and China. I speak, first, of the rich and varied region of Latin America and, secondly, of the Commonwealth—an organisation of great importance to this country, and which I greatly admire.

In all this, I wish to reiterate what has been said, today and on other occasions in your Lordships' House, about the importance of the role of the Foreign Office and of agencies such as the British Council—on which subject, I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, was not able to participate in this debate. I lament, once again, the closing and downsizing of embassies, high commissions and representative agencies, both in Latin America and in Commonwealth countries. My noble friend Lord Hurd has emphasised that, while I also lament the reduction in educational exchanges and scholarships that have traditionally played such an important role in our international relations and goodwill from countries worldwide.

I must mention how magnificent a job the British branches of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association do to fill the gap, as do many NGOs. I cite, for example, the English Speaking Union, but we must not forget the roles of Canning House, our Latin American organisation, and, indeed, of Chatham House. They deserve and need support, which I hope will be stepped up by a future Conservative Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, set the scene on Latin America in her role as chairman of the all-party group. She gave us facts and figures to underline the region's importance, and posed a number of questions that need answers. No doubt, the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, will also talk from his wide experience and knowledge of the region.

The individual countries that together constitute what we, for convenience, refer to as Latin America play a vital part not only in the world economy but in other world aspects. They are rich in commodities, not only oil and gas but water and precious metals, and in food production. In the vital area of climate change, Amazonia is recognised and often described as the lungs of the world, and Brazil is a world leader in developing energy from sugar, one of the most efficient forms of alternative energy. China recognises that and is investing heavily in the region, replacing British investors in some cases. While we currently give priority to developing trade with China, as every other country in the world seems to be doing, China is replacing our investment and interest in Latin America.

The European Union also recognises the importance of Latin America and has negotiated and continues to negotiate trade agreements with the region and with individual countries within it. In my day as president of Canning House, the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council, my aim was to build bridges between the European Union and Latin America. I saw one bridge going, obviously, from Spain and Portugal, from the south of Europe, and the other going from the north of Europe from the United Kingdom. Our historic and traditional links with individual countries through their independence movements, led by Bolivar, San Martín and O'Higgins, and our history of trade and investment in that region, have created an enormous amount of good will.

To illustrate our neglect of Latin America, as a trustee of the Industry in Parliament Trust, I recently intended a seminar entitled "Global Markets: A Look Forward". The chairman of UK Trade and Investment's Financial Services Sector Advisory Board talked about its priority markets being the BRICs. He went on to talk about China, Russia, India and Singapore. The "B" of the BRICs acronym stands for Brazil, so I asked why Brazil, with its leading role in Latin America, its membership of the OECD, and so on, was not treated as a priority area. He answered that I would be glad to hear that it had indeed been a runner-up and almost included within the priority area.

UK banks used to be household names throughout Latin America; now we probably see only HSBC there. Surely the balance needs redressing. For that matter, Mexico also has a huge and thriving economy and a Mexican is currently running the OECD. I very much welcome the state visit of the President of Mexico, which will help to call attention to the importance of that country. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that in future, UK Trade and Investment priorities will include more than one country in Latin America.

In the few moments that remain to me, I shall dwell on the Commonwealth. It is appropriate during the 60th anniversary year of the foundation of the Commonwealth to review an institution that has changed and developed over the years and now has countries with no historic or colonial links queuing up for membership. It includes and gives democratic voice to 53 countries large and small, including all the major faiths and spanning five continents and three oceans. Its importance was underlined recently by my right honourable friend William Hague—here I may help the noble Lord, Lord McNally, with his lack of confidence in him as a future Foreign Secretary. In a major speech my right honourable friend said:

"The theme of my speech is the need to think afresh about Britain's relationship with the Commonwealth and to join with people from other nations in reinvigorating this extraordinary organisation. It is a relationship which has endured through the ages but sadly has been undervalued in recent years".

That is the right approach and a good indication of Conservative policy for the future.

It interesting to note the success of our Commonwealth at reinforcing the Francophone countries and the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in creating and strengthening their links, both commercial and cultural, between peoples united by history and language. The example of the CPA in bringing parliamentarians together on that basis is also being followed. Maximum support is necessary from our Government to ensure that this unique institution moves forward and takes a lead in global policies.

My final phrase will be: in facing new challenges, we must not forget old friends.