My Lords, our relationship with France, further strengthened by the November 2010 UK-France summit, is one of our most important bilateral relationships. Since President Sarkozy visited London for the UK-France summit, we have also welcomed the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Europe Minister. Bilaterally, we work on a range of foreign policy and European issues, as well as immigration, counterterrorism, climate change, employment and social affairs. France is also an important trade partner. It will host the next UK-France summit later this year.
My Lords, surely the logic of sharing defence assets is that we need a foreign policy agreement on where to deploy those assets. Now, when both countries are experiencing similar financial stresses, should we not look at the collocation of embassies, sharing diplomats and co-ordinating policies in areas such as West Africa? Will the Minister also consider the possibility of encouraging our Commonwealth partners to look at a new dialogue with La Francophonie, which, again, would be to our mutual interest? Where are the new proposals in preparation for the summit to be held later this year?
My Lords, the noble Lord's line of thinking is extremely positive and constructive. Although the francophonie and France's interest in its former colonies in Africa are rather different in character from those of the Commonwealth -its origins are quite different-there are clearly some areas of common interest. In fact, I am told that the two secretary-generals of the organisations meet quite regularly and the noble Lord will remember that President Sarkozy addressed the previous Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago last year. I hope that that kind of liaison will develop. It will indeed be on agendas for the next UK-France summit. The sharing of embassies in some convenient areas comes up from time to time, both in an EU and a national context, as does sharing embassies with other Commonwealth countries. As was mentioned, Australia wishes to share some embassies with the UK. Common sense and common organisation, particularly in more remote and difficult posts, point to some sharing of facilities and that makes perfectly good common sense.
What mechanisms would be used to monitor the progress of the constituent parts of the recent defence treaties? Will there be an annual report to Parliament on this area?
I would have to check with my noble friend on the precise nature of the monitoring but this is a very elaborate set of two defence and security treaties which carry affairs a long way forward in a number of areas, not just defence but also in civil nuclear development and in other crucial security areas. I shall check precisely the arrangements and come back to my noble friend.
Although my noble friend makes an excellent point, as of course does the Minister, on defence matters, and although I yield to none in this House in my francophilia, not least because my wife is French, I hope that we shall be very selective in our international collaboration with the Sarkozy Government. A catastrophic record in Maghreb was associated with the discredited departed regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and it would be very damaging to be linked with that.
I am sorry to hear the noble Lord's comments on the French policy on record at the time. It is not for me to defend or to elaborate on France's policy. All I can say in the present situation is that we are working in very close co-operation with our French friends. We regard them as close friends, and certainly in relation to Tunis and the other problems in north Africa, we are finding excellent co-operation.
The Minister is quite right to describe these as elaborate treaties. Perhaps I can press him a little further on the defence treaty, which talks about extending bilateral co-operation on the acquisition of equipment and technology, such as complex weapons systems, submarine technology and satellite communications, and developing stronger defence industrial and technology bases. I applaud all that in theory. Does that mean the end of competition between our respective companies which deal in defence equipment? My experience has been that competition was always very fierce indeed and, if there is this degree of co-operation, it will be interesting to know how that is to be resolved.
As I suspect the noble Baroness fully realises, the answer falls in two parts. In some areas, competition will and must continue in the interests of the Government getting a good deal and not becoming vulnerable to having one supplier and therefore confronted with one price and one deal; but in other areas, which were specified in the two treaties-including developing capabilities and equipment, common support for the A400M and a joint user group to develop the A400M training systems, construction of nuclear hydrodynamics facilities at Valduc and a whole range of detailed technical operations-there is bound to be co-operation. I applaud the noble Baroness's concern to keep up competition; that is right, but in some areas co-operation will secure major economies and efficiencies, which we should support.
My Lords, given that France is hosting the G20 summit, and given that by the end of this year 1 billion people will be chronically undernourished, are the Government discussing the French proposals to stabilise world commodity prices through an international mechanism?
Yes, we have discussed with a number of our close allies the problem of food and commodity prices now. We must face the fact that this is a global issue and that markets are very powerful agencies which somehow produce their own solutions despite what Governments attempt to do. However, these are matters of great concern to us and, as my noble friend rightly says, of very great concern to millions, if not hundreds of millions of people, who face severe jumps in commodity prices, food prices, energy prices and other prices-all with major political implications for the future.