Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 15th May 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 7:00 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, one of the features of the Queen’s Speech was that it implied that there would be less legislation. I believe that that is excellent because—this has nothing to do with party politics—it enables this House to spend more time considering big issues, including monitoring the programmes of government.

The policies and actions of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID are very important in helping the UK’s commercial and industrial interests, as well as ensuring that the UK works with other nations to deal with the global problems of climate change, the threat to the environment, global pandemics, and prospective food and water shortages, some of which were referred to by the retiring Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, and the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. The role of science in this area of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and defence was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Reid.

I declare interests as a professor, as a director of a small company and as a member of GLOBE, and I want to touch on that. With its limited numbers, further reduced by this Government, could the Foreign Office be more effective in collaborating with other UK, UN and EU organisations? First, I want to compliment the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its support for and collaboration with NGOs, one of which is GLOBE. This has had the remarkable effect of bringing together Ministers, civil servants, parliamentarians and now UN agencies to achieve, rather unexpectedly, general agreement about national legislation to deal with climate change. There has been some learning in this process but it has been effective, and I believe that there is, as it were, a general moral in that.

However, I should like to introduce a slightly more sour note in commenting that the FCO could be considerably more effective in working with other branches of government to promote UK interests and commercial interests. The United States embassies use US government agencies to promote US business in quite a forward and ruthless way, rather unlike our embassies. This is a point made by Americans and foreigners all around the world. We are very good at some of the broader political issues but, as I see it, often we are not so great at pushing for British interests. The Chancellor increased some funding for this purpose. We had a debate in the House of Lords but I believe that more can be done. One point is that UK government agencies could provide objective information about UK companies and products. Here, I have a vested interest, as I say. However, it is nothing like the kind of information provided by the United States, which has, for example, whole sections in its embassy in Beijing pushing US technology.

Some UK companies felt that there were great opportunities to develop products based on the UK’s success with the Olympic Games and our success in developing east London—something that the British Government wanted to happen. However, the funding being put forward by other countries for similar kinds of urban renewal projects makes it quite difficult for British companies to compete, as has been stated to me.

The United States also uses its technical and commercial colleagues as part of its delegations to meetings of the United Nations technical agencies.

I used to represent the UK at the World Meteorological Organisation. We had civil servants; the Americans had a whole array of people. Every night, they would ring up the Department of State and would get information back. It was a very different operation. I believe that this is a significant problem and that the Foreign Office should do more in monitoring and promoting the use of the UK delegation to the United Nations, not only to be effective but to promote UK interests. In fact, some of the UK government agencies which are part of these delegations do not take it as seriously as they should. Indeed, a recent chief executive of a UK agency said, “I don’t regard this as part of my job at all”. The job description of the new Foreign Office chief scientific adviser did not even mention the United Nations or the UN agencies, which are enormously important for all these technical issues.

As the Government, through the United Nations department at the Foreign Office, are not able, or choose not to, give sufficient information about what is going on, if you really want to find out what is happening in this whole world of UN agencies and you are no longer an official, you can use, on either your BlackBerry or your iPhone, the extremely effective information provided by IID, an organisation in Canada. From that, for example, we can learn this week about what is happening in the Arctic Council. Last week, we could hear about what was happening in discussions on the Stockholm and other conventions. Surely, if the United Kingdom wants to promote itself as a country which is really on top of the use of the internet and communications, the Foreign Office should be at the forefront of informing at the very least parliamentarians but also, one would hope, the public about what it is doing.

Through a PQ, I had correspondence from the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Apparently this year is the International Year of Water Co-operation but no information is to be provided about the UK objectives and there is to be no report on what happens at the United Nations. Yet today I understand that the Prime Minister is talking at the United Nations about the importance of water. Therefore, we really need to do more.

Equally important in the role of UN agencies is their help in developing countries. I am sure that the late Lord Brett, who was a great advocate of the International Labour Organisation, would have been reassured to hear that the ILO played a very positive role in calls for trade union involvement and more consultation following the Dhaka disaster.

I should like to touch on Europe, which the Minister was very enthusiastic about. “Hear, hear” could be heard a lot as she made her speech. The Ministers in BIS are even more positive about the EU, and I particularly commend the enthusiasm of Mr Willetts in promoting the space industry. This involves not only software, in which the UK has often been very strong, but hardware, which leads to jobs. Of course, David Willetts has a constituency with a lot of factories in the space business, but it is a very important aspect.

We need our UK embassies and consulates to inform the rest of the world not only about the UK’s technology but about how we are working with the other countries of Europe. It is very interesting that last week in China the French Prime Minister spoke about the excellence of the Airbus. The wings of the Airbus are made in Britain. How often does the British Prime Minister talk about a European project in which the British and French are participating? Then the German Prime Minister might talk about Rolls-Royce, which has factories in Germany. This would be the development of a broader way of working. When you go to embassies and consulates, it is regrettable how little advocacy there is about the important role of the UK working on the most advanced projects in Europe.

Finally, I should like to say—perhaps uniquely in this afternoon’s debate—that people have been talking about the UK as an important global player with networks and so on. However, surely we should be thinking beyond the framework of World War II and the Cold War. It is extraordinary that this little country, then with 2% of the world’s GDP and a population of 50 million, along with France should still have seats on the United Nations Security Council. Surely one seat should be for Europe with a population of 500 million, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, and the other for India, which is soon to be the country with the largest population. This will not happen immediately but surely there should be the beginnings of a discussion about the future by Parliament, the United Nations associations and other foreign relations. We cannot carry on with this World War II framework.