My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in that—except for a four-year break in the years after I came to your Lordships’ House from another place—I have served as a member of the United Kingdom delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for 32 years, if noble Lords can believe that. I was recently vice-president of the assembly and I am currently a rapporteur to one of its committees.
The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, complained about the lack of information from the Government on the web. If he were to look up the website of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, he would find the report which I presented last November on Russian hybrid warfare which, I am glad to say, was adopted unanimously by the assembly.
The Minister referred to the current president, Madeleine Moon, who presides over the assembly with a great deal of distinction and to much admiration. That takes me back to my early days, when the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly was Sir Thomas Dugdale, later the 1st Baron Crathorne and father of my noble friend Lord Crathorne, who inspired me, in my early days, to take up a political career. This debate completes the circle in many ways.
I am, and always have been, a great admirer of NATO. As the Minister said, it is perhaps the most successful defensive military alliance in history. Given the reborn posturing, outrages and mischief of Mr Putin’s Russia, I most strongly support the deployment of those four battlegroups in the Baltic and Poland, which cannot be seen, by any stretch of the imagination, to be offensive or regressive so far as Russia is concerned, but provide a vital tripwire.
However, I have a number of serious reservations about NATO’s forward thinking and housekeeping. The Minister referred to occasions when NATO is not as quick on its feet as it should be, and I very much agree on that. Frankly, the construction of the new headquarters in Brussels has been a joke. The decision to build it was taken in 1999 and plans were approved in 2003, with planned occupation 12 years later, in 2015. In fact, no real positive entry was made until last year, 2018.
Again, I am concerned to be told that the penny has dropped only recently about the major problems of moving heavy, bulky military equipment around Europe. The problems of low and unstable bridges or tunnels have caused all sorts of dilemmas. These are just two examples, which do not give the impression of an organisation which is flexible, decisive and quick on its feet.
This afternoon, my principal concerns regard NATO’s internal financial management and bookkeeping. This is all audited by the International Board of Auditors for NATO, known as IBAN. It has highlighted a number of serious shortcomings, which have appeared in its reports. I have drawn some of these reservations to the attention of the Secretary-General twice, in public. On both occasions, I was rudely brushed aside and the questions I asked were ignored. I conclude that either he did not know the answer, in which case he should have, or that he did not care, in which case I wonder if he ought to have the job at all.
To be fair, I got a letter from the Deputy Secretary-General on questions I put to her in November last year. I am glad to say I got a letter dated
I spoke in your Lordships’ House last June regarding IBAN’s published reservations about NATO’s accounting procedures. I will not repeat them now—they are on the record—but the problems persist. IBAN reports that there is progress, but no assurance that all NATO’s entities will improve their financial management reporting collectively and significantly, and there is a lack of unity and consistency in the systems and applications of financial reporting rules.
With regard to the 2018 audits, 39 opinions were issued by IBAN. Nineteen of those were unqualified, which is good. Twenty-three were qualified—which is not good. In two there was a denial of opinion by IBAN, and in one of those two IBAN had a problem—the impossibility of carrying out an audit due to the unreliability of the documents and figures submitted.
IBAN has repeated difficulty in dealing with the accounting representation of NATO’s tangible assets. This was one of the problems last year in terms of properties, plants and equipment. Again, IBAN tells us that there is no clear and consistent series of guidelines applicable by all to detect and deal with cases of fraud and corruption, which of course is so much a part of IBAN’s responsibility. Finally, IBAN is evidently concerned that no single responsible person in NATO seems to be charged with co-ordinating all these and other reservations. To sum up, there appears to be an unfortunate reluctance to respond and endorse too many of IBAN’s reservations and recommendations. I realise that the Minister may not be able to respond to all these comments today. I hope that he will write to me in the near future, and put a copy of his reply in the Library.
I will end by putting two questions which the Government might like to answer, and also to raise them with NATO itself. First, does NATO intend, effectively and sufficiently, to establish an internal audit capability in all NATO bodies—including ones concerning international staff? Also, regarding international staff, does NATO agree that an independent, professional internal audit force, compliant with the internal audit international standards, should report both to the Secretary-General directly and to the international staff audit committee?
Secondly, why has IBAN, which is made up of professional, experienced experts in public management and holds a broad understanding of NATO, not given advice in the international staff functional review? Noble Lords may feel that these are rather obscure issues, but a great deal of public money is involved in all NATO’s activities. However successful and admirable the alliance has been, it is very important that these sorts of questions do not give rise to the disquiet which they have done. They are worthy of answers.