United Nations Reform

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:51 am on 18th April 2006.

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Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 10:51 am, 18th April 2006

I reiterate the comments of Mr. Clifton-Brown by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I thank my hon. Friend Dr. Blackman-Woods for initiating the debate and for her comments. I welcome the interest that Members of both Houses take in the United Nations and in the crucial reforms that that organisation faces. What a pleasure it is to follow such fine contributions from the hon. Members for Cotswold, for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), and my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy).

The Government are a strong supporter of the United Nations. We have been a staunch ally of the Secretary-General in his reform efforts. We want those efforts to result in a more effective and efficient UN, better able to meet the interlinked challenges of development, security and human rights. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham drew us a vivid picture when she said that reforming the UN was like trying to turn around a huge tanker with several ships attached to it. As someone who once had a shot, unwisely, at using a ship simulator and managed to sink a 100,000-tonne coal carrier, wreck the navigation pier at Avonmouth, block the Severn navigation channel and cause a major pollution hazard, I know exactly what she means. We need to communicate vividly the importance of reform, and the hon. Member for Cotswold explained its importance very clearly.

We continue to work hard to achieve the objective of reform. I am pleased that several colleagues present at the debate were able to see for themselves, when they visited New York in January, the challenges that the UN faces and the energy that we are devoting to help it to meet those challenges. I agree with the assessment of our team working in New York. Sir Emyr Jones Parry has a superb team and is one of our best diplomats. No doubt hon. Members can play a role in furthering the good work in which they are engaged on the reform agenda. Debates such as this are welcome and important. With regard to the comments of the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, I will take that valid message to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The issue is hugely important and I believe that this needs to be a regular debate.

The reform debate of the past few years culminated in the 2005 UN world summit last September, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attended along with 152 other Heads of Government. Some people expressed disappointment at the outcome of the summit, but it was a significant step forward for the UN and delivered an essential package of reforms and commitments by the international community. We have heard about those this morning. We must try to channel that energy and enthusiasm so that our representatives and those of the EU and other progressive forces in the UN can take the reform agenda forward.

The UK, when it had the presidency of the EU, played a crucial role in the negotiations leading up to the summit. The Government intend to lay before Parliament a Command Paper on the United Nations shortly. That will include our assessment of the progress made on implementing the reforms agreed at the summit and on the outstanding issues to be addressed. Hon. Members might welcome a brief assessment of where things stand on the implementation process.

The agreements reached in New York on development and climate change—I was glad to hear hon. Members mention those issues—reflected several important Gleneagles and EU commitments. Those included the need to accelerate progress towards the millennium development goals, to address the special needs of Africa and to create, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said, a new central emergency relief fund to strengthen the UN's ability to mobilise quickly and effectively resources to tackle humanitarian crises.

The challenge now is to ensure that those commitments are fulfilled. We continue to lead by example, as shown by our recent commitment to spend at least £8.5 billion on aid for education over the next 10 years. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mention the discussions that have been held on the role that the UN should play in seeking to fulfil environmental commitments. At the world summit, there was an agreement to explore the possibility of a more coherent UN institutional framework, including a more integrated structure built on existing institutions and instruments. I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman point out something that we do not think about enough, which is that no other organisation in the world has the ability to speak to all nations as the UN does. We are pleased with the raised profile that the General Assembly president, Jan Eliasson, has given the issue. I shall consider carefully the interesting examples of possible intervention by the UN that the hon. Gentleman suggested.

We hope to make progress on the EU's goal of transforming the UN Environment Programme into a specialised agency with a revised and strengthened mandate and improved financing. That will enable the UN's environmental pillar to tackle better developing countries' needs, to strengthen the scientific basis of decision making, to focus on emerging priorities such as the environment and security, to improve co-ordination at policy and operational level and to ensure sustained delivery in respect of environmental priorities.

The world summit invited Kofi Annan to launch further work to consider how all the UN operations that we have talked about this morning could be managed more tightly around three pillars: development, humanitarian assistance and the environment. The development, humanitarian and environmental efforts of the UN have become increasingly fragmented, with multiple agencies competing for donor funds, different agencies occupying the same policy space, and overlap and duplication at both headquarters and country level. As many hon. Members pointed out, that is inhibiting the UN from making as significant a contribution as it could make to the achievement of internationally agreed development goals.

The Secretary-General's panel on system-wide coherence in the areas of humanitarian assistance, the environment and development is therefore crucial. It heartened me to hear many hon. Members mention that. I am proud of the contribution that the UK made to the world summit's success and of the continuing efforts—