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Resident Diplomats

Volume 226: debated on Wednesday 16 June 1993

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To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the value of locally resident diplomatic representation.

Our diplomatic representatives provide access and influence in order to further the United Kingdom's interests in the political, commercial, economic and other fields. They enhance the security and prosperity of this country and provide a wide-ranging service to British citizens abroad.

Following the successful development of co-ordination between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in supporting British exporters, would not it be extremely unfortunate and counter-productive to reduce the number of our missions abroad, particularly when we are having to put such effort into increasing British exports?

It is increasingly clear to those who follow these matters that diplomacy, the work that I have just described, and trade promotion are intertwined and that, in more and more of our markets, Governments set the rules and, in many cases, award the contracts, so orders are not obtained without knowing the politics and the politicians—and that is not achieved with a fax machine.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that British businesses and expatriates in Nigeria need the protection of the Nigerian high commission under the excellent leadership of Sir Christopher MacRae? I hope that that praise will not prejudice Sir Christopher's career prospects. One of the commission's officials accompanied four Members of Parliament to observe the presidential elections on Saturday, the results of which I hope will be upheld as they were, by and large, free and fair.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend— [Interruption.]—the hon. Gentleman. He was so polite that my tongue slipped. That exercise went well and I am glad that the high commission was able to give some help. Nigeria will remain a huge market. It illustrates the point that I have just made. During the past year, British exports have increased by 22 per cent. and I hope that a smooth movement back to civilian rule will help them, too.

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that probably the most important diplomatic representatives that Britain has abroad at this difficult time in international affairs is our permanent representative at the United Nations? Will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David Hannay for the work that he does and confirm that it is extremely important that the United Kingdom retains its seat as a permanent member of the Security Council?

That is our intention. Sir David Hannay sets a vigorous lead in all that he does at the United Nations.

Is not the Secretary of State being a little economical with the facts in his answer? Is not it true that not only are the number of missions being cut but the Treasury has instructed the Foreign Office to cut the number of staff in embassies? In some important embassies —for instance, in north America—the number of staff dealing with trade and exports is being cut, while staff who deal with media and presentation are being retained. Is not that another example of the Government's policy of being all presentation and no substance?

I have had no instructions from the Treasury in these matters. We are just entering discussions on the public expenditure round. We have had to open posts in many of the 20 new countries that have come into being in the past two or three years and that has meant retrenching in other places. This is a matter of setting priorities.

I accept that it is necessary to have as comprehensive a representation around the world as possible, for the excellent growth reasons which were given by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and reinforced by my right hon. Friend's answer. Does not my right hon. Friend agree, however, that it is better to concentrate rather more on farther-flung places than on the EEC? In that context, will he reconsider the withdrawal of British defence attachées from Quito and Manila who play an important role in addition to the commercially and locally recruited personnel?

Defence attaches are not a matter for me, but we do review the size of staff at bigger embassies. In the past few years, we have cut the size of staff by seven in Paris, six in Bonn and 17 in Washington. Diplomacy inside the Community is crucial. For example, our representatives in Community posts are currently preparing for the Copenhagen summit—warding off developments that we would not like and encouraging developments that we do like. That exercise is important for the summit's success.