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Special Representative for International Trade and Investment

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)

I speak under negative privilege. Privilege is given to us as MPs to expand our opportunities to make comments and talk about personalities while enjoying protection from libel laws. The situation that I am speaking under is one that does not expand our opportunities, however, because on this subject I am denied the opportunity of saying what I am entirely free to say in broadcasts or on blogs outside this House. In this House my mouth is bandaged by archaic rules that deny me the chance to be critical of certain individuals. I can be sycophantically, emetically in praise of those individuals—that is not limited in any way—but I am not allowed to criticise them. I therefore make the point that I am speaking under constraints that I hope we will remove at a later date. This debate is, I believe, a step on the way towards tabling a motion that will liberate us as MPs to talk freely about subjects that are discussed throughout the country.

The role of the special trade representative has been a matter of great controversy, discussion and debate. It is a hot topic everywhere, in the newspapers, in the pubs and on blogs, but the only place that we cannot discuss it fully is in this House—the place where we should be allowed to do so, because we can do something to reform the role if necessary. The role is a very strange one. There is no wage paid, but it is claimed that our present trade envoy has cost the taxpayer about £4 million in the last 10 years, not including the costs to protection officers. What is the job? It is impossible to find a job description, but one might say that skills in diplomacy, expertise in trade and industry, and sensitivity about our ethical standing would be needed in such a job.

The present envoy was appointed to his role by Her Majesty the Queen after consultation with the Cabinet Office, UK Trade & Investment, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and he was given the title of UK’s special representative for international trade and investment. Is there a problem with the position at the moment? There certainly appears to be a problem with the lack of competition for the job. There is no open competition; there is no pre-appointment hearing or anything of that kind; and there seems to be only one qualification—namely, membership of a certain family, as the job was inherited from another member of that family.

Are there any matters that deserve our concern? Many groups have suggested that there are. A coalition of human rights groups is calling for a review into how the Government do business with non-democratic regimes around the world. Those groups say that the Government’s stated position on human rights, corporate responsibility and the rule of law is at odds with their apparent position of trading with autocratic or corrupt politicians. Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, the Corner House, Global Witness and Campaign Against Arms Trade say that recent publicity has underlined fundamental failings in this country’s supposedly ethical foreign policy. Tom Porteous, the UK director of Human Rights Watch and a Foreign Office adviser, said that recent publicity was making the UK “look stupid”.

Those calls for action follow concern about delays in implementing the Bribery Act 2010—delays that have left the Government open to claims that they are not really committed to fighting corruption. Campaigners allege that they have yet to receive a response from the coalition’s international anti-corruption champion, the Justice Secretary, after requesting details of the Government’s strategy on tackling dishonest business practices.

Tom Porteous, a member of the Government’s advisory group, which was created by the Foreign Secretary, and someone whose job is to examine the ethical dimension of British foreign policy, said that Ministers needed to rethink their way of doing business. Nicholas Hildyard of the Corner House has said:

“There is an absolute necessity to have an ethical foreign policy with very strict screening into what goes where, proper screening of all government-supported exports in the context of human rights.”

Robert Palmer of Global Witness makes a similar point. Richard Alderman, the director of the Serious Fraud Office and a key figure in cracking down on business bribes to win contracts, told the Home Secretary of growing concerns over the delays in implementing the Bribery Act. He reported warning that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the US Justice Department had been unhappy with the coalition’s decision to push back the legislation’s introduction.

Those are bodies of great seriousness, and they are expressing concern about the present situation. Rather more telling, however, is the evidence from Stephen Day, a former ambassador. He writes:

“The suggestion that an envoy is needed to ‘open doors’ is insulting to our ambassadors. Has that not been their primary job, as representatives of the Queen to foreign Heads of State? And are they not fully competent to support serious business proposals, as welcome to the host country as they will be to Britain? Trade promotion is a serious, long-term commitment, in which the embassy can give the best informed guidance and work effectively in partnership with the British enterprise and in step with Whitehall and other agencies to consolidate reputations and build long-term success. The message being spread around the world at the moment is that Britain is so desperate for business, and so incapable of competing openly, that it needs a back-door approach and is content to work closely with dodgy fixers and politicians—i.e. that British business is incapable of winning contracts through professional, legal means .”

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the message that is being given out at the moment, but he has given us no details of how it is being given out. In the absence of any evidence as to how it is being given out, I have to say that the House is very surprised not only at the message that he suggests is being given out but at the fact that it is being given out at all. Will he give us further details?

I am not in a position to give further details, because if I did so, I would transgress the rules of the House, as I did in a previous debate. That debate was interrupted. The Speaker would quite rightly abide by the rules of the House and tell me that I was not allowed to make any derogatory statements that might affect the envoy, his personality or his name. It is an illustration of how demeaned we are as politicians and Members of Parliament that I am allowed to make any points about the damage that is done only in an oblique way, by discussing the effects of the holder of the office, his role and the comments that are being made.

I am not entirely clear, listening to the hon. Gentleman’s line of reasoning, whether he has called this debate obliquely to criticise Prince Andrew in his role as special envoy, or whether he has called it to query whether we need a special envoy at all. In my experience, having done the shadow trade job, Prince Andrew goes round the world, opens a lot of doors and does a lot of trade for the UK, and I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency needed the jobs that are created by businesses that export round the world.

That is a wonderful example of how the hon. and learned Gentleman is free to praise the person involved, while I am denied the opportunity to attach any blame to him. It is entirely irrational and anti-intellectual, and contrary to the debating freedoms of this House that I am not allowed to answer his question or repeat the criticism that has appeared in almost all our national newspapers and media of the way in which that role is performed. I cannot do that, and that is the weakness that I wish to attack in this debate. I can, however, talk about the role and the opinion of certain serious people.

May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman pushes the point? The Chair will no doubt rule on that. If he seeks to make the criticism that he suggests he is prevented from making and the Chair prevents him from making it, his point will be made good. If the Chair does not do so, his point will have been wholly undermined.

I am making the points as far as I can within the limits imposed on us in this Chamber. I first debated this subject on 17 March and hope to contribute to a debate tonight that will be within the rules of the House and will lead to a notice of a motion, which I hope I can get carried.

For the final time, the hon. Gentleman has an opportunity either to press his points and make the criticism he seeks to make or to evade that criticism by not making the point at all. He has that opportunity and if he steps beyond the bounds of what is permitted and what is in order in this Chamber, the Chair will rule on it. As yet, he has not sought to make that criticism. As and when he does so, the Chair will make a ruling. Is he prepared to stand by the mettle of the argument he is making or—

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. Interventions are getting longer; they need to get shorter.

This is the second part of the debate; the first part on 17 March was interrupted when I could not take the line that the hon. Gentleman urges me to take without transgressing the rules of the House. Those rules need to be changed.

Stephen Day, a former ambassador, talked about the ambassador in Doha as an example. His letter said:

“We have an excellent ambassador in Doha and Sheik Hamad is the most accessible of rulers, in person and on the telephone. To use such an intermediary strikes me as crassly inappropriate… Of course the Amirs and Sheikhs engage with trade and finance, but this is generally done privately through agents and associates, not by principals directly. To use”

an envoy

“for such a purpose is seen by Arabs as crude and unworthy of our historic connections. It is quite the wrong way to promote our interests in this important region of the world and the sooner we are seen to have re-learned how to engage with Arabs the better.”

That is what a greatly experienced ambassador says.

There is an argument for saying that the role is of great importance and has great potential to promote our industries and that many thousands of jobs depend on the relationships we have with other countries. Are we doing this the right way? There is powerful evidence from human rights organisations and from the former ambassador that we are not and that we are losing ground because of it.

Natasha Schmidt, assistant editor of the Index on Censorship, said people were angered by links between our trade envoy and President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, whose country is one of the most corrupt in the world. It routinely oppresses its own people and there are allegations involving torture of political opponents and rigged elections by Aliyev’s regime. There are also allegations by some of the employees of the agency of a close relationship with President Aliyev. Natascha Schmidt said:

“It is absolutely appalling that the envoy would have such close links with Aliyev, an authoritarian ruler who has shown himself to be completely intolerant to criticism and is an enemy of free speech”.

We live in an era of openness, transparency and scrutiny of appointments. A major advance is the system of pre-appointment hearings in the House, when someone going for a major job appears before a Select Committee to justify the appointment. That is wholly healthy and beneficial.

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but I must say that I am not entirely clear—perhaps he will enlighten the House—whether the purpose is to debate the role of our individual special envoy, to raise the question of whether we need a special envoy or to debate British trade policy and which countries we should or should not trade with. Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us?

It is all those things: the question of whether we need a special envoy and whether it is beneficial or not. Within the limits I have set out, I am able only to point obliquely to my view that it is perhaps not always beneficial to have one. If we have one, that person should not be chosen merely on the basis of what advantages he or she has inherited, and the choice should not be limited to a single family. There should be open competition, so that we can acquire someone who can do the job in the manner that is required. It should not involve work that can be done far more effectively by ambassadors who know their countries and know what the opportunities are.

The need for this position, and the manner in which it serves or does not serve the country, should be examined by the House of Commons fully and fairly, and not under the restrictions by which I am governed tonight. The antique rules of the House frustrated my earlier attempts to debate this issue in a meaningful way. In a grown-up, modern Parliament, no issue should be beyond our surveillance and, if necessary, our criticism. It is our duty to remove this gag, and to speak freely as citizens rather than being silenced as subjects.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has made a number of points that I do not think I can answer tonight, because they are not the responsibility of my Department. I consider that the question of whether he is gagged by the orders of the House is a matter for other House authorities, and I am sure that it will be dealt with in the usual way. I assume that he does not expect me to deal with those points. However, he managed to raise other important issues about the role of the special representative for international trade and investment, although I should say at the outset that I could not disagree more with his conclusions about that job.

The hon. Gentleman talked a great deal about what he considered to be the problem of a lack of competition in the job, as if membership of the Royal Family were open to competition. I think most people will find that a rather odd position for him to take. However, I am pleased to note that he is now in favour of competition, as he does not often take that line.

I, for one, believe that the Duke of York does an excellent job as the UK’s special representative for international trade and investment. He promotes UK business interests around the world, and helps to attract inward investment. He has been the UK’s special representative since 1 October 2001, and it is interesting that there has been no debate of this kind during the period of nearly 10 years since his appointment. During that time he has been a long-standing success in the role, representing a continued interest on the part of the Royal Family in supporting British business and international trade and investment.

Since taking on his role, the Duke of York has built a substantial network of contacts at high level in both Government and business overseas. Those links help the duke to make a major impact in a range of markets around the world. He has made a valuable contribution in developing significant opportunities for British business through the role, and continues to do so.

The hon. Gentleman could have talked about how he would assess that, and what evidence we could provide. Of course, it is often difficult to prove that a particular intervention by a particular person at a particular time results in a particular success. However, if we listen to the voice of British business, it is absolutely clear that it endorses the role of the Duke of York. Many who have worked with the duke have found that he is a real asset for our country in supporting UK business. A letter from a group of prominent business people published recently by The Sunday Times underlines the duke’s commitment to helping the country to respond to the current very difficult period for our economy through the work that he does in support of a trade-led recovery.

Does the Minister realise that that list, which was published a very short time ago, was four years old, and that many firms on it declined to refresh their support for the expression of sentiments of support for the envoy?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman makes that point because, as I shall go on to set out, a lot of people have contemporaneously spoken out in favour of the Duke of York’s work. That letter did say that

“the efforts made by him need to be encouraged—for he does it well.”

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not mention that, and I am sure that the vast majority of those who have seen the duke’s work at first hand would echo that sentiment.

Does the Minister agree that one reason why the Duke of York has considerable credibility is his distinguished record as a former member of the Fleet Air Arm who gave valuable service in the Falklands war? That shows a degree of commitment over and above any inherited responsibilities that he might be considered to have.

Order. We must take great care, and care has not been taken sufficiently on this front, to avoid straying into matters of conduct that render someone suitable or not suitable for a particular role. I believe I am right in saying that “Erskine May” is clear that matters may be raised only on a substantive motion and such matters include the conduct of the sovereign, which we shall therefore strive to avoid discussing.

The duke is not paid for the work that he does in this role. UK Trade & Investment pays for the costs of UK-based and overseas visits undertaken by the duke and his supporting staff, and these visits are undertaken in agreement with UKTI and are in support of UKTI objectives. Let me give an indication of the cost of these visits. In 2008-09, the costs amounted to just over £149,000 and just over £154,000 in 2009-10, and the flights are paid for by the royal travel budget. I believe that these activities represent excellent value for money.

Does the Minister, a fair-minded person, recognise that what he is saying illustrates how out of balance our debating system is? He is free to praise the envoy, but I am not free to say anything derogatory about the envoy and so our debate is completely out of balance. Is the Minister not illustrating the need for our Standing Orders to be changed?

As I recall it, the hon. Gentleman said that he was objecting to the cost of this post, so I am rebutting his argument, which he was free to make within our Standing Orders, by arguing that the duke’s work provides value for money. I am rebutting that point of substance.

Let me now deal with the duke’s appointment to this position. We are sometimes asked: what are the terms of the duke’s employment as special representative for international trade and investment? Does he have a contract? The hon. Gentleman wanted to have a job description and competition for the role. We are also asked who invited the duke to take on this job. In response, I wish to make a number of key points. First, the role is not an appointment within the remit of the civil service commissioners or the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It is a special role and it represents a continued interest by the royal family in supporting British business and international trade. Prior to the Duke of York’s appointment, the Duke of Kent was vice-chair of the British Overseas Trade Board from 1976 and latterly vice-chair of British Trade International until April 2001—the Duke of York was appointed in October 2001. So the royal family, in different roles and in different personages, have been fulfilling this type of role for many years. This is not a new thing and successive Governments of different persuasions have found this work to be valuable. Diplomats and business people in our country have valued the contribution made by the royal family in this regard.

My hon. Friend makes the legitimate point that many organisations and British business have found this role to be valuable for how they conduct business overseas. This year, many British businesses have recorded in the printed media that they have found in the recent past that the role of the Duke of York—they made no reference to his specific conduct—to be useful to the way in which they have conducted their business and their exports overseas. I am sure that the Minister would agree with that.

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right and I can certainly agree with that. It is also worth pointing out that the Duke of York not only helps UKTI and its related activities but assists in the objectives of other Departments, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, when he is asked to do so.

The duke’s programme of visits is agreed by the Royal Visits Committee. A great deal of discussion and planning go into deciding where His Royal Highness should visit and UKTI works with the duke’s private office to develop a programme of visits that complement the work and support the objectives of UKTI and make best use of the duke’s time to support the strategic aims and goals of Her Majesty’s Government. It is not a question of the special representative freelancing: he plans his programmes to operate within a strict framework. The programme is reviewed regularly and is confirmed alongside other overseas visits undertaken by other members of the royal family and by senior politicians such as the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Business Secretary.

The duke’s visits focus primarily on those priority markets for the UK where the duke is well placed to make a positive impact. His visit programmes generally include visits to priority markets in the middle east, south-east Asia, China, India, Russia, central Asia and South America, as well as to the US and other developed markets. The visits relate to sectors that are or will be key to the UK’s future export growth. They include financial services, energy, advanced engineering, information and communication technology, life sciences and creative industries.

The duke has been visiting many of those priority global markets since 2001 and has developed strong relationships with key opinion formers and decision makers. For example, in 2008-09, His Royal Highness undertook nine overseas visits, visiting 16 countries. These involved 117 business engagements and openings, 27 political engagements and 28 with Heads of State. In 2009-10, His Royal Highness undertook 12 overseas visits, visiting 18 countries. This involved 163 business engagements and openings, 39 of which were political and 18 with Heads of State. This is a record of engagement that this House should recognise.

I hesitate to interrupt the Minister reading from the websites of the person and the Department involved, but he has made no attempt to answer my questions or to respond either to the serious criticism by the human rights organisations I cited or to what the former ambassador said about there being a far better way of doing the job, which is to allow ambassadors to do the job for which they are paid and skilled. Is that not a fair criticism?

I disagree. I have provided evidence rather than innuendo to show that the Duke of York is undertaking a very valuable role. Let us remember why the Duke of York does this role: because it is in Britain’s interests. It is in the interests of firms, their employees and our economy. The previous Government recognised that and so do we. We have inherited a sick economy where the prospects of growth funded by the public sector or by consumers are very limited, to say the least, after the poor management of the economy by Labour over 13 years. If we are to grow, there are only two sources of growth: trade and investment. Having someone with experience and clout as the UK’s special representative for international trade and investment is something that we throw away at our peril.

I do not know what has motivated the hon. Gentleman. His timing is particularly inappropriate, coming as it does four days after the royal wedding, when I believe the whole country showed the support that they give to the royal family and all its members. I am proud to be here to support the role of His Royal Highness.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.