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Madagascar: UK Embassy

Volume 693: debated on Monday 2 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, in view of recent developments in Madagascar, they will now consider reopening the United Kingdom embassy in that country.

My Lords, there are no plans to revisit the decision taken to close the embassy in Antananarivo. We now have agreement for our non-resident ambassador, and we look forward to his first official visit within the next two months.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. However, does she not agree with me that, given recent developments—I point to just three: the constitution of Madagascar was changed a few months ago to make English an official language of the island; secondly, the president and Government have indicated their interest in eventually becoming members of the Commonwealth; and, thirdly, the levels of industrial investment from this country into Madagascar are steadily increasing—it is not absurd that the diplomatic representation should simply be an honorary consul with only powers suitable to that, and that the nearest ambassador is 1,000 miles away, in Mauritius?

My Lords, we very much welcome the fact that English is now the third language in Madagascar; it is good for the Madagascans and for British industry. We would be delighted if Madagascar wanted to become a Commonwealth member and look forward to its continued development. However, we are confident that the new non-resident ambassador will take these issues very seriously, work well with the Government of Madagascar and pursue their interests.

My Lords, as we are discussing the Foreign Office’s work, perhaps I may say in parenthesis that, although the noble Baroness answers Foreign Office questions superbly, we will greatly miss her noble friend Lord Triesman, who has moved to other pastures and has been an outstanding master of the brief, both as a Minister and in answering questions in this House. We wish him well but also that he had not gone.

My Lords, is not the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, part of an overall squeeze on the diplomatic budget, which is, by Whitehall standards, minuscule at £1 billion? Some departments regard that as small change; yet our diplomacy has been squeezed and squeezed and embassies have had to be closed.

Would the noble Baroness urge her colleagues under the new dispensation to consider whether a better, more balanced approach might be adopted? More should be spent on effective diplomacy and soft-power development, and we should stop going round the world closing embassies in places where there is a demand for effective British representation, which has now been taken away.

My Lords, I am grateful for the fulsome tribute to my noble friend Lord Triesman, who is indeed deserving of it. It has been a delight to work with him.

The resources available to the Foreign Office, as in any other government department, are finite. The Foreign Office is battling with the CSR. However, the decision to close the embassy in Madagascar was not simply about costs. The Government have to ensure that their Foreign Office is following 21st-century priorities. Those are to do with fighting terrorism and international crime. As global priorities change, so must those of the Foreign Office. I respectfully point out that, whereas some missions are closing, others have been opened and additional diplomatic staff have been deployed in other embassies.

My Lords, from these Benches, I echo the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Triesman. We greatly appreciate and are grateful for his enormous contribution, not only to your Lordships, but also to the cause of Africa in the Foreign Office.

My Lords, bearing in mind not only the three factors mentioned by my noble friend but also that Madagascar is larger than the next two countries put together in which British embassies were closed in 2005-06, and that oil has now been discovered there, would the noble Baroness say how many times our high commissioner has visited Antananarivo in the past two years?

Secondly, why is Madagascar not in the list of countries receiving help from DfID, bearing in mind that 61 per cent of its population has to live on less than a dollar a day? Is that not inconsistent with our policy of helping the poorest of the poor?

Since my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean announced our embassy’s closure in 2005, we have been pressing for our new non-resident ambassador to be accredited. That is now happening and is warmly welcomed. He will make his first visit within the next two months.

Although DfID does not give money directly to Madagascar, we should not forget that a substantial contribution is made through core contributions to the EU, the UN, the World Bank and others.

My Lords, I declarean interest as a patron of a charity, Money for Madagascar. Clearly, no non-resident ambassador and, no honorary consul can have the weight of a resident professional diplomat. There has been damage to British interests during the past two years. In consular matters, I cite the Wilkinson case; in business, there have been major developments in minerals, oil and gas sectors. Why cannot the Government at least be creative and have one professional resident British diplomat housed in the embassy of a friendly country, as has happened in Togo, which would at least ensure that there is a professional on the scene to safeguard British interests?

My Lords, as I stated earlier, we are confident that our non-resident ambassador will be able to protect British interests in Madagascar. However, the idea put forward by my noble friend is interesting. It may well have already been discussed by the Foreign Office; if it has not, I will certainly ensure that it is drawn to its attention.

My Lords, in fully associating myself with the remarks made about the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, I remind the House—I do not want to embarrass the noble Lord—that he has given us several assurances during the past few months that the Government would continue to pursue a global foreign policy. Can the Minister assure us that that will be borne in mind when the Comprehensive Spending Review is conducted and the Foreign Office’s minute budget is reviewed?

My Lords, I am happy to give that assurance and am sure that my right honourable friend the new Secretary of State will indeed do everything that he can to ensure that there is a proper global foreign policy in the British Government.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether there is or is shortly to be European Union representation in Madagascar?

My Lords, I do not have that information to hand, but I will certainly inform the noble Lord in due course.

My Lords, has the Minister been to Madagascar? When I was there, there was a very small embassy consisting of one and a half men. If she has not been, she will not realise how impossible it is for one man to go from one country a long way away, Tanzania, to a still French-speaking country that is incredibly friendly to Britain. Can she confirm that recently Japan and America have opened embassies in Madagascar?

My Lords, sadly, I have not yet been to Madagascar. I note what the noble Baroness says. I do not know about America and Japan, but I will certainly ensure that that information is brought to the attention of the House.