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Conflict Prevention Operations

Volume 709: debated on Monday 20 April 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are reconsidering the cut in the United Kingdom’s support for civilian staff in conflict prevention and peacekeeping operations; and what they expect the consequences of the cut to be.

My Lords, the process of prioritising conflict resources for 2009-10 has involved difficult decisions. We cannot fund all activity to the same level as in previous years, including civilian secondees. However, rigorous prioritisation and the additional £71 million of departmental resources have allowed us to maintain our significant contribution to international peacekeeping and to fund priority conflict prevention and stabilisation activity. We will keep the allocation under review to ensure that it focuses on the highest priority areas.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that somewhat discouraging reply. Is it not the case that not only are the Government not restoring any of the cuts that they are making, but that, if you read the Written Statement given to this House and the other place on 25 March, you see that in the event of assessed contributions—that is, legally enforceable contributions to UN operations—increasing, or the exchange rate falling again, this discretionary spending on civilian peacekeeping will be further squeezed? Is this not the worst possible time for the British Government to be cutting their contribution to these programmes? Does that not set an appalling precedent for other major donors?

My Lords, we probably all share the noble Lord’s concern. Since he first raised this matter in a letter to the Financial Times with others of his colleagues in this House, we were able through great efforts by three departments—the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office—to add £71 million to our total peacekeeping budget. This year it will stand at £627 million as against just under £560 million last year, so we have increased the resources. The difficulty, as the noble Lord indicated, is that the assessed contributions—the UN and other operations for which we pay a fixed proportion of the cost—have increased because the number of those operations has grown.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the Ministry of Defence. Does he agree that the Armed Forces are now so stretched by current operations that they are unable simultaneously to perform the peacekeeping roles that they have so successfully performed in the past?

My Lords, the UN-mandated peacekeeping operations, OSCE operations and others involve quite small numbers of UK forces. We therefore very much hope that we will be able to hold our own and remain involved with both military advisers and civilian expertise where required.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is just one of a series of notifications that we have had in recent months about squeezes on defence spending and further squeezes on the Foreign Office budget? It is now clear that, whoever wins the next election, there will have to be some fundamental thinking about how much we spend on foreign policy, defence and overseas aid and how that money is distributed. Some of us are old enough to remember the painful all-party commissions on that subject in the 1960s. Would it not be sensible for the Government to invite the other parties to support an all-party review of how much we spend on what, ready for whoever comes into office after the next election?

My Lords, I suggest that one of the noble Lord’s colleagues asks that question of the Chancellor in the other House. If we believe what we read in the newspapers this week, all government spending will be squeezed significantly; that is a cost of the recession and the necessary response to it. However, I point out to noble Lords that on this issue we have increased our spending by £71 million precisely because we share the concern of many here that we must try to maintain our role in peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

My Lords, on the reality behind those figures, what impact will this have in Liberia, which I visited recently on behalf of the FCO, where I saw for myself the important work of peacekeepers in bringing a degree of security and stability to a country which is still feeling the impact of the ravages of civil war, and where theft and violence, particularly sexual violence, are a reality of daily life for many of its citizens?

My Lords, I do not have the exact figures for Liberia. However, in Sierra Leone, which I visited recently and which has had a major UK programme, there are real costs, as there are in Ghana. Overall, we will see a reduction of something like £45 million in our conflict prevention and peacebuilding spending in Africa. I stress that there is an enlarged envelope, but peacekeeping operations such as those in Darfur are now reaching full deployment and the costs of those assessed contributions are squeezing out the funds available for discretionary ones.

My Lords, are other countries playing their role? There is no doubt that the British Government are doing an enormous amount in all these areas, and have a high reputation in that regard, but the perception is that, proportionately, other major economies are not doing anything like what we are doing. Can we put pressure on them to pay up?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will have noticed that at the G20 summit the UK pressed heavily for other countries to meet their commitments to development assistance and will do so at the forthcoming G8 summit. Our track record is without equal, at least among the G8 countries. I acknowledge the tripartisan support that has enjoyed here and in the other place. Although we carry a disproportionate part of the peacebuilding and peacekeeping burden in theatres such as Afghanistan, other European countries do proportionately much more than we do in other, much smaller operations such as the Balkans.