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UN: UK Peacekeeping Contribution

Volume 715: debated on Monday 7 December 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the United Kingdom’s United Nations assessed peacekeeping contributions are no longer met from the contingency reserve.

My Lords, I refer to the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in another place on 25 March 2009. To control spending, the Treasury has capped the call on the contingency reserve for peacekeeping at £374 million.

We estimated that peacekeeping assessed costs could rise to £456 million in 2009-10 and so reluctantly cut back on discretionary conflict activity. From 2010-11, the Treasury will consider a modest request for end-of-year flexibility.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not terribly encouraging reply, although I know she has done her best, and I regret that a Treasury Minister has not been prepared to come to the House to answer for a matter that is fair and square within the responsibility of the Treasury—because the contingency reserve is not a matter for the Foreign Office. Can she confirm that there will be no question of Britain using its veto on the Security Council to block on purely financial grounds an operation that enjoyed the support of the council? Will she also confirm that the budgets of these peacekeeping operations are set by the UN General Assembly, which does so by majority, and therefore Britain has no control over that? Is it not high time that the Government got out of the trap into which they have fallen and which is squeezing Britain's contribution to conflict prevention and resolution?

I thank the noble Lord who, we are all aware, has enormous expertise and experience in these matters. I can confirm that the UK would not block a UN mission in the Security Council on financial grounds alone. On the noble Lord’s second point, he will be aware that budgets are proposed by the UN Secretary-General and agreed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. In 2009, the Secretary-General asked for $1.5 billion more funding than in 2008. As the noble Lord knows, it is very difficult to influence the General Assembly of the United Nations. We are but one voice in 192 and that makes the task very difficult. A decision on full access to the reserve for peacekeeping costs would have to be taken in the context of wider government financing. I thank the noble Lord for his interest and commitment in these matters.

Will the Minister confirm that the earmarked sum of £456 million is still adequate to meet expenditure in the current financial year? What does she expect to do if the pound falls further in the financial year 2010-11 in terms of sterling’s stability? Will she also reflect on her predecessor's admission that combining assessed contributions and discretionary spending is a bad idea and attempt to revoke it in the next spending round?

On the noble Baroness's first point, peacekeeping costs are unpredictable, which makes it very difficult to estimate the amount that we need in advance. Without the rules governing our ability to buy in currency in advance, we have done what we can to insulate our budgets from exchange rate fluctuations. Our strategy of forward purchase of our foreign exchange requirements has provided a considerable degree of cost certainty. I am not aware of my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown, having said what the noble Baroness asserts. I will look it up, but I am convinced that he never made that point as forcefully as the noble Baroness suggests.

Does the Minister recall that we dealt with this subject in considerable detail on 6 July and that her predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, who is, alas, no longer among us—who knows who will go next—was very positive in his response to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in saying that there was something wrong with the way in which discretionary expenditure always gets squeezed? We all appreciate that there is no more money, but given that more and more of our international involvements will be multilateral rather than bilateral, is it not time to look at this whole arrangement in rather better detail? It might even be more efficient from the Treasury’s point of view as well than the present rather haphazard outcome.

The current process has been in place for a number of years. I confirm that my noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown is alive, well and kicking. Peacekeeping and discretionary conflict activity are paid for from joint budgets with the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the FCO. It is important to understand that tripartite responsibility. The Treasury cap on accessing the peacekeeping reserve means that we have finite conflict resources. The budget is under huge pressure because of exchange rates and, more significantly, the big rise in UN and EU peacekeeping around the world, notably in Africa. I know that many Members of this House will be aware that the spending of the EU and the UN on concerns in Africa has increased substantially and that that affects the amount of funding that we have for discretionary activity. The UK pays a significant share of that bill, which means that we have limits on contributing to discretionary conflict interventions from our fixed pot.

My Lords, as peace and security are fundamental preconditions for economic development, does the Minister agree that it would be entirely appropriate for a greater sum to be made available from the budget of the Department for International Development to supplement the scarce funds now available to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

I am sure the noble Lord is aware that the assessment that is made when the Department for International Development agrees its funding has to be in line with the OECD conditions. I think he will agree that those strict limits and criteria are very important in terms of what we call “DAC-ability”; that is, whether they conform to our overseas development priorities.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is no point whatever in asking the UN to do more and more in the field of peacekeeping and then at the same time turning round and saying that you are not prepared to pay for it? Quite frankly, it is daft.

“Daft” is a word that I would hesitate to use about the UN, or about the British Government, of course. There are increasing pressures on the UN budget because of the increasing need to respond to urgent and emergency situations, particularly in Africa. Therefore, extra funding is required. However, fluctuations in exchange rates have led to significant pressures on the FCO’s budget, not just as regards conflict activity. We have tried to mitigate the worst effects of the depreciation of the pound, but it is very difficult for us to predict each year, on a year-on-year basis, what will be needed in terms of conflict prevention and for dealing with conflicts, particularly in the continent of Africa.