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UN: Technical Agencies

Volume 753: debated on Thursday 20 March 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the key objectives of United Kingdom delegations attending United Nations technical agencies in 2014; and whether they will report back to Parliament after the meetings.

My Lords, United Nations agencies are responsible to national Governments, who are their members and funders. These organisations with specialised purposes, from health to meteorology to communications, were formed even before the League of Nations and United Nations were. In the United Kingdom, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has an overall brief to ensure that the delegations to these agencies from various UK government departments and their semi-independent agencies represent UK interests effectively. Despite the strong and effective participation of the UK in these agencies, there is general concern that their profile in Whitehall and Westminster is not as high as it should be. It is obviously much lower than that of foreign affairs and international crises.

The United Nations Association, the voluntary body that supports the UN in the UK, works hard to raise the profile of UN bodies. These agencies have a vital role for key aspects of all countries of the world, both developed and developing; for example on health warnings, food safety, communications, aviation, weather forecasting and intellectual property. Sometimes Ministers attend the meetings of the UN agencies but fewer do from the UK than from other countries. I recall my noble kinsman Lady Bottomley attending the WHO meetings when she was Minister of Health, while Mr Meacher at Defra was an assiduous attendee of meetings at UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme.

My first point is that the agencies need reviewing from time to time, in the light of urgent issues, but while the UN and national Governments always look at efficiency in these reviews, they seem reluctant to look at the fundamentals of their operation and the budgets allocated in relation to the urgency of the problem. I am pleased that the UK contribution to UN agencies is not dependent on its policies or particular decisions; nor is it subject to lobbying by commercial or political organisations, as US contributions are. My noble friend Lord Rea will talk about the WHO; yesterday I learnt that there are threats to the WHO from the United States about its policy that sugar levels should be dropped to the equivalent of one glass of Coca-Cola per day.

Water resources are currently critical but the United Nations programmes—for example in UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organisation, which is also responsible for hydrology—have very small budgets. In the case of the World Meteorological Organisation, it is less than 5% of the total while 95% is for meteorology. Although availability of water is one of the key objectives of DfID, this is a surprising situation. Sometimes new agencies are needed, as happened in the 1980s when the United Nations Environment Programme was initiated. UNEP did a good job on the ozone hole but it is not being directed in an effective way by member countries to co-ordinate and publicise the national, regional and global problems associated with atmospheric and marine pollution. That is of course very topical at the moment, particularly in Asia. Marine pollution is in fact to some extent a responsibility of the International Maritime Organisation, based across the river here in London, but it plays a limited role. Is Defra considering stronger co-ordination by UNEP in this general area of pollution, since UNEP is probably the UN body with the biggest responsibility?

My next point is that the United Nations bodies are generally open in their communications. They are not secret; all their minutes are published before and afterwards and the communications between the members are open. However, it is very important that the recent exposure of certain Governments spying on the confidential communications of diplomats from other Governments and non-governmental organisations does not lead to a loss of trust between countries and agencies working in the UN.

I tabled a Parliamentary Question and was told, more or less, “We’re not going to answer that question because we do not talk about those things”. The fact is that they exist and this is a real issue. I hope that the Minister, in replying, will provide something more than I got in response to my PQ.

My next point is that the Government review agencies, but in doing that they should also consider the benefits to the UK: for example, in dealing with flooding, where other countries have developed useful approaches and, in some cases, have better research facilities. The Food and Agriculture Organisation studies of GMOs in agriculture are surely important. The recent reviews by United Nations bodies of the UK’s health and housing are very useful, although they were very controversial and the Government were not very happy with them. That is the kind of UN activity that is really impacting on us in the UK, which we therefore need to consider in reviewing those agencies.

One way to ensure improved benefits to the UK from our membership of the UN is to involve UK stakeholders, in which I include parliamentarians, to a greater extent in UN agencies; for example, through regular pre-meetings, report-back meetings and wider participation of UK delegations as observers. I am president of an NGO, ACOPS. We have observer status at the International Maritime Organisation and the London dumping convention, and we can provide some expertise. For example, there are now regular consultations between the Met Office and certain parts of the private sector, which are very welcome.

However, generally, the United States is stronger in that respect and positively ruthless in using its delegations to promote US technology. They have told me that they will vote or not vote because they were told by their industry to vote for this or not vote for that. That is highly directed to promoting US technology and US business. The Chancellor was calling yesterday in his speech for the UK to have higher exports. Perhaps he might talk to the Foreign Office UN department to see whether it could be of some help in that direction. At the executive level, there are now excellent relations between some UN agencies and NGOs, of which GLOBE is an example on issues connected with climate and the environment.

My third main point is that the United Nations as a whole has broad targets. I believe that the millennium development goals were a tremendous step forward for the whole UN movement, understood at the level of the sustainability commission in New York and the General Assembly. That brought together lots of activities. There have also been the broad goals of reducing carbon emissions. I believe that there could be more specific targets for agencies or groups of agencies—for example, I just mentioned pollution. Those targets could be openly discussed by parliaments as stakeholders and progress or regress towards achieving them should be openly reviewed.

Of course, targets require data, which remains a great weakness of the UN system and, indeed, the international system. UN bodies could urge countries to be more systematic in gathering data and more open with them. For example, sometimes even the most basic data are not available in some countries, such as whether there is or is not a sewage plant in the capital city of an African country. In the case in point, the answer was no. A study in another African country showed that several organisations are collecting very useful environmental and health data which are not well co-ordinated. The study, in collaboration with those organisations, recommended the use of data centres. The whole world would benefit from that. DfID does not seem to understand or support that view very strongly.

In closing, which goals and targets should be emphasised and publicised? They should relate to recent crises. One of the greatest crises at the moment is the Syrian and, earlier, Iraq conflict. Surely we should be thinking more about technical methods of identifying combatants and their weapons, as happened last year with the question of gases. We must consider how we can provide improved humanitarian aid. Those are technical and organisational questions and we should have targets for them.

The Bangladesh factory collapse last year led to the deaths of many hundreds of people. There should now be improved targets for the International Labour Organisation on factory health and safety. After the floods in Europe and Pakistan and the droughts in California, the water programmes need more technical focus and bigger budgets, as I have already mentioned. We could also have targets to help co-ordinate international and regional programmes for pollution episodes.

We could have improved warnings and assistance before, during and after natural and artificial disasters. The United Nations organisation for disasters, the ISDR, co-ordinates but with more funds it could have more ambitious targets. For example, should we not have a target that, say, 30 years from now we should finally be able to detect earthquakes? There is a good deal of research going on—big objectives are appropriate. A meeting in Parliament this morning showed the need for FAO studies of future food and fish stocks, and how they are in danger from exploitation, pollution and climate change, to be more widely understood by world leaders. We need some clarity in this area.

I look forward to the Minister’s response to the issues raised. I declare my interest as a former permanent representative for the UK at the World Meteorological Organisation, when I was head of the Met Office; president of an NGO; and vice-chair of GLOBE, working with UN agencies.

My Lords, this short debate covers a very wide-ranging subject but it is regrettable that there are only three speakers. Perhaps this is something to do with it being on Thursday afternoon, but it is surprising. There are many people who are far more expert on the United Nations and the World Health Organisation—about which I shall speak—than I am. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, may be relieved that she has to answer only three speakers when the United Nations covers such a huge range of subjects.

In my short contribution, I will concentrate on the World Health Organisation, which is just one of some 20 United Nations agencies. Its membership covers every single country in the United Nations—194 at my last count—and it has representatives in 140 of them, collaborating with national health ministries. In some developing countries, a WHO team helps with developing the governance and administration of health services in various ways. Although the WHO has been criticised as cumbersome—even sclerotic—it has had some very able directors-general who have pulled it into better shape. The WHO has some significant successes to its credit, the best known being the elimination of smallpox and the near-elimination of poliomyelitis. It has had many more quiet successes, many of which are still going on, concerned largely with monitoring disease levels, particularly epidemic outbreaks. Until recently WHO has concentrated on infectious, rather than non-communicable, diseases but there has been increasing interest in looking at the origins and handling of the latter since Gro Brundtland’s reign as director-general. This is appropriate, since they now make up half the diseases affecting the developing world as well as nearly all the serious diseases affecting the developed world.

In the area of infectious diseases, the WHO collaborates with a number of other agencies. Some of these are its own offspring but receive separate funding and have devolved or different administration. I am thinking of UNAIDS or the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. So in its governance it retains a considerable degree of democracy and accountability through its committee structure at different levels, with representation from member states meeting regularly. My noble friend mentioned the regular attendance of at least two of our Ministers.

Some of the most useful work of the World Health Organisation is done by its many expert committees, some of which are standing committees meeting regularly with permanent staff on subjects such as essential medicines and biological standards. There is one group that regularly reviews the guidelines the WHO issues fairly regularly on a variety of topics. My noble friend mentioned perhaps the most recent, which was on sugar intake and has ruffled some feathers in the food industry. Other expert committees are ad hoc on topical subjects and may meet only a few times, but the members of these committees are all internationally recognised authorities in their chosen field. They are selected from panels of experts held by the WHO. A sizeable proportion of these experts is from the United Kingdom. Will the Minister describe the process by which they are selected? When they are selected, do they make a declaration of interest before they are appointed?

Reports from these committees are widely respected, although not always welcomed by Governments, which is as it should be. Progress in public health often involves controversial measures not welcomed by vested interests making profits from the activity or product concerned which is deleterious to health.

I shall make a very few remarks on drugs. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs has rather laid down the approach internationally to the control of drugs. The emphasis has largely been on curbing supply with a prohibitionist stance. The director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has said that it is time for the UN’s stance on drugs to change from having a largely prohibitionist role to one more focused on the health impact of drugs and on reducing the harm they cause. Will the Minister say whether the Government have moved even a little in that direction?

My Lords, we should congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton not only on securing this short debate but on once again, and single-handedly, raising the important issues surrounding United Nations agencies. I agree with the comment by my noble friend Lord Rea that it is a pity that there are not more speakers in this debate.

The truth is that this crucial part of UN activity is not discussed enough in either House of Parliament, and when it is discussed in your Lordships’ House it seems always to be at the instigation of my noble friend. Thanks are due to the House of Lords Library, which has prepared a briefing pack for today’s debate. In that we can read the Hansard for the debate on 22 November 2011, almost precisely 28 months ago, and be reminded of Parliamentary Questions that have been asked in both Houses and answered by various Ministers. These are of course helpful but I will ask some questions about how Her Majesty’s Government organise themselves in relation to UN agencies, about where costs fall between the FCO and other departments and whether there is enough ministerial oversight and parliamentary engagement with this issue.

Of course, in general terms, like the Government, the Opposition support the UK’s membership of, involvement in and activity in these agencies. As befits a country which played a leading part in the setting up of the United Nations, we are right to engage in the multilateral activity that is the basis for the running of and results from the agencies. Whether we serve on the executive of a given agency or attend its congress, there is obviously a need to be able to act as a team player and, at the same time, to look after British interests. No one has ever said or suggested that this is easy or necessarily comfortable at all times, but we strongly believe that the need for multilateralism in foreign affairs has never been greater; a statement of the obvious, perhaps, but worth putting on the record.

My understanding is that the FCO has a small section that oversees our membership of these agencies, but that individual departments with their own technical skills are involved in the UK involvement with the relevant agencies. I am delighted that the Minister is in fact the Minister in the FCO for the United Nations and thus for these agencies. I note that the questions that were asked in the other place over the course of the past year have been answered by various Ministers, which is no doubt the common way in which it is done.

My questions are not meant to be unduly critical, but are really for information and for Parliament. Does the Minister believe that she has satisfactory oversight of how any individual agency is functioning? Or is that responsibility passed on to, perhaps, another Minister in another government department that deals with day-to-day activity with that agency? Generally, is there sufficient ministerial oversight in any event? Or is there a danger that Ministers, whether in the FCO or elsewhere in Whitehall, with their heavy workloads, have really been forced to make this rather less of a priority than it should be?

What is the actual cost to the Government overall of our membership and participation in these UN agencies? How much of that total cost does the FCO contribute, and how much do other departments contribute? That leads on to the question of parliamentary engagement—reporting back to Parliament after meetings —which is one of those which my noble friend, in raising this issue today, is particularly concerned about: it is in the Question. Does the Minister believe that there is room for improvement in reporting back to Parliament? If there is, how could it be improved?

In the debate some two and a quarter years ago, to which I referred, mention was made of a possible ad hoc committee on international organisations. The Minister who responded on that occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, talked about an ad hoc committee,

“which might look at the how Britain relates to international agencies and which ones provide us with the best value for money”.—[Official Report, 22/11/11; col. 1039.]

Clearly, the 2011 multilateral aid review, the MAR, and its update in December last year are very good starting points for parliamentarians, as they are for the ordinary citizen outside. However, it is perhaps right to now look at whether Parliament should play a slightly more important role in looking at what these individual agencies actually achieve for this country and, of course, for the world.

I repeat that none of the questions I pose today is meant to be unduly critical. I do not think there is very much between the Government’s attitude to this issue and our attitude to it. However, I am sure the noble Baroness will agree that if improvements can be made, they should be. If the Minister would like some time to consider her answer to the questions I have put today, I am more than happy to receive a letter in due course. Meanwhile, I look forward to what she has to say in her reply to my noble friend’s speech.

My Lords, first, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for securing this afternoon’s debate. All too often, issues in relation to the United Nations—certainly in this House but in the other place as well—focus on the headline-grabbing situations, where there is a crisis around the world and we are talking about Security Council resolutions. As the Minister for the UN, I have found that one of the areas of the job that is least publicised is the day-to-day meetings that we have with UN officials, whether in New York or when they are visiting here, about UN reform. As the noble Lord will be aware from his own experience, it is like an oil tanker in terms of changing some of what are seen as perceived norms, certainly within the UN system, which appear even more so when you look at the specialised agencies within the UN.

It is therefore important, certainly for me as Minister with responsibility for the UN, to make sure that we do not lose sight of how these particular specialised agencies benefit the United Kingdom and, indeed, the wider international world. They are vital, as the noble Lord said, for the smooth running of everyday things that our globalised society and economy depends on—everything from shipping to telecommunications. As the noble Lord mentioned, these agencies also play an important role in the greatest challenges facing us all, such as climate change, in providing aid to the victims of natural disasters and in the prevention of global pandemics. They therefore have an impact on almost all government departments across Whitehall.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked about the organisation of UN agency responsibilities. The FCO has oversight of budgetary policy and of management reform for these agencies, but we co-ordinate UK positions with the lead policy departments depending on which specialist agency we are dealing with. We take the lead in co-ordinating the various government departments and agencies. Over the past 18 months, for example, we have hosted a quarterly UN reform group meeting which brings together all those officials across Whitehall from the different departments who represent the UK in the UN and we run workshops, seminars and more formal training to make sure that we all get the best out of what can sometimes seem like quite an opaque and difficult system.

We have also set up a dedicated web platform to provide officials with a virtual space where they can share knowledge, expertise and best practice in dealing with the UN’s specialised agencies. We continue to explore other, more innovative ways to ensure that the UK is even more co-ordinated, coherent and consistent in its dealings. Do we have enough oversight? Do I, as a Minister, have enough? The noble Lord was right to ask that question. The important decisions on the agencies are referred to Ministers. An example of that is that Ministers would be involved when dealing with the election of the agencies’ executive heads.

Another question that was raised was about where the costs fall in all this. The FCO pays the costs of the assessed contributions to the core UN budgets. Other government departments fund assessed contributions of specialised agencies according to their respective areas of activity.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about the Government’s plans to report to Parliament on the outcome of meetings. As I said to the noble Lord in reply to a Question in January last year, it is for the lead department in each case to report on such meetings. The issues handled by the agencies are usually quite highly technical in nature, so it is the responsibility of each department that engages with them and that sits with the experts across Whitehall to report on them. I know that many departments already publish information about this work in their annual departmental reports or in thematic reports on specific policy areas.

Alongside government reports, UN bodies also publish a wealth of information about their work online, and I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that UK delegations enjoy positive relationships with agencies which are willing to share their knowledge and listen to our views. However, UN agencies need to get better at talking to each other, and the challenge of co-ordinating system-wide action will become even more important, for example, when the UN grapples with setting the sustainable development goals as a follow-up to the MDGs.

I hope I can deal with a couple of the areas that were raised today on the key objectives for the specialised agencies. The International Telecommunication Union and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will pursue the goal of bringing the whole world online and enabling everyone to access the benefits of information and communications technologies. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made an excellent point about the running of collaboration between government, the private sector and civil society to reap the full benefits from UN agencies. The DCMS has created a partnership with UK businesses, including BT and Vodafone, academics and NGOs for that purpose. The ITU is an outstanding example of where open decision-making and bringing together 700 people from all sectors makes for better decision-making.

The Met Office was also referred to in the debate. It works with the World Meteorological Organisation to ensure that there is appropriate international infrastructure to support our national capability. It will also use international collaborations, commitments and relationships through the WMO to enable the delivery of the national capability in the most cost-effective way.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also talked about DfID’s engagement. As the FCO Minister with responsibility for, among other areas, Bangladesh, I am especially pleased that DfID is contributing £4.8 million to the ILO to support improving fire safety and structural integrity, especially after the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, and I hope that that kind of work will prevent the kind of tragedy we saw with the collapse of Rana Plaza and other buildings. The Government are also working with the ILO to make it more efficient and effective in offering country-specific solutions to employment challenges. I know it has worked on, for example, cotton picking in some central Asian countries.

This brings me to the FCO’s key objective for the UN agencies, and I feel it is right to push for a more joined-up UN system that delivers better outcomes for its member states and better value for money for the taxpayer when many Governments, including our own, are asking for more to be done with less funds. The UK and our international partners have strongly supported the efforts of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to strengthen the UN. Mr Ban has made some progress—for example, the new Department for Field Support, the creation of UN Women and the global field support strategy—but still more needs to be done. I spend quite a lot of time working with officials to try to work out what are our key priorities where we could support the Secretary-General and where we feel some progress could be made rather than just grandstanding statements.

On containing UN budgets, improving budgets by linking funding to results, prioritising mandates, effectively improving performance management and the better use of IT to streamline some of the back-office work which at the moment appears to be done in so many different ways in different organisations, I have opened up a dialogue with the Secretary-General and the executive heads of all UN bodies to seek their co-operation on these UK priorities, and we are currently considering a number of actions to take forward the UK’s agenda for change. I have formally written to the Secretary-General and the heads of the UN agencies. My officials will continue to work closely with the different government departments and agencies that represent the UK at the specialised agencies to ensure that they are giving the same clear and consistent measures that we are giving in terms of UN reform in general.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, asked specifically about the World Health Organisation. We have a good relationship with WHO and work closely with the organisation on a broad range of public health and development issues. The Department for International Development’s multilateral aid review assessed WHO as being critical to the delivery of UK international objectives; for example, around polio and maternal health. The UK is the second largest contributing member state to WHO after the US, with an investment of about £220 million over the two years 2012 and 2013. The Department of Health leads on that relationship, and the UK will become an executive member of the WHO board from May of this year for three years. That will enable us to work even more closely.

The UK does not provide significant funding for HIV/AIDS. However, we contribute to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which covers some of the areas that the noble Lord spoke about. The Department for International Development announced last September that the UK would contribute £1 billion to the Global Fund for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The UK also contributes about £50 million a year of core funding to the UNAIDS programme. In addition, the UK sits on the executive body of the global fund and UNAIDS.

The noble Lord asked how our experts to WHO are selected. I do not have that information, but I will certainly write to the noble Lord to give it to him. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will probably be disappointed by my response to his question on spying in the specialist agencies. He and other noble Lords are probably aware about long-standing HMG policy on such matters. Rather than provide him with a stock response, I am just going to say that I am unable to provide him with any more information than I have already provided in the PQ.

It would have been great to see more noble Lords taking part in this debate. This can sometimes be seen, certainly in my role, as a dry aspect of what usually happens at the UN. It is not the General Assembly; it is not the Security Council; it is not responding at times of urgency; but it puts in place the bricks and mortar for us to make a better world. It was therefore important that this debate should take place today and I thank the noble Lord for calling it.

The Government will continue to work closely with our international partners and civil society to ensure that the UN specialised agencies contribute to our work on key issues like development, prosperity and management reforms. Once again, I am grateful to the noble Lord for providing an opportunity to discuss these important issues.

Sitting suspended.