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House of Lords Hansard
30 November 2016
Volume 777

    Question for Short Debate

    Asked by

  • To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current political strategy towards Tunisia, and what plans they have to further develop economic, security and cultural relations with Tunisia, in particular in the light of the situation in Libya.

  • My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have agreed to take part in the debate this evening. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and my noble friend Lord Purvis, who participated with me and about a hundred others from the UK and the Maghreb region in the inspirational British Council’s annual Hammamet conference in Tunisia last weekend. The noble Baroness, my noble friend and I are all also members of the British Council APPG inquiry into building resilience against violent extremism, which is concentrating on looking into successful projects in the region. I am also very grateful to the British Embassy in Tunis, and in particular to Her Majesty’s outgoing ambassador to Tunisia, for the very comprehensive background briefing that I received while I was in Tunis last week. I know that many noble Lords speaking in the debate will also have been regular visitors to Tunisia over the years and will be equally passionate about Tunisia, its beautiful scenery, enormous potential, and the warmth and hospitality of the Tunisian people.

    Exactly a week ago, I was attending a dinner with a group of young Tunisian leaders in Tunis. The dinner was organised by UK NGO Forward Thinking, and brought together young activists from NGOs, civic society and young political leaders from the governing parties of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. We had a very lively discussion, during which we tackled many of the issues currently facing Tunisia, such as economic reform, corruption, the need for significant reform of the education system and the role of culture and sport in building resilience against violent extremism. Despite the occasionally argumentative nature of our debate around the dinner table, the very fact that we were able to hold such a debate at all is an indication of just how far Tunisia has come since the revolution against Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime six years ago.

    If the political revolution has been thorough—as illustrated through Tunisia’s new progressive constitution —this has not been matched over the same period by economic growth. For many ordinary Tunisians, political and constitutional reform has not resulted in a substantial improvement in their living conditions or the creation of real, sustainable jobs.

    When speaking to Tunisian politicians and young people, they often highlight the significant disconnect between the political class in Tunis and the other regions of the country. In some cases, the division between Tunis and the significantly poorer interior regions has worsened since 2011. Much of the country’s wealth is distributed to the already affluent coastal towns and cities, and many areas to the south and west of the country continue to face severe social and economic difficulties. Can the UK Government do anything substantial to help bridge the coastal/interior divide in Tunisia—not least as such divisions in the country can provide fertile recruiting ground for Daesh?

    On each visit I have made to Tunisia, I have been struck by the highly educated and motivated young people I have met, but Tunisia faces graduate unemployment of more than 30%. Paradoxically, in Tunisia, the more educated someone is, the less likely they are to have a job. There remains a severe mismatch between the education system and the skills required by the labour market. Tunisian companies say that they have vacancies that they cannot fill because of the lack of candidates with the required skills. English language is often a key requirement for employers, and it is clearly an area where the UK can and does play a significant role. Can the Minister give more detail on the Government’s strategy to assist Tunisia in reform of the education system over the next few years, as this is clearly an area of key importance?

    Such high levels of unemployment among young Tunisians raise not only economic and educational questions but questions of identity: of ensuring that young people believe that they have a stake in the future of Tunisia. A great many hugely valuable UK programmes on the ground in Tunisia use culture, the arts and dance to reconnect people, or are projects facilitating leadership skills and capacity-building to tackle these issues, but it is important to look at ways to ensure greater co-ordination and scale up and increase the outreach of such projects.

    One such positive programme is the British Council’s Young Arab Voices. This programme, which has now reached more than 100,000 young people across the region since 2010, helps to increase English language skills, promotes confidence in presenting an argument and assists the development of critical and analytical thought. I strongly recommend that on any future visit to Tunisia, the Minister witness the programme for herself in one of the Tunisian universities.

    Key to Tunisia’s future is its economic development. Its current economic model, with its heavy reliance on the public sector, is unsustainable and not delivering for its people. But I believe that there is tremendous economic potential for Tunisia as a service-sector hub for the region, for the development of the renewables sector, and for it to substantially develop its ICT sector. ICT currently accounts for 7% of the Tunisian economy and, with its younger, highly educated population, Tunisia has very real potential to become extremely attractive to the ICT industry.

    Foreign investment is heavily influenced by issues such as absorption capacity, administrative reform and an effective fight against corruption. Assisting Tunisia as it moves to tackle these next stages of reform is going to be key in helping to develop a strong Tunisian economy that attracts and sustains both domestic and foreign investment. This week there is a large-scale investment conference taking place in Tunisia. It was obvious from conversations that I had last week that a large amount of hope for the future was being placed on this event. Clearly such conferences are a part of a process and should not be viewed as an end in themselves but, in the framework of the UK’s overall economic strategy towards Tunisia, can the Minister say what concrete measures are being taken to encourage British companies to invest in Tunisia?

    The strength of the Tunisian economy is key to so many issues, which brings me on to tourism. If you speak to any Tunisian—in business, politics or civil society—at a certain point they will always bring up the issue of the current UK travel advice, which they perceive as an outright travel ban. Its continued existence in the face of significant security improvements has become a somewhat symbolic issue. In the medina in Hammamet last Saturday evening, a businessman stopped us to say how delighted he was to see British visitors back in the coastal holiday resort. He told us how much he liked the British and how sad he was that British tourists no longer come in any large numbers to Hammamet. Tourism still accounts for about 8% of the Tunisian economy. An increase in tourism equals an increase in employment in many parts of Tunisia. Tourism remains vital to Tunisia.

    I am aware that the UK has been significantly assisting Tunisia in helping to improve security measures and training, especially in the hotel sector and in airports, and we were told that great progress is being made in this regard. Can the Minister say when the Government will revisit the issue of the current travel advice and under what conditions they would be willing to change this advice?

    In conclusion, I believe that, post-Brexit, the UK needs to review its foreign policy objectives and its strategies for developing increased trade. The Maghreb region offers many possibilities with its young and highly educated populations who are increasingly keen to look to us in the UK for educational and business opportunities. Tunisia was the country where the revolutions in the region began six years ago and remains one of the greatest hopes to lead the way in the region as a democratic model for the future. For this reason, I believe that Tunisia deserves our increased attention and support, most particularly because of the additional challenges that the instability in neighbouring Libya poses. I look forward to hearing the views of other noble Lords during this short debate this evening.

  • That speech was well worth waiting for and I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness on what she said and how she said it. There are three points that I want to turn to: Tunisia in the changing geopolitics of the eastern and central Mediterranean; security; and what the UK can do in the light of Tunisia being more part of the francophone, Mediterranean littoral than of the anglophone sphere of influence. None the less, there is much that we can do.

    First, on geopolitics, what seems to be happening at the moment is that we have a period of general disinclination of one great power—the USA—to get more involved on the ground in areas such as this, at the same time as a once-great power—Russia—is ever keener to reassert itself. There is an emerging and growing arc of difficulty where it is doing so, stretching from Tunisia right round the eastern arc of the Mediterranean to Syria and Turkey. The Russians are piling assets and people into the whole region and have now, in Syria, the warm-water, ever-ice-free port that they have sought for centuries.

    I do not think that they plan to leave soon—or, indeed, at all. I think the Russians are there to stay in Syria, and we have to get used to that. And their influence will spread further. I may well already be reaching the small country of Tunisia, which is placed geographically at the pivot of the mid-Mediterranean, so it is very strategically located in geopolitical terms. As we have just heard, very few UK tourists—let alone French tourists—go there at the moment. But I am told that the new linchpin of tourism is Russian tourism. The Russians are now coming in increasing numbers to seek sun, sea and Carthage in that country. Russian investment in-country is also greatly increasing in liquefied gas and infrastructure. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, showed considerable interest in the place all of a sudden not very long ago. These are very interesting signs of things to come.

    Secondly, Tunisia’s security is vital. Tunisia’s own Defence Minister, Farhat Horchani, said on 6 September this year:

    “We have a large number of … fighters who arrived from Sirte, or from Syria. I can see no strategy, no cooperation between the states”.

    Getting that co-operation on terrorism in the arc of difficulty from Turkey around to Tunisia is vital, yet it is not easy for the West, including the UK, as we found in next-door Libya a few years back. It is terribly easy to go in and kick the door down with air power and missiles; it is exquisitely difficult thereafter to make change stick on the ground. That is one of the problems we have seen in Libya, and one of the problems we will continue to see in the region.

    One great hope is that so far political change has happened in Tunisia, with a Prime Minister’s moving without there being rioting in the streets. That happened in a parliamentary way, which I think was an act of considerable political maturity. But we must all be aware that, as we have seen at the eastern end of the Mediterranean arc, elections can be used to bring about a de facto elective dictatorship—for example, President Erdogan in Turkey with his new 1,100-roomed palace, the mass persecution of the media, suppression of dissent and the rest. We do not want to see that in Tunisia under any circumstances.

    Thirdly, we have got to do our little bit. I understand that there is about £8 million in the budget this year going forward to be spent in Tunisia. We should do all we can. It is difficult to deal with the foreign travel advice—but foreign travel advice is there to be listened to. I am amazed that there is not similar advice for many areas in Turkey at the moment, where I think there are considerable dangers. For example, only in August this year, the head of the anti-graft body in Tunisia said that the economy would benefit enormously from help because corruption had reached an epidemic stage—he was not talking about tourism. That is not a happy backdrop for the two-day inward investment conference in Tunisia, which closes tonight.

    This is set against the background of some 500 foreign firms having left the country since the Arab spring and the terrible terrorist attacks that happened afterwards, with the graduate unemployment of 30% or more that has been left behind. With a little budget we can do a lot to try to help democratic institutions, NGOs, civic society and anti-corruption bodies and support financial sector reform and entrepreneurship.

    In all this, our relatively small embassy in Tunisia has done a very great deal in the face of some terrific security problems. It has met the challenges very well under the leadership of our outgoing ambassador, Hamish Cowell. We hope that the embassy staff will hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said about them tonight, including her thanks to them. We should thank them for what they are doing in Tunis.

  • My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her initiative and I agree with the noble Lord on his geopolitical reflections, particularly with respect to the Russian incursions into the area.

    My theme is simple: Tunisia is the one remaining success of the Arab spring and it is in our mutual interest to support its development. Surely success can be measured only in context and in comparison with neighbouring countries. Certainly, Tunisia has many problems. The suicide of that angry youth in 2011 led to the Arab spring, but for most young people the revolution has not delivered and protests have resumed. Unemployment and corruption remain, and terrorist outrages impact massively on the tourist industry and are a disincentive to investment. Development is clearly unbalanced between the coastal strip with its three main towns and the interior with its relative lack of physical and human infrastructure. No doubt Tunisia is still fragile, but compared with its neighbours it is a success.

    For all Arab countries there are deep problems of nation-building derived from the Ottoman and colonial periods, and underlying cultural problems, which are outlined in those remarkable five UNDP human development reports in the 2000s. Neighbouring Algeria is marking time with limited democratic advance, Libya is still torn apart by competing militias and Egypt has undergone transition from the Islamic extremism of Morsi to the iron rule of President Sisi. Tunisia is an exception. There is a climate of questioning and debate and a spirit of compromise, illustrated by the 2014 deal between the secularists and the Islamists. Only at the end of July, its parliament peacefully dismissed its Prime Minister.

    Internationally, how should we on the north bank of the Mediterranean respond? The migration threat surely shows that, if we do not go to them, they will come to us. Much is already being done by international organisations, of which we are a member, including countering terrorism, assisting in economic development and in security. Thus NATO has a reach into north Africa. EU aid amounts to over a third of Tunisia’s budget deficit, or about 1.35% of GDP. The European Union doubled aid after the revolution and has since released €300 million in EIB loans.

    The question is to what extent our aid, in co-operation with our EU partners, will continue after Brexit. At least there must be full co-operation. We will still remain members of the Council of Europe, whose assembly has shown a keen interest in Tunisia and whose Venice Commission has advised on constitutional amendments. Will we be part of a more extended effort to lower tariffs and possibly open our markets more to Tunisia’s agricultural exports?

    Bilaterally, with the EU and in co-operation with Tunisia, we need co-operatively to identify problems such as unbalanced development, improving the roads and helping to provide opportunities for young people. As is shown by the brief given by the ambassador, we already assist with border security. The British Council has done great work, as the noble Baroness said, with its Young Arab Voices programme to encourage a spirit of debate and questioning, and from the ambassador’s brief it seems clear that our targets are the right ones. However, although our aid has doubled, it has done so from a very small base.

    My final point is that, unless Tunisia is singled out for greater help, it will be a model no longer. If we do not respond positively, the costs to us across the board will be much higher. If the jasmine revolution is to be allowed to crumble in chaos and strife, the last hope of the Arab spring will be dashed.

  • My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for introducing this debate and I congratulate her on her excellent introductory speech. This debate comes at a pertinent time: as noble Lords have heard, we have both just returned from Tunisia, where we attended the Hammamet conference organised by the British Council. This brought together emerging leaders and opinion-formers from across north Africa to identify and discuss solutions to critical issues. Specifically, we learned about the challenges that Tunisia currently faces.

    Since the end of French colonial rule in 1957, Tunisia has had two Presidents: President Bourguiba and his successor, President Ben Ali—both dictators. However, President Bourguiba was in fact very forward looking in his vision of a society based on more secular values and gender equality. He introduced the Code of Personal Status—a series of laws focused on addressing gender equality in a number of areas. This included giving women the right to work and to open bank accounts and establish businesses without needing permission from their husbands. He also encouraged tourism in the 1960s, which greatly helped the economy, as, unlike some of its neighbours, Tunisia is not rich in natural resources. However, in the latter years of the dictatorships there was also severe press censorship and oppressive stifling of political opposition.

    In 2011, as we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, Tunisia was the source of the Arab spring, or the “Arab source”, as one Tunisian woman once described it to me—the revolution that has had such profound historic consequences for much of the Middle East and indeed the wider world. Without ignoring the death and injury that occurred during the initial demonstrations, of the countries affected by the Arab spring Tunisia is the sole political success, as my noble friend Lord Patten has already said. It is the only country not to have descended into wider chaos and civil unrest, and to have transitioned to become a functioning democracy.

    Two elections have been held since and power has changed hands smoothly. The country has adopted a constitution introducing stronger human rights protections, mandating for fair, multiparty elections and allowing for greater freedom of speech. More recently, Tunisia held its first ever public hearings with the victims and witnesses of humanitarian violations perpetrated by the country’s previous regimes. These testimonies were organised by the state-funded Truth and Dignity Commission and were broadcast live on television and radio for the whole nation to follow. This transitional justice marks an important milestone in a country’s quest for openness, transparency and accountability to its people. It is the first time that such an event has taken place in the Arab world.

    However, as we have already heard, Tunisia is not without its challenges. We should recognise that western democracy has taken hundreds of years to develop, so Tunisia cannot expect a seamless transition from dictatorship to democracy without some bumps along the way. The clamp-down on freedom of views under Ben Ali had contributed to some young Tunisians leaving to join the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. In more recent years, Tunisia has in fact become the world’s largest exporter of ISIL fighters, with estimates of between 4,000 and 6,000 Tunisians having travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for Daesh.

    With the situation in neighbouring Libya continuing to deteriorate, there is now increasing concern relating to the influence of ISIL and its reach into the country. The first major assault by ISIL in Tunisia took place in March this year in the border town of Ben Guerdane, committed by fighters who had arrived home from Libya. The threat has continued to grow ever since. Of course, we all remember when 20 people were killed last year at the Bardo museum in Tunis, and 39 tourists, most of them British, were killed on the beach in Sousse.

    This year, Tunisia made the unprecedented move of building a 125-mile long barrier along the border with Libya, consisting of water-filled trenches and sand-banks. However, there is a widespread thought that the barrier’s effectiveness will come down to the capacity of those patrolling it. Prior to the Arab spring, Tunisia enjoyed relative stability, and thus the security forces are unprepared to deal with such major terrorist threats—particularly with the number of jihadists who are now thought to be operating across the border in Libya. That is why it is so important to continue to work with the Tunisians, helping them to enhance security, protect civilians and develop capacity to counter violent extremism.

    The economy is, as we have already heard, a particular concern, and economic reform has been slow. Tunisia has struggled to attract investment and unemployment is high. As we have heard, more than 30% of its youth are unemployed—curiously that is higher among graduates—and one-quarter of Tunisian companies say they cannot find people with the required skills. The shootings in Sousse and the ensuing travel warnings have meant that tourism from Europe and the US has almost completely dried up, resulting in many Tunisians having been made redundant. There is also very little private sector activity, as historically the Government employed a huge number of people—an unsustainable model—and cronyism was rife, with big business in the hands of the elite and small business not encouraged.

    It is widely acknowledged that poverty is one driver of radicalisation. Therefore, as one considers Tunisia’s relative stability and its close proximity to Libya, is there more that the UK can do to help ensure that the situation does not deteriorate? The announcement yesterday of $8 billion in aid and loans to Tunisia over the next four years is very much to be welcomed, but Tunisia also needs inward investment.

    Clearly, the travel ban has been devastating to its tourist industry. While we need to protect our citizens, and the memory of Sousse will take a long time to fade, we could still encourage Tunisia to build up more cultural tourism. Carthage is a UNESCO world heritage site and Tunisia has the most fantastic Roman sites, such as Bulla Regia and the wonderful Thysdrus colosseum, built in the 3rd century at El Djem. The UK must also continue to help Tunisia to reform its financial sector and embrace entrepreneurship and private enterprise. Many of the young Tunisians I met last weekend are enthusiastic about looking at new ways of doing business.

    In conclusion, Tunisia is a beacon of hope in a troubled part of the world. It is a model to show that a well-functioning democracy is the right way forward for countries across the MENA region. But Tunisia faces challenges, so now is the time for the UK to get alongside and lend our support to help Tunisia achieve full and lasting stability.

  • On 17 December 2010, a 26 year-old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, had his goods and equipment confiscated, as he would not bribe a police officer to allow him to continue trading. When he protested, the police slapped him in the face and humiliated him. He went to the regional governor’s office to complain and was rebuffed. He then doused himself in fuel and set himself alight. He died 18 days later. One of his visitors in hospital was the then President, Ben Ali. Five thousand people participated in his funeral procession and the protests grew and grew, in size and over a wider geographical area in the region. The President and the Government of Tunisia fell, and the same happened in other countries. A simple, self-destructive act—a result of hopelessness and humiliation—stimulated what many refer to as the Arab spring, although many, as we have heard, resent that term.

    In the subsequent tumultuous six years, Tunisia has undergone widespread change and, in many respects, resisted the pressures from external neighbours. Libya has descended into bloody internal conflict and continues to remain tense, if relatively peaceful, and the MENA region as a whole is at a turning point. This subject is the focus of an inquiry by the International Relations Committee of this House, on which I serve, looking at the changing of sovereignty and of the power balance in the region. Tunisia, as one example of that, gives us many lessons, and it is the particular focus this evening.

    I give credit to my noble friend Lady Suttie for bringing Tunisia—its history and opportunities and the pressures that it faces—to the attention of the House. I congratulate her on her foresight. She could not have known when she tabled this Motion a number of months ago how topical it would be, given the recent Hammamet conference I attended with my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, the ongoing trade discussions in Tunisia and the focus of the international community. All credit is due to my noble friend for such forward thinking.

    The British Council in Tunisia allowed the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, my noble friend and myself to interact with young people in Tunisia, across the Maghreb and the wider region and to have an open dialogue about the pressures and opportunities that the region faces. One contributor at the conference said that only the British Council could bring together a session that included an astrophysicist, an academic, a poet, a textile artist, an economist and a Member of the House of Lords to discuss UK and north Africa issues. But the British Council, as well as the British embassy, is doing sterling work in Tunisia, which I will return to in a moment.

    In addition to the work on supporting Tunisia, as my noble friend Lady Suttie mentioned, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the British Council is also carrying out an inquiry into resilience to radicalisation for young people in the region. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, mentioned, Tunisia is certainly a victim of radicalisation, but, equally, it can show us signs of how we can combat it. One of the most humbling aspects of discussions I had with Tunisian MPs and young people in Tunisia, including in a round table of the International Relations Committee that we conducted last week, was that they were suffering radicalisation but could offer us examples of how to solve the issue. I hope that the Government will respond positively when the inquiry of the British Council APPG concludes its work. From my meetings with delegations from the Egyptian Parliament this week and from the Iraqi Parliament yesterday, I know that we can look to Tunisia in particular for examples of success in combating radicalisation and violence—examples from which we can learn lessons for the region as a whole.

    As has been said, Tunisia has not had an easy five years since the uprising and the revolution. The Government in Tunisia are the seventh since 2011. They are currently led by the 41 year-old Youssef Chahed—we wish him well and we wish the stability of Tunisia well. But there is no question that the political instability, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, has raised considerable concerns within Tunisia. Protests are ongoing and in a way, to pacify protesters, the Government continue to offer more and more public sector jobs. As my noble friend Lady Suttie said in her comprehensive speech opening this debate, private sector unemployment is still high and public sector employment is extremely high. Public sector finances remain perilous. Combined, that shows that considerable economic pressures face Tunisia. We know that the latest statistics show that 23.5% of women are unemployed. We know that the country has a massive underutilisation of a significant part of its economy. With public sector salaries representing half of all government expenditure, we know that the economic situation in Tunisia is fragile.

    That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and my noble friend indicated, the decision of the British Government not to change their travel advice, which continues to inflict considerable problems on the tourism industry in Tunisia, warrants proper scrutiny. When we were there very recently, I met a trader in the souk in Hammamet who regretted that there were not more British there. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, mentioned the Russians. The trader regretted that there were more Russians there than British tourists. He had learned English not through schooling but through self-tutoring because of the British tourists there. Our Government should clarify their position and I hope that the travel guidance will be reviewed very soon.

    One of the reasons why I admire Tunisia is that, when it has gone to the brink with its political and economic difficulties and there has been political cleavage on sectarian grounds, the leaders have stepped back and realised that peaceful and open dialogue is necessary. The global recognition in the form of the Nobel Prize being awarded to the quartet is absolutely justified.

    The UK has a significant role to play. I have been to Tunisia three times this year as well as welcoming many of its MPs to the UK, and I have not met a single Tunisian who does not desire much deeper and closer links with the United Kingdom through trade, culture and political support despite all the different pressures that Tunisia faces, including corruption and lack of economic development. I took part in a Westminster Foundation for Democracy process with the Tunisian parliament’s anti-corruption committee, which recognises that this is an issue that needs to be tackled, and the UK has much to offer in support of that. The opportunities for the UK to support Tunisia are huge, and we must not let the Tunisian people down.

    I turn to a final aspect, which more than anything else shows me the reason why we need to do this work. The British Council Facebook page alone has 203,000 likes posted by Tunisian people who have a desire to learn English, compared with the House of Lords Facebook page with 9,000 likes. There is a massive desire among Tunisians to learn to speak English and deepen links with this country. I hope that the Government will respond positively to this debate and bring the same element of foresight shown by my noble friend Lady Suttie in offering support to Tunisia and showing that country a hopeful and optimistic way forward.

  • My Lords, if I look a little concerned it is not because the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, went over time; it is because I have just heard that Arsenal is losing to Southampton, which makes the evening even more difficult. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for initiating this debate, which is extremely timely. Tunisia is facing a number of challenges: a growing economic crisis and serious security threats that are aggravated by instability across the border in Libya where two rival factions are battling for control, creating a haven for Islamist militants. The major attacks that we heard about last year were organised in ISIL camps just west of Tripoli, close to the Tunisian border.

    Unfortunately, the steady progress made on building democracy has not been matched by building up the economy. The 2011 and 2014 elections were both considered to be free and fair, but on the other hand the economy saw the GDP growth rate fall to less than half of what it was before the revolution. Unemployment stood at 15.3% in 2015, up from 12% in 2010. University graduates comprise one-third of jobless Tunisians. As the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, the terrorist attacks have had a major impact on the number of tourists visiting the country. It is worth remembering that in the two years before the attacks, the number of UK tourists going to Tunisia continued to grow, reaching 400,000, which was higher than the pre-revolution numbers.

    The FCO advice is based on the information it obtains and of course there is in effect a state of emergency in Tunisia which was imposed after a suicide attack on a police bus on 24 November 2015. As we have read on a number of occasions, most recently on 19 October, the warning has been extended for an additional three months, taking us into January of next year. Since the attacks, as we have heard in the debate, the United Kingdom has been working in co-operation with the Tunisian Government on putting in place additional security measures, gathering intelligence and providing training and support. However, as the FCO says, the intelligence and threat picture has developed considerably, reinforcing the view that a further terrorist attack is highly likely. I too should like to ask the Minister whether she envisages any change to this advice over the next six months. If we are supporting investment in the infrastructure in Tunisia, there needs to be some idea that things will progress, especially given the amount spent on security.

    Unlike its oil-wealthy neighbours Libya and Algeria, Tunisia has few natural resources and the years of instability have crimped investment. Economists suggest that other sectors, such as renewable energy, can be a source of growth to compensate for the lost contribution of the tourism sector. As we have heard, the United Kingdom has been running development programmes in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution. To date, our bilateral assistance has been worth around £24 million. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, funding for the 2016-17 programme has increased to £8 million, supporting security, the economy, governance, media and human rights.

    In Written Answers to Written Questions from Members of this House, Ministers have stated that the UK Government will,

    “continue to encourage Tunisia to set out its plans for economic development and reform, and have particularly underlined the importance of creating jobs for young people”.

    What assessment have the Government made of the barriers to economic diversification, and have they considered how support might be better directed to addressing these issues?

    As we have heard, a failing economy affects the political situation and, as my noble friend Lord Anderson said, it is vital that we do not avoid giving support. If we do—if we limit ourselves—we put at risk the political situation and the economic situation. The two run in tandem, and that is why the United Kingdom’s support is so vital.

  • My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for tabling this evening’s debate and I welcome the contributions of noble Lords. We may have waited a little time for this debate to take place, but I think we would agree that the wait was well worth while. It was a very important issue to bring before the House and we have all been struck by the nature of the contributions.

    Of all the countries that experienced popular uprisings in 2011, only Tunisia has succeeded in making the transition to democracy—a matter commented on by a number of noble Lords. It has undergone a political transformation, with a new constitution, democratic elections and the peaceful transition of power from one Government to another. It is an extraordinary achievement, particularly in light of what happened elsewhere in the region, and immediately next door. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, spoke powerfully about all this. He addressed the importance of aid, and I hope that my ensuing remarks will not only answer his questions but provide some reassurance.

    For much of the same period, the security situation in Libya went from bad to worse. Terrorists and criminal gangs flourished in the security vacuum caused by the Libyan civil war. They sought to destabilise the Tunisian transition by attacking Tunisia’s security forces and its tourism industry, with tragic consequences for British and other foreign tourists in the Bardo and Sousse attacks of 2015.

    The UK Government’s strategy since 2011 has been to support the Tunisian Government’s ambition of a stable democracy, not only because it is a worthwhile goal in itself but because Tunisia’s success provides a vital counterpoint to the narratives of Daesh and other extremist groups. Our commitment to Tunisia has grown markedly since the revolution—the staffing levels at the British Embassy in Tunis are an illustration of that. The number of UK staff has grown sixfold since 2011 and trebled in the last two years alone. They are drawn from right across Whitehall, highlighting the breadth of our engagement, from aviation security and economic reform to supporting the Tunisian criminal justice system—something to which my noble friend Lady Hodgson referred. Overall, our funding for work in Tunisia has quadrupled in the last two years.

    The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, asked in particular about economic, security and cultural relations, so I will look at each field in turn. While Tunisia has made great progress politically, it continues to face serious economic and social challenges, to which the noble Baroness referred. The economic inequalities, high youth unemployment and social marginalisation that led to the revolution remain unresolved.

    Our strategy is to support economic reforms that will encourage foreign investment, remove barriers to private sector growth and increase investment in those parts of the country that have historically been neglected—a feature that arose during the debate. We are designing a package of programmes focused on improving access to finance for small businesses, helping entrepreneurs to succeed in marginalised areas, supporting the fight against corruption and boosting English language skills for school leavers to meet the demands of Tunisian employers.

    There is a significant and growing interest in moving towards a more enterprise-friendly economic model and our expanding portfolio of co-operation is increasingly appreciated. I hope that answers the specific enquiry of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. She also asked how we can encourage business to invest in Tunisia. The Prime Minister’s trade envoy, Dr Andrew Murrison, represented the UK at the opening of the Tunisia 2020 conference yesterday, the aim of which is to further encourage progress on economic reform. We reiterated our commitment to supporting that goal, including through the availability of extensive insurance for potential investments from UK Export Finance. I know that a number of your Lordships raised that issue.

    Supporting economic reform is vital for Tunisia’s long-term future, but for success to be sustainable it must be underpinned by security. We have dramatically increased our security engagement since the 2015 terrorist attacks to build the capacity of the Tunisian security forces to tackle terrorist threats inside and outside the country, as well as cross-border organised crime and trafficking. My noble friend is absolutely right to stress the relevance of developments in Libya to Tunisia’s prospects. That is why border security and managing returning Tunisian fighters are both vital elements of our support.

    Of course, we are not doing this alone. After the Sousse attack we established a mechanism with G7 partners to ensure that international security support is co-ordinated and effectively targeted. It has proved successful and we now seek to apply the same formula to support economic reform. I share my noble friend’s desire to see British holidaymakers return to Tunisia. We keep our travel advice under constant review as we work with the Tunisian authorities and the tourist industry to improve security and crisis response. It is very important to emphasise that we will lift our advice against all but essential travel when we judge that the threshold for doing so has been met. The safety of British citizens has to be paramount.

    We are also keen to strengthen our cultural relations with Tunisia. There is a growing appetite to learn English. Indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, specifically raised the subject of education. The Tunisian Minister of Education recently announced his wish for English to become the second language taught in schools, ahead of French. This would be a significant change of direction.

    Our embassy and the British Council are adjusting their programmes to respond to the increasing demand, which is clear from the 2,000 children and adults who come to learn English every week at the excellent British Council teaching centre in Tunis. Last year, 7,500 UK qualifications were taken by young Tunisians. More than 10,000 young people have been involved in Young Arab Voices, which provides debate training and skills development through more than 60 active debating clubs across 24 governorates in Tunisia—a project now set to go into high schools across the country. The British Council’s Hammamet conference, to which the noble Baroness referred and which she attended last week, brings together established and emerging leaders from across north Africa and the UK. It is now in its fifth year and seems to be going from strength to strength, which is commendable and encouraging. I pay tribute to the British Council for its very positive work in Tunisia and in the region.

    I shall now turn to the contributions of noble Lords, because a number of very important points were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, talked about regional inequality, and indeed that is an issue. Regional disparities remain, with the marginalised interior regions continuing to suffer the highest unemployment levels, up to 30%, with poor basic infrastructure and limited access to public services. We encourage the Tunisian Government to deliver Prime Minister Chahed’s promise to tackle regional inequality and will work with Tunisia and our G7 partners to give impetus to economic reforms. The noble Baroness will understand that, in conjunction with what I have already said about our desire to encourage economic reform and assist an enterprise-based economy, this is the most optimistic way forward to resolve these inequalities.

    The noble Baroness also specifically raised the issue of travel to Tunisia, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins. As I have just said, we will keep that under review and work with the Tunisian authorities to support them in improving security. We will lift our advice against all but essential travel, but only when we judge that it is safe to do so. My noble friend Lord Patten raised a number of interesting points, not least the geopolitics of the area, which is very pertinent. Tunisia is strategically highly important and will remain so, by its position and its unique progress on democratic reform in the region. On security, co-operation with our G7 partners, including the US, is strong and our interests in securing the democratic transition in Tunisia is very much shared by these partners.

    My noble friend Lord Patten also raised the specific issue of security. He and a number of other noble Lords referred to the situation in Libya. We understand and share noble Lords’ concerns about the uncertain situation in Libya and its potential knock-on effects in Tunisia. We are working with the Tunisian Government and other partners in the G7 to help improve the state of border security and so limit the risk of terrorists crossing freely. This will take time but the importance of maintaining Tunisia’s stability, both as a bulwark against Daesh and as an example of successful Arab democracy, is paramount.

    My noble friend Lady Hodgson made the very important point of how developing constitutional freedoms and new rights and privileges are increasingly benefiting Tunisian citizens. That is very important and positive. She too articulated concerns about the situation in Libya and I refer her to my response to my noble friend Lord Patten. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, rightly emphasised the important diversity of young people in Tunisia. He is absolutely correct and I hope that the recognition by the United Kingdom Government of the importance of education and of the wider civic engagement which we are trying to nurture among young people in Tunisia—with the increasing interest in topical affairs and our provision of facilities to get familiar with the form of debates—will make a positive contribution to their ability to participate very positively in the future of their country.

    In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised a number of important points, including travel. I think I have fairly comprehensively covered travel. I will just observe that tourism, while it is a significant part of the Tunisian economy—at the time of the Sousse attack there was certainly a very active tourist industry, particularly between Tunisia and the United Kingdom—Tunisia is not wholly dependent on it. It represented about 7% of GDP before the 2015 attacks, which is on a par with the ICT sector. The noble Lord also raised the issue of barriers to economic diversification. I hope that the responses I have given to other contributors to the debate will reassure him on that front.

    Finally, our strategy in Tunisia is clear, targeted and effective. It is a strategy that we are pursuing in close co-operation with the Tunisian Government and international partners, supported by enhanced funding from the new £280 million North Africa Good Governance Fund—the fund for development spending in north Africa, from Egypt to Morocco. We remain absolutely committed to supporting Tunisia’s new democracy in the months and years ahead.

  • House adjourned at 9.55 pm.