My Lords, I want to focus specifically on our relationships with other countries, our overseas aid provisions, our drive to extend global stability and the need to undertake more overseas trade. As outlined in the Queen’s Speech, this Government’s first priority will be to reduce the deficit and restore economic stability. I believe that this will be the key to successfully implementing many of our other important policies, including in foreign affairs. The more economically stable our country is, the more we are able to help others across the world.
One of our notable commitments on foreign relations is to support the extension of political and economic freedom in the Middle East and north Africa. I have visited several countries in these areas and spoken with the heads of their Governments. I have established close links with their ambassadors and held discussions with them, and with citizens of these countries, regarding their relationships with the United Kingdom and the challenges facing their countries. We cannot expect other countries to adopt our form of government and no attempt should be made to do so. However, our involvement in any overseas country must be soft and we should therefore exercise soft influence. Although we can provide assistance where there are problems, the people themselves must find solutions and form a system that suits their circumstances. We can, however, help in building institutions, which are important if these countries are to achieve progress. In addition, we need to help bring in peace and stability and assist in the achievement of democracy and economic growth, which will result in the creation of jobs.
I am a strong believer in the empowerment of women and the need to deal with issues relating to poverty. It is also important to improve the standard of education and provide free primary education for all. It is important that we do not underestimate the extent to which politics and economics are intertwined in helping these countries to make their transitions. We have seen in several countries that political freedom often follows the opening up of economics. While these countries open up their own economies, it is important that the wider international community engages with them on an economic level. When countries are trading with and investing in each other, they are developing relationships and stakes in each other’s peace and stability. From a British point of view, I want to see more of our goods and services exported overseas. We need to be looking for new opportunities in these emerging powers; our manufacturing and service industries can help build these new democracies, while helping increase our export base. There will be mutual benefits to our country and our trading partners. This will also result in the building of people-to-people connections.
In addition to our duty to support countries in transition, we have a moral obligation to assist poorer countries to begin realising a state of transition. I have always been supportive of our pledge to commit 0.7% of gross national income as development assistance from next year, and I was pleased to hear this included in the Queen’s Speech. I have visited a number of developing countries where DfID is involved, and where a large part of my work has been in looking at the widespread impact of diseases on poor communities. I appreciate that this Government have made several bold commitments on this, including vaccinating children against preventable diseases and providing access to safe, clean drinking water for millions of people. There is still a level of consternation among the public over our ring-fencing of the aid budget. It is crucial that we not only continue on our course but take even greater care to ensure that this financial assistance gets through to the right places. In addition, the Department for International Development must be clear in showing us that our money is being put to good use, not being misappropriated.
Although I am in favour of providing aid to foreign countries, we must consider providing support, including financial assistance, to properly organised trade missions. It is essential that we organise trade missions made up of businesspeople who can look for opportunities overseas and undertake more business and trade. I am strongly of the view that aid and trade must be simultaneous and that our high commissions and embassies can play an active part in this regard. As a businessman, I have promoted the need for us to undertake more overseas trade. It is essential that we do not undersell ourselves in trade but actively enhance the position of UK plc. We have unique services and products which we can offer to the world, and, although the Government can create conditions, businesspeople must take the initiative and be proactive in undertaking more business overseas. I firmly believe that we can overcome our financial difficulties by the application of austerity measures and appropriate taxation, and by undertaking more business at home and overseas. This includes the sale of defence equipment to responsible Governments.
More can be done to promote our trade with Commonwealth countries. Furthermore, we need to look for more markets in South America, Asia and Africa. Trade must be two-way traffic, which means that not only should we go abroad to look for business but we must encourage others to come to our country. I was pleased to hear this morning that Vauxhall Motors will invest considerable capital in building new motor cars at its Ellesmere Port plant.
In closing, with reference to all overseas matters on military intervention, trade and development assistance, I emphasise the need for greater co-operation and more joined-up thinking between the relevant government departments.