Tunisia Debate

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Baroness Goldie

Main Page: Baroness Goldie (Conservative - Life peer)
Wednesday 30th November 2016

(5 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie (Con)
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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 are 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 interest 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.