Tunisia Debate

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Lord Collins of Highbury

Main Page: Lord Collins of Highbury (Labour - Life peer)
Wednesday 30th November 2016

(5 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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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.