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Mr. William Powell : Will my right hon. and learned Friend take time with the secretary-general to consider the awesome deployment of advance battle divisions by the Soviet army in East Germany? Will he make it plain that for the British Government improving relations with the Soviet Union will depend upon progress being made in the talks on the elimination of chemical weapons and the reduction of conventional weapons in Europe by the Soviets?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : My hon. Friend is right. We attach the highest importance to continued progress in the discussions, not only on the chemical weapons worldwide ban to which I have already referred, but in the shortly to be commenced discussions on conventional weapons in Europe, where Soviet predominance is still massive.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : We are in close and frequent contact with the Government of Hong Kong on all aspects of the problem of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. My noble Friend the Minister of State is at present paying a visit to Hong Kong.
Mr. Clarke : Is the figure of 1,000 refugees, recently announced by the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), based on two or three years? What is the criterion for selection and why, given the
Column 835ungenerous nature of this announcement, is the Foreign Secretary insisting that it must be conditional on the reaction of other countries?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The length of time over which the 1,000 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong may be able to come to this country has not yet been specified. It will be over two or three years and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that statement is made with the proviso that others are prepared to contribute commensurately. That is an important and valuable qualification because we greatly value the willingness of other countries to match Britain's commitment to accept an additional intake of refugees. It is important to ensure that our offer of a further intake secures the same sort of response from the other countries whose generosity we appreciate.
Sir Peter Blaker : Will my right hon. and learned Friend pay tribute to the responsible way in which the Government and people of Hong Kong have handled the burdensome matter of the Vietnamese boat people who have reached Hong Kong? Does he also accept that the Government's announcement about accepting into this country 1,000 more refugees, and the proviso that was added to it, will be welcomed in the House? Have any other countries such as Australia expressed their willingness to accept more refugees from Hong Kong?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : My right hon. Friend is entirely right to emphasise the debt that we owe to the Government and people of Hong Kong for their willingness to provide accommodation for large numbers of people, not least the 15,000 who arrived there during 1988. We have not yet had any fresh commitments as a result of the statement to the House before Christmas, but of course it is early days.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : That is not our view. We have made it plain that we are prepared to give financial assistance to the boat people who return to Vietnam, but the economic condition in Vietnam depends on substantial changes in the economic policy of that country. There are some signs that the Vietnamese are beginning to recognise the need for those changes.
Mr. Yeo : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the problem of the Vietnamese boat people has been burdensome for the Government and the people of Hong Kong? In discussions with other countries that might accept a larger number of refugees, will he undertake to draw attention to the British Government's offer to accept a bigger intake into this country?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : Yes, certainly. That is one of the main consequences of our offer to accept a further 1,000 refugees into this country. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to the Hong Kong Government and people and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees whose help and advice we have greatly valued. In September we announced a contribution of £1 million towards his work and I can now confirm that we shall be contributing another £1 million towards the UNHCR in 1989.
Mr. Foulkes : For once it is a great pleasure for me to welcome the direction in which Government policy is moving. Will the Secretary of State supply a little more detail about how he will translate the principle into practice? Will he provide some indication of the timetable of discussions with other countries, as the Canadians have already made an unconditional announcement that they will take more refugees? Will he make it clear that he does not need the total agreement of all possible countries before putting together a package to deal with the problem?
Finally, in the longer term, is it the Government's intention and hope to ensure that the whole problem of refugees in Hong Kong is dealt with by the time we hand over the colony to the People's Republic of China in 1997 so that people are no longer condemned to exist in camps, some of which are very much like an oriental Alcatraz.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : Despite the rather sharp phrase with which the hon. Gentleman closed his question, I am glad to welcome his support for Government policy. Of course it is our firm intention to ensure that the problem of Vietnamese refugees and boat people should be resolved well before 1997. It has been important to establish the various components now in place, including the screening process to distinguish genuine refugees from the rest. It is important for us to get ahead as fast as we can in finding homes for those refugees. We shall have to judge the scale and nature of the response of other Governments as we receive responses to the approaches we are making and have been making for some time. We welcome the offer which was made by Canada before my latest announcements.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : Mr. Gorbachev's planned visit to the United Kingdom last month had to be postponed due to the tragic earthquake in Armenia. We hope that it will be possible to agree new dates for the visit in the near future.
Mr. Hughes : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that when that date is announced--and we look forward to the visit with great anticipation--it would be good for President Gorbachev to have an understanding of the work done by many thousands of people in this country to seek the release of Russian refuseniks? In particular, will he bring to the attention of President Gorbachev the work done by people such as the group from Pinner synagogue in seeking to bring forward the release of Ilya Resnikov and his family who are being held unreasonably in the Soviet Union?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important on this occasion--as on every other occasion when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have met Mr. Gorbachev or my opposite number--to draw attention to the importance of human rights matters. The Russians have responded positively on previous occasions and we shall hope for the same response this time. The case of Ilya Resnikov will be among the refusenik cases that will be raised during Mr. Gorbachev's visit.
Mr. Grocott : Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one reason why poll after poll in the west shows President Gorbachev to be one of the most admired leaders in the world is that he has shown such vision in trying to end the arms race? Does the Foreign Secretary share my pessimism that there does not seem to be any sign that any western statesman has similar vision?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I do not want to diminish the extent to which we welcome the decisions and statements of Mr. Gorbachev on those matters in recent times, but it is crucial to emphasise that they are responses to long-standing western positions, sustained by the united determination of the western Alliance. We have had on the table for years plans for the massive reduction of conventional weapons in Europe. We have been pressing for years for a worldwide ban on chemical weapons. It is against that background that we should welcome the announcements made by Mr. Gorbachev.
Mr. Ian Taylor : Will my right hon. and learned Friend note the latest information that the soviet economy is worsening rather than improving? Will he consider, when Mr. Gorbachev visits this country, trying to come forward with an initiative to provide specific assistance to the Soviet Union, such as help with the framing of their joint ventures for Western companies in that country, given the tremendous expertise we have in such matters?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the continuing poor condition of the Soviet economy, in which a great deal remains to be done. That is now being seen as an additional reason for reducing the huge burden of defence expenditure, which still runs at about 15 per cent. of Soviet GNP. We also recognise that there is a useful part to be played along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend. We have been suggesting a number of joint venture opportunities, such as management consultancy and exchanges of students, and we shall continue to do so.
Mr. Maxton : Although we all welcome the continuing and improving relationship between this country and China, will the Minister take the earliest opportunity to make the strongest representations to the Chinese Government about the recent killing of peaceful protesters by the Chinese army in Tibet and the continuing violations of civil liberties in Tibet?
Column 838uneasy about some of the reports emanating from Tibet? Will he also bear in mind that there is quite a well-maintained campaigning organisation on behalf of Tibet, which is itself hardly well disposed towards the People's Republic?
Mr. Eggar : The Dalai Lama is, of course, welcome to visit this country, but he is regarded by some as the leader of a Tibetan Government in exile, which is recognised neither by Her Majesty's Government nor by any other Government. A meeting with Ministers would, therefore, be open to misconstruction.
Mr. Banks : Is it not a fact that the Minister has a great predeliction for gallivanting around the world, saying nasty and offensive things about Nicaragua? I understand that he will be in that area during 1989, but why does he steadfastly refuse to visit Nicaragua? Is it because he is worried about upsetting his masters in the United States or because he does not want to find that the facts conflict with his prejudices?
Mr. Eggar : Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not use General Noriega's aeroplane to get around central America. The hon. Gentleman is, however, quite right--I shall represent the Government at the conference in San Pedro Sula in February. I do not by any means rule out the possibility of a visit to Nicaragua at some stage in the future but unfortunately, other commitments will not make a visit possible in February.
Mr. Marlow : In view of my hon. Friend's responsibility towards this House, will he consult--I am not sure whether it is a psychologist or a psychiatrist--to ask why the Opposition have such an obsession with Nicaragua, a country for which we have no responsibility and in which we have even less interest?
Miss Lestor : If the Minister is seriously thinking of going to Nicaragua, may I urge him to go as soon as possible, bearing in mind the fact that hon. Members and Ministers visit a large number of countries in which we have no direct responsibility? If the Minister went and saw the results of the hurricane, the economic embargo, horrific inflation and the Contra fighting, and saw the Government's efforts to make a success of the economy, he
Column 839might come back and persuade the Minister for Overseas Development to give more humanitarian aid, in particular, to the people of Nicaragua.
Mr. Eggar : I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the Government made more than £400,000 available for relief assistance following the recent hurricane. I know that she is also aware that Nicaragua is the largest recipient of European Community aid to central America, so the Government's contribution to assistance for Nicaragua is already considerable.
Mr. Greg Knight : Is it not important to ensure that massive Soviet and Cuban military aid to Nicaragua is reduced? Does my hon. Friend accept that that aid is quite disproportionate to the country's needs?
Mr. Eggar : I agree that a considerable amount of Soviet Union and Cuban assistance goes to Nicaragua. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that recent actions by the Sandanista Government continue to be contrary both to the letter and to the spirit of their Esquipulas obligations.
Mr. Waldegrave : Negotiations aimed at achieving a comprehensive global ban on chemical weapons continue at the conference on disarmament in Geneva. Progress has been made, but complex issues remain to be resolved, particularly concerning verification. The Paris conference, at which I represented Her Majesty's Government, should give welcome impetus to this progress.
Column 840chemical weapons and the frightening possibility of Libya acquiring a chemical weapons capability. Neither Iraq nor Libya could go ahead with chemical weapons without expertise and materials from elsewhere and there have been rumours of such sources in West Germany. Have the Minister or the Foreign Secretary had discussions with their European Community counterparts on this issue? Is the Minister in any position to dispel rumours of West German involvement?
Mr. Waldegrave : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The use of such weapons in the Gulf war was the immediate cause of the conference in Paris. I believe that the West German Government are taking seriously the reports to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and that they are taking action on them.
Mr. Cash : In negotiations on chemical weaponry, is similar attention being given to the dangers of biotechnology and the sort of genetic defects that could result if viruses of the kind that can be developed were used on an international scale?
Mr. Waldegrave : There is already in place a convention that bans biological warfare, but we have fears, to which the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) referred earlier, that these bans are not being respected. It would be all too possible to imagine a catastrophe of the kind that my hon. Friend mentions.
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