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Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on the way in which he introduced the subject this evening. He knows that the beef industry in my part of the world is very important. We have been brandishing names around tonight and I was disappointed not to hear the Herefordshire breed mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). If he cares to travel 25 miles from his constituency, I shall show him some fine specimens. Of course, there are Herefordshire cattle in his own constituency. Beef production is an important activity in the western part of my constituency.
I am anxious that, as an outcome of the discussions on which my right hon. Friend will again embark, the United Kingdom industry should feel that it has emerged sharing an equal burden of the misery. I am not certain that the Commission has fully realised the importance of that. The Commission does not yet understand the significant difference between farm structures in this country and those in other parts of the world. It is easy, knowing that the agriculture vote in the country is lower than it is elsewhere, to try to load the difficulties on to the United Kingdom industry to the benefit of other countries in the Community.
Mr. Hunter : I accept entirely what my hon. Friend has said. It is false to draw a ready distinction between the industry and the consumer because thriving producers are in the interest of the consumer. I invite my hon. Friend to continue his argument, but to draw attention to the cohesion of interest between producer and consumer.
Column 449consumer unless goods are produced at the right price to the benefit of the producer. That is what we must seek to achieve at all times.
Our producers will judge the success of the negotiations on whether their industry has been discriminated against in the outcome. We have heard already of the various items of discrimination that are on the table. It is important that these are trimmed, or that the arguments for them are made to hold water by those who propound them. They certainly do not hold water from the standpoint of the United Kingdom industry. I am disappointed that the Commission, and the Community as a whole, has not seen fit to learn from the lessons of the variable premium scheme and its success in encouraging the consumption of beef. I accept that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) had a good point when he said that our consumption of beef is lower than that of other European countries. It seems crazy that we should be throwing out a scheme that maintains a lower level of price so as to increase the price to the consumer and reduce consumption at a time when we are trying to increase consumption or reduce its production. That is inimical.
There is a finely poised structure of agriculture in the hills. My right hon. Friend the Minister has said that there are many holdings in the uplands, in less favoured areas and on marginal land where the only option is to use the grass. That means sheep or suckler cows. Unlike the Bavarians, we do not have the alternative of making BMW motor cars. We have people whose sole occupation is rearing cattle or sheep. They do not have the facility, the opportunity or the finance to make changes. We must encourage the suckler cow herds. The dairy herd is down for reasons that have been mentioned already and therefore we must encourage the continued growth of the suckler herd in the hills. I shall measure the success of the negotiations on whether the uplands are favoured on balance so as to maintain the delicate structure of the countryside.
I wish my right hon. Friend the Minister well in the negotiations. I know that he will carry both sides of the House with him as he travels. I hope that the members of the Commission and those of other Governments who read the report of the proceedings of the House this evening will understand our strength of feeling.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : Like earlier contributors to the debate, I give my support to the Minister for his renewed endeavours, which he will demonstrate at next week's negotiations, to improve the terms of this package. I speak from experience, as a Northern Ireland Member, and with an understanding of how the package will affect farming in the North.
Northern Ireland farmers will be suffering double jeopardy with the abolition of the calf premium and the variable beef premium. The Northern Ireland farming industry is already suffering multiple deprivation--the milk quotas are biting deeply with tragic results for some small dairy farmers, some of whom have had this month to return milk cheques to the Milk Marketing Board because of slight over-production. The cereal producers are having to make a contribution to the financial
Column 450arrangements of the cereal regime regarding over-production, even though they are net importers of cereals to Northern Ireland. Of course, like every other area, the poultry industry in Northern Ireland, even though it was and is entirely free from pollution and disease, has suffered dramatically. Now, beef, the last residual sector in agriculture, is suffering the possible double jeopardy of the abolition of the premium and the variable beef premium. I ask the Minister whether it would be possible to negotiate an extension of the variable beef premium-- which was beneficial to the beef producer in Northern Ireland--from 5 March to 31 March, which would be the end of the marketing season in Northern Ireland. That would be a small but useful contribution to that industry. How important that variable beef premium is to the Northern Ireland farmer can be seen by the fact that the beef industry accounts for more than one third of agricultural products. The loss in the first year alone to our relatively small farming population would be about £18 million.
The abolition of the calf premium will cause the Northern Ireland producers to suffer a loss of between £2 million and £3 million. It could be argued that those premiums are being replaced by the special premium, but the farming community in Northern Ireland consider that that premium, at the rate proposed, will not compensate for the losses which will be incurred by the loss of the other two premiums. The Northern Ireland farmer would ask that, not only the headage should be extended beyond the proposed 75 heads, but that the premium should be increased from 40 ecu to at least 50 ecu. Like other hon. Members, I would ask for the scheme to be extended to the maiden heifers, because it is interesting to note that in Northern Ireland 50 per cent. of beef production is from the maiden heifer, and would be an important addition to the proposals. We feel that the point made by the Minister about intervention will adversely affect the income of farmers in Northern Ireland to the extent of about £2.2 million--if it operates equally in all regions. The figures could be much higher if the internal European Community Market reacts to heavier supplies by accepting a lower general marketing price.
Our farmers believe that the proposal by the European Commission to reduce the trigger levels of the market price from 91 per cent. to 88 per cent. of the intervention price would rule out the possibility of Northern Ireland participating in intervention within the 200,000 tonnes limit, about which we are most concerned. We are concerned, too, about the possibility of inviting tendering for intervention purchasing. The Northern Ireland industry feels that such tendering for beef intervention would probably lead to the large monopolistic interests moving in and obliterating our rather smaller meat plants and factories, because of their larger size and greater economies. The Northern Ireland farmer is seeking an adequate replacement to the variable beef premium, an extension of the special premium to both male and female beasts and a further increase--which I have not mentioned yet--in the suckler cow premium, which is affecting another important sector of the Northern Ireland farming economy. Northern Ireland farmers have greater transport and cereal costs than farmers in the rest of Britain because
Column 451of the need to transport to and from Northern Ireland, so the margin of profit is much less than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Our community is completely based on the agriculture of the small farmer and these movements and the depletions of income will have a considerable effect. Given our other problems, it is most important that we have a good basic farming industry and a good and stable livelihood for farmers in the rural community to sustain them and their families in their natural communities rather than that they should have to move to troubled areas.
I hope that the Minister will be encouraged by the support that he has on both sides of the House and that at the negotiating table next week a viable substitute scheme for Northern Ireland farmers and, indeed, all the farmers in the United Kingdom will be found for the replacement of the calf premium and the variable premium subsidies. 11.20 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : The beef variable premium scheme is the linear successor to the fatstock guarantee scheme which came in on decontrol in 1954. I think that I can fairly claim to have known that man and boy, and indeed to have produced beef in many of the latter years of that intervening period.
The advantages of the beef variable premium scheme have already been extensively canvassed and in support I would add only two comments. First, the 1984 Ministry submission to the EC points out that if we had had intervention at the time the cost to the Community would have been approximately twice that of the premium scheme. Secondly, the good National Audit Office report on the implementation of the common agricultural policy in Britain shows that there is a much lower share of expenditure on beef and veal within the United Kingdom as a proportion of the Community's expenditure--the figure is under 10 per cent.--than one might reasonably have expected from the level of production in Britain. The premium scheme has been good for Britain and the intervention scheme will be less desirable. But the issue is how long we can hold out with our distinctive policy. In saying that, I should put on record some of the costs of the premium scheme. The first, which has not been mentioned, is that it has cost the British taxpayer some £100 million a year in Exchequer funding. The second and much more serious cost is that it has produced a special arrangement for Britain which has had to be defended at every agricultural negotiation year by year and has cost us heavily in our negotiating position on other matters.
I concede that we are now preparing for the last rites. The scheme must go, but I am reluctant that it should. If it is to go, this is perhaps the right time, with strong market conditions in the beef market and the prospect, as dairy cow numbers reduce, of a continuing reduction in beef supplies. The issue will not be how much more beef we can produce, but how we can continue to produce what we are producing now and get it to the consumer for consumption. What, then, do we require of my right hon. Friend the Minister in this negotiation? As has already been mentioned, our basic principle must be to ensure adequate supplies in Britain and to fight off undue discrimination.
Column 452That, I fear, is a battle in which we must engage year by year in the European negotiations because of our farm structure, although, unusually in the case of beef, or certainly suckler cows, we do not have the largest units in the Community.
In relation to the special premium for all beef production, which will be the main vehicle on the departure of the variable premium, one should first recall that that is much lower--approximately £28 compared with an average under the beef variable premium of over £50.
Secondly, as has already been said, the coverage would be less because there would be a top limit on herd size and a restriction on heifers. That is the nub of the Minister's negotiating requirement, and it is important to move towards a premium paid at slaughter, which would overcome many of these problems.
I echo the points already made about the dangers of not emphasising the suckler cow sector. I warn the Minister about a sentence in his explanatory memorandum, which has a nasty ring to it :
"Adoption of the proposed increase in the element of the premium funded by the EAGGF would not necessarily give rise to an increase in premium payments since it could be implemented by reducing the current national contribution".
That sentence has the Treasury's fingerprints all over it. It seems reasonable to start with a base line of the current premium, which I believe to be £33.40. We should add the additional 15 ecu--another £10.66--and then consider asking the Treasury to add back a little of the £100 million being surrendered to the shortfall from what is now permissible under the premium, which I calculate as another 3 ecu--or £2--bringing about a total suckler cow premium of £46. That would be a useful contribution. It would stabilise and partially increase suckler cow numbers, and concentrate production on specialists, on high quality and on the areas of greatest sensitivity. Above all it would secure adequate supplies of beef for the British consumer, now and in the future. I wish the Minister well in his negotiations with the Treasurey in Brussels.
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : Two principles should guide our deliberation in this debate. I stress again--this has been stressed often in previous similar debates--the importance of livestock production to Wales and Scotland. Here I speak for my colleagues in the Scottish Nationalist party. There is a tremendous reliance in our countries on the less-favoured area schemes. Farming unions in Wales emphasise that we suffer from a lack of real opportunities for diversification, relying instead on livestock production because of difficulties of terrain and climate, as the Minister pointed out. This is important if we are to maintain the fabric of rural society, as well as the rural economy. That fabric depends on a good and viable agriculture economy. For that we need a bottom to the market, which the variable beef premium has provided.
I must also point out the difficulties that we have suffered from the imposition of milk quotas. They have operated in such a way that large parts of Wales now have no quotas, because of the opportunities to buy and sell them. Farmers are being driven into fewer and fewer options. Livestock production is so important that the success of the Minister's negotiations will be vital to the future of our rural communities.
Column 453It has not been sufficiently stressed that if the beef variable premium is ultimately scrapped, that will be the precursor of a similar decision on the sheep premium. If one accepts that the one must go, the case for retaining the other is greatly weakened. Another important point is that the drive for harmonisation within the Community, which the Commission proposes in these documents, should not be at the expense of our producers. They should not be disadvantaged as a result of it. We welcome the Minister's general views on intervention and the value of the beef variable premium, which must be considered alongside the Commission's proposals for the special premium, with its restrictions. Those restrictions are in the maximum headage of 75, that only male cattle are referred to, although we have heard that 35 per cent. of our clean beef comes from heifers, and that the figure proposed, at 40 ecu, is substantially lower than the maximum paid under the beef variable premium. Those have important implications for the beef sector in Scotland, as they do in parts of England and Northern Ireland.
I support the Minister's argument for the retention of a premium that supports the rural communities, and farmers in those communities, and we would welcome increased support for the suckler cow premium because many of the farmers in my constituency tell me that this is a way in which we can build up the quality of our beef herd. Many hon. Members have stressed the importance of ensuring that. Farmers are concerned at the lack of good quality calves in recent years, and they want greater support for this move. There has been a substantial drop in standards, particularly since the 1970s.
Many of the comments that I could make would simply be repetition of points that have already been made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. However, I have one last comment. Often, after I have come to debates about diversification and have looked for other ways in which farmers can produce, they tell me when I go back to my constituency that all that we have said is academic. Because of the physical constraints resulting from weather and terrain, they cannot shift methods overnight. Our message to the Minister is that he should redouble his efforts and, with the support of both sides of the House, ensure that he gets the best possible deal for our beef producers.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) : In the uplands of Britain, the choice is between sheep, cattle and caravans, and of those, sheep and cattle are by far the more desirable. The problem in the beef regime is the system. Intervention is too available, too convenient and too profitable. The intervention store is frequently near to the abattoir, and it is too easy to put the forequarters into intervention and mark it as the hindquarters. The store is open every day of the year, and the potential for fraud arises because there is literally a raffle of product to go into the world market, and sometimes for that to go into the domestic market.
The answer to the fraud question, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), is not to multiply the number of inspectors but to remove the cause of the abuse of the system--the surplus and the way in which the intervention system operates. We must recognise that there is some good news around. For a start, stocks of
Column 454beef are down to 425,000 tonnes, compared with 750,000 a year ago. The special export subsidy to the Comecon countries was abolished last Friday. It did its job because it got rid of 200,000 tonnes, although it was perhaps the most unpopular export that we have ever had. However, that has taken the top off the surplus. Recently, some 100,000 tonnes tendered to Comecon was rejected because the subsidy was too low, which is a good straw in the wind. The actal sales into intervention, which were running at 4,000 tonnes a week in December, were down to 700 tonnes in the first week in January, which is the lowest level for seven years. In the second half of last year, output declined, and that decline will continue this year as we see the end of the slaughterings from the spillover in the dairy sector. Those measures taken in 1986 and subsequently have had a contributory effect, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) for the role that he played in those difficult negotiations. That is a role that my right hon. Friend the Minister will now have to play for the next few weeks. Beef must not become too attractive an alternative to other products, the producers of which are also feeling the economic squeeze. We must ensure that the intervention system reverts to its original purpose, which is to be a genuine safety net and not an alternative market place. The suggestions before the House are, first, the limitation of intervention to 200,000 tonnes. There are two keys there, and the first is that a target for intervention is now available to the Commission so that it will be able to open intervention, where that is necessary, for certain cuts and for a certain period. It need not be open every day of the year. The second key, which I do not think has been mentioned so far, is the change to a system of tendering. That would also give the Commission the discretion to reject offers into intervention. That is part of the selectivity and targeting that we need if we are to have a genuine safety net. There is no point in talking about getting rid of the system because that is not a practical option and there is little point in talking in esoteric terms. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) do not think that there is any point in singing a requiem to the variable premium. The Minister cannot defend it indefinitely. It is one of those outposts of our battlements and every time that we have to defend it we have to divert more and more troops to it. The political costs become higher and there must come a time when we draw our frontier upon more effective terrain. We must recognise that political reality. The principle of the single premium must be acceptable in the light of the single market place, which is one of the Government's major policy thrusts. If we are genuinely concerned about eliminating fraud, we must recognise that a double system always leaves more scope for distortion than a uniform system. The problem is how to arrange it. It is unrealistic to argue that we should pay a premium on all animals without any limit. That would be prohibitively expensive and it is not a negotiable position. Spain has 1 million eligible animals, three quarters of which are in large feed lots and would cream this premium in the way that it used to cream the variable premium on sheepmeat.
The proposal before the House is for a single premium on the first 75 animals and we would find it difficult to accept that even though the bulk of our herds would be covered. The option may well be to seek a compromise
Column 455that looks towards a two-tier arrangement that would cover the majority of British producers. It would not be a perfect solution, but ultimately we could live with it. It is important that it should go to the producer and it must be fraud-proof. We cannot complain about fraud in the existing system and then ask for a system that reproduces the complexity of the one that we seek to change. I echo what some of my hon. Friends have said about the suckler premium and there is no point in repeating what they have said. I am confident that the Minister will safeguard British interests but we must remember that our interests are twofold. We are interested in making sure that we have a viable agricultural community in the uplands. That community has a special interest in this production and is under pressure from various directions. As far as possible, people in that community must have their livelihoods safeguarded. At the same time, the major British thrust must be the reform of the common agricultural policy, the constraint of expenditure on agriculture. That must be observed. We cannot proclaim the general principle of constraint on such expenditure while always proclaiming a particular derogation that allows us not to conform to the same kind of constraint. That is one of the political realities that we have to bear in mind, and it is part and parcel of our negotiating position. Successive Ministers have found this to be a difficult problem.
Lamb and beef are two central livestock sectors and so far have either not been subject to reform or have been resistant to it. Those sectors have significant international implications in terms of our relationship with the United States, a subject that we are not debating. I am confident that my right hon. Friend will do what his predecessors have done--go in and bat hard while remembering that our long-term interest is a prosperous agriculture community in a Britain that feels at ease with the agriculture policy because it is operating effectively, economically and honestly.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : It is usual to begin winding up an agriculture debate by saying that it has been good, because they generally are. It has been both a good and clear debate, but--unusually for this House--those who have contributed to it have understood exactly what they are talking about, and I hope to carry on in that vein.
I thank the hon. Members representing four different Opposition parties for their speeches. I refer to the hon. Members for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), for South Down (Mr. McGrady), for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones), and for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), who offered my right hon. Friend their support when he again enters negotiations in Brussels next week. I am glad that he has decided to take me along as prop. We shall manage not to sleep, but to do our best for United Kingdom beef producers.
The hon. Member for East Lothian was right to say that beef is an important product throughout the United Kingdom--from Angus in Scotland, through Hereford, and down to Wales, Devon and Cornwall. However, the hon. Gentleman allowed himself to be diverted into
Column 456hormones and hygiene. Hormones are not a matter for this debate. The hon. Gentleman said that we allow hard-pressed environmental health officers to maintain standards. They were responsible for putting matters right at Truro, not wrong. They often make their way to my door, saying that they wish to continue doing the job they do after 1992, and that they can maintain their existing standards--which they say are the highest in Europe--and take them into Europe. I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's cry yet again for grazed fallow set-aside and for a return to price fixing. However, mine is too short a winding-up speech to go down those alleys. Hon. Members have either spoken in favour of a continuation of the variable premium or referred to it with great nostalgia. I had not realised that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) was so old. The hon. Member for Ynys Mo n is dangerously wrong to confuse sheep and beef. They are entirely different products when it comes to variable premium. He must bear that in mind.
No good word has been spoken for intervention. The hon. Members for East Lothian and for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North and my hon. Friends the Members for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) all spoke against it. The point made was that it should be a market of last resort, and my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon commented that a tendering system will be better and fairer than an ever-open door. There was little support for the headage system, and many hon. Members pointed out that 35 per cent. of beef production comes from heifers. My right hon. Friend and I will certainly bear that in mind in Brussels next week. Headage is perhaps the most important of all the questions that we shall be addressing there. It is pivotal. The suckler cow premium was mentioned for various reasons. The hon. Member for Ynys Mo n talked about the rural economy, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow ; my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford talked about the hills ; and the hon. Member for South Down highlighted the importance of the premium. Everyone echoed my right hon. Friend's resolve to ensure that the package that emerges from Brussels after the long and hard negotiations there takes into account all parts of the United Kingdom- -Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland----
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business).
Question agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8903/88 COR 1 on reform of the Community beef and veal regime and of the Government's intention to negotiate an outcome which takes account of United Kingdom producers and consumers and of the need to keep Common Agricultural Policy expenditure within the budgetary guideline.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the Bristol Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) Order 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th May, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.
That the draft Bristol Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) (Amendment) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 12th December, be approved.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]
Question agreed to.
That Mr. Rhodri Morgan be discharged from the Energy Committee and Mr. David Clelland be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Ray Powell.]
That Mr. David Clelland be discharged from the Home Affairs Committee and Mr. Joe Ashton be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Ray Powell.]
That Mr. Joe Ashton be discharged from the Trade and Industry Committee and Mr. Jim Cousins be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Ray Powell.]
That Hilary Armstrong be discharged from the Education, Science and Arts Committee and Mr. Dennis Turner be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Ray Powell.]
Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the imprisonment of Roger Cooper in Iran. I shall put to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State the facts of Mr. Cooper's treatment in Iran, the conditions under which he has been detained for some three and a half years or more and the importance of securing his release now, as part of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran that are now under way.
I have known Roger Cooper and his family for over 35 years. He is an unusual, scholarly and detached kind of character, with a deep knowledge of Persian history, literature and culture, who, after 20 years of working in Iran, has become an expert on Iranian affairs. His somewhat academic turn of mind befits the nephew of Robert Graves the poet and a member of a highly intelligent, cultivated and independent family. He has worked in Iran in a number of capacities for more than 20 years, principally as a teacher, translator and latterly consultant on Iranian affairs. He is not a business man, or a wheeler dealer. He has a deep sympathy with Iran and Iranian people, and possesses the ability to make friends with people in all walks of life, whether they be shepherds in the Iranian mountains, his gaolers in Even prison in Tehran or members of the academic fraternity.
Roger Cooper was married to an Iranian for some years, is a excellent linguist and speaks fluent Farsi and other Iranian dialects. He is that rare individual whom the Iranian Government can be pardoned for failing to understand--an Englishman who is deeply attached to Iran but not an uncritical friend.
He was certainly criticial of the Shah's regime. In an article in the Sunday Times on 12 November 1978, he drew attention to the defects of the Shah's regime. He described the Moslem clergy as people who
"more altruistically realised that the wave of western-style progress was not good for the country's soul".
In the same article, he described the Shah's style of government as high- handed. He pointed out that the Shah had allowed himself to be "puffed-up to almost divine status",
and had become so isolated from his people that he could no longer understand their aspirations or sense their dissatisfaction. He pointed out the
"heavy cost in terms of human rights"
of Iran's then internationally vaunted political stability and described the activities of SAVAK--the state security organisation which by then had grown into a reputedly ubiquitous secret police, with a network of paid voluntary informers that
"make frank political conversation impossible".
As one who visited Iran in those days myself, I can vouch for the correctness of Roger Cooper's observations.
In the same article, he described the demand for Islamic Government and called for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini and the moving experience of the supporting demonstration in Tehran. He criticised the failure of the Shah's Government to co-ordinate relief for the victims of the earthquake that reduced the city of Tabas to rubble
Column 459and actually put these complaints personally direct to the Shah. That was typical of his honesty and independence, given that he was addressing an absolute monarch.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Cooper was working as a consultant for McDermott International, the offshore oil services group, and had come to Tehran in July 1985 to help the company to secure a contract that had been put out to international tender and for which a variety of other Western companies were bidding. He entered Iran with a legally valid visa and was apparently arrested on a technicality. After the process of the tender forced him to stay on beyond the original expiry date of the visa, he had applied for a renewal and was told that he could stay in Iran while the application was being processed. Foreigners frequently overstayed the expiry date of their visas for this reason.
In wartime Tehran he was suspect because of his exceptional knowledge of the Farsi language and also because he had lived in Iran under the Shah and had done paid translation work for the Shah's Government. He was in fact one of the few westerners to criticise the Shah's re gime in public for civil rights abuses, such as the torture and detention without trial of students. His respect for Iranian clergy and criticism of the Shah and the armed forces that propped up his re gime are on record.
Roger Cooper was arrested on 7 December 1985 and is now in his fourth year of detention in Even prison, Tehran, where he has undergone countless interrogations. Although he has been called a spy by Iranian newspapers and some politicians, there is no evidence of this. No specific charges have been made, and while a number of apparently genuine spies have been caught and tried in Iran during the last few years, there has been no serious suggestion that Mr. Cooper could be a spy. No one who knows him regards such a suggestion with anything but derision.
Today is the 1,139th day of Roger Cooper's captivity. In a recent letter that he was allowed to write to his family--who of course are desperately anxious about his condition--he said :
"The worst part is not having any idea what is in store for me or having any family or personal news for almost six months." In another letter, he said :
"One day merges imperceptibly into the next. There is no sign of when, or even if, I will be released, and I think the uncertainty is beginning to affect me."
Neither the British Government nor his family have ever been notified of the reasons for his arrest, or of any specific charges. He has not had access to a lawyer and was prevented from making written protest against procedural irregularities under the Iranian constitution. Although an appeal has been lodged to the supreme judicial council of Iran for a judicial review of his case, the court has apparently taken no steps to hear the appeal or to investigate the matter. In three years he has been allowed only six visits. He has many friends in Tehran who would have liked to visit him but who have been refused access.
Most letters to and from Roger Cooper do not reach their destination. At least 20 letters written to him by his only daughter have not been delivered. Although once allowed to telephone, he has not yet had the opportunity of speaking by telephone to his mother, who is aged 94 and who, like all his family, is increasingly concerned about his
Column 460position. He has received good medical attention in prison and sufficient food, but erratic opportunities for exercise. Recently he has been moved into a larger room and is in contact with other foreign prisoners, with a limited opportunity to take exercise. In summary, the treatment of Roger Cooper accords with the provisions of neither the Iranian constitution, nor the Vienna convention nor the United Nations covenants. I urge my hon. Friend to press the Iranian Government on this. I detect some present improvement on these matters, which I welcome, but Mr. Cooper's detention is a serious bar to the improvement in relations between our two countries which we all wish to see.
The memorandum agreed between Britain and Iran in November last and signed by the two Governments provides a basis for the resumption of full diplomatic relations between the countries. I welcome that. I, like many who have visited Iran, value the long-standing relationship between the Iranian and British peoples.
I understand that the memorandum provides that relations between the countries shall be conducted on the basis of reciprocity. Both countries have an interest in the restoration of normal diplomatic relations. It is ironic in some ways that Roger Cooper--who, as I have said, must be one of the most knowledgeable Britons about Iran and its people--should be detained in this way.
In his letter from prison of June 1988 to the United Kingdom parliamentary mission to Iran, he spelled out in great detail measures necessary to improve the long-term relationship between the two countries. Despite his three and half years in prison, he is completely and passionately devoted to the cause of restoring relations between our two countries.
It is not enough for my hon. Friend in his negotiations with the Iranian Government to express the hope that improved relations will bring about the release of Roger Cooper. It must be made clear to the Iranian Government that there can be no normal relations between the countries while an innocent British subject is detained in this way. Seen from one angle, Mr. Cooper could be regarded as a hostage. I do not advocate, and I am not advocating tonight, a deal over any hostage--against which the Prime Minister has, rightly, set the face of her Government--but I suggest that a step-by-step resumption of diplomatic relations necessarily involves the release of an innocent prisoner. I urge my hon. Friend to put the position straight to the Iranian Government.
In the 10 steps involved in improving relations, which include the building up of the Iranian embassy in London, the issue of visas to Iranians to visit London and continued progress under the November memorandum, the release of Roger Cooper is an essential part of the process. It is not something which may or may not happen later. We cannot allow Mr. Cooper to be forgotten. Both countries want to develop trade between them for the benefit of the British and Iranian peoples, but I expect my hon. Friend to make it clear that this process will be frozen unless, as part of it, Roger Cooper is released.
This debate is not an attempt by me--nor do I advocate such on the part of her Majesty's Government--to interfere with Iranian internal affairs. The 10th anniversary of the Iranian revolution is at hand, and this is an admirable moment for the kind of gesture of confidence in improving relations between the two countries which we have come to expect from the Iranian
Column 461Government. They have already released a Mr. Nicola. Now is the occasion for a further step in improving relations between our two countries.
Roger Cooper is passionately keen on an improvement in relations between Iran and Britain. It is more than ironic that his own individual liberty should have been curtailed so dramatically for the last three and a half years. It makes it even more important that his individual liberty should be restored at the earliest possible moment and that he should be released. I am sure that my hon. Friend will make every effort to that end. Both I and Roger Cooper's patient and suffering family look forward with expectation to the reply that the Minister will give tonight.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar) : I listened with interest, considerable emotion and close attention to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker). I recall hearing, at the end of 1985--I believe it was in fact new year's eve 1986--that, as we expected, Roger Cooper had been arrested. That for me was the beginning of what I believe is an association with Roger which has lasted for almost the whole period that I have been the Minister at the Foreign Office with responsibility for Britons abroad. I want to begin by saying how sorry I am that there is any need for us to have this debate tonight. Roger Cooper simply should not be in gaol in Iran more than three years after his arrest. However, I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North in raising Roger's case and I want to take this opportunity to set out the efforts that we have made to release Roger and restate our determination to maintain pressure on the Iranian Government. As my hon. Friend has said, Roger Cooper, a journalist with long experience and intimate knowledge of Iran, was arrested on 7 December 1985. It does indeed appear, as my hon. Friend said, that his original entry visa to Iran had expired by 7 December but he had been given to understand that he might stay for longer. Contrary to the Vienna convention on consular relations the British interests section of the Swedish embassy was not informed of Roger's arrest. But our diplomats in Tehran had noted his absence within the British community and made inquiries of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 11 December 1985. The Ministry was unable to give us any information on Roger's whereabouts. As I have already said, on new year's eve 1985, we learnt from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Roger Cooper's future now lay with the revolutionary courts. The Foreign Ministry stated that it could no longer intervene in what it described as this judicial process.
Once Roger's detention had been confirmed we made repeated representations for consular access to him in prison. I have from time to time had to emphasise from the Dispatch Box the very real limitations on the level of assistance which our consular representatives abroad can offer British citizens in trouble. However, access for consular authorities to prisoners abroad is a fundamental right under the terms of the Vienna convention on consular relations. Iran is a signatory to that convention, as are we, but the Iranian Foreign Ministry told us only that the question of access to Roger Cooper was no longer within its gift. That attitude and approach was not and is
Column 462not acceptable from a country which is a signatory to the Vienna convention. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the fact that Roger's detention contravenes the Vienna convention on consular relations.
Since the start of Roger's detention we have pressed repeatedly for access to him and for the Iranian authorities to fulfil the terms of their international obligations. But it was not until August 1986 that our consul was granted a sight of Roger, and then only a sight through a glass screen. Since that viewing, if that is the way to describe it, and until August last year, British officials were only permitted to visit Roger on one occasion. His brother Paul has been allowed to visit him on a number of occasions. I would like to say at this point how marvellous Roger's family have been. We have been in close and regular contact with them. They have shown great resilience, fortitude and fine judgment throughout.
Since Roger's arrest his case has been discussed at every meeting between British and Iranian officials. Only last week in Paris, my hon. Friend the Minister of State raised the matter with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr. Velayati.
A number of factors have hindered our efforts over past years. There are those in Iran who seem to believe that they have something to gain from holding Roger Cooper hostage. They have drawn spurious parallels between his case and those of Iranian prisoners in the United Kingdom. We have made it quite clear, as my hon. Friend would have expected, that there is no question of bargaining over Roger's release. In any case, we can accept no comparison between the detention of Roger Cooper in Iran without cause and the imprisonment, after due trial and conviction, of Iranian citizens in the United Kingdom.
It is also, of course, the case that Roger's detention has spanned a very difficult time in relations between the United Kingdom and Iran. These relations reached an all-time low in 1987 after a series of mutual expulsions and following the violent abduction of and unprovoked assault upon one of our senior diplomats in Tehran. That incident illustrated only too clearly the sad fact that we simply could not rely on Iran for the protection of our diplomats, despite their obligations under the Vienna convention. We thus felt forced to withdraw our diplomatic staff from Tehran.
Diplomatic relations were nonetheless maintained. We have been fortunate to have the excellent services of the Swedish embassy as our protecting power in Iran. We are grateful to the Swedish ambassador and his staff for all they did to help us during our absence from Tehran.
I am happy to say that the last few months have seen some important steps towards normalising our relations with Iran once again. We have always made it clear that if our bilateral and other difficulties could be overcome we should like to work towards better relations with Iran. Iran began in the summer of last year to show signs that she was ready to improve her own contacts with the international community ; and to recognise the responsibilities that that involves.
We were heartened by Iran's acceptance of the United Nations resolution 598. The results of a series of exploratory official level contacts led us to conclude that it was right to seek a normalisation of relations. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and the Iranian Foreign Minister therefore agreed to the restoration of full diplomatic representations when they met on 30 September last year.