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Column 1250(Mr. Aitken) walking out because we did not have the chance to debate the matter beforehand and express our views.
It is time that this country took an initiative in the development of European law. This is one small but very important subject in which we can do so. If we take a positive role we can play a major part in producing an overall European scheme which is acceptable to us, instead of having to adapt our ideas to those of somebody else. There is no doubt that the present law is widely flouted, as my hon. Friends have already pointed out. Figures showing that more than 60 per cent. of the tyres taken off cars are below the present United Kingdom minimum tread depth endorse that fact. One problem of existing law is how to interpret whether a tyre is running below the minimum requirement. A visual check is all that most of us make. Another Gallup poll shows that 19 per cent. of us do not even do that. Therefore, checks on tyres are entirely dependent on routine vehicle servicing or MOT tests when vehicles are given an annual check-up.
The MOT test is a strange aspect of our lives. When a vehicle is tested, provided its tyres are at the minimum legal level, it will pass. However, that vehicle could be driven for another 50 miles and then be flouting the law. That could occur within a couple of days or even on the same day as the test, which contains no element of potentiality. If it did, the examiner looking at the vehicle would decide not only whether it passed when it came in for the test, but whether it would run within the legal definition of the regulations on construction and use for a period after the test. The MOT test should be amended to ensure that when vehicles are tested, their tyres are not merely on the minimum level but a good deal above that, so that they can be used for a period after the test and still remain legal.
Our motorway systems are developing, vehicle speeds are increasing, and there has been mention recently about extending the width of motorways to four lanes. Private motorways and toll roads may not have speed restrictions. As those developments take place, higher standards of vehicle safety are prerequisites to enable those higher speeds to be achieved. Therefore, tyres, being the only source of contact between the vehicle and the ground, assume an ever more important role.
One fact of commercial and marketing life in the car industry is that it produces vehicles of higher and higher performance ability. Cars are now turbo charged and fuel injected, and ordinary saloon cars can easily obtain speeds of well over 100 or 120 mph ; in some cases they are capable of travelling at 135 mph. Those are souped up, ordinary bread and butter saloon cars that are re-engineered to take into account the higher speeds : the suspension ratings, braking system and tyres are altered.
The tyres needed for such vehicles are high cost and of a high standard. My fear, and it is a growing fear within the business, is that when cars have cascaded down to the second and third user, the performance envelope will still be present but the owner will find it increasingly difficult to afford the cost of replacement, high-performance tyres and will be tempted to use his car, which has high performance potential, with tyres that have been reduced to the legal minimum and below.
It is difficult to correlate accident statistics with tyre depth, but to assume that bald tyres never have an impact on accident statistics would be to deny the facts. Tyres must be a contributory factor. They are the vehicle's only
Column 1251retardation source to slow it and stop it before an impact. If 16 vehicles were in a nose-to-tail accident in wet weather conditions on a motorway it would be difficult to say that any of them had failed to stop because of inadequate tyre depth. However, there are grounds for substantial doubt, and tyre depth has a role to play. Adopting more sensible and enforceable legislation providing for tyre depth of at least 1.6 mm across the width of the tyre, would play a major part in improving safety standards on roads.
My colleagues have touched on another problem that concerns the tyre industry--the enormous and growing problem of tyre waste. People tend not to appreciate the industrial waste problems that are caused by tyre disposal. Despite much thought about shredding tyres, recycling them using power stations to burn them as a source of energy or dumping them at sea to make new forms of barrier reefs, as is frequently done in Australia and other parts of the world to help with sea, ecological and environmental life, the prime problem remains that we are covering our island, waste pits and dumps with growing mountains of tyre carcases.
The problem is that industry cannot recycle tyres by retreading them because they fall below the legal minimum and their structure has been damaged. By introducing higher standards we can help with the recycling problem and save ourselves money and energy. Some people have said that we could save about 26 million gallons of oil if we were able to reclaim more of the tyres that are now scrapped because they have fallen below the present, difficult to define, legal tread depth.
Therefore, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will take account of the points raised this morning. It is an important issue and the legislation needs to be looked at because of the growing changes in the way cars are used, the speed at which they are used and the way in which people flout the law. The evidence is there. Should we continue to ignore it?
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : I begin with the pleasurable task of congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) on securing the debate. As I stand here in place of my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, I feel inadequate to the task in everything except my shoe size. As I have listened to the expertise of my hon. Friends I was worried, not that I would fail a test of the depth of my tread, but that I might fail a test of the minimum depth of my knowledge on the subject. Certainly, I do not have a lifetime in the tyre industry as has my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, to whom I am grateful for having introduced the subject.
My central point in responding to my hon. Friends is that this country has an outstanding road safety record which exists because the Government have always concentrated on acting on matters deemed of the greatest priority in road safety. They have always been concerned to act in a way that will produce demonstrably better road safety in the future. They have never allowed themselves to be carried away with enthusiasm for causes until sure that they would lead to improvements in standards.
I have just returned from an international conference in Edinburgh, at which our own safety record compared extremely favourably with those of the other countries represented. Attention was drawn to the fact that the
Column 1252United Kingdom has an extremely good record. However, there is scope for improvement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport set the target of reducing road casualties by one third by the year 2000, from 300,000 per year to 200,000 per year. We set a short-term objective of reducing road deaths to fewer than 5,000 per year. The final figures for 1988 show that, with deaths at 5,050, which is 2 per cent. down on 1987 and the lowest for 25 years, we are well on target.
Our strategy for achieving those targets is to concentrate on action which has a proven ability to reduce casualties and which represents maximum value for money. Our priorities are to reduce casualties among vulnerable road users, notably pedestrians--where our performance is merely average-- cyclists, children and motor cyclists. In order to achieve that we are working closely with local authorities on ways to increase levels of low- cost road engineering schemes to prevent accidents.
The European Commission's proposal is that tyres on all vehicles throughout the Community should have at least 1.6 mm of tread across the whole width. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, this compares with the United Kingdom's present requirements of 1 mm of tread across three quarters of the tyre and visible tread on the shoulder areas of the tyre. Tyres when new typically have about 8 mm of tread. We need to look at the Commission's proposal, which is not linked to our common objective of achieving a single European market, in terms both of the benefits to road safety and the costs to members of the public, including to businesses.
On the benefits side, the Commission claims that its proposal will bring road safety advantages and prevent accidents, but it has produced no evidence at all to support this contention. Very few road accidents are due to tyres being worn to between 1 mm and 2 mm tread depth. Tread depth variations in this range only make a significant difference to braking at speeds of over 50 mph on smooth roads in extremely wet conditions. Only a minority of accidents occur in those conditions. Most accidents occur on urban roads where speeds are lower.
Trunk road and motorway construction standards now specify rougher surfaces which give better adhesion, a point which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden specifically raised. All main traffic routes in the United Kingdom are now surfaced in that way and we believe that this will be the case in most Community countries. Research by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory on a variety of road surface types has shown that Delagrip material, dense bitumen macadam and open-textured macadam showed lower resistance to skidding than pervious macadam and well-chipped, rolled asphalt.
Therefore, in our view, the Commission's proposals would save very few accidents. Although it is not a fact that Ministers can prevent it raining in this country, it is a fact that extremely wet conditions are statistically not very common in the United Kingdom. Most other member states also appear to have recognised that the Commission's proposals would not save many accidents. It is notable that of all the 12 member states in the Community only one has a minimum tread depth as high as 1.6 mm. That country is Luxembourg. Most member states require only 1 mm, although I admit that many require it across the whole width of the tyre.
I now turn to the costs. The current limit of 1 mm means that there is about 7 mm of usable tread on tyres
Column 1253--the difference between the 8 mm supplied with tyres are new and the 1 mm minimum tread. So moving the the limit from 1 mm to 1.6 mm means that on average tyres would have about a 10 per cent. shorter life before they have to be replaced. That 10 per cent. increase would cost over £50 million per year in the United Kingdom. I know that my hon. Friends had foreseen my argument on that matter. Over the Community as a whole, the corresponding figure would be in the range of £300 million to £350 million. When listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, I was not sure that that argument was weakened by the fact that new tyres are of a higher quality and last longer. A further element of cost comes from the Commission's proposal requiring the 1.6 mm depth to apply across the whole width of the tyre rather than as in the United Kingdom, only over three quarters of the width. We estimate that that would cost about another £20 million per year.
Of course, the tyre industry would think that that money was well spent, but other industries might not be so sure about it. We think that there is a better means of ensuring safer tyres than raising the minimum tread depth, and that is better compliance by motorists with the present limits. At last, I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friends who said that the compliance rate was currently unsatisfactory. They pointed out that research by the tyre industry has suggested that a high percentage of tyres are below the existing legal limit. Our own research shows that over 1.75 million vehicles per year currently fail the MOT test because of tyre defects, and that most of those involve illegal tread.
What, then, would be the effect of raising the limit to 1.6 mm? We can assume that a still higher proportion of vehicles than at present would fail the test ; but we are not sure that it would do anything to improve the safety of tyres which already fail the MOT test. Our main message for motorists must be that they should observe the existing limits, which they do not sufficiently at present. In other words, our priority should be to make sure that we improve the success rate in jumping over the present hurdle before we start raising the bar.
The MOT test takes place only once a year. My hon. Friends were right that it does not ensure good condition for the rest of the year. We announced earlier this year our intention to empower the police and the Department's vehicle examiners to prohibit the movement of cars and motor cycles which are in a dangerous condition. Safe vehicle condition is extremely important. The various inspection procedures in the United Kingdom, including the MOT test, play a part in keeping down the number of accidents. The MOT testing scheme stands up well to international comparison. We have regularly moved ahead of the European Community requirements in this area. The annual MOT test has proved to be a good way of policing the quality of tyres. The large number of vehicles that failed the MOT test in 1986 because of defective tyres provided proof of its effectiveness. But more than that, an experienced mechanic examining the vehicle will quickly detect not only the places where the tread is worn to below the legal limit, but other defects such as cuts and bulges. In no other European Community country are vehicle tyres examined as frequently as they are in the United Kingdom.
Column 1254That is doubtless one of the reasons why accident surveys have shown so few cases in which defective tyres have been a contributory cause of an accident.
Last year agreement was reached in the Community on mandatory testing of light goods vehicles. Member states that are setting up a testing scheme for the first time have until 1995 to implement the directive. In Britain on the other hand, we have tested light goods vehicles for many years already.
In short, we have no evidence of clear safety benefits from the Commission's proposal on tyre tread--
Mr. Mills : I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend at this stage, when we have only a couple of minutes left. I was hoping that my hon. Friend's latest point would be on the MOT and the way in which it operates and that he would say something about better enforcement. I had thought that my hon. Friend was about to announce a major Government publicity campaign to inform motorists. In the past, our hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) has encouraged tyre distributors, the British Rubber Manufacturers Association and others to improve their information services. I must inform my hon. Friend that the formation of the Tyre Industry Council has included a full public information service on industry matters and especially on matters relating to tyre safety.
I remember a written answer of some years ago that stated that the Department's expenditure on tyre safety publicity was vestigial at £8,000. If my hon. Friend cannot give me a promise now--I realise that he may not be able to do so--will he consider discussing with his colleagues in the Department of Transport a major and co-operative campaign so that people will know about this issue and so that two thirds of cars are not found to have dangerous tyres at their MOT tests?
Mr. Portillo : I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic will be interested and pleased to hear about the proposals for publicity that have been put forward by the Tyre Industry Council. At the moment, my hon. Friend's priorities relate to child restraints, to publicity aimed at child pedestrians and at improving conspicuousness, and to continuing the campaign against drinking and driving. Doubtless he will be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has just said and will wish to take that into account.
We want to listen carefully to the debate in the Council of Ministers on 5 or 6 June. However, at the moment we do not see that clear evidence has been produced by the Commission to support its view that we should have a new standard of tyre depths across the Community of 1.6 mm.
Mr. Gregory rose --
My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden raised the question of run-flat tyres. We are aware of the various run-flat tyre innovations, and we note, as he did, that the vehicle industry has not taken up the idea to any great extent. We have altered the construction and use regulations to encourage the use of Dunlop Denovo run-flats. We would do the same again if necessary, subject to being satisfied on the safety of the particular tyre that was being proposed.
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to draw your attention to a matter that pertains directly to the rights of hon. Members on which you might be able to assist us.
On Wednesday--after my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) had asked under Standing Order No. 20 for a debate upon Anglo- Soviet relations following the decision of the Government to expel a number of Soviet diplomats and journalists--in the presence of the leader of the House, I asked, because of hon. Members' concern about that matter, whether it would be possible for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement before the House adjourned. There has, of course, been no such statement, but last night the first item on the BBC 9 o'clock news was a story apparently detailing the reasons why the Soviet diplomats and journalists had been expelled. Those reasons included alleged contact between the Soviet embassy and Libyan and Iranian terrorists, and what was referred to as blackmail of Labour Members of Parliament.
I submit that the rights of the House are affected in two ways. First, Mr. Speaker noted the fact that the Leader of the House was present when we requested a statement on the matter. It is completely unacceptable that the Government should fail to make a statement to the House, and further that sources authoritative enough for the BBC to feel justified in using them as its first lead story on its main news bulletin have attempted to clarify and amplify what the Foreign Secretary did not inform the House about on Monday and what he has refused to inform the House about since. Therefore, I believe that it is a serious affront to the House that Ministers have failed to give information that has been requested, and yet the broadcasting media, by some source or another, have been given amplifying information which has been directly denied to the House and about which hon. Members could ask questions of the Foreign Secretary.
Secondly, if there were to be any validity in allegations that hon. Friends of mine have been subject to blackmail, it would have been proper, through long-standing practice, for the Government to notify my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and/or myself, and no such notification has been given either to my right hon. Friend or to myself, or for some information to be made available. I have contacted the Foreign Secretary's office this morning, and it is completely unable to clarify the situation. What we have, therefore, is briefing from sources--authoritative enough to have satisfied the BBC that the matter should be its main story on its main news bulletin--making implications about hon. Members which, if they are to be validated in any way, should be made to the House, or, at any rate, through the proper channels, to the Leader of the Opposition. The House has been affronted in two ways. First,
Column 1256information has been given to the BBC which has been denied to the House, although it has asked for it ; secondly, that information purports to make statements which involve the standing of hon. Members. Clearly that is a serious affront to the House.
It is necessary for the Foreign Secretary to come to the House this morning, as the House will adjourn this afternoon for more than a week, because otherwise the conclusion we will have to draw is that a week after those expulsions--with no information having been given to the House other than the Foreign Secretary's reply to my private notice question last Monday--an attempt is being made covertly to justify action which the Foreign Secretary, for reasons which I thought proper at the time, was unwilling to justify overtly. That is clearly unacceptable.
The House is being affronted in those two ways when at the same time it is clear that what has taken place is a blatant attempt--successful, too--at news management by authoritative Government sources, so that various implications can be trailed across the BBC to prevent yesterday's main news story--the disastrous trade figures--having its proper prominence. That is an example of news management which is an affront to the House of Commons. I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to obtain a statement for us.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : I remind the House that we are encroaching on valuable private Members' time. I have received no request for a statement to be made, and, of course, the right hon. Gentleman knows that I do not have the authority to require a Minister to make a statement. Doubtless what the right hon. Gentleman has said will be made known to the appropriate Ministers. The right hon. Gentleman, equally, would not expect me to accept any responsibility for statements made either in the media or by the Government. If the right hon. Gentleman is alleging, as he appears to be, that there has been a contempt of the House, he knows that he must follow the appropriate procedure, which is to write to Mr. Speaker conveying the details of the allegations.
I hope that we can now get on.
Mr. Kaufman : I do not want to take up the time of the House, but hon. Members simply do not appear to care about the way in which the House has been treated. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the way in which you have responded. I was not for one moment implying that you carry responsibility for these matters other than the fact that you have the proper duty of protecting the rights of the House. I say to you, however, in the presence of the Government Deputy Chief Whip, that the Opposition believe that this matter should be the subject of a statement. Either the Government have information, in which case they had better provide it, or they have no information and this is a piece of blatant and contemptible news management.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I am pleased that we are able to have a short debate on the position of Kurdish refugees, 1, 000 of whom have arrived in this country since the beginning of May. They are asylum seekers who are at present being looked after by voluntary organisations, families and friends in the boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Haringey. I believe that it is high time that the House had the opportunity to debate and discuss the situation facing Kurdish people as a whole, as well as the specific demands that we wish to make concerning the asylum seekers, who have arrived in this country.
Kurdistan is, perhaps, the greatest unrecognised nation in the world, comprising 20 million people--4 million of whom live in Iraq, 5 million in Iran, 1 million in Syria, small numbers in the Soviet Union and the Lebanon and about half of them in total live in Turkey. It was only recognised as a nation briefly after the treaty of Sevres in the early part of the 1920s, and was carved up in the treaty of Lausanne. Ever since then the aspirations of the Kurdish people for their own homeland, and, indeed, within Turkey the ability to speak and write in their own language and promote their own culture has been a dominant feature of Kurdish politics.
A series of uprisings took place in 1922, 1925, 1928, with the longest one being from 1932-1938 at Dersin. After each of those uprisings internal banishments, deportations and imprisonment have followed. Similar stories are told of what happened in Iraq, following the uprising at Borzhani in 1961 to 1974, following which 600,000 Kurdish people fled to Iran. In Iran there was the great uprising of 1945-46, when the Kurdish Republic was declared. It was supressed at Mahbat and the leaders of it were executed.
We are talking about people who have come from Turkey. The problem that the Kurdish people face in Turkey is that which any other minority faces in Turkey, except that they are a large minority. The Kurdish language is banned and the Kurdish culture is suppressed. The continual repression of Kurdish people has been a feature of Turkey ever since the formation of modern Turkey in 1922. The aspirations of the Kurdish people live long within the minds of the community. That feature has never been recognised or understood by Western European or other countries in their dealings with Turkey. I hope that this short debate will give at least an opportnity to recognise those parts of history.
More recently, in 1977, there were elections in Turkey. At that time, the people who held public office were Kurdish speakers, and they promoted the Kurdish culture. At the time, the mayor of Diyabikir, Mehdi Zana, openly defied the Turkish national laws that promoted the oneness of the Turkish nation, language and culture. In 1978, there was a massacre at Kahramanmaras, which is normally pronounced Maras, in which 117 people were officially killed, although it is believed that many more were killed at the time. In the late 1970s, 19 cities were put under martial law. that was succeeded by the military coup in 1980, when all Kurdish groups were broken up, leaders were imprisoned and many people executed. Indeed, Mehdi Zana, the former mayor of Diyabikir, was imprisoned for 25 years as a result. Many of the Kurdish
Column 1258leaders were then put in Diyabikir prison. In the early 1980s, some hon. Members raised the matter many times. A Member of the European Parliament, Richard Balfe, visited Diyabikir prison. There was a long hunger strike there in 1984 to draw attention to the plight of the Kurdish people. Four people ignited themselves with petrol and other materials to draw attention to the plight of the Kurdish people. We are dealing with a history of systematic torture and abuse of the Kurdish people. That is the background to the current problem that the Kurdish people face and their perfectly legitimate and understandable plea for help in the present situation.
After the military coup in 1980, 250,000 people were imprisoned by the Turkish authorities at least half of whom were Kurdish. Strong repression was meted out against anyone who sought to speak the Kurdish language or promote the Kurdish culture. I have a cassette tape by a famous Kurdish musician called Sivan. Merely for listening to that tape in their homes or playing it on their car radios people would be arrested and possibly imprisoned for promoting something other than the Turkish culture. It is important to understand that background.
Many of the Kurdish people who managed to leave Turkey applied for asylum in Europe or the middle east. They applied for asylum or fled because of the history of repression and because of the number of their friends or comrades who were imprisoned. They legitimately sought political asylum. In every country throughout Europe and the middle east, one finds large numbers of Kurdish people, either seeking political asylum, having achieved it or, in some cases, having exceptional leave to remain. In many cities one finds groups of Kurdish people, all of whom have suffered that kind of repression, not only in Turkey but in other countries. Today I am dealing with Turkey. On several occasions over the past few years it has been my privilege to attend the annual festival of nawroz of the Kurdish community in London. Again one sees the spirit of hope and of wanting to be able to express themselves in their own way.
Of the 1,000 people who have arrived in this country since 2 May, most, if not all, have come from the Maras area. They have come partly from fear of continuing repression and fear of local Fascist groups. In 1980, the leader of the local Fascists--it is the only way to describe him--Okkes Kengar, was imprisoned. He has now been elected to local office in the town of Maras on a fundamentalist platform that is opposed to and repressive of Kurdish people. It is called the party of prosperity. At the time of his election and since then, a large number of Kurdish people have suffered the most appalling torture and treatment. One third of those who have been interviewed by organisations that have been receiving Kurdish asylum seekers here--be they the Kurdistan Workers Association, Rights and Justice, or any of the other groups that have been helping with interviewing to prepare their case before it goes to the Home Office for application--have evidence of the application of torture. Bearing in mind that there are many interviews still to be done, 40 of those who have been interviewed have had their cases referred to the medical foundation for the care of torture victims.
Maras is a mixed area. Only a small number of Turkish people, as opposed to Kurdish people, have come here with the group of 1,000. Indeed, some have gone back. The
Column 1259interesting feature of many of their cases is that they had jobs, farming and so on, in the area. It appears that they are definitely fleeing from repression more than anything else. There is evidence also that those who have returned have been stopped at Izmir airport and have been extremely badly treated there, having voluntarily left this country, because they were deemed to have brought Turkey into disrepute. It is important that the British Government recognise that fact. When people voluntarily return to Turkey, the British Government should satisfy themselves that they are going back in safety. I am extremely worried about some of the reports that I have received.
There is also the problem of internal relocation of Kurdish people in western Turkey, which has been going on in the Maras area. Unilever has invested a great deal of money in the region. A tea plantation scheme has involved the relocation of Kurdish people away from there.
We are beginning to see a pattern of economic and physical repression and the torture of political activists by the Turkish Government. The problems have not arisen only in Turkey. Clearly, the treatment of Kurdish people in Iraq is indescribably awful. Chemical weaponry has been used against them on numerous occasions. Attacks have taken place against Kurdish people, and there is the horror of Halabja, which ranks alongside what happened in Vietnam or the bombing in Guernica, which is one of the horrors of this century. Some of those people have fled to Turkey. That is no reflection of the humanitarian instincts of the Turkish Government, but it is a reflection on the horror of Kurdish people living in Iraq. Perhaps the British Government should reconsider their relationship with the Government of Iraq, their trade with Iraq, and their support for the Baghdad arms fair which is to be held later this year.
Under the 1951 Geneva convention on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, the British Government clearly have obligations to receive applications and to deal with people in a humanitarian way. I have met many of those people, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) and others, and we well understand what has gone on. The 1,000 people who have arrived here have largely been supported by voluntary organisations. The Kurdistan Workers Association has the largest number under its care at the moment. Tribute should be paid to it and to Ihscen Qadir, its co-ordinator, and the other local organisations and voluntary groups in Hackney and Islington who have done a great deal to raise money and support for those people. The response of all the
Churches--Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Anglican--has been amazing. Cardinal Hume himself visited some of the people yesterday in Loyola Hall in Haringey. The local authorities have been helping as best they can. Representatives of the Department of Social Security, with whom I had a meeting last week, have been helpful by opening a special office to ensure that those people are paid whatever benefits they are entitled to receive.
Obviously local costs are incurred, and today I want the Government to say that they are prepared to do what they can to help the Kurdish people and that they are prepared to provide resources to the local authorities and to the voluntary organisations to assist them in the necessary humanitarian work of supporting those people. They should also be prepared to act politically and put all
Column 1260possible pressure on the Turkish Government concerning the treatment of Kurdish people within Turkey. That is the nub of the problem.
I understand that yesterday, some people were taken into detention--for all I know they still are. I find that awful and totally inappropriate. Those people who have fled from Turkey have fled from a horror, they have sought safety and have not fled to be put in prison again. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the voluntary organisations are more than willing to look after those people. They have mounted herculean efforts to provide the necessary support.
Earlier this week my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott), for Hackney, South and Shoreditch and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and I met the Minister. We insisted that the British Government should be prepared to make resources available. I can only contrast their current contribution with the vast sums of money spent by the British Government on receiving General Evren last year and on promoting the interests of the Evren regime of Turkey. I understand that the Turkish Government have now retained the services of Saatchi and Saatchi to befuddle the British people as to the human rights record of the Turkish Government. I hope that the British Government will react accordingly to the demands that we have made.
I shall quote some individual cases of how people have been treated. This information has been given to me this morning by Mary Dines who is the organiser of Rights and Justice, a well-respected humanitarian organisation. Mary's own record of working for humanitarian causes and refugees for many years is well recognised and she is rightly well respected for it. Example one is a man who was held by the police on three occasions in 1987 and 1988 ; during which he was immersed in cold water for a whole day, suspended by his hands for a whole day and severely beaten. He was not a member of an illegal organisation.
Example two is a political activist :
"Owing to persecution during martial law (1980 to 1985) he was forced to leave his village and go to Istanbul. He was arrested four times in Istanbul and detained for nine months for distributing leaflets. During detention he was tortured by falaka (trussed up like a chicken and beaten on the soles of his feet). He was given electricial shocks to his testicles, tongue and teeth, covered for long periods of time by cold water, hit with sacks of sand (which are supposed to leave no marks), hung upside down and hit with truncheons. He was last arrested in 1988. He has a damaged kidney." The case of example three is as follows :
"Arrested in 1981 for taking a wounded man to hospital in his taxi. Had seven stitches in his head after assault and still suffers from blurred vision and headaches. Arrested in 1988 with his seven months' pregnant wife. They were held in the army camp for four months. The baby was born in detention. After he left Turkey his wife was rearrested and is now in prison with the baby."
Another example relates to a man who was a member of the Social Democratic party and also a member of an illegal Kurdish organisation. His story is as follows :
"Arrested in 1981--imprisoned for one month. Arrested in 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988. During detention he was forced to run kms over rough ground in bare feet, beaten with a bag of concrete, hot eggs were put in his armpits, he was beaten with sticks and batons and hit in the eyes. Since 1987 he has been in constant pain. His father was killed by the army in 1975. His mother was also beaten up and is still suffering from injuries to her head. One cousin has been imprisoned. One cousin is missing. Other family members have been imprisoned."
Column 1261We are dealing with the systematic torture of Kurdish people by the Turkish Government. I understand that attempts are now being made to stop people leaving Turkey to seek political asylum elsewhere because it is believed that that damages the image of modern Turkey. Nothing damages the image of modern Turkey more than the factual, accurate accounts I have given, of the way in which people are treated by the Turkish army. We now look to the British Government to fulfil their obligations under the United Nations charter of 1951 to provide urgent humanitarian aid. That aid is necessary because the voluntary organisations are relying totally on voluntary donations and a little bit of assistance from local authorities.
It is the responsibility of the British Government to provide the financial assistance and they should not throw the job on to the voluntary organisations and the local authorities. Willing as they are to help, those organisations and authorities have enormous problems of their own. The Kurdish people should be properly treated and the Government should give assistance to the suitable local organisations.
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : We are all indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for bringing this subject to the attention of the House today, as well as for the moving and sensitive manner in which he presented his case.
I was talking to another hon. Member yesterday about this issue and he said that he believed that the Kurdish people were the victims of some of the worst atrocities perpetrated in the modern world. That hon. Member was not a Labour Member, but a Conservative who just happens to be a senior member of the Government.
I cannot help contrasting the way in which some spokesmen have talked about this issue to the media, including reports on television yesterday, with the visit of the Roman Catholic archbishop, Basil Hume, to the east and north of London yesterday. He brought with him not only sympathy, but money and moral support. I hope that his visit to our local region will help to persuade the Government to take some action.
If we consider the action of the various Government Departments it would be fair to say that the Department of Social Services has acted promptly and efficiently and it has been extremely helpful. My hon. Friends and I were grateful that the Minister of State, Home Office discussed this matter with us earlier this week. We had a civilised discussion, although there were some obvious differences between us. At that meeting, the Minister said--I hope that he will reaffirm that statement today--that he would consider giving money to help the British Refugee Council to set up a hostel at Tower house in Tower Hamlets. He also said that he would consider giving extra money to some of the voluntary agencies.
Yesterday I spoke to most of the voluntary agencies and they have simply run out of money--there is no more cash in the till. On the debit side, I am bound to say to the Minister that the idea of putting the Kurdish people in prisons in the south-west of England is deeply disturbing. On the credit side, some prison officers came up from the
Column 1262west country yesterday to talk to representatives of the Kurdistan Workers Association to see how they might best help if the threat to detain Kurdish people in prison was carried out. Underneath the cynicism and some of the meanness on the part of the Home Office there is a deep undercurrent of sympathy for the Kurdish workers. The Department of the Environment is also concerned and it is likely to become deeply involved over possible rate support grant and the need to help local authorities regarding the temporary and the possible permanent rehousing of those people.
What has disturbed me about the public statements that have come from the Home Office is that various officials have said--I have no doubt with the concurrence of the Minister--that they believe that many of the Kurdish people who come here do so for simply economic reasons rather than through fear of persecution. That the Home Office should make such unattributable briefings is disturbing. That Department must consider in a judicious and judicial manner all the cases that come before it. It is extremely difficult to believe that it can do so fairly when spokesmen publicly say that they believe most of the people concerned are not valid refugees. The Home Office, in order not to make itself look silly, has therefore had to reject a lot of the cases for asylum and send people back. In other words, the public pronouncements by Home Office officials are liable to produce self-fulfilling prophecies.
I hope that the Home Office will get on with the business of dealing with each case in a humane and sympathetic manner. Its officials should stop making adverse public statements, which do not suggest to the public that they are dealing with the matter in a proper, judicial fashion. I hope that the Minister will relent a bit today and open his heart to the Kurdish people. I hope that he will offer some constructive suggestions to the House.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for giving us the opportunity to discuss the recent increase in the number of Turkish people, mainly of Kurdish origin, coming to this country, who have claimed asylum on arrival here. I am also grateful for the opportunity to talk, as the hon. Members for Islington, North and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) have asked me to, about the Government's response to that problem.
This debate was immediately preceded by a shameless piece of news manipulation by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who came to the Chamber and made a fuss about what the BBC had said in relation to Labour Members--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I must remind the House that when I dealt with that point of order, other hon. Members were trying to catch my eye to pursue the matter. Out of regard to private Members' time, I disregarded them and did not allow them to speak. It would be quite wrong for the Minister now to try to do what I did not allow earlier.
Column 1263Turkey in the reference books as one of his special subjects of interest--for 10 minutes or so about the problems of Kurds in Turkey moving between Iraq and Turkey. The shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Gorton, having come to the Chamber to make his little fuss about the BBC and Labour Members, might have had the courtesy to remain in the Chamber to listen to the points which the hon. Member for Islington, North was making. That would have been the appropriate thing for the right hon. Member for Gorton to do rather than to engage in a little bit of shabby publicity-seeking, which is what we have come to expect from him.
I want to consider the serious subject of this Adjournment debate and I will begin by explaining the general context of the Government's policy towards people who claim asylum. As the hon. Member for Islington, North reminds us, the United Kingdom was one of the earliest signatories to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. We take our responsibilities very seriously, despite what is sometimes said by organisations such as Amnesty International. No one who does my job can fail to be affected daily by the plight of people who are fleeing from persecution in their own country. Each day, about half a dozen people arrive at our airports seeking political asylum. Another dozen or so apply from within the country. They are all dealt with without fuss. In every case, as the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch said, a carefully organised series of actions takes place. An application for asylum, I fully realise, as do Home Office officials, is important, sensitive and under our law must be properly and exhaustively considered. No one is refused asylum in the United Kingdom until full inquiries have been made, interviews conducted and the opportunity given for further information or representations to be submitted. In the great majority of ordinary cases, the claimant is allowed to remain in the United Kingdom. However, as the hon. Members for Islington, North and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch will be aware, as they both have a great deal of knowledge on this subject, the fundamental obligation that we accepted under the United Nations convention is that no one claiming asylum should be returned to a country where they have a well- founded fear of persecution. The practical effect of that is that unless the person has arrived from a third country which is safe for him to return to, he must be admitted to the United Kingdom either on a temporary basis, or held in detention while his claim is considered.
If the interests of people genuinely fleeing from persecution are to be safeguarded, it is vital that the system designed to protect them should not be exploited by people whose main motivation is economic migration.
I want now to consider the particular circumstances of the recent influx of Turkish asylum claimants. Over the past two years we have come to expect an average of one or two asylum claims each day from Turkish nationals. Some have been given refugee status and many others have been allowed to remain, exceptionally. Earlier this month, young Turkish men began to arrive at the rate of about 50 a day claiming asylum here. In one instance they almost filled an entire charter flight of over 100 passengers. On another weekend, more than 300 arrived on a variety of flights. In every case where asylum was claimed, they have
Column 1264been admitted while we examined their claims. We are now looking at more than 1,000 Turkish cases who have arrived in the past four weeks.
Some pattern is beginning to emerge which begins to explain this surge. It is clear that for a substantial number their real objective is to find work in the United Kingdom. Some have said so explicitly. There is evidence that middle-men selling air tickets have been exploiting the economic situation in Turkey, with stories of job opportunities in London, and briefing on how to claim asylum. How do we know that? More than 80 people who initially claimed asylum have already gone back to Turkey of their own accord, realising that jobs and housing are not going to be so easy to obtain as they were led to believe. Many of them were, quite simply, led up the garden path in their own towns and villages. That is not the action of people who fear imminent persecution. We are seeing a gross and transparent abuse of the asylum procedures as a means of obtaining jobs, housing and perhaps social security benefits in the United Kingdom.
The tragedy is that we know that among the spurious claims there will certainly be some which are genuine. The hon. Member for Islington, North gave details of one case which sounded particularly horrific. We are well aware that the human rights standards in Turkey still fall somewhat short of those that we consider to be acceptable. I must look to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to respond on another occasion to the details referred to by the hon. Member for Islington, North.
We have already given exceptional leave to some Turks from the recent arrivals on those grounds. However, it takes time and detailed inquiry to assess each asylum application. It will now take us some months to sort out the genuine from the abusive claims which continue to come at the rate of 50 a day.
It cannot be in the interests of the genuine refugee that he has to remain in a state of uncertainty for some months. That is now inevitable, given the numbers involved. Hon. Members and the courts would justifiably criticise us if we were to cut short the process of considering claims. In those circumstances, I wish from time to time that Opposition Members would support us in criticising those who so clearly take advantage of the difficulties.
An immigration officer may either detain an asylum applicant while his claim is considered or grant him temporary admission. A very small percentage are detained. The vast majority of applicants for asylum are granted temporary admission pending a decision. They frequently have relatives or friends in this country who are willing to look after them but a large number of the recent arrivals from Turkey are young single men who know no one in this country. Various welfare organisations, including the British Refugee Council, have helped to find them temporary accommodation which understandably is frequently with members of their own community. There is a large resident Turkish community in north London, and many of those granted temporary admission are now in that area. A number of Turkish organisations have offered to look after them.
Those people have come here without any notice or invitation. In many cases they do not appear to be political refugees by any stretch of the definition. They are in an entirely different situation from the Ugandan Asians or the Vietnamese boat people where reception centres were set