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Column 322into account, particularly in view of the importance of the family farm. Small dairy producers are often the backbone of production in poorer areas.
Consumer groups have expressed grave concern about BST. They echo public mistrust over the use of such products. The European Commissioner, Mr. MacSharry, said recently that quotas will continue beyond 1992. However, BST may result in the production of milk beyond the quotas. That would lead to a reduction in the price that producers can obtain for their milk. Quotas are here to stay. It has been reported today that most European Community countries are heading for quota surpluses. It is madness, therefore, to administer something that will increase milk production by between 10 and 20 per cent. when we are attempting to achieve a balance between production and consumption.
The dairy industry as a whole, and small dairy farmers in particular, need BST like a hole in the head. It will lead to even greater surpluses and to retrenchment. Consumers are opposed to the administration of BST, straight down the line. Only the pharmaceutical companies will gain. Unless we take on board the fourth criterion, there will be no proper evaluation of the product. 12.43 am
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : My hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) have made a formidable case against the Government's policies. I intend to step back a little and consider how this debate might be viewed by members of the public. I shall point to the absurdity of what is being discussed at this late hour--a proposal which comes not from the public at large but from a handful of pharmaceutical companies in order to deal with a problem that does not exist.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor has referred to the fact that British agriculture is faced with many problems but that a shortage of milk is not one of them. Yet we are seriously discussing with a whole panoply of states surrounding us a highly dodgy product which the pharmaceutical companies have put before us. We are obliged to react to it and, presumably, to approve it. Whatever lip service is paid to the further tests that will take place and the great care that the Government will take, the Opposition do not think much of those assurances and believe that we are already well on the way to product licences being granted by a Government, and particularly a Ministry of Agriculture, that are in the pockets of vested interests.
We are discussing the basis of food quality in Britain in which the consumer takes second, third or fourth place and in which the initiative lies with the vested interests. They state what they want and MAFF supinely follows. This time it is the pharmaceutical companies ; at other times it is agribusiness or the food processing industry--all those huge interests pour money into the Conservative party coffers and on some occasions ask for something back. We are here tonight not because there is a shortage of milk in Britain or because anyone in the House seriously believes that the quality of production will be improved by BST. We are here tonight at the behest of Eli Lilly and Monsanto as they have developed a product for which
Column 323they want an outlet and which can be turned into very large profits but the legislative nod is needed from the House and possibly from the European Community.
What would be the impact of BST on rural communities? We know that if it is broadly introduced the yield will be increased by 10 to 20 per cent. The Agra Europe briefing, which is an authoritative document, states :
"The resulting increase in profitability would tend to increase the demand for and therefore the price of milk quota and provide a further incentive to the less efficient to give up production. The use of BST would therefore accelerate the trend to fewer dairy farms and larger units which has developed during the last two decades." If it is Government policy further to depopulate rural areas, to drive more family farms out of business, and in constituencies such as mine to say to dairy farmers, "There is now no place for you because we want to maximise the milk yield and maximise production in the fewest hands," the Minister should say that tonight. If that is not Government policy pressing ahead with the consideration of a product for which there is no consumer demand and no rational demand is totally incompatible with healthy rural communities with people working in manageable units which would be eroded by the extension of BST.
We are debating an initiative from the pharmaceutical companies which the Government appear to be playing along with to a greater extent than other European countries. We see that in the labelling of the products. Why is BST coming on to the market by stealth? If the Government are completely satisfied that there is no risk or danger and that everything is entirely in order, why are there any reservations about saying up front to the consumers of milk that what they are getting contains an element of milk which has been produced with the aid of BST? If that is the Government's view, what is the objection to that?
I believe that it is a fraud on consumers--one of many sponsored by MAFF-- to produce in any quantity milk that contains any element of milk produced with BST without telling people precisely what they are getting. It is not good enough to say, "We, MAFF, who have been so wrong on so many other things over the past couple of years, say that there is no danger." According to the Minister, we are engaged on a testing programme to discover the implications of BST, but, at the same time, it is being pushed down the throats of British consumers without the common courtesy of telling them what they are getting, which is indefensible.
There is no demand for increased milk production in Britain. We should be protecting the interests of rural communities and milk producers, but the Government are working at the behest of pharmaceutical companies. We are debating BST at 12.50 am because of the initiative of a couple of pharmaceutical companies, which is against the interests of consumers, against the interests of our future agriculture and against the wishes of rural communities in Scotland, many parts of England and, as we have heard, many parts of Wales.
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) tried to square a circle. He expressed doubts and engaged in a bit of hand wringing, but he supports the Government's proposals. If he continues to do so, many dairy producers in his constituency and in the constituencies of other hon.
Column 324Members will be in deep trouble. It was a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not oppose the expansion of BST as firmly as did other hon. Members.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) represents a constituency in what used to be called Ayrshire. He rightly spoke up clearly on behalf of dairy producers in his constituency and on behalf of consumers who are concerned about the possible commercial use of this product. My hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) covered many of the detailed arguments against the deployment of this product in the dairy industry in Britain. Under normal circumstances, one would be tempted to ask, "Who on earth supports the use of BST in Britain or anywhere else in Europe?" We have received the answer this evening--the Government and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). One must pay tribute to their courage, if not their judgment.
Mr. John Greenway : I made no such statement, as the hon. Gentleman will discover when he reads Hansard. I am sorry that he was not listening more carefully. I said that it is unfortunate that the Government are having to face this issue in fighting for the principle of scientific advice being paramount.
The hon. Gentleman repeated his key point--that scientific criteria should be paramount. He referred to the medicinal and therapeutic properties of BST. That was his crucial error. BST has no medicinal or therapeutic qualities ; it is an artificial stimulant that makes cows produce 10 or 20 per cent. more milk. That is not medicinal or therapeutic but purely economic. The hon. Member should get that point straight.
The hon. Member for Ryedale suggested that farmers will be free to use this product if they want to. Surely he must be living in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks that it will be so easy for farmers. If this product comes on to the market, the competitive dynamics of the marketplace will compel farmers to take advantage of it. It is important, therefore, that the House and the European Parliament effectively apply the safeguards that the people of Europe and Britain, and the industry, want.
Apart from the hon. Member for Ryedale and the British Government, who wants BST to be brought into commercial use? It certainly is not the consumer--the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) made that point clear. It certainly is not the dairy industry, which would not want it because consumers do not want it. The industry certainly does not want a food scare such as has been experienced elsewhere in that industry. The agricultural industry certainly does not want BST. It was made abundantly clear to the House tonight that the National Farmers Unions in all parts of the United Kingdom opposes the approval of this product.
Who is in favour of BST? Monsanto and Eli Lilly--not exactly the most objective bodies in this debate. They want
Column 325the House and the European Community to uphold their commercial right to develop a market for their product. This debate, if it is about nothing else, must be about the balance between a company's right to seek a commercial profit from its investment and the broader interests of the consumer and the agricultural and rural economy. That balance should be struck, but it cannot be done if we keep to the narrow scientific criteria about which the hon. Member for Ryedale talked. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly echoed the powerful case, which has been made by the Opposition, that a fourth criterion--the ethical, or socio-economic, criterion--should be met before such a product can be approved.
One may ask, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North has asked, why on earth, when there is such an overproduction of milk, have Monsanto and Eli Lilly put such energy into the production of BST? Even without BST, higher yields are likely to make about 400,000 cows redundant in the European Community in the not-so-distant future. These companies are devoting all their expertise to developing a compound to produce even more milk, for which there is no market--a compound that is likely to create great uncertainty and worry in the market.
Why could not those companies have devoted as much energy to producing a veterinary product to deal with the present problems? That is something that the industry and the community need. No, those companies have produced BST and they are hellbent on marketing it and making a profit out of it, regardless of the concerns of consumers, the disruption caused to the industry and a range of other vital considerations.
I put it to the Minister that the narrow criteria of safety, quality and efficacy alone are just not enough. The European Commission is right to take account of the broader criterion of socio-economic factors before sanctioning the use of BST. A precedent was set in a similar industry when the European Community banned the use of hormone growth promoters for beef. We talked about this issue then. There was no evidence that growth promoters in beef had any detectable effect on human beings. On purely scientific grounds, there was no case for a ban, but it was imposed because consumers wanted one. Likewise, consumers want a ban imposed on BST. Just as Governments and the European Community paid heed to consumer concern about hormone growth promoters for beef, they should pay similar heed in this matter.
Monsanto and Eli Lilly have no God-given right to market a product and to make a profit out of a product. They should be within the law. They should act within the constraints of public interest, of which Governments have a duty to take account. We are not talking about a veterinary product. BST has no beneficial therapeutic effects. On the contrary, I should have thought that a regular series of injections into cows has a detrimental effect on animal welfare. We are talking about a specific artificial stimulant which is purely for commercial purposes. That fourth criterion-- of socio-economic or ethical considerations--must be adopted for the approval of products of this nature.
We do not intend to divide the House on this issue, although I hope that the Minister has grasped the fact that there is widespread dissatisfaction with his laid-back approach to this case. I think that we can safely depend on our comrades, if we can call them that, in other European countries to out-vote the British Government once again,
Column 326and to ensure that common sense prevails and that the industry and consumers will be protected. We live in hope, however, that the Minister will take account of public opinion, even if nobody else in the Government will.
It will be a major disappointment to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) to know that the Government are perfectly happy to accept the Commission's proposal of a pause for reflection. Indeed, we have already said that. We are not isolated. The matter is perfectly simple. We believe that there is a clear distinction between the licensing process, which is to determine on scientific grounds whether a product is safe, and the political decision whether to accept those results.
We have made it perfectly plain that we accept that there are legitimate concerns about the implications of this product, other than on grounds of safety. Its safety will be determined by the Veterinary Products Committee when it has completed its investigations. It faces many questions. Without any Commission intervention, we would not be able to license this product before at least this time next year. No delay is being imposed. These processes must be gone through exhaustively before we can grant a licence. We draw a clear distinction between the scientific process and whether, politically, we want to buy the product. That does not cause me the slightest embarrassment. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) said that the Government will be embarrassed. If the Commission makes a proposal, we have to cope with it, just as we had to cope with the proposal on beef hormones. If that is to be quoted as the glorious precedent, I invite the hon. Gentleman to conduct a brief tour of inspection of Europe and see the extent to which the proposal is being enforced and the extent to which hormones still appear in beef, greatly to the deception of EC consumers.
Mr. Ron Davies : Does the Minister understand that he is now saying that he will take a political, ad hoc decision based almost on a whim and the Government's prevailing political thought? Does he understand how worrying that will be to companies that have committed themselves to substantial investment and which need to know that there is an objective and systematic assessment of products that emerge from their research? Does he accept that our proposal of a fourth hurdle would institutionalise such an arrangement so that the companies involved would know the procedures with which they must comply? Without that, they will be subject to political decisions made on a whim.
Mr. Curry : We are not deciding on a whim. The European Community exists, and the Commission is entitled to make a proposal. If it does that, we cannot simply walk out of the room and say that the whole thing is inconvenient. We have to deal with the proposal. That is not whim but political reality. The burden of the hon. Gentleman's speech was that he will somehow introduce scientific criteria to measure something--was it social, economic or ethical considerations? It was not quite clear. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he can devise and incorporate a clear, sharp scientific criterion that will let companies know where they stand, his accusation that we
Column 327are performing intellectual gymnastics will pale into insignificance next to the extraordinary convolutions that he is going through.
Mr. Curry : Like everything the hon. Gentleman produces, I should wish to look at it with great care under a microscope. The reason for that is illustrated by his remarks today. He mentioned labelling, as did some of my hon. Friends, and we must be clear about that. It is a difficult issue because of the problems of the identification of BST. In addition, obligatory labelling would be difficult to enforce, in the same way as the beef hormone ban is difficult to enforce. European Community food law prevents a member state from introducing additional national labelling requirements without Community approval. We believe that the Commission's study could look usefully at the whole matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) emphasised the importance of objective criteria and he also said that there is a genuine dilemma for producers. I agree that there is ; nobody denies it. That is entirely the purpose of making a distinction between whether a product should be available purely on health and scientific grounds and whether it will be taken up on any other grounds. He asked when the trials will end. As I have just said, we shall be unlikely to be in a position to license before about 12 months from now because of that a number of questions remain to be asked. The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) mentioned several detailed issues about the science of this. If he will permit me, I shall reply to him by letter because his points were extremely complicated. I recognise that he has more scientific background than many hon. Members who discuss this matter and I am willing to reply to him in writing. However, I must point out to him that the Farm Animal Welfare Council raised certain matters which have already been referred to the veterinary products committee as part of the criteria that it will use to assess the safety of this product.
I was grateful for the praise of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) for our record of full and proper evaluation. He said that consumers were not informed at all. We have certain constraints under the Medicines Act 1968, but we have never concealed the fact that milk from the trials goes into the normal supply of milk. I must make it clear to all hon. Members that the only country that does not permit that to happen is the Netherlands. All the other countries in which trials are taking place permit the milk to go unlabelled into the general milk supply. The reason for that is that we were twice advised by the veterinary products committee that that was safe, as the scientists mentioned by the Opposition also advised.
Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : The Minister does not realise that consumers worry about what is happening to food production, including our pork production. The only point on which I am certain is that more farmers will vote for us this time than ever before. half my milk farmers have already gone out of business
Column 328because of the quotas and the problems that they have caused. We shall have farmyard crack and the consumer will not know whether the product that he is buying contains it or not. Surely at this early stage we should be looking at how we can inform consumers whether they are buying milk that contains BST.
Mr. Curry : I have already made it clear that, as part of the Commission's review, we are perfectly happy for that matter to be looked at. However, we have also made it clear that we should not have authorised even these minute trials to take place were we not convinced by means of an independent body that those trials were perfectly safe. We cannot take advice other than that presented to us by an impeccable body of scientists. I have here the list of the members of the Veterinary Products Committee.
Mr. Curry : No, because I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I do not wish to forgo the pleasure of commenting on them. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) mentioned the social concerns of the small farmer, as I have. I suspect that my constituency is not dissimilar to his. I know what farmers believe on this matter and that is why we have said that we are looking at these other matters, but we do not want them to masquerade as part of the scientific process. We want them to be seen as a separate part of the process. The fourth criterion is for a political decision and I do not want politics masquerading as science because we have seen what has happened in various areas, from fisheries to beef hormones. The real fear for many farmers is that if this permits costs to be cut--there is a case for saying that--it will put pressure on the institutional milk price. I recognise that fear.
There will be careful consideration of all aspects of bovine health, including mastitis. The progeny from treated cows are being assessed from the different lactations of a multi-lactational trial. Therefore, I can give an assurance that those matters are being carefully considered.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) gave me a fleeting reassurance that the Labour party has not been reformed as much as its public relations might indicate that it wanted to. He lifted every phrase straight from the conspirator's handbook. He talked of the highly dodgy product ; we were told that we were paying lip service and were in the pockets of the vested interests. In fact, the phrases were lifted not merely from the conspirator's handbook, but from an elderly edition. He should ask the chairman of the VPC, Professor Armour, dean of the school of veterinary medicine at Glasgow university, whether he will subscribe to the description of himself and his team as simply stooges in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry.
We are not forcing this product down the farmers' throats. Nobody is going to ride shotgun on the wagons to force farmers to use this product. We have decided that they should have the choice whether to use it. If they decide to use it, that is their affair. If they decide not to, that is equally their affair.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) said that the United Kingdom supports BST. That is not true. I shall not know whether to support it until the VPC has said whether it is a safe product and fulfils the criteria. If it does so and is given a clean bill of
Column 329health. I shall clearly support the right for it to be made available. If it is not given a clean bill of health I am equally categoric that it will not be made available because that is the whole purpose of a scientific assessment.
It is not my job to tell Eli Lilly or Monsanto how to spend their money. If they decide to devote it to pharmaceutical research and them come to me and say that they have developed a product which they wish to have assessed, under the Medicines Act 1968 I must submit that product to an evaluation process. I cannot say, "I'm sorry, but the Act is not for you, today," or "We do not like the implications of what you are going to do. Go away."
If I were to take such action and introduce into the assessment process a pseudo-scientific criterior masquerading as science, those companies would not come at all, but would take their business elsewhere which would be to the great detriment of everybody in the United Kingdom and the European Community.
The hon. Member for East Lothian persists in his unwillingness to accept that there is good will among Conservative Members. We have products which we are obliged to assess on the grounds of certain objective criteria. That is the right way to go about this, and it has served us well in the past. The VPC has thrown out the majority of applications that it has assessed this year under these very criteria. Therefore, it is quite right that we should proceed in this way.
In this rough old world in which we live, if the Commission comes forward with a proposal we must react to it. We want the Commission to make that assessment as sensibly and objectively as it can. If we then have to vote upon it, we must do so. If that results in decisions being taken on political grounds, and the Council of Ministers has a majority to make those decisions, that is what will happen. We have already seen it happen with the beef hormone proposal.
We do not want to try to confuse the issue and say that we should move away completely from the principle of the objective assessment of these products. If we do that, we shall rapidly descend into an extremely confused approach to our treatment of future technology. We have not denied this in the past in the United Kingdom or turned our back on it. If we start to do so, we have little future as a country in which technology has a fair home. I do not think that any hon. Member would wish that to happen, which is why I ask the House to support the Government.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8975/89 relating to bovine somatotropin ; and supports the Government's policy that the basis for authorising such products must be a thorough, scientific appraisal to confirm their safety.
That Mr. Secretary Wakeham and Mr. Frank Dobson be discharged from the Committee of Privileges and that Sir Geoffrey Howe and Dr. John Cunningham be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]
It is a sad reflection that this brief Adjournment debate is the first opportunity that the House has had to discuss the implications of the shift in Government policy towards the repatriation of Vietnamese boat people. The announcement was made by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) during his brief tenure as Foreign Secretary. During his one Foreign Office Question Time appearance at the Dispatch Box, he signalled the Government's decision to abandon attempts to resettle the 56,718 Vietnamese people in Hong Kong. Instead, involuntary repatriation, compulsory repatriation, mandatory repatriation, or an orderly return programme are to be the cornerstone of our future approach.
If words have any meaning at all, involuntary and mandatory mean forcible. If these are mere euphemisms and Foreign Office code, perhaps the Minister will use this debate to explain exactly what the Government have in mind.
Certainly Mr. Lionel Bloch, Sir Robin Day, Lords Havers and McAlpine of Moffat, and Mr. Gerard Noel, writing in The Times today are clear enough in their understanding of Government policy. In a brief letter they say :
"Sir, why does the British Government not appeal openly and urgently to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and members of the EC, to take some of the Hong Kong boat people? Their forcible repatriation would be repugnant to all right thinking people."
Recent events in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in south-east Asia have demonstrated deep contradictions in Government policy. On the very day after the Prime minister, in her Guildhall speech, hailed the march to freedom in Europe, it is worth questioning for a moment our double standards. The Prime Minister, and I agree with her, said :
"We should recognise how immensely privileged we are to be living in these historic times, how fortunate to have a share of responsibility for the way events unfold."
As millions of Europeans have flooded across East-West borders, and thousands have decided to stay, no one has suggested as the Under-Secretary of State did in a letter to me on 26 October that "their future can only lie in their own country."
Why is it an historic event when thousands of economic migrants flee from a drab life in East Germany, and a contemporary inconvenience when they flee from Vietnam? How do we reconcile our good fortune in being able to share in the responsibility of the unfolding events in central and eastern Europe while we try to evade our responsibility towards desperate, frightened refugees seeking shelter and sanctuary in a Crown colony?
Even deeper contradictions concern the way in which we screen the Vietnamese migrants and attempt to classify them as economic and political refugees : goats and sheep. Imagine for a moment the worldwide outcry if East Germans had been subjected to the following procedures. Mr. Yan Ji Shieh of Refugee Action--an offshoot of the Save the Children Fund--has provided me with
Column 331documentary evidence which the Minister needs to address. Refugee Action says that the language translation available during screening interviews is often wholly inadequate--and is actually conducted in three different languages ; interviewees have no chance to prepare themselves and have no representation at the interviews ; and a very narrow interpretation is made under the 1951 United Nations convention of what we think constitutes as a refugee.
If an interviewee answers the first question by saying that he wants to make a better life for his family he will automatically be screened out as an economic refugee. Among those who have been screened out, and denied political status, are former soldiers from the south. If they fail to qualify, it is little wonder that very few others get through the net.
Inevitably, any such dubious exercise will never be foolproof and is bound to lead to personally disastrous decisions. Refugee Action says that the atmosphere during interviews is often appalling ; and that United Nations High Commission for Refugees officers have witnessed shouting and abuse. I hope that the Minister will say something about the rising tensions within the camps as refugees become more and more desperate. I am sure that he will have seen some of the reports last week concerning some of the events in the camp. It is surely worth recalling that before these interviews and subsequent refusals, many refugees have spent long years festering in squalid camps. Before that they faced long and harrowing voyages through the perilous South China seas. I have heard first-hand accounts of brutal assaults, rape, and murder as refugees lost everything in their bid for freedom and a better life. It is absurd to suggest that their decision to leave Vietnam was a soft option. In comparison with Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, which have at times forcibly repelled the boat people, the Hong Kong Government are to be congratulated on their humanitarian policy in acting as a place of first asylum. They have done their best to accommodate successive waves of refugees ; but no one who has visited the closed camps can seriously describe the atrocious conditions as anything other than totally and utterly unacceptable. The initial willingness of the western countries to assist in resettlement was overcome in 1986 by a bad case of compassion fatigue. So far in 1989, only 3,393 refugees have been resettled from Hong Kong--a mere 149 in the United Kingdom. Does it not say something about life in Vietnam that, knowing all of this--all the obstacles and impediments that would be placed in their way--the refugees have continued to come?
Here is another contradiction in Government policy. Last night, in another debate, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), explained that the Government's decision to end aid to Vietnam in 1979
"was related to Vietnam's policies on human rights, the exodus of boat people and the Cambodian invasion."
He said that Vietnam's international rehabilitation will "need a negotiated settlement, not a trial of strength on the battlefield."--[ Official Report, 13 November 1989 ; Vol. 160, c. 51.]
So the Government, in refusing to restore the aid programme, have indicated their abhorrence of the regime
Column 332in Vietnam. The irony is that a restored aid programme linked to assisting farmers retain a greater proportion of the rice yield might actually help to end the exodus. Certainly, the British Refugee Council tells me that it favours its urgent restoration.
But the Government cannot have it both ways. If the human rights record is so bad that we cannot give aid, how can we have confidence in what will happen to refugees forced to return there?
Refugee Action says that after 15 years many former civil servants and many members of the army are still in re-education centres, deep in the jungles. It pours scorn on the idea that it will be possible to monitor the long- term retaliatory action taken against people who are forced back. After all, it is still a serious crime to leave Vietnam. And what are we to make of a country that denies freedom of movement, impedes travel overseas, and deters free speech or a free press? Refugee Action has evidence that 1,700 refugees who escaped on the last day of the war and returned in 1975 from Guam all disappeared. One re-escaped and described in detail how he had subsequently suffered.
I help to sponsor an all-party group, the Jubilee Campaign, which campaigns for Christian prisoners of conscience. I can provide the Minister with chapter and verse about Vietnamese prisoners of faith. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Defence is kindly currently sponsoring one such case : that of Nguyen Van Tuoi. In 1983 he was arrested and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. He was assistant to Pastor Ho Hieu Ha, whose church was seized and turned into a Communist Youth League headquarters, and who was sent to jail for eight years. Both are still in detention at Chi Hoa prison in Ho Chi Minh City.
Or there is the case of Father Dominique Tran Din Thu. He was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. His sentence was later reduced to 20 years--hardly a concession for an 83-year-old man. He and 15 other priests and monks from his order are now in a re-education camp.
Another priest in prison in Vietnam is Father Joseph Nguyen Cong Doan, the regional superior of the Jesuits. He was gaoled for 12 years in 1981. He had obtained a Communist party document which called
"for the extermination of the Church, and principally its bishops and priests."
Amnesty International adds credence to the reports which the Jubilee Campaign has received. In its 1989 report, it lists details of the persecution of Buddhists and the continued detention of prisoners of conscience.
While thinking about these reports, I was struck this morning by an account in The Independent newspaper which described the 1945 decision to send back the Yugoslavs to Marshall Tito. Captain Nigel Nicolson yesterday told the court in the Aldington libel action that the refugees
"had appealed to us for asylum, which we had granted them. They had come to trust us and now we had to break the trust and send them back to their arch -enemy."
It is not idle fancy to see parallels with the position of the Vietnamese asylum-seekers today.
Surely Ministers can see that involuntary repatriation will lead to vindictive retaliatory acts over which the British Government will have no effective subsequent control. Surely they can see the damage that will be done to our international reputation.
Column 333The new Foreign Secretary is a man who knows the value of compassion. Like his West German counterpart, who effectively responded to human need, he should now put his energies into finding a sane and decent solution which does not involve forcible repatriation ; 56,000 people are little more than half the number who constitute a capacity crowd at Wembley. It cannot be beyond the wit of the civilised world to resettle them. When the Prime Minister and President Bush meet next week, I hope that Foreign Office Ministers will be urging that the need for a concerted international response based on responsibility and compassion will be high on their agenda. 1.27 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Francis Maude) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hil(Mr. Alton) for raising an issue which has attracted a great deal of attention and which, I have no doubt, will continue to do so. However, I regret the terms in which he raised a number of the issues involved. Frankly, he reported some matters in a way which did not reflect the true position, and I shall deal with some of them. The issue of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong was discussed nearly two years ago in the Christmas Adjournment debate, and once again in the Christmas Adjournment debate of last year. On both occasions, serious issues were raised by my hon. Friends which were addressed responsibly and realistically by the present Minister of State, Department of Employment, who was then a Minister at the Foreign Office.
It must be clear that this is not an issue which brings pleasure to the Ministers who bear responsibility for it. It is, above all, a human problem which demands a humane and humanitarian response. It is also an issue where the commentaries and some of the commentators have simply not kept up with the pace of the events.
The simple fact is that the situation is now dramatically different from what obtained when the debate took place in late 1987. At that stage, all those Vietnamese who arrived in Hong Kong were deemed to be refugees, whether or not they were so in reality.
The international community had and has responded magnificently to a flow of refugees over many years and it is important to stress that undertakings have been given to resettle every refugee in the west. However, by the middle of 1988, it had become clear that the nature of the exodus from Vietnam had changed. That had begun to emerge as early as 1981. At that stage, a congressional committee in the United States had a staff report which said :
"It is true to most observers that the character of the boat people flow has changed, even as it continues relentlessly from numerous interviews with Vietnamese boat people in the field, especially in Hong Kong, it is clear that a growing number of Vietnamese boat people are risking flight primarily for economic reasons. A classic migrant' flow is developing."
That quotation goes back to 1981. Seven years after that it was decided by Hong Kong--I think that its decision was right--that a different approach was necessary. From June 1988, a screening system was instituted. The purpose of this was quite clear : to determine which of those coming to Hong Kong were genuine refugees and which were economic migrants seeking a better life in a more prosperous country.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has referred to screening, and it is important to understand what it is. It is not a process which is unique to boat people in Hong