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Column 470The report is very much in favour of the development of cross-border co-operation on the economic agenda. We are in the era of the Single European Act, disappearing trade barriers throughout Europe and advancing trade and commerce between nations and regions. That needs to be encouraged in the island of Ireland. The report recognises, however, that for that to take place we need a new Northern Ireland Government, acceptable to the communities involved, to work with the Irish Government. It is a matter not of sharing Executive power but of discussion and negotiation between two sides and two interests. The policies of the IRA lead to borders being placed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which considerably disrupt trade. For instance, the IRA attacks trains travelling between Belfast and Dublin to push goods back on to the roads, where protection rackets can more readily and easily operate. The report also suggests regional development plans with economic and social goals, as proposed by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry and by the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust. The argument is that we should move beyond just considering the free market and that we should introduce development, planning and regulation, which runs counter to the deregulation legislation introduced by the Government. The arguments about the operation of economic and social matters in Britain differ from those in Northern Ireland because an incentive is required to draw communities together.
On the social agenda, the report states that there should be a gradual policy of integration over wide areas. It stresses the need for integrated education. A small and admirable integrated education programme exists in Northern Ireland, but the report recognises that it should be extended much further. The compilers of the report were impressed by the sixth forms in Northern Ireland, whether basically Catholic, basically Protestant or integrated. They felt that pupils wished to express their desires and suggested that they be allowed to find out much more about the different communities, their histories and traditions. There is a programme of education for mutual understanding in schools, which the report stresses should have more funding.
The report stresses the point that there is a problem with the Catholic hierarchy in terms of the development of integrated education. I have always believed that integrated education should start with teacher training, but at present integrated teacher training is limited to university provision. The fact that one of the separate teacher-training colleges is Catholic means that the other, in practice, caters for Protestants. We cannot envisage more integrated education if the teachers themselves are not integrated and I often press the Government about what can be done to break down the barriers to integration.
The report also stressed the need for pilot integrated housing schemes. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has done much valuable work, but unfortunately certain free market policies have recently been imposed on it. It tends to develop different housing schemes in different areas according to the representations made to it, which causes problems, but pilot schemes with subsidised rents would attract people. Community work is also highlighted and the report suggests that the type of cross-community trust which exists in Derry should be extended.
It is also recommended that the integration of men and women in the political process should be pursued. Women
Column 471are very poorly represented in Northern Ireland politics, in the parties in general and on public bodies. Some of the entrenched sectarian attitudes, which are strong among the men, may rub off less strongly on women because of the nature of their activities, the problems that they face and the ease with which they recognise the common problems faced by, for example, unemployed families, whether they be Protestant or Catholic.
The report also stresses the need for cultural integration. I have already mentioned the education programme for mutual understanding, which states that there appears to be an interest among Protestants--especially schoolchildren--in understanding their Irishness, but without the traditional nationalist propaganda. It believes that an understanding of the cultural development of Northern Ireland is important. Comments on the Opsahl report tend to concentrate on its political and constitutional agenda, but I have sought to stress the economic and social aspects because they deserve more attention than they receive.
On constitutional matters, the report said that if the talks then taking place failed a commission should be set up in consultation with the Irish Government to speak directly to the people--in other words, that an "official Opsahl" should remain in existence. I know that that idea has been dismissed, on the grounds that the talks will not fail and that there is another stage to come, but we should keep it on the agenda all the time because the Opsahl commission found areas in which no movement could be made, due to entrenched positions. There were arguments about ways of overcoming that problem through continuing work, which could then be picked up officially. The commission argued for the legal recognition of nationalism, so that in a new Northern Ireland Government parity of esteem would be recognised. For some of us there is a problem with that idea, because it rather suggests the sort of veto that might be operated by nationalist or unionist politicians that runs against the integrationist principles for which the report argues elsewhere. However, in order to get government off the ground in Northern Ireland something of that sort may be needed as a starter, and if the principles of integration were running elsewhere there would begin to be a principle of integration in the political sphere. The report also suggested that it was not good enough to get a mere arithmetical majority agreement on the future constitutional position. A consensus was needed--a consensus broad enough to be reflected in both communities. The report says that majority support for the advances would be needed in both communities.
The commission was criticised for arguing for consultation with Sinn Fein-- unfairly, because such consultation was already taking place at the time. We have heard a lot about that, and whatever might be said about the initial discussions, the Government have adopted the correct approach since then, both in the declaration and in their clarification. The questions that have been asked back, such as when the violence will end, really put Sinn Fein on the spot. The Government's present position is within the spirit of the Opsahl report.
There is also stress on the need for a Bill of Rights, for which there is wide support in many areas. John Bruton, the leader of Fine Gael, suggests that the talks could initially be about a Bill of Rights as a subject on which people may be able to make a start. The most impressive aspect of the Opsahl report is not so much its recommendations as the fact that it is a process and gives the reader a feel not just for the difficulties and
Column 472problems of the Province, but also for the hopes. The problems can be expressed in the words of a 15-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, who said :
"Like the thin white ribbon that the police use to seal an area, we wrap ourselves in our territories, where we know we are safe". Perhaps the Opsahl process can help to make life feel safe and good for both Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren outside the territories marked by white ribbons. The white ribbons may even no longer be there to form barriers in people's minds between two areas.
I hope that the British Government will start to take the report seriously- -more seriously than has been suggested by the off-the-cuff and sometimes rather glib remarks that they have made so far. 1.17 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram) : I am grateful, as is the House, to the hon. Member for Derbyshire,North-East (Mr. Barnes) for providing an opportunity for the House to debate Northern Ireland today. But for the Whitsun recess, we should have had Northern Ireland questions today, so the debate provides a useful opportunity to ensure that Northern Ireland remains at the head of the parliamentary agenda, as it does at the head of the Government's agenda.
Sadly, day-to-day events tend to keep Northern Ireland in the spotlight. In recent days there have been further savage attacks and killings by both loyalist and republican terrorists. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House remain united in our utter rejection of those cowardly and futile crimes, and in our determination to find an answer to the tragic problems that for too long have caused suffering and despair in that beautiful land. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East is well known in the House for his caring concern for Northern Ireland. Specifically, he has shown a close interest in the Opsahl report ever since it was published last summer and the House will be grateful for his commentary on the report today. It was a wide-ranging report, sometimes far more wide ranging than it is given credit for publicly. It was certainly not just political and constitutional. I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said, especially about education which, as he knows, is one of my responsibilities within the Northern Ireland Office.
The hon. Gentleman knows of the Government's current support for the principle of integrated education where there is a parental demand for such education, and for the principle of the cross-curricular themes of education for mutual understanding and cultural heritage within both the controlled and maintained sectors. There is little difference between us on the need to ensure that within the education system there is a permanent cross-current which brings the communities together.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is already on record as responding to the report on behalf of the Government. In reply to a written question tabled by the hon. Gentleman last June, my right hon. and learned Friend said that the report
"provides a valuable record of the commission's work, which clearly did much to stimulate the submission of views from a wide range of individuals and organisations."--[ Official Report , 28 June 1993 ; Vol. 227, c. 339 .]
He also observed that a number of the recommendations were clearly controversial and had provoked dissenting comment. He said that in his view the value of the report lay principally in enlivening and developing informed public debate. He went on to recognise that the report
Column 473offered an important source of ideas. Today's debate is an indication that the principles outlined in the Opsahl report are, indeed, continuing to cause and enliven debate.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State also mentioned the report in more detail in an Adjournment debate on 22 October, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. The report was also the subject of a full debate in another place on 3 March. On that occasion, Baroness Denton responded in some detail to many of the main points in the report and I shall not go over all that ground again today. As I have said, the report covers a wide range of areas and is addressed to a number of groups, not just to the Government. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the report received a cool reception from the Northern Ireland parties generally. Nothing would be gained today by going over the recommendations again in great detail when, as I have said, our position is already on the record.
On the political front, however, the report suggests ways in which to find a political settlement in Northern Ireland. The great value of today's debate is the way in which it highlights, once again, the need to continue to pursue the goal of an agreed, wide-ranging political accommodation. In that regard, the Government certainly share the political objectives of the report, although we differ on the means by which to achieve them. The report suggests that if the talks fail--that is an important phrase--the Government, in consultation with the Irish Government, should establish a commission to study the situation and to make recommendations for further consultation with the political parties and, if necessary, directly with the people of Northern Ireland. The report identifies what it calls seven realities which it believes must be accepted before an accommodation can be reached. The report also talks in terms of equal sharing of power by both main parts of the community and proposes at the same time giving legal recognition to Irish nationalism. As I have said, I do not want to get involved in too much of the detail today, but I must say at this stage that I reject totally the notion that the talks have failed--the triggering device within the report. As the House is aware, dialogue is continuing both with most of the Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government. The House will also wish to bear in mind the fact that events have moved on considerably since the report was published last June, despite--I say this with all respect--the hon. Gentleman's assertion that they have not done so to any great extent.
The main change has been the historic joint declaration by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach last December, which established a new level of understanding between the British and Irish Governments about how Northern Ireland's future should be determined. In particular, it offered a clear opportunity to those who support violence to turn away from it and to join the political process. The key to that was that violence must be ended, permanently and for good. It is testimony to the way in which the declaration sets out a balanced set of principles, founded on the notions of agreement, consent and the rejection of violence, that it has been warmly welcomed nationally and internationally, including by the Opposition parties and by the hon. Gentleman in particular.
The Opsahl report suggests that arrangements for government within Northern Ireland should be based on
Column 474the principle that each community has an equal voice in making and executing the laws or a veto on their execution, and equal shares in administrative authority. The Government come to the issues from a different angle. We do not propose to impose a solution. We do not have a blueprint for a settlement. To quote the joint declaration, the Government's
"primary interest is to see peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among all the people who inhabit the island".
Further, the declaration makes it clear that
"The role of the British Government will be to encourage, facilitate and enable the achievement of such agreement over a period through a process of dialogue and co-operation based on full respect for the rights and identities of both traditions in Ireland". To put it another way, Britain's purpose in Northern Ireland is to ensure democratic debate and free democratic choice. The Government fully accept the need to restore locally accountable democracy in Northern Ireland. However, as the Opsahl report recognises, for any new structures to be both fair and workable, they must command wide support and allegiance in Northern Ireland itself. That means that any accommodation must address those arrangements in the context of wider relationships.
We believe that the best forum for reaching such an accommodation lies in the talks process, which is continuing. For the past eight months, I have been in private bilateral discussion with three of the four main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, exploring areas of common ground across all the relevant relationships--in Northern Ireland, among the people of the island of Ireland and between the two Governments. We have built on the work carried out in the 1991 and 1992 talks, and in recent weeks we have submitted to the parties a paper which floated ideas relevant to those relationships.
Mr. Barnes : The additional point about the Opsahl report is that there can be a nibbling away at many of the areas that help to nurture the extremists in Northern Ireland. The avenues of integration that are talked about, the tackling of problems of unemployment and deprivation, take the ground from under extremists in Northern Ireland when they are arguing their case against the alternative community and the alternative political settlement. We should not look only for a dramatic solution, although one hopes that that will happen. I support entirely the joint declaration and everything associated with it, but other action may be taken in economic and social areas which would help to improve the situation.
Mr. Ancram : I do not dissent at all from what the hon. Gentleman says. We have always regarded the political process as being one of the policy priorities in Northern Ireland. Equally, security is another and the third is economic advancement and the type of integration and opportunity to which the hon. Gentleman refers. In the last few minutes available, I shall concentrate on the political side. As I have said, we have been building on the talks which took place and we shall continue to do so. There will be further exchanges with the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, and we hope that in the end we shall be able to persuade them to return to a more formal talks process. In parallel with my discussions with the parties, intensive consultations with the Irish Government have been in progress to develop a joint framework to carry the talks process forward. A progress
Column 475report was made to the last intergovernmental conference on 25 April and work is continuing. Our intention is to bring together those two areas of activity and to return to multilateral talks involving the two Governments and the main constitutional political parties at the appropriate point. Our objective is to facilitate a comprehensive political settlement covering all the main relationships, as set out in the statement of 26 March 1991. The Opsahl report also recommended that the Government should open informal channels of communication with Sinn Fein to test that party's commitment to the constitutional process. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East made clear, the joint declaration delivered a direct challenge to Sinn Fein as to whether it carried on supporting the odious and futile campaign of violence or adopted the way of constitutional politics. The ball is now firmly in its court and we await its answer. It has prevaricated long enough. It has made an issue of so-called clarification. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, last week we issued a statement commenting on its questions. We said in that statement :
"The vast majority of people in Ireland, North and South and of both traditions, demand an end to violence now. Their wishes could not be clearer."
That is the wish that brings the hon. Gentleman and me together today in what we are saying. It is certainly the wish of the people of Northern Ireland. It was also the wish expressed in the Opsahl report.
Sir Thomas Arnold (Hazel Grove) : I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on British trade with Cuba. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs will reply on behalf of the Government, not just because he is a parliamentary neighbour of mine but because I know that he is a man of culture. He will appreciate the reference when I say that earlier this year Channel 4 showed a delightful film called "Weekend in Havana" starring Carmen Miranda and other famous film stars. The film was made in 1941. When I saw the film, little did I realise that a few weeks later I, too, would spend a weekend in Havana. I did so at the end of February as the guest of a British business man who believes that we should develop closer trading links with Cuba. I invite the House to see the declaration that I have made in the Register of Members' Interests.
While I was in Havana, I had a long discussion with Dr. Ricardo Alarco n, the chairman of the National Assembly of People's Power. I was left in no doubt that he was promoting change and reform and was committed to that process. Therefore, I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward), in his capacity as chairman of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, decided to invite to Britain a parliamentary delegation from the Republic of Cuba, led by Dr. Alarco n. Indeed, the delegation has been with us in the House for most of this week. The visit has been a success. We have had the opportunity to explain to the members of the delegation some of the finer points of the procedures of the House. Although in certain matters they may be as mystified as I still am after 20 years, I think that they have enjoyed themselves and the House has certainly enjoyed having them with us.
Yesterday afternoon, Dr. Marti nez attended the Treasury Select Committee to listen to the Governor of the Bank of England give evidence. Dr. Tablada has been very active in asking questions about the health service. Dr. Alneida has been inquisitive on several matters, about which he has asked detailed questions. Mr. Rodri guez has also been with us throughout the proceedings.
I believe that an improvement in relations between Britain and the Government of Fidel Castro has taken place, and that it indicates growing opportunities, above all perceived by British business in Cuba. In some respects, this is a case of trade taking the lead. There is no doubt that most British business men who are familiar with the Caribbean would like to see the Cuban market open up to British business interests. That needs to be done in conjunction with the Government because several knotty problems have to be overcome. I have referred to the process of change in Cuba. Cuba is an economy in transition facing real and painful difficulties. I was reminded during my visit to Havana of some visits that I made to Moscow towards the end of the 1980s in my capacity as chairman of a company limited by guarantee, using money from the British know-how fund and private sources to assist the Russians in their process of transformation. Many of the problems which are apparent in Cuba are problems that we have seen elsewhere in eastern Europe, particularly in Russia. I am under no illusions about the immensity of the task facing the Cuban
Column 477Government as they seek to bring about much- needed change and reform. That will not happen easily ; nor will it happen quickly, because the habits of mind inculcated by 30 or 35 years of a command economy are not easy to remove overnight. The transition process will require patience and a measure of understanding on the part of those of us who want better trade relations with Cuba and it would be greatly assisted if the United States Government could be persuaded gradually to adopt a different attitude towards the embargo. It is a pity that the embargo remains in place. My own view--I know that it is not one shared by Washington--is that if the Cubans can get the economy moving there will be further reform. I believe that trade and perhaps even a measure of aid are essential ingredients in improving the living standards of the people of Cuba, getting the economy moving and, thereby, assisting in the reform process. Britain has always maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba. We have a number of companies that are well established there, not least the sugar company, E.D. and F. Man, which is, at this very moment, hosting a reception for the Cuban parliamentary delegation. I believe that it is the virtually unanimous view of British business men that the United States Government should be invited to review their policy.
We believe that the changes that have taken place are now irreversible and we need to concentrate on the speed at which further reform can be implemented. My understanding is that there has been an acceleration in the process. Among the measures that have been introduced or are expected to be introduced during this year and 1995 are the following : the legalisation of holdings of foreign currency ; the introduction of a fully convertible peso ; the introduction of a new banking system ; the introduction of corporation and income tax--controversial, but necessary ; the removal of subsidies from state industries ; the introduction of new legislation relating to investment, trade marks and intellectual property ; the privatisation of non-essential aspects of the economy ; the establishment of autonomous control for most state industries ; the acceptance that such measures may lead to unemployment, and probably will ; the development of debt for equity swaps ; and more active encouragement, on easier terms of investment, in virtually all aspects of the economy. In short, Cuba is undertaking a major structural adjustment programme--there is no doubt about that. The process is introducing market forces within a managed socialist system. It is also leading indirectly to a form of political pluralism as the National Assembly and parliamentary commissions begin to question the solutions proposed by the Cuban Government and the Cuban Communist party. It is worth commenting for a moment on one piece of background reform and action that should figure largely in the mind of the Cuban Government when attracting foreign investment. While recognising that the economy is doubtless in a serious state, with foreign debt at US$10 billion, plus interest accruing daily, no payment of interest has been made since January 1988, despite Paris Club rescheduling in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1986. Until then, Cuba's debt repayment record was good. While Cuba undoubtedly needs to show a genuine balance of payments need, the Government should show some signs of
Column 478willingness and ability to pay something before further rescheduling is considered by the Paris Club. If the Cuban Government can recognise that, they will send a signal to the business community that Cuba is serious about meeting her obligations and, in return, no doubt we can take a more generous attitude to what needs to be done. There are positive signs in the Cuban economy of a welcome change from the practices of the past. I was pleased to learn that the Government have now decided to send my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Technology to Cuba in the autumn. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to say something about that visit.
There was a Caribbean Trade Advisory Group--CARITAG--mission to Cuba recently. Can my hon. Friend comment on the way forward for the United Kingdom-Cuba commercial relationship following that visit ? When the British ambassador formally announced to the media that the Minister was to visit Cuba, and officials accompanying the delegation were able to familiarise themselves with the economic changes taking place, the Cuban Government recognised that we are serious about promoting inward investment and helping British companies to make the most of the opportunities that could exist there.
Will my hon. Friend say a word or two about outstanding commercial debt and how that problem might be resolved ? I believe that part of the United Kingdom debt is not covered by the Export Credit Guarantee Department and that CARITAG's chairman has proposed new ways in which the debt might be dealt with.
I would also appreciate it if my hon. Friend could say a few words--if not now perhaps in correspondence--about ways in which the British Government and British companies might provide technical assistance, through scholarships, training and seminars. I should like to think that we could reach a time when some sort of know-how fund could be set up, because that would greatly assist the reform process. The fund has a proven track record of success in eastern Europe and Russia. With a small amount of adaptation the same principles could be put to work in Cuba.
A great deal is taking place and we should not be impatient with the speed of change and reform. When I was in Havana the very real problems that the ordinary Cuban has to confront daily were striking. I understand that the Cuban economy contracted by about 50 per cent. last year, which is a truly staggering figure and a measure of the problem. Yet, British business men are keen to explore the opportunities, not merely because Cuba is potentially the largest market in the Caribbean, but because Cuba's long- running isolation produces some instability in an area where Britain has important commercial interests.
In that respect the Government have a very real interest in promoting the stability of the Caribbean, not least in view of the location of British territories, such as the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos nearby. I urge the Government to hold further talks with the American, to find out whether the embargo could be eased and then lifted.
Finally, I was impressed by the objectives that the parliamentary delegation from Cuba set out to achieve this week. Clearly, the delegates want to apply some of their findings to their parliamentary system, which is in the early stages. I am convinced of their sincerity in that regard.
Column 479I am also impressed by the vulnerability of the Cuban economy and I want a situation to arise in which we can assist it, as one of the remaining command economies--I think that it is one of only two in the world now, the other being North Korea--to embark fully on introducing private enterprise, market reforms and all the other measures that are needed to raise the Cuban people's standard of living. To the extent that British trade and investment can assist in that process, it is to the mutual advantage of both our countries. I look forward to listening to my hon. Friend's reply.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs (Mr. Neil Hamilton) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir T. Arnold) on securing this debate. When I discovered that my hon. Friend had been successful, knowing of his interest in Cuba, I insisted on being here myself to reply to the debate in the place of my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade. There is a growing interest in Cuba and hon. Members will be aware that a delegation from the Cuban National Assembly is here at the moment as guests of the British group of the Inter- Parliamentary Union.
I know that it is a subject which interests hon. Members on all sides of the House, and I welcome the presence of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey). The Cuban Minister for Basic Industry, Senor Portal, is also visiting the United Kingdom. Hon. Members may also recall the debate in another place, sponsored by my noble Friend Baroness Young, whose interest in the Caribbean is well known. We must also welcome the efforts of the West India Committee and my Department's own Caribbean Trade Advisory Group--CARITAG--which have led successful business missions to Cuba in each of the past three years.
The Cuban economy has received a series of profound shocks, as my hon. Friend pointed out. They resulted from a number of extraordinary changes in recent years--in particular, the loss of subsidised trade with the former Soviet Union and a disastrous sugar harvest last year. All that was against the background of the long-standing United States trade embargo.
Those shocks, more than anything else, have forced the Cubans to look towards reform of their economy and to diversify their trade away from the old eastern bloc countries. There is, of course, a long way to go, but the fact that reforms are being introduced is a hopeful sign and the Cubans are actively encouraging joint ventures and other forms of economic association with foreign enterprises, which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, Cuba is one of only two countries in the world which could be characterised as command economies. I believe that the Cubans are making tentative steps away from that rather disagreeable position of isolation. We shall then be left with only one, in North Korea, and I am sure that it will not survive indefinitely.
The British Government's policy is to maintain normal commercial relations with Cuba. British companies should be able to trade with Cuba and invest there, if they see it as being in their commercial interests to do so. Moreover, the DTI market branch and CARITAG are actively drawing British industry's attention to the opportunities which are opening up as a result of Cuba's reform process.
Column 480I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the isolation of Cuba and trade embargoes. I have never been a great believer in trade embargoes. I believe that the embargoes of some countries and the isolation which was enforced upon South Africa did not make it any easier for the reform process to start there. I take a similar view of Cuba. My hon. Friend was quite right when he said that it would require a change in the habits of mind of the people of Cuba, who have been insulated from the real world for so long now that the structural reform process will need to be very significant. It is undoubtedly true, as my hon. Friend said, that we shall need to exhibit a certain amount of patience. I have had some experiences recently in eastern Europe, talking to people in many of the countries that are also having to undergo difficult structural adjustments. I am going to Romania on Tuesday. In many ways, Romania resembles Cuba several years ago before the nosedive in trade and GDP which the Cubans have recently suffered.
Those countries are also having to contemplate changing how they do things and think about things. The basics nostrums of a market economy have been lost and they have to be recreated. They cannot be recreated if we refuse to trade with them. Only by example, by showing the advantages of trade and investment and dangling the carrot in front of them, can we induce them to make the necessary changes which will transform their position.
Ultimately, there is an element of self-interest, because trade and development benefit the purchaser, the seller, the investor and the country in which the investments take place.
I am very much in favour of reconstruction in Cuba. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend refer to that notable company E.D. and F. Man. That company was represented when I was recently in Warsaw engaged in the similar task of bringing together eastern European countries with the G7 countries and trying to find a way through their current difficulties in making the transition from command economies to private enterprise economies. I believe that the company has a significant degree of experience that will be of great value and will help us to find a way through Cuba's problems.
I know that the United States of America takes a different view on trade embargoes. That is a matter for it and I have no intention of delving into what the Americans see as their domestic political interest. However, we do not accept that British subsidiaries of US firms should be prevented by US law from trading with Cuba. That is why my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade took action under the 1980 legislation on the protection of trading interests to safeguard the interests of companies incorporated in the United Kingdom, whatever their parentage.
I very much hope that British trade with Cuba will expand in future years. I have always done a modest amount of trade with Cuba, in that I have smoked a large number of its cigars over the years and intend to continue to do so--I hope in ever-increasing numbers. However, on the political side of the argument we enjoy normal relations with Cuba, although there is no doubt that we have our differences, such as different concepts of human rights and fundamental freedoms ; different ideas of the role the state should play in everyday life ; and different views on the value of a democratic society. I am pleased that Cuba is embarking on a process of change. I hope that the current economic reform programme will continue and that the first moves that we
Column 481saw last year towards political change will be developed. It is important that Cuba is encouraged to take those steps and we will do all that we can to help. I look forward to expanding our political relations as Cuba makes progress on those fronts. We very much welcome the fact that the Cuban delegation is in London at the moment. We hope that it has profited as much as we have from the experience.
United Kingdom direct trade with Cuba has suffered from Cuba's economic problems, the lack of foreign exchange and the absence of ECGD cover while Cuba's existing debt commitments remain unresolved. In 1993 UK exports were £14 million, down 50 per cent. on the previous year. That mirrors the fall in GDP to which my hon. Friend referred. Exports are mainly agricultural chemicals, industrial machinery and manufactured goods. Notwithstanding that, there has been an encouraging increase in interest by UK companies attracted by Cuba's potential and anxious to position themselves favourably in a changing market.
However, there have been colossal shocks--it is not easy to circumvent the rapids and rocks. A fall of almost 40 per cent. in GDP since 1990 and a fall of more than 70 per cent. in the capacity to export are formidable problems which, inevitably, will produce great difficulties for any company that wants to trade with Cuba. As my hon. Friend said, the debt problem is also significant. Cuba's commercial debt has largely arisen since the foreign exchange problems started in the mid-1980s. Before that, it had a good payments record. Recent events have compounded the debt problem. The British embassy in Havana continues to press the issue with the Cubans on behalf of the UK companies that are owed money. However, I am sorry to say that no recent payments have been made on outstanding debts to UK suppliers.
Any foreign exchange available is used to pay for essential imports in the priority sectors, such as agriculture, tourism, biotechnology and health care. United Kingdom companies doing business with autonomous enterprises in the priority sectors that hold their own foreign exchange accounts are in a better position to secure payment for goods supplied. Although Cuban officials have given an undertaking that all debts to United Kingdom companies will eventually be honoured, companies need to be inventive to get round the problem--for example, by agreeing to "roll over" existing debt. There may also be opportunities for "debt for equity" swaps and counter-trade arrangements involving Cuban sugar.
I am afraid that I have no easy answer to Cuba's problems with international debt. One thing is certain, however : Cuba's capacity to repay debt, or even to finance it, will be gravely restricted if trade between it and the rest of the world cannot expand. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. I very much hope that growing trade links--to mutual advantage-- will help us to sort out the continuing debt problems.
A recurring theme in the February debate in another place was the call for more official dialogue with Cuba, and in particular a visit by a British Minister. I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of
Column 482State for Technology, will visit Cuba in the autumn, accompanied by a small group of high-level business men. My only regret is that I shall be unable to go with them. I hope that in due course I shall have an opportunity to become more familiar with Cuba and, indeed, the Caribbean, which I have never visited.
There is no doubt that there are great opportunities for Britain in that part of the world. We have taken the initiative in proposing to the Cubans a bilateral investment promotion and protection agreement, which will set high standards of investor protection and encourage investor confidence. I am glad to say that the Cubans have responded positively.
Cuba is the sleeping giant of the Caribbean. So far the reforms, although encouraging, have been limited, and are being introduced slowly ; but I believe that, if Cuba succeeds in making the difficult transition to a more market-led economy, more commercial opportunities will be provided for UK firms to participate in its development.
I think that we should be encouraging and constructive. The British Government can give the Cubans the benefit of our expertise in privatisation and economic reconstruction, which has been exported all over the world in recent years. Many British firms--firms of consultants, as well as those in the industrial manufacturing sectors--have now acquired significant experience of the problems of change from a command economy to one that is more market led. Britain leads the world in many of those fields, and consequently is now a major export and foreign exchange earner. I believe that Cuba offers us opportunities, although it is one of the last countries to embark on such a transition.
I do not say that in an entirely self-interested way, on behalf of this country. I believe that there is room for a spirit of generosity towards Cuba--that we should assist it to make this difficult change. No one should underestimate the pains of transition, as will be plain to anyone with knowledge of the so-called Visegrad countries of eastern Europe, which are miles ahead of Cuba in this respect and have relatively easier prospects. Cuba's problems will be even greater because it is moving from more extreme conditions. If Albania can achieve such a transition, surely Cuba can. There is no lack of good will in the British Government--or, I would say, among the British people--in helping the process. Cuba is likely to develop its tourist potential. In the 1950s, when it was last connected with the western world, it was one of the major tourist locations of the Caribbean ; tourism is potentially a huge foreign exchange earner. It is an attractive destination. Very few people go there nowadays, but every week the New Statesman and Society --which I read--features a full-page advertisement for "progressive tours". I have never taken a progressive tour myself, I hasten to add, but that company advertises the delights of Cuba for those who would like to take advantage of them. Perhaps I am more used to retrogressive tours.
We certainly warmly applaud the opportunity to return Cuba to the mainstream of the world economy, which is not only in our interests but in Cuba's interests, too, and to maintain the stability of the Caribbean--the importance of which was also stressed by my hon. Friend. I hope that we will assist in that transition process, rather than stand in its way.
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich) : I want to deal with this issue in three parts. The House recently considered a Bill which, had it been passed, would have secured civil rights for disabled people. I wish to review the way in which the Government approached that remedy. I intend also to consider the general issue of rights for disabled people and the argument for legislation in addition to education and persuasion. I shall also examine the costs of providing civil rights for disabled people in this country.
The Government are aware that the majority of right hon. and hon. Members are in favour of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Because of that, the Government ran away from the issue and deployed a series of delaying tactics to prevent a Bill which would have afforded civil rights for disabled people from becoming law. Yesterday Madam Speaker had the task of rebuking the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland)--and rightly so--for denying that the source of her amendments was other than herself. The House is well aware that those amendments had been drafted by parliamentary counsel on Government instructions.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : Order. The subject of the hon. Gentleman's debate is civil rights and disabled people ; it is not meant to be a re-run of events surrounding a Bill which aroused a certain amount of controversy. I therefore ask him not to stray into matters which have already been fully debated.
Mr. Austin-Walker : I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but my understanding is that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is still before the House and that there will be another opportunity for the House to return to it.
Several hon. Members indicated dissent.
Mr. Austin-Walker : It is clear that disabled people in this country believe that they are denied their civil rights. There have been repeated attempts in the House to secure those rights. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) was a Minister, he established a committee to examine the issue. That committee reported 12 years ago. Since then, there have been repeated attempts to introduce legislation, including that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe in the last Parliament. More recently, a Bill was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), which was also debated. In accordance with your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not debate the way in which that Bill was obstructed. However, I shall examine the difference in the approach of the supporters of that Bill and that of the Government.
Until recently, the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People had earned the respect and confidence of
Column 484many disabled people and organisations for the disabled, and it is tragic that he has become the fall guy in the blocking of a measure which could have given civil rights to disabled people when responsibility in fact rests not with him but with his senior colleagues and, ultimately, the Prime Minister.
On 12 April, the Prime Minister told me that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill would provide an opportunity to examine the practical implications of such legislation in Committee. I regret that that did not happen and I want to discuss the reasons that the Government give for not embracing comprehensive civil rights legislation.For the Prime Minister's commitment to be honoured, it would have been necessary for the Government to put their view in Committee, but they did not do so.
In the last Session of Parliament, the Minister said that he did not want the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe to proceed because we were coming to the end of the parliamentary Session and the Bill required detailed examination during a good long run in Committee. In the short period before the summer recess the House may, if it wishes, debate in detail and pass into legislation
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. There is no opportunity today for such a discussion. The hon. Gentleman should return to the subject of the debate. We are discussing civil rights and disabled people. Most of his speech has dwelt on the Bill.
Mr. Austin-Walker : My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that we need legislation to secure the civil rights of disabled people. The Minister told us that he favours a process of education and persuasion. We need education and persuasion to assist in the fulfilment of civil rights for disabled people, but if we rely on that alone, thousands of disabled people will endure years of frustration, unemployment, poverty, low incomes and the denial of dignity and basic human rights. Disabled people are not asking for preferential treatment. They are seeking equality of opportunity. They are asking for the right not to any and every job but to be considered fairly for any job.
Sometimes a disability may prevent a person from doing a particular job. In those circumstances if the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood had become law, an employer would not have been guilty of discrimination by not employing a disabled person. More often than not, however, if the disabled person has the skills to carry out a job, some obstacle will be placed in the way. Often the barrier to a disabled person doing a job can be cheaply and easily removed.
Much has been made in past debates, not only in this Session, about the cost of securing civil rights for disabled people. At no stage, however, have the Government costed the benefits of people moving from dependence to independence and the savings which result for the community if disabled people are in work contributing to its wealth rather than receiving benefit.
Employers' research clearly shows that their perceptions of disabled people in work are flawed. Disabled people are far from being a burden. Statistical evidence shows that the job performance of 91 per cent. of disabled workers is average or better than average and that the attendance of 93 per cent. of them is average or better than average compared with able-bodied people.
Column 485Direct discrimination is a problem, but institutional discrimination is probably a greater problem and more difficult to tackle. Anti-discrimination legislation is the only effective way to tackle that. Institutional discrimination can be addressed only by changing organisational, social and individual behaviour. That requires legal prescription. The Government recognise that in terms of racial discrimination, but not in terms of disability. Martin Luther King dismissed the case for relying on education and persuasion alone to end racial discrimination. He said :
"Morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless."
Attitudes need to change, but in the meantime behaviour and practices need to be regulated to ensure that disabled people enjoy their full basic human and civil rights.
Disabled people are fed up with charity and with paternalism. They want rights. A disabled person who has been refused a job or denied access to a restaurant does not want to wait for the Minister's favoured course of education and persuasion to take effect. In employment, we have had education and persuasion for more than 50 years. We have had ineffective legislation with virtually no penalties since 1944. There is a power to prosecute under the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944, but the Government have not embarked on a single prosecution since they took office, preferring the path of education and persuasion ; yet today, 50 years after the legislation was introduced, only 20 per cent., or one fifth, of employers comply with it. We are approaching the year 2000, but at the current rate of progress we shall be two centuries into the next millennium before all employers comply. However, even that is not what disabled people want.
The 1944 Act imposes quotas, a concept that is specifically unlawful in other forms of legislation such as the Race Relations Act 1976. Quotas are, by their very nature, discriminatory. Disabled people do not want quotas or tokenism and they do not want to be patronised. They want rights. The Morris Bill and the Berry Bill would have provided basic civil rights for disabled people. One objection to such all-embracing legislation is the cost involved. The Government have argued that those who produced
"In general, matters which would entail legislation must not be discussed on a motion for the adjournment".
The hon. Gentleman must not refer to legislation.