The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd): Our links with South Africa are strengthening rapidlthrough trade, aid, sport, science, culture, military help and parliamentary contacts. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister paid a successful visit to South Africa in September. Her Majesty the Queen's state visit this month will be a strong symbol of the warmth of our friendship.
Mr. Evans: Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a tremendous amount of good will in South Africa towards this country, as was demonstrated by the visit of our right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade to South Africa? Does he agree that the Government and British companies will have to work hard to ensure that they build on the good will which already exists in South Africa?
Mr. Hurd: I entirely agree. Our exports had increased by 15 per cent. in the first 11 months of last year. They are more than £1 billion now, invisibles are a further £1 billion approximately and we are the biggest overseas investor in South Africa, so those links are strong and becoming stronger all the time.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis): We are developing our approach to next year's intergovernmental conference, based on the principles outlined by the Prime Minister. We are determined to play a positive and constructive role in it, and to ensure a successful outcome which promotes British interests.
Mr. Whittingdale: Is it not increasingly obvious that the convergence criteria set down in the Maastricht treaty and the timetable for achieving them are now utterly discredited? Does my hon. Friend agree that although the convergence criteria in themselves are sensible objectives of economic policy the timetable is a political tool and should be taken out of the treaty altogether?
Mr. Davis: I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend says about the timetable, and that is reflected to some extent in the Government's stance on the 1996-97 aspect of that timetable. We emphasise the criteria as being more important than the timetable itself, and we are not alone in that. That attitude is also taken, for example, by the head of the Bundesbank, Mr. Tietmeyer, who has made it very clear that the criteria are the key issue and that we have to hit those before any further progress is made.
Column 1028recently about co-operation between Britain and France on defence measures. Following the withdrawal, in effect, of the United States from United Nations peacekeeping operations and the lack of logistical support, do the Government regard the intergovernmental conference as a suitable framework in which there might be more European co -operation to give logistical support to peacekeeping operations in Africa?
Mr. Davis: That sort of thing is happening anyway, but the hon. Gentleman is right inasmuch as the sort of things being countenanced as the defence component of the IGC are what are called Petersburg-type actions, which involve peacekeeping and other similar measures, not as a replacement or in any way a supplanting or weakening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Mr. Colvin: I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it is important that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary should go to the IGC with the whole-hearted support of the House and the people we represent. Does he agree, however, that if there were a referendum on any subject before the IGC, he would go to the conference not with our support but in a straitjacket and that any referendum--if there is to be one--should therefore be after the IGC and not before?
Mr. Davis: My hon. Friend has a good point. Any referendum would have importance only in the event of a change that is of constitutional significance. To hold a referendum in advance would imply that we intended to negotiate such a change. That is not what we have in mind.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Alastair Goodlad): We frequently raise human rights issues with theChinese authorities, both bilaterally and with our European partners. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did so during his meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister last September and I shall be doing so later this afternoon with the Chinese ambassador. At the UN Commission on Human Rights this year, the European Union is co-sponsoring a draft resolution on China.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Although I welcome that answer, I hope that we shall keep up the pressure. As the United Kingdom is the largest European investor in China and trade is increasing in both directions, will the Minister ensure that human rights are kept high on the agenda? I think in particular of the plight of the Tibetan people, the fact that 55 offences carry the death penalty, and the increasing number of attacks on anyone who argues with the Chinese Government. Will the Minister ensure that the right balance is struck and that our vigilance is kept up?
Mr. Goodlad: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We of course share his deep concern about abuses of human rights in China, including imprisonment for religious and political beliefs and the repression in Tibet. We regularly raise those matters with the Chinese
Column 1029authorities; but we think it in the interests of the Chinese people as well as everyone else that the healthy trade to which the hon. Gentleman refers should continue.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hogg): The United Nations Secretary-General stated in his report tothe Security Council in December that, subject to further satisfactory progress, he hoped to be able to recommend in March that the referendum on Western Sahara be held in October this year. Security Council resolution 973, adopted in January, provided for the reinforcement of the UN's identification commission, which should enable the compilation of the voter list to be speeded up.
Mr. Mudie: The House will be delighted with that reply. I should be grateful if the Minister would assure the House that he will instruct our representatives at the United Nations to take any necessary initiative if there seems any likelihood that the date will not be adhered to.
Mr. Hogg: I am pleased to be able to give the hon. Gentleman pleasure. There is, however, a problem with the speed at which voter identification is taking place. The commission is processing voters at a rate of about 2,000 a week, so it might be difficult to make the October date, but we would most certainly like the referendum to take place at the latter end of this year.
Sir David Steel: Is the Minister aware that since the United Nations peacekeeping effort in Western Sahara began about three and a half years ago, £87 million has been spent on the operation and there has been a great deal of foot-dragging? Will he note the evidence given by Ambassador Ruddy to the United States congressional committee in respect of this foot- dragging; and will he do his level best to ensure that the date does not slip?
Rev. Martin Smyth: Apart from the problem of registration of voters, has the Foreign Office detected any other problems which may impede the referendum? There has been quite a lot of opposition hitherto.
Mr. Hogg: The identification of voters is a substantial obstacle to holding the referendum in October, although I hope that it will be possible to hold it then. I do not immediately call to mind any other problems, but knowing the nature of the business I suspect that there are some. However, the identification of voters is certainly the principal difficulty.
Mr. Hurd: We have told the Russian Government that we want to see early progress towards a political resolution of the conflict in Chechnya and full access for humanitarian relief. In Russia as a whole our main concerns are continued press freedom, continued economic reform and adherence to the electoral timetable. I raised those matters with the Russian Foreign Minister in Stockholm on 14 February and we shall take the opportunity of the visit of the Russian Prime Minister, Mr. Chernomyrdin, who arrives today, to reinforce that message.
Mr. Clarke: Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that he will do everything in his power to form an Organisation for Security and Co- operation in Europe mission to Chechnya? If he agrees with me and others, can he say whether any efforts have been made to press the Russians to form such a mission?
Mr. Hurd: Two days ago in Vienna I saw Ambassador Gyarmati, who led the OSCE mission into Chechnya a few weeks ago. A second mission is there now under Swiss leadership. They are seeking to press for observance of human rights, with all that that means, and access for humanitarian relief. That the Russians allowed the OSCE mission into the area is one of the few good signs to come out of Chechnya in recent weeks.
Sir Peter Emery: In any negotiations with the Russians, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that a successful conclusion on Chechnya and the points that he raised initially in answering the question have considerable effects on other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States and are therefore of great importance for the rest of the world as well as for relations between ourselves and Russia?
Mr. Hurd: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. The first to have suffered are, of course, the Chechnyans themselves, but the anxiety which has spread from that tragedy into all the countries of the former Soviet Union, and the controversy in Moscow itself, puts a cloud--a passing cloud, I hope--over the prospects for reform.
Mr. Corbyn: When the Foreign Secretary meets the Russian Prime Minister, will he tell him that millions of people around the world found the behaviour of the Russian army troops and the bombing in Chechnya abominable and the destruction of civilian life disgusting? Will the Foreign Secretary ask the Russian Prime Minister whether his Government are prepared to meet representatives of the Chechnyan people who are now expressing a view that there can be no peace while there is no independence in that part of the world? What is the British Government's attitude towards that?
Mr. Hurd: I have certainly made it clear in private and in public to the Russians that the House and the British people have been appalled and depressed by the brutality of Russian action in Chechnya. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's second point, one of the difficulties is to know who are valid representatives of the Chechnyans.
Column 1031We do not think that Mr. Dudaev and his regime are, but one of the difficulties is precisely to identify who could speak
representatively for the Chechnyans.
Mr. Hurd: We are concerned by the slow progress, in particular on the Palestinian track. During his forthcoming visit, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will urge all the parties to carry out what has been agreed and to renew their efforts to reach a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement.
Mr. Field: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Syrians providing a safe haven for the Damascus Ten terrorist group is completely at variance with their stated commitment to reaching a peaceful solution and accommodation with Israel? Will he tell the House and the Israeli Government what we are doing to put pressure on the Syrian Government?
Mr. Hurd: We are making two things clear to the Syrians, and to all concerned, in that respect. The first is the one to which my hon. Friend refers. The Palestinian part of the peace process cannot succeed if Hamas and those who encourage Hamas manage to disrupt it by violence. Secondly, on the Syrian track itself--the discussions between Syria and Israel-- progress at the moment is invisible.
Mr. Gerrard: Will the Foreign Secretary ask the Prime Minister to raise with the Israeli Government the continued harassment of Lebanese fishermen off Tyre and Sidon by Israeli gunboats, which is preventing them from earning any sort of living? That appears to be a response to the Lebanese army increasing security on the borders between the UN security zone and Lebanese-controlled territory. Such action is likely to do considerable harm to the peace process.
Mr. Hurd: The House will understand the concerns of Israel about its security and the threats to its security from southern Lebanon. We have already urged the Israeli Government to cease their blockade of the Lebanese fishing ports.
Mr. Knapman: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is there any common ground between our two countries on cohesion funding, budgetary discipline and fraud within the common agricultural policy? If so, will that help us to win the arguments in the approach to the intergovernmental conference?
Column 1032about the future course of Europe. The Danes and the Swedes have no intention of agreeing to centralising moves based on the assumption that the nation states will wither away. They are also very strong against fraud, for the same reasons that we are, and on budgetary discipline.
Mrs. Clwyd: Did the Secretary of State raise with the Danes and others our concerns about reports that the French Government are encouraging non-humanitarian commercial links with the cruel regime in Iraq? Given that Saddam Hussein continues to execute, torture and mutilate his own people, as confirmed by the United Nations rapporteur on human rights--
Mrs. Clwyd: Yes, Madam Speaker. I am anxious to know whether the Secretary of State raised our concerns with Denmark and the other partners in the European Union, which he mentioned, about the business links that many countries are trying to establish once again with Iraq, in the light of the fact that at Geneva the Danes and other countries were very concerned about the UN rapporteur's report that Saddam Hussein continues to execute, torture and mutilate his own people. Will the Secretary of State unreservedly dissociate himself from those groups-- [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker: Order. That is a total abuse. It does not relate at all to the question on the Order Paper. I have already cautioned the hon. Lady. The question must be more related to discussions and relations with Denmark. I am afraid that the hon. Lady is all over the world other than in Denmark. I really cannot allow that question to continue and I am sure that the Foreign Secretary would find it impossible to give an answer to such a roundabout question. I call Mr. George Foulkes to ask Question 8.
Mr. Foulkes: Is the Minister as fed up as I am at right wingers such as Rosemary Righter of The Times using the 50th anniversary to rubbish the United Nations? Will the Government support the idea of a United Nations parliamentary assembly to bring some democratic accountability and scrutiny unto the United Nations system so that the agencies and the UN can be looked at by parliamentary representatives?
Column 1033whom the hon. Gentleman referred. I did not find the hon. Gentleman's particular suggestion very constructive and I would not support it.
Mr. Jopling: When my right hon. and learned Friend next meets the United States ambassador to the United Nations, will he make clear the House's concern about proposals in the US Congress to reduce contributions to the United Nations, which would have a disastrous effect on peacekeeping around the world?
Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. The fact that the United States Congress proposes to put a cap on the peacekeeping contributions by the United States of 25 per cent. is unwelcome and I would hope that it might be possible to persuade Congress to take a different view.
Mr. Menzies Campbell: As the Minister knows, the cap to which he has referred takes effect on 1 October and is now part of the domestic legislation of the United States. Clearly much work must be done to persuade the members of the more Republican-dominated Congress that any further reduction would be substantially against the best interests of the United Nations and, indeed, those of the United States. May we assume that the Foreign Secretary will take the earliest opportunity to make those points--not to the American ambassador here in London, but to people on Capitol hill?
Mr. Hogg: I share the hon. and learned Gentleman's concern. The attitude of Congress towards peacekeeping is a matter of considerable anxiety to us all. Naturally, our ability to persuade the members of another legislature to change their minds is limited, but we shall try to find ways of expressing our anxiety about the approach to which the hon. and learned Gentleman refers.
Mr. Lester: The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs conducted a serious study of the future of the United Nations, and as we travel around the world we find that the Canadians, Americans and Australians--and other countries and their Parliaments--have done the same. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider setting up a conference--something short of a parliamentary assembly--enabling parliamentarians who produce serious reports about the future of the United Nations to meet and discover what common ground can be used to ensure the survival and better use of the United Nations in the next 50 years?
Mr. Hogg: I am not sure that I want to promote a large number of additional conferences, but my hon. Friend--and the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes)--made an important point in stressing the need to reinforce the basic propositions that the United Nations contributes to peace and stability in the world, that it will do so increasingly, and that the Security Council is working constructively and as it was intended to do for the first time since its foundation.
Mr. Cousins: I am sure that the whole House is thinking today of the Pakistani troops being withdrawn from Somalia. I echo what the Minister has said about peacekeeping, but will he acknowledge that there is now a real crisis in UN peacekeeping in Somalia, Angola, Burundi and Yugoslavia, with costs and material requirements rising five and sevenfold?
Column 1034Will the Minister assure us that--Prime Minister to President--the House's view will be made clear that the dangerous right-wing UNO-sceptics in the American Congress who are imposing this limit on peacekeeping provision must not be allowed to prevail?
Mr. Hogg: As I have said, I consider the cap to be extremely unwelcome. I also believe that the United Nations has a major contribution to make to world peace and tranquility through peacekeeping, among other policy measures.
I do not believe that there is a crisis in peacekeeping of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. I see a fundamental difficulty, however, which I think will remain a difficulty for as far ahead as we can see. I refer to the unwillingness of member states--with which I have some sympathy--to put national troops into the front line when the nation in question has no direct interest in what is going on in the country experiencing civil strife. That is an inevitable fact of life of which account must be taken.
Mr. Fabricant: May I suggest that, instead of travelling 5,000 miles to New York to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, my right hon. and learned Friend should travel just 400 yards? Is he aware that the UN's first meeting was held in the Methodist central hall right here in London?
9. Ms Church: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans his Department is making in preparation for the world summit on social development in Copenhagen in March; and if he will make a statement.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tony Baldry): With colleagues from other Departments, we have attended the four preparatory meetings held in New York over the past year.
The Government are committed to achieving a successful summit. Our principal priority is to improve the focus of the international debate about the issues of development.
Ms Church: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept, however, that a number of charities--including Oxfam--believe that the Government are not taking the summit seriously enough? In view of the Rowntree report on the growing inequality in Britain, should the Government not use the summit to address the inequalities in this country as well as others?
Mr. Baldry: The hon. Lady has made two bad points. First, in answer to her point about Oxfam, we have a substantial aid budget--some £2.2 billion--which we put to very good use throughout the world. Poverty is also a bad point for the hon. Lady to raise as average incomes in the United Kingdom have risen by more than a third since we came to office. Average incomes are up for all family types. The less well-off have enjoyed a rise in the
Column 1035possession of consumer durables, and vulnerable groups have been much better protected. The hon. Lady will have to find much better points.
Mr. John Marshall: When my hon. Friend goes to the summit, will he remind it that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, that minimum wage legislation destroys jobs and that youth unemployment in this country is much lower than in Spain, which has a minimum wage?
Mr. Baldry: My hon. Friend makes extremely good points. There has been much misinformation about the nature of the summit and some mischief making in seeking to confuse its purposes with those of the EU social chapter. They have nothing whatever to do with each other. The summit is about improving development throughout the world.
Mr. Robin Cook: Is the Minister aware that the social summit will be attended by the Heads of Government of all the G7 countries except America, which is sending its Vice-President, and by the Heads of Government from all of Europe from Poland to Portugal except Greece, which is sending three Cabinet Ministers? Why are the British Government not sending the Prime Minister or even one Cabinet Minister? Does that not demonstrate the utter indifference of the Conservative party to fighting poverty at home or abroad?
Mr. Dunnachie: Will the Foreign Secretary state whether the Government's policy is to veto proposals which would significantly change the British Commonwealth's relationship with the European Union? Is it their policy to veto proposals which would make any change in that relationship?
Mr. Hurd: I think that on the whole British Commonwealth countries have benefited from the links between this country and the rest of Europe. If the hon. Gentleman has specific points in mind, no doubt he will let me know.
Column 1036about which I believe that the French presidency is enthusiastic? Will he raise that subject at forthcoming meetings if there is time?
Mr. Hurd: We must try to make some progress on this. The difficulty is that it is not for Governments to decide. It is essentially for national Parliaments to decide how and whether they wish to come together to ensure that they play a democratic part together in monitoring what happens in Europe. The House has no difficulty in chivvying and making life difficult for Ministers when it feels the urge. I think that it is generally felt that national Parliaments as a whole should exert a greater influence over what goes on.
Mr. Gapes: Will the Foreign Secretary impress on the French Government his strong commitment, unlike some of his colleagues, to continuing integration in Europe? Will he emphasise that this country will soon have a change of Government which will mean that integration will continue at a faster pace?
Mr. Hurd: I do not know--and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman knows--what is meant by "continuing integration". We believe, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will shortly expound authoritatively, in a Europe of nations working more effectively together than they have ever done in history. I doubt whether we shall get similar light from the Opposition Benches.
Mr. Elletson: Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to discuss with the French Foreign Minister the French Government's decision to expel five American citizens from France on the ground that they were spying for the Central Intelligence Agency? What lessons does that teach us about the prospects for a common European security policy?
Mr. Robin Cook: While the Foreign Secretary was considering the future of the European Union, did he have time to see the appeal from the hon. Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner) to the Whipless Conservatives, urging them to acknowledge the gains they have made on Government policy towards the European Union and to rejoin the fold? In order that those rebels and the whole House may be clear what policy gains they have achieved from the Government, could the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he thinks they are?
Mr. Hurd: The hon. Gentleman is almost as bad as his hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), who collapsed so singularly when she asked a question earlier in our proceedings. The exchanges between my hon. Friends are fascinating, but not matters that I would dream of discussing with the French Foreign Minister.
Mr. Cash: Does my right hon. Friend accept that with the first round of the French presidential elections coming up on 23 April, there is a great deal to be said for our Government having a clear and decisive policy on the single currency, so that when the French realise that the British are not going to accept a single currency, the French electorate, as compared with the French elite, can
Column 1037respond accordingly? We would then have a real opportunity to renegotiate that hopeless failure, the Maastricht treaty.
Mr. Hurd: I know that my hon. Friend has close contacts with some aspects of French political life, but his comments are astray. I had a fascinating conversation with Mr. Pasqua this morning and he confirmed that he does not think that European issues will be dominant in the French presidential election.