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Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Although we have had some encouraging interim reports, the nature of the research into BSE and CJD means that it will take a long time to conclude and to come up with the definitive answer that I am sure that my hon. Friend and I would like. It is not a matter of saying that the Government could find some extra money to carry out a six-month experiment and we would then have the answer. That is not the nature of the type of research conducted. I hope that the hon. Member for Wakefield will accept that, because I am sure he will appreciate that if we could have come up with an earlier answer than that given so far, we would certainly have made sure that that was possible. Where possible, we encourage research that

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is done in the private sector as well and put it in the public domain. Where possible, we also publish interim results and, although they are not definitive, they help to identify a trend and the thrust of research. That is helpful to us all.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House do not consider the subject a matter for party political debate. It is a grave matter, which the Government take seriously. We have at all times relied on independent scientific advice and have made it public. In particular, I hope the House will be interested to know that the most recent progress report on research was put in the public domain just before Christmas. I would like to tell the House that the chairman and deputy chairman of the independent SEAC committee have recently written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. The letter says:


I am disappointed that that clear statement of confidence has not been taken up by the media as vociferously as that which they said before, when they were trying to put the other side of the argument. I have arranged for a copy of the letter to be lodged in the Library today, and I hope that hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wakefield, will avail themselves of the opportunity to read it and that it will reassure them.

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Council of Europe (Russian Accession)

1 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss Russia's application to join the European democratic community that is the Council of Europe. As the House may know, I am one of the three rapporteurs whose responsibility it is to recommend an opinion for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to offer to our Committee of Ministers, which will be debated at our next session in Strasbourg in two weeks' time.

It must be clear that, whatever our recommendation, it will have far-reaching consequences for both Russia and Europe. Should we decide to invite Russia to join, for which it has been pressing since 1992, we know that that will be a political judgment, made in the clear realisation that Russia has not yet reached our standards of membership, but that it is more likely to achieve those standards as a full member than if we were to keep it out in the cold.

Should we decide that we cannot compromise our standards to such an extent in the case of the largest country in Europe, we risk unknown consequences for Russia, Europe and the rest of the world. That dilemma was discussed in a debate on the same subject in another place just over a year ago by my noble Friend Lord Finsberg, in his capacity as leader of the British delegation to the Council of Europe--and I use this opportunity to record what an excellent leader he is.

At the risk of boring the House, before enlarging on my case for Russian accession now, I shall place on the record my personal experience, which has led me to the debate today. As a hitch-hiking student in the 1960s, I visited Leningrad and saw at first hand how Russian people were treated under the Soviet system, and how their human rights and fundamental freedoms were denied.

I was especially appalled by the way in which Christians and Jews were treated, and I was determined to do something about it--although, when I was a student, there were few opportunities for that, except by sharing my experiences with any audience that would listen.

Shortly after my election to the House in 1977, two things happened. First, I became involved in a human rights organisation called Christian Solidarity International, which campaigns on behalf of those who are persecuted for being Christian. It had recently been established in Switzerland to support the dissident Russian baptist pastor Georgei Vins. CSI sent me on several missions behind the iron curtain to meet brave campaigners for human rights, such as Father Gleb Yakunin and others in the Moscow Committee for the Defence of Believers Rights, many of whom were subsequently sent to the gulag.

Those visits, on which I can now look back with some satisfaction, were pretty hairy at the time--perhaps it is just as well that it was only recently that I learned that my KGB file described me as working at various times for MI5, the CIA and Mossad.

The second occurrence was that Baroness Thatcher appointed me to the British delegation to the Council of Europe, which provided me with an appropriate platform, in addition to the House, from which to publicise the

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human rights situation that I had seen at first hand in the Soviet Union and its European allies. I did so, in five reports over 10 years, with recommendations for member states to pursue in the Helsinki process, now the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

I was especially delighted that the Vienna concluding document of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe--as it then was--dated 19 January 1989, which only Ceausescu's Romania refused to sign, defined freedom of religion according to the CSI definition that I had recommended.

It was on the strength of those reports that I was appointed the rapporteur on Russia, following its application for membership. Russia had inherited the special guest status granted to the Soviet Union in response to President Gorbachev's commitment to reform, and that allowed a Russian parliamentary delegation to come to Strasbourg.

A year ago, it became clear that Russia under President Yeltsin had made considerable progress towards our standards of democracy and human rights. There is freedom of religion, of expression, of assembly and of association, and freedom for the media. Russia is also developing a multi-party system. We had found its first elections to the new bicameral Parliament that replaced the Congress of People's Deputies to be free and fair, but with certain shortcomings that we expected to be improved in the elections that were due last month. Indeed they were, as I saw for myself.

Russia's new constitution, clearly endorsed by referendum, established a presidential and parliamentary system similar to those of France and of the United States--although it soon became clear that the essential checks and balances between the presidency and Parliament would take time and experience to evolve.

Russia was also fast establishing a free market economy--too fast, perhaps one can say with hindsight, without adequate safety nets for the most vulnerable, and without an effective rule of law in place to deal with organised crime and with the former party bosses who knew how to milk and launder the proceeds of privatisation. The reform parties certainly paid a heavy price for that at the elections last month.

Russia still had a long way to go to improve its rule of law and its legal order, its criminal and civil codes, and especially the conditions in its prisons and detention centres, as the independent "Eminent Lawyers"-- members of the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights--found in their damning report of October 1994. Nevertheless, there were grounds for anticipating that Russia might qualify for accession last year--perhaps, as some suggested, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of victory in Europe.

However, those expectations were dashed by Russia's conduct in Chechnya a year ago. The excessive brutality used, and the denial of basic human rights so effectively exposed by Sergey Kovalev, the former dissident and President Yeltsin's human rights commissioner, were in our view no hallmarks of a country preparing to join the Council of Europe. Consequently, we suspended dealing with Russia's application, while continuing to advise and assist in the search for an acceptable alternative political and peaceful solution to the problem in Chechnya.

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After many meetings with the Russians, as well as with Dudayev's representatives in Grozny, the three rapporteurs felt able to recommend that we resume dealing with the Russian application, and the Assembly endorsed that recommendation last September. Following last month's elections to the state Duma, the Political Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe accepted the unanimous opinion of the rapporteurs that the Assembly should now recommend Russian accession.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to a recent press report, written by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson), on his recent experiences in Chechnya? As I read that report, far from being an endorsement of Russia's candidature for the Council of Europe, it constitutes a jolly good reason why we should now reconsider that application very seriously.


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