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10 Jan 1996 : Column 189

Oral Answers to Questions


Human Rights

1. Dr. Wright: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to recommend derogations from any of the United Kingdom's international human rights commitments. [6838]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Sir Nicholas Bonsor): I apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary who, as the House will know, is in the far east.

We have no current plans for derogations beyond those already in force for the European convention on human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights.

Dr. Wright: I am grateful to the Minister. Why have the Government felt it necessary to start launching attacks on the European convention on human rights, and on the European Court of Human Rights simply because they do not like some of its recent judgments? If the Government take that approach to their human rights obligations, how can they go to China and instruct the Chinese in the importance of human rights, and how can they encourage central eastern European countries to join the Council of Europe? Instead of attacking the convention, would not it be better to show virtue and incorporate it into our law?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I found the speech that the hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to make very illuminating. Can I take it that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the court's judgment on the Gibraltar affair was correct? Conservative Members believe that it was a disgraceful judgment, and we deeply resent it. However, the European convention on human rights is a different issue. The Government support the European convention, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. We believe that it is important, and we have not attacked it. We intend to continue to support the convention fully and, indeed, we have just signed up to do so for the next five years.

Mr. Galloway: How can the Minister expect the House to take him seriously when he talks about Britain's human rights commitments when, in every country in the world, there is editorial discussion today about the act of shameful obeisance to the Saudi royal dictatorship in Riyadh of which the Government are guilty? Does not the leaked Vickers memorandum demonstrate that the British security services, British Ministers and British gun salesmen have been involved in a conspiracy against human rights in the case of Professor Muhammad al-Masari?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I wondered when the hon. Gentleman was going to get to the point of his question. I believe that the majority of the British people would fully support the action that the Government have taken in the case of Dr. al-Masari. He came here using false papers, under false pretences, and he has used our hospitality to try to pull down a friendly regime. If the Saudi regime were to fall, and instability were to occur in

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the middle east, that would not be in the interests of the United Kingdom and the free west. So the hon. Gentleman's question is entirely misplaced.

Mr. Trimble: I am glad to hear the Minister say that the Government support the European convention on human rights. Does the Minister realise that all the major constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland have supported the incorporation of the European convention into domestic law? Does he also realise that, during the recent inter-party talks process, the Northern Ireland Office appeared to support incorporation at one stage?

In my party, we share the Minister's concern over recent decisions of the European Court, especially on the Gibraltar matter. That decision was falsely represented as a ruling that the actions of the SAS were a breach of the convention, which they were not--there was an adverse finding on one minor aspect of that controversial case. Has any thought been given in the Council of Europe to a way in which individual decisions and controversial issues--no court is perfect and there are good reasons to believe that the European Court erred on that point--can be considered further?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I note what the hon. Gentleman says in regard to the convention on human rights and his wish to incorporate it into domestic law. The Government do not wish to fetter the right of the House in that manner but, as I said, we fully support the convention on human rights and all that flows from it.

In regard to the hon. Gentleman's other points, it is extremely important that what happens in Northern Ireland is fully within the scope of the convention on human rights. The Government will ensure that it is.


2. Mr. Etherington: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about Britain's relations with Russia. [6839]

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: We enjoy a close and co-operative partnership with Russia.

Mr. Etherington: Will the Minister assure the House, in view of the escalating danger in Chechnya, which has been worsened by the hostage crisis this week, that the Government will use every endeavour to urge restraint on both sides in the dispute to try to bring about a peaceful settlement? Will he state what is being done in terms of European security to try to ensure that the situation does not escalate further? Will he guarantee to the House that regardless of commercial considerations, human rights will be paramount?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will do everything that they can to help to bring the Chechen problem to a peaceful solution. It is important that that should be so. There was a debate on Russia in the House at 1 pm and if the hon. Gentleman had attended it, he would have heard that point expounded in greater detail. I assure him that it is extremely important that human rights remain paramount. The Government will do everything they can to ensure that that is the case.

Mr. Elletson: What effect has the war in Chechnya had on Britain's relations with Russia? Does my hon. Friend agree that while Russia's brutal campaign in Chechnya

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continues, it would be wrong--indeed, it would be nothing short of appeasement--to reward its leaders and its Government with membership of the Council of Europe?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: My hon. Friend was present in the debate earlier. He and other hon. Members may like to refresh their memories from Hansard. The Chechnya problem is terrible. The behaviour of the Russian forces was bad and the behaviour of some of the rebels has also been bad. We have condemned both sides in the war equally. We wish the matter to be brought to a peaceful solution as soon as possible.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: Does the Minister agree that although Russia, by reason of its history, its size and its influence, should enjoy special status, United Kingdom policy should be based on the legitimate expectation that the programme of economic and political reform will be continued? Will the Government support that programme rather than any named individual?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Government will do everything that they can to support the programme of reform.

Council of Ministers

3. Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent representations he has received in favour of an extension of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers. [6840]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis): Several other member states have told us that they favour more majority voting in the Council of Ministers.

Mr. Whittingdale: Will my hon. Friend give an absolute assurance that a Conservative Government will not agree to any extension of qualified majority voting? Will he contrast that with the policy of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats which would lead to the abandonment of the British veto and a further erosion of the sovereignty of this Parliament?

Mr. Davis: I can give a categorical assurance. We have made it clear that we oppose a further extension of qualified majority voting. We have heard the arguments of those who wish to see an erosion of the national veto, including those from the Opposition. We are not persuaded. We also note that their various arguments conceal many differences of view about the areas in which they wish to abandon unanimity. We can be clear on this: we will not give up our veto.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones: Does the Minister recognise that the only advantage, in many cases, of retaining qualified majority voting arises when the United Kingdom finds itself in a minority? In those cases when it is necessary to make alliances, and when there is a majority opinion supporting very great changes on matters such as the transport of animals, it is important to make alliances. Are not there cases in which majority voting would assist the United Kingdom rather than the contrary?

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Mr. Davis: When we came to our decision on that policy, we made a careful assessment and undertook the type of analysis that the hon. Gentleman has presented, of occasions when it is to our advantage to have majority voting and when it is not to our advantage. I made the comment that I just made, on the basis of that assessment.

Mr. Wilkinson: While I welcome my hon. Friend's comments as far as they go, may I say to him that some aspects of qualified majority voting are fundamentally flawed and perverse? For example, on fishing policy, landlocked nations have a say on fishing in what should be our waters. Will my hon. Friend give his hon. Friends an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will seek to roll back that insidious process?

Mr. Davis: What I can assure my hon. Friend is that we understand only too well the worries about fishing policy and some of its inefficiencies. It does not necessarily help us to have unanimity in that aspect of policy. There are policy areas in which it can work the other way against us. However, we are very clear in our minds that that is a matter that needs examining.

Ms Quin: Given that the Government had previously favoured a substantial increase in majority voting, especially at the time of the Single European Act but also at the time of the Maastricht treaty, will the Minister confirm that a change in policy has taken place, and that he is saying that now there are absolutely no circumstances in which the Government would envisage further majority voting, even if that meant blocking or jeopardising the enlargement of the European Union, which we all want?

Mr. Davis: The hon. Lady obviously was not listening to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones). I said clearly that we made that judgment on the basis of what was in the British national interest. That is a judgment that assesses every sector of European policy and decides whether it is right to have what we have now. We decided that we do not want majority voting to be progressed any further. The hon. Lady's suggestion that that will somehow block the enlargement process appears to me completely misconceived.

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