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8.31 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Last night, I should have attended a service at All Saints parish church in Ilkley in my constituency, at the invitation of the Wharfedale Amnesty International group, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations human rights declaration. I could not attend but, owing to my interest in the people and politics of Kashmir, I looked up a recent Amnesty report entitled "India, a trail of unlawful killings in Jammu and Kashmir". On page 7, it states:

without trial.

The grounds for Shabir Ahmed Shah's various detention orders include calling for strikes, issuing leaflets calling for Kashmir's independence and boycotting India's independence day. These are non-violent activities involving the peaceful expression of his views. He was arrested again just a year ago simply for celebrating the anniversary of the UN human rights declaration. I and many of my Kashmiri constituents would warmly welcome a comment from the Minister on the current situation in Kashmir.

The rest of my chat tonight will be about the reasons why I could not attend the service last night. That was due to difficulties on the railways, yet again. If I do not mention my anxieties about the railways now, I may not be able to do so for some time. I apologise to the House for straying from the subjects on which we should be concentrating, but this is a matter close to my heart and I would like to talk about these difficulties.

Last night, I caught the 5.5 pm train from Leeds to London King's Cross. We ground to a halt between Retford and Newark, and were stuck there for nearly an

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hour. We were initially told that there was an object on the line ahead. Then we were told that there was a power failure in the overhead cabling, which would involve one-way working. The next information was that we would need a pilot from Railtrack. We eventually completed our journey at 10.10 pm, having taken more than five hours to travel from Leeds to King's Cross.

I give the details of my journey, not because it was unusually awful but because members of the travelling public and railway men and women are having to endure these conditions day in, day out. There was thankfully no tragedy; no one was hurt or killed. However, to put my journey into context, I will quote from early-day motion 1189 on railway safety which I, with the support of 67 right hon. and hon. Members, tabled on 28 November. I resubmitted it today. It states:

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although I am enjoying this interesting debate, and I know that one can talk about matters other than defence and foreign affairs, do such matters not have to be related to the Queen's Speech? Is the hon. Lady perhaps relating this story to a royal train journey?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that I was showing the hon. Lady slightly more tolerance than the hon. Gentleman was in hoping that she will refer to the Queen's Speech at some point. However, the choice of topic is entirely hers.

Mrs. Cryer: I checked with Mr. Deputy Speaker and the Clerk before I started this diatribe. As I was saying, the early-day motion

Many of us campaigned vigorously to stop rail privatisation by the previous Government. Commenting on the "Today" programme on 20 October, the Opposition spokesperson said of that legislation:

Unfortunately, we have moved gradually away from bringing the rail network back into some form of public ownership. However, I am delighted that the Queen's Speech mentions that a report by Lord Cullen is due which will look into all forms of transport safety, including railways, air and road traffic.

The Strategic Rail Authority, as stated in the Transport Act 2000, may be capable of sorting out the mess that exists today. I only hope that it does not take too long to improve matters, as there is an enormous adverse impact on too many lives. Businesses in west Yorkshire have achieved so much in the past few years in competing with London firms. Part of this success has derived from their

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ability to be at least as good as City firms, as well as undercutting them because of the lower overheads of living and working away from the south-east hothouse. We are seeing a planned economy working well to spread the rich pickings to areas that the previous Government barely knew existed.

Much of that success has depended on the ability of businesses in the north having the facility to meet clients and potential clients in the capital and return to their base in a day. This is now rarely possible. If the present crisis continues, there could be a long-term price to pay not only in respect of the well-being of northern businesses but in terms of quality of life throughout the country. Men and women frequently have two or three fewer hours a day to spend with their family. Should Ministers believe that I am exaggerating, they should take a ride on one of our overcrowded Northern Spirit trains that ply between my constituency and Leeds along the Airedale and Wharfedale lines. I could spend hours quoting the experiences of my constituents.

Bringing Railtrack back into public ownership would not, in itself, be a panacea for our rail network. Many of the faults lie with the train operating companies, but if the situation does not improve in weeks rather than months--bearing in mind the fact that the Hatfield crash was on 17 October--surely the millions of pounds going from the Treasury to the rail industry should buy back parts of that industry for the taxpayers of the United Kingdom, instead of simply going in subsidies, reduced by profits to shareholders.

8.39 pm

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): I was very interested in the experiences of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) regarding the rail network, but I thought that she was not sufficiently critical of the Government. They are now in their fourth winter and have had a great deal of time to develop new policies for the rail network, if they chose to do so.

I was more interested in the hon. Lady's comments on human rights. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) let the cat out of the bag when he used the once golden phrase "ethical foreign policy". I can understand why the Foreign Secretary gave up using that rhetoric once he realised what a foolish hostage to fortune he had given, but that does not mean that the Government's policy should apparently discard the larger picture.

The House will know that I speak as one of the governors of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy--a most valuable organisation, described in some detail by the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). Against that background, I have several specific questions and hope that the Government can provide answers on a particular foreign affairs issue that is intimately linked to other matters discussed today, and is highly indicative of the Government's overall foreign policy--their current view on affairs in Belarus. That follows directly from the debate of the hour--that on enlargement of the EU.

When I travel, as a governor of the WFD, from one former communist bloc country to another and observe the extraordinary efforts being made to jump through the

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EU's hoops, I wonder how sincere EU Governments are in their stated desire for enlargement. Of course, the applicant countries want to join and will do whatever it takes--even at extraordinary cost to themselves--but that does not mean that they believe everything they are told. They do not believe--and have not done so for years--the ever-shifting date of accession that has been suggested to them. They may not want to do what they are required to do, but the imperative to join the safety of western European organisations is great.

We are told that Nice was all about enlargement. Despite the Foreign Secretary's remarks earlier--about some technical nonsense--if the EU was serious about enlargement, one would have expected the common agricultural policy to have been raised at Nice. Politicians in Poland, for example, will not believe a word of the EU enlargement rhetoric until they see that the CAP is being overhauled.

We can be forgiven for thinking that, despite the proclaimed desire to enlarge the EU, Nice was more about something else: deepening and tightening the existing structures--a process that will make enlargement more difficult. Should that surprise us? It does not surprise me. After all, throughout western Europe, there are Governments made up of centre-left parties that, in the past, were wrong about all the important decisions that brought the cold war to an end. The left are on the wrong track again today.

For me and my hon. Friends, enlargement is in large part unfinished business dating back to the liberation of central and eastern Europe. Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states to join the EU, but now it seems obvious--even to those who never thought it possible or desirable. Many other countries are also well within reach, but further progress will be made only when our Government and their centre-left allies in the EU raise their eyes from the artificial horizon that they have set themselves.

If in the past we had refused the first hurdle, there would be no free Poland. If we refuse the next jump, we condemn millions of people in eastern Europe to a future just as bleak as their past. That brings me to Belarus. With the fall of Milosevic in Belgrade, President Lukashenko in Minsk wears an unenviable mantle as Europe's most despotic and tyrannical leader.

I had the good fortune to be able to raise the subject of Belarus in an Adjournment debate a few months ago. I outlined how Belarus is still a long way behind the countries that border it--visiting Minsk is like going back 10 or 15 years. The atmosphere is one of oppression and fear. Amnesty International recently reported on the gross abuse of human rights that is still widely practised in Belarus. October's so-called parliamentary election was manifestly fixed by the president in the most arbitrary fashion.

In October, the United States Government dismissed the outcome of Lukashenko's elections in Belarus and said that they would continue to recognise the Parliament that the president dissolved four years ago. The State Department made it clear that it regarded the recent elections as neither free nor fair. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has said that the minimum requirement for holding free and fair elections was not met. What is the British Government's view?

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I have with me a detailed report of violations of electoral legislation that took place during the preparations for and the holding of the elections to the Chamber of Representatives. It is a most revealing and shocking document. It seems clear that, even in the terms set by Lukashenko, his election failed to reach the turnout required by his constitution. Even in his own terms, the election has no legitimacy. What is the British Government's view?

In July, I warned the Government that the preparations for the elections fell far short of an acceptable norm on at least four counts. First, Belarus has no fully powered, properly functioning Parliament set within an understood division of power. President Lukashenko rules by decree. Secondly, electoral legislation needs thorough reform. Thirdly, there is still no guaranteed, real and regular access to the state-run electronic media. Fourthly and most important, there has been no effective or visible change in the political atmosphere. In other words, there is no end to political repression.

I remind the House that Amnesty International has detailed information on detentions, disappearances and the forcible breaking up of demonstrations. That still goes on today. About 50 people were detained and beaten during a recent demonstration of youth organisations. In the face of that repression, the democratic forces of Belarus remain remarkably united in their determination to stand up to Lukashenko. His attempts to drive a wedge between them have failed. Together the united democratic opposition is preparing for next year's presidential elections. It intends to support a single candidate and co-ordinate a broad- based campaign. What more can we ask of brave people, inside and outside the political process, trying to bring their nation to a state of freedom that we take for granted in our part of the world?

I have recently visited the British ambassador in Minsk and have nothing but praise for the way in which he and his staff go about their business. However, I must tell the House of a most alarming development in overall British representation in Belarus. If hon. Members visit the British Council's web page and find their way to the Belarus page, they will find this terse statement:

If, at the end of the debate, those on the Treasury Bench directly address only one point that I am making, it should be this: why at this moment of all times has the British Council pulled out of Minsk?

To add insult to injury, the British Council web page goes on to tell its readers that information on various British international, academic, arts, youth, education projects can be found at, and general inquiries on Belarus can be made to, the British Council in Moscow. Does the Foreign Secretary have any idea how that will be viewed by democrats in Minsk? Are we trying to tell them something? Are we trying to tell them that we are falling in with Lukashenko's plan to reunite Belarus to mother Russia?

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who takes a great interest in such matters, raised a further concern during the debate on Belarus that I recently initiated. He told us that he was visiting Krakow in Poland two years ago when the treaty was signed between Lukashenko and the President of the Russian Federation. He said:

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He concluded:

I agree with him; we are doing nothing while the position in Belarus daily grows worse. We are watching Lukashenko selling off his country in the hope of being given the job of Russian governor in Belarus. While we are preparing to welcome Poland into the European Union, we do not seem to be aware of the implications of having Belarus as the new border. Is it the Government's intention to regard Belarus as a buffer state, the internal position of which is of no concern? I can tell the Government that that is not the view taken in Poland or the Baltic states, our soon to be most welcome EU partners.

I want also to refer to the position of the OSCE in Belarus. In recent days, Lukashenko has made it clear that he may soon close the OSCE's office in Minsk. Along with that there has been a dirty propaganda war against the mission and its head, Hans-Georg Wiek. In response to that, the United States State Department has already said it believes that the OSCE needs to be in Belarus. What is the British Government's position on that?

With his threat to the OSCE and so much else in his behaviour, Lukashenko is testing us, and Moscow is watching how we respond. Will we let Lukashenko get away with it again? Britain needs to pay as much attention now to what is going on as a Conservative Government did in similar but broader circumstances in the 1990s.

We cannot shelter behind a cosy belief that Lukashenko's rhetoric is empty and vague. His record tells us that he will match extreme words with extreme action. We need to let him and Moscow be in no doubt where we stand, or we will later have to face the consequences. Having come so far in bringing liberty to central and eastern Europe, we must keep going forward, not start rolling back. We should be adding to our representation in Minsk, not pulling out.

Let me conclude by repeating the two vital questions for the Government that I hope I have raised in my speech. First, what is the Government's view on the current position in Belarus, the recent elections, the recent repression of human rights and on the threat to the OSCE? Secondly, can the Government now offer an explanation of why the British Council has closed in Minsk? The suffering people of Belarus need a voice on the international stage and we should be helping to give it.

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