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House of Commons

Tuesday 12 March 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 19 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): What discussions he has had with the Falkland Islands Government concerning a multilateral treaty for illex fishery on the high seas. [39564]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Denis MacShane): We discussed a possible multilateral high seas agreement at the November South Atlantic fisheries commission meeting in Argentina, in which the Falkland Islands Government's director of fisheries played a key role as a member of the UK delegation.

Mr. Bacon: It gives me great pleasure to ask the Minister a question about squid, but before I do so, I should declare that I returned recently from the Falkland Islands, which I visited at the invitation of the Falkland Islands Government. I have registered this in the normal way and been assured by the Registrar of Members' Interests that my question is not in breach of the advocacy rule.

Is the Minister aware that satellite photographs show fishing boats on the high seas emitting more light than the city of Buenos Aires because there are so many of them? Will he ensure, in the spirit of what the Secretary of State for Defence said about the Falkland Islands yesterday, that there is wider co-operation between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, especially in view of the fact that the European Union negotiations have not proceeded well in the last three years? Will he also ensure that this subject is high on the agenda at the meeting of the South Atlantic fisheries commission next week, and that it stays on the agenda because it is in the interest of both countries and

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will do more to promote the economic development of the Falkland Islands than any other issue, according to legislative councillors I have met there?

Mr. MacShane: I thank the hon. Gentleman and his two colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), who went to the Falkland Islands recently and expressed the continuing care of the House, the Government and the British people for the safe prosperity and future of the islands. My answer to the hon. Gentleman is simply yes, this is an important issue and it will be discussed next week.


2. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): If he will make a statement on the conduct of the Zimbabwean elections. [39565]

9. Barbara Follett (Stevenage): What recent discussions he has had with the countries of southern Africa about securing a solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe. [39572]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): Counting in the election is under way today. As the House is well aware, there has been every sign of ZANU-PF-backed violence and intimidation, right up to the close of polling, as well as many reports of irregularities, including a shortage of polling booths in urban areas, and harassment of opposition election agents in rural areas. We will make a final judgment when the outcome of the election is declared and the international observers have reported. I will, of course, keep the House informed. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in his statement last Wednesday, Zimbabwe dominated discussions at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia.

Richard Ottaway: Murder, violence, intimidation, gerrymandering, corruption, arson—these are the lengths to which Mr. Mugabe has gone to thwart the democratic process in Zimbabwe. Leaving aside the impotence of the Commonwealth, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Mr. Mugabe has no legitimate right to be head of state in Zimbabwe, and will he confirm that this Government will not recognise him as such?

Mr. Straw: The descriptions that the hon. Gentleman has uttered are entirely accurate. This is a terrible period not only for Zimbabwe but for those who hold dear the cause of democracy in Africa and elsewhere. I am not making predictions about the formal outcome of the election, but I promise that I will keep the House informed and, if I can, I will make a statement to the House about the decisions that we shall make. The only reason why that might not immediately be possible would be if such decisions were made at a weekend.

On the issue of recognition, it is states that are recognised, not Governments—a view also taken by the previous, Conservative, Administration. Of course, if it becomes clear, in the event of President Mugabe's being declared the winner, that he has stolen the election—the

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evidence is already pretty strong—that will have enormous implications for the nature of our relationship with Zimbabwe.

Barbara Follett: Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure the early release of the general secretary of the Movement for Democratic Change, Welshman Ncube, who was arrested yesterday? His arrest typifies the appallingly undemocratic way in which the elections are being conducted.

Mr. Straw: The answer to my hon. Friend is yes. I have been in touch with Brian Donnelly, the British high commissioner in Zimbabwe, about this matter as well as many others. The fact that President Mugabe and ZANU-PF have resorted to methods of violence, intimidation, murder and bringing charges, which many say are trumped up, against members of the MDC, including Welshman Ncube and Morgan Tsvangirai, illustrates President Mugabe's lack of confidence in his ability to win a free and fair election.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): May I, from this side of the House, warmly congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway)? Whatever the outcome of the election, I remain optimistic that the presidential candidate from the Movement for Democratic Change can and should be elected. Is it not devastating that the objectives and criteria of the Harare declaration of 1991 have been busted open and flagrantly abused by the current president of that country? We want a change, so that the wonderful people of Zimbabwe can share in the genuine growth and prosperity that they warmly deserve.

Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for his remarks. I hope that the issue of democracy in Zimbabwe will not be not subject to partisan exchanges across the Floor. Everyone should be united on the need for democracy and for all sides in this country to support the forces of democracy. As for the future, my long experience of elections is that they are often difficult to predict, even more so when there has been such intimidation and so many irregularities. The immediate future for the people of Zimbabwe may be dark, but I have faith that they will be able to come through that, and that in the end democracy and right will triumph.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the stand that he took on suspension at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Can he confirm that steps will be taken by the institution of the Commonwealth following the election result? Does not the Commonwealth have to grapple with the issue of suspension in the long term? In the future, other countries will deserve to be suspended, just as Zimbabwe deserves to be suspended now.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear last Wednesday that we regretted the decision—or lack of decision—of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Australia last week not to move immediately to suspend the Mugabe Government from the

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Commonwealth, just as I greatly regretted the failure of the Commonwealth Ministers action group to do so when it met on 31 January.

At Coolum, it was agreed that a troika of the three Heads of Government should be established to determine whether Zimbabwe should be suspended following the outcome of the election and the report of the Commonwealth observers. What decisions they make remains to be seen, but what has become clear over the past year is that the existing arrangements for what amounts to disciplinary action by the Commonwealth need to be changed to take account of regimes, like the Mugabe regime, that may have been democratically elected but have rapidly resorted to undemocratic practices. I am pleased to say that at least one good thing happened at Coolum, which was that the decision was taken to ensure that there is such a disciplinary process in future.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): At the last Labour party conference, the Prime Minister said that there would be no tolerance of the activities of Mr. Mugabe's henchmen. I do not want to anticipate the statement that the Foreign Secretary proposes to make in the next few days, but can he tell the House exactly how that policy of no tolerance is to be put into effect?

Mr. Straw: I can tell the House what has already happened. On 18 February, I managed to secure the unanimous agreement of all 15 member states of the European Union for sanctions that are targeted at individuals in ZANU-PF, including a ban on military sales, and not at the people of Zimbabwe. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the United States has taken similar measures, although they are not quite as comprehensive. If the worst happens in Zimbabwe and the election is stolen by President Mugabe, we will be in close touch with our European Union, Commonwealth and American allies about what further action can be taken.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)—[Hon. Members: "Macclesfield."] I am sorry. How could I confuse my two hon. Friends? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) for rightly reminding us of the 1991 Commonwealth declaration, which ironically was signed in Harare. A quotation from that declaration was included in the booklet produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday to celebrate Commonwealth day. It is worth recalling the words:

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Harare declaration rings tragically hollow in Zimbabwe today? Has not the Mugabe regime ridden roughshod over the principles of democracy, making a total mockery of that declaration? Has not the barbarous and brutal conduct of the election—both before and during it—been outrageous, and on any fair test unacceptable? Why will the Foreign

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Secretary not make it clear today that if Mugabe is proclaimed the winner, he will reject the result and act accordingly?

Mr. Straw: Is Zimbabwe—is the regime of President Mugabe—in breach of the Harare declaration? Yes, manifestly so: there is not the slightest doubt about that. At least I got the Commonwealth to recognise that in the Commonwealth ministerial action group, both before Christmas and on 31 January. It is not just me saying this; there is now the clearest possible recognition of the breach.

As for what action we should take, I think it wise to await the outcome of the election. Counting is taking place this afternoon. I promise to keep the House informed and, if I am physically able, to make a statement to the House immediately. Let us make decisions when we know the full facts.

Mr. Ancram: The right hon. Gentleman obviously has more faith in the Mugabe-endorsed election observers than I have.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Commonwealth disgraced itself at last week's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting? Does he agree that if Mugabe claimed victory and the Commonwealth failed to disown the result and suspend Zimbabwe, it would be a travesty of everything that the Commonwealth stands for? It would be a failure not so much of the Commonwealth as of its collective leadership.

After so much dithering, which has led to so much suffering for the people of Zimbabwe, will the right hon. Gentleman now grasp the nettle and give the lead that is necessary for the building of an international coalition to restore genuine democracy in that sad country?

Mr. Straw: The gentlest thing I can say to the right hon. Gentleman about his suggestion that I have faith in Commonwealth observers is that it is an error rather like confusing South Staffordshire with Macclesfield. In fact I did not mention observers, or whether I have any faith in them. Whether the House has faith in them will depend on the quality of their report, in the light of palpable evidence—seen and read by all of us—of the irregularities that have been going on under the nose of the international community, as well as their own noses.

There are three principal sets of international observers in Zimbabwe, from the Commonwealth, the Southern African Development Community and South Africa itself. What reports they produce remain to be seen, but of course those reports will be scrutinised very carefully, and the credibility of those organisations and individuals will be as much at stake as the issue of the integrity of the election.

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