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9 May 2007 : Column 94WH—continued

We need to engage more directly with Moscow. That is the key point that I want to get across in this debate. When I speak to my friends in the Russian Foreign
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Ministry, they tell me that they get hardly any visits by British Ministers. That may or may not be true, but they also tell me that French and German Ministers are pounding on their doors all the time. Russia gets a huge number of delegations led by French and German Foreign Ministers, and also cultural and trade visits. My friends say to me, “We look to Great Britain as potentially a key strategic ally, yet you seem to ignore us. There are far fewer visits by your Ministers than there are by French and German Ministers, who seem to take us more seriously.”

I would like more visits not just by Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but by Ministers from the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry, particularly the Minister for Trade. He should be leading far more delegations of British companies to Russia to look for business and start to make contacts with Russian companies.

One project that I am particularly interested in is the Sakhalin oil project off the far east coast of Russia. British Petroleum and Shell, among other British companies, are involved in one of the largest oil exploration programmes to date—there could be a huge oil find in Sakhalin—but I do not know how much help they are getting from Ministers. I would be interested to hear what the Government are doing to help BP fight its corner in Russia. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has had high-level meetings with BP. The Russians are tough negotiators, and I know that BP—

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): And Shell, which is also involved at Sakhalin.

Daniel Kawczynski: I know that BP has interests there, and Shell as well. More must be done for British oil companies. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the levels of engagement of British Ministers in helping British oil companies in their tough negotiations with the Russian Government. The Russian Government recently put a lot of pressure on our oil companies over certain environmental issues at Sakhalin, which they used as a bargaining weapon for concessions, so I hope that our Government are helping companies with negotiations. Of course, there are huge new opportunities in mining, gas and minerals, as well as in the oil sector.

I remember the tremendous good will that this country received when our specialists went out to salvage the Kursk submarine. British companies were involved in trying to free the people who were trapped in that submarine, and in some of the operations after the disaster. Tremendous good will was expressed to us by the Russian authorities. I hope that we can continue to work with the Russians to show how interested we are in their country. We need to make far more ministerial visits than we are currently making, and bring Russia not into our sphere of influence but certainly into our camp, as the country will become increasingly important in the coming years, particularly given the changes of political influence in China, Japan and the far east. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government are doing in respect of this very important relationship.

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11.14 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate. I would like to emphasise, as he has already done, why it is important for the UK to work with Russia, and why we do so. We should not lose sight of the fact that Russia is an important player in enabling us to achieve our international objectives. I shall add to the examples that the hon. Gentleman rightly set out.

Russia remains a key player and an important partner in the United Nations Security Council. It is a major energy supplier to Europe. We need Russian assistance to tackle climate change—indeed, strong leadership from Russia will be required to do so—and Russia offers real potential as an important market for UK trade. Those are just a few of the reasons why we should engage with Russia to promote international security, stability, and prosperity.

We work with Russia in the UN to address challenges to international peace and security. We discuss issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme, Kosovo and the middle east peace process. We have worked with Russia through the G8 to address, among other things, the challenges of climate and energy security, international development and avian flu. We are working with allies through the NATO-Russia Council to discuss plans for a ballistic missile defence system in Europe, and we are working with our European Union partners towards a new framework for EU-Russia relations. Negotiating a successor to the current partnership and co-operation agreement will give us a mechanism for discussing and resolving any disagreements on issues of key interest to the UK, including trade, energy and human rights.

In working to achieve the Government’s international priorities, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office spends considerable time, effort and resources engaging with Russia. Russia’s chairmanship of the G8 resulted in a particularly high level of contact in 2006, with 15 ministerial visits to that country. I visited last autumn, and I hosted Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov for talks in London in March this year.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry visited Russia in February with a high-level business delegation, and Ministers with responsibility for international trade and for energy have visited in the past two years. Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s assertions, the truth is that there has been high-level and high-quality engagement with Russia at ministerial level in recent times.

It is important to emphasise that engagement with Russia does not always mean agreement with Russia. Its status as a global player means that it must abide by international commitments and operate from the same international rulebook. We want Russia to be strongly committed to the rule of law, and to provide a just home for its citizens as well as a predictable partner for Governments and businesses to deal with. If we believe that Russia is falling short of the international standards to which it has subscribed, we will say so. Let me give some examples of that.

On energy security, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, the British Government were at the
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forefront of efforts in the G8 that led to the St. Petersburg principles on energy security that were agreed in July 2006 under Russia’s G8 presidency. The principles of transparency, predictability and stability of global energy markets and supply should underpin global energy markets.

On numerous occasions since the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, we have reminded Russia of the important principles to which it signed up. We have done so not least in the context of seeking protection of British investors’ interests in the oil and gas sectors in Russia. We have repeatedly underlined to the Russian Government the importance of ensuring an operating climate that encourages investors to invest for the long term in that country, which in itself will help Russia to meet global energy security needs. I conveyed that message to all the Russian interlocutors whom I met last autumn, and I continue to do so.

On the specific agreements and contracts affecting British companies, it is important that the companies themselves should make decisions as to the right way forward. They have received strong and consistent support from the British Government, but, ultimately, it is for them to make judgments as to the best way to secure their own arrangements with and in Russia.

Furthermore, as we have stated on many occasions, the Government welcome investment in the UK by companies and individuals from Russia or, indeed, anywhere else who are transparent in their business, and who are prepared to operate in markets governed by competitive, liberal market principles.

The Government believe that respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law promotes stability and economic development. That is as applicable to Russia as to any other country. As such, where we have concerns about Russia’s human rights record, we will raise them. We do that through formal consultation mechanisms, such as the European Union and the Council of Europe, as well as bilaterally. For example, EU-Russia human rights consultations raised such issues only last week and in the Council of Europe we continue to work with Russia and others to ensure that all member states, including Russia, uphold their commitment as signatories to the European convention on human rights.

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The hon. Gentleman referred to Russia’s relations with its near neighbours and we believe that it is in our and Russia’s interests to have stable and prosperous countries on Russia’s borders. We regularly discuss the common neighbourhood with Russia and raise issues of concern, such as Russia’s embargo on Georgia and the economic restrictions placed on Georgians living in Russia. Equally, we believe that Russia must treat our EU partners fairly and with respect. I mention that in the context of recent difficulties in relation to Estonia.

Another issue on which we do not see eye to eye with Russia is its attitude to the asylum or refugee status of individuals in the UK, and their continued presence here. Despite our continuing efforts to explain the nature of judicial independence in this country, the Russian Administration have not fully accepted that such questions are matters of UK law, not of politics or diplomacy.

Nevertheless, having set out the areas of critical concern, we should not lose sight of the positive aspects of the relationship between the UK and Russia. On trade, during the first three quarters of 2006, the UK was the largest foreign investor in Russia and accounted for about 18 per cent. of Russia’s total foreign investment. Our trading relationship reached an all-time high in 2005 when annual exports were nearly £3 billion. In terms of people-to-people contact, the number of Russians visiting the UK has risen by 20 per cent. a year over recent years. The number of Russians who have visited the UK now exceeds 170,000.

The Government regard Russia as an important international partner and, as such, we expect Russia to meet its international commitments. As I have said, relations with Russia are underpinned by active, and, where necessary, critical engagement. When we disagree with Russia we say so, and where obstacles and disagreements exist, our aim will continue to be to seek to resolve them through a transparent, open and honest dialogue. It is a balanced approach that is aligned to British interests and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can support it.

11.22 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Committee of Ministers and Council of Europe

2.30 pm

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I would like to thank colleagues from all political parties who are here this afternoon. One of the key features of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe is that, although inevitably we have political differences—it is right and proper that those should be reflected in the delegation—there is a common sense of purpose. The Council of Europe makes sense and does valuable work. I am grateful, therefore, to those who have found the time to be here today.

Let us consider the role of the Council of Europe. In this country, although considered important, it is little known. Last year, it was of momentary interest to the media during the debate on forced rendition. At that point, it got some attention in the press. More recently, it was probably of slight media interest when Britain signed up to the convention on action against trafficking in human beings. However, beyond that, I expect that most members of the public are largely unaware of the activities of the Council of Europe as a whole, the Committee of Ministers, the European Court of Human Rights, or indeed the Assembly.

That is in almost absolute contrast to the way in which the Council of Europe is seen in other parts of Europe, where its role and importance are considered significant to developing political cultures, and where it can bring pressure to bear and push for improvements in acceptable standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. That is very important. One of the central points that I want to make is this: I believe honestly that the Council of Europe is very cheap, but very good for diplomacy. It is beneficial to the UK’s national interests. There is much to say on the matter and some of my colleagues will want to make different points.

I accept that there are matters of concern. For example, the relationship between the Council of Europe and the European Union has not yet been resolved properly. It has yet to be put to bed. As I think that the Minister knows, inevitably there is always a debate about whether the budget of the Council of Europe is adequate. However, I know of almost no one who would criticise its generic role. It is almost a commonplace for people to say that the Strasbourg Court is the jewel in the Council of Europe family. With the Court safely established, the rule of the judicial system at least operates from Vladivostok to Galway, and from the Arctic circle to the southern-most parts of the Mediterranean. That represents an important step.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I appreciate that this does not apply to the remit of the Court, but would the hon. Gentleman like to remind the House that the Council has a number of observer members, such as Canada, one of whose senators I met at the last part-session? The Council reaches not only as far as Vladivostok—its footprint nearly joins up across the Bering strait as well.

Tony Lloyd: That is an important point, and one that I shall develop in a few minutes when I talk specifically about that matter. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

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The whole ethos and existence of the Council of Europe is aimed at generating a common culture and set of standards. I shall be quite frank: we are nowhere near that point. Some of our colleagues will be in Armenia this weekend for the elections. I do not mean to single out Armenia for insult, but we know that there are likely to be problems with large-scale electoral fraud. We have concerns about corruption and problems with the rule of law in that society.

The important point is that the Council of Europe and its institutions now provide a benchmark against which to judge countries—be they Armenia, Ireland or, indeed, our own country. It allows for reference to a common standard and an insistence on common respect for things that we take for granted, such as the rule of law and democratic standards.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): May I add to my hon. Friend’s remarks about our association with countries not in the great European area? He will be aware of the work being done by the Council of Europe on environmental issues and of the sterling work done by our friends across the Atlantic, particularly in Mexico and Canada, who heeded the Council’s call to sign the Kyoto protocol and to put pressure on the United States of America. That was very helpful. Would he care to comment on that valuable work?

Tony Lloyd: My hon. Friend draws me on to a matter that I shall touch on in a few moments. On his central point about the role of environmental politics and the changes that have taken place, we know that by definition the EU cannot cover the whole of Europe. Certainly, it can be influential. The Council, however, is the whole of Europe, with the exception of Belarus. It has a mandate and sway over certain issues such as the environment—environmental destruction does not recognise national boundaries. As such, the Council is in a very strong position to exert influence in Europe as well as elsewhere on a broader basis.

Mr. Meale: Does my hon. Friend recall that over the two or three years when people sought to get Russia to sign the Kyoto protocol, it was the Council of Europe that bridged the gap—so much so that when Russia eventually signed, its Government sent their Environment Minister to attend the debate in Strasbourg?

Tony Lloyd: Again, that is an important point and central to what I want to establish today. We in this country will underestimate seriously the value of that institution if we do not recognise that for other countries, even those that still see themselves as relatively powerful global players, such as Russia, the Council is an organisation through which to pursue national interests by working in common with others. That is important. A central foreign policy concern of any British Government is how to deal with Russia and all its complexities. We should value institutions such as the Council of Europe. It can bring Russia together with people from our country and those in the rest of Europe. That makes a material difference to the way in which the Russians operate.

I was going to talk about the contribution made by our colleagues on matters that might not seem that important from the UK’s perspective. It is always worth reflecting on the fact that in my constituency in
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the centre of Manchester—this applies to many similar constituencies—there are permanently-based Kosovans who fled Kosovo at the time of the military action against Serbia. As everyone in the Room knows, the Serbs were attacking the civilian population of Kosovo. People fled their homes because of the level of instability. In this very small world of ours, we must recognise that instability anywhere, particularly in Europe, will have a material impact on our own country.

We have not just a passing intellectual interest, but a dramatic and real interest in ensuring that we do not take stability in western Europe for granted. We ought to encourage it at every level. Britain has a direct interest in encouraging and maintaining it throughout the whole of the European framework. For many countries, membership of the Council of Europe was seen as part of a process leading sometimes to NATO or EU membership. For other countries, membership of the Council of Europe was important in its own right, but at every level the very fact of those countries seeking some respectability and some measure of the progress that they claimed to have made from the totalitarian days of the communist era, for example, is symbolically important and important practically, because it begins the process of changing the culture. I would not claim that the Council of Europe is the only instrument, the only organisation, that is part of that culturisation process, because, frankly, that would be ridiculous, but it is important that the Council of Europe is one of the instruments through which we have managed to achieve that respect for the standards that we want to export and that help Britain by providing the stability that I have talked about.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): We saw that first-hand only at the last part-session, when Montenegro applied to join in its own right, as it is now a new country. It is the 47th country to accede to the Council of Europe and it was not a case of it just walking in because it had been there before as part of another country. It had to be subject to proper observation and had to sign up to the principles of the Council of Europe before we would even consider it joining.

Tony Lloyd: That is absolutely right. We know that Montenegro does not come fully formed and fully committed to all the standards that the Council of Europe maintains, but the situation means that we have benchmarks against which we can measure the position in Montenegro. There will now be a process for some years of monitoring Montenegro, which will allow us to check the degree of progress. Sometimes it is a case of regress as well, because there are certainly countries in the Council of Europe family that have not moved continuously in an acceptable direction. We know that, but it is important that Montenegro chose to make the effort to join because, in doing that, it had to sign up to the basic standards of free and fair elections, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Those are important underpinnings for the population of Montenegro, as they are for every other part of this European family.

I shall refer to a couple of former members of the UK delegation, partly to draw attention to the fact that the work of individual parliamentarians has a material impact on behaviour, or in any case on the level of dialogue that takes place between parliamentarians in this country and those from elsewhere.

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