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25 July 2007 : Column 262WH—continued

25 July 2007 : Column 263WH

The following day, President Putin suggested to the Moscow Times that what he described as a “mini-crisis” would be resolved. Unfortunately, accordingly to reports of a television interview, President Putin yesterday apparently accused Britain of colonial thinking in pursuing the matter. It is to be hoped that relations will eventually normalise, provided that the Russian Government accept that the Litvinenko issue will not simply go away and that it will eventually have to be resolved one way or another.

Another reason for concern in Anglo-Russian relations is the recent announcement by President Putin in mid-July that he would no longer be bound by the conventional armed forces in Europe treaty, which was signed in 1990. The hon. Member for Rhondda raised the matter last week during the Government’s statement. As an ex-Territorial Army infantry officer during the cold war, I once had a very close interest in Russian tanks, and in my present position I still do, albeit for slightly different reasons. The CFE treaty limits the number of heavy conventional weapons between the Atlantic ocean and the Ural mountains, and when it was signed it was generally regarded as a key development in ending the cold war and in Russia’s re-engagement with the west.

As I understand it, Russia has technically suspended the treaty rather than withdrawn from it wholesale, and a practical effect is that it will no longer permit inspections or exchange data on its troop deployments in line with the treaty’s provisions. That is a worrisome development, so will the Minister say what recent representations, if any, Her Majesty’s Government have made to the Russian Government on this issue and what response, if any, they have received? Similarly, will he give us at least a feel of what discussions he has had with our NATO partners and what their response has been?

Despite those differences, it is worth restating that there are many areas where co-operation between Britain and Russia is desirable: trade, the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, drugs, crime, and the Middle East peace process. In addition to areas of mutual co-operation, there are areas where Russia could specifically benefit from British help. Russia needs British investment in its industries and for Britain to buy its energy—something that we are willing to do in principle, but without becoming over-reliant on Russian supplies. Several hon. Members touched on that briefly this morning.

In return, Russia could usefully benefit from British investment and technical expertise to exploit increasingly hard-to-reach reserves of energy in hostile environments. It is in the nature of business that British companies thinking of investing in Russia will look for political stability and positive relations between our countries when making investment decisions and those points should not be lost on Russia, not least as it faces its own energy challenges, particularly in the decade ahead.

Russia and the UK would both gain from normalisation of relations and mutual co-operation on the issues of the day. However Russia should be under no illusion that there is anything but a united political front in Britain that deplores the murder of one of its subjects, and that is determined to seek the extradition
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of the main suspect to stand trial on British soil. Russia should not expect a full normalisation of relations until it plays by normal internationally accepted standards of behaviour.

Similarly, Conservative Members are concerned about the recent Russian decision to suspend the CFE treaty, which we view as something of a retrograde step. The treaty has been an important part in normalising military relations since the end of the cold war, and we would like the Russian Government fully to rejoin that agreement as soon as possible.

We hope that Russia will look for opportunities to work positively with the UK in a range of areas including trade, the fight against drugs and terrorism, and the development of new energy supplies, which could potentially benefit us all. We hope that the Russian Government will bear all those points in mind, but before we hear what they think about it, we are interested more immediately in what Her Majesty’s Government think about it.

10.48 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): Thank you, Mr. Bayley, for overseeing our proceedings this morning. Not only because it is customary, but because of his deep knowledge and interest in Russia, I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate, and on the knowledge and perspective that he brings to it.

It may predate our time in the House, but in previous years there was always a conversation about Russia with some analysis of Marx and other issues associated with that, but today we have heard from four different Marks. The hon. Members for The Wrekin, for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), all brought their own perspective as Marks and their own kind of Marksist analysis to the conversation.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who raised an important point. He rightly did not want to provide additional details, but I am happy to discuss it with him formally and in more detail if he wishes. I thank him for his kind words about the support of Foreign Office staff, which will be heard with great gratitude by those who have been working on the important issue that he raised. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others for their points about the work that our ambassador, Tony Brenton and his fantastic team do to look after UK interests in Russia. As my hon. Friend alluded to, they sometimes work in unjustifiably difficult circumstances. I wish only that we had had the opportunity to listen to the end of his excellent speech. I hope that, at some point, we will have the opportunity to hear the rest of his analysis.

I shall now deal with the substance of the points made by hon. Members. I shall come to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) later in my short comments. I will not have time to respond to the dozens of questions that have been asked.

I thank the Opposition Front-Bench teams for not only the content but the tone of their remarks. It is important that we have unity on this important matter across the European Union, although I do not want to
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make a wider point about that, because it is for another day. That we have had two strong, unanimously agreed EU presidency statements is of real significance and heightens the importance of our co-operative role in the European Union. It is also important that the House of Commons and the House of Lords speak with one voice on the matter, both in their content and tone. Opposition Front Benchers have done that today and it is important that, where possible, we retain that consensus in content and tone. As we now know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central is well aware, tone is often as important as content in some aspects of our conversations with our friends in Russia.

I shall make some general points and then come on to specifics. It is important to say clearly that the UK is a partner with Russia in more international organisations than almost any other country. Those organisations include the UN Security Council, the G8, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe. The UK’s relationship with Russia is crucial and we must not lose sight of the fact that Russia is a key player in enabling us to deliver on our international priorities, including Afghanistan, climate change, chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, energy and, of course, trade and investment.

Hon. Members have already reflected on the fact that in 2006, the UK was the largest foreign investor in Russia. In the same year, our trading relationship with Russia reached an all-time high, with annual exports of more than £3 billion, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary noted in his statement to the House on 16 July. Russia is, and will remain, a key international partner of the United Kingdom. It is for precisely that reason that we need a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

All hon. Members recall the detail of the horrific circumstances in which Mr. Litvinenko, a British citizen, was murdered in the heart of London, and in which hundreds of residents and visitors were put at risk. I emphasise that it is precisely because we have ambitions for the UK-Russia relationship that we needed to take the measures that my right hon. Friend announced in his statement on 16 July. The Government neither sought nor welcomed the situation, but it was vital that we addressed it. A set of shared values is the foundation of an effective international partnership. Russian failure to co-operate made inevitable the necessary specific, targeted action that we took. Our action was intended to uphold the key individual rights and vital principles of independent judicial process in the United Kingdom.

In that context, we must ensure that such acts do not happen again. Ensuring the safety of British citizens and our visitors, as well as the 40,000-strong Russian community in the United Kingdom, is of paramount importance. We have been especially heartened by the statements of support from not only the European Union, but the United States.

My hon. Friends the Member for Rhondda and for Manchester, Central asked about a number of specific points and made some telling observations about human rights in Russia. In response to that, I repeat comments that I made to last week’s meeting of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, on our relationship with Russia and
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our attitude to human rights there. Russia has not made the progress on human rights that many of us expected and hoped that it would in the early to mid-1990s. Hon. Members have reflected on the limits to media freedom, the murders and intimidation of a number of journalists, the heavy-handed policing of political demonstrations, and restrictions on political parties. At each opportunity, the United Kingdom Government have sought to raise our concerns with the Russian authorities. This is not about seeking to export UK values, as some have said, but about our determination to ensure that Russia upholds international standards of human rights and freedom. That is what is at stake in this matter.

Mark Pritchard: I know that the Minister will regret leaving the room without having answered at least one or two of the questions that I raised. On the subject of export, will he confirm that the Brazilian Government have asked for the extradition, or export, of Mr. Berezovsky?

Mr. Murphy: I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, particularly given his newly elevated post as chair of the all-party group, but I will have to do so on this matter, because we do not comment publicly on whether we have received requests for extraditions from another party. He will understand that, although he might be disappointed.

On support for non-governmental organisations, we have raised those issues with the Russian authorities. The UK Government fund Russian NGOs and Government agencies. We are funding a system of public prison inspectors, for example, and we have helped the Russian Union of Journalists defend journalists’ rights in Russia, which we will continue to do where we can. We also worked with the EU on human rights in Russia.

The suspension of the conventional armed forces in Europe treaty is regrettable. Within the dynamic of the CFE process, there is no reason why the Russians should be driven to take such action on that issue. It is suspension rather than something else, of course. There have been some outstanding issues in the conversation on the matter between NATO and Russia, not least about Georgia and Abhkazia and Transnistria and Moldova. We are working through those issues and we continue to find ways, through the NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council, to discuss those issues with Russia.

Time has beaten me, and it has not allowed me to respond to all the points that hon. Members raised I conclude by saying that we continue to work with Russia in an important way in the UN, the G8, the NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council and the European Union. Despite the events of the past week or two, Russia remains an important international partner of the United Kingdom. We are determined to ensure close engagement with Russia, which is vital on so many bilateral and multilateral issues. This morning, I hope that I have made it clear that we seek an active, open engagement with the Russian Government and the Russian people. When we disagree with Russia, we say so, and where obstacles exist, we will seek to resolve them through transparent, open, honest dialogue.

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Motorcycle Test Facilities

11 am

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank you, Mr. Bayley, and I thank my colleagues for their warm welcome while leaving a debate on a subject important not only in my constituency but in many parts of the UK, and not just to motorcyclists but to many in the wider industry. I should declare an interest. I have never ridden a motorcycle, although my wife would encourage it. Nevertheless, it is a serious subject to many people. I am grateful for the interest that the Minister and his office showed before this debate, and hope that it will help us make some progress.

I shall provide a bit of history before detailing some general and specific concerns about the Driving Standards Agency’s processes for centralising motorbike testing facilities. To put the introduction of new multi-purpose motorcycle test facilities into context, we need to go back to 2000, when the second EU directive on driving licences was agreed. A set of EU standards was produced requiring motorcycle tests to include a variety of new low-speed and higher-speed manoeuvres.

Under the new standards, extra and more demanding special manoeuvres must be included in every practical motorcycling test: at least two manoeuvres executed at low speed, including a slalom; at least two manoeuvres executed at higher speed, of which one should be in second or third gear at a speed of at least 30 kph; one manoeuvre to avoid an obstacle at a minimum speed of 50 kph; and at least two braking exercises, including an emergency brake at a minimum speed of 50 kph. The new EU standards imply significant changes to the UK’s practical test for motorcyclists. The only special manoeuvre in the current UK motorcycling test is an emergency braking exercise undertaken on the road at about 20 kph. Although the new standards specify what a test must contain, member states have flexibility to organise the details.

In January 2001, the DSA issued a consultation paper describing the new requirements and seeking views on the matters in which the directive allows member states flexibility to determine locally. In particular, it asked whether the higher-speed manoeuvres should be conducted on the road or off the road, and whether they should be part of the practical motorcycling test or a separate manoeuvres test.

In August 2002, the DSA published the responses and explained Ministers’ decisions as follows. The new standards require low and higher-speed special manoeuvres to be added to the motorcycling test. A fair and consistent assessment is best achieved by using a pre-determined layout—that is, ground markings and cones—and it would be impractical to use one on a public road with other traffic. That implies a need for secure testing areas even if one discounts the risks to the candidate and other road users of testing the manoeuvres on the roads.

The DSA’s second point is that the new standards also require the test to include a higher-speed emergency braking manoeuvre at 50 kph. At that speed and in good road and weather conditions, a motorcycle needs a minimum of 23 m to stop, compared with about 12 m in the current braking exercise. The DSA reported that
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there are overwhelming road safety objections to conducting higher-speed emergency braking exercises where there might be pedestrians or other traffic. A requirement for secured testing areas appears conclusive, regardless of how the higher-speed obstacle-avoidance manoeuvre is assessed.

In consequence, the DSA has extensive plans to roll out a network of multi-purpose test centres by October 2008. The plans include using the test centres not just for motorcycle activities but for car tests. That brings me to the reason for this debate. Where will the new test centres be located, and what practical and economic impact will the changes have?

Until recently, we in Moray have benefited from car and motorcycle driving test facilities, an LGV test centre and a theory test centre. Unfortunately, the theory test centre has been withdrawn and replaced by a visiting bus. The motorcycle test facilities are under threat, and motorcycle instructors, learner riders, local driving instructors and business owners are concerned that plans to move test facilities to Inverness will be detrimental to learners, businesses, bike and bike equipment retailers and the overall economy of Moray.

That seems somewhat divergent from the DSA’s stated priorities. I draw the Minister’s attention to a quote on the DSA website from its chief executive, Rosemary Thew:

The key phrase is “the location of test centres”. For instructors in Moray, the removal of test facilities in the region—it is an entire local authority region—will be crucial to their businesses, but clearly not in a good way.

Moray’s various bike instructors are well thought of, and their excellent teaching speaks for itself. Moray has one of the highest pass rates of any test centre—83 per cent., compared with pass rates in Aberdeen and Inverness in the mid-60 per cent range. Testing facilities might be moved more than an hour’s ride away on a busy trunk road. I am certain that the Minister has travelled the A96; it can be a daunting road. I shall lobby my colleagues in the Scottish National party Government to upgrade it as soon as possible, but it remains a busy and at times tragically dangerous road. Having to travel to Inverness or Aberdeen on the A96 will discourage potential clients from taking advantage of the excellent teaching in Moray, as students are likely to want to learn on the roads where their test will take place. Rather than learning in Moray and then taking their test in Inverness or Aberdeen, people in those cities are likely to seek to learn in areas with which they are familiar.

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