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17 Jan 2008 : Column 1091

[That this House condemns plans by the Arts Council to cut funding to Queer Up North; recognises the excellent work that organisation has done, including tackling homophobic bullying through performances of F.I.T. at local schools; notes with concern that funding cuts will lead to the cancellation of the 2008 festival in Manchester and all future touring plans, end its unique programme of work for young people and result in the immediate closure of the organisation; and therefore calls on the Arts Council to overturn its decision.]

Will the Leader of the House bring forward a debate on the funding cuts by the Arts Council to a large number of organisations throughout the country, including LipService and Queer Up North in Manchester, which threaten the existence of those organisations?

Ms Harman: I shall bring those points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. With regard to the Arts Council, the arts budget under this Government has increased consistently year on year and is set to increase again. In the latest Arts Council announcement, 80 new projects are to be funded. We cannot have a situation in which once something has been funded by the Arts Council, it is funded in perpetuity at the expense of any new projects. It is always difficult for projects that lose their funding, but that is happening not because of cuts in funding to the Arts Council but because of a determination to fund new projects. However, I will raise the points that the hon. Gentleman has made with the Secretary of State.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I associate myself with those who have called for a debate on Darfur.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that much of my constituency is again under water or threatened by floods. May we have a debate to consider whether the planning system could be changed so that planning permissions could be rescinded where there was a considerable threat of flooding? The Planning Bill is now going through the House. Will the Government take note of the fact—of which we need to take notice—that we are now facing very difficult circumstances, and living in a different world?

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be answering the questions of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee next Wednesday. I am sure that all those points will be under consideration, including those that my hon. Friend has just raised on behalf of his constituents, and those raised by other hon. Members whose constituents have suffered from floods and are still recovering from them, and want to ensure that they are protected from flooding in the future.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): On 15 November last year, the Public Accounts Committee published a highly critical report on the handling by the Department for Communities and Local Government of the Thames Gateway project. To date,
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there has been no oral or written statement by the Government in response—and in early December, the Minister for Housing sacked the chief executive of the Thames Gateway, whom she herself had appointed barely a year before. May we have a debate on the mishandling of the Thames Gateway project by the DCLG—and can that debate also cover the shameful scapegoating of a public servant by the Minister responsible?

Ms Harman: The Government will consider their response to the Select Committee’s report, and will publish that response in due course.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The most successful Government policy for pensioners has been the free bus pass for local travel. My right hon. and learned Friend will know that millions of pensioners are eagerly anticipating the fact that that scheme will go nationwide in April. Will she find time for a debate on free bus travel for young people? In the context of the extension of the education participation age, and the increasing number of young people who will need to travel as a result, does she agree that we need to review the very variable arrangements for concessionary travel that apply around the country? In London, it is free, but in Manchester—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ms Harman: That is well worth consideration. The trail has been blazed by the Mayor of London, who is about to extend to pensioners free travel passes that are valid not only for off-peak times but throughout the day, having already extended that facility to young people. It is a pity that when the opportunity for such arrangements exists, some councils drag their feet. It is important for older people to get out and socialise, but it is also important for younger people to get out and extend their training opportunities. I will raise my hon. Friend’s point with the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange for, at the very least, a written statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the reappointment, or otherwise, of the official verderer of the New Forest, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I fear that there has been some skulduggery?

Hon. Members: Oh!

Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman work out what the official parliamentary term is, and then table a written question.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to join me and the long-suffering fans of Luton Town football club in supporting the successful bid by a fans-based company to get the club out of administration? There is, however, a continuing threat to the club, largely as a result of the rules of the football league in respect of the repayment of debts. The matter has been referred to the Minister for Sport, but may I press my right hon.
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Friend for a debate on behalf of those of us who have the long-term interests of Luton Town football club at heart, and on behalf of the many other ailing clubs in this situation—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has an Adjournment debate on this matter.

Ms Harman: I know that my hon. Friend is a real champion of Luton Town football club, and I will bring her comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The Leader of the House failed—inadvertently, I am sure—to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about Northern Rock. May I give her the opportunity to do so now? I am sure that she will agree that the House has an obligation to taxpayers, and that when billions of pounds of their money are floating around, we need to have figures and answers. May we have a statement next week from the Chancellor—or better still, from the Prime Minister, who evaded these questions yesterday?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister answered questions in the House yesterday on Northern Rock—[Hon. Members: “No!”] He answered questions yesterday on Northern Rock. But there is one question that remains unanswered. Our position remains absolutely clear— [ Interruption. ] I have stated this in business questions before. We have to make sure that we have a stable economy, and that the instability that came out of the American sub-prime market did not, through Northern Rock, infect the rest of the financial services industry in this country. So far, that has certainly not happened. We have said what we are doing about this—but what the Opposition have done is to say that they approve of what we are doing one day, and that they disapprove of it the next.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): May we have a debate on the plight of NEETs—young people not in education, employment or training? Their number has soared since 1997 to more than 1 million. Such a debate would give Members the opportunity to decide whether the principal reason for that increase is unrestricted immigration, which means that more than half of all new jobs go to foreigners, or the difficulties in the apprenticeship system, illustrated by figures published in December which show that the number of apprentices at levels 2 and 3 has gone down.

Ms Harman: There are 600,000 vacancies in the economy. The problem for young people who are not in education, employment or training is usually that they do not have the right training and skills to get into those jobs. We want to continue our programme of expansion for apprenticeships and for further and higher education, but we also recognise that we need to start early. That is why we launched the Sure Start and pre-school programmes, so that entrenched intergenerational deprivation can be tackled.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Further to the Minister’s response about a one-stop shop for
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Members’ declarable interests, would it be possible to have a statement on the workings of the declaration of Members’ interests, with particular regard to whether there would be any benefit in trying to resolve the contradictions that Members are sometimes told, or in having a system of pro forma forms that would make it easier for Members and their staff to ensure that Members submit their declarations in good time?

Ms Harman: The registrar and officials who work on the Register of Members’ Interests do all they can when their advice is sought to explain to Members how they should go about registration. There is a question about the overlapping rules relating to the Register of Members’ Interests, electoral administration and, indeed, the ministerial code, which is under consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): When the Government insisted on setting up a national park authority for the New Forest, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and I articulated the concern of many locally that the authority of the court of verderers as protectors of the forest would be undermined. The fact that that has not yet happened has been largely due to the fine performance of the official verderer, Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre. May we have a statement by the appropriate Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the reappointment of the official verderer, who is willing to be reappointed but whom we gather may not be reappointed for reasons not unconnected with the existence of the national park authority?

Ms Harman: If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise questions about the New Forest national park authority or verderers, I suggest he table a written question to the relevant Minister.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I want to take the Leader of the House back to the question and answer about organ donation and putting the House first. Given that the Government published the first report of the organ donation taskforce this week, would it not have been better if the Health Secretary or the Prime Minister had made an oral statement to the House, in which they could have set out their views about presumed consent, rather than brief a newspaper earlier in the week?

Ms Harman: As I said in my answer to the earlier question, the Government have not changed their policy about presumed consent, although Ministers and I agree that there should be further debate on the issue. We have set up the taskforce and informed the House about it. We have also made it clear that we accept the taskforce’s recommendations, particularly those relating to organisational change to ensure that consent for organ donation is put sensitively to relatives so that those who want their relatives’ organs to be donated have the opportunity to say so. We have not changed our policy on presumed consent, but we all agree that there should be a debate on the way forward.

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British Council (Russia)

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): With permission, I should like to make a statement on the Russian Government’s actions against the British Council in Russia. The House will recall that in October 2007 the Russian Government threatened to close the British Council’s operations outside Moscow from 1 January 2008. That was confirmed on 12 December and again last week with the threat of a series of administrative measures against the British Council, including tax measures in St Petersburg and visa restrictions against British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The Russians also threatened to take measures against the British Council in Moscow, up to and including the removal of accreditation of British Council staff working in Russia.

On Tuesday this week, the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser held what we believed were productive talks in Moscow about a range of international and bilateral issues, including the British Council. Yet on the same day, the Russian Government exerted further pressure on the British Council. The Russian security services summoned more than 20 locally engaged members of British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg one by one for interviews. Ten members of staff were interviewed late at night in their homes after calls by the Russian tax police. Questioning ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets. These Russian citizens have chosen to offer their skills and hard work to promote cultural contact between the people of Russia and the UK. As a result, they have been the subject of blatant intimidation from their own Government.

I think that the whole House will agree that such actions are reprehensible, not worthy of a great country and contrary to the letter and spirit of the legal framework under which the British Council operates—notably international law, including the Vienna conventions and the UK-Russia 1994 bilateral agreement on cultural co-operation, which Russia has ratified.

Russia has failed to show any legal reasons under Russian or international law why the British Council should not continue to operate. It has also failed to substantiate its claims that the British Council is avoiding paying tax. The British Council is in fact registered for tax in Russia and has complied with all requests of the tax authorities in respect of its activities. Instead of taking legal action against the British Council, the Russian Government have resorted to intimidation of its staff. I am confident that the whole House will share the anger and dismay felt by this Government at the actions of the Russian Government. We saw similar actions during the cold war but thought, frankly, they had been put behind us.

The British Council’s first priority is, rightly, the safety of its own staff, yet the actions of the Russian Government have made it impossible for staff to go about their work in a normal way. British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg have been prevented from operating, so the British Council has, with great regret, taken the decision to suspend its
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operations in those two cities. The council is making an announcement to this effect as I speak. The staff concerned will continue to be supported while the council considers its next steps.

There has already been strong international condemnation of Russia’s actions. Following my conversation last night with the Slovenian Foreign Minister in his capacity as presidency of the EU, an EU presidency statement has just been issued on behalf of all European Governments. The statement makes it clear that the EU is


and other measures taken. It calls on Russia to

The Government of the United States have issued a statement of support, calling for the British Council to be able to continue its good work in Russia, and the Canadian Government are also expressing their concerns in Moscow about these developments. I am grateful for the many expressions of support that the British Council has received from Russians who have benefited from working with it.

The Russian Foreign Minister stated publicly on 14 December what the Russian Government had been saying to us in private—that their attacks on the British Council were linked to the Litvinenko affair. I announced to the House on 16 July a list of measures that the Government had decided to adopt in response to Russia’s failure to co-operate with our efforts to secure justice for Alexander Litvinenko. These included introducing visa restrictions for Russian officials travelling to the UK and suspending our visa consultations. The House can rest assured, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that those measures will continue to be administered rigorously.

We regard as entirely separate the issues surrounding Mr. Litvinenko’s murder and the activities of the British Council to build links between British and Russian schools and universities, to support English language teaching in Russia and Russian studies in the UK and to promote the best of British drama, writing, music and art. Nor do we believe that cultural activities should become a political football. In fact, educational and cultural activities are important ways of bringing people together. That is why I have decided not to take similar action against Russia’s cultural activities in the UK—for example, by sending back Russian masterpieces scheduled for show at the Royal Academy or by taking measures against the two Russian diplomats at the Russian embassy who are dedicated to cultural work. We have nothing to fear from these contacts; we welcome and encourage them.

The immediate cost to the Russian people of the Russian Government’s actions is their lack of access to the benefits of British Council activity. The longer-term cost is their country’s standing in the world as a responsible international player. The British Council will continue its work in Moscow, meeting the demand from as many as possible of the 1.25 million Russian citizens who used the council’s services last year.

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The British Council’s experience in Russia is not repeated in any of the more than 100 British Council operations elsewhere in the world. Russia’s actions therefore raise serious questions about her observance of international law, as well as about the standards of behaviour she is prepared to adopt towards her own citizens. That can only make the international community more cautious in its dealings with Russia in international negotiations and more doubtful about its existing international commitments.

Russia remains an important international player in addressing key global issues and challenges, including climate change and energy security, as well as others such as Iran and Kosovo, but I hope the whole House will agree with me that Russia’s actions against the British Council are a stain on Russia’s reputation and standing that will have been noted by countries all around the world. I will continue to keep the House informed of developments.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Let me say at the outset that, across the House, we join him in deploring the Soviet-era tactics employed against legitimate cultural contact—tactics that we trust will be counter-productive from the Russian point of view and are deeply offensive from the British point of view.

I think the whole House will agree that the work of the British Council is invaluable in building mutually beneficial relationships between people in the United Kingdom and those in other countries. The work of the British Council in Russia has been undertaken in that spirit, involving in the last year—I think—almost half a million Russians in British Council projects visiting exhibitions, plays and films organised by the British Council, and the setting up recently of 40 new joint degree programmes between Russian and United Kingdom universities. As the Foreign Secretary said, the harassment and intimidation of the staff doing that work is not acceptable to the Government, and I think it true to say that it is not acceptable to any of us in the House.

We wholly support the Government’s decision not to retaliate against other cultural exchanges. We trust, however, that the Foreign Secretary will convey to the Russian Government the united view in the House that while we are open in the future to a better relationship with Russia, such actions, and Moscow’s wider response to the Litvinenko murder, will not produce such a relationship. In an interview with the BBC, to which the Foreign Secretary referred, the Russian Foreign Minister linked the order to close the British Council offices with the United Kingdom’s expulsion of four Russian diplomats last summer, but an attack on an institution that is valuable to Russia and valuable to the United Kingdom serves no worthwhile objective whatsoever.

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