Previous Section Index Home Page

Let me now ask the Foreign Secretary some specific questions. What is the number of Russian staff currently employed by the British Council in the three offices in Russia, and have the whereabouts and safety of all of them been established? Have any documents or items of equipment been seized from the employees of the British Council? The Government in Moscow have accused the British Council of operating illegally. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify what constitutes the legal basis of the British Council’s presence in Russia?
17 Jan 2008 : Column 1098
Is the 1994 UK-Russia agreement on co-operation in education, science and culture still legally binding?

Russian Foreign Ministry officials have made much of the fact that cultural organisations from other countries, including France and Germany, are, they say, complying with Russian law as non-governmental organisations, and operate without difficulties. Under what arrangements are they operating, and how do they differ from the arrangements of the British Council?

Russian officials have been quoted as saying that the British Council’s Moscow offices could be targeted next if no agreement on the status of cultural organisations and the availability of British visas for Russian diplomats is reached. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether Russia has sought an agreement on the status of cultural organisations, and have any other British institutions been subjected to similar pressures?

The British Council is a founding member of the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Recently a cluster of national institutes has been established in Russia, chaired by the British Council. Has the work in that cluster been affected by these events?

What assessment—this is important—has the Foreign Secretary made of the effect that the dispute has had on co-operation between our two countries in other areas? There are vital issues, such as Iran and the future status of Kosovo, which we want to see resolved, preferably in agreement with Russia. Has the issue of the British Council affected British-Russian discussion of those vital subjects?

The Foreign Secretary said that at the same time as the holding of productive talks in Russia earlier this week between the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser and Russian counterparts, the pressure on the British Council was intensified. Does he think that that indicates a division of opinion within the Russian Government, and does he think that the good intentions expressed by Russia’s foreign policy spokesman are being frustrated by its security services or by others?

Ironically, the basis for close co-operation between Russia and the United Kingdom is very strong. Our trade and investment links are growing, United Kingdom investment in Russia is huge, there remains considerable common ground on foreign policy, and there is a good basis for long-term co-operation. At the same time, however, harassment, intimidation and bullying of people including our ambassador, as well as the British Council, are unacceptable. They harm Russia’s standing in the world, unnecessarily weaken the links between our countries, and will make opinion in this country not more emollient towards the Russian authorities, but more resolved not to be bullied by them.

David Miliband: I welcome the shadow Foreign Secretary’s strong support for the Government’s actions. He said at the outset that he believed the Russian actions were counter-productive, and at the end of his remarks emphasised the wide areas in which we can co-operate with the Russian authorities. He is absolutely right about the counter-productive nature of the actions that have been taken. The only losers are Russian citizens, and the reputation of the Russian Government. It is important to stress that there has not been a contagion from our disagreement about the
17 Jan 2008 : Column 1099
British Council to areas of common concern in respect of Iran and Kosovo—although, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, we do not hold the same position on Kosovo as the Russian authorities.

There was only one item in the right hon. Gentleman’s observations in respect of which there may be some room for confusion. I believe that the 500,000 Russians to whom he referred are those who use the offices outside Moscow. The 1.25 million figure that I gave related to Russian citizens using all the British Council offices, including those in Moscow.

Let me run through some of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. I referred to the 20 members of British Council staff outside Moscow as the number called in for questioning. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the number of British Council staff who operate in the Moscow office. No documents have been taken, to our knowledge. As for the legality of the British Council’s operations, yes, the UK-Russia agreement of 1994 remains in force. The UK Government have been keen for some years to update it and move it forward, but we have not encountered a willing response from the Russian authorities. That is the bilateral basis, but there is also the international basis. The Vienna conventions, for instance, provide an important basis in international law.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about other countries. As the Russian Government have never made clear to us what is illegal or improper about the British Council’s activities outside Moscow, it is very hard to draw a comparison with the activities of other Governments, although I think the European Union’s statement and the alacrity and keenness of Governments to sign it show that there is widespread concern around Europe that this constitutes a threat to all Europe’s cultural institutions. EUNIC, the body to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, brings together European countries on that basis. It will meet in Vienna this afternoon, and our delegate there will certainly make strong representations. I hope that the organisation will be able to follow up the strong statement that it made last year on the basis of what has happened today.

There have been threats, veiled and otherwise, about the Moscow operation. As of now it is operating normally, and obviously we want that to continue. I would report back to the House if it did not.

At the end of his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman raised a tantalising question that deserves further discussion: the question whether there is unanimity within the Russian Government about the wisdom of their operations, or whether the actions of the FSB outside Moscow are in the best interests of Russia and its people. I think it important to say that, at this stage, we have not found any part of the Russian Government to be yielding in its defence of the Government’s current actions, but I believe that there are many sensible people in that Government who will come to realise that, far from being a demonstration of strength, the actions that they have taken are today a demonstration of weakness.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s robust statement. We must stand up to this bullying by the bear. It is not just the British Council and our fine ambassador Tony Brenton
17 Jan 2008 : Column 1100
who have experienced harassment that is unacceptable, and it is not just the Vienna conventions that are threatened. Russia is not respecting its international convention obligations on the energy charter, or the reduction provisions in the conventional forces in Europe treaty. It is gutting the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe of its main business. It is even seeking to take control of the Council of Europe, with the help, sadly, of some Conservative Members, who are now fellow travellers of the Kremlin.

It is not just the unity of the House that matters. It is the unity of Europe that is important. Will the Foreign Secretary continue to work with our European partners, and does he agree that it would be helpful if everyone in the House supported the unity of Europe on this matter?

David Miliband: I certainly agree with the latter part of my right hon. Friend’s contribution. The united European response is important in this regard, as is the united international response. My right hon. Friend was right to say that there is a range of concerns about Russian activities internationally, and he was also right to mention the harassment of the ambassador, which is obviously unacceptable as well.

The one part of our relationship that has not been interfered with—perhaps I should have mentioned this in response to the questions of the shadow Foreign Secretary—is trade and economic links. We have had no reports of interventions on, or interruptions of, such ties. Obviously, that is important, but my right hon. Friend makes a significant point about the number of fronts on which the Russian Government are currently arguing and are at variance with the international community, and I know that Foreign Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents are actively discussing that.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): It is clear from the Foreign Secretary’s tone that he very much regrets having to make this statement, but I thank him for keeping the House informed and for his efforts to keep Opposition parties informed.

The Foreign Secretary will not be surprised to learn that we strongly support the Government’s actions, particularly in securing the safety and well-being of the British Council staff. Does he agree that the Russian authorities’ bully-boy tactics are making them look increasingly ridiculous in the eyes of the international community? When the British Council is successfully continuing its excellent work in places such as Zimbabwe and Myanmar, is it not utterly self-defeating and shameful for the Russian authorities to be acting in this way over educational and cultural links?

It is understandable that the Government do not wish this situation to escalate, but will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the British Council intends to do in respect of the information and logistical support it has previously been able to provide to Russian students applying to UK universities, not least as they often come from the families of high-ranking Russians? More broadly, is it not now even more vital and urgent that we build stronger common positions with our EU partners on a range of issues relating to Russia? In an uncertain world of terrorist threats and failed states, it is particularly irresponsible of the Russian Government to sour our
17 Jan 2008 : Column 1101
relations, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary can assure the House that we will redouble our efforts to dissuade the Russians from their cold war-like tendencies.

David Miliband: I welcome both aspects of the hon. Gentleman’s comments—his determination that we emphasise our common interests with Russia, and our determination to stand up for the values we believe in. I associate myself wholly with that. I know that his concern for British Council staff will be valued, and I thank him for that; cross-party concern for their welfare is important.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Russian Government had made themselves look ridiculous in their attacks on the British Council, and he made the point about the British Council’s activities in Zimbabwe and Burma. In my question and answer session with the Foreign Affairs Committee in December, I suggested that the Russian Government’s activities put them on a par, at least in their treatment of the British Council, with what was going on in Burma. I now regrettably inform the House that the situation in Russia is unique: it is worse than in Burma in respect of the British Council. The hon. Gentleman is right that in many capitals around the world there is incomprehension at the Russian authorities’ actions. When I attended the European Council in December, just after the Russian authorities’ first announcement, there was incomprehension—and, I am sorry to say, a fair degree of ridicule, to use the hon. Gentleman’s word, because the British Council operates well in all such countries.

On UK logistical and other support for university entrants, the Moscow office will continue to be a base for such work, and that will continue without fear or favour. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the development of an EU common policy on Russia across a range of areas, notably energy, must preoccupy the EU. As I was able to report to the House in the autumn, a significant section of the September meeting of European Foreign Ministers was devoted to taking a more strategic view of our relationship with Russia.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): If there were a Nobel prize for soft diplomacy, the British Council should win it every year, and I say as chairman of the all-party group on the British Council that what has gone on in Russia is shameful and shocking. Will the Secretary of State consider taking legal action in the courts in St. Petersburg and Moscow to make sure that we set the standard, because we should say, “This is legal; let’s prove it’s legal and embarrass them further”?

David Miliband: We are in a Catch-22, because although the Russian authorities keep on denouncing what they call the “illegal activities” of the British Council they never say what the illegal activities are, and it is very difficult for someone to prove that they are not doing something illegal if they are not charged with doing something illegal. Therefore, although I associate myself wholeheartedly with the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question, he will understand if I am a bit cautious about pledging to take what he proposes forward.

17 Jan 2008 : Column 1102

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to say that the intimidation of British Council staff, whether diplomatic or locally engaged, is completely unacceptable, and I welcome the statement from our European partners. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is a great deal of difference between strong leadership and aggressive leadership in Russia, and that the latter is doing Russia’s international reputation huge damage?

David Miliband: We would all expect every country to stand up for its interests, but what we cannot understand is a country doing damage to its interests, which is what is happening. That is not evidence of the sort of strong leadership that I—and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman—believe in.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the first overseas visits in which I took part as a Member of this House was to the Soviet Union in the early ’80s, in a delegation led by the late Lord Whitelaw and Denis Healey? We had the opportunity of meeting with Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Gromyko, from which three lessons emerged: that we wanted improved diplomatic relations; that cultural exchanges were important; and that transparency was in our mutual interests. Given the standing of the British Council and the support it has not only in this House but throughout Great Britain and elsewhere, can we encourage those who currently speak for Russia to accept the wisdom of Mr. Gromyko, and agree that mistakes have been made and that what they have done in the past week, particularly in harassing staff, is a big mistake, but that they can correct it?

David Miliband: I did not know about my right hon. Friend’s visit—

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Foreign Secretary was still at school then.

David Miliband: I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that suggestion, but I think that I had just about left school at that stage.

I am sure that the whole House will want to know more about that visit in due course. I hope that the reaction in this country and around the world, and the ongoing reaction that will continue as people come to terms with what has happened, will bring home to the Russian authorities that this is doing them no good. That is the fundamental point: we are arguing that this is against Russian interests.

In the end, the British Council cannot operate in a country where the host Government is not willing to consent to its presence in particular places. The British Council operates all around the world because all sorts of Governments of all sorts of stripes consent to the presence of British Council offices in their cities. I am confident that the Russians’ actions will not send a signal that others should take on the British Council; in fact, I think that many others will come to realise the value of what the British Council does.

Several hon. Members rose

17 Jan 2008 : Column 1103

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Many Members are seeking to catch my eye. May I appeal for one brief question, and perhaps a reasonably brief response from the Secretary of State?

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I concur with everything that the Foreign Secretary has said. The British Council is one of the great sources of information about education and culture abroad, and it should never be a political football. We usually award about 45 Chevening scholarships to young Russian scholars every year. Will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that with the suspension of the Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg British Council depots, young people from those areas will not be disadvantaged in fresh applications for a scholarship this year?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and as I tried to make clear in my statement we are determined to make sure that the ongoing work of the British Council in Moscow will continue to reach out as widely as possible throughout Russia, to minimise any impact on people who want to come and study here or engage with the United Kingdom.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that the Foreign Secretary agrees that the greatest threat facing the world is climate change, and towards the end of his statement he mentioned Russia’s important position on that issue. Will assure the House that the recent bilateral talks on energy efficiency and climate change will not be jeopardised by recent actions?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The irony of the situation is that in December my special representative on climate change visited Russia and had good meetings with the Russian authorities, and our discussions on climate change are moving forward more productively than they have done in the recent past. I can report some progress on that score at least.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Can the Foreign Secretary give the House an assurance that the intelligence relationship that we must presume has developed between Russia and the United Kingdom since September 2001 in dealing with the threat of un-Islamic extremism worldwide will not be undermined by the permafrost that has sadly set in between Russia and ourselves recently?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman knows very well that we never comment on such matters. I have made it clear that we do not see any grounds for taking this cultural attack into other spheres.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): This incident underlines the importance of the European Union working together on such issues. What specific steps does the Foreign Secretary intend to take to ensure that we continue to get a united EU response on this issue? We must make it clear to the Russians that what they are doing jeopardises their relationships with not only the UK, but the entire European Union.

Next Section Index Home Page