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14 Oct 2009 : Column 85WH—continued

Witnesses, mostly colleagues of Mrs. Estemirova, also said that President Kadyrov had personally insulted and threatened her, forcing her to leave Russia for a time. Mr. Kadyrov's lawyer is reported to have said that violent separatists, backed by western secret agents, were probably responsible for Mrs. Estemirova's death.

If justice is to be done in that case, all lines of inquiry must be pursued and any subsequent trials must meet international standards. I must emphasise that there is such a thing as state-sponsored violence as well. More generally in relation to all those cases, the British Government must raise them with the Russian and
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Chechen authorities, and stress the importance of thorough and impartial investigations to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account.

Impunity is a wide problem in Russia and one that undermines reform in a number of areas. The number of cases filed in the European Court of Human Rights against Russia has climbed sharply from 8 per cent. of all cases in 2000 to nearly 30 per cent. last year, with a number of rulings highlighting torture and judicial corruption. In her examination of politically motivated abuses of court systems across Europe, the Council of Europe rapporteur, a former German Justice Minister, found that prosecutors in Russia have "almost unchecked" power to put people behind bars and that judges are

In addition, she points out that the practice of telephone justice-an official calling and telling a judge how to rule-has evolved for the worse. Russian judges are now so worried about making a mistake and being disciplined or dismissed that they pick up the phone themselves to ask for instructions.

A plan to give extra credit to convicts for time spent in notoriously crowded pre-trial detention facilities has been derailed because it might have resulted in the release of jailed former oil tycoon and Kremlin foe, Mr. Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The rapporteur also cited the start of a second trial against Mr. Khodorkovsky in March as one of "two emblematic cases" that cast doubt on the Russian President's professed commitment to fighting what he called in the past "legal nihilism".

I call on the UK Government to raise those concerns with their Russian counterparts and to ask the Chechen and Russian Governments to open up Chechnya to parliamentary delegations, international governmental and non-governmental organisations, academics and journalists. The all-party human rights group, which I chair, has been trying to go to Chechnya since 2002-in fact, I was in Moscow with a delegation in 2002 when we were invited to go to Chechnya. That visit has never taken place. I hope that the dates for the delegation's visit will be agreed very soon because if there is nothing to hide why not open up the area to visitors?

Mr. Gary Streeter (in the Chair): We have six minutes for two speakers.

10.24 am

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate and on making a very coherent and well informed case. I say to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) that each one of us could have cited similar stories and, time and again, we have expressed the hope that the Government would take up such matters, but today's debate is about what we can do to bring back a UK-Russia relationship that will allow the sort of representations that she talked about to be made. All of us welcome the reset button being pushed-if that is the right terminology-by the Foreign Secretary. I am sure that he would not call it that, but it is mysterious that we have heard about his visit from the Russians rather than from the Foreign Office itself. Perhaps the Minister will be able to address that point.

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Any attempt to deal with Russia is both challenging and fraught with difficulties. That is the case not just now but traditionally. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that we cannot alter 70 years of one sort of mentality and 200 years of tsarist rule in just 18 years of a change of mood in a country. The changes that we want to see will never happen quickly in the emerging states of the former Soviet Union, and that is particularly true of Russia, the largest and most complex of those states. The issues in the Caucasus, both in the north and south, will continue to be of concern to all of us. The area is both volatile and very dangerous.

We are right to try to engage with Russia. We need the Russians for a whole series of reasons, not least non-proliferation, climate change, international economic co-operation and regional conflicts in the middle east and Afghanistan. We know how vital their role is in hopefully bringing about some sort of dialogue with Iran and we urge them not to play games on that issue, but to take a firm stance with the west on Iran, but such things will happen only if we are prepared to build a dialogue with them at all levels. It does not matter that the Prime Minister has not had a close relationship with Mr. Putin. What we need to have is a close relationship with the Russian state at all levels-whether it is with the Duma, the Prime Minister or President Medvedev. Too many issues are of mutual benefit to both of us for the stalemate-the vacuum of non-activity-to go on for any length of time.

The Defence Committee produced a very good report on UK-Russian relationships, and the Government response to it is one of the best responses that we have had from the Government on a defence paper from the Committee for some time. It is well worth a read and I commend it to all Members. However, we must deal with a number of issues, including how we get the dialogue back on track. When the Foreign Secretary returns, perhaps he will be able to tell us that he has opened doors that have been closed.

Other key issues include the Nabucco pipeline. Russia has taken one line and the west another, with one going for one pipeline-the south stream-and the other going for Nabucco. It is in the west's interest, and the UK's long-term interest, to get secure supplies of gas from Turkmenistan. We must find a way in which Russia can co-operate with making that happen. There is not enough energy coming out of Turkmenistan to supply both pipelines. We must make a decision to back the right one.

In addition, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said, we must address the problem of visas. I am dealing with a case of a constituent who married a British citizen and has a UK-born son who is now back in Russia, trying to get a visa to come back to rejoin her family. She is having enormous difficulties in dealing with that and it is a nonsense.

Once again, we are pressed for time and I know that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) wants to speak, but I must end by saying that we have to acknowledge that Russia is a big player by any measure that we care to use, and we need to be working and co-operating with that country. It is in our interests and the interests of Europe.

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Mr. Gary Streeter (in the Chair): I call Mr. Nigel Evans. You have one minute. I am sorry; you have a bit longer.

10.29 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): My contribution will be more of an intervention than a speech, Mr. Streeter. None the less, I am grateful for having one minute.

In conclusion-[Laughter.] I want to ask the Minister a question. Can the Foreign Secretary, when he goes to Russia, raise a number of issues? First, one issue is clearly the British Council. Can the Foreign Secretary ensure that all our offices are open, to enable cultural exchanges and so that the promotion of education via the British Council is allowed to carry on? Secondly, regarding NATO membership for countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, Russia should not have a veto on that sort of thing.

Thirdly, regarding human rights, a number of things have already been mentioned today. However, may I also say how disturbing it is for us to read in the newspapers from time to time about the situation with gay rights, for instance, in Moscow? When there is a gay pride event, the freedoms of young people that we take for granted in this country when gay marches take place are completely denied in Moscow. The violence that takes place there, when the police turn a blind eye to the type of activities that go on to suppress and oppress young gay people, simply should not be allowed to happen in this day and age.

Fourthly, it would also be useful if Russia officially abolished the death penalty. We know that nobody has been officially executed in Russia for some time-I say officially advisedly-but it would still be useful if Russia now showed itself to be a country that recognises that the death penalty no longer has a role to play.

We know that Russia is important, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned; £100 billion worth of trade between Russia and the UK takes place every year. Russia is an important country-we know that. In the Council of Europe, on which I serve, we have tremendous relations with the Russian Members of Parliament who attend. It is useful that there is dialogue from Government to Government, but it is also vital that politicians have that dialogue, which we hope will continue into the future.

10.31 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I would like to begin by welcoming the Minister for Europe to his new position in the Government. I know that it is a position that he will very much enjoy, as it goes to the heart of many of the interests and issues that he has raised in his time in the House. I look forward to discussing with him the implementation of the Lisbon treaty, when the Czech Republic has signed it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate. I agree with much of what he said, although what he said about the BBC gave me some cause for concern. It is quite right that hon. Members criticise the BBC and the way that it reports things; that is absolutely right in a democracy. However, the argument that the Government should intervene in BBC reporting-as he seemed to suggest-is one that I find myself in disagreement with.

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Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman's overall thesis that the Government should take a different approach to relations with Russia is absolutely right. We have seen a deep freeze. It has not been fruitful for this country, Russia or the wider world. So he is right to stress the importance of the meetings that he referred to. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) that those meetings need to happen at all political levels.

The British Government's position after the crisis in Georgia sent the wrong signal, too; the Government made the wrong call on that issue. Over a period of years, the uncritical support from this country for the way that President Bush undertook relations with Russia has also hindered the influence that we have, because we are not seen to be an independent critical voice, which we need to be. Therefore, one looks at the success that President Obama has had. If we had been saying the sort of things that President Obama has been saying, perhaps we would have been a bit more successful, although we obviously do not have the influence of America.

I strongly welcome what President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are achieving. I would argue that one of the major steps forward for our relations with Russia would be to support those achievements, because we saw President Bush almost ignoring Russia for many years. In many ways, he was almost insulting the Russians with the lack of attention and the lack of significance that he gave to American-Russian relations. We have seen how quickly a different approach is working and bearing fruit. With this different American President leading the way, there are so many goals that we can jointly achieve.

My hon. Friend must have read my notes, because his speech covered the gamut of the issues. We have seen progress and we are continuing to see progress on the nuclear issue. There are talks about cutting the nuclear arsenals. That is fantastic and critical as we approach next year and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference, which could make a historic step in global nuclear disarmament.

We have also seen the very welcome step forward on ballistic missile defence. My own party was the only party in Parliament that argued that Britain should not be co-operating with the Americans on BMD and instead should be arguing against it. I am glad that we have an American President who has now taken that view as well. I am glad, not only because that will reduce the paranoia in Russia on that issue-it was paranoia-but because a sensible approach was not being taken on BMD.

We also must engage with the Russians on climate change. Everyone talks about the importance of China with regard to climate change, but Russia, with its massive energy supplies, is equally significant.

Other hon. Members have talked about Iran, Afghanistan, human rights and, of course, the significance of relations with Russia on terrorism and tackling Islamic jihad across the world. The Russians understand the dangers that Islamic jihad poses and have a lot to offer, if we can improve our relations with them.

There was an area where I disagreed with the thrust of the argument by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham. He was rightly critical of the Government,
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but his argument was a little unbalanced; it was almost as though Russia had not played a part in the problems of the relationship. Let us face it; Russia has caused many of the problems. If the British Government had taken a different approach, that might have worked. Equally, however, it appears at times that Moscow has no interest in any engagement from London. It is as though Russia has taken a strategic decision to make Britain the bogey man and to pile its venom on Britain, and that makes any diplomatic overtures much more difficult. I am not saying that we could not do better, but in not focusing on and understanding that point, or at least appreciating it, the hon. Gentleman unbalanced the overall thrust of his argument.

So how do we go forward? I have talked about the significance of working with the Obama team; that approach offers real opportunity. We also need to talk much more about the role of the European Union in this respect. The EU is really important. Other EU leaders are doing much better than the UK's leaders in this respect, as the hon. Gentleman said. Of course, Angela Merkel is leading that process. However, the problem within the EU, as we all know, is that many different interests are involved in its relationships with Russia. I have seen analysis of the 27 different EU member states that shows that they all have very different interests in their relations with Russia; sometimes there are competing interests. So it is not easy to get a united, concerted EU approach with respect to Russia, and I think that we all recognise that. Equally, however, when we can work more carefully together to get a united EU approach, Russia has to take notice, not just on issues such as energy or trade but on wider issues, too. The EU, with Britain playing a much stronger role and giving a greater lead within the EU on Russia, is one of the ways that we can ensure that Russia is persuaded to engage in the constructive manner that the hon. Gentleman wanted.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I thought that putting the development of the Russian Federation into a historical context, as he did, was very important. In considering that historical context, I urge other right hon. and hon. Members to view the EU's role over a period. In my view, the EU is one of the greatest steps forward for humankind in history. What has evolved over a few decades to create that centre of peace and stability is hugely impressive, and it also gives lessons for how we deal with Russia, both in terms of the EU working together and in terms of understanding where Russia is coming from.

I say all that not wishing for a minute that we should pull our punches with the Russians. When they behave outrageously-particularly on human rights, whether with regard to gay pride marches in Moscow, the appalling way that they have behaved over the Khodorkovsky trial and detention, or the way that they behaved over Litvinenko-we must not pull our punches. I urge the Minister to tell the Foreign Secretary that, when he goes to Russia, he should make it clear that we will speak out about these issues; I am sure that the Foreign Secretary would do that, but I believe that he has backing from across the House to do it. British political parties across the board want to speak out on these issues and Russia has to prove itself. That does not mean that one cannot engage as well on all those other joint, shared interests.

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I just want to come back to the Khodorkovsky case, however. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that issue will be raised specifically. It is quite symbolic of how Russia approaches law and order, democracy and human rights. If Russia changed its position on the case, it would send a signal to the EU and the west about reform. A reforming Russia is a Russia that we can do business with. One dreams of a position where the strategic EU partnership, over a period of years, can bring about the reform and prosperity that Russia needs. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said, the rouble and the economy are in a mess. That is in neither Russia's interest nor ours. I hope that we can build on such moves forward and that the British Government will show more leadership in doing so.

10.50 am

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate, which he introduced very thoroughly. The subject is important and timely, given US Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Russia only yesterday. I welcome the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to his new responsibilities as Minister for Europe. His replacement of the previous Minister is marked out as perhaps the first Government appointment in the world to be announced via Twitter. I am sure that his predecessor was interested to be involved in that record.

I should like to mention some of the other contributions from Back-Bench Members. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke about the importance of the Russia-China relationship, which we should note. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) argued for engagement with Russia, including via the Council of Europe, a forum of which he has considerable experience. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) raised a number of important human rights questions, not least in relation to Chechnya. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) did so as well and made a case for the importance of engagement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), in a wide-ranging contribution-[Laughter.] I thought that he crammed a great deal into 90 seconds. He raised a number of issues, including human rights and gay rights in Russia. He was followed by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who also argued for engagement with Russia, particularly under the auspices of the European Union.

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