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Britain's relationship with Russia is important to this country. Russia is economically important again, is a member of the G8, maintains large armed forces and is one of the world's biggest energy exporters. On top of that, Russia has considerable diplomatic weight in the world. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has influence in key areas of concern such as Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. Our two countries have great mutual interests and potentially strong grounds for co-operation. Anglo-Russian trade, for instance, is large and has great potential. Despite the BP and Shell sagas, Britain is the largest foreign investor in Russia. Britain and Russia have joint concerns about Islamic
fundamentalist terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and climate change-issues that should be of concern to all of us.
Given that great potential for co-operation, it is regrettable that Russian actions in a number of areas have harmed what could and should be a mutually beneficial relationship. One such area is human rights and includes Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi-the man accused of murdering British citizen Alexander Litvinenko in our capital in a particularly cruel and horrifying manner that put many Britons at risk. There is also the continuing detention without trial of business men involved in the break-up of the company, Yukos-a matter discussed in detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham-and the failure to investigate properly the death of Anna Politkovskaya, which we believe the Russians should make greater efforts to follow up. Forgive me if my pronunciation is not correct; the Minister knows who I am referring to. We should also not forget the harassment of the British Council and the British Broadcasting Corporation-a subject raised by several hon. Members during this debate.
A further direct action by Russia that undermines trust is the resumption of Russian bomber patrols close to our coast. In one of the latest reported incidents, a Russian Blackjack-a nuclear-capable and supersonic bomber-flew within 20 miles of Hull. That is an unnecessary throwback to the days of the cold war and does not improve Anglo-Russian relations.
I have touched on the subject of British investment in Russia, but the harassment of BP and Shell investments in that country, which effectively forced those businesses to hand over some of their best assets to Russian companies, might now be seen even in Russia as counter-productive. With Russian energy assets starved of investment and medium-term forecasts of decreasing production, Russia seems to have begun to realise that continuing foreign investment is desirable. Last month, Prime Minister Putin hosted the world's major oil companies in Siberia, promising them:
"We would like you to consider yourselves participants in our undertaking. The main condition from our side is that partnerships should be stable and long-term."
As well as our bilateral relationship, Russian involvement could be influential in a number of global problems. It would be highly desirable to gain Russian support in Iran. The recent discovery of the Qom enrichment plant has heightened fears that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons capability. It is hoped that further talks, backed up by the threat of further sanctions, will persuade Iran to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency full access to its facilities.
For those reasons, it is welcome that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Moscow yesterday in an attempt to gain Russian support. Russia has a major role to play in the international community's dealings with Iran and, judging by yesterday's statements by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, it may have begun to take seriously its responsibilities in that area. Hillary Clinton, for her part, said that the talks were "extremely co-operative". The next few months will demonstrate whether that is really the case.
Afghanistan is also key to our relationship with Russia. Russia has as strong an interest as we do in the denial of Afghanistan to those who would seek to use it as a base for terrorism. Russia has a unique knowledge of Afghanistan that dates back to the days of the great game and beyond, and it is important strategically as a route for overflights to the UK. It is hoped that Russia will continue to use its influence to aid the international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan. I believe that the Foreign Secretary will take up that issue when he visits Moscow in November. The Minister may want to say a little more about it when he replies in a few minutes.
Few people would contend that the UK's bilateral relationship with Russia, despite our many mutual interests, has not been somewhat strained over the past few years. It was hoped that the election of President Medvedev would lead to a warming in relations, to the benefit of both countries. Unfortunately, despite President Medvedev's arrival, that has not happened. A Conservative Government would welcome a positive relationship with Russia based on mutual respect. We respect Russia as a great and historic power, but that respect must be mutual. We do not believe that relationships between countries should be simply a zero-sum game. Those who believe that tend to find themselves long-term losers. In dealing with Russia, it is important to assess her not just by what she says but by what she does. [Interruption.] I wonder whether that noise is the Russians attempting to contact us as we speak.
"With a Conservative Government, the door will be open to improved relations with Russia. We shall see if a door opens in return."
The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), I think this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter, and it is a great delight to see you in the Chair.
It is also a delight to reply to a debate secured by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), whom I consider to be a friend. We have co-operated on many issues relating to Russia in the past, and I hope that we will do so in the future. I note that he adopted an uncharacteristically aggressive and partisan attitude. I would respond in kind and be partisan, but it might be of more use to the House if I were co-operative. It is good to see so many hon. Members present, and I think that they all have a clear understanding of the significance of this relationship and its problems. The path that we must take is not straightforward.
Russia is obviously a great nation. It has a great sense of pride, which we respect. It was fascinating to see how many British people wanted to see the "From Russia" exhibition in 2008, for which we had to change the law so that some of the artworks could come to the UK. Russia holds a degree of fascination for British people,
as it has for many centuries. We would never want to alienate ourselves from a nation that has produced such greats as Andrei Rublev-undoubtedly the greatest icon painter in history-and literary figures such as Tolstoy, Chekov, Sholokhov and Solzhenitsyn. We need a firm-but-fair relationship, and that is what we strive for.
Russia and the UK are key allies, but there are undoubted problems, as many hon. Members have said, one of which is the situation with Georgia. Russia's continuing presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is an ongoing problem for us because we believe, as does the rest of the European Union, that Russia is not meeting its obligations. There are problems in relation to energy security. Although only 2 per cent. of the UK's gas comes from Russia, the figure for the EU is 40 per cent. Russia is therefore key to the EU's energy security. There are problems with human rights, which I will amplify later. The most notable problem in recent years has been the Litvinenko case.
The key areas where Russia and the UK have to work together are climate change, which has been mentioned, and counter-proliferation, which relates not only to nuclear weaponry, but to the security of fissile material, on which the UK and Russia have worked closely for a number of years. It is not only the US and Russia that have moved this issue forward. Our Prime Minister has taken a key role, because we want to see a comprehensive test ban treaty and to ensure that the nuclear arsenals around the world diminish. We have made a significant contribution by cutting our nuclear weaponry by three quarters. We are prepared to go further if it will help the process. Although no one has mentioned it, Russia also plays an important role in the middle east peace process.
The hon. Gentleman started with a broad attack on the Prime Minister, of whom I gather he is not an enormous fan. Unfortunately, he made many errors. He said that the Prime Minister has never met the Russian President.
Chris Bryant: I will not, because I have only a few minutes and a great many issues to reply on. The Prime Minister has met President Medvedev twice this year; the Foreign Secretary has regular dialogue with Foreign Minister Lavrov; and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was in Moscow earlier this month to build momentum towards Copenhagen.
Mr. Hands: My question was whether, since he became Prime Minister in 2007, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) has met Prime Minister Putin, including in his previous guise as President Putin. I have been refused an answer on that matter in many parliamentary questions. Has he met him or not?
Chris Bryant: I am sorry; I misunderstood what the hon. Gentleman was asking. He referred to the President and I thought that he was referring to President Medvedev. I am happy to come back to him on the question that he has raised.
Contrary to the hon. Gentleman's comments, there has been a great deal of engagement between this country and Russia in relation to climate change and counter-proliferation. We believe that there are important movements in Russia's position in relation to Iran and North Korea. We welcome those moves, not least the meeting that took place yesterday. However, Kremlinologists have interpreted the meaning of yesterday's conversations between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lavrov differently. We have also worked closely with Russia on counter-narcotics and Afghanistan-something that has been very helpful.
The hon. Gentleman said various things about the World Service. Although one wants to be critical of the BBC at times, it would be wholly inappropriate for Ministers to analyse the rights and wrongs of its editorial decisions. The absolute integrity and independence of the World Service is part of what guarantees its reach and its ability to make a difference in places such as Russia.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Litvinenko case. He knows that I have raised that issue many times. The courts have issued a warrant for the arrest of Andrei Lugovoi on a charge of murder. That warrant remains valid. We do not resile from that position. It was a horrific crime that was committed against a British citizen on UK soil. The Government have worked hard to support the Crown Prosecution Service and will continue to do so. We do not believe that Russia has
co-operated satisfactorily on our requests. We will continue to seek his trial before the UK courts.
The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) asked about Mr. Khodorkovsky. We have raised that issue with Russia and will continue to do so. We raise the issue of human rights with all countries where there are significant issues.
The speech of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was the best that I have heard today, by virtue of its brevity. He raised the issue of gay rights in Russia. We do raise that matter and our embassy tries to be supportive of British people who try to go there to take part. I think that I am right in saying that the mayor of Moscow, whose comments on these issues are deeply offensive, is in the political party that is aligned with the Conservatives in the Council of Europe. The hon. Gentleman may want to raise those issues in the party grouping, although such groupings are a difficult issue for the Conservative party at the moment.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley asked whether it would be possible to visit Chechnya. I will look into that matter, but it is obviously difficult. She is a very brave woman, as we all know-we certainly know it in south Wales. She visited Iraq when it was very difficult for anybody to do so. She has played an important long-term role in human rights issues. We continue to raise such issues through the EU's dialogue with Russia. She raised the case of Anna Politkovskaya. Press freedom is vital and it is impossible to have a free society when there is impunity when journalists are killed. Becoming a free society is the best direction in which Russia could move. The problems with Russia's criminal justice system are well documented.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) raised some of the same issues and has taken a significant interest in such matters. I hope that we can keep up that dialogue. She, too, is a near neighbour in the south Wales valleys, so we are well represented in this debate.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I hope you will agree that this is also an excellent debate, Mr. Streeter: it is certainly important to many hon. Members. Many organisations. too, will be following the debate, particularly as we are at a crucial stage in the negotiations of the plans, which I shall explain in a moment, originally proposed by the Competition Commission following a lengthy inquiry into the grocery market sector.
Many people may question whether it is appropriate to have any kind of debate about the role of the grocery market sector within the UK in the context of development policy, but today I would like to explore with the Minister the importance of association with such a crucial, leading sector in the UK and development policy itself. I shall also discuss the widespread and growing concern about how the market operates in the UK and the impact of that on developing countries. I welcome the Minister here today and I am pleased to have secured the debate.
I begin by declaring an interest in that, among my many other sins, I am the chairman of the Grocery Market Action Group, which was set up in July 2006 at the commencement of the Competition Commission's inquiry into the grocery sector. Some of the members of that alliance of organisations are ActionAid UK, Traidcraft and Banana Link. The clear impact on suppliers of the supply chain to supermarkets means that organisations such as the Association Of Convenience Stores, the Rural Shops Alliance, the British Independent Fruit Growers Association, the British Brands Group, and the National Farmers Unions of England and Wales and of Scotland are also members of the Grocery Market Action Group. They have been involved in jointly supplying a case to the Competition Commission during its inquiry.
It is important to understand the context in which I am asking the Minister to respond. The issue is the role of supermarkets at the end of the grocery market supply chain, about which there have been concerns for some time. Indeed, in 1999, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) undertook an inquiry into the role of the supermarket from the perspective of both UK planning and the impact of the power of the supermarkets within the supply chain itself. The inquiry considered the manner in which the supermarkets were able to dictate market conditions for all other operators in the supply chain, particularly producers.
The report produced as a result of that inquiry was entitled "Checking out the Supermarkets," and was sent to the competition authorities. As a result of that and other concerns expressed at the time, in April 1999, the then director general of the Office of Fair Trading referred the matter to the Competition Commission, which undertook an inquiry and, in October 2000, produced a report on the supply of groceries from multiple stores in the United Kingdom. That report recommended the establishment of a supermarket code of practice.
In September 2003, the Competition Commission produced a report on the Safeway merger, which raised further issues about the impact of the effective concentration of power in the supermarket sector. In February 2004,
the OFT produced a report on its inquiry into the workings of the supermarket code of practice, which was implemented as a result of the Competition Commission's report that I mentioned. In March 2005, the OFT produced a second report on the code of practice and, by May 2006, it referred the grocery sector to the Competition Commission. The issue therefore has a long pedigree.
By that stage, many organisations had become frustrated. They felt that action was required to curtail or control the excessive power in the supply chain of supermarkets, which were able to dictate market conditions and force suppliers to accept conditions and terms that were clearly to their detriment; and that it was time one of the competition authorities did something about the issue. It has taken two years for the Competition Commission to complete its inquiry. The organisation-the alliance-that I have chaired and convened during that time has submitted a number of proposals to the Competition Commission during its inquiry. The proposal for an adjudicator-or, to use the Competition Commission's term, an ombudsman-to oversee the sector and ensure that a code of practice is properly imposed is particularly relevant to today's debate.
On 13 March last year, I attended an evidence session with the Competition Commission, of which there is a record, and on 30 April 2008, it produced its final report on the UK grocery market. The Government produced their response on 29 July last year. Crucially, the Competition Commission concluded that there was a
"transfer of excessive risk and unexpected costs to suppliers"
"if unchecked will have an adverse effect on investment and innovation in the supply chain, and ultimately on consumers".
It recommended the establishment of an ombudsman to oversee a code of practice. The critical point is that the supermarket code of practice was found to have failed in the sense that suppliers living in a climate of fear feared the consequences of making any kind of complaint. The supermarket code of practice had become relatively useless. The Competition Commission therefore proposed having an ombudsman to oversee what was happening and to provide a point to which future complaints could be directed.
The impact of the problem on the developing world is significant. The point that a number of development organisations-ActionAid UK, Banana Link, the Fairtrade Foundation, Traidcraft, Oxfam and others-have been making for a number of years is that what is relevant to UK suppliers is just as relevant to suppliers from developing countries. There is currently a price war between supermarkets on bananas, for example, and that is clearly having a detrimental effect, not so much on the supermarkets, but on the primary producers in developing countries. Indeed, the Fairtrade Foundation's director of communications and policy said in a press release last week:
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