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14 May 1996 : Column WA43

Written Answers

Tuesday, 14th May 1996.

Council of Europe Conventions

Lord Finsberg asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will list the conventions and other legal instruments of the Council of Europe which they have not ratified, distinguishing between those which have been signed by them, those where a decision on whether or not to sign is awaited and those which it is their current policy not to sign.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): As the information is not yet complete, I will write to the noble Lord with a full answer by 23rd May. A copy will be placed in the Library of the House.

Russian Federation: Council of Europe Membership

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of recent circumstances, they will reconsider their decision to support the Russian Federation's membership of the Council of Europe.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: No. We supported the Russian Federation's accession to the Council of Europe on 28th February 1996. This has not changed.

East Timor

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will use their best endeavours, bilaterally and as a member of the European Union, to persuade the government of Indonesia to comply with the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights following his visit to Indonesia and East Timor of 3rd to 7th December 1995, as reported in E/CN. 4/1996/112 of 14th March 1996, and in particular, whether they will press for the establishment of a United Nations human rights presence in East Timor and the granting to international human rights NGOs of full access to Indonesia and East Timor.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: Together with our European partners, we continue to urge the Indonesian Government fully to implement the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, following his recent visit to Indonesia and East Timor in December 1995, and to improve access to the territory for human rights and humanitarian organisations.

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We note with satisfaction the possibility that the High Commissioner will assign to the UNDP office in Jakarta a human rights officer who would have regular access to East Timor.

Forensic Explosives Laboratory: Centrifuge Contamination

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will report on the work of the Forensic Explosives Laboratory.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): On 14th March 1996 explosives contamination was found in a centrifuge at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory which is part of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. The laboratory carried out a preliminary investigation and laid all the information before the Government in a formal report. A copy of that report has today been placed in the library.

The Forensic Explosives Laboratory's primary role is to provide scientific support to the police service and to provide expert witnesses for the Crown Prosecution Service in cases involving the criminal use of explosives. One of the services it provides involves the laboratory analysis of swab samples taken to determine the presence of explosives and the type involved. This "trace" analysis involves a range of procedures including the use in many cases of a centrifuge.

The explosives contamination involved a small amount, not more than 30 micrograms (that is 30 millionths of a gram), of the explosive RDS, one of the main components of the explosive Semtex. It was detected in a part of a laboratory centrifuge which was probably already contaminated on its arrival at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory in 1989. By normal standards the amount of explosive detected was tiny but nevertheless it should not have been there.

The centrifuge involved was immediately taken out of operational action on discovery of this contamination and the trace laboratory thoroughly cleaned. No incidence of contamination from the centrifuge could, therefore, occur from that point on.

There is a small theoretical possibility that any casework sample showing RDX traces may have been affected by the centrifuge contamination. Regular quality assurance tests undertaken by the laboratory have not revealed RDX traces at a level which would suggest that casework samples are likely to have been contaminated but this cannot be ruled out completely. This may call into question evidence submitted by the FEL in criminal cases involving RDX.

On present information there may be around a dozen such cases which resulted in convictions, but the identification of all relevant cases and assessment of the possible risk of contamination are matters on which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary wants independent advice. He has therefore decided that an

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immediate independent review of the casework and procedures at the Forensic Explosive Laboratory must take place. The terms of reference will require the reviewer:

    (1) to report on the general likelihood of contamination being spread from the centrifuge to samples in the laboratory;

    (2) to examine FEL papers on all cases in which RDX traces were found and a criminal conviction resulted and assess the likelihood of contamination;

    (3) to examine FEL procedures in the trace laboratory and make recommendations.

Professor Brian Caddy, Professor of Forensic Science at Strathclyde University, has agreed to undertake this review and will begin work shortly. He will report to my right honourable friend in the first instance but the results and recommendations of his review will be made public.

As soon as it is clear which cases involved an RDX trace and resulted in a conviction we will notify the representatives of those concerned.

Once the report has been completed my right honourable friend will decide what further action should be taken, particularly with regard to any concerns raised about the possible contamination of casework samples which subsequently resulted in criminal convictions. If appropriate, he will consider whether particular cases should be referred to the Court of Appeal.

From the information presently available to my right honourable friend it would appear that the risk of contamination is small, but in a matter of this sensitivity, he is determined to act only on the basis of the most rigorous and independent scientific assessments. We will keep the House fully informed of the outcome of that scrutiny and the measures which flow from it.

Asylum Applicants: Country Assessments

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the Home Office country assessment for Zaire; and

    What is the Home Office country assessment for Algeria; and

    What is the Home Office country assessment for Liberia; and

    What is the Home Office country assessment for Sudan; and

    What is the Home Office country assessment for Bahrain.

Baroness Blatch: Every case in which a person applies for asylum is examined on its merits. The relevance of the general situation in the applicant's country of origin varies from case to case, as does the range of information and assessment upon which it is necessary to rely on reaching a decision. We have no current plans to publish country briefs on any of these countries.

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Public Bodies: Appointments

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Which individuals they have appointed as chairmen of government agencies and quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations since 1st January 1996; what, in each case, were the principal qualifications of the individuals for the job, the term of office and salary, and whether the appointment is full or part-time.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): Since 1st January 1996, 515 people have been appointed or re-appointed to serve as chairmen/women of those organisations listed in the Cabinet Office publication Public Bodies. In each case, the individual has been selected on the basis of merit, having been carefully appraised against criteria set for the appointment which cover the qualities, skills, and experience required. No appointments of chairmen are made to next steps executive agencies. In view of the length of the list detailing the names of individuals and their appointments, I have arranged for a copy to be placed in the House library.

Overseas Trade Balances

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will provide, for publication in the Official Report, the United Kingdom's overall regional trade balances during the latest three years for which figures are available with (a) North and South America; (b) Africa; (c) Australasia and the Pacific, (d) Asia; and (e) the European Communities.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie):

Crude(1) visible trade balances of the United Kingdom by region for 1993-95
£ million

North and South America-1,274-541-2,758
Australasia and Pacific347616708
EC 15(2)-6,208-6,402-3,756


Overseas Trade Statistics of the United Kingdom.

(1) The crude balance of trade is defined as exports (free on board) less imports (cost including insurance and freight). For some countries this is likely significantly to understate the balances on a Balance of Payments basis, which is the preferred measure of trade balances.

(2) Refers to the current 15 EC members throughout.

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