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Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, both the Prime Minister and Shaikh Khalifa were on private holidays. The Prime Minister simply took advantage of the opportunity to thank the Bahrainis for their help and support during Operation Desert Fox. It was not an appropriate occasion to raise any individual case in the very complex and sensitive field of human rights. I assure the noble Lord that we have raised the case of Shaikh Al-Jamri and the question of human rights with the Bahraini Government. The case of Shaikh Al-Jamri was raised by Mr. John Shepherd, the Deputy Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, with the Bahraini ambassador as recently as 11th January.
Is my noble friend aware of the political complexities in Bahrain, as I am after visiting there on behalf of the Maimonides Foundation? In particular, did the Prime Minister have any chance to discuss with the Bahraini Prime Minister the continuing Middle East peace process and the part that the Gulf states might play, not least in the light of the extraordinary meeting last week at the Peres Peace Centre which was attended not only by Gorbachev and seven Nobel peace prize winners but by representatives of Palestine, Egypt, Israel and
Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, my noble friend makes some interesting points. However, to my knowledge, the Prime Minister did not raise the question of the Middle East peace process with the Bahraini Prime Minister when he met him during his holiday in the Seychelles.
Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while it is important that human rights should be preserved and protected in Bahrain, as elsewhere, it is nevertheless of considerable importance to this country that our traditional friendship with Bahrain and the Al-Khalifa family should be preserved and developed? In the present situation in Iraq it is of paramount importance that we continue to protect and preserve our political, economic and military interests in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf.
Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with the points made by the noble Lord. The UK's trade and defence relations with Bahrain are extremely good. There are many recent examples of co-operation, but I shall not take up the time of the House by going into them in detail. On the question of co-operation offered by Bahrain, we have two VC10s in Bahrain providing refuelling in the air for the planes which implement the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. Relations and co-operation with Bahrain are particularly good and it is important that they are maintained. However, that does not prevent us from also having strong views on the question of human rights. Wherever it is appropriate, we make that point to the Bahrainis.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is it not the case that our strong friendship with the Al-Khalifa family, our indebtedness to them for the assistance they gave us during the recent crisis over Iraq and the presence of UNSCOM's headquarters in the territory and the American fifth fleet in the area inhibit us from raising human rights matters with the Bahraini Government? Would it not be a good idea if, as happens in other parts of the world, officials at the British Embassy in Bahrain were to visit the prisoners of conscience who have been detained for three years, two of whom I mentioned?
Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, there is no question but that this Government do raise human rights issues with the Bahrainis whenever that is appropriate. The case of Shaikh Al-Jamri in particular is constantly being raised. The noble Lord has asked about Shaikh Al-Jamri on a number of occasions and he has also asked whether officials at the embassy could visit Shaikh Al-Jamri in prison. As he knows, because the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, told him in a written reply in May last year, there is no legal basis for officials at the British Embassy to request to visit Shaikh Al-Jamri in prison. We were then, and still are, assured that he is being well treated and has access to
Baroness Ludford: My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for that reply, perhaps I may express a little disappointment. After all, many British people will acquire euros in travellers cheques or as part payment to small businesses or part payment in salary, but when they go abroad they may be charged 4 per cent. commission. Does the Minister agree that when the single currency offers so many advantages it would be unfortunate if we did not allow the British public to have the advantages of the euro? Does he further agree that the Government should take a more pro-active stance in order to protect British travellers from profiteering banks which charge around 4 per cent. commission?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as to conversion between sterling and the euro, the position is no different from conversion between sterling and any of the currencies of the 11 member countries. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that there should be any reduction in charges. The only time it will affect either the banks or British travellers abroad is when they are converting between one country and another. That indeed is a matter for the banks and the Commission. The Commission has taken a view that conversion between one currency and another in the 11 should be virtually free of transaction costs.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, will the Minister assure us that the Government have taken careful note of the Commission's recommendations of 23rd April regarding transparency, under which transaction costs must be clearly separated from the transaction itself? In the light of that, does he not agree that there is quite enough competition already?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords. We certainly agree with the statement to which the noble Viscount referred. He made a valid point about competition. If there is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, suggested in her supplementary
Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that a good deal of this misunderstanding arises out of the Government's probably deliberately misleading attempt to give the impression that there is something very special about the euro? To avoid such misunderstanding among well informed people, would it not be useful if the Government issued some kind of propaganda to point out that there is, as he rightly said, no difference between trading in pounds, dollars, euros or any other currency?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not accept for a moment that the Government have been issuing misleading propaganda. It is the responsibility of this Government to ensure that, as far as possible, businesses in this country are prepared for changes in the euro as they will have to set up accounts in an additional currency and they will benefit from the transactional costs. For example, I used to commission survey research in six or seven European countries at the same time. All of them could now bill me in euros rather than in six or seven different currencies which have to be converted, one between another. The exchange risks involved in that made it very much easier for me--or would have made it easier if I had still been in business--to quote a precise price for my clients.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, are the Government aware that many in business and in the City very much welcome the steps taken by the Government to ensure that we are fully prepared for the euro, whether or not we enter the single currency? Some of us feel that the time is ripe for the Government to mount a much stronger campaign than the ones they have embarked on so far.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. If I may return the compliment to the City, I think it is generally agreed that conversion over the weekend of 1st January to 4th January went very well indeed. We have a substantial information campaign. We have had responses from more than 300,000 small and medium enterprises to the literature we sent out and we have had requests for further information. We have business advisers touring the country giving advice on how best to take advantage of the existence of the euro and we have made our public services as friendly as possible to the euro by saying that in Britain we can pay tax, we can file company returns and we can receive certain grants in euros.
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