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House of Lords

Thursday, 25th March 1999.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

The Earl of Devon--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Royal Assent

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Consolidated Fund Act,

City of Westminster Act.

UNHRC: Iran Resolution

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What issues concerning Iran they intend to raise at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, the European Union is again sponsoring a resolution on Iran at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, which is currently taking place until 30th April. The Government are ensuring that it will cover the EU's concerns about human rights in Iran, for example, on freedom of expression, women's rights and the situation regarding the Baha'is as well as the recent improvements under President Khatami.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I acknowledge, as does the special rapporteur, that some progress has been made towards President Khatami's goal of a civil society based on the rule of law. However, will the Minister ensure that, apart from the matters she has mentioned, which certainly ought to go into any resolution before the commission, the resolution also deals with the recent murders of intellectuals, the need for open trials of those who have been charged as responsible for those crimes by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the killing of peaceful demonstrators--14 people in Sanandaj and one in Orumiyeh--in the recent demonstrations in Iranian Kurdistan, and the point the special rapporteur makes on the rights on minorities?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, yes, I mentioned only two or three of the well known, long-standing and outstanding issues with Iran. We shall be addressing the issues mentioned by the noble Lord. We were encouraged that in relation to the recent

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murders of intellectuals and dissidents, 10 officers of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security have been arrested. We shall watch the outcome of that most carefully.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, what progress have the Government made in halting the torture, amputations and stonings condemned by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights last April? What specific discussions on that subject has the Foreign Secretary had with his Iranian counterpart, Dr. Kharrazi, and what action do the Government intend to take at this year's Human Rights Commission to protest against human rights abuses in Iran?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, as I indicated, the European Union is drafting a resolution to put before this year's United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The noble Baroness mentioned last year's resolution. We have taken every possible opportunity in dialogue at every level with the Iranians to express our strong disapproval of the use of the death penalty and the inhumane treatment of those arrested or not that we know has been taking place in Iran.

Under President Khatami and his government, elected in May 1997, there have been small improvements and we must all do everything we can to encourage them. However, we admit that there is a long way to go.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I fully recognise what the Minister said about the serious failures in human rights which still continue in Iran. However, does she agree with these Benches that the recent local government elections in Iran, which brought a substantial number of women and minorities into elected positions, are an encouraging step forward and that it is in the interests of Her Majesty's Government to support the proposals of President Khatami, given that he faces strong opposition within his country to carry them out?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. She was right in everything she mentioned. The local elections, which took place on 26th February and brought an encouraging representation from successful candidates among women and ethnic minorities, were the first ever local elections in Iran. That is definitely a step in the right direction.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, the Minister twice mentioned the European Union in her answers. Can she tell the House to what extent the United Kingdom still has an independent foreign policy in this matter, if indeed it does?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, we have a completely independent foreign policy on all our bilateral relations with countries such as Iran. I am sure that the noble Lord is aware that since 1992 the EU has followed a common foreign policy towards Iran, using a combination of critical engagements and trading links

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to try to influence Iranian behaviour. Any grouping which can increase the power of influence on events such as those in Iran is surely good.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, did the noble Baroness observe that the special rapporteur noted with deep regret the increase in the bounty offered by the XV Khordad Foundation for the murder of Salman Rushdie? Does she believe that that is contrary to the spirit of the Cook/Kharrazi agreement, and should be characterised as such in the resolution of the commission?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, yes. Dr. Kharrazi made his government's position on that bounty very clear; he dissociated them from it completely and they do not support it.

The Times: Pricing Policy Inquiry

3.8 p.m.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government when they expect to receive from the Office of Fair Trading the results of the inquiry into the pricing policy of Times Newspapers.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Simon of Highbury): My Lords, the decision to undertake an inquiry into the pricing policy of The Times newspaper was taken independently by the Director-General of Fair Trading. It is a matter for him how and when he makes his findings public. I understand that the director-general continues to make good progress with his inquiry. He will announce his decision as soon as possible.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, will the Minister accept that my noble friend Lord McNally would regard that as a somewhat disappointing Answer? Initially his request for an inquiry was resisted on the basis that there was no case to answer. The Minister then promised a report by 28th February, and we are now told that it is progressing satisfactorily. Does he agree that that is an unsatisfactory response? Does he also agree that the issue is less about the behaviour of Times Newspapers and more about the creditability of the OFT? Does he further agree that that supports our case that newspapers need special legislation?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, in trying to reply as appropriately as I can to transferred disappointment, perhaps I may say that the response is to a complex question. On the last occasion I was at the Dispatch Box, I gave the best indication that the inquiry would be completed by February. We are now into March and I have said that the director-general will

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announce his decision as soon as possible. I believe, without any doubt, that the matter is being attended to in the appropriate way.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, has the Minister been able to consider further the suggestion that I made to him on the last occasion this question was raised; that is, whether the enhanced investigative powers of the Director-General of Fair Trading, contained within the Competition Act 1998, should be implemented as soon as possible so that they can apply to all such inquiries as the one being conducted at present?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I am glad he returned to it. We have, indeed, followed up the point that he made. I can confirm that the enhanced investigatory powers to which he refers will be put into place--particularly in relation to the Fair Trading Act, as that is existing legislation--on 1st April 1999. That would not be applicable to this inquiry because all the data required by the director-general are in place. However, it will certainly enhance his investigatory powers as regards any future inquiry.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to "a complex question" raised by this matter. Can he identify, for the benefit of the House, what is complex about it?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I believe that this is the fourth time that the matter has been brought to the attention of the director-general and, effectively, no case has been found. That means that it is not a simple matter. There must be additional information and new circumstances to bring the case again. The director-general has been looking at both those matters with care. He required a great deal of information. As we stated when we last discussed the matter in the summer, he would need a great deal of extra information to ensure that the complexities were well understood.

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