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26 Feb 2007 : Column 1358

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we always encourage those who pursue democratic processes, but we will not seek to interfere directly in the internal affairs of a country that has those groups in it. I am sure that they would not necessarily welcome us doing so. We have been consistent in our support for those who have argued for a richer civil society. A great deal of work has been done in support of that civil society, and that is probably the way in which we will see the flowering of a far more pluralistic society in Iran.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one area where we might work very positively with the Iranians is on the difficult question of controlling poppy cultivation in Afghanistan? The Iranians have considerable experience and quite a good track record in that area. Despite all the difficulties that we have to handle, and the rather aggressive approach of some of the Iranian pronouncements, could we not work positively with them in that area where success is badly needed because, frankly, the drug problem is getting worse?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, that is an entirely practical suggestion, and work has started in order to deal with issues of border security and eradication. It is in the interests of the Iranian people and most certainly in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom that we pursue that kind of work and succeed in it.

Immigration: Entry Clearance Refusals

3.03 pm

Baroness Quin asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, on 15 January 2007, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made a Written Ministerial Statement in another place announcing the publication of the independent monitor’s report on refusals without the right of appeal, made in 2005. Copies of the report were placed in the Libraries of the two Houses, and it was published on the UKvisas website. My right honourable friend also announced that UKvisas had placed on the website its response to recommendations made in the report.

Baroness Quin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend and hope that the Government will ensure that the issues and problems highlighted in the report are addressed. Is he aware of the media coverage and indeed the indignation in Gateshead and on Tyneside about the fact that, despite Gateshead’s huge and successful efforts to promote tourism using the Angel of the North, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the new regional music and arts venues and so on, the report recounts an entry clearance officer refusing a visitor entry into the UK on the grounds that Gateshead is not a credible tourist destination?

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Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Quin: I am glad that noble Lords share my concern. Would the Government like to show some flair and reinvite the tourist whose application was thus blocked, perhaps together with the ignorant entry clearance official, and help not hinder the tourism image that the north-east richly deserves?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, that is an entirely appropriate question from my noble friend, who, I believe, got the freedom of Gateshead relatively recently, along with my noble friend Lord Burlison. I always love going to the north-east, except when my football team gets beaten up there. On all other occasions, there is a huge amount to recommend it to everybody as a destination. I encourage people to go. I am not certain whether the Government should pay for entry clearance officers or anybody else to learn that lesson, but I hope that they will take the spirit of the response that I have given.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, why are subjective criteria still being used to evaluate entry certificate applications for visitors and students, such as in the example cited by the noble Baroness, despite the fact that the Minister assured me in a Written Answer on 9 October last that instructions had been given on objective assessment on no fewer than three occasions: in March, August and November 2005? Does not the report confirm fears that we expressed a year ago about the number of people still wrongly denied their appeal rights? As the FCO already knew of that from reports going back three years, why has it done nothing about it?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I do not accept the assumptions in the question. The overwhelming proportion of people who apply to come to this country get a visa. A relatively small proportion of those who do not get a visa have been shown by the independent monitor to have had misjudgments made in their case. Of those refused, 4.5 per cent were found to have been refused on the basis of poor judgment.

Principally the criteria are objective but some assessment must be made about the intent of the person who applies and whether they can honestly convince the entry clearance officer that they intend to leave the United Kingdom on the expiry of their visa. I do not think that human judgment can be completely excluded in these matters, even if the whole platform should be broadly objective.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in the report to which my noble friend Lady Quin referred is empirical evidence of the need to move with all due speed towards the new managed migration system and the points-based system, and that anything done to delay the introduction of that system will leave us with more and more subjective and less objective decision-making in this area?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the points-based system should, in general, across the categories that it covers, have a much more objective basis. As the Minister specifically responsible for that area in the Foreign

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Office, I am very insistent that the new pattern of training for entry clearance officers—proper qualifications to do the job, proper qualifications for promotion—should also be fundamental. People cannot do a modern, professional job in a modern, professional world unless they are properly trained to do it and there is some assessment of their ability.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, in her report, published on 11 January, the independent monitor referred to,

not being available and that in her experience she found the guidance,

Does the Minister agree that some other solutions could be as simple as cutting material from a multiplicity of sources and pasting it into a single authoritative document, and that those and other improvements could be put in hand forthwith, without waiting for the Government’s reply?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the advice issued has often come out in shorter pieces and has been added together cumulatively in a way that I do not believe has been effective. I share the noble Viscount's view about that. A major attempt is being made to get it into a single, simple, consolidated document. Given that the regulations go back for a very long period and you cannot simply take pieces out because they do not read as well as others, it is a rather laborious task but it is imperative.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the judicial review announced on 9 February about doctors born overseas? The judge commented that the Home Office had failed to carry out a statutory race impact assessment and that no consultation had taken place. Were those criteria met when the rejection of appeal was being discussed?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the role that UKvisas and the Foreign Office play mean that we must ensure that the Immigration Rules and the criteria, especially the objective criteria, have been followed. Any guidance from the courts that suggests that we, more broadly across government, should address issues further will of course be considered, but there is strong evidence from the monitor herself that there has been a very serious and qualitatively better application of the rules since she reported.

Russia: Mr Litvinenko

3.09 pm

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the United Kingdom has made several requests to Russia for mutual legal assistance in relation to the domestic investigation into the death of Mr Litvinenko. The Russian authorities have co-operated with the requests made. A request for assistance has also been received from Russia. The Home Secretary has considered its request, and has submitted it to the Metropolitan Police Service for further consideration. The Metropolitan Police are co-operating with the Russian authorities within UK law.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very full reply, but does she not agree that the cruel death of Alexander Litvinenko must be seen against the recent assassination of Anna Politkovskaya and some 12 other Russian journalists in recent years? Taken together with the restrictions on the media and NGOs in Russia and the continued ruthless oppression in Chechnya, which lies behind the claimed stability in that part of Russia, is it not essential that we avoid condoning in any way, directly or indirectly, activities that simply cannot be reconciled with the cause of the rule of law, justice and democracy, which we are so trenchantly advocating across the world?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we take every opportunity to have a mature and frank relationship with all our international partners, including Russia, in relation to human rights, the rule of law and democracy. But it would be quite wrong to conflate the different cases, which we must consider in a way that would not inure to the benefit of justice. We are taking every step to ensure that we do that.

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, nevertheless, is the Minister aware that, in some quarters in Moscow, the Government are being accused of double standards in dealing with requests for the extradition of certain Russian citizens, such as Boris Berezovsky and the Chechen leader, Ahmed Zakayev, while at the same time it is claimed that we are happy to deport suspected al-Qaeda terrorists back to their own countries? In that regard, can the Minister give us more information about the negotiations that are being held on the death of Alexander Litvinenko? Has Boris Berezovsky’s name been brought up in those discussions as a possible prime suspect, given that he is a very strong opponent of the current regime in Russia and particularly given the upcoming presidential elections?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, first, I should make it clear that there are no negotiations on Mr Litvinenko’s case. Noble Lords will know that we have a Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003, which sets out the criteria under which requests can be made by either party in those proceedings. That Act is what will govern all our relations with Russia on this issue.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, may I say how pleased I am, as I am sure are all noble Lords, to see the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, back in her place after her recent absence and sad bereavement? On the question in hand, does she accept that although, for geopolitical reasons, we are going to need Russia’s

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help and support on a variety of crucial issues, not least the handling of Iran, when it comes to detailed exchanges we have the right to expect of Russia the behaviour of a power that aspires to be a democracy? In this respect, if the Russian detectives and Russian police authorities want to come here to examine this particular case, surely the Russian prosecutors should not be quite so ready to rule out all questions of extradition in the way that they have. It seems that they have ruled it out not merely for a particular individual, who has been named, but for all purposes connected with this case. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will put the case for reciprocity, balance and fairness very clearly indeed?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that the Government have always put the case for reciprocity and fairness clearly with our Russian colleagues. Of course we have good relations with a number of our international partners, but that does not restrict or restrain us from raising issues that cause us acute and/or grave concern. Justice, human rights and fair play are issues that we will continue to press with all those with whom we deal.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, have any discussions taken place with the Soviet Government to ensure that one or more of their citizens can be tried in British courts?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, first I should remind the noble Lord that there is no longer a Soviet Government, but a Russian one. We will continue energetically to discuss with the Russian Government the priorities that I have just described. Noble Lords will know that the Litvinenko case is ongoing and I am not in a position to disclose or discuss particular issues in relation to it. However, we will continue to work very hard indeed on these issues. Lastly, I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his words and all noble Lords who have been extraordinarily kind to me. I very much appreciate it.

Lord Rea: My Lords, will my noble friend ensure that her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary does not allow the issue of Chechnya to fall off the international agenda? As my noble friend Lord Judd said, gross human rights abuses continue to take place. Alexander Litvinenko was one of the most prominent in describing these, along with the part played by the FSB—the organisation to which Mr Litvinenko had once belonged—in fomenting particularly the second war in Chechnya. Will she make sure that this issue is not allowed to drop off the international agenda, but is raised at every possible opportunity in the United Nations, the European Union and other bodies?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we remain deeply concerned about the situation in the north Caucasus, which remains fragile and vulnerable in terms of human rights violations. We will continue to press those issues with our partners.

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Israel: Military Hostages

3.17 pm

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, along with our international partners, including the UN Secretary-General, we continue to call for the Israeli soldiers to be immediately and unconditionally released. We welcome the efforts of regional and international partners who are working to secure their release and have offered our assistance. We believe that the release of the Israeli soldiers would be an important step both for humanitarian reasons and for advancing the peace process.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, with which I fully concur. Does he agree that the need for the return of these kidnapped soldiers is both real and symbolic?It is certainly real for their families and symbolically it would mark one of the first steps that we hope will be taken along the path to peace. Further, has my noble friend seen the leader in the Times today referring to these captive soldiers as such a valuable prize to the terrorists who captured them that it can be assumed that they are still alive and that Hezbollah is in effect preparing for the next war, which it would initiate? In those circumstances, will my noble friend give the House an assurance that efforts to obtain the release of these soldiers will continue as energetically as possible?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I can certainly give that assurance. We and our international partners are working hard towards an outcome which I believe would considerably assist the peace process. In his latest report on Security Council Resolution 1701, the UN Secretary-General raised his concerns about Hezbollah re-arming, particularly across the Syria-Lebanon border. We share those concerns and we are working with our international partners to support the Lebanese Government in building up their border monitoring capacity. Further, we continue to express in forthright terms our concerns about Iran’s role in funding and equipping Hezbollah. We are in exactly the position the House would expect us to be in.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, when I was in Lebanon last month I had an unexpected meeting with the leader of Hezbollah in south Lebanon. I took the opportunity to ask him about the abducted soldiers. He said that Hezbollah hoped to exchange them for Lebanese prisoners held in Israel along the same lines as they had before. Will the Minister therefore energetically pursue a dialogue in the way he

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has indicated and not leave the way open for further conflict between Hezbollah and Israel of the kind which left 1,200 people dead; led to massive destruction in Beirut and south Lebanon; failed to recover the Israeli soldiers and resulted in the death of five others; and, worst of all, left Hezbollah stronger in the Lebanon? Can he do everything to avoid a repetition of that conflict?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the need for a comprehensive agreement about peaceful relations across all those borders and across all those countries remains at the heart of the work of the international community, and a great deal of effort is being put into that. We have seen two visits by the Prime Minister in recent months; the Foreign Secretary was in the region between 5 and 7 February, discussing exactly these issues; President Abbas will be visiting London for talks with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary; and we will continue to do all we can to support the Government of Lebanon in increasing security. No one wants to see a repeat of last summer.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, I very much hope the soldiers will be released before long, but might it not help if there were wider negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, as well as between Israel and some Arab countries? The conditions that Israel sets, backed by the quartet, before negotiations can begin are that the Palestinians must recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept all previous engagements. Are those conditions really helpful?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, it is hard in any negotiation to talk fruitfully to people who say that you have no right to exist and who are prepared to use extreme violence to achieve that end. It does not seem wholly unreasonable that people say, “Let us at least have the basis of an understanding that is peaceable”. However, the Government have welcomed the deal brokered by the Saudis, which could potentially produce a partner with whom Israel can bargain fruitfully. Still, I urge that partner itself to desist from a precondition—namely, that it cannot tolerate the existence of the state of Israel—before it starts talking.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I, too, refer to the Palestinian detainees, as the Lebanese detainees have been mentioned by my noble friend. We on these Benches strongly support the immediate release of the three Israeli soldiers, the quicker the better. The Government have been making representations about that. However, will they also resume, even more strenuously, their previously very strong representations to secure the release of something like 8,000 Palestinian detainees, most of them detained without trial, often in very harsh and stressful conditions? We can remind ourselves sombrely that that figure is, pro rata, about twice the United Kingdom’s entire prison population.

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