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In respect of the British Council’s legal position, the 1994 cultural agreement is legally binding. So far as I understand it, the British Council’s Moscow offices have not yet been targeted but there have indeed been threats. I understand that Russia has not sought a new status in respect of a cultural agreement or a new agreement for the British Council. The council does not need a new agreement to operate in Russia. However, interestingly, for the past nine years, the UK has been keen to conclude a further cultural centres agreement with Russia. The Russians have not seen fit to co-operate on that yet, but I stress that the council does not need a new agreement, and the 1994 agreement does not stipulate that it does. I am glad to report that I do not believe that any other British organisations have been affected in any way to date.

The noble Lord is of course right that we should be working more, not less, closely with Russia on a huge range of issues. He mentioned several but the list should also include climate change and trade. I assure noble Lords that the Government will continue to work hard in that respect.

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I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for telling us of his experience over the past two years. That shows that there has been a build-up of tension in relationships between Russians and the British Council. I should also say that Stephen Kinnock is a family friend.

Russia is a great power, and of course we expect it to stand up for its interests—that is entirely normal—but we do not expect it to damage its interests in the world, which is what it is doing at the moment. The noble Lord is right that the Russians have never made it clear what is illegal or improper about the activities at British Council offices outside Moscow, and therefore it is extremely difficult for us to respond. I agree wholeheartedly that it is important that there is solidarity in the EU over this issue, and I am very pleased that, as I reported in the Statement, the EU has made a strong statement today.

I am sure that the British Council will do everything that it can to protect the interests of the locally engaged staff in its offices outside Moscow. They must be in the most extraordinarily difficult position. Our hearts go out to them in many ways because they are truly being intimidated. In the 21st century, Russia is our friend and this should not be happening.

2.27 pm

Lord Kinnock: My Lords, I am honoured to be the chairman of the British Council and I express to my noble friend our thanks to Her Majesty’s Government and to the Diplomatic Service, which has given unstinting support to the council in Russia over many months of unjustified pressure and attempted intimidation by the Russian Government and the state security police.

I confirm that the British Council has sought to negotiate a new and more comprehensive cultural agreement with Russia for more than eight years and that those negotiations have repeatedly been frustrated by the very authorities that are now claiming that the council does not have appropriate legal status in Russia. I hope that I shall be forgiven for observing that, in such circumstances, Orwell appears to be meeting Godot.

Will my noble friend emphasise that, while the Russian Government make spurious assertions that council activities outside Moscow are not legal, the real motivation for their antagonism towards the council was revealingly acknowledged by Foreign Minister Lavrov and his deputy, Titov, last month, when they made it publicly clear that the offensive against the council was deliberate retaliation against the United Kingdom for our country’s efforts to secure justice for a Russian murdered in London? In the light of that, is it not plain that the view of the international community should be that attacks on a widely respected cultural and educational organisation for crude political purposes are absolutely indefensible?

Is it not clear that, while we are told that today's Russia prides itself on its strength and sophistication, the systematic bullying of talented, decent, loyal Russian citizens who are employed by the British

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Council manifests the complete opposite of those qualities? Will my noble friend work to ensure that Her Majesty's Government continue to insist on the truth that the British Council in Russia is legal, law-abiding and greatly valued by more than 1 million Russian citizens who use the opportunities and facilities of the council for their own cultural and creative benefit and to foster understanding between our two countries and cultures?

Finally, in recognising that, will my noble friend also acknowledge that the interests of those people will continue to justify the presence of the British Council in Russia? Above all, will she acknowledge that those enlightened purposes of culture and creativity will always outlast any regime which uses its power to diminish the human rights to expression and fulfilment?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for his excellent work as chair of the British Council, and to the British Council itself. I also offer him the friendship of the whole House, because he must be extremely worried about his son, Stephen, who is working for the British Council.

Of course the British Government agree with my noble friend that the real reason for the actions of the Russian state—it is the Russian state—against the British Council is not to do with the legality of the British Council but more to do with the Litvinenko case. The Russians have made that connection very clear. We have been trying to keep those matters apart; they made it very clear that they are linked.

My noble friend is absolutely correct when he says that systematic bullying is not acceptable in any part of the world; it is certainly not acceptable in a part of a Europe which calls itself a democracy these days—they have elections. That is simply not acceptable. The British Council is legal, it is law-abiding and it is warmly welcomed by so many more than the 1.25 million citizens in Russia who have availed themselves of its services. It is widely recognised not only in Russia but throughout the world.

Yes, it is in the interests of the people whom the British Council serves that it should remain in Russia. Of course, culture and creativity must always outlast any regime. Culture and creativity are at the basis of our civilisation.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does not the Minister agree that it is a pretty sad manifestation of this newly assertive Russian foreign policy that it is being practised at the expense of Russia’s own defenceless citizens by unleashing the secret police on them in a manner that is rather reminiscent of the previous century and not this one? Does she not also agree that the whole issue of European solidarity—I welcome very much the statement by the presidency supporting our position—is rather capital to all this?

The European Union is pursuing, as one of the four areas of co-operation with Russia, cultural co-operation. Surely the Minister agrees that this action completely contradicts the objectives of that

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cultural co-operation. It needs to be made clear to Russia that that is so. When a sub-committee of your Lordships' House was in Moscow shortly before Christmas, we were told blandly by a Deputy Foreign Minister that they were strongly in favour of cultural co-operation with Europe, but that the matter of the British Council was a bilateral matter. He could not have more clearly signalled the divide and rule, the pick and choose, of Russian policy. It really is important that European solidarity should not just be announced on the day after this event but should be sustained. I should be grateful to hear from the Minister how we can best proceed in that way.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to say that this is a sad manifestation of Russian foreign policy. Frankly, we would have expected better of them on this issue. Yes, the EU is pursuing co-operation with Russia, including cultural co-operation, and we will continue to do that, because it is with culture that we can best foster friendships and understanding between the peoples of Russia and the European Union. So we must continue to do that, but, as we do so, I am confident that the European Union will stand with us, that there will be solidarity and that we will make our views known to the Russians. We do not want to damage the relationship that we have with the Russian people or in any way diminish the cultural friendship that we have with Russia and the Russian people.

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, I acknowledge to your Lordships' House that I, too, had the opportunity to visit Moscow both this year and last year on parliamentary business with my noble friends Lord Wallace and Lord Roper, so I can endorse and reinforce the views expressed by my noble friend Lord Wallace.

Let me say how important this is. In a way, we are seeing the pattern of bilateral arrangements made with Russia by other member states of the EU on energy supply and so forth spinning over into the wider diplomatic arena. It is so important that we work together in solidarity with the EU and not allow this country or any other to be isolated in the way in which we deal with Russia.

Most importantly, can the Minister reinforce for us how far the Government have been able to go in the international field to ensure that it is not just the EU that is making its voice heard in those arenas but the international diplomatic community as well?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the European Union is currently trying to negotiate a partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia. If we had succeeded in making that agreement before now, it might have been far more difficult for Russia to have picked off the British Council in this way, if I may say so.

In terms of the rest of the world, we have today seen a statement from both the Americans and the Canadians. That is terribly important because, as the noble Lord said, this is not just a European issue—the whole world should be alarmed about the situation.

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Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords—

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, it is time to hear from the Conservative Benches.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, I am sure that I am not the only member of your Lordships’ House whose memory goes as far back as 1944. I recollect the energy and enthusiasm with which my mother, in particular, set about managing events for Anglo-Soviet friendship. I remember seeing on display the Stalingrad sword in Winchester Cathedral as a tribute by our people to the courage of the Russian people. I can compare those days of partnership with the subsequent years, 40 years later. On my first visit to the Soviet Union, I tried to raise with Andrei Gromyko, the then Foreign Minister, some questions of human rights. He displayed the tone of the Russian Government at that time by saying bluntly that I was lowering the tone of our conversation by daring to mention such things.

Since then, there has been a transformation, as we thought, as Russia became a member of the Council of Europe and has begun to take a sensible part in many international affairs. I see this event as a symptom of recidivism, which will do nothing but damage not just to our relations with Russia but to Russia's relations with the world. The noble Baroness can be confident of support from the whole House, I am sure, for the firm, robust way in which this issue is being tackled. The tragedy deserves to be reversed.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that strong support and merely say that, in relation to this situation, I hope that he will continue to lower the tone.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I join others in expressing horror at what has happened recently in Russia. I was for six years the chair of the British Council, from 1998 to 2004. It was one of the most precious periods of my life because I met such remarkable people working with the British Council—its employees from Britain and people from the countries with which we were working. I visited Russia and saw the extraordinary work that was taking place there and the relationships that had been built up. I also met the very special people, Russian people, who worked for the British Council. A lot of the work was around education. Much of that work, rather than directly teaching English to people who so keenly wanted to learn it, was with teachers about the pedagogy of teaching. It was wonderful to meet Ministers and to hear of the great warmth for the work that Britain was doing with Russia.

I know that there is a misunderstanding in all of this. There is a failure, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, said, to understand the real separation of powers, and that the British Council is independent and at arm’s length from government. That is understood in other parts of the world. One of the

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things that was so interesting to see was that, whatever the relationships at government level between countries, it was always business as usual for the British Council. Work carried on even when there were tensions and strains between different nations and Britain. That is the special thing that the British Council can do. It should be recognised by the Russian Government. It is with sadness that we hear of this kind of response—a failure to understand that cultural relationships must be maintained—because it is from such relationships that good international relations can ultimately be made.

I want to reinforce the course that has been taken by Government. It is important not to enter into a tit-for-tat exchange, but I hope that this House will join in sending support and good wishes to the staff in Russia. I know from my own work that the morale will be very low because people will feel so undermined. It is very important that messages of support are sent from this House and this nation to those who work on our behalf.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, on behalf of the Government, I am of course delighted to send good wishes and our strongest support to the staff of the British Council in Russia. I am also grateful to my noble friend for stressing the independence of the British Council. It is extraordinary that ghastly regimes such as that in Burma, with which we quite rightly have a very difficult relationship, still accept the British Council because they recognise that it is independent and does a fine job.

I want quickly to respond to a point by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, to which I omitted to respond, about university students and the importance of the British Council. We trust that university students, or potential university students, will continue to work with and through the British Council in Moscow and that they will avail themselves of the online facilities of the British Council.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Minister on her most restrained, dignified and measured reaction to this matter. Indeed, that has been the reaction of everyone in this House. Clearly there appears to be a direct causal connection between the request to extradite Lugovoi in relation to the Litvinenko affair and the campaign of attrition that followed. Will the Minister tell the House whether, prior to that request for extradition, there was ever a breath of a suggestion about the validity of the 1994 cultural agreement?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, as far as I am aware there was no such suggestion. However, it is certainly something I will follow up. I will respond to the noble Lord in writing.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, perhaps I, too, may briefly add my words of indignation to what has been said, and thank the Minister very much for repeating the very helpful Statement. The Statement was rightly

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described by the Conservative spokesman as robust and measured and it has elicited a lot of sympathy in the House. I hope that I will not embarrass the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, by referring to our long-standing friendship since we made our maiden speeches in the other place. I would like to pay tribute to the work he has done as chairman of the British Council in its present state all over the world. It is going through a very strong phase. Those of us who regularly visit all the various countries, as many Members here and in the other place do, are deeply moved by the council’s success, its education of students and all its other work.

The Minister referred to the Slovenian efforts, for which we are all grateful, on behalf of the whole European Union, and that is logically the main channel. Are there indications—I am not offending the small countries I hope—that any of the leading members in the central core of the European Union—Germany, France, Italy, Spain and so forth—are perhaps adding their own voices bilaterally as that would also be helpful? After all, if this situation developed elsewhere, you would have the equivalent of the British Council in other foreign countries also coming under strain.

Finally, the Minister referred strongly to the very distressing harassment of Russian British Council employees and what has been happening, and we thank her for that. Are there indications in the Russian press that journalists are coming under pressure as a result of writing about this? There may not be any mention of it in the Russian press, other than that which the Russian Government give out officially.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I regret that I have no information about what is happening in the Russian press and whether Russian journalists are being affected. I very much hope they are not, but I suspect that they might be in the current climate. As for other member states in the European Union, I have no knowledge whether Germany and France, for example, have made statements or taken action, but I am entirely sure that they will be reflecting on it if they have not done so already.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am glad that we are going to send a message of support not only to those who are still in Moscow but to those in Ekaterinburg, particularly the locally engaged staff who will be rather fearful about the visits that they have had. I too am very glad that we are not going to retaliate or descend to the rather paltry level of the actions taken against the British Council. However, I hope that we will not thereby be misread and that there is no hesitation in expressing our indignation about what has happened or our united conviction that this action is unjustified and indefensible. To that end, have we called in the Russian ambassador? If so, can my noble friend tell us about that exchange?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for again mentioning not only the priority we must put on the safety and

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security of British Council staff but the concern we must have for the safety and security of locally engaged staff. The fact that the British Council has today decided to suspend its operations outside Moscow shows its deep concern and that it wants to protect its entire staff. On the indignation that we must express to the Russians, the head of the Foreign Office called in the Russian ambassador yesterday and he made very clear our indignation and outrage about what has happened vis- -vis the British Council. I am sure that he will also have told the Russians that not just Britain but the whole world does not understand what they are doing vis- -vis the British Council.

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