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17 Jan 2008 : Column 1104

David Miliband: The statement that has been issued today is clear, coherent and strong, and it is important that it has been made so quickly. As I said, the EU Foreign Ministers discussed the need for a more coherent common approach to Russia across a range of areas at their informal meeting in September, and that has now been followed up in a range of matters, including energy, which is probably the most important one. If the European Union wants to be respected by Russia, it must work in a way that gains respect, and that means working more closely together in a co-operative way.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The spark that seems to have ignited this tinderbox in the British Council in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg is the status of activities described as commercial, such as language courses. What proportion of the British Council’s activities could be described as in any way commercial? The resumption of purely cultural activities, which could not be criticised by the Russians, might be a way forward.

David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to nail this one. The British Council used to operate exams, which were alleged to be, quote unquote, commercial. It never accepted that they were of a commercial nature, but it none the less suspended all its exam-based operations to ensure that there was no excuse for Russian action against it. Therefore, the answer to his question is zero.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does not all that has occurred demonstrate to a large extent that the days of the KGB seem to be coming back? Would it not be wise of the Russian authorities to bear in mind that having lost one cold war, they are most unlikely to win another?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks with wisdom and experience in these matters. None of us wants the memories and the eerie echoes of earlier times to come back. I know that the Russian people do not want them to return either, and that is the most important part of this.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement? Does he agree that the decision not to retaliate against Russian cultural interests shows, and is a recognition of, the deep desire in this country to learn more about the Russian people and their culture? Does he agree that that is in stark contrast to the sort of threats that we are hearing from Moscow, for example, which has described the fact that it is keeping open the British Council in Moscow as a gesture of goodwill?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When I came to this House today, I wondered whether or not people would say that we should have tried to retaliate in some way. The united view across the House that lowering ourselves to that level would do us no good and would be a tremendous own goal speaks positively about the instincts of hon. Members on both sides. I welcome both what he has said and the opportunity to put this point on the record: the Russians are doing something that is against their interests and which we deplore—we certainly deplore
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the intimidation of the staff. We look forward to the day when the Russians see that learning more about other cultures is in all our interests.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): The harassment of British Council Staff by the FSB—Russia’s federal security services—is clearly outrageous. It would seem that all this is because this Government had the temerity to ask for a murder suspect to be extradited. My right hon. Friend has spoken about the coherent position held by the EU. Does he have any view about, or could he foresee, further international action, perhaps through the offices of the UN?

David Miliband: The incredulity that I discussed in answering the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, is widespread. The international culture institutes, not only the European ones, but other international ones, will want to examine carefully their reaction to this matter, notwithstanding the fact that we do not want culture to become a political football. It is important that we do not end up in an escalating war of either words or actions on this issue. The losers are the Russians. We deplore what they have done and look forward to the day when they see the error of their ways.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): As someone in this House who regards himself as a particular friend of that great country, may I say that the current actions of its Government are appalling, shocking and exasperating? Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House about any strategy or additional resources being deployed to help the thousands of Russians who benefit from contact with the British Council every year? Is there a strategy in the cities where the offices are being closed? Are resources being deployed, either online or via distance learning, to help those engaged with current projects and courses?

David Miliband: Until now, the focus has obviously been on keeping the offices open, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the online work of the British Council is burgeoning. It offers access irrespective of whether there is an office in someone’s home city. I am sure that we will want to use such techniques as widely as possible to ensure that the open access that has been a feature of the British Council’s work through its physical presence is also a feature of its work through its online presence.

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): When I visited the British Council in Russia, it was the young Russians themselves who told me of the great value of the British Council in engendering a spirit of not only education and culture but friendship between our two nations. Will my right hon. Friend ask his Russian counterpart to listen to those young Russians, to pursue this matter in a message and spirit of friendship, and to end the hostilities now?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend puts it extremely well, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. The good thing about this, if there is one, is that I do not think that British people will take against Russian people as a
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result of it; they will see these actions as being in no way symptomatic of the ordinary Russian citizen’s interest in furthering friendly relations with this country.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): The Foreign Secretary will doubtless be encouraged by the support that he has received from both sides of the House for not only his position but that of the superb British Council. Is he aware that many members of the Russian Duma are part of their non-voting delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly? Has he had the opportunity to discuss with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is the excellent leader of Britain’s delegation, whether or not something could be done through that forum to try to lower the temperature of relations a little?

David Miliband: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that I have not had the chance to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend yet. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Parliamentarians meet not only through NATO, but through a range of other international forums. As it happens, two weeks ago, I met a member of the Russian Duma who was having dinner with a member of the Conservative party here in the Palace. Those sorts of Parliament to Parliament and parliamentarian to parliamentarian links are an important way in which we can try to bring home to important people in Russia the fact that what Russia is doing is against its own national interest and is not a wise way to proceed.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): If it should be that the British Council can no longer continue its good work in Russia in the long-term, could consideration be given to a new outpost in Mirpur, where the British Council would be appreciated? In the long-term, such an outpost could help with the integration of the Pakistani community in many of our northern towns and cities.

David Miliband: There is as yet, thank goodness, no real and present threat to the British Council’s operations throughout Russia. We do not yet face the prospect of the British Council closing across Russia: we still have the Moscow office. I shall be certain to draw the attention of the chief executive and chairman of the British Council to the expansion plans that my hon. Friend has suggested.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): The Russian actions are ridiculous and the Foreign Secretary is right not to engage in a cultural tit for tat. President Putin may also be frustrated by the presence of certain Russian billionaires in London. Indeed, the Kremlin may have memories of the actions of US and UK banks and brokers who also profited greatly, in and out of the country, from the Yeltsin sell-off. But the British Council is entirely different: it is there to foster much needed long-term relationships. I agree with my right hon. Friend’s closing statement that, far from making Russia look stronger, the attack on the British Council and its staff makes it look very weak in the eyes of the international community.

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David Miliband: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. It is one that I hope that we can try to take forward in imaginative ways as we try to move on from this very difficult situation.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that the British Council has recently established a British Council office in Algeria and is seeking to establish itself in very difficult countries all over the world. It is a testament to the British Council that it has staff who are prepared to take the personal risks associated with the job. I am particularly heartened to hear my right hon. Friend’s comments in relation to those contracts that have already been established between the British Council and a range of very difficult countries and I would encourage him to look further at renegotiating those contracts and extending them to reaffirm our commitment and our joint approaches in those nations to develop a mutual respect for our individual cultures and, therefore, consolidate those cultures in this country.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I have only one quibble. That is, of course, that at every stage it is for the British Council, as an independent organisation, to negotiate its contracts. I will certainly convey to the British Council her strong view, and I hope that she understands that the operational decisions are for the British Council itself. One of the things that we have tried to emphasise at every stage of this affair is that the British Council sets its own priorities. Although it is funded by the taxpayer, it makes its own decisions about how it moves forward.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Russia is a great nation and we have had strong economic relations with that country ever since the founding of the Muscovy Trading Company in the 16th century, and strong cultural relations since Peter the Great made his first state visit back in the 17th century. Notwithstanding the fact that nobody in this House wants to ruin those strong relations, I hope that the Foreign Secretary is making it extremely clear that there is a strong sense of anger in this House and this country at the despicable actions of the last few days and at the sustained level of attack on independent journalists and organisations, and on many non-governmental organisations—not only the British Council.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks with real expertise on this question and has contributed a lot to my understanding and that of the House about some of the things that are going on in Russia. He makes an important wider point, which is that a decent society depends on strong, independent institutions in civic society, across politics, the media, the economy and the judiciary. It is very important that the drive towards such standards applies to all countries around the world because they are the best guarantor of the stability that we all seek.

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Topical debates


1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I beg to move,

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the topic of Kenya, following the Foreign Secretary’s statement last week. At that time, thousands had been displaced from their homes, hundreds killed and the international community was responding to the growing humanitarian crisis. The Foreign Secretary called on Kenyan leaders to be ready to engage in a credible mediation process and he warned that if they failed to compromise, those leaders would forfeit the confidence, goodwill and support of the Kenyan people and the international community. That warning still applies today.

Kenya remains tense and unpredictable. What began as politically motivated protest has changed in some areas to redress of old grievances between ethnic groups. We now know that at least 700 people were killed in the immediate post-election violence and that number is likely to grow as more bodies are discovered. While the political stand-off continues, ethnic tensions increase and the more divided the country becomes. Up to 250,000 people remain displaced from their homes, and there is little sign that they will be able to return soon.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister agree that while it is vital that we put political pressure on those involved in the violence, the people who suffer most in such circumstances, as always, are those facing the consequences of the humanitarian disaster? Will she ensure that while we are putting political and financial pressure on the Kenyan Government, humanitarian aid always gets through to those who need it most on the ground? I know that that is a difficult balance to strike.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I can give him the assurance that we are working very closely with the Department for International Development on precisely those issues.

As I was saying, as well as the displaced persons, the National Association of Churches in Kenya estimates that two thirds of slum dwellers in Nairobi, more than 2 million people, have been negatively affected by the violence and the continuing instability. That includes those who have lost family members, their homes or their livelihoods. The splits in Kenyan society are deepening. We condemn without reservation all acts of violence; those acts of violence that have an ethnic motivation are especially disturbing given the risk that they run of escalating tension. It is incumbent on all to respect the legal framework and human rights, whether those rights apply to media freedom, including live broadcasts, or to peaceful assembly.

Yesterday the world was shocked to witness on its television screens unarmed protestors being shot by Kenyan security forces. A process of national
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reconciliation is desperately needed to start to heal the wounds that have been inflicted by the disputed elections and the violence that has followed.

Furthermore, while the crisis continues, Kenya’s economy will suffer. We do not want that: we want Kenya to grow. But continued political uncertainty means continued uncertainty for the business community and a decline in tourism and investment. That will impact most sharply on Kenyan workers.

We fully support President Kufuor’s mission to Kenya, on behalf of the African Union, which succeeded in gaining agreement from both Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga that there should be an end to violence and that there should be dialogue. They also agreed that they would work with a panel of eminent Africans towards resolving their differences and all other outstanding issues, including constitutional and electoral reforms.

We are pleased that former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed to head the panel, and that Graca Machel and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa also agreed to take part.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): The Minister mentioned President Kibaki. Does the Foreign Office formally recognise him as the President of the country?

Meg Munn: Our Government have not recognised the Government and are calling on both leaders to co-operate in a process of mediation.

The panel of experts has our full support, and the UK stands ready to assist them in any way we can. We also wish Mr. Annan a speedy recovery from the illness that has delayed his departure for Nairobi and hope that he will soon be able to travel. Speaking to our international partners, we know that they are also fully behind this effort. Both sides in the political dispute must now use this opportunity to come together for dialogue to resolve their differences. A lasting political solution, based on compromise, which reflects the will of the Kenyan people, needs to be agreed.

The fundamental issues that need to be addressed remain the same. All the allegations of fraud during the elections should be fully investigated. Those who are found to have acted illegally and contrary to the principles of democracy should be held to account. That also applies if they are found to have instigated or orchestrated violence, as has been alleged. The possibility of auditing the results of the election should be examined, although we recognise that the original data may no longer be available. In the longer term, it is important that there is institutional reform to reduce the risk that the events of late December might be repeated.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The Minister mentions the possibility of auditing the votes that were already cast, but most of the available information shows that that will not be possible because they have been destroyed or tampered with. Surely the way forward for Kenya is to hold fresh elections so that people can have their say and have their votes counted properly.

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