HC Deb 14 May 1986 vol 97 cc719-26 4.17 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, which took place in Brussels on 12 and 13 May 1986. I represented the United Kingdom.

As a precautionary measure following the Chernobyl disaster, the Council agreed a Commission proposal for a regulation to ban the import of certain foodstuffs from the USSR, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The ban entered into force on 13 May and will last until 31 May. It will be reviewed on 20 May, taking account of the latest scientific evidence. In addition, member states have undertaken to set contamination standards for intra-Community imports which are no higher than those for domestic produce, to limit the contamination level in exports to other member states to that acceptable to the recipient state, and to lift national controls on imports.

The Council discussed Community strategy in preparation for the launch of a new GATT round of trade negotiations.

The Council discussed improvements to the Community's mandate for negotiations with Mediterranean third countries on the adaptation of their cooperation and association agreements following the accession of Spain and Portugal. There will be further discussion at the June Council.

The Council reviewed the steps being taken to normalise the Community's relations with Turkey in preparation for a meeting of the Association Council which is expected to take place in the early autumn.

The text of a joint declaration by the Council, member states, Commission and Parliament against racism and xenophobia was agreed.

The Council also had a further general discussion of the current budgetary situation in the Community during which the Commission outlined its plans for a 1986 supplementary budget and the 1987 preliminary draft budget.

An Association Council with Malta was held in the margins of the Council. The operation of the EC-Malta association agreement and the possible implications for Malta of the enlargement of the Community were discussed.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

The most important part of the Minister's statement related to the constraints placed on trade from eastern European countries. She did not enlighten the House much on that important subject. It seems that this whole shambolic pantomime has had far more to do with safeguarding the agriculture of certain European Community countries than with protecting our citizens from food contaminated by radioactivitiy.

The way in which the provisional ban—it is no more than a provisional ban—has been arrived at gives us and the British people no great confidence in the capacity of the Community to take action to deal with such emergencies. In any event, will not the existing shambles be made even worse by today's meeting of experts if it produces suggested safe radiation levels which some countries are almost bound not to accept?

The European Council has assuredly failed to reassure worried people who have watched naked commercial interests put before agreed safe standards. In addition, we have undermined our relations with eastern European countries whose produce, alone of that of all the nations over which the Chernobyl cloud has moved, is to be affected. Can we be reassured that any future action on imported foodstuff will be directly related to the risk of contamination and less related to public relations exercises in reassurance and national commercial protection?

Will the Minister tell us what advice the World Health Organisation gave on a wholesale, seven-nation ban? Finally, will she accept that the initial, unforgiveable secrecy of the Soviet authorities must not be used as an excuse for Communist-bashing by any members of the European Community, as the most vivid lesson of the disaster is that we need closer relations within Europe as a whole and not a dogfight?

Mrs. Chalker

The measures that the United Kingdom has taken since 2 May affected all incoming produce from the Soviet Union and Poland. Our measures were already in existence and, as one item in a series of items at the Foreign Affairs Council, we agreed that there should be standards that should be regularly reviewed. The hon. Gentleman says that confidence is undermined because this process has taken time, but it is bound to take time. However, the United Kingdom Government have made it absolutely clear, right from the beginning, that our citizens were protected in relation to produce coming into this country. It must be right regularly to review a situation when that situation is developing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pour scorn on that in future, as he has today.

Of course we abhor the secrecy over this matter, which has made it more difficult for countries to take the decisions that they wish to take. Every country in the 12 has taken its own measures and we have come together in the decisions that I have referred to and which have been mentioned in the papers for some days. I believe that not only the British people but others in the European Community can have confidence in all the checks that are going on in all member countries, and of which the institutions concerned with these matters are fully aware.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

While I fully accept the good sense of the British Government's stand, is not there an underlying anxiety, which was expressed by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and which some of us share? Having attended the gathering, does my hon. Friend detect any new resolution among European Governments to move more in step? For example, why is aid given unconditionally by European Governments to some countries that continue to violate basic human rights? Is there yet any realisation of the poor impression that European Governments other than our own gave to the world by not facing up to Libyan terrorism and thus forcing the Americans to take action on their own part?

Mrs. Chalker

I assure my right hon. Friend that there is a definite resolution among all member countries of the 12 not only to allay anxieties, but, more than that, to make sure that there are measures in force in each country to test produce to make sure that it does not reach the markets of those countries.

There was no lengthy debate on human rights. There was an agreement on racism which follows exactly the policy in force in this country.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

What does it mean?

Mrs. Chalker

It follows our own policy in exactly the way that I think my hon. Friends would, in the past, have probably accepted. It is not a legally binding declaration, but it reflects existing policy, which condemns all forms of discrimination on racial grounds.

I should add to my right hon. Friend the member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) that we did not have a full discussion about Libya. There were discussions in the margins, but they were not on the agenda.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

Was there any discussion about the impact of the Chernobyl disaster on European Community stocks of food? As the Ukraine produces 20 per cent. of USSR agricultural production, is the Community ready to assist the Russians?

The Minister's statement refers to a supplementary budget. Will that match the estimates of Agra Europe, that it might reach 1.5 billion ecu in the current year?

Mrs. Chalker

If the USSR seeks to buy cereals on the world market from stocks, that will be dealt with in the normal way. The proposed supplementary budget is within the 1.4 per cent ceiling. It will include the further 500 million ecu for the British 1985 abatement and it will certainly not go as high as the hon. Gentleman suggested. It will be kept within the strict budgetary guidelines to which we have always sought to adhere.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is it not surprising to hear the risk of contamination being taken so lightly in the House? Is it not entirely because of the lack of information from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe that we have been compelled to take steps that may or may not be necessary, but which have to be taken as a precaution?

Mrs. Chalker

Indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Contamination, whether of food or of the ground, is a most serious matter. The 12 members of the European Community and the countries in eastern Europe now seem conscious of the need to share information at the earliest possible opportunity. That has been one of the outcomes of the discussions that we have had. The International Atomic Energy Agency will be co-ordinating the gathering of information from whatever source. I welcome the Soviet agreement to provide the IAEA with reports on radiation levels. That will enable us to have fuller discussions at earlier dates. The IAEA board of governors will be meeting next week to discuss the matter.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the hon. Lady believe that the single sentence in her statement about the budgetary problems faced by the Community is sufficient information for the House? Is the Community facing bankruptcy, as many people believe? Is there a crisis on the way? If so, should not the House know now rather than later?

Mrs. Chalker

As the budget has not yet been presented to the Council of Ministers, there was no substantive discussion of it. That is why I have no substantive discussion to report on. It is quite clear that we have already done well to secure the price cuts that were agreed in April by the Agriculture Council. They would not have been secured without budgetary discipline. We shall continue with that discipline to ensure that we reach the kind of solution for a reduction of surpluses that this country and the rest of the Community seek.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)


Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend. East)

No supplementary budget?

Mr. Gow

What contribution was made by Her Majesty's Government to the discussion about a declaration against racism and xenophobia? Will my hon. Friend enlighten the House about the advantages that will accrue to mankind as a result of the discussions that took place?

Mrs. Chalker

Once more I have to say to my hon. Friend that the discussion followed the discussion by us of our existing policy and, indeed, the discussion in many other countries. I have already said that it was a combination of all our views to condemn all forms of discrimination on racial grounds. It is a moral and political undertaking. It is not legally binding.

Mr. Budgen

An undertakine—ah!

Mrs. Chalker

But it has been made available to the House. Three months ago my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, placed an explanatory memorandum in the Library of the House. That will provide my hon. Friend with all the details. There was no substantive discussion.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

On the situation in Turkey, are Her Majesty's Government and the Council of Ministers satisfied about the progress towards human rights and democracy in that country and about the trials there of trade union leaders and peace activists?

Mrs. Chalker

These matters were very much to the fore in the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had with the Prime Minister of Turkey. The same line has been taken in the discussions within the European Community. Some Opposition Members seem to enjoy refusing to acknowledge that progress is being made. That does nothing to promote human rights. If the progress that is being made were to be welcomed, we would encourage countries that do not observe the human rights standards that we wish to see to do even more. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do that.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Is it not unfortunate that an announcement about another massive Common Market overspend has been made on the same day as the announcement of the closure of a third of our shipbuilding industry, because there is not money with which to build ships? On the containment of radioactive food from east Europe, has my hon. Friend the Minister found the answer to a question that has been asked several times since last Thursday: how do we distinguish a Polish pig from an East German pig if both of them are shipped through Leipzig, which is not covered by the new restrictions?

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend might have had a chance during the earlier statement to ask his question about shipbuilding. But it is not simply a question of overcapacity in shipbuilding throughout the world.

Mr. Taylor

Just like farming.

Mrs. Chalker

I say to my hon. Friend that the money which in his view should be spent on ships should certainly not be spent on further surpluses.

Mr. Taylor

It is being spent on surpluses.

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend knows full well that every measure that we can take is being taken to reduce surpluses. On his question about East German pigs or Polish pigs, he knows that imports of such material are covered by the agreement.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Why was East Germany left out of the ban? That struck most British people as being very odd indeed. Can the Minister answer a question that I was asked at my surgery last Saturday? Why have the British Government banned the import of foodstuffs from Eastern bloc countries, although they have informed British citizens that they are free to travel on holiday and business to those areas, where they will surely be eating those very same foodstuffs?

Mrs. Chalker

East Germany is beyond the 1,000-km limit that was drawn, but the West German Government have undertaken that any of the produce coming from East Germany will be fully tested under their system of monitoring.

Mr. Budgen

May I thank my hon. Friend for her important and detailed statement about racism? Will she please reassure the friends of the EEC that her statement was not mere vacuous posturing and that the British Government will be pressing all the nation states of the EEC to introduce immediately into their national Parliaments legislation that is analogous to the much-respected race relations legislation in this country?

Mrs. Chalker

I suggest to my hon. Friend that if he looked at the legislation that is on the statute books of other countries, he would find that the member states of the European Community could not have agreed to this declaration unless that policy was already on their statute books.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Bearing in mind the relations that the Foreign Affairs Council has with other European countries, were the Foreign Ministers aware of the continuing concern that such a deeply stained individual as Kurt Waldheim might be elected President of Austria? Although this is a matter for the people of Austria, there are, nevertheless, few people who now believe that he told the truth about his wartime role. Clearly he knew full well what was going on and that the German army and the Nazis were involved in killings and deportations.

Mrs. Chalker

Although I know that it has become commonplace to try to attribute every ill in the world to the European Community, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Affairs Council did not discuss the matter that he has raised.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to tell the House how the EEC defines xenophobia? For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) is she able to tell the House what penalties the EEC and this Parliament will impose if anybody transgresses and becomes xenophobic under the definition established by Brussels?

Mrs. Chalker

I have already said that this is not a legally binding declaration

Mr. Budgen

What is the point of having it, then?

Mrs. Chalker

It reflects existing policy in this country I should have thought that my hon. Friend would have had the—

Mr. Evans


Mrs. Chalker

Maybe that is the word. I should have thought that my hon. Friend would have had the "whatever" to realise that discrimination on racial grounds will not lead to progress for anybody in this country or anywhere else in the world.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I put a very precise, factual, informed question to the Minister? Although she may be unable to answer it at once, I am sure that she will be able to get information from the Box and answer it later. At what time, on what day, some two or three days before the announcement and news came from Sweden, did a telephone call come through from Russia to a British member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna asking for advice about how to deal with graphite fires? Precisely what was the Russian request and in what terms was it phrased? I do not say that it mentioned Chernobyl, Minsk or Kiev, but what, precisely, was the question? What were they asking for? Did the British official of the International Atomic Energy Agency take any steps to let the members of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority know? And did members of the Atomic Energy Authority—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Did all this go On at the Foreign Affairs Council?

Mr. Dalyell

The Minister raised the question of what happened, and I am asking a very precise question. Was the IAEA informed? Did the IAEA inform the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and were Ministers informed? The Minister knows perfectly well that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has done jolly well. It would make an excellent Adjournment debate.

Mrs. Chalker

I shall read the Official Report with great care. I shall look into the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised and try to unravel what is going on.

Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)

Will my hon. Friend confirm whether there were any discussions at the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council regarding the International Atomic Energy Agency and, if so, what was the outcome of those discussions?

Mrs. Chalker

Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency was discussed briefly because we were able to welcome the Soviet agreement to provide reports on radiation levels to the IAEA. We also welcomed the concerted effort by the IAEA not only to gather the information but to identify further needs for data and to disseminate that information to all interested parties—a crucial establishment of the facts against which further measures should be judged.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Watley, East)

Will the hon. Lady propose to the British ambassador in Russia and to her colleagues in Europe that their ambassadors in Moscow should attend the funerals of those who have died at Chernobyl and of those who will die from the effects of the Chernobyl disaster because, but for the grace of God, there go all of us?

Mrs. Chalker

I think that the hon. Gentleman exaggerates a little. We have total sympathy with the relatives of all those affected by the disaster, but I fear that the location of those funerals will not be made known to foreign embassies, so the suggestion may not be possible to implement. Certainly, the suggestion will be considered.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Did the Foreign Affairs Council discuss the ludicrous idea that members of the European Assembly should be granted immunity from arrest and prosecution? Is that perhaps because they are xenophobic? Secondly, I am chairman of the British-Malta parliamentary group, so can my hon. Friend inform the House what is happening about Malta in view of the enlargement of the EEC?

Mrs. Chalker

On my hon. Friend's first question, I do not think that we can take that issue much further this afternoon. On his second question, we are talking about the Association Council in the margins. We had a discussion informally, and then a little more formally, about security in the Mediterranean, but there was no question of coming to any decisions. Discussions with Malta will continue about its associaton with the European Community. Nothing substantive was decided.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

What about the important question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) concerning what is to happen to those people who journey beyond the Iron Curtain, such as the important IPU delegation? Fourteen members of the House, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, no less, will no doubt be eating and drinking their fill of the food that is not allowed into this country. Is there not something rather illogical about that?

Mrs. Chalker

When an IPU delegation is on its way, I am sure that it carefully considers where it is going, what it is going to do, and what it will eat and drink. I am certain that, as the delegation is going to Moscow, the Soviet authorities will take good care of the hon. Gentleman and ensure that nothing goes near his lips that will be injurious to him.

Mr. George Robertson

I asked the Minister a question earlier which she did not answer. What was the advice given by the World Health Organisation about the need for a wholesale ban on the produce of seven nations?

Mrs. Chalker

A wholesale ban on the produce of seven nations was not the advice given and it was certainly not the advice accepted by the national experts, who are also meeting in Brussels on Monday. I shall look again at what the hon. Gentleman says so that it comes up at the review meeting if that is necessary.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When officials know perfectly well the answer to a question asked by an hon. Member, should there not be some mechanism by which the Minister can answer, even if she does not know the answer immediately? Should not the Minister be able at least to make a statement at the end of Question Time? All that I ask for—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a heavy day ahead of us and the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked a question which was rather long. I have no doubt that he will receive the answers for which he asks. There are many other ways of asking such questions.