HL Deb 08 October 1976 vol 374 cc1653-7

11.10 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many individual cases of separation of one member of a family from another they have discussed with the Soviet authorities in the context of the Helsinki agreement during the last year; and how many of these cases have been resolved by the Soviet authorities granting permission for the separated family member to emigrate.


My Lords, during the last year we have discussed 49 cases of family separation with the Soviet Government. Nine of these applicants have been granted Soviet exit visas to join or visit relatives in the United Kingdom. We shall continue to seek suitable opportunities to raise such cases.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, for that Answer. However, does he appreciate that each one of these 49 cases is a personal tragedy? It is very disappointing that only nine visas out of 49 have been granted by the Soviet authorities in the past year. Will the noble Lord explain to the Soviet authorities that there can be no real relaxation of tension until such cases are resolved by them as a matter of course, and expeditiously?


Certainly, my Lords. These are all personal tragedies about which we are deeply concerned. We lose no opportunity of making this point to the Soviet authorities. I agree that progress is disappointing, but it is not non-existent. Thirdly I accord very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said towards the end of his supplementary; namely, that progress in this field of human rights, more than anything, will promote genuine détente.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether he is aware that I have taken up seven of these cases, and while there has been great delay, in six cases visas have been allowed in this country? Would my noble friend say how many among the 49 are still pending? Or can he say how many have actually been refused, as occurred in one of my cases?


My Lords, I cannot say without more detail from my noble friend Lord Brockway whether any of the seven casts, six of which he has clearly been successful with, figure in the 49 I have mentioned. All I can say is that his rate of success is such that I am surprised that there are any pending cases, and I should welcome the early opportunity of comparing notes on technique with him. But, more seriously, we continue to press all these cases, and the answer is that there are no cases which cease to be pending so long as they are unresolved.


My Lords, could my noble friend say whether the 49 cases are confined to people who want to come to Britain, or is the Minister in fact pursuing the matter of Jews in the Soviet Union who wish to travel to Israel, and who perhaps receive greater harassment and pressure than other citizens in the Soviet Union?


My Lords, the 49 cases I mentioned refer to applications for exit visas. How many of those are to any particular country, I could not say without notice. As to the point about Soviet Jewry, I think it will be within the recollection of the House that I have more than once said how seriously we regard this problem and how assiduously, if I may say so, we pursue this point with the Soviet authorities.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord has taken up, among these 49 cases, in particular that of the son of Dr. Marina Fainberg, a little boy of 11 who has been refused leave to join his mother in the United Kingdom, causing very great personal distress to the mother? Will the noble Lord make particular representations in this case to the Soviet authorities, because to many of us it appears that withholding leave to this little boy to join his mother is retaliation against the parents for the views they have expressed?


My Lords, we have, of course, full details of individual cases, and while I am sure the noble Lord would not wish me to discriminate between cases which are, as Lord Bethell reminded us, great personal tragedies in each case, we shall certainly do our very best in every case.


My Lords, could the noble Lord say what reasons, if any, the Soviet authorities have given for refusing permission?


My Lords, the reasons vary, and I could not detain the House, except by notice, as to the reasons given from time to time about various cases.


My Lords, could the Minister confirm the Government's commitment to the human rights aspect of the Helsinki agreement of 1975? Would he not agree that this is an absolutely puny number of successful applications? I hope he can confirm that far greater pressure is going to be put upon the Soviet authorities by Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I do not agree that success in even one case could be described as "puny". This is a very difficult area indeed and one has to tread warily in the way one tackles these cases. For instance, undue public discussion about them may become counter-productive. We have succeeded in some very difficult cases, as my noble friend has, because we have spoken bilaterally without undue public speculation. I do not for a minute deny to a free country like ours the right to comment on these things; that is a total and irreversible right. I agree with the noble Lord that this is an extremely important matter, and we are pressing very hard on every suitable opportunity on it. I want him to agree with me that it is also an extremely difficult field of diplomatic operation.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether, quite apart from Soviet Russia, this tragic problem exists in other East European countries, for example, Czechoslovakia? If so, is any action being taken in this matter?


My Lords, yes, and yes. This is not confined to any one country, or indeed to Eastern Europe, as the noble Lord knows; and indeed our approach is the same to any country, whatever its locale or ideology.


My Lords, have cases occurred where permission has been granted by the Soviet authorities to visit relatives, and subsequently a request has been made to join the relatives and remain with them? Can my noble friend say what has been the Government's attitude in those cases?


My Lords, I think there have been cases of that description. I can only repeat that whenever that kind of case arises we do our utmost, in the right way, to try to put the matter right.