HL Deb 17 July 1997 vol 581 cc1077-80

3.10 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider the arrangements between the European Union and the United States concerning the Helms-Burton Act will be satisfactory for United Kingdom trading interests with Cuba.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are working closely with our EU partners to achieve an outcome to the current negotiations which will prove to be satisfactory not only for the UK's trading interests with Cuba but also more widely.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, what the Minister has said sounds rather general, so is he satisfied that the new arrangements will enable European companies to trade without any impediment whatsoever? Furthermore, have any representations been made in Washington by Her Majesty's ambassador there to the US Government about the general iniquities of this extra-territorial legislation?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, neither we nor our predecessors hesitated to condemn the claims for extra-territorial jurisdiction which emerged from this legislation, of which we disapprove very strongly indeed. We believe that the liberalisation of international trade is crucial. We believe that this legislation stands in the way of that objective and we shall use our best endeavours with our European partners and others to ensure that there can be some reasonable measure of satisfaction for our companies, for this country's interests and for European interests by dealing with this in the most effective way. It is interesting that only today President Clinton has ordered a suspension of the law suits under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act for another six months. I think that our representations are having an effect.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, what has been the direct effect of the representations that have been made? Have we been making such representations to the Government of Cuba also so that they are aware of how much this country is interested in using trade as a means of achieving development for a country such as Cuba which has a very long way to go to give its people any real standard of living?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the noble Baroness has touched on a very important point. Of course, we have not hesitated to let Cuba know of our interest in this matter but, equally, we have not hesitated to let Cuba know of breaches of human rights in that country which must also be addressed. Some balance must be applied in such matters and we are seeking to do that. I am sure that the noble Baroness, who is well advised and well aware of these points, will appreciate that in seeking to arrive at a sensitive and proper compromise with the United States on this issue we have to apply some degree of delicacy and tact. Equally, we are letting the United States and Cuba know precisely where we stand on these matters.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, on the question of extra-territoriality, may I ask for a similar assurance that the Government have made representations and continue to make representations about the extra-territorial aspects of the D'Amato-Gilman legislation and Iran?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, that is so, but it is not a novel feature of United States trade policy. When I was last a Minister—a long time ago now—we had problems affecting the aviation and shipping businesses. People in those businesses from the United Kingdom and other places were threatened with criminal prosecution and triple damages claims. This is not the way to achieve what the United States has proclaimed that it wishes to achieve, which is a proper liberalisation of world trade while ensuring that the competence of the World Trade Organisation's dispute resolution procedures are properly observed.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, what is the United States position when questioned about other potential aspects of extra-territorial legislation which is being proposed, for example, towards Burma?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, that is another issue. The question of Burma is very difficult and I do not think that it will be helpful if I embark on a general debate on such matters now. If the noble Viscount wishes to table a Question on Burma in connection with this matter, I should be very happy to answer it.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister's responses at the Dispatch Box today, but does he agree that policy towards Cuba should now be based on engagement and dialogue rather than the prohibitive extra-territorial application of the Helms-Burton Act; and, if so, what specific steps (in addition to the welcome steps which the Minister has announced today) does he believe can be taken with his European colleagues?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, obtaining a measure of real unity on this matter with regard to Europe would obviously reinforce our position. We are seeking to achieve agreement on that front. On the question of constructive "engagement and dialogue", to use the noble Lord's term, we are anxious to promote agreement on that basis. It is quite difficult to do so in the light of the Helms-Burton Act, but we shall go on trying.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, am I not right in remembering that when the Helms-Burton Act first came into effect, the European Union (under the leadership of Commissioner Brittan) was all for pressing for extreme results in the World Trade Organisation, but that after President Clinton's softening of the blows by executive action there was a certain retreat in the European Union to see what could be done by negotiation? Is the time coming when it will be necessary to turn up the pressure again to its original level or is it the Government's opinion that the President's recent executive concession will make that still unnecessary?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, we shall continue to seek to persuade and influence the United States, and in particular Congress, to adopt a rather different posture on these matters. The President is not in an easy position and I very much welcome his intervention, to which I referred earlier, which was announced only today. That is a constructive move. The trouble is that there is a real difference of opinion within the United States. We shall continue to express our attitude and that of our colleagues in Europe to ensure that the most liberal terms of trade can be applied and that proper trade can be resumed with Cuba.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of any evidence that restrictions on trade with Cuba over the past 30 years or so have had any liberalising effects in South Cuba?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I should have to ponder that question and, as it goes back over 30 years to when I was a mere infant, perhaps I had better avoid it today.