HL Deb 05 November 1998 vol 594 cc370-2

3.24 p.m.

Lord Moynihan asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their current assessment of relations between the United Kingdom and Chile.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, before my noble friend replies to the noble Lord's Question, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the House in its judicial capacity is hearing an appeal in the matter of the requested extradition of Senator Pinochet. The matter is therefore sub judice and under the rules of the House no reference should be made to the case.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to the Answer that I gave to the House on 28th October. We are continuing to work hard to make sure that the detention of Senator Pinochet does not affect our healthy relationship. We have long, historical ties and a strong trade and investment relationship with Chile. UK exports to Chile reached a record high of £210 million in 1997. The Chilean Foreign Minister, Señor Insulza, visited London in October 1997. My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, then Trade Minister, and my honourable friend Tony Lloyd, the Minister of State, have both recently made successful visits to Chile. Our relations with Chile are cordial. They are based on dialogue and co-operation on a wide range of political, economic and other issues of mutual interest.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, adhering strictly to a "nil by mouth" policy on matters that are sub judice, will the Minister tell the House in what way the comments of the Minister of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, during the BBC "Breakfast with Frost" programme on 18th October represent government policy? Furthermore, what is the Minister's reaction to the criticism by the Chilean Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister that the Government's updated advice on travel to Chile is not the best way to avoid a political escalation of the situation and that it paves the way for the interpretation that the advice further damages Anglo-Chilean relations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my right honourable friend Mr. Mandelson expressed a personal opinion, as I understand have many Members of the Opposition. I recall that in this House last week the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford reminded us of some of the difficulties in regard to what has happened in Chile in the past. That must not be confused with the important point that this process is in the hands of the judicial authorities, and has been from the start. The issue is one that will be dealt with by the legal process, not political processes.

The noble Lord asked specifically about travel advice regarding Chile. It is the FCO's duty to advise British citizens travelling abroad as to their safety. Our advice in relation to Chile was reviewed on 2nd November in the light of the situation prevailing in Santiago and elsewhere in Chile. We must alert British nationals to the difficulties that they may experience when they travel abroad. We hope, of course, to be able to review the travel advice again soon to reflect the easy and untroubled travel that most Britons normally experience when visiting Chile.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Chile has made a remarkable transition to democracy, a transition in which that country has consistently upheld the rule of law within the country, and that it has brought about a remarkable diminution in levels of poverty? Does Chile not deserve our applause for that remarkable achievement over the past few years?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes. I can agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness's remarks. The United Kingdom and Chile see eye to eye on many issues, including those around social justice and the free market. Chile is a valued partner on the world stage. I believe that those sentiments have been reflected in the discussions held recently by my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd with Señor Fernandez. Indeed, the discussions that my noble friend Lord Williams had with a number of Chilean senators only last week were of a constructive and helpful nature. I believe that during those discussions United Kingdom Ministers were able to explain to Chilean counterparts the position regarding the legal process in this country, and that has been fully understood.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that during the visit that I made to Chile to which she referred a number of Ministers in the Chilean Government expressed their great appreciation of the help and sustenance that were offered to refugees and people in exile during the dark days in Chile by the Labour Party? They felt that that was a great help in enhancing what has been a very good trading relationship between our two countries since the Labour Government took office.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the warm approach which is fundamental to the way in which Her Majesty's Government and Chile normally carry on their relations is a characteristic that will inform our general relationship.

On the issue of commercial relationships, our position in regard to Chile is strong. Our exports last year were at a record high. Chile is the UK's third largest market in South America, after Brazil and Argentina. We hope that that trading position will continue to improve.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that most people in this country cannot understand how the President was invited to this country, given VIP treatment by the Foreign Office and subsequently arrested? Would it not have been better for the Foreign Office to have advised the President not to come to this country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may put this matter straight. The President was not invited to this country. He came on a private visit. That position was also the case under the previous administration.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene at this point. Noble Lords should take note of the warning given by the Leader of the House. The matter is being considered at this very moment within this building. Without being critical of many of the questions put, I suspect that some have touched upon what could be considered matters of influence, in particular as I understand that the noble and learned Lords of the Appellate Committee are themselves taking evidence in this case. I strongly advise the House to leave the matter to another day. We can return to it once the Law Lords have reached their decision.