HL Deb 14 May 2003 vol 648 cc230-3

2.37 p.m.

Viscount Waverley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures are being taken to strengthen the United Kingdom's relationship with Kazakhstan.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we are strengthening our relationship by increasing ministerial and other high-level engagement. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have met their Kazakh counterparts during the past year. Kazakh Ministers for defence, trade and industry and the environment have visited the United Kingdom and met with their ministerial counterparts this year. Visits from at least two more Kazakh Ministers are planned for this year and I hope to visit Kazakhstan. I am very pleased that a group of Kazakh parliamentarians are currently visiting the United Kingdom.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, will the Minister take account of Kazakhstan's importance to the United Kingdom as a long-term strategic partner receptive to multi-sector co-operation? Should not senior Cabinet Ministers he encouraged to visit Astana and does not more note need to be taken of the parliament which hitherto has received insufficient attention? How is the ambassador, without the support of Her Majesty's Government and based 800 miles away, able to create comparative advantages with only occasional visits to the seat of parliament, government and the president?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I absolutely accept the points made by the noble Viscount about the importance of a long-term strategic relationship with Kazakhstan. I was delighted to be able to discuss those very points with a group of parliamentarians whom I met yesterday. The noble Viscount may also be interested to know that they had a similarly helpful meeting with my honourable friend Mr O'Brien.

We had a useful debate on the subject, led by the noble Viscount, last year. As to the points he raised about the ambassador, we hope that we shall be able to move the embassy to Astana very soon. The diplomatic commitment is self-evident, the numbers serving in our embassy having risen from four at the time it was opened to nine currently.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it appropriate to strengthen relationships with the corrupt and repressive regime of President Nazarbayev? Should we not take the advice that the Washington Post gave President Bush on 1st May to help those inside Kazakhstan who continue to struggle for a different kind of future and offer our co-operation to the US Justice Department which is investigating transactions involving illegal payments of 115 million dollars to President Nazarbayev and his cronies, some of those payments being made through Vaeko Europe Limited, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands? Does the Minister consider that the machinery for policing transactions of this kind through our dependencies is adequate, or should they be strengthened?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the fact is that this Government believe in a process of critical engagement. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the sensitive issue he mentions has been raised on occasions when British Ministers have had the opportunity of doing so with Ministers from Kazakhstan. We believe that these are important issues which should be discussed among friends.

I point out to the noble Lord that it has been a considerable achievement in a country the size of Kazakhstan, given the enormous diversity of its ethnic make-up, that it has achieved a cohesion and stability; that it has rid itself, for example, of nuclear weapons which have been a substantial legacy to global security; and that it is now prepared for the kind of critical engagement on the crucial issues raised by the noble Lord.

As regards the particular case he raised, that is a matter which is currently going through a judicial process, so I shall not comment further.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, reluctant as I am to oppose the supplementary question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, do not the press censorship and oil scandals make it all the more important that the links for which the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, is pressing come further up the Government's agenda?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords. I believe that that is the right line to take. I make no bones about the fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out, the record on human rights is patchy and improvements are needed. But where human rights are contravened, such as in the registration of, perhaps, religious organisations—no doubt a matter on the right reverend Prelate's mind—or in steps taken against political opposition and an independent media, our ambassador in Kazakhstan, along with our EU partners, conveys the concerns to the government and calls for reform. Those points have been raised by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and, indeed, by myself within the past 24 hours.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I warmly endorse the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. When the Minister visits Kazakhstan will she take every opportunity to encourage further democratic development there? Might it be worth pointing out that it is perhaps not such a good idea in Kazakhstan to put Ministers who leave the cabinet in gaol, which seems to be the habit, even though it is a power that the Government here might sometimes wish they had?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, tempted as I am, I shall not be drawn. It is very important that there is political pluralism in Kazakhstan. I assure the noble Lord that, again, this matter has been raised. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has been extremely prescient in the choice of day for his Question. He will know that there has been engagement on these issues. It is important that we sustain that engagement and that we are honest with our friends in Kazakhstan. However, at the same time it is very important that we acknowledge that progress is being made. There seems to me to be a will to engage on these matters and to speak very frankly about them.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, having recently returned with a Council of Europe delegation from Yerevan, I congratulate the Government on their magnificent new embassy which is about to open in that city. The Minister mentioned the embassy in Kazakhstan. Can she confirm that Kazakhstan is one of the main countries in which the United Kingdom now invests; that we are number one in Europe in investing in Kazakhstan; that the Americans have already selected a site in the new capital, Astana, and have under construction their new embassy? Can she make clear that the United Kingdom will soon select a site in Astana to provide an embassy for the United Kingdom and will not delay the decision further in order to have agreement with the French to have a joint embassy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am happy to receive the noble Lord's congratulations. As to his points on investment, he is right. We invest more in Kazakhstan than any other country in Europe. We are the second largest investor in Kazakhstan world-wide. I am happy to report that UK investments currently total more than £2 billion since independence in 1991. Those investments tend to concentrate in the oil and gas sector but as I, as the trade Minister, have been discussing, we should very much like to see further diversification in that respect. As to opening an embassy, we intend as a first step to open a small office staffed by a Kazakh national to assist liaison with ministries in Astana. An indication of the increasing importance that we attach to that is the increase in numbers. However, we agree that the need to move in due course to Astana is important. We are discussing various options with our EU partners and our embassy in Almaty.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the death penalty is still in operation in Kazakhstan? According to Amnesty International, no accurate figures are published on the number of executions carried out. Is the Minister also aware, and does she welcome as I do, the announcement by the Government of Kazakhstan that they have launched a public debate on the death penalty with a view to imposing a moratorium? In the light of that, will she raise with the Kazakhstan Government the importance of publishing accurate information on the number of executions and give all possible support to the government in their efforts to initiate a public debate, which should lead to a moratorium on the death penalty?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware that that matter is of great concern. Indeed, I discussed it yesterday with the parliamentarians who were visiting us. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, pointed out, Kazakhstan is discussing the possibility of a moratorium on the death penalty. Her Majesty's Government hope that very soon that will become a reality. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the pertinent suggestion she made about ensuring that we ask the government at least to be clear about the numbers currently suffering that penalty.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, what is the attitude of Kazakhstan to the campaign against terrorism? Given its geographical location and its ethnic composition, is that not quite an important question?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government of Kazakhstan have adopted a robust attitude over the issues around terrorism. Some of those issues are associated with the very fraught question of drugs and the ways in which drugs move from or through Kazakhstan. Again, that is a matter we touched on in your Lordships' House when we discussed this matter in May last year. That is another important reason why we should ensure that the level of debate we have with Kazakhstan is one that reflects the importance of that country as a huge thoroughfare from Asia into Europe. It is important to ensure that it is as secure as possible, both as regards drug trafficking and the very important question the noble Lord raised in relation to terrorism.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that my noble friends the Chief Whip, Lady Hilton and Lady Smith and I visited Kazakhstan a few years ago? We have the happiest recollections of that visit and the greatest affection and warmth for the Kazakh people. We were delighted to renew the acquaintance of some of them on their current visit here.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I was not aware that the noble Baronesses had had such a successful visit. I am now, and I am delighted to learn of it.