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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): The first bilateral British-Greek conference, "A New Look at Relations" was held on the island of Hydra near Athens from 13 to 15 October 2000. Two Greek and two British Ministers attended, with 45 other participants, including hon. Members, officials, journalists and other opinion formers. The conference addressed issues of competitiveness, education in a knowledge-based society, and social change in the EU context. The Hydra conference was the flagship event in our bilateral relations with Greece in 2000. It was an enormous success.
Mr. Dismore: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Hydra conference showed that with the PASOK Government of Mr. Simitis, Greece has made great economic progress, with stability, sustained growth, falling public debt and a Budget surplus? As Greece further develops its structural changes, does my hon. Friend agree that the ties between our countries and Governments are stronger than ever, and that Greece provides an excellent opportunity for British inward investment and trade?
Mr. Vaz: I happily agree with my hon. Friend. I thank him for his participation in the Hydra conference, and for the way in which he has helped build up relations between our two countries. Twelve British Ministers visited Greece last year. My hon. Friend is right when he says that the economy of Greece has improved enormously under Prime Minister Simitis. The reformist agenda put forward by the Greek Prime Minister has been extremely valuable. British exports to Greece last year were worth £1.1 billion--an increase of 7 per cent. The good relationship with Greece will continue. We are grateful for the steps that the Greek Government have taken to try and find the assassin of Brigadier Saunders. We will continue to work with the Greek Government to ensure that his killer is brought to justice.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): In connection with the murder of Brigadier Stephen Saunders, will the Minister outline the assistance that the British Government are giving the Greek Government to apprehend the murderer?
Mr. Vaz: We have responded to every request that has been made by the Greek Government. I went over shortly after the assassination, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been there, and every Foreign Office Minister has visited Greece over the past 12 months. In the meantime, Greek Ministers, especially the Home Affairs Minister, have visited our country, asking for help--for example, on the policing aspects and the forensic examination of evidence. We are there to help, and we will continue to help in any way that we can.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle): We have regularly discussed developments in Colombia with the US Government and will naturally keep in close touch with the new US Administration.
Mr. Goggins: Is my hon. Friend aware that 170 unarmed civilians have been murdered in Colombia since the start of the year, including 25 people from one village who were butchered last Wednesday morning by a paramilitary death squad? Is he also aware that a military strategy supported by the United States is now operating in the Putumayo region in southern Colombia? Part of the strategy includes crop spraying, which is causing major hazards to the health of local communities, and to the environment.
When my hon. Friend meets representatives of the new US Administration, will he tell them that plan Colombia in its present form is not working, and that it is making things worse, not better? Will he say that this Government will never support the plan in its present form? Will he ensure that the voice of grassroots communities in that deteriorating situation will continue to be heard, by this Government and the international community at large?
Mr. Battle: I thank my hon. Friend for his serious and continued interest in what is happening in Colombia. We share his concerns and deeply deplore the recent murders of campasinos. Killing is undoubtedly taking place, at the hands of the FARC and the paramilitary. I stress that the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office was in Colombia last week, urging the Government there to crack down on paramilitaries and to maintain a dialogue for peace with the FARC.
We are not underpinning America's plan Colombia, but I emphasise that we are trying to support a peace process. We share my hon. Friend's concerns about what is happening in Putumayo. When I was in Colombia, I was told that areas of over 3 hectares only would be sprayed, but we know that that is not happening. We want progress on the voluntary eradication of coca crops, and on alternative economic development in local communities. There are local proposals to that effect in Magdalena Media, for example. One of the leading figures behind those proposals is the well respected Father Francisco Roux. We hope to invite him to the UK soon so that he
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): In his talks with the US Government, will the Minister make it clear that he wants a guarantee that they will not in any circumstances use the live fungus fusiparium for spraying coca crops?
Mr. Battle: Again, we have made that point before to the Governments of both Colombia and the US. We will continue to press the point. We believe that voluntary eradication of coca and the development of alternative crops are the key, so that campasinos have an economic future. That is the way to undermine the FARC's grip on the local economy, which is based on coca crops. That is what we want to happen.
Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): One of the last presidential acts of former President Clinton was to waive the human rights condition attached by Congress to all aid under plan Colombia. Will my hon. Friend the Minister seek an early opportunity to express to the new Administration our disappointment at that decision? Will he continue to insist, to the United States and to the European Union, that respect for the fundamental standards of human rights must be a condition of all future international aid to the Colombian Government?
Mr. Battle: Again, yes; my hon. Friend's close attention to developments in Colombia is much appreciated by people here and in Colombia. The Government and the European Union have made it clear that any support for Colombia is conditional on the importance of the rule of law, the defence of human rights and international humanitarian law, assistance for victims of violence, and protection of the environment.
That is an important theme, and we have worked hard to ensure that non-governmental organisations, especially those involved in human rights, are involved in the debate. We convened the meeting in London to discuss the European response, and we encouraged the Colombian Government to take part in the Costa Rican conference with NGOs. When the permanent under-secretary visited Colombia this week, he was warmly welcomed by NGOs--both British and Colombian--for the way in which Britain maintains an emphasis on matters such as human rights. We will continue to do so, as such matters are important in this context.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): A key part of plan Colombia and the Colombian peace process is helping the Colombian Government in their fight against the drugs barons, and I am sure that the Minister would agree that the West Indies guard ship, now the Atlantic patrol task (north), has played a leading role in the successful seizures of narcotics. Is it not alarming, then, that the Government's defence cuts have resulted in the guard ship's failing to patrol for three months in each of the last two years? Can he confirm that there is currently no guard ship in the area, and that HMS Sheffield is not scheduled to deploy until next month and is in Portsmouth?
Has the Foreign Office made any protest to the Ministry of Defence, or requested that those ships reinstate their former patrols? Is it not true that, without British ships able to carry out that vital role, there will be more drugs on British streets?
Mr. Battle: We have no ships based in Colombia, as far as I am aware. To treat the hon. Lady's question seriously--the drugs trade is a serious matter--I emphasise that we do have an agreement with the Ministry of Defence. I believe that the operations of the West Indian guard ship do include counter-drugs work in the Caribbean, and that that is those ships' orbit of operations. They are working on targeting cocaine, which primarily comes from Colombia.
However, I emphasise that the West Indian guard ship is but one element in the efforts to take action against drugs trafficking in the whole region. That does mean collaboration and working closely with the Colombian Government.
If I remember rightly from reading the newspapers this weekend, there was action in the arrest of drug carriers on a cruise liner, if the hon. Lady will recall, which suggests that Customs and Excise is achieving some real successes. There are no cuts. There is improvement, particularly in our co-operation, which is a marked improvement on what happened under the last Administration, who did practically nothing.