Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. The Committee in its Report on Human Rights congratulated this initiative and we asked people on the ground whether they found that helpful and we were told that it was. In relation to torture we drew the analogy during the visit that just as we introduced the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in the early 1980s in Britain which made acceptable what is to happen in police stations and what is not, there is nothing similar at this stage which starts to define what torture is and what is acceptable and what is not. I just want to press you a little bit further because on the human rights issue, when it comes to issues like freedom of expression I think there are real difficulties when you go into the Kurdish language and it becomes contentious. Even the Turkish Government accepts that torture in all its forms is totally unacceptable.
  (Mr Straw) Yes, it is.

  201. Should we not focus much more on intensifying activities to deal with this issue which is accepted by everyone that more needs to be done but it needs to be done on the ground at every day level in the police stations not at a governmental level?
  (Mr Straw) If you take changes in police practice which have occurred in the last 25 years in this country, and some of us will remember that they were a bit by and large before the implementation of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and a lot more has come out more recently about what needs to happen, we had to change the law in this country and then there had to be a big programme of training and really winning the minds of police officers. I remember when the Police and Criminal Evidence Act was going through the House, and it was aborted before the 1983 election and had to come back, there was a lot of hostility by police officers about the idea that their freedom was going to be undermined by the introduction of what was alleged to be a set of bureaucratic rules. So there had to be a training programme but also taking people through the benefits to the police of, for example, interrogating people in conditions in which the integrity of the interrogation could not be challenged, which is a situation which we have now achieved. I noticed in one of the telegrams reporting on your visit, Ms Stuart, you referred to the parallel of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and I think that is something where we should do some work and where, as both you and Mr Macgregor are saying, we need to ensure the advice is given police officer to police officer. That is extremely important. The other thing I would say on human rights is that Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and subject to the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights, and they have signed up to it, and if we are going to ensure there is a reality of human rights on the ground in Turkey we need to ensure the Council of Europe at a political and ministerial level and every other level is engaged with Turkey in a very active way.

  Chairman: Foreign Secretary, I am afraid we have to suspend the sitting for ten minutes and we will come back as soon as possible.

  The Committee suspended from 5.27pm to 5.37pm for a division in the House

  Chairman: Everyone is here so we can start. Sir John on human rights.

Sir John Stanley

  202. Foreign Secretary, have your Department found a greater difficulty in trying to get the Turkish Government to address the human rights issue since 11 September?
  (Mr Straw) I have certainly not in the discussions I have had. It has to be said that both visits I have made to Turkey have been post-11 September but at the one I made by definition within a few weeks or so of 11 September, it was the first item that the President raised with me when I saw him, and he is actually very proud of what he has achieved in getting through these constitutional amendments. I have had no sense of that, I do not know whether any of my colleagues have.
  (Mr Macgregor) No.

  203. I ask because, as you will be well aware, around the world fundamentally non-democratic or only marginally democratic regimes have seized on the war against terrorism to pursue some extremely repressive policies and actions which, in some cases, are very undesirable in human rights terms. I wondered whether you might find it that much more difficult to get firm attention to making progress on human rights in a country like Turkey, which, you could argue well, is facing terrorist threats from within, on the grounds that the United States is saying everything has to be now subservient to the war against terrorism.
  (Mr Straw) I understand the point you are making but it has not been my experience nor that of the officials who are with me. Turkey has had a terrorist problem and it had one which pre-dated 11 September. We have a terrorist problem. When I was Home Secretary I proscribed the DHKP-C, one of a list of 21 non-Irish terrorist organisations which I proscribed, which decision was endorsed by Parliament in February a year ago. I know obviously there is a fair degree of co-operation on the anti-terrorist and counter-terrorist front between our law enforcement agencies but I have to say I have had no experience myself that their attitude or approach has changed. At a senior level, the impression I have had is that the Government of Turkey is as committed post-11 September to its human rights agenda as it was before.


  204. Foreign Secretary, you have just said that you have put on the proscribed list two organisations, the PKK and the DHKP-C. They are not, of course, on the EU list. Are we pressing the EU to include those on the list? What are the prospects of them being so included?
  (Mr Macgregor) There are two arguments. One is about these two organisations, another is about eight more. The Turks are lobbying in favour of ten altogether. In our view, the chances are better to pinpoint the two to start with, and I do not think there is any reason to be negative about the hopes for eventually agreeing those two.

  205. That is wonderfully circumlocutory.
  (Mr Straw) That is circumlocutory, unlike paragraph 22!

  206. Sir Humphrey would be pleased with that. Can I ask a straight question?
  (Mr Straw) You may not get a straight answer!

  207. If pressure were solely restricted to these two, would there be other than bureaucratic objections or would there be objections in principle from other partner Members?
  (Mr Macgregor) I know of no objection in principle.
  (Mr Straw) There you are, a straight answer.

  208. That is much better. Let us move then to economic assistance. Foreign Secretary, you know we found it very useful to meet Mr Leigh, who works with Commissioner Verheugen on enlargement and in respect of Turkey, and he endorsed the idea that the United Kingdom Government should establish a central fund for bilateral assistance to Turkey, just as the Know-How Fund was set up for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and proved indeed so successful in respect of those countries. Why is there not currently such a fund analogous to the Know-How Fund in respect of Turkey, and would you consider setting up such an initiative?
  (Mr Straw) I would certainly consider it.

  209. So if the Committee were so to recommend, it would be an open door?
  (Mr Straw) It is not a blank cheque.

  210. No.
  (Mr Straw) It could be an open door but you never know which room you are walking into. Of course.

  211. May I say that the Committee was impressed with the success of the Know-How Fund in respect of the other countries and the possible extension therefore to Turkey.
  (Mr Straw) I am looking forward to your report.
  (Mr Macgregor) Could I just add, although it is modest—I do not know quite what figure the Committee considers modest—we have allocated £150,000 in the current year to a series of projects which we label under our EU Action Plan for Turkey, which is similar to Central European action plans of about the same dimensions—

  212. You say "the current year", that is the financial year—
  (Mr Macgregor) The current financial year coming to an end in March.

  213. Has that been disbursed?
  (Mr Macgregor) These are actual projects in the year 2001-02. We can let the Committee know what the level of disbursement is.

  214. And the nature of the projects please.
  (Mr Macgregor) I have a list here of the ten projects[9].

Ms Stuart

  215. Can I move on to the relationships between the United Kingdom and Turkey in terms of the exchange of students and also in terms of visa applications; the two are almost directly related. First of all, a straightforward question: from the information we have there has been a halving of the money allocated to Turkey for the Chevening Scholarships, and I would be very interested to know what the justification for halving that was, given there is an acceptance that we need to work more with Turkey. The second issue relates to the starting of the SOCRATES programme, which will allow Turkish students access to institutions of higher education in EU countries. Given it would appear that many students and perfectly straightforward business people are finding it very difficult at times to get their visas processed, (a) how is the Government preparing for the SOCRATES programme and, (b) what do we intend to do to speed up the process of visa applications? It was not a very happy sight in Istanbul to see queues and queues of people and a perception that Britain was being far more difficult than other EU countries, which really created a very negative impact and impression of Britain.
  (Mr Straw) I am going to ask Mr Macgregor to comment on the Chevening Scholarships and the SOCRATES programme. On the issue of the visa section's work flow, as you will have seen principally in Istanbul, much less in Ankara, we are concerned about the time which has been taken to process visa applications. The position has been reviewed by JECU, the Joint Entry Clearance Unit, and measures implemented include a 20 per cent increase in throughput, increased staff levels and allocation of duties, improved workflow, making better use of accommodation, extra interviews and improved lines of management and section objectives. I am very happy, Chairman, if you wish, to write to you setting out in more detail the actions that have been taken and I am glad you have raised it[10]. I should also say, however, that I know from my own constituency experience that there has been a pattern of some really very difficult and contested settlement cases, particularly for marriage—it is best if I provide information in confidence to the Committee about those—and that has increased the level of scrutiny of some of the applications that have had to be made.


  216. Indeed, but we did hear about one case where a Chevening scholar wished to return for some form of reunion or graduation ceremony and in spite of her being accepted for Chevening was refused.
  (Mr Straw) Without going into the merits of that case, and I will happily look at it to find out exactly what happened because it obviously is of concern[11], Mr Macgregor?

Ms Stuart

  217. You have not answered the Chevening point yet.
  (Mr Straw) No, Mr Macgregor is going to answer. I finished answering visas. I will write to the Committee about the detailed changes that have been made. I will write to the Committee, if it wishes, about some of the problems that have been encountered. If I am given some information about this Chevening scholar, in other words some identification, I would like to follow that up personally as well if it is unsatisfactory.


  218. I am obliged.
  (Mr Straw) Now Mr Macgregor is going to give an answer to Ms Stuart's questions about SOCRATES and Chevening.

  219. The spotlight is on you, Mr Macgregor.
  (Mr Macgregor) I shall try to be brief and straight. First of all, as you rightly point out, there was something of a general crisis on the matter of visas at the end of last year. That is acknowledged by us and we have done something about it. It is still not in a wholly satisfactory position but it is better than it was at the turn of the year. Obviously all visa applicants have been caught in this same situation. If the waiting time is, as it is now, around about 75 days that affects students as much as it affects anybody else. Although we try to make special routes for people who have specific dates they need to go on, it is actually quite difficult to run such a large operation on that basis. Secondly, in the year 2001 we had a very considerable increase in the number of refusals and refusals are usually on the basis of interviews and that whole process of refusing inevitably slows down, which is why we have posted new officers in order to try and do something about that. Perhaps it indicates that there has been something of a wave of what I would call opportunistic visa applications, perhaps in response to the economic crisis. In other words, students are affected like all visa applicants. In fact, the percentage of student applications refused is higher than for the rest of the applications. I will not try to interpret why that is but it is about three times the rate. With the help of the post we can perhaps seek to illuminate the background of the generality of cases to show why. On the question of Chevening scholars, which is quite different from all this, this is simply a hard choice we are having to make in straitened budgetary times between a variety of very worthy countries. In the area for which I am responsible, which is the whole of Europe including Turkey, we have to decide on Russia, which is obviously a very high priority, there is Central Europe, there are countries like Turkey. In the new allocation it is true that Turkey has considerably fewer than it had before. I am sure Ministers will be happy to receive the views of the Committee as to whether we have the right priorities. Perhaps we could let you see the various countries where we do have Chevening scholars in Europe and you can help us to make that rather hard judgment . Your point is taken that there is a limitless market for these. The SOCRATES point, am I correctly understanding it, is that there are students who have SOCRATES grants through the EU to go to a British university and are caught up in visa queues?

  Ms Stuart: No. SOCRATES is only starting to become fully operational within Turkey, so I would expect when you go back and look at the reasons why you have half the Chevening Scholarships now I would not be surprised if the starting of SOCRATES may have been one of the reasons. The two are very much related. If our processing of visa applications is not improving, not only may we not be prepared for SOCRATES in the United Kingdom but even those we want to take will not come here but will go to other European countries and we will essentially miss a very valuable opportunity. Maybe you would want to write back to us and show the combination, the interrelation between the two, but also more to the point how you are preparing for SOCRATES so we can get the full evidence on that[12].

9   See Evidence, pp. Ev 74-Ev 75. Back

10   See Evidence, pp. Ev 76-Ev 79. Back

11   See Evidence, p. Ev 74. Back

12   See Evidence, pp. Ev 79-Ev 80 and p. Ev 82. Back

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