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House of Lords

Monday, 21st July 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Lord Haden-Guest--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Lord Wolfson of Sunningdale--Took the Oath.

Baltic States: Status

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that the three Baltic states are former Soviet Union states as is now claimed by the Russian Government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the United Kingdom Government never recognised de jure the annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, although de facto they were a part of the Soviet Union from 1940 until 1991. We welcomed the restoration of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1991 and considered them to be sovereign European states.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her unambivalent and unambiguous reply. It will give great comfort to all 5 million people living in the Baltic states, whatever their ethnic origin. During the interim period before the states are brought into the Western institutions, will Her Majesty's Government use their influence with their NATO allies to see in what way they can enhance the security of the states? I ask Her Majesty's Government not to leave the United States of America to take the lead in this most important task.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, Her Majesty's Government will certainly use what influence they have to ensure the security of the Baltic states. As the noble Earl knows, we already spend a great deal of money on the security of the Baltic states. At the Madrid Summit, NATO repeated its pledge that the door will remain open to further enlargement. Article 10 of the Washington Treaty states that the allies may, by unanimous agreement, decide to invite to join NATO any European country in a position to further NATO's principles and contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, what help is being given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and what additional help will the Minister consider giving to the three Baltic states to build up their civil society, without which they will be prey to many of the people still interested in their future who now reside in Russia?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Baltic states are increasingly important partners to the United Kingdom both politically and commercially. Indeed, in 1996 United Kingdom exports to the Baltic states were £218 million--an increase of 83 per cent. on the previous year. Imports, at £606 million, rose by 33 per cent. on the previous year. In addition, the know-how fund has played an important role in the transition of the Baltic states and £7.3 million has been spent since the restoration of independence. The UK share of the EU PHARE spending is 16 per cent., £100 million being spent in 1995. The PHARE spending is, of course, the EU technical assistance programme.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, if the three states, as they obtain independence, are absorbed into NATO and NATO arms are stored there, will it not be the case that increasingly the view will be held in Russia that that is a threat and not an act of friendship?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, there is no question of Russia having a veto over the rights of the Baltic states, or any other European country, to join NATO. The right of states to choose the means to ensure their own security was acknowledged in the NATO Russian Founding Act.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, is it correct that people of Russian origin living in the Baltic states are deprived of the ability to stand for election and to vote in elections in those countries? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that all people living in those states are accorded the human right of standing for election and voting in elections?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government are indeed concerned that all minorities should enjoy full civic rights. But we welcome the progress made by Estonia in addressing the concerns of the Russian minorities. The OSCE and Council of Europe have confirmed that the allegations that were made in some parts of Russia of massive human rights abuses are unfounded. We look forward to further progress on that issue. The OSCE mission in Estonia and the OSCE High Commissioner for Minorities is doing very valuable work in monitoring the treatment of the minorities in Estonia. Her Majesty's Government wish that valuable work to continue.

Lord Cockfield: My Lords, what is the Government's reaction to the statement by Mr. Chernomyrdin last week that Russia wishes to join the European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I believe that there are a number of countries which have said that they wish to join the European Union. It is interesting if they embrace the Russian Government also. I am sure that in due course the United Kingdom Government will give their view on that matter.

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Lord Chesham: My Lords, will the Government confirm that they support the Baltic battalion for peace-keeping purposes and will they confirm their commitment to that within the Strategic Defence Review?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am able to confirm the Government's commitment to the BaltBat arrangements.

BBC World Service

2.44 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the arrangements being made by the BBC for the future of the World Service.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we are monitoring the situation closely. As I believe the noble Lord is aware, the joint FCO-BBC World Service working group will reconvene in the autumn of this year to determine whether the measures it agreed last year to ensure the continued protection of World Service interests and the maintenance of its special character, style and ethos are functioning satisfactorily.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can she give an assurance that the views of a very distinguished media journalist and three former managing directors of the World Service which have recently appeared in the press will be taken fully into account when the working party prepares its report? In that context, what arrangements are being made to ensure that the grant-in-aid which the Foreign Office gives to the World Service is kept separate from the BBC's revenue through licence fees so that there is no danger or even possibility of cross-financing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I think we are all aware of some of the criticisms and worries that have arisen. I assure the noble Lord that all strands of argument about the World Service are being taken into account. As I said in my original Answer, we shall be looking at the 20 measures in concert with the committee of experts which is to reconvene in the autumn--I expect that it will be in October although no date has yet been set--to review the important points raised. On the noble Lord's second question, I can assure him that as far as I am aware there is no suggestion at all of the two sources of finance being brought together.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, it does seem rather odd that the three previous managing directors, who did so much to establish the success of the World Service, should have their opinions disregarded. Is the noble Baroness aware that there is a widespread fear, to which the director general of the BBC seems immune, that the quality of that service is in danger of being somehow swallowed up in the general digestive system of the corporation as a whole?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, of course I am aware of the particular criticism that was made. As I believe is widely known, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not consulted in advance and was given only 24 hours' notice of the reorganisation proposals announced on 6th June last year. Following the widespread criticisms to which the noble Lord refers, the joint FCO-BBC working party was set up to meet those points. It is only since April of this year that the reorganisation has been functioning and we believe that we should leave it a little longer--until the autumn of this year--before coming to any decisions. We should remember that the BBC World Service remains the most popular such service in the world. It is pre-eminent among international broadcasters. Indeed, it is twice the size, and growing, of its nearest competitor, the Voice of America.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, that being so, will my noble friend give the House an undertaking that notwithstanding any emanations which come from the director general of the BBC on this matter the Government will ensure that the service remains intact and as efficient as she described it?

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