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House of Lords

Tuesday, 10th February 1998.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.


Lord Montagu of Beaulieu asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What obstacles exist to establishing full diplomatic relations with Iran and when they anticipate that these obstacles will be removed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we have full diplomatic relations with Iran. Our embassy in Tehran is headed by a charge d'affaires, however, not an ambassador. This is a reciprocal agreement. We have been encouraged by recent political developments in Iran and would welcome a more constructive bilateral relationship. However, we still have major concerns about Iran's attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, its support for terrorism, including groups opposed to the Middle East peace process, its poor human rights record and the continuing and wholly unacceptable threat to the life of Salman Rushdie and those associated with his work.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: My Lords, since it is obvious that the people of both Iran and Britain want closer relations, can the Minister confirm that it is the policy of the Government to support and encourage closer links for commercial and cultural reasons? Further, does the Minister agree that it may be a good idea to send to Iran an all-party parliamentary delegation led by a Minister in order to clarify issues and perhaps find a better way forward?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have been encouraged by recent developments. As I informed the House about 10 days ago, we hope for an improvement in the relationship. We are reviewing the relationship under our presidency of the EU. It is too early to commit ourselves to the kind of exchanges with Iran that the noble Lord suggests, but if that country is able to demonstrate its willingness to go forward on human rights, terrorism and in particular the unjustifiable fatwa on Salman Rushdie the picture in that respect will appear much brighter.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I accept the comments of the Minister as to those matters that Iran must put right. However, has she considered the possibility of extending cultural relations, perhaps through the British Council, as a way of encouraging the more liberal elements that at long last are beginning to emerge in Iranian society?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, yes, as and when Iran takes the right steps, but they must be definitive steps. At the moment cultural exchanges are bound not to sit well with a country that has expressed a fatwa on the life of a British citizen for writing a book. Such exchanges are bound to be a little difficult, to say the least, until Iran addresses that point.

Lord Healey: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's remarks about Iran. But does she agree that all the complaints she makes about that country apply equally to Israel? Indeed, even the case of Salman Rushdie is reciprocated in Israel by the treatment of Vanunu. Therefore, should we not at least have as good relations with Iran as we have with Israel?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I cannot agree with my noble friend. The state of Israel has a democratically elected government. We may not agree with many of the actions that that government take. I have had occasion to express that view in this House in relation to Jerusalem and illegal settlements. The Israeli Government are, however, democratically elected. We are discussing with them how to take forward the peace process. We are not at present engaged in that kind of discussion with Iran about the matters that that country must address, notably terrorism, its record on human rights, and the question of Salman Rushdie.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can the Minister inform the House of the cost of the special protection that has been provided to Salman Rushdie since the fatwa was placed upon him and what proportion of that is borne by the public purse?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am unable to give definitive figures for the cost of the special protection provided to Salman Rushdie. I shall ensure not only that the answer is sent to the noble Baroness but also that it is placed in the Library of the House. I believe that the noble Baroness raises an important point. But the issue must be seen in the context of protecting the life of a British citizen. Whatever the costs, they have been fully justified. I believe that when the Opposition were in government they would have taken a very similar view.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the editor of the English language newspaper published in Tehran, the Iran Daily News, has just been sentenced to death on a charge of spying for Great Britain? Is the Minister also aware that 200 people were executed by Iran last year, some by the barbarous method of stoning? Does the Minister agree that the Iranians have a very long way to go before they satisfy the criteria of human rights to which she referred?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware of the sentence of death to which the noble Lord refers. We have protested about that matter to the Iranian Government. We have also made our views clear about the case of Mr. Hofer, a German national, who at the moment is also under sentence of death.

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Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: My Lords, as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Iran, may I ask whether the Minister is aware of Iran's exemplary work with regard to refugees? That country has opened its borders to no less than 4 million refugees in the past decade with virtually no help from United Nations agencies or the European Union. Is the Minister prepared to draw this work to their attention?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, yes. It is because we are aware of positive developments in Iran in recent months, which we have noted and which our EU partners have been watching with interest, that we are encouraged by that country's recent attempts to make better relationships, not just in respect of the refugees mentioned by the noble Baroness but also with its neighbours. It has reduced its rhetoric about the West; it has condemned terrorist atrocities in Algeria and Egypt. Another positive step has been the recent decision to ratify the chemical weapons convention. For those reasons, we feel that it is right to review our relationship in a positive way.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, given that the Foreign Secretary has said that we and our EU partners cannot forge a new partnership with the US on Iran while we are looking down the barrel of the sanctions Act gun; while the US Secretary of State has said that "we"--in other words, the US and the EU--are working together to achieve convergence in our approaches to Iran; and while faithfully implementing US law, how is that convergence to be achieved?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. As I said to the House on a previous occasion, we take a different view from the US about Iran--a point which some noble Lords might wish to know in view of some of the ill-founded remarks made about the UK Government always following the lead of the US. We do not believe in isolating Iran. Our long-term goal is not the containment of Iran. We do not accept the ILSA legislation--the US extra-territorial legislation--nor do we accept its isolation. We shall continue to argue those points with our friends in the US so that we can find a point of agreement upon which to go ahead.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: My Lords, is the Minister aware that under Iranian law only the person who placed the fatwa can remove it? Since it was put on by Khomeini, there is an impasse that cannot be removed because he is dead.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord is taking an unnecessarily negative view on that point. If we did not believe that there were grounds for furthering the relationship, we should not have made the point under our presidency of looking forward to improved relations with Iran. I have made clear the point about Salman Rushdie. That is non-compromisable, but let us hope that the Government of Iran can meet us on that important matter.

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Alcohol: Excise Duty Fraud

2.46 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made in reducing fraudulent disposal within the United Kingdom of alcoholic liquor, after it has been taken out of bond without payment of excise taxes, for the supposed purpose of exporting it abroad.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Customs continue to pursue vigorously those involved in excise duty fraud and have had notable successes. Figures for this type of fraud are not recorded separately, but it forms a high proportion of the achievements of the Customs National Investigation Service. In the financial year 1995-96 the revenue evasion-prevented value of cases was some £150 million and in 1996-97 it rose to £572 million.

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