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House of Lords

Thursday, 30th March 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Bradford): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

European Committee for Prevention of Torture

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they will reply to the letter from the President of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture dated 29th March 1998 which transmitted the committee's report on its visit to the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man from 8th to 17th September 1997, and asked the Government to provide a report within six months on action taken to deal with the matters raised.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the Government responded formally to the letter referred to on 16th October 1998. The report was published on 13th January 2000, and the Government hope to respond to it by Easter. When the report is published, the noble Lord will see that the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man are facing the committee's recommendations squarely, and have already implemented a substantial number of them.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it has been more than two years since the Committee for the Prevention of Torture asked the Government to report on the measures to be taken by them in pursuance of the recommendations made by the committee following its visit in November 1997? Given that the Government have had two years to consider those recommendations, why has it taken them at least a further three months since the delayed publication of the report in January to make a substantive response to the recommendations?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this is a complicated issue with complex subsidiary issues that need to be considered. In our discussions with the committee, we have endeavoured to ensure that it reports appropriately, with due regard given to the applicable rules of professional ethics. We have taken some time since the publication of the final report and, as I have said, we intend to make our response at some point around Easter. We have taken that time because we needed to consult with others over our response. I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that it is better to make a fuller response than one which perhaps might not be up to the job.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that the report dealt principally with

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two subjects: remedies for complaints against the police and overcrowding in prisons? Both of those subjects have been fully discussed over a long period both in your Lordships' House and elsewhere. Is the response of the Government a closely guarded secret? If so, why is that? If it is not, perhaps we could be given an indication of what the response is to be.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I believe that it would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on our response this afternoon. It will be published, quite properly, in due course. Thenceforward, noble Lords will be able draw their own conclusions on it. However, we should observe the proper process here; indeed, we have done so. We have complied with the wishes of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in that regard. I am sure that Members of your Lordships' House will be extremely interested in the content and fullness of the Government's response.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am a little mystified by the Minister's answers. He has stated that he had to consult with others, but he has not denied that the committee's recommendations have been in the Government's hands since March 1998. Since that is the case, why have they not been consulting on the recommendations in advance of the publication of the report? Why did they need to wait until January before they began those consultations? Furthermore, even if consultations only commenced in January, as the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, has already pointed out, since the matters dealt with in the report recur frequently--for example, in reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons--why has it taken a further three months?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it was necessary for the Government to consult with the Metropolitan Police, the Prison Service, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and all those with policy interests in the subject of the report. Those consultations have taken some time. As regards matters discussed between the committee and the Home Office, they were important points relating to legal confidential privilege. Those issues took some time to resolve; I fully accept that. I can tell the noble Lord that the points were properly resolved and the final report was made in January. As I have said, we intend to make our response during the Easter period.

Zimbabwe

3.4 p.m.

Lord St John of Bletso asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What measures they are taking to ensure that the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe are free and fair.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, we have made clear to the Zimbabwe authorities our hope that the forthcoming elections will be free and fair. We

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welcome the decision to extend the voter registration period until 31st March. We are currently contributing funds to the Election Support Network, a grouping of NGOs involved in training Zimbabwean election observers.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Does the Minister agree that Zimbabwe is currently facing one of its worst financial crises in its entire history, due in large degree to the military intervention of Zimbabwe in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Is it not the case that President Mugabe is clearly putting his personal interests ahead of those of his country and the civilian population? Against the background of the farm invasions by the so-called war veterans, the fuel and currency crises and the intimidation of opposition political parties, as well as the issue of unequal access to the media, is it not now time for Her Majesty's Government, together with the Commonwealth, to take far sterner action in order to insist that the elections--which are to be delayed until the end of May or possibly until June--are free and fair?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, we share the concerns touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, in particular as regards the economic and other developments in Zimbabwe. We will give serious consideration to any request from the Zimbabwean Government for support in the forthcoming elections. However, we would need to ensure that there was sufficient time to establish the minimum conditions necessary for free and fair elections. Many noble Lords will be aware that a UN team of electoral experts visited Zimbabwe last year. The team concluded that a period of six months would be required to make the technical preparations for elections. In the meantime, we are consulting others to see what action the international community can make to ensure that the elections run smoothly. We shall give serious consideration to any request that is made. However, I have to tell noble Lords that, so far, the Zimbabwean Government have not invited the international community to observe the elections. As my noble friend Lady Amos made clear in the debate in your Lordships' House on 22nd March, we would not wish to give legitimacy to a flawed process.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, in pursuit of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, does the Minister agree that the Government of Zimbabwe's recent actions, including the postponement of next month's elections, the threats to kill political opponents and the revelation that many of the farms seized illegally have been distributed to Robert Mugabe's cronies, are not consistent with the Commonwealth's fundamental political values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law? Given those circumstances, will the Government press for the rules of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to be changed to permit the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth? Furthermore, in the meantime, taking into consideration the corruption of

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the Zimbabwean Government, will the Government freeze the bank accounts of Zimbabwean Ministers and high level officials?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, the matter of the farm invasions is serious. There is no question about that. The Government have robustly made known their views on the matter and have been joined in their response by the declaration made by the European Union and many other international countries. However, they do not constitute the serious and persistent violation of the Harare Declaration principles which would demand investigation by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group--CMAG--to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has referred.

We continue to follow events closely. We deplore the ongoing farm invasions. We have made clear to the Zimbabwe Government our concerns about that and our concerns with respect to law and order, human rights issues and the need to restore sound economic policies. The noble Lord looks disappointed, but I have to tell him that there are not yet serious and persistent violations of the principles of the Harare Declaration which would demand an investigation by CMAG. That is the legal reality.


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