British Council (Russia)

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 17th January 2008.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary 12:32 pm, 17th January 2008

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the Russian Government's actions against the British Council in Russia. The House will recall that in October 2007 the Russian Government threatened to close the British Council's operations outside Moscow from 1 January 2008. That was confirmed on 12 December and again last week with the threat of a series of administrative measures against the British Council, including tax measures in St Petersburg and visa restrictions against British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The Russians also threatened to take measures against the British Council in Moscow, up to and including the removal of accreditation of British Council staff working in Russia.

On Tuesday this week, the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser held what we believed were productive talks in Moscow about a range of international and bilateral issues, including the British Council. Yet on the same day, the Russian Government exerted further pressure on the British Council. The Russian security services summoned more than 20 locally engaged members of British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg one by one for interviews. Ten members of staff were interviewed late at night in their homes after calls by the Russian tax police. Questioning ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets. These Russian citizens have chosen to offer their skills and hard work to promote cultural contact between the people of Russia and the UK. As a result, they have been the subject of blatant intimidation from their own Government.

I think that the whole House will agree that such actions are reprehensible, not worthy of a great country and contrary to the letter and spirit of the legal framework under which the British Council operates—notably international law, including the Vienna conventions and the UK-Russia 1994 bilateral agreement on cultural co-operation, which Russia has ratified.

Russia has failed to show any legal reasons under Russian or international law why the British Council should not continue to operate. It has also failed to substantiate its claims that the British Council is avoiding paying tax. The British Council is in fact registered for tax in Russia and has complied with all requests of the tax authorities in respect of its activities. Instead of taking legal action against the British Council, the Russian Government have resorted to intimidation of its staff. I am confident that the whole House will share the anger and dismay felt by this Government at the actions of the Russian Government. We saw similar actions during the cold war but thought, frankly, they had been put behind us.

The British Council's first priority is, rightly, the safety of its own staff, yet the actions of the Russian Government have made it impossible for staff to go about their work in a normal way. British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg have been prevented from operating, so the British Council has, with great regret, taken the decision to suspend its operations in those two cities. The council is making an announcement to this effect as I speak. The staff concerned will continue to be supported while the council considers its next steps.

There has already been strong international condemnation of Russia's actions. Following my conversation last night with the Slovenian Foreign Minister in his capacity as presidency of the EU, an EU presidency statement has just been issued on behalf of all European Governments. The statement makes it clear that the EU is

"very concerned at Russia's demand to close British Council regional offices" and

"deeply regrets the harassment of British Council staff" and other measures taken. It calls on Russia to

"allow the British Council to operate freely and effectively in Russia".

The Government of the United States have issued a statement of support, calling for the British Council to be able to continue its good work in Russia, and the Canadian Government are also expressing their concerns in Moscow about these developments. I am grateful for the many expressions of support that the British Council has received from Russians who have benefited from working with it.

The Russian Foreign Minister stated publicly on 14 December what the Russian Government had been saying to us in private—that their attacks on the British Council were linked to the Litvinenko affair. I announced to the House on 16 July a list of measures that the Government had decided to adopt in response to Russia's failure to co-operate with our efforts to secure justice for Alexander Litvinenko. These included introducing visa restrictions for Russian officials travelling to the UK and suspending our visa consultations. The House can rest assured, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that those measures will continue to be administered rigorously.

We regard as entirely separate the issues surrounding Mr. Litvinenko's murder and the activities of the British Council to build links between British and Russian schools and universities, to support English language teaching in Russia and Russian studies in the UK and to promote the best of British drama, writing, music and art. Nor do we believe that cultural activities should become a political football. In fact, educational and cultural activities are important ways of bringing people together. That is why I have decided not to take similar action against Russia's cultural activities in the UK—for example, by sending back Russian masterpieces scheduled for show at the Royal Academy or by taking measures against the two Russian diplomats at the Russian embassy who are dedicated to cultural work. We have nothing to fear from these contacts; we welcome and encourage them.

The immediate cost to the Russian people of the Russian Government's actions is their lack of access to the benefits of British Council activity. The longer-term cost is their country's standing in the world as a responsible international player. The British Council will continue its work in Moscow, meeting the demand from as many as possible of the 1.25 million Russian citizens who used the council's services last year.

The British Council's experience in Russia is not repeated in any of the more than 100 British Council operations elsewhere in the world. Russia's actions therefore raise serious questions about her observance of international law, as well as about the standards of behaviour she is prepared to adopt towards her own citizens. That can only make the international community more cautious in its dealings with Russia in international negotiations and more doubtful about its existing international commitments.

Russia remains an important international player in addressing key global issues and challenges, including climate change and energy security, as well as others such as Iran and Kosovo, but I hope the whole House will agree with me that Russia's actions against the British Council are a stain on Russia's reputation and standing that will have been noted by countries all around the world. I will continue to keep the House informed of developments.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Let me say at the outset that, across the House, we join him in deploring the Soviet-era tactics employed against legitimate cultural contact—tactics that we trust will be counter-productive from the Russian point of view and are deeply offensive from the British point of view.

I think the whole House will agree that the work of the British Council is invaluable in building mutually beneficial relationships between people in the United Kingdom and those in other countries. The work of the British Council in Russia has been undertaken in that spirit, involving in the last year—I think—almost half a million Russians in British Council projects visiting exhibitions, plays and films organised by the British Council, and the setting up recently of 40 new joint degree programmes between Russian and United Kingdom universities. As the Foreign Secretary said, the harassment and intimidation of the staff doing that work is not acceptable to the Government, and I think it true to say that it is not acceptable to any of us in the House.

We wholly support the Government's decision not to retaliate against other cultural exchanges. We trust, however, that the Foreign Secretary will convey to the Russian Government the united view in the House that while we are open in the future to a better relationship with Russia, such actions, and Moscow's wider response to the Litvinenko murder, will not produce such a relationship. In an interview with the BBC, to which the Foreign Secretary referred, the Russian Foreign Minister linked the order to close the British Council offices with the United Kingdom's expulsion of four Russian diplomats last summer, but an attack on an institution that is valuable to Russia and valuable to the United Kingdom serves no worthwhile objective whatsoever.

Let me now ask the Foreign Secretary some specific questions. What is the number of Russian staff currently employed by the British Council in the three offices in Russia, and have the whereabouts and safety of all of them been established? Have any documents or items of equipment been seized from the employees of the British Council? The Government in Moscow have accused the British Council of operating illegally. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify what constitutes the legal basis of the British Council's presence in Russia? Is the 1994 UK-Russia agreement on co-operation in education, science and culture still legally binding?

Russian Foreign Ministry officials have made much of the fact that cultural organisations from other countries, including France and Germany, are, they say, complying with Russian law as non-governmental organisations, and operate without difficulties. Under what arrangements are they operating, and how do they differ from the arrangements of the British Council?

Russian officials have been quoted as saying that the British Council's Moscow offices could be targeted next if no agreement on the status of cultural organisations and the availability of British visas for Russian diplomats is reached. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether Russia has sought an agreement on the status of cultural organisations, and have any other British institutions been subjected to similar pressures?

The British Council is a founding member of the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Recently a cluster of national institutes has been established in Russia, chaired by the British Council. Has the work in that cluster been affected by these events?

What assessment—this is important—has the Foreign Secretary made of the effect that the dispute has had on co-operation between our two countries in other areas? There are vital issues, such as Iran and the future status of Kosovo, which we want to see resolved, preferably in agreement with Russia. Has the issue of the British Council affected British-Russian discussion of those vital subjects?

The Foreign Secretary said that at the same time as the holding of productive talks in Russia earlier this week between the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser and Russian counterparts, the pressure on the British Council was intensified. Does he think that that indicates a division of opinion within the Russian Government, and does he think that the good intentions expressed by Russia's foreign policy spokesman are being frustrated by its security services or by others?

Ironically, the basis for close co-operation between Russia and the United Kingdom is very strong. Our trade and investment links are growing, United Kingdom investment in Russia is huge, there remains considerable common ground on foreign policy, and there is a good basis for long-term co-operation. At the same time, however, harassment, intimidation and bullying of people including our ambassador, as well as the British Council, are unacceptable. They harm Russia's standing in the world, unnecessarily weaken the links between our countries, and will make opinion in this country not more emollient towards the Russian authorities, but more resolved not to be bullied by them.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I welcome the shadow Foreign Secretary's strong support for the Government's actions. He said at the outset that he believed the Russian actions were counter-productive, and at the end of his remarks emphasised the wide areas in which we can co-operate with the Russian authorities. He is absolutely right about the counter-productive nature of the actions that have been taken. The only losers are Russian citizens, and the reputation of the Russian Government. It is important to stress that there has not been a contagion from our disagreement about the British Council to areas of common concern in respect of Iran and Kosovo—although, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, we do not hold the same position on Kosovo as the Russian authorities.

There was only one item in the right hon. Gentleman's observations in respect of which there may be some room for confusion. I believe that the 500,000 Russians to whom he referred are those who use the offices outside Moscow. The 1.25 million figure that I gave related to Russian citizens using all the British Council offices, including those in Moscow.

Let me run through some of the right hon. Gentleman's questions. I referred to the 20 members of British Council staff outside Moscow as the number called in for questioning. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the number of British Council staff who operate in the Moscow office. No documents have been taken, to our knowledge. As for the legality of the British Council's operations, yes, the UK-Russia agreement of 1994 remains in force. The UK Government have been keen for some years to update it and move it forward, but we have not encountered a willing response from the Russian authorities. That is the bilateral basis, but there is also the international basis. The Vienna conventions, for instance, provide an important basis in international law.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about other countries. As the Russian Government have never made clear to us what is illegal or improper about the British Council's activities outside Moscow, it is very hard to draw a comparison with the activities of other Governments, although I think the European Union's statement and the alacrity and keenness of Governments to sign it show that there is widespread concern around Europe that this constitutes a threat to all Europe's cultural institutions. EUNIC, the body to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, brings together European countries on that basis. It will meet in Vienna this afternoon, and our delegate there will certainly make strong representations. I hope that the organisation will be able to follow up the strong statement that it made last year on the basis of what has happened today.

There have been threats, veiled and otherwise, about the Moscow operation. As of now it is operating normally, and obviously we want that to continue. I would report back to the House if it did not.

At the end of his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman raised a tantalising question that deserves further discussion: the question whether there is unanimity within the Russian Government about the wisdom of their operations, or whether the actions of the FSB outside Moscow are in the best interests of Russia and its people. I think it important to say that, at this stage, we have not found any part of the Russian Government to be yielding in its defence of the Government's current actions, but I believe that there are many sensible people in that Government who will come to realise that, far from being a demonstration of strength, the actions that they have taken are today a demonstration of weakness.

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Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

I welcome the Foreign Secretary's robust statement. We must stand up to this bullying by the bear. It is not just the British Council and our fine ambassador Tony Brenton who have experienced harassment that is unacceptable, and it is not just the Vienna conventions that are threatened. Russia is not respecting its international convention obligations on the energy charter, or the reduction provisions in the conventional forces in Europe treaty. It is gutting the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe of its main business. It is even seeking to take control of the Council of Europe, with the help, sadly, of some Conservative Members, who are now fellow travellers of the Kremlin.

It is not just the unity of the House that matters. It is the unity of Europe that is important. Will the Foreign Secretary continue to work with our European partners, and does he agree that it would be helpful if everyone in the House supported the unity of Europe on this matter?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I certainly agree with the latter part of my right hon. Friend's contribution. The united European response is important in this regard, as is the united international response. My right hon. Friend was right to say that there is a range of concerns about Russian activities internationally, and he was also right to mention the harassment of the ambassador, which is obviously unacceptable as well.

The one part of our relationship that has not been interfered with—perhaps I should have mentioned this in response to the questions of the shadow Foreign Secretary—is trade and economic links. We have had no reports of interventions on, or interruptions of, such ties. Obviously, that is important, but my right hon. Friend makes a significant point about the number of fronts on which the Russian Government are currently arguing and are at variance with the international community, and I know that Foreign Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents are actively discussing that.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

It is clear from the Foreign Secretary's tone that he very much regrets having to make this statement, but I thank him for keeping the House informed and for his efforts to keep Opposition parties informed.

The Foreign Secretary will not be surprised to learn that we strongly support the Government's actions, particularly in securing the safety and well-being of the British Council staff. Does he agree that the Russian authorities' bully-boy tactics are making them look increasingly ridiculous in the eyes of the international community? When the British Council is successfully continuing its excellent work in places such as Zimbabwe and Myanmar, is it not utterly self-defeating and shameful for the Russian authorities to be acting in this way over educational and cultural links?

It is understandable that the Government do not wish this situation to escalate, but will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the British Council intends to do in respect of the information and logistical support it has previously been able to provide to Russian students applying to UK universities, not least as they often come from the families of high-ranking Russians? More broadly, is it not now even more vital and urgent that we build stronger common positions with our EU partners on a range of issues relating to Russia? In an uncertain world of terrorist threats and failed states, it is particularly irresponsible of the Russian Government to sour our relations, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary can assure the House that we will redouble our efforts to dissuade the Russians from their cold war-like tendencies.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I welcome both aspects of the hon. Gentleman's comments—his determination that we emphasise our common interests with Russia, and our determination to stand up for the values we believe in. I associate myself wholly with that. I know that his concern for British Council staff will be valued, and I thank him for that; cross-party concern for their welfare is important.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Russian Government had made themselves look ridiculous in their attacks on the British Council, and he made the point about the British Council's activities in Zimbabwe and Burma. In my question and answer session with the Foreign Affairs Committee in December, I suggested that the Russian Government's activities put them on a par, at least in their treatment of the British Council, with what was going on in Burma. I now regrettably inform the House that the situation in Russia is unique: it is worse than in Burma in respect of the British Council. The hon. Gentleman is right that in many capitals around the world there is incomprehension at the Russian authorities' actions. When I attended the European Council in December, just after the Russian authorities' first announcement, there was incomprehension—and, I am sorry to say, a fair degree of ridicule, to use the hon. Gentleman's word, because the British Council operates well in all such countries.

On UK logistical and other support for university entrants, the Moscow office will continue to be a base for such work, and that will continue without fear or favour. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the development of an EU common policy on Russia across a range of areas, notably energy, must preoccupy the EU. As I was able to report to the House in the autumn, a significant section of the September meeting of European Foreign Ministers was devoted to taking a more strategic view of our relationship with Russia.

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Photo of Derek Wyatt Derek Wyatt PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE, Minister of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

If there were a Nobel prize for soft diplomacy, the British Council should win it every year, and I say as chairman of the all-party group on the British Council that what has gone on in Russia is shameful and shocking. Will the Secretary of State consider taking legal action in the courts in St. Petersburg and Moscow to make sure that we set the standard, because we should say, "This is legal; let's prove it's legal and embarrass them further"?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

We are in a Catch-22, because although the Russian authorities keep on denouncing what they call the "illegal activities" of the British Council they never say what the illegal activities are, and it is very difficult for someone to prove that they are not doing something illegal if they are not charged with doing something illegal. Therefore, although I associate myself wholeheartedly with the spirit of my hon. Friend's question, he will understand if I am a bit cautious about pledging to take what he proposes forward.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to say that the intimidation of British Council staff, whether diplomatic or locally engaged, is completely unacceptable, and I welcome the statement from our European partners. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is a great deal of difference between strong leadership and aggressive leadership in Russia, and that the latter is doing Russia's international reputation huge damage?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

We would all expect every country to stand up for its interests, but what we cannot understand is a country doing damage to its interests, which is what is happening. That is not evidence of the sort of strong leadership that I—and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman—believe in.

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Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the first overseas visits in which I took part as a Member of this House was to the Soviet Union in the early '80s, in a delegation led by the late Lord Whitelaw and Denis Healey? We had the opportunity of meeting with Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Gromyko, from which three lessons emerged: that we wanted improved diplomatic relations; that cultural exchanges were important; and that transparency was in our mutual interests. Given the standing of the British Council and the support it has not only in this House but throughout Great Britain and elsewhere, can we encourage those who currently speak for Russia to accept the wisdom of Mr. Gromyko, and agree that mistakes have been made and that what they have done in the past week, particularly in harassing staff, is a big mistake, but that they can correct it?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I did not know about my right hon. Friend's visit—

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that suggestion, but I think that I had just about left school at that stage.

I am sure that the whole House will want to know more about that visit in due course. I hope that the reaction in this country and around the world, and the ongoing reaction that will continue as people come to terms with what has happened, will bring home to the Russian authorities that this is doing them no good. That is the fundamental point: we are arguing that this is against Russian interests.

In the end, the British Council cannot operate in a country where the host Government is not willing to consent to its presence in particular places. The British Council operates all around the world because all sorts of Governments of all sorts of stripes consent to the presence of British Council offices in their cities. I am confident that the Russians' actions will not send a signal that others should take on the British Council; in fact, I think that many others will come to realise the value of what the British Council does.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Many Members are seeking to catch my eye. May I appeal for one brief question, and perhaps a reasonably brief response from the Secretary of State?

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I concur with everything that the Foreign Secretary has said. The British Council is one of the great sources of information about education and culture abroad, and it should never be a political football. We usually award about 45 Chevening scholarships to young Russian scholars every year. Will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that with the suspension of the Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg British Council depots, young people from those areas will not be disadvantaged in fresh applications for a scholarship this year?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and as I tried to make clear in my statement we are determined to make sure that the ongoing work of the British Council in Moscow will continue to reach out as widely as possible throughout Russia, to minimise any impact on people who want to come and study here or engage with the United Kingdom.

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Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary agrees that the greatest threat facing the world is climate change, and towards the end of his statement he mentioned Russia's important position on that issue. Will assure the House that the recent bilateral talks on energy efficiency and climate change will not be jeopardised by recent actions?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The irony of the situation is that in December my special representative on climate change visited Russia and had good meetings with the Russian authorities, and our discussions on climate change are moving forward more productively than they have done in the recent past. I can report some progress on that score at least.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Can the Foreign Secretary give the House an assurance that the intelligence relationship that we must presume has developed between Russia and the United Kingdom since September 2001 in dealing with the threat of un-Islamic extremism worldwide will not be undermined by the permafrost that has sadly set in between Russia and ourselves recently?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that we never comment on such matters. I have made it clear that we do not see any grounds for taking this cultural attack into other spheres.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz PPS (David Cairns, Minister of State), Scotland Office

This incident underlines the importance of the European Union working together on such issues. What specific steps does the Foreign Secretary intend to take to ensure that we continue to get a united EU response on this issue? We must make it clear to the Russians that what they are doing jeopardises their relationships with not only the UK, but the entire European Union.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The statement that has been issued today is clear, coherent and strong, and it is important that it has been made so quickly. As I said, the EU Foreign Ministers discussed the need for a more coherent common approach to Russia across a range of areas at their informal meeting in September, and that has now been followed up in a range of matters, including energy, which is probably the most important one. If the European Union wants to be respected by Russia, it must work in a way that gains respect, and that means working more closely together in a co-operative way.

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Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Shadow Minister (Transport)

The spark that seems to have ignited this tinderbox in the British Council in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg is the status of activities described as commercial, such as language courses. What proportion of the British Council's activities could be described as in any way commercial? The resumption of purely cultural activities, which could not be criticised by the Russians, might be a way forward.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to nail this one. The British Council used to operate exams, which were alleged to be, quote unquote, commercial. It never accepted that they were of a commercial nature, but it none the less suspended all its exam-based operations to ensure that there was no excuse for Russian action against it. Therefore, the answer to his question is zero.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Does not all that has occurred demonstrate to a large extent that the days of the KGB seem to be coming back? Would it not be wise of the Russian authorities to bear in mind that having lost one cold war, they are most unlikely to win another?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend speaks with wisdom and experience in these matters. None of us wants the memories and the eerie echoes of earlier times to come back. I know that the Russian people do not want them to return either, and that is the most important part of this.

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Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

May I welcome the Secretary of State's statement? Does he agree that the decision not to retaliate against Russian cultural interests shows, and is a recognition of, the deep desire in this country to learn more about the Russian people and their culture? Does he agree that that is in stark contrast to the sort of threats that we are hearing from Moscow, for example, which has described the fact that it is keeping open the British Council in Moscow as a gesture of goodwill?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When I came to this House today, I wondered whether or not people would say that we should have tried to retaliate in some way. The united view across the House that lowering ourselves to that level would do us no good and would be a tremendous own goal speaks positively about the instincts of hon. Members on both sides. I welcome both what he has said and the opportunity to put this point on the record: the Russians are doing something that is against their interests and which we deplore—we certainly deplore the intimidation of the staff. We look forward to the day when the Russians see that learning more about other cultures is in all our interests.

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Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor), Ministry of Justice

The harassment of British Council Staff by the FSB—Russia's federal security services—is clearly outrageous. It would seem that all this is because this Government had the temerity to ask for a murder suspect to be extradited. My right hon. Friend has spoken about the coherent position held by the EU. Does he have any view about, or could he foresee, further international action, perhaps through the offices of the UN?

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A

Once again M.Hendrick shows how good he is at stating the bleeding obvious.

Submitted by Alan Banks

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The incredulity that I discussed in answering Mr. Davey, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, is widespread. The international culture institutes, not only the European ones, but other international ones, will want to examine carefully their reaction to this matter, notwithstanding the fact that we do not want culture to become a political football. It is important that we do not end up in an escalating war of either words or actions on this issue. The losers are the Russians. We deplore what they have done and look forward to the day when they see the error of their ways.

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Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As someone in this House who regards himself as a particular friend of that great country, may I say that the current actions of its Government are appalling, shocking and exasperating? Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House about any strategy or additional resources being deployed to help the thousands of Russians who benefit from contact with the British Council every year? Is there a strategy in the cities where the offices are being closed? Are resources being deployed, either online or via distance learning, to help those engaged with current projects and courses?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Until now, the focus has obviously been on keeping the offices open, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the online work of the British Council is burgeoning. It offers access irrespective of whether there is an office in someone's home city. I am sure that we will want to use such techniques as widely as possible to ensure that the open access that has been a feature of the British Council's work through its physical presence is also a feature of its work through its online presence.

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Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Labour, Edinburgh South

When I visited the British Council in Russia, it was the young Russians themselves who told me of the great value of the British Council in engendering a spirit of not only education and culture but friendship between our two nations. Will my right hon. Friend ask his Russian counterpart to listen to those young Russians, to pursue this matter in a message and spirit of friendship, and to end the hostilities now?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend puts it extremely well, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. The good thing about this, if there is one, is that I do not think that British people will take against Russian people as a result of it; they will see these actions as being in no way symptomatic of the ordinary Russian citizen's interest in furthering friendly relations with this country.

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Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

The Foreign Secretary will doubtless be encouraged by the support that he has received from both sides of the House for not only his position but that of the superb British Council. Is he aware that many members of the Russian Duma are part of their non-voting delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly? Has he had the opportunity to discuss with Mr. George, who is the excellent leader of Britain's delegation, whether or not something could be done through that forum to try to lower the temperature of relations a little?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that I have not had the chance to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend yet. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Parliamentarians meet not only through NATO, but through a range of other international forums. As it happens, two weeks ago, I met a member of the Russian Duma who was having dinner with a member of the Conservative party here in the Palace. Those sorts of Parliament to Parliament and parliamentarian to parliamentarian links are an important way in which we can try to bring home to important people in Russia the fact that what Russia is doing is against its own national interest and is not a wise way to proceed.

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Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

If it should be that the British Council can no longer continue its good work in Russia in the long-term, could consideration be given to a new outpost in Mirpur, where the British Council would be appreciated? In the long-term, such an outpost could help with the integration of the Pakistani community in many of our northern towns and cities.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

There is as yet, thank goodness, no real and present threat to the British Council's operations throughout Russia. We do not yet face the prospect of the British Council closing across Russia: we still have the Moscow office. I shall be certain to draw the attention of the chief executive and chairman of the British Council to the expansion plans that my hon. Friend has suggested.

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Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The Russian actions are ridiculous and the Foreign Secretary is right not to engage in a cultural tit for tat. President Putin may also be frustrated by the presence of certain Russian billionaires in London. Indeed, the Kremlin may have memories of the actions of US and UK banks and brokers who also profited greatly, in and out of the country, from the Yeltsin sell-off. But the British Council is entirely different: it is there to foster much needed long-term relationships. I agree with my right hon. Friend's closing statement that, far from making Russia look stronger, the attack on the British Council and its staff makes it look very weak in the eyes of the international community.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. It is one that I hope that we can try to take forward in imaginative ways as we try to move on from this very difficult situation.

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Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

My right hon. Friend will know that the British Council has recently established a British Council office in Algeria and is seeking to establish itself in very difficult countries all over the world. It is a testament to the British Council that it has staff who are prepared to take the personal risks associated with the job. I am particularly heartened to hear my right hon. Friend's comments in relation to those contracts that have already been established between the British Council and a range of very difficult countries and I would encourage him to look further at renegotiating those contracts and extending them to reaffirm our commitment and our joint approaches in those nations to develop a mutual respect for our individual cultures and, therefore, consolidate those cultures in this country.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I have only one quibble. That is, of course, that at every stage it is for the British Council, as an independent organisation, to negotiate its contracts. I will certainly convey to the British Council her strong view, and I hope that she understands that the operational decisions are for the British Council itself. One of the things that we have tried to emphasise at every stage of this affair is that the British Council sets its own priorities. Although it is funded by the taxpayer, it makes its own decisions about how it moves forward.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC (Leader of the House of Commons)), Leader of the House of Commons

Russia is a great nation and we have had strong economic relations with that country ever since the founding of the Muscovy Trading Company in the 16th century, and strong cultural relations since Peter the Great made his first state visit back in the 17th century. Notwithstanding the fact that nobody in this House wants to ruin those strong relations, I hope that the Foreign Secretary is making it extremely clear that there is a strong sense of anger in this House and this country at the despicable actions of the last few days and at the sustained level of attack on independent journalists and organisations, and on many non-governmental organisations—not only the British Council.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend speaks with real expertise on this question and has contributed a lot to my understanding and that of the House about some of the things that are going on in Russia. He makes an important wider point, which is that a decent society depends on strong, independent institutions in civic society, across politics, the media, the economy and the judiciary. It is very important that the drive towards such standards applies to all countries around the world because they are the best guarantor of the stability that we all seek.

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