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Vienna Conference

Volume 124: debated on Wednesday 16 December 1987

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2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he is satisfied with progress at the conference on security and co-operation in Europe, Vienna conference, and in particular with the response of the Eastern countries to the proposals in respect of the privacy and integrity of mails and communications put forward by the United Kingdom and other delegations.

No, Sir. Some progress has been made in negotiations on a final document, but movement on human rights and contacts remains slow. There have been no significant developments on privacy and integrity of mails and telecommunications since my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) on 18 November, at column 599.

Will the Minister accept my sympathy and understanding of his dissatisfaction that progress has not been made, as many of us are also dissatisfied? Does he accept that the article in The Times on 8 December about the Shapiro family is one that deserves attention? At this time of the year children all over the world are writing to Santa Claus asking for their Christmas wishes to be granted, and a little girl of 10 has written to Mr. Gorbachev asking that she and her family might be allowed to go to Israel to meet her grandparents whom she has never seen. Does the Minister agree that that letter could be answered positively, and will he encourage such an answer to be given?

Yes, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As part of the contact that we have with the Soviet authorities we take the opportunity to put forward human rights cases in the hope that they can be resolved— a number have been—and to point out to leading figures in the Soviet Union that the growth of trust and confidence between East and West will take place only when human rights are as rigorously observed there as we try to ensure they are observed within our society.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware of the apparent connivance of the British Post Office in readily accepting the signatures of officials who sign receipts for registered mail in the Soviet Union? It is clear that that mail does not arrive. Should we not take further action in this country to ensure that we accept the signatures only of the people to whom the mail is addressed?

My hon. Friend has raised an extremely important point. He will be glad to know that, as part of the Vienna CSCE process, we have tabled a document calling upon all participants to agree procedures that would mean that only the addressee, or an agent nominated by him—not one put up by the authorities—should be able to give a receipt in those circumstances. We believe that that and a number of other proposals put forward would guarantee much greater freedom for mail than we have any reason to believe exists at present.

The final document from Vienna has now been postponed for at least six months. Would progress there be much quicker if we were to recognise the spirit of Helsinki and realise that that conference consists of 35 nations of Europe and North America and not groups representing Eastern Europe, Western Europe and non-aligned countries? Should we not try to work together as countries of Europe and North America rather than as groups reflecting political philosophies?

Even though quite a lot of work is done through groups, there are already 140 different proposals on the table and no sign yet that anyone is able to knock those proposals together into something that is acceptable to all. Obviously, we hope that, as the climate improves between East and West, it will be possible to make progress on those issues. None of us wants to see the groups outlive their usefulness. However, at the moment the only prospect of making any progress is by trying to build as large a consensus as possible within groups on matters that can be collectively discussed.