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British Council (Russia)

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

On 12 December the Russian authorities announced that they planned to shut down the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on 1 January 2008. I made it clear in my written ministerial statement of 13 December that the Russian Government’s threat against the British Council was illegal. It is therefore the intention of the British Council to remain open and operational in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

While I applaud the Government’s decision and recognise of course that it is in times of political difficulty that the British Council’s independent and continuing role in bilateral education and cultural links becomes particularly important, is not the key question how we avoid the council’s work becoming a pawn in the foreign affairs game and ensure that people on all sides recognise the importance of its continuity?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The independence of the British Council is asserted on both sides of the House. Certainly it is not a political football from our point of view, and our message to the Russian Government is that they should not use the British Council as a political football. I hope that that can be a united message, because 1.25 million Russians benefited from the activities of the British Council last year, and that must be in both our countries’ interests.

Given that it is the British Government’s view that the British Council’s operations are legal in the Russian context and comply with tax laws, international conventions and the agreement reached with the Russians, and given that the actions of the Russian Government appear to be illegal, what practical help can the British Government give the staff at the offices of the British Council still based in Russia so that they can continue their operation?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The first thing to say is that, while a threat was issued on 12 December, it has not yet been carried out. Our first priority is to send a clear message to the Russians that this is illegal and there is nothing to be gained by them—in fact, there is everything to be lost, in terms of services for Russian people and of the reputation of Russia around the world—in carrying out this threat. Certainly, my conversations with European and other G8 colleagues suggest that there is unanimous incomprehension at the proposal of the Russian Government to crack down on the British Council. Our duty of care to our staff is obviously something that we take seriously and the offices are in the first instance a matter for British Council management. I assure my hon. Friend that both at official level in Russia and at ministerial level, we take the duty of care to both sets of staff extremely seriously.

The Foreign Secretary may be aware that the news agency TASS, the newspaper Izvestia and The Moscow News, the English newspaper, have said that the British Council performs activities not in accordance with what it ought to be doing. They have suggested, for example, that it is an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service and that it interferes in the politics of Russia. The Foreign Secretary will know that that is nonsense. How can he reassure the House and, more important, President Putin, that it is not the case?

The best way, of course, is to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my agreement with him will have a profound resonance. We can at least both say that there is absolutely no foundation to those allegations. The legality of the British Council activity seems to me to be clear. It may be worth reading into the record that the British Council’s activities are fully compliant with not just international law, but Russian law. Its presence and its activities are specifically endorsed by a 1994 cultural centres agreement signed by Russia. I give him my absolute assurance on the independence and legality of the British Council’s work.

We share the Government’s view that Russia’s action is wholly unacceptable, so can the Foreign Secretary explain why, although the Prime Minister said at the last EU summit that its conclusions would “reflect” the “anger” that EU leaders felt about the matter, it was not even mentioned by the time that the summit concluded? Do we not now have the worst of all worlds: a Prime Minister who blatantly gave in to European leaders last month, but who managed to offend them into the bargain so that we do not get their help when we request it in turn?

It is frankly pathetic for the hon. Gentleman to try to turn the issue into an anti-European diatribe, when the European Union presidency has issued a statement denouncing any Russian action. I am sorry that he or his researchers have not been able to find—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry; he says that I am wrong, but I will do the research for him; I will send him the European presidency statement, which shows a united European view on the issue. I thought that he confined his Europhobia to issues to do with the European Union, but it seems not.

Is not the really worrying thing about the Russian ban on the British Council outside Moscow the fact that it is far from the first time that the Russians have tried to undermine the work of the British Council in Russia, and that it is not the only non-governmental organisation in Russia that has been systematically undermined by its Government in the past few years? Is it not important that we continue to be robust, not least now that Mr. Lugovoi has been elected a member of the Duma? The issue is part of a smokescreen to try to hide the fact that one of his colleagues in the Duma said the other day:

“The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his terrible death will be a warning…that in Russia…treason is not to be forgiven. I would recommend to citizen Berezovsky to avoid any food at the commemoration”—

I am sorry that hon. Members interrupted my hon. Friend—[Hon. Members: “It was Mr. Speaker.”] Mr. Speaker is always correct in his interruptions, but Opposition Members are not. My hon. Friend has spent a lot of time on the issue. He is, of course, absolutely right. The shocking quotation that he read out should indeed be denounced. I will just pick up two of the points that he made. First, let us not yet talk about Russian actions. There have been threats, but there have not yet been actions against the British Council outside Moscow, and we should continue to urge the Russian Government not to take any actions. Secondly, we need to continue to give the Russian Government the clear message that we will continue to take the Lugovoi issue seriously; the request for his extradition remains in force, and it remains a commitment of ours to see justice done in this country. At the same time, we are determined to work with Russia on a range of international and bilateral issues. We must continue to make that twin-track message clear.