Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)
I should start by making a slight correction to my own title for the debate, because this incident did not happen “in” the Russian Federation—a point that I shall come on to.
I shall say first what I am not saying in the debate. I am not saying that Greenpeace activists should have immunity from prosecution wherever they engage in their activities in the world. I am not calling for impunity for people when they take on such activities and, indeed, I do not think that Greenpeace would, either. Part of civil disobedience is that people expect that at some point they will face the criminal law, and I do not think that anybody resiles from that or wants to hide from it.
I am also not saying that Greenpeace is right in its assertions on polar drilling or what the Russians should or should not be doing in the Arctic. I personally have a set of concerns about whether it is possible to drill in heavily icy water—whether it would be possible to clear up a spill—but that is not my argument today at all. I am also not saying anything about the criminal justice system in the Russian Federation, respect for human rights in the Russian Federation or its membership of the Council of Europe and its adherence to the European convention on human rights, although I have said many things on all those matters on many other occasions. That is not the issue before us today.
Let me run through the facts. The first is that, on 18 September, several Greenpeace activists attempted to climb a Russian oil rig owned by Gazprom, the state operator—they had also done that the previous year—so as to be able to hang a great big banner proclaiming their views on drilling in the Arctic. The Prirazlomnaya rig has been there for some time, and Greenpeace has been running a campaign against its presence there. Not immediately but 24 hours later, FSB—the federal security service—operatives, presumably on the command of the Russian state, stormed the Greenpeace ship and seized it, along with the captain and all the crew members, the activists and the two journalists who were on board, and took them all off to Murmansk.
The 28 activists and two journalists were subsequently charged with piracy, which in Russian state law carries a term of imprisonment of up to 15 years. Every one of them was refused bail and, as I am sure right hon. and hon. Members—I note that this debate is very well attended—will know, there are six British people involved. They are Phil Ball, who is a Greenpeace activist and a constituent of the Prime Minister; Kieron Bryan, who is a freelance videographer and a constituent of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is sitting on my right; Frank Hewetson, a Greenpeace activist; Alex Harris; Anthony Perrett; and Iain Rogers, who was the second engineer on the Greenpeace ship.
I think there are some very significant problems with the actions of the Russian authorities. The first is that, as I said, the ship was not seized in the Russian Federation. It was not in Russian Federation state waters. It was in international waters. I know that Russia has sought to declare a 3-nautical mile exclusive economic zone around the rig, but I believe that is not within international law. Quite explicitly, article 60.5 of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea specifies, I believe, that that 3-nautical mile exclusion zone is illegal. But even if it is legal, that does not give the Russian authorities the right to operate in the way that they did, using the level of force that they did, 24 hours after the demonstration on the rig had ended, let alone to seize a ship that is flagged under the Dutch authorities, which is why the Dutch authorities have now made a claim on the ship. Therefore, I think there are significant areas in which, even against their own Russian law, the Russian authorities have not operated correctly.
There is also the matter of the charges that have been brought against the activists. They have been charged with piracy. This country takes piracy extremely seriously. The situation off Somalia has seen the British Navy and British troops engaged in a European effort to root out the significant problems there, and British people have been seized by pirates, so we do not take piracy lightly at all. But even President Putin says that it is completely obvious that the activists are not pirates. I am quoting his direct words. He said that
“it’s completely obvious they aren’t pirates.”
Mikhail Fedotov, the chair of the presidential human rights council, which advises the President on human rights issues in Russia, has also said that they should not be prosecuted for piracy.
I believe there is a very good reason why these people should not be prosecuted for piracy. It is not only that we undermine the law on piracy around the world and the efforts to tackle piracy if we call people pirates when they are not in any sense pirates. It is also that we have only to look at the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, which says specifically in article 101:
“Piracy consists of…any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft”.
The key element in that is “for private ends”. That does not mean prosecuting a campaign. It means “for personal, private, financial or monetary gain”. There is no allegation that that is the situation in this case. For that matter, the article says that there has to be an illegal act “of violence or detention”. Greenpeace engaged in no such act of violence or detention.
The hon. Gentleman, as so often, foreshadows what I was about to say next, because I was going to move on to the next bit of article 101. He has made the point for me, and I know that many other right hon. and hon. Members want to speak, so I will not bother to labour the point, but even within Russian law—many countries have specific laws in relation to how the United Nations convention should be interpreted into their own law—I cannot see how it could possibly be thought that these people were pirates.
Article 227 of Federal Act No. 162-FZ of 8 December 2003, which was adopted by the state Duma in 1996, says that piracy is an
“Assault against a maritime or other vessel with intent to capture the property of others and with the use of force or the threat of force.”
Nobody thus far, I think, has alleged that Greenpeace was seeking to seize the rig. Nobody has said so. For that matter, nobody has yet maintained that the rig—this goes back to what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said—is a maritime or other vessel. I therefore find it inconceivable, either within Russian law or within international law, that they should be prosecuted in this way.
That brings me to what has happened since the activists were seized and taken to Murmansk, which is not a particularly hospitable region for people to be imprisoned in—I think all right hon. and hon. Members understand that—and is a considerable distance from most consular support. That has brought up a series of questions, which I hope the Minister will be able to answer later, but I do have concerns about the conditions in which each of the activists has been held. I think it bizarre that bail has been denied in every single instance. It feels as if proper criminal justice procedures have not been followed. Frequently, if not invariably, the activists have been held in solitary confinement, and I cannot conceive why that would be necessary. It is not because I am a socialist, although perhaps it helps—[Interruption.] I am sorry to have lost all the Conservatives in the room, and half the Liberal Democrats. I believe that the worst thing we can do to a human being is put them in solitary confinement, because we are by nature social beings. To deny someone the opportunity to engage with anybody, even somebody who cannot speak the same language, is a cruel act, which is why I have concerns about how people are being treated.
It is clear to me that consular access has not been as easy as it should have been under all the conventions to which the Russian Federation is a signatory. There has been uncertain access to lawyers and translators of the individuals’ choosing. That access is important in international legal situations, because someone might be given a lawyer, but it might be one who has no intention of prosecuting the case in the interests of the detained person. I hope that the Minister can reply on the issues of consular access and support. Being in a country where one does not speak the language is particularly solitary. When Greenpeace activists engage in such activities elsewhere in the world, nobody expects everything to be roses, but basic levels of treatment are expected in international law.
I hope that the Russian ambassador will be following the debate, and that it will be followed closely in Russia. As we come to the winter Olympics in Sochi, the eyes of the world will be on Russia. People will be deeply troubled, not only in this country, but in many of the other countries concerned, including Argentina, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine, if a sledgehammer has been used to crack a nut, which is what this situation feels like. An entirely peaceful demonstration was disrupted by armed force—people in balaclavas working in the FSB. Dirigible boats were slashed and sunk, shots were fired, ships were seized and people were charged with offences way in exaggeration of the facts.
I am in the middle of a Select Committee inquiry, so I hope hon. Members will bear with my intervention. I learnt to speak Russian at school. I revived twinning links between Zamoskvorechye and Lambeth to bring about peaceful dialogue between the two countries. I am also Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which recently published the report, “Protecting the Arctic”. Two weeks ago, I was with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) at a conference on the Arctic circle, looking at ways to achieve peaceful dialogue over the issues that the Committee identified in the report on the future of the region. I would like to put that on record.
In making the case for the journalists, as well as those on the Greenpeace ship, has my hon. Friend any sense of the Russians engaging with us in peaceful dialogue to address the environmental issues? Does he have any knowledge of whether Shell or BP, which are closely linked with Gazprom, have been involved in seeking a solution to this international situation?
The answer to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) is yes. I hope that the Minister will reply on the issue of how the British Government can work with Russia, because the British Government’s relationship with the Russian Government is not always at its best, and whether it might be possible to work with other countries and some other agents, such as Shell and BP, to ensure a successful outcome. In my view, a successful outcome means that all the activists are out of Murmansk, out of the Russian Federation and home before Christmas, preferably in the next couple of weeks.
I will speak fast, so I will be extremely brief. I agree with the points that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) made a moment ago. She and I attended the Arctic conference. The point she made was not so much about the consular issues, which the hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct to raise—I strongly agree with every word he has said so far—but that we must find a way for the future of bringing the two sides together in a way that does not involve raiding oil rigs and taking action. It should involve talking and sitting down to discuss the issues among ourselves.
I agree. When I was Minister for Europe, I also had responsibility for the Arctic region, and a successful discussion between all the countries that have an interest was one of the things we were trying to prosecute. Incidentally, those countries are not only the ones that abut the Arctic, but all the countries in the world, due to the environmental issues that pertain.
I say to our Russian friends and colleagues that peaceful demonstration is always a challenge. Greenpeace is irritating; in a way, that is the point of Greenpeace. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is irritating. He has been irritating since we were at school together. He probably thinks that I am irritating. How do we deal with extremely irritating people who want to make a point? That is the challenge for the international community, and for every country that seeks to be a democracy and prosper in the modern world. That is why the eyes of the world will be on Russia and why the Nobel laureates have written to say, “Look, you have to honour your treaty obligations and make sure that you are not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
We know people are watching, because there have been demonstrations around the world—in Hong Kong and South Africa—and the Nobel laureates have referred to the situation. I am sure that Greenpeace will engage in many more demonstrations in future, and not only in Russia. Over the past weeks, there have been demonstrations at the pumps in Germany and a massive banner was unveiled by Greenpeace at a football stadium in Switzerland. We all seek to manage such challenging confrontations calmly, and not in the way the Russians have.
I shall end with two quotes. The first is not from a Brit, but a Swiss activist—he apologises for his bad English—Marco Weber:
“I am now for about 12 days alone in a cell, I don’t have books, newspapers, TV, or someone to talk to. At the daily walk I am also isolated. The 4x5 metre ‘walkyard’ is surrounded by concrete walls and covered with iron bars. On top is a roof, which doesn’t allow the sunshine in. The only sky I can see is out of my cell window, which is placed in the northern wall of the building. This means no sun at all. Days are long!”
Alex Harris writes:
“Surely my future isn’t rotting in prison in Murmansk?!...Being in prison is like slowly dying. You literally wish your life away and mark off the days.”
I am not saying that the Russians should declare some kind of legal immunity for Greenpeace activists—no one is saying that. Greenpeace is not saying that. Its activists know the risks they take when they engage in such activities. All I say to the Russians is “Slona iz mukhi,” a short Russian proverb that means, “Don’t make an elephant out of a fly”—a mountain out of a molehill.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his speech and on securing the debate and I applaud the approach with which he commenced. It does not help those who are currently incarcerated in Murmansk to insult or offend their custodians. What we must do—I apprehend it was the approach intended by the hon. Gentleman—is to appeal to the Russian authorities, to His Excellency the Russian ambassador, who I know is taking an interest in the proceedings this morning, and to the President of Russia. I hope that speakers in the House today will base their appeal not only upon an analysis of what occurred that day and during those days in which the Arctic Sunrise was pursued and seized, but upon the compelling compassionate grounds, which are represented in part by the attendance of the families of some of those who are in custody today.
In my constituency, I have the families of Alexandra Harris and Kieron Bryan. Both families are suffering the inevitable shocking anxiety and anguish of knowing that those whom they love are isolated and segregated in a faraway place and accused of something that they are convinced, as I am, they did not do, and they are anxiously awaiting their return. It is in that spirit that I hope those who are listening, particularly the Russian ambassador, will interpret all the remarks that we make this morning.
Kieron Bryan is 29. He was a videographer on the Arctic Sunrise. He was nominated for an award. He is a talented, young and idealistic man. He was not there to break the law; he was on board the ship merely to record what happened and to keep a record. Alex Harris is 27—my own daughter’s age—and was on board as a digital communications officer, in charge of the Twitter account. She was fresh from joining Greenpeace in Sydney, and has been a volunteer in Vietnamese orphanages. She is, again, an idealistic young person who was not there to break the law—far from it—and to whom the idea of illegal violence would have been anathema, as it would to Kieron Bryan.
We all in this country can be proud of such young people. They were not intending to threaten the Russian state. They were intending to make a point about drilling in the Arctic. We all know, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has said, that drilling in Arctic conditions is a dangerous, arduous task, and it is inevitable that there will be sensitivities among those whose task it is to protect such installations, but those sensitivities should not lead to disproportionate reactions. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, but, on reflection, I hope that the Russian ambassador, the President and the authorities currently conducting the proceedings in Murmansk will reflect that there is an important principle of law: proportionality.
Proportionality must be applied in all circumstances to all the actions of a sovereign state and its court system. The actions currently being taken against Alex Harris, Kieron Bryan and others who are under the custody of the Russian authorities are not proportionate.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, article 101 of the UN convention on the law of the sea interdicts illegal acts of violence for private ends on the high seas. The hon. Gentleman is completely right. Even if there was an illegal act of violence, which is doubtful, in the mere ascension of the rig with the intention of placing a banner upon it, it cannot be said that it was for private ends in the ordinary sense in which international lawyers mean it. Private ends must mean some form of deliberate attempt to secure a gain. In such circumstances, I would urge the Russian authorities to reflect on whether the charge of piracy is proportionate.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, to charge those young idealistic people—whose interest is not in violence but in peace, and, while some may think it misguided, is in preservation and creation, not destruction—with piracy is to bring into disrepute the very law that prohibits it. That is why I urge the Russian authorities, His Excellency the ambassador, who is listening to this debate, and those who may be listening in Russia itself to feel that the proportionality of their actions is under severe question.
There is another point that the hon. Gentleman did not mention: the United Nations convention prohibits actions of this type only on the high seas. The fact is that the oil rig was within the territorial waters of Russia, so any act against it would not necessarily be an act under the UN convention, and the action that was taken is not prohibited by the UN convention. The Arctic Sunrise was three nautical miles from the oil rig at the time—plainly, as the hon. Gentleman said, in international waters. In such circumstances, the exercise of power under the convention is questionable at least.
However, I do not wish to dwell upon the steps that were taken by the Russian authorities and whether or not they were lawful. I wish to dwell upon the plight of the individuals themselves. In the grim conditions of the Murmansk jail in which they reside are two young people whose families I represent. Kieron Bryan is a constituent of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who will speak eloquently on his behalf, but I hope she will forgive me if I say that I feel a powerful connection to the families of both Alexandra Harris and Kieron Bryan. They are Devonshire people from the area of Torridge that I have the privilege to represent. Alexandra Harris was brought up in a farming family of generations. She went to Dolton and then Great Torrington school. She attended that school with a constituent who works for me in my constituency.
Kieron Bryan was brought up in Shebbear, a great village in Torridge that I know well, so I feel particularly close to those two young people at this particular time. I urge the Russian authorities to understand that those two people, as well as all their colleagues at the time, were not there in any destructive, illegal or lawbreaking spirit. It is ironic that they are incarcerated in Murmansk, the port to which many convoys sailed through the Atlantic to bring to the Russians succour in a time of great need. I ask the President of Russia, the Russian ambassador and the Russian authorities to think again. The human reality of Alexandra Harris’s, Kieron Bryan’s and others’ plight is brought home, as the hon. Gentleman said, by the letter that Alexandra’s mother published only recently and which she has asked me to draw to the attention of the House and the Minister. The letter said:
“I’m worried about what’s going to happen. I have moments of feeling panicky, but then I try to tell myself that there’s nothing I can do from in here and what will be will be so it’s pointless worrying. But it’s hard. Surely my future isn’t rotting in prison in Murmansk?! Well, I really hope it isn’t.”
It is our job—the job of the Minister, the Prime Minister and all those who care for justice and for freedom—to see that it is not.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on the balanced presentation that he gave to the House and also the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on his impassioned plea to the House. I want to add my and my party’s support to the joint approach of all the parties here. Although I do not have a constituent involved in the affair, I want to convey my support to the Members of Parliament who represent the people who are in jail at present.
I believe that we need to drill for oil; it is important that we do so. I would like to get away from relying on fossil fuels—we all know that—but when we produce and use oil, there is a tremendous burden on us to ensure that we do so as environmentally safely as possible. It is incumbent on us all to make sure that every possible measure is taken to ensure that oil is drilled safely and that measures are taken to protect the unique and fragile environment of such areas. Greenpeace, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, might be a pain at times, but it highlights vital issues. That is why its members were on the Russian oil rig, and accusing them of piracy is absurd and wrong.
I understand why Greenpeace was highlighting Russian oil-drilling techniques. The director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, claims that half the world’s oil spills occur in Russia. He estimated that some 30 million barrels of oil a year are spilt there—six times the 4.9 million barrels thought to have been spilled in the gulf of Mexico. Considering the environment and what Greenpeace was highlighting, that is the issue. For me, that is, in a way, also the injustice of what has happened.
Greenpeace’s thought process behind boarding the rig was clearly to highlight the actions in the Arctic, not to carry out an act of piracy, which is an absurd accusation. Certainly, the fact that the entire ship was seized and everyone on board arrested, including two journalists, shows that the response is less to do with their actions and more to do with the Russian Government making a statement—or, as some suspect, trying to hide the truth. I make those comments as well because I think it is important to do so.
That statement has been made and the world is in no doubt as to the current stance of the Russians. It is past time that the people were released. That is why it is right and proper to highlight the issue in Westminster today. The six UK residents who have been arrested and held—not, according to media outlets, in the most pleasant of conditions, as the two previous speakers have mentioned—are an indication of Russia’s stance. The way in which they have been treated in prison demands that a message is sent from this place, making it clear that we want our citizens released along with the other people on that boat. It is absurd to hold off a trial until November. To deny bail to such people and to hold them, on trumped-up charges, far from their families and from access to loved ones is cruel and must be stopped.
Europe as a whole—indeed, the world—has a role to play. Hillary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, has made a statement. She said last week that there should be a greater international outcry. The issue goes beyond Europe and as far as the United States.
I am aware that the Netherlands has determined to bring the matter to the international maritime court and that others are considering the same course of action. The situation is more than just arresting people and letting them think about what they are going to do for a night or two; it is an infringement of their rights. As upholder of democracy, this place must make it abundantly clear that we will join other nations and demand that Russia releases those innocent people and puts a stop to whatever statement it is trying to make.
My hon. Friend is following through a train of thought about the sequence of events that needs to happen internationally. Does he agree that urgent action is needed? The Minister present and the Prime Minister need to make immediate contacts, so that whatever needs to be done is done in a matter of days rather than months.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that the Minister will respond positively. We also need the Prime Minister to action it right away. The statement that will come clearly from Westminster Hall and from all hon. Members present will sincerely say that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda on raising the issue. I look forward to hearing other input and even more so to hearing the input and response from the Minister and, ultimately, the Prime Minister. If there is a chance to bring the matter up in Prime Minister’s Question Time today, it should be brought up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. He was, to some extent, tactful in what he said about Russia, and he did not mention some of the other significant human rights cases, such as those of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and the late Sergei Magnitsky, and the disproportionate treatment meted out to members of Pussy Riot. I understand his reasons for being tactful, but there is an issue for Russia to take notice of: its reputation for human rights abuses, and the damage being done in that regard, is significant and cumulative. It is doing more and more damage to its international reputation through disproportionate responses to events such as those that we are discussing.
Russia’s response is disproportionate, as the hon. Gentleman also, less tactfully, said. There is a level of irritation that comes with politics; he conceded that he is sometimes irritating to me. His ability to remind everyone that we went to school together is one of his more irritating habits, although I suspect that the fact that he went to Cheltenham college does him more political damage in Rhondda than it does me in Cheltenham.
We in this Parliament have been subject to Greenpeace actions. Members of Greenpeace were on our roof in 2009, unfurling banners about climate change. They climbed Big Ben—or the clock tower, in deference to the hon. Gentleman’s reputation for pedantry—in 2004.
Indeed, but then it was still the clock tower. Those protests were met, in large part, with good humour, even though they were probably more significant security breaches in one sense than anything that the Arctic 30 have done in the waters close to Russia. However, they were met with good humour and a proportionate response by the authorities. People were arrested, but they were not charged as terrorists. It was understood that they were peaceful political protests. That is what the Arctic 30 were also engaged in.
The hon. Member for Rhondda was absolutely right to draw attention to the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. Article 101 has two fundamental aspects to its definition of piracy. The first is use of violence, and the other is, as he quite rightly pointed out, the fact that it is done for private means. Piracy is a criminally violent act, and that, as even President Putin clearly said, is quite clearly not what the Arctic 30 were involved in.
I will go a little further than some other hon. Members and say that there is an environmental issue in addition to a human rights one. That is, after all, what Greenpeace was seeking to highlight. As we turn to more and more novel means of extracting fossil fuels, and go into more and more extreme environments in our pursuit of them, we are taking higher and higher risks with the environment. The lessons from the gulf of Mexico are clear, and there are lessons to be learned not only by Russia, but by this and other western countries, about novel means of extracting fossil fuels. My comments are therefore not directed solely at Russia. If the Arctic 30—certainly those placed under arrest—have inspired future generations of environmental activists to highlight such issues, and if they have helped to generate a debate about the risks of more extreme extraction of fossil fuels, their action will not have been in vain.
The Minister made a written ministerial statement on 9 October, which was welcome. However, it had the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s traditional consular emphasis; the FCO is diplomatic, but I think it is occasionally diplomatic to a fault. There seemed to be, in the statement, something of a reluctance to pass judgment on whether it was appropriate to prosecute these people for the act of piracy. There seemed to be great reluctance, as there was in other cases, to contemplate any kind of sanctions against Russia for its actions. There was the rather significant inclusion of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in lobbying the Russian Government, but not of the Prime Minister. When British citizens are involved, I think it is appropriate for the Prime Minister to have some personal involvement.
The FCO always puts a great premium on discreet persuasion, but there are limits to that. At some point, we need to hear from the Government what further concrete and proactive steps they are taking to make progress on the issue—most obviously in partnership with our European Union friends and other like-minded democracies—and how they will try more strongly to encourage Russia to take a different path.
Many hon. Members and people involved in politics the world over were deeply inspired by Russia’s transition from communist dictatorship in the 1980s and ’90s. It is a matter of immense sadness that Russia’s reputation, particularly in human rights, seems to be slipping backwards towards that era. I hope that, collectively, we and supporting organisations such as Greenpeace can encourage Russia to make this issue a turning point, and not to carry on treading this dangerous path.
My comments—I shall keep them brief, because I know that many Members want to speak—follow on nicely from those of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). I want to press the Government on what exactly they have been doing for the past month, and to question the “softly, softly” approach that they appear to have adopted.
I wrote to the Foreign Secretary a month ago, and I still have not received a reply to my questions. It has not escaped my notice that the Governments of other nationals held captive in Murmansk have been much tougher. The Dutch are taking legal action; Hillary Clinton, who has been mentioned, has spoken out very strongly; and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who does not even have any nationals held in Murmansk, has picked up the phone to President Putin and made it clear that what has happened is unacceptable and should be resolved quickly. Yet when the Prime Minister was asked at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday what he has been doing, he said that he has simply been asking for updates. I am afraid that that is not good enough.
I want to put it on the record that my right hon. Friend’s point is supported by constituents of mine who are friends of Kieron’s. They have written to me to say that our Prime Minister really should get involved. I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees.
I absolutely agree, not least because more Britons are being held by the Russians in Murmansk than people from any other country. As has already been said, there are six of them, of whom three are from Devon.
In a letter to me from his jail in Murmansk, the marine engineer from Exeter, Iain Rogers, has complained bitterly about what he sees as the British Government’s lack of action, compared with what is being done by his fellow captives’ Governments. He makes this direct appeal to the Prime Minister:
“I find it hard to believe that you are not outraged that British subjects have been kidnapped at gunpoint, detained and abused and yet so far you have done nothing except sit on your hands. It is time to act Mr Cameron. You have a duty to protect UK citizens and international law.”
Iain’s mum, Sue Turner, visited the Foreign Office last week. I understand that she did not get to see a Minister, which is regrettable, but she did see an official. At a vigil held for the Arctic 30 in Exeter on Sunday, she told me that she and the rest of the relatives share a concern that they are not being given enough information. She said that when they asked why more was not being done and said publicly, she was told by the Foreign Office official that Russia had not responded well to criticism from abroad in the past. We all know that, and it may well be the case, but this has been going on for more than a month.
Many of us do not have a great deal of faith in the Russian judicial system, and other Members have already referred to the prosecution of Pussy Riot and the state- sponsored persecution of gay and lesbian people in Russia. The British Government should make it absolutely clear to the Russians—yes, privately if necessary—that the situation is unacceptable, and that severe damage will be done to our bilateral relations and Russia’s already battered international image unless the hostages are freed forthwith. The Government also need to tell the relatives and the British public what they are doing to help.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has quite rightly said that it would be inconceivable for the Sochi winter Olympics to go ahead unaffected if these 30 people from all over the world are still held illegally in a Russian jail. Does any hon. Member think that that would be an acceptable backdrop to an international sporting event? I hope that the Minister will reassure us by telling us what the Government are doing, and what representations he, and the Prime Minister personally, have been making. Are they supporting or are they a party to the Dutch legal action, and if not, why not?
On the Dutch legal action, it is important to remember that only the Dutch have the standing to bring such an action: it was their sovereign-flagged ship, and they therefore have that status under the convention. We could not bring that action. Of course, we can support it morally, but we cannot be a party to it.
I defer to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s superior legal knowledge, but I hope that the Minister will at least tell us that we are supporting the Dutch legal action politically and morally.
Finally, what conversations have there been between the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary and Cathy Ashton? I would have thought that—given her very good reputation in recent months for bringing together parties, including the Russians, over Iran and Syria—the European Union’s foreign policy representative would be well placed to organise a co-ordinated European Union response to this intolerable behaviour by the Russian authorities.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing the debate. He spoke very eloquently, as have other hon. Members, about the seizure of the boat, the charge of piracy and the issue of proportionality. I very much support those comments, and those made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw).
I want to say a few words in support of Anthony Perrett from Newport, whom I share with my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). He is one of the Greenpeace activists detained in Russia, and his family live in my constituency. May I say to the Minister that we are grateful for the very helpful and practical meeting with hon. Members the week before last, and the subsequent meeting with the families, although the Minister was not able to be at that one? The family have certainly requested a meeting with the Minister in person as soon as possible. Greenpeace’s constructive engagement in the case is also heartening, not least its steps to give daily updates to the families, including Anthony’s family and partner, about what is happening.
Anthony Perrett is a tree surgeon, a former member of Caldicot town council in my constituency and a volunteer for the Severn Area Rescue Association. He undoubtedly has strong and passionate views about the environment, and campaigns proactively. He would probably have been aware of what the consequences of his actions might be, but being charged with piracy is clearly excessive, given that the maximum sentence is 15 years. More than a month on, the Russian authorities have sent a loud and clear message to Greenpeace—the point has been made—but we all hope that reason prevails, and that Anthony and his fellow protesters can be set free and reunited with their families as soon as possible.
The debate has touched on what is happening to those detained in a Russian prison, and on our not having enough information on the circumstances in which they are detained. I want to speak about the stress placed on the family and Anthony’s partner, Zaharah, who have to watch and wait while events in Russia unfold. They are struggling to cope with the impact of his detention on their lives at home in Newport. Zaharah is obviously unable to talk to Anthony. She is unsure about how the Russian legal process works and how long it will take, and about when this trauma will end. She is obviously concerned about his welfare, and wants to know more about the conditions in which he is detained, so it would be helpful to know more about that.
The speed at which the protesters have been charged with piracy is clearly an immense shock, especially given President Putin’s remark about the Greenpeace protesters on 25 September that
“it’s completely obvious they aren’t pirates.”
On a practical level, Zaharah has told me that she would like to send Anthony some personal items at the jail where he is held, but that has so far proved impossible. Parcel couriers have not been able to get help, and people are still trying to find a way to get parcels through. She is asking the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to look at that practical matter and help to find a resolution, which would be a small comfort for my constituent’s family and friends.
Does my hon. Friend think that it is worth reminding our Russian friends that Newport is probably unique in commemorating the role of the merchant navy—it lost more of its representatives in warfare than any other service—with a special memorial and a special commemoration every year, and that it is worth saying that many of those who died were on the route to Murmansk, under terrible conditions of weather and danger? Can we build on the solidarity and comradeship that existed during the war to ensure that the Russians respond generously now?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that worthy intervention, which is timely given the commemoration that is about to take place in Newport. His point was well made. It would be helpful if we could look at some of the practical issues, including the provision of more information on visits. Such help would make a really big difference on a day-to-day basis to both those detained and their families.
As we do not have much time and other Members wish to speak, may I thank the Government for the representations that they have made so far? We look forward to hearing from them about what more can be done. I just ask that they do all they can to secure the release of the Greenpeace activists and to urge the Russian authorities to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for his contribution and congratulate him on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
I want to set out my concern for the 30 individuals who remain incarcerated in a Russian jail, and add my voice to those calling for the charges of piracy to be dropped and for the activists and journalists to be released. I also want to recall why these brave individuals were prepared to take peaceful direct action at the oil drilling platform operated by Gazprom in Arctic waters. The threat that oil drilling poses to the Arctic region is immense. The current failure of global leaders, both here and elsewhere, to respond with sufficient urgency to the threat of climate change is overwhelming.
It is difficult to imagine what it must be like being detained in a Russian jail for more than a month. The reports in the media of letters from the activists and the concerns and feelings of their families and loved ones pierce through sharply into normal life. Phil Ball is one of those being held. He is a nature photographer and film maker who has been credited on David Attenborough’s films, and a father to sons aged eight and seven and a three-year-old daughter. His brother has spoken of the contact he has had with him. He said:
“While Phil seemed quite ‘down’ in his earlier letters, he seemed stronger in this one to me and is very keen we don’t just get them back and forget why they all went out there—to highlight the damage which is being wreaked on the Arctic.”
1 know that all the UK citizens are being well represented by their own MPs and am told that the FCO is making every effort on their behalf. I am sure that all of us will want to keep up the pressure on the FCO publicly and behind the scenes and to work closely with Greenpeace to secure the release of all those detained.
I want to focus my remaining comments on the concerns that motivated those men and women to board the Arctic Sunrise, and that they continue to want to highlight. The Greenpeace ship, crew, volunteers, campaigners and journalists were there to highlight the Arctic oil rush. Fronted by companies such as Gazprom and Shell, the rush for oil is bringing unprecedented risks to the area and to us all in terms of climate change. The activists are playing a key role in letting the world know about the catastrophic consequences of any potential oil spill for the many people living in the Arctic who rely on their natural environment for prosperity, both directly and through tourism, and for marine wildlife and ecosystems.
The activities of the oil companies do not tend to attract much attention here in the UK. The investigative work and the non-violent direct action of Greenpeace and other organisations are helping to shine a light on what is taking place. Every 18 months, more than 4 million barrels of oil spew into the Arctic ocean, where it becomes everyone’s problem. For decades, Russia’s oil giants have been polluting parts of the country’s once thriving landscape, often in secret, spilling oil on to the land and into the Arctic ocean, poisoning the water and destroying the livelihood of local communities and indigenous peoples.
Greenpeace has investigated and documented the ongoing disaster, revealing how the oil seeps into rivers and farmland and how it spreads and becomes a thick, heavy mire, suffocating plants and animals and forcing people to abandon the area. The oil contaminates food and water supplies, and people live with the knowledge that their once clean rivers, forests and air now pose serious health risks.
Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, carried out an inquiry into the risks of drilling in the Arctic, and the future of the region more generally. The inquiry concluded by calling for a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic region, at least until we have put in place stronger safeguards, such as a pan-Arctic oil spill response standard and a stricter financial liability regime for oil and gas operations, requiring companies to prove that they can meet the costs of a clean up.
The peaceful activists on the Arctic Sunrise put their freedom on the line to highlight issues not just around oil spills but around climate change. Last week, 11 Nobel peace prize laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to President Putin offering their support for the Arctic 30. Describing the Arctic as a “precious treasure of humanity”, the signatories are all supporting efforts to protect the high north from oil exploration and climate change.
On Friday 27 September, the Arctic 30 woke up in their freezing jail cells after a whole week of incarceration. On the same day, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on the science of climate change. Scientists are more certain than ever that human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, is driving a powerful underlying trend of rising global temperatures. The IPCC report also underlines the need for substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to limit climate change. For the first time, it talks about the need for a global carbon budget—the amount of carbon that it is safe to release into the atmosphere. That view echoes recent reports from organisations such as Carbon Tracker. There is a stark choice. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to leave at least two thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground, unburned. It does not matter whether we are talking about Arctic oil, tar sands from Canada or Madagascar, or shale gas from Sussex; we just need to leave unconventional fossil fuels in the ground.
One of my constituents wrote to me recently about her concern for the Arctic 30. Summarising the situation, she said:
“I don’t agree with the exploitation big oil companies like Shell are wanting to pursue, drilling in this delicate environment for profit. Climate change is a threat to us all and I strongly believe that a new direction and other alternatives should be considered and more researched.”
She went on to say:
“I tune into BBC Parliament regularly and often find myself disappointed by the lack of interest and low seat count MPs have in debates discussing”—
climate change and—
“similar matters concerning wildlife and the environment.”
Across the world, citizens are increasingly taking non-violent direct action against fossil fuel companies because of the failure of democratically elected representatives to act in the public interest, to stand up to the small number of fossil fuel giants whose business models are fundamentally incompatible with a safe climate and to direct their attention to keeping the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground instead. The latest IPCC report confirms that the ground is where fossil fuels must remain if we are to keep climate change below the “dangerous” threshold of 2°.
Earlier this year, the UK and other G8 nations reiterated that commitment. They said:
“Action needs to continue and intensify as a matter of urgency. Ministers remain committed to long term efforts with a view to limiting the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.”
That is what they said, but it is “deeds not words” that matter.
Four years ago, climate scientist James Hansen was first arrested when taking part in a protest against coal mining in West Virginia. In Canada and elsewhere, civil society resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline is diverse and growing. That is because the exploitation of tar sands is devastating First Nation communities and the local environment, and spells game over for our climate.
The resolve and courage of the Arctic 30 is truly humbling. Today’s debate is an important opportunity to call for their release, and also to put on the parliamentary record the contribution they are making to the fight to protect the Arctic and to create a safe climate and a better future for our children and grandchildren.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing this debate and for the tone of his contribution. I share with him the view that Greenpeace activists are not innocents abroad. Their position is part and parcel of being Greenpeace activists. That is certainly the case of my constituent, Frank Hewetson. He has been a very active campaigner for many years. It is important that we not only raise our concerns about the treatment of our constituents in the hands of the Russian authorities but point out that Greenpeace is active on behalf of the whole world, and no more so than in its actions in the Arctic. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out, changes to the Arctic could have the most deleterious and terrible effect on the rest of the world.
I share with everyone who has spoken today a sense of disbelief that the Russian authorities have chosen, as someone so aptly said, to take this great hammer to crack a nut. The charge of piracy, as those who have comprehensive backgrounds in international law know, is an absurdity. The Russian authorities are determined to hang on to the charge of piracy, and are obdurate in not granting bail to the Arctic 30. What possible harm can they do if they are given bail?
I am in two minds as to whether to argue that one should put forward the need for a compassionate approach to the prisoners, because of course we are talking about a society that even the slightest contact with its culture and literature—I presume that we have all read “The Gulag Archipelago”, so we know that Russian treatment of prisoners, whether the charges against them were justified or not, is surely one of the blackest stories in the history of humankind. I am amazed that Russia, which seems to want to go back to the old, desperate and surely discredited tradition, seems to want to replicate it yet again, so soon after we have seen it take a major step forward in international affairs by being so central and essential in ensuring that the inspectors were allowed into Syria, and the chemical weapons will be destroyed and brought out. Far from arguing on the level of Russia suddenly discovering a compassionate nature, we should argue with Russia that that is really good public relations for it.
Russia is somewhat paradoxical, in that it is clearly a very proud nation and yet sometimes it feels that it is not given sufficient credit for its standing in the international community. Sometimes it is Russia’s fault, and on many occasions it could be argued that it is the fault of the international community, that this great nation is not given sufficient credit for being great, but actions such as charging these activists with piracy tend to push Russia even further into the background, when it so clearly wants to be at the forefront.
I hope that our diplomatic associations and contacts with the Russian authorities will help. I also have to thank the Minister for being so available to the families of the activists; he has certainly been available to the family of my constituent and to the families of other Members’ constituents. Possibly, the best way forward is diplomacy behind closed doors. Perhaps that will at least achieve the first step that I am sure all of us here in Westminster Hall today wish to see, which is affording the Arctic 30 bail, improving contacts with their families and providing items such as books to read, more time on the phone or at least a clear line when they do have time on the phone.
As I have said, these people are not innocents abroad, but what they are doing on behalf of the entire world is entirely admirable, and Russia is a part of that world. Her people can be destroyed just as easily as anybody else’s if climate change is allowed to run unchallenged.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing this debate. I know that he is very involved in relations with Russia through his work in the all-party group on Russia.
I would particularly like to identify myself with the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), in whose constituency Kieron Bryan’s parents live; Kieron Bryan is my constituent. I want to speak about Kieron Bryan today and to say that he is detained in Murmansk, and that it has been a long time since 19 September; here we are on 23 October. It is a long time to be detained in Murmansk. He is not a criminal, he is not a threat to the Russian state, he is not a pirate and I say very strongly that I hope the Russian authorities will listen to what is being said in this debate and allow Kieron Bryan to come home.
Kieron Bryan was on a contract with Greenpeace as a journalist. He had worked for The Times, the Daily Mirror and in broadcasting; he had really done well in his professional career. Aged 29, he had already made great strides in that career, and had taken up a short-term contract with Greenpeace to be on the Arctic Sunrise to record the crew’s activities. Now he is in solitary confinement in Murmansk.
None of us makes a habit of lightly second-guessing other countries’ criminal justice systems, and I certainly do not do so. There are many British citizens who are in prisons all around the world, but I say to the Russian authorities that Kieron Bryan is not a criminal, much less a pirate, and I hope that they will release him and allow him to return home.
I will also say something about the facilities in which Kieron has been detained. As has been said, to be in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, having been refused bail, is very hard indeed. Regarding his access to the outside world, I understand that his letters are brought in and he is allowed to read them, but then they are taken away. So he cannot even keep his letters and see what his friends and family are writing to him. He has only been allowed one book and he has now finished that. He was allowed one phone call to his family when he was on the way to detention. Since then, he has only had access to the phone last weekend, which is not acceptable.
I have asked the Russian authorities for Kieron’s brother, Russell, to be able to go out to Murmansk to visit him. A Russian prisoner on remand is allowed a visit from their family, but how much more does someone need a visit from their family if they are detained thousands of miles away from their home in a cell in a prison where they do not speak the language?
I hope that the Russian authorities will listen to what is being said. I thank the Foreign Office for the work that it has already done. I want it to do absolutely everything it can and to leave no stone unturned to get Kieron Bryan back home. I know that the Foreign Secretary is aware of and engaged on this issue, as is the Prime Minister. I thank the Foreign Office Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today for having a meeting with myself and other colleagues, and for the consular team and the team in the Foreign Office here who are working on this issue.
For my part, I will seek a meeting with Baroness Ashton of Upholland. Perhaps she can meet a number of us and can hear from us all how much we are concerned about this issue and how grateful we would be if she could do what she can to help.
I have asked for a meeting with the Russian ambassador, but he has not been prepared to meet me. Perhaps the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today might encourage him to meet me, and perhaps I could go along with the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon. If a country has an embassy in this country, it is so that it can hear from people in this country what is going on, and to refuse to hear—as a matter of courtesy—what I have to say about my constituent, who is in detention, is wrong. I hope Russia will allow that meeting to happen.
I want Russia to allow visits; to allow Russell a visa; to allow books and phone calls—
Excellent. I will definitely attend that meeting, and I look forward to seeing the ambassador. I hope that he will take this issue very seriously and will listen to our concerns, particularly regarding the different situation of Kieron Bryan, who is a journalist. It is hard to know how much information Kieron is able to get, so many thousands of miles away as he faces a winter in a prison cell in Murmansk, but I hope he knows that for his family—his parents, Ann and Andy, and his brother, Russell—not a day goes by without their using every effort to help to bring his plight to the attention of the Government and the Russian authorities. His family will leave no stone unturned until he is back with them, and I will certainly do absolutely everything I can to help them too.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. It is clear from the attendance here in Westminster Hall today, and from the correspondence that I am sure we have all had, that there is considerable concern across the House and among the wider public about the plight of the Arctic 30, as they have become known, and in particular about the six Britons who were arrested: Kieron Bryan, Philip Ball, Frank Hewetson, Anthony Perrett, Alexandra Harris and Iain Rogers.
As we have heard, 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists were detained last month after armed Russian security forces descended upon the Arctic Sunrise. They have been charged with piracy and are being held in prison in Murmansk, after the courts denied them bail.
I will come later to the issue of opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic, which is, after all, why Greenpeace activists were off the coast of Russia carrying out this action. The immediate priority must, of course, be the safety and welfare of the 30 detainees, who face at least two months’ pre-trial detention and possible prison sentences of up to 15 years. Other speakers have spoken of concern about the conditions in which they are held. Some are held in solitary confinement or are unable to converse with cell mates. They have limited contact with the outside world, they cannot receive telephone calls or have visits from their family, and their letters are confiscated when they have read them.
Alexandra Harris has said that she suffered serious stomach pains and asked both a Russian human rights official and a British diplomat about seeing a doctor, but she was not able to see one. Earlier today, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and I met Kieron Bryan’s family and heard some of their concerns about the fact that he is unable to converse with his cell mate, and that if his brother went to Murmansk to visit him he would be questioned at length and would not necessarily have the right to talk to Kieron when he arrived there. I hope very much that the Foreign Office officials in our embassy in Moscow can help to facilitate a trip and ensure that if he goes to Russia he will be allowed access to his brother. That is the least they could do.
I understand that Kieron has had three visits from our diplomats in Russia. Can the Minister assure us that consular staff have unimpeded access to the six British citizens? How satisfied is he about the conditions in which they are held and their access to medical assistance and legal counsel? Whenever our officials in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia want to see those six Britons they should be able to do so, and I am worried that that is not the case. Have the Government been able to secure visas, visitation rights and telephone contact for all the families?
We have heard about the somewhat dubious nature of the charges. Even President Putin has said that the six Britons are obviously not pirates, yet they are being charged with piracy. What representations have been made about the legal situation, the legal basis on which the Russian authorities boarded the Arctic Sunrise and the legality of the charges?
As has been said, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has raised her concerns directly with President Putin, but when the Prime Minister—one of his Witney constituents is among those held in Murmansk—was asked about the matter at Prime Minister’s questions, he merely said:
“We need to follow this case extremely closely, and that is exactly what the Foreign Office is doing…we are daily seeking updates from the Russian Government”.—[Official Report, 16 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 736.]
That implies that the Prime Minister is not personally involved although one of his constituents is among the detainees. Will the Minister tell us to what extent the Prime Minister is involved, both as Prime Minister and as a constituency MP? The implication of
“daily seeking updates from the Russian Government”
is that not a lot of lobbying is going on. Surely, instead of just waiting to hear what is going on, we should exert pressure and do all we can behind the scenes to ensure that the case for releasing the six Britons and the other activists is made as swiftly as possible.
Oil drilling in the Arctic is deeply contentious and it is right that we discuss not just the plight of the people held in jail in Murmansk but why the Greenpeace activists felt compelled to take the personal risk of protesting at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the harsh Arctic climate. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Last September, the extent of the ice cap was at a record low and the Environmental Audit Committee advised in its excellent report that we need to re-examine the risk of a summer collapse. It also warned that a number of tipping points are approaching “with potentially disastrous consequences”. The tragic irony is that melting of the ice caps provides greater opportunities for oil and gas exploration, which will then further accelerate climate change.
The Environmental Audit Committee argued that the Arctic is one of the least well understood places on earth and highly sensitive to environmental damage, and that any response to an oil spill would be ineffectual. It called for a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic. As the shadow Minister for the Arctic, I was happy to support that during the debate in February on the Committee’s report. There was common agreement that such issues are not just for the Arctic states and members of the Arctic Council, on which the UK has observer status. In that debate, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), assured us that the UK is
“leading the fight on tackling the underlying cause of the threats facing the Arctic.”
He also said that the possibility of an oil spillage in the Arctic
“is absolutely abhorrent and has terrifying consequences for the environment”.—[Official Report, 7 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 159WH, 161WH.]
That suggests that the Government would be sympathetic towards the Arctic 30 protest.
What discussions have the Government had with their Russian counterparts about the implications for both the Arctic specifically and the wider environment of Gazprom proceeding with its plans to drill there? During the debate in February, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Devon, assured us that
“It is wrong to say that the UK should not, and does not show leadership on issues affecting the Arctic.”— [Official Report, 7 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 159WH.]
However, I suggest that the extent of the UK’s leadership is in doubt. Indeed, in July the Environmental Audit Committee concluded that the Government
“failed to grasp the urgency of action needed”
“failed to offer a coherent argument for its view that future Arctic oil and gas exploration is compatible with efforts to contain global warming to 2°C.”
The UK accounts for the largest contingent on board the Arctic Sunrise, so does the Minister agree that now is the time for leadership from the Government? What conversations has the Foreign Office had with representatives from the 17 nations represented on the ship? Canada, Brazil, Denmark, Argentina, Australia, Italy, Sweden, the USA, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, New Zealand, Switzerland, Ukraine, Finland and Poland all had citizens detained. Have the Government had conversations with representatives of those Governments, and have they sought to raise the arrests and the reasons for the protest with the Arctic Council?
I understand that today the Russian Foreign Ministry has said it will not accept the international arbitration process in relation to the Netherlands’ application to the UN Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in an attempt to secure the return of the Arctic Sunrise and the release of the activists. What support are the Government giving to the Netherlands’ bid to deal with the matter under the auspices of the UN tribunal?
Last week, the Foreign Office published a policy framework on the Arctic, and the Government have pledged to
“work towards an Arctic that is safe and secure; well-governed in conjunction with indigenous peoples and”
in line with international law and where
“policies…are developed on the basis of sound science”
“full regard to the environment.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 October 2013; Vol. 748, c. 77.]
The compatibility of that statement with the Government’s support for Arctic drilling is a matter for another debate, but will the Minister elaborate on the Government’s vision for “well governed”, how he sees international law being enforced, and how they plan to work with other states to achieve a “safe and secure” Arctic? Is that something they plan to discuss with Gazprom and other companies such as Shell or British-based insurers?
I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond, particularly as I have asked many questions. There are real concerns about the human rights situation in Russia and the deterioration of freedom of expression, which the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) raised. This is not the time or place to go into the details of that. However, I will check my diary to see if I can make the 4 o’clock meeting with the Russian ambassador. It is important that we go along and express our concerns on those fronts.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. The attendance this morning and the passion with which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have spoken indicate clearly to anyone studying our proceedings, in this country or Russia, that there are extremely strong feelings in Parliament and among the wider British public about what has happened offshore and in Murmansk.
In the 11 or 12 minutes remaining, I will focus on the British nationals who have been detained. That is not to dismiss the importance of wider issues of Arctic policy that the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), raised. The Government published a new policy framework document on the Arctic last week, and there may be opportunities for a wider debate on those matters in the House.
The arrest of the six British nationals who were on board the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise was, and remains, of great concern to the British Government. We hope that there will be a resolution to the incident that is acceptable to all parties. The priorities that govern our approach at the moment are, first, to try to do everything we can to ensure the proper welfare of the British citizens and the two New Zealanders detained—the New Zealand Government have asked us to take responsibility for providing consular support—and, secondly, to find an outcome to the affair that is acceptable to all parties concerned.
We learned of the arrest of those aboard the Greenpeace vessel on 19 September, and on the same day we decided to deploy a consular team to Murmansk before the vessel got into port. We contacted the Russian authorities to secure access rights, and on 24 September, consular officials were able to meet the British nationals when they arrived in Murmansk to check their welfare and collect messages to pass back to their families.
Murmansk is some 1,000 miles from Moscow, and we do not have a permanent British consulate there, but because of the seriousness of the incident and the number of people involved, each week we have dispatched a team of officials to Murmansk from our missions in Moscow and St Petersburg. Our consular officials attended the preliminary court hearings for all British nationals between 26 and 29 September. As the House knows, all 30 detainees were remanded for up to two months and transferred to pre-trial detention facilities while the authorities investigated further. Both before and after the hearings, our consular officials were allowed to talk to the British citizens and take messages from them to pass to concerned relatives in the United Kingdom.
Our officials carried out further consular visits to all six British detainees on 3 and 4 October. We were able to check on their welfare and address any concerns; this included helping to ensure that one British national who had earlier collapsed in court received appropriate support. We have since continued to visit the British nationals regularly, and our officials were present during the appeal hearings that concluded this week. As the House knows, the court dismissed all the appeals and upheld detention. Due to our lobbying efforts, at present all the British nationals are being held in the same detention facility, and have had regular access to Greenpeace lawyers.
Briefly, on the points raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda, our understanding is that all the detainees have access to lawyers, who were provided by Greenpeace in the first instance. We have also provided lists of local lawyers who we understand are able to do business in English—clearly, the FCO cannot vouch for the quality of any particular legal representative. We take up with the Russian authorities any concerns about prison conditions and access to appropriate medical treatment, as well as other concerns that detainees may have. Our latest information is that some of the detainees are sharing cells and others are in a cell on their own. We have raised any concerns expressed to us by the detainees with the prison authorities. The detainees are telling us at the moment that the conditions are what they term “broadly acceptable.” I am not saying that the conditions are comfortable in the remotest, but the detainees themselves describe the conditions as “broadly acceptable.”
Our priority is to ensure that we continue to provide consular assistance to the British nationals in Murmansk and to maintain contact with their families here in the UK. I have made it clear to my officials that when it comes to prison conditions and access to visits of any kind, I want to ensure that we hold the Russians to the letter of what they offer under their own prison rules, law and constitution.
On 2 October, the Russian investigative authority charged all 30 detainees with acts of piracy. Bearing in mind the clearly stated view of President Putin, many hon. Members will have been surprised that piracy charges were brought. The UN definition of piracy in the convention on the law of the sea does not appear to uphold the charges. The charges, however, are being brought under a particular provision of the Russian criminal code. I agree with those who have said during this debate that the key issue is the proportionality of the charges. We are in regular touch with Greenpeace lawyers on that issue, but the legal picture is complicated by the Russians arguing that the action comes under their domestic law.
As some hon. Members have commented, the Dutch have taken the ship’s detention to international arbitration. That is a legal matter for the Dutch as flag nation, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) said, but we remain in close contact with the Dutch authorities on that aspect of the case.
With respect to my hon. and learned Friend, I am not here to comment on the Russian legal case. I am certainly not saying that we agree with the case, but the Russian argument is that the Russian domestic criminal code applies to the rig, and that the small boats from the main vessel that approached close to the rig were in breach of that criminal code. That is the Russian argument, and it may be something to take up in more detail with the Russian ambassador when hon. Members meet him.
It is not only in Murmansk that we have taken action. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York on 25 September, and he followed that with a letter to him on 6 October. Senior FCO officials raised the case with the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom on 26 September. Our ambassador in Moscow raised the case with deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov on 2 October and met deputy Foreign Minister Titov yesterday to discuss the case further. We will maintain that senior-level engagement. We continue to use working-level contacts with the Russian Government, and to explore other options to raise the issue with senior Russian interlocutors.
We continue to keep under review at what level and with what sort of approach it is right to make approaches to the Russian Government. Our priority is to try to get the best possible outcome for the British nationals who have been detained. The Prime Minister is taking the very close interest that the House would expect, both as Head of Government and as a constituency Member of Parliament. As the Foreign Office Minister dealing with the case, I can testify that the Prime Minister’s involvement and interest are continuous and intense. He has also been in personal touch with other European Heads of Government—in particular, he has been in touch with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands—and he will continue to be so.
It would be a good idea if the Prime Minister were to get in touch directly with Putin. Specifically, the Prime Minister should be saying that using piracy charges undermines the law of piracy across the rest of the world. That is why those charges are like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point with the courtesy with which he has addressed the subject throughout the debate. We have been in touch with the Governments whose citizens are being detained, and we have taken a lead at local level in Russia on co-ordinating the efforts of other nations with detained nationals.
I will look further into the question that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) raised about his letter, because I am concerned to hear him say that he has been waiting for more than a month. We will get back to him as quickly as possible.
We have not forgotten the families here in the United Kingdom and what they are obviously going through. On 10 October, I met parliamentarians representing the detained nationals and representatives from the constituency offices of MPs. My officials met the families themselves on 16 October, and I hope to agree a date next month when I can meet the families and hon. Members representing them, so that I can hear directly from the families any concerns that they have, and so that I can talk to them about the work being done on the case by the FCO and the British Government generally. One issue raised by the families is the chance to talk to their relatives by telephone.
I am conscious that time is running out, so I propose to address the issues that I have been unable to address today in writing to the hon. Member for Rhondda, and I will place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House so that it may be circulated to the families concerned.