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House of Lords Hansard
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Government Policy towards Russia
06 March 2018
Volume 789

Statement

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I shall with the leave of the House repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“I am grateful to my honourable friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling for raising this important matter. Although he asks a general question about Russia, let me immediately say that there is much speculation about the disturbing incident in Salisbury, where a 66 year-old man, Sergei Skripal, and his 33 year-old daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious outside the Maltings shopping centre on Sunday afternoon. Police, together with partner agencies, are now investigating.

Honourable Members will note the echoes of the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Although it would be wrong to prejudge the investigation, I can reassure the House that, should evidence emerge that implies state responsibility, Her Majesty’s Government will respond appropriately and robustly, although I hope that honourable Members on both sides of the House will appreciate that it would not be right for me to give further details of the investigation now, for fear of prejudicing the outcome.

This House has profound differences with Russia, which I outlined in the clearest terms when I visited Moscow in December. By annexing Crimea in 2014, igniting the flames of conflict in eastern Ukraine and threatening western democracies, including by interfering in their elections, Russia has challenged the fundamental basis of international order. The United Kingdom, under successive Governments, has responded with strength and determination, first by taking unilateral measures after the death of Litvinenko, expelling four Russian diplomats in 2007 and suspending security co-operation between our respective agencies, and then by leading the EU’s response to the annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Ukraine by securing tough sanctions, co-ordinated with the United States and other allies, targeting Russian state-owned banks and defence companies, restricting the energy industry that serves as the central pillar of the Russian economy, and constraining the export of oil exploration and production equipment.

Whenever those sanctions have come up for renewal, Britain has consistently argued for their extension, and we shall continue to do so until and unless the cause for them is removed. These measures have inflicted significant damage on the Russian economy. Indeed, they help to explain why it endured two years of recession in 2015 and 2016.

As the House has heard repeatedly, the UK Government have been in the lead at the UN in holding the Russians to account for their support of the barbaric regime of Bashar al-Assad. The UK has been instrumental in supporting Montenegro’s accession to NATO and in helping that country to identify the perpetrators of the Russian-backed attempted coup. This country has exposed the Russian military as cybercriminals in its attacks on Ukraine and elsewhere.

As I said, it is too early to speculate about the precise nature of the crime or attempted crime that took place in Salisbury on Sunday, but Members will have their suspicions. If those suspicions prove to be well founded, this Government will take whatever measures we deem necessary to protect the lives of the people in this country, our values and our freedoms. Although I am not now pointing fingers, because we cannot do so, I say to Governments around the world that no attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go either unsanctioned or unpunished. It may be that this country will continue to pay a price for our continued principles in standing up to Russia, but I hope that the Government will have the support of Members on both sides of the House in continuing to do so. We must await the outcome of the investigation, but in the meantime I should like to express my deep gratitude to the emergency services for the professionalism of their response to the incident in Salisbury”.

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I thank the Minister for repeating that response to the Urgent Question. All noble Lords will share his extreme concern about the incident in Salisbury and our hope is for a full recovery for the victims. The investigation is urgent and must be thorough, but speculation today will not help the authorities to do their job. Despite these horrific events, we share the view of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that some interaction with Russia is preferable to none. Theresa May said, “Engage but beware”. However, we need to hear from the Minister just what impact our engagement has had. Rather than the off-the-cuff remarks made today by Boris Johnson, we need to hear just how robust he was on human rights when he met the Russian Foreign Secretary in Moscow in December.

One way to show real strength would be to address this issue in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, currently in Committee in the other place. Despite the opposition of the Government, this House inserted human rights as a principal objective of the sanctions regime in the Bill. Why, therefore, are the Government still resisting an amendment which would enable Britain to sanction individuals who perpetrate gross human rights abuses, like those who tortured Sergei Magnitsky to death in a Moscow jail in 2009? I hope the Minister and the Government will support the principle of a Magnitsky amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill.

In a speech yesterday, President Putin boasted about the proficiency of Russia’s nuclear weapons systems. I hope this Government’s response will be robust and that the Minister will be able to tell the House just what we have said to the Russian Government about their need to comply with the non-proliferation treaty.

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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his questions. He is quite right that this investigation is urgent; it must be thorough, and speculation does not help at this moment. The noble Lord also made the point that some interaction is important and he is right on that too. We have to remain open to dialogue to reduce risk, talk about our differences and co-operate for the security of the international community. The noble Lord also raised the subject of the meeting in December. It is important that two P5 countries have these conversations. It is vital for international security that we continue to talk to each other and work together on important international security issues.

The noble Lord mentioned the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. We also amended the Criminal Finances Bill during its passage, receiving cross-party support. It allows law enforcement agencies to use civil recovery powers to recover the proceeds of human rights abuses or violations, wherever they take place, if property is held in the UK. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill will provide the power for the UK to impose sanctions regimes after the UK has left the EU, including against a person involved in gross human rights abuses. Where a person has been designated under the Bill, they may also be defined as an exclusive person for the purposes of Section 8(b) of the Immigration Act 1971 and subject to a travel ban, preventing them being granted leave to enter or remain in the UK.

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My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. We share the concerns expressed regarding the two victims. I also pay tribute to the emergency services for their work in what may be an extremely dangerous situation. Although we do not know for sure what has happened, there are clearly concerns, so will the noble Earl tell us why last summer’s report that 14 people may have been murdered here by the Russians has not yet been investigated? Given the importance of London as a financial centre, does he agree that the Government can do much more to tackle money laundering and the evasion of sanctions by Russia? Will he clarify the comments of his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in relation to participation in the World Cup? What assistance will be given to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which wishes to instigate an inquiry into Russia’s covert activities?

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I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. On her point about my right honourable friend’s comments on the World Cup, the hosting of sporting events is principally a matter for the relevant sporting authorities. A boycott by England is not in the Government’s gift. The noble Baroness also referred to money laundering. Of course, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill is at the forefront of any future sanctions and actions concerning money laundering and is completing its passage through both Houses. I note what the noble Baroness said about the Intelligence and Security Committee. I will pass her comments to the department and see what action we are taking.

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My Lords, I invite the Minister to revisit very thoroughly the public inquiry conducted in 2016 into the case of Litvinenko, which sat for some five months and surprisingly came to the conclusion that in all probability this assassination had been carried out under the direct order of Mr Putin—a very unique condemnation of a head of state or Government. Will the Government do that?

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My Lords, the noble Lord brings up the case of Alexander Litvinenko and the subsequent report. As he will be aware, we have demanded, and will continue to demand, that the Russian Government account for the role of the FSB in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. We have taken a series of significant steps in response to Litvinenko’s death: expelling four Russian officials from the UK; tighter visa controls on Russian officials in the UK; suspending discussions on the development of a bilateral visa facilitation scheme; and putting in place international arrangements so that the main subjects can be extradited to the UK if they travel abroad. We have demanded, and continue to demand, that the Russian Government account for the role of the FSB in the murder. The findings of the Litvinenko inquiry, although not surprising, have raised serious concerns and inevitably caused tension in the bilateral relationship.

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My Lords, I commend the Government for their position on Russian sanctions. I particularly commend the Foreign Secretary for the robust attitude that he took with Lavrov back in December, for which he was much criticised in the media. I urge the Government and my noble friend to be absolutely resolute. Should it be the case that this attack has been sanctioned—not even sanctioned but carried out by Russian agents—it is essential that we ramp up the sanctions in whatever way we can. On this occasion I support the Labour Front Bench, which has asked for exactly that.

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My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, investigations are continuing on the recent case and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, the investigations must be thorough but urgent. Once they have been completed, Her Majesty’s Government will decide on our actions.

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My Lords, it is clearly important, as has already been observed, that speculation is not always helpful. One of the important questions to be asked in this case is what the Russian Government and Putin himself might have to gain from this. It is not clear. Was it vengeance? If so, why wait till now? Is it deterrence? Any beans these guys have to spill have already been spilled. Is it to exploit the UK’s apparent weakness or our distraction because of Brexit? I am not speculating but asking some questions that need to be asked before we come to conclusions. A phenomenological comparison with Litvenenko may be convenient, but a correlation is not a cause. It will be helpful if we could have some response on the caution that needs to be exercised before proof is brought.

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I thank the right reverend Prelate for his points and his questions. As other noble Lords have said, the results of the investigation, which is urgent, have to come out before any actions can been decided on. However, he raises a good point about why that happened. I do not have the answer. It is understood that the Russian Government have got involved with projects overseas, but I do not have the answers to why on earth they would do this.