Congress 2006 Question and answer session with the Foreign Secretary

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Congress 2006 Question and answer session with the Foreign Secretary

Rt. Hon. Margaret Beckett, MP, took questions from Congress Delegates after her speech. Wednesday 13th September 2006

BRENDAN BARBER: Colleagues, as Gloria indicated earlier, Margaret has kindly agreed to take questions and a number of unions have indicated that they wanted to take advantage of that opportunity. I wonder if those colleagues could, as we did yesterday, get ready and make themselves available near the microphone in the corridor here.

Amongst the areas that colleagues have indicated they want to raise questions on are issues around Latin America, Iraq, China, ILO standards, European Union issues, and I hope that in the time available we will be able to cover all of those issues.

Could we begin, perhaps, with Mary Bousted from ATL, who I think has a question to raise about Colombia, a country with whom the trades union movement in Britain has been doing an awful lot of work in recent years. Mary?

Mary Bousted (General Secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers): Foreign Secretary, I have just returned from a TUC delegation visit to Colombia organised by Justice for Colombia. During the week's visit I heard testimony from political prisoners in gaol, trade unionists, opposition politicians, civil society leaders, campesenios, and human rights lawyers, and I still cannot come to terms with what I heard and what I saw, that assassination, torture, disappearances, displacements, false imprisonment, people held for years without trials because the judges will not hear the trials, that this is happening to trade unionists and civil society leaders and it is practised by the Colombian Government as a deliberate policy of state-sponsored terrorism.

I want to ask you, why is the UK Government giving Colombia military aid? Why will it not disclose the amount of this aid and which Colombian military units are receiving it?

On my first question, why are we giving Colombia military aid, if your answer is that it is for human rights training I have to tell you that this training is not working and that this support, the British Government support, is being used by the Colombian Government to legitimise its oppression by terror of civil society and of social and political opposition. If you need independent testimony of what I have said, please read Appendix 2 of the United Nations Report on Human Rights in Colombia in 2005.

Brendan Barber: Thank you, Mary. Like yesterday I would like to take two or three questions at a run. I think Jane Stewart from Amicus wanted to raise a question about Cuba.

Jane Stewart (Amicus): Thank you. The TUC recognises that there are differences between our government and the Cuban government but we would like to focus on the positive element of the relationships between the two countries, therefore we congratulate this government for maintaining a positive relationship with Cuba and rejecting the aggressive US policies on the blockade. However, along with 201 MPs who signed the Early Day Motion 1959 on Cuba this year, we are very concerned that the FCO has so far declined to reveal the content of the meeting it had in November with Caleb McCarry, who is the Transition Coordinator for Cuba from the US government. The Foreign Secretary will know that this administration is against the Cuban regime and we would like to ask the Foreign Secretary why the FCO had this meeting and why, despite the questions from the MPs, you have not responded or answered them.

Brendan Barber: Thank you, Jane. Margaret, perhaps you might respond to those two?

Margaret Beckett: First of all on the question of Colombia, yes, I am conscious, Mary, that there are very real problems in Colombia. I am certainly well aware of the kind of charges that you make and the concerns that are expressed about the ill-treatment of a range of groups, as you identify. I think there is some dispute about whether this is (and I think you used the words) 'state sponsored'. I am not sure whether everyone wholeheartedly accepts that but what I do accept is that whether it is officially the policy of the state or not it is certainly happening, and if the state is not sponsoring it, it is not succeeding yet in mitigating and tackling it.

You are right that we do not believe that the very small amount of military aid that we give is a contributory factor but I take your point that while these abuses continue you cannot say that there is the proper recognition for human rights that we would wish to see in Colombia and everywhere else across the world. On the other hand, I think one cannot just say it is not working because if there are people being affected that is the beginning of a movement towards change; nothing happens all in one fell swoop. I can certainly assure you that we do on many and frequent occasions intervene with the Colombian government, we do urge that government to civil society and to impede the kind of persecution that you refer to, and with the project funds that we spend in Colombia we do support a range of human rights-related projects on issues such as freedom of expression, rule of law, rights for children, and so on. We do what we can to have an active and constructive engagement with Colombia but pressing them to go in the right direction. I accept that it is not yet anything like as successful as you and we would like it to be.

Jane, thank you for your kind remarks about the Government's relationship with Cuba. It is certainly the case that this is not an issue on which we adopt the same approach as the United States. For example, we reject the imposition of sanctions on Cuba. I am afraid I am not familiar with the meeting that you raised or why the MPs' questions have not yet been answered. I will look into that when I return to the office. What I can certainly say to you is that, while on the one hand we do not share the approach which says that we impose sanctions on Cuba, we are also mindful of the fact that there are events in Cuba which I think none of us would wish to see in terms of whether or not people have real freedom of expression, whether there are people exercising their rights as trade unionists as freely as we would wish. I think here too it is a two-way street, there are concerns to be expressed as well as recognition of some of the problems Cuba has faced.

Brendan Barber: Thank you very much, Margaret. On the issue of Iraq a couple of unions wanted to raise points: first, Jimmy Kelly, Transport and General Workers' Union.

Jimmy Kelly (Transport and General Workers' Union): Thank you, Brendan. Yes, the question is Iraq and indeed the context for the question is the slaughter of so many thousands of innocent Iraqi people. We do not even know the full extent of that slaughter on those innocent people in Iraq. The other context for the question, of course, is the growth in the anti-war movement and indeed the role of our own trade union movement in the anti-war movement. The specific question, therefore, is: is there anything that your Government now regrets over the Government's decision to invade Iraq and, if so, what?

Brendan Barber: Thank you, Jimmy. Sue Rogers, NASUWT?

Sue Rogers (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers): Foreign Secretary, the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq shows the immediate revival of the trade union movement as a free and independent movement. These unions in fact bring together Iraqi workers across the religious and sectarian divide and are therefore a very cohesive force for uniting and stabilising Iraq, but these unions are struggling against legal constraints. At the moment Saddam's Decree 150, which actually forbad unions to be formed in the public sector, is still on the statute books. In addition, in August 2005 Decree 8750 was passed by the government which sequestrated trade union funds and therefore limited the effectiveness and the ability of trade unions to organise and to develop. Their life is difficult enough as my friend from the General Federation of Iraq Workers (who are here with us now) would testify.

So, I have to ask: what is the Foreign Office doing to try to get the Iraqi government to remove these decrees and to support the growth of the trade union movement in Iraq?

Brendan Barber: Thank you, Sue. Margaret?

Margaret Beckett: First of all, Jimmy, you said was there anything at all that the Government now regrets. Of course, any military action is bound to lead to deaths on both sides and it is bound to be the case that there is regret for those deaths. It would be extraordinary if it were otherwise. So, of course, there are things that I regret. I certainly regret the fact that the tenor of debate about Iraq in this country has become of a kind that no longer recognises almost, in some cases, that there was anything wrong with the regime of Saddam Hussein. I think there is a balance here. Of course there are things that give us concern, of course there have been episodes of misbehaviour, of things being done that should never have been done, as well as, tragically, the inevitable casualties that come with conflict, but there are many things that I do not regret.

I do not regret the fact that when I talk to the Foreign Minister of Iraq about the decisions that have to be taken at the United Nations in the near future, he says: 'Of course I have to take that to my parliament. I will not be able to agree that without the consent of my parliament.' I do not regret the fact that we are seeing increasingly now in many parts of Iraq the growth of a peaceful and more secure, and more stable, regime within which there is more freedom for people to express themselves and also we are seeing a repair and restoration, and in many cases improvement, of infrastructure, but there is a huge amount still to do.

One of the things I very much regret is that there are so many people operating in Iraq, whether they are or are not native Iraqis, whose zeal for destruction is such that they almost want to wreck anything that can be achieved, so that we saw infrastructure repairs in the early days being destroyed by people who claimed to speak for those who such repairs were supposed to try and help.

Yes, of course, these are very difficult decisions. They are decisions about which often there is violent disagreement, but I hope in this Congress and in this movement we can all accept that decisions of that gravity and those dimensions are not taken lightly and they are not taken without people trying to consider very hard what they see on balance at that time as the right thing to do, and weighing it very carefully against their conscience.

Then Sue asked specifically about trades unions in Iraq. Yes, I accept one of the things that has been a potential sign for hope is both the re-emergence and the way people are working with the Iraqi trades unions, and I think it is an amazing tribute to the courage and tenacity of those Iraqi trade unionists that they clung to their principles and continue to try and work and organise through the days of real terror in Iraq.

I share your regret and concern that at present we are not seeing as free a role in operation for trade unions in Iraq as we would like to. It is an issue that we raise with the now elected Iraqi government, it is an issue we will continue to raise, and we will continue to try and work to see that trades unions can operate as freely in Iraq as they do in the United Kingdom.

Brendan Barber: Thanks very much, Margaret. I think Mary Hutchinson from the GMB has a question on China.

Mary Hutchinson (GMB): Foreign Secretary, we know Britain is committed to improving human rights but what I would like to ask this morning is: what efforts are the Government making to improve human rights in China, and what are the British Government doing to assist and establish free independent trade unions in China? Thank you.

Brendan Barber: Thank you, Mary. A question in relation to ILO standards that has some bearing on the question about China, Ged Nichols from ACCORD?

Ged Nichols (ACCORD): Foreign Secretary, this is a very brief question just to ask what you and the Government can do to promote ILO standards, decent work, and trade union rights around the world.

Brendan Barber: Thank you, Ged. Margaret, could you perhaps try and respond to those?

Margaret Beckett: First of all, Mary, yes, I do understand the point you are making. There are tremendous changes in China, many of them in the end one hopes are beneficial, but it is certainly the case that we continue to share and indeed to express the concern to which you have given voice about human rights, about the reaction when, for example, people from civil society raise issues and raise problems and the degree to which that is permitted without any response which tries to deaden those rights.

We have quite a large number of meetings in a whole variety of ways and from a whole variety of ministers with the Chinese government. There are very many areas where we have issues in common and, of course, we are also both permanent members of the Security Council. I can say to you with absolute certainty that not one of those meetings goes by without us raising the issue of human rights, without us urging China to recognise the advantages, as well as the merits, of coming to sign some of the international covenants and conventions. Indeed, I had a meeting only yesterday with the Chinese Foreign Minister at which I raised those points with him. Also, of course, we do raise from time to time various particular individual cases, some of which relate to issues such as trade union rights. We do continue to urge moves in that direction on the government and the people of China, and we will always do so.

Similarly, Ged, with regard to ILO standards and decent rights, we do try to work across the world with the ILO and again to urge on people the recognition that it is possible to have economic growth and prosperity, and to maintain such standards and freedoms, and that indeed it is to your advantage to do so.

I think one of the lessons that perhaps over the period of time that I have been in politics we have learnt in this country, in some cases rather grudgingly, is that actually it is a huge advantage to have good enough standards and good rights so that people work wholeheartedly in any enterprise or organisation, seeing themselves as part of a cohesive whole and bringing their full interest and their full participation into what they do in the world of work. That is certainly something that some British employers have been perhaps a little slow to learn but we hope they are doing so; it very much results in real improvements for all concerned. We do recognise that and we do raise these issues, for example, when we are talking about trade talks and things of that kind to try to make sure that these issues are not overlooked, and we will continue to do so.

Brendan Barber: Thanks, Margaret. We only have time, I am afraid, for one final question from Joe Mann from Community on the European Union.

Joe Mann (Community): Foreign Secretary, do you not see that the Government's minimalist approach to European social policy initiatives is undermining support amongst British working people for the European Union and weakening our position with other European Union governments?

Brendan Barber: Thank you, Joe. That is the final question, Margaret.

Margaret Beckett: First of all, Joe, I have to disagree with you slightly on your final few words. I think we have a strong position, actually, with fellow European Union governments where we do not always agree, of course - among 25 governments that is inevitable - but where Britain's point of view is respected and where there is also mutual respect and mutual understanding, and increasingly we do listen to each other.

I would like to think that the key to the British people's concerns about the European Union lies only in a social policy which goes more in the direction you would wish to see, and I have a feeling that perhaps it is a little bit more complicated and a little bit more difficult than that, but I do not accept that our approach to social policy is minimalist.

I do accept, and I think it was Mary who said right at the beginning, that there are issues where the TUC and the Government do not 100 per cent see eye to eye, but we do have a very different attitude to social policy from that which would be expressed by our political opponents. It is a distinctive attitude for the Labour Party and for the Labour Government. I was lucky enough when I was at the Department of Trades & Industry to push through the improvements in the law with regard to trade unions, the minimum wage, and also to make sure that we signed the Social Chapter.

I know these are not steps that go as far as the trades union movement would like but they are certainly steps that go a lot further than anyone else has shown any willingness to do in this country. We do continue to try to keep the balance right between making improvements in terms of social policy and trades union rights, and also making sure that we have a strong economy, that we have people with the opportunity to have work, and that we are working for full employment. It is a natural and it is a healthy thing that within the union and the labour movement we air our concerns and our disagreements as well as the issues which we have in common.

I think if you cast your minds back to 1994, 1995, 1996, never mind earlier, if we had gone into the Election in that period saying that we were committed to and would bring about pretty much full employment in this country, it would have been regarded as a pledge that was impossible to keep and a pledge that it was dishonest to make. I hope very much that with all the concerns you have, and I am very conscious that it is entirely possible to be an honourable, active, and tremendous trade unionist delivering very great social good without necessarily being involved in the Labour Party per se, you do recognise the difference that having a Labour government has made, and can continue to make, and make sure that we work together to preserve and build on those achievements and not do things which might undermine each other.

Brendan Barber: Margaret, Thanks very much indeed for your address earlier, for responding to questions so openly. You said at the conclusion of your remarks earlier, Margaret, about the work of the TUC/FCO Advisory Council, and certainly from my perspective there has been a new responsiveness to the concerns of the trade union movement that I very much welcome and I know you have strongly supported the work of that new body.

Congress, could you show your appreciation to Margaret in the usual way.

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