Inside Parliament: World tour leads back to EU climbdown: Hurd defends voting compromise again - Plight of jailed nuns in Tibet raised

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MPs meandered from the Vale of Kashmir to Peru and over the Golan Heights yesterday before returning inexorably to the troubled territory of the European Union and the Government's climbdown on voting rights.

An unlucky coincidence in the Commons timetable meant that Douglas Hurd was obliged to again defend the Ioannina ultimatum - the compromise on voting drafted by the Greek presidency. But how much time was spent rubbing salt into the Foreign Secretary's wound, and John Major's deeper laceration, depended on the attention given to the woes of the world in the 10 questions higher up the Order Paper.

Abuses of human and democratic rights in Indian-held Kashmir were deplored from both sides of the chamber, with Anthony Coombs, Conservative MP for the Wyre Forest, emphasising that in the long-term the country's problem could only be solved by Kashmiri self-determination.

China was condemned by another Tory, David Atkinson, MP for Bournemouth East, as 'the last of the evil empires of the world' as its occupation of Tibet was deplored. Norman Godman, Labour MP for Greenock and Port Glasgow, raised the plight of 14 Buddhist nuns who had their prison sentences doubled for singing pro- independence songs in their cells.

Allan Rogers, a Labour foreign affairs spokesman, said there were one million people in China's gulags and urged the Government to invoke the 1897 Foreign Prison- made Goods Act against imports of coal, cast iron, paper and tea. But Alastair Goodlad, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, ruled out a trade embargo.

Mr Hurd urged all parties in South Africa to work for a peaceful transition to democracy. And in a further attempt to rebuild bridges with Malaysia in the wake of the Pergau dam affair declared: 'We cannot allow the press to come between us.'

He would not comment on yesterday's report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee on the arms-for-aid allegations surrounding the dam, but stressed his close involvement in trying to end the Malaysian ban on public contracts with Britain. 'In spite of what is sometimes written, the international reputation and economic success of Malaysia are beyond issue,' he said.

To Tory protests, Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, asked in vain for ministerial comment on a reports 'that Ameristar, a company taken over by Mark Thatcher, has just landed a lucrative contract with the state-owned Malaysian oil corporation'. Was that due to merit, 'or to services rendered by Lady Thatcher when she gave the initial go-ahead for the Pergau dam project? Does the minister think British taxpayers' money should be used as a sweetener to enrich the son of a former prime minister?' Alastair Goodlad had no knowledge of the matter.

No such excuse was available to Mr Hurd when MPs eventually arrived at the European Union question. Pressed by David Howell, Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to clear up 'confused and mixed reports' about safeguards for Britain on social legislation, Mr Hurd said assurances given to MPs by himself and the Prime Minister had been reconfirmed by the Commission.

Nigel Spearing, Labour MP for Newham South, maintained Mr Delor's denial of any changes to placate Britain could not be reconciled with Mr Major's statement to MPs on Tuesday. But Mr Hurd said: 'The Commission have confirmed that their legislative programme does not envisage the use of health and safety ariticles of the treaty other than for measures directly and demonstrably relevant to health and safety at work. The Commission have also confirmed the proposals in the social chapter will not apply to the UK.'

Winston Churchill, Conservative MP for Davyhulme, said the overwhelming majority of people in the UK and a 'significant element' elsewhere in the EU did not want to end up in 'a centralised federal Europe'. This was an easy one for Mr Hurd who agreed that was the view of a growing number right across Europe.

'There was a time when people felt that in order to be a good European you had to believe that executive power should be moved step by step to the centre. That is no longer the belief of sensible people - for example Chancellor Kohl.'

Certainly the Euro-sceptics would claim it was the belief of Hugh Dykes, Conservative MP for Harrow East and chairman of the European Movement. Mr Dykes said it was 'interesting and encouraging' that the four countries coming into the EU were intensely patriotic and proud of their cultures but accepted fully all the provisions of the Maastricht treaty and future developments. 'Can we follow their good example, bearing in mind that they have no significant opt-outs in any major constitutional areas?'

That, apparently, would not suit his colleague Geoffrey Dickens, MP for Littleborough and Saddle worth, who hinted that the Ioannina compromise should have been rejected. 'Since the UK liberated France during the war, and France then voted 'No' against us for 10 years in the French interest, would it have been the end of the world if we had asked our friends in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Austria to wait just two years until we served our interest?'

MPs gave an unopposed first reading to a Bill aimed at preventing 'picture manipulation' by newspapers and television using computer techniques. Introduced by Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, it stands little chance of becoming law, but served as a warning that the old adage 'the camera never lies' should not be taken too literally.

Mr Bennett said most people believed pictures far more than they believed the written word. 'Sadly few people realise how easy it is to alter or change a picture.'

(Photograph omitted)

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