I was delighted to lead the first delegation from the British Group IPU to Belarus from 27th May to 1st June.

Also on our delegation were Wayne David MP (Labour), Daniel Kawczynski MP (Conservative), Kerry McCarthy MP (Labour), Mark Menzies MP (Conservative) and Steve Pound MP (Labour). None of us had been to Belarus before with the exception of Daniel Kawczynski who had visited from Poland as a child.

The visit was brilliantly organised by Anja Richter of the IPU staff with the excellent help of HE Sergei Alehnik, the Belarus Ambassador in London, and HE Fionna Gibb and her team at the British Embassy in Minsk. We are grateful to them all.

Belarus was a long way from our expectations. Minsk is an attractive city with little of the brutal Soviet architecture typical of many former cities of the USSR. We were lucky that the weather was very warm and, when the programme allowed, we were able to visit a number of the bars and restaurants along the river and enjoy the atmosphere. From our meetings, it was also plain that, while Belarus remains very much in the Russian orbit, there is a desire to be seen to be an independent nation which does not just follow the instructions of its large neighbour.

Our programme was busy and varied and throughout we were accompanied by members of the Parliamentary Working Group on co-operation with the UK. The Chairman of the Group, Dr Oleg Rummo, is an appointed member of the Council of the Republic and also a renowned transplant surgeon. This provided one of our more unusual stops as he was insistent that our programme should also include a visit to his clinic where we were able to watch in theatre as his team carried out a liver transplant.

Politically, Belarus remains essentially a one-party authoritarian regime under its President, Alexander Lukashenko, who has held office ever since the position was created in 1994. In the political part of our programme, we were welcomed by the former Prime Minster and current Chairman of the Council of the Republic, Mr Mikhail Myasnikovich, who also arranged for us to attend a session of the Council. This brought home to us the difference between our own plural Parliamentary democracy and the position in Belarus where the overwhelming majority of members are appointed and the several votes which we saw were carried unanimously.

Later in our programme, we did meet representatives of the opposition political parties including the only two Opposition MPs. They were realistic in telling us that the President would likely win any election conducted fairly but with considerably less than the 84 per cent of the vote which was recorded for him in 2015. His main opponent, Tatsiana Karatkevich of Tell the Truth, told us that she believed that the reality was that she had got about 20 per cent of the vote rather than the 4 per cent officially declared. Another candidate in the Assembly elections said that he won in the only ward visited by himself and the British Ambassador on polling day but lost in every other.

At another meeting in the Embassy, we met representatives of NGOs who perhaps provide a more effective opposition. Those speaking for the press in Belarus told us that the media was overwhelmingly state-controlled and that independent outlets practiced a lot of self-censorship. The LGBT organisations had seen some progress in obtaining official recognition but a recent setback had been the strong condemnation by the Interior Ministry of the British Embassy who had flown the rainbow flag on the International Day against Homophobia. In addition, further lack of progress on human rights was revealed by the discovery that two executions had very recently been carried out despite efforts to persuade the authorities to abandon the death penalty.

Our discussions with Members of the Government emphasised their continuing closeness to Russia but also a wish to move a little away and to improve relations with the West. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makei, told us that Belarus wanted to build closer relations with western countries and pointed to a number of areas where the country's foreign policy had diverged from that of Russia. Unlike the Chairman of the Assembly, he told us that the proposed Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was not in the interests of Belarus. However, he also recognised that any loosening of ties with Russia could only take place gradually.

The Deputy Minister of Economy, Dmitry Krutoy, was keen to promote greater trade between the UK and Belarus. The UK is already an important market for Belarusian products and our hosts were determined to show us examples of Belarus' manufacturing and IT capabilities. We visited the Belkommunmash factory which makes electric buses and Belaz, manufacturers of dump trucks and mining equipment where we were given a ride on the biggest dump truck in the world.

Belarus's strength in IT was also clear in our visit to Adani, maker of X-ray detection machines, and in our visit to the Hi Tech Park, the home of Viber and of World of Tanks. Finally we enjoyed amazing hospitality from our hosts. As well as succession of banquets, we saw a performance of the Nutcracker at the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet and visited the historic Nesvizh City Hall and Nesvizh Castle, which is a world heritage site. It was clear that there is considerable potential for tourism growth in the future.

The over-riding impression that I was left with is that Belarus is a country that has been somewhat overlooked by the UK both politically and economically. It has made less political progress than many other former Soviet states but there are signs of gradual improvement and little evidence of widespread discontent. The potential to increase trade between our countries is considerable. Our Belarus hosts were keen that our visit should be the beginning of a relationship that will grow stronger and I agree that it is in both of our interests that it should do so.

Tomorrow, the House of Commons will debate the Data Protection Bill. This is a vital piece of legislation which is essential to ensuring that our laws are up to date and that we will be able to continue to exchange data with Europe once we leave the European Union. During its passage through the House of Lords, however, the Bill was hijacked to include provisions which would be deeply damaging to the freedom of our press.

The first Lords amendment would require the Government to set up a new inquiry into news publishers. There is indeed a case for an examination of the impact that the new internet giants like Facebook and Google are having on traditional print media. Neither employ a single journalist yet they are sucking revenue away from newspapers and are threatening the survival of many.

This is a real threat to our democracy as it may lead to many local councils and courts going unreported. I therefore very much welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement last month of a review into the sustainability of our national and local press to see how government might help.

What the press does not need, however, is another Leveson Inquiry into events which took place more than 10 years ago. The revelations of phone hacking by the News of the World and other newspapers were shocking. The Select Committee that I chaired at the time played a part in exposing those practices which led to criminal prosecutions and the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry.

That inquiry sat for 15 months and cost more than £5 million. As a result, an entirely new body – the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) – was set up to adjudicate complaints against the press and to investigate abuse.

It is independent and has powers to impose real sanctions including front page corrections and fines. It now regulates 95 per cent of national newspapers by circulation and largely complies with Leveson’s recommendations.

There is no need to rake over once again the events of a decade ago at great cost, particularly when the media landscape has changed so dramatically. A further Leveson inquiry would not even cover the increasingly powerful news providers which are online and almost entirely unregulated.

An even more damaging amendment introduced by the Lords would force news publishers who are not members of a regulator approved by the Government’s recognition body to pay the costs of data protection actions even if the claim is unjustified and dismissed by the courts.

This clause mimics Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which proposed the same penalties in libel and privacy actions. No national or major local newspaper has been willing to join such a regulator and so almost every publisher would be at risk. It would have a massive and chilling effect on investigative journalism and would make investigations such as those into the Paradise Papers or the Oxfam scandal impossible to publish.

These provisions are draconian, unnecessary and very possibly in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. They have been condemned by organisations campaigning for civil liberties like Index on Censorship and English PEN. The Government was therefore absolutely right to announce last week that it does not intend to proceed with a second Leveson Inquiry and that it will repeal
Section 40.

However, this announcement was attacked by the Labour Party, which is also making threats to take further measures to control the press. Recent revelations about Jeremy Corbyn’s past links with a Czech communist intelligence officer and the £500,000 funding of Tom Watson’s office by Max Mosley are clearly in the public interest. Neither are in breach of any press code.

Yet instead of addressing the issue, Corbyn responded by attacking the press and saying that change is coming. Such threats expose the real agenda of those who will be supporting the Lords amendments tomorrow – to muzzle the press and to subject it to Government controls. They must not succeed.

John Whittingdale signed a pledge to #PassOnPlastic with Sky Ocean Rescue – a commitment to reduce single-use plastic consumption.

Launched in January 2017, Sky Ocean Rescue aims to shine a spotlight on the issues of ocean health, particularly single-use plastic, and inspire people to make small changes. The #PassOnPlastic pledge was also signed by 113 MPs, all making a public commitment to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics.

 

John Whittingdale has recognised the vital role that Maldon arable and dairy farmers are contributing to the local and national economy, after attending an event in Westminster this week. 

Farming in East Anglia region contributes £1.25 billion to the local economy and provides 41,167 jobs – this is on top of the safe, affordable food farmers produce and British countryside they maintain.

The beer and cheese tasting event at The House of Commons was held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Beer and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) to highlight the importance of two of our great national products – beer and cheese.

The UK produces over 700 cheeses – more than in France. The total value of cheese sold in the UK in 2016 was £2.75 billion with cheese consumed in 95% of households. Meanwhile, 10,000 different beers are produced using British malting barley and hops with the beer and pub industries generating £13 billion in tax revenue every year.

John Whittingdale MP said: “Beer and cheese represent two of the biggest, and most iconic, British food groups and it was fantastic to meet some of those Essex farmers who produce these great products.

“There are many worthy reasons to support British arable and dairy farmers: they are responsible for securing our fantastic British food supply, looking after our world-renowned countryside and sustaining a dynamic local rural economy.

“It is critical that as politicians we continue to back British farming and create the right regulatory environment post-Brexit to ensure arable and dairy farmers continue to provide the safe and affordable food that the public trusts.”

John Whittingdale, Chairman of the Ukraine All Party Parliamentary Group, led a debate in Parliament on the Situation in Ukraine. During the debate, John Whittingdale described his recent visit to Kiev and to the Government-controlled areas close to the conflict zone in East Ukraine. John called on the Government to provide more financial assistance to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis facing 2.3 million people in East Ukraine and to increase diplomatic pressure on Russia to abide by the Minsk II agreement and to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-12-20/debates/33A41F5D-B50D-48AE-8C56-3F278FD017CF/Ukraine 

http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/132bafa5-0187-436f-85f2-c14baef4025f 

John is pictured with Parliamentary colleagues from the UK and Ukraine:

Bob Seely MP, Yuri Levchenko MP, Svitlana Zalishchuk MP, Natalya Katser- Buchkovska MP, Jonathan Djanogly MP, Alex Ryabchyn MP.

John is also pictured visiting the Avdiivka Coke Plant in East Ukraine