3 Dec 2012

Minister claims he was ‘banned’ from meeting Dalai Lama

A former minister who claims he was banned from meeting the Dalai Lama writes to David Cameron complaining that a Foreign Office instruction “crossed a line”, writes Jane Deith.

Tim Loughton MP was due to meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalia Lama (Reuters)

Tim Loughton, who was children’s minister until the cabinet reshuffle, was due to meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader at a private lunch on 20 June.

The meeting was arranged by the Tibet Society in the apartment of the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow. No media were invited.

But Mr Loughton has revealed that an hour and half before the lunch, he was told not to attend by the then Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne. Transport Minister Norman Baker MP was also told not to go.

Mr Loughton told Channel 4 News: “I met Jeremy Browne in the central lobby and he told me, ‘My advice would be not to meet the Dalai Lama’.”

Mr Loughton said Mr Browne did not say why he was giving him this advice.

‘Hurt’ feelings

The Foreign Office has pointed out that this was the second visit by the Dalai Lama in the summer. He had already visited the UK in May when he met David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

That meeting riled China, whose foreign ministry said the meeting “seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs” and “hurt” Chinese feelings.

The Foreign Office told Channel 4 News: “The Chinese government always lobbies hard against any meetings between foreign governments and the Dalai Lama.

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“We made clear in advance to the Chinese government that British ministers will decide who they meet and when they meet them – irrespective of Chinese lobbying.

“It was never intended that any minister would meet the Dalai Lama on his second visit. The National Security Council met in January of this year to agree a consistent approach towards the visit of the Dalai Lama, and all government ministers were expected to uphold it.

“Subsequently the prime minister and deputy prime minister decided that they would both meet the Dalai Lama in his capacity as a religious leader during his first visit in May and not during his second visit in June.

“We are committed to striking a balance between taking a clear position on Tibet, and sustaining broad-based engagement with the Chinese government. It is only through engaging China that we can help bring about positive change to human rights in China.”

Asked to confirm that ministers were prohibited from meeting the Dalai Lama in June, a Foreign Office spokesman said: “Ministers were told to meet to meet the Dalai Lama on his first visit.”

‘Tremendous pressure’

Mr Loughton says Downing Street also got involved. He says Number 10 officials phoned his office from the G20 summit in Mexico, where David Cameron was in talks with the Chinese about a eurozone fighting fund.

Tim Loughton and Norman Baker wrote to David Cameron to protest about the government intervention and “the tremendous pressure put upon us at the 11th hour not to attend”.

The letter, obtained by Channel 4’s Dispatches, added: “We have seen the note from Claire Tynte-Irvine at the FCO regarding the current engagement with China and are of course aware of the wider agenda and the sensitivities which exist.

“We do not believe, however, that justifies in any way a blanket prohibition on a minister meeting a religious leader in private in a non-ministerial capacity, and we think this crossed a line…

“The note is tantamount to saying that British foreign policy on Tibet is whatever China wants it to be. It completely ignores the fact that His Holiness is a spiritual leader only, and no longer holds a political position, and is frankly just plain wrong.”

Tim Loughton said David Cameron did not reply to his letter but he has been told he can meet Foreign Secretary William Hague to discuss his complaint.

Norman Baker’s office told Channel 4 News he would not comment on the details of a private letter.

A Downing Street spokesman said it would not comment on calls within government but did confirm it expected a “co-ordinated approach across government” to the visit of the spiritual leader.