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10.23 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. I extend to his constituents all our sympathy for the events that have taken place. I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to take up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). Having done so, I shall return to the case of Vanessa Cross.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East referred to his constituents, James Miles and Paul Loseby. The House will recall that he raised the matter last year and that he expressed particular concern about the Venezuelan

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legal system. The Government shared my hon. Friend's concerns, especially that relating to the possibility that people could be tried and sentenced in their absence. As he pointed out on that occasion, there is no agreement on the transfer of prisoners between the United Kingdom and Venezuela, and it might be useful if I take this opportunity to update my hon. Friend on the current situation.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are keen to negotiate an agreement, and we first approached the Venezuelan authorities in 1994. The Prison Service here, which has overall responsibility for prison transfer matters, was unhappy with the draft text proposed by the Venezuelans, and talks on the subject were suspended at that stage.

On 17 February, we asked the Venezuelans for their views on accession to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced prisoners. Our embassy in Caracas has been informed that the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs has sent a recommendation to the Venezuelan Congress to accede to the convention. My hon. Friend will be pleased by that news, as he will also be pleased to know that a member of the Foreign Office's consular division met a Venezuelan Opposition Member of Parliament who has been involved in the case to which my hon. Friend referred. That was an opportunity to discuss the convention. He undertook to do what he could to raise the profile of the convention among parliamentarians. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), also raised the subject when the Venezuelan Minister with responsibility for drugs visited the United Kingdom in November last year. From that information, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will appreciate that we are active on this issue, and we hope that we may well persuade the Venezuelans to accede to the European convention on the transfer of sentenced prisoners.

I deal now with the sad case that my hon. Friend the Member for Kelvin has brought before the House. I am grateful that he has taken the time to bring the matter to our attention and that he has dealt with it in such a sensitive and delicate manner. I emphasise at the outset that the protection of the rights of British nationals overseas is something which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes very seriously. More than10 million Britons live and work around the world. Others travel as tourists, making more than 40 million trips abroad each year. The protection of our citizens overseas is a front-line responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 24 hours a day and world wide. Our job is to do everything in our power to safeguard the interests of all those British citizens.

My hon. Friend set out the case of Vanessa Cross and Mr. McLachlan, and there is no reason for me to repeat the facts that my hon. Friend presented to us as they are without question. He may be interested to know that our embassy in Caracas was first notified of the attack a couple of weeks after it took place. The embassy immediately made every effort to contact Ms Cross and Mr. McLachlan who, by that time, had moved on with the group to Colombia.

Messages were left at the hotel, offering any help that might be needed at that stage. Ms Cross andMr. McLachlan did not get in touch, and we understand the reasons explained by my hon. Friend. The Foreign

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Office then contacted the tour operator, directly asking it to pass on our assurances that we were available and ready to offer any assistance that might be needed.

As my hon. Friend said, on returning to the United Kingdom, Ms Cross contacted Lord Watson, who was then the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central. His inquiries about the case in June 1996 were followed up promptly by the Foreign Office's consular division. Let me put on record my thanks for the way in which the noble Lord Watson pursued the case. It was typical of the way in which he carried out his responsibilities as a Member of Parliament and it is a great honour for the other place to have him as a member.

Since then, as my hon. Friend knows, our embassy has sent a number of written notes to the Venezuelan Ministry for Foreign Affairs, requesting information about the progress of the investigation. Last August, we were informed that, although the case had not reached a conclusion, investigations would continue. We made further inquiries in February this year, but, at that stage, they yielded no further information.

My hon. Friend mentioned the relationship between the United Kingdom and New Zealand in respect of the case and the way in which our responsibilities have been carried out. We have worked closely with the New Zealand Government and particularly with New Zealand house in London. There is a close relationship and a joint interest, and we shall continue to pursue the matter jointly. With respect to my hon. Friend, the fact that there is a question whether Vanessa Cross has New Zealand nationality or whether, through patriality, she is a United Kingdom citizen is irrelevant in terms of the way in which the matter has been pursued. We shall continue to keep in touch with New Zealand house and the New Zealand authorities.

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I hope that, briefly, I have been able to set out what we have done and our aims in respect of the case that my hon. Friend has raised, and I am delighted to tell him that there are substantial signs of progress according to information that we have received only this evening. The embassy in Caracas has been in contact with the newly appointed Executive Secretary of the Human Rights Commission in Venezuela. He has pursued the case actively and we have just been informed that the local police now have suspects. We understand that the next step is for Vanessa Cross to identify them in person. Our embassy in Caracas is following that up with the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry to establish exactly what is required.

I do not need to say much more to my hon. Friend except to make two final points. First, we are all delighted by the news. I cannot flesh it out in any greater detail in terms of whether charges have been laid or the extent of the success of the investigations. Secondly, we shall be making contact with Vanessa Cross. We shall do what we can to assist in the case and, as we have tried to do throughout, we shall handle the case sensitively.

I do not want to reach a premature judgment, but it seems from the information that we have received as late as this evening that dramatic progress has been made. We hope that what we have heard this evening turns out to be a real breakthrough in the case. If it is, it will be good news for my hon. Friend's constituents. I certainly promise to keep in touch with my hon. Friend and both his constituents and, hopefully, we shall bring the matter to a successful conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

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