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Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): When the Home Secretary comes to reach his decision, will he consider this aspect? Last year, Britain fought two wars against brutal dictators; many innocent people died, and it was justified on humanitarian grounds. Now, we have someone before us charged with the brutal torture of people, but, apparently, the Home Secretary is minded to release him on humanitarian grounds. Is it not a fact that, whatever judicial considerations have to enter his mind, it is a political decision? If he takes it in such a way as to release that man, it will undermine the ethical foreign policy and the argument that law should be the basis of international relations, and also throw some doubt on his long-held view on applying the fast-track principle of justice when offenders come to light.

Mr. Straw: While it is perfectly possible for people to make representations to me on humanitarian grounds, in this particular circumstance I have come to my preliminary conclusion--that the senator should not be extradited to the kingdom of Spain--on the narrower grounds of his unfitness to stand trial on the basis of the medical evidence that I have received, which is different. Where representations are made to me on wider grounds, I will consider them fully before coming to my final decision.

I must part company from my right hon. Friend when it comes to his assertion that these decisions are political decisions. They are not easy decisions, but I believe that

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successive holders of my office have sought to exercise the responsibilities placed on them by this House in a quasi-judicial way and to weigh up the facts of each of these and similar cases and the legal duties upon them. That is precisely what I have sought to do in this case.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are aware that, from time to time, this country has had to welcome the leaders of Governments who have been responsible for genocide, terrorism and killings in their own country. However, that is not the point that I wish to make.

Bearing in mind that the medical experts appointed by the Home Secretary have found unanimously that the life senator General Pinochet is not fit to face trial, why has the right hon. Gentleman delayed taking a decision--subject, of course, to the decisions of the courts of law in this country--that it is his recommendation that Senator Pinochet be allowed to return home to Chile, where if the people of Chile wish to judge him, it is their duty and responsibility to do so and not that of this country or of Spain?

Mr. Straw: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is hard to lay the charge of delay against me. The medical report was undertaken on 5 January, and it was received by my officials late last Thursday, 6 January. I received the report on 8 January, when it was in my weekend box. I considered it, and made decisions on the matter over the weekend. My preliminary decisions were communicated to the senator's representatives and the other interested parties yesterday. The process has taken, altogether, five days. I do not think that it is appropriate to categorise that as delay.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me why I have made a preliminary decision and not a final one, it is on the basis of clear advice that I have received, not least because there are other parties to the proceedings who are bound to be entitled to make representations to me before I reach a final decision.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Bearing in mind that the law in Chile is such that it is most unlikely that Pinochet will be tried for crimes against humanity, despite what was said earlier, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the following question. Is there not a danger that the wrong kind of message will go out to every mass murderer and torturer around the world, including Saddam Hussein, that the time will come when they, too, having lost power, will not be brought to justice? If Pinochet could be brought to justice in Spain, would not that be the different type of the lesson that we want all those mass murderers and torturers to learn--that there is no escaping from their crimes?

Mr. Straw: I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised, but I hope the message that goes out is that this country is one which follows the rule of law.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Does not the Home Secretary feel that the public interest would have been better served had he returned General Pinochet to be dealt with by the democratically elected Government of Chile? Is it the Home Secretary's case that General

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Pinochet's medical condition deteriorated as a result of his detention; or is it possible that he was never medically fit to stand trial at any stage?

Mr. Straw: I took into account the consideration that the right hon. Gentleman invites me to take into account, and that was made clear in the decisions that I set out in full in the Official Report on 15 April 1999; but, judging the matter as a whole, I came to the view that it was right to issue the second authority to proceed, and that decision was acknowledged to be within my authority to make when the divisional court of the High Court decided not to entertain an application for a judicial review of that decision made by Senator Pinochet's solicitors.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the nature of Senator Pinochet's deterioration. As I said in the statement, the unanimous and unequivocal conclusion of the three medical practitioners and the consultant neuropsychologist was that there had been a recent deterioration in the state of Senator Pinochet's health, which seems to have occurred principally during September and October 1999.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): May I, too, commend the sensitive manner in which my right hon. Friend has dealt with this complicated matter? Did he hear the Chilean ambassador on the "Today" programme this morning, suggesting that, if he were returned, Senator Pinochet could well face prosecution in Chile? Will he bear that in mind when weighing the medical evidence that he now has against the assertion by the diplomat that Senator Pinochet may recover in the next few days or weeks?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about the way in which I have conducted this matter.

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On the Chilean ambassador's remarks, the question whether the Senator is fit to stand trial has to be considered on the basis of the evidence before me and in accordance with the law of this country, not that of Chile.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): For most of the past 15 or so months, General Pinochet has been kept in Surrey. The security, housing, policing and other costs must be enormous. How much is being spent, and who will pay? The ratepayers and council tax payers of one county would be being treated very unfairly if the bill fell on their shoulders alone. If Surrey is to pay, will the Home Secretary ensure that it is suitably compensated?

Mr. Straw: As I explained in answer to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), it is not possible to give a final assessment of the cost until the proceedings have been concluded. I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman with as much information as I can. It has also always been open to all hon. Members to table parliamentary questions for written answer about the current, up-to-date costs, and that can continue to be done.

As for the costs falling on the Surrey constabulary, it is open to any police service to make an application to the Secretary of State if it feels that it has borne a special cost beyond the normal contingencies that police services have to bear; those are considered sympathetically--that will be done by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and myself--and are sometimes accepted and sometimes not.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the Home Secretary. We shall now take the statement.

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Armed Forces (ECHR)

4.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the outcome of our review of the implications of a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights as it affects the armed forces.

The House will recall that, on 27 September 1999, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment in a case brought by four ex-service personnel of the United Kingdom armed forces who had each been discharged on the grounds of their homosexuality. My predecessor issued a statement at the time making it clear that the Government accepted the judgment of the court--as British Governments have always complied with such rulings--and that we would be studying carefully the implications of the decision. He also announced that those cases already in the system--that is, personnel in the process of being discharged on grounds of homosexuality--would be put on hold.

In the light of the court's decisions, it was clear that the existing policy was not legally sustainable. We accordingly asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to set in hand an urgent review of policy in that area. That review has now been completed, and I am able to announce the outcome today.

Our starting point has been to develop a revised policy that preserves the operational effectiveness of our armed forces, respects the rights of the individual, and takes full account of the court ruling. The chiefs of staff accept the need to change the existing policy and have been fully involved in the process of developing a revised policy. I have discussed the subject with them on a number of occasions. They have endorsed the outcome of the review.

We have drawn on the experience of other countries--in particular, Australia--and have taken account of the last formal study of the subject in the United Kingdom, undertaken in 1995. Moreover, we have reflected the court's conclusion that legally we are obliged to adopt an approach that regards sexual orientation as essentially a private matter for the individual.

There is, of course, no doubt that the armed forces are a unique institution and occupy a unique place in our society. We expect a lot of them. They cannot choose the people they work and live with, often in difficult, cramped conditions and for sustained periods. Operational effectiveness depends on team cohesion and the maintenance of trust and loyalty. As a result, standards of behaviour are imposed on members of the armed forces that can be more demanding than those required by society at large. That is why we need a code of conduct to govern the attitude and approach to the personal relationships of those serving in the armed forces.

The code will apply across the forces, regardless of service, rank, gender or sexual orientation. It will provide a clear framework within which people in the services can live and work, and it will complement existing policies, such as zero tolerance towards harassment, discrimination and bullying. I emphasise that we are not tightening the rules on heterosexual relationships.

The code is not an abstract legal document full of rules and regulations. It has been developed by service experts who understand fully the operational needs and

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day-to-day practicalities of the armed forces. Personal relationships do not ever lend themselves to precise prescription and the code recognises explicitly that

    "It is not practicable to list every type of conduct that may constitute social misbehaviour".

Therefore, we have placed at the heart of the code what we call the service test, set out in the following terms:

    "Have the actions or behaviour of an individual adversely impacted or are they likely to impact on the efficiency or operational effectiveness of the Service?"

In using the code, commanding officers will have to apply the service test through the exercise of their good judgment, discretion and common sense--the essence of command and the effective management of people. I am arranging for copies of the code to be placed in the Library of the House.

The ECHR ruling makes it clear that the existing policy in relation to homosexuality must change. As all personal behaviour will be regulated by the code of conduct with the object of maintaining the operational effectiveness of the three services, there is no longer a reason to deny homosexuals the opportunity of a career in the armed forces. Accordingly, we have decided that it is right that the existing ban should be lifted. As no primary or secondary legislation is required, with effect from today, homosexuality will no longer be a bar to service in Britain's armed forces.

A range of briefing material is being issued to commanding officers to explain the code of conduct and to give them detailed guidance on how it should be implemented. That makes it clear that the chiefs of staff commend the principles of the new policy and are committed to ensuring that it works.

I recognise that there may be some concerns within the armed forces and elsewhere over this new policy, but I believe that the changes I have described offer the best way forward in terms of providing an approach that maintains operational effectiveness, is within the law, and recognises the rights of the individual.

Implementing the changes successfully will be a challenge for leadership at all levels in the armed forces, but such challenges are not new, and all three services will be equal to the task. With the commitment which is in place from the very highest levels of the chain of command, I am confident that our armed forces will adapt to the change in the professional manner for which they are rightly held in the very highest regard.

There will be those who would have preferred to continue to exclude homosexuals, but the law is the law. We cannot choose the decisions we implement. The status quo is simply not an option. The code centres on the paramount need to maintain the operational effectiveness of the armed forces. I have no doubt that it is the best way forward.

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