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10.12 pm

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) for raising this important subject, but he will appreciate that I have heard for the first time much of the information that he has put before the House. It will therefore be extremely difficult to respond in detail this evening. I am sure that he will also be aware that he is protected by parliamentary privilege. As a Minister, I have certain obligations and I have to balance them with my duty to provide full and frank information to the House.

Most of my hon. Friend's allegations are against Customs and Excise, but there may be wider considerations, because he has placed much information on the record. However, I want to make it clear that the case involved all the law enforcement agencies. Whatever the rumours and allegations that are made as one agency might try to absolve itself from involvement in the case, we must recognise that all of them were involved.

It is important that I point out that it is well established in policy and practice that, when it comes to law enforcement by the police and Customs, one does not comment publicly on whether any individual has or has not given information in confidence to the authorities. It would certainly be wrong to comment on specific allegations of confidential information that was supposedly given to the authorities. None the less, before I address the particular issues that my hon. Friend raised, I want to set out the events that led up to the release from prison of Haase and Bennett on 4 July 1996, and to say who was involved.

As my hon. Friend said, John Haase and Paul Bennett were among nine people who were indicted in 1993 on a charge of conspiracy to supply 50 kg of heroin. The

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prosecution was undertaken by Customs and Excise and was initially in relation to an alleged conspiracy to import heroin. Subsequently, on legal advice, the charge was confined to conspiracy to supply the drug. Although supply offences are not normally prosecuted by Customs, this case was, with the agreement of the Crown Prosecution Service.

At their trial at Liverpool Crown court in August 1995, Haase and Bennett offered guilty pleas to conspiracy to supply, as did six other defendants; the ninth was acquitted. On 22 August 1995, all those convicted received sentences ranging from eight to 18 years, according to the extent of their involvement in the offence. Haase and Bennett each received sentences of 18 years.

Prior to sentencing, the trial judge, Judge Lynch, received representations from counsel for Haase and Bennett, in accordance with normal practice. Prosecuting and investigating authorities have a clear duty to provide to the judge material, accurate and fair, that may be relevant to the trial, including matters that the judge may wish to take into account in determining sentence. It is for the judge to decide what credence and weight he or she should give to that material. In this case, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the police, Customs and Excise and the Crown Prosecution Service provided material to Judge Lynch that confirmed the extent to which Haase and Bennett had co-operated with the police and Customs in the investigation.

As a result of the information that Judge Lynch received, he approached the Home Office and stated that he was of the opinion that, in line with the precedent set by the Court of Appeal in the case of Regina v. Sinfield in 1981, consideration should be given to the appropriate remission of the 18-year sentences that had been imposed on Haase and Bennett. He thought that that might be effected by exercising the royal prerogative of mercy. In making his representations to the Home Office, he set out why he had not felt able to impose a reduced sentence in court. Following his approach--I emphasise that this was a judicial initiative--the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), agreed to seek the royal prerogative for remission of the sentences, broadly in line with the Sinfield precedent.

The House should be in no doubt that the impetus for the reduction in sentence came entirely and properly from the trial judge. The material was supplied to the judge by Customs and the police, who had jointly investigated all the matters. Those authorities were properly fulfilling their obligation to the court. Indeed, in the Sinfield case, the Court of Appeal laid great emphasis on the public interest in ensuring remission of sentencing in the circumstances. It also said that, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant in that case was a major criminal, the reduction in sentence remained appropriate.

My hon. Friend put many matters on the record this evening. I would like to study the documents that he holds and to ensure that I have all the information. I freely admit that this is the first time that I have heard much of the information to which he referred.

As the Minister responsible for Customs, I have been assured that in this case all our officers acted entirely

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appropriately throughout. The commissioners have indicated that they would certainly welcome any new information that may have a bearing on this case or related cases which may cause my hon. Friend concern. My hon. Friend has certainly provided that information this evening, and the matter is clearly causing him concern.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that I am not in a position to give him a fuller reply this evening. I hope that he will accept that I will ensure that his points are properly scrutinised. I shall ensure that he, as the local

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MP and the Member who secured the debate, is kept fully apprised of action that is taken and information that is available. I thank him again for drawing these serious matters to my attention. I assure him once more that, in pursuing the prosecution, Customs did not act alone, but properly within requirements, and jointly with the enforcement authorities. I entirely accept that he is making available additional information that requires a response, and I will ensure that he gets one.

Question put and agreed to.

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