Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.14 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): May I declare an interest, as I am not a lawyer—probably the only non-lawyer to speak in the debate?

Mr. Keith Bradley: I am not a lawyer.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am in good company.

I shall be brief. I rise because I was slightly concerned by the fact that when the Minister introduced the regulations, he set them in the context of the current issues of terrorism and the legislation that the House enacted last week—in my view, regrettably—to bring into effect new anti-terrorist measures. It seems that there is a danger of confusing several issues. If I understood correctly what he said later and what the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said in his speech, the regulations have their basis in the 1995 and 1996 conventions. While some terrorist offences may be covered in that regard, I would like it to be confirmed that the new legislation does not apply to the regulations.

It is important that we set the record straight on that, because in the legislation that we passed last week, we not only sought a derogation from the European convention on human rights in respect of part of its

19 Dec 2001 : Column 333

operation, but passed into law the ability of the Home Secretary to try somebody on the basis of private information and put them in prison. The measure ensured that such a person could appeal only to a private committee in which they would not see the evidence against them. The only right of appeal will be based on a point of law and dealt with through a judicial review process, where, again, the evidence would not be tested in court. I would find it horrific if legislation of such a standard was then used as a basis for extradition, so I would be grateful for the Minister's confirmation that I am wrong about that.

Will the Minister also confirm another point made by the hon. Member for Woking and give an assurance that legal aid will be available, providing that the defendant fulfils the normal criteria? It is important to ensure openness and justice, so legal aid is very important.

I make my final point having sat through days of hearings on the application of the Spanish courts to the English courts to extradite General Pinochet to Spain so that he could face charges there. It was a fascinating experience and the standard of legal argument was very high. A number of landmark judgments were made, not the least of which was the House of Lords ruling on the right to try people for offences committed elsewhere in the world. At the end of the day, however, the extradition hearings and debate did not add up to very much, because the Home Secretary has the final say in these matters and considerable discretion. In the case of General Pinochet, he used that discretion in respect of the rather curious wording "humanitarian grounds", under which it was decided that General Pinochet was not fit to stand trial. He was then allowed to return to Chile, where further legal action against him was contemplated and indeed attempted.

Will the Minister explain exactly what discretion the Home Secretary has? In relation to all the other contracting parties to the extradition arrangement, will the equivalent Home Secretary or Minister of the Interior again have the final say, or will the extradition proceedings with which we are dealing take away such discretion and allow compulsory removal of the accused person from this country, providing that the legal arguments stand up in court? In the whole Pinochet experience, it seemed to me that justice was not done in the end because of the powers of discretion that were available to the Home Secretary and to the equivalent Ministers of the Interior elsewhere. If extradition is to mean anything, it must be decided on legal grounds rather than on the basis of political discretion, which is what is available under current extradition arrangements.

6.18 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): This is a bit of a challenge for all of us. The Minister, who took interventions, was good enough to keep his speech to 17 minutes, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) took 10 minutes, and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) five. I am, therefore, conscious that there is a challenge and that we nearly stand between this place and its holiday. We also face a challenge because the regulations are a serious matter and the final Adjournment debate is on spina bifida, which is also a serious matter. Only between the debates is the more

19 Dec 2001 : Column 334

festive element to which the hon. Member for Woking referred, in respect of why we should or should not go on holiday—something that we all hope to do when we break up at the end of this evening. In case I am accused of misrepresentation, I know that the House of Lords is sitting tomorrow and does not break up until then.

We are considering the last Home Office business of this calendar year and of this term. It is no coincidence that Question Time on the first day after the recess was followed by a statement from the Home Secretary about the consequences for this country of the events of 11 September. Several of us who are present are responsible for Home Office business in our parties, and I am conscious that a lot of legislative water has flowed under the bridge since our return. The motion is only a trailer for the next torrent. We hope that there will be a gap of a few weeks before it.

We are considering the first and least controversial of at least three substantial extradition matters. We shall subsequently discuss the European arrest warrant, which is controversial, and an extradition Bill, which is both technical and controversial.

The Government clearly stated to Opposition parties and Labour Members that the United Kingdom had an obligation to implement the two conventions by the end of the calendar year. Under an agreement with European Union member states, we said that we would enshrine them in law. As hon. Members have said, we signed them six and five years ago respectively, but we cannot ratify them until we have legislated. The Government therefore approached both main Opposition parties and asked whether we would be content to legislate by the method that we are considering.

The usual method is primary legislation. Like the hon. Member for Woking and Conservative Members, Liberal Democrat Members decided that it was important to honour our international obligations. We therefore accepted that the conventions could and should be two of only four matters that are implemented under the European third pillar arrangements, which cover justice and home affairs, through secondary legislation. We accepted that process to honour Britain's obligations to our partners, and because while the conventions are technical and complex, their substance is relatively uncontroversial.

The Liberal Democrats are happy for extradition to be made simpler and for the process to be improved without eating into individuals' rights. The record of the hon. Member for Islington, North on such matters is good and reliable. It is right to flag up the big issues on extradition procedure. We will debate them in the new year when the Bill is introduced.

It is reasonable to have speedier processes when people consent to extradition. That is the core of the 1995 convention. It is also reasonable to try to deal with some of the more complicated issues in the 1996 convention. I was grateful for the Minister's answer that the three other countries that have not yet ratified are, like us, obliged to do that by the end of the year. The conventions will therefore apply to France, Italy and Belgium, provided that they get their house in order, as well as to us and other EU countries by 31 December.

19 Dec 2001 : Column 335

Let us consider the controversial issues. Under the conventions, individuals who are extradited for substantive, major matters can be tried for subsidiary, less important matters. That is valid, provided that they are genuinely minor and not other major offences.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is it the hon. Gentleman's understanding that, under the proposed regulations, people who have been extradited from this country to another EU country cannot subsequently be charged with an offence other than that for which they were extradited?

Simon Hughes: That is not correct. I think that the arrangements provide that, for example, someone who was extradited for trafficking people or drugs could be charged with a subsidiary offence of cheque fraud or a crime for which the penalty falls short of imprisonment. Another example is a driving licence offence for which the penalty would be a fine. The technical answer is therefore no, but the offence must be subsidiary. We must protect the guarantee that people will be tried only for subsidiary matters. The hon. Member for Woking is more knowledgeable than me about such matters, but I believe that a subsidiary offence is defined as "non- imprisonable".

The conventions reduce the severity of the punishment for the offence for which one can be extradited. The Minister mentioned a six-month term of imprisonment. They also prevent people from arguing before British or EU authorities that their extradition is sought for a political offence. That is important. If we sign up to the conventions, we accept that there is no such thing as a political offence in the EU. That appears proper to me. I would not accept it in the case of other countries.

The conventions allow for a wider definition of terrorism and related offences than we would perhaps ordinarily wish. We have already permitted such a gateway through legislation. To be fair, the Opposition parties agreed to it, but the Government will use it for only seven months, until the end of next June. After that, they cannot try to implement other such measures without primary legislation, for obvious reasons. We wanted only immediate and specific anti-terrorist legislation to be made through secondary legislation. That is why I asked in an intervention whether at least definitions could be provided of the three broad heads: terrorism, trafficking and drug-related offences.

The conventions also technically allow dual criminality. They allow extradition for something that is not deemed to be a specific offence in the same terms in another country. However, that is subject to twin protections. First, the provision lasts for only seven months; the orders can be passed only in the seven-month period. Secondly, it is limited to the three general heads that I mentioned.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) mentioned controversial subjects such as xenophobia, environmental crime or crime that is related to information technology, which have nothing to do with terrorism. Their definition can be wider than that for specific offences. There will properly be much debate about whether dual criminality should apply to them and whether people could be extradited for such controversial matters that do not constitute crimes in the country from which they are being taken. We will revert to such matters.

19 Dec 2001 : Column 336

We would normally wish to discuss the arrangements at greater length in Committee and deal with them through primary legislation. The House's acceptance, and especially that of Liberal Democrat Members, of the foreshortened process is the exception rather than the rule. We have accepted it because of two pressures. First, the previous Government contracted the obligation to implement the conventions by the end of the year, and it is important to honour our international obligations. Secondly, the events of 11 September mean that there is a desire to get maximum agreement throughout the EU about non-controversial matters.

This month, the press has reported on people's treatment and rights to, for example, legal aid, legal representation, translators, and on periods for which people can be held. Let us be honest: I am a pro-European, but I accept that different standards exist in countries throughout the EU, and I must stress that Greece is not always the worst offender. Delay occurs in other countries. It is proper to raise such matters in relation to extradition.

When we reconsider the law, we need to be satisfied that there are minimum European standards. If we are willing to sign up to conventions under which a properly constituted court in, for example, Italy, Portugal, Sweden or Denmark goes through the process to extradite a UK citizen, all EU countries need to be satisfied that no one will be detained for long without being brought to court, and that people have proper access to, for example, legal representation.

Those are the issues, but I have one last question for the Minister. I would be grateful if he would tell us now for the record, if that is possible, or later if it is not, whether the convention options that we have chosen, which appear in a complicated table, are in every case those chosen by the other countries. Derogation is possible under the convention—we can derogate from this or sign up to that—and various choices can be made, so it would be helpful to know how the EU countries are implementing the convention and which options they have chosen. I am happy for that information not to be conveyed across the Floor of the House; indeed, it may be safer and more accurate to provide it in other ways.

Twelve minutes—I am not doing too badly, and I am just about to sit down. This is important business and we on these Benches support it. We shall not divide the House and we are willing to co-operate, but we reserve the right to renew our questioning and challenging on the more substantive issues when they are debated in the new year. That is not the most festive note to end on, but I hope that, in difficult waters and on delicate matters, we have managed to do a good job and that we all believe that the processes that we are adopting are fair, just and respectful of people's rights, wherever they come from in the EU.

I further hope that, as far as extradition can ever be coupled with a festive greeting, those who exercise these powers do so fairly, if not festively, on all occasions. After completing our business, we should all wish each other a relatively festive time, even if it is not festive business in itself.

Next Section

IndexHome Page