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16 Oct 2002 : Column 127WHcontinued
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): On 15 May 2001, my constituent, Kevan Sloan, was in Tenerife, visiting his mother who works and lives there. He was arrested and charged with involvement in five robberies. Subsequently, he was acquitted of three of the charges and the prosecution dropped a fourth altogether.
Several of the allegations made against Kevan were, frankly, ridiculous. Indeed, well before the trial, he was able to demonstrate conclusively that he was not even on the island on some of the relevant dates. I shall comment on the evidence shortly, but first I want to make some general observations.
Kevan is a 26-year-old man from Kirkby in my constituency. He has no previous criminal record and has been in continuous employment at a local builders' merchant since leaving school. Indeed, his employers have been very supportive of him throughout and were able to provide firm evidence that he was at work in the United Kingdom on the dates of some of the alleged incidents. All of that indicates that he was a man of good character and standing.
It is astonishing that a young man of previous good character should suddenly turn into a one-man crime wave. People who rob supermarkets are generally hard-nosed criminals. It is highly improbable that, having never been in any trouble with the police, Kevan should arrive in Tenerife as a fully formed criminal. However, the impression given by the authorities at his trial was precisely that. I have pondered why that might be. The Fair Trials Abroad Trust, a British-based human rights charity that helps EU citizens who face miscarriages of justice abroad, has taken a close interest in Kevan's case. It has described the trial judge's conduct during the hearing as "questionable" and "xenophobic".
If that was the case, we must ask whether it resulted from a lapse of objectivity or a character flaw on the part of the trial judge, or whether there is some other explanation. It is a difficult call to make, especially as I was not present at the trial to witness the judge's behaviour at first hand. However, a parliamentary answer to me on 2 July 2001 from the former Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), threw some light on the issue. It explained that, in Tenerife, there are some 4,000 cases a year in which people seek consular assistance. That figure is far higher than the figures for some other popular foreign holiday destinations, such as Ibiza, where there are 2,000 such cases, Corfu, where there are 450 cases, and Benidorm, Majorca and Malaga, which, between them, produce some 550 cases a year.
That might provide a clue to why Kevan was dealt with so severely when the evidence for his conviction was, as I shall demonstrate, so unreliable. Even allowing for the fact that not all requests for consular assistance in Tenerife come from UK tourists in trouble with the police, many do. Given the obvious problems of lawlessness from UK tourists in Tenerife, it seems likely that Kevan was made a scapegoat for crimes committed by others. As judges in this country often put it, he was made an example of for others who might transgress in the future. Had he been guilty, that would not have been
Kevan was convicted of robbing the La Familia supermarket opposite his mother's flat, which he used occasionally as a customer, on 15 May 2001. The only witness to the robbery was the woman serving in the shop at the time. Initially, she stated that she was not sure whether she would be able to recognise the perpetrator again. Three days later, she made a positive identification of the alleged robber from CCTV pictures. The pictures related to other incidents that did not go to trial and do not resemble Kevan at all. However, the witness then changed her mind again and, having previously been shown photographs of Kevan, picked him out in an identity parade. None of the others in the parade bore any resemblance to Kevan. That is hardly the behaviour of a reliable witness, nor is it the proper use of identity parades. It bears all the hallmarks of somebody manipulated into choosing one person, irrespective of guilt or innocence. Given that Kevan was staying across the road from the supermarket and was an occasional customer, it is highly likely that the person serving in the shop might recognise him, albeit in a different context to the robbery.
The witness gave evidence that the robber spoke in colloquial Spanish. Kevan does not speak Spanish at all, and even if he had some knowledge of the language, it is most unlikely that he would speak it with a colloquial accent. I have spoken to some colleagues with a knowledge of linguistics and of the languages concerned and they tell me that it would be inconceivable for somebody with a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish to speak it with a colloquial accent. It is obvious; consider the English of people who visit this country and speak with a foreign accentit is not at all colloquial. Despite the fact that six reliable witnesses had stated at the pre-trial hearing that Kevan could not speak Spanish, and that the judge at the original trial acknowledged that no evidence had been produced that he could speak it, the judges at the appeal in 2002 concluded that he could have conducted the robbery in that language. Fair Trials Abroad believes that the judges at the appeal might have misread one of the defence witness statements referring to her own limited proficiency in Spanish as meaning that Kevan could speak it.
At the appeal, Kevan's defence produced five witnesses who provided the substantial alibi that, at the time of the robbery, he was with them in a bar some 270 m from the supermarket. Moreover, they gave evidence that the bar had only one door, so Kevan could not have left or returned without their having seen him do so. Finally, the robbery of which he was convicted, according to Fair Trials Abroad, bore a remarkable resemblance to the other four robberies with which Kevan was originally charged. As it put it:
Following the initial trial and an appeal, both of which were questionable and which produced unsafe verdicts, Kevan has served slightly more than 17 months of a three-and-a-half-year sentence for a crime that he did not commit. The appeal to the constitutional court in Madrid is pending.
In the past few weeks, Kevan has been moved to a part of the prison that holds prisoners on long sentences and he must share a cell with a non-English-speaking inmate. He has lost the support that he previously had from the network of English-speaking inmates. He is determined not to learn Spanish, because he believes that he does not belong in a Spanish jail and that doing so could compromise his defence, pending a further appeal to the court in Madrid. I appeal to the Spanish authorities to reconsider the decision to move Kevan from the prison's remand module to his present location, which is unsuitable and in which he feels entirely isolated.
Together with Kevan's family, Fair Trials Abroad and the Liverpool Echo, I have been part of a campaign to free Kevan. Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary kindly met me, together with Kevan's father, Tommy Sloan, and his mother, Eileen Forrester, who is in the Gallery today. My right hon. Friend recently raised Kevan's case with his Spanish opposite number, and I place on record my thanks and gratitude for his efforts.
Through his lawyer in Tenerife, Kevan has applied for a deportation order, which, if successful, could secure his release. He has gone to great lengths, however, to make it clear that, in so doing, he in no way accepts any guilt. My plea, and that of his family, is that Kevan's application for that order and his further appeal to the constitutional court in Madrid should be dealt with speedily and that he should be allowed to come home, where he belongs. In the meantime, I again urge the Spanish authorities to put him in a more friendly part of the prison with other English speakers.
Kevan has suffered far beyond anything that could be considered remotely reasonable for a crime that he did not commit. I hope that the Spanish authorities will take due note and act accordingly. I also hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will ensure that those very real concerns and the details of this debate are passed to the Spanish authorities and that they take proper note of them.
The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) for bringing Kevan Sloan's worrying case to the attention of the House. He is a former Home Office Minister and a highly respected, senior Member of the House, and I hope that his passionate advocacy on Kevan Sloan's behalf will be heard loud and clear in Madrid. I shall certainly ensure that the full record of this debate is passed to the appropriate authorities in Spain.
I welcome the opportunity to highlight the assistance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided to Kevan Sloan and his family and to explain what consular assistance we can and cannot provide to him and other British nationals abroad. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are committed to supporting Mr. Sloan and, indeed, all British nationals who are detained overseas.
Since Mr. Sloan's detention, his family and supporters have campaigned vigorously for his acquittal and release. They believe that he is innocent, as does his Member of Parliament. They all believe that he has been the victim of an unfair trial, and Fair Trials Abroad has also been involved in the case. My hon. Friend's powerful speech today and detailed criticism of the prosecution's case will, I hope, give the Spanish authorities cause for further thought. I especially noted the points that he made about the paucity of identification evidence, Mr. Sloan's inability to speak Spanish, the robber's accent being quite different from his own, the alibi that he provided, and so on.
The House will confirm that MPs do not lightly speak with such power and conviction about such cases unless they are strongly persuaded of the issues involved. However, the British Government cannot make judgments on the innocence or guilt of British nationals detained abroad. Our consular staff provide the same service to those detained abroad irrespective of innocence or guilt. The role of our consular staff is, in essence, humanitarian. Consular staff are responsible for looking after the welfare of British nationals overseas, including those who are detained or imprisoned. They can ensure that British nationals have access to a lawyer, know their legal position, have information about the legal and prison systems, receive the same treatment as other prisoners and are not discriminated against because they are British or foreign, and that any medical problems are dealt with quickly. We take any complaints of ill treatment very seriously, and raise them immediately with the relevant authorities.
We are fully aware of the pressures and frustrations that having a relative detained abroad can place on a family. Consular staff can help to keep families in regular contact with those detained in a foreign country, and can assist in updating them on the progress of any court hearings. Staff can also pass on messages from family members to detainees, and forward money for prison comforts. Clearly, circumstances and conditions vary, but consular staff aim regularly to visit British nationals detained abroad. Those held on remand can usually expect three or four such visits a year.
Since Mr. Sloan's arrest in May 2001, our consular staff in Tenerife and London have been in regular contact with Mr. Sloan and his family. Our vice-consul visited Mr. Sloan within 72 hours of his detention, and consular staff have visited him a further 10 times since
We have also maintained regular contact with Mr. Sloan's lawyer during significant periods such as his trial and more generally throughout his detention. We have therefore ensured that the family in the United Kingdom has been kept informed of any developments. Our consular staff are not legally trained; they cannot offer legal advice, and under international law neither they nor we can interfere in the judicial process of another sovereign country. We would not tolerate any interference in our own legal proceedings, although I know that my hon. Friend is not asking for that.
However, we have sought information regarding Mr. Sloan's trial through our consular staff in Tenerife. His lawyer has stated that although he is very unhappy with the outcome, he is entirely satisfied with the way in which the court handled proceedings. Mr. Sloan must follow the guidance of his lawyer and, of course, he was convicted under Spanish law. His family and supporters have pointed out what they believe are several deficiencies in the prosecution's case; my hon. Friend spoke eloquently about those this morning. However, those are entirely legal issues and as such must be addressed by Mr. Sloan's lawyer, who is best placed to offer professional legal guidance and to take up any concerns with the appropriate local and judicial authorities. All avenues are currently being considered, including the possible referral of this case to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pro bono lawyer panel for review. I understand that this is a difficult and frustrating time for Mr. Sloan and his family. They are convinced that he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice and, with my hon. Friend's active support, are campaigning vigorously for his release. We have been asked many times to intervene on Mr. Sloan's behalf and have been pleased to do so.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was able to meet Mr. Sloan's parents on 30 May. He made it clear that, as I have said, we could not interfere in the legal process of another country, but agreed to make formal representations to his Spanish counterpart. He subsequently met the Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Piqué, in June and his successor, Ana de Palacio, in September. On both occasions, my right hon. Friend raised Mr. Sloan's case and put the arguments that my hon. Friend has put today. Mrs. de Palacio agreed to look into Kevan Sloan's case and I am sure that, as a lawyer herself, she will have a particular understanding of the arguments that my hon. Friend has made today.
Meanwhile, we shall ensure that Mr. Sloan's family are kept fully informed of any developments. We shall continue to provide Mr. Sloan with all possible consular assistance. Our consular staff in Tenerife will continue to visit him and maintain frequent contact with his lawyer. I shall happily take any questions from my hon. Friend if he has further points to make, but I understand that Mr. Sloan's mother has travelled here to be present