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18 Nov 2002 : Column 472continued
Ms Hewitt: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is, perhaps uncharacteristically, confused. The German Government announced just today that they are to put up taxes, and the only reason why receipts from business taxation have fallen in Germany is that corporate profitability is on the floor and the German economy is so weak.
The economy is safe in our hands. Under my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and with the support at least of the hon. Member for Buckingham, whose journey has indeed been an interesting oneso interesting that we look forward to welcoming him to these Benches shortlywe will continue to create the best environment for business in the world.
(a) notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents) the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of the Prime Minister relating to Fisheries not later than four hours after their commencement; and
(b) notwithstanding the practice of the House in relation to motions relating to the Committee of Selection, the Motion in the name of Mr Keith Hill relating to the Committee of Selection may
and proceedings under this Order may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I am grateful for the opportunity to put the case of Mr. J. Woodbridge before the House. As it is complex and reads like the introduction to a John Le Carré novel, I hope that the House will forgive me if I make fairly rapid progress and stick closely to my notes.
The case concerns my constituent, Mr. Jeff Woodbridge of Minster in Thanet. Mr. Woodbridge is an employee of Sigma Enterprises Ltd. of 3 Lion Yard, Clapham. My purpose in bringing the matter to House is threefold: first, to put the extraordinary story on the record, along with my constituent's view of events; secondly, to ensure that Ministers are aware of the way in which consular and other Government services appear to have fallen below the standard that United Kingdom citizens are entitled to expect; and, thirdly, to express my disappointment that when I turned to Ministers for assistance, I did not receive a timely response, so my constituent in turn could not get from his Member of Parliament the support to which he was entitled.
First, let me give the background to the case. Seventeen years ago, a company called Dong Ah was involved in the XGreat Man-Made River Project" in Libyaa project to bring water to the desert that at the time had the support of the international community, including the United States of America. Dong Ah purchased hydraulic shears from a US company called Pacific Press for use on the project. That equipment was supplied with the knowledge and support of the US Government.
In September 2001, a German company called BIB approached Pacific Press to acquire spare parts for those hydraulic shears. It is not knownby me at leastwho acquired spares for the shears from Pacific Press on behalf of Dong Ah or the Libyans in the intervening period, although it stands to reason that someone must have done so as equipment of that nature would need regular maintenance. BIB was quoted a price of about $7,500, but did not respond until January 2002, when it placed its order and paid for the goods. Having received the money, Pacific Press subsequently reneged on the order, claiming that it would not export the goods directly, but would only supply to some other party in the US. BIB is a small company and it was unable to ignore the loss of the money that it had already paid, so it had to look for a US partner that was prepared to take delivery of the goods on its behalf and export them to Germany for onward shipping to Libya.
That is the point at which Mr. Woodbridge entered the picture. BIB contacted him to ask if he could help, as he trades extensively with the USA. After consulting his employers, it was decided on commercial grounds that Sigma could not directly assistafter all, the goods had already been paid for and there was no way in which the company could earn from the transaction. However, as a service to BIB, which is a valued customer of Sigma, it did agree to put BIB in touch with a company in
BIB contacted Mr. Clements and asked if he would take delivery of the parts and arrange their export. Mr. Clements accepted the parts from Pacific Press but, on discovering that they would need an export licence, returned them to Pacific Press and declined BIB's request for help. About two months later, out of the blue and for reasons about which I will speculate in a minute, Mr. Clements changed his mind, agreed to accept the parts and asked Sigma if he could ship the parts to them for onward road shipment to Germany as that was the cheapest means of transportation. Mr. Woodbridge and Sigma agreed.
That was the total extent of Mr. Woodbridge's involvement in the affair: first, to pass on to BIB the name of the Miami contact and, secondly, to act as a staging post in the shipment of goods to Germany. Those acts were carried out by a UK company in the UK. Mr. Woodbridge at no time entered into negotiations on US soil. He has not broken any UK laws, and no one, including the DTI, has ever suggested that he has.
VAT and duty were paid on the goods as normal, so it is not realistic to suggest that there was anything clandestine about the arrangements. The parts themselves were for equipment that had been legally supplied by a US company, with the knowledge of the US Government, and which was to be used in an irrigation project. No equipment that is in any way capable of military, terrorist or hostile use was involved.
Despite that, on his next business trip to the US, Mr. Woodbridge was arrested at Minneapolis airport and charged with conspiring to supply the enemy. He spent 10 days in jail until his employers posted $50,000 bail. Mr. Woodbridge was flown to Benton, Illinois to appear before a judge for court appearances to be agreed. When considering future court appearances, the judge said that the case appeared to be a waste of everyone's time; nevertheless, the trial was scheduled for 7 October and subsequently took place on 24 October. On release by the court he was rearrested by US marshalsa decision that led to an argument between the state prosecutor and the US marshalsbut released later that day, although he had to remain in the US until his trial.
How were others involved? It appears from information that emerged during the trial that Mr. Clements's telephone was being tapped and he was suspected of criminal activity. It emerged also that Mr. Clements was not, as everyone thought, a naturalised US citizen but a UK citizen and held two passports. One of those passports he used for trips to Cuba, but Cuban visas would not endear him to US immigration officials, so he used a different passport at other times.
We can only speculate that Mr. Clements was offered immunity for other actions, possibly in connection with his trade with Cuba, in return for help with a sting operation against BIB. Hence he unexpectedly reversed his initial decision not to help BIB by exporting the parts from Pacific Press. Although Mr. Clements has been charged in respect of this case, and claims to have been tried and sentenced, the US probation service reports that the case is still pending.
We can only speculate also as to why Pacific Press has not been charged with any offence. During the trial it emerged that the company, or an employee, is also being helpful to the authorities in return either for a reward or for immunity against other charges. Presumably the company, or the employee, notified the authorities of the order in the first place as down payment for whatever consideration it, or he or she, subsequently received.
I turn now to the trial and Mr. Woodbridge's experience of consular services. Throughout his detention in the US, Mr. Woodbridge attempted to get UK officials to help him. He and his employer hoped for diplomatic activity to assist him, but there is no sign that it ever took place. He is diabetic, and he had financial problems caused by having to stay in the US. He hoped that consular officials would offer advice but, in his view, no effective advice was forthcoming. He hoped also that the UK Government would take up the case with the US trade authorities on the ground that the US had acted in an extraterritorial manner, to the detriment of a UK company. He and his employers contacted the DTI.
I have seen e-mail correspondence with a DTI official who deals with extraterritorial issues, and she appears to have had a genuine interest in helping. Mr. Woodbridge's employers met her and other DTI officials, and contact was then made by the DTI with US lawyers who advise the DTI on these issues. The DTI also said that it would contact the British embassy in Washington to ask for its assistance.
Those efforts do not appear to have been followed up. Why? Perhaps a clue can be found in an e-mail erroneously sent to Mr. Woodbridge by another official who was asked for advice as to how the DTI should proceed. When the official realised that the e-mail had been wrongly sent to Mr. Woodbridge he tried to recall it, but it had already been delivered. The e-mail makes it clear that this case has diplomatic and legal implications and advises officials to avoid getting involved.
Mr. Woodbridge e-mailed a strong protest to the author and received a handsome apology. The official made it clear that he did not intend to minimise Mr. Woodbridge's suffering, and he made it clear that he was concerned that officials trying to help may be unfairly implicated in the case and so should proceed with caution. Nevertheless, after that exchange of correspondence, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the risk of involvement was seen as greater than the potential benefits of helping a UK citizen and a UK company.
Mr. Woodbridge also contacted me as his MP, and e-mailed me on 19 August. After making inquiries, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on 21 August. As well as posting those letters, they were faxed to the Ministers' private offices and marked urgent. Receipt was acknowledged by the Foreign Office on 22 August. Several reminders and telephone calls from my office later, a substantive reply was posted from the Foreign Office on 2 October. In other words, an MP's request for help for a constituent unfairly held in a foreign country and suffering from serious health problems did not get a response for over five weeks.
The response from my noble Friend Baroness Amos claimed that consular staff had contacted my constituent's family at the time of arrest and remained in constant touch over the weekend. Mr. Woodbridge and his family have no such memory. The letter claims that consular officials made prison authorities aware of his diabetes and health concerns. Mr. Woodbridge has no such recollection and received no health assistance. The letter, patronisingly I feel, went on to advise me to tell Mr. Woodbridge to seek his own legal advice and provided me with a Foreign Office leaflet on consular services abroad.
An example of the disparity between Baroness Amos's version of events and Mr. Woodbridge's relates to his health care. In her letter of 2 October, the Minister claimed that officials notified prison authorities of his health needs. In reality, after his release, Mr. Woodbridge approached a consular official to explain his need for treatment for diabetes, which she was not aware of, and was told to look in the XYellow Pages". The Minister's letter was such an abject disappointment that I was loth to give it to Mr. Woodbridge, but I did so at his request. His response was dramatiche concluded that as his Government had abandoned him he would instruct his lawyers to negotiate a sentence with the prosecution if he pleaded guilty to a crime that he had no knowledge of, had not committed and which was based on legal actions in his own country.
The response from the DTI to my letters was stranger still. It replied more quickly, writing back on 13 Septembera delay of three weeksbut the letter from the assistant private secretary said only that it was a matter for the Foreign Office, so my letter had been sent on. The Minister will recollect from what I said earlier that that was the response from the Department that had genuinely tried to help initially. A Minister's office clearly did not even bother to investigate what work officials had undertaken despite the fact that I had supplied it with copies of correspondence showing that the DTI had been involved. Ironically, in the e-mail between a DTI official and his colleague that was wrongly sent to Mr. Woodbridge, the author said that his DTI colleague should not get involved but advise Mr. Woodbridge to contact his MP, who would contact Ministers, who would then instruct officials. But when Mr. Woodbridge did contact his MP, and the MP contacted Ministers, officials batted the letter to the Foreign Office and did not even show it to Ministers. Although my staff contacted that private ministerial office and asked it to look at the case again, I have still have had no response.
In any event, the matter proceeded to trial, and Mr. Woodbridgehis health insurance having run out and having lost all hope of Government interventionpleaded guilty. Fortunately for him, the trial judge was a man of independent mind. He immediately said that he was not minded to give a custodial sentencehe could have given up to two yearsand would tailor his sentence to allow Mr. Woodbridge to return home. Subsequently, he was asked to pay a $7,000 fine and given three years' unsupervised probation. He is now recovering at his home in Minster, although he will never be able to return to the United States.
I accept that during that phone call Mr. Woodbridge's son told the officer of his father's diabetes and a call was then made to the prison, presumably to relay that fact. Unfortunately, nobody appears to have checked that the US authorities acted on this informationthey had not.
I understand that, at times of strain, people may not recall all the various contacts that they have received or even appreciate fully when genuine efforts are being made to help. Certainly they will not know of efforts behind the scenes. The lesson that should be learned in a case such as this is that consular officials should err on the side of overkill in contacting people and always drop them a note to confirm and clarify important issues after the conversation.
Mr. Woodbridge committed no UK crime, and it is still not clear what US authorities suspected was going on. However these events are viewed, the US has acted extraterritorially and the UK Government appear to have allowed them to get away with it. Consular officials and others gave an inadequate service to my constituent, and seem to have acted from the view that he was seeking free legal advice or health care, which he was not. Finally, Ministers' offices acted weakly and deplorably slowly to my request for urgent assistancemore than five weeks for a substantive reply to an MP in a case such as this is unacceptable.
Mr. Woodbridge realised that the Government could not get involved in the US judicial system; he did not expect us to send a gunboat to release him. He did however expect sympathy, support, clear advice and possibly some help through diplomatic channels. As his MP, I did not expect us to break off relations with the United States or the Prime Minister to pick up the hotline to President Bush, but I did expect a thorough and proactive response to a serious situation. I fear that we were both let down.
My hon. Friend the Minister will in his response not wish to be too critical of his officers, and I fully understand that. I just hope that in private, in the next day or two, someone in the Foreign Office will read my remarks, look hard at what happened and have thoughts on what should have happened.