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18 Nov 2002 : Column 480—continued

10.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) on securing this Adjournment debate and on bringing the case to the attention of the House and those who read Hansard.

I have no doubt that the past few months have been a very stressful and difficult time for Mr. Woodbridge and his family. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the response of Her Majesty's Government in the months leading up to his conviction and departure from the United States.

I should say at the outset that I accept that we did make mistakes in this case. We must apologise for three in particular. First and foremost, we should have replied much more quickly to my hon. Friend's original letter requesting our help. Secondly, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office should have been more joined up in our work on the case. Finally, we should have communicated more effectively with Mr. Woodbridge about the work that the Government were doing on his behalf, and then followed it up with him after his release from jail to ensure his health requirements were being looked after. I shall address each of those issues in due course, but first I should like to say something about what we did do for Mr. Woodbridge.

Mr. Woodbridge was arrested on 18 July 2002 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His case was not brought to our attention until the following day when his lawyer contacted our honorary consul in Minneapolis. By that time, the authorities had already contacted Mr. Woodbridge's family, and his employer had in turn arranged for a lawyer. If we had been notified sooner of his arrest by the local authorities, we would have arranged, if Mr. Woodbridge had wished, for his family to be informed. Our staff members can make contact with next of kin only after they have been informed of an arrest. In this case, the United States authorities failed to notify us before notifying Mr. Woodbridge's family.

After speaking with Mr. Woodbridge's lawyer on 19 July, the honorary consul alerted the duty officer in Chicago, which is our nearest consulate. The duty officer in Chicago tried several times to speak to Mr. Woodbridge directly, but the US authorities refused permission. Although it was not an ideal situation and consular officials would have preferred to speak to Mr. Woodbridge directly, the duty officer received assurances of Mr. Woodbridge's well-being from his lawyer as well as from staff at the jail. We have since complained to the US State Department regarding that denial of access.

The duty officer then contacted Mr. Woodbridge's son Andrew. It was through the contact with Andrew Woodbridge that the duty officer learned that Mr. Woodbridge has dietary diabetes. Mr. Woodbridge may dispute this, but the duty officer immediately alerted prison authorities to his medical condition. I am told by officials that there are telephone records from Chicago to support that communication. In addition, the duty officer was told of claims by jail authorities that Mr. Woodbridge himself would have had an opportunity to inform them of his medical condition at the time that he was taken into custody.

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On 19 July, the consulate was informed by the US Customs Service that Mr. Woodbridge was to be charged with conspiracy involving the export of US goods to Libya. The authorities planned to transfer him to the jurisdiction of the Federal district court of the southern district of Illinois, where the goods were manufactured. Around that time, Mr. Woodbridge's employer contacted our honorary consul in Minneapolis, where Mr. Woodbridge was being held. The employer sought our honorary consul's advice as to where to engage legal counsel for Mr. Woodbridge—Illinois, where the case was likely to be heard, or Minneapolis, where Mr. Woodbridge was initially being held.

The honorary consul used his personal network of contacts to arrange a conference call between himself, the former US Attorney for Minnesota, and the former US Attorney in the central district of Illinois, both leading private legal practitioners. He gathered their views and passed them on Mr. Woodbridge's employer. Here, the honorary consul was extremely helpful in using his access to those lawyers to get free advice for Mr. Woodbridge.

On 23 July, Mr. Woodbridge went before the court in Minneapolis and bail was set at $50,000. His employer paid the bond on 30 July and Mr. Woodbridge was released. On 5 August, Mr. Woodbridge contacted our consulate in Chicago and informed staff there that he was living at his employer's expense in southern Illinois and had retained local counsel.

During his telephone call, Mr. Woodbridge asked whether the consulate could recommend a doctor specialising in diabetes. Unfortunately, although we maintain doctors lists in some places in some countries, I regret to say that we do not do so for many countries in which health care is generally good and readily available, such as the United States, nor do we generally maintain doctors lists for very small municipalities, such as the one in which Mr. Woodbridge was residing. The vice-consul, therefore, advised Mr. Woodbridge to seek a referral at the nearest hospital. The vice-consul also suggested that Mr. Woodbridge might consult the local yellow pages where doctors are listed by speciality. I know that Mr. Woodbridge found this approach unsatisfactory.

On 17 August, Mr. Woodbridge sent an e-mail to the Department of Trade and Industry. I must say that the Government failed Mr. Woodbridge twice with respect to that communication. First, a DTI employee intercepted Mr. Woodbridge's message and forwarded it to a colleague, along with his opinion that the issues raised by the case were best left to Mr. Woodbridge's legal team. He advised that the DTI should not get involved. Unfortunately, the employee mistakenly sent his reply not only to his colleagues at the DTI, but to Mr. Woodbridge. He apologised to Mr. Woodbridge the next day. The entire incident was wrong and I accept that it should not have happened. I apologise to Mr. Woodbridge for what happened.

The second failure came when the same e-mail was forwarded to the Foreign Office under cover of a letter from my honourable Friend. We took far too long to respond to that letter, part of the time being spent co-ordinating our response with the DTI. I regret very much that that happened. However, Mr. Woodbridge was already on bail and living in his apartment in Illinois

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at the time of his first writing. Our tardiness, inexcusable though it was, had no bearing on Mr. Woodbridge's situation.

On 27 August, DTI officials met Mr. Woodbridge's employer and contacted the embassy in Washington. The DTI wanted to investigate whether the US may have acted extraterritorially in its pursuit of Mr. Woodbridge. In addition to seeking advice from the Department's lawyers, the DTI also asked the embassy to seek legal advice from US lawyers specialising in export control laws and extraterritoriality. Following that, officials at the embassy contacted Mr. Woodbridge's lawyer and the US Department of Commerce to discuss their detailed concerns. On the basis of these discussions, and on the advice of DTI and US lawyers, the DTI decided on 6 September that US actions were not extraterritorial. I know that there is some disagreement about that, but that is certainly the position that the DTI reached. Therefore, the Government would be unable to intervene. Mr. Woodbridge and his employer were informed the same day.

Dr. Ladyman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Mr. Woodbridge's company would never have even been involved at that stage if Minequip had not specifically asked for the goods to be shipped via Sigma. It seems most likely that Minequip was asked to do that by the US authorities, which wanted to implicate not only BIB, but Sigma. Surely, that is evidence of extraterritorial behaviour.

Mr. O'Brien: I recognise that my hon. Friend has a view about that. No doubt, Mr. Woodbridge's lawyers also have a view. All I can say is that we have taken legal advice and have an alternative view about where the law stands. Our view remains that the US actions were not extraterritorial. While I accept some of what he says about the behaviour of Mr. Woodbridge not being unlawful in this country, the situation is somewhat different in the US context. Our view was that the US actions were not extraterritorial and were lawful in the context of US law. Therefore, we were not in a position to intervene. Our consular staff were not fully aware of all the discussions at the time, however, and I accept that the Government could have been more joined up in addressing the issue.

Since then, officials have spoken to Mr. Woodbridge several times. On 8 November, he pleaded guilty to the charges against him and received three years' probation. It was stipulated in the plea agreement that Mr. Woodbridge depart the United States voluntarily by 13 November.

I am aware that Mr. Woodbridge is not happy with the way in which his case has been handled. We are always disappointed when that is the case and we aim to provide an effective consular service. The main role of the consul is to advise on local practice and ensure that UK national detainees are treated no worse than nationals from the country in which they are held.

Mr. Woodbridge was convicted of a crime in the United States, and as far as we can ascertain, his treatment was no worse than that which an American would have received in the same circumstances. As I said, there were certainly things that I would change

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about the way in which we handled the case. I am concerned about the time that it took to respond to Mr. Woodbridge's initial e-mail from my hon. Friend and about the fact that we should have been more joined up with the DTI in our various roles. Most especially, I regret very much that Mr. Woodbridge thinks that the Government did not care about him or his case.

There is clearly a limit to what consular staff can do in particular cases and circumstances. There are a limited number of staff and often a large number of demands. Sometimes, expectations are greater than can be delivered in practice, but in this case, I am satisfied that in some respects, although not all, the response was not all that I would have hoped for. Substantial help was given to Mr. Woodbridge in the handling of the case and a number of officials did their best to be as helpful to him as possible. However, in other instances, the response was not all that he had a right to demand from his Government. That is why I have set out clearly our apologies where we felt them appropriate. I hope that Mr. Woodbridge will feel that that is the sort of response that he would have expected. Where we have got it

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wrong, we have apologised and where we feel that the criticisms have been harsh, I hope that we have given an explanation.

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