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9 Dec 2002 : Column 71—continued

6.30 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): I speak as a lawyer—a former lawyer, I should stress—and I aspire to the humbleness to which the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) referred. When one approaches the issue as a former lawyer, it is important to be aware of one's current responsibilities to represent one's constituents. While there is always the temptation to become enmeshed in legal argument when dealing with such legislation, there is also always a requirement to look at the big picture concerning the enforcement of the law in respect of serious criminal offences which are borne from abroad into our country and also to consider the attitude of our constituents to such offences and the way in which the law operates against them.

I welcome the Bill in general terms, and I welcome one aspect of it that has not yet been mentioned. In general terms, I do not like politicians being intimately involved in the judicial process. That concept has had its day. The Home Secretary has on a number of occasions encountered difficulties in the courts in recent times, on subjects such as mandatory life sentences. As a former lawyer and now a politician, I believe that it is better for criminal justice cases to be dealt with, as much as possible, in the criminal courts. I have confidence in the existing judicial process, and I believe that the Bill contains substantial safeguards that would enable our judiciary to exercise discretion in favour of any individual whose human rights it considered were being substantially interfered with by the Act, as it would then be.

Ross Cranston: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about politicians not being involved in judicial decisions. Of course, when the Home Secretary exercises

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that jurisdiction, he acts in a quasi-judicial way, but that still means that he can be subject to criticism. I agree with my hon. Friend. The point has not been mentioned and it is valuable.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. The intricacies and traps that exist in a quasi-judicial process were fully exhibited in the Pinochet case, which caused all sorts of judicial and ministerial problems at the time. Such a situation should be avoided as far as possible in the future.

I am conscious that we are discussing heartfelt individual rights, and it is important that those rights are always taken very seriously by all hon. Members. I know that there are Members, particularly Opposition Members, who have taken that view for many years, both in government and in opposition. I respect that viewpoint, but I believe that the legislation will provide the necessary safeguards, although in certain respects it can be improved.

We must accept that the extradition system is outmoded. It is largely the child of the 19th century—we have heard reference to legislation from 1870. It is based on the concept that the British criminal justice system is inherently superior to any other criminal justice system that has ever existed or still exists. When I was preparing for the debate, I had in mind the type of attitude exhibited by Lord Palmerston in the Don Pacifico case, and that impression was reinforced by some of the interventions and references from the Opposition today. I am glad that I looked out the statement in which Lord Palmerston, in a five-hour address to the House back in 1850, said:

[Hon. Members: XHear, hear."] I sensed that that would be the reaction from Opposition Members, but I think that we have moved on from that attitude. I find it surprising that the Opposition consider the criminal justice system in this country to be perfect. There have been substantial miscarriages of justice in recent years, which must cast doubt upon the strength of our system. There are good arguments to support the contention that certain aspects of systems in various parts of Europe are better than ours. We can respect other criminal justice systems in Europe, and build a sensible extradition system on the basis of mutual respect and mutual recognition.

Simon Hughes: I accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition entirely, but does he accept that the evidence shows that we cannot generalise? Some of the other EU countries are unexceptionable and have all the safeguards that we would wish, but those who practise regularly in courts in those countries and in the UK note that certain countries, of which Belgium and France are two, do not have the same level of safeguards. There are regular problems. We must therefore be clear about the generality and note where the standards do not rise to the level that we would expect as minimum legal requirements for our citizens.

Ian Lucas: In any system of justice, one must be watchful and always safeguard the rights of the

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individuals whose liberty is in question in the courts. I do not believe that the British criminal justice system is inherently superior to any other system in Europe. In a modern world we need to devise an extradition system that is responsive to the needs of our country and of our constituents.

I am conscious that in the debate today, we have heard little about international crime, which is an issue of profound concern to many of my constituents in Wrexham, in north Wales. Those people are worried about international trafficking in class A drugs. Given that we have an extradition system that is still based largely on concepts from the late 19th century, when it was rare indeed for my constituents to travel to England—mine is a border constituency, 5 miles from the border—we ought to be considering ways of improving the system to ensure that it is responsive to international organised trafficking and crime at a level that is unprecedented in our history.

At times like this, as a former lawyer, I try to become a politician. Although I have concerns that have been bred into me through my training, I must also listen to the concerns that I hear from my constituents—the anxiety about serious crime and the threat to their children from the blight of drugs in their community. As always in these matters, one must exercise a degree of balance. It is difficult to do so, particularly when one is dealing with the individual liberties of anyone who appears before the courts.

I am sure that in Committee, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), whom I know well, will listen carefully to all the matters put to him, and will respond to them in due course with well reasoned and well considered arguments.

I welcome the fact that the procedure is a judicial procedure and that it will be swift. The Minister referred to the time and expense that the current procedure involves for the criminal justice system. In the context of the Criminal Justice Bill, that money could be better spent on assisting drug addicts, better sentencing or improving our court structure than on antiquated, protracted and technical extradition procedures. Although I have some concerns, I welcome the general thrust of the Bill in that regard.

I commend the way in which the Bill has been considered to date and greatly welcome the publication of draft legislation, which allows points to be made and will lead to a general improvement in legislation. I understand that the Bill has been considered by the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, the Select Committee on European Scrutiny, a European Standing Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Select Committee on Home Affairs. We are still at a stage at which not everyone is happy, even on the Labour Benches, with every aspect of the provisions, but I am sure that that process has improved them. The scrutiny will continue, as I am sure will the improvement.

Simon Hughes: There was a lot of scrutiny and the publication of the draft Bill was welcome, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand the concern felt by many of us that we still have a procedure of accountability that serves us poorly. The Under-

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Secretary knows that Ministers end up presenting proposals to Committees several months after they have been debated and when there may have been significant changes, and that there is nothing that we can do about it.

Ian Lucas: I am sure that the Government are aware of that problem, which needs to be addressed. None the less, I think that they believe in increased scrutiny. For example, I do not believe that any Government who contemplated reducing scrutiny would introduce draft legislation. We all agree that that is an exceptionally good innovation and that it will lead to better legislation in due course.

I mentioned that I had some concerns about the Bill. My major concerns are twofold. First, the list of individual offences that has been mentioned is not set out in the Bill. I would like to be satisfied that, if the list were to be extended, there would be due opportunity to consider the matter and ensure proper scrutiny.

Secondly, I am unhappy about the provisions relating to the death penalty—an issue about which I feel very strongly on a moral basis and, speaking as somebody who has been intimately involved with the courts professionally, as a result of the failures of the judicial process. Indeed, many such cases have been a matter of public record. I cannot feel comfortable with the clause 91 provisions on the death penalty and the written assurance that is to be given to the Secretary of State. There are compelling arguments for the view of the Home Affairs Committee that no country that has the death penalty should be admitted to category 1. I would be very uneasy in any circumstances about the extradition of any individual to a country that maintained the death penalty.

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