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9 Dec 2002 : Column 97—continued

Mr. Swayne: I assure the hon. Gentleman that nothing would surprise me about the indolence and incompetence of such a Minister, particularly one from that party.

Matters that are properly for this House to decide are being taken from it and given to somebody else. No self-respecting legislature or free Parliament should vote for such a measure.

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8.26 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): I am generally supportive of this Bill, but it needs careful and close scrutiny, which I hope will happen in Committee. I hope that the Government will have an open mind to some of the changes that are proposed, and will be prepared to accept some of them.

When Bills that have connections with other countries come before the House, the security services often get involved, and they seem to have too much influence in comparison to the civil liberties lobby. I know that what they have to say must be taken seriously, but a balance needs to be struck between what the security services think are in their interests—or what Foreign Office civil servants think are in their interests—and the civil liberties lobby. We cannot ride roughshod over civil liberties.

On that subject, I agree with the principle outlined by the Minister that we would want crimes committed in this country by foreigners to be dealt with by our courts, so it is reasonable for crimes committed by Britons in foreign countries to be dealt with by those countries' courts. A glaring loophole exists at the moment, however, in relation to diplomatic immunity cases—the Foreign Office civil servants are still protecting their own. Foreign diplomats are not subject to the law if they commit crimes in this country, and some very serious crimes have been committed by foreign diplomats in this country and by British diplomats abroad. They have claimed diplomatic immunity, which is an anachronism. They should not be allowed that, and, if necessary, extradition should be applied to them. Given the principle that Ministers have outlined, I ask them to consider that aspect anew, and to persuade other countries, too, to rethink their approach in that respect.

I support the Bill's underlying principle of greater international judicial co-operation. A few years ago, when I was on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's economic committee, I led a delegation of parliamentarians from Europe and the United States to Interpol. There must be greater police and judicial co-operation to tackle organised crime. Police chiefs at Interpol told us that organised criminals deliberately used the boundaries between countries, the different rules and laws and even the nuances in the laws to get away with crime and to evade justice. Therefore, the principle of a European arrest warrant is okay. The shadow Home Secretary's criticism of it was unjustified.

The shadow Home Secretary tried to compare the position here with that in the United States. We are not a state of the United States; we are a member of the European Union. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to seek better arrangements with the European Union.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Even if the hon. Gentleman did not listen to the extremely detailed arguments of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), will he not consider the similar arguments advanced in the incredibly hostile report produced by the Labour-dominated Home Affairs Committee, which is led by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). If the hon. Gentleman will not listen to my right hon. Friend, surely he should listen to a Labour-dominated Committee that has considered the Bill in great detail. The hon. Gentleman

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also said that we should not ride roughshod over civil liberties, but does he not accept that Liberty, which is the main champion of civil liberties, shares all our criticisms of the proposals?

Harry Cohen: I will mention Liberty and other aspects of the Bill. I pay tribute to the Home Affairs Committee and its report. It raised very important issues. My speech will contain criticisms of the Bill and that is why I began by saying that I want it to be closely scrutinised in Committee and that I hope the Government will have an open mind about changes to it. However, I have been outlining the fundamental principles behind the Bill and my view that they are worthy and worthwhile.

My former pair, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), made an impressive speech, and I agree with certain aspects of it. He made a good point about the problems of facing a trial in a court where a different language is used. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that point. Perhaps more support should be offered to someone in those circumstances in a foreign court.

However, the hon. Gentleman made a couple of points that left me flabbergasted. In particular, he seemed to suggest that criminals could almost pick and choose the country to hide in. If every country adopted the approach that he and those on the Opposition Front Bench have taken, the criminal could go to the country that afforded him the best protection for the crime that he had committed. That runs contrary to the aim of having a general European arrest warrant that closes the loopholes that the Interpol chiefs mentioned in their comments to my delegation.

Gareth Thomas: Has my hon. Friend had the opportunity to holiday in Spain recently? I am unaware of the current position there. As he will recall, an area known as the Xcosta del crime" was of considerable concern to this country. Like me, would he be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say about that phenomenon?

Harry Cohen: Indeed, I would. The Xcosta del crime" did not do this country any favours abroad. I support better arrangements with Spain and other countries so that there is a fair extradition process.

One of the themes in the Queen's Speech was that there should be justice for the victims of serious crimes and their families. It is right that that principle should apply to victims abroad and not necessarily just to Britons. We should prevent people from evading and delaying justice by using their UK citizenship as a cover for that purpose. People do not have the right to commit crime abroad and then come back to hide in this country.

I do not support the approach that was described as a form of judicial imperialism. The law must apply both to those countries that extradite criminals to us and to this country when we extradite criminals abroad. The process must be fair and equal.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman's comment on judicial imperialism has formulated a thought in my mind. Will the Bill apply to British overseas territories or Crown territories, or is similar legislation expected?

Harry Cohen: I am not an expert on that and leave it to the Minister to respond. I think the Bill should apply

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to British overseas territories. I am not unsympathetic to the idea that people should stand trial in the country in which they committed the crime, although the language consideration is relevant.

Delays of six years have been mentioned before a decision is reached. That is too long and needs to be reduced.

Two aspects of the Conservatives' approach worry me. The first relates to the death penalty. In an article on 8 October, the leader of the Conservative party described Labour's plans not to extradite people to countries where they may face the death penalty as Xridiculous and mad", but it is not ridiculous and mad at all. The right to life is a basic human right; it is not for the state to take it away. People may be innocent or political opponents of a state. The death sentence is invariably disproportionate to the crime committed. People with mental health difficulties might be executed, as we have seen in the United States. In the period between commission of the offence and the death sentence being carried out, someone may become a changed person. We need to encourage the United States, Russia, China, Iran and others to abolish the death penalty. It is important that we never extradite anyone to a country that might pass the death sentence. The Conservatives are playing fast and loose by not making their position clear.

My second concern about the Conservatives' approach relates to xenophobia. Some hon. Members said that UK law does not cover xenophobia, and the Conservatives have used that as a reason to oppose extradition. Let us consider the appalling genocide in Rwanda. It was well known that that was incited in many ways, including in the country's media. The mass slaughter that followed was incited for xenophobic reasons. A person who incited such violence could come to this country without the Government's knowledge and be allowed to stay. Indeed, that has happened. Provided that all the rules come into play, including the policy of no death sentence, it would be proper for the Government to extradite someone who incited such murder—it was a holocaust, really—in order that they may face justice. It would not be unreasonable in those circumstances for xenophobia to be taken into account or at least considered when an extradition request is made.

I have some concerns and criticisms. I want an assurance that mental and physical health will be taken into account before extradition is granted. If it is not, that itself could be an oppressive punishment, or could add to such a punishment.

Liberty makes three good points. One is that British citizens could be extradited for offences that are not crimes in the United Kingdom. The test should be that where there is no offence in this country when set against what is being requested for extradition by another country, extradition should not take place. However, where there is a similar offence—what I would describe as nuances in different laws—that should be reason enough for the extradition process to be allowed. I do not know exactly how that would be worked out, but I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to adopt that approach in such cases.

Secondly, Liberty goes on to say that the process should apply only to serious offences to guard against thousands of individuals being sent abroad for minor or

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trivial offences. I agree. The threshold for the extradition procedure is too low. Twelve months has been mentioned, and the Minister referred to three years, but even three years is too low. We do not want the procedure to apply to many thousands of people, either way. It should apply only to the most serious crimes.

Thirdly, Liberty says that the list of offences that can give rise to extradition is too vague and too wide, and includes unacceptably ambiguous offences such as computer-related crime. That is a good point. The list should be much more specific. Computers are still relatively new, as are the applications for using them. Those who use computers may engage in some form of criminality, and may even know that they are doing so, but that should not mean that the extradition process will automatically kick in. The Government should be much more specific.

There have been some cases of people hacking into the Pentagon computer. I do not know how serious the breaches were, but the United States obviously regarded them as serious. If they could have started world war three, they were certainly serious, but they may not have been so serious as to warrant people being extradited to the United States, perhaps to suffer a harsh punishment. Such matters could have been dealt with easily in the United Kingdom, and that should be considered.

There are three other points to be made. —[Interruption.] I am making genuine points; I am not waffling. If I am upsetting Opposition Members, I shall make them quickly. I thought that they would like my points because I am making criticisms. First, the United States has denied civil liberties at Guantanamo bay. Military law applies there and defendants are not allowed an independent defence. The United States is detaining people without trial and is ignoring the Geneva convention. The shadow Home Secretary praised the US and said that we should have an agreement with it. However, I bet that he would not support sending someone back to a country just to face military action—that is what we would be doing by extraditing people to Guantanomo bay. We should not do so—the United States is out of line with international standards on civil liberties. It is not right that people should be extradited to a country if it imposes military law on them and does not comply with the Geneva convention.

Secondly, the Government have produced a Green Paper on mercenaries and legislation will be introduced in future—they may even be legitimised. Mercenaries carry out killings and it would be unreasonable to grant an exception in extradition law so that they can do so without facing extradition or any justice at all. They may start or be involved in a war or civil war against the UK's proclaimed policy, and should not be allowed special concessions. We will see how the legislation turns out after the consultation, but it must be linked to existing extradition measures.

Finally, the Secretary of State's involvement in political cases is excessive. He should intervene less and the judiciary should be involved more—we should examine those cases under a proper judicial process. It is wrong for political considerations to drive extradition. I note that the exception for political offences, which provides a defence of political motivation, is to be abolished. However, that defence is still needed. People

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may commit a criminal act. For example, some of those who fought against apartheid in South Africa committed criminal offences, and some of the people resisting the Zimbabwean regime now may be committing criminal offences. However, they probably had, or have, a political motive and reasons that we would otherwise support for doing so. The defence is still needed, although I accept that there must be a balance between consideration of the criminal act and someone's political motivation. I do not favour getting rid of the political offence exception altogether.

I hope that the Government will consider those points carefully in Committee and at later stages in the Bill's consideration. I hope that they will take some of my criticisms on board and amend the Bill accordingly.

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