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Benefits Payment

19. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): How many benefit recipients have applied for (a) a Post Office card account and (b) a basic bank account. [123539]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): As of 27 June 2003, 450,000 customers have requested a Post Office card account. Almost 2 million customers have provided their bank account details. We do not differentiate between basic and current accounts when collecting

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account details from customers. I am today placing in the Library the latest key figures on progress towards conversion to direct payment.

Mr. Robathan : I think that it was before the hon. Gentleman took up his post that we had a debate on this issue during which the Minister for Pensions specifically stated that people were not being harassed into taking a basic bank account or having their payments made into their current card account. The very next day, I got a letter from a constituent who said, "I am 83 years old and I am being harassed not to take a Post Office card account." Will the Under-Secretary ensure that people have genuine choice, are allowed to have a Post Office

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card account if they wish, and are not compelled to have some other form of automated credit transfer payment?

Mr. Pond: As the hon. Gentleman knows, 450,000 people have taken Post Office card accounts up. Half of all pensioners have already applied for one, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions said a few moments ago. We are giving people genuine choices between a Post Office card account and a clearing bank account or a basic bank account. I shall be happy to consider the case that he suggests, but we want to ensure that people receive payment at the post office and on a weekly basis, if they wish. We are giving people genuine choices.

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British Nationals (Guantanamo Bay)

3.30 pm

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) to ask his urgent question, I wish to make it clear that it is a narrowly focused question about UK nationals in Guantanamo bay. Supplementary questions should be brief and limited to the matter raised in it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the continued detention and trial of the two UK nationals in Guantanamo bay and what he proposes to do to safeguard their interests.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin): On 3 July, the United States designated six detainees, including two British nationals held at Guantanamo bay, as eligible for trial under a military commission. We have strong reservations about the military commission. We have raised, and will continue to raise them energetically with the US. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, about that over the weekend and will speak to him again in the next few days.

So far, neither of the detainees has been charged. However, we have made it clear to the US that we expect the process to fulfil internationally accepted standards of a fair trial. We will follow the process carefully.

The US is aware of our fundamental opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. If there is any suggestion that the death penalty might be sought in these cases, we would raise the strongest possible objections.

Mr. Hogg: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, and I acknowledge that he has always shown a great interest in cases where there may be a miscarriage of justice.

Does the Minister share my concern for the plight of Mr. Begg and Mr. Abbasi? Under what law and in respect of what offences are they to be charged and tried? Is it correct that they are to stand trial before a military court? Will the trial take place in closed session? Does the tribunal have the power to impose the death penalty? Is it correct that there is no right of appeal outside the military process? Will the military choose the defence team?

What steps have the British Government taken to ensure that the men are tried for offences known to the law and before courts of usual competence in such matters? What steps have been taken to protect their civil rights? Does the Minister agree that the Americans' proposals are wrong, potentially unjust and gravely damaging to their reputation?

Mr. Mullin: As I hope I have made clear, we share the concerns that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and others have raised.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked under what law the men would be charged. We understand that "designation" means that the persons concerned

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are subject to the order that governs military commissions and can now be charged and prosecuted. However, that is not automatic and we understand that matters will proceed on a case-by-case basis.

We are still seeking information about the conduct of any trial. Indeed, we continue to express strong views about the way in which we hope that a trial will be conducted. The same applies to the right of appeal.

We understand that the Americans will nominate the defence lawyers in some way. We are seeking further information about that, too. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go into much detail, but many aspects are a cause of concern to us and we intend to pursue them all.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): As someone whose loathing of terrorism is second to none, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that there is bound to be considerable concern in this country over how those two British citizens are to be tried by a military tribunal, and even more so at his mention of how the defence counsel is almost certainly to be appointed by the authorities? Should not the United States listen very closely and heed the concern of a close ally? I hope that it will do so, because the United States requires all the friends it can get.

Mr. Mullin: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We hope that the United States will listen closely to the representations that he and others have made. Perhaps I should say that, in our view, it is strongly in the interests of the United States that these trials be conducted in a credible and transparent fashion, because that obviously will affect the respect in which the United States is held throughout the world.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): We must never lose sight of the terrible atrocities committed on 11 September 2001. All terrorists associated with those and other acts of international terrorism must be brought to justice, but that justice must be beyond reproach and match the highest possible international standards. The treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo bay falls well short of that. They have no legal status, the conditions in which they are kept are condemned by human rights groups, and British citizens are to be subject to a military tribunal which can impose the death penalty.

The Minister says that he has strong reservations. Surely people have the right to expect more than that. Does he believe that if the tables were reversed, the United States would even begin to tolerate such a situation for its citizens? Will he confirm the date when the Prime Minister last raised these matters with the President of the United States, and whether he has summoned the American ambassador to explain the situation? Will he tell us why the Foreign Secretary's stated preference for a repatriation of the UK citizens to try them here has been rebuffed, and what further steps he intends to take?

Mr. Mullin: As regards the conditions in which all those prisoners are held, the Prime Minister has, on a number of occasions, made it clear that he regards the situation in Guantanamo bay as unsatisfactory. He has

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indeed raised it with the Americans. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman precise dates off the top of my head, but as I said in my statement, the matter was last raised with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, over the weekend. It will be raised again repeatedly, I anticipate.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on securing this urgent question. I say to the Minister, for whom I have great respect, that I am surprised that the Foreign Secretary has not seen fit to come to answer this question when he was well enough to appear in Downing street this morning to defend the Government on another issue.

No one has been a stronger supporter of the war against terrorism than me, but as I said in last Thursday's debate in the House, there is now considerable public unease at what is happening in Guantanamo bay. We know that two British detainees are to face the tribunals. Last Thursday, I raised a number of serious questions in the debate, but I failed to get an answer. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary again on Friday, asking the same questions. I have not received a reply. Some have been raised again by my right hon. and learned Friend. May I raise one or two more?

What does the Minister understand to be the agreed format for bringing charges and for the subsequent trials of those detained at Guantanamo bay? Has any allowance been made for the fact that these are British citizens and British nationals? Will the tribunals proceed in public at any stage? Is he satisfied that the American military can provide an unbiased defence for those British nationals? What redress will be available to those who, I hope, may be released without charge in due course for spending time in Guantanamo Bay?

I say to the Minister, again with all respect, that his answer to the original question is unsatisfactory and that, after 17 months, there must be more precise details available to the House about how the tribunals will take place. We are told that the Government have been making representations to the American Government, but we need a detailed report on the extent of those representations and what their results have been.

We have accepted that in dealing with serious matters of terrorism force is sometimes necessary, and changes in rules and procedures are required, but we have always insisted that the rule of law must apply. Can the Minister assure us that that remains the case?

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