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Standing Committee D
Thursday 16 January 2003
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
The Chairman: I welcome hon. Members to the next sitting of the Committee on this cold and frosty morning. I do not object to hon. Gentlemen removing their jackets if they so wish, although it is not the warmest of Rooms.
Clauses 141 to 146 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): An issue arises about length of sentence, which we have already debated. However, this clause relates to the other side of the coin: that is, extradition to, not from, the United Kingdom. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) pointed out, there have been far fewer objections about this part. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats accept the need to speed up extradition proceedings and make them more efficient. We have no difficulty with that, as we said on Second Reading. We accept that there are tremendous advantages to being able to extradite back to the United Kingdom those people who have managed to get to another state but who should be facing a British court. We strongly support that law and order measure. Nevertheless, the question remains: what is the appropriate length of sentence to enable someone to be extradited? I merely probe the Minister, and am not seeking to strike out the clause.
We discussed whether it should be a sentence of three years' imprisonment, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs suggested in its remarks on extradition from the UK to a requesting state. Subsection (1) proposes 12 months. The provisions in subsections (4) and (5) refer to four months. It is therefore appropriate to question the Minister on the matter. I know that he will refer again to what has already existed in extradition law. I must make it clear that the Opposition are not trying to water down the Bill, but to question the Minister and discuss the matter with him. The Opposition are generally in favour of what the Bill proposes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) has repeatedly said, there have been great abuses of the system by people able to delay proceedings. We do not want those who have committed serious offences to be able to hide out in the so-called costa del crime in Spain or Italy and avoid justice in this country. However, it is right to at least probe the Minister, and I look forward to his response.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The Liberal Democrats had an earlier amendment that the
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one-year term be deleted and replaced with three years, which is the appropriate period under the framework decision. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said, we are now considering this matter the other way round. It would have been logical for us to table an amendment that, in subsection (1)(b), deleted ''12 months'' and inserted ''three years''.
There are several reasons why we have not done that. One is that we would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the offences for which he envisages the UK Government seeking extradition, in cases for which there would be detention for a term of 12 months to three years. I hope that the Minister will not only describe for us and the Committee the offences that the Home Office envisages, but explain the logic behind the choice of twelve months. We would also like to know what discussions Ministers have had on those matters with other parties to the framework decision.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The clause defines the conduct or offences for which we would issue a part 3 warrant. As we made clear earlier, issuing a warrant under this part can only be made to category 1 territories.
As the hon. Gentlemen accepted, the definitions mirror those in part 1 relating to the threshold, and therefore are consistent with them. I agree with the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon—or rather the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett): I do not wish to make any territorial claims over his neighbouring constituencies on his behalf—that it would have been logical, having argued so strongly that there ought to be a three-year threshold for extradition from the UK, for him to table an amendment suggesting that such a threshold would be appropriate for extradition to the UK. It is for him to explain why he did not do that.
Mr. Hawkins: That is a little cheeky—I do not know whether that is parliamentary language, Miss Begg—because I made it clear in my opening remarks that we wanted to explore the same issue that we have already debated at length. It seemed to us to be unnecessary to re-table exactly the same amendments for this part of the Bill. However, I wanted to explore the issues in a more moderate way, without trying to water down the Bill, so the Minister should respond in the same spirit in which the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon and I spoke earlier.
Mr. Ainsworth: Cheeky is good—I will accept cheeky. The hon. Gentleman should not be so touchy—I was not speaking to him at the time.
The definitions mirror those in part 1 and are consistent with them. If Opposition Members have problems with those thresholds, I hope that they will accept the principle that we should be able to make requests regarding conduct that occurs either on our territory or in areas over which the UK takes extra-territorial jurisdiction. That principle has already operated for some considerable time.
I have not come to the Committee armed with a list of offences. I am sure that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, with his background in legal practice, knows
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what offences would fall above the one-year threshold and below the three-year threshold. I said during the previous debate that crimes that attract a prison sentence of more than 12 months are serious matters. We do not lock people away for a period in excess of 12 months, or threaten to do so, for trivial matters. We—and current extradition legislation—set the threshold by saying that offences of a minor nature make extradition procedures inappropriate. That guiding principle justifies not raising the 12-month threshold, and I see no reason to abandon it. If we did, the same provisions would apply to dual criminality cases and those falling within the generic list where the dual criminality test does not apply.
Mr. Burnett: The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was right that we both sought to probe the Minister in order to understand the logic of his argument. We should like some empirical examples of the offences that he wants to tackle. That is only reasonable. We do not have thousands of civil servants—an able and conscientious army—working for us, so we need him to lighten our darkness and explain his point. We could then judge the matter on its merits.
Mr. Ainsworth: I sought to engage with the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon in debating the principle of whether, having set a 12-month threshold, we should seek extradition requests for offences falling below that threshold. We could produce a list of offences with terms falling between one and three years, but let us first debate the principle. Our principle is that for trivial offences it is not administratively sensible to seek to return someone from a jurisdiction abroad, but if the offences are serious enough, we should go through that process in the interests of justice. That means framing our laws at a threshold that will allow it.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has been clear about his threshold, particularly for part 1—terrorism alone. He faces many definitional problems, as we sought to explain. It is extraordinary that outside the context of this debate the Conservatives want much tighter arrangements—we are supposedly letting down the British public at a time of serious threats to the nation—but in the context of our extradition arrangements they want to impose a completely unworkable threshold. They want part 1 provisions to apply only to terrorist offences and not to other serious offences, but we highlighted the need to establish the motives behind a crime in order to do so. The principle of our threshold is clear. For offences of a trivial nature, it is not worth going through the administrative rigmarole of returning a person from abroad. If the crime is serious enough, we should do so. I would like to hear a detailed explanation of what other principle we should be applying.
Mr. Hawkins: I shall return to that later—the Minister will have noticed that we tabled some new clauses that can be debated after clause 193, so I hope that he can hold his fire—but I want to intervene on another brief point. It would be helpful to my hon. Friends the Members for Stratford-on-Avon and for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who are not lawyers, to see the
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list that the Minister said could be produced. In fact, all members of the Committee would find it useful to have a list of offences with terms falling, as the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon said, between 12 months and three years. I am more familiar with how the criminal law operates, but others would find it useful.
I am more concerned to hear from the Minister whether the arrangements over the four-months threshold exactly mirror the current legislation or whether there have been any changes. As I have said repeatedly, the Bill is a complete replacement of existing extradition law.
Mr. Ainsworth: The arrangements are exactly the same as those laid out in current legislation. We need to think seriously about lowering the threshold. This provision applies if someone has been convicted and imprisoned abroad and escaped with four months or more of their sentence remaining. If someone has been prepared to extradite such a person in order for them to serve that sentence or to seek their extradition to the UK for them to continue to serve their sentence here, that is the level set at present. These arrangements mirror the present arrangements. They neither tighten nor loosen them, and I have not heard an argument that we should do so on conviction cases, or that we should do so as a matter of principle with regard to the 12-month limit.
It would be easier for us to come up with a list of offences under this clause, because it relates to UK law. If members of the Committee believe it would be useful, I will issue a list of offences that would attract a sentence of more than 12 months and less than three years, and distribute it to the Committee. The Opposition need to consider the issue of principle about where we set the threshold. We believe that it is set right at present—it was good enough for the Conservative Government, so it is good enough for us, and we see no reason to loosen it—yet there are some vague arguments that we are supposed to consider.