Extradition Bill

[back to previous text]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Before the hon. Gentleman goes on to that issue, I must point out that extradition is not possible for offences that do not carry a 12-month sentence, as he knows. Is that not de minimis? Where would he set the threshold? How else would he define triviality other than by the length of sentence carried by an offence that is alleged to have been committed?

Mr. Hawkins: It is difficult to set a specific limit when we do not know how the legal systems of all the other countries will work. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon just said sotto voce, 12 months is the maximum sentence that someone could receive in theory. The problem is that, even under United Kingdom law, the maximum sentence might be set at 12 months for a defendant who is appearing before the UK courts in ordinary circumstances and who is not subject to extradition. All of us, especially those who practise in the courts, know that people who are convicted of such a crime usually receive no more than a small fine.

I do not believe that the Minister will want to hang his hat on the argument that we will extradite every British citizen who might face a charge just because the

Column Number: 215

maximum sentence available is 12 months in some foreign jurisdiction. The term should be three years, as the Opposition suggest and as the Labour-dominated Select Committee strongly recommended. That would be our primary approach to the extradition of people from this country, and would be some safeguard. We would also give the Secretary of State the discretion to state that an offence was trivial, even if it carried a maximum sentence of three years under some strange foreign jurisdiction.

I referred to cases that Robert Roscoe, the specialist extradition solicitor, drew to our attention, in which people were extradited under the current law for offences that were later deemed to be so trivial that they were released without charge and were able to return. The Government went through all the expense of arrest and extradition. That was under the current law, so there is concern about the need for a de minimis threshold. We contend that it should be three years in the main part of the Bill, but the Secretary of State should have a residual discretion. We are trying to put that back. I do not think that unreasonable, and I hope that the Government will consider it seriously.

The next point is about political reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon uses the very good example of Pinochet. That case involved a request not from a Chilean magistrate—a magistrate from the country where the crimes were alleged to have been committed—but from one of our European Union partners, a Spanish magistrate called Garzon. I think it bizarre that someone in another country should request, even under our current law, that the United Kingdom arrest someone for alleged crimes in a third country that is not a European country and that is on another continent.

I was very critical at the time, and have been ever since, of a range of decisions that the then Home Secretary, who is now the Foreign Secretary, took in that case. I think that I know why there was that knee-jerk reaction against this man whom we all demonstrated against as students. Some who are now Cabinet Ministers were student activists, and I remember from when I was at university all the demonstrations led by the left against Chile and Pinochet. Someone said, ''Senator Pinochet is in the UK for medical treatment. We've got to do something about him. He's a bad man.'' That is the reason for the knee-jerk reaction to put him under house arrest. It cost my local police authority in Surrey a fortune, which in the end was taxpayers' money down the drain.

Our concern is that the Bill opens up a great deal more opportunity for people who have been Heads of State, Ministers or even officials, as my hon. Friend said, to be arrested on a political basis. However much I disagree with Labour Ministers, I do not think that any Minister properly carrying out his or her functions should be open years later to the risk of being arrested—[Interruption.] The Minister says, ''Oh, come on,'' but I am trying to protect him. Who knows? In the next reshuffle, he might be transferred

Column Number: 216

to the Foreign Office. I am sure that he would do a very good job there, hard-working as he is.

We can all smile about that, but there is a very serious point. During the fighting in former Yugoslavia it was suggested by many people, not least Milosevic—he said it again in his war crimes trial—that those who should be put on trial were not people such as Milosevic, but the western leaders. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility for a magistrate or judicial authority, using a bizarre procedure such as the one in Italy that I have described, to request a warrant against a UK political leader, as Magistrate Garzon did against Pinochet. We want to retain a wider discretion.

The Minister must think about how much taxpayers' money could be wasted to deal with a formal request from a Greek magistrate for an arrest warrant against a British Minister. That is not a matter to dismiss with a smile, as the Minister seems to; it is a serious point, and I hope that he will take it more seriously than he seems to have done so far.

My final point is very important: it is about unconscionable delay. Again, I refer to the cases such as those to which the extradition solicitor Robert Roscoe drew our attention and to which I referred earlier. I shall not repeat them, but in a number of cases there have been huge delays. If such delays had affected someone in the constituency of any member of the Committee, they would regard them as leading to manifest injustice. Whether the Italian or the Belgian courts are involved—those two have caused problems in the past under the existing law—if there has been a huge delay in the request for extradition, the Secretary of State should surely have an unconscionable delay discretion. That is what the third of our new clauses would provide.

I have taken time to set out my position, but I hope that I have made an important series of points and that the Minister will take them seriously. I know that he cannot give detailed responses today to all the details that I have given of the Italian procedure, but I hope that he will respond to all those concerns seriously. Even if he cannot accept our new clauses as they stand, I hope that he will at least give continuing thought to whether the Government might introduce something along those lines on Report or in another place, because it is very important to have something like those provisions in the Bill. I rather suspect that, particularly in another place, where there are many distinguished lawyers who are able to comment on this, they will share some of the concerns about dual criminality and the safeguard against abuses that the Home Affairs Committee set out in paragraph 31 of its report. Unless the Minister is able to address all those matters, he will have problems in another place. I believe that by the time the Bill becomes an Act, it will include something to take account of delay, political reasons and de minimis. I hope that the Minister will take that seriously.

Mr. Burnett: I do not want to dwell too long on this matter, but that is not to belittle its importance. I strongly commend to the Minister the wise words of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon and the

Column Number: 217

compelling arguments from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. None of us in the Opposition—I include my Liberal Democrat colleagues, and colleagues in the Conservative party—are being xenophobic. We seek to bring to bear on the Bill a measure of equity and justice.

I am indebted to an outstandingly good organisation, Fair Trials Abroad, for a briefing on the issue of manifest injustice and on retaining the Secretary of State's discretion, not just in this matter but, as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon rightly said, for reasons of national security.

I hope that the Minister has read work by Fair Trials Abroad. It is, apparently, a unique organisation concerned with the rights of European Union citizens to due process in the administration of justice abroad. It is particularly concerned with the implementation of current law, and any proposed changes to domestic or international law or practice that might have adverse effects for EU citizens facing trial in a foreign country.

Fair Trials Abroad has years of experience of criminal advocacy through the combined experience of its lawyers. It has accumulated experience from the monitoring of and involvement in many hundreds of cases involving European citizens without access to justice during criminal procedures abroad, and through comprehensive investigations into specific issues of fair trials. It continues to draw on that experience of monitoring and actual involvement in trials. Thus, when Fair Trials Abroad refers to the plight of the foreigner, the plight of individuals sought for extradition, or its experience in trials abroad, it is incumbent on all of us to learn from those experiences.

We have discussed at length some of the more nebulous offences in the list of 32, and have focused particularly on xenophobia and racism. Not the least of the problems that the foreigner faces in the legal systems of the European Union are xenophobia and racism, which occur all too frequently. There are not many references to the ugly side of criminal justice in a debate on judicial standards. However, I would like to put forward one or two arguments that I believe the Minister should hear. I shall not be anti-French, anti-Spanish or anti-Belgian in the examples to which I shall refer. They are drawn from the experience of Fair Trials Abroad, and I cite them as evidence of the pitfalls to which individuals in this country could be subject.

In Belgium, a young black British mother was travelling with an acquaintance she had met while in Bonn. They had met at an embassy reception, when she had been staying in Bonn on a short holiday as the guest of a kinsman, who was an ambassador to Germany. On passing through passport control at the entrance to the Eurostar terminal in Brussels, her companion was stopped. It transpired that she was travelling on a false passport. The Briton was immediately charged with people-trafficking, and in due course convicted and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 21 January 2003