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to whichever EU embassy has the best local relations.
An independent body could serve us better, offer independent advice and, perhaps as often as is needed, roll up its sleeves and get its hands dirty, all of which could be done in a way that is distanced from the embassies diplomatic role and thus not damage foreign policy.
I hope Ministers will explore both suggestions, because until the Foreign Office either extends its consular ambitionsits services are welcome, but its support would be more welcomeor finds someone who will do so for it, innocent citizens will face potentially serious problems if they travel overseas, and my four constituents will remain prisoners in their own country.
The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells):
It is a pleasure to be a part of a debate administered by your good self, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing it, with particular reference to the experiences of his
constituents. I welcome the opportunity to set out the Governments position on those cases and to explain the action that we have taken.
The hon. Gentleman ended with a rather cheap shot from a friend of his. He referred to an article that asked whom one would trust to get ones citizens out of jail: George Clooney or my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Lord Triesman, the Minister with responsibility for consular affairs, clearly answered that question in a recent letter. He said:
Much of what we do to help British nationals in difficult situations abroad is best done behind the scenes; but that doesn't make it any less important. FCO staff support 6,000 British nationals detained abroad every year, as well as 4,000 families whose loved ones die abroad and thousands of victims of theft, assault or more serious crime. We do so to standards that are set out clearlythey include a statement that we cant get you out of jail just because youre British, just as we wouldnt allow any foreign state to make the same argument for its nationals imprisoned here. We work with many of just the kind of NGOs Ms Frostrup suggests to deliver that supportsome of which we help to fund so that, as she says, they can carry out work itd be difficult to do ourselves, such as providing refuges to victims of forced marriages overseas.
I wanted to quote from Lord Triesmans letter, because, importantly, the kind of article that Ms Frostrup wrote, and the contribution from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, do a great deal to demean the tremendous efforts that Foreign Office staff throughout the world deploy to help British citizens in difficult circumstances. Ms Frostrup, in her article, contrasted the heroics of Mr. George Clooney with Foreign Office staff, who spend their time mixing
a decent gin and tonic,
as she put it. That is not just a travesty, but a slur on the name of people who work very hard for this country in very difficult conditions. We know some of them and we have seen some of the huge tragedies of recent years. Staff go to very dangerous places. I saw some of them myself just last week in Basra, Iraq, and such ignorance as was expressed in that article cannot go unanswered. The hon. Gentleman knows about the Foreign Offices good work, and I hope that he distances himself from that parody of what is done by Foreign Office officials abroad.
The hon. Gentleman described the background to his constituents cases. As he told us, Mr. John Packwood was arrested at Malaga airport on 16 October 2004 on the basis of an international arrest warrant issued by the Moroccan authorities. He was extradited to Morocco on 27 September 2005 and released from prison on 17 November 2005 after receiving a royal pardon from the King of Morocco.
Henry Stableford, another of the hon. Gentlemans constituents, was arrested in Pesaro, Italy, on 12 October 2006. He was also subject to an international arrest warrant and an extradition request issued by the Moroccan authorities. He was released on 15 November 2006 when the Moroccan authorities failed to file the extradition papers within the prescribed 30-day time limit.
I want to make it clear that consular staff visited Mr. Stableford and passed to his lawyers the contact details of the lawyers who had represented Mr. Packwood. Consular staff in London and Italy kept in regular contact with Mr. Stablefords family and with his lawyers in Italy and in the United Kingdom. During Mr. Packwoods detention, our consular staff
in Madrid, London and Rabat kept in regular contact with his lawyer and with his family in the UK. Because the case involved both the Spanish and Moroccan courts, Mr. Packwood had two legal teams representing him. We ensured that both teams had all the information they considered necessary for assisting him. We also had regular contact with Fair Trials Abroad, which took an active interest in Mr. Packwoods case.
In February 2005, consular officials in Rabat sent a diplomatic note to the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting consular access to Mr. Packwood, should extradition go ahead, and asking for information about intended legal proceedings in Morocco. We also raised concerns that Mr. Packwoods Spanish lawyer had not yet received any specific information connecting Mr. Packwood to an alleged transportation of cocaine from Morocco to Spain in 1997. A copy of that note was sent to Mr. Packwoods sister on 25 February 2005.
While Mr. Packwood was detained in Rabat, our ambassador took a close interest in the case and met Mr. Packwoods lawyer. Our ambassador, through regular contact with senior Moroccan Ministry of Justice officials, was able to secure Mr. Packwoods transfer to a more suitable prison. Mr. Packwood had a Moroccan lawyer, who enjoyed full access rights to his client. Our embassy was influential in gaining access rights for Mr. Packwoods British lawyer, despite the fact that such a right is not given automatically to lawyers who are not registered to practise in Morocco.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that there are other British citizens who are currently being held in Morocco, as there are throughout the world. He said that the number was nine, but my latest figure is six, although these things can change dramatically and he might be right. We know that about 6,000 British nationals will be held throughout the world at some time in any year, and we think that about 2,500 are being held at the moment. The figures can fluctuate, but there are a large number.
The Foreign Office also advised Mr. Packwood and his lawyers on the procedures for requesting a royal pardon and, as is customary for all such pleas, sent the request to the Moroccan authorities under cover of a letter from our ambassador.
My noble Friend Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean wrote to the hon. Gentleman in December 2004, enclosing a copy of the bilateral extradition convention between Spain and Morocco. My noble Friend confirmed that it is not within our consular remit to provide a legal opinion on the convention, but we consulted Mr. Packwoods lawyer to provide him with information about the procedure of extradition. We explained that our role was one of welfare and that we were unable to interfere in Spains judicial process. We advised that the other three crew members might wish to consider contacting Interpol in order to establish whether international arrest warrants had been issued for them. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that it is a serious matter if there have been contacts with Interpol to which it has not responded. Interpol should respond to such contacts, and I shall certainly try to find out what has happened to those requests for information.
The hon. Gentleman also wrote to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in January 2005 to request assurances on the Moroccan judicial system and ask what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could take to ensure Mr. Packwoods fair treatment in Spain and Morocco. My noble Friend Baroness Symons replied that we had no evidence of systematic or widespread miscarriages of justice in the Moroccan judicial system, and gave assurances that we would raise any justified and serious complaints about ill treatment with the relevant authorities. Baroness Symons wrote again in March 2005 in response to the hon. Gentlemans question about international arrest warrants, repeating that they were matters for Interpol.
At this point, it may be helpful to clarify what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can and cannot do for British nationals imprisoned abroad. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consular guide that was published in March 2006 entitled Support for British Nationals Abroad, a copy of which I have with me, which I should be delighted to give him after this debate. During the past 12 months, we have provided support to nearly 6,000 British nationals detained abroad. Our role is primarily a welfare one, and I must make it categorically clear that we do not interfere in the judicial systems of other countries, nor do we take up individuals claims on their behalf. We cannot get a British national out of jail because he is British, nor is the level of our assistance ever based on an assumption of guilt or innocence.
However, there are actions that we can and do take regularly in support of British nationals who are detained abroad. Complaints of mistreatment are always taken seriously by consular staff and we regularly make representations to the relevant authorities. Consular staff regularly raise a variety of issues with prison authoritiesfor example, accommodation, diet and family visits. Although we cannot interfere in legal proceedings, we can take certain actions to ensure that the rights of British nationals who face criminal proceedings abroad are protected. Consular officials cannot offer legal advice, but we can provide basic information about the local justice system, including whether legal aid is available. We can also provide a list of local lawyers and interpreters. If a trial is unreasonably delayed or does not appear to be following internationally recognised standards for a fair trial, we will consider approaching the local authorities.
As I have made clear, we cannot intervene in the judicial processes of other states, nor would we expect them to interfere in ours. However, we will sometimes seek assurances from the state that is requesting the extradition regarding welfare, trial or sentencing issues. I know that the hon. Gentleman has carefully followed
the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain in Pakistan, in which we felt strongly about the use of the death penalty. That case offers an interesting comparison, although we are considering the cases of the hon. Gentlemans constituents today.
Before we seek assurances, we take into account a number of factors. We look at the sending states extradition procedures, to assess whether they appear independent and thorough, and conform to human rights standards. We also take into account the situation in the country that is requesting extradition, including the likelihood of the prisoner receiving a fair trial, the potential punishment to be applied and any other welfare issues. We will always intervene in the extradition of a British national for an offence that might attract the death penalty in the receiving state. We will also consider intervening where there is concern that a British national may not receive a fair trial or where there is concern that he or she may be tortured.
Mr. Packwood was pardoned before his case was ever brought to trial. My legal advice tells me that there can be no automatic assumption that clemency means innocence from the Moroccan point of view. That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman complained about. Unless those people know that they are innocent, they have the threat hanging over them. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman recently, explaining that we do not hold any details surrounding the circumstances of the pardon. I assume that Mr. Packwoods legal team would be in the best position to ascertain the details of the pardon, and of the terms and conditions therein.
It has previously been suggested by the mens lawyer and the hon. Gentleman that the pardon was issued because Mr. Packwood had no case to answer. It follows, they argue, that Mr. Packwoods crew mates have no case to answer, and that the failure to rescind the arrest warrant amounts to no more than an administrative error. I reiterate that the warrant itself is a judicial process of the Moroccan criminal justice system; therefore, it is something for the hon. Gentlemans constituents legal team to address, rather than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That may irritate the hon. Gentleman, but it is a fact. The same applies to the Moroccan authorities failure to present the necessary papers for Mr. Stablefords extradition. Again, no automatic assumption can be made that that implies that the Moroccans consider Mr. Stableford to be innocent. He should continue to instruct his lawyers to pursue his case in the Moroccan courts.
The arrest warrant is subject to a judicial process of the Moroccan criminal justice system. As I have already made clear, the Foreign Office cannot interfere in the judicial systems of other countries.