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The Government and almost all other western signatories to the convention take that to mean “a real risk” of torture. When Ministers have written to me on the subject, they have always used that phrase. A “real risk” means a significant risk. Laymen might take that to invite the question, “Would a reasonable man take that risk if he thought that he might be tortured?”, to which the answer is clearly no.

The US Administration, on the other hand, have placed a reservation on their acceptance of that part of the torture convention. They take the UN convention’s stipulations to prohibit rendition only when the risk of torture is more likely than not. That is how they have got off the legal hook. They would argue that they acknowledge that there might be a risk of torture when they transport a person to Egypt, for example, but that if the risk is less than 50 per cent., they are not in breach of the convention. It is on such legal casuistries that rendition has been allowed to take root in one of the world’s leading democracies.

The US Administration add a second qualification to their obligations in their definition of what constitutes acceptable treatment. It is widely documented that in extra-territorial US bases, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, hypothermia and sensory deprivation have been widely used. Indeed, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 has further entrenched the legality of some of those techniques. The US Assistant Attorney-General, Jay Bybee, has further narrowed the definition of torture to mean only that which involves suffering equivalent in intensity to the pain of organ failure or death. As a Congressman has pointed out to us, both those qualifications bring shame on America and on the west.

When I ask Ministers questions about British involvement, I get the same answers in the same form of words. It is important to rehearse those once more. The Government say that they would “expect” the US authorities

and that they

Privately, and sometimes publicly, members of the US Administration vigorously point out that the UK has benefited from information obtained from renditions, and suggest that we are being pussy-footed and mealy-mouthed about the whole thing. Referring to rendition and possible maltreatment, Colin Powell said on television a year and a half ago that

George Bush has gone further by saying that intelligence gathered from renditions has thwarted attacks on Canary Wharf and Heathrow airport. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether that is the Government’s view.

How much is Britain involved? We simply do not know, and I suspect that the Minister does not know either.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on what is an important issue. Does he agree that some of our constituents are dismayed that Britain might be complicit
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in such atrocities? There have been many reports that airports in the UK, particularly in Scotland, such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Prestwick, have been used for rendition flights. Does he agree that it would perhaps be useful for those airports to adopt anti-rendition policies similar to Derry airport’s, because that would give our constituents some peace of mind that we are not partaking of this horrific activity?

Mr. Tyrie: I strongly agree with those sentiments. If I get the chance later, I shall talk about some of the proposals that the all-parliamentary group has put forward to tackle the problem which, incidentally, build on proposals put forward by a Minister.

I said that I did not believe that the Minister knew all the facts, and I am reasonably confident about that. I hope that the Security and Intelligence Committee may be able to delve further and to retrieve more information. More than one year ago, the all-party group vigorously pressed the Committee to initiate an inquiry. I am pleased to say that it has done so, and that it has been working on the issue for some time. I have given oral and written evidence to the inquiry, and made the latter available to the public and to the Government. The Committee’s report may not be conclusive, but it will make an important contribution to finding out the truth.

Although the Committee is better than nothing, we need to bear it in mind that it is a relatively new Committee and that it is still finding its feet in difficult territory. The fact that it does not have the investigative powers of a Select Committee, still less the powers of a United States congressional committee, is a problem. Also, it reports to the Prime Minister, who may redact its conclusions. I was particularly perturbed by the Committee’s recent decision to sack its investigative officer rather than replace him. A Committee without such an officer will find it more difficult to perform its function to a level at which the public will have confidence that it has got to the bottom of the issues that it investigates.

I am sure of one thing on the issue of what has really happened: it is extremely implausible that the information provided by the Government, which the Minister will no doubt rehearse, represents the full extent of our involvement. In support of that, it is worth setting out the chronology. When challenged initially, the Government said that they had no knowledge of any renditions. Later, they identified two renditions, plus a couple of applications that they refused. Still later, they identified at least one more informal request.

Dr. Howells indicated dissent.

Mr. Tyrie: The Minister is welcome to intervene on that. In addition to that, there is an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence that UK airports have been used for rendition, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said. The Council of Europe report provided some of the extensive circumstantial evidence on the issue.

It is hardly surprising that we have such little written information to go on, and that the Minister has so little straw with which to make bricks. In a written statement, the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon.
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Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), made it clear that what little we know has come from officials’ personal recollections and that scarcely any documentation has been retained. In my view, that is wholly unacceptable.

Worse still, the Government have still not put in place a mechanism for ensuring that renditions do not take place in future. Nor have they reassured us that proper records will be kept. On the contrary, we are supposed to rely on assurances that the US Administration will make a request if they want to fly someone through the UK, and we are expected to leave it at that.

The truth—it will out, as it does in most democracies—is that the Government have almost certainly turned a blind eye to rendition. They have been determined not to allow a cigarette paper to come between them and their US ally, but Ministers are under no illusion that that is causing deep embarrassment. That was made clear in a leaked memo a little while ago, which suggested that whenever the subject is discussed the Minister concerned should do his best to move the discussion on to wider issues of UK participation in the war against terror. I do not have the leaked memo to hand, but if he wants to challenge me on it, I shall give him a quotation from it.

The UK’s policy has quietly hardened, as illustrated by the tone of some written answers. The Minister will probably tell us today that those assurances will be demanded vigorously, but we cannot rely on assurances from the US Government; we need much more. With a group of leading public lawyers, including Nicholas Blake QC, Andrew Lydiard QC and Professor James Crawford, dean of the Cambridge university law school, and with the help of a number of pressure groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Liberty, as well as help from the New York university law school, we have put together a proposal to provide the public with something more reliable to give them confidence.

That proposal has been set out in documentation published by the all-party group. In summary, it says that this country must demand the basic information concerning any rendition: the destination, the legal regime that will apply when the person has been transferred, the legal safeguards that are available in that state, and evidence that the detainee was provided with an opportunity to challenge his or her transfer on the basis of his or her reasonable fear of being tortured or suffering ill treatment. It should also be a legal requirement that those requests, and the information obtained are recorded and that those records are retained. We should not have to rely on officials’ anecdotal evidence from years back.

With the help of lawyers, I have examined carefully how such a measure could be brought into effect and I have been advised that it could be done by a relatively simple amendment of the Air Navigation Order 2005. Primary legislation would not be required, and I strongly urge the Minister to examine that proposal carefully.

I was heartened that the Minister told me in a letter dated 7 June, which I received by fax yesterday—I am grateful to him for giving me a copy of it without the day written on it this morning on his return from Washington—in response to my request in May for a
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Government response to my proposals. But I was depressed to note that the Minister said in his letter that he is

He must grasp the fact that those understandings will not satisfy the public, and the reason is clear. First, there is a heap of circumstantial evidence about far more renditions than the four that the Government have been able to identify with the help of absent-minded officials. Secondly, so much material has been put before us during the past few years that public confidence has been corroded. There have been misused intelligence reports, dodgy dossiers, the suggestion that our troops could be attacked by Saddam Hussein within 45 minutes, and the Prime Minister’s suggestion in the House that Saddam Hussein was within a year of obtaining a nuclear weapon. All that has eroded public trust, which is now at a low ebb. Assurances will simply not be enough.

My proposal is scarcely radical, and I fear that some hon. Members on my left may suggest that it is wholly inadequate, but at least it would make it clear that reasonable steps should be taken by public authorities to establish whether a rendition is taking place, and to collect the facts about it. What is the danger to the Government of pushing through such a modest statutory instrument? I hope that such a change, or something like it, will have the support of my Front-Bench colleagues.

I have a number of specific questions about UK involvement. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me specifically whether it is now UK Government policy to oppose extraordinary rendition. Do they believe that it is morally wrong, as they now believe that Guantánamo Bay is wrong? What assessment have they made of its overall effectiveness as an anti-terrorist tool? Of course, I understand that the details of such an assessment cannot be put in the public domain, but surely some of the general conclusions should be made available in a democracy. Do the Government agree with Richard Dearlove’s comments that were quoted in a recent programme and a recent journal that rendition has damaged the ability of the UK and the US to recruit high-quality spies? What is the UK’s policy on the CIA’s programme of so-called high-value prisoner transfers?

Do the Government believe that when a CIA chartered plane comes to the UK, it falls in the category of state aircraft for the purpose of permission, or in the category of civilian aircraft? What steps have the Government taken to check the allegations made in two of those programmes and in a book that UK intelligence personnel travelled in a number of planes that were being used for rendition?

A number of the Minister’s colleagues seem to be as concerned as I am, and some have told me so privately. From time to time, the veil is lifted and they say so publicly. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has demanded a radical change in the rules—more radical than I have proposed. She has highlighted a loophole in international regulations and demanded that it be closed by renegotiation of the
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so-called Chicago convention, which ensures that signatories tell one another if hazardous substances or important people are being flown in or out. Unfortunately, that convention does not cover prisoners at the moment. She said that we needed to

I agree.

Other Members want to get into the debate, and rather than go into further detail with more questions, I shall ensure that the Minister has enough time to answer thoroughly. I may have further questions for him if he permits me to ask them during his response.

I shall draw a few general conclusions. In pressing this campaign, I have been motivated by five arguments, each of which is enough to require that the west’s rendition policy should be challenged. First, there is the basic ethical point that to subject people to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment is always morally wrong. Secondly, and this point has already been made in interventions, any information obtained or confessions signed in such circumstances are likely to be highly unreliable.

Thirdly, the evidence obtained can probably never be used to secure convictions. The maltreatment of so many detainees at Guantánamo Bay has turned the issue into a legal albatross for the Americans, making it difficult for them to secure convictions of detainees even when the evidence is strong. The Americans cannot bring those people before any court that the international community would recognise as being fair.

Fourthly, torturing people, and particularly the knowledge that we do so in many of the communities in which the terrorists may hide, makes counter-terrorism much harder. That is the point that Richard Dearlove made when he said that it made recruitment and the gathering of information much more difficult. I am confident that our intelligence services are against extraordinary rendition. They know that it makes us less not more safe, and it makes their job more dangerous, too.

Fifthly, and just as importantly, the countries that practise or condone rendition undermine the very values that we in the west seek to export. Rendition inflames the very communities whose support we most need to combat terrorism.

For all those reasons, I hope that the Minister will make a start by speaking out strongly against rendition, and by working vigorously to persuade the Americans to change policy. The “hug them close” approach that the Government have pursued has left Britain without any foreign policy at all on those issues. The Minister looks shocked, but I assure him that that is what the vast majority of the British public think. However, every time I ask a Minister to dissent from that policy, even a little, they persistently fail to do so. The Prime Minister—I admit he is Prime Minister for only one more day—failed to do so at the Dispatch Box late last year.

As with the US Administration, we have grown accustomed to hearing apparently firm statements that Britain is not involved, that we have searched our files and found nothing and the like, but so far we have not had that core condemnation from the Government to
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match their belated opposition to what has happened at Guantánamo Bay. Even ignoring the wider impact of the issue, or the immorality of it, a policy of torture will always be counter-productive. It makes us less secure, which is why Israel and the Israeli army abandoned its use. The French learned that lesson in Algeria, and the British learned it very early on in Northern Ireland.

At the outset I said that if I had time at the end of my speech, I would put rendition in a wider context, which I shall now do briefly.

Extraordinary rendition is part of a wider, failing US foreign policy. By setting aside international law and compromising the standards that all western democracies aspire to, the US has let us all down in the west. It is part of their radical unilateralist departure from post-war multilateralism, sitting alongside regime change and pre-emptive action. The plain fact is that all those policies have failed and are now seen to have failed. Extraordinary rendition has failed.

One cannot torture and expect democracy to grow at the same time; one cannot sing the praises of western open societies while kidnapping people from the very communities and faiths that one wants to convince; and one cannot win hearts and minds with the illegal use of force.

With luck, the dangerous Bush-Blair experiment is coming to an end. Ironically, the debate in Washington—the Minister has just returned from Washington—is well ahead of us. While we hear tentative talk about moving on from the Bush-Blair doctrines in London, we witness its death throes across the Atlantic, and we witness also a superpower’s Administration paralysed by failure and attacked on all sides, particularly from within the ranks of the Republican party.

A new Prime Minister has a chance for a fresh start. The Government can do their bit to deflect Americans from that policy by dissenting from it vigorously and publicly. The Government can start today by committing themselves to at least consider putting some proposals on the statute book to bring this disgusting practice to an end.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Eric Illsley (in the Chair): Before calling further hon. Members, I must note that I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen no later than 12 noon, so if hon. Members could try to stick to that timetable, every speaker should be accommodated.

11.37 am

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) on obtaining the debate, and I congratulate him and his colleagues, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), on their work with the all-party group on extraordinary rendition, of which I am a member. The hon. Member for Chichester has done a great deal to bring the issue to light, and particularly in Parliament, where we have all been able to see the extent of the problem and to raise issues about Government complicity.

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