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Saudi Penal System

Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the House of Commons at 1:18 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 1:18 pm, 13th October 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will withdraw from the contract for training needs analysis with the Saudi penal system in the light of recent concerns, particularly the cases of Mohammed al-Nimr, Raif Badawi and Karl Andree?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is important that the resources of the Ministry of Justice are targeted at our programme of domestic public service reform, so, as has previously been announced, we have wound up the work that Just Solutions International, the commercial arm of the National Offender Management Service, has been engaged in. This is in line with our ambition to ensure that the Department’s resources are firmly focused on our domestic priorities. On the commercial work that Just Solutions International had been engaged in with Saudi Arabia, as the House is aware, the final bid was submitted this April, but discussions have been going on since then. We have now reviewed the issue further and decided to withdraw our bid.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

The power of the urgent question. What a pity, though, that once again a Secretary of State has to be dragged before the House and that what he said was not volunteered by way of ministerial statement. The Secretary of State is trying to establish a reputation as a prison reformer, and now perhaps as a champion of human rights as well. That would be highly commendable and would be better if our prisons were not in a downward spiral of violence, idleness and despair and if the right hon. Gentleman were not intent on repealing the Human Rights Act.

On 25 September, the Leader of the Opposition wrote to the Prime Minister, raising the case of Mohammed al-Nimr. The Secretary of State will be aware that Mr al-Nimr was 17 when he was arrested for peaceful protest and sentenced to death by beheading and then crucifixion. Three weeks later, the Leader of the Opposition is yet to receive a response. That letter also asked for the ending of the contract, so perhaps that response could now be forthcoming. More importantly, Mr al-Nimr remains in solitary confinement, awaiting execution.

The case of Raif Badawi—a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for criticising the Saudi regime—is similarly shocking, and today we add to the list the case of Mr Karl Andree. Mr Andree is a 74-year-old British citizen from south London who has been sentenced to 350 lashes by the Saudi Government after spending more than a year in custody. I do not know whether the Secretary of State heard the interview on the “Today” programme this morning with Mr Andree’s youngest son, Simon, which was all the more powerful for being rational and understated. He said there was no doubt in the family’s mind that 350 lashes would kill his father, who needs medical care for his cancer, which he has had three times, and his asthma. Simon said:

“I think my father is at the bottom of the list and the bottom of the pecking order”,

when it comes to the Government. He continued:

“I feel that all the business dealings with Saudi Arabia and the UK are probably taking priority over it. All I can say is that the primary responsibility of the British Government is to their citizens. He is a British citizen and I ask the Government to plead for clemency, for him to be released.”

Will the Secretary of State therefore go further—welcome though his comments were—and explain why the Government ever contemplated entering such a contract; why the reasons for continuing the contract were initially given as “commercial considerations”, subsequently corrected to the “wider interests” of Her Majesty’s Government; why the Prime Minister has not responded to the letter from the Leader of the Opposition; and what is being done in each of the three specific cases I have raised?

We know that these are not isolated cases. Indeed, guidance given to British prisoners in Saudi says that the death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences,

“including murder, rape, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery and can be carried out by beheading with a sword, stoning or firing squad, followed by crucifixion.”

Amnesty International says that at least 175 people have been executed in the last year. It is simply not good enough that human rights get no regard. Of course this is a balancing act, but in the end, the Secretary of State has to take responsibility and he needs to answer the further questions I have put to him today.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising these serious issues and for the appropriately sombre and serious way in which he couched his questions. First, this Government take very seriously questions of human rights, and in particular the obligation to protect the human rights of British citizens abroad. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, who has responsibility for the middle east, has been talking to Mr Andree’s family, and it is also why the Government have been interceding at the highest level in all three of the cases that the hon. Gentleman raises.

It is important that that sensitive and diplomatic work is carried on in circumstances that ensure that we can influence not just the Saudi Government, but other Governments, in a way that allows them to make progress in a manner consistent with ensuring that our case can be made effectively. That is why I believe that the actions of the Minister for the middle east—and indeed those of the Foreign Secretary and the diplomatic service—in ensuring that human rights considerations can be carried forward have been right and wise.

It is also important to bear in mind that there is security co-operation between Britain and Saudi Arabia, which has, as the Prime Minister and others have pointed out, saved British lives in the past. We would never compromise our commitment to human rights, but we must also recognise that it is in the interests of the most important human right of all—the right to live in safety and security—that we should continue with necessary security co-operation with the Saudi and other Governments.

The hon. Gentleman asks why no letter of reply was written to the Leader of the Opposition. I can only apologise for any delay in writing to him, and I hope that today’s statement goes some way to raising the concerns that he understandably raised in his party conference speech and in correspondence. More broadly, I want to assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the whole focus of the Ministry of Justice will be on maintaining the rule of law, upholding human rights and making sure that our citizens are protected effectively with a justice system in which all can take pride and have confidence.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

The Lord Chancellor is to be congratulated on his decision. I and fellow members of the Justice Committee welcome it warmly. It reinforces Britain’s status on justice and human rights matters. It also proportionately and sensibly continues the necessary work that we need to do on security matters with Saudi Arabia. My right hon. Friend has got the balance right, which some Opposition Members did not do when they were in office.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for making that point. It is always the case that Governments have to balance the vital importance of upholding human rights with necessary security considerations, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the confidence he places in the Government’s decision in this case.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Scottish National Party, Glasgow South

The power of the urgent question indeed. This is a victory, if we believe press reports, for the Secretary of State himself, but also for the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, which has been vociferous in challenging the decision.

This is not, of course, an easy issue. The contract was being negotiated against a backdrop of a Government who have beheaded more people than Daesh, who are about to lash a British pensioner 350 times, potentially crucify a teenager and have sentenced a blogger to a slow death sentence, so I can genuinely understand why a Government would seek to involve themselves in changing how they manage the justice system. However, questions need to be asked about the whole approach to and relationship with Saudi Arabia, and about why the Government have dropped abolishing the death penalty as a priority in their international work abroad. What assistance did this Government give to the Government of Saudi Arabia so that they could chair a committee on human rights within the United Nations? Why did the British Government sanction flags flying at half-mast when the King of Saudi Arabia died—something that the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called

“a steaming pile of nonsense”?

I welcome today’s move, but this cannot be the end of our examination of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. One thing the Justice Secretary could do would be to place all papers relating to this deal in the public domain, so that Parliament can examine them retrospectively.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his detailed questions. Some, of course, strayed into diplomatic matters, which are not the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, but I can confirm that whenever any monarch of any country dies, the flag is flown at half-mast. It is a long-standing convention—one that has been honoured in the past and continues to be honoured.

The hon. Gentleman’s broader point about the administration of justice within Saudi Arabia was well made. We have profound concerns about the respect accorded to human rights within Saudi Arabia, but it is also the case—I must stress this—that the most effective way of ensuring that human rights progress can be made in Saudi Arabia, both for its citizens and for others, is to allow the Foreign Office to continue its diplomatic work, which balances the strong relationships built up over time with an absolute insistence that in all countries and at all times, we oppose the death penalty. We will never resile from that.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Conservative, Rutland and Melton

Deny it though he might, many are left with the impression that this decision has been guided more by my right hon. Friend’s rather caustic personal view of Saudi Arabia than by any legitimate concerns of his Department’s policy on justice. Is it not the case that when we look at a country’s judicial system of which we do not in many respects approve, engagement is far better than disengagement, and that disengagement may be a comfortable moral position, but can lead to no progress whatsoever?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I take my right hon. Friend’s comments very seriously. He is absolutely right to say that constructive engagement with Governments like Saudi Arabia’s is always the wisest course. However, it is also the case that there is always a balance to be struck in the nature of the engagement that we make. The decision was made across Government that the Just Solutions International branch of the National Offender Management Service should be wound up, and this decision is consequent on that cross-Government decision.

As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, it is vital that we support the Foreign Office, its skilled diplomats and its excellent Ministers in the work that they continue to do to influence not just the Saudi Government, but other Governments who are considering how they can improve their own domestic human rights record and, indeed, promote the rule of law.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is it not almost farcical that the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations is actually chairing a panel that selects officials to decide on human rights violations? I am not aware that the United Kingdom has protested about that; it was probably a party to the appointment.

Is it not also the case that the Saudi Government do not take too seriously the various disapprovals expressed occasionally by Ministers, because they know that Britain will continue to sell arms on a substantial scale to a country where executions occur, as we heard from my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter? Britain’s dealings with that state do not present a very pretty picture.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman has made two points. The first relates to the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the United Nations. Again, I should stress that this is a matter for another Department. However, I think that we should encourage the involvement of countries in international institutions when we can bring pressure and influence to bear on them to meet higher standards when it comes to the rule of law and human rights. That is an ongoing process; it is a dialogue.

In the same spirit, I should also stress that there are, of course, individual British companies that do business in Saudi Arabia, and there are shared security interests as well. Any responsible Government will always want to balance those interests with standing up for and making the case for progress in the realm of human rights, and that has been the consistent policy of this Government.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being an example of a Secretary of State who has made a decision because, quite simply, it was the right thing to do. Can he reassure the House that in future, when that difficult balance is being struck between our legitimate security and foreign policy considerations and the needs of human rights, those human rights needs may be placed slightly higher in the mix than they have been in the past under Governments of all colours?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My right hon. Friend has made a characteristically wise point, and I absolutely agree with him. It is important that we put the interests of advancing human rights at the heart of everything that the Government do, and that is one of the reasons why I am pleased that my hon. Friend Mr Raab, who is the Minister responsible for civil liberties, has revised the way in which the Ministry of Justice engages internationally in order to ensure that human rights enjoy greater prominence.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Secretary of State has made exactly the right decision today. He has done the right thing, and I think it important for him, in particular, to be given credit for having done it. In order to better inform the debate about the very difficult balancing act that he has had to perform—along with his ministerial colleagues—will he now consider publishing the documents behind this deal? In particular, will he publish the memorandum of understanding that was signed by his Ministry and the Home Office with Saudi authorities in March this year?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous words, but I must stress that this is a cross-Government decision. It was reached after discussion across Government, and it is a shared, collective decision of the whole Government. It is, of course, in that spirit that I entirely understand why the right hon. Gentleman would like further and better particulars. However, I must also respect the nature of diplomatic engagement. It is necessarily the case, and understandable, that when we are seeking to influence countries to act in a way which we believe to be in their interests but which may ultimately involve a change of policy at any given point, we wish to maintain confidence in the nature of that relationship, and that means that such conversations must sometimes remain confidential.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend. I think that he speaks for the House when he articulates the reasons for this decision. As he will know, the United Kingdom was recently voted the No. 1 nation in the world for “soft power”, partly owing to an acceptance across the world that we are not willing to be complicit in, or tacitly support, egregious abuses of human rights, including those perpetrated by the Wahhabi-dominated Saudi regime. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we will keep under review all actions to signal our disapproval of its conduct, including the most robust actions in the future?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Let me absolutely emphasise that the Minister for the middle east and the Foreign Secretary make representations regularly not just to the Saudi Government, but to other Governments whose behaviour gives us cause for concern in respect of human rights matters. However, as my hon. Friend acknowledged in his question, there is always a balance to be struck by the Government between—quite rightly—standing up for human rights, and recognising our broader security and other relationships which help to keep British citizens safe.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

When answering questions put by the Foreign Affairs Committee the other week, the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office said that human rights were fairly low down in the list of priorities, or certainly not as far up as the Secretary of State suggests. The UK’s College of Policing provides training courses for Saudi police. What training is being given, and at what price?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The right hon. Lady’s record of commitment in advancing human rights globally is second to none in this place. I should stress that I am not a Foreign Office Minister, but it is clear to me from all my dealings with the Foreign Office that it places advancing the cause of human rights and protecting fundamental freedoms at the heart of British diplomacy. We are guided by our values first. However, when we are co-operating with countries across the world, it is important for us to recognise—even as we argue first and foremost for respect for human rights—that there are shared security concerns. I think that the particular work that is undertaken in relation to policing, although another Government Department is responsible for it, falls fairly and squarely into that category.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

I am sure that everyone in the Chamber would agree that the Saudi penal system needs reform. Having made his decision, will the Secretary of State outline what he thinks the Government’s future strategy should be in relation to improving that penal system, and, indeed, other similar systems around the world?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I think it important that we continue to work diplomatically to encourage countries not only to improve their penal systems, but to improve their respect for the rule of law. One of the activities in which the Foreign Office is most energetic is ensuring that the strong relationships that have been nurtured over years by our diplomats and Ministers are used to reinforce and encourage progress and reform in all the countries with which we have relationships.

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, but will he also have discussions with the Foreign Secretary? I listened to Karl Andree’s son on the “Today” programme this morning, and it was clear from what he said that the Foreign Office’s interpretation of “regular visits” was not what he thought his father was receiving. Can we take greater care that our prisoners abroad are looked after properly?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I understand from my hon. Friend the Minister for the middle east, who has taken a very close personal interest in this case, that he has been and will continue to be in touch with the family, and I know that every resource that we have to help Mr Andree is being deployed.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

We rightly condemn barbaric regimes with which we have no relationship whatsoever, but Saudi Arabia is clearly a key ally in the middle east. As a friend, we have more influence. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the House sends the message that the barbaric treatment of British people in Saudi prisons is unacceptable, and that he uses his influence to improve the prison system in Saudi Arabia?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Our diplomats, operating in our embassy in Saudi Arabia, regularly visit any British citizens who may find themselves caught up in conflict or in the Saudi Arabia criminal justice system, and, as well as providing that consular support, we obviously exercise whatever diplomatic influence we can. However, my hon. Friend is right to stress that the broader security co-operation between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom is friendly, and that it is in the interests of our citizens for it to be maintained so that we can safeguard their security.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

The Secretary of State has taken a sensible decision today. He also rightly pointed out that Britain’s role internationally is to encourage other countries to respect the rule of law and that our diplomats spend a lot of time campaigning against the death penalty. However, the rule of law in Saudi Arabia includes amputations and floggings. What will Britain do to try to encourage those countries whose law permits cruel and unusual punishment as part of their justice system to stop it, because that is not justice?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The right hon. Lady makes a powerful point. It is important to recognise that Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country and is going through a period of transition. We want to encourage that transition and modernisation within that country while at the same time respecting the nature of any diplomatic conversation and any diplomatic relationship. That is why it is right that the Foreign Office—its diplomats and Ministers—continue the good work they are doing in encouraging the Saudi regime to adopt a more modern approach.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The Secretary of State has explained very clearly this difficult balancing act. I want to know how it works in practice, because we have to work with countries whose human rights records we not approve of, but how do we actually approach this? Do we talk one to one? How is this actually done?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

We engage with the Saudi Government on every level. Of course it is the case that we have regular daily diplomatic contact. Consular support is given to British citizens in Saudi Arabia, too. It is also the case that there is a contact at ministerial level and head of Government level. As my hon. Friend recognised, there is a balance to be struck, and it must be guided first of all by Britain’s national interest, which resides in keeping our citizens safe, but also in standing up for the values our citizens believe in and would like us to promote.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

The Justice Secretary says the Government were interceding in the cases raised by my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter. In the case of Raif Badawi, could the Secretary of State find out why the prosecutors are now asking for a retrial with a possible death sentence?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

That is a very important point, and the Foreign Office are in discussions with the Saudi Government about precisely that case.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Conservative, Corby

The Telegraph has reported in the last few minutes that the Foreign Office has been assured that the flogging will not be carried out. Can the Secretary of State clarify matters in that regard?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It was always the case that our Foreign Office was seeking to ensure that no flogging would be carried out, and it is also important to stress that, understandably, press and media reporting of these events can sometimes be affected by strong emotional feelings, but it is also the case that even as these strong emotional feelings and powerful voices are raised, quietly and behind the scenes our diplomats and Foreign Ministers are working hard to safeguard the interests of British citizens, and we should be glad that the skills of our diplomats are being deployed in order to safeguard our citizens’ interests.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office)

I have made several representations to both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office—I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Ellwood, in the Chamber—over the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. I have yet to receive a reply. This young man is still due to be brutally executed by beheading and crucifixion. Would the Secretary of State perhaps like to comment on this case now within the context of the Saudi prison contract, and also in light of numerous brutal and repeated human rights abuses within Saudi, such as that of Mohammed al-Nimr, not to mention the fact that one person is executed every two days, often by gruesome and medieval methods? There is also the growing number of civilian deaths in Yemen by air strikes conducted by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. I am wondering—and others will be as well—how the Government can continue to have such a close, intertwined relationship with the Saudis. [Interruption.] What can the Secretary of State tell us today to reassure people that the Government will not continue to support and facilitate human rights abuses? I have heard in the Chamber as well that safety and security—

[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

We both know, Mr Speaker, that the hon. Lady feels very strongly about this issue and has raised it on a number of occasions. I am glad to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, the Minister for the middle east, would be delighted to talk to her outside the Chamber to update her. There have been specific domestic reasons why, in Saudi Arabia, we have not had all the conversations we might have wanted to, but we continue at every point to ensure we make the case that we believe the death penalty is wrong.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend Tom Pursglove is at an advantage in that he has information that I do not have, but that is my understanding and that was what the Government were working towards.