Clause 147 - Extradition offences

Extradition Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 16th January 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, 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.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

The Liberal Democrats had an earlier amendment that the

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.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

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.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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

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.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

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.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

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

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.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I raised a point during a debate on part 1 and he did not answer my question, presumably because he did not have the list. It would be helpful to have a list. This is not an issue of principle; it is a practical matter. We may impose more or less serious sentences than other countries, and there is an argument for ensuring that the same offences attract extradition both ways, but we need to know what would be caught or relieved by moving the limit from one year to three, which is what it says in the framework document. So the list would be helpful.

However, the Government are changing the present extradition arrangements, more so in part 1 than in the provisions we are debating now, which is why it is important that if there is to be automatic extradition under part 1, where none of the offences for category 2 countries are available, we know what those offences will be. If some of them are relatively trivial, perhaps they should not attract automatic extradition under part 1, but under present extradition arrangements that would be acceptable. There is a difference because of the nature of the legislation.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I ask him to appreciate that, generally speaking, although not across the piece, sentences imposed in this country are longer than those given by our European partners. We could seek extradition from other jurisdictions for lesser crimes than they could seek extradition for, because the thresholds that apply to their jurisdictions would apply to our requests. I shall compile a list of the UK offences carrying terms that fall between one and three years and distribute it to the Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think about the principle of where the threshold should lie.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I understand why the Minister feels it necessary to make a party political point about the Opposition on the matter of thresholds, but he should remember that it is not only the Opposition parties that are making this point. The clear and strongly expressed view from the Labour-dominated Select Committee on Home Affairs is the same as ours. The Minister argues that the Opposition say one thing in the House and something else outside. He cannot get away with that. What we are saying is in line with the strongly expressed views of his party colleagues, including the Committee chairman, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who was until recently a Minister in the Government. Therefore, the Opposition are not alone in making these points, and we are not merely trying to score points. We are raising genuine concerns about the threshold, which are shared by a cross-party Select Committee with a huge Labour majority.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 9:45 am, 16th January 2003

That is true, but my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South is big enough to stick up for himself and is not responsible for utterances of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. It is the hon. Gentleman who is responsible for voicing the opinions and policies of Her Majesty's Opposition, and who should explain why outside the House he says that we should take more powers to protect our jurisdiction from people from abroad while inside the House he is trying to water down our Extradition Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am not trying to water down the Bill. The Minister must understand that there is no inconsistency in my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset saying that our asylum system is a shambles, as he did yesterday after the emergency statement about the tragic and appalling murder of the police officer in Manchester. The Home Secretary has accepted that many things were wrong in the asylum system that he inherited from his predecessor, because he has sought to change it. We have described it as dismantling the house that Jack built. The Minister's boss has agreed with almost everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said and has tried to address the asylum system in the way that we have recommended. When the Foreign Secretary was Home Secretary he disagreed with the arguments that my right hon. Friends the Members for West Dorset and for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) put to him. The Minister has to look carefully at the way in which his boss has started to adopt Conservative policies in tightening up the

asylum system, and there is no inconsistency between what we are saying outside and inside this place. We are not trying to water down the Bill; we are trying to reflect what the Home Affairs Committee has said, which is that the Bill should reflect the framework decision and the new extradition regime. It is not a watering-down.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The issue is clear. We have a current threshold for incoming and outgoing requests. That threshold is set at crimes that attract a sentence of more than 12 months and terms of imprisonment that have more than four months still to run. We are proposing to keep the thresholds as they are for both incoming and outgoing requests. The world has changed since the last time that the threshold was examined, but not in any way that would attract people to increase it. We are talking about serious crimes, and the interests of justice are not served by allowing people to escape justice simply by crossing a border. That case cannot be argued in one direction more than it can in the other.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I am glad that the Minister will send us a letter, and I hope that we get it before Report. Although he has given us some idea of the Government's philosophy on the matter, will he tell us whether, in choosing the one-year period, he is endeavouring to achieve reciprocal arrangements between us and the other category 1 territories?

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Before the Minister replies, I remind Members that it is not in order for them to read newspapers and magazines in Committee.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

There was extensive discussion during the negotiation of the framework decision, and the three-year minimum was set for the dropping of dual criminality. It is for other jurisdictions to decide at what level they want to seek extradition beyond that.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

What is the Government's position on that?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Our position is clear. When sentences are serious enough to warrant extradition requests, we should follow that if they are serious enough to be more important than the administrative burdens imposed by so doing. It could not be clearer, and we see no reason for lifting the level at which we set that.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am glad that I chose to raise a debate on clause 147 standing part of the Bill, because it has produced some useful results. In particular, it has enabled us to get the promise from the Minister, which he was kind enough to make. He has always been courteous and helpful—

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

When he has not been cheeky, he has been courteous and helpful in providing things that genuinely help the Committee on serious issues. I know that the Minister recognises that we have serious concerns, which are shared by others, but we do not want to water down the Bill. Had we wanted to water it down, we would have tabled amendments. In opening the clause stand part debate, I made it clear—I hope in a moderate way—that we had not

tabled amendments because we did not want to water down the Bill, but rather to explore the issue and check that the current law specifies four months, and the Minister has reassured us.

I made it clear that we did not want to make it more difficult for our courts to extradite people back to this country. However, there are differences to debate. We must consider our citizens being at risk from a foreign jurisdiction. Many of my hon. Friends and I, and many people and organisations outside the House, do not have as much faith in some courts and justice systems in other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon has concerns about the courts of Italy, and I have raised concerns about the courts of Greece, Spain and, potentially, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

We have provided a lot of evidence for our position, but that is a different point. At the moment, we are talking about getting people back to face our courts, with all the protections that our courts provide, and it is entirely appropriate that there should be an easier and quicker way for people to be extradited back to this country to face justice here.

There are differences, and one does not necessarily say that absolutely everything has to match. That is part of the discussion about principle, because we are talking about the protections given by our courts. Nevertheless, the Government have decided that the two sides should match as closely as possible. Unless there are very good reasons why they should not match, I can understand that there is at least a logic to that, although we do not necessarily accept it. I have referred to some of the Select Committee's concerns about the threshold.

Whatever party political points the Minister feels that he needs to make, he knows in his heart of hearts that these are serious issues and that he cannot simply say, ''The Opposition this, the Opposition that.'' He must consider the concerns expressed by the Select Committee, which has a huge Labour majority.

This has been a useful debate, and I am grateful that the Minister will send us the relevant list. We can then return to the issue on Report and in another place, and even those who are non-lawyers will know exactly what we are talking about. It will be useful to hon. Members here on Report, and those in another place, to have the list. I therefore reinforce the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon: we should certainly have the list from the Minister before Report and preferably 48 hours before.

I should be grateful if the Minister would intervene to say that he will at least use his best endeavours to ensure that we have the list at the earliest possible opportunity. He is indicating that he will do that, for which I am grateful. Having had this useful debate, I need not pursue the matter further under clause stand part.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 147 ordered to stand part of the Bill.