HC Deb 02 July 1971 vol 820 cc853-66

Order for Second Reading read.

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Michael Noble)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

If the Bill is enacted, it will introduce a new word to the Statute Book. The word is "hijacking" whose origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is to be found in the shout of "Hi Jack" uttered by those about to steal illicit liquor being carried by bootleggers in the United States in the days of prohibition.

Whatever its origins, however, it is commonly used and understood today to relate to what is more solemnly called the "unlawful seizure of aircraft" in the title of the convention concluded at the Hague on 16th December, 1970, to which I shall refer later.

The hijacking of American aircraft to Cuba became a regular habit some years ago and since then it has spread throughout the world. The events of last September culminating in the horror of Dawson's Field are still fresh in our minds. I am sure that I need not take up the time of the House by saying what an evil and dangerous thing the hijacking of aircraft is. I only say that the threat is still with us.

It may be of interest, however, if I say something about the international campaign against hijacking and other acts of violence against aircraft which is being conducted by member States of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. This may be said to fall into two parts, the first being the development of practical preventive measures—for example, detection devices at airports—and the second being the development of a framework of international law designed to deter the potential offender by ensuring so far as possible that there is no place of refuge for him.

It is this second aspect, the international legal framework, on which I should like to elaborate a little and, in order to give the full picture, say something about the three main instruments around which it is being constructed.

First, there is the Tokyo Convention of 1963, which deals generally with crimes committed on board aircraft, setting out the jurisdiction and duties of States and describing the powers of the aircraft commander in relation to such crimes. The enactment in 1967 of the Tokyo Convention Act, introduced by the Hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) whose initiative has been fully justified, enabled the United Kingdom to be among the first to ratify the Convention, which is now in force between 40 countries.

Second, we have a draft convention dealing with what are described as … acts of unlawful interference against international civil aviation". This is specially aimed at sabotage and similar acts other than hijacking. Its preparation was put in hand largely at the instigation of the United Kingdom at the Extraordinary Assembly of the I.C.A.O., which was convened in June, 1970, especially to consider all these matters affecting the security of civil aviation, and we hope that it will be finalised at a diplomatic conference which is to be held in Montreal this coming September. Its general form is likely to be similar to that of the third instrument, the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, to which I now come.

This Convention was, as I have already said, concluded at a diplomatic conference at The Hague on 16th December, 1970, and I will for convenience refer to it from now on as the Hague Convention. It was signed at the time on behalf of 50 countries, including the United Kingdom, and since then there have been another 15 signatories, making a total of 65. It has been ratified by three countries—Japan, Bulgaria and Costa Rica—and several other countries are known to be preparing for ratification. It will come into effect between ratifying countries 30 days after the tenth ratification has been deposited.

The considerable and growing number of States which have signed it suggests that the Convention has struck the right balance between two sometimes conflicting objectives which those who prepared it had before them. These were to produce a convention which had enough teeth to be effective and, at the same time, one which would attract widespread adherence.

What the Convention does is, in brief, to require contracting States to make the hijacking of an aircraft an offence punishable by severe penalties. It includes provision for arrest, facilitates the extradition of offenders between contracting States and obliges any contracting State where the offender is found to take jurisdiction to prosecute him if it does not extradite him. We believe the Convention to be a valuable instrument, and it has been welcomed by all sides of the air transport industry in this country; that is to say, by airlines, airport authorities, the T.U.C. and the British Airline Pilots Association, many of which have pressed for its early ratification.

The main purpose of the Bill is to enable us to do just this; to ratify the Hague Convention. Not all the provisions of the Convention need to be reflected in the Bill, since they can be given effect to administratively and no legislation is needed to implement them.

The Bill is therefore splendidly short, although it covers two points which were excluded from the Convention, but for which we think provision should be made in our own law. These are first what I may call "domestic hijacking", where the offence is committed and ends in the territory of the State in which the hijacked aircraft is registered and, second, the hijacking of a military, customs or police aircraft.

The Bill contains only seven Clauses, and I need not detain the House much longer if I mention the first three of these, which are also the most important. Clause 1 as is required by the Hague Convention, creates the offence of hijacking, and provides that anyone who commits it is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life. This is regardless of the nationality of the hijacker, the nationality, if I may so put it, of the aircraft, and the whereabouts of the aircraft at the time. This otherwise all-embracing generality is qualified in the case of domestic hijacking and the hijacking of military, customs or police aircraft which are outside the scope of the Convention and where the extent of our jurisdiction must therefore be less.

Clause 2 gives effect to the provision of the Hague Convention which requires each contracting State to ensure that its courts have jurisdiction not only over offences of hijacking but also over acts of violence against passengers or crew committed by the hijacker in the course of the hijacking. The object of this is to ensure that where another serious offence involving violence, such as murder, is committed, in the course of the hijacking, a State is not in the position of being able to deal with the hijacking but not with the other possibly more serious offence.

Clause 3 makes those amendments to the law which are necessary in order to implement the provisions of the Hague Convention relating to the extradition of hijackers between contracting States. It does this by amending the Extradiction Act, 1870, and the Fugitive Offenders Act, 1967, so as to provide that hijacking is an extraditable offence under the 1870 Act and a returnable offence under the 1967 Act. It also provides that, where there is no bilateral extradition treaty with a State which is a party to the Convention, an Order in Council may be made under Section 2 of the 1870 Act as though the Convention constituted an extradition treaty with that State.

I need not mention the remaining Clauses at this stage. I will say only that, having played a leading part in the making of the Hague Convention, which we believe will contribute to the safety of of international air transport, we are anxious to ratify it with all expedition. All sides of the House have followed the Convention's progress with interest and, I am sure, will welcome the Bill which is to give effect to it. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

2.17 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Bill. It is one of those Measures which I have watched through its whole gestation period. It is a good Measure, but I do not think that it will necessarily solve the problem. There are still gaps that need to be filled if we are to obtain effective international action which is designed to suppress aircraft hijacking as a means of recognising revolutionary minority forces, fanatical nationalists, saboteurs and other like criminals—and gaps which may still remain whereby some States will still prove to be attractive havens for the hijacker himself.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Bill flows from the Tokyo Convention, and it is a useful second stage towards establishing the special framework we desire to curb aircraft hijacking activities. The Tokyo Convention, introduced in the House in December, 1966, dealt with offences on board aircraft and acts which might jeopardise good order and discipline on board, and spelt out an aircraft commander's rôle and responsibilities, but an offender apprehended in a State of which he was not a national could, as soon as was practicable, proceed to any destination of his choice. Extradition could not be enforced, nor was this type of offence regarded as a returnable offence. Emphasis in the Tokyo Convention was placed on restoring the aircraft, in the event of its seizure, to its lawful commander, and returning it and the cargo to the person lawfully entitled to possession. This has been the understood international practice until, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, there was this epidemic of seizures at Dawson's Field.

The first recorded hijacking of an aircraft occurred in Peru in the 'thirties, but it was not until the recent post-war years that it became a phenomenon of air travel. In the 'forties and early 'fifties, most hijackings occurred in Europe as political refugees from the Eastern European bloc used this technique to divert an aircraft and escape in it to West Germany and, in particular at that time, the American zone of West Germany.

In the late 1950s the pattern changed. Many hijackings occurred on internal flights in the United States of America. Then the escapee, or political refugee, started using this technique again to flee from the United States to Cuba. In the late 1960s, the effectiveness of hijacking as a political weapon was ruthlessly exploited by extremist guerrilla movements, especially in the Middle East. So we have witnessed a spasmodic but global shifting focus of hijacking, as it moved from the East-West European belt across to the United States and Cuba, and finally in its most ruthless and murderous form, into the Middle East area. Hijacking, combined with calculated acts of sabotage and the new dimension of using the hijacked passengers as hostages to obtain the release of guerrillas and other sympathisers held in other countries, reached its climax only last year.

This, then, is the modern major threat to airline travel and airlines. But it is also a very real threat to the small and the young democracies whereby the hijacking of aircraft and hundreds of innocent passengers can be used as pawns in inter-State or inter-regional conflicts. It can now be used as an international tool to prise out of Governments demands by rebels and fanatical political minorities that otherwise would never be recognised.

It is against that background that we must consider how best to legislate and to make this international legislation effective. To date, there have been recorded 273 hijackings, and 20 have occurred this year. We must not think that, because there is a lull in the worst form of murderous or blackmailing hijacking, it has ceased altogether; indeed, it still goes on. Air travel has always been, and always will be, vulnerable in the face of a determined lunatic, an armed criminal or a paranoic, but those are rare compared with the waves of serious hijackings which are premeditated and callously planned to hold airlines, passengers and nations to ransom. It is because we as a nation have been subjected to this type of blackmail, because the Tokyo Convention did not cover this crime and because there is no clearly understood international law dealing with hijackers and their punishment, that the Bill is before us.

The Bill decrees that hijacking be an offence if a person seizes or exercises control of an aircraft; the punishment to be meted out, which may be equivalent to imprisonment for life; and extradition of the hijacker between Convention States. It introduces positive changes in our law to make hijacking an extraditable offence under the 1870 Extradition Act and a returnable offence under the 1967 Act. All this is to the good, and the quicker we legislate, the better.

But, first, the problem is the time scale. Our last yardstick was the Tokyo Convention in 1963. Sixty-one States were represented. It was not until 1966 that the Bill came before the House of Commons, and it was 1967 before it went before the House of Lords. The Convention could come into force 90 days after 12 of the signatory States had deposited their instruments of ratification with the Internation Civil Aviation Organisation. But this was not achieved until the end of 1969. Six years elapsed, flowing from the Tokyo meeting, to establish an international law.

Changing the international law of the air is like changing the law of the sea. The Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation has been busy in recent months, and we have been legislating in this House, with the Oil In Navigable Waters Bill, on civil liability for oil pollution. But we know that to change the law of the air and of the sea takes time. Conventions are slow to meet. Nations are slow to legislate, and international ratification is terribly slow.

This Hague Convention met in December, 1970. Fifty-one countries were represented. This will enter into force 30 days after ten participants have deposited their instruments of ratification. The right hon. Gentleman said that already three have ratified, Japan, Bulgaria and Costa Rica. It is of paramount importance that we do not have to wait too long for the other States and have to suffer the elephantine gestation period which we suffered when the Tokyo Convention took place, and for the six years before that became the international law.

While we are waiting, B.O.A.C., B.E.A. and the other international airlines, which have erected a screen of precautions, would be wise to maintain many of them. We may all have fears about the introduction of air marshals, frisking at the airports, separating luggage from passengers, security patrols and so on, but undoubtedly this collection of measures has helped to curb the easier type of hijacking operations. Airlines would be well-advised to maintain their guard. This international law may yet take some time to be effected and, in any case, it is not the absolute answer.

Also in this context, we were impressed by the British Airline Pilots' Association and the International Federation of Airline Pilots at the height of this epidemic of hijacking. They expressed serious con- cern. Theirs was the final responsibility, but they kept the airlines operative. They considered an international stoppage, which would have severely jolted the airlines and might well have forced the pace in reaching international agreement. But instead, their approach was considerably restrained and remained statesmanlike throughout the crisis.

I have two other concerns about the Bill. Of the 51 signatories to the Hague Convention, only one Arab country attended—Iran. No other Arab country participated. Practically the entire Arab bloc ignored this conference, and it has not indicated that it is prepared to cooperate. This could be a serious omission, and could jeopardise the whole international plan to punish the hijacker and block his avenues of escape. Havens may still exist where this new style of air pirate can seek refuge. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that there may be another international law being framed to block those avenues. Let us hope that that comes about quickly. Cuba, too, did not attend the conference, but that nation pales into insignificance compared with this vast segment of the Middle East.

As I said at the outset, the Tokyo Convention was the first stage of establishing an international law of the air governing acts on board aircraft and seizures. The Hague Convention is a sensible, useful, urgently-required second stage. But there might have to be a third. If the Arab countries ignore this conference and the international law which flows from it, as they are members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation and most of them are members of the International Air Transport Association, if there is any repetition of the 1970 piratical acts emanating from their countries or of their nations being used as receivers of seized aircraft, criminals or guerrillas, then these two international bodies, the I.C.A.O. and the I.A.T.A., will have to consider freezing them out of airline operations, and this would be the ultimate sanction. This should be in the forefront of the minds of all who are now legislating with this Bill which flows from the Hague Convention. I hope that the Minister will comment on the seriousness of the Arab bloc's non-co-operation.

My second concern is that within the Bill we agree to extradite. This has been called for by many Members of Parliament. Indeed, it was discussed at the Tokyo Convention in 1963 and the United Kingdom was one of the countries that objected.

This may cut across one of our time-honoured practices of affording political asylum to a political refugee. I take it though, that although we have opposed it previously, Her Majesty's Government are now agreed that, irrespective of the hijacker's cause, if he comes to Britain, he will be sent back to the nation from whence he came. I take it that, if he seeks political asylum by using the hijacking technique, the act of hijacking will have branded him an international criminal before his case for political asylum can be presented. This must be made clear. If there is to be international collaboration, all countries must honour their obligations, both East and West.

Hijacking is not a political crime and therefore the hijacker cannot claim political asylum. By threatening the lives of many innocent people and contravening this new law of the air, he will be automatically forfeiting his claim to his desired political refuge. This is a major change, but if we are to stamp out piracy in the air, it seems necessary.

Finally, having borne the brunt of the wrath of Parliament as President of the Board of Trade during the worst period of hijacking activity and pleaded time for an international agreement to be established, I am pleased that this Convention is now before most of the aviation nations of the world and doubly pleased that Her Majesty's Government are acting so quickly. The law of the air is urgently needed; this change is urgently needed; and the quicker it is made, the better.

2.32 p.m.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Epping)

The Bill I unreservedly welcome. My mind, too, goes back inevitably to the events of last September. I will not dwell upon them beyond saying that those who were most closely involved were my former colleagues and many of them my friends.

When we have given the Bill its Second Reading, as I am sure we shortly will, I trust that we will not all return home imagining that everything will shortly be well. It is certain that there will be further outrages of this sort, of the sort that imperil the lives of so many people in such a spectacular manner. Convention or no convention, law or no law, there will always be, too, those who would counsel surrender to violence. Some will advocate it because of sympathy with the political aims of those who commit it; some will do so because they are natural surrenderes.

Just as surely, there will have to be Ministers who will have the courage to withstand the political and emotional pressures which will be put upon them, even if the Bill is passed, in order to protect the public. This is an abominable crime—hijacking it is now called, piracy, kidnapping, holding to ransom, whatever it may be called—and it has always been regarded as an abominable crime. We have to remind ourselves again that it is a crime with which only Governments can deal, though airlines, too, help by taking precautions.

Above all, we should remember that the first responsibility of the captain of an aircraft must be the safety of his passengers at that time and that the wider issues of politics and resistance to terrorism must be for Governments, which will look at matters in the longer term.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will reply and that he will make clear the position of Her Majesty's Government in its relations with other countries which do not adhere to this Convention, but with which we may have an extradition treaty. In particular, will Her Majesty's Government consent to the extradition of hijackers, particularly those asking for political asylum, from a country which is not a party to the Convention and which, it might therefore be argued, would be in a particularly special position as not having a similar method of dealing with those who hijack aircraft in different circumstances? I do not put it too well. Will Her Majesty's Government consent to the extradition of hijackers, particularly those asking for political asylum, if that request is made by a country not a party to the Convention which, it may be thought, might therefore not consent to the extradition of a hijacker of a British aircraft who went into that country?

I do not, as has sometimes been suggested to me, act as a spokesman in the House for B.A.L.P.A. Nevertheless, I believe that I speak for all its members in thanking the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) for what he has just said of the conduct of the International Federation and the British Airline Pilots Association during last year. I know, because I asked B.A.L.P.A. officially its reaction to the Bill, that it gives it its wholehearted and complete approval. Officially, it would not change a word of it, although unofficially, I know, many pilots would like to amend life imprisonment to hanging, and I find it difficult at times to disagree with them. They express their anxieties, which are those which the right hon. Member for Barnsley expressed so well.

This is an international matter, and I should like the Government when negotiating bilateral agreements about air traffic to make adherence to this Convention a condition of any bilateral agreement. I know that there are commercial and political pressures to make such agreements, but there is a heavy responsibility on the Government to do what they can in international aviation, which is still much of a jungle, to look after the safety of air traffic and the passengers of aircraft. This is one of the few levers which we can apply to the countries which would otherwise not play the game by the international rules. I welcome the Bill on behalf of all my former colleagues in B.A.L.P.A. and on behalf of the members of my former profession throughout the world.

2.38 p.m.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)

I hope that the House will forgive me if I take a few minutes, and I hope that it will be very few, on a Friday afternoon to congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government upon this speedy implementation of the Hague Convention. I was present at the Plenary Session of the Council of Europe at Strasbourg last October in a year which saw an upsurge of these appalling acts of piracy in the air, at which the anxieties of all Western European nations were manifest and at which everybody looked to the then forthcoming assembly at The Hague to strike a blow for freedom of the air, as for centuries we had had freedom of the sea, and for the enforcement of international law in the air.

The trouble about the Tokyo Convention was that it was wholly inadequate. It was a slight step forward, but it was wholly inadequate to deal with what had become one of the most appalling manifestations of a descent into barbarism in international life. It failed very largely because Article 14 asked the State which found on its soil somebody who had been guilty of one of these acts to send him forward to continue his journey to the State of which he was a national, which was as good a let-out as could conceivably be found for an air pirate.

The Bill which will implement The Hague Convention will go a long way to ensure that in all civilised countries—and I imagine that in due course all civilised countries will adhere to the Hague Convention and ratify it—people who put innocent lives, frequently the lives of women and children, in danger and who make a mockery of international law are speedily brought to justice. I welcome particularly the provision which extends the operation of the Extradition Act, 1870, to enable Her Majesty's Government to extradite offenders to countries with which we do not otherwise have an extradition treaty, because I believe that this will be an important and powerful sanction.

The right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) mentioned that this year there had been a slight lull—I emphasise "slight", because there has still been a number of cases—in the number of hijackings, but the magnitude of the problem with which the civilised world has to deal can be illustrated by a brief consideration of the number and importance of the cases of hijacking last year and in the previous two years.

In July, 1968, an Israeli airliner was forced to fly to Algeria and 12 of the passengers were kept as hostages. In February, 1969, 47 people died when there was a bomb explosion on a Swissair jet flying from Zurich to Tel Aviv. In September, 1969, Palestine guerrillas hijacked an American airliner to Damascus and held six Israelis prisoner. In April, 1970, there was the case of the Japanese Maoists hijacking an airliner to North Korea. In July, 1970, 47 passengers aboard a Greek airliner were held prisoner at Athens. Finally, there were the appalling cases last September, when four airliners were hijacked by the Palestine guerrillas and, finally, the airliners concerned were blown up at Dawsons Field.

In my view, those cases alone would be sufficient to show that we are facing today throughout the world very much the same sort of problem, although for different motives, as for several hundred years the civilised world faced in dealing with piracy on the high seas. It is time that hijacking in the air was dealt with with the same severity and the same degree of international agreement and that it became outlawed by the whole international community.

I share the anxieties of the right hon. Member for Barnsley concerning the abstention of a large part of the Arab world and other States from the gathering at The Hague. I hope that Her Majesty's Government and all other Governments which ratify the Convention will bring all diplomatic pressure to bear upon those countries in due course to ratify the Convention and adhere to the ordinary rules of civilised behaviour in relations between nations.

There are many ways in which diplomatic pressure can be brought to bear and in which countries can be told that they will not receive the ordinary consideration which is due to nations in the civilised world if they do not behave with ordinary elementary, civilised respect for innocent men, women and children going about their ordinary purposes in aircraft all over the world.

2.44 p.m.

Mr. Noble

I should like to answer some of the questions which have been raised and to thank right hon. and hon. Members, on both sides, for the way they have paid tribute to the speed with which we are trying to get the Convention ratified.

As the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) said, the Bill in itself, important as it is, cannot solve the whole problem. Although only three States have so far ratified the Convention, we happen to know that quite a considerable number of others are in process of ratification. We shall move as quickly as we can. I am told that even so, we are not likely to be in the first 10. We hope that, with luck, the whole operation will move fairly fast.

Reference has been made to the Arab States. Three of them—the United Arab Republic, the Lebanon and Tunisia— were represented at The Hague, and one Arab State, Iraq, has already signed the Convention. We all appreciate, I think, that at the time in question last year, there were rather obvious political difficulties in the Arab world. Nevertheless, I very much take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve), as well as by the right hon. Member for Barnsley, that all possible pressure should be put not only upon the Arab countries, but upon the maximum number of countries, to make certain that this abominable offence is made at least a good deal more difficult.

The other point on which I would like to say a word is the question of extradition. I am not a legal expert and I am, therefore, rather unnerved by the presence of hon. Members who understand these things a great deal better than I do, but I shall try to explain the position as I see it. The Bill makes hijacking an extraditable offence. Therefore, if somebody arrives in this country by a hijacking method, we can do one of two things. We can either try him in our own courts or, if we have an extradition treaty with the country concerned, we can arrange for his extradition. If we do not have such a treaty, there are special methods under the 1870 Act whereby he can still be extradited. If, however, that person claims that his action was in pursuance of trying to obtain political asylum, his case will be heard in our courts. If they so decide, we cannot extradite him, but we can still prosecute him in this country for his hijacking offence.

I hope that in these rather simple words, although probably not very accurate legally, I have given the House a layman's picture of what the situation will be when the Bill comes into force. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who have taken an interest and come here on this Friday afternoon, and I hope very much that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. More.]

Committee upon Monday next.