HC Deb 31 July 1974 vol 878 cc881-8

3.46 p.m.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I wish to raise a constituency matter which has been worrying me for some time.

Mr. Brian Wall, of 66 Camp Lane, Birmingham, was arrested on 27th November last year at Algeciras in Southern Spain on suspicion of a drugs charge. To this day he has not been brought to trial.

It is not unknown in this country for there to be considerable delays of this kind. Those of us who have dealings with the courts know this only too well. Often cases of complexity take a long time to reach trial here. However a number of aspects of this case give rise to grave concern. The first is that not only has Mr. Wall not yet been brought to trial but that there is no immediate prospect of it.

On 27th November last year Mr. Wall was arrested. The following month, he was transferred to Cadiz prison. On 4th April of this year, the trial was fixed in Spain, and then we learned that it had been put off because the public prosecutor in charge of the trial needed more information. In saying that, I use the phrase which appears in a letter on the subject addressed to me by my right hon. Friend. It is dated 26th April, and it comments quite reasonably that … the Spanish authorities take a serious view of drug offences, and the legal procedure for dealing with them is long and complicated. Of course, that is perfectly true. But there must be a limit.

I remind the House that already eight months have passed. Not only has Mr. Wall not been tried, but no date has been fixed firmly for his trial. What makes the position more serious is the fact that, since the courts in Spain have the same kind of long vacation as our own higher courts, there is little or no prospect of Mr. Wall being brought to trial until the autumn. Indeed, he may have been held in custody for a year before these matters can be determined. To those who are steeped in the tradition of believing that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty, this becomes a most offensive situation.

My hon. Friend, in his letter of 26th April, said that he understood at that time that there was some suggestion of Mr. Wall being granted provisional liberty. I suppose that is the equivalent of bail. To my knowledge, that possibility has not come to fruition, and there is little prospect of it occurring.

My hon. Friend, in letters to me and in answer to Questions, said, understandably, that the Government would be reluctant to be seeming to interfere with the internal processes of justice in another country, even in a country—my words, not his, but I think that he would share them—whose political system most of us would find offensive.

But there comes a time when it is necessary for Her Majesty's Government to speak loud and clear and forcibly, even at the risk of causing offence, in protecting one of Her Majesty's subjects abroad. The hallowed wording of the passport talks about giving assistance where it is needed to any of Her Majesty's subjects. This is just such an occasion when that assistance needs to be invoked.

I had hoped—this is not a criticism of my hon. Friend; I hope that he will accept it in that spirit—that this would be resolvable, as it were, behind the scenes. Unfortunately, that has not proved possible. I believe that, even at the risk of causing some diplomatic offence, it is right that I should raise this matter on the Floor of the House.

I make only one more point. I am not, nor could I be, concerned with whether the charges are right. I am concerned solely with the issue that a person who is incarcerated on suspicion of charges should be brought to trial as expeditiously as possible. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would address himself to that matter.

3.54 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) for the various items of notice that he has given in letters and Written Questions that this matter was in the forefront of his mind and was inevitably—I do not wish to sound patronising—properly a subject for an Adjournment debate.

I understand many of the feelings expressed by my hon. Friend. I understand how he rightly insists—an insistence that I share—that Mr. Brian Roger Wall remains innocent of charges unless and until he is convicted. I also understand his concern that his constituent—therefore, almost a constituent of mine—should find himself in this situation. I have the greatest sympathy for the point of view expressed by my hon. Friend, but my duty is to describe the situation as it is and to describe the powers possessed by Her Majesty's Government, the Foreign Office and its representatives as they are. It is, therefore, necessary for me to begin by describing in a little detail the circumstances which surrounded Mr. Wall's arrest and to analyse as best I can the powers available to the Foreign Office to expedite the processes of his trial.

As the House knows from what my hon. Friend said in the few moments when, unfortunately, I was not in the House, Mr. Wall was arrested on 27th November 1973. He and his companion who had driven with him from Morocco were arrested when they arrived at Algeciras. It was said that he was suspected of being connected with the illegal importation of drugs into Spain and it was alleged that he had on his person seven kilograms of liquid hashish.

That arrest was the result of the arrest on the previous day of two other United Kingdom citizens who, as far as we know, had implicated Mr. Wall and his companion at the time of their arrest or shortly afterwards, when they both made a statement implicating or accusing Mr. Wall and his companion. Both or one of them said that drugs were hidden in the car and the Spanish police were, therefore, awaiting the arrival of Mr. Wall, who on his arrest and formal charging absolutely and totally denied complicity in what the persons previously arrested had suggested.

Two days later, on 29th November, the British Vice-Consul attended the police station and offered to act as interpreter and to deal with any language difficulties that arose. Four days later, on 3rd December, the Consul visited Mr. Wall and asked him what assistance he needed and in what way the British Government could be of assistance to him in his time of difficulty. Mr. Wall said that he had engaged a lawyer, that the processes of law were about to continue in a way that is typical of Spanish justice and that his lawyer was representing his interests in the normal way.

On 30th December all the prisoners on that charge, that is, Mr. Wall, his companion and the two men who were arrested the previous day and who had implicated Mr. Wall, were transferred to the Cadiz prison to await the processes of prosecution which are particular to Spanish justice where there are accusations concerning the importation and selling of drugs.

According to Spanish justice, trials involving the importation and selling of drugs fall into two parts. The first is a hearing before what is described as a contraband tribunal. The penalty if the case is proved is a fine for the importation of an illegal substance. The second process of law under Spanish jurisdiction relevant to such accusations is a hearing before a court of social danger at which a second charge is made concerning the endangering of public health. Therefore, on being charged with this offence Mr. Wall was subject to prosecution in two distinct forms.

In the first form, that is, the charge before the contraband tribunal for importation of an illegal substance, it was expected that the hearing would be on 7th February 1974. That process has been postponed for valuation of the hashish which it is alleged Mr. Wall brought into Spain. The fine on such a charge, if it is proved, is dependent on the valuation of the substance brought in. Therefore, according to Spanish law there needs to be time for the content of the substances to be analysed. The adjournment on 7th February was for valuation, and the adjournment continues. On the second charge—that is, Mr. Wall's arraignment before a court of special danger, a charge which should have been answered by 4th April, an adjournment was made indefinitely on, I am advised, the normal basis that until the first case is heard the second can hardly continue.

That is a description of the legal processes as they have gone so far. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who spends much of his time practising law in this country, will describe that as a prolonged or protracted process.

Mr. Lee

I would indeed.

Mr. Hattersley

My hon. Friend confirms exactly that. Sharing in part that belief, the lawyer who represented Mr. Wall applied in both April and June this year for provisional release, suggesting that, for complications considering the valuation and for applications which flowed from that which resulted in the postponement of the second hearing, it was unreasonable that Mr. Wall should remain in prison while the valuation was made and both hearings were held up. Neither of those applications was accepted. The provisional release was not granted. Mr. Wall remains in prison facing, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the prospect of remaining there until the summer recess is over, but he is, I hope and believe, likely to answer the charges immediately that recess is completed.

Mr. Lee

Do we know a date? Will they be tried one after the other very quickly?

Mr. Hattersley

I fear that we do not know a date. That is why I am careful to say that I think that it will be shortly after the summer recess. But I should be deceiving my hon. Friend if I were to suggest that we have some clear indication of when that date will be. The point that he asks and my answer to it—which I fear he will regard as unconvincing and unsatisfactory—demonstrates the dilemma which the Foreign Office faces in all issues of this kind. My hon. Friend has described us as reluctant to intervene. He said that with generosity. My argument with that remark is that it is not a reluctance to intervene which characterises Foreign Office behaviour but an inability to intervene.

Representing, as I do, the Foreign Office, under the Foreign Secretary, I am concerned with our relations with Western Europe. Perhaps some of my colleagues are more closely concerned with Governments and States whose processes of law are unacceptable in terms of the constitution of this country and the standards of this House. Nevertheless I am constantly faced with letters from hon. Members concerning the law's delays in Europe and the strange processes of these laws as compared with British standards, and often these letters are concerned with complaints about delays and what seems to hon. Members to be arbitrary imprisonment and unacceptable standards of justice, and unacceptable speeds of the processes of justice.

I fear that that is the situation that we face in Spain. I think that my hon. Friend accepts that his comments on the régime in Spain do not in any way differ from my judgments. I hope that he understands that I regard it as not simply undesirable but deplorable that a man should have been arrested on 27th December 1973 and should not yet have come to trial.

I hope that my hon. Friend understands that in this instance, as in many others in other countries, the Foreign Office offers its services and support to British nationals who face this difficulty. But the Foreign Office is faced with what is in many ways an insurmountable difficulty. Mr. Wall has properly engaged a lawyer to conduct his interests. That lawyer is properly and inevitably going through the Spanish courts and expecting and accepting the disciplines imposed upon him by the Spanish system of judgments, which traditionally and by convention—and not only by convention but by precedent—says two things. It says, first, that there is the dual trial of drug offences. Experience suggests that both these trials take place over a protracted period. It also says that it is extremely rare for a person who is accused of drug offences to be allowed out on the application for provisional release between the accusation and the eventual hearing of his case.

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that, irrespective of Mr. Wall's innocence or guilt—my hon. Friend and I are agreed that at the present moment Mr. Wall is innocent and remains so until and unless he is convicted by a Spanish court—he is under the jurisdiction of Spanish law. That law requires him to go through the processes which are common and peculiar to Spain. That applies much as we may regret the fact that in this case and in other cases the processes take so long.

Our records show that there are 66 United Kingdom citizens who are in detention in Spain. Of these, only 25 have had their legal processes completed and have been sentenced, if found guilty, or released if found innocent. The remaining 41 await trial. That, I fear, is the inevitable feature of the way in which the law works in Spain. It is a feature which applies to Spaniards and British citizens when it is alleged that they have committed an offence in Spain which makes them subject to Spanish law. What it is not possible to do is to ask the Spanish Government to give any one of the 41 cases awaiting trial some sort of preferential treatment or priority.

It is not possible for my right hon. Friend or for Her Majesty's Ambassador in Spain to ask that Mr. Wall somehow be promoted to the head of the judicial queue in Spain. We may express our regret that he has remained untried and unconvicted for what may amount to almost a year before the case comes to court. I fear that the powers of Her Majesty's Government to intervene are at best limited and at worst non-existent. I can assure my hon. Friend that the services of Her Majesty's Consul to advise and assist remain open to Mr. Wall.

Mr. Wall has a lawyer employed privately and in a civil capacity to represent his case. As we understand it, he is doing so adequately according to the tenets of Spanish law, but that lawyer, like Mr. Wall and like Her Majesty's Government, is constrained by the requirements of Spanish law. There is nothing that we can do to side-step, accelerate or change the Spanish process. However, it is possible—I say this without in any way prejudicing the case that now faces Mr. Wall and his associates—to remind British tourists that laws relating to drugs and associated matters arouse considerable passion with the Spanish authorities. The prospects of their taking anything like a lenient view of such matters are deeply remote. That is why we have gone out of our way to remind tourists and holiday makers in Spain of the Spanish attitude.

I make that comment whilst in no way suggesting that Mr. Wall is guilty. I do so to remind tourists and holiday makers that should they be guilty of an offence or charged with an offence—we know that Mr. Wall is charged although we do not know that he is guilty—they are likely to face the same problems and difficulties that now face Mr. Wall—namely, two trials, a protracted period in prison and the inability of Her Majesty's Government to do anything other than offer the legal advice and consular services which are inherent in the possession of a British passport.

I hope that my hon. Friend, Mr. Wall and his relations will understand that it is not simply difficult but impossible to do more than that which I have described. I look forward to hearing when the House reassembles that Mr. Wall has come to trial. I hope that I shall then be able to report to my hon. Friend that the processes of the Spanish law have been completed.