HC Deb 04 July 1980 vol 987 cc2046-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Jopling.]

3.1 pm

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Woking-ham)

One of the attractions of this House is that it changes mood very quickly. We turn from the vagaries of the minutiae of parliamentary procedure, probably understood only by those hon. Members at present in the House, to a very serious matter which I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for permitting me to raise in this brief debate. It concerns the very human story of my constituent, Mr. Ned Sparkes, who was a contracts manager with the distinguished firm of Wimpey responsible, in his case, for Iraq and who, on an indeterminate date in 'September 1978, was arrested in that country. I say "an indeterminate date" because it was some days after his arrest before anything was heard, and it was only on 12 October of that year that the Iraqis confirmed that he had been arrested.

I accept, of course, as must other hon. Members, that the Iraqis are fully entitled to arrest foreigners of any nationality if they have contravened the domestic law of their country. That of course, applies to us as well. However, there are three reasons why there is very special concern in this case. The first is that there was what I can only describe as deliberate evasion for three weeks before Her Majesty's Government were informed of the fate of my constituent. The second was the refusal, except for one visit, to allow regular consular access to my constituent, contrary to all the requirements of international law. The third was the failure to lay formal charges against him.

As a result of sustained pressure, the Iraqis later agreed to two consular visits a month to my constituent; and charges were laid.

The charges were laid and found allegedly proven, in a court proceeding which would not pass scrutiny in this country, of attempted bribery and economic espionage.

To the extent that any outside person can judge these matters, having listened to senior members of the great firm of Wimpey, and having talked to persons who know my constituent, I believe Mr. Sparkes to be innocent of these charges. But, fortunately for the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) knows Mr. Sparkes very well and has worked alongside him. I hope that my hon Friend will be able to catch your eye for a few minutes because I shall be very happy for him to add his more effective testimony to the personal qualities of Mr. Sparkes.

Meanwhile, Ministers have kept up unremitting pressure over all these long, weary months. I pay tribute to Mr. Frank Judd, the Minister of State responsible at that time at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, for whose courtesy in being here this afternoon I am deeply obliged. I can testify from personal experience that he has made this human case his special concern. I wish to say publicly what I have said privately, namely, how deeply grateful I am that an immensely pressed Minister has shown such personal concern for this case—although that is no surprise to those who have the privilege of knowing my hon. Friend.

I went to see the ambassador in London for the republic of Iraq in September 1979. I am grateful to His Excellency for receiving me, and I acknowledge the courtesy with which he did so. I placed the matter before him in trenchant terms, but without result. Had there been a result, I should not be raising the matter on the Floor of the House.

It has been suggested in some quarters that there should, in matters of this sort, be an exchange arrangement between those held prisoner in other countries and those held prisoner in Britain, being nationals of the countries concerned. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I would need a considerable amount of persuading before going down that road. I am as conscious as any outside person can be—other than a member of the family or some close friend—of the truly enormous pressures on the family of Mr. Sparkes. But, quite frankly, that would be a slippery road to go down even if it was suggested by any quarter.

Leaving aside the fundamental question that in Britain Ministers do not control our courts—nor do we wish to live in a country where Ministers control courts—and leaving aside the fact that anyone convicted in Britain, of whatever nationality, will have had a fair trial conducted in public with opportunities for appeal, and before a jury in the case of really serious crime, surely in an age which, most regrettably, knows increased violence and terrorism, it requires not softer, but harder, standards when dealing with violence.

It would doubtless have been comparatively simple for the Government of the United Kingdom to have dealt with and settled the occupation of the Iranian embassy in London by adopting some such strategy as that—one only has to reflect for a moment to realise at what price. Those quarters which might have such suggestions in mind must take full account of the repercussions that there would be in that part of Britain where, regrettably, we have to deal on a daily basis with the threat or actuality of terrorism. I am referring to Northern Ireland in which I served for about two years as a Minister in the previous Conservative Government.

I am not pressing my hon. Friend in that direction. I am certainly not critical, as he knows, of inaction or anything approaching it. I have paid my tribute to the sustained pressure that has been brought to bear. I know that my right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary has been concerned with the matter. I know that Ministers visiting Baghdad have never allowed their hosts to forget that this is a matter about which many people feel very deeply.

I hope that by bringing the searchlight of publicity, through a debate on the Floor of the House, on to a dark corner of an Iraqi gaol, we can together help to secure justice and mercy for someone who I believe is a much-wronged man and that we may together be able to give some support, particularly to his wife, whose courage and fortitude in circumstances that would have broken many a lesser person, command the admiration of all who are privileged to know her.

I speak with moderation, because I am conscious of the gravity of the issue, but I trust that no one who subsequently reads my words will underestimate the strength of feeling with which they are spoken.

3.11 pm
Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

It is a privilege and pleasure to speak on behalf of Ned Sparkes. Between April 1975 and April 1977, I worked for Wimpey as a contracts manager for the company's work in Iran. I shared an office with Ned Sparkes who was the contracts manager for Iraq.

During those two years, I got to know Ned well and I can vouch for his uprightness, warmth of personality and strength of business approach and for the respect in which he was held by his Wimpey colleagues and others. I met many of his Iraqi colleagues and it was evident to me that the Iraqi people had the highest regard for him. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) for raising this important and tragic matter.

The first charge against Ned is one of attempted bribery. In 1976 the Iraqi Government brought in a new law providing the death penalty for attempted bribery. Ned and I talked for two hours about bribery, the Middle East and the new law. Our philosophies were similar. We saw no point in attempting to attempt bribery in the Middle East. That was also the policy of our company. The chairman of Wimpey told Ned "Don't even offer the Iraqis a cigarette, in case that action is misinterpreted." We felt that any payment to any agent would only increase the price to the Iraqi Government. Often, it held no certainty that the work would be obtained anyway. Bribes were often asked for by those who could have no influence on the placing of contracts.

Ned served in the Army and has been employed by Wimpey's for many years. He is respected by everyone in the company and, knowing Ned as I do, and having spent the best part of two years with him, taking messages for him and meeting his business contacts, I can vouch for his innocence.

The second charge is economic espionage. When any contractor's man or industrialist overseas is trying to obtain work, it is essential for him to obtain economic information—five-year plans, economic forecasts, forward exchange rates, programmes for building and construction, and so on. Ned was trying to obtain a £600 million railway contract for the whole of Iraq. It is essential for anyone in that position to have basic marketing information. In this country we take it for granted that one looks for the necessary documents. In the Middle East, as in the rest of the world, those documents have to be obtained.

Ned was not stupid. He knew that, like others, he was followed wherever he went in Iraq. He knew that telexes and telephone messages were intercepted. There is no way that he could be guilty of economic espionage.

I add my thanks to the Minister and pay tribute to him. For the last year or more he has worked personally and made strenuous efforts to do everything possible for Ned. I thank him on behalf of Wimpey's and the family. Everything must be considered in the attempt to obtain Ned's release. Thank yon, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to speak on his behalf.

3.15 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) raised the case and that he was so effectively supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover). At any given moment, there are several such cases of which the House and the Foreign Office are aware. Sadly, that is the nature of the world in which we live. Mr. Sparkes's case, more than any other, has rightly taken up the time of Ministers since he was imprisoned. My right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary has been involved. We are deeply disappointed that the matter has not so far been resolved.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham for the way in which he has handled the case today and over recent months. I ask him please to let Mrs. Sparkes and the other members of the family know that we understand that the great restraint that they have shown is simply because they are passionately anxious to do and say nothing which might put back the day on which Mr. Sparkes is released.

In September 1978 Mr. Sparkes went to Baghdad at the invitation of the Iraqis to follow up a tender for a construction project. Mr. Sparkes knew Iraq well and his visit was such that British businessmen pay to Iraq and a host of other countries as a matter of course every day of the year. He was arrested shortly after his arrival. After a secret trial he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of economic espionage and attempted bribery. The Iraqi Embassy in London, in a note dated 30 May 1979, confirmed the sentence but provided no further details.

Mr. Sparkes is still in prison. He is now seen fortnightly by British Embassy officials. They find that he is physically and mentally fit, but of course the strain and distress caused to him and his family is very great indeed. We do not question the right of the Iraqi Government to make their own laws, to enforce their own laws and to arrest and imprison British subjects who break their laws. However, there are obligations under international treaties and international law. We expect that Iraq, as any other country, will comply with them. Many aspects of Mr. Sparkes's case are disquieting in that respect.

In spite of repeated representations, the Iraqi Government took three weeks to confirm that Mr. Sparkes had been arrested. We were not notified officially of the reasons for his arrest and detention. At the beginning he was not allowed regular consular access. The trial was held in secret and he was not permitted a defence lawyer. Our embassy in Baghdad was not notified of the trial or allowed to sent a representative to it. In those respects, Iraq failed to comply with specific obligations under the Vienna convention on consular matters, to which it is a signatory.

Later we were told that Mr. Sparkes had been sentenced to life imprisonment, but we have not been provided with evidence to substantiate the conviction. I have listened with care to what my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley said in that regard. For all those reasons, we cannot accept the way in which this matter has been handled.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the case with the President of Iraq when he visited Baghdad in July last year on one of the first visits he made as Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. He has followed this up with two messages to the President of Iraq appealing for clemency on humanitarian grounds. Others of my right hon. and hon. Friends have visited Baghdad since then—the Secretary of State for Trade, the Secretary of State for Energy and the Minister of State, Department of Trade. In each case, they have raised the question of Mr. Sparkes's imprisonment when they visited Baghdad and talked to members of the Iraqi Government. We have also used, and sought to use, the good offices of other friendly countries to make the same point on grounds of humanity.

Like my hon. Friend, the Member for Wokingham, I have heard suggestions about the possibility of some bargain or exchange in this regard, perhaps for an Iraqi citizen who was convicted of murder in this country in March 1979 and sentenced to life imprisonment. After careful thought—it is a matter that needs careful thought—Her Majesty's Government are of the firm view that we cannot proceed along this road. There is no way in which a sentence imposed by a court in this country can be reduced by administrative decision other than by exercise of the Royal Prerogative. Release on licence—there are rules—can only be on the recommendation of the Parole Board. In the case of a con- victed murderer, such a suggestion would not be favourably considered by the Parole Board until he had served a substantial prison sentence.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary simply does not have the power in this regard to act without a recommendation from the Parole Board and until he has consulted the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, if he is available. Apart from these legal considerations, which are tough, there is also the argument on which my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham touched from his experience in Northern Ireland. There are always humanitarian arguments for some kind of exchange in these cases because it would bring to an end the immediate personal distress. But there are also, we feel, strong humanitarian arguments against such a proposal. I would simply say, without labouring the point, that if it became known that the British Government were willing to hand over people convicted in our courts of terrorist offences, the dangers facing British subjects travelling abroad would be greatly increased. It is a sad paradox that this case of Mr. Sparkes drags on at a time when, in other respects, our relations with Iraq have been improving.

We see Iraq as a very considerable power in the Middle East. We want good relations with it. It is a country, I do not need to remind the House, with a long history and a future full of promise. We recognise the growing influence of Iraq in international affairs and, in particular, in the Middle East. We find that our views on some of these problems are increasingly similar to those of that State.

Both Governments are alarmed by the growth of Soviet influence in, and on the edge of, the Middle East. We have both condemned the invasion of Afghanistan. We have a common concern over instability in the area following the Iranian revolution. On all these matters we want to work with the Government of Iraq. We feel that there is much scope for consultation and co-operation. We have no desire to intervene in its internal affairs. It is against this background of improving relations in other respects and our wish for further progress in the coming months and years that I appeal again, as strongly as possible, to the Government of Iraq to release Mr. Sparkes. So long as he is held, that fact—apart from the personal suffering which it causes to him and his family—is bound to get in the way of the better relations that we are seeking and for which we, and I believe the Iraqi Government, have been working.

Quite honestly, I do not think that I in any way deserve the kind remarks or thanks which my hon. Friends have expressed, because I do not feel in the least bit complacent about what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been able to achieve in this case. We shall continue to take every opportunity which looks promising of pressing for the release of Mr. Sparkes on humanitarian grounds. I am sure that it is the view of the whole House, and we believe strongly, that on grounds of fairness and humanity, the case for his release is overwhelming.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Three o'clock.