HC Deb 06 July 1984 vol 63 cc609-17

11 am

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on the attempt yesterday to abduct Mr. Umaru Dikko.

The Metropolitan Police were informed yesterday at 12.40 pm of the suspected abduction of Mr. Umaru Dikko, a Nigerian living in this country who was formerly a member of the Government of Nigeria. The call to the police, by his personal assistant, Miss Elizabeth Hayes, said that at about 12.25 pm he had been taken away in a van after a struggle.

Because of the possibility that attempts might be made to remove him from this country, a special watch was mounted at ports. As a result suspicions were aroused by two large crates which arrived at about 4 pm at Stansted to be loaded on to a Nigerian Airways cargo aircraft. The crates were not diplomatic bags as defined by the Vienna convention. The crates were accordingly opened. I understand that members of the staff of the high commission were already at Stansted and a Mr. Edet was invited to inspect the crates. Two people were found in each crate. One crate contained Mr. Dikko, who was unconscious, and another man who was conscious and in possession of drugs and syringes. The other crate contained two men, both conscious. Mr. Dikko is now recovering satisfactorily under police guard in hospital and will be questioned as soon as he is well enough. A total of 17 people, including the remaining three found in the crates, were arrested by the police and are being questioned. None of those arrested has claimed diplomatic immunity.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary summoned the high commissioner for Nigeria to see him at 9 am this morning and told him that he took a most serious view of the incident. The hign commissioner undertook to convey to his Government a report of the meeting. He denied any high commission or Nigerian Government involvement in the incident. The Foreign Secretary said that he expected the fullest co-operation from the Nigerian high commissioner, including the waiver of diplomatic immunity if that were necessary for the purpose of ensuring justice.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

May I express appreciation to the Home Secretary for making an early statement to the House? I also express appreciation for the expeditious and efficient action by the police and customs officials at Stansted, who acted with commendable efficiency. The Home Secretary will understand that the British people will regard this incident as wholesale contempt for human life and for the laws of the land. This is the second time that it has happened. After our recent experiences of the Libyan siege we now apparently see it in respect of Nigerian politics. I hope and believe that the Home Secretary appreciates that it causes a sense of outrage. Most British people believe that diplomatic immunity should not lead to criminal immunity, and I should be grateful if the Home Secretary will assure the House that there will be no inhibitions upon the police investigation of the matter resulting from diplomatic considerations.

Although the House appreciates that the Nigerian Government—this is a delicate matter for the Foreign Secretary —are are a friendly Commonwealth Government trying to deal with a corrupt state, nothing justifies activity such as the Home Secretary described to the House. Will he also comment on the reported hold-up of a British Caledonian aircraft in Nigeria? That is completely unacceptable to the Opposition. There seems to be no justification for it in international law and no reason why that action should have been taken. Can he assure us that the strongest protest is being made about the sequestering of the aircraft, and can he tell us when it is likely to be freed?

Although I appreciate what the Home Secretary said about the action of an official of the Nigerian high commission at Stansted, did the official agree to the opening of the crates and did he co-operate with police investigations in every way?

Mr. Brittan

To deal first with the separate matter of the British Caledonian aircraft, at the meeting this morning with the Nigerian high commissioner my right hon. arid learned Friend the Foreign Secretary protested strongly about the unwarranted detention of the plane, the crew and passengers, and asked for its immediate release. The high commissioner claimed to have no knowledge of the event but said that he would pass the request to his Government. I can confirm that our high commissioner in Lagos is meeting the Nigerian Foreign. Minister this morning and, therefore, the strongest representations for the earliest possible release of the aircraft are being made.

I appreciate what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) rightly said about the prompt and effective action of police and customs officers in preventing the attempted kidnapping and possibly saving lives. The House will wish to commend their skill and promptness. I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about his sense of outrage at this crime. We all share that sense of outrage to the full.

As to police investigations, I have said that none of those arrested has claimed diplomatic immunity. I also said that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary told the Nigerian high commissioner that he expected the fullest co-operation from the high commissioner and his staff, including the waiver of diplomatic immunity if that should prove necessary. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that inquiries are still at an early stage.

The Nigerian diplomat who was present at Stansted was invited to inspect the crates. He was present after they were opened and did not impede the inspection of the crates and subsequent police activity.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am sure that the whole House will endorse the tributes that have been paid to the police and customs officers for their efficiency in apprehending those involved in the case. As I suspect that all hon. Members hope that it will be shown that the Nigerian Government were not involved in this incident — we value the friendly relations with a Commonwealth country — does the Home Secretary agree that the Nigerians could best demonstrate their noninvolvement and their commitment to resolving this issue by immediately releasing the British Caledonian aircraft, acceding to his request to make available for police questioning any diplomats that might have been involved in the matter, and showing the complete co-operation that we would expect from a friendly Commonwealth country?

Does the Home Secretary further agree that we should be careful about making too crude a comparison with the Libyan incident? It is a very different matter, and Libya had very different relations with Britain. In dealing with this delicate matter, it is important for us to accept the views of the Nigerian Government and hope that they will fulfil their obligations to a fellow Commonwealth country.

Mr. Brittan

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the good relations that have existed between Britain and Nigeria and the value that we attach to those relations. I also agree that relations would be immensely assisted by the immediate release of the British Caledonian aircraft. I agree also with the right hon. Gentleman that those relations would be further assisted by a ready co-operation with the police and those investigating this matter.

I make no comparisons of this incident with any other, except to say that it is obviously an extremely grave matter for an attempt such as this to take place. It must be investigated properly and we are entitled to expect the fullest co-operation of everybody, whether they have diplomatic connections or not, in that process of investigation. However, I shall not prejudge the outcome of the investigation.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

My right hon. and learned Friend has confirmed that relations between this country and Nigeria are excellent, and that this incident should not be considered against the background of that at the Libyan embassy. Will he also confirm that the Nigerian high commissioner has promised the fullest cooperation in the investigation of this incident?

Will he also confirm that Mr. Dikko is wanted in Lagos on a charge of stealing public funds, and that it looks as though some misguided people have tried to take the law into their own hands?

Mr. Brittan

I am not prepared to speculate as far as my hon. Friend. There is an arrangement under the Fugitive Offenders Act that applies to Nigeria. No request has been made to this Government for any legal proceedings whereby Mr. Dikko would be returned. Beyond that, it is impossible to go.

As to the extent of the co-operation of the high commissioner, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said that he expected the fullest cooperation, including the waiver of diplomatic immunity if that were necessary, the high commissioner said that he would pass on that request to this Government. The meeting with my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary took place this morning. I cannot report a fuller response from the high commissioner than that.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the crates concerned were marked "diplomatic property"? If that is correct, and as a crate may constitute a diplomatic bag, why has the Home Secretary said that these crates were outside the Vienna convention when he maintained that the diplomatic bags used in the Libyan incident were within the Vienna convention? Is not this part of diplomatic law in a disgraceful and gruesome mess? In those circumstances, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman undertake that the Government will carry out what they originally said they would do after the Libyan incident, and seek a change in the Vienna convention, rather than give way, as Sir Antony Acland implied to the Select Committee on Home Affairs is now the Government's intention?

Will the Home Secretary undertake that this afternoon, when my Bill, the Diplomatic Immunity (Revision and Interpretation) Bill, comes up for Second Reading, it will not be blocked by the Government, anonymously or otherwise? It is an attempt to try to get some sense into this part of diplomatic law so that diplomatic bags can be surveyed and the expression "It's in the bag" will cease to have a new and thoroughly unacceptable dimension.

Mr. Brittan

On the Vienna convention and matters relating to it, I have nothing to add to what has been said by both myself and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary about our examination of the convention, which we said would take place, and of its operation, which is at least as important as the contents of the convention.

With regard to the hon. and learned Gentleman's specific question about why these crates were different from a normal diplomatic bag, the crates did not have the visible markings that a diplomatic bag normally has, and there was no courier such as normally accompanies a diplomatic bag, as required by article 27(5) of the Vienna convention, who normally carries documents explaining his official status, and the number of packages.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that his statement this morning will be reassuring to many of the residents in the city of Westminster, where so many of these serious incidents involving foreign nationals have occurred. Nevertheless, there is great outrage and concern in my constituency, particularly in Bayswater, where this abduction incident originated. Many people are now frightened about the behaviour of foreign nationals. They very much hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to give assurances that the police will enforce the law of the United Kingdom, and that if it is found that the Nigerian high commission was involved in this incident in any way the most exemplary action will be forthcoming.

Mr. Brittan

On the latter point, I shall not prejudge the inquiries, but the Government have made it clear, in our response to the events relating to the Libyan siege, that we shall take a serious view of any breach of the Vienna convention. Let us not forget that any action such as that to which my hon. Friend refers would be a gross abuse of the convention. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has shown his willingness to take a serious view and serious action if such a breach were to be proved. I repeat that I am not prejudging the situation.

I should perhaps have said in answer to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) that the high commission did not contend for a single moment that these crates were diplomatic bags in any sense. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), who has shown natural concern for his constituents, I endorse his expression of the importance of the police engaging vigorously in the protection of lives and property against threats such as those that my hon. Friend has identified.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Can the Home Secretary assure the House that, where diplomatic immunity is breached in such incidents, it will automatically follow that the British Government will be released from any previous arrangements in taking care of that incident? Will he also ask his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to make it clear to the Nigerians, the Libyans, the Sikhs or anybody else that there is no place in the United Kingdom for them to fight out their vendettas on our streets?

Mr. Brittan

The latter point is one that both I and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary have repeatedly made, and I welcome the opportunity, in response to the right hon. Gentleman, to reaffirm it. I am not quite sure what the right hon. Gentleman means by a release from obligations. We are not discharged from the obligations of the treaty, but I can assure him, as has been said, that if there is a proved abuse or breach of the convention, the Government are in no sense powerless to act and have explained our willingness within the confines of the convention to take vigorous action on any missions that have been proved to be guilty of abuses.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say that no one who appears to be concerned in this murderous outrage is listed as a member of the Nigerian high commission or any other Nigerian Government agency in this country? Following other supplementary questions, does not this incident probably lend extra urgency to reconsideration of the Vienna convention and the immunity enjoyed by a minority of the diplomatic corps for their sleazy offences and anti-social behaviour?

Mr. Brittan

I agree that this incident highlights the widely expressed concern about the operation of the Vienna convention, and underlines the correct judgment of the Government in considering these matters. As to the specific exoneration for which my hon. Friend asked, that inevitably cannot be given in the current state of the inquiry.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, while the House will await with interest further information on this deplorable incident, it gives rise to a wider problem that remains unsolved? Parliament and the public are heartily sick and tired of the repeated commission of offences by people claiming diplomatic immunity, in some cases when involved in serious offences such as rape, assault, serious motor offences, the smuggling of arms and drugs, and now——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going rather wide of the question.

Sir Bernard Braine

I am asking whether consideration could be given to this wider problem. These incidents have been going on for a long time, and the latest incident merely underlines the necessity for a clear ruling on the subject, even if it means doing something about so-called diplomatic immunity for people who behave in a criminal fashion but cannot be brought before our courts.

Mr. Brittan

The right response where grave action has taken place and there is diplomatic immunity is for the Government to take up the case very strongly with the high commission, or embassy concerned. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has outlined the steps that he would be prepared to take—quite grave ones—in the absence of full co-operation and, where appropriate, waiver of immunity in an individual case where a serious crime had been committed. It is reasonable to expect within the operation of good diplomatic relations that where a bad apple exists in any embassy or high commission, any reputable head of mission should be the first to wish to deal with it and to hand any offender over to the normal processes of law.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend convey to the Nigerian high commission the surprise of some of us that, if the Nigerian high commission was in no way involved with this act, there were representatives of the high commission in attendance at the time that the crates were being loaded? Will my right hon. and learned Friend also convey to him the astonishment of some of us, if the denials of the high commission are true, that the Nigerian Government's first reaction should have been to seize a British Caledonian aeroplane—as if to have a bargaining counter should we take any action against their diplomatic representatives? Can my right hon. and learned Friend also confirm that, had the crates been appropriately and properly marked according to article 27(4) of the Vienna convention, they could never have been opened?

Mr. Brittan

My hon. and learned Friend draws attention to the response in stopping the British Caledonian plane. I share his concern that a Government who have officially, through their high commission, denied any involvement with this should simultaneously engage in an act of that kind. It is extremely difficult to understand how the two go hand in hand. I hope very much that that will be put right promptly.

The other expressions of opinion by my hon. and learned Friend are matters which are proper for investigation. They are matters which my hon. and learned Friend does well to raise. I am sure that they will be considered in the course of the investigation.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that history shows that, almost every time a military Government seize power from a civilian one in Nigeria, there emerge in or near to that Government certain ruthless and barbarian elements who are apt to get quite out of control? Without wishing to prejudge the issue, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, until the various mysteries and doubts surrounding this incident and the episode of the British Caledonian airliner are cleared up, he should suggest to the Foreign Secretary that at the very least a severe chill should enter into our diplomatic relations with Nigeria?

Mr. Brittan

As the House will see, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is sitting by my side and will have heard my hon. Friend's comments. There is no doubt that, until the British Caledonian plane is released, it will be very difficult for Her Majesty's Government to understand how a friendly Government can behave in the way that they have done.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

While I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) that the grounding of the British Caledonian jet was not the act of an innocent and friendly nation, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to remind Nigeria very forcibly that, unless the aircraft is released instantly, the position and landing rights of Air Nigeria will have to be considered?

Mr. Brittan

I am sure that those responsible will have heard what my hon. Friend said. A failure to release the plane very promptly is bound to be treated as a serious matter in terms of its implications for air transport and more generally.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

Have the Nigerian Government, at any level or at any time, sought extradition proceedings in the case of this individual? Secondly, what is the status of Mr. Dikko in this country? Is he enjoying political asylum, or is he here on a visitor's passport?

Mr. Brittan

I can give a clear answer to my hon. Friend's first question. At no stage have the Nigerian Government sought Mr. Dikko's extradition or its equivalent under the Fugitive Offenders Act. I do not think that Mr. Dikko has sought asylum, but I shall have to check up to discover his immigration position.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Will my right hon. and learned Friends make it plain to heads of mission in this country that our police have two jobs, the first being to protect diplomats and the second being, if necessary, to protect other people from those who may or may not be associated with high commissions or embassies? Will my right hon. and learned Friends also accept that we have had too many incidents of ambassadors, high commissions and their staffs being endangered here and too many incidents such as the Bulgarian one, the Middle East problems and the South Africans attacking their nationalist movements in this country and that we are not prepared to allow them to continue? We shall protect diplomats, and protect other people from diplomats, if necessary.

Mr. Brittan

Diplomats are entitled to protection, and they get it. Equally, the people of this country are entitled to be protected against any abuse of diplomatic immunity or diplomatic privileges. The people of this country will not put up with outrages emanating from diplomatic sources. It was exactly for that reason that, after the Libyan incident, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and I made it clear that we were ready to take the strongest action against any mission proved to be responsible for any abuse of diplomatic privileges leading to criminal actions. That remains the position. But when and if a specific incident can be laid at the door of any mission, it is a matter of fact and investigation in each case.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Reverting to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison), I am still not clear about the status of the people presently under investigation. Is not the House entitled to know what connection, if any, there is between these people and the Nigerian high commission or, if they have no connection, what their status is in this country?

Mr. Brittan

A total of 17 people are being questioned at the moment. They include the three people in the crates, plus a number of others who were around at the time at Stansted. It does not necessarily follow that those people currently being questioned are guilty of any offence. They are being questioned, and the questioning ought to be allowed to continue

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Given the possible need to ask for a waiver of immunity, and given also the considerable difficulties which lie in the way of renegotiating the Vienna convention, will not the Government undertake to look urgently at the possibility of renegotiating, on the basis of a mutual waiver of privilege in predefined circumstances, the terms on which we continue diplomatic relations with other countries?

Mr. Brittan

My hon. and learned Friend's idea has considerable attractions, although the ability to predefine circumstances will not necessarily be easy to determine. I shall draw this suggestion to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary who, in any event, has heard it.

Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)

Although the action of the Home Secretary in this affair is entirely commendable, what actions will he and the police take in future to ensure that this gentleman is not again abducted?

Mr. Brittan

It is quite clear that the risk in which this gentleman is placed has now been underlined, and the police will no doubt take note of it.

Sir John Page (Harrow, West)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend give the House any more information about the documentation accompanying these crates?

Mr. Brittan

Yes. The crate was addressed to the Ministry of External Affairs, Lagos, from the Nigerian high commission, London, but it was not accompanied by an official document showing the status of the courier and the number of packages constituting the diplomatic bag, nor did it have the other markings of the diplomatic bag as such.

The House will recollect that when I answered questions on the Libyan affair a contrast was drawn between the diplomatic bag and personal baggage, and the different degree of protection accorded to both. It was clear that this was not a diplomatic bag, although it purported to emanate from the high commission. I deliberately used the somewhat legalistic and pompous word "purported" because, of course, it is the subject of investigation.

Mr. Denis Howell

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman throw a little more light on the phrase that he used in the statement that members of the staff of the high commission were already at Stansted when the crates were opened? Are those members of the high commission at Stansted subject to police investigation, and, if so, are they co-operating? That is important.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman request his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to convey immediately to the Nigerian Government the fact that both sides of the House believe that it is completely unacceptable that the aircraft should be impounded and that that is completely inconsistent with the Nigerian high commission's claim that it is in no way involved in the affair? Will he also inform the Nigerian Government that we will judge them not least by the speed with which they release the aircraft and allow it to proceed on its lawful course? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman keep the House informed of developments at Stansted and any other serious developments in the course of the investigation?

Mr. Brittan

All the members of the high commission's staff at Stansted are being questioned by the police in the investigation of this matter. Of course the House must be kept informed of developments as they occur.

It is perfectly clear from what has been said from both sides of the House that there is a fund of goodwill towards Nigeria——

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

But not to the military Government.

Mr. Brittan

—and a readiness not to jump to conclusions prematurely, unnecessarily or on the basis of inadequate information. But equally it will be clear that that fund of goodwill will be drawn on too heavily if the Nigerian Government fail to release the British Caledonian aircraft immediately.

Mr. Janner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I am not sure that any point of order for me can arise on this.

Mr. Janner

It arises directly out of this matter, Mr. Speaker. This is a matter in which two Departments of State are concerned. The Foreign Secretary has most properly come to the House to listen. Surely, where there are matters of the broadest interest regarding diplomatic immunity as such, and the British Caledonian aircraft in particular—where, for example, matters extend to how the Government could or would prevent bodies, live or dead, from being carried out in diplomatic bags — it should be for the Foreign Secretary to provide a statement and answers to the House.

Mr. Gorst

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it within your power to invite the Foreign Secretary, if he so wished, to respond to the point of order made by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner)?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order for me. I am not responsible for which Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box to make a statement.