HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc703-10 3.51 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the abduction of Mr. Umaru Dikko, which will bring the House up to date on developments since the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary in the House on Friday. Police and other inquiries are continuing. I will make a further statement to the House later this week.

As the House will know, a British Caledonian aircraft with its crew and passengers was unlawfully detained by the Nigerian authorities in Lagos from 5 to 7 July. We protested strongly to the Nigerian authorities both in London and in Lagos at this totally unjustified and unlawful act. Subsequently we have made a further strong protest about the conditions under which the passengers were held at Lagos airport. The plane was released at 1400 local time on Saturday 7 July and arrived back in the United Kingdom at about 4.30 on Sunday morning.

I understand that air services between the United Kingdom and Nigeria are now functioning normally.

Meanwhile, the police are continuing their inquiries into the abduction of Mr. Dikko and the attempts to smuggle people out of the country. I am advised that these have made some progress but that they are not yet complete, not least because it has only just become possible for the police to start questioning Mr. Dikko. I understand that some criminal charges are likely to be brought quite soon.

I appreciate, of course, that the House wishes to have the fullest and earliest possible information on these aspects, but it is important that any decisions that have to be taken should be based on the fullest available information and should not interfere with or prejudice police inquiries. That is why neither I nor my right hon. and learned Friend can make a definitive statement on these aspects today and why I may have to decline to answer fully some of the questions which may arise.

Nevertheless, it is already clear that if the police are to be able to complete their inquiries satisfactorily they will need to interview members of the Nigerian high commission staff. This need arises from the presence at Stansted airport on 5 July of at least one member of the Nigerian high commission staff and vehicles from that high commission. The Nigerian high commissioner has, accordingly, today been asked specifically to allow the police to carry out the necessary interviews, and told that we require a very early reply to this request.

As the House will know, it is the duty of all persons enjoying privileges and immunities in accordance with the Vienna convention to respect the laws and regulations of their host country. It is plain that the commission of acts of violence on British territory and the plotting of the abduction of a person from the United Kingdom is a matter of the gravest concern. Not least in view of the good relations which have traditionally existed between Nigeria and the United Kingdom, I am sure that the House will join me in looking for an early and positive response from the Nigerian high commissioner. As I have already made clear, the Government will keep the House fully informed of further developments.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

We appreciate that police inquiries are still going on into this outrageous kidnapping and that the final position of the Government must await the police conclusions. We in the Opposition associate ourselves with the widespread praise for the outstanding police and customs operation during this incident. However, given what is already known about the incident, why is not possible to make our general position quite clear here and now? Why are we still pussy-footing around the issue? In May, after the Libyan siege, the Foreign Secretary said: We shall be ready to use this power"— the power of expulsion— as an exemplary measure against any mission that the Government have good reason to believe is responsible for unacceptable activities in this country."— [Official Report, 1 May 1984; Vol. 59 c. 212.] Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that his strong words in May are followed by appropriately strong action in July? Will he tell the House that if any diplomat is found to have been implicated in this crime he or she will either face trial, or, if immunity is not waived to allow it, he or she will be expelled forthwith? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the considerable concern in this country, given the fact that London has a number of foreign exiles, many of whom are accused of crimes, both real and imaginary, back home, and that all of them would be at risk if this sort of violent, illegal repatriation were to be in any way legitimised?

Can the House be assured that, whatever the letter of the Vienna convention, if British officials suspect that human beings are in properly or improperly labelled diplomatic baggage, unilateral action will be taken by this country to open it? Might this not be an area for an initiative in the Commonwealth, to eradicate the possible abuses of diplomatic baggage?

Although we are close and long-standing trading and Commonwealth partners of Nigeria, and very much want it to remain that way, we must make it crystal clear that the British people will not tolerate the importation of any official or quasi-official terrorism and crime on to our streets.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining the extent to which Her Majesty's Government and, from what has been said already, hon. Members in alt parts of the House condemn actions of the sort of which the hon. Gentleman has complained. One of our purposes must be to take steps to try, so far as is humanly possible, to keep such action off the streets of this country, and, indeed, out of the country altogether. There is no question of the Government, as the hon. Gentleman put it, pussy-footing around the matter. It is right for us to take the steps that I described to make the matter quite clear. I agree that the chances of a trial taking place depend entirely on whether immunity is waived, but it was right for me to make the request that I made of the Nigerian high commissioner for co-operation along the lines that I described.

The hon. Gentleman also made an important point about the change that will take place if there is evidence that a human life is endangered by the purported use of diplomatic bags or baggage. That matter was regarded as of the utmost importance on Friday, and will always be so regarded in any similar case. The hon. Gentleman knows that we have taken steps to raise the measures which we propose for consideration both at the London economic summit and in the European Community. Also, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was at the meeting of Ministers from the Council of Europe. The hon. Gentleman made the important additional suggestion that we should canvass the matter among Commonwealth Governments. I shall bear that firmly in mind.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House will have heard the Foreign Secretary say that he will make a further statement later this week. I have to take into account the fact that this is an important Back Benchers' day, so I propose to allow questions on the statement to continue until 4.15. I shall give preference to hon. Members who were not called on Friday.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear to the Nigerian authorities that, while normal requests for extradition will be processed by our courts in the ordinary way, public opinion in this country will not stand for extradition to a Government who have sought to take the law into their own hands in this way?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. As he will appreciate, such matters between Commonwealth Governments are considered under the Fugitive Offenders Act 1967. No request under that Act has been received in respect of Mr. Dikko, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary told the House on Friday. If any such request were to be received, it would be transmitted to my right hon. and learned Friend and dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the Act. Those provisions take some account of the important points raised by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

What does the Foreign Office think would be the position in law if diplomatic immunity were not waived by a high commission or embassy about questioning or charging one of its staff?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The questioning of staff does not require a formal waiver of diplomatic immunity. It simply requires a positive response to the request that I have made. The matter of diplomatic immunity can, of course, be raised, for example, in answer to a would-be arrest taking place. As was made plain on Friday, we would look to the Government of a friendly country to respond positively and favourable to such action. If they did not respond positively and favourably, that would influence our view of the matter.

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham)

If the Nigerian authorities do not accept that they should have responsibility for those who have carried out this crime, what further measures will my right hon. Friend implement? Does he accept that there can be no question of diplomatic niceties being allowed to stand in the way of bringing to justice those who have carried out these outrages?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There is no question in this or in any other case of diplomatic niceties standing in the way of whatever firm action is necessary. It is right and appropriate at this stage for the Government to have taken the steps that we have taken in inviting the Nigerian high commission to enable the police authorities to make the inquiries necessary to clarify the facts before we come to a final decision. I repeat: our position at the end of the day must take account of the matters on which I reported to the House on 25 May.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman taken the opportunity of consulting the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, in an effort to resolve the difficulties between the United Kingdom and Nigeria through impartial and international channels. In considering the relationships between Britain and Nigeria, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind Mr. Paterson and Mr. Clark, two British gentlemen who have been held in custody without charge in Nigeria for about a month in circumstances which are allegedly concerned with fugitive Nigerian politicians?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall certainly bear in mind the importance of the hon. and learned Gentleman's last point, which has been a matter of consideration and representation. There are many ways in which, and many areas about which, I am delighted to consult the Secretary General of the Commonwealth to seek his help and advice. This matter must be regarded as one that arises directly between our two Governments, and that is why we have made the strongest possible representations to the Nigerian Government.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

In making up his mind about what to do, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that too many members of the Nigerian high commission staff have a poor record, stretching back over many years, of flouting British laws and conventions?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That is certainly one matter that I shall bear in mind. I am certain that it would be right to concentrate on the facts arising in connection with this case.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take on board the fact that many of us would defend the right of diplomatic immunity where it is used for the legitimate purposes of an embassy but that another situation arises where diplomatic immunity is used to impinge on the laws of this country? We should make it clear to all embassies, whether within the Commonwealth or without, that the laws of this country must not be impinged on by diplomats who choose to use diplomatic immunity as a justification for carrying their national fights on to the streets of London.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot emphasise too strongly the extent to which I agree with every word said by the hon. Gentleman. It should be emphasised that no one is more affronted by abuses of diplomatic immunity than those diplomats, including our own, who rely upon that immunity for the proper conduct of their affairs and business. A grave matter arises when events take place which represent a violation or disregard of article 41 of the Vienna convention, which states that it is the duty of all persons enjoying privileges and immunities under that convention to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state. That is a plain statement of duty and of the highest importance.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

Because my right hon. and learned Friend is more aware than most of the fact that Nigeria is prominent in international forums such as the United Nations and the Commonwealth in setting standards for others and condemning them for standards that are not observed, will he take this opportunity of pointing out that the maintenance of high standards of diplomatic behaviour is the very lintel of the Scaean arch of civilisation, and that countries which do not observe those standards have no right to condemn others?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is important for my hon. Friend's point to be made clear, and I am glad to do so.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Are the Nigerian Government still saying to the British Government that the kidnapping had nothing to do with Nigerian people—the Nigerian high commission or any of its officials? If so, what reasons are the Nigerians giving for holding the airliner last week?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is right to say, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that the Nigerian Government have publicly denied, and continue to deny, any involvement in the affair. No varied or sufficient reason has been given or exists for the holding of that aircraft.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend impressed upon the Nigerian Government how important it is, in the interests of longer-term Anglo-Nigerian relations, that no action of any kind is taken by the Nigerians which might be interpreted as totally unjustifiable intimidation of or retaliation against this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That point has already been made plain in the context of the detention of the British Caledonian airliner. I agree with my hon. Friend that that should be underlined, and I shall do so.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

There can be no possible excuse for the kind of gangsterism that occurred last week. Recognising the long and honourable tradition of political asylum, which I hope will always continue, is there not a distinction to be made between those who have genuine political reasons to seek asylum and others who may well have been, as in this case, involved in the worst form of state corruption? Will the Foreign Secretary find out from the Home Secretary the basis on which Mr. Dikko was in this country, and for how long he will continue to be here?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I understand that Mr. Dikko was here, and is still here, as a visitor. Political asylum and the rights of others to come to and remain in this country are of great importance. As the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said in a broadcast today, this is not a matter in which one should make changes lightly or without consideration. Clearly, there are important and difficult questions to be considered.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make clear to the Nigerians our great disappointment that this action should occur between the two Commonwealth countries and that, although we understand that this behaviour might have happened with Governments of countries such as Libya and Bulgaria, major concern arises when it happens within the Commonwealth? Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider asking all diplomats to submit curriculum vitae before they are accepted with diplomatic status in high commissions and embassies in this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's point, but I suspect that, the world being what it is, it may not make a decisive difference to this important problem. I agree with my hon. Friend that the whole House will regret the fact that this type of incident has arisen in the context of long-standing good relationships.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Does not this outrage illustrate the need to review the Fugitive Offenders Act 1967, because a request for extradition by the Nigerian Government would be futile if it were to be defeated by a claim that the offence was a political one committed in Nigeria? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not consider that the time is right to review urgently the laws relating to extradition?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If I remember correctly, the Fugitive Offenders Act was passed in its present form as recently as 1967. It was then the subject of close consideration by the House in the light of earlier cases which had caused the House and the country some anxiety. I agree that the Fugitive Offenders Act and the Extradition Acts deserve to be scrutinised carefully in the light of changing circumstances. They are kept under constant review, but the points raised by the hon. Gentleman w ill have been noted by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

When considering the Government's approach to the Nigerian Government, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that problems have arisen in the past between ourselves and the Nigerian Government over assassinations, military takeovers and even a civil war in that country? Even now, with the demise of democracy in that country and a return to military rule, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the long-standing good will which exists between our two peoples?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That point was made in the exchanges in the House on Friday, and has been rightly raised by my hon. Friend again today. It is of course a matter of which we take full account. It is, as I said in my statement, an additional reason why we look for an early and positive response to the request that I have made to the Nigerian high commission.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend asked the Israeli Government for information about their citizens who were involved, bearing in mind that those men were of military age and that their full records would be available? Secondly, would he like to give the Israeli Government an opportunity to assure the world and the House that there is no collusion between Israel and Nigeria in this kidnapping?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not know the extent of any inquiries that may be made by the police, but there is no evidence of Israeli Government involvement in this, matter.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is about time that the Foreign Office got its act together and dealt a swift and exemplary blow to the Nigerian Government, whose guilt in this matter is absolutely clear, to make it clear that the vast majority of people do not accept having our streets used as some form of battleground for the settling of foreign vendettas?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There is no doubt that the House and the nation condemn the use of our streets as a battleground for the vendettas of foreign nations, but I must reject the implication of my hon. Friend's question that this extremely difficult problem affecting our relations with an important Commonwealth country, arising out of the serious offence committed within this country, will be resolved by the Foreign Office "getting its act together". If it were as easy as that we should not be troubling the House today. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the matter will be given the fullest and most proper consideration in the light of the important points that have been made.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The Foreign Secretary has told us that Mr. Dikko is here as a visitor. Will he amplify that statement and give us some more background information as to who took the decision and whether he or anyone from the Home Office knew about Mr. Dikko coming as a visitor? Secondly, what conditions were applied to Mr. Dikko's stay here?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The decision would have been taken by the immigration officer dealing with him at his last point of entry. There will have been more than one entry since the change of Government in Nigeria at the end of last year. The conditions would be the same as those attached to any other visitor entering under those circumstances.

Mr. Tony Banks

Six months?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I think that it is six months.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, much as the whole House condemns this kind of behaviour, one of the matters that must be sorted out is that any country should properly be a home for political refugees? But does my right hon. and learned Friend further agree that we must devise a system whereby this and other civilised countries are not a home for those who use political refugeeship as a cover for fraudulent behaviour? If that happens, all these systems lose their credibility.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Anyone who is guilty of fraud in this country will be open to the ordinary criminal law, but, going beyond that, my hon. Friend has raised an important point. There are enormous difficulties in the way of finding a fresh approach.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the people feel some apprehension that if the Nigerian regime were found to be offending in this matter not much would happen? Is he further aware that if not much happens that might very well provide a temptation to other regimes throughout the world to use, or to continue using, British streets for kidnapping and assassination, and that that would be contrary to the wishes of the British people?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I understand the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend. Before we reach any conclusion about this case, it is undoubtedly right for us to take the steps necessary to establish the facts. We shall approach the matter in the light of the considerations which I outlined to the House in my statement earlier this year.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the Nigerians possibly took their action as a result of the lead given by the Libyans? Even to this day British subjects are incarcerated without trial in that country. It gave the Nigerians the idea of how they could hold this country to ransom, and that is completely unacceptable.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot say what may have prompted the action taken in this case. In his question, my hon. Friend goes beyond the facts so far established. Of course I and the whole House regret the action being taken by the Libyan Government in detaining British citizens without charge. We are continuing to make the strongest possible representations to them through our protecting power in that country.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall bear in mind those hon. Members who have not been called today when the next statement is made and give them preference.