HC Deb 12 July 1984 vol 63 cc1366-73 3.51 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission Mr. Speaker, I shall make a further statement about the abduction of Mr. Umaru Dikko.

I told the House on 9 July that police inquiries were continuing. As a result of these inquiries four men, three Israeli nationals and one Nigerian national, have each been charged with kidnapping—a common law offence—and with administering drugs with intent to kidnap. They have been remanded in custody.

The police inquiries also disclosed evidence which appeared to implicate members of the Nigerian high commission. It was in those circumstances that, as I told the House on Monday, the Nigerian high commissioner was asked to allow the police to interview members of the Nigerian high commission staff. I have to inform the House that the Nigerian Government declined to comply with this request.

Accordingly, the high commissioner was seen again yesterday. He was told that we had noted the Nigerian Government's denial of any involvement in Mr. Dikko's abduction. However, in the light of the circumstances that I have described, he was told that a counsellor, Mr. Peter Oyedele and an attaché, Mr. Okon Edet, must leave the country within seven days, that is, by next Wednesday 18 July. The high commissioner stated that his Government were recalling him for consultations. He has now left the country.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing the hope that these events will not inflict lasting damage to our long-term relationship with Nigeria, a Commonwealth country with which we have had good relations over many years.

The present situation is not of our making, but, as I have made abundantly clear in earlier statements to the House, Her Majesty's Government are bound to take the gravest view of any evidence which appears to implicate members of diplomatic missions in serious crimes in this country.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

The Foreign Secretary is right to underline the seriousness of the incident as well as the importance of maintaining British-Nigerian relations, not just because of the trade between our countries, but because we are long-standing Commonwealth partners. It is equally important that we make it clear that this country will not, in any circumstances, allow the import on to our streets of other countries' quarrels, whether or not covered by diplomatic immunity. The message from this country and the House to the Nigerians or to anyone else who is aggrieved must be this: use courts, not crates.

Nigeria has endangered relations by protesting official innocence while, at the same time, illegally holding the British Caledonian jet and refusing to waive immunity for people to be questioned. However, if President Buhari is correct—perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt — we should demand full co-operation in a continuing joint investigation to establish precisely who organised the finance and carried out the deplorable, outrageous and illegal act. We should expect him to assist in ensuring that the perpetrators are quickly brought to justice.

I have two additional questions. The Nigerian accredited mission to Britain is 122 strong, which is larger than that of either the Soviet Union or the United States of America. In the light of the Libyan episode and what was said after that, why was the mission allowed to grow to such a vast and disproportionate size, with all the attendant problems?

Secondly, on Tuesday evening, BBC radio broadcast regular reports that British intelligence had had prior knowledge of a possible abduction but had not informed Scotland Yard. Despite that, Scotland Yard acted with inspired success in this instance. However, as the reports mysteriously disappeared from the radio and newspapers on Wednesday, will the Foreign Secretary confirm their truth? It would be intolerable if inter-agency rivalries were to inhibit the pursuit of international criminals, and it is the responsibility of Ministers to ensure that they do not.

Finally, I ask—as I did on Monday—whether the Foreign Secretary will seriously consider a Commonwealth initiative on diplomatic baggages.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said at the outset about the serious view which the whole House takes of the events. He also spoke of the importance which we attach to long-term relations between this country and Nigeria. I do not doubt that the strength of the message presented by the Government and underlined by the House—namely, that we will not tolerate illegal behaviour which represents a possible violation of diplomatic immunity—will have been underlined by the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the prospect of further co-operation in the investigation of the offence. I told the House of our request and the response received. I take account of the hon. Gentleman's further request in that respect, but he must take into account the reply that we received.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the size of the Nigerian high commission. It must be remembered that other missions here also have substantial staff. I speak not only of nearby countries. India—another large Commonwealth country—has a significantly larger staff here than has the Nigerian High Commission. A further factor to take into account is that approximately 70,000 Nigerians are in this country.

However, I shall certainly examine the size of missions here, in the light of my statement to the House on 1 May.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of a Commonwealth initiative on terrorism, a matter which was raised in questions on my statement on Monday. I have undertaken to consider that matter. It will, of course, take its place alongside the other initiatives that we are already taking in the European Community and took at the economic summit.

The hon. Gentleman also inquired about intelligence reports which were apparently broadcast on the radio on Tuesday or Wednesday night. In a sense, he answered his own question by drawing the House's attention to the fact that those reports disappeared. Ever since the change of Government in Nigeria it has been common knowledge that the new Government were interested in the return of several people from our country, including Mr. Dikko. However, we were not aware of a specific threat to him.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Warrington, South)

In view of my hon. and learned Friend's remarks about Nigeria being a member of the Commonwealth, and in view of the Nigerian Government's insistence that they were not involved in the incident, will he tell the Nigerian Government that their statement is bound to be weakened in the eyes of many if they refuse to allow members of their diplomatic mission to be interviewed?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My right hon. and learned Friend is, of course, absolutely right. Indeed, that point was raised in the House when my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made his statement on Friday of last week, and it was drawn to the Nigerian Government's attention during the exchanges which took place this week.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I acknowledge that the incident to which the statement relates is sensitive and embarrassing to both the British and Nigerian Governments. However, perhaps the Foreign Secretary will recognise that two of my constituents have been detained in police custody in Lagos for seven weeks—without having been charged or bailed—in respect of supposed offences of servicing an aircraft which subsequently broke the embargo. Will he give me an assurance that he will recognise that their release and early bail is a high priority and that this particular development will not be allowed to prejudice their circumstances?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has taken this opportunity to remind the House once again of that matter. As he knows, representations in respect of these two detainees have been made at ministerial level and on several other occasions by our high commission in Lagos. No charges have been preferred against them and their continued detention is quite unjustifiable. I am glad to say that the high commission has regular consular access to them, and certainly we shall continue to press the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

If the Commonwealth means anything, it means that its other members are entitled to extra sympathy and understanding of their problems and the benefit of the doubt if they make mistakes. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Nigeria is not Libya, that General Buhari is not Colonel Gaddafi, and that not a single life has been lost due to the current military regime in Nigeria? Some stupid people have taken the law into their own hands, but, my right hon. and learned Friend knows, as well as do most people in Nigeria, and perhaps in this country, that the Nigerian Government had good reasons for wanting the return of Alhaji Umaru to Nigeria. Will he not be so heavy-handed in dealing with friends, and distinguish more carefully between friends and enemies?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I well understand the basis of my hon. Friend's points and, as I indicated earlier, I also understand the extent of the anger in Nigeria about the previous conduct of certain Nigerian nationals now present in this country. However, having said that, and having recognised the importance of maintaining good relations between this country and Nigeria in the long term, it would not have been possible to treat the events of last week as though nothing had happened. I am certain that my announcements carry the support of the whole House, regretful though it must be to have to make them.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Without in any way condoning what has happened, will the Foreign Secretary recognise the concern of many thousands of Nigerians, who live frugally and sometimes precariously in this country, about the filching of hundreds of millions of pounds from Nigeria by former Cabinet Ministers? Will the Foreign Office therefore offer every possible facility to a Third world country to have repatriated to it funds which may have been illegally lodged in this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

However much one may understand the force of the hon. Gentleman's point, it is not possible for the Government to make such arrangements. If people in this country are wanted back in their own country—for instance, Nigeria—for the investigation of offences, it is, of course, open to the Nigerian Government to make an application under the Fugitive Offenders Act, but no such application has been made.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this interruption in the very good relations with a great and friendly Commonwealth country is to be much deplored, but was it not impossible for him to overlook the matter? Will he bring home to the Nigerian Government the fact that if we had more confidence in the way in which their judicial system is working, extradition might be a proper way for them to proceed?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is right to underline that point, but, notwithstanding our concern for relations between our two countries, it would not have been possible to overlook the events that occurred. Extradition under the Fugitive Offenders Act is, of course, an option open to the Nigerian Government. In hearing any application made under that Act the courts would, of course, consider the merits in all respects.

Mr. John David Taylor (Strangford)

As the Foreign Secretary must have had good reason to request the departure of two officials of the Nigerian high commission, does he believe that they were acting on their own initiative, or on behalf of the Nigerian authorities?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is not possible for me or anybody else to give a firm view about such understandable questions. As I have said, the Nigerian Government have denied responsibility, but, without the police authorities being able to question members of the high commission, it has not been possible for us to carry the matter to a conclusion.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Bearing in mind that three of the arrested kidnappers were Israeli citizens, one of whom is a prominent doctor in Israel, and the fact that only last week the Israeli Government were involved in an act of piracy on the high seas, is my right hon. and learned Friend entirely satisfied that there is no Israeli Government involvement?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The position today is the same as it was when I was asked that question on Monday. There is no evidence of Israeli Government involvement.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Given the various shades of grey in the Dikko case, and the issue of political asylum, is this an occasion on which we should consider very strongly British self-interest, as, indeed, the French and Germans would consider their self-interest in similar circumstances? Is it not a fact that we do as much trade with Nigeria as with almost the rest of Africa put together? In the past British Leyland at Bathgate depended on Nigeria, and its successor might well depend on engine and truck exports to Nigeria again. I make no apology for putting this point, because thousands of jobs are involved. Can this be constantly borne in mind?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That point has been taken fully into account in reaching the decision that I have announced to the House. The hon. Gentleman need make no apology for what he has said. This country has wide-ranging and long-standing trading relations with Nigeria. On those trading relationships depend jobs in this country and the prospect of prosperity for Nigeria. Having said that, one has to say that it is not possible to behave as though the events of the last seven days did not happen. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's observations about the importance of trading links will be borne in mind by him and other Opposition Members with regard to trading links with other countries.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

As there have been several references to extradition being an alternative method of obtaining the return of Mr. Dikko to Nigeria can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether there are any alleged grounds which come within our extradition law which the courts would enforce? I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that it would be wrong for us to give the impression that if the Nigerian's were to go for extradition it would be allowed, irrespective of the decision of our courts.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There can be no question of any such special prior indication. I told the House on Monday, and I did so again today, that no application has been received under the Fugitive Offenders Act 1967 for the extradition of any persons. We are aware of a stated intention by the Nigerian Government to seek the extradition of Mr. Dikko and others. Any request received in proper form will be considered on its merits in accordance with the provisions of the statute.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The Foreign Secretary told the House on Monday that Mr. Dikko had the status of a temporary visitor in the United Kingdom. What future has that status, in view of the fact that he could face perfectly legitimate legal proceedings in Nigeria?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is not for me to answer for Mr. Dikko's reasons for being in this country. He was admitted as a visitor, as I told the House on Monday, together with a large number of other Nigerian nationals.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

In view of this and other happenings, does my right hon. and learned Friend gain any impression that our European partners and, indeed, other countries of the free world are sympathetic to the idea that the Vienna convention ought to be modernised and widened?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have no doubt that our European partners and those countries represented at the London economic summit take a very sympathetic view of the case that we have been making for the closest possible study, not only of the Vienna convention, but of the other measures which the countries of the world need to take together to prevent abuse of diplomatic immunities. We are still conducting our review of the Vienna convention, as, indeed, is the Foreign Affairs Committee. The House must recognise that it is not just the convention, but the way in which it is, and the extent to which it can be enforced that is important.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

In view of the kidnap bids, the House still needs to know why Mr. Dikko and other Nigerian crooks were made welcome in this country, bearing in mind that many genuine refugees, particularly from Pakistan, are repeatedly turned away from these shores.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

All people who come to this country are dealt with by the immigration authorities in accordance with the relevant legislation applying to their status. The Nigerians of whom I have spoken are in this country as visitors. I told the House on Monday, I think, that Mr. Dikko was here as a visitor for six months from a date in June.

Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes)

It will take years to renegotiate the Vienna convention, and the British public are thoroughly fed up with what is going on. Will the Government consider unilaterally abrogating those parts of the Vienna convention which deal with diplomatic baggage?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I must tell my hon. Friend that the matter is not as simple as that and should not be so regarded. The Vienna convention was not introduced as a diplomatic nicety or for the protection of diplomats of this or any other country. Its provisions are often necessary for the protection of British interests. Around the world, British interests are formidable. This country has always has always lived by trade and for many years has sent its citizens to work abroad. There are more than 5 million British citizens outside this country engaged on work from which we all benefit. The problem is to reconcile those interests and the need to protect them, through our own diplomatic service, from the manifest abuses which can sometimes take place. It is for that reason that I announced the very strong attitude that this country will take to any violations of the convention that are detected.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In view of the massively corrupt practices of Mr. Dikko and other such characters still in Britain, would it not be advisable for the Government to review the arrangements under which such gentlemen seem to put down roots, by purchasing properties worth £500,000 in some cases? Are they purchasing such properties in the likely event of a six months' stay?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to a problem which deserves very serious consideration. As I said in the House on Monday, his right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) in a broadcast interview on Monday, I think, expounded the difficulties that would be involved if we fundamentally changed without very careful thought the basis on which people who come to this country are allowed to remain here. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The problem is changing in nature and growing. The matter deserves very close study, but it would not be right to jump to swift or dramatic conclusions in the belief that it is an easy one.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that what has been revealed by the Nigerian diplomatic kidnap as by the Libyan diplomatic murder, has done no more than lift the veil from the diplomatic lawlessness which is not uncommon among certain embassies in London? Many people have very little confidence that the Foreign Office is dealing with the problem effectively.

The cipher is the only part of an ambassador's diplomatic baggage which must be kept absolutely inviolate. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take steps to ensure that steamer trunks, crates and containers which too often carry items as booze and arms— and now people, as we have just seen—are not given the same status as the cipher bags, which, of course, are critical?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is understandably persistent in drawing attention to the problem. There is no doubt that any abuse of diplomatic immunities undertaken to promote lawlessness should cause the gravest possible concern, but if my hon. Friend studies the provisions of the Vienna convention he will find, as I know other hon. Members are finding——

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I have studied them.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Of course, I know he has. One cannot emphasise too strongly that any proposed change must be compatible with the inescapable need properly to protect our own diplomatic traffic.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to protect further business. I shall allow questions to be asked for another five minutes, and I hope that in that time every hon. Member who is standing will be called.

Mr.Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Subject to British court requirements, will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that Mr. Dikko will not be allowed to stay beyond the period of the six months temporary entry which he now has? Many of my constituents, or friends and relatives of my constituents, cannot even get a six-month visitor's entry permit. Why should Mr. Dikko be allowed to stay beyond the six months? Clearly, we should want him out of the country.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the requirements of British courts. One point beyond doubt is that all people in this country, on whatever terms they are present, are obliged to comply with the laws of the United Kingdom. In relation to Mr. Dikko, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will have heard the point raised by the hon. Member and will certainly take account of it.

Mr. Jonatham Aitken (Thanet, South)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary on his wise and restrained handling of this matter so far. In view of certain reports now circulating in Nigeria, will he make it clear that the Government would take an extremely grave view if his justified expulsion of Nigerian diplomats from London were to be met by totally unjustified reprisals, such as expulsion of British diplomats from Lagos?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I welcome the chance to underline my hon. Friend's point. However, we see no reason why the Nigerians should take or propose retaliatory action. If retaliation were taken, we should have to reconsider the matter. As the House has emphasised, it is in nobody's interests to widen or to prolong the dispute. I repeat that I see no reason why retaliatory action should be taken.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that some of us have more than a sneaking suspicion that the Government are trying to make a seven-course dinner out of a can of boiling water? Three statements have been made since last Friday on this issue. The nation is in the midst of an economic crisis, but we have not had a statement about the British economy, which is in ruins.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman appreciate that he could have settled the problem with Nigeria fairly simply? The Nigerians have been up to their necks in debt with Britain for many years, and bureaucrats and politicians have been living fat off British workers as a result of some transactions. Long before this matter began, a telephone call would have made absolutely clear to the Nigerians how Britain felt about it. Some of us think that the Foreign Secretary seeks to divert attention from the crisis in Britain and that that is why the Prime Minister is sitting next to him.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If the House had to follow every one of the hon. Member's sneaking suspicions, it would be disastrous. His observations on this matter have been as shallow and unhelpful as usual.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

As Her Majesty's Government must be vigorous in their condemnation of all such action what protests did they make against the piracy committed by Israel in international waters against a Cypriot vessel and the kidnapping of non-Israeli citizens on board, bearing in mind our special position with the sovereign bases in Cyprus?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That is an entirely different question, which does not rise out of this one.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I recognise that my right hon. and learned Friend pays due tribute to the special relationship between the United Kingdom and Nigeria, a valued Commonwealth country, but a most serious crime has been committed on British streets, which would normally carry a sentence of imprisonment if there were a conviction. The Nigerian Government have not fully co-operated with the United Kingdom on this matter, and many people regard this is as very serious. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear that the present Nigerian high commissioner would not be welcome if he attempted to return to the United Kingdom?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As the full extent of the high commission's involvement has not been established, it would be inappropriate for the high commissioner to return to this country.

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