HC Deb 20 July 1989 vol 157 cc639-44

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

11.25 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I wish to raise an important constitutional issue and, as is the case with so many important constitutional issues—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. Will hon. Members who are not staying for the Adjournment debate please leave the Chamber quietly?

Mr. Taylor

The matter that I raise tonight is important and fundamental for British sovereignty. Sadly, many of these issues arise late at night when few people notice them. It is, however, important that I get the facts of the case on the record.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the implications of an instruction from the European Court in Strasbourg that the United Kingdom should not fulfil its extradition arrangements with the United States and return Mr. Jens Soering to Virginia to face charges of his involvement in a horrific double murder.

The decision of the court appears to involve an astonishing extension of the powers of the court, a major insult to the free democracy of the United States and dangerous implications for our national security and for the rights of Parliament. It is obvious that the European Court in Strasbourg has been extending its power, as is invariably the case with European institutions. The scope of its present jurisdiction seems to go far beyond the tight and specific articles which were laid down in the convention of 1953.

In this case, hon. Members will recall that, because the original signatories were determined that the court should have no power to interfere with capital punishment authorised by national Parliaments, article 2(1) of the convention stated: No-one shall be deprived of his life intentionally, save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which the penalty is provided by law. Nothing could be clearer. If it was a question of capital punishment, the court could not interfere. But despite that clear statement and guidance, the court has instructed Britain not to extradite a person who was to face a charge of involvement in one of the most brutal, evil and monstrous murders ever committed.

The facts of the murder are abundantly clear. Jens Soering is accused of slashing Derek Hayson, aged 72, and his wife, Nancy, in the throat in March 1985 and then of stabbing them repeatedly in their Virginia home in circumstances with black magic overtones. The walls of that elderly man's house were daubed with blood and the number 666, which is allegedly the sign of the devil, was gouged out of the floorboards. Bloody footprints suggested that the alleged killers danced in the couples' blood.

After the killings, M r. Soering and the couple's daughter, Elizabeth, left America and arrived in Britain in January 1986 with false documents. They were arrested and gaoled for 12 months at Kingston Crown court. Police found wigs, false moustaches and bogus driving licences in their bedsit.

After her sentence, Miss Hayson returned to Virginia, where she was sentenced to 90 years' imprisonment as an accessory to a double murder. She did not fight extradition but simply went back to America to face the charge.

However, rather than face similar charges, Mr. Soering has been experiencing the judicial delights of the European Court in Strasbourg and, in consequence of its astonishing generosity of spirit, can presumably now remain in Britain or elsewhere in Europe for the rest of his life and not be required to return to the United States to face the charge of bloody murder.

The British courts require him to return to the United States of America, although, for reasons which I hope that the Home Secretary will explain, it was made clear that the United Kingdom did not wish Mr. Soering to face capital punishment in the United States of America if he were found guilty. I hope that the Minister will say why that was said. Capital punishment has always been a free vote issue in this House and I do not believe that there is any Government policy to communicate on such matters.

Do the Government intend to accept the European Court's decision? Are they worried about what seems to be a huge extension of the powers seized by the court? The court has argued that the time taken in the United States of America for appeals could be so lengthy that it would inflict unreasonable degradation and inhumanity on Mr. Soering if he were found guilty.

The Government have the power, if they wish to use it, to tell the European Court to jump in the lake. It is not part of the Common Market and it is not the European Court of Justice, but the European Court of Human Rights. When the court made another remarkable decision last year on the rights of alleged terrorists to appear before a judge at an early stage in the tension, the Home Secretary made it clear in Parliament on 6 December, as reported in column 211 of Hansard, that we could decide to derogate under article 15. More fundamentally, he suggested that we could decide to withdraw from the court's jurisdiction.

The Home Secretary should be aware that, if he goes along with the court's decision, he will inflict a massive injury and insult on the United States of America, which is a democratic ally which never fails to help Britain in the battles against international crime and terrorism. It would also be a moral crime inflicted on the relatives of the murdered elderly couple to fail to send to the courts in Virginia a person accused of the killings.

What will the Government do? The European Court judgment also affects the rights of Parliament. If Parliament decided in future to reintroduce capital punishment for murder or terrorism the decision would be an ineffective joke, unless we could satisfy the European Court of the acceptability of our appeal mechanism.

There is a rising tide of concern in the Conservative party, in Parliament and in Britain generally about the extent to which non-elected European bodies are seizing the rights of our elected Parliament, elected Government and respected courts of law. At some stage we must make a stand. I believe that the time has come in the shameful case of the Strasbourg decision on Jens Soering.

What will happen to Mr. Soering? Can he stay in Britain for the rest of his life and, presumably, with our European Community arrangements, go to Germany or anywhere and live on social security for the rest of his life, if he wants, and no doubt be the first of many? What are the rights of Parliament'? What is our attitude to the European Court if it constantly extends its powers? The Minister must be aware that the European Court of Justice is extending its powers as well as the European Court in Strasbourg.

I can think of no issue more serious for our constitution or relations with our friends in the United States of America. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the fact that they help us enormously, for example, to deal with terrorism and the IRA. This is a serious case. I know the Minister's conscientious attitude to justice and of the great work that he does at the Home Office. I hope that he will give some hope to those who are acutely worried by this dreadful case.

11.33 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I hope that I can give some hope to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and to others who are worried about this case. I congratulate him on bringing it to the attention of the House.

I listened extremely carefully and take my hon. Friend's comments seriously. He described the dreadful murders so graphically that they bear no repetition by me, and he spoke of the constitutional powers of courts outside the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend and I take the constitutional issue seriously, as I hope the whole House does, as it affects the powers of this place. We must keep it in mind. My hon. Friend does the House a service by keeping it before us.

I hope that I shall be able to reply directly to every question that my hon. Friend asked, but if he feels that I have missed anything, I shall be only too pleased to give way to him at the end of my speech. I shall not trouble the House further with the detailed background to the case except to say that one person involved returned of her own free will to the United States and is now serving a 90-year gaol term in the state of Virginia.

The background is contained in the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, a copy of which is in the Library of the House. The salient facts should, however, be brought to the House's attention. Soering's extradition was sought, in 1986, by the United States authorities on a capital murder charge. Soering is a German national. The German authorities have also sought his extradition as they have jurisdiction over offences committed by their nationals abroad. They have rather more jurisdiction than United Kingdom courts, although our courts have such powers in the case of murder and one or two other offences.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, having received requests from the United States and a request from the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, has taken the view that the proper course is to continue with the United States extradition request although the German request is still extant. If he so decides, my right hon. Friend can at any time act on that request.

My hon. Friend is concerned to know why we had any inhibitions about returning someone, provided that the facts of the case were clear and justice was done, to a jurisdiction where a person might face a capital sentence. The extradition treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States of America provides for a discretion on surrender if the relevant offence is punishable by death under the relevant United States law. For better or for worse—I dare say that my hon. Friend feels that it is for the worse—that is written into United States treaty. It also provides for the giving of assurances satisfactory to the requested party that the death penalty will not he carried out.

In this case, the Virginian authorities gave an undertaking that, if Soering were convicted of murder, a representation would be made in the name of the United Kingdom to the judge at the time of sentencing that it was the wish of the United Kingdom that the death penalty should not be imposed or carried out. What has happened since then is a process of appeal.

Soering sought first to challenge the decision to extradite him to America. He did that in the domestic courts in Britain and then by application to the European Commission of Human Rights. Before the Commission, Soering's principal contention was that, if he was surrendered to the United States, there was serious reason to believe that he would be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in contravention of article 3 of the convention. This would arise, he suggested, from the exceptional and inordinate delay before carrying out the death penalty in Virginia. In a number of cases in that state's jurisdiction, delay has been substantial—five to eight years.

The Government acceded to the request of the President of the Commission not to remove Soering while it considered his application on this ground.

What happened is now history and is in the judgment, which is in the Library. The Commission decided by a narrow margin that the extradition of Soering to the United States of America would not give rise to a breach of the convention. The case was then referred to the court by the Commission and subsequently by the United Kingdom Government and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany. The judgment of the court was delivered on 7 July. The court held unanimously that Soering's extradition would violate article 3 of the convention.

It is worth spending a brief moment on the court's judgment. In reaching its conclusion, the court was at pains to make it clear that the death penalty as such was not contrary to the convention—the court said that in its judgment—nor was it seeking to apply the convention to a state that was not a party to the convention. The court explicitly acknowledged the democractic character of the Virginian legal system and stressed that Virginian trial, sentencing and appeal procedures were beyond doubt. The machinery of justice to which Soering would be subject in the United States was in itself neither arbitrary nor unreasonable. Additionally, and happily from the point of view of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and myself, the court acknowledged the good faith of the United Kingdom Government in their approach to this case.

The court considered, however, that the nature of the assurance received in this case were open to doubt. The court found that it was not open to it to conclude that there were "no substantial grounds" for believing that the applicant faced a real risk of a death sentence. That led the court to consider what has become known as the "Death row phenomenon". It accepted that some delay between sentence and its execution was inevitable—up to 90 days when we had the capital sentence—but it had regard to the very long period likely to be spent awaiting execution in Virginia, which could be five to eight years, with the ever-present and mounting anguish of awaiting execution. The court took account also of Soering's personal circumstances—his age and mental state at the time of the offence and so on.

In the light of this, it concluded that there would be a real risk of exposing him to treatment going beyond the threshold set by article 3. A further consideration was that in this particular instance the legitimate purpose of extradition could be achieved by another means which would not involve suffering of such intensity and duration—his return to Germany for trial.

Since receipt of the judgment earlier this month, the Government have been seriously considering its implications and the courses of action that are now open to us. While that process is continuing, I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate why I cannot predict what the outcome of this case will be.

I want to respond, however, to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. He suggested in particular that the United Kingdom should simply ignore the views of the European Court of Human Rights—tell it to "jump in the lake" was his graphic phrase. But we are talking of international obligations binding upon the United Kingdom. Each of the parties to the European convention of human rights has undertaken to abide by the decision of the court in any case to which they are parties. The House will recall that this country took a leading role in the evolution of the convention, and successive Governments have been scrupulous in complying with the judgments of the court.

My hon. Friend also referred implicity to a recent case in which the United Kingdom felt obliged to derogate from the convention, following a judgment of the court. I want to point out why derogation was correct in that case and would not be correct in the case that my hon. Friend has raised. The circumstances were very different. That case concerned detention in Northern Ireland under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974. In that case, we derogated from our obligations under article 5 of the convention. Derogation in respect of particular articles of the convention is expressly provided for in article 15, which states: in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation. We believe that there is an emergency in the Northern Ireland case. That is not the position in the case we are discussing tonight.

I must also point out to my hon. Friend that no derogation is permitted from certain articles of the convention, including article 3 on inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Under the convention, we cannot derogate in the same way as we are able to derogate in the case to which my hon. Friend referred.

Having made those points and answered those questions, I want to underline certain key issues raised by the case. The first is the importance that the United Kingdom attaches to its extradition agreements. They are a major factor in our responses to serious crime and we are committed to the principle of co-operation between jurisdictions. We welcome the strong and close co-operation that we have with the United States, to which my hon. Friend referred so warmly and which will be greatly appreciated by the United States Goverment who, I am sure, will pay attention to our proceedings tonight. A key objective throughout our handling of these issues has been to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of our extradition arrangements with the other countries concerned. That is clearly in our best interests.

Secondly, I want to stress that the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights centred on the fact that Soering was at risk of experiencing the "Death row phenomenon" if he were to be extradited to the United States in the present circumstances. That is to say, it is extradition while the threat of a death sentence remains that led the court to declare a breach of the convention. I ask my hon. Friend to reflect on what I am about to say. It follows from that that if the threat of a death sentence were to be removed, no question of a breach of the convention would arise from extradition to the United States.

Thirdly, I can tell my hon. Friend and the House tonight that Her Majesty's Government remain committed to ensuring that Soering should stand trial for the offences that have been alleged against him. If the threat of a death sentence in the United States cannot be removed, there remains the clear option of returning Soering to stand trial in Germany—rather than maintaining his freedom in the United Kingdom—in the way in which my hon. Friend thought might have been possible under certain circumstances.

I assure my hon. Friend, whom I hold in great respect because of his strong and passionate interest in law and order and the constitutional integrity of the kingdom, that we have not been idle since receiving the Strasbourg judgment three weeks ago and we have not ignored the importance of this case to our relationship with the United States and the Federal Republic, and to the integrity and good working of our extradition arrangements with those two countries. We have been in discussions with the American and German Governments since the judgment, although the House will appreciate why it would not be appropriate for me to go into details of those exchanges tonight.

I hope that what I have said will convince my hon. Friend that we are treating this case as one of the utmost seriousness. We are faced with allegations of very serious offences and our objective has been to honour our international obligations and to ensure that the case comes to trial.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

With the leave of the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the serious reply that he has given to my questions. I am delighted to hear that it is his intention that Soering should face trial. In view of the importance of the relations between Britain and the United States, I ask him to send a copy of the Hansard that includes his excellent speech to the governor of Virginia, or some other similar person, with his fraternal good wishes and the respect of Parliament.

Mr. Patten

With the leave of the House. I shall certainly ensure that as soon as they are available, copies of Hansard are sent, through the usual channels, in the direction that my hon. Friend has suggested.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.