HC Deb 23 April 1990 vol 171 cc21-4
Mr. Speaker

I have granted a private notice question to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) because it concerns his constituent. It is not in order to raise the wider issue of the sale of prohibited goods to Iraq or anywhere else.

3.31 pm
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what help the Foreign Office is giving to Mr. Paul Ashwell to release him from the Greek gaol and to assist him to return to the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

Mr. Ashwell has been regularly visited by the British honorary vice-consul in Patras. She has helped him to find legal representation and has provided him with additional food and bedding. She has also arranged for him to make telephone calls to his family. A member of the consular staff of the embassy at Athens will attempt to see him at Patras today.

Naturally, we hope that Mr. Ashwell's case can be dealt with quickly, and we have made that point to the Greek Foreign Ministry. Our embassy in Athens has sought an appointment to discuss Mr. Ashwell's case with the Ministry of Justice. Once Mr. Ashwell is released, our vice-consulate in Patras will help him to make arrangements for his return to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Morris

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer in so far as it goes, but it leaves a few questions unanswered. First, why was Mr. Ashwell's bail application, which was made on Sunday or possibly Saturday, refused? Secondly, what evidence was given by United Kingdom representatives, in particular our diplomatic representative and the Customs and Excise representative, to emphasise the innocence of that trucker?

Thirdly, when Mr. Ashwell returned to the United Kingdom over Easter, having secured his load in the harbour in Greece, it appears that he was given clearance by Customs and Excise to return to Greece. Given the furore surrounding the case, why could not the load have been taken over by Customs and Excise in Greece, rather than my poor constituent having to return to Greece—apparently being used as a scapegoat for the whole of this exercise? Finally, why was my constituent told that any arrest that might take place would be a mere technicality?

Mr. Ashwell is a young, innocent trucker with a young family. He was doing a normal commercial job. If EC matters mean anything to this House, the two Governments should make it very clear that such an innocent party should be returned to the United Kingdom immediately.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Waldegrave

The House has shown today that it sympathises with my hon. Friend, as I do. My information is that my hon. Friend's constituent was advised by his lawyer not to apply for bail at this time, not that bail was refused. I will have that information checked, but my understanding is that Mr. Ashwell was advised by his lawyer not to go for bail yet, but that he should do so when he has the best chance of being granted it.

As to Mr. Ashwell's innocence, Dunn of the Customs and Excise investigation service went to Patras and told the magistrate that, in his view, the driver did not knowingly commit any offence. I associate myself with his remarks.

There is no question of Mr. Ashwell having been encouraged to return to Greece. It is just bad luck that he was there when the load was stopped.

As for a technicality, we must respect Greek law. Greece is a law-abiding country and a fellow member of the European Community. It is an offence there to import armaments illegally, and the Greeks must answer to their own courts as to whether or not Mr. Ashwell committed an offence. Our own Customs and Excise investigators do not believe that he did so knowingly.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Does not the matter go further? It is not just a question of respecting Greek law. Does the Minister not agree that, if Mr. Ashwell had asked the British Government if it was all right to return to Greece, he would have been told, "Yes"? That was the answer given throughout. In view of that, do not the British Government have a particular responsibility—more so than usual—to act directly with the Greek Government to help Mr. Ashwell to obtain his freedom as soon as possible—even if it means sending the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to Greece to act as proxy for him?

Mr. Waldegrave

I hope that the consular service would exercise its full energies on behalf of any British citizen finding himself in a similar position. The service is certainly working as hard as it can on Mr. Ashwell's behalf. I reiterate that our own Customs and Excise has told the Greek authorities that it does not believe that Mr. Ashwell is guilty of any offence. Nevertheless, the Greeks have a legal procedure, as we do, and they must observe it.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister make it clear to the Greek Government that no charges of any kind have been preferred against anyone in this country in respect of the gun in question? Furthermore, the House has not been presented with any proof that the transported items are in any way connected with armaments.

Mr. Waldegrave

On my hon. Friend's latter point, there is little doubt that the load that Mr. Ashwell was unknowingly carrying was part of an armament. Whether or not Mr. Ashwell committed an offence in Greece is a matter for the Greeks courts. As I reminded the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), British Customs and Excise informed the Greek authorities that its view is that Mr. Ashwell did not knowingly commit any offence.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Why is it not apparent to the Greek authorities that Mr. Ashwell is the most innocent part in this whole murky affair? He certainly cannot be held responsible for all the lies, deceit and evasion that has come from Whitehall Departments over the past 10 days. The Greek authorities should immediately release Mr. Ashwell.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his latter remarks. If he will specify which lies he is talking about, he would then have to answer for his accusations.

As I said, Mr. Stephen Dunn of Customs and Excise made it clear that that authority believes that Mr. Ashwell is innocent of any offence. However, the Greeks have laws about the importation of armaments. So far, the Greeks have handled the whole matter expeditiously and with sensitivity, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is it not a lamentable feature of the law, in whichever country it operates, that it tends to take a long time to go about its business? Is not that unfortunate lorry driver a notable example of the tiny handful of people who, in the course of any one year, find themselves caught up in the legal procedures of other European states? Can my right hon. Friend give a reassurance that, in discussions in the European Community, attempts will be made to devise a procedure whereby the Government or some other body stand bail for people abroad who are manifestly caught up in the toils of the law unnecessarily, so that they can be brought home?

Mr. Waldegrave

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's remarks, but so far the Greeks have acted quickly and fairly—and I pay tribute to them for doing so.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that quite a long time ago, when we had a decent Government in this country—[Laughter.]—and when Lord Palmerston was in charge, he stated the principle, "Civis Romanus sum"—[Interruption.] When someone was arrested in Greece he got him out very quickly. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not act in a similar way?

Mr. Waldegrave

The right hon. Member will not expect me to disagree that this country was best governed by the Whigs. He and I may agree on that. On the latter point my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has somewhat fewer battleships to deploy than Lord Palmerston did, and if we were to deploy them I do not think it would be against a free Greece. One of the right lion. Gentleman's greatest heroes helped to achieve freedom in that country and it is not a country that we now regard as one against which we are likely to deploy battleships.

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

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a situation in which the most innocent people are likely to be and now are involved? Has the time not come for a full inquiry to be held so that it can be made crystal clear that, whoever else is at fault, at least one of the companies and the lorry driver in particular are not involved——

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is rather wide of the question.

Mr. Beamont-Dark

It was not very wide.

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry, but I have to judge that.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

While respecting your judgment, Mr. Speaker, many people in this country think that one person who should not be a scapegoat is the lorry driver, who is expected to know what he is carrying when no one else, including the Department of Trade and Industry, knew what they were handling.

Mr. Waldegrave

I think that I have made our position clear. The hon. Member should have some understanding for the position of the Greek authorities. They have a law which says that it is illegal to import firearms without a permit, and it appears to them that that may have happened. We are explaining to them, through Mr. Dunn, who is on the spot, the the lorry driver is unlikely to have any guilt at all, and that is the best way to approach the matter.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Can the Minister, however, assure us that the British embassy in Athens will be putting pressure on the Greek authorities to recognise Paul Ashwell's unwitting role and his innocence and to release him immediately? In view of the information that we all now have, thanks to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) and others, should not some Government Department have been able to alert the company concerned in advance to ensure that Mr. Ashwell did not get into this invidious position in the first place? While we welcome this limited statement, when will we get a full statement on all aspects of that sorry saga, with some Minister accepting responsibility instead of trying to pass the buck to the companies concerned and allowing innocent lorry drivers to carry the can?

Mr. Waldegrave

The substance of the hon. Member's question has been answered and the rhetoric needs no answer.