HC Deb 01 November 1995 vol 265 cc368-74

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

7.22 pm
Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise what I consider to be probably the worst miscarriage of justice I have ever encountered in my 12 years in the House.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Since you were dropped from "The James Whale Show".

Mr. Hayes

I hear the hon. Gentleman's jocular aside, but this is a serious matter, concerning my constituent, Mrs. Brenda Price.

In 1991, Mrs. Price was accused by the Spanish authorities of being involved in drug smuggling. Some 18 months later, a warrant was executed, but the evidence, as far as we know what it is—the crux of the case—is flimsy.

In 1993, the Spanish authorities wanted Mrs. Price to be extradited on the basis of the charges against her. The Spanish authorities acted rightly and properly, and within their rights—that is what the relevant treaty says. She was taken to Holloway prison and imprisoned without bail for several weeks. Eventually, because of the efforts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, she was eventually granted bail. The trouble is that the Spanish authorities could not or would not get their act together.

The charges were dropped, and Mrs. Price thought, understandably, that that was the end of the matter. She had been imprisoned in Holloway without bail, and accused of a serious offence, but the charges had been dropped by the Spanish authorities, and the warrant was cancelled.

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Price and her husband went on a day trip to Calais. They crossed over to Belgium, but, on doing so, she was arrested under the old warrant issued by the Spanish authorities, which wanted her to be extradited.

I find Mrs. Price's treatment extremely worrying, not least because of a letter from the then Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). Incidentally, I am delighted to note that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is to reply to the debate, because he is one of the most conscientious and able Ministers in the House.

My right hon. Friend's predecessor wrote to me: As you know Mrs. Price was discharged by the Metropolitan magistrate at Bow Street as the Spanish authorities had decided not to pursue Mrs. Price's extradition at this time. We share her Solicitor's concern that Mrs. Price was detained for so long in respect of an extradition request that was not pursued—although I must stress that in acting as they did the Spanish authorities did nothing that they were not entitled to do—and we will be registering this concern with them. Mrs. Price, as a free British citizen, quite properly felt she could go to France. She was subsequently arrested, however, and is now in gaol there. Her husband, Sam Price, has not been allowed to see her recently, and, as far as one can understand, will not be allowed to see her for the next three months.

It is not for any of us to determine whether someone is guilty or innocent. What the case is about is getting authorities, such as the Spanish Ministry of Justice, to get their act together. Why should a British citizen be languishing in a French gaol—she may stay there for a number of months to come—unless those authorities have the evidence to keep her there?

I am not criticising the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Home Office, which have been extremely helpful. I urge my right hon. Friend, however, to say to the Spanish authorities, "If you have evidence against this woman, bring it to us now." Mrs. Price's lawyer in France has told me that she cannot make a bail application on her behalf until that evidence is furnished by the Spanish Ministry of Justice. That is as gross an affront to justice as any occurring anywhere in the world.

I know that my right hon. Friend will do his utmost to get the Spanish authorities to act. He will remember the case of the British lorry driver, Roy Clarke, who spent 20 months in custody only to be acquitted. The case of Brenda Price is far worse, because no evidence has been brought against my constituent.

Mrs. Price is not alone. It has been estimated by that splendid organisation, Fair Trials Abroad, which has compiled a fascinating report which I am sure that my right hon. Friend has read, that there are probably 15,000 Mrs. Prices throughout Europe.

Why is that? It is because there is no concept of Euro-bail. People are languishing in foreign gaols simply because the authorities are unable or unwilling—or too incompetent—to get their act together, and they will not furnish the necessary evidence. That is a gross miscarriage of justice, and such cases happen all the time. I ask my right hon. Friend to raise the matter at the Council of Ministers. I know that the Home Office has been reluctant to do that in the past, but Euro-bail should be discussed.

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a report by Fair Trials Abroad which says that the number of foreigners in serious trouble outside their own countries is surprising. In 1993, the figure was over 45,000, with over 15,000 on remand. A high proportion are EU citizens. The numbers will continue to grow rapidly as the full effects of freedom of movement and other factors come into play.

Almost all the cases that Fair Trials Abroad knows of in which some sort of miscarriage of justice is likely to have occurred contain an element of discrimination. It is satisfied that the discrimination involved in provisional liberty, foreign evidence and lack of proper interpretation constitute the major current threats to the pursuit suit of justice for EU citizens.

Bail discrimination is an affront to justice, because it involves prejudice. Council of Europe statistics suggest that there are thousands of EU citizens on remand in Europe's prisons at any one time who are affected. A foreign accused is invariably dependent on some form of foreign evidence during investigation and trial. For such evidence, he will be dependent on the procedures of European co-operation. Those procedures are ineffective. Up to 1,000 miscarriages of justice will occur annually in any one year from this cause alone. Before my right hon. Friend moves too far towards to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), I should say that I am about to conclude. I should not like to catch my right hon. Friend the Minister unawares, because I know that he has been listening most carefully. I ask him to do everything he can, in co-operation with the Foreign Office, to get the evidence from the Spanish justice department. If they cannot, this woman should be released.

It is interesting that the Spanish representative, the President of the Council of Justice Ministers, has stated that the problem of Euro-bail needs to be dealt with as a priority. Even the Spanish are saying that. It is important that every channel is used to persuade these people to either put up or shut up.

This is a grave miscarriage of justice. I urge my right hon. Friend to do everything he possibly can, not just for Mrs. Brenda Price but for the 15,000 or so others like her in the European Union, and for people like Roy Clarke who have languished in gaol. I ask my right hon. Friend to do what he can.

7.33 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) said. He raised a number of concerns about the extradition request made by Spain to France in relation to one of his constituents, Mrs. Brenda Price, who was arrested near Dunkirk on 5 October when travelling through France with her husband and son. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I reply in detail to the points he has made.

Mrs. Price is at present being held at the Maison d'Arrêt in Loos. Before I turn to particular concerns, it may be helpful if I explain the general background to the case.

Extradition is the mechanism for returning fugitives to the country where an alleged offence has been committed, for the fugitive to be tried in a court of law. Extradition among all European Union countries apart from Belgium is covered by the Council of Europe convention on extradition. The convention lays down a common standard and common procedures for handling extradition requests between European countries which have signed and ratified it.

Under the convention, there is no requirement for a requesting state to make a prima facie case in support of an extradition request. All that the requesting country has to provide is an authenticated copy of an arrest warrant, a statement of the offences for which extradition has been requested, a copy of the relevant laws in the requesting country, and identification evidence. This material is usually considered by a court, in England and Wales a magistrates court, before a decision is made to issue an arrest warrant.

Under the Extradition Act 1989, which implements the UK's obligations under the European convention, there is an alternative procedure which may be used in emergencies—for example, where a fugitive offender is likely to leave the country.

Under the emergency procedure, the requesting country can, through Interpol channels, request the provisional arrest of a fugitive. The requesting country must provide evidence that a case exists which is sufficient for a Bow street magistrate to issue a provisional arrest warrant. It should be noted that a decision by a court to issue a provisional arrest warrant is not a final decision. The requesting state has to back up the request with full supporting documents. If it does not, the arrest warrant will be discharged.

Once the fugitive is arrested, the requesting country has to provide documents in support of its extradition request within statutory deadlines. In the case of European convention countries, the documents must be provided within 40 days.

A country can issue an Interpol red notice, which alerts other countries that a person is wanted in that country to face charges, and should be arrested if located. The UK often receives such requests from other countries for British and other nationals. Indeed, the majority of requests we receive—around 70 per cent. of all cases—are initiated by an Interpol red notice and a provisional arrest.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, extradition requests, by their very nature, involve individuals who have already crossed international boundaries. It is an essential element in the success of the fight against crime internationally that those individuals wanted in connection with criminal offences in one country can be arrested before they have a chance to escape to yet another country.

In this connection, my hon. Friend has questioned why he was not notified if the Spanish authorities had renewed their extradition request for Mrs. Price. He will appreciate that, by their very nature, extradition requests involve alleged offences against a person who has crossed international boundaries. Great care is therefore taken that the person is not alerted, in order to preclude any risk that he or she will flee the country. I make those general points by way of background, because they are pertinent to the case of Mrs. Price.

Mrs. Price was the subject of an extradition request from Spain to the UK in 1993. The request from Spain was made through the emergency procedure for Mrs. Price's provisional arrest to face charges relating to the trafficking of 940 kg of cannabis. The Spanish provided information about the drug trafficking operation, and stated that an arrest warrant for Mrs. Price and others had been issued in Spain on 8 October 1992. That information was put before the magistrate at Bow street magistrates court, and he was invited to issue a provisional arrest warrant. He issued the warrant on 7 January 1993, and Mrs. Price was arrested on 13 January.

As is usual in such cases, the Spanish authorities were notified of Mrs. Price's arrest, and were informed that they had 40 days in which to provide documents in accordance with the European convention on extradition in support of their extradition request. However, the Spanish authorities failed to send the necessary supporting documents within the 40 days, as required under the international convention, and Mrs. Price was discharged.

I pause at this stage to make two points in answer to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. As he is aware, the United Kingdom Government were concerned that what I have called the emergency procedure was used when there was, as it turned out, no evidence that Mrs. Price was an emergency case—that is, that she was about to flee the country—and when the Spanish authorities had not finished preparing the paperwork.

The then Home Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), informed my hon. Friend by letter of those concerns in the following terms: We share her solicitor's concern that Mrs. Price was detained for so long in respect of an extradition request which was not pursued—although I must stress that in acting as they did the Spanish authorities did nothing that they were not entitled to do—and we will be registering this concern with them. We wrote to the Spanish authorities about that aspect of the case in May 1993, and received confirmation from Spain that our concerns had been noted, together with an explanation as to why the Spanish authorities had not followed up the extradition request. They decided to await the outcome of the trial of Mrs. Price's co-defendants, which took place in May 1993. Had they been found not guilty, no doubt the request for Mrs. Price would have been dropped. In fact, the four defendants were convicted and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment and fined 65 million pesetas—or £336,000 in real money.

My second point is to stress that Mrs. Price was released from custody, and the provisional arrest warrant discharged, solely because Spain did not produce the necessary documents within the time limits. At no time was the Spanish request refused, and it was open to Spain to make a second request to the United Kingdom or to any other country where Mrs. Price was found. Those points were explained to my hon. Friend at the time.

In his second reply of 22 April 1993 to letters from my hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde stated: As you know Mrs. Price was discharged by the Metropolitan magistrate at Bow Street as the Spanish authorities decided not to pursue Mrs. Price's extradition at this time". I repeat and emphasise that the Spanish authorities did not drop Mrs. Price's case: they simply decided not to pursue it further at that time. I emphasise that point, because it appears from correspondence sent on behalf of Mrs. Price to the Home Office that Mrs. Price was under the misapprehension that the discharge of the provisional arrest warrant in 1993 was the end of the matter, and that the Spanish authorities had given up their intention to seek her extradition. That was and is not the case. If Mrs. Price was advised differently, I am sorry to say that she was badly advised. We, for our part, stated the matter clearly in the letter to my hon. Friend.

The Interpol red notice for Mrs. Price's arrest continued to be in force, and it was on that notice that Mrs. Price was arrested in France on 5 October this year. As her extradition was not rejected by the United Kingdom, there was no reason why that should not have occurred. The United Kingdom police were not acting on that notice, because, as is usual practice in such cases, once a provisional arrest warrant has been discharged by the authorities of a state, the requesting authority must make a request with full supporting documents the next time it seeks extradition from that state.

The French authorities were perfectly entitled to act on the Interpol red notice. Had the United Kingdom authorities been put in a similar position, they would have acted in the same way—and rightly so. It is in the nature of the emergency procedure that action must be taken on Interpol information. No consideration can, or indeed should, be expected to be given to detailed facts, such as whether a person is only on a day trip. All sorts of false stories could be given by those fleeing justice.

The procedure provides opportunities in court and, by way of representations to Ministers at a later stage, for deciding such issues. I put it to my hon. Friend that, if we were to change the procedures to accommodate those views, we would fundamentally undermine the workings of Interpol.

In Mrs. Price's case, the next stage under the convention is for the requesting state, Spain, to submit all the necessary documents to the French authorities within 40 days, and for the French authorities to consider the request. I understand that the French authorities have received some papers from Spain, and are now in the process of considering them. If, for any reason, the Spanish request cannot be complied with, no doubt Mrs. Price will be free to return to the United Kingdom.

However, I must emphasise that those matters are for the Spanish and French authorities. It is not for the United Kingdom to intervene, any more than a foreign country would attempt to intervene in or influence a request from a second country to the United Kingdom about a national of that country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has raised a number of other concerns in the past, and he did so again this evening. He is concerned that 18 months had elapsed since the date of the alleged offence to the date of the request from Spain to the United Kingdom in 1993. My hon. Friend may be aware that undue delay in making a request is a factor to which Ministers and the courts must have regard when considering whether to make an extradition order in any particular case.

However, undue delay must take into account, among other factors, the time required for the police and prosecuting authorities to pursue their inquiries and go through the proper procedures. When the crime is serious or when, as in this case, a number of individuals are involved, the time for completing those procedures may be quite lengthy. In this case, Ministers and the courts never addressed the issue, because the warrant was discharged after 40 days.

My hon. Friend has also expressed concern that Mrs. Price is being held in custody in France, and, if returned to Spain, may be held for some time in prison on remand there. The question of bail is, of course, a matter for the courts in those countries, in the same way that the decision whether to bail a French or Spanish national charged with offences in the United Kingdom or wanted for extradition would be a matter for our courts. A key issue, of course, is whether the offender will answer to that bail at the relevant time, but that is not the only issue. Courts will also have regard to the seriousness of the offence and any likely sentence if found guilty.

What is called "Euro-bail" would be a benefit only in cases where the only reason for not granting bail is the likelihood of absconding. As such, it is of limited application, and raises more problems in relation to the harmonisation of judicial decisions across Europe than any remedy it might provide. Bail is at present a question for the French courts, and I do not believe that we should seek to interfere in their decision. We would resent it if they tried to interfere in any decision that we might make.

What the United Kingdom can do in this case—and what we are doing—is provide consular support to Mrs. Price and her family. I am pleased that my hon. Friend paid a generous tribute to the Foreign Office, which is often maligned in the House—at times, by this Minister. British consular officials became aware of Mrs. Price's arrest when her husband sought help from the honorary consul in Dunkirk. He was then referred to the British consulate-general in Lille.

Mr. Price went to the consulate-general on 6 October where he was helped with the formalities of applying for a permit to visit his wife. On the same day, Mrs. Linda Trigot, the pro-consul, applied to the court for a permit to visit Mrs. Price. Later on 6 October, Mrs. Trigot was told by the social worker at the prison that Mrs. Price was very upset, and wanted to see a consular officer. On Monday 9 October, Mrs. Trigot contacted the Substitut General, Mlle Woyal, at the Court of Appeal, and asked for authority to make an early visit to Mrs. Price. That was exceptionally granted by telephone, and the visit took place later that day. During the visit, Mrs. Trigot handed over clothing for Mrs. Price that had been left by her husband.

Mrs. Trigot delivered a second parcel of clothing on 17 October, and a third was delivered to Mrs. Price on 27 October.

Mr. Price has contacted the consulate-general on numerous occasions since his wife's arrest. He has been given information on the French legal and prison systems. He was also told how he could send money to his wife for prison comforts, either through the FCO or direct through the French post office.

On 20 October, consular staff checked with the Court of Appeal on whether Mr. Price's visit permit had been issued. Mlle Woyal said that she was not in a position to make a decision as she had not yet completed her study of the documents that she had received from Spain. She did, however, call back later that same day to say that she would allow the visit, which was arranged for 26 October. Mr. Price called the consulate-general on 26 October to say that he had seen his wife, who was well.

I understand that Mr. Price is now anxious to obtain a permanent visit permit. As he has been advised by the consulate-general, that is a matter for Mr. Price's private French lawyer, Maitre Robert Thompson, to pursue. I understand that Maitre Thompson is in contact with Mrs. Price, and visited her on 20 October.

I can assure my hon. Friend, as he will be aware from the catalogue of concern that has been displayed by the Foreign Office in its contacts with Mr. and Mrs. Price, that consular staff will continue to help where appropriate.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied, from the full and detailed explanation that I have given him, that all the proper procedures have been carried out in the United Kingdom; that we believe that Spain and France are following the procedures in the European convention; and that the British Government, through our consulate-general's office, are giving every assistance to Mrs. Price.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Eight o'clock.