HC Deb 25 November 1998 vol 321 cc207-8 3.33 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Following your previous ruling, may I ask what is the latest position in respect of Pinochet? As you probably know, the Lords have decided that Pinochet is not immune from justice, but can be extradited. That is a wonderful decision, about which Labour Members are delighted. Shall we have the opportunity to discuss the subject in the near future? As far as international law is concerned, it is good indeed that a notorious mass murderer and torturer can be brought to justice.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Goldfield)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Following this afternoon's judgment in the House of Lords on the case of General Pinochet, I have pointed out before that this House is obviously in some difficulty on the issue. So far, there have been no Government statements whatsoever on the issue, in spite of the fact that outside the House it is a matter of open debate. There have now been two judgments, in the divisional court and the House of Lords. Surely it is now time that we had a statement from the Home Secretary. People in this country are greatly concerned about the issue, and about our relations with the democratically elected Government of Chile.

I realise that you, Madam Speaker, will not remotely have had time to consider the judgment of the House of Lords, but may I put one point to you? At the end of his judgment, Lord Nicholls said: The sole question before your Lordships is whether, by reason of his status as a former head of state, Senator Pinochet is immune from the criminal processes of this country, of which extradition forms a part. Arguments about the effect on this country's diplomatic relations with Chile if extradition were allowed to proceed, or with Spain if refused, are not matters for the court. These are, par excellence, political matters for consideration by the Secretary of State in the exercise of his discretion under section 12 of the Extradition Act. That seems to be the point, and in view of that judgment, would it not be right for us to be able to question the Home Secretary on the use of what everyone agrees is very wide discretion? Many people here and in Chile feel that the affair has continued for long enough, and that the way forward is for the Home Secretary to use his discretion and bring the proceedings to an end.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)


Madam Speaker

Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I know that he wants to be helpful, but I am quite capable of giving a ruling. I have heard points of order from both sides, and I am well able to cope with them. As the House of Lords has decided that Senator Pinochet does not have immunity from prosecution, extradition proceedings against the senator are still pending.

I remind the House that our sub judice resolutions—to which I drew the House's attention previously and which can be found in the Standing Orders—require that there should be no comment on matters awaiting jurisdiction in the courts. The courts may have to decide whether the evidence against the senator is sufficient to warrant his trial in Spain. The matter of the charges against him therefore remains sub judice.

Again, I reassure the House that, as soon as the issue ceases to be sub judice, I know that the Home Secretary will take the first opportunity to make a statement to the House, and it will be open to all hon. Members to question him and debate the issue. Until then, the sub judice rule remains.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

On a separate point of order, Madam Speaker. May I have your guidance on ministerial attendance at the debate on the Address? Is it not customary for Cabinet Ministers to reply to the debate? The Secretary of State for Education and Employment faxed me a letter this morning explaining that he would not be speaking in this evening's debate, despite the fact that it is on industry, education and employment, because he has to speak tomorrow at the annual conference of the Association of Colleges in Harrogate. The programme shows that he is speaking there at 12 noon, but I am speaking at 10.10 am and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is speaking at 9.50 am. If we can still debate here tonight, why cannot the Secretary of State?

Madam Speaker

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I have no authority in determining which Ministers handle debates in the House, but I have the feeling of the House and will address the point in general. The House wishes a Secretary of State to be on the Front Bench during a major debate appertaining to the departmental portfolio. As for my personal feelings on the matter, I understand that Secretaries of State have urgent business elsewhere, but unless there is a matter of utmost urgency elsewhere, I believe that the House always takes priority.