HC Deb 10 February 2000 vol 344 cc417-30


The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Stansted hijacking.

The House will, I know, have been pleased to learn that the hijacking of an Ariana Airlines plane at Stansted ended peacefully this morning. The plane had been on an internal flight within Afghanistan from Kabul to Maser-e-Sharif on Sunday 6 February with 186 passengers and crew on board when it was hijacked. After initial stops in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the plane landed in Moscow where it was refuelled.

While the plane was on the ground in Moscow, we made it clear to the Russian authorities that the flight should not expect to come to the United Kingdom. None the less, the authorities in Moscow allowed the plane to take off again after, I understand, the hijackers had asked for information about a number of western destinations.

When we learned that the aircraft was heading for the United Kingdom, we decided to allow it to land, in accordance with our international obligations. There were serious concerns about the safety of those on board, given the threats that had been made earlier to kill passengers, uncertainty over fuel levels and reports of technical problems.

The plane landed at Stansted at about 2 am on Monday 7 February. Contingency plans were activated and Essex police took control of the incident. I should like to pay tribute to the patience, skill and professionalism of the police and all those who supported them to bring this dreadful incident to a peaceful conclusion. I believe that those sentiments are shared by the whole House and the country.

Eight hostages were released on Monday and another man left the aircraft on Tuesday. Four crew members also managed to escape from the cockpit on Tuesday. A fifth crew member was ejected from the aircraft early on Wednesday. Then, at 3.30 this morning, 85 more people left the aeroplane, followed at 5.45 am by the remainder on the plane.

It had been agreed that two of the hostage takers would leave the aircraft for a face-to-face discussion with the negotiators before the remaining hostages were released. No clear political demands were made at that meeting or at any other time following the plane's arrival at Stansted, although statements were made to the negotiators about the political situation in Afghanistan.

Hijacking is a very serious terrorist offence in this country and in all other countries that are signatories to the international conventions against hijacking. A total of 19 people so far have been arrested by the Essex police. The House will understand why I cannot at this stage go into any further detail about the legal process involving them.

All those released from the aircraft are having their health assessed, and a process of interviews is under way. We obviously wish to ensure that those who were taken hostage are able quickly to return to their homes in Afghanistan. We are making arrangements accordingly.

There has been considerable concern about whether this hijacking was an attempt to seek political asylum in this country, both in respect of the hijackers and any accomplices, and in respect of some of the other passengers on board.

Let me first make it clear that in the talks that led to the peaceful ending of this hijacking, no undertakings of any kind concerning asylum or any other matter were given by representatives of the British Government. The surrender from the plane was unconditional.

Of the 165 people on board, 60 have so far told immigration officers that they wish to apply for asylum, together with an additional 14 dependants. Most of the remainder have yet to make their wishes known.

Like other countries, we are bound by international conventions relating to refugees, but we are also bound by the clearest international obligations to prevent and deter hijacking. I must tell the House that, as a matter of public policy, I believe that the clearest and most unequivocal signals must be sent out so as to discourage hijacking, whatever its motive.

In the special circumstances of this hijacking, I have given instructions that I personally will make the determination of any application for asylum made by persons on board the aircraft.

While I must and will act in accordance with the law, I am determined that nobody should consider that there can be any benefit to be obtained by hijacking. Subject to compliance with all legal requirements, I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable.

There are some striking features about this case. This was an internal flight from the international airport at Kabul to Mazer-e Sharif, a relatively small town with a population of no more than 130,000. In such circumstances, it would seem inconceivable that persons on the flight could have intended to claim political asylum unless, of course, they were complicit in the hijacking.

We condemn all hijackings unequivocally, and I know that this view is shared across the House and the country. We will respond resolutely to any such attempt to use terrorist methods, whether the aim is to advance a political cause or to benefit the individuals concerned.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. I understand why I did not receive it until 12.57 pm, although it has made it impossible for me to examine it in some detail. I hope that the Home Secretary will therefore entertain the possibility of a written follow-up to the remarks that I shall make now.

I join the Home Secretary in one thing at least—in congratulating the police and all the others involved on the way in which they have handled a difficult situation and brought it to a safe conclusion. The right hon. Gentleman says that he informed Moscow that the plane should not come to the UK. What were Moscow's own obligations under international law? Will there be any follow-up activity as a result of the plane leaving Moscow and coming here?

Why the United Kingdom? How many countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights did the plane fly over on its journey from Moscow to the UK? Why did those involved decide to land here and try to take advantage of our asylum procedures? Is it because those procedures are known to be rather more congenial than some which appertain in other countries which are, nevertheless, still signatories to the 1951 convention and to the ECHR?

The right hon. Gentleman has said that we have a clear international obligation to deter this method of seeking asylum and to deter hijacking. We would all concur with that. Does he consider that one way of discharging such an international obligation is to make sure that our procedures are not noticeably softer than those of surrounding countries?

Does the Home Secretary agree that speed is of the essence in processing these claims? I welcome the fact that he has said that he will take personal responsibility for the decisions. Can he give an idea of the timetable envisaged? If he is able to take personal responsibility for these decisions, will he also take personal responsibility for any undetermined asylum claims arising from previous hijackings? Does he accept that the fact that there are still supposed to be outstanding claims on the part of hijackers who have paid a criminal penalty is not a deterrent for those considering the same method of getting into this country? Will he accept responsibility for those cases as well?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that as far as those who are responsible for the hijacking are concerned, he will place the processing of any criminal action ahead of the processing of any asylum action? Will he confirm that in considering whether asylum is appropriate, we would take into account whether or not people have freedom of movement, such as being on an internal flight; whether or not they have jobs; and whether or not they had freedom to travel to family weddings? Will he confirm that each individual on that plane must, in order to claim asylum, show genuine and individual fear of persecution?

Can the right hon. Gentleman now set out the cost of the operation at Stansted? If not, will he let me know when he will be able to do so? I would be grateful if he would answer those and possibly further questions.

Mr. Straw

As I said to the right hon. Lady behind the Chair, I am sorry that it was not possible to get a draft of the statement to her or to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), with the length of notice that I usually give. She will know that I endeavour to provide as much notice as possible—usually two to three hours in advance of my making statements. That was not possible in these circumstances, as I am sure she understands.

Miss Widdecombe

The Home Secretary is an example to the rest of his colleagues.

Mr. Straw

I hope that that is not put on the record. [HON. MEMBERS: "It will be now."] Then I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her sedentary comment. I will be happy to follow up any further questions that she may have, either in correspondence or on the Floor of the House. I remind her that we have Home Office questions on Monday.

The right hon. Lady asked about Moscow. We continue to examine whether the Russian authorities complied with their international obligations. There are obvious questions about why the Russian authorities did not take steps to disable the plane so that it could not take off, which is standard practice in respect of any plane that lands where the intention of those on board has been to hijack it. Representations will be made to the authorities in Moscow, as appropriate, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

The right hon. Lady mentioned speed in respect of processing claims. I accept the need for that, and special arrangements have been put in place to ensure that the claims are processed as quickly as possible. My written instruction to the immigration service that I make the decisions on the initial determinations is part of that, although she will understand from her knowledge of immigration law that there are other processes as well. However, I intend to take the initial decision personally and as quickly as I can.

The right hon. Lady asked about undetermined claims arising from previous hijackings, but I advise her not to go down that route if she has any knowledge of what happened following the 1982 hijacking. It took place under an Administration whom she supported, although she was not a Member of the House at the time. I draw attention to the fact that the Opposition supported the Government when there was a hijacking in 1996 and I hope and believe that such support will be forthcoming in these circumstances.

As for people who are complicit in serious criminal acts and then seek to claim asylum, I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the fact that article IF of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees provides clear exemptions from the consideration of any application for asylum in respect of those who are convicted of or suspected of being involved in certain criminal acts. There are also provisions under article 33 for the exclusion of individuals involved in other matters. Either of those articles may well apply in this case. There are other striking features to the case in addition to the fact that the flight was internal and to a relatively small town away from the international airport, as I mentioned. The right hon. Lady mentioned factors such as freedom of movement, whether the people involved had money, and what sort of genuine and individual fear they were subject to.

It is too early to give the full costs, but considerable expense is involved in such cases. However, it has been a matter of concern to successive Governments that, wherever possible, such hijackings should end peacefully, as this one thankfully did, but with the full rigour of the law applied to those directly and indirectly involved.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's statement. Given the proximity of my constituency to Stansted airport, there has been real concern there about the hijacking and enormous relief that it has been successfully and peacefully concluded. Like him, I congratulate the Essex police force on the superb and professional manner in which it conducted the operation. May I ask about the additional costs of the police operation? For whatever reason, it appears that a hijacked plane heading towards Britain tends to head towards Stansted airport. The costs are currently being met locally. Will he give sympathetic consideration to a special payment to ensure that a national burden and a national responsibility do not fall disproportionately on the Essex police authority?

Mr. Straw

I fully understand my hon. Friend's concerns and those of his constituents. It is not possible for the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir A. Haselhurst), the Deputy Speaker, to intervene on the Floor of the House, so would you, Madam Speaker, allow me to refer to his concerns? I have been in touch with him. He has been very anxious indeed and has spoken about the hijacking on behalf of his constituents. We are all aware that the remarks of those in the Chair are circumscribed, but I am fully cognisant of the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend about the hijacking's effect on their constituents and on the Essex police.

My hon. Friend asked about the costs that Essex police have had to bear as a result of the hijacking. As I said to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), it is too early to say what those costs are, but the Police Acts provide for making an application to the Home Office for an exceptional payment to cover such costs. I would consider such an application sympathetically.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I begin by joining in the tribute to Essex police and by paying tribute to the other public servants in the health service and the emergency services, and to the Home Secretary and his officials for the way in which the matter has been tackled and resolved peacefully.

It is appropriate to reconsider two international issues. The first is international responsibility when a plane first lands and is not passed on. The Home Secretary dealt with that point. Secondly, if crew members are involved in a hijacking, international regulations should preclude them from being crew members anywhere again.

Will the Home Secretary make it clear where responsibility lies from now on—that the prosecuting authorities, independent of the Home Office, will tackle criminal activities; and that the immigration authorities will deal with any asylum applications under rules that apply to everyone else? If the Home Secretary intends to make a practice of calling in asylum or immigration applications, as he did in the Tyson case and as he intends to do in this hijacking case, we should have rules to govern that, just as we have rules for calling in planning applications. That would be preferable to the Home Secretary's simply being able to pick and mix. Under such a system, people would not know whether they would receive special fast treatment from the Home Secretary or normal treatment from someone else.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the police and others involved in peacefully resolving this terrible hijacking.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about international responsibility when a plane first lands. My right hon. Friend and his colleagues and officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are urgently considering the matter. Clearly, it is worrying that the Moscow authorities allowed the aeroplane to be refuelled and to take off. A threat arises when a plane is first hijacked; it continues, and the responsibility is passed on to other countries.

However, all countries must accept their international obligations; if we are told that a plane is going to land, it would be a breach of our international obligations and utterly irresponsible if we prevented it from doing so. It would lead to loss of life, not only of those on board but of those who lived in the surrounding area.

In reply to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, 18 hijackings involving a European Union country occurred in the 1990s and the first year of the new century. Only two have taken place in the United Kingdom, one in 1996 and one this year.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned crew members. In my judgment, any crew members found guilty of involvement in a hijacking should be banned from further employment with aircraft.

As the House knows, prosecution decisions are not a matter for me, but for the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service. The analogy that the hon. Gentleman made between asylum applications and the powers of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to call in a planning application was slightly eccentric. There is no such parallel. There is also no direct parallel between my direct powers in respect of asylum seekers and the provisions of immigration legislation for entry into the United Kingdom. The law clearly states that the Home Secretary makes all decisions about applications for asylum. Given the fact that there are more than sufficient to fill my box every night, I cannot make all those decisions personally. However, I believed that, in this case, it would have the approbation of the House if I made it clear that I would make the decisions personally.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I echo the praise given to Essex police, to all who worked with them for a peaceful resolution of the hijacking, and to my right hon. Friend, his colleagues and staff. The events persuade me that it may be time for us to re-examine the 1951 convention, which was drawn up in totally different circumstances, to take better account of the great changes in international terrorism and hijacking.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, for paying tribute to the police and others. On the 1951 convention, his point has a great deal of merit. The simple fact is that the convention was drafted and agreed half a century ago in very different circumstances, before mass air travel, before there was much greater ease of travel across land borders and before the development of the criminal terrorist activity of hijacking.

As I have made clear, we are faced with a clash of international obligations and public policy: obligations in respect of refugees, and the clearest possible obligations in respect of the prevention and deterrence of hijacking and other international terrorism. I have made it clear where I believe the balance must lie.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I add my tribute to Essex police for the fantastic and difficult job that they have had to do over the past few days.

First, in relation to the comments by the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), if the county of Essex makes an application for funding at the right time, will that be full funding of the costs of operations? Secondly, when we have advance notice that a plane is coming to this country as a result of a hijacking, why does it go to a commercial airport rather than to a military airfield, where it might for security reasons be easier to protect, after and deal with the people involved?

Thirdly, there are rumours in Essex that, during the time it takes to determine any applications for asylum, councils in Essex will be expected to house those people who have been involved in the hijacking. I should be grateful if the Home Secretary confirmed whether that is correct, or whether the Home Office will make alternative arrangements. How will the councils in Essex be able to find the necessary accommodation, given the pressure on local authority and housing association housing and the costs involved?

Mr. Straw

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I have no doubt that Essex police will make an application for full funding. He will understand that I will look at it sympathetically, but I plainly cannot prejudge it. However, I have made it clear by my actions over the recent past that, where an application for additional funding because of exceptional circumstances is well based, I am ready not only to give it sympathetic consideration but to make a contribution—in some cases, a full contribution—to the additional costs involved.

The hon. Gentleman asks a question that I know is in the minds of many people, particularly those in the area around Stansted, which includes his constituency: why could the aircraft not have been sent to a military airfield? Much consideration has been given to that issue by successive Governments. I ask him to accept two points. One is that it is in the nature of things that only short notice is given that hijacked planes are about to land. The second is that successive Governments have judged that arrangements that have worked satisfactorily are likely to work satisfactorily in similar circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the councils in Essex. We have not finalised the details, but my full intention is to ensure that responsibility for housing any of the asylum seekers is dealt with directly by the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office, rather than by local authorities in Essex. I cannot give an absolute guarantee on that but, if there is any change, I will ensure that he and other Essex Members are informed immediately.

Mr. Denzil Da vies (Llanelli)

My right hon. Friend has told the House that he personally as Secretary of State will take decisions in respect of asylum seekers. Will he confirm that should asylum seekers, or some of them, be refused asylum and therefore be subject to deportation, the normal appeal procedures will still apply?

Mr. Straw

Normal appeal procedures obviously still apply, because that is the law of the land. But the nature of any appeal depends on the circumstances of any refusal and the country to which asylum seekers are to be returned.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I thank the Home Secretary for his answers to the questions by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), with whom I find myself unusually in agreement because of the close proximity of my constituency also to Stansted airport. It is good news that the Home Secretary will look favourably upon applications by Essex police for financial assistance, because in a situation like this, a tragic national and indeed international incident, it would be quite wrong for the people of Essex in one way or another, through the costs of housing, the police and other costs, to bear the full financial burden. Will the Home Secretary join me in congratulating the managers of Stansted airport, who have also acted commendably throughout this incident and have been most assiduous in keeping local Members of Parliament informed about what is going on?

Mr. Straw

I commend the hon. Lady's intervention. I know her constituency very well, since I was born and brought up in it. My concern for the people of Essex is second only to my concern for the people of my constituency. Of course, the people who live around Stansted airport have already had to suffer very considerable inconvenience and anxiety as a result of this hijacking.

I am glad that the hon. Lady mentioned the manager of Stansted airport and his staff, because the administration of the airport has been magnificent in very difficult circumstances. I add my own tribute to the managers and staff, not only of the airport but of all the airlines and others associated with the airport, who have managed to keep services going, broadly speaking, despite this terrible hijacking.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I add my congratulations to those who have acted with courage and good sense in Stansted—the police and others. Is there any risk that my right hon. Friend's personal involvement in determining any asylum claims may complicate appeals that people may seek to make? Can he assure the House that any appeals will be dealt with swiftly? Can he also give an estimate of how long it might take someone to appeal in this case?

Mr. Straw

It is by no means unheard of for Ministers to make final, but initial, determinations in asylum cases. The law is very clear that all decisions in asylum cases made initially are made by the Secretary of State, so it is not as exceptional as people may imagine. As I have already made clear, I will act strictly in accordance with the law and look at the circumstances of each case. I have also made clear the overall framework within which I shall do so. It is right that I should do that, but in no way would that lead to any compromise of any discretion, which I am bound to exercise in such a case. Appeals obviously depend on the circumstances of any decision. I do not want to speculate further, except to say that we are seeking to put in hand arrangements so that any further adjudications happen as quickly as possible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

I call Eric Pickles.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I very much welcome the Home Secretary's robust—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I call Eric Pickles.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

It is a great pleasure for me to follow the Back Bencher of the year.

I should like to associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell). We owe a great debt of gratitude to the staff of Stansted, who have experienced two really important crises in the past few months and handled both very well. The first was the crash over Christmas. Their response has been remarkable.

May I return to the narrow point of who bears the cost? I realise that the Home Secretary will be sympathetic and reasonable—which is wonderful—but, as he said in his statement, this is part of a national contingency, and I do not think that we should rely on him using his discretion. Provision for events such as this should be made as a matter of course, which would relieve much of the current anxiety in Essex.

Mr. Straw

I am glad that we have solved the problem of which Eric wished to speak. I was perplexed about the possibility that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) had moved constituencies—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Again!"] I believe that the chicken run has been deferred for at least another year.

I know the area represented by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) nearly as well as that represented by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). I know that many people who work at Stansted airport live in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and that most people in Essex have used the airport's excellent facilities.

Let me return to the issue of cost. I do not want to make a political point, but the structure of police funding has continued under successive Administrations. In the first instance, individual territorial police services provide the facilities; then there is provision for applications to whoever happens to be Home Secretary. I do not think I could make it clearer that I will view applications sympathetically, and the sooner they are submitted to me, the sooner I can make a decision.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I condemn out of hand the terrible crime of hijacking, and join others in congratulating not just the Essex police, but my right hon. Friend on the way in which a very difficult affair was handled.

My right hon. Friend has difficult decisions to make. When making them, will he keep in mind the odious nature of the Taleban regime, which has eliminated women's rights and murdered and tortured its own citizens on an hourly basis? Before making those decisions, will my right hon. Friend engage in talks with other countries where there are movements opposed to the Taleban—such as Afghans in exile—to establish whether they will take these people, before sending them to certain torture and death?

Mr. Straw

Any decisions made by me will be made in accordance with the duties imposed on me, and will take account of, among other factors, the circumstances in Afghanistan as they are shown to relate to the individuals seeking asylum, and then the wider circumstances in which those individuals came to apply for asylum.

I think I have made it clear that the issue of removals may relate not to removals to Afghanistan itself, but to neighbouring countries.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I thank the Home Secretary for the robust content of his remarks, and also for their robust tone. He may be the first Labour Home Secretary in history who sounds more right wing with each year in the Home Office, rather than the reverse.

Without prejudicing the quasi-judicial position in which he is placed, the Home Secretary gave us the clearest possible hint that the whole thing may have been an outrageous scam. He will have to make tough judgments in the future. Does he accept that he will have the support of not just Conservative Members, but most people in the country, if he brings about legislative changes to ensure that if the country experienced a similar scam in the future, the perpetrators would receive long sentences and the so-called hostages would be given food, water and medical treatment, and then be sent home to their loved ones on the first available plane?

Mr. Straw

If the right hon. Gentleman will excuse me, on this occasion I shall not accept the bouquet that he has so generously offered me. It is the lot of Home Secretaries to be subject to comment from this side or that, according to the issue, and it is perfectly possible that, when we come to debate the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will be saying exactly the opposite.

On legislative change, the provisions of the criminal law are very severe indeed on those who can be proved to have been either directly involved in hijacking or complicit in one way or another in hijacking and other terrorist offences.

There is a wider issue, on the 1951 convention, and I have already offered the House my opinion on that in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

I add my compliments to the police and special forces on their excellent work. However—why Stansted? I have not heard a satisfactory answer to why it was chosen. We have an air force base at Brize Norton, which I should think could have been isolated much more easily and without bringing the problems associated with a hijacking to a commercial airport. Was Brize Norton considered as an alternative for dealing with the hijacking? If not, why not?

Mr. Straw

I hope that my hon. Friend will excuse me from ventilating too far the reasons why such an airport is appropriate. However, I should say that when air traffic control is told that there is an aircraft in the sky, that people on board are seriously armed with guns, grenades and possibly explosives, and that it wishes to land, there is not a great deal of time to make decisions. Quick decisions have to be made, not least on the basis of contingency arrangements that are put in place. On the basis of such considerations, the plane landed at Stansted.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I should like to raise with the Home Secretary the issue of consequences and penalties. First, on penalties, he has already made the point that hijacking is capable of attracting a very serious sentence of imprisonment—life. He will know that, broadly speaking, I am against minimum mandatory sentences. However, in the case of hijacking, is there not a powerful case for saying that there should be a substantial minimum mandatory sentence? A minimum sentence of 10 years strikes me as appropriate.

Secondly, on consequences, may I reinforce the suggestion, which has been made on both sides of the House, that participation in hijacking should be a total prohibition to the granting or obtaining of political asylum, and that that should be made explicit? If it requires a change to an international convention, we should play our part in obtaining that change.

Mr. Straw

I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman's general views on minimum mandatory sentences. I also certainly would not argue against his proposition that the type of figure that he has in mind would be the least that the public and the House would expect in circumstances in which the courts judge that someone has been seriously involved in hijacking. As there have been very few occasions when people have been sentenced for hijacking, I do not have in mind the type of sentence that has been passed, but I am aware that the sentence may have been more than 10 years in some cases and less in others.

On participation in hijacking, as I told the House, article IF of the 1951 convention already provides that the asylum application of those who are convicted of, among other things, serious criminal and terrorist offences cannot be entertained. There may be a need for the convention to be amended not only as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests, but more widely. We shall certainly consider that.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to deal with the matter as expeditiously as justice allows. He offered some succour to the people of Essex in determining where those folk may have to remain in the mean time, but I am sure that he will also have some sympathy for the people of Hastings and Rye, who have 900 asylum seekers in a small part of my constituency that contains only 3,000 local inhabitants. That situation was not made any better by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who visited my constituency last week and made comments that were of no help at all. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the new powers available under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 that allow for dispersal will be used and that he will take account of areas that already have significant numbers of asylum seekers?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend will know that I am familiar with his constituency because my father lives there. [Interruption.] I think that we have covered the whole of my family this afternoon. I am aware of the pressures on my hon. Friend's constituents and of his concerns on their behalf. The arrangements that we have put in place in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 provide for national dispersal of asylum seekers, not least to relieve the pressures on London boroughs and a number of towns in Kent and around the south coast, including Hastings.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Home Secretary said that the aircraft made intermediate stops at Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Russia before landing finally at Stansted. Intervention by the Foreign Secretary on his forthcoming visit to Moscow may be all very well, but we need concerted action by the International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal to ensure that no nation permits hijacked aircraft to proceed blithely on their way. It is all very well to talk about getting the Russians on board, but we need a total international ban.

Mr. Straw

I know of the hon. Gentleman's expertise on air transport issues. He has made a strong point and I shall ensure that his comments are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

All fair-minded people understand the complexity of the decisions that my right hon. Friend now has to take, particularly hon. Members who have an airport in their constituency. I hope that the incident will not be dragged into the current racist campaign that some parties are waging against asylum seekers. We need to weigh the import of our actions and words on such issues carefully. Two weeks ago in my constituency a 49-year-old Lithuanian was about to be deported, but he was too distressed to be accepted by the airline. He was found hanging at Harmondsworth detention centre the following morning.

Mr. Straw

I accept what my hon. Friend says. There is a conflict of international obligations on the issue and it is difficult to judge where the public interest lies. I have thought about the issue carefully and believe that the need to prevent and deter hijacking and other forms of international terrorism must be paramount. Nobody should benefit, including those from countries with considerable political instability. Such terrorist actions must not be allowed to continue.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

For a plane of that type to fly the 2,000-odd nautical miles from Moscow to London would take more than three hours. When were United Kingdom authorities properly informed that the plane intended to land here? Did those on the plane request to land in other countries during the flight from Moscow? If so, which countries refused permission? The plane landed three times before it ended up in the UK. All three of those countries have regular flights to the United Kingdom. Is it not time that we said that those flights will not be permitted to land here if those countries are not prepared to accept their obligations under the law—obligations that all three have signed up to? That is the only way in which hijacking will be outlawed completely.

Mr. Straw

I understand that we were given three-quarters of an hour's notice. On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, my understanding is that inquiries were made by the pilot in respect of possible landings at two other airports in Europe, but that no formal requests to land were made in respect of those other airports. On the hon. Gentleman's wider point, we will make clear the need for all signatory countries of the international conventions against hijacking properly to accept their obligations at the acute point where they arise.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

If the Home Secretary has any relatives in Aldershot, he will know that they will warmly welcome his robust attitude to the problem and, especially, his recognition of where Britain's best interests lie in terms of the conflicting international obligations to which he has referred. If he is to exercise his discretion in the case of those asylum applications—and I hope that he will send out the clearest possible signal that they will not be accepted, otherwise he will encourage further hijackings—it is imperative that the courts do not seek to undermine his judgment in the matter. He is at least accountable to the House, and through the House to the people of Britain, whereas the judges are not.

Mr. Straw

I have no relatives in Aldershot, so far as I am aware. I have made it clear that I have to make my decisions subject to the law and in accordance with the framework of the law. It happens that as a result of decisions made by this elected House, there are rights of appeal in certain circumstances for those who are refused applications relating to immigration and asylum, and those decisions are made ultimately by the courts. It is plainly not possible in current circumstances for that framework to be changed suddenly.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

As a former Brentwood councillor, may I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) in welcoming the Home Secretary's intention to be robust in this matter? I am sure that people throughout the country will be reassured by that. Is the Home Secretary worried about why it was that the destination of choice of the people on the aeroplane was the United Kingdom? Does he know why that was the case? Is he worried that we may have been seen as a soft touch? If so, will he bear in mind that people in this country and abroad need to be given unequivocal signals from the Home Secretary and the Government that this country will not be a soft touch and should not be regarded as a destination of choice in any remotely similar circumstances in the future?

Mr. Straw

I was more than worried that this country was the destination for the plane; I was deeply concerned that it was the destination and that innocent people's lives were at risk, and I was angry about the hijacking itself, a sentiment that has been expressed by everyone else concerned. I do not believe that the language that the right hon. Gentleman has used today is appropriate. As I have said, in the past 11 years there have been 18 hijackings across Europe. It happens that two of those, including the one that concluded today, have ended up in the United Kingdom, and the other 16 have taken place elsewhere in the European Union. It is incumbent on all civilised states to ensure that as many measures as are practicable and possible are put in place to prevent and to deter hijacking.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The fact that the record of Britain's skies and airports has been so comparatively safe over the past 18 years means that this week's hijacking has sent shock waves throughout the United Kingdom. Stansted airport is familiar to me and, indeed, I travel between my constituency and Westminster through that airport. I know also that many of my constituents set off on holiday from that airport, and several of them have rung up today to ask for a robust interpretation by the Home Secretary of the international conventions that apply, for the reason given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It would be deeply worrying if Britain were to be seen as an easy option, perhaps even within the European Union, for hijackers.

I pay tribute to the Essex police and emergency services, those who work in and use the airport, and those who live nearby, who have had a tense time over the past three months, because of the Korean Air disaster and the hijacking. While a peaceful solution was reached on this occasion, it is acutely important that we are not seen as an easy option for future hijackers.

Mr. Straw

I do not want to rehearse the discussion that took place last Wednesday, a week ago, about our asylum situation. The fact is that we are not an easy option. As the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 comes into force, we are putting into place very robust arrangements which, in any analysis, are more robust than those which were put in place in 1996. Of course I accept that we have to be robust; we have to send out the clearest signals that we are not entertaining hijackers in this way, and that is what we are seeking to do.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I do not want to embarrass the Home Secretary by heaping further praise on the firm line that he has taken today. However, I was particularly impressed when he said that the criminals— the hijackers—must face the full rigour of the law. I also noted that he said that he would be sending people back to Afghanistan, or possibly that area, as soon as is practically possible. The hijacking took place in Afghan air space, of an Afghan airliner, with Afghan people. The crime was committed in Afghanistan. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore confirm that in his discussions with Law Officers, he will be looking at returning the criminals as soon as possible to the place where the crime was committed?

Mr. Straw

Under international obligations, it is a responsibility, as I understand it, for those who are directly subject to the hijacking to take appropriate criminal action. Therefore, it falls initially to the Essex police, not the Afghan authorities, to take action in this case. I am clear that that must be the appropriate course of action.

As far as removals are concerned, I spoke about removals from this country. Precisely the country to which people are removed remains to be determined.