HC Deb 12 January 2000 vol 342 cc277-86 3.31 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the circumstances of his decisions in respect of General Pinochet.

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

The current position is as follows: Senator Pinochet was arrested in London on 16 October 1998, pursuant to a warrant issued by the fifth central magistrates court in Madrid, and he has been held since that date on bail.

On 14 April 1999, following the second judgment of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords the previous month, I issued a second authority to proceed in respect of offences of torture and conspiracy to torture alleged to have been committed by Senator Pinochet after December 1988. On 16 May last year, Senator Pinochet's solicitors applied for permission for a judicial review of my decision. The state of Senator Pinochet's health was not among the grounds advanced by his legal representatives.

At the hearing on 27 May 1999, the application for permission for judicial review against me was dismissed. The extradition hearing took place between 27 and 30 September at the Bow Street magistrates court. On 8 October, the Bow Street magistrates committed Senator Pinochet on all charges to await my decision on surrender.

Reports about Senator Pinochet's medical condition were taken into account by me in taking both decisions on the authorities to proceed, but at those stages I had no reason to doubt his fitness to stand trial. Since the authority-to-proceed stages, Senator Pinochet has not made direct representations to me about his medical condition. However, on 14 October last year, representations were submitted by the Chilean embassy, attaching recent medical reports on Senator Pinochet. They suggested that there had been a recent and significant deterioration in his medical condition.

I have a clear legal duty to operate the Extradition Act 1989 in full. In the light of the information from the Chilean embassy, that duty included involving myself in and informing myself fully of the true facts about Senator Pinochet's health. I therefore asked him to undergo a thorough and extensive medical examination, to be undertaken by an independent team of clinicians. Senator Pinochet gave his consent. He was entitled to the usual patient confidentiality, and he has chosen to exercise that right. He did however agree to the disclosure of the report to me and to the United Kingdom prosecuting authorities.

On the advice of the Government's chief medical officer, I appointed a team of clinicians of outstanding national and international reputation. Its members were Sir John Grimley Evans, professor of clinical geratology of the university of Oxford; Dr. Michael Denham, consultant physician in geriatric medicine at Northwick Park hospital; Andrew Lees, professor of neurology at the national hospital for neurology and neurosurgery in London; and Maria Wyke, a consultant neuropsychologist. It was established that none of them had any inappropriate personal interest in the case. Their medical examination of the senator took place on 5 January this year. My officials received the team's report late on 6 January. I considered it with advice over last weekend.

The unequivocal and unanimous conclusion of the three medical practitioners and the consultant neuropsychologist was that, following a recent deterioration in the state of Senator Pinochet's health, which seems to have occurred principally during September and October 1999, he is at present unfit to stand trial, and that no change to that position can be expected. I have therefore told Senator Pinochet's legal representatives that, subject to any representations that I may receive, I am minded to take the view that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings.

I have written formally to the Crown Prosecution Service as representative of the kingdom of Spain, to the Government of Chile, as well as to France, Belgium and Switzerland, each of these three countries having outstanding extradition requests before us. Letters have also gone to a number of human rights organisations, inviting them to submit any further representations that they consider that I should take into account, and to do so within the next seven days.

Throughout these proceedings, I have not been able to make any oral statement to the House because of my quasi-judicial role in respect of extradition matters and because of the sub judice rules of the House. I have always made it clear that I would make a full oral statement when the matter has finally been resolved, which of course I shall do. Meanwhile, I must maintain an open mind on this matter, including the representations that I may receive. I hope that the House will understand that until the matter is finally concluded, what I can say is bound heavily to be circumscribed.

Miss Widdecombe

Although I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, may I draw his attention to the widespread concern, which is shared on both sides of the House, that we had to learn of this important decision from the press late last night, and not from a statement from himself to the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why it was necessary for us to learn of these matters from the press, bearing in mind that it was not through any leak but rather through a formal Home Office statement, which could surely have been made by a Minister to the House?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that at all stages throughout these proceedings he has had the discretion to take the medical condition of Senator Pinochet into account? Will he tell us when a magistrate first commented that Senator Pinochet was unable to attend court? Will he explain why, at that stage, he did not commission the sort of report which he has now, at the final stages, commissioned?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what the cost of this entire business has been? He must realise that there has been an immense expenditure of public money, of time and of effort—there has been anxiety on all sides of the argument—in a situation that will result in the end in the senator probably being returned to Chile, which could have happened at a much earlier stage had the right hon. Gentleman had the decisiveness to approach the issue properly? Will he accept that from the start this matter has been handled in a bungling and incompetent way, and that at the end of it no one is satisfied? Spain is not satisfied, Chile is not satisfied, and the British people have been put through an awful lot of expense for no result whatsoever.

I shall be interested to hear from the Secretary of State exactly what this seven days means. [HON. MEMBERS: "A week."] It probably does not mean a week. Will he confirm that, if a legal challenge is mounted in the next seven days, the proceedings could go on well beyond the week in question, and that Senator Pinochet could continue to be held in this country for some time to come? When the Home Secretary talks about seven days, he is not giving the real position.

Will the Secretary of State tell us how on earth he has managed to come to a series of such conflicting decisions in so many cases recently? He arrested Senator Pinochet when the senator was in bed recovering from an operation; by contrast, he let a suspected Nazi war criminal walk out of this country even before the police investigation had been completed. Furthermore, even when he had the clearest possible admissions, he took no action in respect of cold war spies. Does he have any grip on his Department? Does he have any consistency? Does he have any logic? Is not he dealing with this matter in the most shameful way for a man of his high office?

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Lady asked me a series of questions, and, subject to what I said in my statement, I shall do my best to respond to each of them. On the issue of the statement last night, as I have already explained, because these matters are still under consideration by me in my quasi-judicial role and because of the sub judice rules of the House, it has not been the practice—nor, I suggest, could it have been—in these extradition proceedings or in any other for there to be a sequence of oral statements to the House about the decisions that have been made. That has been accepted by the House and has been the practice of previous Home Secretaries and Home Office Ministers for very good and understandable reasons.

From a personal point of view, that has been frustrating, because I have always been ready to come to the House to make oral statements whenever the need has arisen. I would have preferred to do so in this case.

A major distinction should be drawn between the decisions for which a Home Secretary is responsible in other areas and those for which he is responsible in a quasi-judicial capacity. It is inevitable in this process that the parties to extradition proceedings must be informed of decisions before Parliament, and therefore the public, can be informed. We had to inform the parties last night. It was my hope and intention that a proper written statement, which would also have been reported to the House as a written statement, could have been made this morning. Not because of any direct action by the Home Office, but because it emerged late last night that the news of my decision in this case—that I was minded to complete these extradition proceedings—was about to be made public, I deemed it appropriate to issue the statement last night. Otherwise, there would have been considerable confusion about the matter.

The right hon. Lady asked whether, at all stages, I had a discretion to take the senator's medical condition into account. At all stages I have been under a duty to take all circumstances into account in respect of the senator, including his medical condition and any representations that have been made to me about it.

A full estimate of the cost of the extradition proceedings cannot be made until the matter is finally at an end. There are currently legal proceedings still before the High Court.

I am surprised that the right hon. Lady did not properly appreciate the fact that we are signatories to a number of conventions on extradition, including the European convention on extradition. It was her Government who passed the Extradition Act 1989, which imposes the clearest possible duties on any Secretary of State, on the Government and on other law enforcement authorities in respect of extradition requests from states. It is to her great discredit that she suggested that it was I who ordered Senator Pinochet's arrest; that is not the case.

Finally, the right hon. Lady asked what "seven days" meant. "Seven days" means seven days during which I am able to consider representations. The outcome remains to be seen, because although initial and final decisions about authority to proceed are made by the Secretary of State, the extradition process is also subject to legal proceedings. That is the nature of the process in this country, and it cannot be changed in respect of any individual application.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Is it not significant that, in all that barrage of questions, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) expressed no concern for the victims of the terror of Pinochet during his years in office, when he was ready to deny justice to thousands? Because of that, we must be a model of justice in this respect—as, indeed, I believe my right hon. Friend has been.

Does my right hon. Friend's statement imply that he believes Senator Pinochet has a veto over who receives copies of his medical report? Surely representations can only properly be made by the interested organisations if they have full sight of the report. The interests of justice will be met not by a self-serving disclosure to only the Home Secretary and the Crown Prosecution Service, but by disclosure to all groups with an interest in the case, including countries that have sought the extradition, and bodies such as Amnesty International which have intervened. If they are to make proper representations, they must have the full medical facts.

Mr. Straw

In this case, as in all other extradition cases, I have sought to follow the rule of law and to make decisions as fairly and carefully as possible. I have followed the same procedure in respect of the medical report as I have in respect of other extradition applications. I was advised that, at this stage of the proceedings, the question of to whom the report could be submitted—other than me, and the United Kingdom prosecuting authorities—was a matter for Senator Pinochet.

As for representations by other interested parties, I am bound—not least by section 12 of the 1989 Act, but also by a wider discretion—to take into account all representations made to me. That applies both to representations relating directly to the senator's medical condition—I have before me a full, thorough and independent medical report—and to representations relating to other matters.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I entirely appreciate the Home Secretary's quasi-judicial position, but will he tell us on what legal basis—the 1989 Act, or common law—his prospective decision will be made, if he proceeds as he has suggested that he will? Also, will the decision that Senator Pinochet may be unfit to stand trial be based on evidence that not just the Crown Prosecution Service, as the prosecution authority, but the Spanish Government, as the authority requesting extradition, should be entitled to see? It was the Chilean Government, with the assent of General Pinochet, who asked for the medical matters to be taken into consideration.

Without going into more detail, can the Home Secretary tell us whether it is a question of the senator's mental or physical health? Can he tell us specifically whether the test of unfitness to stand trial that applies in this country is the test that would apply in Chile if the senator returned there? In any event, can he confirm that, whatever his final decision, it will not alter the decision of the courts last year that heads of state are not immune from either prosecution or extradition if they have committed offences such as those of which General Pinochet has been alleged to be guilty, and on the basis of which the extradition has been sought?

Mr. Straw

In response to the hon. Gentleman's first and last questions, I and any other Secretary of State have to take decisions in extradition matters on the legal basis of the Extradition Act 1989, the extradition conventions to which we are party in so far as they are regarded as forming part of our domestic law and the weight of judicial authority, including last year's decision by the Appellate Committee of the other place in respect of the applications.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about fitness to stand trial, it is a decision for me and has to be so, given the stage that has been reached in the extradition proceedings. Among the criteria that I took into account were whether the senator would be in a position to follow the proceedings, to give intelligible instructions to those representing him and to give a coherent statement of his case, and of recollection.

Mr. Tarn Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I vehemently support the careful and, indeed, impeccable way in which the Home Secretary has gone about the matter, but, in a personal capacity—not as chairman of the all-party Latin America group—may I say that many people in the continent of South America, many of whom have cause to loathe Senator Pinochet and what he stands for, will nevertheless think, rightly or wrongly, that the decision should be made not in Madrid, not in London, but in Santiago? Will the Home Secretary take that into consideration?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says about the way in which I have dealt with the matter. I hope that I can continue to work in that way until it reaches a conclusion. As for his other points, of course I note what he says.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I express my appreciation that the Home Secretary did eventually sanction the medical examination of Senator Pinochet? He will be aware that I represented to him on 24 and 26 November my concern about the senator's health. In his consideration of the representations that will be made, will he bear in mind at all times the interests of the people of Chile? Is it not true that Chile is now a democracy in every sense of the word? It is conducting an impeccable presidential election campaign. Have not the Chilean people and the Government whom the newly elected president will have the honour of leading the right to put the matter behind them and to look to the future with hope and every confidence?

Mr. Straw

On the hon. Gentleman's first question, I note what he says about sanctioning the medical examination. I was aware, of course, of his interest in the matter. I did ensure, as did my officials, that we proceeded as speedily as possible in the complicated process of identifying and assembling a team of independent expert clinicians and then getting them together to make the examination.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I have set out— for example, on 15 April 1999 in the Official Report of the House of Commons—the considerations that I took into account when I issued my second authority to proceed.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)

I offer what limited support I can to what has fallen from the Home Secretary. Those of us who made common cause with him at protests and vigils immediately after the murder of Allende and the nightmare that followed in Chile know that he personally has nothing to prove to himself, to the House or to the international community when it comes to expressing opposition to that regime, but will he reflect on what has been achieved as a result of what he has done and the steps that he has taken in the past 15 months? That odious man has effectively been tried in an English court—[HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] I shall deal with Conservative Members' comments in a moment.

The man's crimes, and the infamy that he has committed, have been revealed in that court, and that court has found in the clearest possible terms that, in respect of those crimes, he has the clearest possible case to answer. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ask a question."] The court has found as a matter of law—

Madam Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to ask his question now. Other hon. Members are seeking to ask questions, and a full statement follows this one. May I have a question now for the Home Secretary?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews

My Lord—[Laughter.] Madam Speaker, my question is this: does the Home Secretary believe that the case has revealed a very dark side to Conservative Members? Does he agree that, although there are honourable exceptions among them, the case has emphasised the fact that hon. Members sit on two sides in the House?

Mr. Straw

My hon. and learned Friend and the House will forgive me if, in the light of my comments on my quasi-judicial role, I do not follow him.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Although I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in welcoming the fact that the Home Secretary now feels minded to bring this unfortunate fiasco to a conclusion, will he confirm that the matter could drag on for months, and that that sick man could be detained in the United Kingdom for many weeks and months? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House some indication of how long the process is likely to continue?

Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), is it not true that every political party in Chile has said that they should be entitled to resolve the matter, and that the matter should not be usurped by the British Government, the British Parliament or the British courts?

Is it not bizarre that the Government seek reconciliation between white and black in South Africa, and Jew and Arab in the middle east, and even invite us to sit down with republican terrorists in Northern Ireland, but deny the people of Chile the right to reconcile their differences there?

Mr. Straw

For the reason that I gave to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), I shall not respond directly to the hon. Gentleman's comments—if he will forgive me—except to say that, on the issue of the time scale, I have not only endeavoured to secure but have secured a situation in which, after receiving the original reports from the Chilean embassy, I acted as quickly as I could consistent with fairness and care in the case. I shall continue to do that, as I recognise that Senator Pinochet and his representatives would be anxious to secure a conclusion to the matter as quickly as possible.

I have to take fully into account all representations that I may receive. In this type of decision, I am subject to review by the courts, and I cannot anticipate whether that will occur.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

When the Home Secretary comes to reach his decision, will he consider this aspect? Last year, Britain fought two wars against brutal dictators; many innocent people died, and it was justified on humanitarian grounds. Now, we have someone before us charged with the brutal torture of people, but, apparently, the Home Secretary is minded to release him on humanitarian grounds. Is it not a fact that, whatever judicial considerations have to enter his mind, it is a political decision? If he takes it in such a way as to release that man, it will undermine the ethical foreign policy and the argument that law should be the basis of international relations, and also throw some doubt on his long-held view on applying the fast-track principle of justice when offenders come to light.

Mr. Straw

While it is perfectly possible for people to make representations to me on humanitarian grounds, in this particular circumstance I have come to my preliminary conclusion—that the senator should not be extradited to the kingdom of Spain—on the narrower grounds of his unfitness to stand trial on the basis of the medical evidence that I have received, which is different. Where representations are made to me on wider grounds, I will consider them fully before coming to my final decision.

I must part company from my right hon. Friend when it comes to his assertion that these decisions are political decisions. They are not easy decisions, but I believe that successive holders of my office have sought to exercise the responsibilities placed on them by this House in a quasi-judicial way and to weigh up the facts of each of these and similar cases and the legal duties upon them. That is precisely what I have sought to do in this case.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are aware that, from time to time, this country has had to welcome the leaders of Governments who have been responsible for genocide, terrorism and killings in their own country. However, that is not the point that I wish to make.

Bearing in mind that the medical experts appointed by the Home Secretary have found unanimously that the life senator General Pinochet is not fit to face trial, why has the right hon. Gentleman delayed taking a decision— subject, of course, to the decisions of the courts of law in this country—that it is his recommendation that Senator Pinochet be allowed to return home to Chile, where if the people of Chile wish to judge him, it is their duty and responsibility to do so and not that of this country or of Spain?

Mr. Straw

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is hard to lay the charge of delay against me. The medical report was undertaken on 5 January, and it was received by my officials late last Thursday, 6 January. I received the report on 8 January, when it was in my weekend box. I considered it, and made decisions on the matter over the weekend. My preliminary decisions were communicated to the senator's representatives and the other interested parties yesterday. The process has taken, altogether, five days. I do not think that it is appropriate to categorise that as delay.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me why I have made a preliminary decision and not a final one, it is on the basis of clear advice that I have received, not least because there are other parties to the proceedings who are bound to be entitled to make representations to me before I reach a final decision.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Bearing in mind that the law in Chile is such that it is most unlikely that Pinochet will be tried for crimes against humanity, despite what was said earlier, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the following question. Is there not a danger that the wrong kind of message will go out to every mass murderer and torturer around the world, including Saddam Hussein, that the time will come when they, too, having lost power, will not be brought to justice? If Pinochet could be brought to justice in Spain, would not that be the different type of the lesson that we want all those mass murderers and torturers to learn—that there is no escaping from their crimes?

Mr. Straw

I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised, but I hope the message that goes out is that this country is one which follows the rule of law.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Does not the Home Secretary feel that the public interest would have been better served had he returned General Pinochet to be dealt with by the democratically elected Government of Chile? Is it the Home Secretary's case that General Pinochet's medical condition deteriorated as a result of his detention; or is it possible that he was never medically fit to stand trial at any stage?

Mr. Straw

I took into account the consideration that the right hon. Gentleman invites me to take into account, and that was made clear in the decisions that I set out in full in the Official Report on 15 April 1999; but, judging the matter as a whole, I came to the view that it was right to issue the second authority to proceed, and that decision was acknowledged to be within my authority to make when the divisional court of the High Court decided not to entertain an application for a judicial review of that decision made by Senator Pinochet's solicitors.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the nature of Senator Pinochet's deterioration. As I said in the statement, the unanimous and unequivocal conclusion of the three medical practitioners and the consultant neuropsychologist was that there had been a recent deterioration in the state of Senator Pinochet's health, which seems to have occurred principally during September and October 1999.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

May I, too, commend the sensitive manner in which my right hon. Friend has dealt with this complicated matter? Did he hear the Chilean ambassador on the "Today" programme this morning, suggesting that, if he were returned, Senator Pinochet could well face prosecution in Chile? Will he bear that in mind when weighing the medical evidence that he now has against the assertion by the diplomat that Senator Pinochet may recover in the next few days or weeks?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about the way in which I have conducted this matter.

On the Chilean ambassador's remarks, the question whether the Senator is fit to stand trial has to be considered on the basis of the evidence before me and in accordance with the law of this country, not that of Chile.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

For most of the past 15 or so months, General Pinochet has been kept in Surrey. The security, housing, policing and other costs must be enormous. How much is being spent, and who will pay? The ratepayers and council tax payers of one county would be being treated very unfairly if the bill fell on their shoulders alone. If Surrey is to pay, will the Home Secretary ensure that it is suitably compensated?

Mr. Straw

As I explained in answer to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), it is not possible to give a final assessment of the cost until the proceedings have been concluded. I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman with as much information as I can. It has also always been open to all hon. Members to table parliamentary questions for written answer about the current, up-to-date costs, and that can continue to be done.

As for the costs falling on the Surrey constabulary, it is open to any police service to make an application to the Secretary of State if it feels that it has borne a special cost beyond the normal contingencies that police services have to bear; those are considered sympathetically—that will be done by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and myself— and are sometimes accepted and sometimes not.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am grateful to the Home Secretary. We shall now take the statement.