HL Deb 06 July 1984 vol 454 cc519-24

11.24 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the abduction of a Nigerian ex-Minister which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

The Statement is as follows:

"The Metropolitan Police were informed yesterday at 12.40 p.m. of the suspected abduction of Mr. Umaru Dikko, a Nigerian living in this country, who was formerly a member of the Government of Nigeria. The call to the police by his personal assistant, Miss Elizabeth Hayes, said that at about 12.25 p.m. he had been taken in a van after a struggle.

"Because of the possibility that attempts might be made to remove him from this country a special watch was mounted at ports. As a result, suspicions were aroused by two large crates which arrived at about 4 p.m. at Stansted to be loaded on to a Nigerian Airways cargo aircraft. The crates were not diplomatic bags as defined by the Vienna Convention. The crates were accordingly opened. I understand that members of the High Commission were already at Stansted and a Mr. Idet was invited to inspect the crates. Two people were found in each crate. One crate contained Mr. Dikko, who was unconscious, and another man, who was conscious and in possession of drugs and syringes. The other crate contained two men, both conscious. Mr. Dikko is now recovering satisfactorily under police guard in hospital and will be questioned as soon as he is well enough. A total of 17 people, including the remaining three found in the crates, were arrested by the police and are being questioned. None of those arrested has claimed diplomatic immunity,

"My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary summoned the High Commissioner for Nigeria to see him at 9 a.m. this morning and told him that he took a most serious view of the incident. The High Commissioner undertook to convey a report of the meeting to his Government. He denied any High Commission or Nigerian Government involvement in the incident. The Foreign Secretary said he expected the fullest co-operation from the Nigerian High Commissioner, including the waiver of diplomatic immunity, if that were necessary for the purpose of ensuring justice."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable and learned friend in another place. One's first thought in regard to this grotesque and horrendous incident is to congratulate the Anti-Terrorist Squad of our police, led, I believe, by Commander Bill Hucklesby. The promptitude of their actions, their skill and their observance of their duty have obviously led to this incident not becoming even more grotesque and horrendous.

There are some questions that I am sure will immediately command the attention of the House. One heard in the Statement that the crates were not diplomatic bags as defined by the Vienna Convention. What would have happened if they had been, and is there any definition that can be given which differentiates these crates from what would have come within the Vienna Convention? To what address were those crates consigned? One heard from the Statement that members of the Nigerian High Commission were present at the airport. Have they given any explanation for their presence at the airport? Were they about to use an aircraft or were they going back after a certain time to their High Commission? Why were they there? Has that been explained?

Has any request been made, either formally or informally, by the Nigerian Government to our Government for the extradition of any of the parties who were found in the crates? If that is the case, was there any reply by our Government and, if so, what was it?

I think the House will be very glad to hear of the reaction that has already been given by our Foreign Office, and I feel that it would be not appropriate to probe further into that, because I hope that the noble Minister will be able to say that a further Statement will be made when responses have been received from Nigeria. But is there any truth in a report that I heard—I thought I heard it accurately—that a British Caledonian aircraft has been detained? Is this in Nigeria, and if so what is the explanation? Lastly, can the noble Lord the Minister take back to his right honourable friend and also to the Foreign Secretary the concern which I am sure is expressed in all parts of this House that, following upon that dreadful matter with which the Libyan Government and the Libyan Embassy were concerned, these matters should be looked at internationally and urgently because, really, enough is enough.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, may I first echo the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord and say how much we congratulate the police, and indeed the customs officials, involved on their prompt action in this matter? Whether it was an independent snatch squad or whether it was done with the blessing of the Nigerian Government, it is a totally intolerable situation, saved from being worse than it was by the prompt action of the authorities in the matter. It is clearly too early to ask too many detailed questions about this matter, but if the noble Lord the Minister can give an undertaking to the House that he will report again to the House as soon as possible that will be extremely helpful.

In the meantime, may I ask two or three questions? First, is it correct that a British Caledonian plane has been held up, and if so on what grounds and how can that possibly square with the assurance given by the High Commissioner for Nigeria this morning that his Government were in no way involved?

Secondly, it appears from a report in The Times that this is the first Nigerian aircraft to land at Stansted for some weeks. Is that correct and, if so, was it a scheduled aircraft? Thirdly, can the noble Lord tell the House how many diplomats from the Nigerian High Commission were actually at the airport at the time when the crates were opened and was their presence in any way explained? Lastly, can he say what progress has been made on the urgent action that was sought to be taken after the affair at the Libyan Embassy and whether we have, as it were, mobilised the full support of our European colleagues on this matter, which clearly greatly affects every European capital?

Lord Elton

My Lords, noble Lords opposite obviously share the proper sense of outrage that we have over this extraordinary affair. If I can try to recall all the questions that I have been asked and answer them in turn, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for his words of congratulation to our security forces and I think that the whole House would wish to endorse that. Might I add that the anti-terrorist squad which he particularly singled out for praise was operating in this instance in conjunction with Her Majesty's Customs and the Essex police who share the credit.

As to the marking of diplomatic containers or bags, the requirements are set down in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Article 27, and the relevant parts are subsections (4) to (7). I will at the moment say only that it is sufficient, and it is a matter for relief, that this convention did not prevent the discovery of this crime. Your Lordships will recall that my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary announced a review of the convention on 1st May and he will be taking this further incident into account. I understand that he will be making the outcome of his review known shortly. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, then asked about the address to which the crates were to be sent. I understand that this was the Ministry of External Affairs, Lagos.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, asked about the possible detention of a British Caledonian aircraft. My information to date—and I would say that this is a fast developing situation—is that we received news early this morning that a British Caledonian DC10 aircraft was recalled to Lagos airport, Nigeria, was surrounded by the military police there, and then seized. There is no news that I have of any second aircraft to which I think the noble Lord may have referred. The extradition arrangements with Nigeria are the normal ones and so far there have been no applications for extradition of any of the people concerned in this event.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the reports are true that there are some 17 crew and 140 passengers on board the British Caledonian aircraft, and whether that aircraft is still sitting at Lagos airport? If it is, I can assure my noble friend that these are most intolerable circumstances in which to be held by the authorities in Nigeria. May I ask my noble friend what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to get these poor people released?

Lord Elton

My Lords, my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary is, I am sure, making urgent representations; but as I say the situation is developing. I cannot bring noble Lords further up to date beyond saying that some of the passengers on this aircraft are British. Whether they are inside the aircraft or elsewhere, I cannot at the moment say.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will deal with the question that I asked. How many diplomats from the Nigerian High Commission were actually at the airport when the crates were discovered?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I understand that there were two chauffeurs and one attaché, but I could not be certain that the information is complete.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, while I share the general sense of outrage, may I ask whether it is not unfortunate that this incident should happen so soon after the arrival of the Nigerian High Commissioner? I was with him on Wednesday and he expressed his earnest desire to consolidate good relations between Nigeria and this country. Ought we not to accept the statement of the federal Government? It is not unknown in other parts of the world for official agencies to do things of which their governments would not approve.

Lord Elton

My Lords, my view goes further. I think it is more than unfortunate. I think it is disastrous that this should have happened at any time, and particularly unfortunate that it should have happened now. I believe that conduct of this sort brings diplomacy into ill repute.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, did the members of the High Commission staff who were found on the spot offer an explanation of their presence? Are they among those who are in custody, along with the gentleman with the drugs and the syringe, and may we be assured that they will be subjected to the ordinary course of British justice?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I have no information as to what the people on the scheme may have said when confronted with the situation at Stansted airport. As I said, 17 people are in custody, all of them in the care of the Metropolitan Police, who at present are entitled to keep them even beyond 96 hours.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, it has been said that the British Caledonian aircraft was recalled to Lagos. Presumably it was already in flight. Is the noble Lord able to tell the House whether it was threatened with any ill consequence if it neglected the order to return, how such an order is viewed under international law, and whether or not this verges on state air piracy?

Lord Elton

My Lords, if, as I understand, the aircraft was in Nigerian airspace, it was under the orders of Nigerian air traffic control and I understand the recall was exercised by Nigerian air traffic control—in what terms or under what penalties I could not say. But I do not doubt that there are civil emergencies which could justify such a recall with no sinister reason. I do not know more than that.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the agency which recalled this aircraft is an agency of the Nigerian Government?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think that that probably requires an answer that ought to be given by a lawyer. I know what my layman's answer is, but I would not like to commit the Government to sharing it.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is it not right that today's report in The Times says that this country will not extradite people to a country which has a military government? Does not that make a difference to the fact that there was no request for the extradition of some of these people?

Lord Elton

My Lords, if an application for extradition were to be made it would not be made by us, because the people who are under arrest are already here.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, may I ask my noble friend whether the aeroplane which was at Stansted airport, which we presume was going to take off to Nigeria, was on a normal flight schedule or whether, as the noble Lord suggested, it was a one-off aeroplane?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it was a cargo aircraft. To that extent I believe that it was not a scheduled aircraft, unless there is a scheduled cargo flight, which I do not know. I referred earlier to a second British Caledonian aircraft and said that I had no news that there was one. What may have been in noble Lords' minds was that the British Caledonian company, for obvious reasons, prudently recalled one of their own aircraft which was on the way to Lagos.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the British Caledonian aircraft which was recalled by Lagos was on a scheduled flight?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I believe so; but my basis for belief is no more than that of my noble friends who have read the newspapers. I ought to emphasise that this is a rapidly developing and recent event, and I am anxious not to be drawn into making statements which are based on supposition.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down finally, may I ask him whether he will undertake, since the House is very concerned about the matter, to make a further statement as soon as there are any developments which ought to be brought to the attention of the House?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I believe protocol dictates that I should advise the noble Lord to ask the usual and noble channels about how to handle this.