HL Deb 28 October 1998 vol 593 cc1914-7

3.2 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether recent events will affect the United Kingdom's relations with Chile.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are working hard to make sure that the detention of Senator Pinochet does not affect our wider relations with Chile. The detention is, of course, a matter for the police and the courts. It is not politically motivated. It should not be seen as such—in Chile or anywhere else.

We have very cordial and close working relations with the Government of Chile. We have a shared commitment to free trade and last year our exports went up by 26 per cent. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in another place yesterday, the Government are determined to prevent these legal proceedings undermining our excellent relations with the democratic Government of Chile.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, particularly her opening words. Is she aware that those of us who have been working for many years—in my case 43—to promote trade negotiations in Chile are absolutely dismayed by what is happening? All that good work is being destroyed at a stroke. Furthermore, the situation is chaotic at either end and made worse by the travel advisory notice.

Is the Minister saying that Her Majesty's Government can do nothing to expedite the early return home of an ancient, sick, long time ex-president of a country which has now had nine years of democracy—still very fragile but very important—and where we are now seen, unfortunately and unjustly, as the villains of the piece? It is through no fault of our own; it is a quarrel between Spain and Chile and we are caught in the middle.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will acknowledge the noble Viscount's great knowledge and expertise in relation to Latin America as a whole. The Government will continue to explain carefully that in Britain it is not politicians who decide who is arrested and who is not. The Government will also continue to explain, calmly and sensibly, that nothing that has happened should undermine our good relations with Chile. Equally, the Government will not undermine the rule of law in this country. The separation of powers between politics and the courts is crucial to the integrity of the rule of law. We cannot interfere with the process currently under legal scrutiny. We know that the Chilean Government have worked hard to promote democracy, trade and good government in Chile. We hope that they will understand that we, as a democracy, cannot intervene in the judicial process.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I admire the answers of my noble friend. But does she agree that there can be nothing more significant, even the importance of trade—I speak as a former Trade Minister, an outstandingly successful one, of course—than respect for the rule of law? Did my noble friend draw an inference from what the noble Viscount was saying that, in his view, it would be possible to override what appears to be a legal request by simply averting one's gaze from the due process of law? Will my noble friend agree also that it is extremely unhelpful when a former Prime Minister, to whom I gave notice that I might intervene on this Question, says in effect that ideological concerns about the past should be of paramount importance in this regard?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, respects the rule of law as much as any of us. I hope that we will not draw those inferences from what he said. I have explained the position to your Lordships as clearly as I can. This is a judicial, not a political, matter. The police acted on a request from the Spanish authorities for the provisional arrest of Senator Pinochet pending a formal request for extradition. The Government must allow the judicial process to take its course. The noble Viscount, I understand, is concerned about the wider implications in Chile. The Government are willing to listen to the concerns of the Chilean Government and to work hard to limit any damage to bilateral relations. I give that assurance to the noble Viscount as sincerely as he put his Question to me.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, in spite of what the noble Baroness says, the Foreign Secretary said in another place yesterday that there are areas of discretion available to the Home Secretary after due process of law. Can the Minister clarify that statement? Does it mean that those areas of discretion are only available to the Home Secretary after every conceivable legal argument has been heard, given that lawyers and legal actions seem to be crowding in from all over Europe day by day? Does it mean that this problem could persist almost indefinitely? Is not that a frightening prospect, given all the evidence from many shades of opinion in Chile indicating that the settlement under which that country moved towards democracy is in danger of being ripped apart by the situation here?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can only reiterate to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, that this is a question for the courts. The noble Lord will know that these matters are being dealt with in court today. He asks specific questions relating to immunity and access by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. If that had really been the point that noble Lords wanted to put forward, they might have tabled a Question which more closely expressed it. Questions of immunity are being looked at today in court and nothing I am prepared to say at the Dispatch Box is going to prejudice that. Senator Pinochet's diplomatic passport did not entitle him to diplomatic immunity. Under the Vienna Convention only members of a permanent diplomatic mission are entitled to diplomatic immunity. But there are grey areas, which is why this matter is in court today. We shall know what the Lord Chief Justice has said before the end of the afternoon.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the previous Conservative government, like the present Government, was party to the international treaties providing for the trial and conviction of people alleged to have committed crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity, and to the extradition arrangements that would enable such persons to be extradited to a country with a court of competent jurisdiction? Can the Minister say whether there has been any change in this Government's policy compared to that of the previous government, including respecting the rule of law?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that the position is any different. The law remains the same. It is the same now as it was under the previous government. Are the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and other noble Lords really suggesting that we did not go through the due process of law? I imagine that that is precisely what the party opposite would have done and it is what we are doing. The law must take its course over Senator Pinochet or anyone else.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, after the due process of law has been carried through, there is a residual discretion in the Home Secretary as to whether or not any order made by the court should have effect?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords. The Home Secretary will consider the formal request which must be certified with the seal of the Spanish Ministry of Justice, against the requirements of the Extradition Act 1989. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord is aware of that. My right honourable friend must decide—usually within seven days of receipt of a formal request—whether to issue an authority to proceed. He will consider, among other issues, whether the offences are extradition crimes; whether the request is properly authenticated; whether the offences are of a political character; and whether there are any compassionate circumstances. He does so on every request.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, today I received a letter from a friend telling me how his sister was tortured in a terrible way when General Pinochet was in power. She suffered electric shocks to the most intimate parts of her body. I pay deep respect, of course, to the due processes of the law and to all the answers that the Minister has given, but is it not important that the House should be reminded that terrible things have happened and that people guilty of such matters must be brought before the courts?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I understand why the right reverend Prelate raises these issues. My own view is that we must look very carefully only at the judicial issue before us today. That is understood by Ministers in Chile. The Foreign Secretary met the Deputy Foreign Minister of Chile on 24th October. He had a telephone conversation with the Foreign Minister of Chile on 17th October. Both conversations were entirely cordial. I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, is reassured on those points. Both Chilean Ministers understood that the United Kingdom cannot intervene in a case which is before the courts. I am sorry that that point has not also been taken by the party opposite.

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