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British Citizens (Hostages)

Volume 77: debated on Wednesday 24 April 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how many British citizens are currently held hostage by overseas Governments; and where they are held.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Renton)

Although a number of British citizens are detained abroad under conditions with which we are not satisfied, none of these can be formally described as hostages.

We need to clarify the fine dividing line between what is a hostage and what is not. Under what conditions would it become unacceptable for a British citizen to be incarcerated overseas? What action would the Government take in those circumstances?

In general terms, a hostage is one against whom charges have not been laid by the overseas Government. The Government aim to render British citizens full consular assistance if they are detained overseas. That is one of the prime duties of our consular department. We raise complaints with the relevant authorities, including complaints about illegal detention, although we must work within the laws of the country concerned. In exceptional cases, and if it is in the interest of the persons held, we take the matter up at a high level with the appropriate Government.

What about the case of King and Maxwell, the accused Scots held in Libya? Surely they need help badly. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one way not to help them is to suggest that Libyan property should be seized in this country, particularly in London? That will undermine the efforts of those who are trying to secure the early release of the men.

As I understand it, those two gentlemen have stood trial, been convicted and are serving their sentences. Unfortunately, there are, as of yesterday, 1,070 British subjects abroad who are detained for one reason or another. It is the Government's duty, while respecting the laws of the country concerned, to provide as much consular protection as possible to all those people.