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Alistair Iain Campbell

Volume 488: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about consular support for British prisoners in foreign jails. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a long history of coming to the aid of British citizens in all kinds of places, suffering all kinds of hardship. Consular and embassy officials stationed around the world are there to help and are truly recognised for their commitment to helping our nationals and their families in times of trouble.

Providing support to British nationals arrested or imprisoned abroad is a crucial part of the FCO’s job. According to the independent charity, Prisoners Abroad, at any one time there are as many as 2,500 British people in foreign prisons. While they are there they face all kinds of conditions that would challenge a prisoner in the UK, too. They are isolated from family and friends, perhaps feeling alone and without easy access to help. In addition, prisoners in foreign jails often have little or no understanding of the language being spoken or the legal system to which they are subject. Although I appreciate that every legal system is different and that the FCO is operating admirably in some of the most difficult parts of the world, the experience of one of my constituents somewhat closer to home has caused me great concern.

In 2000, Mr. Alistair Iain Campbell of Killin was a lorry driver operating between the UK and Europe. A fellow lorry driver, Jeffrey Logan, was found guilty in a court in Boulogne of smuggling 117 kg of cocaine—worth, I understand, about £8 million—after French customs officers had searched his lorry on a return trip to Belgium. Mr. Logan claimed that he had agreed to bring back a package on behalf of my constituent, Mr. Campbell.

As a result of Mr. Logan’s testimony, an arrest warrant was issued in France for my constituent. A trial was set for Mr. Campbell in May 2002 in France, but he alleges that he took bad legal advice from both Scottish and French lawyers, who advised him not to attend the trial. He was convicted in his absence and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, plus a £5 million fine. Mr. Campbell and his family have consistently challenged the veracity of the case against him.

In 2005, the French authorities issued a European arrest warrant for Mr. Campbell, and his lawyers applied to the Scottish Court of Appeal to overturn the extradition request. The Court of Appeal in Edinburgh heard his case in February 2008. It ruled that

“he had deliberately absented himself from his trial”

in France in 2002 and upheld the extradition request. Mr. Campbell then voluntarily presented himself to officials in Scotland, who carried out the extradition to France in March 2008.

The charges levelled at Mr. Logan by Mr. Campbell—and, indeed, vice versa—are of course extremely serious, and this debate is not about the legal case, but I thought that it would be helpful to explain to the Minister how Mr. Campbell came to find himself imprisoned in Villepinte prison, 10 miles outside Paris, since last March. I want to reassure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that all the facts that I have used in my comments so far are matters of public record, and that I have not taken anyone’s name in vain in the House today.

It was during the extradition process that Mr. Campbell and his family first contacted me for help. Since his extradition, I have remained in contact with him via his sister Margaret, and I have the family’s permission to raise his case in the House in this Adjournment debate. Through Margaret, we have received news of Mr. Campbell’s living conditions in prison.

He arrived at Villepinte prison—which is apparently only a short-term holding facility—with only the clothes that he was standing in. He was initially incarcerated in his cell for 22 hours a day, and he has described the sanitary conditions at the prison as “medieval”. He had to buy his own food and toiletries, and the Foreign Office also told me that money transfers were carried out within their three-week deadline—something that I must tell my right hon. Friend the Minister is disputed by Mr. Campbell’s family. For example, they state that money sent on 26 March 2008 did not arrive with him until in the week of 19 May 2008. I emphasise the question of money because French prisons operate differently when it comes to prisoners purchasing their food.

Mr. Campbell is allowed to communicate with his family only by letter. His health has apparently deteriorated, and his sister tells me that he had open sores on his back through lack of clean clothing and because he is allowed to wash only three times a week. For some time he was reliant on the kindness of a fellow cellmate with limited English who fed him and gave him toiletries. His prison social worker does not speak English and, because Mr. Campbell speaks no French and neither the FCO nor the prison authorities would provide a translator, he is suffering serious difficulties communicating with the prison authorities.

Initially, Mr. Campbell asked for French language lessons and to use the prison library. However, because his requests have to be made on slips of paper pushed under the door of the office of the nearest prison officer, he appears to have had no response. It was not until later in his sentence that he managed to gain access to the library and a language teacher, through his own initiative. He hoped to start French lessons last September, although his family have not heard whether he has been successful.

I turn now to the issue of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s involvement. Consular officials visited Mr. Campbell in prison after his arrival there, and I understand that they assured him that he would be transferred to a more modern facility, where he would get basic privileges such as a daily shower and the use of a telephone to communicate with his family. The FCO has since advised that Mr. Campbell would need to apply for that himself. He has now made a formal request to the prison director for a move to a different prison, but has been advised that that could take some considerable time. Apparently, he has heard little news since.

Given Mr. Campbell’s family’s increasing concerns for his well-being, I contacted on a number of occasions my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), the then Minister for Europe. He advised me that consular staff in France raised Mr. Campbell’s health issues with the prison social worker, who advised them that Mr. Campbell knew that he could seek a doctor’s advice at any time. They offered to revisit him to explain that to him. His family have advised me that he has asked to see a doctor on a number of occasions, but his medical problems persist. The FCO was apparently advised that Mr. Campbell had not applied to take part in any prison activities, and that was why he was kept in his cell for such long periods.

In my right hon. Friend’s letter of 28 April 2008, I was told that I could speak to dedicated FCO consular directorate staff in Whitehall if I had any further inquiries. When my staff contacted the consular directorate, they were told that under data protection rules, the directorate was not able to pass on any information about Mr. Campbell’s case or situation to his MP without his express consent. Mr. Campbell’s sister, Margaret, who has financial power of attorney for Mr. Campbell while he is in France, has given me her written permission, although the FCO deemed that insufficient. Despite a number of forms apparently being sent to Mr. Campbell by the FCO, it continued to advise me that it had received nothing in writing from him. Telephone calls to the Foreign Office confirmed that Mr. Campbell had been sent a number of further authorisation letters and return postage-paid envelopes, but they had not been returned as requested. As a result, my inquiries with the FCO came to a standstill. I understand that it has now managed to make contact. Luckily—and coincidentally—it received written permission in time to prepare for this debate.

Mr. Campbell’s family have told me that he is visited weekly by a religious sister—a nun—who is in contact with the family in the UK. She described the prison as “a terrible place”. Mr. Campbell does not get breakfast. Apparently, his first meal of the day is raw food, and he has no way of cooking. There does not appear to be a dining room in the prison, and inmates have to eat meals in their cell. Partly in consequence of that, Mr. Campbell is losing weight. Apparently, clothes sent to him just a couple of months after his imprisonment were too big.

Despite that testimony to the contrary, the FCO has insisted that it understands that the prison where Mr. Campbell is being held is a “modern facility”. I appreciate that standards of prison welfare in other countries may differ from those that we expect in the UK, but I am sure that the Minister for Europe will appreciate that with such a radical difference of opinion on prison facilities and standards, Mr. Campbell’s family are deeply concerned. The family have the distinct impression that the FCO will not take up any other welfare concerns, will not provide any more help or advice, and will not arrange for consular staff to visit Mr. Campbell, even to establish whether he received the authorisation letters posted to him when the issue was in dispute. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified her understanding of those matters.

Alistair Campbell is not that far away from us here in this Chamber. It takes a little over two hours to get to Paris from central London. To put that in context, that is less than half the time that it would take to travel from London to Mr. Campbell’s home in the village of Killin in my constituency. The prison is not on the other side of the world but minutes from the capital of our closest mainland European neighbour and a fellow member of the European Union.

The FCO guidance states that its priority is to make sure that British citizens are treated the same as imprisoned nationals of the host country. Despite numerous attempts to highlight what are, by now, pressing health and well-being issues, the FCO appears to have given differing advice at each turn, passing responsibility from the Minister’s office, which I fully understand, to the consular directorate, and later to the embassy in Paris.

I do not wish to appear too critical, given what I said in my opening comments about FCO support for UK nationals in general, but I feel that in this case a clearer chain of command and communication and a better definition of responsibilities would surely have helped my constituent’s cause throughout this sorry episode. Notwithstanding the numerous question marks hanging over the validity of the criminal charges against Mr. Campbell, his experience gives the impression to his family, rightly or wrongly, of remoteness, confusion or even a general attitude of disinterest within the FCO.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, this debate is not a vehicle by which to question the integrity of the process by which Mr. Campbell found himself in such an apparently awful situation. However, it is crucial that we look at the level of support or, according to the family, the lack of it that the FCO has provided to my constituent. I shall therefore look at seven of the guidelines for supporting British prisoners abroad, as they are listed on the FCO website.

The first guideline states that the FCO will

“provide general information about the relevant country, prison conditions and the local legal system, including whether local legal aid is available”.

Mr. Campbell appears to be still in the dark about his legal standing in France. He has received no word on how his pre-extradition detention of some five months in a Scottish prison will impact on his final sentence, what his rights are as a prisoner in a French jail, what assistance is available through the local legal system, or how he is expected to find £5 million to pay a fine when he is serving nine years in a French prison.

The second guideline to which I wish to draw attention is that the FCO

“will provide a list of local lawyers and interpreters”.

As I highlighted earlier, Mr. Campbell has had no list, nor has he apparently received any FCO help in obtaining language or legal assistance.

The third guideline states that the FCO will

“make sure any medical or dental problems are brought to the attention of the police or prison doctor”.

Mr. Campbell’s continuing health problems have been the subject of repeated contact with the FCO, and his family’s concerns remain.

According to the fourth guideline, the FCO will

“take up any justified complaints about ill treatment, personal safety or discrimination with the police or prison authorities”.

As I think my summary of his case makes clear, the Foreign Office appears not to have taken up any of Mr. Campbell’s complaints, according to his family. Fifthly, the guidelines go on to say that the FCO will

“send money to prisoners from their families”.

I have already highlighted the problems encountered by Mr. Campbell and his family in this regard.

Under the sixth guideline, the FCO promises to

“provide information on how British prisoners may apply for transfers to a UK prison”.

To date Mr. Campbell has apparently been told different things in his initial consular visit and the subsequent advice from the FCO. Finally, the FCO states that it will visit prisoners

“once after sentencing and then only if there is a real need.”

Given the details of Mr. Campbell’s case as I have set them out today, I must admit to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I am somewhat unsure what would qualify as “real need”, as those words are understood by his family in Scotland.

There is another issue that is directly relevant to Mr. Campbell’s case and of more general interest, with which I hope the Minister will be able to help us. Under the European framework decision on sentenced prisoner transfers, which is due to be introduced across Europe in 2012, all European nationals will be transferred from prisons in which they are currently held to prisons in their own countries. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend advised us about what preparations are being made to support those prisoners, including my constituent, throughout the process and on their return to this country.

There are organisations out there—such as Prisoners Abroad, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech—that are dedicated to helping people, such as Mr. Campbell, who find themselves for all sorts of reasons in foreign prisons. The Minister will be aware that Prisoners Abroad relies on Government grants to fund its activities. I would certainly be grateful if she enlightened us about the future funding plans for Prisoners Abroad, so that it may continue to support prisoners, their families and those returning to the UK from incarceration around the world, for the benefit of everyone in our communities.

As I said at the start of my speech, I understand that across the world the Foreign Office works closely to support individuals and it has a close and long-standing relationship with Prisoners Abroad to ensure the maximum support in certain circumstances. Indeed, I recognise that without the FCO much of the work done by organisations such as Prisoners Abroad would simply be impossible. I hope that the Minister will recognise that that example of how good work can be undertaken serves to highlight the apparent failings in Mr. Campbell’s case and why I have raised it this afternoon.

Mr. Campbell and his family are understandably angered by the apparent lack of support that he has received, in the face of terrible conditions and in a country from which, frankly, they deserved and expected better; as I said, it is only a couple of hours’ travel from this Chamber. Sadly, every attempt to intervene on Mr. Campbell’s behalf made by his friends, his family and me, has appeared to make little impact. The basic rights and respect that we afford prisoners here in the UK have gone unfulfilled for Mr. Campbell, and his family feel that they have been abandoned by their own Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) on securing this debate and I am pleased to respond to the points that she has made. As a constituency MP myself, I, too, have for a number of years followed up cases in which constituents of mine or their families and friends have been detained overseas. The situation is not easy to deal with—not for the families in the UK, and not for the person being detained. Furthermore, it is a difficult and sensitive situation for our consular service. I welcome the keen parliamentary interest shown by the House in consular assistance. It is an important matter, and it is important that Ministers and officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office take it seriously.

I will begin by briefly setting out the kind of support that consular staff can provide to British prisoners in foreign jails, before speaking in more detail about Mr. Campbell’s case. Our consular staff aim to contact all British nationals detained overseas within 24 hours of being told about their detention. They will then aim to visit the detainee as soon as possible, if he or she wishes. Consular staff keep in regular contact with prisoners, either by visiting personally or by telephone or letter. How often they visit will depend on local conditions and the prisoner’s circumstances.

In France, consular staff will visit once every 12 months when a detainee is on remand. After sentencing, consular staff in France would aim to visit a detainee once in prison to establish what prison conditions are like. Further visits could be arranged if particular circumstances made them necessary. As my right hon. Friend made clear, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not take any view about the guilt or innocence of any British nationals detained overseas; that is a matter for the detaining state. Our role is primarily one of welfare—to ensure that prisoners are treated fairly and in accordance with international standards. When that is not the case, we can, with the individual’s permission, take up any justified complaints about ill treatment, personal safety or discrimination with the relevant authorities. However, we cannot obtain special treatment for British nationals.

Our staff help to ensure that the detainee has legal representation. They can provide a list of local lawyers who speak English and provide detainees with information on the prison and on local judicial systems. They will also try to ensure that, if necessary, the detainee receives adequate medical attention. If the detainee asks for their family to be informed of their situation, consular staff will arrange for this to be done. Consular staff can help with the transfer of money from the family to the detainee for additional comforts to those provided by the prison, and they can help families to arrange visits. Consular staff will also tell detainees and their families about the charity Prisoners Abroad and how it can help them. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff work closely with that charity. We provide it with some funding, and we will continue to do so in future; I will refer to that later.

I should like now to direct my remarks to the case in question—that of Mr. Alistair Iain Campbell—which our consular staff in London and France have been following closely. We take our data protection obligation seriously; that is why we do not discuss cases with third parties unless we have specific permission of the British national involved. I am pleased to say that we now have Mr. Campbell’s permission to discuss his case with my right hon. Friend in this Chamber. Having looked over the series of events as to how that permission was sought, I think that in some respects we might have expedited that more quickly. I will take that up with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who has overall responsibility for consular services, to ensure that she is clear that when Members of Parliament contact Ministers about constituents, we seek to expedite the request for permission by the person being detained as soon as possible.

Mr. Campbell was tried in his absence in Boulogne in 2002 on a charge of involvement in trafficking drugs after being named as an accomplice by a British national who was subsequently convicted of the same charge. The court formally summoned Mr. Campbell to appear for trial and notified him of its findings. However, as my right hon. Friend indicated, Mr. Campbell says that his British lawyer, who consulted a French lawyer, advised him not to return to France or appoint a legal representative to act on his behalf. Unfortunately for Mr. Campbell, his lack of legal representation meant that he did not file an appeal within the specified limits under French law for the period for appeal—that is, 10 days from the date of sentencing. Consular staff were informed in March 2008 that Mr. Campbell was to be extradited to France under a European arrest warrant.

The Government cannot intervene in this type of extradition. There is no role for Ministers in the European arrest warrant procedure, as it is based on a judicial decision issued for the purposes of conducting a criminal prosecution or enforcing a prison sentence that has already been imposed. The principle behind the European arrest warrant is one of mutual recognition. That principle now exists widely within the EU and underpins a number of law enforcement instruments. When one of our EU partners extradites a British national, we cannot intervene; otherwise, we would undermine this principle of mutual trust and lose the benefit of this co-operation.

For the sake of clarity, I want to reiterate that at no point have I ever suggested that there should be political or ministerial intervention in the legal process. I want to ensure that that goes on the record in case an implication is taken from what the Minister has said as to what I asked her predecessor to do.

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s intervention. I reiterate that at no time has that request been made of any Minister. I merely wanted to put on the record for the House where the lines of engagement are drawn and the very good reasons why they should be like that.

Once Mr. Campbell had been extradited to France, our consular staff provided him with information on the prison and on the local judicial system and gave advice on how his family could send money and clothing to him. Once permission was obtained from the French prison authorities, consular staff visited Mr. Campbell in prison to check on his welfare. At that time, the only complaint that Mr. Campbell raised was that he was unable to appeal the court’s sentence, and he was advised to write to his lawyer to explore any possible avenue to appeal. Consular staff continue to keep in touch with Mr. Campbell and with his family in the UK.

Turning to the specific questions raised by my right hon. Friend, the question of how Mr. Campbell’s pre-extradition detention will impact on his final sentence is a matter for his legal representation to take forward with the relevant authorities in France. A pack of general information was provided to Mr. Campbell on 7 March 2008. That pack included information on the services that consular staff can offer, as well as general details on what assistance is available through local legal systems, such as obtaining legal aid. The information pack also included general guidance on the French judicial system, on how families can arrange visits and financial assistance, and on how detainees can arrange appointments with prison health workers. I would be happy to provide a copy of that pack to my right hon. Friend and, should it be necessary, to the family here in the UK so that they can be assured of, and have access to, the information that was provided to Mr. Campbell.

Mr. Campbell’s lawyer is currently attempting to arrange an appeal and until that is settled, the transfer back to the UK under the prisoner transfer agreement cannot take place. If the appeal goes forward and is successful, I will look into the points my right hon. Friend has made about the arrangements that would fall into place if a transfer was possible under that scheme.

Since Mr. Campbell’s imprisonment, consular staff have monitored his situation and they have been in contact with prison medical staff to ensure that he knows how he can arrange visits with the prison doctor and social workers. Consular staff have spoken to prison staff to satisfy themselves that health workers speak English to ensure that Mr. Campbell has no linguistic problems. Again, if there is any evidence to the contrary, I would be happy to double check with consular staff that that is still the case.

Consular staff also took up Mr. Campbell’s concerns with prison officials once the appropriate permissions had been obtained from Mr. Campbell. We note his complaints about the conditions in the prison. However, consular staff have informed me that the prison came into service in 1991 and that it is regarded as a modern facility. Clearly, there is a large gulf in opinion on this matter, but having been built in 1991 it is obviously not a particularly old building. If we can bring ourselves closer together on that issue, I am sure that it would help everybody concerned.

We have received only one money transfer request sent from Mr. Campbell’s family. Having looked into the matter, I am sorry that, for administrative reasons, the processing of the money transfer seemed to take longer than usual and longer than stated in the guidelines that we set for ourselves. I can only apologise to Mr. Campbell and his family for any distress that that may have caused and assure them that we have now put in place procedures to ensure that our processing times are kept to an absolute minimum.

As I stated earlier, our policy in western Europe is to visit once after sentencing and then only if there is a real need. Consular officers provide prisoners with the contact details of the consulate and details of whom to contact if a problem arises. Prisoners are able to write to or telephone the consulate with any concerns that they have. As I said, consular staff will decide how best to address those concerns and whether a visit is needed.

As I mentioned earlier, we work collaboratively with Prisoners Abroad and greatly value the work that it does. It is an independent charity funded from a number of sources including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, other Whitehall Departments and private donations. The FCO’s current funding commitment to it runs until the end of the 2009-10 financial year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I have taken on board her points about the money transfer—I apologise for the delay in that—and the concerns about how to ensure that permission is sought as soon as possible from a person being detained, so that when letters are sent to Members about contacting our consular service, they are not met with a refusal due to the lack of that permission. I believe that that is unfortunately what happened in this case.

I assure my right hon. Friend and the family of Mr. Campbell that consular staff do their best for all prisoners held in such circumstances, and they will continue to monitor his welfare and provide assistance and support where they properly can. I hope that we can close the gap between the family’s perceptions of the conditions and the advice that we are receiving through our embassy in Paris, the consular service and the consular directorate here in the UK.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.