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Extraordinary Rendition

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2006

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements have been made to enable the refuelling at military airfields of civilian aircraft with passengers destined for extraordinary rendition.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, at the outset I thank all noble Lords who have waited to speak on this Question. It is an emotive subject that requires objective examination. In particular, I wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, but for whose courageous initiative the Question would not have been tabled, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, who has other pressing duties, for taking the Question at this time.

As there is a well grounded concern and a high level of suspicion that these arrangements are used for extraordinary rendition, resort is had to the advisory role of your Lordships’ House to seek to persuade that some measures of safeguard be taken as are to be proposed. If they should commend themselves to your Lordships, the hope is that they should also commend themselves to Government.

This is an exercise of persuasion, not of confrontation with Government. I speak at no one’s behest, and declare an interest as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which was informed that the Foreign Secretary was not aware of the purpose of these arrangements. That, of course, is accepted as an assurance on the part of Government. Why were the Government not informed of the purpose? Could it be that these arrangements were the offspring of a private arrangement—a compact—to seal the purpose that Government made in the wake of the 9/11 disaster? Was that compact to be denied at all costs, never to be disclosed, perhaps the hidden key to open the gateway to the explicable, if this was also classified for non-disclosure by the CIA? Such assumptions can be made only if there is no other explanation. As yet, there is none.

I turn to the proposed safeguard measures—first to withdraw clearance for the landing of these flights for transfer under these arrangements and then to set up an investigation that protects terrorism intelligence and sources, perhaps under the aegis of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, or the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew. I am afraid it would appear that the United States would not attend any such investigation.

The essence of the findings of the report by Amnesty International on 4 April and 14 July is that civil aircraft on charter to the CIA, with people on board selected for transfer by the CIA to a series of highly suspect destinations, are permitted to land and refuel at our civil and military airfields in the United Kingdom under these arrangements for the purpose of extraordinary rendition. The voting list on an amendment to the Civil Aviation Bill tabled by the noble Baroness,Lady D’Souza—I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, in his place, because he had charge of the debate on that occasion and very generously conceded that it was for the House to decide these matters—reflects the cross-party support of 58 noble Lords, who made the compelling assumption that these aircraft were used for extraordinary rendition, even though the amendment was defective. The noble Lord said it was, which I accept for other reasons—the evil not being in the state of the law sought to be enforced. This was revisited during consideration of the Police and Justice Bill.

The evidence of Lieutenant General Brims to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in open session appeared to accept that planes landed here with people aboard for transport, but that there was no evidence at all that the purpose was for extradition under these arrangements. In an agreed transcript of other evidence from 27 March, it was stated that the Foreign Secretary had made it plain that there is no,

“evidence to show that there are people on board those planes which do land here who are being transferred for the purposes of extraordinary rendition”.

May I respectfully ask one or two questions of the Minister, a veritable master of explaining the inexplicable? I am not certain that it will be possible for the Minister to answer. Why was clearance given to some of these planes to land at military airfields in the UK? I am delighted to see a Minister from the Department for Transport in his place, because the object is to close clearance for these planes and that lies within the aegis of the noble Lord. Is it accepted that the Department for Transport instructed the CAA to give clearance for aircraft identified as on charter to the CIA to land at civil and military airfields in the UK? Did the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so instruct the Department for Transport and, if not, at whose behest were such instructions given? Why were such instructions given without knowledge of the purpose of the arrangements? Was any attempt made over five years to discover the purpose of 185 flights?

My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, on securing this important debate and on his patience tonight in waiting for the starting signal.

I confess that I was puzzled by the wording of his Question, since I hope that no such arrangements as he describes have been made, but he has now resolved my puzzlement. As the noble Lord said, this is part of an ongoing series of debates, beginning with the Civil Aviation Bill, proceeding in Committee with the Police and Justice Bill and no doubt continuing into the future. Our time today does not permit an exhaustive argument. The noble Lord opened the case with his customary clarity. In any event, it would serve no purpose for me to repeat what has been said on previous occasions. However, the noble Lord has afforded an opportunity to examine one issue that has arisen repeatedly.

The Government have not sought to deny that the airspace and airport facilities of some European states have been used or, rather, abused to render prisoners in the custody of the CIA to countries where they were at risk of torture. The evidence is overwhelming, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has explained. I am sure that the Government would not be privy to any such practice in this country, but the question is whether they are in a position to know what is happening. The Government say that no special legislation is necessary here, because there is already power for the police to enter and search aircraft using United Kingdom airport facilities.

On 4 July, in the debate in Committee on the Police and Justice Bill, my noble friend Lady Scotland sought to argue that case. I apologise at once to my noble friend Lord Triesman for springing this on him—I had not appreciated that he would be responding to the debate and I do not expect an answer to some of my questions this evening. My noble friend Lady Scotland mentioned Sections 8, 17 and 23 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Section 23 simply states that the word “premises” in the Act includes aircraft. Section 8 provides that a justice may authorise a search if there has been a serious arrestable offence and thereis likely to be relevant material on the premises.Section 17 authorises a constable to enter premises for a number of purposes, the principal one being to make an arrest. My noble friend also mentioned Part III of the Aviation Security Act. As I read it, that does not add any new powers to those that the police already have.

My noble friend accused me of not having identified a gap in the existing powers. I can identify a substantial gap. If there is reason to believe that someone has been lawfully arrested in the jurisdiction in which he was taken aboard the aircraft but it is now planned to take him to a destination where he is likely to be tortured, I am not clear under which of the provisions mentioned by my noble friend power is granted to the authorities to search the aircraft. It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has given some thought to this matter and can perhaps assist.

My noble friend Lady Scotland was kind enough to respond to my suggestion that we could analyse this matter in a private meeting. It is no one’s fault that that has not taken place. However, perhaps in his reply my noble friend can at least assure us that if the Government are persuaded in due course that there is a question about the existence of adequate powers, he will press the Government to seize an early opportunity to rectify the matter by way of legislation; and I realise that it does not lie entirely in his gift. It would be tragic if we permitted someone to be subjected to torture by an oversight.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for introducing this debate on a particular aspect of extraordinary rendition. My interest is that I am the vice-chair of the European Parliament’s temporary committee on extraordinary rendition.

First, like all EU and Council of Europe states, the UK is under an international legal obligation to ensure that everyone within its jurisdiction enjoys internationally agreed fundamental rights, including protection from arbitrary detention and torture. That obligation may be violated by acquiescence or connivance in the conduct of foreign agents. Therefore, there exists a positive duty to investigate substantiated claims of breaches of fundamental rights. Those claims have been substantiated by a great volume of credible testimony from victims, by flight records and through judicial and parliamentary as well as journalistic inquiries.

Secondly, Council of Europe member states are bound by various multilateral and bilateral agreements, such as defence, international civil aviation and military bases agreements, but the obligations arising from those treaties do not prevent states from complying with their human rights obligations, and those treaties must be interpreted and applied in a manner consistent with human rights obligations.

Civil aircraft are entitled to transit or land in the territory of a state that is a party to the Chicago Convention without obtaining prior permission. However, that state can search the plane or inspect certificates or other documents, such as a passenger list. The fear is that extraordinary rendition planes—that is, private jets leased by the CIA—have sought to have it both ways; they have pretended to be civil aircraft so as to escape the need for authorisation but they have sought to enjoy the immunity from search and inspection that state planes have. Amazingly, it seems as though some European Governments may have allowed them that special double indemnity. Our own Government may have turned a blind eye.

In response to the report from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place, the Government said that they “expected” the United States to seek permission to render detainees via UK territory or airspace—a curious term. One would expect an insistence or a requirement to seek permission.

Of course, in the leaked Foreign Office memo of last December, it was admitted that the Government did not know how often the US had sought permission for rendition flights. What checks have the Government made of Ministry of Defence records of civil flights that land at military airfields? The Government have now acknowledged that the Chicago Convention allows searches and requirements to land, but they refuse to lift a finger, even though there are protocol allegations, to investigate this properly.

International instruments against torture require states to assert jurisdiction over torture offences committed in their territories. If states facilitate transfer of an individual to a state where he is at risk of torture, they could be liable for complicity. Such assistance can consist of allowing refuelling or granting overflight or landing rights. In circumstances of overwhelming prima facie evidence, which I suggest exists, of extraordinary rendition having taken place in and through UK and other EU states, even if that evidence is not of a criminal standard of proof, it is incumbent on the UK authorities to stop being passive or turning a blind eye and to start living up to the European and international legal and human rights obligations that British lawyers contributed so much to drafting.

The UK must put itself in a position where it can ensure that it complies with the legal obligation to investigate torture and other breach of human rights allegations. I suggest that the Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place is inadequate. The Government said:

“In the absence of evidence of any renditions through UK territory or airspace … we do not consider Article 12 of the Convention Against Torture requires us to carry out a further investigation”.

There is enough evidence, as the Joint Committee on Human Rights said. I hope that the Government will tell us that they are now going to carry out a proactive investigation. It is not enough to be passive or to be wilfully ignorant. I suggest that that would betray this country’s reputation for upholding human rights obligations.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for his kind words. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on persisting in trying to deal with this difficult and unacceptable business of extraordinary rendition. This is not an issue that suffers from a lack of concerned attention. To date there have been at least four major reports, including those from the joint All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe. There are detailed briefings from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Liberty and the International Bar Association, among other human rights organisations. There is the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition and there is comprehensive documentation of all the evidence to date from the House of Commons Library. There are at least two ongoing journalist investigations, and questions in both Houses of Parliament and several debates have taken place in the past year. A case is being brought in the US courts by the American Civil Liberties Union. An amendment to institute a mechanism to ensure that in the future any suspicion is immediately acted on was, as has been said, put forward in the context of the Civil Aviation Bill and is currently in the Police and Justice Bill. Therefore, the topic is well researched and the ground has been well covered in this House.

All these reports, questions, debates and briefings suggest that the UK and other European countries are guilty of a degree of involvement in extraordinary rendition of foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activity. However, the issue that emerges is the large amount of circumstantial evidence pitted against the Government’s repeated assertions that the UK has not and would never condone the practice of extraordinary rendition. Those assertions of course are extremely welcome.

But is that enough to deter other countries from using UK facilities—military or otherwise—to further their own methods of pursuing suspected terrorists? As has already been said, logically, the possibilities are that, first, whatever happens in other parts of the world, extraordinary rendition has not in any way involved the UK either in the use of facilities, top-level agreements or the intelligence services because of a comprehensive and stringent refusal on the part of the Government to be instrumental in it; secondly, UK facilities and perhaps the intelligence services have been involved without the direct knowledge of the Government; and, thirdly, the Government are aware that extraordinary rendition has on occasion taken place using UK facilities and intelligence services, but there is no, nor is there likely to be, direct evidence.

At present the first possibility is the one that is put forward by the Government. But that is increasingly difficult to maintain due to more evidence emerging and the admission by senior judicial personnel that many European countries have been guilty of allowing territory to be used for extraordinary rendition. The European Union Justice Commissioner, for example, is calling on Governments to make clear their role in extraordinary rendition. The Swiss senator Mr Dick Marty asserts that collaboration with the CIA is proven. The Council of Europe Secretary-General feels that blanket denials of involvement do not constitute an adequate response and he calls for official investigations.

If the second possibility has any validity, the intelligence and airport services are operating outside the law, which would constitute culpable ignorance on the part of the Government. The third possibility is of course an extremely depressing one and not at the moment a road down which thankfully any of us have to go.

However, I have to repeat the question: is it enough for the Government to assert their adherence to the UN Convention Against Torture? I suggest not. There is a strong suspicion of wrongdoing and the Government could easily damp down those suspicions with actions designed to prevent any future possibility of involvement in extraordinary rendition, which would at the same time reassure the public of the UK Government’s legal and moral commitments.

My Lords, like other noble Lords I congratulate my noble friend on securing this important debate. In so far as it may be of relevant interest, I remind the House that I am a green card holder and therefore sometime resident in the United States. Given that my life straddles both sides of the Atlantic, I begin by stating my firm support for the fight against terrorism. But I am equally convinced that—and despite this being a statement of the obvious, I do not believe that it can be said often enough—we diminish and demean the virtue of that fight if, however marginally, we resort to the tools and tactics of the terrorist.

As to my noble friend’s Question today, I make no claim for any particular expertise in relation to extraordinary rendition. Like most of us, I merely rely on the odd news reports that have appeared in the media. Rather, I come to the issue in my capacity as a delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. As it happens, our annual plenary session took place in Brussels the week before last and, as the Minister will no doubt be aware, the resulting declaration contains a number of resolutions adopted by the assembly. One in particular, entitled “Strengthening effective parliamentary oversight of security and intelligence agencies”, has special relevance to today’s debate.

After due consideration by the full assembly rather than just in committee, that resolution was amended by the addition of a number of new paragraphs. Two of those are of concern. The first,

“Urges all participating States to ensure that their territory and facilities are not used to assist rendition flights or to operate secret detention centres, and to cooperate fully in the investigations conducted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament into allegations about secret detention centres”.

The second chimes with the numerous requests that other noble Lords have made tonight. It again,

“Calls upon all participating States to investigate promptly and thoroughly allegations that their territory has been used to assist CIA-chartered flights secretly transporting detainees to countries where they may face ‘disappearance’, torture or other ill-treatment”.

I make no judgment as to whether those represent an accurate reflection of current Foreign Office and/or government policy. That said, it is worth pointing out that perhaps not surprisingly only the US delegation was opposed to the insertion of the two new paragraphs and in fact all members of the UK delegation, irrespective of their political allegiance, voted for them. Indeed, tacit Foreign Office acceptance of the substance of the paragraphs could perhaps be inferred on the basis that the FCO officials present did not seek to make us aware of any potential policy conflicts that acceptance of the amendments may have contained.

That therefore begs an inevitable question. So far as I am aware, the Government have consistently refused to contemplate any inquiry into extraordinary rendition in the UK. As the Prime Minister put it in December last year:

“I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here at all, and I am not going to start ordering inquiries into this, that and the next thing, when I have got no evidence to show whether this is right or not”.

Perhaps the best that can be said about that statement is that at least the line is consistent. And yet, in this context, the text of the resolution is unequivocal in two important respects. It requires that all participating states ensure that their territory and facilities are not used to assist rendition flights and that all participating states investigate promptly and thoroughly allegations—that last is an extremely important word—that their territory has been used to assist CIA-chartered flights.

At its simplest, therefore, can the Minister confirm that the Government as representatives of an OSCE member will take the necessary action to deliver on the terms of the resolution? Will the Government, in so far as it is necessary so to do, ban access of rendition flights to UK airports and airspace, and will they issue an urgent and thorough inquiry into the matter?

My Lords, I am speaking entirely on my own account, although I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, whence I have got my information.

The evidence in the Marty report and, most important, because it concerns this country's involvement, evidence unearthed by Stephen Grey, an investigative journalist, of the kidnapping or arrest of people by the United States—that is, by the CIA—and the transporting of them, in order that they may be tortured, to countries that are less squeamish about torturing people, may be purely verbal and unsubstantiated by written statements, but it is nevertheless pretty strong evidence and should be investigated immediately by the Government. Pending such an investigation, I am asking the Government to take steps now to prevent this country in future from playing any part, however small, in such a repugnant practice.

I am not asking for a public inquiry. Public inquiries are very expensive and take far too long. Besides that, I appreciate that such an inquiry could compromise security by revealing secure information and sources. What I am asking is that the Government take steps immediately to prevent CIA rendition flights landing at any UK airport, whether civil or military, whether to refuel or for any other purpose, or making use of UK airspace. I do not think that it would be very difficult to do that. It might involve someone boarding CIA flights to check whether there were any trussed and manacled passengers on board. The Americans might find this unacceptable, to which I would say, “Hard cheese. If you want fuel, or whatever else, you accept our conditions or go elsewhere”. There are limits to what crimes can be committed or connived at in the name of friendship.

Condoleezza Rice's protestations of virtue leave me unimpressed. If the United States is not guilty, it should have no objection to co-operating. But I believe that the United States is guilty, and us with it, and it is up to us, not Condoleezza Rice, to keep our house clean.

I have rarely had occasion to be ashamed of being British, but now I am, bitterly, because it is quite clear to those of us who have taken an interest in the matter that this country has in some ways been aiding and abetting this horrible practice—I hope and believe behind the Government's back. So far the Government have not wanted to know. I am asking the Government to stop burying their heads in the sand, to investigate the matter and, above all, to take immediate action to prevent rendition flights making any further use of our airports and our airspace.

My Lords, as we have heard, there is overwhelming evidence that the UK, while protesting its continuing support for human rights, is still concealing its own part in this illegal practice. All of us here will agree that potential terrorists have to be subjected to rigorous interrogation within the bounds of human rights law, but in the interests of anti-terrorism, in the months after 9/11 the UK, as a key coalition ally, ignored much that was going on in Bagram airport and other US bases in the region.

Whatever we say on our own behalf, we seem to move in tandem with the United States. It was years before our Ministers began to comment publicly about Guantanamo, except in the well-known cases of British citizens. When President Bush accepted that Guantanamo was no longer a going concern, our Prime Minister and the Attorney-General followed suit. It was a relief to all that the Supreme Court ruled that the military commissions were not properly constituted courts, after months of pretence and pussyfooting.

Ministers can depend on information and advice from their civil servants; the rest of us can believe only what we are told by friends and sources we trust. Let me recall briefly the case Benyam Mohammed al Habashi, an Ethiopian asylum seeker who came to Britain in 1994 and was granted leave to remain. For several years he lived in north Kensington. He was picked up in Karachi in April 2002 and then began a cycle of interrogation by Pakistan intelligence, the FBI, MI6 and others who suspected he was an al-Qaeda terrorist. He was taken into US custody for rendition to Morocco where he was beaten and tortured over an 18-month period before being taken to Guantanamo.

During one interview, Benyam said that the MI6 officer was nice to him and gave him a cup of tea, saying he was innocent and that he would soon be sent home. Yet there is strong evidence that during the time he was in Morocco his torturers were relying on and probably conniving with British intelligence. The torture included many known and less known unpleasant techniques, including the cutting of his genitals with a scalpel. It is inconceivable that MI6 was unaware of his rendition and torture, and highly likely that its intelligence contributed to it. He has been languishing in Guantanamo ever since.

On those rare occasions when Governments or law enforcement agencies admit their mistakes, they still pretend to be on the side of the angels and do so reluctantly. The EU Justice Commissioner, as we have heard, admitted for the first time last month that rendition takes place on European soil, and yet the UK is still in denial. The Minister said rather surprisingly at Question Time recently that he did not accept that there has been extraordinary rendition, especially in relationship to Guantanamo. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said during the debate on the Police and Justice Bill that,

“there is no credible evidence that United Kingdom airspace or territory have been involved in unlawful rendition”.—[Official Report, 4/7/06; col. 217.]

How can anyone be reassured that there is no risk of torture? These statements on their own, however accurate, actually imply the contrary. They show that there is enough uncertainty about the UK’s moral position to require a more open debate based on better analysis and detailed enumeration of the facts. It is helpful that the Government are now considering their reply to the reminder of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, but the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has been asking these questions for months and is always told that intelligence has all the information. Surely this is no way to conduct business in a fully functioning democracy.

My Lords, I spoke in support of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, to the Civil Aviation Bill on 8 March. I raised my concerns about the role the British military might be being expected to play in connection with rendition flights, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for focusing on the military airfields in his Question tonight.

The Government have confirmed that RAF Brize Norton and RAF Northolt have provided services to some 14 CIA aircraft movements. I remind your Lordships of the special nature of RAF Northolt. It is used for VIP flights, Royal flights and ministerial flights. It has limitations on the numbers of movements and heightened security because of the nature of the passengers who use it. RAF Brize Norton is also an important transport base where security is key.

It is some 20 years since I was a station commander of an operational Royal Air Force airfield, but I would be surprised if the procedures for accepting visiting aircraft have changed much since that time. As station commander, I would learn of the expected movements for the following 24 hours at the early morning daily briefing. The station commanders of RAF Northolt and RAF Brize Norton will know when these flights happen; they will know where they have come from and they will know where they are going to. The operations wing staff will have checked whether it is appropriate to give clearance for landing and refuelling, which will perhaps require reference upwards to group or command headquarters or to the Ministry of Defence. These are international flights, which means that Customs needs to be informed. In sum, it is not possible for the Government to say that such flights are just part of the routine facilities provided between friendly nations.

My concern is that military officers might be put in the position of assisting an illegal flight and subsequently be liable to prosecution as a result. That might, in the past, have sounded somewhat fanciful, but two other developments seem relevant. In Iraq, we see military personnel being held to account if it is thought that they might have broken international law. In Italy, two Italian intelligence officers have been arrested over allegations that they assisted in the rendition of Osama Mustafa Hassan to Egypt in 2003. Putting the two elements together, I worry how long it will be before we see a Royal Air Force station commander being investigated for providing facilities for CIA rendition flights.

Can the Minister tell us whether he would support an instruction from the Ministry of Defence calling for all international flights by foreign aircraft that land at military airfields to be inspected to ensure that their passenger manifests are accurate and that there is no suspicion of illegal activity? Perhaps the best way forward on this is through the Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. We have tried it with the Civil Aviation Bill and with the Police and Justice Bill; perhaps we can deal with the military airfields question through the Armed Forces Bill. Would the Minister recommend that?

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway on initiating this debate in your Lordships’ House.

As your Lordships are well aware, by virtue of Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, we are obliged not to return anyone, whether resident in this country or rendered through it, to another country where there is a real risk that they will be tortured.

After much confusion from the Government about the effect of international civil aviation law, the issue as to whether the Chicago Convention prevents investigations into civilian flights that are alleged to be involved in extraordinary rendition has now been settled. The Government clearly have the power to do so. The key question, therefore, is whether they are under a duty to do so.

The argument centres on what facts initiate that duty. At present, the Government accept, in principle, that they would be willing to investigate where there is evidence of extraordinary rendition flights passing through the UK; but they have repeatedly denied that there is any such evidence.

Until passenger lists of chartered civilian aircraft are provided to the UK authorities, nothing can be certain. However, the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, at paragraph 168, states that there is now,

“a reasonable suspicion that certain aircraft passing through the UK may have been carrying suspects where they may have faced torture … This reasonable suspicion is in our view sufficient to trigger the duty to investigate … the Government should now take active steps to ascertain more details about the flights which it is now known used UK airports”.

The Government should explain to your Lordships tonight why they do not believe that such steps are necessary.

Regardless of whether the Joint Committee on Human Rights is correct, the Government’s continued resistance to carrying out investigations risks undermining public confidence in their assertions that the United Kingdom will never condone, or be complicit in, activities relating to torture. The Government must be seen to be doing all they can to show that the United Kingdom is an active adherent to the rule of international law.

Reliance on assurances from the United States is not sufficient to resolve the issue. The United States has taken a far more restricted view on what it defines as torture. While it has retracted its extraordinary previous assertion that the practice has to involve excruciating and agonising pain, it is still unclear whether the view it takes of what constitutes torture would match the test applied by countries such as the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, when assessing the risk of torture, it should be borne in mind that the United States applies a more-likely-than-not standard. The United Kingdom, by contrast, applies only a real-risk standard. So the United States could argue that it is not breaking the law by sending individuals to countries where there is only a real risk—the test that we apply.

The Opposition have stated that the Government must establish beyond doubt that United Kingdom territory or airspace has not been used for extraordinary rendition, and we maintain this position. We accept the assurances of the Foreign Secretary that the United Kingdom would not facilitate the transfer of an individual from or through the United Kingdom where there are grounds to believe that that person would face a real risk of torture; but we are asking the Government to reconsider carrying out investigations into these flights.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has given us to debate these issues today and I acknowledge the work that has been done by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I shall deal with what might be regarded in the House this evening as mundane facts—just facts. I do not want to deal with conspiracy, even if it is thought to be a more colourful approach. I have noted some of the language that has been used in the House about this country: “the probable assumption”, “the well grounded concern” and “the real suspicion”. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred twice to the fact that “we turn a blind eye”. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred to “concealing illegal practice”. Some of that language was used also in the debate on Amendment No. 6 on 28 March, when the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, spoke, as he has more or less done tonight, of a private arrangement to conceal the purpose in which Her Majesty's Government were involved in the wake of 7/7 and which should be denied at all costs.

The allegations that I hear and the conspiracy that is hinted at, which has been followed by the media and in this House, do not appear to be grounded in any real evidence whatever. I say to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, that no “repugnant practice” is conducted by this country. I do not accept the allegation of misbehaviour by this country. I reiterate in the clearest terms that the Government have not approved, and will not approve, a policy of facilitating the transfer of individuals through the United Kingdom to places where there are substantial grounds to believe that they would face a real risk of torture—our definition of torture and not that of the United States. Accordingly, I can confirm that no arrangements have been made at military airfields—I shall return to this as I seek to answer all the questions that were asked—to refuel civilian aircraft with passengers allegedly “destined for extraordinary rendition”. As I said in an Answer from this Dispatch Box recently, we have not been involved in extraordinary rendition. For those reasons, I do not accept that there is a need for an investigation. I do not accept that there is any evidence. I do not accept that there is any conspiracy. The Prime Minister was right to put it in terms.

That may well not satisfy those who ask us to prove the negative—that something has not happened. But one can never prove that. That is never a proper test of any kind of evidence. It cannot be done. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that there is in that sense nothing that can be investigated that will satisfy anybody who adheres to such a conspiracy theory. The Government have repeatedly made it clear that they have found no evidence of detainees being rendered through the United Kingdom or the overseas territories since 11 September 2001. There is no evidence of detainees being rendered through the United Kingdom or the overseas territories since 1997 where there were substantial grounds to believe that there was a risk of torture. The Government do not deport or extradite any person to another state where there are substantial grounds to believe that the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or where there is a real risk that the death penalty will be applied. This position reflects our obligations under UK and international law, including the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since before 11 September 2001, we have worked closely with the US to achieve our shared goal of fighting terrorism. Noble Lords have been gracious enough to say that that is important work. As part of that close co-operation, we have made it completely clear to the US authorities that we expect them to seek permission to render detainees via UK territory and airspace on every occasion, and that we will grant permission only if we are satisfied that the rendition would accord with UK law and our international obligations and how we understand them under the UN Convention Against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights. We are clear that the US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace, including overseas territories, without our permission.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asks why we have not, in her view, investigated adequately. We have not investigated inadequately at all. We have not let this country down; absolutely not. We have carefully researched the question of US rendition via the United Kingdom. Jack Straw set out in his Written Ministerial Statement to the House of Commons on 20 January the results of an extensive review of all our official records back to May 1997. There were four cases in 1998 where the US requested permission to render one or more detainees—

My Lords, I have no right of reply. I only wish to remind the Minister that it is totally conceded that the Government did not know. I have made that perfectly plain. I have given material which suggests a high level of suspicion, as recognised by certain independent authorities. My noble friend Lord Kingsland seeks an investigation on that basis. That is the issue.

My Lords, I do not accept that there is a high level of probability. Noble Lords opposite are lawyers. As it happens, I am a probabilities mathematician, and I do not accept that this is in any sense a level of probability. It is a number of assertions for which there is no evidence.

My Lords, does the Minister accept Toyber’s dictum, that,

“absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”?

My Lords, I do not even understand the question.

The term “rendition” has been used loosely. Whether any particular rendition is lawful depends on the facts of each individual case. The records of the four cases I have mentioned showed that the Government granted the United States’ request in two cases, and refused it in the other two. In both cases where the request was agreed, the individuals were transferred through the United Kingdom in order to stand trial in the United States. There is no ambiguity in what happened on those occasions. Where we are requested to assist another state and our assistance would be lawful, we will decide whether or not to assist by taking the circumstances into account. We would not assist in any case if it would put us in breach of UK law or our international obligations.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that there is no intelligence involvement in this either. I have no reason to believe that any government agency has acted in a way that does not conform to those obligations. There has been no collaboration with the CIA, and no responsibility for anything that might be claimed to have happened in other countries.

I will not comment in detail on what the United States and Secretary Rice have said. Those are matters of record in this House. In response to requests for information about specific aircraft allegedly linked to the rendition operations, the Secretary of State for Transport published flight information held by or supplied to his department in respect of those aircraft. The Ministry of Defence did likewise in connection with the use of those aircraft in respect of military airfields. On military airfields, the United Kingdom has given the United States military and state aircraft clearance to overfly the United Kingdom and to land at military airfields in the United Kingdom without seeking prior permission. Where aircraft transit through military airfields for refuelling, for example, passengers do not leave the airfield; the airfield is required to record the registration number, the outward bound destination, the names of the pilots, the aircraft owner, but it does not record details of passengers. I think that is as true of the landings which have been referred to at Brize Norton or RAF Northolt. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, described the process and the routines involved in that and I do not believe I can add anything. I do not think there is any basis for investigating those flights either. We have clear assurances that the United States will not move people through this country or through its airspace on the basis of extraordinary rendition.

It may be of interest to the House to note that there are 3.5 million takeoffs and landings in the United Kingdom and 1.1 million of them are non-commercial flights. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that the provision of passenger lists on that kind of basis, without grounds for believing that something is actually happening other than unsubstantiated allegations,would be an extraordinary operation and one that Ido not believe a Government of any party would contemplate.

We have co-operated fully with the inquiries into rendition by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, but neither Dick Marty’s report of the 7 June nor any other document should lead to the conclusions that have been drawn in this House. His report was entitled, Alleged secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers involving Council of Europe member states. The interim report of the EP’s temporary committee on the alleged use of European countries by the CIA for transportation and illegal detention has also been looked into. I ask noble Lords to have a look at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s fourth report on Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, published on 2 July. The all-party report concluded that although there has been speculation about complicity by this Government in unlawful rendition,

“there has been no hard evidence of the truth of any of these allegations”.

That is hardly a basis for feeling ashamed of our nation. It is neither a police state nor a secret state.

Our position on torture is absolutely clear. We unreservedly condemn the use of torture and we work hard with our international partners to eradicate this abhorrent practice. We abide by our commitments in international law in every respect. On the specific points about Benyam Mohammed al Habashi, referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, he was interviewed once by the security services in Karachi in 2002, but the security services had no role in his capture or in his transfer to Pakistan. There is no evidence that they drew on or passed on matter to anyone and I do not believe that there is any significant or substantial evidence or probability that they did so.

My Lords, I think the Minister said earlier that there was no evidence of any involvement at all by British intelligence agencies. Is it not the case that during the High Court case in March, concerning Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna, the High Court established that the Government passed on to the United States authorities, either directly or at least indirectly, information that led to the illegal seizure and rendition to Guantanamo Bay of those two men and that on that basis the Government, while not accepting any legal requirement, accepted to make representations certainly on behalf of Bisher al-Rawi?

My Lords, I will deal with the specific matter of Mr al-Rawi and Mr al-Banna who came into detention in the Gambia. I confirm in explicit terms here tonight that the United Kingdom did not request the detention of either of the men in the Gambia. We played no role in their transfer to Afghanistan or Guantanamo Bay—no role.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, said that he was concerned—and I am concerned—that we should not diminish or demean our democracy. We do not and we will not. Our standards are high and, as I said, I do not accept that we operate some sort of clandestine police state. That is not the United Kingdom that I know at all. The British Government are certainly committed to protecting the British people from the threat of terrorism, and who needs reminding of the scale of the threat? As we were commemorating 7/7, we saw another brutal and shameful attack: on the city of Mumbai. But we are quite clear in our own minds that we can succeed in meeting the challenge of international terrorism only if our own efforts are grounded in respect for, and the continued promotion of, international law and fundamental freedoms. That is as true in the area of rendition as in any other aspect of our counter-terrorist effort.

Measures taken by states to combat terrorism must be legal, proportionate and justifiable. Promoting human rights, democracy, good governance and the rule of law is, in the end, the best guarantee of our own security, for it helps stifle the discontent on which the terrorist recruiters prey.

I know that what I have said will not satisfy all noble Lords in the House. I am afraid that I will have to remain content in my own mind that in this country we do not engage in practices of the kind that have been described. It may be impossible to prove the negative, but that is no basis for people to assume that there has been the kind of behaviour that gave rise to some of the adjectives used. All noble Lords who wish to pursue this matter further should provide far more tangible evidence than the kind of allegations that we have heard. I myself have looked carefully at the Amnesty International report and at the reports made when Jack Straw investigated all the flights where we had contact with the United States, and I have looked at their submissions as well, and I say to noble Lords that these allegations are groundless and baseless and should not be repeated without proper evidence.

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, did I really understand him to say that he did not consider extraordinary rendition to be repugnant?

My Lords, we are on a very strict timetable. The House will recognise that it is 8.42 pm and we are due to resume consideration of the Bill. I am very sorry.