updated 7/12/2006 10:52:26 AM ET 2006-07-12T14:52:26

Prime Minister Tony Blair defended an extradition treaty with the United States shortly before lawmakers began an emergency debate on the issue Wednesday, as three British bankers prepared to be sent to Texas to face Enron-related fraud charges.

Blair said the three bankers would have been extradited to the United States even before a new treaty to speed up such deportations was agreed with the United States. Critics claim the treaty is unfair to British citizens because it has not been ratified by the U.S. Congress.

“They would indeed have been extradited under the old treaty,” Blair told the House of Commons.

However, Nick Clegg, Home Affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party, said the treaty was manifestly unfair and that it was impossible to tell if the so-called NatWest Three — David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby — would have been sent to Enron’s home state of Houston before the treaty took effect in January 2004.

“The point is that we don’t know because under the new provisions there is no cross-examination or questions,” Clegg said at the beginning of the debate in the House of Commons. “The U.S. authorities aren’t required to present the amount of evidence that was required before.”

There is no expectation that Parliament could block the extradition of the bankers or suspend the treaty, but the debate allows legislators to express anger at what many see as a one-sided arrangement initially designed to speed up extradition of terrorism suspects.

On Tuesday, the House of Lords voted 218-116 for a motion to suspend the Extradition Act.

The three men, who have denied the charges that they attempted to sell a part of an Enron company for less than it was worth, have long said they would be willing to face a court in Britain, where the alleged offenses were carried out.

They are scheduled to fly to the United States on Thursday. On the same day, a Home Office minister, Baroness Patricia Scotland, is flying to Washington to urge the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty.

Former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard has joined calls to block the extradition.

“It is difficult to imagine a more one-sided or unfair set of arrangements than those which are presently in existence,” he said.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle made the rounds of broadcast studios Wednesday, saying he and President Bush’s administration were working to secure U.S. Senate ratification.

However, Tuttle argued that the 2003 treaty brought the former arrangement “into balance.”

“Prior to that, it was more difficult to extradite a citizen of the United Kingdom to the U.S. than vice versa,” he told the BBC.

Bermingham said Wednesday he did not resent U.S. authorities for pursuing the case, and instead accused the British government of “burying its head in the sand” and failing to protect its own citizens.

Blair said he had been advised that U.S. prosecutors would not oppose bail for the three men “as long as the appropriate conditions are put in place by the court or agreed to by the defendants.”

Blair’s office declined to specify whether that would involve bail in Britain or the United States. It referred questions to the Attorney General’s office, which did not immediately return calls.

The men’s lawyers argue that bail in the United States would be excessively burdensome because they would not be allowed to work there and face bail payments of $1 million each, compared with 25,000 pounds ($46,000) in Britain.

Each of the three men was indicted in 2002 on seven counts of wire fraud in the United States for allegedly bilking their former employer, National Westminster Bank, of $7.3 million.

They allegedly advised NatWest in 2000 to sell part of an Enron Corp. business for less than the stake was worth in a scheme allegedly devised with Andrew Fastow, former finance chief of the collapsed Houston energy trader, and his colleague, managing director Michael Kopper.

The three men then left NatWest, bought into the Enron business themselves and sold it for a much higher figure, each making about $2.6 million in the process, according to U.S. prosecutors.

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