HC Deb 05 December 1985 vol 88 cc523-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

10.4 pm

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

It is with considerable alarm that I record that it is almost one year since I raised in the House for the first time the case of the detention in Libya of my constituent Malcolm Pike of Blandford St. Mary. I shall outline the background to the matter and, in particular, the developments during the past year of this most unfortunate case. In the light of those developments I shall make a number of recommendations.

I am heartened that the debate is to be answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar). I was delighted at his recent appointment as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and I know that that feeling is shared by many of my colleagues. As a Back Bencher he was renowned for the energy and combative nature of his advocacy. I earnestly hope that he will deploy all his skills in assisting me to help my unfortunate constituent.

Whatever help my hon. Friend and his colleagues can give will be vital if this young life is not to drag on in further dusty detention. But, as I have pointed out before, in the years ahead there are likely to be more and more Britons working overseas. That will happen as more and more British industries, manufacturing and service, undertake to join in the fierce competitive battles that are to be waged in overseas markets for the contracts on which our high standard of living depends. I hope that Britons are also increasingly likely to be engaged overseas in a second role, which is the provision of managerial and advisory services to overseas countries. I have mentioned that point before in the House, and I hope that I shall have future occasions on which to expand it. For the present debate it should be sufficient to draw to my hon. Friend's attention the great likelihood of an increasing number of Britons overseas and the necessity for an increased robustness in their protection on the part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Government Departments for reasons that will become clear.

Malcolm Pike, who is now 32 years old, worked for Lomond Engineering in Libya between 27 August 1980 and 11 June 1982. He was based in the company's office in Benghazi where he dealt with administrative and financial matters. The company was actively engaged in engineering contracting work in Libya. Mr. Pike worked as an accountant and left Libya in June 1982. He was unemployed for a time and lived at home in Blandford St. Mary in the most beautiful county in Britain.

In May or June 1983 he received a call from Mr. Mohammed Naim Sharafat who is of Pakistani nationality and was then the engineering and general manager of Lomond Engineering Company Ltd. in Libya. Mr. Sharafat asked whether Mr. Pike was interested in returning to work for Lomond Engineering in Tripoli. He explained that on 1 March 1983 the company had been nationalised and all the work and current contracts had been taken over by the National Petroleum Services Company of Libya. They required someone conversant with the company's affairs and accounting procedures. He explained that Mr. Pike would be involved in finalising the claim for compensation with NPSC and in dealings with the tax office in Benghazi. Mr. Pike, who needed both the job and its salary, accepted the offer and returned to Libya on 24 June 1983.

Mr. Pike's task was to assist in finalising the claim for compensation by Lomond Engineering or its shareholders against the NPSC of Libya and to assist in dealing with its tax affairs. In both those matters his previous experience with the company and knowledge of its affairs was of considerable use.

On arrival he found that there were in Lomond Engineering's offices Mr. Sharafat and a Mr. Ismail Sakhnini, a Palestinian with Swedish nationality. The plan was that one person would go on holiday while the other two stayed in Libya. As Mr. Pike was to discover, this was required because the company had tax liabilities for the years 1980 to 1982, and the tax office in Benghazi had issued a letter to the immigration office there informing it of this liability and instructing it that at all times there should be one representative of Lomond Engineering kept in Libya. In August Mr. Sharafat left for a vacation but did not return. At this time a Mr. Samir Shawa was apparently controlling the company from London. Subsequently Mr. Pike left for a vacation in the United Kingdom but returned in October, whereupon Mr. Sakhnini left.

Despite a number of protestations by him that he would return to Libya to take Mr. Pike's place, he never did. During this time, rent on the company's flat in Libya was not paid and Mr. Pike did not have a company cheque book to enable any salaries, including his own, to be paid. The position of both the company and Mr. Pike became more and more serious.

At that time it became even more difficult for him or, indeed, anyone to contact Mr. Shawa. Mr. Pike was able to arrange for a Mr. Clive Downs to take his place for a short time to enable Mr. Pike to take a holiday to come back to the United Kingdom to try to sort matters out. This was done at the expense of Mr. Pike, who had to pay Mr. Downs to do this. Naturally, Mr. Pike, being a man of honour, returned to Libya to allow Mr. Downs to leave. A third visit was made later when matters became desperate in June 1984.

At this point in the story a Mr. Abbas Bunkheila, a Libyan national at present believed to be residing in the United Kingdom, comes on the scene. He had previously lived in Benghazi and worked with a company entitled Libyan Resources Development, and to him payments were made for assets in Libyan Resources Development and, according to Mr. Shawa, for other reasons.

Mr. Pike was owed the sum of about £16,000 by Lomond Engineering in August 1984 and is undoubtedly owed a good deal more money now.

Lomond Engineering is a company registered in the Cayman Islands, and a firm of what are apparently lawyers provide some of the directors. Lomond Commercial Ltd. is a company registered in the United Kingdom, apparently wholly-owned by Mr. Shawa. While there seems to be no formal connection between the companies, it was apparent to Mr. Pike that the two were run by Mr. Shawa, who certainly took decisions which affected Lomond Engineering.

Mr. Pike was, and remains to this day, detained in Libya without pay and is owed a substantial sum of unpaid salary and expenses. He has relied on the charity of friends and been fortunate, but he is not allowed to leave the country as the Libyan authorities are permitted under Libyan law to detain him as a hostage for the taxation bill alleged to be owing by Lomond Engineering, the company for which he worked. Mr. Pike himself has no resources. He was never a shareholder in Lomond Engineering or connected with it in any way other than as an employee.

I raised the matter in correspondence with the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton). I also raised the matter on the Adjournment on 21 December 1984, when it seemed that there was a possibility that Mr. Sakhnini would be prepared to go back to Libya to take Mr. Pike's place. This proved, as have other promises of such an arrangement, to be false, and since then no effective progress has been made.

Throughout this time Mr. Pike's father, Mr. Frank Pike, has worked tirelessly to try to contact the individuals connected with this company to obtain their help in securing his son's release. All his patient efforts by writing, telephoning, travelling and waiting have come to nothing. He has received no replies to his letters or information or assistance of any kind from these individuals.

I should also say that both Mr. George Anderson and Mr. Hugh Dunnachie of the Foreign Office, as representatives of Her Majesty's Government in Tripoli, have been as helpful as they can. Mr. Dunnachie's efforts to achieve Mr. Pike's release deserve considerable praise. Without his continuing help, Mr. Pike's condition would be even more serious than it is. On behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Pike, I extend the warmest thanks to him and all the Foreign Office staff involved.

This is a murky and mysterious matter and it has involved prolonged correspondence, discussions and negotiations with other companies bearing the Lomond name. These reveal, among other things, that Lomond Engineering has circulated a set of accounts containing a forged opinion. That is not the only thing that needs to be investigated.

It appears that Mr. Sakhnini visited Libya in June this year to try to negotiate the settlement of the company's tax liabilities, but he did not contact Mr. Pike and no arrangements were made to release Mr. Pike from his detention. Apparently, cheques for 260,000 Libyan dinas were issued by the National Petroleum Services Company to Mr. Sakhnini on his visit to Libya, but he failed entirely to use that money, as promised, to secure Mr. Pike's release. It is also apparent that, despite denials, Mr. Sakhnini was appointed as attorney of Lomond Engineering and that he was an employee of the company at one stage.

I have said that the conduct of Mr. Shawa, Mr. Sakhnini and Mr. Bunkheila and Mr. Floyd Cullup, who signed a document appointing Mr. Sakhnini attorney of Lomond Engineering, deserves investigation, and the part played by Mr. Shawa in particular seems utterly reprehensible.

I understand that Mr. Shawa has applied for naturalisation, but purely on the ground that he has apparently brought about the detention of a British citizen in Libya I would regard him as somebody utterly unfit and undesirable to be a naturalised British citizen.

I also understand that there have been suggestions that Mr. Bunkheila and others connected with the company have wished to prolong their stay in the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the preliminary views of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington), Minister of State, Home Office, in May last year, I believe that there is now evidence of serious misconduct which should make it unthinkable that anyone connected with this company should be allowed to remain in the United Kingdom.

I am therefore making a plea, on behalf of an anguished Mr. and Mrs. Frank Pike, who have borne the detention of their son with considerable fortitude over a long period of time, that my hon. Friend will take the following action.

First, will my hon. Friend make the strongest representations, through the admittedly limited means available, to the Libyan authorities that my constituent, who has no funds, and no control over the assets of the company, and is of no use to the Libyan authorities, should be allowed to leave Libya forthwith?

Secondly, will my hon. Friend draw the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, to this debate and ask him to re-examine immediately any requests to stay in or enter the United Kingdom by Messrs. Shawa, Bunkheila, Sakhnini, Cullop and anyone else involved with Lomond Engineering?

Thirdly, will my hon. Friend support and assist any inquiries that may be instituted in connection with some of the more serious aspects of this matter?

My hon. Friend must understand the deep gloom of a family who see their son's continuing detention far from home by heartless and possibly criminal activities of a small number of people. I hope that he will do everything that he can to rescue my constituent from his desperate plight.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) on obtaining this debate, and on selecting for debate the subject on which he has addressed us so ably. I thank him also for the kind personal remarks that he made about me at the beginning of his speech.

I know that my hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on behalf of Mr. Pike, who is one of his constituents. I know, too, that for well over a year Mr. Pike's plight has been distressing both to himself and to his family. My hon. Friend raised this case as long ago as December 1984, and I am deeply sorry that the case is still dragging on. Nobody who listened to that debate almost a year ago would have believed that it could be possible for the case still to be dragging on. I join my hon. Friend in hoping very much that the case will soon be resolved.

Before speaking in more detail about the particular points that were raised by my hon. Friend, I think that it would be appropriate to set out the context both of our own difficult relations with Libya and the generality of the consular protection that we are able to provide across the world. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have particular cases that they have followed carefully. I hope, therefore, that my general remarks will be of wider interest.

The House will be aware that the United Kingdom broke off diplomatic relations with Libya in April 1984, following the tragic incident in St. James's square, but we have no wish to impede ordinary private contacts or civilian commercial exchanges between Britain and Libya. It was because of the break in diplomatic relations that we decided to allow the Libyans to maintain an interests section in the embassy of its protecting power, Saudi Arabia. This interests section was staffed by two Libyan officials. Two British consular officials were appointed to constitute the British interests section at the Italian embassy in Tripoli. We are grateful to the Italian Government for agreeing to act as our protecting power in Libya. We are also grateful for the performance of our consular officers in Libya. It is not an easy task. I know that they will be heartened by my hon. Friend's very kind remarks about them.

Many British subjects travelling or working abroad find themselves in difficulties. I have particular sympathy for Mr. Pike, not least because his difficulties lie towards one end of the spectrum in two respects. The first is the severity of his difficulties. The second is the fact that they have been going on for such a long time. The difficulties of many British subjects can be cleared up in a few hours, often without the help of local consular staff, and often even without intervention by the British Government in London. However, those British subjects who need assistance can get it from the Foreign Office in London and from diplomatic service officers in embassies and consulates abroad. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that we have about 290 diplomatic officers abroad who are engaged in full time consular work, and that they are supported by about 137 locally engaged staff.

To give some idea of the problems that are faced by my Department, I should tell the House that about 5 million or 6 million Britons are resident overseas. I cannot be more certain of the number, because many of them do not register with local embassies or high commissions. A further 22 million Britons travel overseas each year—in other words, nearly half the population of the United Kingdom. That figure is about four times as many as travelled abroad 20 years ago.

In the Foreign Office we do our best to keep up with the increasing work load. We shift our staff around to meet peak times throughout the world and we also keep our staff levels under constant review. We support the staff abroad in a number of ways. We have a consular department in London which has staff to call on every day of the year, 24 hours a day, with the exception of Christmas day. The London staff may give advice to people who are going abroad before they leave and then help to solve the problems which sometimes arise after they get there.

I recommend to my hon. Friend, although I am sure that he has seen it, an excellent leaflet entitled "Get it right before you go", which has been widely distributed. It explains in succinct language what we can do and also, I am afraid, what we cannot do. Members of the public who want more detailed advice on specific countries, particularly in such areas as the middle east where local laws and working conditions are very different from those in the United Kingdom, can get that kind of information from our consular department.

I shall tell my hon. Friend what our consuls can and cannot do. They can ensure that a British subject is informed of his legal rights, but they cannot give legal advice themselves. They can ensure that British subjects are treated no worse in prison than are local nationals, but they cannot get people out of prison. In a nutshell, we can help British citizens abroad who fall foul of the law in a given country, but we cannot get another country to change its laws, however different those laws may be from our own.

That provides a backdrop to the specific question of Libya and the tragic case of Mr. Pike. Local law there, as in many other Arab countries, provides that an employee may be held responsible for his firm's debts and should not be allowed to leave the country until the debts are settled. The Government cannot intervene in the process of law in Libya, any more than we would accept attempts by Libya, or another country, to interfere in our law. Nor can we become involved in what is essentially a commercial dispute in which Mr. Pike finds himself, however tragic and sad the circumstances.

Since Mr. Pike returned to Libya 18 months ago, on 8 June 1984, he has been unable to leave the country because he has been held responsible for the tax debts of his employers, Lomond Engineering. Sadly, Lomond Engineering is not a United Kingdom registered company, it does not have a United Kingdom office, and it appears to have deliberately deserted Mr. Pike. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in saying that the company is responsible for the situation in which Mr. Pike finds himself.

There are cases where British nationals have been, or are currently, prevented from leaving other Arab countries, not Libya, because they are held responsible for their firms' debts. Hundreds of British companies work in the Arab world, and they must arrange that one of their expatriate staff is responsible for the affairs of the company. In doing so, the company recognises that that expatriate can be prevented from leaving if the company incurs debts. However, in all but a tiny minority of cases problems do not arise because the companies either have no debts or negotiate a settlement. As in this case, companies arrange a rota whereby a substitute representative stands in for leave purposes. That practice is entirely acceptable to local authorities.

In addition to the visit to which my hon. Friend referred, a representative of Lomond Engineering visited Libya in April 1985 and received a payment for the company's equipment. That sum was subsequently used to reduce the tax debt, but, sadly, a considerable amount of debt remains outstanding. Interestingly, the Libyan authorities apparently took no action to prevent the representative from leaving Libya.

The Government's scope to assist Mr. Pike is limited. Our British interests section in Tripoli has been supportive of him since his plight was first brought to its attention. It has given such advice and assistance as it properly can. The head of the British interests section has discussed his plight with the Libyan tax authorities on at least six occasions in an endeavour to overcome the problem. The Italian embassy, as the protecting power, has addressed notes to the Libyan authorities requesting that Mr. Pike be granted an exit visa, but without result.

I understand the current position is that a British firm which is highly specialised in Libyan tax matters is preparing a case to present to the Libyan tax authorities in an endeavour to secure Mr. Pike's departure from Libya. I am delighted to say that that firm is doing the work without intending to charge for it.

I am aware, as my hon. Friend said, that Mr. Pike's father has been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at intervals throughout the year, and he discussed his son's position with our consul in Tripoli on 6 August when the consul was on leave in the United Kingdom.

Towards the end of his remarks my hon. Friend made three requests. The first was that we should approach the Libyan authorities and do everything within our power to ensure that Mr. Pike is allowed to leave Libya. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We shall continue to take every possible opportunity to press the Libyan authorities and to urge them to grant an exit visa, but that, I am afraid, must be within the constraints that I have already explained.

My hon. Friend's second request was that I should draw his speech to the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I shall be delighted to do that. I shall also ensure that my hon. and learned Friend is made aware of the information that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has about the case.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend asked that my Department should be willing to assist inquiries about the case and the performance of the company within the United Kingdom. It occurs to me, after hearing what my hon. Friend said, that it might be worth bringing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry into this matter to see whether he has any powers, although we must take account of the fact that the company is not United Kingdom registered and his powers may well be limited. However, we shall follow up that point.

I wish to reiterate the sympathy that the Government feel for Mr. Pike. He has, unfortunately, found himself in a kind of limbo. He is not, fortunately, deprived of his liberty within Libya, but he is deprived of his liberty and freedom to leave Libya.

As I have said, I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to do everything that we properly can to assist Mr. Pike. I hope that with the help of the officials in my Department and my colleagues, we can bring his difficulties to an end as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.