HC Deb 16 January 1991 vol 183 cc846-8
12. Mr. Beith

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the arrangements that were made to deal with United Kingdom hostages returning from the Gulf.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Within three days of the Iraqi decree of 9 December that westerners were free to leave, more than 700 British nationals were safely evacuated from Iraq and Kuwait. The British embassy in Baghdad helped to obtain exit visas and chartered a number of aircraft. It also obtained places on regular flights and planes chartered by other western countries. The embassy in Kuwait, with invaluable help from the wardens, organised the movement to Baghdad of those who had been in hiding. On their arrival in the United Kingdom, the hostages were met by representatives from the Foreign Office, the Department of Social Security and the Ministry of Defence, as well as a number of non-governmental organisations, including the Gulf Support Group and the Red Cross. All immediate requests for assistance were dealt with on arrival so that nobody was without funds, accommodation, medical care or general advice.

Mr. Beith

Is the Minister aware of the enormous relief of families that the hostages are at last home, some of them as recently as within the past few days? Will he convey the thanks of hon. Members and families to officials, particularly those in Baghdad and Kuwait, who worked under such great difficulty to help to bring that about? Will officials continue to be available to help hostages who have been through such a difficult and traumatic time? Will he also have a word with the Chancellor so that they will not face income tax bills because they were out of the country for less than the 12 months that they expected to be working away?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the three points that he has made. I am grateful also, on behalf of the Foreign Office, for his kind remarks. As regards future problems encountered by returning hostages, of course a number of agencies are available to help and are anxious to help. However, if there are any matters in which the Foreign Office can help in particular, the emergency unit is still available for that purpose. As regards the hon. Gentleman's point about income tax, it is an important point which the Treasury is considering at this moment.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Will my hon. and learned Friend accept the best wishes from my constituents who were inconvenienced by being held hostage until the last minute in Kuwait? Will he also make public his belief that the Government will encourage private companies to do their best for people who were held hostage? It has come to my notice that, in one or two cases, when they have returned, hostages have not found the generosity of spirit which I am sure the Government would encourage private employers to offer.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I certainly underscore what he has said.

Mr. Graham

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman do something about Customs officers who stopped a constituent of mine on arrival at Gatwick airport after he had escaped from Kuwait? He was incarcerated at the airport for over two hours and was fined £145 for possession of a video camera. I asked the Minister to intervene, which he did, and the fine was stopped. Nevertheless, will he ask Customs and Excise officers to act with sensitivity in future incidents? My constituent was treated deplorably and an apology was not good enough.

Mr. Hogg

I had the advantage of being present when the three aircraft came back and I had the opportunity of seeing how the returning hostages were treated. In all the cases that I saw, the Customs and Excise officers behaved with great sensitivity. I did not see anything that would justify the criticism that the hon. Gentleman has made, but I am happy to accept that there may have been the occasional lapse, and I am sorry about it. In the generality of cases, people were treated with great sensitivity. I talked to the officers at the time and it was clear that that was their purpose.

Mr. Hind

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will accept thanks, particularly from people like me who had relatives amongst the hostages, for the efficient way in which they were removed from Iraq. I was grateful for the discretion of my hon. and learned Friend's Department. Bearing in mind the sensitive work that many hostages were carrying out in Iraq, can he tell me whether his Department, as well as the Ministry of Defence, talked to hostages who could perhaps provide useful intelligence for the armed forces during the forthcoming war, should it take place?

Mr. Hogg

As to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, the answer is yes. The MOD had debriefing teams available and has discussed matters with many of the returning hostages. On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I am grateful for his kind remarks, but may I say that many voluntary agencies played a distinguished part in helping the refugees? I mention particularly the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Gulf Support Group with whom my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) was so closely associated.

Forward to