HC Deb 14 November 1991 vol 198 cc1229-34 3.22 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Lockerbie investigation and its implications.

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate has today announced the issue of warrants for the arrest of two Libyan intelligence officers against whom, on the basis of the evidence available, the Procurator Fiscal has brought charges alleging their involvement in the descruction of Pan Am flight 103 on 21 December 1988. The American authorities have taken similar action. The text of the warrant and of the Lord Advocate's announcement are being placed in the Library of the House.

Two hundred and seventy people were killed at Lockerbie. The relatives and friends of those victims have suffered and continue to suffer great pain and sorrow and the House will be thinking of them today. As the Lord Advocate has said, a demand is being made of the Libyan authorities for the surrender of the accused to stand trial. I repeat that demand on behalf of the whole Government and I know that the House will unreservedly endorse it.

The accusations levelled at Libyan officials are of the gravest possible kind. As the warrants which the Lord Advocate will be making public make clear, the charges allege that the individuals acted as a part of a conspiracy to further the purposes of the Libyan intelligence services by criminal means and that those means were acts of terrorism. This was a mass murder which is alleged to involve the organs of government of a state. Libyan officials have been accused of such a crime, not only in Scotland and America, but in France where arrest warrants were issued on 30 October over the destruction of flight UTA 772 in September 1989. We are consulting the United States and other friendly Governments, many of whom lost nationals in Pan Am flight 103, about the next steps.

I understand that the investigation has revealed no evidence to support the suggestion of involvement by other countries. I pay tribute to all those whose untiring work under the direction of the Lord Advocate over almost three years has produced this remarkable outcome. In particular, I pay tribute to the work of the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary and all those in many parts of the world who have helped with the gathering of evidence and information. We are grateful for all the help given to the investigation in many countries.

We expect Libya to respond fully to our demand for the surrender of the accused. The interests of justice require no less. This was a fiendish act of wickedness and it cannot be passed over or ignored.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and I join him in congratulating the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary and all other law enforcement agencies and forensic experts, both here and in other countries, whose dogged work, obviously of great brilliance, has resulted in the successful outcome of the investigation.

Nothing can ever console those bereaved by that atrocious act of terrorist mass murder for the loss of their loved ones. However, they may be reassured to know that not for one day have the police rested in their determination to bring the perpetrators to justice. I note that the investigation continues. Have we learnt all that we can learn and implemented all appropriate recommendations—such as reconciling baggage tags with passenger lists—emerging from that terrible tragedy?

The Libyans have for some time been sending signals that they wish to resume relations. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a test of their sincerity will be whether they deliver to the forces of law and order the men for whom warrants of arrest have been issued? If Libyan protestations of non-involvement in that terrorist act are true, they have nothing to fear from a fair trial. If they do not hand over those men for trial, we shall all know what conclusions to draw. In those circumstances, we shall have to consider what action to take in accordance with international law. For Libya can be received back into the world community only when it is clear beyond doubt that it is no longer involved in instigating, assisting and carrying out acts of terrorism that sicken the civilised world.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Certainly, as he says, the investigation continues, and one cannot be certain that other evidence may not come to light. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and his predecessor have kept the House informed of developments in aviation security since the disaster. The right hon. Gentleman referred to professions which have been repeated over and over again by Ministers and others of the Libyan Government, that they have turned their backs on terrorism and are now opposed to it. I have warned my colleagues in Europe and elsewhere to be very reserved and cautious about such professions. The right hon. Gentleman set a test with which I would agree.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned, but did not press me on, action which might follow. The House will not expect me to go further than I have today. We are following a course of law. There has been an independent investigation and a decision to issue warrants against two individuals. The next step is to require the handing over of those individuals for trial. Other steps may have to follow, but they are not for today.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

May I add my praise of the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary, in particular the chief constable, Gordon Esson, and detective chief superintendent Stewart Henderson and his team who led the investigation, and also the Lord Advocate and his team for their tremendous support for the police in Dumfries and Galloway?

The people of Lockerbie have welcomed among them the relatives of the 270 who lost their lives in the town. They hope that today's announcement will go some way to easing the sorrow and the memory of those who died in the disaster. The feel that the best result is to bring those murderers to justice. I know that my right hon. Friend will do his very best to do that.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has represented the people of Lockerbie through this period of anxiety and, for some of them, torment with great dignity and perseverance. I am sure that he is right in his conclusion.

Sir David Steel (Tweddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

In addition to the well-deserved tributes that he has paid to the local people, will the Foreign Secretary also recognise the work that was carried out by Army units and other voluntary organisations, such as the mountain rescue teams, which had the anguished task of collecting the human and material remains of flight 103, which enabled the evidence to be pieced together and thus led to the charges that have been brought today? If need be, will he contemplate the possibility of going to the United Nations Security Council to press for the transfer to justice of the alleged perpetrators of that uniquely terrible international crime?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman is right on his first point, and I add to his words of thanks. For the reason that I have already given, I should rather not be carried further on the consequential steps today. We do not need to use an intermediary to make the demand that has been made by ourselves and the United States. We can do that direct to the Libyans, and that is what we are doing.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

What steps have been taken towards identifying the explosive that was used? Was it Semtex, and if so, what co-operation have we received from Czechoslovakia in terms of giving Semtex and other modern plastic explosives an identifying character, which the previous Czechoslovak Government refused to do?

Mr. Hurd

I should rather not be drawn into describing the evidence in any particulars. As I have said, my hon. Friend can find the Lord Advocate's announcement in the Library. For obvious legal reasons, I should rather not paraphrase it or embroider on it. My hon. Friend asked a perfectly reasonable consequential question. For some time now, we have been in touch with the Czechoslovak authorities about the production and distribution of Semtex and especially about finding a means of identifying particular batches. Those discussions continue.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What obligations does the Foreign Secretary think that he has towards the British community of about 5,000 engineers and other workers who are working for Brown Root, Sir Alexander Gibb and partners and 36 other British companies which are involved in the great man-made river project? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that my colleagues and I who went to Libya, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant), were assured vehemently—I do not want to be naive about this and can only report back that we were assured vehemently—that Libya was not responsible for the terrible thing that happened at Lockerbie? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore proceed with the greatest caution, remembering that it is far from clear that the Libyans were responsible for the tragedy of the 1986 bombings and that that responsibility might lie elsewhere, perhaps in Syria?

Mr. Hurd

We are proceeding with care. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at what is available in the Library and that he will study it with care in the light of what he heard in Libya to the contrary effect. The hon. Gentleman referred perfectly reasonably to the fact that we have about 5,500 British nationals in Libya. The hon. Gentleman gave the figure correctly. There is no immediate threat, but we shall obviously need to watch the position in that country very carefully. All the British nationals there know that, in the absence of direct diplomatic relations, the scope for consular protection is, in practice, limited, but they should—and no doubt will—keep in close touch with the British interests section of the Italian embassy there.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

In fairness to the Governments of Iran and Syria, with whom we have diplomatic relations, and in view of his comment about there being no involvement from other countries, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the widespread and detailed reports that the job was commissioned by the Government of Iran from Syrian nationals, who were seized, and was then subcontracted to individuals in Libya, are wholly untrue? In view of the publication of those widespread and detailed reports, and in fairness to our friends in Iran and Syria, does my right hon. Friend feel that he has a duty to make it abundantly clear that, following detailed research, he has discovered that those reports are simply untrue?

Mr. Hurd

The police investigation deals with evidence, not rumours. But it has taken a long time because several lines of inquiry had to be followed not by the Government but by the Scottish police—my hon. Friend will accept that. I deliberately put in that sentence that there was no evidence about the involvement of other Governments because of the consideration which my hon. Friend mentions. He mentioned one part of a line of inquiry. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine general command cell in Germany arrested in 1988 clearly had bomb-making equipment, some of which was superficially similar to the Lockerbie bomb. They may well have had plans to attack civil aviation which were derailed when the arrests were made. But the thorough inquiries along that line failed to reveal any direct link between that group and Lockerbie. There were notable differences—especially the timer—between the bombs in which they were involved in making and the Lockerbie bomb.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is great pressure on business today. We have business questions after this and an important debate. I shall allow questions on this matter to continue for a further five minutes, after which we must move on.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

May I also send congratulations to the constabulary of Dumfries and Galloway? I understand the Secretary of State's reluctance to discuss the consequential steps that Her Majesty's Government may have to take if the Libyans are not forthcoming, but will he give an assurance that he is taking suitable precautions against the consequential measures which the Libyans might themselves adopt? I have no doubt that he recalls the last time that the Government assisted the United States Government in actions against state-sponsored terrorism from Libya. The Libyans retaliated by making substantial supplies of munitions for arms available to the IRA. Shipments came into Northern Ireland during the period when the Foreign Secretary was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, undoubtedly much to his embarrassment.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will advise the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, if he has not already done so, that the co-operation that he is supposed to get from the Irish Republic in this matter is a broken reed.

Mr. Hurd

I do not want to be drawn on co-operation with the Irish Government. I informed the Irish Foreign Minister yesterday of the broad scope of the announcement that I intended to make today. The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent: in any steps decided on in consultation and concert with other friendly Governments we shall have to weigh carefully the consequences and precautions that need to follow.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

What is my right hon. Friend's estimate of the chances of the Libyan authorities responding favourably to the extradition request? If, as one must suspect, the chances are pretty low, does my right hon. Friend understand that the House will press him on what course of action the British Government intend to take? Can he at least say today that our Government have a firm and strong plan in mind, especially as we were somewhat weak in dealing with some of the Syrian terrorist episodes from official sources.

Mr. Hurd

I would rather not speculate in answer to my hon. Friend's point, but I note what he says. I am sure that the pressure of which he speaks will reflect strong public opinion.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that if the perpetrators of this atrocity are eventually caught, no one will be happier than me? Does he agree that it is unwise to use words such as "success" at this stage and to hand out applause to the various parties involved before a fair trial in front of all the evidence has taken place?

Mr. Hurd

I think that, whatever happens hereafter, anyone who studies the documents in the Library or anyone who has followed the investigation will realise that it was a remarkable and complex investigation. That is what I have said.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Under what legal authority were the warrants issued? Was it the domestic application of a multilateral convention? If so, is not that an excellent precedent for dealing with war crimes committed in Iraq and Yugoslavia?

Mr. Hurd

That is not really a question for me, but the warrants were clearly issued under Scottish law. It was a straightforward matter and the crimes committed were committed under Scottish law.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

I, too, congratulate the Scottish police force and its international colleagues on the excellent work that they have done. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the greatest tribute that we can pay to the innocent victims is to ensure that the perpetrators of the crime are brought to justice? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain exactly how that will be done? Will it be done through an international organisation such as the United Nations or will there be individual state action? Given the obvious Libyan involvement, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that there will be no diplomatic recognition of Libya while Gadaffi remains in power?

Mr. Hurd

I do not want to range wider than I have. A crime of mass murder has been committed. There has been an independent investigation, and as a result warrants have been issued against two individuals who are officials of the Libyan Government. We and the United States Government have asked that the two individuals be handed over. We have done that directly and there is no ambiguity about it. We await the response.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Later, after business questions.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

My point of order is on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

That does not matter. I will take the point of order later. That is the usual procedure.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

No, Mr. Speaker. My point of order is on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point of order at the usual time.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

As a former Law Officer, why was I not called to ask a question about a prosecution in Scotland?

Mr. Speaker

I think that we shall have the business statement from the Leader of the House first.