HC Deb 29 April 1998 vol 311 cc296-302

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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

It is without a smidgen of a blush that I accept my luck in Madam Speaker's ballot for the 14th time and raise the matter of Lockerbie and Libyan sanctions.

The British relatives of the Lockerbie victims are not asking for money. They are asking for the truth. Having come to know them well over seven years, I believe that they will go on asking until the last breath in their own bodies. Were we in their position, my hon. Friend the Minister and I would do the same. Knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he would not walk away in the circumstances, had he lost a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister.

We are the prime movers, with the United States, of sanctions. Our support for sanctions in the United Nations not only hits British industry—Babcock is only one of a number of firms that would not have paid off employees if the Libyan engineering orders had continued—but has a corrosive effect on our relations with many Arab and African countries. The Government are aware of the personal interest of President Mandela.

The matter has gone on for 10 long years. It will be the 10th anniversary of Lockerbie on 21 December 1998. How long do we let it go on? Is it to be my lifetime? Is it to be the lifetime of my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a younger man than I am? It is like the 30 years war, from 1618 to 1648. By 1648, people had forgotten the original causes. Indeed, by 1628 the policies that had begun it were somewhat obscure. How long must the matter of Lockerbie go on, and how are the rather cruel sanctions to be brought to an end?

What was said in Cairo to the Prime Minister? On 7 April, the Prime Minister replied to my question whether he would discuss with each of the host countries during his forthcoming middle east visit the extent to which Lockerbie and the case of WPC Yvonne Fletcher underlie United Nations sanctions against Libya. The Prime Minister replied:

Lockerbie is an issue of the greatest importance to this Government. During my visit to the Middle East I stressed the need for progress in implementing the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions. What was said to him when he stressed that need? What did the Arabs say to him? My right hon. Friend continued:

They relate to Lockerbie, not to the murder of WPC Fletcher. That tragic case, with Lockerbie, is a major obstacle in our bilateral relations with Libya."—[Official Report, 27 April 1998; Vol. 311, c. 17.] I have tabled the following question to the Home Secretary for 11 May:

Pursuant to his oral Answers of 30th March. Official Report, columns 887-8, on WPC Fletcher, what discussion he has had with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on those matters which have made the investigation into the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher more complex than was originally expected". That refers to a question at column 887 of 30 March, when the Home Secretary stated in reply to me:

The current police investigation into the murder of Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher was established last year to inquire into the issues raised by the 'Dispatches' programme. The investigation, which has proved more complex than originally expected, involves extensive inquiries overseas and is continuing."—[Official Report, 30 March 1998; Vol. 309, c. 887.] I saw Assistant Commissioner David Veness nine months ago. I have no doubt that Scotland Yard is doing its utmost. WPC Fletcher was one of its own, as Mr. Veness explained to me. When there is so much doubt, is it any basis for a continuing policy of sanctions? That is why I ask what the outcome was of the discussions between the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary.

Given my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary's comments at Mansion House last week, and given the simple fact that the only official inquiry so far into the Lockerbie bombing refused to allow evidence to be heard on the security background, will the Minister inform us when, if ever, the relatives may expect an impartial inquiry into the role and actions—or lack of them—by Government security services prior to, during and after the bombing? My hon. Friend the Minister worked closely with Neil Kinnock. Neil promised us that, and he was leader of the Labour party at the time.

Is the real problem the attitude of the Americans? It is high time that there was some kind of inquiry. People grow old. No inquiry would be complete without the participation of Oliver North of the Iran-Contra affair, his friend Buck Revell, the head of the FBI investigation into Lockerbie, and Vincent Cannistraro. Buck Revell's son was booked on the plane and did not travel. I believe that those Americans know much more than they have let on. After 10 years, key witnesses have a habit of being unable to give testimony, for various reasons. That is why an urgent public inquiry is needed.

On 20 March 1998, in the United Nations in New York, Sir John Weston made two statements in the debate on the Libyan sanctions, the first on behalf of the Government and the second on behalf of the European Union. Speaking on behalf of the Government, Sir John commented on the fairness of Scottish justice, and thereafter alluded to the Contempt of Court Act 1981. He seemed to be ignorant of the sheer size and volume of the media coverage in Scotland and of the fact that proceedings under the 1981 Act may be instigated only after the commencement of the trial. Why was not that point made?

In the same speech, Sir John went on to state that sanctions had not adversely affected Libyan financial, oil or commercial outputs or figures. In view of that and similar comments made by the US representative, do the Government still cling to their previous stance that sanctions are effective and are the only action liable to produce a response, after six years of failure?

Other countries do not respect sanctions. Only last week, Italian Trade Ministers were reported to have gone to Libya. I have not been able to check whether that is true, but I expect that our Government will know.

Given the recent travels of Dr. Jim Swire of the UK relatives group, accompanied by Professor Black, who had extensive meetings with the League of Arab States, the Organisation of African Unity, the Libyan leader and officials for the two accused, will the Government explain an almost total lack of willingness to communicate with the Libyan Government or to use some kind of communication to get out of the impasse?

I spoke last night to Robert Black, who is visiting Stellenbosch in South Africa. He said that the Libyan Government had stated previously that they would put

no obstacles in the way of their nationals going to trial. The Libyan Government now say that they "positively welcome" their nationals going to trial in a third country. They have promised to

facilitate those arrangements and to do everything to achieve that end. I received a copy of a letter written today by Dr. Swire to the Foreign Secretary—I have shown it to senior officials at the Foreign Office, and I apologise for the fact that I was not able to do so earlier. It states that present at the meetings were Mr. Abdul Ati Obeidi, Secretary at the Foreign Office, Libya; Mr. Zuwiy, Secretary of Justice, Libya; Mr. Orma Dorda, the Libyan permanent representative at the United Nations; and, crucially, Dr. Ibrahim Legwell, the lawyer representing the two Libyan suspects. The more important point is that they had an endorsing meeting with Colonel Gaddafi. Hitherto, it has been asked, "How do we know with what authority Libyan promises are made?" When the promise is made by Colonel Gaddafi himself, it is high time to accept Libya's assurances in good faith.

Given the Prime Minister's spokesman's assurances in the media that Lockerbie is a "very high priority" for the Government, will the Prime Minister inform the House when he might be able to see the Lockerbie relatives? I do not criticise the Prime Minister. I wrote to him when he became leader of the Labour party. I am one of the few hon. Members who remember Hugh Gaitskell, who died partly because everyone impinged on his time. Prime Ministers must be extremely selective about how they allocate their time. However, a promise has been given.

I refer also to the question that I asked on 21 April 1998 as to why the police inquiry had not interviewed Mr. Abolghasem Mesbahi, the Iranian defector. I asked also what approaches had been made to Gunter Rath, the state prosecutor in Frankfurt. As time is short, I refer hon. Members to the question and answer that appear in Hansard of 21 April 1998 at column 579.

On 20 March, Sir John Weston told the Lockerbie relatives that he was still operating on instructions from the previous Conservative Administration. When may Sir John expect some sort of briefing from this Government? One of the bereaved parents who went to New York, the Rev. John Mosey, reported that Sir John said that,

in the absence of new instructions from the Government, he would continue to follow the line of the previous Administration. Perhaps the Labour Government should move in a different direction. Will they at least talk to the Libyans? If we can talk to the extreme forces in Ireland, surely we can talk to Colonel Gaddafi.

Finally, I asked both Dr. Swire and Professor Black, "Do you think in your heart of hearts that the Libyans did it or had anything to do with it?" Both replied separately and said, "In our heart of hearts, no, the Libyans were not involved." They are not naive people. That is also my view—and I do not think that I am being naive, either.

1.14 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett)

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said that this is the 14th time that he has raised this issue in the House. He provides us with a further opportunity to remember the 270 people who were killed at Lockerbie—259 on the plane and 11 on the ground—on that dreadful night in December. We must always remember them as the true victims of the Lockerbie disaster. We must not allow history to be subverted in such a way as to forget the suffering inflicted upon the relatives of those 270 and upon the small community in Scotland that bore the brunt of those dreadful events.

The Lockerbie bombing was an act of terrorism and of murder. As my hon. Friend has said, the relatives of Lockerbie victims are looking for only one thing: justice. We know from experience that the best way of achieving justice is through the courts and the legal process. We must charge and bring to trial those who are accused of committing that crime. The best way of achieving justice is to have a trial, which will allow the accused to plead their innocence in front of a court.

When Labour came to office, my noble Friend the Lord Advocate reviewed the evidence available and decided that there was a case to be heard. He took that decision not as a politician, but as an eminent and respected lawyer and a man of high personal integrity. He took that decision because he believed that it was the only appropriate course of action in the light of the facts available to him.

Unfortunately, we have not had the opportunity to present those facts in court. There have been several versions of the Lockerbie events, but the Crown Prosecution Service would like to bring to court an as yet unseen version. However, the Libyans refuse to hand over the two individuals who have been charged with these dreadful offences. We have asked many times for those individuals to be tried in court, where they would have the opportunity to argue their innocence. Unfortunately, the Libyans have not co-operated.

My hon. Friend said that this episode had gone on for many years—he is absolutely right. It has gone on for too long. However, let us not, yet again, twist the responsibility for that delay. The Lockerbie bombing was an act of terrorism and murder, and those responsible for it should be tried properly. The Government believe that the most appropriate place for that to happen is in a Scottish court under the Scottish legal system.

My hon. Friend suggested that the Government may be influenced and controlled by the opinion of the United States. I confirm, without a trace of embarrassment, that there is a synthesis between United States and British opinion—it could hardly be otherwise, as we both wish to see justice done. However, above and beyond that consideration, I make a strong commitment to the fairness, integrity and openness of the Scottish legal system. What sort of precedent do we establish if we say that those who are charged with, and who may be responsible for, terrorist acts may choose the country in which they are tried? We would be introducing the national lottery into the judicial system and telling the accused, "Find a country and the right judge and jury, and you can get away with acts of terrorism."

All politicians who believe in democratic process and due process have a responsibility to ensure that a trial takes place in the country in which the terrorist act was committed, according to appropriate legal rules and systems. Scotland has that. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have taken the initiative of highlighting the openness of the Scottish legal system internationally.

When we came to government, we invited the United Nations to examine the Scottish legal system. The legal experts nominated by the United Nations Secretary-General visited Scotland on 3 and 6 December 1997. Their report, which has been circulated as an official document to all Security Council members, concluded that the accused would receive a fair trial in Scotland. Let us not have any sense of embarrassment about that. The accused would receive a fair trial in Scotland, and it is the Government's view that that is the preferable place for the trial.

As my hon. Friend knows, we made the offer to the Arab League that it could send observers to examine the Scottish legal system. When I first went to Egypt as a Minister in the spring of last year, I met representatives of the Arab League in Cairo. The argument advanced to me then was that there was concern that the Scottish legal system would not provide a fair trial. It was said that that was why it was difficult for the Libyans to release the two accused. As I have said, an invitation was extended to the Arab League. Its representatives could have come to examine the notion and practice of a Scottish trial. That invitation was not accepted.

The Arab League has conclusive evidence from the United Nations that its legal experts believe that we have in Scotland, as we all know, a fair, open and just legal system. If the Arab League was determined in June 1997 that all that it wanted was reassurance about confidence in the Scottish legal system, it now has that reassurance. I say to the Arab League that its interest in the Lockerbie issue would be best explored and developed if it now took the opportunity to talk to the Libyan Government and to ask them to release to Scotland the two individuals who have been charged in connection with such terrible events.

My hon. Friend offered two possible alternatives to a free and fair trial in Scotland. First, he talked about the possibility of a third-country trial. The weakness of that alternative is that we have no guarantee that Libya will deliver the two accused. Nor do we have then any control over a precedent that allows a Government involved in acts of terrorism to decide where their agents will be tried in future. All right hon. and hon. Members will be fully aware that there are dangers in that precedent.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of a public inquiry on Lockerbie. He should be cautious on that, for he will prevent any possibility of Lockerbie families receiving the justice that they consider to be important. Any public inquiry established under the statutory provisions and powers that reside in the House will not have the authority to come to a judgment on criminal culpability. However, it will be a public inquiry that will make all the evidence available in public. In so doing, it will prevent any possibility of a fair and unprejudiced trial in the legal system at a future date.

A public inquiry would have the perverse effect—the opposite effect to that which my hon. Friend seeks—of ensuring that there was no possibility of bringing the two accused to trial in Scotland. For those reasons, we reject the notion that there should be a public inquiry.

My hon. Friend said that we should talk to the Libyans. We do talk to the Libyans. I shall give him some illustrations of what we have done to talk to them. We talk through our joint missions at the United Nations in New York. We talk to the Libyan interest section in London. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has written to the Prime Minister equivalent in Libya and to the Libyan Foreign Minister. They have no doubts about our hopes and expectations. We have been in touch with them. We have offered the Libyans an opportunity to understand fully the position that the Government come from.

Mr. Dalyell

Is there an offer actually to meet at, say, Minister of State level, Libyan Ministers?

Mr. Fatchett

I am simply putting on the record the fact that we have had contact already.

My hon. Friend referred to the tragic case of Woman Police Constable Fletcher. I emphasise to him that the Metropolitan police are reviewing material evidence provided by the makers of a television documentary. They remain of the view that the shot that killed WPC Fletcher was fired from the Libyan people's bureau. Let us make no mistake about that. The Metropolitan police, subject to the evidence that relates to their review, still have one firm conclusion in mind.

My hon. Friend talked about the sanctions regime. There is often a danger in relating some of our concerns in general about sanctions to the position vis-a-vis Libya. The sanctions regime with Libya is much more restrictive than that which applies to Iraq, for example. Also, my hon. Friend should not relate the WPC Fletcher case to the position on sanctions. The fact is that the WPC Fletcher case is an important and damaging bilateral issue between the United Kingdom and Libya, but not one that is related to sanctions. The sanctions relate specifically to the wish of the international community for Libya to make available for trial the two people who have been accused in connection with the Lockerbie events.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of opening up greater trade with Libya. He then asked about sanctions in that context. I shall give some facts that may be useful in that regard. The Libyan Government enjoy extensive reserves, and there has been growth in Britain's exports to Libya as well as in Britain's imports from Libya. On trade, the Government have taken the position that was taken by the previous Government, that we shall not discourage—we shall certainly not encourage—trade with Libya. There is no question of the present sanctions regime being imposed on oil. Oil revenues go to the Libyan Government. Trade is there.

My hon. Friend, having said that we should open up trade to a greater extent, argued that, if there is to be more trade, it will be shown that sanctions are not working. I think that sanctions have worked with Libya. My hon. Friend has a long and proud record of arguing for sanctions in certain circumstances. He was one of the first to argue that there should be sanctions against apartheid, and he was right to do so. My hon. Friend has not a principled but a practical objection to sanctions.

In that context, I believe that the sanctions against Libya have worked. They are not punitive on trade, but they have constrained the Libyan Government. We can take some satisfaction and confidence from the fact that sanctions have worked in such a way as to ensure that Libya's involvement in terrorism has been reduced over recent years. That is an important international objective that we seek to achieve.

My hon. Friend is right to continue to maintain an interest in the issue. He is right to do so because of the nature of the act and the deaths and suffering that were involved. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were right to say that the Government share concern about Lockerbie, as one of our major objectives and concerns. We share that concern, because we wish to see justice for the families of those who were killed and who suffered at Lockerbie. We want that justice. We believe that the best and only way for it to be achieved is by the Libyan Government freeing the two accused and releasing them to the United Kingdom, so that they can be tried in Scotland.

We have absolute faith in the Scottish legal system; we believe that it will offer a fair trial. We do not accept that we can allow a terrorist or a terrorist Government to decide the location for a trial. We have faith in the Scottish legal system, and we believe that that is the right way in which to proceed.

Mr. Dalyell

Could my hon. Friend factually explain what the Arabs in Cairo said to the Prime Minister on that issue?

Mr. Fatchett

My hon. Friend will know that there is no published text of meetings between Presidents and Prime Ministers, but I can tell him that the Lockerbie issue was discussed and that President Mubarak shared our concern that justice should be carried through and that those who are culpable should be brought to trial.

As I was saying, we believe that the best way to do that is by a trial in Scotland, and this Government will continue to work along those lines, with the relatives of those who were killed.