HC Deb 07 July 1999 vol 334 cc1033-43 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on relations with Libya. I am grateful to the Opposition for agreeing—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. This is an important statement. Those hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber must please do so quietly and quickly, as those who are remaining want to hear the statement.

Mr. Cook

Thank you, Madam Speaker. You anticipated me, as I was saying that I was grateful to the Opposition for agreeing to this important statement being made on a Supply day.

For over a decade, two separate issues have prevented us from maintaining normal diplomatic relations with Libya. One of those was the refusal by Libya to hand over the two men charged with responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie. As the House will be aware, the diplomatic stalemate over this issue was broken by our initiative in offering a trial under Scottish law in the Netherlands. Intensive and patient diplomacy produced an agreement by Libya in April to hand over both suspects. The two accused are currently held in the court complex at Camp Zeist, where we expect their trial to commence early next year. This will give the relatives of those who died and the public their first opportunity to hear all the evidence that we hold.

United Nations sanctions were imposed on Libya in 1992 as a result of its refusal to comply with the investigations into the Lockerbie bombing and the parallel UTA case. Following the surrender of the two accused, UN sanctions on Libya have been suspended.

However, diplomatic relations between Libya and the United Kingdom had already been broken off before the Lockerbie bombing. They ceased in 1984 when we broke off diplomatic relations over the refusal by Libya to co-operate with the investigation into the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot while carrying out her duties in front of the Libyan People's Bureau in St. James's Square.

In the weeks since the handover of the two Lockerbie suspects, we have been engaged in repeated exchanges with the Libyan Government in an attempt to secure their co-operation with the police investigation. Throughout these negotiations over some weeks, we have consulted fully with the Metropolitan police and, through them, with the Fletcher family. Earlier this afternoon, I met Mr. Obeidi of the Libyan Government, and we have finalised a joint statement.

In that statement, Libya accepts general responsibility for the actions of those in the Libyan People's Bureau at the time of the shooting. It expresses deep regret to the family of WPC Fletcher for what occurred and offers to pay compensation now to the family. Libya agrees to participate in and co-operate with the continuing police investigation and to accept its outcome". I have placed in the Library a full text of the joint statement. It fully meets the objectives pursued by successive British Governments since 1984, and it is supported by the Metropolitan police and the Fletcher family. No amount of payment can ever compensate the Fletcher parents for the loss of their daughter, but the agreement to make compensation now is welcome as a recognition by Libya of its responsibility.

The way is now open for the police to pursue their investigation into the killing of Yvonne Fletcher. That investigation will be pursued as far as it can and we expect Libya to co-operate at all stages of the investigation.

The two agreements that we have secured open the way for us to resume diplomatic relations with Libya. I am upgrading immediately the British interests section in Tripoli to embassy status. We will, as quickly as practical, appoint an ambassador and bring the embassy up to full strength. As a result, the 4,000 or so British citizens who are resident in Libya will have restored to them full consular protection, and we will be able to provide appropriate support to British commercial interests. Full diplomatic representation will also enable us better to monitor Libyan co-operation with the Lockerbie trial and the police investigation into the killing of Yvonne Fletcher.

Today's announcement brings to an end 15 years throughout which relations between our two countries were suspended. I should like to thank the Government of Italy for their assistance throughout those years as the protecting power of British interests in Libya.

I ask the House again to pay tribute to Yvonne Fletcher, a young woman who gave her life in the service of law and order. Her family have suffered not only her loss, but the added pain of 15 years in which its investigation has been blocked. They have borne it with dignity and fortitude. I express on behalf of the whole House our deep sympathy to them. I hope that the agreement that we have secured today will open the way for them to learn more about what happened on that fateful day.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his kind words and his courtesy in providing advance notification of today's joint statement. Both the last Conservative Government and the present Labour Government have striven to reach this point. On behalf of the official Opposition, I therefore welcome the progress in Anglo-Libyan relations that is contained in the declaration, which, in effect, restores normal diplomatic relations between our two countries.

It has always been our view that Libya should express regret about, and accept responsibility for, the appalling murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, as well as co-operating in the investigation into her murder. The Foreign Secretary has announced that the investigation will be pursued. To what degree can he expect co-operation from Libya to identify the murderer? Does he believe that the murderer will now be brought to justice? If so, will he confirm that the procedures that are in place for the trial of the Lockerbie suspects could be used to try any person who is accused of her murder?

The relatives of those killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 will follow developments closely. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with those relatives, and what has been their reaction to the compensation to Yvonne Fletcher's family, which is symbolic of the guilt of Libya?

The Foreign Secretary has referred to United Nations sanctions against Libya, which are only suspended, not lifted. Does he intend to press for sanctions to be lifted? Has he had an opportunity to discuss that with the United States Government?

There has been undisputed evidence of Libyan support for terrorists, particularly the IRA. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that all training of terrorists and material support to terrorists has now been stopped, including support to rebel groups in west Africa?

On the future, and the restored links between our two countries, will the Foreign Secretary clarify the status of the business delegation that has been proposed by the British Libyan business group? There was some confusion, I understand, between his Department and the Department of Trade and Industry earlier this week. Does that delegation now have his support?

We welcome the fact that the 4,000 British citizens who are working in Libya will now have British consular protection. Conservative Members hope that the restoration of full diplomatic ties will prove to be a turning point in our relations with Libya and in Libya's relations with the rest of the world. Libya will be watched very closely.

Finally, we are pleased that the outcome has the endorsement of the Fletcher family. I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to them and to Yvonne Fletcher. Even now, although we are moving on to the next chapter, I do not believe that anyone in this House will forget the brave WPC who, in doing her duty, paid with her life.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her approach to this issue and I very much welcome the sentiments expressed in her closing remarks, which are shared by hon. Members throughout the House. The hon. Lady asked a number of questions and I will try to respond to them all as briefly as possible.

First, we expect Libya to honour its commitment to co-operate fully with the police investigation at all stages. That must include the final stage if any individual is identified by the police.

I do not think that it would be feasible or helpful to wrap up any proceedings with the trial that has been set up for the Lockerbie bombing. That was set up under the Security Council resolution that refers only to that bombing. In any case, there is the difficult question of jurisdiction. We have already managed to achieve legal history by carrying out a trial under Scottish jurisdiction in the Netherlands. We could not extend that to include English jurisdiction because of the killing of Yvonne Fletcher.

On the relatives of those involved in the Pan Am bombing, I assure the House that we contacted them in advance of the statement to inform them that we intended, in the light of the agreement, to resume diplomatic relations with Libya. Among British relatives of those who died, we are not aware of any dissent from the course of action that we propose to take. As the House will know, they warmly welcomed the initiative that we took to secure the trial.

On United Nations sanctions, those are suspended to all intents and purposes. When we reached agreement on the Lockerbie trial we undertook that if the Secretary-General reported that Libya had complied with the Security Council resolutions of 1992, Britain would support the lifting of sanctions. That remains our position. The Secretary-General has not yet been able conclusively to say so, but when he does we will support the lifting of sanctions.

On Libyan participation in terrorism, I refer the House to what is said in the joint statement that I have placed in the Library. In that statement, Libya condemns terrorism and pledges to co-operate in the international fight against it. The very clear statement that we have secured amounts to the renunciation of terrorism, which has been sought repeatedly in the past decade and has on previous occasions been volunteered by Libya. With our new diplomatic channels in Libya, we will do everything that we can to ensure that both countries fight against the support of terrorism.

On the British Libyan business group, the proposal for that visit was first put to the Government in May. Both the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office took exactly the same position. The standard position of Governments throughout the years since 1984 has been that we will neither support nor discourage trade missions. That was the view that was clearly expressed to that group. Last week, when it became clear that we were getting close to an agreement, both the DTI and the Foreign Office relaxed our comments on the trip. I understand that the business visit is proceeding at present.

That is now history. As a result of the agreement that we have secured today and of the strengthening of diplomatic channels, we are in a position properly to support commercial interests and trading missions for the future.

Finally, I welcome the hon. Lady's welcome for the agreement that we have secured today. It marks a significant step forward. For the first time, Libya has acknowledged responsibility for what happened on that day. Libya has also offered compensation from the Libyan authorities, as opposed to an ex gratia payment without the acceptance of responsibility. Libya has for the first time given a commitment to take part in the police investigation and to accept its outcome. All those four points are substantial steps forward and give us a firm basis on which we can proceed to normalise our diplomatic relations.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Having had various Adjournment debates on the tragic death of WPC Fletcher, I pay tribute to the courage and dignity displayed throughout by Queenie Fletcher, her husband and family. May I clarify something that seems unclear? In his statement, the Foreign Secretary said that "general responsibility" had been accepted by the Libyans for the actions at the time—I think that those were his words. The Opposition spokesman talked in terms of Libyan guilt. Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether the Libyans have accepted guilt? As I understand it, the testimony that was given on film by Huw Thomas, formerly the surgeon in Belfast, by George Stiles, the senior ballistics expert of the British Army, and by Professor Bernard Knight, the Home Office pathologist, at least raises questions.

I pay tribute also to David Veness and his colleagues, whom I went to see in Scotland yard. I see the Home Secretary nodding. Indeed, I pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign and Home Offices for the seriousness with which they have tackled this issue. Could there be clarification on the issue of responsibility and exactly what the Libyans have accepted?

I should like to ask a final question of which I gave the Foreign Office notice once the statement went up on the Board. Are there likely to be, along the lines suggested by Professor Robert Black, the educational and cultural exchanges that are yearned for?

Mr. Cook

When Mr. Obeidi called on me earlier today, he expressed voluntarily his appreciation of Britain's acceptance of a large number of students from Libya to study in Britain. Even under present circumstances, 500 students from Libya are attending full-time courses in Britain. I very much hope that, with the normalisation of diplomatic relations, we will be able to intensify that base, which is already strong. I assure my hon. Friend that I should imagine that the new ambassador will want to give high priority to promoting cultural exchanges where appropriate.

My hon. Friend mainly focused on the question of guilt. Guilt is of course a particularly narrow term, which identifies the criminal responsibility of an individual or individuals. We are dealing with the acceptance of responsibility by a whole Government for the action of their agents. In that sense, the statement that I have placed in the Library, which hon. Members may examine, is quite explicit. Libya acknowledges the verdict of the coroner's court that the bullet was fired from within the Libyan People's Bureau, and accepts general responsibility for those who were in the bureau at the time. That is a satisfactory acceptance of responsibility. The issue of individual guilt is one for the police investigation.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for allowing us to have sight of it before he announced it in the Commons. We of course welcome the resumption of diplomatic relations with Libya and the terms of the agreement. That is very good news. We send sympathy to WPC Fletcher's family for what must have been terrible times for them.

Although we accept that the negotiations must have been difficult and sensitive, does the right hon. Gentleman understand the desire of British business not to lose out on trade to its competitors? Does he realise the confusion that surrounded the trip to Libya organised by the British Libyan business group this week? Will he reaffirm that, now that the agreement has been reached, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office will get their act together and give a clear signal and support to British companies?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to agree with the hon. Lady on what she says in respect of the Fletcher family. They will appreciate that those in all quarters of the House have expressed sympathy and support for their conduct over the past 15 years and the trial that that must have been to them.

I say bluntly to the House that the Government have nothing to apologise for on the question of the British Libyan business group. The visit was proposed in May, when we had only commenced discussions on whether we could reach a resolution of the matter of the killing of WPC Fletcher. It would have been quite wrong for the Government at that stage to encourage a parliamentary visit when we were still unable to get agreement from Libya on this question. Indeed, if we had done so, we would have been subject to much greater criticism in the House. There has been no confusion between the two Departments. Both Departments took that view in May and last week both decided that the time had come to relax it.

One consequence of that outcome is that we shall be better placed to support trade missions and our commercial interests. That is not why we sought the agreement. We sought it to do justice to the memory of Yvonne Fletcher. We sought an agreement on the Lockerbie bombing to take the course of justice forward. However, we should not regret the fact that one consequence of the agreements is that we shall be able to compete on equal terms with our trading partners in Libya.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that when I was shadow Home Secretary it was my responsibility to attend the siege of St. James's square, when a leafy part of central London was turned into a killing field, and that I later represented our party at the unveiling of a memorial to WPC Fletcher there? Is he further aware that when I was shadow Foreign Secretary it was intimated to me that if I were to travel to Libya, compensation for WPC Fletcher would be handed over to me, but I decided that it would not be acceptable to do that because we did not have diplomatic relations with Libya and because a behind-the-door approach to dealing with the problem would not entail Libya accepting responsibility, which it has now done? While we shall continue to mourn for WPC Fletcher, we have now seen a country that was outside the rule of international law voluntarily return within the rule of international law. Other countries, including Iraq, should pay attention to that.

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the part that my right hon. Friend played at the time. This morning I re-read his observations in the House of Commons at the time of the original statement. I am also well aware of the monument to which he refers, as it is within walking distance of my official residence and I have passed it many times. We should all recognise that we would not do justice to the memory of Yvonne Fletcher by allowing the matter to continue in abeyance without attempting to find a way of resolving it and taking it forward. The agreement that we have secured today is a good way of trying to establish the truth and making sure that, in honour of Yvonne Fletcher and the pain of her family, we can take forward our relations with Libya. I agree with my right hon. Friend that there is a message in what has happened. Even Governments who have put themselves outside the circle of acceptable international relations can be brought back in. The more we succeed in doing that, the more we shall be able to offer security to people around the world.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Does the Secretary of State agree that an apology is not a new development? Many years ago, shortly after the tragic death of Yvonne Fletcher, the Libyans offered a personal apology, accepting responsibility and offering a payment to a police charity rather than to the family. By responsibility, did the Libyan authorities—Mr. Obeidi—in particular, say specifically that they accepted that the bullet came from within the embassy? That is desperately important, in view of the right hon. Gentleman's answer to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). My understanding is that in all previous statements the Libyan authorities did not imply that.

I greatly appreciate the initiative that the Foreign Secretary has taken, as compared with what has happened in the past. Will he take every possible step to ensure that the agreed rules and safeguards in the trial at The Hague are carefully observed, particularly in view of the reports of one or two incidents over the past few days? Will he do all in his power to make sure that the safeguards that he offered are applied?

Mr. Cook

I assure the House that, as well as the Foreign Secretary, there will be a number of Scottish trial judges present who will certainly wish to insist on proper rules of procedure. I have every confidence in their doing so. On the custody of the two accused, I gently say to the House, without divulging the details, that the reported breach of security was of a minor and technical character. I remain confident of the security arrangements that we have prepared at Camp Zeist.

The hon. Gentleman asked to what extent the agreement was an advance on previous offers. I acknowledge that, in 1991, he obtained an offer of payment from Libya. The agreement that we have secured during these discussions goes further than that in the following ways. First, the offer in 1991 was for an ex gratia payment which was to be channelled, not directly to the Fletcher family, but through the police fund. This agreement is for something that is described explicitly as compensation and goes directly to the Fletcher family. It recognises the greater extent to which Libya now accepts responsibility for the killing of WPC Fletcher.

Secondly, in the text of our agreement, Libya agrees to co-operate with the police investigation and to accept its outcome, which is specifically stated. Whatever other facts may emerge from further police investigation, I do not think that anybody, including Libya, can be in any doubt that the police investigation will confirm the coroner's verdict that the bullet was fired from within the Libyan People's Bureau. I welcome this step forward. It has enabled us to make progress in our relations, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman and the House, that this represents a significant step forward in agreements that we have been able to secure from Libya so far.

Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I join hon. Members in welcoming the restoration of diplomatic links with Libya. On behalf of the British-Italian parliamentary group, of which I am chairman, I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the work of the Italian Government in protecting British interests in the intervening years. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the forthcoming British-Italian summit offers a good opportunity for our Government to renew their commitment and support for Italian initiatives within the common foreign and security procedures and other mechanisms to create an area of freedom, security and justice across the Mediterranean?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to what I believe is a new development in our relations, the British-Italian summit, which we will be hosting in Britain shortly. It will give us an unprecedented opportunity to take forward a number of the wider European issues.

I take this opportunity to echo the appreciation that my hon. Friend has given to the Italian Government for acting as our protecting power. In fairness to the Government of Italy, I do not think that they understood at the time how long that commitment might last, but, throughout those 15 years, they have never resiled from their commitment to act as our partner and friend within Libya. My friend and colleague, Lamberto Dini, was also helpful in interceding with Libya in part of the negotiations over the Lockerbie trial. I have written to him this week giving him advance notice of this statement and thanking him for all the help that Italy has given us over the years.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Gentleman has told us that the Libyan Government will co-operate with the investigation and abide by the outcome. It would be helpful if he could tell the House what is meant by that. Are potential witnesses to be questioned by officers of the Metropolitan constabulary? Are potential witnesses to come to the United Kingdom for that purpose or are officers of the Metropolitan force to go to Libya? If there is a prima facie case against one or more individuals, will they, if necessary, waive diplomatic immunity and submit themselves for trial in the United Kingdom courts?

The House will know that the Libyan Government provided large quantities of arms to the IRA. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether the Libyan Government are proposing to set up a fund to compensate the families of those murdered by those arms?

Mr. Cook

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his questions. I remind him that Libya's support for the IRA was dealt with by the Government of whom he was a member in 1995. That Government then said that they were generally satisfied with Libya's response and the information it had provided on previous links with the IRA. That Government regarded the matter as closed and I do not have a basis on which to seek to reopen it.

On diplomatic immunity, if I recall correctly, in 1984 the previous Government contested the right of those in the bureau at the time to demand diplomatic immunity and we would not seek to change such a view. The investigation is a matter squarely within the hands of the Metropolitan police. I can only tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the House that they have fully supported this statement and will be making their own statement of welcome today. Of course, a commitment to co-operate with the investigation must, by definition, mean making witnesses available for interview. I hope that that will take place. If it does not, we will remind the Libyan Government of their commitment.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I think that we should readily seize this window of opportunity to redevelop the historic relationship that we had with Libya before these recent difficult times. In that light, may I take my right hon. Friend back to the issue of the Inter-Parliamentary Union? Is he prepared personally to raise with the executive of the IPU the need to bring in a delegation of parliamentarians from Libya, so that they can mix with those here and recognise that, here in this Parliament, there are friends of Libya who want to put all these matters behind us as soon as possible?

Mr. Cook

I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. If we are to have successful diplomatic relations it is important that they do not consist merely of Government-to-Government contacts, but include contacts between our peoples, our cultures and our Parliaments. I am well aware from my experience in several countries around the world that contact between parliamentarians is an extremely useful parallel to my discussions with Ministers.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I join in congratulating the Foreign Secretary on the report, especially on the reference to co-operation in dealing with terrorism. As one who understands how a family feels when a serving member of a police service suffers and is killed, my sympathy goes out to the Fletcher family, and I am delighted that that chapter is closing.

However, in his response to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), the right hon. Gentleman said that the previous Government had accepted Libya's earlier explanations about Semtex. I ask that that issue be kept open and that contacts continue to be made. It may be that we shall all have to face again the use of Semtex, either on the mainland or in Northern Ireland, so it would be helpful to know about sources and movers, so that they might be brought to justice.

Mr. Cook

If an occasion arises when it would be useful to seek information from the Government of Libya in that context, we would certainly do so. After today's statement and with the resumption of direct representation in Tripoli, we are better placed to do so. The previous Government noted that there were some omissions from the information provided in 1995, although it was generally satisfactory. I agree that, if further information can be useful in our fight against terrorism, it is open to us to go to the Libyans and seek their assistance.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

As a Back Bencher who has followed the difficulties between this country and Libya over many years, I congratulate the Foreign Secretary most warmly on his statement to the House this afternoon. I believe that objectives that are satisfactory to all the parties involved have been achieved, which might indicate that Libya is once again re-entering the civilised world.

Will the Foreign Secretary answer this direct question, which is of the utmost importance: does he believe that the agreement with Libya delivers a kick in the teeth or a blow to international terrorism, and that it may deprive international terrorism of supplies of weapons, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth)? Would not such a blow to international terrorism be to the benefit of the world as whole?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman echoes a point put to me earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), which is that the more we embrace countries in the fight against terrorism, the more we isolate those countries that are prepared to support terrorism. One of the issues that have brought Libya to the present agreement is that it has become conscious that it, too, can be a victim of terrorism, and that it is in the interests of all of us to fight terrorism together with equal determination.

I have been informed that the Metropolitan police investigation will initially be carried out through written commission interrogatories. Those will include requests for written witness statements.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I join in welcoming what the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues have achieved. Those who have kept the flowers at Yvonne Fletcher's memorial in St. James's square will understand the various considerations and the progress that have made his statement possible. Doubt remains in respect of diplomatic immunity: we do not believe that the people in the Libyan People's Bureau had it, but, if it is claimed, can it be waived by the individual who is charged, or can it be waived only by a Government?

On a broader point, does the Foreign Secretary understand that Governments and people opposed to Governments or people with political causes will continue to believe that London is a place where they can get publicity and public attention by committing the sort of violence that we witnessed at the Iranian embassy, the Libyan People's Bureau, the Israeli embassy and elsewhere? Will he confirm the continuing promise of British Governments that there will be an intensity and a persistence in pursuing those who use London as one of the world's killing fields so that people will not expect to get away with it?

Mr. Cook

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the Government will do everything possible to combat terrorism here and abroad. Britain has had too sad and too much experience of terrorism at first hand not to understand the importance to other Governments of our assisting them wherever it is possible to do so within the law in their fight against terrorism. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.

I, too, have noticed that the flowers at the memorial to WPC Yvonne Fletcher have remained throughout the 15 years, and I am sure that they will continue to do so. They are a mark of the esteem in which she was held by her friends and colleagues. It is important that if we close this chapter, we do so in a way that does justice to what happened to her.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Are those suspected of the murder of WPC Fletcher resident in a country with which we have an extradition treaty? If so, will the authorities apply for her extradition? If they are not, what does the Foreign Secretary propose to do?

Mr. Cook

It is a bit premature at the start of the police investigation to identify those who may or may not be charged with individual responsibility for WPC Fletcher's murder. We have no extradition treaty with Libya. That has been precisely at the heart of our difficulty in the past 10 years in the case of the Lockerbie bombing, which we have now resolved through negotiation. I cannot anticipate what action will be open to us in the event that the police investigation concludes that charges can be brought.