HL Deb 22 April 1986 vol 473 cc1087-92

3.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question on a decision to expel a number of Libyan nationals being given in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"Twenty-one Libyan nationals have today been served with notices of intention to deport on the ground that their deportation is conducive to the public good in the interests of national security. I took this decision in the light of the latest information about the active involvement of those concerned in organising Libyan student activity in support of the Gaddafi regime in the United Kingdom. I have authorised their detention while arrangements for their deportation are made.

"The House will understand that, in a matter affecting national security, it would not be right for me to disclose further details of the information available to me on which I took the decision to initiate deportation action. I shall not hesitate to use my powers under the Immigration Act to deport other Libyan nationals if evidence is received of their involvement in activities which might endanger security."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the reply to a Private Notice Question asked in another place, may I make the position of those who sit on these Benches abundantly clear? Whatever one's views may be about the action taken by the United States Government and by our own Government a few days ago, we on these Benches feel that there should be complete unity in behaving with such discretion as will safeguard, so far as we possibly can, British interests and British personnel wherever they may be. That includes, obviously, the security of citizens in this country. If, therefore, there is a genuine action taken in regard to that security, those sitting on these Benches have no doubt about their wish to support the Government.

Having said that, I am perfectly sure that the Government will realise that there are questions being asked in nearly every civilised country (apart from those that do not deserve that description) as to whether or not this Government acted in good faith in regard to their fear of terrorist activity and the responsibility of the Libyan Government for that activity. Her Majesty's Opposition, in this House and in another place, have said that they have no doubt of the complicity in terrorism of Gaddafi and the Libyan Government. But questions are being asked. It is not sufficient, if I may respectfully say so, for Her Majesty's Government merely to make an announcement at this stage of the expulsion of 21 Libyans and then give the usual sentence that it might be appropriate in other circumstances that further details, because of security reasons cannot be given.

What an extraordinary date to choose for this expulsion, it might be asked by those not friendly to this country. If these people were a danger to the security of this country, why was that not known and why was action not taken long ago? Why, by coincidence, does it take place a couple of days after the British Government try—when I use the word "try" I do not use it cheaply—to justify their action in collaboration with the American Government? Why were these people not detected in regard to their security risk more than 48 hours ago? Many have asked, in this House and elsewhere, why we were training pilots for Libya in view of the fact that it was known that the training could obviously be a risk in regard to terrorist activity. Why are we not told, and can we now be told, how many of the 21 are pilots from Libya being trained in this country? What is to happen about the others?

Finally, what is the position of 250 Libyan trainees now with British Airways? Are they a security risk? How many of them are included in the 21? I respectfully say that the Government will have to be a little more forthcoming in regard to the information for which I have ventured to ask for the sake of good public relations here and abroad.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, I have no allegations of bad faith to make against the Government this afternoon. I welcome the information that has been given and also that these steps have been taken, perhaps somewhat belatedly. It is the belatedness of the matter that causes me a little anxiety. I should like to give one example. Perhaps the noble Lord the Minister can inform us whether among those to be deported there is a man by the name of Adel Masoud, who, according to the press—the press may or may not be right—was boasting last month that he was a member of a revolutionary squad in this country who was prepared to become part of a suicide attack. If that is right, it looks as though action of this sort might properly have been taken rather more quickly than it has been.

The only other observation I would make is that it is highly probable that among the Libyan students in this country there are those who will potentially support terrorist activities. It will no doubt also be borne in mind that it is not impossible, particularly among a student body, that there may be some who are potential opponents of Colonel Gaddafi. I am sure that the Government will recognise the great importance of distinguishing carefully between the two, in order that we should do nothing that might discourage those who may in due course become part of an opposition movement.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for expressing the view that he hopes for complete unity in safeguarding British interests and British personnel wherever they may be.

With regard to the question asked by both noble Lords about why no decision had been taken before to deport these Libyans, I have to say that I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has said. Of course student or other activity conducted, for example, by the trainee engineers, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred, in support of a foreign government need not itself harm national security. But my right honourable friend the Home Secretary judged that, following the threats of last week, in this particular case it did.

It is all very well and understandable that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, should ask for more information to be made available about why more information cannot be given. I can only say to him that the decision to deport was taken on the ground that deportation was conducive to the public good and in the interests of national security, in the light of information about the active involvement of those concerned in Libyan student activity in the United Kingdom in the way that I described when I made the Statement. It would not be appropriate to disclose further details of the information on which the decision was reached.

The noble Lord asked in particular how many of the pilots were included in this number. I can tell him that one has been included. None of the Libyan trainee engineers is included in it, but I can tell the noble Lord that steps have been taken to make sure that these people—and I include both pilots and engineers in this—can do no harm. There are some legal and practical complications to further action but the departments concerned are reviewing urgently any steps that may be necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, asked about one particular person, Adel Masoud Saad. That is apparently his last name. I can confirm to the noble Lord that, yes he is included among the 21.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied on the question of the pilots, only one of whom he has just said, is included in this recent order? Is he satisfied that it is safe in the present situation to have young Libyans flying aircraft in fairly close proximity to London Airport? Is he satisfied that the precaution which his noble friend mentioned yesterday—of not allowing them to fly solo—can be a sure guarantee against any kamikaze-style effort by one of these young men to produce a collision with civil aircraft going into Heathrow?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, as I said, this is something which has been looked at by departments concerned, including my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. As my noble friend says, the pilots are not flying solo. So far as can possibly be ascertained in the light of the examination which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport is conducting, there are no grounds to believe that there is any danger.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister reasonably satisfied that the safety of British citizens in Libya is assured? Following expulsion of these Libyan residents in this country, has he any further guidance to give to British citizens in Libya?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, of course one is aware of the sensitivities of those British subjects who are in Libya. I have no further advice to give them other than the advice which has been given over the course of the past few days.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us approximately how many Libyans there are in this country?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, yes—if I can find the relevant piece of paper. About 7,000 are subject to immigration control, and of them about 1,800 are students.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, it is really desirable that we should train Libyan pilots at all? Can we have a view on that? One's first reaction is that it might become a great nuisance to have a lot of trained Libyan pilots.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, of course I understand the views of those who suggest that it may be contrary to various interests for them to be trained here. Nevertheless, the number of Libyans who are over here who, as was suggested earlier, may be perfectly honourable citizens and are able to make best use of the kind of training which this country can offer, should not necessarily affect our right to train them. Individuals who behave in the way that these persons may have done will of course be well aware of the risks that they are running if they behave in that way.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that we on this side of the House are not asking the Government for the reasons they came to this conclusion and decision to expel the Libyans, but why it took them so long to reach it? Are they aware that the French Government expelled a number of Libyans several weeks ago now? Why did it take the American exercises against Libya before the Government came to any conclusion?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that these matters are looked at very carefully. As I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, student activity in support of a foreign government need not in itself harm national security. I went on to say that my right honourable friend judged that, following the threats of last week, in this case it did. I do not think that that means, as the noble Lord is suggesting, that sufficient timely action was not taken.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, bearing in mind the extremely vital point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, before what appears to be the almost solo and rash decision to accede to President Reagan's request were not all these matters examined? Were not all these matters taken into account? It might have been very difficult, and one can understand the situation about our nationals in Libya. But was not the aspect mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, taken into account and thoroughly examined as to whether these events could have happened and still may happen? This action that has been taken probably should have been taken before the agreement was reached with President Reagan.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the Government of course consider all possibilities.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, if my question goes too wide of the Answer to the Private Notice Question, I am sure the noble Lord will tell me. However, I wonder whether the Government have any comment to make on the circumstance in which the Common Market is now exporting to Libya meat and butter at a fraction of the prices at which they are available in this country? If this circumstance is true, is it not strange that we should be deporting Libyan nationals and at the same time exporting to Libya material which will enable them to divert resources to the terrorist activity in which they have been engaged for too many years? Is this not an example of the curious attitude of the EC towards the Libyan problem?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I do not think that I can be drawn on that point by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. I hear what he says. But, with respect, it goes rather wider than the Question that was asked.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that with 7,500 Libyans in this country it seems a little perplexing that only 21 are thought to be in any way a risk to this country's security? Will he examine this with care? Will he be as forthcoming on information as is conceivably possible? We have had an example in the past week where, in the absence of instant information from American or British sources, Colonel Gaddafi has made all the running, produced all the photographs and all the propaganda for the free and non-free world. We saw an example last night in pictures of anti-personnel bombs which were said to come from F-111s. F-111s leaving this country never had any anti-personnel bombs. This was a pure invention. And many other stories are circulating. We must be forthcoming if we are to fill the vacuum of interest which the media expressed.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, in answer to the last part of my noble friend's question, of course I understand his concern that we should be as forthcoming as possible, but on issues such as this, which touch closely on matters of national security, of which I am sure my noble friend will be well aware, it would not be proper to go any further than I have already.

As regards the comparison between the 21 Libyans who will be deported and the other 7,000-odd in this country, I can assure my noble friend that my right honourable friend would not hesitate to make further use of his powers of deportation as necessary. However, we believe that those being deported are the main organisers of the sort of activity to which I referred.

Lord Rugby

My Lords, is there not a danger that we are arriving at a state of paranoia over the Libyans and laying the blame for every single act of terrorism at the Libyan door? Other people commit acts of terrorism. From the way we are going at the moment is there not a very grave danger that when they commit them those acts will be attributed to Libya exclusively? I think there is a grave danger.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, certainly that is an issue to which the Government are alive.