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The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this afternoons debate, which has been wide-ranging. I will certainly endeavour to answer the questions raised, but the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke for 27 minutes and I have only about 15 left.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General said in his opening statement and as the Attorney-General has stated on earlier occasions, the fundamental reason why the Serious Fraud Office discontinued the investigations into BAE Systems concerning payments in relation to the al-Yamamah contract with Saudi Arabia was to safeguard national and international security.
As both the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General have also stated very clearly, UK co-operation with Saudi Arabia in the counter-terrorism field is of critical importance. Saudi Arabia is a source of highly valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda and other terrorist activity that represents a threat to the UK, to our citizens and to our armed forces. I would like to deal with that in more detail.
There is a high threat of terrorism in Saudi Arabia. Attacks have taken various forms. At their height in 2003 and 2004, they included kidnappings, large-scale truck bombings of residential compounds and Saudi Government offices, an attack on the US consulate in Jeddah, targeted shootings of individuals, small-scale car bombings, parcel bombings and the bombing of shopping areas. The Saudi security forces are working hard to maintain enhanced security measures and have succeeded in disrupting terrorist operations, killing and capturing terrorists, and seizing arms and vehicle bombs. I would like to remind the House that UK citizens have been the victims of several such terrorist incidents in the region, including the attack on a British school in the United Arab Emirates
The siege in Riyadh and the fact that a number of those forming the 9/11 cell were Saudi citizens shows that this is not just a theoretical terrorist threat, but a real one. Our need for Saudi intelligence co-operation is beyond doubt.
Dr. Pugh: The Minister has somehow missed out the fact that British citizens have been arrested for terrorism by the Saudi Governmentwrongly, and despite the fact that they were in denial of any terrorism.
Dr. Howells: I have met those gentlemen and I have every sympathy with their terrible experience. [Interruption.] It is all very well for a Scottish National Member to say that a bit of sympathy is not very helpful, but we tried very hard to help those gentlemen. People such as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) should not speak in such an ignorant way about those situations. There has been too much flippancy about that.
I remind the House that Saudi Arabia has its own problems with al-Qaedathere is no question about thatyet much of the money for al-Qaeda also comes from Saudi Arabia. In a recent visit to Waziristan, I was told by a member of the frontier corps that when they had examined bodies after a battle, they discovered that the military leader of an al-Qaeda detachment had been a Chechen, that a Turkoman was the armourer and the quartermaster, and that the money bags, as always with these detachments, was a Saudi. We ignore that fact at our peril. It is extremely important to recognise that we need the co-operation of the Saudis in these matters. It must be a very important consideration. The madrassahs that we are worried about in Pakistan are almost entirely funded by Saudi money. The Saudis are worried about that, President Musharraf is certainly worried about it, and I will be open with the House and say that we are very worried about it. To pretend that this is some kind of fringe consideration is nonsense.
The United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship, understanding and co-operation. Saudi Arabia is a key ally in the region, and our co-operation covers regional and international issues, counter-terrorism, energy security, trade and investment.
Many questions have been raised today. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. His contribution was a great deal more measured than that of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)it would have been difficult not to be. I sympathised with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey when he asked why the National Audit Office report from the earlier period was not being published. He has been in the House for roughly the same length of time as I have. I thought that that report was produced before 1992. I remember being appointed to the Public Accounts Committee and feeling very chuffed about it. I turned up to my first sitting, only to be told by the Chairman, Sir Robert Sheldon, after he had welcomed me on to the Committee, that, like everyone else, I would have to leave the room because the only people who could read the report were the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, who had written it, Sir Robert himself and the deputy Chairman.
We never saw that report again. I do not think that anyone has. There could be many reasons for that, and some of them might be to do with the report putting members of the security services in danger. I meet a lot of our brave security services personnel abroad, and I know that they are frequently in great danger. However, the hon. Gentleman has asked a perfectly reasonable question about the publication of the report, and I think that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee ought to take his request seriously. The Committee has dedicated debates in the House, and this would be a good subject for such a debate.
At the time, we were told that the report would not be publishednobody tried to hide that factbecause there were 40,000 jobs riding on the al-Yamamah deal. That seemed to everyone a good reason not to publish it, at the time. I do not remember anyoneapart from my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who is always the star of the Public
Accounts Committeestanding up in the House to say that it should be published and that we should know what was going on.
I am absolutely sure that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey took the right attitude in requesting the publication of that report, and in giving the reasons that he gave. The hon. Member for Twickenham, however, was a different matter. He made a real blooper when he said that, according to the OECD, Britain was the least compliant country with the convention, apart from Italy. No OECD statement to that effect has ever been made, and it is certainly not the case.
If we are talking about comparisons between the levels of bribery across major exporting countries, we need look no further than Transparency Internationals most recent Bribe Payers Index, from autumn 2006, which states that UK-based companies are the least likely in the G7 countries to pay bribes in international business transactions. Next month, the United Kingdom will submit to the OECD an update of progress made on the overall implementation of the OECD convention. After discussions in Paris on 12 to 14 March, we plan to present a report on the subject to the House, so that Members can debate the matter for themselves.
None of that will count for the hon. Member for Twickenham and his friends, however. They have rarely let the facts get in the way of a good story, and they do not intend to start now. I can just picture how the froth of innuendo, rumour and scandal that we heard at the start of the debate was concocted. No one enjoys a good conspiracy theory better than a Liberal Democrat politician. That froth is the Liberal Democrats favourite drink, and it is usually drunk through a straw and put to one side of the mouth while they swap fantasies and gossip with journalists who hang around the Security Service like ageing groupies around an adored pop star. That is the company that the Liberal Democrats hang out with, and we ought to remember it; that is who they deal with, and they never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Of course, that froth quickly turns to mud, and some Liberal Democrats are rather fond of throwing it around. They do not care who it lands on, or whose reputation is stained, as long as they believe that they are getting votes from it. They do not care if it besmirches the countrys reputation, either. That is why the hon. Member for Twickenham told us that piece of nonsense about the OECD report; he does not care. The Liberal Democrats do not care a bit if Britain is dragged into the mud by slurs. As long as they can bask among the mad ranks of their fellow conspiracy theorists, they will enjoy the slurs for as long as they last.
To compare this countrys record unfavourably with those of some of our European neighbours, whose records are frankly appalling, is mad, bad, and another case of the self-flagellation so beloved by the liberal press and their spokesmen in this country. I spend a great deal of my time meeting the Governments of other countries, and I know of no other country, and no other major economy, that enjoys the United Kingdoms reputation for honesty and openness. The Liberal
Democrats ought to remember that, instead of trying to drag the country through the mud whenever they open their mouths.
I cannot remember which Liberal Democrat Member asked a question on the subject, but I want to reinforce the point that it was the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which was implemented in 2002, that clarified the law and made it absolutely clear that the bribery of a foreign official was an offence. That is the UKs position, particularly with regard to the OECD. It could be dangerous if the Government appeared to agree that no prosecution could be brought prior to the introduction of the 2001 Act. That is a reasonable subject for debate, but the Governments record should not be dragged down by the kind of innuendo and absolute nonsense that we heard earlier.
Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom have had a long relationship, and I remind hon. Members that at the heart of that relationship is our strong partnership on global counter-terrorism efforts. We enjoy a highly productive intelligence relationship with good operational results, and that should not be pooh-poohed. We work closely with a number of Saudi security organisations, and we believe that both sides gain from that co-operation. As my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General repeated today, had the Serious Fraud Office investigation continued, there would have been a real danger that Saudi Arabia would have withdrawn its co-operation in that field, depriving the United Kingdom of a key partner and putting the lives of UK citizens at risk. It was on the basis of that risk that the director of the Serious Fraud Office concluded that the investigation should be halted.
Let me try to address claims that the SFOs decision proves that the Government are soft on corruption. As my hon. and learned Friend said at the start of the debate, the Government are strongly committed to tackling corruption, and we are doing much, much more on a range of aspects of fighting corruption. As he reminded us, the Government pioneered the extractive industries transparency initiative, which supports improved governance in resource-rich countries through the full publication and validation of company payments and Government revenues from oil, gas and mining. The remarkable progress made by the EITI in the past four years is widely acknowledged. That in itself could transform the lives of many people living in Africa and other continents. We have their lives in mind as we try to make sure that we tackle corruption everywhere, and that effort should not be besmirched by the kind of innuendo that we have heard today.
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