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8.36 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am proud to be one of the 35 people referred to in the case of Lord Alton and others. Others in that 35 are in the Chamber tonight. I deliberately say that I am proud because it was a unique group of people —[ Interruption. ] It was a unique group of people and included my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who shares my satisfaction at having been part of the campaign to have that grave injustice, as we saw it, remedied. It is worth reminding the House that among those people were Lord Waddington, a former Conservative Home Secretary; Lord Russell-Johnston, from the Liberal party; a former national agent of the Labour party, who is now in the House of Lords; Lord Archer, who was Attorney-General in James Callaghan’s Government; a former Scottish Law Officer; a Conservative Lord; and the former leader of the Labour peers, Lord Corbett. Those people banded together, feeling that there was a need to persuade the Government to lift the proscription on their own initiative and, if they did not do so, to pursue it through the courts.

I regret that successive Ministers could not be persuaded to look at the matter impartially—I use that word deliberately, because the Government have foolishly and recklessly been motivated by the desire to appease the unappeasable, namely the regime in Tehran. The Government have not executed their obligations in law or the obligations dictated by common justice that require them to consider the evidence when deciding whether to continue the proscription of the PMOI.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I am following closely what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I agree on the subject of appeasement. Is it not true that the original decision was taken for mistaken foreign policy
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reasons? Although I agree with the judgment of the previous Foreign Secretary who took the decision, it was a mistake in foreign policy terms.

Andrew Mackinlay: I totally agree. We have to deal with the world as it is rather than how we would like it to be, so there has to be some engagement with the wretched regime in Tehran, but that regime should not be appeased. The decision was an act of appeasement and it was foolish—appeasement has a heavy price. The decision was based on political considerations rather than, in my view, being taken to protect us against terrorist activity. That is why we have now come to this embarrassing day for the Government.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The hon. Gentleman was talking about the evidence needed for the Home Secretary to come to a view. Does he recall a previous debate on proscription orders in which I said explicitly that it would be wrong to rely on evidence from a foreign power, and that to reach a proper decision the relevant Minister needed evidence from primary sources to make a proscription order? I received a categorical assurance from Ministers that that was the case.

Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This continued proscription has been at the bidding and request—the demand—of the Tehran regime, without any evidence having been produced to justify it. That is not my view, but that of POAC, of the High Court and of the Court of Appeal. After all, the POAC decision states that

That is the position. I have already drawn the House’s attention to the fact that during both the POAC hearing and the Court of Appeal deliberations, there were days of closed session when special advocates were appointed to consider the secret evidence produced by the British Government. The Lord Chief Justice spent that time considering the documents and listening to the case from the Government’s special counsel and concluded that that had only served to reinforce his view that the Secretary of State had acted in a “perverse” manner. I asked a lawyer what that signified. He said, “Saying that people are ‘perverse’ is the nearest the Lord Chief Justice comes to being rude.” Such was the uniqueness of the occasion.

I also want to pick up on the interesting intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said that when he went to Iran, he saw how the regime was obsessed by the PMOI and related organisations. I will be signalling to Tehran tonight that the British House of Commons unanimously passed an order lifting the PMOI from proscription. There will not be a Division; it will be a unanimous decision in the House of Commons. I welcome that, but it needs to be reiterated. The United Kingdom embassy in Tehran also has to note that that will be the position tonight after we have concluded our deliberations.

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Mike Gapes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for citing what I said, but I do not want him to misrepresent my position, even inadvertently. I said that the Iranian regime is obsessed. However, my assessment is that the PMOI has almost no internal support in Iran. It may be active in this country, Sweden and other parts of the world, but there is a widespread, diverse and complex democratic opposition in Iran and it is a caricature of the politics to say that only one organisation leads them. Unfortunately, this debate could lead to the impression that there is only a choice between the regime in Iran and the PMOI. That is not the reality.

Andrew Mackinlay: In any event, only time will tell. However, I look forward to the day when the regime in Iran falls and everyone there has an opportunity to present their cases in a democratic political marketplace. That is the objective of many hon. Members.

We should also refer to paragraph 57 of the Court of Appeal judgment. It says:

That is a very serious condemnation—let me be generous— of the stewardship of this matter by the Home Office. It has ignored its obligations. The Court of Appeal indicated that the closed material

namely the Home Secretary—

There is no evidence to suggest that this is a momentary pause in the activities of the PMOI or that it is an irreversible decision—a unilateral renunciation of, in the parlance, the military option. It is incumbent on democracy in this place to give rewards when people, on their own initiative, abandon military activity or what others describe as terrorism.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case, but will he be a little more generous and accept that organisations and people’s views of them change over time? It is Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. He had form, according to some people, but went on to advance democracy, freedom and human rights in the way that the PMOI is in Iraq. As times change, views can change.

Andrew Mackinlay: Absolutely. That was my case, the case of the other 34 Members of the House of the Commons and the House of Lords, and the case of the Iranian opposition in exile. Things do change, as history tells us. A year before Jomo Kenyatta was invited to Buckingham palace to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, he was described by the Crown’s representative as the prince of darkness and death. People change and get respect. [ Interruption.] Yes, there was also Archbishop Makarios. One day, the people who are in exile will be in government in Tehran and the British Government of the day will be trying to rewrite history, just as the right hon. Lady who led the Conservative party rewrote history when we welcomed Nelson Mandela in Westminster Hall. I have no illusions about this, but I welcome the fact that people change their minds. The
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British Government should have been more generous in acknowledging the change in attitude of the Iranian opposition in exile.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) raised some pertinent issues, and I hope that they are addressed. There was considerable anxiety following the report in The Times that the Prime Minister had “instructed”—I think that that was the word—the Home Secretary to re-proscribe another grouping or what is described as its military wing. When the hon. Gentleman mentioned that, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, “The military wing of the military wing.” I want a reassurance that we are not going to have a cat-and-mouse act in this respect. In any event—I say this with the greatest respect—the Prime Minister will certainly need to read the decision of the Court of Appeal if he is ever tempted to go down this road. The POAC and the Court of Appeal both said that there are certain tests that the Home Secretary is under a duty to apply. It is now demonstrably clear that political considerations—the appeasement to which I referred—cannot come into that. They are legal tests, not political tests. It would be a big mistake if the Government were tempted to do what has been suggested, and I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the report in The Times is unfounded.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds also said that, under European Union rules, the fact that the United Kingdom had proscribed the organisation meant, ipso facto, that the whole EU had done so. The corollary of this evening’s unanimous vote will surely be that the British Government will communicate to the EU that the House of Commons and the other place have unanimously decided that the proscription should be lifted, and will invite the EU to reassess its position. That would be the sensible and fair outcome of the debate.

In conclusion, it is important to reiterate that the people in Camp Ashraf hold no weapons. They are under repeated attack and in serious danger. To use a simple phrase, they are taking these blows on the chin. They are turning the other cheek. We know that the source of these attacks is in Iran. It is bewildering to many Members that the Secretary of State for Defence has indicated, with great candour, that some of the ordinance used against British armed forces and coalition forces has its roots in Iran, implicitly with the full knowledge and consent of the Iranian regime. The PMOI and related organisations have been a significant source of information and intelligence to the United States and, ipso facto, to the United Kingdom Government and the coalition forces about the nature of the nuclear threat being developed by the Tehran regime.

It is a matter of fact that the people in Ashraf have protected person status under the fourth Geneva convention, and I believe that there are moral obligations on coalition forces, of which we are part, to see that those people are protected. I want to state for the record that the United States, which has stewardship of that area of Iraq, has done an enormous amount to protect the people of Ashraf, to the extent that it has allowed them to have bank accounts and so on. That is not something we normally facilitate for terrorist organisations. Why has that been allowed? It is because the United States is satisfied about the stand-down of the people in Ashraf—its demilitarisation—and the fact that they are open and
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transparent about their activities. Why can the United Kingdom Government not have the same generosity of spirit and common sense as our coalition partner, the United States? That is my request—the Government should pause and reflect.

In my 16 years in the House of Commons, I have not known an issue that has united Members of Parliament from both Houses, and from across the political spectrum, as much as this one. We saw the action of the British Government as foolish and not in the long-term best interests of the UK. It was unfair and perverse. I hope that tonight, we have given the Government the opportunity to pause and reflect in order to remedy the wrong that they have perpetrated against those people. I am proud to have been part of the campaign to bring about the order, which will be passed unanimously by the House of Commons.

8.54 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who stated, with a good deal of passion, what many hon. Members feel about the way in which the Government have proceeded.

I will not go over the full history of the way in which the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran got on to the list of proscribed organisations. Its inclusion was controversial even at the time and its public announcements that it had disarmed and renounced violence were especially clear. It is surprising that the Government maintained their proscription in the face of mounting judicial reviews of the decision, beginning on 12 December 2006, with the European Court of First Instance and continuing with the POAC High Court decision on 30 November 2007. The hon. Member for Thurrock described fairly the Lord Chief Justice’s reaction to the evidence that the Government brought to bear in secret session. Despite all that, the Government persisted in attempting to defend the proscription.

That persistence suggests that other forces must have been at work in the decision. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) is the only Conservative Member to give the Government the benefit of the doubt—a minority position these days. It was even suggested that the Home Office was possibly right—obviously, that is one theory—and that all the judges who examined the matter in the European Court and in the High Court had been bamboozled by the evidence that they saw in public and in secret session.

I would perhaps give more weight to the second theory: when Ministers look at a document that is stamped, “top secret”, “highly confidential” and “for your eyes only”, they tend to give it greater weight than the public information that stares them in the face. That has happened in judgments about the middle east, not least those about the illegal invasion of Iraq. We could go back further. Only weeks before the Shah was toppled in Iran, I remember that a Foreign Secretary predicted firmly, on the basis of little evidence, that the Shah would be there for ever and a day. Clearly, that was an exceptional misreading of what was happening. Perhaps we are considering a case of secret information being given far too much weight. However, such information did not persuade the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Given that he is used to sifting evidence, whatever the source, we should give that opinion enormous weight.

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Some hon. Members have hinted at the final theory for the Government’s reluctance to move, and I hope that it is not right. It is that, in what is meant to be a quasi-judicial matter laid down by statute, the Government have put foreign policy considerations before an assessment of the evidence. The Liberal Democrats suspect that that happened when the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into al-Yamamah was dropped, following public and doubtless private pressure from the Saudi Arabian Government. I would like the Minister’s reassurance—if someone could communicate with him, given that he is showing his usual courtesy of not being bothered to listen to speeches—that there was no influence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the ground of Britain’s foreign policy. We would also like an assurance that the Government of Iran exerted no influence, directly or indirectly.

Mike Gapes: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government should never, in any consideration, take account of the advice that they receive from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on any issue?

Chris Huhne: If the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has clear evidence that the PMOI is a terrorist organisation, it should give that evidence. That would be perfectly within its remit. However, I am suggesting that wider foreign policy considerations should not be taken into account in this case, because we are talking about a matter of British domestic law and a fundamental freedom, which we have respected in this country for many years, according to which, if I may paraphrase Voltaire, even if we disagree with what people say, we will nevertheless defend their right to say it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the House has defended that principle over many years and should continue to do so.

Therefore, I repeat: I hope that foreign policy considerations have not been brought to bear on what is a matter of defending freedom of speech, freedom of activity and freedom of organisation in this country. Speaking for the Liberal Democrats, I for one would like an assurance from the Minister on that score. That said, we are happy to support the removal of the PMOI from the list of proscribed organisations. The only question is why it has taken so long, when the evidence has been so great and when the judicial review has been so extensive. At the very least, the Government appear to have been extraordinarily dilatory.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It is evident that three Back Benchers are seeking to contribute to the debate. I have to give the Minister the time to reply, so a tariff of around seven minutes would enable everyone to address the House.

9.1 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I hope to be less than seven minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would like to respond directly to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), by quoting the unanimous conclusion of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report on Iran, which was published a few months ago:

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That was said in the context of the nuclear issue, but I also believe that, in relation to politics within Iran, we need to be sensitive. That is why I intervened on the hon. Gentleman.

Categorical statements that we should never do anything that takes account of anything in any other country are simplistic and dangerous. Sometimes, we have to be sensitive in the choices that we make and in the way we handle issues, because of the consequences that they might inadvertently have in other countries. Therefore, if the Government were receiving advice—I do not know that they were—that certain issues, handled in a certain way, might have had adverse consequences on another issue, such as the E3 plus 3 negotiations on the nuclear issue, they would have been right to take account of those wider issues and form a rounded judgment, rather than responding with a knee-jerk reaction.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If the House had believed that it was important to take account of the sort of foreign policy considerations that he is listing, it would have included that provision in the legislation. Can he point to any part of the legislation that allows the Home Secretary to do what he is suggesting?

Mike Gapes: That is not the point that I am making, and I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying deliberately to change the terms of what I said. He made a categorical statement that we should not take account of foreign policy aspects.

Chris Huhne: It’s unlawful!

Mike Gapes: The hon. Gentleman can try to intervene, but he should please not shout from a sedentary position.

The situation that we face with regard to Iran is this. A group of people are being held, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said, in a kind of limbo in Camp Ashraf. The question that has not been answered in this debate so far is: why are they there? Those people are on that site because, for many years, they were living in Iraq and being protected by Saddam’s regime. I have been told many times, over many years, by many people in the Kurdish political movement that those people were used by Saddam for his own purposes for the repression of the Kurds and other minorities in Iraq. If those people were to be released from Camp Ashraf today, they would face the threat of death if they were returned to Iran. If they were released into Iraqi society they would also face death threats from the many very angry Iraqis who remember them as allies of the brutal Saddam regime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has pointed out, the United States and others have a responsibility to find a solution to that problem.

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