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"We do not consider that the UK entered into a definite commitment, legal or otherwise, with the United States."
However, both the United States Attorney-General and Secretary of State were adamant that assurances had been given to the US Government that any person convicted would serve his sentence in Scotland-and, by implication, would serve the sentence. Why was there this fundamental difference of opinion between Westminster, Holyrood and the United States?
Secondly, the Foreign Secretary appears to have argued in his statement, in line with what the Justice Secretary said in his interview at the beginning of last month, that trade played a big part-a view that I see the Justice Secretary now assents to-in the decisions made about the prisoner transfer agreement. In that case, why did the noble Lord Mandelson say of that suggestion that
"it is not only wrong; it's completely implausible and actually quite offensive"
to say that the release of al-Megrahi was in any way linked to trade. [Interruption.] If the Foreign Secretary thinks that Lord Mandelson was wrong-however risky it may be make that assertion-he can say so and we can get that clear! Even more importantly, will he say what the event was that changed the Government's policy on the prisoner transfer agreement and caused the Justice Secretary to change his mind? What was the event, threat or negotiation that led to that change? Is it the case, as Colonel Gaddafi's son has asserted, that Megrahi was
"always... on the negotiating table in all commercial, oil and gas contracts and when British interests were discussed in Libya"?
The Foreign Secretary said nothing in his statement about relations with the United States. Given the evident differences of opinion with the US on the nature of the assurances given about Mr. Megrahi, should not the United Kingdom have informed the US about the change of policy on the prisoner transfer agreement? My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) tabled a question on 7 September, asking whether that was done, but no reply has yet been given. Will the Foreign Secretary clear up the confusion now by saying whether the US was informed of the British Government's policy and, if so, what was said in response? Will he now accept that the Government's handling of this matter in the aftermath of the Scottish decision left a great deal to be desired?
The Foreign Secretary effectively argued in his statement that the Government were happy to see Mr. Megrahi released-he can put that a different way if he does not agree to those words, but that is effectively what he argued. Does he agree with me that it was therefore deeply regrettable that the Prime Minister stayed silent on this issue for five days after the release, and that it took him another four days to say that he respected the decision? Would it not have been better for the Prime Minister to say immediately either that he disagreed with the decision, or that he agreed with it if he thought it was, on balance, the right thing to do?
Twelve days after the release, it emerged that the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) had told the Libyans at a meeting in Tripoli that the Prime Minister did not want al-Megrahi to die in prison. That statement received tortuous confirmation from the Foreign Secretary when he said what he subsequently said in this statement-that
"we were not seeking his death in prison".
"none of us wanted to see the release of al-Megrahi"?
How can that be reconciled with the statements of Foreign Office Ministers? Why was the Cabinet unable to express a coherent view on the subject? Did it not damage this country in the eyes of the world that it was unable to do so?
While we welcome the fact that the Government have changed their policy on support for the families who were victims of Libyan-backed IRA terrorism, can the Foreign Secretary assure us that as well as assisting those families, and consistent with that, Ministers will now raise the issue with Libyan officials and Government members whenever the opportunity arises? It seems extraordinary for Her Majesty's Government to give assistance to the families but never mention the subject in their dealings with Libya.
Will the Foreign Secretary concede that, when all the facts are taken together, it is clear that damage was done all round because of the Government's mishandling of the matter? Not only do the British public disapprove of this decision; our American allies were mystified and felt let down, from the President downwards. At present it is harder to pursue improved relations with Libya after all this, because of the cloud of suspicion that currently hangs over Britain's dealings with that country.
Given the number of questions, the huge public interest in the matter and the need for clearer answers to those questions, should we not have the independent inquiry into the matter for which we have called throughout?
I think that much of the right hon. Gentleman's quarrel-he was quite open about this-is actually with the Scottish Justice Secretary. He described the way in which his view of the case differs from that of the Scottish Justice Secretary. He was right to say that there was a difference between the prisoner transfer agreement and compassionate release. As I said in my statement,
the prisoner transfer agreement is not an agreement for release, but an agreement for the transfer of a prisoner from a prison in one country to a prison in another country. As I also said in my statement, the prisoner transfer agreement was not available for use because of appeals that were under way, including one from Scottish Ministers in respect of the length of the sentence. However, the Scottish Justice Secretary dismissed that.
The advice to the Scottish Executive was the subject of letters published last month. There was no legal bar to the decision made by the Scottish Justice Secretary. It is also important to point out that at every stage in the late 1990s it was clear-as it would have been clear to any Government talking to another Government-that the Government could not bind the hands of their successors, and could not foresee all the circumstances of the future. Certainly, I think that the transformation of our relations with Libya qualifies for the term "unforeseeable".
The right hon. Gentleman cautioned me about the risky business of decoding the remarks of my right hon. Friend Lord Mandelson, but actually they did not need to be decoded in this case. What Lord Mandelson said-as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out-was that there was no deal for the release of Megrahi in respect of trade, and that is absolutely right. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman was condemned in quoting the words of Lord Mandelson. As for the son of the Libyan leader, he has made it quite clear that there was no deal in respect of Megrahi's release.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the next steps to be taken on the Fletcher case. Obviously I will not give a running commentary on all the aspects, but I look forward to meeting the Metropolitan Police Service and the Fletcher family again this month with a view to discussing how we might take that forward. I think it would be wrong to give false hope at this stage, because the Libyans have made it absolutely clear that they consider the matter closed.
Of course we will continue to discuss the support for the families of the victims of IRA terrorism with the Libyan authorities, but we have reached the very clear view that there is more chance of its being addressed on a humanitarian basis by representatives of the families than in a Government-to-Government negotiation. It is important to be open and clear about that.
I said in my statement that candour and transparency were the essence of our special relationship with the United States. That relationship, and that basis, have been fulfilled at every stage of this affair. The right hon. Gentleman will I hope have seen the article in the Financial Times last month by the new United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, which made it absolutely clear that our relationship with the United States was as strong as ever, and I hope he will also have studied carefully the words of Secretary Clinton yesterday, who could not have been more fulsome or clear about the strength, and continued strength, of the relationship between the UK and the United States.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and note in passing that long recesses are not a good advertisement for Parliament, as too often we cannot ask questions when they are most pertinent?
The Foreign Secretary has once again tried to suggest that at all times the British Government acted appropriately and that they got the best possible result for everyone involved. I have to tell him that that is not the view of many victims of the Lockerbie massacre, or the victims of Libyan-supplied IRA Semtex bombs, or the family of WPC Fletcher-not to mention President Obama. How were the United States Government able to secure compensation from Libya for the Lockerbie bomb victims, yet the British Government failed to secure compensation for IRA bomb victims? Why did it take this summer's row to force a change in policy on compensation for IRA victims?
Today, the Foreign Secretary has once again protested that there was no link between al-Megrahi's release and any trade deals; yet his explanation of why his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice totally changed his position on the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya suggests, in his own words, commercial considerations were a key factor, so is it not the case that trade came before justice? Even if trade issues did not affect the final decision to release al-Megrahi, is the Foreign Secretary saying that in all UK Government negotiations with the Libyans there was never any discussion involving any type of linkage between al-Megrahi's possible future release and trade deals for UK companies?
While we all welcome the changed Libyan policies in recent years in respect of terrorism, will the Foreign Secretary not accept that the Libyan regime still has an extremely poor record on human rights? According to Amnesty, peaceful opponents of the regime can face execution merely for speaking out, so will the Foreign Secretary make it clear today that Britain wishes to see Libya clean up its act on human rights, and will he therefore explain why Britain has been training Libyan police and Libyan special forces, and granting a growing number of export licences for everything from water cannon to armoured personnel carriers?
Given all this, surely the Foreign Secretary must think again about our call for an inquiry, and the Conservative call, and announce an inquiry that covers all aspects of the UK-Libyan relationship in the run-up to the release of al-Megrahi. Nothing else will be able to reassure the public that trade in arms did not come before justice. Anything else should be unacceptable to this House.
David Miliband: I want to start by saying very clearly that the fundamental issue in this case was the right of Scottish Ministers to take this decision without pressure. It is the word of the Scottish Justice Minister-not a member of the governing party in the United Kingdom, but a member of the Scottish National party-that it was his decision, his decision alone and a decision taken without pressure from Westminster; he himself has said that. The most fundamental responsibility of the Government was to respect the constitution of this country, which has devolved powers in respect of this issue, and that was acted upon very diligently by the Government.
In respect of US compensation and the victims of IRA terrorism, the hon. Gentleman will know that the United States were at a different stage in the restoration of diplomatic relations than us. We restored diplomatic relations after the resolution of the WPC Fletcher issue, and, as I explained in my statement, the United States
were at a much later stage in their discussions. None the less, I think it important to support the campaign being waged by hon. and right hon. Members on this issue.
I will check Hansard, but the hon. Gentleman did say in his question-I wrote it down-"Even if trade negotiations did not affect the final decision." That was an important thing to say because I could also quote what he said on the radio when debating with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, which was far from such an admission. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has now recognised that the final decision was not affected, as it could not be because we were not putting pressure on.
In respect of Libyan human rights issues, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Foreign Office publishes an annual human rights report. He is right to draw attention to this, and I mentioned it in my statement. I certainly agree with him that we want to make human rights abuse a thing of the past, wherever it exists. Finally, the Libyan police training is a programme to help Libya meet its human rights obligations; far from undermining the case, which he and I share, that Libya needs to clean up its act, this was a way of helping it to do so.
On the inquiry, which is the hon. Gentleman's single transferable answer to every conceivable policy problem, his call seems to be ill-founded. On the sentencing authority, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish authorities are the right people to consider whether there are any issues in that respect, and I come to this House to explain the facts of the case. Given that a lot of the papers have already been published-last month-I think there is more than enough material for him to make his own judgments about the situation.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Leaving aside the evident interest in this statement, there is heavy pressure on business today, as the House will appreciate, so once again I appeal to each hon. or right hon. Member to ask a single short supplementary question and to the Foreign Secretary to provide us with a brief reply. I call Mr. David Hamilton.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): One thing that angers most Scots, as it does people throughout the UK, is that this Government did not condemn outright the action taken by the Justice Minister in Scotland. His decision angered the vast majority of Scots and people throughout the UK. What message does it send to our armed forces fighting in Afghanistan that we release a prisoner who should never have been released?
I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, whom I know to be a strong supporter of our work in Afghanistan and of the extraordinary bravery of our troops there. I hope he will accept that there is not a scintilla of doubt about the Government's commitment in that respect, nor a scintilla of support or succour given to those who would be attacking our troops. He said that this was a decision that we made. It was not a decision that the Government made; it was a decision made by the appropriate authorities-in this case, a single member of the Scottish Executive: the Scottish Justice Minister. It is right to say very clearly that it was not for the British Government to take this decision. It was for the British Government to assess the
consequences of the decision and to make it clear that we were not seeking the death of Mr. Megrahi in jail, although it was a decision for the Scottish Justice Minister to make. That is something we said repeatedly throughout this affair.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1988, I had to travel to Lockerbie on the night of the disaster? Never for a moment did I expect that the person convicted of murdering more than 200 people would be released and sent home having served only eight years of a 27-year minimum sentence. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that he has made a remarkable admission today? In his statement he said-correctly, of course-that it was the Scottish Executive's Minister who took the decision, but he went on to say that the UK Government had a responsibility to consider the consequences of that decision. He says, in his own statement, that the only consequences that they considered were the implications of al-Megrahi dying in a prison in Scotland, rather than at home. So has the Foreign Secretary, by his own admission, not acknowledged that he paid more attention to the views of the Libyan Government, who were responsible for this terrorist outrage, than to the views of the United States, almost 200 of whose citizens were killed on that evening?
David Miliband: I remember where I was in 1988-I was a student in New York. I can well imagine the emotion and passion that exist- [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary says that he remembers the right hon. and learned Gentleman travelling to Lockerbie at that time. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman never expected the transformation in Libyan relations that has taken place, nor anticipated the terminal cancer that struck. I want to address, head on, the nonsense that he talked at the end. We considered every eventuality -[Interruption.] I am sorry, but the statement is absolutely clear that we had a responsibility to consider the consequences of the decision that was taken, and the decision-be it one way or the other-had to be accounted for. Three possible decisions could have been taken, and they were all considered as part of our contingency planning for what the Scots might do, of their own accord, in the decision that was theirs to take.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), I fully support the Scottish Justice Secretary's decision to send al-Megrahi home. During the middle of this furore it was reported that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had sealed the papers for ever regarding the Lockerbie bombing. Is that the case, and if so why?
David Miliband: That is the first I have heard of it. Obviously, some of the papers were released by the Scottish Executive last month and the normal freedom of information rules will apply. Perhaps my hon. Friend is referring to the papers of previous Governments-I do not know if that is the case, but I am happy to have a word with him afterwards to get to the bottom of his concern.
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