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Anglo-Libyan Relations

Volume 984: debated on Monday 12 May 1980

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about Anglo-Libyan relations.

Her Majesty's Government have for some time been concerned about statements and activities by Libyan Government officials, which amount to political intimidation of Libyans resident in this country. Within recent weeks there have been a series of crimes involving Libyans.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister therefore decided to send a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official, Sir Antony Acland, to Tripoli on 27 April, with a personal message for Colonel Gaddafi. This was followed up by meetings in both Tripoli and London between Libyan and British officials.

These contacts have led to positive developments over the last few days. The Libyan authorities have agreed, at our request, to withdraw four Libyans connected with their mission in London, who have been involved in activities which are incompatible with their functions. Three of those Libyans are at present in the United Kingdom. We are emphasising that we expect them to leave within the next few days.

One complication has been the status of the Libyan people's bureau, which has taken over the functions of the Libyan embassy. It is not for us to say how the Libyans should organise their mission, but it must be established that the people's bureau will be fulfilling the functions of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. We are holding discussions with the Libyan authorities which we hope will resolve this question.

Our objective throughout has been to show that we wish to maintain good relations with Libya but that harassment of Libyan expatriates here must stop. The Libyan Government have informed us that they wish to see an improvement in our relations and that they desire closer co-operation, particularly in the commercial and economic fields. We share this desire, but our relations cannot improve unless the campaign of harassment ends immediately. The action which we have taken is designed to make that clear.

The House will be glad that the Minister has made a statement, and it will deplore the events that have made it necessary. The murder of two distinguished Libyans in London during the past four weeks, followed by Colonel Gaddafi's brazen threat to kill others unless they return forthwith to Libya, is a challenge that no Government could fail to meet.

We welcome the agreement with the Libyan authorities to withdraw four of their nationals, attached to the mission in London. What assurances can the Minister give about the behaviour of other Libyans in England, including those who, in this era of air transport, may so easily be sent here? I note what the Minister said about the status of the Libyan embassy, or people's bureau as it is now termed. May we take it that whatever is the upshot of the discussions our law will allow the prompt expulsion of those involved in the business of murder?

What consultations have the Government had with other countries in which these hit squads are active? Is this not a matter for invoking international as well as national law?

The right hon. Gentleman referred quite reasonably to the two murders that have taken place in the United Kingdom. As the House knows, three people are in police custody and the case is now sub judice. However, in case there is any misunderstanding, I should make clear that there is no evidence that the four Libyans to be withdrawn were directly implicated in those murders. We shall enforce the principle laid down by the Home Secretary when he said:

"We shall ensure that our law is respected by all those who remain here."—[Official Report, 8 May 1980; Vol. 984, c. 523.]
That point has been made clear to the Libyans.

As regards entry into the United Kingdom, there is a visa regime. Any Libyan who wishes to come here needs a visa. Obviously the statements and activities to which I have referred have made necessary a more rigorous control.

The right hon. Gentleman's last point was certainly correct. We are in close touch with Governments who have been similarly afflicted, particularly those of Italy, the United States of America and Germany. It may well be that further consultation and, if necessary, further action in common will be needed.

Is the Minister aware that the public are incensed because the police are put in danger and removed from their proper duties in order to deal with vendettas between foreigners that take place on British soil and that have nothing to do with this country?

Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate in more detail how thugs get into this country in considerable numbers, while those on legitimate business often face great difficulties? Is it not time to look not only at the position of the Libyan people's bureau but at the whole question of diplomatic immunity and the conduct of embassies? Will the Minister read Rebecca West's article in the Sunday Telegraph?

I am sure that what the right hon. Gentleman said in his first question was right. People are angry about the situation. We are determined that London should not become a battle ground for Middle Eastern factions. The action taken at the Prince's Gate seige is evidence of that. This action is another piece of evidence. We hope that these pieces of evidence will, as they accumulate, have a punitive effect.

Immigration control concerns my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. No system of control, however exact or meticulous, can produce a 100 per cent. assurance that the wrong people will not get in. As I have said, recent statements and activities have made more rigorous control necessary. Our immigration officers are well aware of that.

Although I welcome my hon. Friend's statement, if the Foreign Office has any doubts about whether the diplomatic bag is being used for the importation of firearms, will he ensure the diplomatic bag is X-rayed? If there is proof that firearms are being imported, will he give an assurance that the bag will be rejected and that positive action will be taken against the embassy involved?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. In a further reinforced circular to the Diplomatic Corps, we have recently made clear that we shall take seriously any hard evidence that any mission is using the bag to import weapons covertly, or that any mission handing them to untitled persons. The Vienna convention is a fairly modern instrument, and it is quite specific on these issues. If it were properly observed, many of these problems would not arise. Our concern is not, therefore, so much to change the convention as to make sure that its terms are observed.

Order. In order to be fair to the debate on the Private Member's motion, I shall follow the same practice on this occasion and call four hon. Members from either side of the House.

The Minister made it clear that in his view the four people who are to go were not directly implicated in the murders concerned. Will he tell us, therefore, what status these individuals possess? Do the Libyans claim that they are diplomats? If so, do we accept it? Are we asking for them to go because they are persona non grata, or are we seeking merely an agreement by which they should be deported without trouble? I think that the public will appreciate the assurance that these individuals are not those who would be subject to criminal charges if they were not diplomats, and therefore there would be no reason why they should not have the same justice meted out to them as to anyone else.

The legal position is confused, as my hon. Friend knows, because a few months ago the Libyans said that their embassy was no longer to be regarded as an embassy but as a people's bureau. We are trying to sort that out, but in this particular situation we thought that it was not right to wait until that had been sorted out. We therefore cut through the legal tangle and asked the Libyan Government to withdraw these four people. Two of them are members of the people's bureau. One of them, I understand, is part-time, and another has less direct connection. But they are connected in one way or another with the people's bureau. That is why we asked the Libyan Government to withdraw them.

Order. I believe that I called in succession two hon. Members from the Government Benches. I shall therefore call five from the Opposition Benches instead of four.

Since the Libyan Government, of their own volition, reduced the status of the representation, were they informed that the diplomatic immunity and all the other rights of an embassy would cease to exist, and, if not, why not?

No. The Libyans' view is that the people involved in the people's bureau are not diplomats. This does not affect the principle with which we are involved in this House and in this decision. The principle is that people living and working in this country, whatever their status, should obey British law. If they are diplomats, there is one way of getting rid of them. If they break British law, if they are not diplomats, there is another way. But in either case there is a way.

Did Sir Antony Acland, on his visit, get any inkling of Colonel Gaddafi's threat that oil supplies would be cut off if Britain, America and others failed to compensate for damage done during the Second World War?

On the specific issue of the protection of embassies, is my hon. Friend aware that there are over 1,000 Metropolitan Police officers engaged on this business? Will he, therefore, consider limiting the number of people who come to missions, because they cause an insuperable problem?

I have much sympathy with the last point. On the first point, the threat about oil, which I have read about in the newspapers, was not implied to Sir Antony Acland and it has played no part in shaping our policy.

Will the Foreign Office try to learn that it speaks for Britain and not refer to Anglo-Libyan relations or Anglo-any other country's relations, because that is quite incorrect? I make the point simply because the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) forgot to make it.

The hon. Gentleman may have gathered that I am somewhat pro-Arab in my Views. Will he accept, however, that I very strongly deplore the external activities of such people as these Libyan activists, whose work does not enhance the Arab image throughout the world and who make the work of people such as myself, who are Arab proponents, much less easy?

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I hope that all those right hon. and hon. Members who are friends of the Arab cause will take the opportunity to make the same point.

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), will my hon. Friend the Minister accept that many of us will not be satisfied with his answer in view of the wide suspicions that not only weapons but drugs are coming in through diplomatic immunity and the diplomatic bag? Has not the time come for us to have a completely new look at the whole question of diplomatic immunity generally?

We try to look at this matter all the time. What we need in order to justify the approach that my hon. Friend suggests is hard evidence. That is one reason why it is important to keep in touch with other Governments, as has been suggested.

Further to the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), will the Minister also look at the article in the Daily Mail which gives chapter and verse of where these phoney colleagues are being set up for these people to come here allegedly to take English courses, but in fact come here and take jobs? This has happened not only recently; it has been going on for years. The previous Government did nothing about it. Now we have a docker coming to England from Arabia when our own docks are being shut down, dockers are unemployed, and we are giving them £15,000 in redundancy pay. We are having here dockers from Arabian countries. Is this not farcical?

The question of who is and who is not allowed to come into this country is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I note what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Will my hon. Friend accept that the Government's measured response is the right one rather than whipping up anti-Libyan or anti-anyone else feeling? Will he give an assurance that the Government will continue to act in dealing with diplomats or pseudo diplomats whether they are spies or are stirring up murder on London's streets?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is not just a question of our diplomatic relations with Libya; it is a question of the whole of our dealing" with that country, including the fact that there are nearly 6,000 British people working there, and a flourishing trade. It is essential that the law of this country should be obeyed by everyone who works here, but if this can be achieved by discussion, so much the better for our own national interest.

The Minister said that he was waiting for hard evidence. Quite apart from the Libyan murders and violence to which he has referred, surely the Iranian siege, as compared with the holding of American hostages in Tehran, is the clearest possible evidence that the whole area of diplomatic immunity, law and practice needs urgent review.

I would dissent from that. What is clear from the Iranian siege is that the whole system of immunity and diplomatic practice was in that case ignored and trampled on, just as it has been in Tehran, as we shall be discussing later this evening. It is not so much a matter of tearing up a relatively modern convention as of ensuring by decisions such as we have announced that that convention is observed.

Is the Minister aware that two wrongs do not make a right and that, merely because we are all incensed at the harassment of innocent people in this country, we should not immediately go over to the harassing of innocent Libyan students who come here for proper purposes of study? The idea that we should use immigration control as a tool for a stronger deterrent against the Libyan Government means that we shall probably create as much injustice for innocent students.

Immigration control is rightly used as a means of deciding in the public interest who enters this country and who does not, but we are not in the harassment business. Our concern is that those who come here obey the law of this land.

Statutory Instruments, & C

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Upholstered Furniture (Safety) Regulations 1980 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. St. John-Stevas.]

Not less than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 73A (Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c).

Motion made, and Question put,

That the Import and Export (Plant Health) (Great Britain) Order 1980 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. St. John-Stevas.]

Not less than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 73A ( Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c).