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UK Passports (Use in Dubai Murder)

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will report to the House on the investigation announced on 17 February by the Prime Minister into the use of counterfeit British passports in the killing of Mr. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on 19 January. The UK is continuing to support inquiries under way in a number of countries including in the United Arab Emirates itself. However, at the end of last week the Serious Organised Crime Agency reported to the Home Secretary on its investigation. Its report has now been studied by the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and me, and was presented to the Cabinet this morning.

In the past 24 hours I have spoken to the Foreign Ministers of the other countries whose passports were involved. Their investigations are continuing. It would not be right to release the report in full, for legal and other reasons, but it is right that the House should know a summary of the conclusions that SOCA has reached and the action that we will be taking in response.

First, for the avoidance of any doubt, I should make it clear to the House that in the case of each of the 12 passport holders to whom SOCA spoke, it found no evidence to suggest that any of those individuals were anything other than wholly innocent victims of identity theft. Secondly—this should not need saying—I must add in the strongest possible terms that the UK had absolutely no advance knowledge of what happened in Dubai nor any involvement whatever in the killing.

SOCA conducted an extremely professional investigation. The Israeli authorities met all the requests that SOCA made of them. SOCA was drawn to the conclusion that the passports used were copied from genuine British passports when handed over for inspection to individuals linked to Israel, either in Israel or in other countries. It found no link to any other country. Given that the operation was a very sophisticated one, in which high-quality forgeries were made, the Government judge it highly likely that the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service. Taking that together with other inquiries and the link to Israel established by SOCA, we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports.

The Government take this matter extremely seriously. Such misuse of British passports is intolerable. It presents a hazard to the safety of British nationals in the region. Also, it represents a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the UK. The fact that that was done by a country that is a friend, with significant diplomatic, cultural, business and personal ties to the UK, only adds insult to injury. No country or Government could stand by in such a situation.

Israel is a democratic country, with remarkable achievements to its name, in a dangerous part of the world. That makes international co-operation even more important. Britain has worked and will continue to work closely with Israel on a range of issues, notably the Iranian nuclear threat, but that co-operation must be based on transparency and trust. The Government are therefore taking a number of steps, based on the evidence of what has occurred in this case, to make clear their deep unhappiness at what has happened, and to seek to ensure that such an abuse does not happen again.

I met Foreign Minister Lieberman on 22 February. At that stage, our investigation was only just starting. I told him then of our deep concern about the incident, and made clear my expectation that Israel would co-operate with the investigation. I met Mr. Lieberman again in Brussels yesterday. I set out the findings of the SOCA report, our intended actions, and our determination to ensure that this affair is never repeated. I handed over a letter seeking a formal assurance from him that in the future the state of Israel would never be party to the misuse of British passports in such a way.

Diplomatic work between Britain and Israel needs to be conducted according to the highest standards of trust. The work of our embassy in Israel and the Israeli embassy in London is vital to the co-operation between our countries. So is the strategic dialogue between our countries. Those ties are important, and we want them to continue. However, I have asked for a member of the embassy of Israel to be withdrawn from the UK as a result of this affair, and that is taking place.

Members will be concerned about the fate of the British passport holders involved. As one of them said, to go to bed as a citizen and wake up as a wanted terrorist is shocking. We have provided consular assistance for the 12 people whose identities and passports were misused. As part of that, we offered them all new biometric passports, which are being rolled out to the whole British population and, being considerably more difficult to counterfeit, should give them the confidence that they need that they can still travel safely on their British passports. Eleven of the 12 have so far been issued with new biometric passports.

To alert other British nationals to the risk that their passports might be misused in the same way, I am today amending our travel advice on Israel to make clear the potential risk, and to set out the steps that people can take to minimise that risk.

The middle east is not a place for woolly or wishful thinking. The Israeli people crave and deserve legitimacy and security. The United Kingdom will not compromise its support for that, but the actions in this case are completely unacceptable, and they must stop.

I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for setting out the measures that are to be taken. Let me say at the outset that the Opposition agree with them. We should all regret having to take such measures against a country that is a friend of Britain and with whose diplomats we enjoy good relations, but we cannot permit cloning of, interference with or misuse of British passports by another state. If the Foreign Secretary is truly satisfied, on the basis of all the evidence he has seen, that that has happened in this case, it is right for Britain to take measures both to rectify the situation and to show that it is unacceptable to us.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there was a similar case in 1987, when it was discovered that Israel had forged British passports for intelligence operations? On that occasion, the then Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, assured the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howe of Aberavon, that it would not happen again. It seems that those assurances have not been upheld.

On the results of the investigation, we welcome the fact that Israel co-operated with the Serious Organised Crime Agency in its inquiries. The Foreign Secretary said that he had spoken to the Foreign Ministers of the other countries whose passports were allegedly involved. Can he tell us anything about their own investigations? Can he tell us when he expects those investigations to be concluded, and whether he expects any of those other countries to take similar action in parallel with the United Kingdom?

On the need to prevent this from happening again, the Foreign Secretary will know that as soon as the use of British passports was uncovered last month, we argued that the Government should seek a specific assurance that Israel would never sanction the misuse of British passports in any future operation. We therefore welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has now formally requested such an assurance from his Israeli counterpart. Will he make it clear, however, that it is not just a question of an assurance that no future counterfeiting will take place, but a question of an assurance that there will be no further use of any British passports that may already have been copied? That last assurance will be of particular concern to British travellers who may fear that other versions of their passports are in circulation.

Did the Foreign Secretary receive any indication from the Israeli Foreign Minister that such assurances could or would be given, and will he intend, if they are received, to change the Foreign Office travel advice relating to Israel accordingly?

The Foreign Secretary said that the biometric passports introduced four years ago are more difficult to counterfeit. Does he consider these new passports to be as invulnerable to counterfeiting as it is possible to make them, or will the Government review whether any other steps are needed to protect the integrity of British passports? Is there any suggestion that British passports are more vulnerable than those of other countries, including other EU countries?

Finally, on the effect of this on relations with the United Arab Emirates, can the Foreign Secretary say any more about what assistance SOCA and other British authorities have provided to the Dubai authorities at their request and whether this is continuing? Has he had any indication from the UAE Government that more stringent rules will be applied to the issuing of visas to British citizens visiting or resident in the country?

There are many issues on which Britain and Israel quite rightly work closely together: a two-state solution to the middle east peace process, diplomatic action over Iran’s nuclear programme and the expansion of trade between our countries to the benefit of all our citizens. But such relations and co-operation must be able to take place in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and it is necessary for that trust to be reaffirmed so that relations can be as productive as they should be. We therefore think that the measures taken by the Government are right and that the Israeli Foreign Minister, as he considers the Foreign Secretary’s letter, should know that it comes with united support across this House.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. As the House knows, there is publicly available history here, dating back to the 1980s, upon which it is reasonable to reflect in the light of the incident that has most recently taken place. It is right to be extremely cautious when saying anything about the investigations that are being conducted by other countries. They are continuing, as I said in my statement, and I did not press the Foreign Ministers to whom I spoke yesterday, and this morning actually, for details. All of them were clear that these investigations were being conducted by independent authorities in their own countries and needed to be carried to their conclusion. That is right. They did not give me a time frame for when they would conclude, either. It is right to make it clear to the House that no country had as many passports involved in this sorry affair as the United Kingdom; no other country was even close to double digits.

We are clear that we keep our travel advice up to date, so the response that we seek from the Israeli Foreign Minister in reply to my request for a specific assurance will of course affect what our travel advice about the situation and its consequences.

In respect of biometric passports, the Government believe that they are as invulnerable as possible, which was, I think, the right hon. Gentleman’s phrase. They are certainly not more vulnerable than passports from the rest of the EU. The link to biometric fingerprinting is obviously important in this case in strengthening the security of the passports.

Finally, on the UAE, its investigation is continuing. It is too early for the Foreign Minister of the UAE to have given me any suggestion of a tightening of his visa regime but it is important that we continue to support the UAE in its investigation, which it is carrying out in an extremely professional way.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for giving me an advance copy of it. Now that SOCA has concluded that British passports were indeed misused by Israel, may I join him in expressing our deep concern? It is indeed intolerable that a close ally should treat Britain and British nationals in this way. I fully support the proportionate measures proposed by the Foreign Secretary today. It is difficult to get the correct balance when dealing with a state such as Israel that is a close friend of this country, but I believe that he has judged it well.

I have three areas for brief questions. First, will Ministers and SOCA work with other countries whose sovereignty may have been breached by Israel on these occasions to assist them in their investigations? In answer to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Foreign Secretary touched on this, but is Britain offering our support to those countries with their investigations?

Secondly, given that it is alleged that these counterfeit passports were used in an extra-judicial killing by Israeli agents, has the gravity of that misuse been weighed in the balance in the Government’s response? Thirdly, and more widely, although I strongly agree with the action that the Foreign Secretary has taken today, may I invite him to reflect on how the expulsion of a diplomat in response to passport fraud, serious though that is, might look to Palestinians in Gaza, the west bank and elsewhere, who have been the victims of more serious breaches of international law by Israel? Given the action that he has taken today, can he assure me that when it comes to policy issues such as the blockade of Gaza and illegal settlements on the west bank, the Government are willing to back stronger condemnation of Israel, as President Obama and other EU countries now appear willing to do? We are right to feel like wounded friends of Israel over these passports, but we must also be ready to be more critical friends of Israel over matters that are harming the peace process and are also not in Israel’s long-term interests.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who speaks for the official Opposition, for their support. It is important that a united message goes out from across the political parties about the necessary nature of the measures that we have taken today, significant though they are.

On the hon. Gentleman’s questions, first I should say that, when asked, SOCA is available to help partner agencies around the world. Secondly, the matter of gravity that the SOCA investigation was looking into was confined to the passport counterfeiting, cloning and so on; SOCA was not conducting an investigation into the alleged murder in Dubai. SOCA’s investigation was narrowly construed, but none the less it has wide-ranging ramifications alongside the other inquiries that have been taking place.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is my very strong view that engagement with the people and Government of Israel is essential if we are to convey to them the concern we have about issues such as Gaza, which he raised. The situation in Gaza was discussed yesterday at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels as part of a wide-ranging discussion following the Quartet meeting with the Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, yesterday. So the measures that we have taken today, including those relating to a member of the Israeli embassy, relate to the investigations that have taken place in the run-up to this announcement.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the first western statesman to take specific action against the serial crimes committed by the Israeli Government? However, he surely must recognise that anybody passing through the corrupt passport control and airport security system at Ben Gurion airport is liable to have her or his passport cloned and abused. If he wishes to have any further information about my own personal experiences of those corrupt systems, I shall pass it on to him.

My right hon. Friend has certainly added to the gravity of the situation with the issue that he has raised, and I certainly would like to see whatever information he has available. I think that not only the measures that we have announced but the advice that we have given on the Foreign Office website as of now will provide a degree of warning and protection for any traveller to Israel and will allow them to mitigate the risks that they might face.

Like the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I consider myself a friend of Israel, but on this particular occasion I think that we have a legitimate grievance. May I take the Foreign Secretary back to his statement? He has made much of his discussions with the Israeli Foreign Minister, in which it seems that most of this pressure has been about what will happen in the future. Surely what we need to establish from the Israeli Government is an acceptance that they were involved in this incident, not just a suggestion that they should not be engaged in similar incidents in the future. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to press his counterpart in Israel to admit at some stage that the Israeli Government were involved in this before admitting that they will not do anything similar in future?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I can say to him that in my meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister—also in Brussels, as it happens, last month—I pressed him very strongly on the circumstances of this incident. He said—he has said this publicly—that he had no information relating to the incident. Although I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, I am sure he will also recognise that there is an ongoing criminal investigation in the UAE into the alleged murder that is the primary focus of the legal side of this affair. It is helpful, though, for him to have made his view clear about the seriousness of this issue. Israel has a huge amount to gain from adherence to international law and international obligations and it is very important that a message goes out that we expect that in all cases.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary to clarify whether the diplomat leaving London will be selected by the Israeli ambassador or whether a specific person is being expelled whose fingerprints have been found in relation to this matter? If it is the latter, this is a very limp response. If the person is guilty of being part of this fraudulent dealing with our passports, the House should be told.

As I said very clearly in my statement, the request for an individual to leave—and the decision of the Israelis to accede to that request—was made by us. It was linked, precisely as I have said, in the work that we have done to the investigations that have taken place. We were very clear with the Israeli authorities about the basis on which we were asking for an individual to leave.

What the Foreign Secretary has described is a criminal conspiracy to facilitate murder, probably contrary to UK domestic law under the terrorism legislation. That being so, has the Foreign Secretary considered what officials not in the Israeli Government or elsewhere, not covered by diplomatic privilege, may be liable to criminal sanctions before the UK courts? If he has, what steps does he intend to take to pursue that matter, for example through the issuing of international warrants of arrest?

As we have discussed in this House many times, the procedures for arrest—never mind for prosecution—are not ones that are in the hands of the Government. The measures that we have taken in this case have obviously been carefully weighed and walked through with legal advisers as well as with others who were conducting the investigation. I think that that is the right basis on which to leave it.

I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend, and given the fact that this extra-judicial murder was an affront to British interests and British subjects, it was quite inevitable. However, this action was not aberrant—it was a measure of the impunity and illegality with which Israel acts. At this very moment, as we speak, 1.5 million Palestinians are illegally trapped, blockaded and destitute in Gaza, and in the west bank their land and their water are stolen daily and defenceless children are shot. When are we going to take this forward on a greater level and condemn more actively than we do the wider actions of an ally that is rapidly becoming a rogue and pariah state?

I am pleased to be able to say that we discuss often, in this House and elsewhere, the situation in the middle east and, specifically, the situation in Gaza as well as that in the west bank. One has to choose one’s words and cases carefully. My hon. and learned Friend is right that settlement building, if that is what he was referring to, is not only a roadblock on the road to any kind of peace settlement or Palestinian state, but illegal. It is contrary to international law and that is something that we make very clear. We should continue to recognise that there is a strong British national interest in a resolution of the conflict at the heart of the middle east that is based on a Palestinian state that is able to live alongside Israel but that is also based on Arab states being able to normalise their relations with Israel on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, which was published in 2002.

The point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made is just as important even if one is not dealing with an alleged killing. The courts of England send people with no previous convictions to prison for passport forgery and their sentences are measured in years. What does this story tell us about the integrity of the Government’s proposals for identity cards? Does it not undermine the Government’s case?

I am delighted that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised that point, because it makes a very strong case precisely for the national identity register that we propose. I think that many people, if they can be diverted from the issue at hand for a moment, will see that the determination to have a national identity register precisely fits into the sort of concerns that people have about identity theft. Actually, the case is made for the proposal that the Government have put forward, and I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will reconsider his opposition to it.

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary said that

“we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports.”

That being said, why is only one diplomat being removed and why not much higher up the chain? Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the Israeli Government were culpable in the act of deception over the passports and the murder, or does he believe that some quasi-state authority in Israel undertook it in the name of that country?

I make no allegations about quasi-state authorities in this case. Let me address the point that we should have moved, as my hon. Friend put it, higher up the chain. He is saying that we should either have expelled the Israeli ambassador or have withdrawn our ambassador from Israel. I do not believe that that would have been the right thing to do. In fact, it would have been a retrograde thing to do, because it is vital that we are able to express with passion, commitment and principle to the Government of Israel the feelings from across the House and within the Government. It is essential that we are able to do so in this country and in Israel itself. The last thing that we should be advocating is the isolation of Israel; we do not advocate the isolation of Iran and we do not advocate the isolation of Israel either. That would be quite the wrong lesson to draw from this affair. However, it is important that my hon. Friend recognises that the decision that we have taken about this case and about the withdrawal of a member of the embassy’s staff is designed to be targeted and effective, and I believe it will be.

Does the Secretary of State understand that his statement today displayed remarkable restraint and fastidiousness? He described the operation as “sophisticated” and said there was “compelling” evidence, in relation to passports, of the involvement of a state intelligence agency. From that, he concluded that

“Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports.”

What factors stand in the way of his reaching a similar conclusion regarding the killing in Dubai itself?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said that the steps I was taking were unprecedented, and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) says that we have been fastidious, so I look forward to their arguing that out. Perhaps we have struck the right balance. On the alleged murder in Dubai, the investigations are continuing and we wait to see what the UAE authorities conclude on that matter.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the action that he has taken, as well as the speed with which SOCA has completed its report. I appreciate that aspects of the report ought to remain confidential, but will he confirm that they have been shared with the head of the Identity and Passport Service and the head of the UK Border Agency?

I want to check the details of the internal sharing, but I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend on that matter.

The Foreign Secretary sought an assurance from the Israeli Foreign Minister. Does he expect such an assurance to be given?

I very much hope that such an assurance will be given and I very much hope that it will be given soon.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, which referred to the “killing” in Dubai, whereas the heading on the Annunciator referred to the alleged “murder”. I seek assurances that the Government are not trying to signal some ambiguity as to the criminal character of state-sponsored assassination. He has told us what Foreign Minister Lieberman told him yesterday, denying any knowledge. Does he believe Mr. Lieberman? If not, how can we believe any assurances that Mr. Lieberman gives in future?

I believe that in Israel the system for governance of the intelligence agencies is rather different from the system in this country, as the Foreign Minister explained. The Foreign Ministry does not have the line of responsibility for foreign intelligence in the way that it does in this country, where the Secret Intelligence Service is responsible to me. That is not how the system works in Israel, and I take at face value exactly what the Foreign Minister said to me a month ago and yesterday.

In 2004, relations between New Zealand and Israel were put on hold after a robust reaction from New Zealand to Israeli sovereignty violations. In 2005, the then Israeli Foreign Minister apologised to New Zealand. Will the UK be demanding from Israel the same respect it showed New Zealand, especially given that UK passports were used to facilitate a murder? Will the removal from the embassy be random or specific? Are the people to be chosen by Israel or by the UK?

We actually answered that earlier—in the second question. It is not a random selection, and it is made not by the Government of Israel but by us.

If the hon. Gentleman goes back to the 2004 case, he will find some significant differences from this case. I think that the information that I have seen about it is available in the public domain. However, he will see clearly from my statement the degree of concern that we have, and the measures we have taken.

I welcome the Government’s robust action and I oppose the isolation of Israel. Nevertheless, why does the UK continue to regard successive Governments of Israel as friends and allies of the UK, when they repeatedly demonstrate—as in this passports case—that they pay little or no attention to the UK and we appear to have no real influence whatever over Israel?

I am not entirely with my hon. Friend in his description. We have some strong shared interests with Israel and we do some important work together. However, in cases when Israel flouts the friendship between our countries, it is vital that the Government speak up without fear or favour, which is what we have done in this case.

I think we can rest assured that even Mossad will think twice before trying to steal the identity of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman).

Given the importance of the proportionate response that the Foreign Secretary has rightly outlined to the House, how was it that the BBC, nearly two hours before he made his statement to the House, put up a news item headed, “Britain to expel Israeli diplomat”, quoting diplomatic sources? Should that not have been said in the House first?

I am glad to have the opportunity to tell the hon. Gentleman that of course the House should be the first to hear. I have been assured that there is no suggestion of the Foreign Office being the source, and I am determined that when we have something to say it should be said here first.

I commend my right hon. Friend on his decisive action in expelling a so far unnamed diplomat from the Israeli embassy, although he is of course welcome to name him. I have the diplomatic list, from the ambassador to the defence attaché, who, to refer to the previous question, just happens to be a Colonel Kaufman.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to take similar action every time Israel disregards the law, whether it is by building settlements, building the wall in occupied territory, the annexation of east Jerusalem, targeting civilians in Gaza or the use of human shields?

We are clear that it is important that Israel has diplomats in this country. We think it is important that we are able to engage with them in a way that allows them to reflect in their own society, and their own country, the degree of passion in this country. I assure my hon. Friend that on the issues he has raised we speak very clearly to the Israeli embassy as well as to the Israeli people.

Could the Foreign Secretary be clearer? He has been very evasive about the person who will be expelled. Could the Foreign Secretary say what position the person held? Did he have any relationship to Mossad?

I am not going to give any further information about the individual concerned, and I am not going to describe anything further about the role that he played. I have been very clear about the basis on which he was chosen. That is the right thing to do.