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PC Yvonne Fletcher

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2010

Thank you, Mrs Main, for calling me to initiate this debate on PC Yvonne Fletcher. I am seeking help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to resolve this longstanding and tragic case. Who can forget that British police officer—a beautiful young woman—being shot in the back so many years ago while she was policing a peaceful demonstration? She had a glittering career ahead of her, had worked hard to get into the police service and was recently engaged. She had her whole life ahead of her, and it was tragically cut short on that fateful day. I will never forget the image of her lying on the ground dying. I saw it on the television as a relatively young child and that image is still indelibly imprinted on my mind.

The one message we should try to get across as a nation is that if someone kills a British police officer, we will track them down—no matter where such a person goes or how they try to flee, Great Britain will always go to the nth degree to track down killers of British police officers. That must be the message we send out as a country. I give as an example the case of Sharon Beshenivsky, another British police officer who was shot. Her killer escaped to, I believe, Somalia. We sent operatives out there to drag him across the border to Ethiopia and he was subsequently extradited from there to face British justice. I want the Government to take such action and to send out a strong message to any person who dares inflict harm on our police officers that we will seek justice.

We talk a great deal about our armed forces, who are very important, but our police officers put their lives on the line every single day, too. We must never forget the extraordinary sacrifices that they make and the courage that they display. In Shrewsbury, in my constituency, we have recently had the tragedy of a police officer being shot dead. I cannot begin to explain the overwhelming sense of grief and tragedy that permeated the whole of my community because that police officer was shot. I have become involved in this case because I have written a book about Colonel Gaddafi. I am not sure whether I have presented the Minister with a copy of that book, but if I have not, I shall give him a copy at the end of the debate.

Signed. The book is a biography of Colonel Gaddafi and it was published in February. Of course, one cannot write a book about Colonel Gaddafi without talking about this huge, outstanding issue. One chapter of the book is called “Death in the square”, which relates specifically to what happened to PC Yvonne Fletcher. In writing the book, I obviously interviewed PC Yvonne Fletcher’s parents who, despite their cynicism towards politicians—they feel badly let down and I will come on to that point later—kindly agreed to meet me and be interviewed for the book.

I would like the Minister to note that the previous Administration were appallingly bad to the Fletcher family. The former Foreign Secretary was frankly as useful as a cat-flap on a submarine when it came to dealing with the issue—his behaviour was absolutely appalling. I worry about the prospect of him being leader of the Labour party when I think about how he treated PC Yvonne Fletcher’s family. The family’s letters were assiduously ignored for many years. No response was sent to the relatives of PC Yvonne Fletcher, despite their numerous attempts to get some form of communication out of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wrote an open letter on a website demanding that the Foreign Secretary meet with the family of PC Yvonne Fletcher. I thank the media, particularly the Telegraph, for promoting that letter, as that is what it took finally to force the then Foreign Secretary to meet the Fletcher family. I know that the current Minister, whom I know very well as being assiduous, courteous and professional, will do a much better job at keeping the family informed of what is happening than the previous Foreign Secretary and his officials. I urge the Minister to keep the family informed through writing and at any opportunity he has to meet with them directly.

I would like to pay tribute to Mr John Murray, who is a retired police officer and is in my opinion decency personified. I have had the great privilege of meeting him on a number of occasions and I would like the Minister to make a note of his name: John Murray. I took him around the House of Commons this morning and, so well known, revered and respected is he among the constabulary, many police officers came up to say “Hello” and pay their respects and compliments to him. Mr Murray, who is from Chingford, was standing next to PC Yvonne Fletcher when she was shot dead. He accompanied her in the ambulance en route to hospital, and held her hand. In the ambulance, he promised her that he would fight to bring the person who had done such a thing to justice. He carried her coffin at her funeral and, for the past 25 years, he has campaigned on the issue. He has started petitions, raised the matter with Ministers, tried to get publicity for the issue and written to Members of Parliament. In his own way, he has never forgotten the pledge and commitment he made on that fateful day to his colleague PC Yvonne Fletcher. I pay tribute to him and I would like the Minister to know about Mr John Murray from Chingford, the respect that police officers have for him and how important it is to keep him posted and informed of progress.

Together with Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, I took Mr Murray to meet the Libyan chargé d’affaires in November last year. Mr Jelban informed us that this was a Government to Government matter and I should not get too preoccupied with it. He said that all was in hand between the Governments of the United Kingdom and Libya. However, because I had so little confidence in the former Foreign Secretary, I did not want to leave it to those bilateral discussions. I took Mr Murray to see the Libyan chargé d’affaires because he would like to go to Libya—in fact, a national newspaper is prepared to pay for him to fly out there and for his accommodation.

We are trying to get a visa for Mr Murray to enable him to go out to Libya and campaign on the issue directly with the Libyans. Neither Mr Murray nor I are getting any younger, so it is important I raise the matter with the Minister to establish whether he can do anything to assist Mr Murray to get a visa. It would be a wonderful thing if Mr Murray were given a visa because he would be able to meet Libyan officials personally in Tripoli and talk to them directly about the campaign he has so faithfully pursued over the past quarter of a century. He would be able see if he is better able to get those officials to comply than the politicians who have tried to do so.

I pay tribute also to Scotland Yard for its work. I have been to Scotland Yard and received briefings on its work, and I believe that it has done an excellent job so far. Of course, it has been frustrated in the past, primarily by not being given visas to re-enter Libya to pursue its inquiries. Interestingly, its officers have just been allowed back into Libya for the first time in three years, as the Minister will know. I have been led to believe that that is a direct result of the new coalition Government’s attitude to and handling of the case, which has finally put pressure on the Libyans to grant those visas and allow Scotland Yard to re-enter the country. I pay tribute to the Minister and the new Government for that significant breakthrough, which had eluded the previous Administration, although I have doubts about the previous Administration’s commitment to pursuing the matter.

At the time of the release of Mr al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, who was found culpable of the worst atrocity to take place in the UK since the second world war, I tried to use the release unashamedly as a bargaining chip in exchange for Libyan co-operation in the case of PC Yvonne Fletcher. I was told that that was highly improper and that I was behaving inappropriately, but I do not flinch from my decision to do so; politics is sometimes a dirty game.

I was appalled, shocked, dismayed and deeply embarrassed that at the time of the release of the Lockerbie bomber there was total silence from the previous Government on the case of PC Yvonne Fletcher. They did not use the occasion to challenge the Libyan authorities publicly over that critical outstanding issue. Why was that? It is simply unacceptable, and it makes us look so weak in the eyes of the Arab world: we cannot even get a country such as Libya to co-operate so that our security services can pursue their investigations.

At the time, I pleaded with Mr MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, and with the First Minister. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, pleading with them to use the occasion to challenge the Libyans publicly. It all fell on deaf ears and there was a totally mute response from the Government. I want the UK never again to be in the iniquitous position of bending over backwards to accommodate Libya by affording it the release of a convicted bomber, terrorist and killer and yet doing nothing, publicly at least, to pursue co-operation on investigations into the killing of a police officer.

I want to raise briefly the protocol, signed under the previous Government, whereby the chief suspect would be put on trial in Libya. That is deeply regrettable and highly unacceptable. I would like the following phrase, which I have used when speaking to The Daily Telegraph, to ring in the Minister’s mind: you cannot face British justice in a Libyan court. It is simply impossible to face British justice in a court under Libyan jurisdiction in Tripoli. The only way to face British justice is in a British court under British jurisdiction.

For that protocol to have been signed under the previous Government was highly inappropriate for our country. For a major power in the world to acquiesce in such a shoddy, back-room deal is highly regrettable. What was going through the minds of the people who signed the protocol? I urge, beg and plead with the Minister to see what he can do to renegotiate the protocol. If we cannot get the suspect into a British court in the UK, can we at least, as the worst option, hold the trial in a third country under some form of British jurisdiction, as happened for the trial of the Lockerbie bomber, which took place in the Netherlands?

I set up the all-party group on Libya in the last Parliament because I am passionate about that country and its people. There are huge opportunities for trade between Libya and the UK. Libya sits on top of one of the largest gas and oil reserves in the world, and it is strategically placed just a short distance from some Mediterranean countries. It is a hugely important partner for us, and there are massive opportunities for British firms. However, I will help British companies to work in Libya only after the case of PC Yvonne Fletcher is resolved. If we want a genuine relationship with Libya and if we are really serious about a long-term strategic partnership, and if it is serious about it too, the outstanding issue of the murder of a British police officer must be resolved. Otherwise, that relationship will be built on sand—pardon the pun—and in a flimsy way that will not withstand the test of time.

I will continue to write parliamentary questions to the Minister on the matter. I would like to thank the media, particularly The Daily Telegraph and Mr Christopher Hope, for continually raising the story. Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in this place when I speak on the matter. I have flown to Scotland to interview Tam Dalyell for my book, and he is a great campaigner for PC Yvonne Fletcher, so I pay tribute to the former Father of the House for his work on that. I will continue, with the help of The Daily Telegraph and others, to raise the matter repeatedly. I ask the Minister to help and support John Murray in his campaign.

My last point is on the Vienna convention. Mr Murray and I have discussed what happened on the fateful day when Leon Brittan decided, following the Vienna convention, that those killers would have to be released under diplomatic nicety, which I think was extraordinary. The Vienna convention was intended to protect diplomats from intrusion and inappropriate levels of investigation. Yes, it allows them to park illegally on London streets and to do all sorts of things with protection in their diplomatic bags, but it must not give them protection when they are directly culpable for or implicated in the murder of a British police officer. If we do only one thing as a result of the case, it must be to see whether there are any ways in which we can modernise the Vienna convention, at least as a tribute to PC Yvonne Fletcher, to ensure that if such a murder happens on UK soil we are never again left in the same position.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship at the start of a new term, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate and thank him for his kind remarks, which I am happy to reciprocate. The passion and commitment with which he has taken on the case is typical of the way he works generally, which is noticed and appreciated. I note also Mr Murray’s commitment to the case. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s suggestions about assistance for Mr Murray, and my officials will certainly be in touch with him to see how we might be able to help.

My hon. Friend’s focus is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for the investigation into the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. First and foremost, I offer heartfelt condolences to the Fletcher family on behalf of myself and the Government for their continuing grief over their loss. It is now more than 26 years since her death, 26 years in which her family have sought answers for their loss. They are still looking for the truth of what happened that day. A resolution to the sad issue is a key objective in our relations with Libya.

The killing of the unarmed woman constable on 17 April 1984 was a wicked, unwarranted and undeserved murder. No political or cultural circumstances justified such a cowardly attack on a woman police officer, and it will for ever be a mark of shame on those involved.

Following the severing of diplomatic relations on 23 April 1984, and the expulsion of all those involved in the bureau siege, the possibility of pursuing any inquiry into the shooting that involved Libya was not practicable, until time passed and events began to change the relationship between our two countries.

Libya’s dark past and its involvement with international terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s caused grief and suffering for countless people. That is not, and cannot, be forgotten. However, through a series of actions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the decisions to hand over the two suspects accused of the Lockerbie bombing in 1999, and to renounce terrorism and give up weapons of mass destruction in 2003, Libya turned a corner. If I have time, I will return to the wider consequences of that policy later, but at this stage let me indicate the impact that that change of circumstances had on the WPC Fletcher investigation.

On 7 July 1999 the Libyan Government accepted “general responsibility” for the shooting of WPC Fletcher and paid compensation to her family. On 8 July 1999 Scotland Yard announced its intention to reopen the investigation into her death. On 24 May 2002 Scotland Yard officers made their first visit to Libya but returned with no real leads to follow. On 24 June 2002 a meeting between the Metropolitan police and the Libyan Government was held in London to discuss the investigation. On 25 March 2004 the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), announced that Metropolitan police officers would fly to Libya in a fresh attempt to find WPC Fletcher’s murderer. After March 2004 the investigation stalled and there was no further progress. In 2006 letters were exchanged in an attempt to move the investigation forward—I will return to that later.

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to progressing the police investigation into WPC Fletcher’s death—that remains one of our key objectives. The FCO keeps in close contact with the family of WPC Fletcher and with the Metropolitan police. In a statement released in response to last week’s ITV documentary, the family themselves made clear that they are content with the support provided by the FCO and by the Metropolitan police. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about such comments. The Foreign Secretary has also offered to meet WPC Fletcher’s family, at a time and date that is convenient to them. I will ensure that that invitation is renewed.

We raise the case with the Libyan Government at every possible opportunity. The Foreign Secretary raised the Libyan refusal to co-operate when he first spoke to the Libyan Foreign Minister, when we became the Government. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue again in a letter to the Foreign Minister just last month. I have raised the issue in meetings in July with the Libyan Europe and Interior Ministers. The Prime Minister also raised the case of WPC Fletcher when he wrote to Colonel Gaddafi in July.

Since the Government came to office, we have made it clear to the Libyans that the issue will continue to cast a shadow over the bilateral relationship between our two countries, and continue to do serious damage to the image of Libya among the UK media and public. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to indicate that that was the case.

I would like to make it clear that responsibility for the decision to suspend the investigation, and the ability to restart it, rests with the Libyan Government. Their decision to suspend the investigation is unacceptable. They made a commitment to us in 1999, and breaking it is not acceptable. That commitment must be honoured. We will not let the issue go away.

The stalled investigation is one of the last remaining issues to affect our relationship with Libya seriously. As my hon. Friend noticed, I am pleased that following intensive representations by Her Majesty’s Government, including by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, last month a joint FCO and Metropolitan police delegation visited Tripoli. That was at the invitation of the Libyan Government and was the first time since May 2007 that Metropolitan police investigators have been allowed to return to Libya to discuss the case. That meeting, on 5 August, discussed ways of moving the investigation forward to the satisfaction of both countries, and will, I hope, be the start of a new stage of co-operation.

The visit was a welcome step, but much more needs to be done to ensure that the family get the answers that they need. Securing full Libyan co-operation with the Metropolitan Police Service investigation, which would lead to a resumption of the witness interviews, therefore continues to be a key objective in our relations with Libya.

We thus come to the exchange of letters in 2006. As a direct result of the exchange of letters, between the British ambassador and Libyan Foreign Minister, which was aimed specifically at re-launching the investigation, the Metropolitan police visited Libya for witness interviews in December 2006 and in May 2007. That was an important step forward for the investigation, and a step that would likely not have occurred without the exchange. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the balance in such a case being difficult to get right.

The exchange of letters reflects the view of the Government at the time on how to enable the inquiry by the Met to progress. Establishing precisely what happened is crucial to the pursuit of justice. There is nothing unless that is done. The engagement of the Libyan authorities is, therefore, essential. The letters also reflect the reality that the Libyan authorities retain the right to decide where any suspect might be tried under their rules of extradition. In the event of a successful investigation, which is the most important issue, a joint decision will be reached about any trial. However, we should be realistic that a trial is more likely if it takes place in Libya rather than anywhere else.

Before I conclude, let me spend a few moments setting out our overall relationship with Libya. Since 1999 the UK and Libya have shared a number of diplomatic successes which have helped to normalise relations. Key among those successes were the agreement to pay compensation to the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and, as I mentioned earlier, the decision to give up weapons of mass destruction and to renounce terrorism. Those were difficult issues, but their resolution has brought benefits to both countries and to the world in general. Libya is now a partner of the UK in our joint efforts to counter international terrorism and to combat illegal migration into Europe.

The normalisation of relations has, of course, also brought about the development of trade with Libya, which has helped to create jobs for British citizens here and in Libya. However, commercial considerations have, and will, not play any part when pursuing the investigation into the killing of WPC Fletcher or the tackling of human rights abuses. Libya’s actions in the past few years also show to other countries the benefits of choosing the route that Libya has followed in abandoning weapons of mass destruction and renouncing terrorism. That route delivers more than the terrorist route, which is an important lesson for other nations and for the world.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that Libya’s past is a dark one, as I said. However, its actions since then indicate its determination to follow a different future. We recognise its willingness to co-operate on such matters as counter-terrorism activity against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, energy security and combating illegal migration, but difficult issues remain. Libya needs to continue to demonstrate that it has turned its back on its murderous past by addressing issues that still haunt our relations, in particular the case raised by my hon. Friend today.

We can only imagine the pain felt by the Fletcher family, at losing a loved one in such devastating circumstances, and by Yvonne Fletcher’s colleagues. To have received no answers for more than 26 years can only add to the sadness and frustration felt by the family. It is important to the Foreign Secretary and the Government that the Fletcher family are given the answers and the closure that they seek, and that depends on finding out the truth of what happened.

We will relentlessly pursue the resolution of that issue and of other human rights abuses in Libya, regardless of our current good relationship. We will continue to push the Libyans and to work hard to convince them to take the moral approach and to allow the Metropolitan police to complete the investigation.

I do not pretend for a moment that the case is not among the most difficult and emotive of issues—impossible to quantify or to calculate on some sort of scale in a returning relationship with a country recovering from its past. The FCO and I will do our level best to secure the information leading to a just resolution. I will do all I can to ensure the continuing assistance of the Libyan authorities, so that we may find out exactly what happened. That needs to be the basis for any conclusion about what might happen afterwards.

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on and commended for his work on the issue. We will continue to work closely. Resolution matters greatly to the Government, in terms of securing justice for WPC Fletcher and her family.