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In Amenas Hostages

Volume 564: debated on Wednesday 12 June 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, in what is a very sensitive and important debate.

When you look into the eyes of a mother who has just lost her son, you begin to understand what true heartbreak is. On Friday 8 May this year, when I met Margaret Barlow and Jan Barnes, the mother and sister of Garry Barlow, an innocent victim of the In Amenas terrorist attack, that heartbreak is what I saw. It is on their behalf that I have secured this debate.

Five months have now passed since the attack and the family still have too many unanswered questions. They still do not know the full and exact details of how, or when, Garry died. In a statement to the House on 21 January this year, the Prime Minister said:

“There is still some uncertainty about the precise facts”.—[Official Report, 21 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 25.]

I trust that the Minister can begin to enlighten us about some of those facts today.

One of the main areas where we are short on facts is how and why the attack happened. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was rationalised as retaliation for the French involvement in Mali. However, that view is now rejected. Other motives that have been speculated on are kidnapping, ransom, suicide bombers, or that the attack was an attempt to secure the release of Islamic terrorist prisoners. There are even some reports that suggest that the Algerian security services may have had some involvement. At the moment, we just do not know the truth.

I would be grateful if the Minister provided an explanation of the facts, particularly—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

To recap, I should be grateful if the Minister could provide an explanation of the facts, particularly the motivating factors for the attack and its purpose. We really need an answer to the most fundamental of all the questions, which is how, despite the Foreign Office and BP, independent assessments and local intelligence, were Garry Barlow and the other foreign workers at the plant left in harm’s way? How could that happen, when the Foreign Office issues travel advice, companies are paid to provide strategic risk assessments and advice on areas throughout the world, including Africa, major multinational companies running those projects employ on-site security advisers, and employees on the ground feed back information to their companies?

In November, the Foreign Office amended its travel advice to increase the threat level in Algeria. An article in the Financial Times on 24 January stated:

“‘there were no known specific threats to the site’”.

Yet previously, in July 2012, a report by Executive Analysis named the In Amenas plant as a potential target for a terrorist attack. In the same article, BP is referenced as arguing

“that there was no need for private guards in In Amenas”,

owing to

“large numbers of Algerian security forces”

located nearby, with a full arsenal, including helicopters and tanks. Alongside that,

“access to the complex was controlled by Algerian gendarmerie.”

Yet somehow, 40 heavily armed gunmen travelled unnoticed across the desert, according to reports, and took control of the plant.

The uncorrected transcript of the Foreign Affairs Committee sitting on 21 May contains interesting evidence from Jon Marks, an associate fellow at Chatham House. He says that

“the plant was being softened up for such an attack, at least as far as we understand at present.”

The most damning critique of the official picture is in Garry Barlow’s own words, in an e-mail to his sister on 30 November 2012. He wrote:

“situation is getting dodgy here, local drivers have been on strike for 6 months, they are now on hunger strike, place is practically crippled and can’t go on much longer.

Government would normally step in and shoot them, however they belong to the Tuareg tribe. The Tuareg are nomadic and occupy a large area of the Sahara crossing many borders. They recently staged a coup in Mali and took control, as they are militant Islamists. Al Qaeda are now starting to settle in Mali, this is making the Algerian Government very nervous and they have sent a few battalions to the southern region. They have not intervened in the strike as they don’t want to inflame the situation.

Local Tuareg have said that if any of the hunger strikers die then they will kill 30 expats at the In Amenas gas plant. As most expats have been demobbed, there are only 10 of us left, they must be planning to kill us all three times over, ha ha. Don’t start any candle lit services yet.

Due on Wednesday…not sure if there will be a job when I am back on site though.”

Somehow, somewhere, between the information available and what was being communicated by the companies to their staff there was a disconnect, which cost lives and needs to be explained.

Garry Barlow was my constituent, and his widow and their two children are still trying to find out precisely what happened to Garry. Mrs Barlow recently sought my further assistance, to try to get more and better information about what happened to Garry, because she feels that that has not been advanced at all since his death. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind in responding.

I thank my hon. Friend.

Is the Minister satisfied that the companies employing British staff at the In Amenas plant provided the correct advice and assurances to ensure those workers were safe? What is his evidence for being satisfied of that, beyond the companies’ verbal assurances?

In the light of Garry Barlow’s e-mail, does the Minister believe that the Foreign Office failed to react to the changing circumstances on the ground in Algeria? Can he explain why so many foreign workers had been demobbed, as Garry stated in his e-mail? Was that related to the security situation? If so, why were not all the foreign workers removed? Did the FCO have any conversations with BP or the Algerian authorities about the situation within the region and about any developing threats to the safety of foreign workers?

I am sorry that I have such a series of questions, but there is a mountain of unanswered questions. Does the Minister believe that the companies employing British workers, or the Algerian authorities as the host nation, fulfilled their duty of care to the staff at or returning to the In Amenas plant in January? British citizens working abroad need to be confident that the Government play an active role in monitoring the security provisions of multinational companies with British interests such as BP. It is really important that there are such assurances.

I will now turn to the Government’s response during and after the hostage situation. On 17 January 2013, the Prime Minister made a statement saying that the families should expect “bad news”. The families learned that information like everyone else, as it was being broadcast through the TV in their living rooms. Even the police liaison teams had not been informed that a statement was to be made, much less the content.

All the Barlow family have ever sought was to be told information before it was given to the media so that they were able to prepare and protect their family, especially the children. I know how badly affected Mrs Barlow was. The whole family were affected, but I have seen Mrs Barlow and my heart goes out to her. Mrs Barlow Sr is in a dreadful state.

That one aspect of control in the whole situation was taken away from the family, and I have been asked to convey their deep disappointment at the Prime Minister’s failure to make personal contact with them; there was not even a telephone call to offer condolences to Mrs Barlow on the loss of her son. That is in contrast to the Norwegian Prime Minister, who personally met the families of the Norwegian victims of the terrorist attack. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one understands that such words of condolence do not take away the pain of that loss, yet there is the smallest comfort in those simple words, which are respectful and demonstrate that the human life lost is valued. Public statements such as laying wreaths, as the Prime Minister did in Algeria, have their place, but care and compassion in communicating with the families should have been paramount.

I acknowledge the work of the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), in trying to keep the families informed, but the Prime Minister told the families via TV and radio that their relatives were in mortal danger, which is a very sad indictment of his priorities. I urge the Minister to review the manner in which his Department and the Government as a whole handled communications with the family and to resolve any issues.

Finally, I turn to the investigation that is currently being conducted by SO15 officers and the effectiveness of that investigation. At the time of the attack, an SO15 officer was sent to Algeria. Between Algiers and In Amenas, the officer was accompanied by a BP representative. During his time in Algeria, the investigating officer was prevented from gaining access to the In Amenas site not once but twice, despite the British Prime Minister having sought assurances on access from the Algerian Prime Minister. Even the media were allowed access. SO15 was not allowed access, but the media were. On the last occasion the SO15 officer spoke to my constituents, he still had not managed to gain access to the In Amenas plant, where operations are already back up and running.

How can the families have confidence that that investigation will offer any real answers when the crime scene has been compromised and vital forensic information from the site and the bodies have been lost? Why does there appear to be little or no co-operation from the Algerian authorities on allowing British investigators access to the site? Can the Minister explain the efficacy of BP’s involvement with the investigating team given that BP has not conducted its own investigation, unlike its partner Statoil? Is it not appropriate that, rather than joining the investigation, BP be considered as a body to be investigated? Will the Minister comment on the appropriateness of the investigating officers speaking at conferences on the situation when the families have been given little or no information on the current progress of the investigation?

I thank the Minister in advance for responding to my questions, and I hope he is able to restore some of the Barlow family’s faith and confidence that the Government are on their side, with care, compassion and feeling for all members of the family being paramount.

I am pleased to be under your guidance this afternoon, Ms Dorries.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing this important debate and on the measured, calm and detailed way in which she set out her concerns and those of her constituents and other hon. Members. Before I respond to her points, I put on record that my thoughts and sympathies are with all those affected by the terrorist attacks at In Amenas. I am personally very sorry for the tragic loss of Mr Barlow and all those, UK citizens and others, who lost their lives in that terrorist atrocity.

No one will forget the horror of those days in January, when six British nationals and one British resident lost their lives. I can only begin to imagine how difficult those days must have been for those anxiously waiting for news and how painful every moment has been since that news was received. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: no words, however well meaning and however often they are repeated, can relieve the suffering of the loved ones of those British citizens and others who lost their lives in Algeria.

I remind hon. Members that Her Majesty’s coroner is legally responsible for determining the cause of death, and my response must not in any way prejudice the course of her inquiries.

The hon. Lady raised very serious, significant, substantive and important issues, and I will try to address them in my remarks. I hope she and other hon. Members will be patient. What happened at In Amenas was abhorrent, and it was the terrorists who were responsible for the tragic deaths of so many. We know that the terrorist threat in the Sahel comes from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which aspires to introduce Islamic law across the Sahel and north Africa and to attack western interests wherever it can. The hon. Lady is right to say that we should not assume a straightforward link to events in Mali given the complexity of the attack, but we do not know now, and we may never know, what motivated the individuals at In Amenas. What we do know is that their actions—the cold-blooded murder of innocent workers—can never be justified. That is why the world stood united in its condemnation, and why the actions of the extremists have only confirmed our implacable opposition to terrorism and our resolve to fight it together.

The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is holding an inquiry into terrorism in north and west Africa. To our mind, it seems that many of the terrorists who carried out the attack, and who were involved as well in the destabilisation of the Malian force, were trying to help Colonel Gaddafi before his regime in Libya fell. Many of them are not from Algeria but from neighbouring countries in the Sahel. Does he accept that the outcome of the Libyan conflict had some bearing on the attack, and indeed on what is happening in Mali?

Of course I am aware of the detail of the Foreign Affairs Committee investigation. The hon. Gentleman is partially right, in that the perpetrators of that terrorist atrocity were not all from inside Algeria, but he will also be aware that the borders in that part of Africa are extremely porous. It is a significant challenge that countries in the region must resolve, with the co-operation and assistance of the international community at both multilateral and bilateral levels, if we are to ensure that that sort of situation does not occur again.

To pick up on one of the key elements of the contribution made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire about the safety of the British nationals involved, the repatriation of those killed and the evacuation of the wounded and freed hostages was the top priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and of the international community as it related to people of other nationalities. Staff in London and Algiers worked around the clock to support the Algerians in resolving the crisis, and our embassy in Algeria was strengthened by 18 consular experts, six experts from the Red Cross and specialists from the Metropolitan police. We gave direct assistance to the British nationals involved in Algeria, and our ambassador was the first to reach In Amenas. Our response involved playing a leading role among the countries affected, including sharing information with them and supporting the identification of victims. We have continued to take a lead since then, for instance by co-ordinating work on the return of possessions.

As hon. Members will remember, In Amenas is two days’ drive from Algiers; it is in the middle of the Sahara desert and is one of the most remote places in the world. Information was therefore difficult to come by, not least since we were not informed in advance of Algerian operations. None the less, I understand and regret that the unpredictable nature of events and a lack of detail caused distress for those waiting for news.

The attack was on a significant scale. From the outset, the Prime Minister led the United Kingdom response, chairing Cobra on a number of occasions. He continued to do so in the month after the attack, making a ground-breaking visit to Algeria, closely followed by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). We believe that early, proactive and personal engagement with families and relevant MPs is essential. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Lancashire for her commendation of my hon. Friend, who did a sterling job in difficult circumstances.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister immediately offered ministerial contact, via police liaison officers, to all affected families and MPs, a number of whom took up the offer, including the family of Mr Barlow. I know that my right hon. Friend has recently spoken with them again and regrets sincerely that he cannot be here in person today.

I accept that we may not always get contact right in crises where information is limited. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office always seeks to learn from such incidents, and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire will be doing so. He has discussed the police liaison process with the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police to see whether it can be improved in future.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire specifically made the point that what happened was unclear. It is still unclear. Some of the details are still not known. I know how hard that must be for the families, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment on behalf of the Algerian authorities or BP. Instead, we very much hope that the investigation, on which the Algerian authorities are leading, and the coroner’s inquest in the UK, will answer some of the hon. Lady’s questions, and those of her constituents and others.

We continue to discuss the detail of the In Amenas attack with the Algerian authorities at every available opportunity, including at ministerial level, as we did when the Prime Minister and the Minister for the middle east visited in the weeks following the attack. We will support their investigations in any way that we can. We continue to seek assurances from the Algerian authorities that they will share details and access to the site in the aftermath of the attack. None the less, it must be said that Algeria is a sovereign country and, just as we would expect to do here, the Algerians must be allowed to conduct their investigations in accordance with their own laws.

The coroner’s investigation will take place early in 2014. The Government are supporting that process. A small team of Metropolitan Police Service officers travelled to Algeria on 18 January to lead on the identification and repatriation of those who died, and they continue to gather information. They last travelled to Algeria in May. Her Majesty’s coroner for West Sussex will hold a preliminary hearing on 1 July, which will set out the scope of her investigation.

It is important to understand that this is a complex inquiry into deaths that occurred at a site staffed by multinational personnel. Nationals from nine other countries lost their lives, and individuals from a total of 29 countries were involved, so much of the information that might assist the coroner is not automatically available in the UK. The police are therefore liaising with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Algerian authorities and other international authorities and partners to progress enquiries and get that information on the coroner’s behalf. Regrettably, that will take time, but I am sure that the hon. Member for West Lancashire will agree that it is absolutely essential that the investigation is thorough and benefits from the maximum availability of the appropriate amount of information.

I am happy to agree that the investigation should be thorough and proper, but can the Minister comment on the fact that SO15 officers were not allowed access to begin that investigation when members of the media were? Surely that is the starting point for a thorough investigation, is it not?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. She was right to emphasise in her initial remarks the assurances that the United Kingdom Prime Minister received, but I am sure she also understands that the Algerians are leading the judicial investigation. They have allowed some access to the site for the repatriation of personal property and possessions, which the UK took a lead on. I assure her that we will continue to press for the appropriate level of access for the UK investigative team in support of the Algerian and coroner’s inquests. I assure all hon. Members that the Government will continue to do all they can to support the families in their search for answers to their very appropriate questions.

Is the Minister aware that the relatives of Garry Barlow know no more now than they did in January about when and how Garry died? They are becoming distressed at the passage of time, without any commensurate increase in the amount of information they have.

That was one of the first questions I asked my officials. I prefer not to put the response on the record, but I am happy to talk privately to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for West Lancashire to give them a more accurate assessment as to why that situation is the case. Perhaps we can find a moment to do that.

I also want to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire about travel advice, which was integral to the thrust of her initial remarks. I assure her that we did not have advance warning about the attack or about specific threats that would have warranted further changes to our travel advice. As I am sure she is aware, our advice already made it clear that western interests were specific targets for terrorism in Algeria.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office closely monitors and keeps under constant review travel advice around the world, including for Algeria, and the advice was updated several times in the months before that appalling attack. It needs to be said, however, that travel advice is what it says—advice. It is up to companies and individuals to heed that advice, or to follow their course of action in the full knowledge that the advice is there.

The advice noted the increased risks following the French military intervention in Mali. Having reviewed our advice once again, I am confident that it accurately reflected what we knew at the time. Had we had any specific information relating directly to In Amenas, it would have been passed to the company immediately. Protecting our citizens is a priority. We try to establish as much information about terrorist activity as we can, and to communicate it both to relevant companies and to the public. The tragic reality is that sometimes there is no warning.

From the outset, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided support to those caught up in the attack and their families, and we will continue to assist in any way we can. Police family liaison officers remain appointed to each family and are in regular contact.

The hon. Lady mentioned concerns about BP. Companies, ultimately, are responsible for the security of their staff and assets. As investigations continue, however, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the security arrangements at the site, or on how BP and the other companies used the information that was available about the threat. Any specific questions on those issues must be addressed to them. Nevertheless, looking ahead, we are doing everything we can by engaging closely with industry representatives to ensure that we are aware of their concerns and that we take steps to give them the best support we can in keeping their staff and assets safe.

To that end, since the In Amenas attacks, we have actively engaged with UK industry in the region and the extractive industries sector to review and refine how we work together on crisis and threat management: first, to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government and industry understand each other’s crisis management mechanisms through information sharing, exercising and using lessons learned from this and other crises; and, secondly, on threat management, to ensure the most effective channels between industry and Government on threat contact, informing our bilateral engagement with partners such as Algeria on their response. I assure the hon. Lady that that work is ongoing.

I also assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to provide the best information possible through our travel advice, and we will work with countries in the region to reduce the risk to British nationals in Algeria and elsewhere in the Sahel and north and west Africa. As the Prime Minister said, we are determined to root out and defeat the terrorist scourge and those who encourage it anywhere in the world, including in north Africa. That issue will be debated at the G8 meeting next week.

In conclusion, the In Amenas attack was a stark reminder of the threat we face throughout the world, and of the importance of a global response to terrorism, not only over months, but over years. I hope that the Algerian investigation and the coroner’s inquest will help to answer some of the questions asked by the hon. Lady this afternoon, and that families in West Lancashire and elsewhere, whose lives were changed for ever by those terrible events, will get responses to their questions. Through the police liaison officers, we will continue to inform them of progress. Finally, I offer again my sincere condolences and those of the Government to the families who lost loved ones in that terrible atrocity.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.