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Mr Shaker Aamer

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2015

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government response to the return to the UK of Mr Shaker Aamer.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. My interest in this matter stems from various press reports, such as this BBC report from the time of Mr Aamer’s return suggesting that he would be entitled to a large and secretive sum of compensation, allegedly in the region of £1 million. That, apparently, is in line with compensation paid to previous inmates of Guantanamo Bay who have returned to the UK.

I wrote to the Minister on this subject and, as always, he wrote back to me swiftly and directly, for which I am grateful. I could read out the whole letter because it is only a couple of sentences long, but I will not. The important sentence states: “In 2010, Kenneth Clarke, the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, made a statement in the House of Commons. In it he noted that Her Majesty’s Government had inherited the issues around the treatment of UK detainees held by other countries from previous Governments and that these issues needed to be addressed.” The letter goes on to say: “To that end, Mr Clarke informed the House ‘that the Government have now agreed a mediated settlement of the civil damages claims brought by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.’ The details of that settlement have been made subject to a legally binding confidentiality agreement.”

I wrote to the Minister asking for confirmation that Mr Shaker Aamer will not be entitled to money, and that is the response I got, so I think it is fair for me to assume that Mr Aamer will be in line for substantial damages. If the Minister wants to intervene at any time to tell me that that is not so and to rule it out categorically, I will happily cut the debate very short and finish now.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On a day when the Chancellor has announced difficult decisions in the spending review, many of my constituents will be horrified at the thought of compensation being paid to Mr Aamer. Will my hon. Friend reflect on that for a moment?

I will further reflect on that and say that my hon. Friend’s constituents are absolutely right. I am horrified at the prospect of this happening. It is completely and utterly wrong that Mr Aamer should be entitled to any compensation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government and other groups who fought for 14 years for the release of this resident of Britain, Shaker Aamer, should be given a lot of credit and that nothing can ever compensate somebody for the loss of liberty for 14 years without charge? However, if compensation of a monetary value should be given, surely it is the US Government who should be giving it.

I will not comment on what other people have done, but my hon. Friend is certainly right to say that, if anybody is going to pay compensation, it should not be the British taxpayer given the enormous amount of time and money that British officials have spent trying to secure Mr Aamer’s freedom.

I will now set out some of the generally accepted facts. Mr Aamer is a Saudi citizen; he is not a British citizen at all. He was born in 1968 and moved to the UK in 1996. He subsequently got married here. He was given indefinite right to remain here and submitted an application for British citizenship. Before that application went through, he decided in 2001 to leave and move to Afghanistan, which at the time was run by the extreme Islamic Taliban Government.

The war in Afghanistan broke out in 2001, while Mr Aamer was over there. He was able to get his family out of Afghanistan, but he chose to stay there. In, I believe, November 2001, he was kidnapped by Afghan nationals and handed over to American nationals who imprisoned him. On that basis, I fail to see why the British taxpayer should become responsible for handing over to him a cheque for £1 million. He may be completely innocent of terrorist activity, but he certainly chose to embark on a very risky course of action of his own volition.

Westminster Hall is a good place to have a debate, but it is perhaps not the appropriate place to put someone on trial who was not tried for 14 years.

My hon. Friend is probably right, but I am not putting him on trial. I have given the generally accepted facts: he chose to come to the United Kingdom as a Saudi citizen; he got married here; he applied to become a British citizen; and, before that application went through, he moved to Afghanistan. He apparently preferred to live in Afghanistan in 2001, and he was captured by Afghan nationals from the Northern Alliance and handed over to the Americans. There is no doubt about any of that, so I am just citing facts. He may be completely innocent of any terrorist activity, and I will assume that he is for the time being.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s clarification. Unfortunately, as he knows, some facts have not yet been proven, and the Minister might give us more information on the question of any torture and the presence of British people during that torture. There are therefore many complicated issues with this case.

There are certainly a lot of facts that have yet to come out, and I might refer to a few in a minute. I will first address the statement by the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), in 2010. He made a couple of points setting out why he would make large payments to the previous Guantanamo Bay inmates who returned to the UK.

I will not try to read it out but, in summary, the former Lord Chancellor said that the Gibson inquiry would not be able to begin until the claims had been resolved. My first question is: why not? I do not see why outstanding claims should prevent an inquiry from being set up. In any case, the Gibson inquiry subsequently ended because apparently nobody was satisfied that it would be impartial. There is no Gibson inquiry now, so that particular problem will not occur in the case of Mr Aamer.

My right hon. and learned Friend’s second point was that he felt there was absolutely no admission of culpability in any of the matters to which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) has just referred. If we, as a Government or as a country, are not culpable of any misdeeds in these people’s cases, why on earth are we not saying so and fighting the court cases? If there is any culpability, it certainly does not lie with any Minister of this Government or the previous coalition Government; the blame will rest with someone else—so maybe someone else, and not the British taxpayer, should be held accountable.

My hon. Friend is making a compelling speech. What does he think the families of the brave members of our armed forces who lost their lives in Afghanistan will think about this news?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I will come to in a minute because there are three families in that position in Monmouthshire.

The then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, made the point that the cost of fighting a court case was

“estimated at approximately £30 million to £50 million over three to five years of litigation.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 753.]

That is a very high figure, and I find it hard to believe, but I am not a legal man. In any event, if we are right then we should fight these cases. We should not simply have a situation where people can pitch up and say, “I’m going to sue the Government for £1 million and it will cost you more than that to defend the case, so you’ll have to give me the money.” This Government should be a Government of principles and if we believe that we are in the right, we should fight these cases and not simply hand out cheques to people.

On that point, I wonder whether the figure of £30 million to £50 million that he just cited is in relation to our fighting the case and losing it. If so, what would be the figure if we fought the case and won?

Exactly, and I wonder how much of that £30 million to £50 million would be the costs being submitted by the lawyers working for these people—actually, the statement does not make that clear, so I cannot comment. However, my hon. Friend makes a very good point.

If the Government showed a willingness to go to court, it might well be that Mr Aamer’s extremely expensive lawyers would think twice about bringing the case to court. There is certainly an implication of that in this report from the BBC and other press reports. In this report, Mr Stafford Smith, one of the main lawyers involved, implied that he was not going to bother suing the Americans because he had no chance of getting money out of them. As far as I am concerned, let Mr Aamer’s lawyers fight for their money in Britain, and let the Minister and the Government do everything in their power to stop them from getting it.

There are facts that need to come out here. Mr Aamer himself obviously felt that the extreme brand of Islam favoured by the Taliban at that time in 2001 was preferable to anything on offer in the UK. He chose to go out there to Afghanistan.

Hang on; I will give way in a moment, but perhaps my hon. Friend can clarify this matter if she knows anything about it. Mr Aamer claims that he was working for a charity in Afghanistan. I have scoured the internet and looked at every report I can find from everybody that has had an interest in this case, and I have not been able to find out anywhere the name of this charity.

There are lots of principles at stake here and I think it is very worthy of us to debate them, but I do not believe that we are here to put somebody on trial who was in prison for 14 years without any trial, and without their being present here today. Will my hon. Friend please stick to the principles of this very worthy debate and avoid putting Mr Shaker Aamer on trial here today?

I am not putting him on trial, but if his lawyer wants to come out and tell us more about this charity that he was working for, his lawyer should do so; he has had plenty of opportunities.

I will give way once more to my hon. Friend, but lots of people have been saying lots of things in defence of Mr Aamer; nobody has been telling us about this charity that he was working for. If my hon. Friend knows anything about it, I ask her to enlighten us.

Yes, I have information, but it needs to be given in a court of law if it is relevant. I do not believe that it is valuable here. I believe that if my hon. Friend needs this conversation, then the lawyer must be here, Mr Shaker Aamer must be here and we must go back 14 years, when a trial should have taken place.

No, I disagree with my hon. Friend. If she knows the name of the charity, then she should say so; it is not listed anywhere else. And while she is at it, she ought to try to find out, or the lawyer ought to explain, why Mr Aamer was apparently arrested on a fake Belgian passport when he was in Afghanistan, because fake passports are not normally de rigueur when one is doing work for aid agencies.

The hon. Gentleman should perhaps really abide by the points made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias). Is he not abusing his position here and taking advantage of parliamentary privilege to try to put on trial a man who spent 14 years in custody without ever having allegations proved against him or ever being put on trial? Is this not a matter where due process should take its course? I hope that is what the Minister will tell us. Frankly, to try to besmirch this man’s name after everything he has been through is really quite disgraceful, and it takes advantage of parliamentary privilege.

I am amazed by what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because this matter is surely relevant. If Mr Aamer was in possession of a fake Belgian passport, that needs to be discussed. I am not besmirching him; I am not even saying that he was in possession of a fake Belgian passport. I am saying that it was widely reported and has not been denied.

The second point is that I am saying there is a lot of information that has been put out there about Mr Aamer by his lawyers, among others, but nobody has seen fit to tell us the name of the charity that he was working for.

The first point is that Shaker Aamer himself has not had the opportunity to put his side of the story. I am sure he will do so at some point, and therefore this discussion is at the very least premature.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to ask about due process and to question the Minister about how the Government conduct litigation. In my humble opinion, he is not entitled to come here and attack a man who has suffered grievously and not been shown due process, and to add insult to injury by doing what he is doing today.

The hon. Gentleman can relax, because I am not attacking Mr Aamer at all; if I was attacking him, the hon. Gentleman would know about it. I am just raising a few questions. When I am in attack mode, I am in attack mode, and I am not in attack mode. I am actually giving him the benefit of the doubt—

I find this absolutely extraordinary. These are perfectly reasonable questions to ask, given that this man is apparently about to receive £1 million of taxpayers’ money in secret, which I think is outrageous. Three young men from Monmouthshire have lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan. They did not choose to go there; they did not go and choose to live under this extremist Islamo-fascist state that Mr Aamer decided was a worthy state to go and live under. They were asked to go there by the British Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who is sitting next to me, made some proper points in this debate. What I have here is a list of the sums that people will get paid if they receive serious injuries in the defence of their country. The absolute maximum that someone can get if they have lost both arms and both legs is £570,000. That is for people who have been doing their duty for this country. This man, Mr Aamer, not a British citizen at all, was given the right to come over to this country because of our generous ways. His family, as I understand it, have been looked after by the state ever since he disappeared off to Afghanistan with them—

No, I am not giving way again, because I asked the hon. Gentleman to answer a straightforward question last time, and he said he was going to and then he did not.

Let me finish by saying that it is absolutely outrageous that British servicemen and women who lost arms and legs in Afghanistan fighting those Islamo-fascists who had launched those disgraceful attacks on New York, while Mr Aamer was apparently out there in Afghanistan by choice working—allegedly—for some sort of charity, will now get only half as much money as Mr Aamer. He is not a British citizen; he chose to go and live in a foreign country; he was kidnapped by members of some other militia in said foreign country; and he was put in prison in another foreign country. It is wrong that the British taxpayer should be expected to pick up the bill for that.

Mrs Moon, you and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who has secured this debate, will appreciate that there are some things that I can deal with straightforwardly in this debate and some matters that are not appropriate to raise, which are subject to proceedings that would not be appropriate to refer to. Obviously, if there are any security matters that I am unable to raise, my hon. Friend will appreciate that, given his experience of this House, and I know that he will not test me on them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the House. Shaker Aamer is the last UK resident to be released from Guantanamo Bay. As my hon. Friend will be aware, Mr Aamer was released and returned to the UK on 30 October into Biggin Hill airport. Other Members secured debates earlier this year, seeking Mr Aamer’s release, and as you will know, Mrs Moon, there is an all-party group on Shaker Aamer. Those Members have made their arguments and those arguments are now, of course, in the context of Mr Aamer’s release, but I appreciate that other Members—my hon. Friend is clearly one of them—who may seek to question why this Government went about trying to seek Mr Aamer’s return to the United Kingdom.

Forgive me, but I will just make this fundamental point, because I think we can find a synthesis across this Chamber if we all understand it. Indefinite detention without fair trial is fundamentally unacceptable. That is central not only to our view of the legal process but, more than that, to the ethical framework on which that process is built. It is an a priori assumption that detention without trial is unacceptable, and I am absolutely certain that my hon. Friend, who is about to intervene on me again, will agree with that.

Actually, I was just going to point out, with the greatest of respect to my right hon. Friend, whom I have known for a long time, that that is not what I have raised here. I am not making any comment about Mr Aamer’s detention. I am making a comment about the prospect of his receiving a secret payment of £1 million or thereabouts. That is what I am raising today.

That is what my hon. Friend has raised in part, but it is impossible to consider it out of the context of the circumstances that prevail in respect of Shaker Aamer. My belief, which I am sure my hon. Friend and the whole Chamber shares, is that the fairness of any judicial system is vital to its popular acceptance. The unintended consequence of Guantanamo Bay is to create a perception of unfairness, which potentially fuels distaste for and hostility towards the US and her allies. With that in mind, the UK Government committed to making best endeavours to bring Mr Aamer back to the UK. Representations on his behalf in which the UK position was made clear were made by Ministers at the most senior levels, including by the Prime Minister to President Obama. The whole Chamber will be aware of that, because it was the subject of some publicity. The fact that the US Administration agreed to review Mr Aamer’s case as a priority and then release him demonstrated our close ties once again.

Following the return of Mr Aamer, it is important to emphasise that the UK is not considering accepting any further detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The timetable for the closure of that facility has not emerged, but Members will be mindful that it remains a matter for the US Government. Members will know that President Obama has commented on that a number of times. In respect of Mr Aamer, officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and across the Government worked to ensure that the return happened quickly and securely.

In view of the motion’s wording, will the Minister tell us whether the Government are looking into the allegations that UK personnel may have been present at times when torture was administered to Mr Shaker Aamer, whether in Afghanistan or in Guantanamo Bay?

I will in a moment. I am not sufficiently accomplished to remember all the interventions and then respond to them in sequence. I need to do them one by one, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) made her point and put it on record, but she must know that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of anyone involved in alleged events in Guantanamo Bay, and I certainly cannot do so in this debate.

Does the Minister not agree that the allegations of torture are simply that—allegations? Those allegations are besmirching the American Government, and I have as much right to ask why Mr Aamer was out there on a false passport, working for a charity that I cannot find out anything about, as others have to suggest that he was tortured when he got there. They are all allegations, and that is it.

With the combination of assiduity, perspicacity and good hearing that my hon. Friend personifies, he will have heard me use the phrase, “anyone involved in alleged events”.

Returning to my script, I understand that the public will have concerns in respect of a former detainee of Guantanamo Bay returning to the UK and the potential security implications. My hon. Friend articulated some of that today, but it is important for me to say that I cannot comment on why Mr Aamer was detained in the first instance or provide any details, as I said at the outset of the debate, on security arrangements in this individual case. It has been a long tradition of successive Governments not to do that, and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to break with it today, given the sensitivity of these matters.

I reassure the whole Chamber, however, that the first duty of any Government is to protect the security of our citizens, and we take that duty extremely seriously. Any individual seeking to engage in terrorism-related activity should be in no doubt that the relevant authorities will take the strongest possible action to protect our national security and ensure that they are brought to justice. Recent events around the world, particularly so close in Paris, have demonstrated that the threat remains real, severe and dynamic.

The Chamber will not be oblivious to the fact that both the Prime Minister and the director of MI5 have made absolutely clear that we have foiled no fewer than seven different terrorist plots in the past year alone through the work of our security services and police. That is ample illustration of the urgency, severity and character of the work we are doing. The police and security and intelligence agencies already have a range of powers available to them, stretching from prosecution for criminal offences relating to terrorism to executive disruption powers, such as the imposition of terrorism prevention and investigation measures.

Dealing with Syria, we have a wide range of powers to disrupt travel and manage the risk posed by returnees. Those powers include the ability to temporarily seize and retain travel documents to disrupt immediate travel and the creation of a temporary exclusion order to enable the UK Government to temporarily disrupt and control an individual’s return to the UK.

Of course there will be those who criticise some of the measures as an infringement of civil liberties, but I disagree. They are about protecting precious freedoms from terrorists who want to steal them from us. Our legislation is robust, and because of our determination to get the balance right, those powers are matched with appropriate checks and balances, safeguards and judicial oversight. We remain confident that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the tools available to deal with those who seek to threaten the UK.

There have been comments in the media, reflected in my hon. Friend’s speech today, about any payments that may be made to Mr Aamer. I refer those present to the statement that my hon. Friend referred to by the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). On 16 November 2010, he stated that

“the Government have now agreed a mediated settlement of the civil damages claims brought by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. The details of that settlement have been made subject to a legally binding confidentiality agreement.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 752.]

I am repeating a point that my hon. Friend made, and I know he would not expect me to go further than that today.

As the statement I just read out said, the settlement is subject to a binding confidentiality agreement. That is not uncommon in law. My hon. Friend is a distinguished parliamentarian and an authority on a number of matters, and he will know that it is not uncommon to have confidentiality agreements in such cases.

The former Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, noted that the Government of the time inherited the issues around the treatment of UK detainees held by other countries from previous Governments and that the issues needed to be addressed. He said that failure to do so would mean that our reputation as a country that believes in the rule of law and fairness, as was described earlier, risked being tarnished. As was also set out in that statement, no admissions of culpability were made in settling the claims and none of the claimants had withdrawn their allegations. It was a mediated settlement where confidentiality is a common feature. I am therefore unable to provide any further comment on legal action brought by those detained in Guantanamo Bay than that already provided by the statement.

It is open to Mr Aamer to bring a damages claim in the US. That was raised in the course of considerations, and it is a matter for the US justice system. I cannot comment on that, and I cannot comment on what Mr Aamer plans to do, because I do not know.

In conclusion, I reiterate that the UK has long held that indefinite detention without trial is fundamentally unacceptable, because it is unreasonable and unfair. The rule of law depends on popular acclaim. It depends on us all believing that we will be treated fairly, properly and equally. My hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister has asked the Intelligence and Security Committee to examine the themes and issues set out in “The Report of the Detainee Inquiry”, which was published by the Government in December 2013. I have outlined as far as I can Mr Aamer’s immigration status and the measures in place to deal with any individual engaging in terrorist-related activity. In addition, I have reminded those present of the statement by the former Justice Secretary on the damages claims brought by those detained in Guantanamo Bay and the mediated settlement that followed. I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased to have had the opportunity to put these matters on record, and I know that he feels strongly about them. With the respect I offer him, I hope that he will respect my position in not being able to add further to these matters on this occasion in this House.

Question put and agreed to.