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Canary Wharf Bombing: Compensation

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered compensation for victims of the Canary Wharf bombing.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding over the debate, Ms Dorries. It is also very good to see the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, in his place. I know that the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice have been passing or sharing responsibility for this issue among them. I am grateful that a Treasury Minister is here, because I think that this is a financial question. Some issues of compensation are an MOJ responsibility and some issues are a Foreign Office responsibility, but a number of the key questions that I want to ask relate to British financial policy, as I hope to make clear. I am grateful that the Treasury is represented here today to respond to the debate. To be honest, I do not really care which Department takes responsibility and responds. What the victims and I want to see is action.

Two weeks and 20 years ago today, the Canary Wharf bomb detonated. The bombing marked the end of a 17-month IRA ceasefire. It was recently the subject of an excellent BBC Four documentary, broadcast to commemorate the event, entitled “Executing the Peace”. The half-tonne bomb was left in a small lorry about 80 yards from South Quay station on the docklands light railway. It exploded at 19:02 GMT 90 minutes after coded warnings were telephoned to Dublin and Belfast media. Inam Bashir and John Jeffries died when the bomb went off outside their shop on 9 February 1996. Many more people were injured, a number seriously.

I have been trying for a number of years to assist the Docklands Victims Association to secure compensation for the victims who suffered, and are still suffering in many cases, and for the families of those who were killed. The Docklands Victims Association is not alone in seeking justice; many other victims are also trying to do so.

The starting point for all this seems easy enough. Semtex explosive was sold by the Czechs to the Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi. It then supplied that Semtex to various terrorist organisations, including the IRA. That Semtex killed and maimed people. But from there things get much less clear. To its credit, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs—I am pleased to see its Chair, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), in his place—is engaged in an inquiry trying to get to the bottom of this. I cannot do justice, in my brief remarks, to the evidence that it has already heard or the conclusions and recommendations that it will deliver, but its report, I suspect, will not be kind to successive British Governments over the last almost 20 years. I simply wish to ask the Minister why UK citizens have not been compensated, unlike citizens in the United States, Germany and France who were also victims of Semtex supplied by Gaddafi.

One of the most powerful statements that I heard in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee sessions was from Mr Jason McCue, representing victims in Northern Ireland. He said:

“Victims…are front-line troops in the war on terror...We have a duty of care to them, and yet we do not seem to value them in our society, like others do—like the French or the Americans do. We do not give them that value; we do not give them that respect. We do not see the humanity in them, and their strength in the war on terror. There is no stronger counter-terrorism measure than a victim standing up”.

The question for me and many colleagues—a number are in the Chamber today—is not whether the victims should be compensated but how. There are several possible ways, and all have been mentioned in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hearings, in which members are examining those ways and have suggested a number of parliamentary questions to tease out even more information on this very difficult issue.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this very important issue again on behalf of his constituents. The Docklands Victims Association is doing tremendous work and working with victims elsewhere whose victimhood came about as a result of Semtex supplied by Gaddafi. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that Members from Northern Ireland fully support the campaign for compensation in this case, because it will mean compensation right across the board for many other victims as well. We fully support the case and wish him well.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that expression of support. He, too, has campaigned strongly on this issue for many years. This is a more general case; it is not exclusively about the Docklands Victims Association. Obviously, those victims are in my constituency, but many others across the country are also involved, and what we want to see is justice for them all.

I was exploring the possible ways forward. The first way forward would have been for the British Government to join a class action with the US Government in their claim for compensation. I would like to quote Mr McCue again. He said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans):

“There was no reason why the British Government could not have, first of all, petitioned for the British citizens to be in it. There is nothing in American law preventing them from espousing a claim, which is the technical term for it, with another state to bring compensation for a class action. The Americans could have done it.”

A Mr Jury, another witness at the Northern Ireland hearings who was also representing victims, said:

“Can I add to that that the Libya Claims Settlement Agreement is a court-accepted statement of liability towards the UK victims? Under US law, there has been an acceptance of liability, and under judicial international comity, the UK courts would accept that anyway.”

Therefore there is, or at least was, the possibility of an international legal route to compensation, but my main question to the Government is why is there not, or why can there not be, a UK domestic route?

There have been reports that the UK Government have frozen Gaddafi or Libyan assets in UK banks. I suspect that the Treasury was behind that, which is why I have targeted the question in this debate at Treasury Ministers. The amount of funds is not clear. Some commentators suggest £900 million; others suggest that it runs into billions of pounds. That raises a number of questions for the Minister, of which I gave his office notice last evening. I must congratulate the Minister’s private office, because it was still emailing me at half-past 8 last night to try to get to the bottom of some of this.

First, do such frozen accounts exist and, secondly, what are they worth if they do exist? More importantly, there are international legal precedents that enable frozen assets of a terrorist or dictator—in this case, Gaddafi—to be used to pay compensation to victims, so my third and most important question, to which I will return at the end of my remarks, is why do the UK Government not go down that route?

A third route is now apparently being explored. An article in The Daily Telegraph on 16 January quoted the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who, to his credit, attended the memorial service in my constituency two weeks ago, on 9 February. He did not tell me that he was coming, but it was good to see him there anyway, and other parliamentary colleagues. The article stated:

“Tobias Ellwood, a Foreign Office minister, told The Telegraph that he had met new Prime Minister designate of Libya, Fayez el-Sarraj, and raised the case for compensation with him in person.”

The hon. Gentleman was quoted as saying:

“We will certainly make the case with the Libyan government in order to pursue this as best we can.

As soon as there is a government to work with I am planning to facilitate bringing the victims’ groups and the Libyan authorities together. It is for the Libyans themselves to say whether or not there would be a case for a request for compensation.”

There are, therefore, three possible ways to compensate victims: join a class action in the US, use interest from frozen assets in the UK or get the new Libyan Government to cough up.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating this debate, because it enables me to raise the case of Charles Arbuthnot, who is a constituent of mine in Holbrook and whose sister Jane, a 22-year-old WPC, was murdered in the Harrods bombing. I have had extensive correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), and it seems to me that there is still not explicit acceptance that American citizens were compensated by the Libyan Government. Previously, there would be reference only to direct compensation, for example for the Lockerbie bombing, and not to compensation for those cases in which the Semtex was supplied.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I know that this is one of the key issues that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is looking at, because evidence was given about the way the Americans secured compensation. That is why I am raising with the Treasury the question whether the frozen assets and the interest on them could be used to compensate the docklands victims, as well as the Harrods bomb victims and others from Northern Ireland. It is a key question.

The Canary Wharf bombing victims do not care which is best. All they want is to secure the justice that they have been denied for more than 20 years for them and for other victims. Victims are represented by other colleagues, a number of whom are here today. Just yesterday I had two emails about this. One was from the office of the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) on behalf of Felicity Prazak, whose husband died on flight LN1103. The other email was from my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), who raised the case of Mina Jadeja, a victim of the Harrods bomb.

This is not, and has never been, about the money. However, media accounts of payouts for IRA members—for example, the reports on 30 January that £1.6 million was paid to a republican kidnap gang—can only add to and intensify the sense of injustice and frustration for the victims of the Gaddafi Semtex. Successive UK Governments have failed victims. I was a Minister in both the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Administrations, and evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee suggests that the Blair Government were more interested in the glory of bringing Libya in from the cold, closing down its support for and sponsorship of international terrorism, opening up economic ties and securing UK business contracts.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my profound disappointment in the evidence given to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on 11 December by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said that he did not pursue compensation because, clearly, compensation was available? There was a scheme in Northern Ireland, but the same provisions were not available for the hundreds of victims in mainland Great Britain.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, and I am sure that will be a focus of the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which he is a respected member. I am not able to develop the powerful point as much as I would like to, but I am sure that the Committee will do so in due course.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I was at the memorial service last week with him and a number of other people. On the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we find it frustrating that former Prime Ministers Blair and Brown seem reluctant to give evidence on this very point. If we have to go to America to speak to people there to find out the truth, we certainly will.

The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee makes a powerful point that reinforces the concern I raised about the way the Blair Administration dealt with the situation. The Committee was also told that the Brown Government only became interested when the flak started flying over the Megrahi case, when he was being released back to Libya. The Foreign Office then set up the dedicated unit for victims, which, initially, was very enthusiastic, and the current Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), made some very positive statements about helping the victims when he was Leader of the Opposition. Notwithstanding all the reluctance, tokenism and lack of a conclusion, the victims just want results.

To return to the original question I asked a few minutes ago, I obtained this debate to ask a Minister from the Treasury whether there is a route, through frozen assets in the UK, to end the misery and delay. In my view, that is a Treasury question. If there is not a route, why not and when will the victims see justice? My final quote is from Mrs Hamida Bashir, whose son, Inam, was killed aged 29 at Canary Wharf. She wrote in correspondence:

“we do not require or will not accept any financial compensation for the loss of my Inam. However, due to the murder of Inam and John”—

John Jeffries—

“we do feel a tremendous moral obligation to support all those who have been left severely disabled. A victim such as Mr Zaoui Berezag who desperately needs your help as he is blind, paralysed, has the mental age of a small child and is an amputee. He is cared for by his wife Gemma within a modest council home in East London.”

What further eloquence do the Government need?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. From the evidence received by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, it seems that we do not actually care about the victims. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is about time that we sat down and started looking at those who really need help?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because his intervention brings me to my concluding comments. This is not a party political issue, as is demonstrated by the fact that members of various parties are here expressing concerns about the issue. We all want the Government to address the issue and to come up with a solution, which successive Governments have not done over the past 20 years. The question affects constituencies across the country, including in Northern Ireland, which I have not really mentioned. The victims have been waiting too long.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will require a formal Government response to its report when it is published. Today, the Government have a chance to signal further commitment not only to the victims, who they have failed, but to the country, by acknowledging that the frontline troops fighting against terrorism are innocent civilians and by assuring us that when those civilians suffer at the hands of terrorists, their Government are ready to ensure that the sacrifice is acknowledged and the debt paid. So far, after 20 years, that sacrifice has not been acknowledged and the debt has not been paid. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and commend him for securing this important debate on a subject that is of particular importance to his constituents and on which he has campaigned consistently. I also commend the hon. Members from four different political parties who are attending this debate.

The docklands bombing of February 1996 was an horrific event—a black day for London and the United Kingdom. I add my condolences to all those whose lives were affected by the terrible events that day. The horror will not be forgotten. Two people died and 39 were injured, some permanently. It was a breaking of the IRA ceasefire and a failure of humanity. The involvement and support of the Gaddafi regime in this and other events marks a low point even in Gaddafi’s reign of terror. It is right that those whose lives were affected by these senseless bombings seek redress and compensation, and we will do what we can to ensure they get it. I know how important this issue is to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members who are here today.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked about the Libyan assets frozen in the UK, and the potential use of those to compensate victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. To answer that, it is important to set out the background of how those assets came to be frozen in the UK, and to explain the limits on the use to which they can be put.

In 2011, the United Nations took action against those involved in, or complicit in, ordering, controlling or otherwise directing the commission of serious human rights abuses against persons in Libya. This included, among other measures, the imposition of an asset freeze against a number of individuals and entities, including Muammar Gaddafi and some members of his family. On 2 March 2011, the European Union implemented these asset-freezing measures through regulation 204/2011, which has direct effect in the UK. The UK Government have no additional domestic freezing measures under the Libyan sanctions regime.

The approximate aggregate value of funds frozen in the UK under the Libyan financial sanctions regime is just under £9.5 billion. It is very important, for the purposes in which the hon. Gentleman is interested, to recognize that the whole Libyan Government are not subject to sanctions. A small number of entities associated with the Libyan Government are subject to asset freezes. The names of those entities are published in the Treasury’s consolidated list of financial sanctions. They include the Libyan Investment Authority and the Libyan African Investment Portfolio, which are subject to partial asset freezes, which means they are free to deal with new funds generated after 16 September 2011. The Libyan Government additionally hold further unfrozen funds in the UK and elsewhere. Therefore, existing financial sanctions would not prevent the Libyan Government from agreeing compensation with victims and making payments to them from unfrozen funds.

Given that it could be some time before there is a genuinely workable Libyan Government, why could this Parliament not—the Minister will tell me if this would not be legal—decide to unfreeze a certain proportion of those frozen assets so that we can sort out the issue of compensation to victims in the UK?

I will come to that. As for the financial sanctions that are in place, an asset freeze means that the assets of the individual or entity must be frozen where those assets are. The funds continue to belong to the individuals and entities listed under the sanctions regime and are not seized or held by the United Kingdom Government. The funds remain frozen in the bank account they were in at the time of designation and, for individuals and entities subject to a full asset freeze, interest may be credited to those accounts provided that the interest is also frozen. The sanctions prevent any person from dealing with those funds or making funds available to the individuals or entities listed under the sanctions regime without a licence from the competent authority—in the United Kingdom, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, the competent authority is Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Access to frozen funds can only be licensed in accordance with the grounds set out by the United Nations and the European Union, and there are seven licensing grounds applicable to this sanctions regime. To summarise, the grounds allow for payments in the following categories: first, for the basic needs of the designated person; secondly, for the legal fees of that person; thirdly, for fees for the routine maintenance of frozen assets; fourthly, for the extraordinary expenses of the designated person; fifthly, for the satisfaction of judicial or administrative orders enforceable in the EU; sixthly, for humanitarian purposes; and seventhly, for obligations arising under contracts prior to the imposition of sanctions.

To clarify further, a Treasury licence would not compel a payment to be made, but would simply provide that the payment would not be a breach of financial sanctions. It is clear that none of the licensing grounds would allow the Treasury to select a frozen account at will and require that funds be paid from it to a third party.

I am conscience of the time, so if all three hon. Members will allow me, I want to ensure that I get through what I need to say. If time allows, I will of course be happy to give way.

Although the entities designated under the Libyan financial sanctions are generally ultimately owned by the Libyan Government, they are entities in their own right and are governed by boards of directors who make decisions about the use of their assets. If the Libyan Government came to an agreement with victims to pay compensation, and came to an agreement with individuals or entities that their frozen funds should be used to pay that compensation, the Treasury would be in a position to consider such an application for a licence under the current framework. However, depending on the licensing ground that applies, approval for granting the licence would also need to be obtained from the United Nations.

Although I very much understand and share the concern of hon. Members for the victims of the docklands bombing and other Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism, I am afraid that the legal framework relating to financial sanctions is focused on preserving the funds for the benefit of the Libyan people and does not allow the UK Government to use them as we wish, no matter how worthy or how important to us and to all hon. Members a cause may be. Indeed, the UN Security Council has repeatedly made clear its determination that, when sanctions are lifted, frozen assets must be made available to, and for the benefit of, the people of Libya. The Security Council has held that position in a series of resolutions going back a number of years.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse asked about the 2008 US-Libya compensation settlement. In May 2008, it became clear that the US and Libya were proceeding on a bilateral agreement to settle outstanding claims. The then Government made representations to the US and Libyan authorities to include UK claimants on the list of recipients. Unfortunately that proved not to be possible, mainly because international and US law does not allow the US to espouse the claims of foreign nationals. Furthermore, the Libyans made it clear that they had answered questions about their support for the IRA in 1995 and that they considered the matter to be closed.

Important questions have also been raised about the similarities and differences between this case and the case of the Lockerbie bombing, in which victims were paid compensation. I stress that there are important differences between the two cases. First, the Lockerbie bombing was an act of terrorism directly committed by agents of the Libyan state, not indirectly through IRA terrorists with Libyan supply.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will continue.

Secondly, in the case of Lockerbie, the Libyans approached the US Government tacitly acknowledging their guilt for the atrocity. Thirdly, Gaddafi wanted something in return from the United States, namely readmission to the international fold, from which his actions had excluded him. Finally, the Lockerbie claims were supported by a UN Security Council resolution. Above all—this is important—it is highly unlikely that a future Libyan Government would acknowledge themselves as guilty in the same way as Gaddafi, the individual. The Libyans see themselves as victims of Gaddafi, not the bearers of his legacy.

We believe that the best approach in these difficult cases is to support and facilitate contact between victims and the relevant Libyan authorities so that claims can ultimately be settled directly. Unfortunately, the current political and security situation in Libya makes it difficult for victims, their families and representatives to pursue their claims. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office already provides facilitation support to victims, their families, legal representatives and campaign groups where it has been requested and is appropriate. However, it is a long-standing decision for the Government not to espouse private claims, so we do not provide funding for victims’ campaigns. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse may be aware, there has recently been important progress towards the establishment of a new Libyan Government. The Presidency Council has announced a revised list of Government Ministers, and the next step is for the House of Representatives to endorse that list and the Government programme. We urge the House of Representatives to do that without delay.

The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister with responsibility for the middle east, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), raised the issue of redress for UK victims when he met the Prime Minister-designate in November 2015. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Minister will continue to raise that issue in our engagement with the new Libyan Government, and he will encourage the Libyan authorities to engage with UK victims, their families and representatives, including those seeking compensation, once stability returns and our embassy reopens. The Minister will also meet UK victims in March, and I know that he will also be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue in greater detail, if the hon. Gentleman would like to do so.

There is going to be time, so I will happily give way to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson).

I thank the Minister for giving way, which I greatly appreciate. He has fairly outlined the restrictions associated with the asset-freezing sanctions. One issue with which the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has wrestled is the representations made, at either EU or UN level, when the sanctions were imposed to advocate on behalf of victims, recognising that there were outstanding requests for compensation. I know he is not a Foreign Office Minister, so if he is unaware of the representations that were made, perhaps he could ask those questions and report back to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), or to me.

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail in answer to that question, but of course the sanctions regimes are not unique to the UK and are governed by international law and UN and EU conventions.

A great wrong was inflicted on innocent victims on that day in 1996, and a key part—

I want to make sure that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has brief time at the end.

A great wrong was inflicted on that day, and clearly part of the responsibility lies with the Libyan dictator, Gaddafi. At some stage, the Libyan people will want to come to terms with what was done in their name and consider the issue of reconciliation and compensation for victims, both Libyans and foreigners. When they do, we will have something to offer from our experience in Northern Ireland, and we will of course also push for the inclusion of Gaddafi’s UK victims in any compensation scheme.

I am grateful for this opportunity to wind up the debate. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, and I am grateful for the attendance of a number of colleagues, including my former colleague from Thurrock, Andrew MacKinlay, who has been supporting the victims for many years. I am grateful to the Minister for supplying new information on the £9.5 billion in frozen assets—that figure was not previously clear to me. I hope that information is of assistance to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

I did not expect today’s debate to provide a conclusion; I sought another little piece of the jigsaw to create a bigger picture and to help the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to produce a report that will get the Government to a position where, hopefully, they can bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. The victims have been waiting too long, and it is time to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. This debate has not concluded the matter, but I hope it is another step towards a conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.