[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, HM Government support for UK victims of IRA attacks that used Gaddafi-supplied Semtex and weapons, Session 2016-17, HC 49 and the Government response, HC 331.
It is a pleasure to introduce the debate. If I may, I will start with the words of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In 1972, he announced on Libyan radio:
“We support the revolutionaries of Ireland, who oppose Britain and who are motivated by nationalism and religion…There are arms and there is support for the revolutionaries of Ireland…We have decided to create a problem for Britain and to drive a thorn in her side so as to make life difficult…She will pay dearly.”
Well, we did pay dearly; specifically, the victims of Gaddafi and of the IRA paid dearly, and continue to do so to this day. From the early 1970s to the 1990s, the Gaddafi regime provided many tonnes of arms and ammunition, millions of dollars of finance, lots of military training and bucketloads of explosives. A series of shipments in the mid-1980s delivered up to 10 tonnes of Semtex, an explosive synonymous with the bombings in Enniskillen, the Baltic Exchange, Warrington, the Docklands and elsewhere that we are all familiar with—all of us who saw them night after night throughout the troubles, on our television screens or more directly.
I was not a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs when evidence was taken, but it is very clear from reading the report that the most powerful witnesses were the victims. If I may, I will read out some of the accounts given in the report, because it is important to put our debates in this place, which are often rather academic, into a personal framework:
“Mrs Hamida Bashir, whose son was killed in the Docklands bombing in 1996, told us: ‘My words are sadly not sufficient to express the tremendous pain I feel as Inam was a lovely and kind boy’. Mrs Gemma Berezzag, whose husband was left blind, paralysed and brain-damaged in the same attack, told us: ‘My Zaoui is now very ill and getting…worse…but I will do my best to care for him as I love him and can’t imagine my life without him’. Mrs Berezzag passed away in 2016, having provided daily care for her husband for 20 years…Colin Parry, whose 12-year old son, Tim, died following the Warrington bombing in 1993, told us: ‘Describing the final moments of your child’s life is beyond words…because, as a parent, there is no greater pain or loss than the death of your child’.”
I do not think that it is possible to have taken evidence from those victims, or from others whom I have met in my current role, without being overwhelmed by their dignity, stoicism and patience. They are the politically inconvenient, the ignored, the sidelined. They deserve better.
The Committee had hoped that its report, published on 2 May, would encourage the next Government to adopt a fresh approach. What we got was this Government’s flat rejection of all 12 of our recommendations. To put it mildly, the Committee was disappointed.
Let me go through some of the background. In April 1984, PC Yvonne Fletcher was murdered outside the Libyan Embassy. Our diplomatic relations with Libya, which had always been strained, were—of course—severed. On 21 December 1988, PanAm flight 103 was blown up; it crashed into the town of Lockerbie and 270 people died. The Libyan convicted, one al-Megrahi, was jailed for life, released by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds and welcomed as a hero in Tripoli. He died three years later.
After sponsoring 25 years of mayhem in the UK and elsewhere, by 1995 Libya was said to have started coming in from the cold: it confessed to the scale of support that it had been giving to republican terrorism, and it appeared to have stopped giving assistance to the IRA. That led to Sinn Féin-IRA realising that the game was up, and thus to the negotiations that eventually led to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Mr Blair restarted diplomatic relations with Libya in 1999, and compensation was paid to the relatives of Yvonne Fletcher and the victims of PanAm flight 103.
There followed something of a love-in between Gaddafi and Tony Blair. Mr Blair said of the man responsible for wholesale murder and butchery in the UK:
“He’s very easy to deal with. To be fair to him, there’s nothing that I’ve ever agreed with him should be done that hasn’t happened.”
No doubt he was as pleased as Punch that Shell signed an agreement at around that time for half a billion dollars-worth of gas exploration rights and that BP resumed its investment in the region. That was great for business, but it did nothing for Gaddafi’s victims. I am left wondering whether those are the British values that Tony Blair was so pleased to espouse. Well, they are not my values, and I hazard a guess that they are not the values of right hon. and hon. Members gathered in the Chamber, either. It is clear from the evidence given that the then Government missed a vital opportunity to act on behalf of IRA victims at a time when Libya was seeking a rapprochement with the west.
Of course, the UK was not the only country with Gaddafi victims among its citizens—and this is where the UK Government’s position starts to look especially shameful. The US was much more proactive, amending legislation to allow access to the frozen assets of terroristic countries and of the companies that were doing business with them. Libya then settled, but President Bush deleted the UK co-litigants from the deal. Evidence heard by the Committee suggests that the Government of Gordon Brown decided to get involved at a very late stage and that any pressure on Washington was purely tokenistic. That approach continues under the current Administration, I am sorry to say: in a letter of 20 November, the Foreign Secretary ruled out even the threat or intimation of accessing or continuing to freeze terrorist funds. That stands in stark contrast to the United States’ policy.
In 2004, Libya agreed to pay compensation to the French Government for the 170 people killed in the bombing of UTA flight 772 in 1989. The previous year, the French Government had done what the UK Government would not and still will not do: they threatened to use France’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block the lifting of sanctions in order to extract rightful compensation. The Foreign Secretary’s letter of 20 November makes it plain that the UK still will not use its influence in the way that the French Government, with their more muscular approach, have done to good effect.
The German Government secured $35 million in compensation for the German victims and families of those killed in the 1986 bombing of the La Belle discotheque in Berlin. It was clear to the Committee that the UK Government did not pursue compensation for UK victims with anything like the determination and vigour of the Governments of France, Germany and the US, and UK victims are entitled to ask why not.
In the early years of the coalition Government, post-Gaddafi, it seemed from the Committee’s analysis that a more robust approach was being taken. David Cameron was quite upbeat about it in his first days and weeks in office. He said:
“We need to be clear that this will be an important bilateral issue between Britain and the new Libyan authorities. Clearly we have to let this Government get their feet under the desk, but this is very high up my list of items.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 33.]
However, nothing transpired. No leverage was placed on de facto Governments. I visited Tripoli three times as a Defence Minister between 2012 and 2014. If victims featured at all, they were in the margins. I very much regret that and am sorry about it. Why have consecutive UK Governments taken such a laissez-faire approach to victims, in stark contrast with the US, France and Germany?
In the previous Parliament, Lord Empey’s private Member’s Bill placed a statutory duty on the UK Government to take every step they could to prevent asset release until a compensation package from Libya was agreed. That most reasonable and moderate Bill was passed by the House of Lords, but there was not enough time for it to be considered in the Commons before the end of the Session. Lord Empey’s Bill would not have challenged EU or UN strictures on seizing assets, but would have been a sign of Government intent to lever justice for victims. I commend it to the Minister and seek his advice on its further progress.
My Committee’s report put various points to the Minister. He is a good man and I know he did his very best to answer them fairly, frankly and openly. However, we are left wanting more. We need to know why the Government consider claims for compensation to victims to be a purely private matter when the US, France and Germany actively espouse the causes of their citizens. In the Minister’s view, will Libya ever offer financial compensation or are we simply kicking the can down the road? Although it is not an option I personally favour, why precisely is a UK reparations fund to give financial compensation to victims not a viable option in place of extracting reparations from Libya, a course of action the Government seem reluctant to take? What exactly will the Government do to be
“more visibly proactive on this file in the future”,
as stated in the Minister’s recent letter to the Select Committee?
The Committee that I chair is completely resolved that we will move on this matter and that justice will be done for victims. We will call the Foreign Secretary before the Committee on a regular basis to explain what progress has been made. Although our sessions are always cordial, he cannot necessarily be assured of an easy ride until this is resolved.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this afternoon, Mr Gapes. It is good to see the Opposition spokespersons in their places. I am very pleased to see the Minister, who is held in high regard across the House. We look forward to his response to the speech from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I commend his powerful critique of successive Government failures in this area, and the commitment his Committee has shown to trying to shine a light on the issue to get movement and justice for the victims who have been repeatedly, as he has ably described, let down. I am grateful to the Committee for its report and to the Government for their response, disappointing as that was.
I will be relatively brief, but I want to make a contribution primarily because in 1996 a bomb was exploded near Canary Wharf in what is now my constituency. Two people died, as described by the Chair of the Select Committee. Many were injured and many more were adversely affected by being made homeless and by the loss of business, employment and the rest. Local residents have been campaigning for compensation since that dreadful event. Indeed, the Belfast media yesterday reported:
“Tory grandee Lord Tebbit has led a delegation of IRA victims from across Great Britain to meet Home Secretary...in their quest for justice.”
Jonathan Ganesh was part of that delegation. Although he was seriously injured by the Docklands bomb—he is one of my constituents—he has tirelessly campaigned for other victims since then. For some, any solution will be too late. As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire described, some victims were killed in the various bombings, and some have subsequently died because of their injuries. Jonathan, among many others, was supported by Mr Andrew Mackinlay, a former hon. colleague who still takes a great interest in these matters today.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report covers the history of UK-Libyan relations since the bombing and discusses compensation options. It clarifies how frustrating the issue has been for the victims, who are still waiting. As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire described, there have been several exchanges recently between parliamentary colleagues and the Foreign Office, specifically the Foreign Secretary, to try to move the issue on. The fact that there was a meeting yesterday with the Home Secretary and a meeting last month with the Foreign Secretary indicates greater Government interest, which is no doubt very much due to the efforts of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
I want to highlight three misunderstandings that I think still exist between us, in the hope that it is helpful, but first I recognise the excellent work being done in the other place by Lord Empey and supporters to address this long-standing grievance. As the Chair of the Select Committee said, we hope that his sterling efforts might yet bear fruit. The three areas of misunderstanding that I wish to address, and hope that the Minister will comment upon, are: first, the power of the UK Government to take legal action against Libya; secondly, the ability of the UK Government to compensate victims until Libya can make good its debt; and thirdly, the shape of some of the compensation.
In discussion with the Foreign Secretary, colleagues from Northern Ireland expressed the view that there was a need for a new institution there to treat the serious health issues, especially mental health and trauma issues, faced by victims. I do not want to disagree with that—I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is here—and I do not know whether that is needed, but those parliamentary colleagues know their area much better than I. My point in respect of that as an issue for the Foreign Office is that it does nothing for my victims and is therefore not a complete solution.
The second point is whether the Government should fill the vacuum until the situation in Libya stabilises, after which we might be able to reach agreement on what is owed by whom. Again, that was raised by the Chair of the Select Committee. This would include the £9.5 billion of assets frozen in London and mentioned in recommendation 9 on page 5 of the report. What is most upsetting for victims is that other countries have secured compensation as outlined in the report, but our Government have not, as is mentioned in recommendation 12 on page 8.
That brings me to the third point of misunderstanding. Other countries have been able to secure payments from Libya. When we met the Foreign Secretary, I understood him to say that in the case of American victims, for example, the Libyans paid up under the threat of legal action—a threat that the USA then waived. Perhaps that is my misunderstanding of the discussion that we had with the Foreign Office, but the bottom line is that US citizens, and those of other countries, received compensation, whereas our victims are dying, or struggling to live, without any.
The correspondence of 20 November from the Foreign Secretary to parliamentary colleagues who attended the meeting mentioned by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire clearly highlights the misunderstandings I have referred to. In the letter, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I was also pleased we were able to agree that…we should not call on UK taxpayer monies to establish a compensation fund…we concluded that UK Government discussions with the Libyans should focus on exploring the possibility of a fund to focus on community support, rehabilitation and reconciliation, and not on monetary compensation for individual victims”.
Colleagues who were at that meeting did not agree that we should not call on the UK taxpayer. The Government might think that it is not appropriate to do so, but some of us believe that it is. As for the focus on community support, some colleagues in Northern Ireland want some community support, as I mentioned, but that was not the focus for many of those representing mainland victims.
The Foreign Secretary went on to say:
“At our meeting, we discussed the feasibility of the UK using its veto in the UN Security Council…to prevent the unfreezing of assets until the Libyans had agreed to pay compensation to UK victims.”
He went on:
“The Foreign Office’s assessment is that it is extremely unlikely any other members of the Security Council would support such action to block the unfreezing of Libyan assets”.
I thought that the essence of a veto was that we did not need the other members of the Security Council. If the UK imposes a veto, it applies to everyone. That is one of the most powerful weapons that we have for reaching an agreement in our negotiations with the Libyans. I know that the Libyans say that we owe them money for other aspects of foreign policy, but it is a negotiation, and so far we do not seem to be entering into it.
Finally, the letter clarifies the position:
“In the US, an exception to the defence of dispositive foreign immunity was provided to enable victims to sue foreign States who are designated as being state sponsors of terrorism…the UK has no such exemption for state sponsored terrorism”.
The question that some of us were asking was why we do not have the same power in the UK, for our victims, as US citizens have for theirs. If that would take Government regulation, or legislation, I should think it would command support across the House.
In concluding I want to quote the words of Matt Jury of McCue Law, which has been involved with colleagues, in supporting the victims over many years. I think that what he says applies to the majority of those campaigning on the issue:
“Most of us involved continue to oppose the Government’s policy on this. The Government should be espousing the victims’ claims rather than obliging them to fend for themselves. The Government should be taking proactive steps to use the leverage it has to force a resolution. Payment of compensation directly to the victims is the only satisfactory resolution…Assessing victims’ eligibility for such compensation is no barrier and can be readily done. If Libya will not settle the victims’ claims now then, as recommended by the NIAC, the Government should do so in lieu and recover such monies itself from Libya at a later date. The Government should give further consideration to the use of its veto at the UNSC to prevent the unfreezing of assets until Libya has paid compensation.”
The campaign continues. There is renewed interest from the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, and the Government are demonstrating much keener interest in the issue than any UK Government have done for years; I hope that indicates that they are more interested than they were in a resolution, in spite of the misunderstandings I have mentioned—on which I do not place huge importance, because everyone can take different things from different meetings. I hope that the Minister can give us some encouragement and say that the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee takes us further along the road.
It is a pleasure to contribute to a debate on an issue that greatly affects us in Northern Ireland. I thank the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), for raising the issue and setting the scene so well, and my colleague the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who outlined the case on behalf of his constituents.
It is important to have a Northern Ireland perspective on the matter, because the report was produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I was not a member of the Committee when the report was produced; I have been on it only a short time, and am pleased to serve under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire. I make no apologies for rising to speak again on the issue. Indeed, instead of an apology I make a promise, along with the rest of my colleagues in this place—those who are not here but would have liked to attend and speak—that we will keep on raising the issue until our constituents receive some form of recognition and justice.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, as well as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). The Minister knows that everyone in the House has the utmost respect for him. It goes without saying that I do. However, there are things that must be said today, and I do not want him to feel that I am in any way attacking him; I am not, but I have to make my points clearly. I want to say that before I begin, because it has never been my way to attack people. I do not do that in the House; it is not my form.
There may be some who think that we have heard it all before and do not need to hear the details of the atrocities again: we know it was terrible. However, I will repeat what was done with Libyan-sponsored Semtex and arms, to remind the House that what we are discussing is not simply statements of support, which are bad enough, but action that caused horrific deaths and injuries that have lasted until today. Many people carry and share those burdens of injury and trauma: families who are without parents, without children, and without loved ones. At present they are also, I am sad to say—with great respect to the Minister and the Government—without a Government who are determined to put oil interests aside and put the interests of justice and their people first. I hope I am wrong in saying that. I look kindly towards the Minister and want him to prove me wrong, please.
I read a summary in The Guardian that set the scene well, and will quote from it to give a wee bit of perspective on where we are, among the passionate contributions that have been made to the debate so far, and those that will follow:
“In the early 1970s and later in the 80s, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime supplied the Provisional IRA with tonnes of weapons including semtex explosive, which was made in the Czech Republic. The odourless semtex was used as a powerful booster for bombs that devastated parts of the City of London”,
as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned,
“as well as other British cities during the latter days of the Troubles.
The Gaddafi regime also supplied more than 1,000 assault rifles to the IRA—enough to arm two infantry battalions. On top of the guns the then Libyan regime also smuggled flame-throwers, Soviet-made grenades, mines and anti-aircraft weapons to the IRA”
to take down helicopters. Those were weapons of war to murder people across the country of Northern Ireland—men, women and children.
I suppose we all watch war films, but that was not the stuff of “Rambo” or “The Expendables”. It was about the lives of people in my community, members of my family and, indeed, members of other communities across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. People’s lives have been torn to shreds, and that was facilitated by Gaddafi and his regime. Today we in this House are charged with the responsibility of making the point clearly and as strongly as possible, and of looking to the Minister for a comprehensive and helpful response.
Libyan-supplied Semtex was used in bombings that included the Harrods department store attack in 1983, the Warrington bomb in 1993 on the mainland, which has been referred to, and countless atrocities in Northern Ireland—almost too many to mention. We could do a roll-call, but it is not about that; but we need to encapsulate the issue and the strength of feeling. As we stood around cenotaphs in Northern Ireland, we thought not only of those who died in the world wars and other wars, but of the service personnel who lost their life in the troubles. Even more poignantly, this year we marked the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing, when 11 people were murdered at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. That murder was carried out by way of a bomb made up of products supplied by Gaddafi. There is no argument about that; it is what the facts of the case say.
Thirty years later, while Americans who were injured or bereaved in this way have seen their country secure a form of restitution, our people who lived through some of the most horrible atrocities day in and day out, and who saw entire communities shredded to pieces, are still asking for some form of recognition. Quite clearly, our point of view has to be heard.
I have said it in this Chamber before, and I will say it again, as other right hon. Member and hon. Members have done: no amount of money can heal a broken heart, but it can help to pay the bills of those who are left behind, such as the one-parent households where there should be two parents. Money cannot walk a daughter down the aisle when her dad is not there, but it can take off some of the burden and stress of paying for the wedding, which will not be the same. Money cannot bring mothers home, but it can allow a dad to work less, so that he can do more elsewhere. My constituents deserve reparation, as do yours, Mr Gapes, and the constituents of all of us in this Chamber. The Government must do their part to provide it.
It is for that reason that I feel particularly disheartened by the response of the Government up until now; I am almost grieved to say that I feel so annoyed about this issue, as many others do. I am particularly disheartened to find that the call by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for a reparation fund—I sit on the Committee now but did not at the time it made that call—has been summarily rejected, and that there is to be no use of the UK’s influence regarding its political or financial support to Libya as leverage to secure reparation. How frustrated are all three of us who have spoken today and those who will follow afterwards? There are people in the Gallery who are victims, or supporters of this cause, and they feel equally burdened and let down.
I constantly ask Ministers to use whatever diplomatic pressure they can to bring about changes in human rights in countries that we give financial aid to and trade with. That is part of my job as the chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief; the Minister speaks out forcefully on those issues, as we all do. I am given assurances that we use that influence in those cases, so why is this situation any different? Why are we making this point in the House today? Why is it not in the UK’s best interests to use what influence we have to get justice for our own? Are we a second-class nation, compared with the USA? I certainly hope that we are not. The USA secured a $1.5 billion compensation fund for American victims of terror attacks that were blamed on Libya, including the Lockerbie bombing, which many of us vividly remember.
Are our deaths less important than those US deaths? Do we care less for our own than the US does? Are we the poor relations to Americans and their rights? Quite clearly, the answer to that is: no, we are not, and neither should we be. We need to address this issue. We are the greatest seat of democracy in the world, and what a privilege it is to sit in this House as a Member of Parliament and to speak on behalf of our people. Why are we not able to use that influence to help our people who have been hurt by an evil man who was set on destroying British people by any means possible?
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire gave the real thrust of what Gaddafi was about. These were attacks on our democratic process, our British way of life, and our right to stand up for freedom and democracy. That is why we speak out on behalf of the victims today.
The response of the Government to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s report is—may I say so, Mr Gapes?—insulting at best and at worst could be classified as neglectful. As I have said, it was not statements by Gaddafi that led to these atrocities; it was actions. It is not statements of sympathy by this Government that will lead to healing; it is action. With respect, it is not platitudes or words that we want; it is actions and compensation for the victims of Libyan terrorism.
The refusal of the Government to step up and move out for our people cannot be accepted. That is why we are today again talking about the Libyan state sponsorship of IRA terrorism. We demand more from our Government and from our Minister. Please give us no more words of sympathy; give us action. Stand up and use what we have to say to people, “Your—our—loss is important enough for us to take real and meaningful steps. You are as important to us as the US citizens are to their Government.”
We can understand how frustrated, angry and dismayed people are when they see what is happening. We are expressing those feelings on their behalf in a small way—not with the same personal feeling, because we were not part of those events, although some of us served in uniform so perhaps were, in a small way, part of the process in which those around us lost their lives.
Minister, here are some direct questions that I feel I must ask and that we need a response to. Taking into account the indisputable fact that the Libyans played a massive, direct, deliberate, murderous and brutal part in a campaign of murder of hundreds of people UK-wide, why is a UK reparations fund for victims not a “viable option”? What does “not a viable option” mean? Do the Government not understand the issues? Why is it not in the UK’s national interest to use political or financial support for Libya as leverage to secure compensation for victims? As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, why not use the funds that are frozen in British bank accounts? If we have them, let us use them for our people and make sure that they are looked after. To whom is our responsibility? To our people, so let us have answers that grasp the importance of the issue, and the nettle.
My conclusion is simple. I say to my Government, my Prime Minister and my Minister that if we wanted to take back our sovereignty—that is why we are leaving Europe—it is because we wanted as a nation to stand on our own. What kind of a nation would we be if we did not stand up for our own? What kind of people are we when we do not look compassionately at lives decimated by evil, and do not offer more than sympathy? That is not the country that I believe we are; I believe that we are better than that, and we need to prove it. We must act in this matter in a very British way, which is supporting the rule of law and justice, standing up and speaking out for what is right, and championing the underdog, which is what many of us do in this Chamber on a regular basis.
Minister, we look to you, because you are the Minister who will respond, and I urge you to do the right thing. Provide the support; take steps to see moneys released; and send this statement to those who target our citizens for whatever reason: “Target us and we will not take it lightly, but will instead respond”—not necessarily militarily, but in a way that is financially helpful to the victims. The sun never set on our nation; that was something I learned at school, which was not yesterday. Our nation abolished slavery, championed the right to live a free life, and promotes the most basic of all human rights: the right to life. That is the nation that I am proud to be a part of—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. All of us in this Chamber are part to be proud of it, and are of the same mindset.
Renew our pride, remind other nations exactly who we are, and let us do what we should have done years ago: get recognition and financial help for those who have been bereaved or injured by Libyan-sponsored state terrorism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
I welcome the work of the Committee and its report, and I commend the Chair, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), for a very powerful contribution setting out the Committee’s findings, as well as its response to the Government’s response. I note the cross-party and consensual basis on which the Committee has operated, both before and after the election. It is one of the few Select Committees of the House on which the Scottish National party does not have representation, but I have read the Committee’s conclusions and the Government’s response with some interest.
The delay in the Government’s response is perhaps yet another regrettable consequence of the general election, but I am glad that following its publication we now finally have the opportunity to debate both it and the Committee’s report.
I think that it is pretty clear—from the report itself, from the Government response and from the contributions that we have heard today—that successive United Kingdom Governments have been found wanting in this area. There has been a series of missed opportunities, dating back at least to the time of Tony Blair, to sort out the issue of compensation.
It is also clear that there must now be renewed efforts, dialogue and fresh thinking to ensure that the victims receive the support and compensation that they deserve. I note in the findings of the report—the Chair of the Committee also emphasised this—that for some of these victims and their families time is beginning to run out, and we must make every effort to make sure that justice delayed does not turn out to be justice denied.
I accept that there is a range of diplomatic and legal challenges, which have already been set out and covered. Of course, there are serious issues about the stability of Libya, including the efforts to establish a functioning Government with which we could have any kind of diplomatic dialogue. As an aside, I note that the UK Government have spent much more time bombing that country than they have done trying to rebuild it and restore some kind of stability. I also understand that there might well be legal hurdles in releasing frozen assets, but the question has rightly been asked about whether every legal and diplomatic option is being pursued. What support can the Government provide for efforts such as Lord Empey’s Bill, which was mentioned?
We welcome the support available for victims and their families, and the Government’s response lists various trusts and funds that victims can turn to. We need to ensure that everyone who might have cause to access those things is aware of the opportunities. I pay particular tribute to the work of the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation. I had the privilege and honour of visiting the Peace Centre in Warrington earlier this year. I have a number of constituents who have been affected not by IRA terrorism, but by terrorism overseas and, sadly, the growing terrorist threat leads to a continuing need for the work of that centre. I was deeply moved and inspired by the innovative work that goes on there, and I had the privilege to meet Colin Parry briefly in passing while I was there. I pay tribute to the work that is going on, but more clearly needs to be done.
We recognise the importance of and sensitivities around this issue. We hope that progress will continue to be sought on a cross-party basis and as consensually as possible. It is clear from the contributions to this debate and from the report that the UK Government must leave no stone unturned in seeking compensation and providing victims with the support they need and deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. First, I bring the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). He has an engagement in his constituency and I am standing in in his place.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for his work and that of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He made a powerful speech. Excellent speeches have also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
We in the Labour party are proud of the role we played in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland. We believe that we have a duty to protect that legacy and move it forward. We in this House must never forget the pain, hurt and destruction that the troubles brought to many people in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. The debate focuses our minds on that.
The Labour Government worked to move the Gaddafi regime away from the production of weapons of mass destruction and towards acceding to the chemical weapons convention in 2004 with the hope of providing greater stability in the region. I accept the disappointment expressed by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire about the treatment of victims by Governments of all stripes.
The Select Committee’s report concerns an important issue. The Committee took evidence from victims and victims advocacy organisations along with their lawyers. The report, “HM Government support for UK victims of IRA attacks that used Gaddafi-supplied Semtex and weapons”, makes some recommendations on what the Government can do to support victims.
The potential use of an estimated £9.5 billion of frozen Libyan assets to provide compensation to victims is mentioned on page 23, where paragraph 62 states:
“The FCO told the Committee that the EU Regulation prohibited the release of frozen assets in the UK without a licence from HM Treasury.”
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire is lucky that I am responding to this debate, and not my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North, because I am the Opposition Front Bencher responsible for the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that is coming down the tracks. It is currently in the Lords and will come to our House in February. I accept what the Foreign Office says about the legal framework provided by the EU regulations and the United Nations Security Council limiting the room for manoeuvre, but either in the other place or when the Bill comes to us Ministers could consider the scope for making amendments to the regime to make some progress in the way the Select Committee suggests. I am not saying that that will happen, or that is possible, but Ministers should certainly make an undertaking, because there is clearly a potential legislative vehicle for this.
The Committee is calling on the Government to do more to negotiate a settlement with the Libyan Government and broker compensation arrangements similar to those made by the United States Government. We accept the Foreign Office’s assessment that that cannot be handled speedily and ultimately might not be successful. At the same time, Her Majesty’s Opposition hold to the view that in the immediate term the Government should provide a special pension to all those who were seriously injured as a result of troubles-related incidents, as advocated by many groups that represent the interests of victims.
The Government know they have a duty to ensure that those individuals receive the right assistance and support in coping with life-changing injuries. A victim’s pension would provide for those who may not have been able to build up an occupational pension over the years and may have additional and complex care needs due to their injuries. That should cover not only the victims referred to in the report, but all victims. The Government could consider that now. As the years go by, more victims who have been affected pass away. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out, the issue is becoming increasingly urgent as time goes on.
It is only right that the Government stand up for the victims of all atrocities that occurred throughout Northern Ireland’s troubled and painful past, both internationally and here at home. We welcome the Committee’s report and the work it does in standing up for people in Northern Ireland and beyond. It is time for the Government to take more action.
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in a debate such as this, Mr Gapes, knowledgeable as you are of foreign affairs. You will know the issue extremely well, so it is good to see you in your place.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for securing the debate and, through him, all the Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for their continuing commitment to supporting the victims’ cause in Parliament. I thank other colleagues for their pertinent contributions today, which give plenty of food for thought.
As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) was gracious enough to acknowledge, when we look back at the past and the opportunities that might have been missed, this is not a great chapter for any Government, but it is important to remember that these events were not brought about by the British Government; the report refers to a period of time when Gaddafi was supplying weaponry to the IRA. I gently say to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it was not the Libyan people taking action against the people of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom. It was Gaddafi following his own determination and his political beliefs at the time, and that makes it difficult when we are talking about retrospective balance between those who were victims of Gaddafi in Libya and those who were victims of Gaddafi here. I visited Abu Salim jail. I have seen the place where Gaddafi machine-gunned about 1,200 people in an act of revenge for some attack on his regime. Part of the instinct behind the communal fund, which we will come on to, is to recognise that the people in both places suffered under that man. That is why attempting to find a way to recognise that in a manner that benefits all victims has been so important.
All Members who made a contribution mentioned the conversation that the United States Government have had. They made a very clear distinction. Why can we not make the same distinction? I respect the Minister greatly, and he knows that, but I have to speak on behalf of my constituents in Northern Ireland. The US Government have done it. Why do we not do the same?
Perhaps I can come on to the United States situation a bit later. Distinctions between types of victims are difficult, and I will come on to that a little later on. First, let me put something on the record in relation to our current policy. I recognise the force of today’s debate, of the conversations that the Foreign Secretary has had in my presence, and of the discussions that I have had as well. This is a difficult area of policy, and it may not be finally settled.
I would like to take the opportunity once again to express on behalf of the Government sincere condolences to all those who have suffered as a result of the horrific attacks carried out by the IRA, and to all victims of the troubles. The Government want a just solution for all victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism, and we will continue to do all we can to make progress on that important but difficult agenda. The Government have raised the plight of victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism with the Libyan authorities at the highest level. The Foreign Secretary raised their cases with Prime Minister Sarraj during both of his visits to Tripoli, most recently in August this year. I intend to follow up on those conversations when I next travel to Libya.
Between 2010 and 2013, when I travelled to Libya I always raised the issue of compensation because it was a live issue back then. I raised it with either the then Attorney General or the then Solicitor General in Scotland—I cannot remember which—whom I got to know in relation to this matter. It was always on the agenda in the period of time after the fall of Gaddafi. The Libyan Government were obviously in a state of flux at that time, which of course has continued, hampering all our efforts, but it was important to put the claims on the record right the way through, and I sought to do so.
The Foreign Secretary and I welcomed our constructive recent discussions with parliamentarians, and I have recently met with victims groups to discuss their thoughts and concerns face to face. I very much hope that we can continue to engage openly and frankly, and I am sure that we will. That will give us the best possible chance of securing justice for the victims of these terrible attacks.
Clearly, the Libyan Government have a responsibility to deal with the legacy at the heart of the Gaddafi regime, as part of a broader process of national and international reconciliation and justice. The UK Government continue to impress upon the Libyan authorities the impact of Gaddafi’s support for the IRA, and we emphasise the importance we attach to responding to victims’ campaigns. We continue to judge, however, that engaging constructively with the Libyan Government remains the best way to make progress. As our response to the Select Committee report demonstrated, we maintain the long-standing policy of previous UK Governments not to espouse victims’ claims.
Hon. Members who took part in the recent meeting with the Foreign Secretary will be aware that that issue was discussed in some depth. They will also be aware that the Foreign Secretary committed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to being more visible in efforts to support the victims’ campaigns and to ensuring that the issue remains a priority in our discussions with the Libyan Government. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) spoke about how that more visible attitude might be demonstrated. I am going back to Libya, for the first time in some years, early in the new year. We are actively seeking to explore the possibility of a meeting between the Libyan Minister of Justice and victims groups; we have recently written to the Minister about that. The meeting might take place in Libya, but that could be difficult, so it could be held in Tunisia or some other place. We are actively pursuing that idea as a way of doing something new and adding something new to the situation.
Questions were raised about whether we have abandoned the idea of a fund to compensate individual victims. We have carefully considered that option, but continue to believe that individual claims are best negotiated directly between victims and the Libyan authorities. We will continue to support victims to help to facilitate that, and we will raise their cases with the Libyan authorities at every opportunity. Even if the Libyans were at some point in the future to put aside money for the purposes of compensating UK victims, we believe that administering such a fund would be extremely difficult. There is currently no clear definition of a victim of IRA terrorism sponsored by Gaddafi as opposed to a victim of terrorism more generally.
Hon. Members who were present at the recent meeting with the Foreign Secretary will be aware that that issue was discussed at length. My impression is that at the end of the meeting we believed that, given the difficulties of drawing distinctions between different types of victims, the best kind of support would be a communal fund, focusing on community support, rehabilitation and reconciliation, that was available to all victims. It would not be confined to Northern Ireland, to respond to the concerns of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse. It has not been drawn up in any way yet, but it would attempt to recognise the difficulty of separating one victim of the troubles from another, and to bring people together. Giving specific help to specific people who have been damaged, as the hon. Member for Strangford clearly described, would be an important part of it, so he would be providing something for his constituents, but in a communal fund that would be accessible to more people, rather than just through individual compensation.
Just to clarify, the Minister referred to the possibility of victims meeting the Libyan Minister of Justice directly, perhaps in Tunisia because Libya could be difficult. Some of us have concerns about putting victims in front of a high-level politician and diplomat, given the imbalance in terms of strength. However, I understand that the emotiveness of it might create a breakthrough. I just raise the concern about exposing the victims in that way.
The second point—sorry, Mr Gapes; I will be very brief—is about identifying the entitlement for individual victims and having community assets. Other countries seem to have done it, and I do not understand why we cannot. I totally support colleagues from Northern Ireland who are asking for a centre or an institution for trauma, mental health, mental welfare and so on, because that would be useful for them. It would not serve a purpose for the people in Tower Hamlets who were direct victims, and that is where there is a distinction between the two.
Let me respond as best I can to those two comments. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the meeting, but my sense is that there would be sufficient victims and victims’ representatives who would be prepared to take part in such a meeting. It would not be an unmoderated meeting and, of course, I would expect us to be there in some form, whether through embassy officials locally or senior officers from here; in those circumstances, there would probably also be a Minister. I do not think it would be appropriate to ask a Minister from another state, unconnected with all this, to deal with the issue without one of our Ministers being prepared to support those who had come from the United Kingdom. I am sure that we could handle that, but I accept his point that for some people such a meeting would be too difficult and not possible.
In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s other point, there is no suggestion that because the fund has not yet been created or put together, it would be confined to one place rather than another. If the point is to find something that will benefit victims wherever they have been, it must of course apply to mainland UK as well as Northern Ireland. I do not think that those in other countries have had to make an individual distinction between a victim of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism and a victim of a terrorist atrocity from another source. That is something that we find difficult and, as we have discussed, we all understand those difficulties.
To follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), it is quite clear to me, and I suspect to everyone in the Chamber, that if someone was blown up by Semtex, or there were an explosion in which Semtex were used, it was Gaddafi-inspired and sponsored terrorism. If they were shot with a bullet from an AK47, that was Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. If they were shot by a self-loading rifle, an SA80 or something different, that certainly was not Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. If we want a factual, historical way of collating what has taken place, I suggest that the weapon or bomb used is an indication of where it came from and its intention. It is therefore easy to diagnose. Forgive me, but I see it very simply. If someone was blown up with Semtex in London or shot by an AK47 rifle in London or anywhere else, that is Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism.
I understand the hon. Gentleman completely. It is not difficult to make a distinction based on cause of death, but is he saying that there would be a different system of compensation, and that someone who lost their life in circumstances identifiably traced to Gaddafi would have access to one fund, but those who died in other circumstances would not? That is what successive Governments have found difficult, because the impact of the loss of life due to a terrorist incident is the same, whatever the cause was. It would be difficult to have a fund that distinguished victims and gave some victims and their families access to something that others are denied.
It is patently unfair that some victims may not get compensation and others would. The distinction we are drawing, in the absence of a UK fund to compensate victims of terrorism per se, is that the Libyans have paid other Governments in other countries money to compensate their victims. Apparently, we have not been making the same efforts to get Libyan compensation for our victims. If we can get that for the victims who can be identified, let us get them compensation. The British Government ought to be looking after the other victims of terrorism, as I hope they do, from whichever source the terrorism outrage comes.
I am happy to take the other intervention if it is on the same topic.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has clearly hit the nail on the head. The United States Government made the distinction. There is a way of making the distinction. They did it and have shown us how to do it, and I suggest that we do the same. They have done it, and so can we.
Of course, in the particular case of the Lockerbie victims, the UK Government intervened directly to secure compensation. However, as we have discussed, individual compensation is being pursued through private claims, and we have sought to facilitate that work through our contacts and everything we have done in relation to that. We still believe that that is the most appropriate thing to do, and that is why we deal directly with the Libyan authorities. We have approached individual compensation differently. The allocation of the compensation fund illustrates the difficulty of individual compensation, but of course if such claims are successful, that deals with that issue. However, as successive Governments have done, we have supported the individual pursuit of claims rather than doing on it on a Government basis. That is different from those who have chosen to do it another way—that is quite right. That is the process we have chosen, and that is the process we are continuing to support.
I am following what the Minister has to say closely. He is making a convincing argument, but the central fact remains that our closest allies—the US, France and Germany—have secured substantial reparations from the country responsible for those acts. The legal entity, notwithstanding the Minister’s remarks about Gaddafi, is Libya. We have failed to do that, and it is about time that our victims got a better deal. I am sure the Minister agrees with that. The only debate is about how we are going to achieve it. How we dish the money out is a second-order issue. It is important that we get the money in the first place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are continuing to pursue that process by working with the existing Libyan Government and the future Libyan Government to secure that support. That is why a meeting with the Libyan Minister for Justice has been suggested. That is why the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister raised this issue, and why I shall raise it.
Hon. Members and victims have understandably asked us to demonstrate even more effort to secure compensation than we have already put in. The ultimate aim is to ensure the Libyan Government is able to respond to the understandable request for compensation for the victims of Gaddafi. That is the position we want to reach. The UK Government, like all of us, are determined to make sure that happens. That is the process we are pursuing.
There are a couple of other things to say. I want to deal with the issue of frozen assets and sanctions. There is no lawful basis on which the UK could seize or change the ownership of any Libyan assets. The UN Security Council resolution under which those assets were frozen, which the UK supported, is clear that they should eventually be returned for the benefit of the Libyan people. To breach that resolution would be a violation of international law. We set that out in our response to the Committee, and that position has not changed.
A veto is an individual response that the United Kingdom could produce, but it would then be used to stop the return of assets. As the Government rightly said, we get no sense from other states that they would support that. Of course, they do not have to do anything—it is our veto—but they would not necessarily understand our vetoing a policy that is designed to return moneys to those who would then be in a position to compensate the United Kingdom and the victims the United Kingdom is pursuing that for. To apply a veto may not be the most appropriate thing. The point that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and others made is that it is a form of pressure on Libya, which must be correct. We must find other ways of putting pressure on the Libyans so that when they are in a position to respond, they understand that they need to make that response. Our contact with the Libyan Government makes it clear to us that they understand that need, but the money is not there at the moment because it is just not there. We must continue to pursue that.
On the sanctions, when the European sanctions rules are changed, we will have to see whether that provides an extra opportunity. I was interested by what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, and that will form part of a further discussion in the future. I noted what she said about pensions. As far as I am aware, that is something new, but we may come back to it in due course.
That is what we are doing in the immediate future, and as far as the future is concerned we will pursue a twin-track approach. We will continue to help victims engage directly with the Libyan Government, as appropriate, to help them pursue their campaign. That is the policy we have followed. As I said, I have previously informed victims that we are exploring the possibility of a meeting for them with the Libyan Minister of Justice. Our embassy in Tripoli has raised this with the Minister several times, and he has agreed in principle to the proposal. I recently wrote to him to welcome that, and to stress our desire to press ahead with arrangements. Such a meeting would demonstrate the Libyan Government’s genuine desire to address the legacy of the Gaddafi regime. In addition, we will explore with the Libyan authorities the possibility of establishing a communal fund for victims, although I should be honest with hon. Members that the current political and economic crisis in Libya means that progress on that is likely to be slow, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said.
There are complex questions at stake with regard to compensation, such as which groups of victims would be eligible, and what type of compensation and support would be right. We discussed that during the course of the debate. Discussions about what a fund would look like are still at an early stage, but we anticipate that it would focus on community support, rehabilitation and reconciliation, and as I said earlier would be accessible to all victims throughout the United Kingdom. I welcome the recent engagement of Democratic Unionist party colleagues on this issue, and I look forward to further constructive discussions in the future. We recognise victims’ frustration at the slow rate of progress. I fully appreciate that although that is an easy sentence for a Minister to say, it cannot in any way cover the pain and suffering that people have been through, but the political, economic and security realities in Libya are making progress on the issue extremely difficult.
The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have all made clear the Government’s support for change in Libya and for the UN process being led by Ghassan Salamé. We are actively engaged in that because the sooner the process can be successful and the sooner Libya has stabilisation and a new Government, the easier it will be to press such matters still further.
I repeat the Government’s sincere commitment to help the victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism make progress. I express my gratitude for the positive way in which colleagues from across the House have engaged with the Government on this issue and my sincere desire for that to continue. I recognise that the slow process is deeply frustrating to all those who represent the victims, as well as to those victims themselves, many of whom have campaigned tirelessly for many years to achieve justice. Today’s debate and the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire and other hon. Members in the Chamber make an impression. Clearly, this is an issue on which the Government are committed, but the determination and the desire of the House is plainly that we have to do more, to be seen to do more and to explore further ways in which we can redress the balance.
I am grateful as always for the kindness with which colleagues treat me, and hope that I can play my part in resolving the issue. I take that to heart.
I have one last question for the Minister. As has been mentioned by the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, obviously there have been efforts in the other place to help move things along. Has the Minister had a chance to look at that, and will he comment? I am not asking him to compromise or undermine those efforts in any way, but they were mentioned by several colleagues and it would be useful if the Government had words on that aspect of the situation.
No. I am aware of the private Member’s Bill going through the Lords. I have no particular response. This is something at the moment—in relation to frozen assets—that we do not currently have being considered. But the Department is considering it very carefully, as will Ministers.
Let me conclude and again thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for bringing the matter forward. I am fully aware that it is not one that will be dealt with in an afternoon and then go away. Victims and those who represent them have my commitment, and the Foreign Secretary made it clear at his recent meeting with colleagues how important this is to us. It is difficult to unblock but it is clear that we have an imperative from the House to do just that.
I will be as brief as possible, Mr Gapes.
Libya is potentially an extremely wealthy country. It has governance issues, to put it mildly, with which the United Kingdom is assisting. Governance falls into this piece nicely, since compensation for victims is certainly a governance thing. I hope very much that, as we continue to put considerable resource into Libya, we will remind our interlocutors at every available opportunity that they have duties to us as well. I am pleased to hear from the Minister that he is renewing his commitment to getting for victims the justice that they deserve.
I am also pleased that the Minister acknowledged, I think, that the legal entity in this debate is Libya. I fully appreciate that the Libyan people, broadly defined, are not responsible for the actions that we associate with Gaddafi; nevertheless it is Libya to which we have to look for retribution in this particular case. It seems to me odd, if we are improving the governance of a country, as we are in Libya, that we do not make that very apparent to the Libyans. Clearly we need to do so.
I very much hope that the Minister takes note of the noble Lord Empey’s private Member’s Bill. It seems to me to have merit, and there may be a way of advancing the issue so as not to conflict with European Union law as long as that applies in the United Kingdom, or more particularly, with United Nations rules, which will continue to apply to the United Kingdom.
The Minister will have read paragraph 61 of the report that we are debating and will have noted that on a significant number of occasions, frozen assets have been accessed, notably President Marcos’s Swiss bank account in the interests of rectifying human rights abuses in the Philippines, the assets of Colombian paramilitaries and, most relevantly, frozen assets in the US in respect of Saddam Hussein’s victims and the victims of Iranian and Cuban terrorism. There is precedent; it is clearly not impossible to access those sums, and it is certainly not impossible to threaten to access those sums.
My concern and perhaps that of the members of my Committee is that the Government at the least give the impression that this subject is not a top priority for them. I will accept the reassurances of the Minister and I note that in his comments in response to the report he agreed that there needs to be a better perception of Government’s efforts—but there also need to be better efforts underpinning that perception.
I hope very much that in the months ahead we will redouble our efforts when dealing with our Libyan interlocutors to impress on them how important this matter is to the British people. It is just not acceptable to wait, as happens at the moment, for victims to age and pass on, as too many have, without getting the justice that is their due. British values have to do with justice. They are about getting what is right for victims. Clearly, the victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism have not had justice, and I look to the Minister to ensure that they do. I look forward to him or the Foreign Secretary appearing, in the not-too-distant future, before my Select Committee to report on progress.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, HM Government support for UK victims of IRA attacks that used Gaddafi-supplied Semtex and weapons, Session 2016-17, HC 49, and the Government response, HC 331.