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Libya: Bribes

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether any payments which could constitute bribes within the meaning of the Bribery Act 2010 have been paid from public funds to Libyan employees or officials in recent weeks.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government do not pay bribes. In relation to fees incurred for charter flights, the payment of handling fees at airports, including for the landing and departure of planes, is an established practice. Like all countries and carriers, HMG had to pay them. These charges increased at Tripoli airport as the situation in Libya deteriorated. Paying these fees was essential to be able to evacuate British and other nationals by plane.

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful for the assurance in the first sentence of the Minister’s response. However, the rest of it reads rather strangely in the light of what the Prime Minister said in another place last week:

“The point I would make is that in getting people out of Libya, we did have to pay some facilitation payments for the services in the airport”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/3/11; col. 298.]

“Facilitation payments” is a bizarre way of describing regular airport handling fees. Can I therefore press the Minister and ask him to be absolutely clear about this? Were any payments made which were in any way irregular? Were payments made to individuals, or were payments simply made to the appropriate authority in a routine fashion for the flights that took place?

The latter is the answer. The noble Lord mentions regular situations, but the situation was far from regular. The situation was one in which these fees were rocketing because there was a desperate queue of aeroplanes to get in and people to get out. There is absolutely no doubt that the fees went whizzing up as very brave pilots and crews managed to get their aeroplanes down, slotted and then off the ground again. I sometimes think that we do not appreciate fully the extraordinary bravery and courage of those getting these aircraft in and out in very dangerous situations. So I can tell the noble Lord that nothing irregular was done of any kind, but it was a far from regular situation in which brave and courageous people had to move very quickly.

My Lords, on a slightly broader note regarding the Bribery Act, is my noble friend aware that delays in introducing that Act have left the Government open to charges of not being committed to fighting corruption? What is the Government’s response to warnings from the director of the Serious Fraud Office that the US justice department and the OECD are now suggesting that British companies should be placed on an export blacklist as a result?

As my noble friend will appreciate, that is a broader question than the one we are looking at now about Libyan employees and officials, so I do not have any additional comment to make, except that I am sure that the matter is carefully under review and in hand.

Does my noble friend accept that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, would be the first to condemn the Government if we had failed to get our nationals out of Libya, even if we had to pay facilitation fees to do so?

My Lords, would the Minister like to reconsider that answer? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, would prefer that situation—anything to get at what he calls bribery.

I do not think that that is worth a further comment. We all recognise the need, in a desperate situation, for large payments to be made. I think that the noble Lord and everyone else appreciates that that was the need; that was the requirement; we had to get people out.

Authority was given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and those in the team engineering—with great bravery and swiftness—the evacuation procedure. No doubt there were checks back to London on whether the larger sums should be paid, and I am sure that immediate authority was given.

To whom were the payments made? Were they made to the regular Libyan authorities or to people outside the normal process?

As far as I know, they were made to—I use the word again—regular authorities. However, one must envisage, as I am sure that the noble Lord, with his enormous experience of international affairs, recognises, that this was a chaotic situation in which various authorities were controlling the movement of aircraft and the operations of the airport. The ones who asked for the fees were those who normally charged the fees. That appears to have been the pattern. However, it was a far from regular situation.