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Alexander Litvinenko

Volume 753: debated on Monday 24 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to reconsider their decision not to hold a public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, following the judgment by the Court of Appeal on 11 February.

My Lords, the Home Secretary has decided not to seek permission to appeal the judgment and will give fresh consideration to the exercise of her discretion to establish an inquiry. The Government continue to co-operate fully with the inquest into Mr Litvinenko’s death.

I thank the noble Lord for his somewhat implausible Answer. The fact is that three eminent judges have concluded that the coroner was absolutely right, that the Government’s case was unconvincing and that a special inquiry was needed. As we have heard, the Government have not appealed against that. Why do the Government concede that a special inquiry might be adopted, not now but in the distant future? Is that sensible?

My Lords, the noble Lord is being rather uncharacteristically churlish about the Answer I gave. These are complex and sensitive issues, as I hope noble Lords will appreciate, and it is right that the Home Secretary gives proper consideration to whether or not to hold an inquiry. That is her right and we should support her in that.

My Lords, does the Minister recollect that on 11 February this year Lord Justice Richards, in giving the judgment of a unanimous and strong Court of Appeal, examined in detail each and every one of the six reasons given in the decision letter by the Home Secretary and rejected each and every one of them absolutely? He crystallised the situation with this sentence:

“If she is to maintain her refusal she will need better reasons than those given in the decision letter, so as to provide a rational basis for her decision”.

Does the Minister accept that failure to allow this matter to be properly examined under the Inquiries Act 2005 would not only be a denial of the justice that the assassinated Litvinenko deserves but a breach of the commitment that the United Kingdom has shown so honourably over the years to the rule of law?

My Lords, the Government have sought justice in this case ever since Mr Litvinenko died in 2006. That remains the position. This crime took place in this country and involved a British citizen. We want to see those whose arrests were sought by the Crown Prosecution Service—Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun—brought to and put on trial in the UK. Meanwhile, the noble Lord has emphasised why it is important that the Home Secretary gives proper consideration to the need for an inquiry.

My Lords, the judgment of this very powerful three-judge court emphasised that the case for setting up an immediate statutory inquiry, as requested by the coroner, Sir Robert Owen, is plainly a strong one. As has just been said, the judges rejected all the reasons given by the Home Secretary for not doing so, and then said that there needed to be,

“fresh consideration to the exercise of her discretion”.

That was said in a judgment on 11 February. In the intervening weeks, has the Home Secretary given fresh consideration and can the Minister now tell the House what her reasons are for accepting or rejecting the idea of an inquiry?

The noble Lord is quite right. The judgment was a firm one. None the less, the decision to order an inquiry requires proper consideration. There is no deadline for this consideration but, clearly, the Home Secretary will seek to come to a conclusion as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the arrest of those whom we wish to see tried for this offence remains our priority.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there was in the past at least a scintilla of plausibility in the argument that, on prudential grounds, it was not worth provoking the Russian Federation because we needed to work with it in other areas, such as Syria and Iran, but that after Russia’s blatant invasion of Crimea, all that has gone and justice should now be done?

Yes, but, as I have pointed out, justice requires that those whom we wish to see put on trial in this country for this crime are brought to justice, and that requires the Russians to honour their agreement to extradite according to our request. I could not agree more with the noble Lord that our relationship with Russia has deteriorated as a result of the recent attempted annexation of Crimea. We are clearly not happy with that situation either, so it is yet another breakdown in our relationship with Russia.

My Lords, instead of passing sanctions of doubtful usefulness on various Russian citizens, would it now not be better to honour the promise given personally by the Foreign Secretary to Mrs Litvinenko, and to honour the Written Answer to me of 8 July last from the Minister, and respect the basic principles of British justice with a fully open inquest or inquiry? I have not understood whether the Government are committed to that or not.

My Lords, I think that I have made the position quite clear. The Home Secretary is considering, in the light of circumstances, whether an inquiry is the proper course of action. Meanwhile, as noble Lords will know, the G7—not the G8—is meeting in The Hague today to consider developments as a result of Russian aggression in the Black Sea area.