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Litvinenko Inquiry

Volume 768: debated on Thursday 21 January 2016


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in the House of Commons earlier today by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

“Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the death of Alexander Litvinenko on 23 November 2006, and the statutory inquiry into that death, which published its findings this morning. Mr Litvinenko’s death was a deeply shocking event. Despite the ongoing police investigation, and the efforts of the Crown Prosecution Service, those responsible have still not been brought to justice.

In July 2014, I established a statutory inquiry in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mr Litvinenko’s death, to determine responsibility for his death and to make recommendations. It was chaired by Sir Robert Owen, a retired senior High Court judge. It had the Government’s full support and access to all relevant material, regardless of its sensitivity.

I welcome the inquiry’s report today, and I would like to put on record my thanks to Sir Robert Owen for his detailed, thorough and impartial investigation into this complex and serious matter. Although the inquiry cannot assign civil or criminal liability, I hope that these findings will provide some clarity for his family, friends and all those affected by his death. I would particularly like to pay tribute to Mrs Marina Litvinenko and her tireless efforts to get to the truth.

The independent inquiry has found that Mr Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006, having suffered a cardiac arrest as a result of acute radiation syndrome caused by his ingestion of polonium-210 on 1 November 2006. He ingested the fatal dose of polonium-210 while drinking tea at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel on the afternoon of 1 November 2006. The inquiry—which in the course of its investigations has considered “an abundance of evidence”—has found that Mr Litvinenko was deliberately poisoned by Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, who had met him at the Millennium Hotel on the afternoon of that day.

The inquiry has also found that Lugovoy and Kovtun were acting on behalf of others when they poisoned Mr Litvinenko. There is a strong probability that they were acting under the direction of the Russian domestic security service—the Federal Security Service, or FSB. The inquiry has found that the FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved directly by Mr Patrushev, the then head of the FSB, and by President Putin.

The Government take these findings extremely seriously—as I am sure does every Member of this House. We are carefully considering the report’s findings in detail and their implications. In particular, the conclusion that the Russian state was probably involved in the murder of Mr Litvinenko is deeply disturbing. It goes without saying that this was a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and of civilised behaviour. But we have to accept that this does not come as a surprise. The inquiry also confirms the assessment of successive Governments that this was a state-sponsored act. This assessment has informed the Government’s approach to date.

Since 2007 that approach has comprised a series of steps to respond to Russia and its provocation. Some of these measures were immediate, such as the expulsion of a number of Russian embassy officials from the UK. Others are ongoing, such as the tightening of visa restrictions on Russian officials in the UK. The Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation into Mr Litvinenko’s murder remains open. I can tell the House today that Interpol notices and European arrest warrants are in place so that the main suspects, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, can be arrested if they ever travel abroad. In light of the report’s findings the Government will go further, and Treasury Ministers have today agreed to put in place asset freezes against the two individuals.

At the time, the independent Crown Prosecution Service formally requested the extradition of Mr Lugovoy from Russia. Russia refused to comply with this request—and has consistently refused to do so ever since. It is now almost 10 years since Mr Litvinenko was killed. Sir Robert Owen is unequivocal in his finding that Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun killed him. In light of this most serious finding, Russia’s continued failure to ensure that the perpetrators of this terrible crime can be brought to justice is unacceptable. I have written to the Director of Public Prosecutions this morning, asking her to consider whether any further action should be taken, both in terms of extradition and freezing criminal assets. These decisions are, of course, a matter for the independent Crown Prosecution Service, but the Government remain committed to pursuing justice in this case.

We have always made our position clear to the Russian Government, and in the strongest possible terms. We are doing so again today. We are making senior representations to the Russian Government in Moscow and at the same time will be summoning the Russian ambassador in London to the Foreign Office, where we will express our profound displeasure at Russia’s failure to co-operate and provide satisfactory answers. Specifically, we have demanded, and will continue to demand, that the Russian Government account for the role of the FSB in this case.

The threat posed by hostile states is one of the most sensitive issues that I deal with as Home Secretary. Although not often discussed in public, our security and intelligence agencies have always—dating back to their roots in the First and Second World Wars—had the protection of the UK from state threats at the heart of their mission. This means countering those threats in all their guises—whether from assassinations, cyberattacks or more traditional espionage. By its nature, this work is both less visible and necessarily more secret than the work of the police and the agencies against the terrorist threat, but it is every bit as important to the long-term security and prosperity of the United Kingdom.

The House will appreciate that I cannot go into detail about how we seek to protect ourselves from hostile state acts, but we make full use of the measures at our disposal from investigatory powers right through to the visa system. The case of Mr Litvinenko demonstrates once again why it is so vital that the intelligence agencies maintain their ability to detect and disrupt such threats.

The environment in which espionage and hostile state intelligence activities take place is changing. Evolving foreign-state interests and rapid technological advances mean it is imperative that we respond. Last November, the Chancellor announced that we will make new funding available to the security and intelligence agencies to provide for an additional 1,900 officers. In the same month, I published the draft investigatory powers Bill so that we can ensure that the intelligence agencies’ capabilities keep pace with the threat and the technology, while at the same time improving the oversight of and safeguards for the use of investigatory powers.

In the Government’s recently published national security strategy and the strategic defence and security review, we set out the range of threats to the UK and our allies, including from Russia, and our comprehensive approach to countering these threats. Since the publication of the previous SDSR in 2010, Russia has become more authoritarian, aggressive and nationalist. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its disturbing actions in Ukraine have directly challenged security in the region. These actions have also served as a sobering demonstration of Russia’s intent to try to undermine European security and the rules-based international order. In response, the UK, in conjunction with international partners, has imposed a package of robust measures against Russia. This includes sanctions against key Russian individuals, including Mr Patrushev, who is currently the secretary of the Russian Security Council.

This Government are clear that we must protect the UK and her interests from Russia-based threats, working closely with our allies in the EU and NATO. This morning I have written to my counterparts in EU, NATO and Five Eyes countries, drawing their attention to both the report and the need to take steps to prevent such a murder being committed on their streets.

We will continue to call on President Putin, and Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to engage responsibly and make a positive contribution to global security and stability. They can, for example, play an important role in defeating Daesh, and, together with the wider international community, help Syria work towards a stable future. We face some of the same challenges, from serious crime to aviation security, and we will continue to engage, guardedly, with Russia where it is strictly necessary to do so to support the UK’s national interest.

Sir Robert Owen’s report contains one recommendation within the closed section of his report. Honourable and right honourable Members will appreciate that I cannot reveal details of that recommendation in this House, but I can assure them that the Government will respond to the inquiry chair on that recommendation in due course.

Finally, I reiterate the Government’s determination to continue to seek justice for the murder of Mr Litvinenko. I repeat my thanks to Sir Robert Owen and, in particular, to Marina Litvinenko. As Sir Robert Owen says in his report, she has shown ‘dignity and composure’ and,

‘has demonstrated a quiet determination to establish the true facts of her husband’s death that is greatly to be commended’.

Mr Litvinenko’s murder was a truly terrible event. I sincerely hope that, for the sake of Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko, for the sake of Mr Litvinenko’s wider family and friends, and for the sake of justice, those responsible can be brought to trial. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today in the other place by the Home Secretary. The inquiry report confirms that the Russian state at its highest level sanctioned the killing of a citizen on the streets of our capital city in an unparalleled act of state-sponsored terrorism. We accept that time must be taken to digest the findings of the report and consider our response.

Before I proceed further, I express our appreciation to Sir Robert Owen and his inquiry team, without whose painstaking work the truth would never have been uncovered and known. I extend our thanks to the Metropolitan Police Service for what the report calls “an exemplary investigation”, and to the Litvinenko family’s legal team, who, as I understand it, supported them on a pro bono basis.

We express our sympathy to Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko, who have fought so courageously to make this day a reality. While the findings of this report raise international and diplomatic issues, this was first and foremost a family tragedy. Has the Home Secretary met, or does she intend to meet, Marina and Anatoly to discuss this report, its findings and the British Government’s response?

We welcome what the Home Secretary has said today in the Statement about Interpol notices and European arrest warrants, along with her announcement about asset freezes. Will she also directly approach all EU, NATO and Commonwealth allies, asking for immediate co-operation on extradition in respect of those named in the report as having poisoned Mr Litvinenko? Since there may be other individuals facing similar dangers, has a review been undertaken of the level of security provided to Mr Litvinenko by the relevant British services to see whether any lessons can be learned for the future?

No individuals commit crimes of this type alone, and today’s report confirms that there is a network of people who have known about and facilitated this crime. I understand that Mrs Litvinenko has prepared a list of names to be submitted to the Government, of those who have aided and abetted the perpetrators against whom, she believes, sanctions should be taken. That could include the freezing of UK assets, property and travel restrictions. Will the Minister give an in-principle commitment today to look seriously at that list and those requests?

The Statement indicates that there will be new diplomatic pressure, which we welcome, but given what we know about the way the Russian state operates, do the Government believe there is a case for a wide-ranging review of the nature and extent of our diplomatic, political, economic and cultural relations with Russia?

On diplomacy, do the Government consider that there is a case for recalling the ambassador for consultation and for making any changes to the Russian embassy in London? Given the proven Federal Security Service involvement, are the Government considering expelling FSB officers from Britain? Has the Prime Minister ever raised this case directly with Vladimir Putin, and will he be seeking an urgent conversation with him about the findings of this report?

On cultural collaboration, given what this report reveals about the Russian Government and their links to organised crime, on top of what we already know about corruption within FIFA, do the Government feel that there is a growing case to reconsider our approach to the forthcoming 2018 World Cup and to engage other countries in that discussion?

On the economy, are the Government satisfied that current EU sanctions against Russia are adequate, and is there a case to strengthen them?

We ask these questions not because we have come to a conclusion but because we believe they are the kind of questions this country needs to debate in the light of today’s findings. While the Home Secretary ordered this review, I believe I am right in saying that she originally declined to do so, citing international issues. Will it be considerations of diplomacy or justice that influence the Government’s response?

Finally, will the Government commit to coming back to update Parliament on whatever final package of measures and steps they intend to take in the light of this report and its disturbing findings? The family deserve nothing less than that after their courageous fight. Alexander Litvinenko’s last words to his son Anatoly, who was then 12 years old, were, “Defend Britain to your last drop because it saved your family”. He believed in Britain and its traditions of justice and fairness and of standing up to the mighty and for what is right, and we must now make sure that we find the courage to show his son and the world that his father’s faith in us was not misplaced.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minster for repeating the Statement made by the Home Secretary. The death of Mr Litvinenko, although it happened almost 10 years ago, is shocking and tragic, and we hope Marina Litvinenko and her son can find some solace in the findings of this report.

There are fundamental issues at stake here. Sir Robert Owen cites as the motivation for the murder of Mr Litvinenko his criticism of the Russian domestic security service and of the Russian President, Mr Putin, and his association with other Russian dissidents. He concluded that Mr Litvinenko may have been consigned to a slow death from radiation to “send a message”. Freedom of expression and freedom of association are fundamental human rights, and we cannot allow foreign Governments to murder people in this country, let alone a British citizen, for expressing such views or for associating with critics of a particular regime. Such an act cannot be left without serious consequences for Russia.

We acknowledge with gratitude the role of the security and intelligence services and the police in keeping us safe, and we accept the Home Secretary’s assertion that some of the work the security and intelligence services carry out in combating the threat from hostile states must remain secret. We also acknowledge the constant struggle the police and the security services face in trying to keep abreast of developments in technology. Any increase in investigatory powers must none the less be necessary and proportionate and must not unnecessarily undermine the right to free speech and the right to private and family life.

Will the Minster explain how the conclusions of this report have come as such a surprise to the Government that it is only this morning that the Home Secretary has written to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking her to consider whether further action should be taken? It is the Government who should already have taken action in freezing the assets and banning the travel of all those linked to this murder. I accept that a head of state cannot be subjected to a travel ban, but there is no reason why the Government cannot signal their intention to impose one as soon as Mr Putin leaves office.

Why are the Government limiting themselves to expressing their “profound displeasure” at Russia’s failure to co-operate and provide satisfactory answers? Why are they not expressing their outrage that state-sponsored murder by Russia to silence its critics has been carried out on British soil? The Government’s response is late, lame and lamentable.

I am grateful for the points made on this report by the official spokesmen for the opposition parties. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is absolutely right to say that it is a substantial report, and it is right, given that it has been a thorough exercise to undertake this study, that we give it due consideration before we come forward with all our recommendations. He is also right to point to the sections of the report that talk about the exemplary Metropolitan Police Service investigation into this crime, and I know that that will be welcomed as well by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. Often in such circumstances the police are criticised, but the chair of the inquiry goes out of his way to point out how exemplary they have been.

The noble Lord is right also to pay tribute to the legal team involved in this, and to ask about the security of individuals. The security of individuals is of course first and foremost the responsibility of the police with, where necessary, advice from the security services. We are confident that the police will be looking at the situation very carefully, particularly for individuals who may be at risk.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked if the Home Secretary will meet Marina Litvinenko, and the answer to that is absolutely. The Home Secretary wrote to Marina Litvinenko last night, and she was provided with advance sight of the report so that she could prepare her responses to it. That meeting will take place very shortly. When it does, that will be the appropriate time to consider Marina Litvinenko’s list of names on which she feels further action should be taken. Following that meeting, I will be happy to update the noble Lord and the House on what actions have been taken.

The noble Lord talked about what actions would be taken and whether we would be recalling our ambassador. At present—of course, we are only dealing with the report that has been received now—we certainly feel that the diplomatic channels have immense value in communicating to the Russian authorities our shock and outrage at this incident, which did not just involve the murder of a British citizen in the capital of the UK but involved the use of radioactive material that could have had a lethal effect upon many more people. In fact, some of the most disturbing parts of this entire report are those that show how lazy the two people who carried out this crime were and how unaware they were of the danger of the material that they were handling. There are examples of spills that were mopped up with towels. It was horrific behaviour and incredibly irresponsible, and it is amazing that only one person died as a result of it.

On the points made about this by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I understand the frustration that will be felt but I draw his attention to appendix 1 of the report, which sets out in some detail the action that was taken. The Home Secretary has taken the action of writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions; following the conclusion of the report, we believe that that is the right course of action. The arrest warrants were issued under the previous Labour Government in 2006 and 2007—very prompt action was taken. Further action has also been taken in the light of the events in Crimea and Ukraine through the European Union, which has gone to the heart of some of the issues which were touched upon as regards cultural and commercial links. The European Union has frozen the assets of five banks, looked at commercial restrictions—and arms embargoes, as one would expect—as well as restrictions on movement. On whether there is more to be done, that is one of the reasons why the Home Secretary has written to her EU counterparts and will continue those discussions in the Justice and Home Affairs Council to see what more can be done, as well as through NATO, to see what more can be done there.

Ultimately, our objective is to ensure that the two people clearly identified as having carried out the murder are brought to the United Kingdom so that they can stand trial and so that the Litvinenko family can get justice for the crime which has been committed. We will not rest or resile from that commitment.

My Lords, I am not entirely sure that I should declare this as an interest, but this appalling crime took place during my term as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I endorse the Home Secretary’s Statement and I am very conscious that the implications of Sir Robert Owen’s report are far wider than having anything to do with the police. However, I would like the Minister further to acknowledge something which appears to have been omitted from the Home Secretary’s Statement. I would like the Minister to take note of the fact that this investigation was into a homicide by a method never seen before in the history of the world. It presented a unique and immensely dangerous challenge to the investigators themselves. In these days, when the Metropolitan Police faces sustained criticism over a number of unrelated matters, this investigation was in the finest tradition of that organisation. It was not only exemplary but innovative, intelligent, unstinting and astonishingly brave.

I certainly echo the noble Lord’s remarks and pay tribute again to the work of the Metropolitan Police Service. I also pay tribute to the work of the Cyclamen network, which tracks nuclear materials as regards potential terrorist threats, as well as the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which provided important scientific input into the inquiry by identifying what had happened. I am therefore happy to endorse those remarks and confirm my agreement with them.

My Lords, I think many of us in this House on all sides will want to congratulate the Government on their firm Statement and in particular to thank Sir Robert for the clear and detailed work he has done and for his honest, forthright report. Particularly in view of what the Minister has just said about the wider implications as regards the lethal radioactivity spread around the capital, London, its transport system and the rest, how will the Government raise this matter in the Security Council of the United Nations, with fellow Governments in the European Union, and, most particularly, in the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe? The Council of Europe is of course committed to human rights, and we have a very good opportunity there with other Ministers to put the Russians under close scrutiny as regards this report. I was rapporteur for some years to the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya, and what has happened here is all too characteristic of the gruesome repeated action I came up against in Chechnya and in the north Caucasus in general.

References to that engagement in Mr Litvinenko’s background in Chechnya are contained in a report, which makes very interesting reading. The noble Lord asked about the UN Security Council. There are issues that could be addressed through that forum, but the fact that Russia is a permanent member of it makes some of the discussions that need to be had a little more difficult. However, we have said that the European Union plays a crucial part in our security here, and we have made it clear that NATO also plays a very important part, as do the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. We need to get the message out that this is unacceptable and to communicate that as widely as possible.

My Lords, my noble friend has rightly paid tribute to the courage and dignity of the widow and the bereaved son. Can he give the House an assurance that he is utterly confident of their security in this country and of their financial security for the future?

That is a very good point, and it is characteristic of my noble friend to focus on the humanitarian aspects of this matter. I do not have a sufficient understanding of the situation but I give an undertaking to ensure that it is on the agenda when the Home Secretary meets Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko to make sure that any personal needs they have are met.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned Syria. I do not understand why we regard it as necessary to be weak on the rule of law at home in order to persuade Russia to do what is in its national interests in Syria. I am sorry to strike a dissenting note to the general tenor so far, but in my view this Statement pretends to roar like a lion but in fact ends up squeaking like a mouse. There is only one new action, and that is to freeze the assets of the two perpetrators, who have no assets in Britain anyway, and shortly to be rude to the Russian ambassador. That is it. Moscow has been found by a British court to have murdered a British citizen using a nuclear weapon in daylight and in public in our capital city, and that is it. Perhaps I may suggest to the Government that they should go away and consider what further action should be taken. When they do so, perhaps they will bear in mind what Mr Putin would do if the tables were reversed and perhaps frame their actions around that.

We might not go quite that far with Mr Putin as a role model for action. In a sense, I understand the point that the noble Lord is making, but let us remember that this report has come out into the open. It contains some damning verdicts on the Russian Administration, on the FSB and on the Russian President himself, and it poses a number of questions in the international community which we have said need to be answered. I think that the report itself is a step along the path of ensuring that we get justice in relation to this crime and of making sure that it does not happen again.

My Lords, the Minister has outlined the carelessness with which this material was treated here in the United Kingdom. With regard to how this material came to enter the country in the current security context, can he say whether there are proposals to review the systems that we have in place? We are used to being checked thoroughly as we go out of the country but it seems that we do not have any systems for checking that people do not enter the country with this kind of material. Do we need any such systems?

The Cyclamen co-ordination group, which works with the Border Force and the security services in tracking down this material, does a lot of work in this area. Sections of the inquiry findings point to the fact that, because polonium-210 consists of large molecules, it is extremely difficult to detect through the normal detection methods. We will have to look at that to ensure that we are better at detecting this type of material when it crosses borders or is used within the UK—or anywhere else, for that matter—in the future.

In his comments, my noble friend emphasised that he wanted to ensure that the two perpetrators were brought to justice in this country. I heard the Russian ambassador earlier today trying to rubbish the report on the basis that it was written without having been tested in a court. Will my noble friend take this opportunity to send a further message to the Russian ambassador that we are quite willing for these two individuals to be tried in a British court of justice and, if necessary, will he give consideration to the process that was undertaken for Lockerbie to protect those individuals until that process is complete?

I am very happy to do that. Of course, that is what we are aiming for. That is the direction and thrust of our policy. We want those two individuals to come to the UK so that they can be put on trial and all the evidence can be put to them, they can seek to defend themselves and a judgment can be made.

My Lords, does the Minister think it possible or even likely that the polonium could have entered Britain in a diplomatic bag?

The report does not go into that level of detail—or certainly not the parts that I have read. That is something that will be examined very carefully because, again, that would ratchet up this issue to a further level of deep concern.

I am sure that Marina Litvinenko is extremely pleased that this inquiry was held and that the findings are so definite, but she would be even more pleased if the findings could be tested in law with regard to the two main suspects being accused. Although it seems impossible to get them to come to this country, would there not be a precedent for having a trial in absentia?

I am afraid that I am not qualified to know whether that is an option. I think that it would be immensely difficult. In effect, there has been an inquiry without their contribution. The evidence was considered and it has produced a pretty damning judgment. As to what the legal options are, I hope that the Director of Public Prosecutions might be able to come forward with something in response to the Home Secretary’s letter.