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Shawcross Report: Compensation for Victims

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to publish the report by William Shawcross on compensation for victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism; and what steps they are taking in response to the findings of that report.

My Lords, I am sure I speak for the whole House in expressing our deepest sympathies to the victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism, and indeed to all the victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This is an important issue and we recognise that Parliament takes a close interest in it. Ministers across government are carefully considering the internal scoping report that Mr Shawcross has produced in order to do justice to the important and sensitive issues that it covers, giving due respect to the victims.

My Lords, the finding of the Shawcross report was submitted to the Government last May, and I have to say that it is deeply regrettable that the report has not been released. Sadly, as in so many other cases, many victims of republican terrorism continue to feel abandoned by the process, and some rightly ask why they must continue to wait for justice. The Minister will be aware that there has been a long campaign for the frozen assets of Colonel Gaddafi to be used to compensate the victims of Colonel-Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism, in line with that previously paid out to French, German and American victims of Colonel-Gaddafi-sponsored terrorist attacks. Does the Minister agree that every effort must be made by the Government to support the victims in their long struggle for justice? The delay in the release of the report has left them feeling abandoned, hurt and betrayed.

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord has said. On the delay, the challenges of the pandemic have meant that we wanted to give the report appropriate discussion across Westminster. I assure the noble Lord that we put victims at the heart of our approach. He mentioned victims from other countries, and he will of course note that where there are direct victims—in the case of the United Kingdom, those around Lockerbie—appropriate compensation has been paid out.

Oh, come on, my Lords: the Government have sat on this report for almost a year. The first excuse, which the Minister has repeated, was Covid. Then, in response to an FOI request, the excuse was that it would affect unspecified British interests abroad; next, that it would somehow prejudice relations with the Northern Ireland Executive; and, lastly, that it contains private and confidential information, which presumably could be redacted. So what is the real reason? US victims of Gaddafi-backed terrorism have been compensated. There are £12 billion-worth of frozen Libyan assets in the UK. Last year, the Government promised that they were committed to supporting the victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism, so why have they been dragging their feet?

My Lords, I believe I have already answered the noble Lord in part. I do not agree with him that we have been dragging our feet. As I said, the report is wide-ranging, and we are giving it careful consideration. On the asset freeze that he specifically mentioned, he will know that UK regulations prohibit any dealings with assets owned, held or controlled by designated persons, as specified in law. I note what the noble Lord has said, but I assure him that we are looking at this across government.

As others have said, it is now over nine months since William Shawcross submitted his report to the Government and over a year since new wider commitments to legacy issues were set out in New Decade, New Approach, yet victims are still waiting for action. Even given the complications caused by Covid, does the Minister not accept that this is an unacceptably long wait for the victims, who have already waited for so long?

My Lords, at the risk of repeating myself, as I have said, yes, I accept the premise of the noble Baroness’s question about the delays caused by Covid, but equally the report needs a measured response. I assure the noble Baroness and all noble Lords that we are looking at it very carefully.

My Lords, the next question, which I myself was due to ask, in strong support of the noble Lord, Lord Hay, is withdrawn because of unexpected Woolsack duties. I call the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, very often, when Governments—I put it in the plural because it is not just this Government—sit on reports, that has a disproportionate effect on the febrile imagination of people looking on, because they assume that something is being hidden? Even more important in this case are the victims. We have heard of their pain and suffering, and it is quite possible that some of those victims will die before they get compensation. Is that an aspect of the speed of this that worries the Minister, and how is he going to address it?

My Lords, as ever, I note the concerns that noble Lords are expressing on this important and sensitive matter. Again, I assure the noble Lord that we are looking at this with the victims fully in mind and at the heart and centre of our approach.

My Lords, in 2019 it was reported that the UK Government had collected £17 million in tax on the £12 billion of frozen Libyan assets. All the while, victims have received no compensation. How can that be right?

My Lords, in accordance with international law, when assets are frozen they continue to belong to the sanctioned individual or entity—in this case, the Libyan state. Any revenue raised specifically from frozen assets would have gone into the Government’s Consolidated Fund. I assure the noble Lord that the victims of such actions, and terrorism, are very much at the front of the Government’s mind and we will seek to continue to support victims across the piece when it comes to issues of terrorism.

My Lords, I served on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for Great Britain until 1992. There was then a concurrent scheme for Northern Ireland, which was subject to a strict one-year limitation period for claiming, without any discretion to extend, save for children. Would it not be desirable now—particularly if the Government are in receipt of income from frozen Libyan assets in the way of tax—to open up a window of, say, six months, for claiming on an ex gratia basis for those who were too terrified or intimidated to claim as victims of terrorist acts at the time?

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord has said but, as he will appreciate, I cannot respond to the specific terms of his proposals. He will be aware that in January 2020, in the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government did legislate to establish a victims’ payment scheme. The Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for delivering the scheme, which will be open for applications from March 2021.

My Lords, does the Minister really understand how the victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism feel genuinely abandoned by this Government? Other countries’ Governments all negotiated substantial payments for their victims—victims of the Docklands bombing of 25 years ago tomorrow, of the Harrods bombing and of the Enniskillen bombing, all got compensation. Why will the Government not even commit definitely to publish the Shawcross report? Have they got something to hide, or are they perhaps trying to protect the republican movement and aspects of people in the IRA? Will the noble Lord the Minister now commit that Her Majesty’s Government will veto any attempt by the United Nations Security Council to release the millions of pounds of assets held in London banks unless there is a deal with the United Kingdom on compensation for the victims?

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly raises the issue of the US, French and German Governments’ claims for atrocities. She will also note that these were direct atrocities—including, from a UK perspective, the killing of WPC Fletcher, as well as the victims of Lockerbie—and they have been compensated. By contrast, Libya was defined as a third party in IRA terrorism. I understand what the noble Baroness says, including about the importance of a UN review of the regime within the context of UN Security Council resolutions, but I assure her, as I have other noble Lords, that we are continuing to look at victims. An important and sensitive report has been produced internally and we are looking at all matters before responding appropriately. I cannot give the noble Baroness more detail than that at this time.

I understand why the victims finally deserve an answer, but can I ask the Minister to encourage the publication of William Shawcross’s conclusions and recommendations, rather than publishing the whole—obviously sensitive—report?

As I have said before, I note what my noble friend said; it is a practical suggestion and I will certainly take that back.