Wednesday 24th November 2021

(1 week, 3 days ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Hansard Text
Home Office

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gareth Johnson.)

Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con)
- - Excerpts

Before I turn to the important case of misjustice that I wish to raise with the Minister, may I place on record my deep sadness at the news of the tragic killing in Plymouth of Bobbi-Anne McLeod, whose body was discovered last night? As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, Plymouth is a city in shock over the Keyham killings earlier this year, and the news last night of another senseless murder, of a defenceless young lady, has shaken us to the core. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and loved ones. We thank very much the police and emergency services for all that they are doing to bring to justice the perpetrators of this appalling murder in Plymouth.

While I am speaking about Plymouth, I should thank the Government for their support of the people of Keyham, with more funding announced today for schoolchildren in Plymouth, many of whom have seen things on the streets of our city that children of primary school age should never see.

I am delighted to turn now to the subject matter of the debate, which I am introducing to bring to the attention of the House an injustice suffered by my constituents, the Mockett family, who have never been able to achieve closure on the brutal murder of a much-loved husband, father and grandfather, Captain David Mockett, who was killed in Yemen in 2011—a death that has never been properly investigated by British authorities.

I will put my arguments in three sections. First, I will set out the background to the matter, and the link between the murder of Captain Mockett and the commercial court case of the Brillante Virtuoso. Secondly, I will set out the many attempts that the family have made to seek justice, and the failings of our prosecuting authorities. Finally, I will spell out the steps that we wish the Minister to take to achieve justice for my constituents.

Let me turn first to the background. David Mockett was a marine surveyor who divided his time between Yemen, where he worked on many insurance claims, and Plymouth, where his wife and daughters lived. He had a reputation as the finest marine surveyor in the region. In July 2011, an oil tanker with a cargo worth around $100 million—the Brillante Virtuoso—was apparently boarded by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The Minister will remember that at that time the threat from Somali pirates in that stretch of water was very real. The ship was boarded at midnight by seven masked men armed with automatic weapons. Shots were fired and the crew held hostage. For reasons not then known, the capture of the vessel by pirates resulted in an explosion and the ship being set on fire. The crew were evacuated, but the cargo and the ship were substantially lost.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Talbot Underwriting, with which the ship was insured, sent a surveyor to find out what had happened and to assess the claim, as was standard practice. David Mockett, who was working for Noble Denton in Yemen, was the surveyor chosen for the task. He was immediately suspicious that this had been not a straightforward act of piracy, but a clumsy insurance fraud. Through email correspondence with colleagues and his wife, David reported that he was unable to

“find any evidence of bullet holes or exposures to grenades”,

and that the incident on the Brillante Virtuoso was not simply an attack by Somali pirates, as claimed by the ship owner.

On 20 July 2011, David Mockett took his laptop and climbed into his Lexus car. After he had driven a short distance, the bomb carefully placed under his seat exploded, killing him instantly. In the days that followed, some attempts were made by British authorities to investigate the murder, but no real progress was made. However, substantial legal action followed in relation to claims made by the owner of the vessel, who was a Greek ship owner called Marios Iliopoulos. That legal action continued until a judgment was handed down in a British court by Mr Justice Teare late last year. In that trial—brought in the commercial court at the Royal Courts of Justice by Suez Fortune Investments Ltd and others against Talbot Underwriting Ltd—the learned judge concluded the following in his comprehensive judgment, in which he found for the insurers:

“The constructive total loss of Brillante Virtuoso was caused by the wilful misconduct of the Owner, Mr. Iliopoulos… the motives of the armed men were not to steal or ransom the vessel or to steal from the crew, but to assist the Owner to commit a fraud upon Underwriters… Iliopoulos had a motive to want the vessel to be damaged by fire, namely, the making of a fraudulent claim for the total loss of the vessel in the sum of some US$77 million which, if successful, would solve the serious financial difficulties in which he and his companies were at the time.”

I think the Minister will agree that that finding is as clear a statement from a High Court judge as we could ever wish to hear.

That commercial case was not about the killing of Mr Mockett, but it goes a long way to explaining the motive for killing him, as he was about to uncover the truth about the taking of the Brillante Virtuoso, and it also provides a clear indication as to who was almost certainly behind his murder.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Member for bringing the matter forward. I hail from a nation where too many lives have been lost in similar devastating manner. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that integrity such as that shown by Captain David Mockett is feared internationally, and that it is only right and proper that his death be recognised as the work of evil men with an evil purpose whose acts of darkness will never succeed in getting rid of the light?

Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter
- - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Certainly, Captain Mockett was a man of the highest integrity, and for him to be killed for doing his job, and doing his job well, is an absolute outrage.

During the 12-week trial in the High Court, it was established that the hijackers were Yemeni coastguard officers disguised as Somali pirates, and that the automatic weapons they used had been supplied to them in advance by one of the Greek salvors who was on standby to salvage the burning vessel, as part of the plan. It was all a massive fraud that Captain Mockett was in the process of uncovering—for that, he was killed.

Let me turn to my next question: what have the family tried to do to obtain justice for their murdered husband and father? At the inquest in Plymouth in June 2012, the coroner found that Captain Mockett was unlawfully killed. Evidence was given ruling out al-Qaeda terrorists and suggesting strongly that the killing was linked to an insurance fraud. In the past 10 years, Mrs Mockett, supported by two close friends who each have relevant expertise, has sought to persuade the British investigative authorities to carry out a detailed and forensic investigation of the case and to go after the people responsible. That has never happened.

The family have been shunted from pillar to post within the Metropolitan police, receiving only vague assurances that the matter was being looked into. Although terrorism was quickly ruled out, none the less the case went to the counter-terrorism command rather than a team used to investigating organised crime. No progress was made. As the commercial court case unfolded, much information was passed to that team within the Met that clearly demonstrated the link to the commercial shipping case, and that Captain Mockett was murdered owing to insurance fraud, but no obvious action was taken.

In 2018, Mrs Mockett sought my help. I wrote to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and received a reply confirming that the counter-terrorism command—SO15—had been involved in the investigation of Captain Mockett’s murder, but pointing out that the Yemeni authorities had the lead responsibility, and that it was all very difficult. We were no further forward. In March 2019 I wrote to the then Home Secretary, raising my concerns about the lack of investigation and making the crucial point that the way forward in this case was to open a piracy investigation in international waters, for which our investigators do have jurisdiction. That would enable them to bring proceedings against the perpetrators of this act of piracy, enabling the family to obtain justice.

I set out this argument clearly in my letter to the then Home Secretary, but, although his office spoke to the Metropolitan Police, they did not proceed as requested. The fact that the killing took place in Yemen, a failing state, is not the obstacle it might at first appear, because most of the evidence in this case sits in London and in Athens. The judgement of Mr Justice Teare provides a clear indication that serious criminal acts under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 have taken place, and our authorities most certainly have jurisdiction to investigate them. I wrote again to the next Home Secretary in March 2020, making a similar case, and received a response from a Home Office Minister, again pointing out the difficulty of bringing proceedings in relation to a crime committed in Yemen, but once again not gripping the argument about investigating the act of piracy and bringing to court those responsible.

In frustration, I then organised a meeting with the officers of the Metropolitan Police on whose desk this file sat, gathering dust, with Mrs Mockett present. Sadly, that proved to be equally frustrating. The only real point of encouragement was that they promised to keep a close eye on the commercial case involving the Brillante Virtuoso and, if any useful evidence emerged therefrom, to take matters forward. As far as we know, they did not once attend court during a very long hearing and, despite the crystal-clear judgment from the learned judge on the identity of the people behind the whole criminal enterprise, they have not taken a single step since the judgment to investigate the people responsible.

The Metropolitan police have been provided with a very clear way forward, which they have so far refused to pursue. I am sure the Minister would agree that when a British citizen is murdered in cold blood overseas, our authorities should move heaven and earth to bring those responsible to justice, using every legal means of action available to them. That has not happened, and the years are slipping by. There has been more than enough information to progress this investigation, yet the Metropolitan police appear to show an alarming reluctance to move forward. Any confidence that the Mockett family had in the police force has now been completely eroded.

Even now, however, it is not too late. The fresh wave of evidence raised in the insurance fraud trial provides a real opportunity and is more than a starting point for further investigation. While it may be difficult to obtain sufficient evidence surrounding the planting of the bomb, there is ample evidence to prosecute the mastermind behind all this for the international crimes of hijacking and destruction of the vessel. In the investigation of those offences, the murder of Captain Mockett would also automatically be investigated as part of the cover-up, leading to a measure of justice for those responsible.

The injustice in this case, and the inaction by our prosecuting authorities, has attracted the attention of third parties. Next year a book is to be published into this whole sorry mess, including an in-depth look at why nobody has been held to account, despite the evidence now uncovered. There will also be a Radio 4 programme highlighting this case as a miscarriage of justice. I am sure the whole House would agree that when a British citizen is murdered in any part of this world just for doing his job, there must be justice.

What do we want the Minister to do? The family will not let this drop, and nor will I. We recognise that the Home Office is not directly responsible for decisions on prosecution, nor should it be, but Ministers have influence and are there to ensure that our independent police forces are working correctly. I ask the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, to call into his office the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and ask her to properly investigate this case. She should be asked to remove this file from the desk of the current team, where it still sits gathering dust, and give it to a new team of people experienced in investigating serious international fraud. They should be instructed to draw on the rich seam of evidence that the commercial court case has brought to light and to engage with the seasoned professionals who have advised Mrs Mockett throughout and who have real life and relevant experience. If that were to happen, I am confident that a way would be found under existing law to investigate and bring to book those responsible for this appalling crime and to deliver to Mrs Cynthia Mockett—one of the loveliest women anyone could wish to meet—her daughters and grandaughters the justice that they so richly deserve.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Security and Borders (Damian Hinds)
- - Excerpts

It was with great sadness that we heard yesterday of a body being found in the search for 18-year-old Bobbi-Anne McLeod. Our thoughts and prayers, and those of the whole House, are with her family. I join my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) in his praise and thanks of the emergency services.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate on the tragic case of the late Captain David Mockett. My hon. Friend has long campaigned on the case and has shown great determination in seeking justice on behalf of his constituents, the family of Captain Mockett. I hear what my hon. Friend says about his continuing commitment in that regard. I also express my sympathies to the Mockett family for the tragic loss of their husband and father, and of a professional who was clearly highly respected in his field. Their determination and perseverance in seeking justice is entirely understandable and right, and of course we must do what we can to deliver on that.

As my hon. Friend said, the Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command, known as SO15, supported the Yemeni authorities and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was then known. That command has unique expertise in assisting with complex cases in other countries. In 2011, a senior SO15 officer conducted a scoping exercise on the circumstances around Mr Mockett’s death to assist the UK coroner, and he subsequently gave evidence at the inquest. The coroner concluded that the murder was most likely criminally motivated. I understand that SO15 has worked closely with the City of London police, which carried out a fraud investigation linked to the case, as my hon. Friend mentioned. The Metropolitan police assured us that, over the last 10 years, SO15 has sought to assist other agencies with the appropriate jurisdiction and will continue to do so.

It is the case that Yemeni authorities have overall responsibility for the homicide investigation and there are very limited circumstances where UK police can take primacy on an investigation into a murder overseas. The Metropolitan police is of the view that the circumstances in this case are such that UK police do not have legal authority.

My late predecessor, our friend James Brokenshire, wrote to my hon. Friend in 2020 in response to his correspondence, as he will recall. As noted in that letter, the police and the National Crime Agency are operationally independent, as he noted in his closing remarks. Ministers do not have the powers to make a request or direction to them to open an investigation. In our system, that would not be appropriate.

I am entirely sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s determination to seek justice for his constituents. I am also sure that he will appreciate the principle of the operational independence of the police and of how operational decisions and, ultimately, prosecution decisions are made. Indeed, the police must be able to operate free of political influence or interference, even in cases as tragic, emotive and difficult as this one. Where there is a case for further action, we would of course expect them to take appropriate action.

While I regret that I am not in a position to agree to the requests my hon. Friend set out in his speech, I will do—and want to do—what I can to help support David’s family. First, I can confirm that the case has been drawn to the attention of Her Majesty’s ambassador to Yemen, who can make representations about the matter to the Government of Yemen. I am also, of course, very happy to meet my hon. Friend away from the Floor of the House to discuss the case more fully, and we should be in touch on that immediately.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend for seeking this important debate.

Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter
- - Excerpts

I appreciate all that the Minister has said, but is he satisfied, or could he make further inquiries, on the point I have raised repeatedly about looking at the Aviation and Marine Security Act to see whether some other kind of investigation might be pursued by the British authorities into the act of piracy, which could then have the right result in securing some kind of justice? Could he please go back to his office and look at that point for me? I would be most grateful.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- - Excerpts

Of course, I am not going to say no to my hon. Friend on that question. I do not know what the prospects might be, but, yes, of course I can do that, and specifically, when he and I meet, we can discuss it.

I was just coming to the end of my remarks, but I wish to finish by once again extending my own deepest sympathies and, on their behalf, those of colleagues in the Home Office and the Home Secretary to the family and friends of Captain Mockett.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.