Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon contributions to the Asset Freezing (Compensation) Bill [HL] 2017-19

Fri 27th October 2017 Asset Freezing (Compensation) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber)
2nd reading (Hansard) : House of Lords
3 interactions (1,709 words)

Asset Freezing (Compensation) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Asset Freezing (Compensation) Bill [HL]

(2nd reading (Hansard) : House of Lords)
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Friday 27th October 2017

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Lord Davies of Oldham Portrait Lord Davies of Oldham (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, I join the so far unanimous voices of all who have spoken in this House and am grateful to the two additional noble Lords who have spoken in the gap. In particular, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Reid who identified just why the Government need to address this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is of course to be greatly applauded for his persistence with regard to this issue. His previous Bill is now extended in this Bill, which makes it clear what exactly ought to be achieved. The previous Bill of course fell foul of those practices in the Commons which result in the exhaustion of time. An awful lot of Members of Parliament and others—I count myself, as a former Member of Parliament, in this category—have suffered the loss of a Bill directed towards an unexceptionable cause when the waywardness of parliamentary procedure sees that the Bill does not progress as it deserves. Most of us at that point, I think, give up on the endeavours. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is greatly to be congratulated on the fact that he has persisted with these issues and brought this Bill before the House. He may begin to think that he somewhat resembles Sisyphus, who constantly had a burden to bear and roll up the hill, but Sisyphus was never successful, of course. We hope that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will be successful with this measure or, at the very least, if the Bill itself cannot be commended, that the Minister will indicate that the Government will take progressive action to give effect to its most crucial propositions.

We have no doubt about the justice of this cause and wish the Bill well. A considerable number of Members in the House of Commons support this issue. The constituency of my honourable friend Jim Fitzpatrick includes Canary Wharf, which featured in one of the horror stories of a period when not just Northern Ireland but the great cities of Manchester and Birmingham suffered attacks. London suffered several attacks during that period—enough to present difficulties in sustaining certain aspects of normal life in the capital, not least because of the threats to public transport. When my honourable friend Jim Fitzpatrick pursues these issues in the Commons, he represents his constituents in a way which they have the right to expect. Noble Lords from Northern Ireland have reflected exactly that consideration with regard to the people they used to represent in the Commons. We have become acquainted through all this with that dreaded word “Semtex”, which I think very few of us knew anything about until the Libyan Government began to obtain supplies of it from the Czech authorities and then began to disseminate it, in particular to the IRA in Northern Ireland.

Other Governments have made more progress on this issue than ours. We all recognise that the law is different in other countries. The Americans can take executive action that is not open to the British Government to pursue in the same way. The Government have now had several years’ opportunity to devote real thought to this issue, given the pressure from noble Lords and Members in the other place. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will indicate that the Government will come up with some constructive proposals.

I recognise that the Minister has drawn the short straw. Having to respond to the first debate on a Friday is bad enough. However, having to do so when he has a fairly thin case to deploy, or has had in the past, is an even more onerous burden. However, he is a competent and capable Minister whom we all respect. I know that he will have pressed his civil servants to ensure that he has an element of constructiveness in his response today. I do not think that the House will take kindly to a repeat of the forestalling by government which has gone on in the past in response to the arguments put forward on these issues. The Government need to give us some encouragement. I am not expecting the Minister to say that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will sail through both Houses without contention. I am not even going to ask the Minister to say that it is bound to succeed. All I am asking him to say is that the Government have a duty to respond to the Bill’s demands for constructive action.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and indeed all noble Lords for their contributions. We can all reflect on the poignancy of the issue in front of us, which concerns victims, who are at the heart of the intent behind the Bill. The Government do not take that lightly. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on securing this Second Reading, and congratulate all noble Lords who have contributed. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for his kind remarks about me. However, I assure him that I do not regard responding to the Bill on a Friday as drawing the short straw. I know that it is half-term and, having three children who have not seen daddy much this week, this matter is a challenge. However, it underlines the importance that I, as a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, attach to this human rights issue, as does the UN, the Foreign Secretary and my colleague the right honourable Alistair Burt, who is the Minister with responsibility for the Middle East.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate and to speak about this important issue, which continues to be highly relevant in Parliament, not just in our House but in another place, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and others have said. In doing so, I acknowledge the valuable work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place. This includes the report it published in April on government support for UK victims of IRA attacks that used Semtex and weapons supplied by the former Libyan leader, Muammur Gaddafi. I say to my noble friend Lord Lexden that the Government responded in September to the report. If there are specific matters relating to the Government’s response, I will be happy to take them up with him outside the Chamber.

I reiterate that the Government regard this as a very long-standing issue, as we have heard today. It is complex and, of course, emotive. It is complicated further by the difficult economic, political and security circumstances that we see prevailing in Libya today. Only yesterday, I met Ann Clwyd from the Commons, who talked to me specifically about humanitarian assistance for the people of Libya. As the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence, I do not hide from the fact that what we see in Libya in that regard adds to the great horror of the situation on the ground.

However, I reassure noble Lords and make it clear that the Government remain absolutely focused on finding a way forward. In that regard I highlight a few of the recent events that have taken place. Over the past few weeks, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and the Minister for the Middle East, my right honourable friend Alistair Burt, have hosted meetings with victims’ groups and parliamentarians. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was present at these meetings, the tone of which was positive, constructive and progressive. I also assure noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that the Government have raised the bar. We continue to raise these issues regularly with the Libyan authorities directly. I have listened very carefully to the concerns expressed that victims’ groups alone cannot represent the tragedy that they have suffered, and continue to suffer. Therefore, it is right that the Foreign Secretary has raised this issue not once, not twice, but on three occasions recently with Prime Minister Sarraj, and we will continue to do so.

I also assure those who represent the interests of victims’ groups—I know many in this Chamber and in another place do so—that they do not go unheard. In addition to the commitment that my right honourable friends and Members across both Houses have given to continuing to hold meetings with victims’ groups, I assure them that I will continue to expend my energies working with the noble Lord and others to ensure that this issue retains the momentum that it deserves. Equally, I accept the criticism that while we are doing this we also need to ensure that we communicate about the efforts being undertaken. As I listened very carefully to the history of the IRA bombings, in particular the poignant words of my noble friend Lord Lexden, when he talked of the late Airey Neave, it struck a particular tone. Indeed, we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell, as well on this issue.

To give a personal reflection, I remember starting in the City of London back in the early 90s. For a young man just out of university who had started with NatWest, it was strange to suddenly hear the news that the place near his work in Bishopsgate had been hit. I remember it well: it was 24 April 1993—it remains engraved on my memory. I commuted to there, day in, day out. Thankfully, on that occasion, the number of victims was limited by the fact that it happened on a Saturday.

The point was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others that we do not regard this as an issue for victims in one particular region. As he rightly articulated, it is relevant for the whole of the United Kingdom.

I turn now to the contents of the Bill. Its aim is to secure compensation for UK victims of terrorist organisations in the UK. It seeks to impose continuing restrictions on assets owned by persons who support and assist those organisations. It proposes also that where the assets of those who have supported terrorist organisations in the UK are currently frozen—in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions and under the EU Council regulations which implement them, as several noble Lords have acknowledged—the Government should ensure that those assets are not released until agreement is reached on a compensation settlement for the victims.

The intention behind the Bill is honourable and clearly seeks to right a wrong perpetrated on innocent people. As we have heard from various noble Lords, including in the important intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Reid, weapons, funding, training and explosives provided by Gaddafi to the Provisional IRA exacerbated the Troubles. We have heard that the word “Semtex” became a regular feature in people’s minds, when previously it was unheard of. I fully acknowledge that it contributed to great human suffering in both Northern Ireland and across the rest of Great Britain. I fully understand that the Bill is designed to secure compensation for victims from those responsible for their suffering.

As several noble Lords acknowledged, we currently have around £9.5 billion of Libyan assets frozen throughout the UK. These assets were frozen under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 at the time of the revolution in 2011 at the request of those involved in toppling Gaddafi’s regime. It is believed that the majority of these assets either belong to the Libyan state as part of a sovereign wealth fund or their ownership is claimed by the Libyan state.

Noble Lords acknowledged that there are obligations on the part of the UK under both international and EU law that affect what can and cannot happen to Libyan assets frozen in the UK. Noble Lords will be aware of the difficulties that can be posed by freezing assets, particularly with relevance to the property rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Questions were raised about our obligations under international law. I assure noble Lords that we continue to focus on these specifically and keep them in mind while discussing the issue in front of us. It is important to remember that the ownership of some of these assets is still in dispute. Until those disputes are settled we cannot say for certain to whom the assets belong. The UN Security Council resolutions governing the Libya sanctions regime provide that the frozen assets, when they have been determined to belong to the Libyan state, are eventually to be made available to the Libyan people for their benefit. If the UK were to act so as to interfere with this purpose, we would be in breach of our obligations under international law. That having been said, we continue to raise this issue at the highest level with the Administration in Libya, including the Prime Minister. I hope that I have made that point clearly.

There are some practical difficulties with the Bill as drafted, including the proposed use of powers under the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Act 2010, known as TAFA. However, the Government are taking practical steps. In their recent meetings with parliamentarians and victims groups, both the Foreign Secretary and Mr Burt have made clear the Government’s intention to communicate effectively and step up engagement on this issue directly with the Libyan authorities to ensure that those efforts are visible and momentum continues. It is important we do that in the interests of victims and their representatives.

We need to recognise that the political situation in Libya remains extremely fragile. I assure noble Lords that the UK Government are currently working to support the UN-led political process in Libya to create a Government who are better able to deliver for the Libyan people and better able to take forward work on a wide range of issues, including legacy cases. The Foreign Office will remain actively engaged in supporting victims and their representatives to seek redress from the Libyan authorities. We will continue to press the Libyan Government to meet victims groups and will facilitate such meetings to discuss their campaign directly.

It is clear from the sentiments of contributions across the board this morning that nothing can compensate for the suffering of the victims and their families. However, as Minister of State in the Foreign Office, I, together with my colleagues the Minister of State for the Middle East and the Foreign Secretary, remain determined that we will play our part to support victims and their families as part of the Government’s wider efforts to address the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for securing this important debate. I do that with the reassurance that we will continue to raise this issue directly with the Libyan Government. Whatever support I can extend to strengthen that effort, I will certainly give.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey - Hansard

My Lords, I too thank those who participated in today’s debate. I want to go over a few points. My noble friend Lord Rogan referred to Semtex and the escalation of the campaign, and the fact that citizens from other countries have achieved compensation. I acknowledge that that was salt in the wound to many victims.

I appreciated the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan. I understand the technical points he made about the letters, but of all the things that have happened over the years, the production of pieces of paper in a court, the existence of which was not known to anybody outwith the Government of the day and the terrorists who held them, was a big shock, to put it mildly. The truth is that someone charged with four counts of murder and contributing to an explosion in this country—the first person to be brought before the courts between 1982 and 2014 on this matter—was able to leave the court a free man. You can look at all the technicalities that surround it, but that is what happened. It was a shock to the core for many people.

We know that mistakes were made, perhaps at police level—I accept that. But the fact is that pieces of paper existed that were not known about. Through my involvement in the negotiations I am well aware that the on-the-runs was a very sensitive issue. It was a matter that could not be left hanging in the wind. Nevertheless, people were shocked by the way this was done and by the fact that some of the people in possession of these letters were the same people hounding members of the security forces who were acting on our behalf. They were having their cake and eating it. The noble Lord, Lord Reid, also mentioned the imbalance, which is at the core of why people are so upset.

I am well aware of the personal experiences of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell—my late aunt and uncle lived across the road from where he lives. Very few people would get under their vehicle like a mechanic in a garage to search for a device, but he was so conscientious. I thank God that he and his family escaped.