British Hostages (Kuwait)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:34 am on 24th October 1990.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington 1:34 am, 24th October 1990

This Adjournment debate is about the British hostages still held by Iraq. I stress that, because after the Foreign Secretary's statement today and the successful completion of the mission undertaken by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) there is a feeling that the hostage issue is over, but it is not. Tonight, 40 families have been reunited with elderly and sick relatives who were held hostage. Hundreds more, however, watched the television pictures of that reunion with happiness but also with profound sadness because they are still waiting for their relatives. I address the House on behalf of those families, and particularly the Ross family in Stoke Newington, my constituents, who were on the unfortunate British Airways flight BA 149. Alastair Ross has now been held hostage for three months.

I want to draw attention to the hostages on flight BA 149 because it cannot be said of them, as it has been said of other hostages, fairly or unfairly, that they went out to the middle east to earn big money and knew the risk that they ran. The people on that flight were in transit and unwittingly found themselves in a war zone. The horror that followed was entirely unlooked for.

In the emergency debate on the Gulf crisis. the Foreign Secretary said: The House represents those people and their families. In the debate it was striking that not one hon. Member argued that because of the plight, anxiety, unhappiness and suffering of the hostages and their families we should weaken or temper this country's resistance to aggression. That is a striking and welcome fact, and I believe that they accept that. It is a hard thing to say, but a necessary thing to say."—[Official Report, 7 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 895–6.] Let us reflect on what the Foreign Secretary meant by that. I believe that he meant that hostages are expendable, and the fear that that is what Her Majesty's Government believe led me to seek this debate.

This morning, I woke up to hear on the radio the Under-Secretary of State saying in an embarrassed way that he was not embarrassed to welcome the hostages home. Those of us who followed the coverage that the mission undertaken by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup had in the Tory press and noted the sneering way in which it referred to him wonder whether in some quarters of his party a humanitarian mission aimed at saving lives earns less glory than war-mongering and military adventures.

The people on flight 149 were entirely unwittingly caught up in a war zone. I shall speak of the experiences of the Ross family and the hundreds of other people on that plane on that terrible night. They left London on 1 August on their way to Madras, touched down on 2 August at Kuwait airport just to refuel and found themselves in the middle of a war zone. The Ross family then had to spend 12 days as part of a human shield at a military installation. For four of those days, Alastair, Maggie and two small children, with many others, were under military guard in a building with no natural light. Imagine the horror of not just adults but tiny children under armed guard in those conditions.

On 2 September, Maggie Ross and her two children were able to fly to London, but she left her husband behind. The fact is that 146 hostages from flight BA 149 have been left behind. They are held not in luxury hotels but at military installations.

The Foreign Secretary, speaking today about the hostages, said this: We should not forget that the plight.….of our hostages has been caused by Saddam Hussein who is playing cat and mouse with them, and the British Government and this Parliament would not wish to be blackmailed. That is stern and resolute stuff, but both I and the families of the hostages would say that the British Government cannot be allowed to evade their responsibilities in that way.

Many of the hostages' families, including my constituent Maggie Ross, believe that the Government could do more. They want the Government to press again for consular access. My information is that consular access was last made available on 16 August. If the Minister has more up-to-date information, I shall be glad to have it. They want the Government to continue to press for Red Cross and Red Crescent access. I am aware that the Iraqis have turned down that request, but the hostages' families want the Government to continue to press for that access.

As for the vexed question of mail, Maggie Ross has received a number of letters from her husband which are very precious to her. She has replied, but apparently no mail is going in. The Foreign Office says that the hold-up is in Amman, Jordan. However, I have information that mail sent many weeks before did not leave England until 26 September. There is a great deal of unhappiness among the hostages' families about what has happened to the mail and about what is preventing it from going in when mail is coming out.

Finally—I am loth to criticise civil servants because I was one myself—many questions have been asked about the attitude of the Foreign Office. The majority of officials and very many individuals have done a wonderful job, but there have been too many reports—during conversations that I have had, both with hostages families and with people who work for British Airways, and in newspaper articles—about wrong and late information and about the occasional and unfortunate offhand attitude. There have been too many reports from too many sources about that. The Minister had to reply to those criticisms in a letter to The Independent a few days ago. They cannot be dismissed.

Still on the subject of Government Departments, what are we to make of the intelligence services on which we spend so much money and regarding which we have recently passed so much legislation to protect? They could not even predict the invasion.

In the special debate in September, speaking about the hostages, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government's undertaking was that we shall not forget them or in any way relax our efforts to get them out safe and sound."—[Official Report, 7 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 896.] The hostages' families feel forgotten. They believe that getting the hostages out safe and sound is the Government's last priority.

There is no doubt that the annexation of Kuwait was wrong, that Saddam Hussein is one of the most cruel and brutal dictators among many world-wide and that there is a lot at stake in the Gulf. However, some of us believe that the saving of human life and the avoidance of bloodshed come before many if not all the other things at stake in the Gulf. I believe that the saving of human life comes before the interests of American oil companies, above the provision of cheap oil in perpetuity for the United States, above military adventurism and above loss of face for the British Government and the American military. I also believe—as do many people, both in this country but above all in the middle east—that a peaceful settlement is still possible.

I am aware that negotiation and diplomacy do not go hand in hand with the resolute approach, but I have listened to the debate in the House and followed the issue in the newspapers, and the Government's attitude and that of most hon. Members seems to be that the plight of the hostages is all very well but that we cannot allow a handful of people to stand in the way of military action which is in our best interests. I would argue that, on the contrary, far from the hostages standing in the way of a military adventure that is in our best interests, their plight should focus attention on that action which is in everyone's interests—a peaceful, negotiated settlement.

I was driven to seek this Adjournment debate by the obvious misery and concern of my constituents, but this debate, short though it is, is not about one family, about the families of all the hostages from British Airways flight 149 or even about all the other hostages; it is about peace and a stable long-term settlement for the middle east. I ask the Minister to move away from the attitude which has caused so much concern to the hostages' families and which seems to suggest that some sort of military adventure is inevitable. I hope that he will answer some of the detailed questions that I have asked so as to reassure the hostages' families, some of whom are in the Gallery, that the Government are continuing to keep up the pressure for them and have their interests at heart, and that the prospects for a peaceful negotiated settlement are not being ignored or marginalised.