European Council and North Africa — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 7 February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy) 7:35, 7 February 2011

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows.

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last week's European Council and comment on today's review by the Cabinet Secretary of the papers relating to the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, which was published at 1 pm today.

Taking the Council first, three issues were discussed: first, the continuing efforts to tackle instability in the eurozone; secondly, the role of energy and innovation in delivering a comprehensive growth strategy for the European Union; and, thirdly, the situation in Egypt.

Let me take each in turn. First, eurozone members are quite rightly looking at ways to resolve some of the underlying problems of the euro crisis, including by strengthening economic co-ordination arrangements. My job is to protect and promote Britain's interests. As I have said before, it is in our interests that the eurozone sorts out its problems. A strong and stable eurozone is in Britain's interests.

But in my view there are three absolute essentials for Britain. First, we should keep out of the euro. Secondly, we must make sure that we are not dragged into a new mechanism for bailing out the eurozone in future-and, as I described from the last Council, we have achieved that. Thirdly, and most complex, while we should not prevent eurozone countries from coming together to deal with the problems that they face, we must make sure that this does not compromise the single market, which is an important British success story in Europe and remains one of our key interests.

There is a danger here, which is that in developing stronger co-ordination eurozone countries start affecting things that are more properly part of the single market of all EU members. I made sure that this point was recognised at the Council and secured specific assurances to protect the single market. As the statement by eurozone countries, which we all debated, makes clear:

'Building on the new economic governance framework, Heads of State or government will take further steps to achieve a new quality of economic policy coordination in the euro area to improve competitiveness, thereby leading to a higher degree of convergence, without undermining the single market'.

The next issue is energy policy. Extending the single market to energy has been a long-held objective of recent Governments of all parties. Achieving this could add up to 0.8 per cent of European GDP and mean another 5 million jobs across Europe by 2020. Also, if we make a 20 per cent improvement on energy efficiency by 2020, that could significantly reduce the pressure on household bills. A single market in energy is good for jobs, competition and energy security, so practical co-operation with the rest of Europe on this is firmly in our national interest.

The Council agreed that,

'the EU needs a fully functioning, interconnected and integrated internal energy market', and that,

'the internal market in energy should be completed by 2014'.

We also agreed that,

'major efforts are needed to modernise and expand Europe's energy infrastructure and to interconnect networks across borders'.

This is something that Britain strongly supports, not least as we plan for the North Sea offshore supergrid.

The conclusions on innovation are also completely in line with what Britain supports and has been trying to achieve. Innovation and energy policy are part of the growth strategy being developed in Europe and we will publish our own proposals before the next European Council, which will specifically be discussing that subject.

Next, let me turn to Egypt. I was determined that the Council would not produce one of its heavily caveated and unclear statements and I believe that the declaration has a number of very positive aspects. The first is that the Egyptian authorities should,

'meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people with political reform not repression'.

Secondly, it is clear that transition is needed to broad-based democratic government. The statement is emphatic that,

'this transition should start now'.

The European Council was clear that this has to involve the building blocks of free and open societies and democratic institutions, such as freedom of assembly, the rule of law, freedom of speech and free and fair elections.

There is a strong case-and the statement reflects this-that the EU needs to look hard at its role in the region. We have spent billions of taxpayers' money in Egypt and neighbouring countries, with carefully crafted association agreements and action plans offering funds, access to our markets and other assistance in exchange for progress on the rule of law, democracy and human rights, but in Egypt there has been little or no progress on torture, the judiciary, democracy or ending a 30 year- old state of emergency. It is time for Europe to take a more hard-headed approach, where the conditions on which we give money are real and insisted on. I reaffirmed this message in a call with Vice-President Suleiman this afternoon and I urged him to take bold and credible steps to show that the transition that they are talking about is irreversible, urgent and real.

Finally, let me say a word about the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, and the report that has been released today by the Cabinet Secretary. I have not altered my view, which I expressed at the time, that releasing Mr Megrahi was a very bad decision. He was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history and in my view he should have died in jail. It was a bad decision and the previous Government should have condemned it rather than going along with it.

I commissioned this report during my visit to Washington last July. At the time, there was renewed controversy around the decision, with a congressional inquiry into it and calls for a UK inquiry, and concerns were being put forward, quite forcefully, in America that the whole release may have come about as a result of pressure by BP on the British Government to pressure the Scottish Government to make that happen.

I do not believe that that is true and this report shows that it is not true. It was a decision taken by the Scottish Government-the wrong decision, but their decision nevertheless. But in view of the continuing speculation in the UK and the US, I thought it right that all the British government paperwork should be re-examined to assess whether more should be published and I asked the Cabinet Secretary to do just that.

That is what Sir Gus O'Donnell has now done. In order to address the concerns that were being expressed, he was asked to look at three specific areas: first, whether there was any new evidence that the British Government directly or indirectly pressured or lobbied the Scottish Government for the release of Megrahi; secondly, whether there was pressure placed on the Scottish Government by BP for the release of Mr Megrahi; and, thirdly, whether the Libyans were told that there were linkages between BP's investment and the release of Megrahi either under the prisoner transfer agreement or on compassionate grounds.

The report and all the paperwork, running to 140 pages, have been placed in the Library of the House. All decisions on the declassification and publication of papers belonging to the previous Administration were of course taken independently by the Cabinet Secretary. Under the convention covering papers of a previous Administration, he has consulted as appropriate former Ministers and the former Prime Minister. Sir Gus was assisted by the former Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to provide an independent validation. He saw all paperwork, redacted and unredacted. His job was to advise the Cabinet Secretary whether his report and the documents now being published are consistent with all the materials that were reviewed. He was also tasked with determining whether this is a fair and accurate account of events. This he has done. He is content on both counts.

The Cabinet Secretary concludes that it is clear from the paperwork that the former Government were clear that any decision on Mr Megrahi's release or transfer under the prisoner transfer agreement was one for the Scottish Government alone to take. He finds that none of the materials that he reviewed contradicts anything contained in the former Foreign Secretary's Statement to the House in October 2009. He makes the same finding with respect to the current Foreign Secretary's letter to Senator Kerry in July last year and with regard to statements made by the former Prime Minister on this matter. He notes that it is evident that the Libyans made explicit links between progress on UK commercial interests in Libya and removal of any clause on the prisoner transfer agreement whose effect would be to exclude Megrahi from it. He notes that, after Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in September 2008, the then Government's policy was based on an assessment that UK interests would be damaged if Megrahi were to die in a UK jail.

The Cabinet Secretary finds-this is a key point-that,

'policy was therefore developed that the Government should do all it could', while respecting devolved competences,

'to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Megrahi's transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds', as the best outcome for managing the risks faced by the UK.

One of the Foreign Office papers released today makes it plain that,

'facilitating direct contact between the Libyans and the Scottish Executive is a key part of our game plan on Megrahi'.

Another Foreign Office paper from January 2009 states:

'We now need to go further and work actively but discreetly to ensure that Megrahi is transferred back to Libya under the PTA or failing that released on compassionate grounds'.

Frankly, this tells us something that was not made clear at the time. It goes further than the account that the former Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary gave. We were not told about facilitating an appeal, about facilitating contact or game plans. Indeed the Cabinet Secretary's report states:

'Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi's transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds as the best outcome for managing the risks faced by the UK'.

Honourable Members will be able to study the paperwork and consider these issues for themselves. However, I do not believe that these papers justify calls for a new inquiry. What they provide is further evidence that this was a flawed decision by the Scottish Executive-which we knew already-and they point to some broader lessons from this affair. It is clear from these papers that the previous Government badly underestimated and in fact failed seriously even to consider, except as an issue to be managed, the reaction in both Britain and the United States to the release of Mr Megrahi-above all among many of the families who lost loved ones.

The key point to me that emerges from reading the paperwork is that consideration was given to the most basic question of all: was it really right for the British Government to 'facilitate' an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government in the case of an individual who was convicted of murdering 270 people, including 43 British citizens and 190 Americans, and 19 other nationalities? That is, for me, the biggest lesson of this entire affair.

For my part, I repeat: I believe that it was profoundly wrong. The fact that 18 months later the Lockerbie bomber is today living at liberty in Tripoli only serves to underline that.

Mr Speaker, I commend this Statement to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.