Asset Freezing (Compensation) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 10:07 am on 27th October 2017.

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Moved by Lord Empey

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, during the last Session of Parliament I introduced a similar Bill into your Lordships’ House. While the Bill was passed by your Lordships and sent to the other place, a combination of obstruction and a lack of time brought about by the snap general election earlier this year resulted in it being lost.

The Bill is put forward on behalf of an all-party parliamentary support group that is trying to help the many victims of terrorism in this country, whether sponsored by Gaddafi or others. Many of your Lordships will be familiar with the circumstances that have led to today’s proceedings, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the background to this case. The Libyan dictator was a long-term supporter of violent groups in many countries from the 1970s, but nowhere was his support to terrorism more apparent than with his unprecedented support for the Provisional IRA. Gaddafi provided training on his territory, finance and a massive amount of weaponry over many years. Literally shiploads were sent to the IRA in the 1980s. It is estimated that four or five major shipments were made, with only one being intercepted—the “MV Eksund”, intercepted by the French Navy in the Bay of Biscay on 1 November 1987.

Large quantities of the explosive Semtex were included in these shipments. The explosive, which is hard to detect and has a long shelf life, was the IRA’s weapon of choice for many years. It was following the bombing of Libya, authorised by President Reagan in 1986 and using UK airbases, that Gaddafi intensified his weapons smuggling. Some of the victims who suffered as a result of the use of this explosive link the US bombing of Libya to the supply of Semtex. They argue that as a result of the UK Government’s action in permitting the raid, retaliation was made against them and their families. Gaddafi was looking for a spectacular response made on his behalf, and arguably it came at Enniskillen, nearly 30 years ago next month. These victims believe that Her Majesty’s Government therefore have a responsibility to them—yet, unlike in the case of US citizens, the Government did not pursue the Libyan authorities in the courts or diplomatically by bringing that country to the attention of the Security Council. Any objective observer would conclude that, had the IRA not had access to Semtex in particular, its campaign would have fizzled out much earlier than it did and many lives would have been saved as a result.

The finger of guilt for sustaining the IRA in its campaign of terror within and without this country points directly to the Gaddafi regime. The regime waged a proxy war on this country, and any new Government of Libya have a legal duty under international law to take responsibility for the actions of their former head of state. There has been a perception that Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism was primarily a Northern Ireland issue, but that is not the case. Victims are located all around our nation. The number of GB-based soldiers who were killed and injured is substantial, and there have been a significant number of high-profile attacks. For example, we had the Harrods bombing, the Canary Wharf bombing, the Baltic Exchange bombing and the notorious Hyde Park bombing.

The last example I mentioned is notorious because insult was added to injury by the disclosure that when a suspect was arrested and brought to court charged with four counts of murder relating to the incident on 20 July 1982, he was able to wave a piece of paper at the judge on 24 February 2014 and claim that he was promised he could come to the UK as he was not wanted in connection with any ongoing police inquiry. This on-the-run letter for the suspect John Downey remains a toxic example of a double standard in the way in which a potential terrorist was treated and the way in which former members of the security forces are treated.

Successive Governments have failed to resolve the issue of compensation for victims. There has been no sustained attempt by Her Majesty’s Government to secure compensation from the Libyans, either from frozen assets or by agreement with the Libyan Government—when one was functioning—hence the need to look again at the legislative options open to us to resolve this matter.

Before referring to the clauses of the Bill, perhaps I may illustrate what I mean by an inconsistent approach by the Government. Although I have been writing to Governments since 2002 on these matters, I wish to draw the House's attention to a few more recent interventions.

I wrote to the former Prime Minister David Cameron on 30 August 2011 asking if it was possible to withhold some of the frozen assets for the benefit of victims of Libyan-sponsored terror. The then Prime Minister replied on 15 November 2011, repeating what he had said in the other place in September of that year in the following terms. He said that,

“the issue of compensation for UK victims of IRA terrorism will be an important priority for a revitalised relationship between Britain and the new Libyan authorities”.

That response filled me with hope that things were indeed moving in the right direction—but fast forward to 21 January 2014, when I received an answer to a Written Question from the then Foreign Office Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. I asked her whether the Government were continuing to negotiate with the Libyan Government regarding possible compensation for UK citizens killed or injured by weapons supplied by the former Gaddafi regime. Her response was as follows:

“The Government is not involved in any negotiations with the Libyan government on securing compensation payments for the British victims of Qadhafi sponsored … IRA … terrorism”.—[Official Report, 22/01/14; col. WA 136.]

The reply went on to say that the Government considered such claims to be a private matter between the victims and the Libyan Government.

I was horrified by this reply, which was completely at odds with the response of David Cameron on 15 November 2011. Naturally, I got in touch with Ministers again to find out what was going on. Despite a flurry of letters in 2014 involving David Cameron and other Ministers, the introduction of a similar Bill to Parliament last year, meetings with officials in FCO and Treasury, and an inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in the other place, the present Government indicated recently in response to that committee that the issue of claims for compensation by victims was still, in their view, a private matter for individuals. This is not exclusively a private matter and never was. This country was attacked by proxy for more than 20 years, with thousands killed and injured. It is the duty of Her Majesty’s Government to protect their citizens and ensure that justice is done.

The Bill has a straightforward aim. While provoked by the Libyan situation, it is not confined to it and would make provision for the imposing of restrictions on assets owned by persons involved in conduct that gives support and assistance to terrorist organisations in the United Kingdom for the purpose of securing compensation for citizens of the United Kingdom affected by such conduct.

Clause 1(1) states that Her Majesty’s Treasury must “take all actions necessary” to prevent the release of particular assets which have been frozen under European Union Council regulations until circumstances described in subsection (5) have been met. Subsection (2) states that these actions may include imposing domestic asset-freezing measures under the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010. Subsection (3) set out the people with assets who are covered by this Act. It states that the assets are owned by persons,

“including but not limited to state parties, who are or have been involved in conduct that gives support and assistance to terrorist organisations in the United Kingdom”.

Subsection (4) sets out when a person would be considered to have been involved in conduct which supported terrorist organisations in the UK. These include a United Nations Security Council resolution or that Her Majesty’s Treasury,

“reasonably believes that the person is or has been involved in conduct to that effect”.

Subsection (5) describes the circumstances referred to in subsection (1). Under this provision, the frozen assets could be released only if a settlement to compensate UK victims of terrorism was reached. Subsection (6) outlines the definitions used by the Bill. It defines terrorist organisations in the UK and organisations which are,

“based in the United Kingdom, and that the Treasury reasonably believes are or have been involved in terrorist activity, within the meaning of the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc Act 2010”.

In addition, it states that “UK citizen” has the same meaning as in the British Nationality Act 1981.

I think it is clear that the support group which I am representing today is fully aware of our commitments to the United Nations and the European Union that govern and control the Libyan frozen assets here in London. They consist of approximately £9.5 billion. However, we as a country have never asked the United Nations or our EU colleagues for help with this. Under EU regulations there is provision for humanitarian help for the owners of these assets to get access to them—so why can this not be extended to the victims?

The UK has one ace card to play, should that become necessary and if negotiations fail. If a new Government of Libya seeks access to these and other frozen assets around the world, a decision will have to be taken to unfreeze them at the UN Security Council. As a permanent member of that council, the UK has a veto on all decisions. We have seen Russia and China using their veto in their national interest recently concerning Syria and North Korea. Although I hope it can be avoided, the UK may have to follow suit if no agreement can be reached over Libyan assets.

I hope that the Minister, when replying, will assure the House that the idea that these matters are exclusively private is no longer the core of government policy. Private cases can always continue, but there is a national interest here and the Government must pursue it aggressively. At a recent meeting with the Foreign Secretary, the support group was encouraged by his willingness to consider seriously what could be done. I look forward to what the Minister will say in reply. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP 10:18 am, 27th October 2017

My Lords, the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, continues to have my full support. Its objective is to ensure that compensation is available for the victims of a truly terrible period in our nation’s history. It gives this House the opportunity to exercise one of its primary responsibilities: to ensure that justice is available to all.

As noble Lords have highlighted in various debates, terrorism has no place in our society. Terror and violence are not and were never justified in Northern Ireland or in any other part of the United Kingdom. Each innocent victim of terror, be they from Northern Ireland or the mainland, appreciates the support and attendance of noble Lords from different parties across this House, as well as the support of those in another place, including some of my colleagues who have long supported this campaign.

This Bill is also one about fairness and transparency. It would be easy to assume that this is just a debate about compensation for the victims of IRA terrorism and believe instantly that this is solely a Northern Ireland issue. I assure noble Lords that that is certainly not the case. No one should doubt the long-term pain and suffering that have been caused to so many people across the United Kingdom by IRA terrorism, sponsored by Gaddafi’s Libya. Over the years, it has become abundantly clear that much of the arsenal used during the period of maximum IRA activity and damage, including the guns and deadly Semtex used to murder many, was made available as a direct result of the IRA’s links with Gaddafi’s Libya. We can never bring the victims of this terror back but, as an initial step, we have a duty to do our bit to try to recognise the pain of their loved ones and then endeavour to secure some meaningful compensation for them.

Today we owe it to the relatives of those killed and injured as a result of Irish republican violence to deal with this matter in the appropriate manner. The message should be sent loud and clear from your Lordships’ House that this issue is a priority. The United Kingdom Government should continue negotiations to bring about a compensation package for the victims. This Bill outlines the possible way forward and deserves careful consideration, especially when it reaches Committee. I am pleased to support the Bill.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative 10:21 am, 27th October 2017

My Lords, it is always a great personal pleasure to speak in the same debate with my noble friend Lord Empey, particularly in one that he has initiated. We came into the House at the same point, nearly seven years ago. I strongly share his view that Northern Ireland should be involved as fully as possible in the national affairs of the country of which it is part. We are at one in believing that this Parliament must keep the province firmly within its sphere of work. We are united in detesting the dread phrase, “devolve and forget”.

For me personally, this is a particularly poignant year. It was exactly 40 years ago that I left my job in Queen’s University Belfast to come and assist Airey Neave, then Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland. I saw him almost daily until his murder at the end of March 1979. His murderers remain at large.

It was largely thanks to Colonel Gaddafi and his regime of terror that the IRA was able to continue its campaign of murder and destruction in Northern Ireland and Great Britain until the mid-1990s. Victims of that campaign have been seeking compensation from Gaddafi’s frozen assets, amounting to some £9.5 billion—no modest sum—in this country since 2002, 15 long years ago. Many of them are growing old; all of them despair of ever receiving compensation. A huge sense of frustration exists among them—understandably so, when they see that those who suffered as a result of Libyan terrorism in Germany, in France, and above all in the United States, have gained the compensation that they deserve. The final indignity is that their own Government here in the UK seem to give little priority to assisting them in their plight. As my noble friend Lord Empey explained so clearly, the Government seem unwilling to go beyond offering to help their own private efforts to reach agreement of some kind with the Libyan authorities. How can private individuals be expected to do that, in a country in the grip of grave instability? It is a task for Government. A proxy war was waged by the Libyan dictator against the United Kingdom and its citizens. Would tough-minded British Governments in the past, Labour or Conservative, have left our fellow countrymen and women to their own devices in such circumstances? I remind the Government of a passage in this year’s Conservative and Unionist election manifesto. Interestingly, the party made use of its full name for the first time since 1959. The section of the manifesto in question has a heading that refers to, “standing up for victims”. Here is a group of victims for whom the government should surely be standing up.

My noble friend Lord Empey has long been prominent in the campaign to secure redress for those who have suffered. He is a man of great tenacity. His very important Bill, which he has reintroduced in this Session, was passed by this House before the election and attracted widespread support in the Commons before the Government blocked it. There can be little doubt that it is the wish of Parliament that this Bill should become law. The Government assert that to dip into the ill-gotten Gaddafi billions would be in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, EU sanctions regulations and the European Convention on Human Rights. How strange that organisations and agreements that exist to promote justice, international order and human well-being should, in this case, frustrate them. Should a Government committed to standing up for victims tamely accept that state of affairs?

Since my noble friend’s last Bill was extinguished, there has been an important development. The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in the Commons has published a report on this very subject, following a detailed two-year inquiry. Six months on, the Government have yet to respond, which comes as no surprise, since prompt government responses are as rare as amicable agreements over Brexit issues. The Commons report states that if nothing has been achieved for the IRA’s victims by the end of this year—and we will soon be there—the Government should set up a fund of their own to finance community projects and provide individuals with compensation. What is the Government’s view of this recommendation?

In these deeply unsatisfactory circumstances, we must surely show our support for my noble friend’s commitment to ending a long-standing injustice by giving his Bill a Second Reading.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan UUP 10:26 am, 27th October 2017

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Empey and his Bill, which seeks to release these frozen assets. As has been said, the Gaddafi regime supplied the IRA with weaponry in the early 1970s and in the mid-1980s. The quantities were vast and, as a result, the IRA was able to escalate its campaign of violence. As part of these shipments, in the early 1980s the IRA acquired supplies of Czech-made Semtex from Libya. According to the journalist Toby Harnden, from late 1986 to 2011,

“virtually every bomb constructed by the Provisional IRA”, and splinter groups such as the Real IRA,

“has contained Semtex from a Libyan shipment unloaded at an Irish pier in 1986”.

As someone who lived in Northern Ireland through that period, it is sobering to think that so much of the death and destruction unleashed on our streets came from one source—Libya. The biggest arms shipment arrived on a beach in County Wicklow in late 1986 and consisted of 80 tonnes of weaponry, including seven rocket-propelled grenades, 10 surface-to-air missiles and a tonne of Semtex plastic explosive. That shipment was the fourth landed in a 14-month period and would transform the IRA’s ability to conduct its terrorist campaign. Untold suffering was caused by the weapons supplied by Gaddafi. The dead are mourned to this day, and many more still carry the physical and mental scars inflicted by murderous terrorists at the behest of a tyrant.

It is little short of a national scandal that British victims of Gaddafi’s weaponry should be reduced to virtually begging their Government for justice. As a result of Lockerbie and other terrorist outrages, the Americans, Germans and French all secured compensation for their citizens who suffered as a result of Libyan-supplied weaponry. That situation merely highlights all the more starkly the failure of successive British Governments to secure similar deals for our citizens. Why should our people be less favourably treated than American, French and German citizens? Surely British Governments—of whatever political complexion—should be standing up for the rights and interests of British citizens.

Suspicions have been raised that, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and Libya was being brought in from the cold, a secret deal was done whereby the UK would not pursue compensation. It has also been suggested that the desire to secure oil took precedence over the need to secure a measure of justice and compensation for victims. Of course, this is not the only secret deal which Mr Blair has been associated with when it comes to Northern Ireland. Noble Lords will recall the shameful on-the-run letters of comfort, which were distributed to more than 200 republican terrorist suspects, and which are effectively “stay out of jail free” cards. These items were part of a secret deal between Tony Blair and Sinn Fein/IRA. The fact that many were handed out by Gerry Kelly—a man convicted of bombing the Old Bailey in March 1973—merely compounds the insult to the victims.

My noble friend Lord Empey has been tenacious in his pursuit of this issue and he deserves a great deal of credit for his efforts to raise the profile of the Libyan connection to terrorism and to ensure that victims can see that Parliament has not forgotten them and is still seeking a measure of justice for them. As he said, he has been writing to the UK Government about Gaddafi and Libya since 2002. In all those years, he has never heard a coherent explanation for the failure of Her Majesty’s Government to get compensation for UK citizens for all the damage that Gaddafi did as a result of supplying the IRA with weapons, money and training for over 20 years.

Last year he brought a Private Member’s Bill before Parliament but, unfortunately, it ran out of time. He has now reintroduced it and has my wholehearted support. Quite simply, the average person in the street will find it incomprehensible that Libya has £9.5 billion in frozen assets in London alone. Is it not reasonable to want some of that to go towards helping the many who have suffered greatly as a result of Gaddafi’s Semtex and other weaponry, which was placed into the hands of terrorists and psychopaths? In all the talk of rights, the great and the good seem to be excessively reluctant to lift a finger to help people who suffered terribly as a result of this. Many of the events took place over 30 years ago and time is running out for the victims. Soothing words from the Government and officialdom are simply not enough. We must persevere to raise the profile of this issue and continue to seek justice for the individual victims and the UK as a whole for the huge damage done by Gaddafi. For me this is about fairness and justice. It is about doing the right thing. Once again, I commend my noble friend Lord Empey for his determined effort in this regard and I assure him and the House that he has my and the Ulster Unionist Party’s full support.

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour 10:32 am, 27th October 2017

My Lords, speaking briefly in the gap, I first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for the persistence that he has shown on this issue. I support this Bill, despite the fact that I do not necessarily agree with everything that has been said in the course of the proposal and support. It would be wrong of me not to put on the record a correction to the caricature that was given, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, of the letters that were sent to the so-called on-the-runs. They did nothing more than inform those people—who were not being pursued by the police—that they were not being pursued by the police. In the case of Downey, a mistake was made and that is why he could use the letter.

Notwithstanding that correction, I support this Bill and I do so for a reason that has not yet been outlined: when I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I was extremely aware, like everyone else who has held that position, of the number of victims on all sides of the community. Some people called it the Troubles; it was a war. It was a war against the best, most effective guerrilla army in western Europe at the time, and there were victims on all sides. There was, however, an imbalance in the opportunities that some victims had to claim compensation. If a person claims that they were the victim of a state, there is a whole plethora of apparatus, systems and processes of law that allow them much more opportunity to claim compensation against the state than if they were the victim of a terrorist organisation, by virtue of the fact that they do not have the status that a state has. Therefore, anybody who claimed that they had suffered as a victim of British violence had opportunities to claim compensation that were denied to many others. In this case, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has pointed out, they were in fact the victims, directly and indirectly, of a state: Libya. So, for the first time, the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland would have, if supported by the British Government, the opportunity that they have never had previously to use the very laws that those who have claimed to be the victims of British state violence have had.

This House should therefore support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I believe that, where the state of Libya has been involved through the head of state, Gaddafi, there was a direct relationship between the finance and the resources supplied for the use of terrorism and the effects on the victims in Northern Ireland. With that, I merely add that the persistence that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has shown has been commendable and this House should support him in his endeavours.

Photo of Lord Carswell Lord Carswell Crossbench 10:36 am, 27th October 2017

My Lords, I shall just add a very brief grace note in the gap. The day before I was sworn in as a High Court judge, a booby-trap bomb was left under my car. By the grace of God, I saw it and I escaped. A very brave ammunitions technical officer risked his life to try to diffuse it and, unhappily, was only partly successful. The explosion took place and there was an immense amount of damage done to my car—which was a write-off—my house, the contents and, by way of after-effect, my wife’s health. I had to get on with my job, and happily I was able to do so. She was badly affected for a long time.

A couple of years later, my very close friend and colleague, Maurice Gibson, was blown up in his car by a road-side bomb as he crossed the border with his wife. The car and its occupants were incinerated. The distress to his family, which I have seen close-up, can never be compensated sufficiently, but it should be registered and an attempt made.

I make these remarks for the simple reason of showing that the distress and effects are real and personal to very many people. Most of them have suffered far more than I have, but I can appreciate their feelings and their wishes that this Bill should go through, and I have the pleasure of supporting it.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:37 am, 27th October 2017

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.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 10:44 am, 27th October 2017

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, 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.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 10:56 am, 27th October 2017

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.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

In that context, it might be worth reminding the Minister that an exactly similar device killed one of Margaret Thatcher’s Ministers, Ian Gow.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

The noble Lord is absolutely right. If noble Lords look inside the Chamber of the House of Commons they will see above the door the names of those Members of the House of Commons who were killed—Airey Neave, Ian Gow, the Reverend Robert Bradford and Anthony Berry in the Brighton bomb. That was a very poignant intervention.

I appreciate the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, about parliamentary procedure. As a hand in these things, I am sure that over the years he has been quite happy to use the odd bit of procedure himself, as I am sure we all have in the different fora in which we have operated. Nevertheless, he makes the point—he knows and everyone knows—that a private Member does not have the resources to draft all of the technicalities that are needed in a Private Member’s Bill. Although I thank the Public Bill Office for its assistance, I am well aware that without the backing of the Government, it is difficult for a Private Member’s Bill to make progress. However, it creates a platform for Members to bring issues into the public domain. I make no excuse whatever for that because that is what we are trying to do here. I thank the noble Lord very much for his contribution and support just as I thank the noble Lord, Lord Reid. When we discussed the Bill last time, the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, also contributed on behalf of the Labour Party. We appreciate all those matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, mentioned fairness and transparency. Those things have been sorely lacking over the years. My noble friend Lord Lexden used the dreaded phrase “devolve and forget” with regard to devolution. With the circumstances in which we find ourselves in Belfast at the moment, I sincerely hope that we see that devolving and forgetting does not work. We know that it is not a good policy. My noble friend Lord Lexden also mentioned Airey Neave and what happened in March 1979 and standing up for victims. He has been one of the most consistent and persistent supporters of Northern Ireland over his lifetime and we greatly appreciate that.

On the Minister’s response, in my speech I quoted what Prime Minister Cameron said in 2011 and what the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said in 2014 and said that they were totally inconsistent—one excluded the other. The Minister used a phrase that I welcome when he said that Her Majesty’s Government would now be prepared to pursue more openly and communicate more effectively with victims. He used the phrase “seek redress”. That is an improvement in their position because in 2014 they were saying that they would have no involvement whatever. The Foreign Secretary hosted a meeting with Alistair Burt. Our ambassador to Libya was present as were a number of officials, so he was taking the matter seriously. I believe that his approach is beginning to focus the Government on doing something about this.

Look: we all know that the people of Libya were the principal sufferers over the regime of Gaddafi. The country was a personal fiefdom. It was brutalised. People were disappeared and murdered and treated appallingly. We are not seeking to ignore them or to set those people aside. But the people of Libya have to understand that they are not alone. People in this country have to be taken into account. It is the first duty of Her Majesty’s Government to protect their citizens. That is the first and important duty of government. I attended hearings of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee when a number of other persons were present including the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and when the question of compensation was raised he said that people had already received compensation. Many of them may have from the British taxpayer, but it is not the British taxpayer who should be paying. It is the people who perpetrated and provided the material so that the terrorists could operate in this country. There is a state-to-state issue here. I think we can claim today that the Government have moved from their position of saying that it is purely a private matter to saying that there has to be state-to-state involvement. The two are not mutually exclusive, but that represents a step forward, and I welcome it.

Reference was made to Jim Fitzpatrick in the other place. He has been a stalwart campaigner. I attended a debate that he had in Westminster Hall last year. He was present when we met the Foreign Secretary a few weeks ago, along with the group chair, Andrew Rosindell, the Member for Romford. We have quite a substantial amount of support and we meet from time to time, so this is not a party issue. This is a parliamentary issue. It is a national issue. We do not know the politics of the people involved and it is none of our business. The fact is that a group of our citizens have suffered directly as a result of the actions of the state of Libya under the Gaddafi regime. While people will be free to take private cases against individuals who they know or believe were involved, this is not a matter that the Government can sit on their hands over. I hope that the contribution that the Minister has made today when he said that the Government would seek redress implies that they will actually do something.

I hope that the Minister will be able to anticipate that, if we do not see that redress is being sought—and sought in a proactive way—I am quite certain from what all noble Lords have said in their remarks that we will be back to ensure that this matter does not fall down through the cracks. We have brought Bills forward two years running and we will bring them forward every year if we have to. It is not something that we will give up on. If it takes letters and delegations—whatever it takes—we will persist. The Government must realise that this is not something that can be put on the back burner any more. That will not happen. I think that there is unanimity in the House on this matter and I hope that a message can be brought back to the Foreign Secretary to say that we appreciate that he is taking the matter seriously but, to coin a phrase, we are not going away. With that, I ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.