Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


13 DECEMBER 2005

  Q20  Chairman: Thank you. We have to move on.

  Mr Straw: Can I also just say, because it may be helpful to the Committee, the rebate is rising as well. It has been five billion euros in this financial perspective, on average. It is going to rise to, on average, seven billion euros in the next financial perspective.

  Andrew Mackinlay: Can I just bounce this off the Foreign Secretary? It is frustrating that the thing is going to be published tomorrow when one might have thought it might perhaps have been possible today—that is an aside—but what happens if there is deadlock? We do need to understand, Chairman, if everyone digs in, how that funding operation goes to the European Union. The other thing which I wanted to ask you. I am told that one of the problems for the European Union ten is that they actually have not got the machinery of government to spend some of the rebate. How true is that in your view?

  Mr Straw: Three points, Mr Mackinlay. First, you express frustration about the fact that we have not published the proposals to date. If they had been ready we would have published them. Let me say, I do my very best to ensure that Members are given advance notice of these things, and that is why I am making every effort to ensure they are made available tomorrow morning in advance of the debate. I feel perfectly confident about these proposals. In any event, it would be totally inappropriate to try and hide them. Your second point was about deadlock. Decisions on the budget require unanimity, so, as we saw in June, if there is not unanimity there is no agreement. The current budget runs until the end of next year, but if there is deadlock then the treaties and practice provide for budgets to be rolled over, and there are various mechanisms, and Mr Frost can explain these in detail, by which, if they wish, the European parliament can "denounce the position of the European Council". The overall effect of all this is that, roughly speaking, you run the pattern of budget, maximum budget, at about 1.05.

  Mr Frost: A bit less.

  Mr Straw: A bit less, nought four, nought five. We do not want to do that though, because it becomes very static and we want to move forward. One of the problems is that if there is no agreement it makes the problem which was mentioned in your third question about the capacity of the accession countries to spend what has been allocated much more difficult because they need long lead times to build up their capacity. None of them up to now, and they have only been members since May of last year, have been able to spend what has been allocated. That is not unusual, it happens with countries being in the European Union for a long time, and they have had a history of under spending, monies have been allocated under external aid budgets in the past as well, so they are very anxious for a budget deal so that they have certainty about the levels. Also some of them are anxious about a budget deal by December because of what is called the "statistical effect", in other words that they benefit from the statistics which would apply to a budget currently available, and they will lose out under next years statistics because their economies are growing and so fewer areas will qualify for this spend. This is part of our detailed discussions with the A10 colleagues. What we have done is this. We have reduced the headline figure for structural cohesion fund spending in the A10 countries because we had to get the budget down from 1.06, which was unacceptable to many partners, to a lower figure, and a number of budget heads were reduced—SCF for the A10, rural development, for example, in the existing 15, and some other changes as well. At the same time as doing that we proposed a series of technical, but very important, changes which will make it easier for these countries to spend so they are able to roll-over allocations from one year to the next more easily. Two countries said that they wanted to use structural cohesion funds for social housing—so for the first time we are saying that that should be available for social housing—and there are many other changes like that which will make it easier for them to spend.

  Q21  Chairman: Now we are moving on.

  Mr Straw: What are we moving on to?

  Chairman: Rendition.

  Q22  Mr Illsley: Foreign Secretary, we have seen positions changing slightly over the last few days. We have seen the statement by Condoleezza Rice admitting that the US have used rendition previously but denying any use of rendition for the purposes of torture, and in a reply to Ming Campbell, I think, yesterday it has been indicated that in the past there have been requests to ourselves for rendition. This is despite previous statements to the contrary that we were not aware of any such requests in the past. Can you give a categorical statement to this Committee now that this government is not involved in any type of rendition, that we are not assisting, with the Americans, in rendition of their suspects or their personnel and that we are definitely not involved in any rendition of anyone for the purposes of being taken to another country to a secret site, or whatever, for the purposes of torture?

  Mr Straw: First of all on your last point, Eric, yes, I absolutely categorically can give you that undertaking. On the wider issue, rendition is a term of art which covers a variety of activities. At one end it could be used to include the transfer of a suspect, which happened on two occasions when I was Home Secretary, not Foreign Secretary, in 1998, as I drew to Ming Campbell's attention, where the United States were transferring an individual from a third country to the United States to face trial. They had assured us that, although there was not an extradition concerned, the transfer took place lawfully with the agreement both of the host country—the original country—and was consistent with the United States' law. Since also I was satisfied about the potential treatment of the suspects when they arrived at their destination, namely that they we were going for trial in the United States, I agreed that transfer. I do not remember it being called rendition, but it may have been. There was also, as I said to Ming in answer to his question, another case—we are still trying to pin down the records but it is in the recollection of the officials concerned and also broadly in my recollection that there was an application by the United States for transfer from the United States to a third country. I was not satisfied in that case that one could be guaranteed about the potential treatment of the suspect and so I refused the facilitation. Those three cases, there could possibly be a fourth, and the Home Office are checking, all happened under the Clinton administration. As I said in answer to the question from Ming, and it was based on very thorough research both from Foreign Office and Home Office files and other files, there is no record whatsoever of any request for what is now called rendition from the United States' government either to the United States or to a third country which we in the UK government have received either in respect of facilitation where the plane has landed or in respect of over flights. I also say to you two other things. First of all, had that happened through United Kingdom airspace or on United Kingdom territory, I expect that we would have received a request by the United States' government, because that has been their consistent practice, as is evidenced by what happened in 1998. The second thing I say is this. I wrote to Secretary Rice at the end of November after the General Affairs Council and the general discussion in the European Union raised concern about the reports that had been received. She responded to that request with a very detailed statement setting out the position of the United States government, and that set out, amongst many other things: "The United States has respected and will continue to respect the sovereignty of our countries. The United States does not transport and has not transported detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture. The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured." So I hope the result both of what I have said in answer to Ming and what Secretary Rice has said to me in answer to my enquiry should provide serious reassurance to those who understandably have been worried about this in the reports.

  Q23  Sandra Osborne: There is a great deal of worry around this issue, as you know, and I appreciate the officials have been carrying out quite substantial research into exactly what has been happening, but I notice that some other EU countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain have actually launched investigations at a judicial level in relation to extraordinary renditions. Do you not think there is a case for the UK to do that, and does the EU itself have a responsibility to investigate any breaches of human rights in its airspace or territory?

  Mr Straw: I cannot speak for what is happening in Germany or other countries, and they must make their own judgments. There may have been calls for these, but I am unaware of any such investigation. I do not think that there is any case whatsoever for such an investigation here. Ming Campbell, a very distinguished parliamentarian, asked me a question and I did what it is my duty to do, which is to provide a thorough comprehensive answer. That has been done. It has produced a nil return. Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea. I do not think it would be justified. While we are on this point, Chairman, can I say this? Some of the reports which are given credibility, including one this morning on the Today programme, are in the realms of the fantastic. There was a report this morning on the Today programme suggesting that intelligence staff from the United Kingdom have been involved in interrogation and maltreatment of detainees in Greece. Normally when you get allegations, however fantastical, we choose to neither confirm nor deny them because that is the only way you can protect intelligence, but let me just say in respect of those allegations that they are complete nonsense and no United Kingdom officials have taken part in any alleged mistreatment in Greece of any suspects whatsoever and we were not involved in the arrest or detention of those particular suspects.

  Q24  Richard Younger-Ross: You have been very clear about official requests for rendition through the United Kingdom. It does raise a question, of course, how they managed to transfer the prisoners to Guanta"namo Bay in the first place. Obviously the route is being used, not through the UK in that that instance, but in terms of the requests, those requests would only be for military or state flights, official flights, US flights? Private flights can come and go. Have you been made aware by any of your officials or any official from any other department of any concerns or knowledge they have of any private flights being used for rendition?

  Mr Straw: No, I have not. Can I say that part of the search of papers conducted at the Home Office and the Foreign Office was not only for cases but also for policy papers—I think that is reflected in the answer which I gave—but those produced a nil return as well. In any event, the permission is not contingent on the nature of the aeroplane, it is contingent on the nature of the activity being conducted either in the aeroplane or on the ground; so I do not think the fact that it was a private flight is relevant. I have no idea whether it was a private flight or a military flight or a CIA flight that was involved in the 1998 transfers which I authorised and it is not relevant. The question was the United States government understood that in using our airspace and our territory they needed our permission to effect a transfer, so they sought it.

  Q25  Mr Purchase: Secretary of State, three little subsets to this discussion. We have heard from a number of bodies now who seem quite clear in their minds that there are torture camps across Eastern Europe and perhaps elsewhere. Is there any evidence that you have that such camps exist, has information been passed to you which may be thought to have been obtained by methods of torture, and, finally, if such information was offered, in whatever circumstances, what would be the response of the British government?

  Mr Straw: On your first, I have seen no evidence. I understand, obviously, the concerns that are around, but, first of all, there are no secret prisons in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, I think that is an allegation that has not yet been made but unless I deny it it quite soon will be; so you got it first, this denial of an allegation that is yet to be made! But there are no secret prisons here. I have set out the position so far as the United Kingdom government is concerned, we are not responsible for third countries, but let me also make it clear that Dr Rice in her letter to me set out the position—I assume you have seen the letter and the statement, it is a very detailed statement—and she says there that the United States has respected and will continue to respect the sovereignty of other countries. So, if the United States has entered into some agreement for facilities with a third country, it would be with the full knowledge and understanding of that country. If you ask me whether they have, whether I have information that they have, the answer to that question is, "No". Your other question related to.

  Q26  Mr Purchase: No evidence of torture camps elsewhere?

  Mr Straw: None whatever.

  Q27  Mr Purchase: None whatever?

  Mr Straw: On the undertakings that Secretary Rice has given, nor do they exist as far as the United States is concerned. I think if someone of the position of Secretary Rice and her integrity makes statements like this they ought to be assumed to be correct. On the issue of obtaining evidence, intelligence, by torture, the position has been set out a number of times, but let me repeat it. We are against the use of torture. I am against the use of torture because it is torture and it is wholly immoral. There is a subsidiary reason why I am against the use of torture, which is that evidence obtained under torture is much less likely to be reliable and that is why British courts have always regarded evidence obtained in that way, whether it is obtained under torture or what is called duress, as unreliable, so we do not seek such evidence, we do not rely on it. I have never had piece of paper produced before me where on the rubric it says, "We believe this has been obtained under torture." The other problem about torture is that those who commit the torture deny it to themselves as much as they deny it to other people, so to track it is very difficult, but we are alive to those countries where we think malpractice of all kinds is used and we seek to deal with it.

  Q28  Mr Purchase: The third question, if such information was offered?

  Mr Straw: It comes to this. First of all, I do not think it ever will be offered, because I think, if you go through the list of countries where we and America and other leading human rights NGOs believe that the mistreatment of suspects takes place, I do not think you will find a single one of those countries which says it does take place. All of us, and this applies to everybody here in this room, I am quite sure, if we were offered a piece of intelligence which, for example, said there was going to be a terrorist outrage tomorrow and it appeared to be credible, we would be duty bound to act on that regardless of the provenance of it. Everybody understands that. We have to do that. At the same time we have to take account of our suspicions as to where it has come from and not ever either to authorise the use of torture in the obtaining of intelligence or to suggest that we are somehow complicit or accommodating to this, because we are not, and I am not. I am against it.

  Q29  Mr Keetch: Foreign Secretary, can we be clear about your answer yesterday to my colleague, Sir Ming Campbell, when you used the expression "UK territory and airspace". Does that include British dependent territories overseas?

  Mr Straw: Diego Garcia.

  Q30  Mr Keetch: Diego Garcia or RAF Akrotiri in the southern base area of Cyprus?

  Mr Straw: The search was related to the UK mainland, all right, and the requests that I received in 1998 related to the UK mainland. What I can say to you, and I will need to make some more enquiries and come back to this Committee about your question about Diego Garcia, not in relation to any rendition but certainly in relation to other activities based on Diego Garcia that United States government does seek our permission, but I cannot give you a specific answer on that.[1]

  Q31 Mr Keetch: Because your colleague Iain Pearson told the Committee in answer to a question from me two weeks ago that his definition when he sought advice from his officials of UK territory and airspace did include Diego Garcia, did include Akrotiri and, indeed, did include Gibraltar—I threw that one in as well—so it would be very helpful if we could have that direct view, particularly, obviously, on Diego Garcia.

  Mr Straw: Can I say that had the search thrown up examples of requests, then, of course, I would have reported them to the House via the answer to Ming Campbell, but you asked me a very specific question about whether what I had in mind there was UK mainland territory.

  Q32  Mr Keetch: Perhaps we can clarify that. You are absolutely certain that the accusations made in The Times and elsewhere today that British MI6 agents have been involved in the torture of 28 Pakistani originated detainees in Greece, we can forget that as being complete nonsense, as you said?

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q33  Mr Keetch: Excellent. Given that and given the growing concerns—Mrs Osborne referred to the inquiries in Canada, in Spain, in Italy—also given the fact that even now in the House we have an All Party Parliamentary Group set up on this subject, and I cannot speak for the Committee, but if this Committee were to seek to investigate this issue of extraordinary rendition, would you give us an assurance that any officials in the FCO and any agency that are responsible to the FCO would be prepared to give evidence to this Committee, if necessary in private, so that we could once and for all allay the fears that are quite clearly in parliament and elsewhere?

  Mr Straw: Mr Keech, no, I would not, and I think you understand very readily why not: because that is getting into the territory of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Am I ready for an appropriate committee of parliamentarians to investigate such allegations? Yes. I know this is delicate territory, but you have one role and the ISC has another.

  Q34  Chairman: We will come back to this matter.

  Mr Straw: Let me say too, so far as individuals who believe that they have suffered wrong at the hands of intelligence or security agencies are concerned, they have a statutory right to make a complaint to the relevant intelligence services commissioner, who are senior judicial figures who will then investigate, and that may be helpful to Mrs Osborne when she was asking me about judicial inquiry and anybody who believes they have been wronged, including these people who claim that they were ill-treated by British intelligence in Greece and feel that they can make that reference.

  Q35  Chairman: But given that we have signed the Geneva Convention, given that we have signed conventions against torture in 1948, 1966, 1950 and 1984, you would confirm that any British official employed by her Majesty's Government in any sense involved in this practice or involved in the kind of action we are talking about in terms of rendition might well be in contradiction of the Geneva Convention and those other conventions we have signed?

  Mr Straw: Plainly torture is illegal, complicity in torture is also illegal—it is illegal under our law and under international law—and so, if anybody were involved, they would be committing a criminal offence; but let us just come back to the reality of the way in which our intelligence and security agencies operate. They do not do this. I have been responsible for one or other of the three intelligence and security agency services over the last eight and a half years, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and I have never ever seen an allegation of this kind, but if there are allegations, of course they would be investigated, and there is appropriate parliamentary oversight of the intelligence and security services as well.

  Q36  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, you will be aware from the extensive coverage which this particular allegation has had in a number of newspapers that a UK civil rights lawyer, Mr Clive Stafford Smith, has produced a dossier of papers, if I can use that word in this committee, on behalf of his client, Mr Benyam Mohammed al-Habashi. You said to the Committee a moment ago that the British government was in no way complicit in the use of torture as far as any individual is concerned. You will be aware that in these allegations Mr Habashi has alleged that MI6 handed him over to the CIA, Mr Habashi describes an account of someone he believes to be an MI6 officer and details the horror of his torture. Mr Habashi says the officer told him: "I will see what we can do with the Americans." "They gave me a cup of tea with a lot sugar in it. He said, `Where you are going you will need a lot of sugar'", and he went on to say that he was interrogated for 18 months in a Moroccan prison, had his penis cut with a scalpel; he also claims he was chained to a wall for days, chained to the floor in a pitch dark cell in Kabul and turned into a heroin addict. I should add that it is also alleged that the Americans take the view, which I believe he denies, that he is involved in some way in planning a dirty bomb attack in America, which he denies. The question I want to put to you is when you gave the Committee an assurance a moment ago that the British government was in no way complicit in the use of torture against people who are British citizens, does that extend to not being complicit in the activities of the intelligence agencies?

  Mr Straw: Look, let me just say this, and again I repeat the point. In normal circumstances, and we cannot, nobody could in my position, give a running commentary even on very extreme and totally untrue allegations, but in these two cases, because of the very fevered interest in these cases and the extent of the misinformation about them, I think it appropriate to do so, but I also preface that by saying that if Mr Stafford Smith wants to on behalf of his client, he is fully entitled to ask the Intelligence Services Commission to investigate this and to offer whatever evidence he has. The situation is this. Mr al-Habashi was interviewed once by a member of the UK Security Service while he was in detention in Karachi in 2002. The Security Service had no role in his capture or in his transfer from Pakistan. The Intelligence and Security Committee report into the handling of detainees by UK intelligence personnel gave details of the guidance under which such interviews were conducted, and the service officer did not observe any abuse and no instances of abuse were reported to him by Mr Habashi. I hope that is helpful.

  Q37  Sir John Stanley: It is helpful. It does not answer the question was Mr Habashi handed over deliberately by the British intelligence services to the CIA?

  Mr Straw: I have just read out, Sir John, "The service had no role in his capture or transfer from Pakistan."

  Q38  Sir John Stanley: That is a different question?

  Mr Straw: I do not think it is; that is the same question.

  Q39  Sir John Stanley: Can you clarify it: no role in his transfer to Pakistan?

  Mr Straw: From Pakistan.

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