» Thursday, June 7, 2007

al-Yamamah contract

The Leader was asked why the present government was so reluctant to admit to the activities of Saudi princes. Mr Straw responded by saying that he did not recognise the descriptive term used by the journalist. The issue had been raised with him on two occasions during Business Questions earlier. He had responded by repeating what the Prime Minister had said this morning, that he would not comment on individual allegations.

Mr Straw said that, after quoting the Prime Minister’s words, he had referred to what Mr Justice Collins had stated in a judgement, issued on May 29 and published this week, in respect of an application for judicial review of the decision to suspend the Serious Fraud Office investigation. The judge had said that case that the applicants had put was "unarguable" and had gone on to say that "it is clear that national security must always prevail and no State could be expected to take action which jeopardises the security of the State or the lives of its citizens."

The Leader pointed out that he had told the House there was a danger of withdrawal of national security co-operation by the Saudis, and that the Prime Minister, as had the Attorney General and the Solicitor General last December, had made clear that that was the reason for the decision.

Asked if it was his understanding that it had been a statement of principle irrespective of the seriousness of the allegations, Mr Straw said it had related to the specific case and circumstances. In addition, he had also told an MP during Business Questions that "we vitally need – and have received – co-operation from, amongst others, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia" in respect of the serious terrorist threat facing the UK. The Prime Minister had been right not to jeopardise that, and now had the endorsement of a High Court judge for that decision.

Pressed to explain what he had meant when he had told the House "that we will look for an opportunity" to give clarification, Mr Straw said that had referred to an MP’s query whether the Serious Fraud Office had come to a conclusion, one way or another, about the remaining investigations. The Leader said that, after Business Questions, he took up issues with relevant departments where necessary. In this case, he would draw it to the Attorney’s notice, for him in turn to draw it to the attention of the SFO. It was not a government decision.

Asked if the Government’s response was not leaden-footed, Mr Straw disagreed with the suggestion. He thought that, in the circumstances of the Attorney’s decision and statement last December, based on what the Prime Minister had said, the Government’s response today was appropriate. He again referred to Mr Justice Collins. Mr Straw said he suspected that, had the judgement gone the other way, it would have received rather more media coverage than it had done.

The Leader was asked if he was satisfied that "nothing illegal" had happened. He said that was not a judgement for him, but he could refer to the Attorney’s statement in December, when he had stated – to paraphrase – that, even had the SFO investigation continued further, it was unlikely that the evidential tests would have been satisfied.

In response to a further question, Mr Straw said he had not seen the National Audit Office report on the contract. It was perfectly normal for some NAO reports, relating to matters of great sensitivity – in this case, national security – not to be published. Under Freedom of Information law, there was also complete exemption for the work of the agencies and a qualified exemption in respect of other national security considerations. Asked if the Government was being inconsistent between its decision about this investigation and the action of the Crown Prosecution Service in respect of the extradition request relating to the Litvinenko murder case, Mr Straw said that he thought they were completely different.

Asked about comments by the Chancellor that he hoped to do more about scrutinising arms sales, the Leader said that the Government had not only been looking at ways to strengthen arms control but had also done so, by establishing the so-called Quadripartite Committee and by earlier action to establish "common criteria" for arms control in Europe in 1998. There were other things that could be done and were being looked at, but he had no announcement to make.

Briefing took place at 15:00 | Search for related news

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