Documents released by the Westminster government show that former Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy knew about the secret letter sent by the Labour government to the Libyans in 2008 advising them on options for compassionate release.
The documents, released on Monday, reveal that the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire was included in communications that made clear the importance to the UK of cultivating good relations with Libya on counter terrorism, migration and crucially – energy.
The new revelations that Jim Murphy, Labour’s most senior politician in Scotland at the time of Mr Al Megrahi’s compassionate release, knew of the behind the scenes advice will heap further pressure on beleaguered Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray and raises questions as to what the leader of the Holyrood Labour group knew of his London bosses’ deals and when he knew it.
Newsnet Scotland can reveal that Jim Murphy was included in confidential communications on 13 October 2008, shortly after Mr Al Megrahi was originally diagnosed with terminal cancer. The communications were a report on a conversation between Jack Straw and Alex Salmond on the Prisoner Transfer Agreement.
The report (1) explained that a Whitehall delegation, including Labour MP Bill Rammell, had met with the Libyans the week previous in which the Libyans had asked about the possibility of a release of Mr Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The report makes clear the importance of UK/Libyan relations and specifically mentions counter-terrorism, energy and migration. The report then very clearly states that a letter of legal advice is to be sent to the Libyans by the end of the week
The report says:
“JS [Jack Straw] outlined the fact that Bill Rammell, FCO officials and Simon McDonald had meetings last week with Libyan representatives …
“JS said that the Libyans asked about release on compassionate grounds. JS outlined where discussions had got to with the PTA, i.e. that the Libyans had now accepted the UK standard text and that it is likely to be signed in November. JS outlined the importance of UK/Libya relations on CT issues, migration and energy – and made the point that all of these affected the whole of the UK.
“JS said that FCO had agreed to write to the Libyans by Friday of this week with factual and legal details of the options for release. JS envisaged that the letter would set out the SE [Scottish Executive] position on compassionate release and PTA transfers.”
The new revelations will come as a severe blow to the Labour party in Scotland already reeling from the publication of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report. Sir Gus made it clear that Labour did “all it could” to help facilitate the release of the man known as the Lockerbie bomber. The revelations sparked outrage in Scotland and led to Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray and his party being accused of “organised hypocrisy” after they attacked the decision by Kenny MacAskill.
The new revelations will also call into question claims by Jim Murphy, who spoke in September 2009 after a previous release of limited documents, when he said: “It’s important in the way that we are being, because there is no cover-up, there is no plot, there is no conspiracy.” (2)
One month earlier Mr Murphy had criticised the time the SNP were taking in order to make the decision whether to release the cancer stricken Libyan saying it was “dragging on” and called the delay “embarrassing”. (3) This apparent desire to see the process rushed will raise concerns given that we now know that energy giant BP had lobbied the then Labour government in order to hurry up the PTA.
The secret report also gives an indication that the Labour government were already keen that Mr Al Megrahi should not die in a UK jail. The report notes Jack Straw apparently seeking confirmation from Alex Salmond that Al Megrahi will indeed be released: “JS [Straw] said that he assumed that if there were genuine grounds for compassionate release SE [Scottish Executive] Ministers would release AM [Al Megrahi] rather than see him die in prison.”
We know that such concerns were indeed expressed by senior Labour ministers at the time. Documents released by the controversial Wikileaks website have shown that the UK government were acutely aware of the ramifications should Al Megrahi die in a UK jail.
However, Salmond’s recorded reply backs claims by the Scottish government that no such guarantee was given and that any application would be treated in the same manner as any other, following due process:
“AS [Salmond] said that any application re AM would be treated in the same way as for any other prisoner … That SE felt extremely aggrieved at the position on the PTA that had been arrived at.
“That SE Ministers can’t do or be seen to do something that interferes with an ongoing legal process. That if SE Ministers contemplate release on compassionate grounds then they need to be satisfied it is appropriate and genuine.
“AS also said that any such release can’t be on the basis of fixing any wider UK/Libya relationship issues – it needed to be treated on its own merits.”
Mr Murphy was also included in a list of recipients of a report on 24th October 2008 in which it is made clear that a second opinion on Mr Al Megrahi’s health confirmed the first diagnosis.
These latest revelations, as well as drawing the former secretary of state into the scandal, will undermine claims by Labour that the SNP were seeking a deal on the PTA to allow a healthy Al Megrahi to return to Libya in return for firearms powers and help with ‘slopping out’ claims.
They will also pile even more pressure on a Labour party that is in crisis in Scotland and one that appears at the moment to be devoid of a leader.
1. http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/20110207-megrahi-review-report.pdf (page 56)
There was further bad news for Iain Gray after it emerged that he has been accused of misleading the chamber after comments he made regarding the SNP group at North Ayrshire Council.
Mr Gray accused the council’s SNP group of being behind the recent proposal of a four day teaching week in the region.
However a spokesman for North Ayrshire SNP has hit back accusing the Labour leader of lying and of misleading parliament.
Cllr Matt Brown, Leader of the SNP Group on North Ayrshire Council, reacted angrily and said:
“Following upon the nonsense of North Ayrshire Council’s Labour Executive proposing a paper on a school 4-day week with thereafter children starting school at 6 and nursery at 4 years of age, they are now seeking to blame others for their folly.
“In spite of the fact that the SNP in January pointed out to the Labour Executive that this was nonsense, probably illegal, and would finish up being the headline, they kept the paper in existence – and that is exactly what has happened.
“They then passed information to Iain Gray that this was a response to an SNP call for more radical action, not substantiated anywhere in evidence or Minute, and in fact simply not true!
“The SNP followed the Council Leader, O’Neill, and Lifelong Learning spokesman, McNamara, in seeking alternatives.
“Thereafter, this matter came out from the Labour Executive in January and at that stage the SNP rejected it, issuing a news release 6 days before the budget indicating that the 4 day school week and starting school at 6 and nursery at 4 was nonsense, kidding nobody.
“This news release was circulated to all the newspapers in North Ayrshire and printed by all of them.”
Cllr Brown accused the Labour party in the area of being ‘desperate’ and added:
“The Labour Party in North Ayrshire is now getting desperate, so perhaps we can come to a deal – if they stop telling lies about us, we might stop telling the truth about them”.