The news that the last Labour government did “all it could” to secure the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, has prompted David Cameron to claim that MPs were not given “the full picture” at the time. Labour has responded by pointing out that nothing in the report contradicts what David Miliband told MPs on 12 October 2009.
If you compare Miliband’s statement with Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report, it becomes clear that Cameron has a point.
Here’s the key quote from the O’Donnell report on the release:
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.
And here’s the key extract from Miliband’s statement:
British interests, including those of UK nationals, British businesses and possibly security co-operation, would be damaged, perhaps badly, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than Libya . . . Given the risk of Libyan adverse reaction, we made it clear to them both that as a matter of law and practice it was not a decision for the UK government, and as a matter of policy we were not seeking Megrahi’s death in Scottish custody.
As Miliband made clear at the time, the Brown government favoured the release of Megrahi “as a matter of policy” but did not formally lobby the Scottish government. This assertion is supported by the report, which notes that “the former Government took great effort not to communicate to the Scottish Government its underlying desire to see Mr Megrahi released before he died”.
But while Miliband’s statement is not contradicted by the report, he said nothing to suggest that the UK favoured Megrahi’s release to the point of actively “facilitating” an appeal by the Libyans. The problem, in other words, is not what he did say but what he didn’t say. Miliband has since (rightly) admitted that the release of Megrahi was wrong. He should now also admit that the government failed to give MPs the full picture on Megrahi.
NB: It’s worth pointing out, as few have today, that Megrahi’s conviction is widely disputed. Read John Pilger’s column from September 2009 for the full story.