Straw fights release of transcript of calls over Libyan oil deal

Justice Secretary denies agreeing to release of Lockerbie bomber in talks with BP lobbyist

Mary Dejevsky
Sunday 31 January 2010 01:00

Jack Straw was accused last night of trying to cover up details of talks he held with a BP lobbyist over an oil deal with Libya weeks before reversing a Government move to block the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

The Secretary of State for Justice has turned down a Freedom of Information request from a Commons select committee to reveal whether, during two phone calls with the lobbyist, he agreed to include Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in Britain's Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) with Libya.

Mr Straw has admitted having two conversations with Sir Mark Allen, a former MI6 agent turned BP consultant, in the autumn of 2007. But he has insisted that "at no stage was any undertaking promised, hinted, given to the Libyans, that in return for an overall bilateral arrangement Mr Megrahi would be released".

At the time of the conversations, the Government's position was to exclude Megrahi from the PTA deal. But that December, Mr Straw announced a change of policy, writing to the Scottish Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, to say he could not guarantee Megrahi would be excluded from the deal – effectively paving the way for his release.

Megrahi, convicted for the 1988 bombing which killed 270, was released last August on compassionate grounds – rather than under the PTA – by the Scottish Executive.

But Mr Straw's discussions with BP are still contentious because MPs believe ministers gave a smooth path for the release in the interests of trade with the Libyan government.

In early 2007, BP signed a $900m (£562m) oil exploration deal with Libya but the energy giant was concerned that the ongoing stalemate over the PTA would damage the contract. Sir Mark, who was involved in the 2003 deal for Colonel Gaddafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction programme, left MI6 in 2004 to work for BP. He telephoned Mr Straw, whom he knew from the minister's time as Foreign Secretary, on 15 October and 9 November 2007. On 19 December 2007, Mr Straw wrote to Mr MacAskill informing him of the British government's change of position.

The Conservative MP and member of the Scottish affairs committee Ben Wallace has written to Mr Straw demanding to see notes of the calls.

During Mr Straw's appearance before the committee last Wednesday, Mr Wallace told him: "I think we should know to what extent HM Government gave commitments in exchange for trade and whether that included Megrahi."

Mr Straw replied: "There's been no secret about the fact that I took two telephone calls from Sir Mark Allen – I take telephone calls from all sorts of people. Sir Mark Allen is somebody I knew from my time in the Foreign Office. He actually had very extensive knowledge of the Middle East and in a role in the Foreign Office had been very much involved in these negotiations. I thought he was worth listening to. And that's what I did."

Asked by Mr Wallace whether he would release the notes, Mr Straw said tersely: "Decisions about the release of material under FOI are dealt with separately, with respect, all right?"

Mr Straw's spokesman said the request was turned down under section 35 of the FOI Act, which exempts ministerial communications. Mr Wallace is appealing on public interest grounds.

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