As-it-happened: Megrahi debate
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This event has now finished, but you can review how it panned out below.
By Alex Stevenson
13:50 – We weren’t expecting a return to parliamentary action quite this soon, but the recalled Scottish parliament is about to meet to debate the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi. MSPs are gathered in Holyrood at the behest of presiding officer Alex Fergusson to hear Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill make a statement. Starting from 14:30 we can look forward to the early session, which will see the statement followed by questions on this hugely controversial issue. We’ll be following it live here.
14:15 – This will be a real test for MacAskill. The compassionate motivation for his decision to free Megrahi came across in last Thursday’s rather painfully long-winded conference, but whether he is able to communicate that effectively in the chamber could prove rather more challenging. Not that his political challengers can push it too far, of course. If this gets pushed to a no confidence motion, this turns into a totally different ball game.
14:27 – Just a few minutes from getting underway now. Journalists down here in Westminster are tremendously excited. Starved of their normal feed of MPs, even the smallest slice of parliamentary action is enough to get them quivering with excitement.
14:32 – Extremely bad news, brevity fans. MacAskill has announced he intends to go through most of the last week’s statement before taking questions. This doesn’t look good. Off he goes. We’ve heard all this before.
14:35 – It’s actually an interesting exercise listening to all this again, in the wake of the enormous furore we’ve seen over the last few days. “This is a global issue and international in its nature,” MacAskill muses. How right he is – both now, and when he uttered the same words last week.
14:41 – MacAskill repeats his anger that the government in London refused to reveal to him the nature of the informal undertaking between Britain and the US over plans for Megrahi’s release or prisoner transfer. “This is regrettable,” he says.
14:42 – This is, of course, a very serious moment. But one can’t help but get distracted, hypnotised you might say, by the curious lilt of MacAskill’s Scottish burr. He’s rather high-pitched and his voice comes perilously close to being guilty of a tendency to rising intonation. But every sentence falls away at the very last moment, rescuing him from that rhetorical blight.
14:43 – He’s whisked through the prisoner transfer agreement decision and is now well into the compassionate release justification. This looks like being an edited version of last week, which is good.
14:46 – “I was conscious there are deeply held feelings and that many would disagree whatever my decision. However, a decision had to be made,” he says. The sad tone in his voice has extra feeling now. “I stand by the values and laws of Scotland. Scotland will forever remember the crime that has forever been perpetrated against our people.”
14:50 – MacAskill continues to repeat his statement from last week, virtually word-for-word. It’s a decent way of delivering the point that his position hasn’t been at all influenced by what’s occurred since then. “That was my decision; I shall now answer questions,” he says. Applause breaks out.
14:51 – Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray begins by saying the Scottish government “made the wrong decision, in the wrong way, with the wrong consequences”. Tackling the compassion issue head-on, he said it had to be “tempered by the rights of justice”.
14:52 – There might be something in his attack against MacAskill on the latter’s decision to visit Megrahi in prison. Written representations were required, yes, but that didn’t mean a visit was needed. Gray wants answers and there could be some political traction there.
14:54 – “The Cabinet secretary has mishandled this whole affair from start to finish. Between the scenes of triumph in Tripoli and the pain and anger at home and abroad, is there nothing Mr MacAskill now regrets about his decision and the way it was reached?”
14:56 – MacAskill is sticking to his guns, but is now replying from pre-prepared notes. He says: “I believed due process had been followed by the laws of Scotland”. He failed to show that to them, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore that. I believe I followed due process, upheld the values and I stand by the decision.”
14:58 – Annabel Goldie, the chief Tory in Scotland, makes clear that the Megrahi release was not done in the name of the Scottish parliament. She wants to know what was wrong with the NHS’ treatment for Megrahi, which would have been better than that provided by Libya. “Equally disturbing is the extraordinary and incomprehensible silence of the prime minister, Gordon Brown. What joint efforts are now being undertaken by Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown to limit the damage done to our joint international reputation and to our economy?
15:00 – MacAskill brushes aside the suggestion Megrahi could have gone to a hospice in Scotland, with the “travelling circus” this would have entailed. Not to mention the security issues. On compassion, he quotes an archbishop who has said that compassion seems to be an example of “manifest strength”.
15:02 – Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott is next. He says Scotland’s international reputation is “failing”. He wants a vote that there is a “wider view of Scotland, not just the narrow view of its minority government”. He says last Thursday’s statement saw MacAskill pass the blame on eight times and wants to know what was the purpose of the Megrahi prison visit. “Why make that visit when there was not one but two appeals in progress?” He says the country has been “split” among itself and from its international friends.
15:05 – MacAskill “stands by my position”, finishing by hitting back: “Under the terms and watch of Jim Wallace, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, a child killer was released.” He quotes Lord Steel, who said on the Today programme this morning that “most opinion in Scotland is in favour of a decision to release [Megrahi] on compassionate grounds”. An MSP hisses “cheap!” across the chamber.
15:06 – SNP MSP Michael Matheson says that questioning the decision would “politicise” Scotland’s judicial system. MacAskill confirms no Cabinet secretary for justice had ever refused any application for release since 2000, following guidance. Richard Baker, a Labour position, is angered by MacAskill’s “appalling error”.
15:12 – MacAskill is asked whether there were any compassionate alternatives which would have enabled the families to feel better about the situation. He responds by dismissing the hospice alternative as “ludicrous”. Turning a peaceful hospice into a “media circus” would be unacceptable. He reveals that any other form of interment in Scotland would have required a minimum of 48 officers on permanent duty and was therefore impractical. On the families he says “I can do nothing to take away or assuage that pain.”
15:15 – And so it continues. There are 30 MSPs who want to comment and so we’ll be hear for a while. Applause from the public gallery leads to a rebuke from presiding officer Alex Fergusson.
15:20 – On the issue of an inquiry, MacAskill says he would be prepared to consider one in Scotland. But he lists the very restricted powers of the Scottish government and parliament, and the limits resulting from this sort of thing.
15:23 – One MSP raises the question of a visit to Libya by members of the Scottish government. He wonders whether this might be better ruled off now. MacAskill says he is not aware of such a visit. “I would simply say that you may disagree with my decision.”
15:25 – Ian McKee, an SNP MSP, wants to know what happens if Megrahi survives much longer than three months. MacAskill bows down to McKee’s medical knowledge – he is a doctor, after all – and says he could only go on the advice presented to him.
15:26 – Margaret Curran, of Scottish Labour, wants to know if there was any investigation of specific “compassionate alternatives”. MacAskill says he spoke to the deputy chief constable of Strathclyde police, repeating what he has said before. “It may be that Annabel Goldie and Margaret Curran do believe a hospice should have been made avaialble in Scotland.” But he believes hospices deserve “dignity and sanctitude”.
15:29 – “Costs are not a factor we take into account,” MacAskill says, perhaps contradicting his earlier statement that 48 police officers would have been an excessive cost for maintaining Megrahi security in Scotland. “I followed the operational advice. It was based on sound operational reasons.”
15:31 – Sandra White launches an attack on the presiding officer and all MSPs, but is a little overkeen and MacAskill is forced to emphasise he doesn’t seek to impose his values on anybody. “I’m heartened by the support I’ve received from many people in Scotland,” he says.
15:38 – Richard Simpson is next. He wants to know whether MacAskill took any advice from a palliative care expert, not just a doctor. “If Mr Megrahi lives for much longer than the three months, this will add to the insult to American families and others.” MacAskill enters into a detailed list of dates, slipping in that Megrahi’s condition had appeared to deteriorate in previous months.
15:41 – MacAskill hopes all those round him would back him on his support for “due process”. THe MSP commenting afterwards, in a rare voice of support, backs his “courageous decision”. At least, we think it’s supportive. Applause follows. “Our values are deeper and different.”
15:42 – Back to the cost issue, and the alternative compassionate decisions. MacAskill says nothing new, and the session is finished. That, as they say, is that. A group of SNP politicians surround MacAskill, rubbing his back supportively.
15:46 – Not quite sure what to make of that. MacAskill’s statement was barely more boring despite the fact we’d heard it all before. He managed to maintain his righteous tone throughout the questions which followed. Of the frontbenchers, Tavish Scott appeared to come off the best; most of the questions were fielded very competently, although there was some difficulty over the ‘alternative compassionate’ issue. Were there any other options which MacAskill could have considered? That’s the biggest question raised by today’s emergency session. Let’s see whether the next few days furnish us with any more answers.