HC Deb 03 February 1949 vol 460 cc1836-40
Mr. Churchill (by Private Notice)

asked the Attorney-General whether he has come to any decision on the question of criminal proceedings arising from the report of the Tribunal presided over by Mr. Justice Lynskey under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

Yes, Sir. Before the Tribunal entered upon its inquiry the Director of Public Prosecutions certified, and I agreed, that there was not then sufficient evidence to justify any criminal proceedings in relation to the matters referred to the Tribunal. Since the conclusion of the Tribunal's proceedings I have again considered the matter in consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, who was himself represented by Counsel holding a watching brief before the Tribunal.

In considering the possibility of criminal proceedings in regard to those matters which were the subject of public inquiry by the Tribunal I have had regard to the general principles on which criminal justice is administered in this country, and in particular to the two matters which I now proceed to mention. Much of the relevant and essential evidence which might be used against the particular defendants in any possible criminal proceedings arising out of the Tribunal's inquiry consists in their own statements made to a Tribunal necessarily possessing wide powers of summoning witnesses and interrogating them in circumstances which at least made it difficult for them to refuse to answer.

I am very far from saying that in a proper case a prosecution should not follow upon the report of such a Tribunal, but in general it is necessary to exercise great discretion in the use of statements obtained in the exercise of compulsory powers of interrogation as evidence against the persons who, under that interrogation, actually gave those statements. In the present matter it would be difficult, if not impossible, to establish the commission of criminal offences without the use of information and statements obtained in that way. That is a factor which I cannot completely ignore. In addition, it is a fundamental principle of the administration of our criminal law that juries should act and act only on the evidence before them.

I am far from saying that a jury, properly instructed, would be incapable of so acting in any prosecution arising from the recent inquiry, but it would certainly be impossible to empanel a jury which was not familiar with the findings of fact made by the Tribunal and, indeed, with much of the evidence on which those findings were based. This would inevitably detract, not, I dare say, from justice being actually done, but from the manifest appearance of justice which is scarcely less important.

In those circumstances the Director of Public Prosecutions has advised me that although there is now prima facie evidence of the commission of certain criminal offences, he does not consider that on the information at present available proceedings should be taken in respect of them. I am myself satisfied that the requirements of public justice have been or will be sufficiently met without criminal proceedings, and I have therefore concluded that on the information at present available the public interest does not require that such proceedings should be taken.

I should add that this answer relates to those matters which were the subject of public inquiry by the Tribunal and does not exclude the possibility of judicial or administrative action under the Aliens Acts, the Bankruptcy Acts or the Revenue Law. Nor does it relate to the three cases referred to in paragraph 17 of the Tribunal's report as not having been publicly investigated by the Tribunal, since they were more appropriately the subject of police inquiry. In one of these cases I have authorised proceedings against a minor official of the Board of Trade for offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1906. The two others relate to private individuals whose activities were not publicly inquired into by the Tribunal although the name of one of the individuals concerned was mentioned before it. These cases are still engaging the attention of the police.

Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe

May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman questions on two points? While I appreciate the first part of his answer and the importance that he has attached to the fact that certain people have been questioned at the Tribunal, will be reassure the House that that fact, of itself, would not interfere with a prosecution if evidence were forthcoming from some other source? The second question is whether he will let us know clearly what I understand to be implied, that what he said about the Bankruptcy Act and the Aliens Acts means that the position of Mr. Sydney Stanley is still under his consideration with a view to further action?

The Attorney-General

Yes, Sir. The mere fact that a person had been compulsorily interrogated before a Tribunal of this kind, would certainly not preclude a subsequent prosecution of that person if other evidence against him were available. Even if no other evidence against him were available, in a suitable case prosecution would have to take place none the less because some of the matters had been disclosed in the course of public proceedings of this kind. All I said in regard to that matter was that that was one of the factors to which I have had to have regard in deciding whether or not to prosecute in the circumstances of these particular cases. So far as concerns the second of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's questions, the position of Mr. Sydney Stanley is certainly still engaging the attention of the appropriate Departments.

Mr. Wilson Harris

In regard to what the Attorney-General has said about the bankruptcy and revenue law, will he see to it that any sums secured by any individual through exploiting a depraved career in the columns of the Sunday papers, will be diverted into the proper channels?

The Attorney-General

I have no doubt that the appropriate authorities will not neglect that possibility.

Squadron-Leader Fleming

In view of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement that the bulk of the evidence collected by this Tribunal is of no use to the Director of Public Prosecutions—[HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say that."]—because of its being intermingled so much with hearsay evidence—[HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say that."]—and because one could not possibly empanel a jury which had already not been prejudiced by reading all the findings of this Tribunal, would not the Attorney-General suggest to the Prime Minister that the time had arrived, in view of this being the second occasion on which we have used the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, when the Act should be amended so as to exclude hearsay evidence from the proceedings of the Tribunal?

The Attorney-General

No, Sir. I did not state that the evidence given before this Tribunal was of no use to the Director of Public Prosecutions, nor did I state—and it would have been wholly inaccurate if I had done so—that the evidence given was intermingled with hearsay. I should have expected the hon. and learned Gentleman to know better what is meant by hearsay evidence. The question of hearsay evidence—and we shall have an opportunity of discussing it later, I daresay—did not really arise in connection with the proceedings of this Tribunal, the position in regard to which was very clearly stated by the learned judge in the course of the proceedings. It is manifestly essential for the State, in the protection of the public interest, to have these wide powers of compulsory interrogation for use when Parliament so decides in cases of exceptional public importance to the community, but the corollary of the right to exercise such powers as that, must be that the State may have, in the circumstances of a particular case, to accept some limitation on the further right it possesses to prosecute alleged offenders who have been submitted to compulsory interrogation in that way.

Mr. Blackburn

In view of the implication at the beginning of his remarks, would the Attorney-General answer definitely one way or the other whether or not the Director of Public Prosecutions himself assented to this particular kind of procedure?

The Attorney-General

That does not appear to be a question which could properly be put to me or which I should answer. This House decided to establish this form of procedure, and I apprehend that it would not be for this House to ask for the assent of the Director of Public Prosecutions in such a matter.