HC Deb 19 May 1960 vol 623 cc1464-5
16. Mr. Healey

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will order an inquiry into the failure of the Metropolitan Police to protect witnesses in the Pen Club case from intimidation.

20. Mr. Grimond

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will introduce legislation to increase the powers of the courts and the police with regard to the protection of witnesses in criminal cases.

Mr. R. A. Butler

I am assured by the Commissioner of Police that in cases in which it is known that witnesses may be intimidated, protection is provided when it is possible and thought necessary to do so. In the case referred to by the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), police protection was in fact provided for two witnesses. It was also offered to a number of other witnesses who declined it.

I am not at present satisfied that legislation giving special powers to the courts and the police is necessary, but I shall continue to watch the position carefully.

Mr. Healey

While I recognise the very serious physical and even legal difficulties under which the police are operating in this case, may I ask the Home Secretary whether he is aware that there is very widespread public concern and even alarm over the circumstances in which such cases have been heard? Can he assure the House that he will take some special measure to ensure that there does not remain a section of the population which seems to be entirely immune from the normal processes of British justice?

Mr. Butler

I am rather anxious not to go any further in relation to this case, since an appeal is pending, and I have chosen my words so as to avoid all possibility of prejudice. But that does not mean that I am not aware of the very serious nature of the statement made by the hon. Member and the importance of watching the situation. The courts have power to subpoena witnesses and, in some circumstances, to attach for contempt persons who disobey those subpoenas. I am considering whether those powers are adequate and I am otherwise watching the situation.

Mr. Grimond

I am grateful for the Home Secretary's assurance that he is considering the matter further. Will he now look further into the question of the adequacy of the police force and whether we should not take further steps by raising their pay, and so on, so as to increase their numbers? Secondly, can he assure the House that the overriding consideration in these matters is not whether witnesses want protection, but whether it is desirable in the public interest that they should have it?

Mr. Butler

The great difficulty has been causing witnesses to come forward. I think that it would be very difficult to obtain powers from Parliament to bring into protective custody persons believed able to assist, and that is precisely our difficulty in dealing with this gang warfare and the present situation with which we are now dealing. That is why I have been watching it from the angle which I mentioned to the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey). I am looking forward eagerly to the Interim Report of the Royal Commission on the Police and I am well aware of the need for looking after the police and increasing their numbers.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Will the right hon. Gentleman in due course let us know how his thoughts are going in this matter? While we recognise the difficulties and do not want witnesses in this country to be arrested, as they can be in the United States, for instance, nevertheless, the course of justice may be in jeopardy because of witnesses being intimidated and even disappearing as a result of intimidation. Might not the answer be in there being greater power in the courts, and not the police, to cause witnesses to appear?

Mr. Butler

The interests of justice and the very serious situation which has arisen out of this case and which, alas, is prevalent in similar cases, must be carefully watched by Parliament and myself.