HC Deb 27 October 1966 vol 734 cc1315-20
The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

Mr. Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a statement concerning the Aberfan Tribunal of Inquiry.

The Tribunal having been established with wide terms of reference, it is highly undesirable that any comments should be made either in the Press or on the radio or on television on matters which it will be the express function of the Tribunal to investigate.

Apart from their manifest un-desirability, such comments may have legal consequences which are, perhaps, not at present appreciated. Just as comments on the subject matter of a pending trial may constitute contempt of court, so, also, the Tribunal would have to consider whether such comments amounted to such an interference with their highly important task as to necessitate the Chairman certifying that it called for an investigation by the High Court as to whether there had been contempt of the Tribunal. The possible consequences call for no elaboration by me.

I should like to add that I am authorised by Lord Justice Edmund Davies, the Chairman of the Tribunal, to say that all who have relevant information will be afforded the fullest opportunity of submitting this to the Tribunal.

Sir J. Hobson

Will the Attorney-General reconsider whether his statement does not go too far and that an attempt should not be made to stifle all comment of every sort by Press and public on this matter, provided that it is reasonable and relevant to the inquiry, because such comment may very well lead to a new line of inquiry by the Tribunal?

Secondly, could the Attorney-General tell us whether he himself will be appearing at the Tribunal, or who will represent the public interest at it? Thirdly, would he agree that it is highly unlikely that any comment, however wide, would have the slightest interference with or effect on the very powerful and robust Chairman of the Tribunal and his fellow members, and that that is the test of what is a contempt or not? While, naturally, we want to give what protection we can to the Tribunal, it is fairly well able to look after itself.

The Attorney-General

Now that the Tribunal has been set up and its quality has received the approval of the House, it is desirable that the issues which it is now charged with investigating should be considered and decided by it. The Tribunal will be anxious to receive any views, any information and any suggestions relevant to the issues it has to decide, but there is a certain danger in examination of potential witnesses on television and in the Press when the best means of ventilating opinion and passing on information now if we are to get to the most effective result from this inquiry is by communication with the Tribunal itself.

Representation at the Tribunal is a matter which is receiving consideration and an announcement will be made shortly.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this announcement will be received by many both inside and outside the legal profession with great regret? The whole pattern of events within the law over the past few years has been to limit the area of contempt of court for the obvious reasons which have just been stated by the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson), that where a jury is not involved the kind of comment that might be made in the Press or television is unlikely to sway those who have to make the decision. In an area where the decision will be made by a member of the judiciary and two assessors of outstanding merit the law of contempt should surely not be extended still further.

The Attorney-General

I have said that there are dangers of comment and examination of witnesses and such other procedures interfering with the Tribunal's work, forestalling evidence that witnesses might give and producing results which could make the Tribunal's work more difficult. It is because we are anxious that the Tribunal should be assisted in its work and not impeded that the announcement has been made.

Mr. Hooson

I welcome the Attorney-General's announcement which, I think, was necessary, for it is obvious that, if there is to be examination by television or in newspapers of evidence not properly examined, people's hopes may be wrongly excited or their beliefs wrongly induced. It is very necessary with a Tribunal of this kind to have a limitation of public discussion while the Tribunal is considering it.

Can the Attorney-General say what consideration has been given to the representation of the parents of the deceased children at the Tribunal, as I understand that legal aid is not available for them?

The Attorney-General

On the second part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will make an announcement in the very near future and I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be disappointed with the answer.

I am grateful to him for the first part of his question. I am sure that the radio, television and Press authorities will have a full appreciation of the kind of consideration that the Government have in mind and will respect the approach which I have recommended to them in my statement.

Mr. C. Pannell

I can understand what the Attorney-General has said about radio and television and the heavier organs of the Press, but I hope that he will say a few words now which will not appear to muffle the normal discussion going on in the neighbourhood on the various courses of action which might lead to a satisfactary outcome. I can quite well imagine his statement having the opposite effect to what he wants; it might stifle discussion which would otherwise, perhaps, lead on to a useful inquiry. Although we agree—at least, I do—on the subject of television, radio and the Press, I hope that we shall not be as meticulous as all that.

The Attorney-General

I hope that, so far from stifling discussion, my statement will have the opposite effect by stressing the importance of all relevant information which anyone has to communicate on this grave matter, which affects the safety of many communities in our country, as I know in particular, coming from South Wales. I urge the importance of all information and all suggestions which could possibly be relevant being communicated to the Tribunal, whether this be done by scientific experts or by anyone who thinks that he can shed light upon this tragic event and, in particular, on the avoidance of a recurrence of such a thing in the future.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider that ventilation in the Press may be of real and genuine assistance to the Tribunal? It may bring out the sort of information which he wants and may help to prevent another tragedy happening, not only in Wales but elsewhere in the country. Will the Attorney-General bear this in mind? It is an important aspect of the matter that such ventilation would be of help, or might be of help, to the Tribunal itself.

The Attorney-General

I think that the limits of what could be useful will be understood in the light of my statement. As I have said, the most important thing at the moment is that the Tribunal, above all, should be seized of the information. Procedures of the kind outlined by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) are not really calculated to produce either a satisfactory conclusion as to the facts or a satisfactory conclusion as to the circumstances which gave rise to the tragedy.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Will not my right hon. and learned Friend draw a distinction between such things as actual questioning on television of possible witnesses, which, clearly, would be wrong, and general enlightened discussion and argument, including such discussion on television and in the Press, about the broad nature of these events? I think that he was trying to make this distinction, but I am not sure that it came out clearly.

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that elaboration. The important thing is that there should not be either prejudging of the issues or such interference—if that is not too harsh a word—with witnesses as to embarrass their future position as potential witnesses before the Tribunal.