HC Deb 04 February 1970 vol 795 cc426-9

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

72. MR. LIPTON to ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will institute proceedings against those responsible for the massacre of civilians in Malaya towards the end of 1948.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

With permission Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. 72. I think the House would wish me to do so.

I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to allegations which were reported in the Press last weekend that a number of civilians had been massacred by British troops in Malaya in 1948.

These allegations relate to an incident that took place on 12th December, 1948, during operations in Selangor. This incident was the subject of two separate investigations at the time, one by the military authorities in the Far East and one by the civil authorities in Malaya. So far as is known, no report was received by the War Office from either source of any criminal conduct on the part of the British troops who took part in this incident.

However, since these allegations have been made, I am treating the matter with concern and urgency. The question of whether there should be criminal proceedings is not now a matter on which the Army has any jurisdiction. I have therefore called for such documents relating to the original investigations as may still be available and other material arising out of the present allegations. I shall then consider, in the light of this information, whether I should refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions for further investigation.

In the meantime, I am sure the House will understand that it would be improper for me to comment on the substance of the allegations.

Mr. Lipton

It will be necessary to examine with scrupulous care any new evidence that may come to light. Does not the issuing by the Ministry of Defence a couple of days ago of a statement that the allegations could amount to allegations of murder tend to deter potential witnesses and have the appearance of prejudging the issue? Is such a statement likely to assist the successful outcome of the investigation?

Mr. Healey

We may all have our opinion as to what publications by whom in the last few days will have assisted the course of justice, but there is no doubt that these allegations, if true, are very serious indeed. I think it is the duty not only of myself as Secretary of State for Defence but of every Member of this House to recognise that there is a direct conflict of evidence on what may or may not have happened, and I must say that I found the form of the hon. Member's Question very prejudicial to any inquiry.

Mr. Ramsden

Is the Secretary of State aware that no one will wish to criticise either his or his Department's reaction to this incident, or his handling of it, in view of what has happened? Is he also aware that most people feel that raking over the past in the context of this incident, which was twice investigated over 20 years ago, can be of no conceivable value or help to anybody, unless it be to fill newspaper column inches, and that it will be the general wish that his investigation should be concluded and the incident dismissed?

Mr. Shinwell

Although it may be regrettable to have to rake over the past, is my right hon. Friend aware that every sensible person will wish an investigation to be initiated in the interests of all concerned? He is aware of what appeared in a Sunday newspaper. May I ask him whether the editor of the news- paper or any person representing that newspaper approached the Ministry of Defence, or any appropriate Government Department, before publishing these allegations? Was any attempt made to ascertain whether any reports were available to the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Healey

So far as I am aware, no approach was made to any Government Department before this article was published, but I think the House will recognise—as I think my right hon. Friend did in his words, for which I am very grateful—that once these allegations had been published it was my duty to the Services and to those named in the allegations to seek such information as I was able to enable me to decide whether or not I should suggest to the Director of Public Prosecutions that he should make further inquiries.

Mr. Hastings

To set the record straight, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding achievement in Malaya of the Second Battalion Scots Guards?

Mr. Healey

I think it is worth saying—and I am grateful to the hon. Member—that, whatever the outcome of these inquiries, we must all recognise that the behaviour of our forces in an extremely disagreeable and painful colonial war during the emergency in Malaya deserves the highest praise, and that the success of the operation was historically almost unprecedented in a guerrilla war of this nature.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will the Secretary of State examine afresh and very carefully the statement he has just made to the House that no approach was made to the Ministry of Defence by the People, the newspaper which originally published these allegations? Will he examine this matter in the utmost detail, since I believe there is a direct conflict of evidence on the subject, and, if he finds that he is mistaken in that statement, will he come to the House and make that quite clear?

Mr. Healey

I will certainly investigate further, but, as I understand it, the only approach of any nature which was made during the period when this article was being prepared was a request from the People to interview the regimental sergeant-major who is mentioned in the articles; but no explanation was given of the reason why the newspaper wished to question the regimental sergeant-major or of the nature of the articles which it was proposed to publish.

Mr. Younger

Has the Secretary of State made any inquiries as to what has been paid to the people who have made these allegations? Could he also say whether, if the evidence given now of those people is in complete conflict with the evidence which they gave at the time of the previous inquiries, there will be any question of proceedings for perjury?

Mr. Healey

These are not questions for me but for the civilian legal authorities. My duty, as I understand it, is to assemble such information as is within my possession as Secretary of State for Defence and, if I believe when I have assembled this information that there are grounds for asking the Director of Public Prosecutions to make a further investigation with a view to a possible prosecution, then to take that decision. It is not my responsibility—indeed it might well be considered prejudicial to any further proceedings which might follow—to seek to elicit evidence by attempting to interview persons who have put their views or experiences, or alleged experiences, on record.

Mr. Thorpe

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there will be widespread welcome that this matter is to be fully and impartially investigated? Since this is the second occasion within very recent memory when we have seen trial by newspapers, with serious allegations made against people who are put in a difficult position, will the Director of Public Prosecutions also consider the possibility of prosecution for criminal libel against those who make such allegations?

Mr. Healey

The House will recognise that that is not a question for me. However, I think I express the view of the whole House when I say that it is highly undesirable that articles should be published in newspapers and that persons should be encouraged to make statements in newspapers without any warning being given to them as to the consequences which might follow.