HC Deb 20 December 1972 vol 848 cc1341-7
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The Report of the Commission chaired by Lord Diplock to consider changes in the administration of justice to deal with terrorists is published today and is now available in the Vote Office.

The Government wish to express their gratitude to Lord Diplock and the members of the Commission for the speed with which they completed their task. The questions raised in their terms of reference were wide ranging and controversial, but urgency was dictated by the situation in Northern Ireland, and the Commission has achieved it remarkably.

The Commission finds that, no matter what changes are made in the administration of justice, so long as there is the current level of intimidation of witnesses which prevents people from giving evidence in criminal trials for fear of the consequences, it will be impossible to bring to trial all those involved in terrorism, and particularly those who direct and plan terrorist activities; the Commission concludes that some form of detention apart from the process of criminal trial will continue to be necessary until intimidation can be ended. The Commission points out that the new procedures for detention, made in the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, contain valuable safeguards against unfair detention.

The Commission takes the view that the need for detention would be reduced if, during the present emergency, a number of changes were made in the adminis- tration of justice. These include the introduction of trial by a judge alone instead of by a jury for terrorist offences; restrictions on the granting of bail for terrorist offences; alterations in the onus of proof in cases involving possession of firearms or explosives; new rules to govern the admissibility as evidence of confessions and written statements in trials of terrorist offences; and provision of secure accommodation for, and changes in the powers to sentence, juveniles involved in terrorist activities.

The Commission also recommends that the Army should have a power of arrest which would be easier for it to operate than its existing powers. The Government welcome these proposals which will, among other things, mean that it should be possible to bring more people before the criminal courts charged with criminal offences which arise out of alleged terrorist activities and, therefore, accept the recommendations in principle and will bring forward for consideration legislation to give effect to them.

The Government are also continuing their review of the Special Powers Act and Regulations and will bring forward proposals.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

This report has only just been published, and on such an important matter time will be required for detailed study of the conclusions, particularly those that recommend trial without jury, changes in the confession rules, and that which would give the armed Services power to arrest.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Diplock terms of reference are only one part of a wider issue in Northern Ireland? Will the Government give the House the opportunity to consider the whole question of terrorism in the wider context of the White Paper, of a Bill of Rights and of the results of the review of the Special Powers Act, which was promised—I think that is the right word——by the Prime Minister in March, when direct rule was introduced? How is the review proceeding? May we expect the results in the White Paper? Surely it is not possible to consider Diplock until the result of the review of the Special Powers Act is known to the House.

Does the Secretary of State realise that if the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Bill is of vital interest to the majority, the ending of the Special Powers Act and a Bill of Rights matter to the minority and to moderates in both communities? Would not there be a more realistic and understanding attitude to the serious problems with which Diplock seeks to deal, particularly intimidation, if the people of Northern Ireland were aware first of the Government's plans for the long-term future of the province?

Finally, is the Secretary of State aware that we note that the Government intend to act on Diplock through legislation and that we welcome this, as it will provide an opportunity for the House to discuss its details in a way that was not possible on the recent order dealing with terrorists, which was itself a temporary matter?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him about the importance of studying this report before making any further detailed comments. It is important that it should be studied because, in making his recommendations, Lord Diplock produces some very important arguments in favour of them which it is right for all right hon. and hon. Members to study before coming to their own particular conclusions.

As for what the hon. Gentleman said about the review of the Special Powers Act and a Bill of Rights, the Government have made it perfectly clear that we are considering both these matters in the context of the White Paper and, indeed, of the future of Northern Ireland. As I said, I think, a week ago, and I confirm today, I have learned by considerable experience now that it is wrong to be committed to any particular course of action at any stage in Northern Irish affairs. I do not intend to become so. I note what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Stratton Milts

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of Northern Ireland would thank Lord Diplock for both the report and the very remarkable speed with which it has been produced? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that, while one regrets the circumstances in which these kinds of arrangements are necessary, nevertheless the report makes clear that it is the circumstances of intimidation, in both the North and the South, that requires these arrangements? Although the report will have to be studied, nevertheless at first glance these arrangements seem a sensible and practical compromise.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he says, it is certainly a most important report and, indeed, one which in many respects it would be very important to see implemented at an early date. That is why I shall not commit myself one way or the other as to particular stages as we proceed from now on.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that whilst one of the first priorities must be the apprehension and conviction of terrorists, equally we want to retain all basic safeguards against the possibility of wrongful conviction, and, that being so, we shall need to look very carefully in detail particularly at a change in the admissibility of evidence outlined in the statement? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider two matters? First, is he satisfied that there is adequate right of legal representation, which has not always been the case at any rate so far as tribunals are concerned in Northern Ireland; and secondly, is he satisfied that there are adequate legal aid provisions so that persons who are apprehended will have adequate legal representation?

Mr. Whitelaw

These are very important matters, and in the context in which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned them we shall consider them most carefully. It is important to look at any such proposals of Lord Diplock and, indeed, the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order tribunals in the context of the number of people charged with security offences before the courts. Since 31st July, 492 people have been charged in the courts, perfectly normally, with security offences in the ordinary course of law. That is a very considerable achievement and it is important in the context of action against terrorism.

Mr. Fitt

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that people in Northern Ireland had understood that the Diplock Commission was inquiring into ways of abolishing the Special Powers Act and replacing it with other legislation? What the right hon. Gentleman announced this afternoon will continue the hateful and more obnoxious powers of the Special Powers Act, this legislation running in parallel with the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order. Can he give any reason why it is hoped to give to the Army further powers of arrest and detention? Why should they be enlarged? Have they been unsatisfactory? Has there not been co-operation between the Army and the police? Thirdly, and most important, when is it proposed to repeal the Special Powers Act? When will the right hon. Gentleman introduce some other form of legislation so that this obnoxious Draconian legislation can finally be taken off the Statute Book in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Whitelaw

I hope the hon. Gentleman, who is always fair in these matters, will read and consider the report carefully. It is only part of the whole issue of the Special Powers Act, which is a far wider provision. When he considers the provisions of the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order I hope he will recognise, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, in another place and as has been said consistently by people who study our legal procedures, that there is no doubt that the tribunals under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order are a much better way of proceeding than was internment by the executive. I think that is recognised by everyone who studies these matters. It is undoubtedly true.

As for the question of the Army's additional powers, all that is suggested —and I think that most people would feel this to be reasonable—is that there should be an opportunity, for the purposes of identification, for the Army to be allowed to have the power to arrest for four hours. This is important in the circumstances in Northern Ireland, and I do not think it infringes any basic rights.

As for when we shall end the Special Powers Act, we are reviewing it and we shall come forward with our proposals. As I think all hon. Members know, I am determined not only to commit myself as to exactly when these things will be done, but not to give an opportunity to people to assume—which they readily assume—that I have said things which I have not said. Therefore, I am very careful not to say anything at all.

Mr. Peter Archer

In view of the undertaking which the Secretary of State fairly gave to the House last week, that the normal processes of criminal law would be used unless in a particular case there was some reason why they could not be appropriately used, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will consider providing that trial without jury should not be used except with the certificate of a judge in chambers and when there are difficulties entailed in the processes of ordinary criminal law?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that what Lord Diplock is proposing is that such trials should be held only in respect of what are described as scheduled offences, which limits them very much. However, we shall consider the hon. and learned Gentleman's point.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a person charged with a scheduled offence may now, in the strange situation in Northern Ireland, be subject to three codes of law—detention under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order, the possibility under the proposals of the Diplock Commission of alterations in the onus of proof and special procedure as to admissibility of evidence, and, thirdly, the normal criminal trial? This sort of proliferation of standards of offences which are based on a person's suspected or real political attitude is not a situation which we can readily accept and I hope that it will be looked into very carefully indeed. What we are getting here is not an improvement in the situation which exists under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order but a halfway stage between that and what now exists in the Republic. None of them is in any way satisfactory. We want to get back to the proper procedures.

Mr. Whitelaw

I should have thought that there was nobody either in this part of the United Kingdom or in Northern Ireland, who would not agree that the need to get back to normal procedures was paramount. But the need to get back to a normal situation is more paramount still in Northern Ireland. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman talks about changing the onus of proof he will appreciate that the proposals in the Dip-lock Report refer only to people charged with the possession of firearms or explosives. There is a very special reason for that, as I hope the hon. Gentleman knows. It is that if explosives are found in a car and there are four people in it, it can be extremely difficult to decide which of those four persons knew that the explosives were there, and there are very good reasons why all four should at least be produced to give their own version of the case. They may all be acquitted after that has happened, but at least that proposal should be very carefully considered. It is not going as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests, and I hope that he will look very carefully at the arguments put forward by Lord Diplock.

Mr. Rose

While accepting that it is premature to comment in detail on the proposals, may I ask the Minister whether he will accept that at first sight they give some cause for concern and that we shall want to study them in detail?

Will he tell the House how the scheduled offence, which is concerned with terrorism, is to be distinguished in any way from the offence of murder, of which there are more than 100, representing one-sixth of the deaths which have taken place in Northern Ireland over recent months, which apparently had a sectarian motive, and can he say whether he has any evidence that these murders were connected with terrorist organisations? Does he appreciate that many people share the fears which have been expressed by my hon. Friend in that we are now adopting two standards of murder, according to whether the murderer was a member of a terrorist organisation or not?

Mr. Whitelaw

That point will be carefully considered. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will read the report carefully and will study all the points raised in it. In considering these various proposals, one is bound to say that one has to match the need, on the one hand, to preserve the standards of British justice throughout the whole of the United Kingdom with the need to recognise the very bestial and criminal nature of many of the acts which are taking place in Northern Ireland. To someone like myself who has to live with this all the time, when one realises what is taking place, finding the right balance is difficult and it cannot all be loaded on the side of those who are committing some very bestial offences indeed.