HC Deb 01 February 1972 vol 830 cc240-9
The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the inquiry to be held into the events on Sunday, 30th January which led to loss of life in connection with the procession in Londonderry on that day.

The Government have decided that this inquiry should be a tribunal established under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921. The necessary resolution was tabled last night, and the House will be asked to approve it this evening, after the conclusion of the debate on Northern Ireland.

In order to ensure that the powers vested in the Tribunal extend to transferred matters under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, as well as to matters reserved to Westminster, the Northern Ireland Government will table a similar resolution in the Northern Ireland Parliament.

The House will be glad to know that the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Widgery, has consented to undertake the inquiry. He will sit alone.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I and I am sure other hon. Members would wish to reserve any comment about the circumstances which have led to the establishment of this inquiry until the debate later this afternoon. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are glad that he has moved with speed to bring this Motion before the House?

Speaking for myself, and I think many of my hon. Friends, I welcome the fact that the Lord Chief Justice has consented to undertake the inquiry. Is the right hon. Gentleman wise to suggest that Lord Widgery should sit alone? We have had a lot of difficulties about one-man inquiries under both Governments. Would it not be better for the inquiry to be more representative? Is he aware that in the Scarman inquiry there have so far been 180 volumes of evidence on what are, I agree, rather wider terms of reference? Would it not be of help to Lord Widgery to have colleagues to help him sift this evidence and assist in giving the necessary authority that a three-man inquiry—or more—would have as compared with a one-man inquiry?

When the right hon. Gentleman has had time to consider this—I do not press for an answer now—will he consider whether—and I know that this would be wholly exceptional with a tribunal of inquiry—he should consult with other parties in the House about the other personnel for the inquiry, because it is essential, not so much in this House as in Northern Ireland, for there to be the fullest confidence in this inquiry? Will he undertake, on receipt of the report of the inquiry, to publish it as quickly as possible? Will the Prime Minister say whether he has yet received the Scarman report—I understand that he has not. Will he say when he expects to receive it as the inquiry has been sitting since autumn, 1969.

The Prime Minister

We have not yet received the Scarman report. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right about the length of time it has taken in its proceedings. We hope to receive it soon, but I am afraid I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a date. On the question of the Lord Chief Justice sitting alone, this is a matter to which we have given careful consideration. It is a matter which naturally I felt it necessary to discuss with the Lord Chief Justice. We came to the conclusion in the circumstances of this inquiry that the Lord Chief Justice should sit alone. There are precedents under the 1921 Act for the tribunal to consist of only one person, precedents including an occasion in 1943 when the then Lord Chief Justice sat alone. We gave the matter careful consideration and we took into account the various views expressed in the House yesterday, and which have been expressed to me by public personalities, on the nature of this inquiry. I hope that we have come to the right conclusion.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us oppose the setting up of another tribunal, whose findings have been rejected in advance by the Republicans, as detrimental to military morale when yet another illegal march is threatened next Sunday at Newry? Is he not also aware that the Derry affair is all in the urban guerrilla manual—from street marches, snipers, to lying reports, leading to demoralising explanations by the authorities?

The Prime Minister

I do not wish to comment on the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question since I have announced the setting up of the tribunal providing that the House accepts the Motion. As to the need for it, obviously whenever a Government consider setting up a tribunal they have to examine carefully the various factors to be taken into account. Her Majesty's Government have done this. I recognise that some have said—I hope in the heat of the moment—that they would not be prepared to accept the findings of the tribunal or to appear before it. On the other hand, I believe there are many people who may wish to give evidence to this inquiry. On the advice I have there is no indication that this is likely to undermine the position of Her Majesty's Forces.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that this tribunal will be warmly welcomed? May we take it that this represents the overt expression of concern of Her Majesty's Government which perhaps in the heat of the moment was not as manifest as some of us would have wished yesterday? [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] May I ask one question? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on both personal and legal grounds no one could have a higher regard for the Lord Chief Justice than I have? Is he further aware that his appointment will guarantee a full, impartial, judicial inquiry? But would he accept that it is important that the inquiry should have the most widespread political acceptance before starting its work? Would he therefore, in fairness to the Lord Chief Justice and arising out of the question of the Leader of the Opposition, reconsider the question of appointing two assessors drawn from this country, from Europe or the Commonwealth?

The Prime Minister

These are views which the right hon. Gentleman expressed yesterday and which we took into account in considering this matter. As for the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in opening his statement yesterday, expressed the natural anxiety which the Government had. The loss of a single life in Northern Ireland, whether civilian or military, must surely be of the utmost concern to everyone.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Does it follow from my right hon. Friend's earlier answer that the Lord Chief Justice could have had the assistance of two assessors, as is more often done, had he in the circumstances of the case thought it necessary or desirable? Dealing with the mechanics of the inquiry, can the Prime Minister give the terms of reference of the tribunal and, for the guidance of the media, is he able to say whether the position over contempt will be in the words of the statute or in the modification recommended by the Salmon Committee?

The Prime Minister

The answer to the first part of my right hon. and learned Friend's supplementary question is that if the Lord Chief Justice asks for facilities of any kind for the carrying out of his task, Her Majesty's Government will do their utmost to meet them.

The terms of reference are as set out on the Order Paper: That it is expedient that a Tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely the events on Sunday, 30th January which led to loss of life in connection with the procession in Londonderry on that day. To answer the second part, the question of contempt, my right hon. and learned Friend will know full well the view of the inter-departmental committee under Lord Justice Salmon; that the law of contempt applies to tribunals of inquiry from the date when a tribunal is appointed. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will, therefore, make a formal announcement, if the House proceeds to pass the Motion tonight, that the tribunal has been appointed, and from then the law of contempt will run.

Mr. Paget

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, arising out of the supplementary question asked by the Leader of the Liberal Party, that concern expressed for those who are attacking our troops may be most Christian, but is hardly encouraging to our troops?

The Prime Minister

I would have thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman would agree—and certainly to my knowledge this is the view of the troops—that they are just as much concerned with the loss of life as is any hon. Member in this House.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Is my right hon. Friend in a position to say where the tribunal is likely to sit? Is he aware that, according to the most recent reports, Londonderry is in the grip of the most appalling I.R.A. intimidation, even to the extent that old age pensioners are unable to collect their pensions from sub-offices because the postal services are on strike as a result of intimidation? Does he think it desirable for it to sit in Londonderry?

The Prime Minister

This must be a matter for the Lord Chief Justice himself to decide. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to but one of the many difficulties which will be encountered by the Lord Chief Justice in the course of carrying out his task. I wish to pay tribute to him for the public spirit which he is showing in undertaking this task.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Having regard to our request that it should be a public inquiry, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it will be for the Lord Chief Justice to decide how much of it is held in public and how much in private?

The right hon. Gentleman quoted a precedent of 1943, which, though I may be wrong, was probably the inquiry into the ships that escaped through the Channel and thus involved enormous questions of military security.

Has he decided that it should be Lord Widgery sitting alone, on the ground that, being a Privy Councillor, he can be given Privy Council-type information from the troops? If so, will he consider providing other Privy Councillors to sit on the tribunal?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also say what is intended for the legal servicing of the tribunal? Is a Law Officer of the Crown to be made available, as has been the case on some occasions in the past, although we know that the Salmon Inquiry recommended that the amicus curiae should be someone other than the Attorney-General? May we have an assurance that it will not be a Law Officer from Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, correct when referring to the question of the tribunal sitting in public or in private, and this is stipulated under the 1921 Act. I think it should be in public unless the tribunal itself decides, for reasons specified under the Act, that it should hear part of the proceedings in private, but that is a matter for the tribunal to decide.

The particular case in 1943—it was not the one the right hon. Gentleman mentioned—is set out in Appendix C to the Salmon Report. There have been four or five cases under the Tribunals Act of one member comprising the tribunal. It was not because a Privy Councillor was required that it was decided that the Lord Chief Justice should sit alone. It is open to the tribunal under the Act to take whatever measures it believes to be necessary to meet security considerations.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that although the Salmon Commission came to the conclusion that, on the whole, the Attorney-General should not take part in such tribunals, the last two have asked the Attorney-General to do so. It is, therefore, a matter for the Lord Chief Justice himself to decide.

Sir G. Longden

Further to the question asked by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), would my right hon. Friend agree that if the British Army cared as little for its victims as the I.R.A. cares about its, the casualties last Sunday would have been much heavier and would be daily occurrences?

The Prime Minister

I do not wish to comment now on the events of last Sunday.

Mr. C. Pannell

With great respect to the Prime Minister, may I ask him to think again on this issue? One can think of the precedent of the Denning Inquiry into the Profumo affair. That seemed all right at the time, but on consideration—bearing in mind the eminence of Lord Denning, which was probably comparable with that of the Lord Chief Justice—in the light of history, that does not seem to have been satisfactory. One is also concerned not only about the reputation of the Lord Chief Justice but about the political acceptance of this report at the end of the day. May I express my misgivings on this score and hope that the right hon. Gentleman will think again?

The Prime Minister

Criticisms have of course, been expressed since the Denning Report. Those criticisms were not over the fact that Lord Chief Justice Denning carried out the inquiry as a one-man inquiry but because it was carried out privately and in confidence, without necessarily being under oath.

In this case we have an entirely different situation. The Lord Chief Justice will have all the powers granted to him under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, 1921. When the right hon. Gentleman says that he wishes to secure political acceptance elsewhere, that is, of course, an important factor, but those who have said that they will not accept the tribunal have said that they will not accept any tribunal set up by the United Kingdom Government or Parliament, and that is quite separate from the particular question he raised.

Captain Orr

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the existence of the tribunal will in no way mean an alteration in the orders or directives to the troops in the meantime and that the security forces will in no way be inhibited in carrying out their duty to maintain law and order, particularly in my constituency next weekend?

The Prime Minister

The security forces are under very strict orders. It is, of course, the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government, and of the Secretary of State for Defence in particular, to see that those orders are appropriate and are carried out. That will remain the situation.

Mr. Fitt

The right hon. Gentleman said that he had the approval of the Northern Ireland Government for setting up this tribunal. Has he consulted any of the minority opinion in Northern Ireland or the leaders of that minority opinion, and particularly the people of Derry? Will he take into account the strong reservations that have been expressed? Will he supplement the tribunal's personnel with an international jurist or judge—[Interruption.]—which would make its findings—this is particularly important in the context of this inquiry—more acceptable to those who lost sons and husbands in the murders of last Sunday?

The Prime Minister

I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I did not say that the Northern Ireland Government had been consulted in the matter.

This is a decision of the United Kingdom Government at Westminster. I said that in order that all legal powers should be available to the tribunal, a similar Motion would be placed before the Northern Ireland Parliament by their Government. It will be moved tomorrow, Wednesday.

The answer to the second part of his question is that under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act the presumption is that the tribunal will hear its evidence in public, so that people will be able to judge for themselves, except where the tribunal decides, for specific reasons, to hear it in private.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Bearing in mind the appalling burden which our troops have been bearing throughout these operations in Northern Ireland, may I ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance that if, when people appear before the tribunal they are allowed to have legal representation and advice, we may rest assured that any British troops who are called before the tribunal will be given equal rights?

The Prime Minister

The question of legal representation is a matter to be decided by the tribunal. This has always been the case in the past and it will certainly apply to the Lord Chief Justice's tribunal. It will be for him to decide, and if Her Majesty's Forces ask for appropriate legal representation and the request is granted by the tribunal. Her Majesty's Government will endeavour to provide it.

Mr. Orme

Following the other questions about independent assessors, surely this is most important, because it looks at the moment as if the minority may not participate, which would be a disaster under these circumstances. How long will this inquiry take? Scarman was set up in 1969 and has not yet reported. It has been overtaken by events. Could not the Prime Minister consider a time limit? Will it be possible for people other than citizens of the United Kingdom to appear before this tribunal? I am thinking particularly of international journalists and television people who were present on this occasion.

The Prime Minister

The tribunal will be established, if the House passes the Motion, to inquire into the events on Sunday, 30th January. It will therefore be for the tribunal to decide whether those who wish to give evidence have evidence to give relevant to the terms of the inquiry. It is entirely open to them to offer evidence, as I hope they will, and for the inquiry to decide whether it is relevant, and then to hear it.

On the first point, naturally the question of assessors was considered at the time and this view was taken into account. The decision was taken, as I have said, that the Lord Chief Justice should sit alone in this case. As for timing, great emphasis was placed on this in the House yesterday, from both sides. The Lord Chief Justice is well aware of this, and the Government have taken steps already—last night—to find accommodation in which the tribunal will be able to sit. I know that the Lord Chief Justice is already considering the procedures under which his tribunal should operate. He will at the earliest opportunity—that will be very early—announce those procedures and discuss them with all concerned.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Will my right hon. Friend accept that most hon. Members will feel that the Government have acted properly and swiftly in appointing a tribunal of this importance and stature, but since, as the Leader of the Opposition has said, Ireland cannot wait for a tribunal, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will not be deterred by the sombre and tragic events of this week-end from pressing ahead in Ireland for a political settlement which is just and fair and which is the only alternative to continued bloodshed?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly give that assurance fully.

Mr. Speaker

I will now call on the Secretary of State for Employment to make a statement. To relieve the feelings of the House I would point out that the three hours for the Adjournment debate do not begin to run until the debate on the Adjournment begins.