HC Deb 28 October 1975 vol 898 cc1295-300
Mr. Speaker

The Solicitor General—Statement.

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Peter Archer) rose

Mr. Raphael Tuck

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General would move to the microphone two away from him, he would perhaps find that he could be heard. He cannot be heard through the microphone beneath which he is standing—and this is a very important statement.

The Solicitor-General

I am prepared to do anything for the convenience of the House, and if I can do it by moving to the left, I will do so.

With permission, I would like to make a statement on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend, the Attorney-General, about allegations made in the Daily Express on 23rd October, to the effect that a politically-motivated veto was imposed on the intention of the Surrey police to charge a number of people with conspiracy, arising out of the Guildford and Woolwich bomb incidents, and that this veto resulted in the release of a number of suspects against whom there was a good case. Hon. Members will recall that this statement was promised by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on Thursday.

I should begin by saying with the utmost emphasis that my right hon. and learned Friend is most disappointed at being unable to make this statement himself, but he is ill in bed.

The allegations appeared in an article on the front page of the Daily Express under the banner headline "Bomb Police Muzzled", and the words How Government veto let suspects go free". The article alleged that, as a result of political pressure, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, on behalf of the Government, decided that there should be no more conspiracy trials, and gave orders to that effect, that the Director of Public Prosecutions and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General accepted those orders, and that the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions had issued written instructions to the Surrey police, who were compelled to drop what they regarded as a good case if conspiracy to murder could have been charged.

It would, of course, be wholly improper for the Government to interfere with the prosecution process, and in particular to impose a veto of this nature on the activities of the prosecuting authorities. It is also a very serious reflection on the prosecuting authorities themselves to suggest that either my right hon. and learned Friend, or the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the police, or by inference, counsel for the prosecution would accept such a veto. In these circumstances, the House may feel it right that I should state the history of this matter in a little detail.

Bombs exploded in Guildford and Woolwich on 5th October and 7th November last year. On 10th December, the Surrey police formally notified the Director of Public Prosecutions that they had arrested and charged six men and a woman with murder, four men with unlawful possession of explosives, another man with conspiracy to cause explosions—not conspiracy to murder—and another woman, with both murder and unlawful possession of explosives.

There was no intention on the part of the Surrey police to charge a number of people, or indeed anyone, with conspiracy to murder. Subsequently, on the advice of counsel, a charge of conspiracy to murder was introduced at the trial in respect of one accused, by reason of the particular facts relating to him, and proceeded with.

Investigations continued, and the police report and statement were received by the Director of Public Prosecutions on 17th January. He immediately sent them to counsel to advise in the matter. The team of counsel was led by the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers).

After very careful consideration of all the papers, the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon and his team came to the conclusion that the evidence against some of those arrested and charged was insufficient. This advice was accepted by the Surrey police and the Director of Public Prosecutions as the only possible decision in the circumstances.

Junior counsel appeared on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions before the Guildford justices on 3rd February and offered no evidence against three of the men charged with murder, and against the one who had been charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. They were accordingly discharged. Up to this time, there had been no consultations of any kind with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, nor with the Law Officers' Department, except that, in accordance with normal practice, the Attorney-General had nominated counsel for the prosecution.

On 14th February, my right hon. and learned Friend received a request for his consent to proceedings under the Explosive Substances Act 1882 against the remaining accused, since for proceedings under this statute his consent is necessary. Having considered the papers and discussed the case with counsel and representatives of the Director of Public Prosecutions, he granted his consent to prosecutions for offences under the Act which could include conspiracies to cause explosions, and the charges were pursued. This was the first occasion that my right hon. and learned Friend had seen the papers, and this of course was after the decision to offer no evidence in respect of four of the accused had been taken and implemented.

Neither the Director of Public Prosecutions nor my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has issued any ruling that there shall be no more conspiracy trials, and no written or oral instructions were sent to the Surrey police relating to conspiracy charges in this case. The allegations made by the Daily Express in this regard are therefore totally without foundation and thoroughly mischievous.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary rightly described the article by the Daily Express as one of the most false, irresponsible and malevolent Press reports he had ever seen, and the hon. and learned Members for Wimbledon, who, as I have said, led the team of counsel throughout the case, described the article as "totally false and irresponsible".

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary called upon the Daily Express to withdraw the grave and unfounded alle- gations which it had made. So far, however, from publishing any withdrawal, the Daily Express on the following day published a leading article the purpose of which could only be to divert attention from the very serious allegations of political interference, and which made no attempt to withdraw them.

Instead, the article put forward a new charge, that is to say that the policy followed by the Law Officers and the Director of Public Prosecutions had been to refrain from charging persons with conspiracy alone, that is to say, not to charge them unless they were also charged with some substantive offence. This allegation is equally untrue. Conspiracy is charged where there is evidence to support such a charge, and where it is an appropriate charge to bring. It has in fact been charged on occasions, without at the same time charging a substantive offence.

The leading article ended by asking for confirmation of the authorities' determination to use every constitutional means to smash terrorism". I can assure the House that all constitutional steps have been and will continue to be taken to bring to a halt what the Daily Express describes, rightly, as that terrorism which is everyone's foe". It was hoped that the Daily Express might feel called upon to withdraw these allegations. It has chosen not to do so.

This failure of the Daily Express to make an immediate and specific withdrawal of patently false statements is keenly resented by those referred to in it, the Government, my right hon. and learned Friend, the Director of Public Prosecutions, counsel and the police. It also occasions grave and unnecessary anxiety to the public.

In the light of this statement, I am sure that the whole House will agree with me that the Daily Express should now totally withdraw the very serious allegations which it made, and do so without reservation.

Sir Michael Havers

The House will be grateful to the Solicitor-General for what he has said.

I can confirm the accuracy of the account from my own knowledge so far as it concerns the recent Guildford and Woolwich bombing trial, and I emphasis is such emphasis is still necessary, that no pressure of any kind was put upon myself and those responsible with me for deciding whom to charge and with what offences.

False allegations of this kind not only fail to recognise the independence of the Bar, which exists when engaged in prosecutions just as much as in other fields of the law, but also tend to cause a public loss of confidence in our prosecuting system, which I deplore.

In my view, no counsel would continue to act for the prosecution if he believed that he was being subjected to pressure by the executive for political reasons. I have never known this to happen during my 27 years' experience in prosecuting for Government Departments as well as the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police, and I believe that this should be known and accepted by the public, and certainly by the Daily Express. I hope that we shall not hear this kind of allegation made again.

Mr. Hooson

I echo the words of the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers). In my 25 years' experience at the Bar, I have never known political pressure to be brought upon counsel. Had it been brought, I am sure that in this case the hon. and learned Gentleman would have returned his brief immediately and simply disclosed the fact. Is it not right that the procedure followed in this case was exactly the same as that followed in any other serious case and that there was no suggestion of impropriety at any time? The hon. and learned Gentleman having made his statement today, if the Daily Express does not withdraw these serious allegations, what steps do the Government intend to take?

The Solicitor-General

I thank the hon. and learned Gentlemen for what they have said. I do not believe that there is any division in the House on this. It is true that the normal process was followed in this case.

Concerning the last question, perhaps we should wait and see what the Daily Express now does in the light of the statement.

Mr. Strauss

In view of the great amount of talk about the threat to our democratic way of life in this country, would not my hon. and learned Friend agree that the greatest threat is the publication in our newspapers of lies which frighten people to a considerable extent? When it is pointed out to the newspaper concerned and its editor that lies have been published and are likely to cause very considerable damage and public misgiving, and the newspaper refuses to publish the statement and persists in its attitude, is not that the greatest threat to our democracy in this country—greater than any other?

The Solicitor-General

I am sure that responsible sections of the Press will agree with what my right hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Corbett

Has my hon. and learned Friend taken any steps to try to find out the source of these totally baseless and misleading accusations, and has he any reason to believe that these may have come from within the police force?

The Solicitor-General

I have no power to do so.

Mr. Atkinson

Would not my hon. and learned Friend agree that he has raised a very interesting point in saying that it was prosecuting counsel who determined the charges to be laid? Does not that conflict with the position and the answers given in the Shrewsbury picketing case, where it was claimed that the police authorities themselves decided upon the charges of conspiracy? Is it not a fact that we are being told that in this matter the prosecuting solicitors decided against the use of conspiracy charges, thereby producing a situation which was quite contradictory to that in the Shrewsbury picketing case?

The Solicitor-General

What happened in the Shrewsbury case is not the responsibility of this Government. Perhaps the questions raised by my right hon. Friend should be directed elsewhere.