HC Deb 12 March 1979 vol 964 cc33-40

Mr. Neave (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the allegations made by the official doctor of the RUC about ill treatment of prisoners by the Constabulary.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

Allegations of ill treatment can be effectively dealt with only if the cases are identified. As my right hon. Friend made clear at the time that he set up the Bennett committee to inquire into police interrogation procedures, there is an established system for dealing with complaints against the police under which any allegations of ill treatment are investigated, the results of the investigation being put to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, who decides whether to prosecute. The same standards of justice are applied to those suspected of crime, whether within the security forces or outside. I remind the House that the RUC is striving to protect the people of Northern Ireland from terrorists who would rob them of their most fundamental human right—the right to live, and to live in peace.

Mr. Neave

Although the allegations made are extremely serious, is the Minister aware that the"Weekend World"programme yesterday will be seen as a calculated attack on the administration of justice and the security forces in Northern Ireland? Is the Minister aware that in a radio interview today the editor declared that he brought forward the programme to pre-empt the Bennett report, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred? Is it not therefore in the best interests of the RUC to publish that report immediately, so that if there are grounds for Dr. Irwin's allegations, urgent action may be taken by the Government? Would it not have been wiser in the circumstances, with a view to giving a more balanced impression, had the Government spokesman appeared in the programme to explain the position? Whatever the outcome of the report, we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the security forces for their courageous achievements in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Concannon

I do not take the security forces for granted, and I shall certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman's comment is passed on to them.

My right hon. Friend did not refuse to appear on the programme yesterday. He was invited to take part in a programme due to be shown later this month on the general working of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act. It was obvious from the programme that it had been hastily brought forward. That is why it lacked basic content and fair judgment.

My right hon. Friend has had the Bennett report for a few days. He intends to report on this within the next two weeks. However, having read the report I know that it contains 160 pages of closely-typed foolscap. It has over 500 paragraphs. Therefore my right hon. Friend will need a little time to study it.

Mr. Craig

Is the Minister in a position to say how many cases Dr. Robert Irwin reported to the proper authorities, and how many cases went from them to the Director of Public Prosecutions?

Mr. Concannon

Dr. Irwin has in some cases reported such findings in the proper way, but I should add that there were not as many as 150 cases, as was mentioned yesterday. In all cases where he made such reports he was interviewed about them by the police. The results of the police inquiries would have formed part of the material forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland, who is independent and who alone decides whether to prosecute.

Mr. McNamara

My right hon. Friend will recall that, during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill, my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, the present Solicitor-General, the present Home Secretary and various other Ministers and members of the Cabinet were all concerned about the effects that the measure would have on the quality of justice in Northern Ireland in the long term. That was why we opposed it so much. Will my right hon. Friend therefore inform the House how many people have been convicted on their own statements in the courts, under the scheduled offences, and how many of those cases have resulted in allegations of police brutality and wrongful extraction of confessions?

Is my right hon. Friend able to inform the House why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not here to answer these questions? After the very serious allegations made yesterday about his failure to appear on the television programme, would it not have been a courtesy for him to be here to answer questions, much confidence though I have in my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to answer them?

Mr. Concannon

I think that basically the questions that my hon. Friend is asking were contained in the Gardiner report, but I will make sure that the figures are given to him.

My right hon. Friend is in Belfast at the moment, conducting a security review, which he does every Monday morning. We in the Northern Ireland Office start work very early on Monday in order to get to our office in Northern Ireland. I can assure my hon. Friend that, long before the mechanics of this House were in operation, Ministers were well on their way to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Freud

In view of the total propriety of London Weekend Television's programme yesterday, does the Minister really feel that the Secretary of State did enough in regard to the programme in question? Knowing how much attention Northern Ireland gets at the moment, surely it was the duty of the Secretary of State or the Minister to give his side of the question.

Mr. Concannon

As I said in my opening supplementary answer, the Secretary of State did not refuse to go on the programme. He was asked to appear on a programme to be shown later this month. It was obvious—as I think was obvious from the radio broadcast today—that yesterday's programme was brought forward only to pre-empt the Bennett report. That report will be out shortly and it might be better for the House to await it.

Mr. Stallard

Will my right hon. Friend accept that to many of us, and to many people in the country of all shades of opinion who are very concerned about the continued operation of the emergency provisions, yesterday's television broadcast did a great service? Will he further accept that Dr. Irwin and those who were connected with the programme are to be congratulated on being prepared to stand up and say what many of us have long been trying to establish, namely, the fact that all is not well with the emergency provisions Act?

As question and answer across the Chamber do not provide the best way in which to deal with the problem, Mr. Speaker, will my right hon. Friend ask his right hon. Friend to initiate an early debate on the emergency provisions Act and security in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Concannon

The emergency provisions Act is discussed from time to time in this House. We have to discuss it by statute at six-monthly intervals, and on those occasions the House is able to pass judgment on it.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that at Question Time on Thursday he undertook that the Bennett report would be published shortly? We were glad of that. What excuse can there possibly be for anticipating, by a form of prosecution on television, without any defence, the publication of that report and its consideration by Members of this House? Should not this total impropriety—if I may disagree with the Liberal spokesman—be considered by the Independent Broadcasting Authority?

Mr. Concanonn

I do not think that this is a question that should be directed at me or at my Department, which is not concerned with television ethics.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

No matter how serious the security position in Northern Ireland, Mr. Speaker, it cannot excuse the beating up of prisoners who are under interrogation. Does not the Minister recognise that what is at issue is the question whether the complaints of Dr. Irwin have been properly investigated, and that the anodyne statement put out yesterday by the Northern Ireland Office did nothing to encourage conviction that the matter was being looked at seriously? Is not the real answer to the questions raised by Dr. Irwin to publish the Bennett report as soon as possible?

Mr. Concanonn

My right hon. Friend set up the investigation as a result of the report by Amnesty International and some of the uncertainties indicated in that report. He has had the Bennett report for only a few days. As I have already said, it is 160 pages long and there are 500 paragraphs. My right hon. Friend must take some time in which to assimilate it. He will publish it as soon as he can.

Mr. Goodhart

I hope that the Bennett report will be published quickly and that it will be followed by a full debate. Is the Minister aware of the resentment that was caused by the remark on the television programme yesterday that members of the Parachute Regiment had opened fire on the civil rights march? Is the Minister aware that this is a travesty of recent history?

Mr. Concannon

I can only reiterate that the Bennett report will be brought out as soon as my right hon. Friend can get it to the House with his own remarks about it. I think that the television programme was hastily brought forward and that it suffered because of that.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have already risen.

Mr. Watkinson

My right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that certain of these complaints have been investigated and that some are now in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland. Can he say whether the DPP has finished his inquiries, or whether those inquiries are awaiting the publication of the Bennett report?

Mr. Concannon

The Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland receives a report on all complaints and decides whether to prosecute. Some of the allegations to which reference was made have already been to the Director of Public Prosecutions and he has made his decision on them.

Mr. Gow

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that at the very end of yesterday's television programme Mr. Brian Walden said that the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State had been invited to participate in the programme? Will he clarify what he said a moment ago? Is he saying that no such invitation was extended to the Secretary of State?

Mr. Concannon

I am saying that the Secretary of State did not refuse to appear on the programme yesterday. He was invited to take part in a programme due to be shown later this month, on the working of the emergency provisions Act generally. That was the programme that we expected would be going out later this month, after the report of the Bennett inquiry. It was obvious from the remarks on the radio today that yesterday's television programme was hastily brought forward in order to pre-empt the Bennett report. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would have had no opportunity of appearing on that programme when he had already been asked to appear on a later programme.

Mr. Litterick

Will the Minister confirm that Dr. Irwin is a part-time police surgeon of some years' standing, and that he is a member of the council of the Association of Police Surgeons of Great Britain and a member of no political or denominational organisation?

Mr. Concannon

Dr. Irwin is a member of the Association of Forensic Medical Officers of Northern Ireland, whose members have contracted with the police authority to attend police stations where necessary. Most members of the association are also engaged in general practice. As I have said, procedures exist for the investigation of allegations from whatever source they may come.

Mr. Rhodes James

Is the Minister aware that it is now perfectly clear from the exchanges in the House that, in spite of the considerable length of the Bennett report, it really is a matter of urgency that it be published as soon as possible, and that the period of two weeks that he mentioned is too long? I ask the Minister to convey to his right hon. Friend the very strong feeling in all parts of the House that the report ought to be published as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Concannon

I would say that it will be within the next week or two, as a maximum. We understand the urgency of this matter, and so does the RUC, whose name is being besmirched again. Very little appreciation is being expressed of the splendid work which it has been doing in the Province.

Mr. Madden

I acknowledge that there is general opposition in this House to all forms of terrorism, but will the Minister acknowledge the seriousness of the allegations made in yesterday's programme? Will he also tell the House whether his office, the RUC or the Army was given an opportunity of previewing the programme? Will he emphatically tell the House whether or not the Secretary of State was offered an opportunity of appearing in the programme? Lastly, if he has reason to object to the content of the programme, is he contemplating submitting an official complaint to the Independent Broadcasting Authority?

Mr. Concannon

Again, I can hardly stress enough that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not refuse to appear in the programme yesterday. The whole thing was brought forward. I do not know that I can say any more, or that the matter gets any better for my reiterating this. There are no plans at present for doing anything that my hon. Friend has suggested. As we have said before in Northern Ireland, we are not against censorship of the media; we just wish that they would conduct themselves a bit more sensibly than they do.

Mr. Flannery

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me that for many months those of us—and there are not many—who take part in Northern Ireland Question Time and Irish debates have been receiving letters from the relatives of imprisoned people denouncing the treatment in Long Kesh? Will he also accept from me that when Opposition Members say"Everything is perfect"and when anyone else says"Everything is wrong ", the truth probably lies somewhere between the two? It would be helpful if, without rushing to say that nothing is wrong—as a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office did—some detailed inqury were made, even though we are waiting for the Bennett report. We have waited a long time. Until these suspicions are allayed there will be widespread worry about our reputation all over the world, and not only throughout Britain.

Mr. Concannon

That is why my right hon. Friend set up the Bennett committee. That is why I say that the House should wait for the Bennett report. This has nothing to do with imprisonment in the Maze prison. This is to do with people in police custody.