HC Deb 17 June 1981 vol 6 cc1015-7
15. Mr. David Marshall

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he has yet received the report of the inquiry by Sheriff Principal John Dick into the recent comments of Sheriff Middleton in the Greenock juvenile sex case; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Rifkind

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which my right hon. Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) on 16 June, in which he stated that, having studied the sheriff principal's report and its conclusions, he was satisfied that there was no racist element intended by Sheriff Middleton either in his sentence or his remarks. The sheriff himself has expressed his great regret that his remarks should have given cause for such widespread concern.

Mr. Marshall

The reply from the Secretary of State is so much whitewash. Why were the two journalists in court taking notes not interviewed as part of the inquiry? Is an inquiry by one sheriff into the conduct of another sheriff the best way of justice being seen to be done? As an expression of regret is not a denial, will the Secretary of State ensure that the services of temporary Sheriff Middleton are not required in future?

Mr. Rifkind

If there is a complaint against a sheriff, the normal procedure is for the sheriff principal of the sheriffdom to conduct an inquiry. It is for the sheriff principal to decide what evidence he wishes to hear and the details of the report that he submits to my right hon. Friend. The conclusions in the report led my right hon. Friend to make a statement yesterday. It is on that basis that the matter should be considered. As I understand it, Sheriff Middleton has strongly denied the interpretation that has been placed on his remarks. He has greatly regretted that his remarks led to the concern that has been expressed in sections of the community.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does not my hon. Friend agree that, as the sheriff principal's report has come out in favour of Sheriff Middleton, and as Sheriff Middleton has publicly apologised to the Asian community on the basis that he did not in any way intend his remarks to be racial, would it not be better to drop the matter rather than to have this emotive outburst from the Labour Party, which will do far more harm than good to the happy relationship between the Asian community and other communities in Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

The sheriff principal's view was not that he was coming down in favour of one party or another, but that he was satisfied, having looked at the whole matter, that Sheriff Middleton had no racist intent in the remarks he made. His background and involvement with the Asian community, which was recognised recently by the Pakistani Government, show that his intentions were honourable. His explanation of the circumstances was one which the sheriff principal was willing to take into account.

Mr. Millan

Is the Minister aware that, whatever Sheriff Middleton intended to say, the fact is that his remarks have caused considerable offence and damage? If he had had the good grace and common sense to make a simple and unqualified apology at the beginning of the affair, by this time it would have been a matter of history. However, he did not choose to do so and the affair has become a festering sore in the Asian community in the West of Scotland. As Sheriff Middleton is a temporary sheriff, has already retired and as there is no question of sacking or hardship involved, is not the simple answer for the Secretary of State to ensure that Sheriff Middleton does not sit on the Bench again before he causes more trouble?

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman should recognise that certain of the newspaper reports on the remarks of Sheriff Middleton were out of context. It is on that basis that there was considerable disagreement about the background to the incident. All along, Sheriff Middleton has expressed his great regret at the interpretation of his remarks which has been made in certain quarters, perhaps not unreasonably, given some of the newspaper reports. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, Sheriff Middleton is a retired sheriff who has been used occasionally for temporary purposes. The considerations that have applied in the past will be the same ones that will be taken into account in deciding whether there should be any future use of Sheriff Middleton's services.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This matter refers to a case in my constituency.

Mr. Speaker

I was not aware of that. I shall call the right hon. Gentleman if his constituency was concerned.

Dr. Mabon

In view of the procedure adopted by the Secretary of State in reference to the questions he answered yesterday, is it his intention to publish the report? Is he aware of the fact that the reports and allegations were that the sheriff was partly misled by the remarks of defence counsel—I take no sides in the matter—and is it not important that we should know about that, whether or not there is a defence and whether his apology is based on sincere regret for having misunderstood the allegations put before him? Would it not be fair to Sheriff Middleton if that report were published?

Mr. Rifkind

The normal procedure is that the sheriff principal submits a report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who is expressly taking account of the conclusions of the sheriff principal in his report, as he said in his statement yesterday.