HC Deb 18 February 1982 vol 18 cc410-3 3.54 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James Prior)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on Kincora children's home, and related matters.

As a result of intensive police inquiries five persons in positions of responsibility in homes and hostels for children and young persons in Northern Ireland have been sentenced to imprisonment for sexual offences against those in their care.

At the conclusion of the trials I set up a committee to investigate past management of the homes and to make recommendations for the future. I also said that there were still some outstanding matters being pursued by the police. Three of the members of the committee have since said that they felt unable to take part until all police inquiries were completed but added that they would be glad to serve on a committee after that.

The cases have aroused widespread disquiet in Northern Ireland and have been accompanied by allegations or suggestions that there has been a cover-up to protect other guilty people from being prosecuted. Et is being urged that a public judicial inquiry should investigate these and similar rumours. If such an inquiry did disclose new criminal offences it would in the process have made it impossible for any offenders to be prosecuted either because immunities had had to be given or because the publicity which the disclosure would have received when the evidence was given in a public inquiry would make it impossible to find a jury which would not be seen as prejudiced. It is essential to hold to the principle that allegations of criminal activities are investigated by the police and that offenders are dealt with by the courts.

The Chief Constable has stated that further investigations are being pursued vigorously and that it is the duty of any person who has evidence or information about any relevant matter indicating a crime to come forward immediately and assist the police in the certainty that it will be fully investigated. He has also announced that he has requested Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary to appoint the chief constable of another force to investigate allegations about the way in which the police have conducted their inquiries and in addition to have general oversight of the continuing investigations. In due course he will forward a report to the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the conclusions will be made public. I am placing a copy of the Chief Constable's statement in the Library.

I do not propose to reconstitute the existing inquiry into homes and hostels for children and young persons, but the need remains to investigate the failure to identify earlier malpractices in some of them and to examine and assess present policies, procedures and practices for their administration. In the circumstances, after the current police investigations and any consequent criminal proceedings are complete, I intend to appoint a committee, with a High Court judge as chairman, sitting in public. The terms of reference of such an inquiry and the powers it might need cannot be determined until the results of the present investigations are known. But I am anxious that there should be no lasting cause for public disquiet that the truth has not been wholly discovered.

The powers of the High Court to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents can only be conferred on a tribunal appointed under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. Because of its wide-ranging inquisitorial powers the House has traditionally been wary of approving the appointment of a tribunal under the Act. In considering whether there is need for such a tribunal I will take into account both the widespread concern about this affair and also the views of the House and the recommendations of the Royal Commission on tribunals of inquiry of 1966.

Meanwhile, as soon as evidence of malpractices came to light in 1980, steps were taken to improve the supervision and management of homes and hostels for children and young persons. This process is continuing vigorously, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is making further expert advice available to me.

Mr, J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The Opposition concur with his view that judicial inquiry should consider this sordid episode following the RUC investigations. Our only reservation is about the protection of the innocent, many of whom now have wives and families of their own. If possible, they should give their evidence without having their names and addresses published. We would be pleased if there were complete anonymity for them.

Finally, I have the permission of those of my colleagues whom I have been able to contact who served in the last Administration in Northern Ireland to say that at no time during our term of office did anything relating to this case come before us.

Mr. Prior

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support over what is now an important and difficult matter in Northern Ireland. The answer to the problem about innocent people is that, if they have any allegations to make or information to give at this stage, they should give it to the police. That information could be given in confidence. I hope that that is what they will do. One of the points that has always worried me about judicial inquiries of this nature is that many innocent people can suffer severely as a result. It is only when one reaches as serious a position in Northern Ireland as we are reaching now that we have to consider other methods.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

How did it come about that the right hon. Gentleman was so seriously misled as to the scope and scale of the criminal investigation still in progress at the time when he took his original decision? When he is considering the form of a future inquiry, will he bear in mind, despite the known objections to the 1921-type of tribunal, the undesirability of inventing yet new ad hoc forms of judicial inquiry?

Mr. Prior

The answer is "Yes" to the right hon. Gentleman's latter point. The House will have to consider seriously when the time comes whether we should have a 1921-type of inquiry.

With regard to the earlier part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I do not think that I was ever misled. Since the setting up of the departmental inquiry under the former Ombudsman for Northern Ireland certain further evidence has become available. When I say "evidence", I mean that certain allegations have been made including allegations to the police. That has put a different complexion on the need for a more extensive inquiry. If I understand the feeling in Northern Ireland, I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that in no way were we concerned with a cover-up, but in every case I was concerned to try to protect innocent people.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Do we not all agree that at this stage it is right to pursue the matter rigorously, with further police inquiries, having regard to what my right hon. Friend said about a judicial inquiry being an impediment to further prosecutions?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir. That must be right. The sooner the allegations are looked at by the police and decisions reached by the Director of Public Prosecutions, the better.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

The Secretary of State will be aware that on the Order Paper there is an early-day motion in the name of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), whom we would have expected to be in the House today, calling for a full judicial inquiry. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the need for the police investigations to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible, so that the idea is not implanted in people's minds that time may erase the matter from the memories of those in Northern Ireland?

It is important that the right hon. Gentleman should tell us whether the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 would empower the inquiry to take out of prison those who have already been convicted because of allegations at Kincora? Would it enable Mr. Colin Wallace, a former British Army security spokesman, who gave an interview to journalists in 1975 and made them aware of all the aspects of Kincora, to be brought before the inquiry or the courts? Will the right hon. Gentleman take into account the real feeling in Northern Ireland that since the allegations were made in 1980 the RUC has acted with commendable zeal? However, we really want to know what the RUC was doing between 1961 and 1980.

Mr. Prior

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a matter of great urgency. I know that the police regard it as a matter of urgency, too. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's last point, that matter will be relevant to the inquiry to be carried out by the chief constable of another constabulary.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the powers of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act. He asked whether, if we decided on that type of inquiry, the inquiry would have power to call for people who had been imprisoned for one offence or another. Such an inquiry has complete powers to call for evidence from whomsoever it desires. Therefore, the answer to his question is "Yes".

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)


Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call both Members, and we shall then move on to the second statement.

Mr. Lyons

In view of the terrible corruption of the young at Kincora over 20 years and the failure to pursue effectively the complaints made throughout most of that time about those events, is the Minister aware that everyone will applaud the setting up of an inquiry? Is he further aware that that inquiry should be armed with considerable powers? The police part of the inquiry should be carried out immediately, but the powers and composition of the inquiry into the way in which hostels and homes are run in Northern Ireland should be left until all trials and police investigations are concluded. We could then see the full picture of what has happened and what is required.

Mr. Prior

What the hon. and learned Gentleman says is correct. In the meanwhile, ever since 1980, when the problems first arose at Kincora and at other homes, the necessary steps have been taken to supervise them much more carefully. That is another reason why the professonal and administrative help that will be made available from the DHSS must be put in train immediately.

Mr. Dean

Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that if, when the due processes involved in the statement have been completed, it is found that there are publicly elected representatives in the Province who have deliberately withheld information from the appropriate authorities that would have prevented the sordid episode at Kincora from continuing for so long, they will be subject to the due processes of law?

Mr. Prior

That must always be a matter for the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the courts. It cannot be a matter for me as a Member of the House or of the Government. However, no doubt when the inquiry is undertaken such points will be raised.