HC Deb 23 October 1987 vol 120 cc1093-102 2.30 pm
The Attorney-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the prosecution of Mr. Frank Larsen and others.

On 15 July 1987 Frank Larsen, John Terence Larsen and Jonathan Richard Wheatley were charged with offences of conspiracy to kidnap. The charge read That they on divers dates between the 1st October 1986 and 10th July 1987 within the jurisdiction of the Central Criminal Court unlawfully conspired together and with other persons to kidnap members of the African National Congress resident in London contrary to Section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 as amended by Section 5 of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. On 19 July Evan Dennis Evans was charged with the following offence: on divers dates between the 1st September 1986 and 10th July 1987 within the jurisdiction of the Central Criminal Court unlawfully conspired together and with other persons to kidnap members of the African National Congress resident in London contrary to Section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 as amended by Section 5 of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. Those charges arose from events beginning with the arrest on 9 July of Frank Larsen in a lavatory at a hotel in London. He produced a document purporting to be a warrant card, but which was not. He claimed to be an assistant chief constable in the Ministry of Defence Police, which he was not, and he had with him documents in different names.

Mr. Frank Larsen's home in Aldershot was subsequently searched by police. A quantity of documents were found which, among other matters, purported to relate to a plan to kidnap members of the African National Congress living in London. On 21 September leading counsel advised that there was sufficient evidence available to justify continuance of the proceedings. He advised that there was no sufficient evidence to justify continuance of the proceedings against Mr. John Terence Larsen. He was accordingly discharged on 1 October 1987.

On 28 and 30 September, meetings took place at the Director of Public Prosecutions' offices between officers of the Crown Prosecution Service and solicitor and counsel acting for Mr. Frank Larsen, at the request of his solicitors.

Following the first meeting, certain documents were referred by the Director of Public Prosecutions to the Security Service, who advised that the documents, purporting to be governmental documents, were not genuine. Leading counsel advised on 7 October that there was insufficient evidence to warrant proceeding with the prosecution. The Director's staff accepted this advice.

The police were consulted on 12 October, and the decision was taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions' staff to offer no evidence against the remaining three accused. Although the evidence against these accused had been quite sufficient for their arrest and charging, it was considered that it was not likely to be sufficient to secure their conviction at trial. Accordingly, on 22 October the case was listed at Lambeth magistrates court, when no evidence was offered against the remaining three defendants. The decision not to proceed was reached by the Director's office alone.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I listened carefully to what the Attorney-General said. Reports in the newspapers this morning suggested that the prosecution had been dropped not because there was insufficient evidence but for "security reasons." That latter reason suggests that either there was a prima facie case but that security considerations overcame presenting it, or, worse than that—this has been suggested and the Attorney-General should deal with this point — the defendants were connected with the British security services. We want to know which version is correct. Was it that there was no evidence or was it that any disclosure of certain evidence and documents would have been embarrassing?

If there was no evidence and the case was simply to be dropped for that reason, why — notwithstanding that reporting restrictions had not been lifted—did the court meet in camera and why was the court cleared of the press and, I understand, of members of the public? Why was that necessary if no security consideration was involved?

The background to this case is extraordinary, involving an alleged plot to kidnap members of the ANC, associated with a plot to overthrow the Government of the Seychelles, and the expulsion of a member of the South African diplomatic service. If there were these major security considerations, was the Prime Minister at any point consulted as head of the Security Service? Were the decisions reached in any sense coloured by her bigoted view of the ANC and South Africa?

We are told that certain papers were forged. What will happen to the papers? We understand that they refer to at least two Members of this House, who have protested their innocence. What opportunity will there be for Members of the House who have had their names dragged in to this case to clear themselves?

We are told that no charges will be brought against Mr. Frank Larsen. On the basis of what the Attorney-General said, we know that Mr. Larsen was found in possession of forged police documents and was pretending to be a police officer. Are any charges to be brought against him? What is the explanation for Mr. Larsen remaining in Wormwood Scrubs prison and being, according to reports afraid to turn up in court—a court sitting in camera—because he thought that he would be a sitting target? What makes it impossible for people safely to appear in the dock of the court?

Lastly, and most important, may we have a categorical assurance that none of the defendants in this case was in any way working for or connected with the British Security Service or the South African security services?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Answer that one.

The Attorney-General

I shall gladly answer that one. Naturally, I have made inquiries. I am given to understand that there is and has been no connection. I have been asked whether there has been any connection with the Security Service. The security and intelligence services do not fall within my ministerial responsibility but — [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—but I have had inquiries made and I am advised that none of the defendants in this case has at any time been employed in any capacity by any of the security or intelligence services.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?

The Attorney-General

I would say it if it were a correct statement. If it were not to my knowledge a correct statement, I would not say it. I hope that that is not a dichotomy that strikes the hon. Gentleman with any surprise.

Mr. Heffer

I have heard it all before.

The Attorney-General

If the hon. Gentleman has heard it all before, perhaps he will allow me to proceed.

I was asked why certain proceedings yesterday in the magistrates court were in camera. I understand that such proceedings that took place in camera were at the request of the defence. At any rate, they were not at the request of the prosecution, who went to Lambeth magistrates court to offer no evidence against any of the three defendants, the fourth having been discharged earlier.

Then I was asked whether the Prime Minister was consulted. I must answer, "Not to my knowledge." It would not occur to me that she had been consulted. I have no evidence that she was; I should be surprised if she was. My answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is, "Not to my knowledge."

I was then asked why subsequent charges have not been brought against Mr. Frank Larsen. The question whether any charges should be brought against Mr. Larsen would be for the Director of Public Prosecutions, and certainly not for me.

I hope that I have dealt with the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman. If he wishes to ask me any further questions, I shall be only too glad to answer them.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is it not clear that the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is a total rebuttal of all the trumped-up allegations that have been made by the Labour party? Is it not clear that my right hon. and learned Friend's statement was called for by Opposition Members in the hope of injuring Her Majesty's Government and the security services? Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear that there is absolutely no justification in any of the allegations made against the security services or against the prosecution in this case?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The action taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which I have described, was taken in pursuance of advice given to him on 7 October by independent leading counsel. My hon. Friend, with his long experience of these matters, will know that the Director of Public Prosecutions is wholly independent in the judgment that he brings to bear on these matters—as he is required to be. It seems to me that in this case, having received the advice, he behaved with the utmost propriety in coming before the magistrates court and discontinuing the proceedings. That is exactly what he did.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the Attorney-General tell the House whether his statement means that the statement reported by the solicitor for the defendants—that his clients did not deny that they had been Government agents — is completely without foundation? Will he amplify his statement and tell us whether he has any indication that any of the defendants were, at any time, either directly or indirectly employed by this Government or by the South African Government in their security forces?

Is there truth in the allegation that the prosecution still has in its possession documents relating to the former hon. and learned Member for Fylde and including statements of evidence from the right hon. and learned Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington) and the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery)? Will he also tell the House whether the decision not to go ahead with the prosecution on the evidence as reported—that the defendants were not capable of any conspiracy—is not an unusual decision at least? The decision should be whether there was prima facie evidence of a conspiracy. That is a matter for the court to decide and not a matter to be decided behind closed doors.

Is the Attorney-General prepared, therefore, to bring into the public domain the details of the conversation that took place at the DPP's office between the DPP and the solicitors for the defendants—if they agree to that—so that we may know what deal was struck before the matter was dropped in the court yesterday in an extremely unusual and extraordinary manner?

The Attorney-General

I do not think that there is anything unusual or extraordinary in the DPP deciding to withdraw criminal proceedings, having received the advice that I have already described. The Director considered the matter afresh after receiving the advice from leading counsel on 7 October. That seems entirely proper and the House would expect him to come forward, as soon as reasonably practicable, to tell the court that he was no longer proceeding with the prosecution. That is exactly what he did.

I do not know that I can add anything further. The Director of Public Prosecutions is entirely independent in the judgment that he brings to these matters. He did not consider it necessary to refer the matter to me and I make not the slightest criticism of that. The decision was taken by his staff. I believe that that was entirely proper and, no doubt, if the matter had been referred to me, I should have taken precisely the same view.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Are we to understand that the decision to drop the proceedings in this case was taken without any reference at all to the Law Officers? If so, given the political sensitivity of the subject, would it not have been wiser for the matter to be so referred?

The Attorney-General

The decision to drop the case was taken without reference to me or to the Solicitor-General and I make absolutely no complaint about that. I have quite enough to do without considering every case in which the Director of Public Prosecutions believes it right to withdraw proceedings. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The House is very versatile. Had I been consulted on the matter, no doubt certain Opposition Members would have accused me of putting pressure on the Director. Those who know him, of course, know perfectly well, first, that I would not do so and, secondly, that he would pay no attention if I did.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The defence says that a large quantity of classified material was seized at the home of Mr. Larsen by the anti-terrorist squad and retained. Was Mr. Larsen in authorised possession of that material and, if not, why were not charges preferred against him under the Official Secrets Act?

The Attorney-General

I do not have a comprehensive list of everything that was discovered in the premises occupied by Mr. Larsen. A very large quantity of documentation was taken away and examined.

Mr. Anderson

Was it classified?

The Attorney-General

It was on the basis of that examination, in the circumstances that I described in my statement, that it was considered by leading counsel that there was insufficient evidence to warrant continuation of prosecution. [HON. MEMBERS: "Was it classified?"] I have no knowledge that any classified material was discovered at the home of Mr. Larsen.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Then you should find out.

The Attorney-General

If there were, it would be a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider, but I have no knowledge that it was.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is not the truth of the matter that the Opposition have yet again made themselves look rather foolish? Is it not high time that they called a halt to the constant attempt to vilify our security services, an honourable institution which does its utmost to protect the safety of the citizens of Britain? Would not the appropriate charge here be that of wasting police time?

The Attorney-General

It is perfectly proper to question any decision taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions, just as it is proper to question any decision taken by the Attorney-General. In these circumstances, I took no decision because none was put to me. However, it is legitimate to ask ourselves what would be the situation if, in the face of advice from leading counsel that it was proper to withdraw the charges, the authorities and the Director had insisted on pressing on with the prosecution of the people in custody. As soon as the advice had been given and the Director had considered it, he took the view that it should be acceded to. He referred the matter to the police on the same day—12 October—that he took the decision to discontinue. That seems a perfectly proper, and indeed admirable, decision to take.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Attorney-General recognise that his statement was properly confined to the pressing of charges, but it has not cleared up many of the surrounding matters? There is ministerial responsibility for those matters, and other questions will have to be tabled about them. This cannot be regarded as the end of the matter.

The Attorney-General

I am never sufficiently optimistic as to suppose that any statement by me is the end of any matter. I am responsible for the decisions of the Director of Public Prosecutions and I therefore thought it right to volunteer a statement this afternoon on this particular decision. I am sorry if I have shot any foxes.

Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Govan)

The Attorney-General keeps saying that none of this had anything to do with him. However, if there were security implications and any question of a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, the matter would have to be referred to him, because such prosecutions can take place only with his authority. If there were security implications, why was the Attorney-General not at least informed about it?

The Attorney-General

The matter was referred to an official in my Department at the end of July. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] If I have brought some excitement to a lead-clouded afternoon, I am glad. An official of my Department was notified of the fact that charges had been brought in the sense that the House now knows. No request for direction was made and none was given. I was notified of that communication. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] If that has provided some excitement, I am delighted. I was notified of that conversation.

Thereafter, matters proceeded as I have described and the Director of Public Prosecutions, having consulted independent leading counsel, came to the view that he did. He did not think it necessary to come back to me and to say, in effect, "Will it be okay if I drop these prosecutions?" I would not expect him to do so, and nor would the House. Having taken the advice of independent leading counsel, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided to discontinue and that is exactly what he did.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I should like to say to my right hon. and learned Friend that Conservative Members do not regard the burden of proof or the judgment of the Director of Public Prosecutions on whether he can satisfy it as matters for public debate. We have full confidence in him.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree, from experience, that in cases involving facts such as these, defendants inevitably point to the fact that they are involved in the security services, but that in the vast majority of those cases the jury inevitably rejects that defence? Is my right hon. and learned Friend surprised that these people are repeating the same allegations?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Director of Public Prosecutions has to consider whether it is just or oppressive to proceed with a prosecution. He has to decide that matter before a case starts and at every stage where the question arises along the line before the case comes to court. In this case, he had meetings, at the request of the solicitor and counsel for Mr. Larsen, on 28 and 30 September. He referred certain matters to the Security Service and in the light of the information that he received, he concluded that it was probably right to withdraw the prosecution. He put the matter to leading counsel as I have described and leading counsel advised as I have described. I have mentioned the result to the House. That seems to me to be an entirely proper way for the Director of Public Prosecutions to discharge his responsibilities.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker>

Order. I shall allow questions to go on for another five minutes before I call the Opposition Front Bench spokesman.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Attorney-General confirm that he said in his statement that the decision not to proceed with the prosecutions was made because of the discovery of some documents that were thought to be genuine and were subsequently found to be false? In upholding the principle of the separation of the judicial and executive arms of government, does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman believe that that separation must not only be sustained but be seen to be sustained? Would not a prosecution for possession of classified documents, as revealed by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), or for forgery be appropriate? Unless those prosecutions take place, the separation to which I have referred will not be made manifest.

The Attorney-General

Following the first meeting on 28 September which I have mentioned, certain documents were referred by the Director of Public Prosecutions personally to the Security Service. The Security Service advised that the documents purporting to be governmental documents were not genuine. That seemed to me an entirely proper step for the Director to take. The matter was not referred to me; he dealt with it himself. I cannot accede to the proposition by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that, notwithstanding advice from leading counsel that a conviction was unlikely, criminal proceedings should be continued against people then in custody in order to satisfy the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed. Had the Director done that, he would have been subject to much greater criticism. I cannot accept that criticism.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

Given that proceedings in Lambeth magistrates court and, indeed, in the House today will be viewed with a considerable amount of glee by the gangster regime in Pretoria, would it not be appropriate for the Attorney-General to make it absolutely clear to the House and to the world that any future acts by agents of the South African regime in this country in the furtherance of international terrorism will be vigorously pursued with the full force of the law?

The Attorney-General

There are so many begged questions in that contribution that I hardly know where to start. I am responsible for the discharge of the responsibilities as a Law Officer in this Government. One is generally accused of encouraging criminal proceedings where there is insufficient evidence. Now I am accused when the Director of Public Prosecutions, for whom I am answerable to this House, takes the view, after he has been advised that there is an insufficient case against defendants in custody. that he ought to discontinue. That is exactly what he did, and I am sorry if that shoots any foxes. The director was right to do what he did. I have no ministerial responsibility for any other regime. I find it quite enough to look alter my own ministerial responsibilities.

Mr. Heffer

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has said a number of important things, but he uses the phrase "not to my knowledge". He also says that they were "not employed". What exactly does that mean? Can he say whether they are agents of the Government, because one does not have to be employed to be an agent? Can he tell us the precise status of those people?

The Attorney-General

The inquiries that I have made have established to the best of the information available to me—[Interruption.] I am not an employer. I am not the employer of these people or of any people connected with the Security Service. I have given the House the information that was provided to me and have said that there was no connection between any of these persons and the security services. I believe it right to say that. It was perfectly proper to make that plain, and I reiterate it.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

In view of the fiasco surrounding this case and the obvious trumped-up nature of the allegations made by the Opposition, will my right hon. and learned Friend transmit to the relevant authorities the strong feeling of Government Ministers who very much hope that the security services will take a very close interest in the operations in this country of the ANC?

The Attorney-General

The security services and their operation are not matters that fall within my ministerial responsibility. I have quite enough to do with what is properly on my own plate. However, my hon. Friend's point is noted.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

The Attorney-General has chosen his words exceedingly carefully. He has told us that he has been advised, that he has made inquiries and that the Prime Minister was not consulted with his knowledge. The truth of the matter is that he has no departmental responsibility for many of the questions that have been asked. Since the Prime Minister is the only person answerable for security in the House, will she come along and give a categorical assurance that no aspect of this conspiracy or of any of the individuals concerned has any connection whatsoever with the security services? I ask him directly, first, why there are still two men in gaol. Secondly, if the defence made the request to have the hearing, or part of it, in camera, was that request acceded to by the prosecution? In view of the fact that this is a very unusual course, why did the court agree that the proceedings, or part of them, should be in camera if there were no security aspects involved?

Lastly, the only body that can really alleviate concern and deal with many of the unanswered questions is the Security Commission. Since its terms of reference are wide enough to cover any related failure of departmental security arrangements or neglect of duty, will he consult the Prime Minister so that the whole of this matter and the questions that have not been answered are referred to the Security Commission?

The Attorney-General

I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman considers that my words were carefully chosen. I would have been liable to more stinging criticism if they had not been. No sufficient evidence has been revealed that there was any unlawful behaviour on the part of those who were in custody to warrant prosecution. In those circumstances it seemed to the Director of Public Prosecutions right to tell the court immediately and to withdraw those proceedings by offering no evidence. I hope that he will not be criticised for taking that view on those premises.

I do not know that I can answer on behalf of the Security Commission or answer the other questions that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has put. I am answerable in the House for the Director of Public Prosecutions, in the sense that there is no other Minister who is responsible. I believe that he has acted in an entirely proper way. I do not believe that there is anything sinister in it at all. I venture the thought that, had he acted differently in the face of the advice that he received, he would have been open not only to much more criticism but to much more justified criticism.

The prosecution was not consulted concerning the defence application that the court go into camera yesterday. That is the end of the matter. I am sorry if that has shot — [Interruption.] I am sorry if hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite feel that a fox has been shot, but it is not my responsibility to maintain or to urge the Director of Public Prosecutions to maintain criminal proceedings once reliable advice has been received from leading counsel that that would not conform to the guidelines laid down by successive Attorney-Generals.

Mr. Tony Banks

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, seeking your guidance.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker>

Order. I hope that this is not an attempt to carry on this statement, which has gone on for the usual length of time, for as long as I would normally allow for a statement. I will take Mr. Winnick first.

Mr. Winnick

I want to seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, as to whether we will now be in a position, arising from the Attorney-General's statement, to table questions to the Prime Minister on matters relating to events yesterday, but particularly on the security aspect. The Attorney-General has given us information that he states was based on what he was told. I do not question that in any way, but it will not come as a surprise to anyone to learn that Labour Members remain dissatisfied with the reply from the Attorney today. That in no way questions the statement he made based on the information he was given regarding the security services. If we go to the Table Office on Monday to table questions to the Prime Minister, will we be allowed to table them? The Attorney-General has mentioned certain matters and I understand that that will entitle us to table questions accordingly.

Mr. Speaker>

There are already some questions on the Notice Paper for answer on Monday. The hon. Gentleman asks a hypothetical question. If the hon. Gentleman submits his questions, the Table Office will let him know whether they are in order.

Mr. Tony Banks

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There were some exchanges recently about the alleged threat to the security of the Palace involving an hon. Member's research assistant. It appears that a person can be found in possession of a Ministry of Defence police warrant card, which is forged——

Mr. Speaker>

Order. This is not a matter for me.

Mr. Banks

It may very well be a matter for you in a moment, Mr. Speaker. According to The Independent, a person can have a colonel's uniform and travel to Aldershot to meet Army officers. I am assuming that such a person could come to the House of Commons and be allowed in with his MOD police warrant card or colonel's uniform, or whatever else is the form of his impersonation. I should like to know, Mr. Speaker, why the man in question is not to be prosecuted. The security of the House is involved as well.

Mr. Speaker>

I am not the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr. Skinner

After listening to the Attorney-General explaining the squalid cover-up between the Government and the Director of Public Prosecutions and protecting the Prime Minister's back because of her known hatred of the African National Congress, the electorate will find it strange that on a Friday afternoon, with plenty of time available, there is seemingly insufficient time to continue the questioning of this squalid operator on the Government Front Bench——

Mr. Speaker>

Order. I allowed the usual length of time for this statement and it is reprehensible for the hon. Gentleman to seek to continue it in this way. He knows that virtually every day in this place it is not possible for every Member who wishes to be called to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair on that specific day. There are other opportunities available to hon. Members, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take them.

Mr. Skinner

I hope Mr. Speaker, that you will give me the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister, when she turns up on Tuesday, what role she played in this affair. Some of us will never believe, as the Attorney-General tried to tell the House, that she was not involved. Are we to believe that this crisis started in July and that the Prime Minister did not know about the cover-up until three or four months later, when she is reckoned to know all the statistics about Canada and everything else? That is asking us to believe one hell of a lot.

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