HC Deb 08 February 1988 vol 127 cc28-36 3.55 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about war crimes committed during the second world war.

The House will be aware of recent allegations that suspected war criminals have found haven in this country. Lists of names have been sent to us by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and others. Inquiries conducted by my Department suggested that some of the people named are still living in this country, and we undertook to consider what action, if any, should be taken.

The legal position is as follows. We would normally deal with alleged crimes in foreign countries by way of extradition. However, all the cases in question relate to crimes committed in territories now controlled by the Soviet Union, with whom we have no extradition treaty. Nor do the courts in the United Kingdom at present have jurisdiction to try offences of murder and manslaughter committed abroad when the accused was not a British citizen at the time of the offence. If we were to prosecute in these cases we should need to legislate to extend the jurisdiction of our courts.

The passage of time does not lessen the horror with which we now read about wartime atrocities, but it does inevitably complicate the investigation of any allegations that might be made.

I decided that it was impossible to take this issue forward without a better idea of what evidence existed. I asked the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to provide evidence to substantiate the allegations. In July of last year the centre provided us with a large quantity of documentary material. This material contained serious allegations against a number of people. It was carefully considered within Government. Our conclusion was that, as it stood, the material would not be sufficient to support a criminal prosecution, even if there were jurisdiction.

In the circumstances, it is clear that further work has to be done. I have therefore decided to appoint an independent inquiry to examine material relating to the allegations, to conduct interviews — possibly including interviews in the Soviet Union—and to consider the likely value of the evidence that could become available to United Kingdom court proceedings. In the light of its assessment, the inquiry team will advise whether the law should be amended to take jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed overseas by persons now resident in this country.

In the event of such a change it would, of course, be for the prosecuting authorities to decide, after such investigations as they may think necessary, whether any action should be taken in individual cases. I have placed the inquiry's full terms of reference in the Library. I am grateful that Sir Thomas Hetherington, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, and Mr. William Chalmers, the former Crown Agent in Scotland, have agreed to undertake the inquiry.

All of us who have considered these matters recognise that they are intensely difficult. The allegations are serious and must be pursued, but I do not believe that the material now before us would justify me in proposing to Parliament a change in the law. The inquiry that I have announced will enable us all to form a clearer view of the weight to be given to the allegations, and will enable us to determine whether it would be right to propose a change in the law to extend the jurisdiction of the courts.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I offer the Home Secretary our general support for what he has proposed. He is right to emphasise that the passage of time does not lessen the horror of wartime atrocities, but he is equally right to say, or to imply, that the passage of almost half a century raises problems of principle and of practice which clearly require him and the Government to proceed with care.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman three specific questions and make it clear that they do not in any way imply that we disagree with the general course of action that he has proposed. First, will the Home Secretary explicitly confirm that the only option that he is considering is prosecution in British courts, not extradition?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman explain the rules of evidence under which statements to the inquiry are to be made, because, presumably, some of the people who make statements may—at least in theory—eventually be subject to prosecution? Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman give us at least a tentative assessment of how long he expects the inquiry to take?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's general support. Normally, for crimes committed abroad, the remedy that we would seek to apply would be that of extradition. However, as the right hon. Gentleman implies, there would be great difficulties in this case, as we have no extradition arrangements with the Soviet Union, as the crimes alleged were committed in territory over which the Soviet Union now has control and as no other country appears to have a standing in this matter. That is why we have taken this course of action. This is not a statutory inquiry or an inquiry in which rules of evidence apply. It is an inquiry outside the ordinary process of investigation to allow the Government and Parliament to decide whether there is a case strong enough to justify changing the law. The inquiry will start reasonably soon and, although it is for the inquirers to decide—I have not fixed a strict time limit—I think that it will take them about a year.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is a bad decision and is likely to lead to what others would call a witch-hunt? Is he aware that British courts have never sought to try alleged crimes committed long ago by foreigners in foreign countries, for the very good reason that such evidence would be inadmissible by ordinary standards? Therefore, is it not very wrong for the Government to attempt to make special arrangements for a special class of people accused of having committed offences a long time ago, which the British people would far rather not pursue? Is my right hon. Friend not surrendering to a lobby whose main motivations are hatred and revenge?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that my hon. Friend's last point is fair. However, I am aware of his general approach, with which I know many people agree. I do not believe that with the present state of our information I would be justified in coming to the House to propose a change in the law to assert jurisdiction. However, I would say to my hon. Friend that very serious allegations have been made. Although the passage of time makes it more difficult to deal with those allegations, many people would not be at all happy if we followed a quite different course from that followed by Australia and Canada, for example, and said, "We really cannot be bothered to find out any more about it."

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the all-party group on war crimes, of which I am chairman, will welcome his statement? May I take this opportunity publicly to thank him and his Department for the help that they have given us during the past year?

Will the information that is coming in about the murder of RAF aircrew in prisoner-of-war camps and the murder of Marine commandoes be considered relevant, or will it be missed out from the terms of reference?

On paragraph 3 of the terms of reference—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned Australia and Canada—will he point out to the two distinguished members of the committee that it would be worthwhile visiting Canada and Australia because they have done a great deal of work on this matter in the past year? Will the report be published, and will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the final decision on the changes will be for him and for the House?

Mr. Hurd

The terms of reference, which are being placed in the Library, ask the inquirers to obtain and examine relevant material … relating to allegations that persons who are now British citizens or resident in the United Kingdom committed war crimes during the Second World War". There follows a definition of what that means. It would be open to the inquirers to visit Australia or Canada, although they could probably obtain the information that they needed without doing so. I think that their main job —although it is for them to say—is to get to grips with the allegations that have been made.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the report would be published. That rather depends on the detail that it goes into. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) pointed out, there might be relationship with possible further proceedings. Therefore, I should not like to guarantee that. The whole purpose of the exercise is to enable not just the Government but the House to reach an informed conclusion.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many will welcome the course of action that he has proposed to the House today, not least because of the horrific nature of the allegations and because persons resident in the United Kingdom may be associated with those allegations? Will he confirm that the two distinguised gentlemen who are to carry out the inquiry will not be inhibited from going anywhere in the world to test the evidence for the allegations and interview witnesses?

Mr. Hurd

They wil not be inibited by me, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. As he knows, given that serious allegations have been made, we have been caught in something of a vicious circle. We cannot learn more about the allegations through the ordinary processes of investigation, because we have no jurisdiction, but I do not think that I can justify taking that jurisdiction until we know more. The purpose of this proposal is to break out of that vicious circle.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I welcome the decision to have this rather unusual form of inquiry. Will the Home Secretary tell us whether it is possible to extend such an inquiry to cover the case of the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Kurt Waldheim, which is a matter of great concern in this country? It is patently obvious that Mr. Waldheim lied about his involvement with SS commandoes.—[Interuptioni This is a matter that I believe should be looked into. We are talking about the person appointed Secretary General of the United Nations—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is rather wide of today's statement.

Dr. Owen

Would the Home Secretary be prepared to consider finding some way in which the British interest in the allegations associated with Mr. Kurt Waldheim could be inquired into?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman knows better than to suppose that that is a matter for me or or the inquiry.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of all of us for his genuine concern and determination to ensure that this matter comes to a reasonable conclusion? However, does he agree that time is of the essence, and that as long as we will not amend the law to provide the procedures other countries will not provide us with the necessary evidence? Does he agree also that while we say that we will not amend the law until we have that evidence we are locked into a completely unproductive spiral that will gladden the hearts of Nazi sympathisers everywhere?

Mr. Hurd

I very much hope that we have found a way of breaking out of the spiral and that all those who may have evidence that is relevant will co-operate with the inquiry so that at the end of the day— I hope that that will not be too far distant — the Government and Parliament will be able to decide whether to make the very serious decision to extend our jurisdiction.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does the Home Secretary accept that that is precisely why we welcome the inquiry? However, it is important that the timing should not be such that the inquiry is allowed more than the reasonable time that it will need to get information. Would it not be possible for us to examine the question of jurisdiction and of changes in the law while the inquiry is taking place? If there were a second period, after the completion of the inquiry, we could be talking about a time span of two years. Given the number of years that have already passed, is that not too long?

Mr. Hurd

I examined that possibility carefully, but I concluded that I simply did not have thc wherewithal-and that the House would not have the wherewithal—to make an informed decision on a matter of' very great importance about which many hon. Members would have misgivings, as has become clear from some of our exchanges today.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although it is welcome that there should be a legal structure to deal with cases that took place in the past, it is also highly desirable that we should have legal powers to deal with such matters should anything unfortunately arise in the future? Can my right hon. Friend tell us the number of names on the list that might give rise to action in the future?

Mr. Hurd

There were 17 names on the Simon Wiesenthal list. We believe that 10 may be alive in the United Kingdom. There were 34 names on a list provided through Scottish Television plc, of which we think that seven may be alive in the United Kingdom.

The British courts have jurisdiction over British citizens who have committed manslaughter or murder abroad, but do not have jurisdiction over people who may now be British citizens, or who may now live here and have done so for some time, if the allegations relate to events before they became British citizens or before they came to live here.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement that there is to be an evidential inquiry into these cases, but does he accept that it is rather odd to say that a decision on the jurisdiction principle will be made only when the evidence against individuals is assessed? Will he assure the House that if the inquiry shows that the normal DPP criteria apply and that there is more than a 50 per cent. prospect of success in any prosecution, he will personally support jurisdictional changes?

Mr. Hurd

The first thing is for the House to judge, on the basis of the report, the wide question whether it wishes to change the law. As I have said—

Mr. Carlile

It is the right hon. Gentleman's decision.

Mr. Hurd

It is not my decision. It would be a decision for the House. I do not think that that matter is at all straightforward, for the reasons that I have often given. Therefore, it is for the House to decide, when we are more fully informed.

As I said in my statement, there must be a clear distinction between any decision to change the law, which is a matter for Parliament, and any decision by the prosecuting authorities to prosecute in a particular case.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

May I caution my right hon. Friend to remember that, while those who have been active in this issue have been jumping up to praise him today, a large number of his hon. Friends will be deeply suspicious of and concerned about such retrospective legislation? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how far such retrospective legislation would go? Would we, for example, find ourselves prosecuting the Israeli soldier who savagely beat to death a 15-year-old Palestinian boy if that soldier later came to stay in this country?

Mr. Hurd

The answer to the second question is clearly no. My hon. Friend is leaping ahead a long way. I am not proposing any legislation, retrospective or otherwise.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that I, and, I believe, most other hon. Members, not only appreciate his own determination to see that justice is done and that evil monsters who may he among us are prosecuted, but totally reject what lay behind the odious question from his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow)? Does the Secretary of State not understand that some of us are deeply anxious about the consignment of urgent and anguished questions to a committee, however distinguished, because the distance between a committee and a pigeon hole is sometimes very short? Is he not able to give us some indication that we may have at least an interim report and statement before the summer recess? Could he, at least, assure the House that a report will be made about what is happening? Why has he omitted from his legal possibilities that which lies in his hands, namely, the stripping of British citizenship from people who obtained it by fraud, when it is in the common interest and the public good so to do?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. and learned Gentleman, whose zeal in such matters is well known, rather underestimates the seriousness of the problem. He was unfair to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow). What lay behind my hon. Friend's question—not his second supplementary question, but his first—was a perfectly reasonable concern about the issues involved. I do not think that this is a matter on which interim statements or reports would make a great deal of sense.

The question of depriving someone of British citizenship is, of course, open, but it does not meet the point, one way or the other. I certainly do not exclude it as a possible measure, although it would not really satisfy anybody.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

I join other right hon. and hon. Members in welcoming today's announcement, but may I offer a word of caution on two issues? One is the time scale. One wonders whether an inquiry lasting a year will merely put the whole issue on the back burner for another 12 months and, thereafter, when the committee reports, the matter will go into the pigeon hole that the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) suggested.

My second word of caution relates to my right hon. Friend's apparent reluctance to guarantee publication of the document when it is finally produced. One of the difficulties that has faced the all-party war crimes group is that a document that was shelved in 1948 has only recently come to light. We do not want that to happen again.

Mr. Hurd

Everyone is advising me to be cautious. I do not think that 1 need that advice, because I think that I have been very cautious, and with good reason.

I understand my hon. Friend's point about publication, but he will understand that I do not know how the inquirers will frame their report or how much detail they will want to go into. Obviously, there is a connection between the amount of detail in the report and possible later proceedings. That is why I cannot give an absolute guarantee this afternoon about publication. The whole point of the exercise is to enable the House in particular, Parliament in general, and the public, to come to a more reasoned and informed view than they can at the moment.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I am sure that the Home Secretary will welcome the support of the Opposition in saying that murder, genocide and manslaugher have no statute of limitations against them. Therefore, we welcome his statement. We also welcome the fact that he is preparing to change the law of the land to accommodate a trial, should that be necessary. However, will he answer the two specific questions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) asked about the rules of evidence at the inquiry? Will there be rules of evidence at the inquiry, and, if so, how will they apply? Will statements made to the inquiry be admissible in evidence? Will the right hon. Gentleman not exclude extradition where that might be feasible?

Mr. Hurd

I should correct the hon. Gentleman. I am not preparing to change the law of the land. I am setting up an inquiry to see whether those who have greater access to the facts than any of us have at the moment would feel, on the basis of that inquiry, that there is a case for changing the law of the land. This is not a judicial inquiry or evidential in that sense. Therefore, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's second point arises.

The hon. Gentleman's third point was about extradition. I have explained the difficulties. Choosing my words with care, I do not think that it would be suitable to arrange for extradition to the Soviet Union in these respects. Neither Israel nor West Germany, nor other countries which have been mentioned from time to time in this context, seems to fit the case.

Mr. Toby Jesse! (Twickenham)

Following the reference to witch-hunting by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), is my right hon. Friend aware that whatever else witches might or might not have done they did not murder 6 million people? Will my right hon. Friend remind the House that we are talking not about one murder, six, 600 or 6,000 murders, but about 6 million cold-blooded murders of men and women, including about 1 million children?

Mr. Hurd

It is because of the intensity and enormity of the total war crimes that they continue to arouse this kind of response, which is entirely understandable. That is a reason for not saying, "It is all too difficult. We must forget and do nothing about it." Equally, my hon. Friend will recognise the difficulties of changing the law in this regard, which is why we need to proceed steadily.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Why should it be considered by some of the right hon. Gentleman's critics to be a matter of revenge that those who are alleged to have been responsible for some of the worst crimes and atrocities ever committed should be brought to justice? Surely it is justice, not revenge, that we are concerned about. Does the Home Secretary agree that the serious allegations made against individuals who are now living in Britain, the allegations against the President of Austria and the one or two other cases that have come to light illustrate that what the allies did not do at the end of the last war, but what they promised to do when the extermination policy was being carried out, was to carry out a de-Nazification policy which would have meant that those who were responsible for the crimes to which I have just referred, as have some Conservative Members, would have been brought to justice much sooner? They should have been brought to justice much sooner. Indeed, that should have happened during the first few years after the war against Hitler had ended.

Mr. Hurd

I do not want to go into that. That is raking over history. We are concerned with a number of serious allegations against a small number of people who have been living in Britain for some time. In deciding whether to change our law, an important aspect is that we are dealing with very serious allegations.

Mr. Tom Sackville (Bolton, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that before contemplating changing our law we should hesitate to pursue cases for which a large part of the evidence will necessarily come from a doubtful source, namely, the Soviet Union, whose judicial and human rights record must be viewed with the strictest reservations?

Mr. Hurd

That is why I made specific reference to the inquirers getting to grips with the evidence in the Soviet Union. They will want to assess that evidence.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the Home Secretary accept that those hon. Members who have had constituency cases and have discussed those cases with Mr. William Chalmers, as the Crown Agent, have the highest regard for his intelligence and integrity? How on earth will he set about disentangling such immensely complicated matters? One case, highlighted by Scottish Television, meant disentangling events in Riga in 1944. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the Polish 1st Armoured Division, many of whose members settled in my constituency, there were Latvian, Ukrainian and Polish groups? The complexities of the internecine strife that took place nearly half a century ago are enormously difficult to disentangle.

What facilities is Mr. Chalmers to have? Is he to go to the Balkan republics with interpreters? Will the Russians co-operate, and who exactly will he see? What is the Russian view of all this?

Mr. Hurd

The professed view of the Soviet Union has been that throughout it has been as anxious as anyone to establish the facts and to bring to justice people who are alleged to have committed serious crimes. There is no question about the principle. The inquirers will find out for themselves how it will work in practice. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that the job of disentangling such a mass of information that is now so old will be extremely difficult. They will have to establish whether they think an inquiry is feasible. They will have to report to us so that we can judge whether the prospect of and the need for an inquiry would justify a change in the law.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

May I pursue the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)? If the inquirers produce evidence that will create the probability of convictions in a British court—I share the reservations about whether that will be possible—why has my right hon. Friend not undertaken to bring legislation before the House to give the courts jurisdiction? If he is not prepared to give such an undertaking, what is the point of an inquiry in the first place?

Mr. Hurd

At the moment I do not have the wherewithal to persuade the House that it would be right to change the law. When the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, in response to my invitation, provided further material in July last year, we sent it to the prosecuting authorities, who examined it and came to the conclusion that they could not proceed any further because they did not have the jurisdiction, and that the material would not be sufficient to support a criminal prosecution. That is why we need to learn more and to set up an inquiry to establish whether there is a case for changing the law. After that it would be a separate matter, not for the House, but for the prosecuting authorities, to decide whether to bring prosecutions in individual cases.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

The Home Secretary said that 17 individuals could possibly be subject to that evidential inquiry. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed anxiety that the inquiry will be a pigeon-hole operation. The Home Secretary denies that, but what means of monitoring the movement of those 17 individuals are to be employed in case the birds fly the coop and establish themselves in someone else's pigeon hole in the meantime?

Mr. Hurd

There are no grounds or scope for doing that.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Is there not a dilemma, in that if the House is to make up its mind about the inquiry, the report must be published in full? If it is published in full and someone is prosecuted, the person accused would be able to argue that the publication of the report had prejudiced his fair trial.

Mr. Hurd

I have made that point twice in less elegant language. My hon. Friend will have to leave the matter to me. He will be able to twist my tail about it later. It may well be difficult to decide how much should be published. It may well be that the inquirers will produce their report in a form that can be published.