HC Deb 26 January 1993 vol 217 cc873-80 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang)

With permission, I should like to read to the House a statement being made today by my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate in another place. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order, as the Secretary of State is about to make an important statement. Those hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber should do so quietly, and conversations should be conducted outside the Chamber so that we may make some progress. The House must settle down so that we may hear the Secretary of State.

Mr. Lang

My noble and learned Friend's statement reads as follows:

In September of last year I asked Mr. William Nimmo Smith, QC and Mr. James Friel, Regional Procurator Fiscal of North Strathclyde, to inquire into certain allegations suggesting that there had been a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in Scotland. The report of their inquiry has today been published as a Return to an Address of another place. The inquiry was set up following the leaking to the Press of an internal police report about allegations that decisions in relation to five criminal cases had been taken for improper reasons, namely, to prevent disclosure of information said to identify certain individuals in the legal profession as homosexuals. The allegations relating to the decisions were therefore allegations of possible criminal conduct. Mr. Friel and Mr. Nimmo Smith were asked to report to me. When I received their report, it was my duty to consider whether there was any basis for criminal proceedings. My noble and learned Friend's statement continues:

I have now studied their full and detailed report. It concludes that the decisions in each of the five cases were taken on a proper basis. In particular, it finds that there is no evidence of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, or that the course of justice has been perverted or that the alleged motive for such a conspiracy has ever existed. On the basis of the report I have decided that no criminal proceedings fall to be instructed. Further, the report makes it clear that there is no evidence of irregularity in the conduct of business in the Crown office or procurator fiscal service. On a wider front, in order to allay public anxiety it was my intention when I established the inquiry that, subject to any restriction necessary for the purposes of possible criminal proceedings, the report would be published in full. Since no question of criminal proceedings arises, the report has been published in full. The allegations in the police report appear to have been more readily believed because of certain rumours which were circulating among police officers and others about members of the Scottish legal profession. Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel have investigated these rumours and have concluded that they are without foundation. To appreciate the force of its conclusions, the report requires to be read as a whole. Those who wish to form a considered view on the matters covered by the report will therefore wish to study and reflect upon the whole text. My noble and learned Friend's statement concludes: The report contains criticisms of certain officers in the Lothian and Borders police force. These are matters for the chief constable and not for me. There are, however, two matters emerging from the report which relate to the police and which I wish to discuss. The first is the failure of certain officers to understand the role of the independent prosecution authorities in Scotland. The second is that officers may misunderstand the decisions properly taken by those prosecution authorities in particular cases. I intend therefore to pursue with the chief constable what can be done, having regard to the principles which guide the relationship between the police and prosecution authorities in Scotland, to prevent such misunderstandings in future.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

In view of the interest taken in these matters by a number of my hon. Friends, particularly by my Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who has pursued the subject diligently, will the Secretary of State, in the context of his statement, explain to the House why he felt it necessary to support the motion for an unopposed return? May I join the Secretary of State in thanking the Lord Advocate for agreeing to set up an inquiry, certainly on the suggestions of my hon. Friends the Members' for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) and for Linlithgow?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, although many had called for a judicial inquiry, Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel have conducted a thorough and exhaustive inquiry of unprecedented depth? Can he tell the House what precise action the chief constable of Lothian and Borders has taken in respect of the authors of the report and other matters within his remit and for which he is responsible to the Secretary of State? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the chief constable's response? Above all, what steps has the Lord Advocate taken to ensure that communication between the police and the Crown office is improved, to avoid what appears to have been a major breakdown of understanding of their separate and distinct roles?

Does the Secretary of State agree that, unless anyone has evidence to the contrary, the report should be accepted and that nothing is served by continued speculation in the absence of any such fresh evidence?

Mr. Lang

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. May I begin by welcoming him back to the House fully restored, we all hope, to health?

The hon. Gentleman referred to the statement that I made, but I should emphasise that it was my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate's statement which I have repeated in the House. It is important to establish that. It was my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate who set up the inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the basis on which the report is laid before the House. It is published as a return to an address of the House and thus affords absolute privilege for those who publish it in accordance with the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. This procedure is well precedented and has survived for 150 years; it is a sensible way to ensure that there is no need to contemplate any reduction of the content of the report as published.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel, both of whom enjoy a high reputation in legal circles in Scotland for their ability, for their independence of mind and for their rigorous approach to the handling of evidence. It is, as the hon. Gentleman said, a thorough and exhaustive report, and I commend it to hon. Members to be read in great detail and thoroughly before firm views are reached about its conclusions.

The chief constable is responsible for actions in the police force, and he has taken a number of actions as a result of the consequences of this matter. He initiated a review of various areas of police operation, and an action plan was drawn up. There has been a redefinition of the responsibilities allocated to the three assistant chief constables, and a new chief of the CID has been appointed.

There have also been a number of reassignments of CID officers to uniformed duties. The aim is to ensure that officers do not remain overlong in specialist posts. The chief constable has demonstrated a firm resolve in dealing with the matter. He continues to enjoy the confidence of the police authority, as he does of myself.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the relationship between the police and the Crown office, and that is a matter, as my noble and learned Friend's statement said, to which attention is to be given. My noble and learned Friend intends to meet the chief constable shortly to discuss how both the relationship between the police force and the Crown office and the understanding among the police force of the Crown office's responsibilities can be improved.

I hope that that covers all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome back to the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, whom we are delighted to see with us and well.

May I raise three matters that arise out of the report? The first is the wisdom of writing expensive reports on an inquiry into rumour. The second is the wisdom of appointing corporals to investigate whether the generals have been interfering with the privates. Should we not have had much more senior people, such as retired judges or people of significance, to pass judgment on the judiciary? The third matter is whether the report is sound when its principal author gave an interview to a crook who pretended to be a journalist and who told him what it was going to contain, having attempted to steal the evidence against himself being a known homosexual. That seems to me to raise matters of grave impropriety which taint the report. I ask for my right hon. Friend's views.

Mr. Lang

Before my hon. and learned Friend uses such words as "taint", I urge him to read the report.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

I have done so.

Mr. Lang

I think that he will be impressed, as I have been, by the thorough and rigorous approach brought to bear on these difficult matters by Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel.

My hon. Friend raised three matters with me. First, he questioned the wisdom of carrying out a report into rumour. I think that the House will agree that the rumour and speculation had become so established and was so festering in the Scottish scene that it was becoming a matter of serious public concern and one that rightly had to be dealt with, and dealt with directly and thoroughly. That, I believe, and any reasonable person reading the report would believe, has been achieved by Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel.

My hon. and learned Friend suggests that the matter should have been handled by someone more senior, suggesting perhaps a retired judge. As criminal charges might have been brought, it would have been inappropriate to have the inquiry carried out by a serving judge. I think that my hon. and learned Friend will agree that that would have been inappropriate.

The report, which, once studied, will confirm this, is so thorough and so detailed that the need to appoint two individuals of the rigorous and competent qualifications of Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel is fully justified.

Thirdly, on the question of interviews, I draw my hon. and learned Friend's attention to paragraphs 1.9 and 1.10 where he will find listed the persons interviewed by Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel. I think that the list runs to some 90 persons. Clearly, it was their purpose to obtain as much information as possible, to establish evidence and to seek corroboration of it, from some people of a rather unreliable nature whose evidence could not necessarily be taken on trust.

Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel have carried out a difficult task thoroughly and effectively and the report's overall effect is to justify the clear conclusions that they reach.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Was the report completed before the publication of an interview obtained from Mr. Nimmo Smith by someone masquerading as a journalist? Does the Secretary of State accept that, while it is right that we should consider the report as a whole, we must have regard to the fact that a number of other inquiries at the hand of the chief constable have not yet been completed? Will he undertake that the results of those inquiries will also be published so that we may have the opportunity to form a complete judgment?

Finally, if, notwithstanding the publication of the report, some people still believe that they have evidence to support the allegations, is it not their duty to present it to the proper authorities? If they are unwilling to do that, is it not about time that this speculation was brought to an end?

Mr. Lang

I understand that the report had been completed before the outcome of Mr. Nimmo Smiths interview with Mr. Donaldson was published. Indeed, Mr. Donaldson's report does not feature in the report of the inquiry. As for the question of other inquiries, internal matters affecting the police force are for the chief constable. I do not think that it would be appropriate to publish those decisions, but that is a matter for the chief constable. No doubt he will read of the hon. and learned Gentleman's concern.

The question of possible criminal charges arising from other inquiries is a matter for the procurator fiscal, not for me. As for the hon. and learned Gentleman's final point, certainly it is the duty of anyone who has further evidence that he considers relevant, or who wishes to make further allegations—notwithstanding the fact that the report has now been completed—to bring those matters to the attention of the authorities.

Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, notwithstanding what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn), there is no reason to doubt the integrity of this far-reaching and in-depth report? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that anyone who believes that the report is anything other than a true and accurate account of what happened can do so for only one of two reasons: either such a person has a vested interest in undermining public confidence in the Scottish judicial system, or he insists on peddling his prejudices about gay people in society as a whole as well as gay people who may hold judicial office?

If there is no evidence to cast doubt on the report, is it not time that it was accepted at face value, and all unwarranted speculation ended?

Mr. Lang

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's views about the credibility and accuracy of the report; I certainly accept its conclusions. The House will have noted the hon. Gentleman's speculations on the motives of those responsible for spreading the rumours.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Was this, in substance, a criminal inquiry?

Mr. Lang

I think that the hon. Gentleman should read the terms of reference, which are set out in detail in the report. The report could have given rise to criminal charges, because it examined the possibility that there might have been a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in Scotland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that would be a very serious charge.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

Does the Secretary of State accept that all this has been going on for quite a few years? Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have been hearing the rumours for quite some time. Does it not come down to the fact that the police service mistrusts the judiciary to some extent, and will the publication of the report help to heal that? Will there be an investigation of what is influencing the suspicions within the police service and what is at the root of the problem?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman has identified a problem established and clarified by the report. Some members of the police force—a limited number, I suspect—misunderstand the precise role of the prosecuting authorities. There may also be a need for the prosecuting authorities, on some occasions, to explain more clearly their reasons for proceeding, or not proceeding, with charges.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Secretary of State mentioned transfers from the CID to uniformed branches. Will he give the House an assurance that officers who seem to suffer from a certain degree of misunderstanding have not been punished severely within the service?

Mr. Lang

The degree of punishment and the actions of the chief constable within Lothian and Borders are matters for the chief constable. Ultimately, any police officer who feels that he has been wrongfully treated in connection with a disciplinary matter has the right of appeal to me; but it is, in the first instance, a matter for the chief constable.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Mr. Nimmo Smith is a Queen's Counsel. He was educated at Eton, Balliol and Edinburgh university. He is very much a part of the legal establishment in Edinburgh. Indeed, he depends for his career advancement on that legal establishment. Does the Secretary of State accept that the report would have been strengthened if it had been conducted by someone outwith the legal establishment in Edinburgh?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman's view is very much a minority one. The appointments of Mr. Nimmo Smith and Mr. Friel were widely welcomed. When the hon. Gentleman has read the report—I quite understand why he has not yet had a chance to do so—he will realise, from the quality and texture of its detailed analysis of the issues, that it could probably have been compiled only by people with close experience of legal matters and legal procedure.

Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

Is the Secretary of State really saying that we must accept this carte blanche? He seems to have failed to convince Conservative Back Benchers, such as the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn). It seems that Mr. Nimmo Smith was hoodwinked, very naive, or both. I know that morale among the constabulary in Lothian and Borders is very low. They see scapegoats being so-called retired prematurely and demoted to the uniform branch. I can assure you that when one of them—

Madam Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman speak through the Chair, please?

Mr. Clarke

I can assure the Minister that when one of them had his retirement farewell it was a pack-out—a show of solidarity by his fellow officers that he was wrongfully retired.

Mr. Lang

I advise the hon. Gentleman to read the report, and once he has read it in its entirety he will probably find it persuasive overall, as I did. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate has accepted the conclusions of the report, which are clear cut.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I welcome the publication of the report, but does the Secretary of State accept that the effective prosecution of justice in Scotland is an inalienable right to each and every citizen, must be beyond question and must have the confidence of the population? The Lord Advocate has asked that we read the report in full and reach a considered view. Does that mean that the Secretary of State is considering allocating parliamentary time to considering the legal system in Scotland, in which we could not only explore the results of this inquiry but consider other aspects that are causing concern such as legal aid, the amount of time that policemen must spend hanging around courts, the need to appoint further procurators fiscal and so on? Parliamentary time is desperately needed, and there is consensus on the need for such a discussion.

Mr. Lang

I share the hon. Lady's sentiment about the importance of maintaining confidence in our prosecution service, which is kept distinct and separate from the actions of the legislature. The allocation of parliamentary time to consider the legal matters that she described is not directly a matter for me but is for the usual channels. I am sure that her thoughts will have been noted.

Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith)

I should like to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), but might not it be helpful in future if the Crown office were to give some indication of why charges are not being brought rather than using the catch-all phrase, "not in the interests of justice"? Might not it be illuminating in other cases where charges are not brought, such as in cases of domestic violence?

Mr. Lang

It is important that the Crown office should preserve its independence and should not be held to account for every decision that it takes, and thus have to enter into the debate at all times. Having said that, and subject to that qualification, as a result of the report a need has been identified for the chief constable of Lothian and Borders to speak to my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and to consider what can be done to improve the understanding of each other's positions between the police and prosecution authorities.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I have no reason to believe that the report is anything other than thorough and was carried out objectively, but, having no legal expertise, it seems to me to leave us with a problem. As I understood what the Secretary of State said, the basis of the reports, which have persisted for a considerable number of years and with considerable strength, was apparently a figment of the imagination of a small number of unspecified policemen who are apparently not only prejudiced but do not understand the workings of the legal system in Scotland and have a terrible propensity to gossip. I find that extremely difficult to believe as an explanation for the continuation and strength of the rumours.

However, if it is true, is not the Secretary of State asking us to believe that something drifted on for all these years without a conspiracy by the same police officers? In apparently clearing up one accusation of conspiracy, has he not implied that there was a conspiracy to undermine the legal system but one which came from police officers?

Mr. Lang

No, I am not drawing that conclusion, nor do I think that the House should. I urge the hon. Gentleman to read the report in detail. It is severely critical of certain officers, and it is true that some saw a conspiracy; but I expect that they will also want to read the report thoroughly and may reach different conclusions as a result. Certainly the report reaches a clear verdict, and I urge the House to consider it carefully before commenting further on these issues.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Whether the smoke has been generated without fire, and following the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), will the Secretary of State take it from me that people from the Lothian and Borders area have the highest regard for the leadership of their police force? Does he agree that we are lucky to have the services of a chief constable and deputy chief constable of such a high calibre in the Lothian and Borders police?

Mr. Lang


Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

It is clear from the comments that the rumours and this case generate a concern that goes beyond the cases mentioned. I hope that the report will allay that concern, but I am curious about what the Secretary of State said about the reasons for making the report in this form, as a return to an address. Am I right in thinking that it was made in that way because parts of the report require the protection of the privilege of the House and would give rise to legal proceedings if it were published in the usual way? Does that not imply that parts of the report are therefore a little dubious or uncertain, and point to the need for a full, thorough judicial inquiry perhaps, as has been suggested, by someone from outside, finally to put the matter to rest?

Mr. Lang

I do not think that there is a case for starting another inquiry and going over the same evidence and background again in the absence of any new evidence. As for the publication of the report as a return to an address, it is a well established procedure which has been in place for more than 150 years. Its use does not imply any value judgment as to liabilities that might arise on particular individuals from the report, but it protects against that possibility, sets aside any uncertainty and enables all aspects of the report to be laid fully and clearly before the House.