HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc343-53 1.25 pm
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I am extremely grateful for this opportunity. I shall be brief, as I know that other hon. Members would like to intervene. This, to me, is not a party or a partisan issue. It is an issue which involves justice and the rights of men.

At the outset, I pay tribute to two Members of Parliament who have promoted their constituency interests and who have a long record of involvement in the case. One is the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), one of whose constituents is Sheila Fisher, the mother of Guardsman Fisher; the other is the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh), whose constituents include Guardsman Wright. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) who, unfortunately, cannot be present today but whose support for the cause of justice is invaluable.

Perhaps I should explain my involvement. It comes as a result of a request from the Release group, representing many old soldiers and their families and other people concerned about this case. Regiments are families, and the feeling of this family is unanimous. My involvement is also in accordance with the wishes of the two Scots guardsmen themselves, serving life sentences in Maghaberry prison in Northern Ireland, and of their families. I was very pleased to receive a most gracious note to this effect from Mrs. Fisher.

It is not my intention, nor is it that of the campaign, to reopen the case of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright—the time for that has passed—or to plead extenuating circumstances or excuses, because the time for that has passed as well. However, I will restate the plain facts of the case. On 4 September 1992, Guardsmen Fisher and Wright were part of a Scots Guards patrol in the New Lodge area of Belfast. Fisher was then 24 years old, and Wright was just 19. The patrol commander became involved in an altercation with a young man, Peter McBride, whom the patrol had stopped for questioning and who had wrenched the patrol commander's radio earpiece from his ear.

Mr. McBride ran off and the two guardsmen were ordered to give chase and grab him. Three streets later—after warnings that they would shoot if he did not stop—they shot and killed him. The young men believed that they were acting in the line of duty, and that Peter McBride was a terrorist. They also believed that their own lives were in danger. It is now clear that they made a terrible error of judgment—I would even call it a murderous error. For this, they were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment as common murderers, for the law as it applies in Northern Ireland makes no distinction between what they did and a cold, deliberate act of murder by a cold-blooded, deliberate murderer. Indeed, the law makes it clear that a British soldier on duty alleged to have killed a suspect under any circumstances can be tried only on a charge of murder. Lesser charges of culpable homicide or manslaughter are not permitted. A murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is morally indefensible for the British state to treat soldiers who, at a time of tension, make dreadful mistakes in the same way as it treats those who conspire and calculate to kill, maim and commit acts of terrorism against the state?

Mr. Bell

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This troubles Labour Members as well—I know that it does. In the real world, what do we have? Fisher and Wright are being treated as common murderers, as if they had set out that morning with the intention of murdering someone. Instead, they were serving their country and they were instruments of British Government policy.

The guardsmen are now into their sixth year of imprisonment and later this month they will serve their 2,000th day in gaol. In the comparable cases of Privates Clegg and Thain, the sentences served were between three and four years. To make those points is not to diminish or belittle in any way the grief of the McBride family, but it is to make the point that there were other victims and other victim families—and there still are. This is a time for reconciliation rather than vengeance. I know that there are members of the minority community in Northern Ireland who will agree that Guardsmen Fisher and Wright were also victims of the conflict—and still are.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech, to which I am listening with great attention. When he draws the attention of the House to the fact that the guardsmen have already served six years in gaol, we must remember that that is longer than the average time served in gaol by common murderers—not by terrorists—who are sentenced to life imprisonment. With two thirds remissions and various other provisions for parole, such common murderers—without even the excuse that terrorists often have of commitment to various ideals—seldom serve more than six years in gaol.

Mr. Bell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. Our disquiet is also shared by Members on the Government Benches, as it should be.

As the sentences will not be reviewed until October, it may be asked whether now is a good time to seek an early review or an early release, in view of the tensions and the time of hope and promise in the negotiations. We have reached a sensitive moment, but any time is a sensitive time in the peace process. A clear line must be drawn between justice and politics. We seek from the Government an assurance that political considerations have nothing to do with the continued detention of Jim Fisher and Mark Wright as common criminals.

I was gratified to read in a letter sent to me by the Minister of State a recognition of a distinction between a terrible mistake made by soldiers on duty and a premeditated act of murder. He wrote: Clearly, the circumstances that resulted in this particular murder cannot in any way be compared with carefully pre-planned and executed murders carried out by terrorist-type offenders. That is an important distinction. If it is made in the category of the crime, it should surely also be made in the length of the sentence.

I believe that I speak for a growing number of people in this country when I say it is time for an early review of the guardsmen's sentences. It is time to stand up for the victims of the conflict, and Guardsmen Fisher and Wright are victims of the conflict, just as Peter McBride was a victim of the conflict. It is also time for justice and for mercy.

1.32 pm
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) on raising this important subject, and thank him for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. I also congratulate the Scots Guards Association on its activities on behalf of the two guardsmen, including petitions, letters and media activity—even down to the creation of a pipe tune called "Freedom", which I look forward to hearing. The two men can be assured of the absolute support of their regiment, both past and present.

My plea today is on behalf of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Wright and their son Mark, and for the release of both guardsmen. I am well aware that the situation involves a tragedy for three families—one in Northern Ireland and two in Scotland. The only hope in an otherwise hopeless situation is to allow the two men to rebuild their shattered lives. Their crime was simply to do their duty in the most trying and difficult circumstances possible—circumstances that most of us can barely even imagine. What is done is done, and the events of that day cannot be reversed.

The legal system has made the guardsmen pay a considerable price for what happened, but there must come a point when the penalty is finally paid and the two guardsmen can resume their lives as free men and rebuild their futures. Since young Mark Wright has now spent nearly a quarter of his life in prison, that time must have come. His parents have lived from October review to October review, only to have their hopes dashed every time. Legal moves have been made to try to win freedom for the guardsmen, but again their parents have been disappointed.

I ask the Minister to let the guardsmen share, at the very least, in the Christmas prisoner release scheme. It is a cruel irony to see convicted civilians return to their homes for Christmas, while the two soldiers are kept under lock and key. Although I want both men to be released permanently, I ask that, while they remain under sentence they are allowed to share the benefits of any temporary release scheme. I urge the Government to treat the men as a priority and to treat them on the merits of their case, instead of as part of any wider system of negotiations. The time has come to free those men—and the sooner the better.

1.34 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) has taken a keen interest in the cases of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright in recent months. I am aware of his public support for the campaign to secure their early release, and I congratulate him on his success in securing this Adjournment debate today. I join him in recognising the role played by the men's constituency Members of Parliament—the hon. Members for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and for Angus (Mr. Welsh)—who have taken a keen interest in the families. I pay tribute to the assiduous way in which they have carried our their duties on behalf of the families.

The cases of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright have generated considerable interest, both inside and outside the House. Since taking office, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have responded to more than 100 inquiries from hon. Members about the cases and to many more inquiries from other interested parties. I therefore welcome this further opportunity to explain to the House where the cases currently stand.

The facts of the cases are well known, but are worth restating none the less. The guardsmen were jointly convicted of the murder of an unarmed civilian youth, Peter Paul McBride, during an incident that occurred when they were on patrol in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for Tatton described. In the words of the learned trial judge, Lord Justice Kelly: It is only right to point out that the events the accused Fisher had to deal with took place in daylight, on a bright morning in early September, with the suspect on foot retreating from him at all times and increasing the distance between them and over a distance of three streets. It was not a panic situation which required split second decision or split second action, if any action at all". He continued: As in the case of Fisher, the events of this early September morning did not, or could not, in my opinion have put Wright in any panic situation or any situation which called for a split second decision. Similarly, it is right to point out that the judgment in the cases of Fisher and Wright was reserved pending the outcome of the Clegg appeal to the House of Lords on a point of law. In delivering his judgment, Lord Justice Kelly said: I delayed my decision in this case until the House of Lords determined the point of general importance in Regina v Clegg, namely, whether a verdict of manslaughter was open to a court in circumstances when a soldier or police officer on duty used unreasonable force and killed a person in self-defence or in defence of another. Their Lordships answered the question in the negative. Even if their Lordships' answer had been in the affirmative I doubt if a verdict of manslaughter would fit my findings in this case". The Guardsmen appealed their convictions and in delivering the judgment of the Court of Appeal, the then Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Brian Hutton, stated: No bomb or firearm of any type was found in the course of the search and it was not in dispute that at no time had the deceased been carrying a gun or a coffee jar bomb or any type of bomb. Therefore, as the deceased was shot when he was unarmed, the appellants, on the objective facts, had no lawful justification for firing at the deceased. The guardsmen were refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords on 8 March 1996.

It is, of course, not the role of the Secretary of State to determine questions of guilt or innocence. That is rightly a matter for the independent courts. However, the power to release life sentence prisoners in Northern Ireland rests with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Before exercising that power she is required to consult the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and the trial judge, if available.

In line with the established procedures, the first internal review of the guardsmen's cases began in early 1996, shortly after their appeals to the Court of Appeal had been dismissed. At that time, it was decided that the cases should be considered by the review board in October 1998, when the guardsmen would have served approximately six years in custody, and not at the normal 10-year stage. The then Secretary of State was advised of the decision and expressed his agreement with it. The prisoners were advised of the outcome of the review in writing on 13 June 1996. The decision was challenged in the courts by way of judicial review proceedings.

In his judgment, delivered on 20 December 1996, Mr. Justice Girvan criticised the decision on two main grounds. The first was that the Northern Ireland Office had not addressed itself to the proper question in examining the cases. In his view, the test to be applied should have been whether the cases raised issues worthy of consideration by the board, and if so, when. Secondly, he said that insufficient regard had been given to other cases, especially those related to other soldiers convicted of murder, sentenced to life imprisonment and released after a few years, and to manslaughter cases.

A fresh internal review of the cases of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright was carried out in accordance with Mr. Justice Girvan's judgment. On that occasion, and on an exceptional basis, the then Secretary of State personally took the decision about the timing of the first referral of the cases to the review board, following advice from his officials. He decided that to ensure that the discretion of the board and, ultimately, the Secretary of State, was not limited by too late a referral, the cases should be considered by the board for the first time in October 1997, at the five-year point. The decision was, of course, without prejudice to the outcome of the review board's recommendations and the deliberations of a future Secretary of State. It is perhaps worth reflecting that the first review by the board normally takes place at the 10-year point, in the context that the average period served against a life sentence in Northern Ireland is around 15 years.

The guardsmen were informed of the fresh decision and advised that the earlier than normal review was not a guarantee that a recommendation for release would follow. They then brought a judicial review of the fresh decision and the cases were heard once again before Mr. Justice Girvan.

Mr. Alan Clark

The Minister cited the average term served in Northern Ireland. In putting the situation into the context of public indignation, which is very relevant, it is fairer to take the average served in mainland Britain. I do not know for certain—he could discuss it with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—but I believe that the average term actually served for criminal murder is between six and eight years before probation or parole proposal is given.

Mr. Ingram

The best advice that I can give the right hon. Gentleman is that for murder, no remission is granted to lifers. The average period served by lifers in England and Wales is between 13 and 15 years, contrary to what he said. If there is a dispute about the facts, they can be clarified later.

In his reserved judgment, delivered on 2 July 1997, Mr. Justice Girvan ordered that the decision be taken again. Having carefully considered the new judgment and after consulting the Department' s legal advisers, it was decided that the judgment should be appealed. On 15 August 1997, the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and set aside Mr. Justice Girvan's order of 2 July.

The Court of Appeal commented on the thoroughness with which the consideration of the cases had been carried out. It held that the Secretary of State had applied the proper test in determining when the cases should first be considered by the review board and concluded that there had been sufficient analysis of the allegedly comparable cases.

The review board duly considered the cases at its meeting on 14 and 15 October 1997 at the five-year stage of the sentence. The confidential recommendation of the board was then referred to the Secretary of State for her personal consideration. I assure the House that the cases have been the subject of very detailed and thorough consideration by all those involved at the various stages of the review process. No extraneous considerations, political or otherwise, have been permitted to influence the decisions taken. I can give that absolute assurance to the hon. Member for Tatton.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I trust that the Minister will come to the representation made by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) about why privileges given to others have not been given to these men.

Mr. Ingram

I will cover that point in due course.

The hon. Member for Tatton made a strong point about concerns that extraneous matters might have been brought into play. I set out the detailed way in which the Department and Secretaries of State have handled the matter to show that it has been dealt with very thoroughly and that no political or other considerations have in any way been brought to bear on the decisions taken. I stress again that the cases have been dealt with strictly on their individual merits.

Clearly, these are difficult cases, about which different people hold strong but conflicting views. The Secretary of State has recognised that, and, in personally considering them, following receipt of the views of review board, has been extremely careful to approach them objectively, based on the way in which the courts upheld the conviction for murder. She considered at length all the currently available information, court judgments and reports about the cases, including that relating to the other cases identified by officials and by the guardsmen's legal representatives, and she considered carefully the background circumstances in which the murder occurred. She concluded that, given all the available information, Guardsmen Fisher and Wright had not served a period sufficient to reflect the seriousness of the crime. She therefore decided to invite the review board to consider the cases again in October 1998, when each guardsman will have served approximately six years.

The two guardsmen were each provided with a written gist of the Secretary of State's consideration of their cases. The decision reflects the fact that a very serious crime has been committed that resulted in the death of an unarmed youth who was running away from an army patrol in circumstances in which the court found no lawful justification for the shooting. However, it also reflects the difficult background against which the offence was committed and in which the guardsmen were operating during the course of their duty and the fact that there was no premeditation.

Clearly, the circumstances that resulted in the murder cannot in any way be compared with carefully pre-planned and executed murders carried out by terrorist-type offenders. The hon. Member for Tatton referred to that statement. The letters of every hon. Member who has written to me reflect that point.

The guardsmen have recently been granted leave to seek judicial review of the Secretary of State's decision, but no date has yet been set for the hearing.

Mr. Hunter

Has the Minister not effectively told us that it was as a result of the Secretary of State's personal intervention that the successful appeal of the guardsmen did not proceed to review last October and that it was effectively a political decision, her intervention, that resulted in a postponement of the activity of the review board?

Mr. Ingram

I do not think that I said that at all. I would like to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of that thought. I was saying that there was very careful handling. Every aspect of the case was taken into consideration: the allegedly comparable cases, and the nature and seriousness of the crime. I set out at length the background to that and the judicial comments made. So there is no overlay, and no intrusion of political interference in the case.

Mr. Alan Clark

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. Can he really tell the House that nowhere in all the papers attaching to this case is there mentioned any reference to the political aspect of a possible decision?

Mr. Ingram

The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and has served as a Minister. He will know that it is impossible for me to recollect every document off the top of my head in the way he asks. What is important is not so much what the advice is or what is commented upon in a document as that which is taken into consideration in coming to a conclusion. I refute the implication that political considerations came into play.

Many of those who have raised these cases with myself and the Secretary of State have done so on the basis of a comparison with the cases of other soldiers convicted of offences committed while on duty in Northern Ireland—notably Private Clegg and Private Thain. While it is useful to recall these and other cases and to be aware of their outcomes, and the reasons for them, they lend little assistance to the deliberations, given the full facts of the guardsmen's particular cases.

Clearly, there are some parallels in terms of the lack of premeditation and the stresses on soldiers operating in Northern Ireland. However, it is not helpful to take the parallels too far, or to ignore the differences in the background circumstances. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that the courts must apply the law as it stands to the facts of individual cases.

Successive Governments have held to the principle that the criminal law, including that on the use of lethal force, should apply to members of the armed forces in the same way as it applies to all other citizens. To do otherwise would diminish public confidence in the impartiality of both the security forces and the law itself.

The hon. Member for Tatton asked whether the guardsmen should have been charged with the lesser offence of manslaughter as opposed to murder. In a response to the earlier case of Private Clegg, the then Home Secretary commissioned a review of the law of murder. The purpose of the review was to examine whether persons who used excessive force in order to maintain law and order, or in self-defence, should be liable to a charge of murder or manslaughter, or some other charge, in circumstances which had resulted in the death of another person. The review also examined whether any special defences should apply. The conclusion of that review, announced early in 1996, was that an adequate case to change the law had not been made.

Like any other citizen, members of the security forces may use only such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected terrorists. Soldiers receive specific training on their legal position before being deployed to Northern Ireland, and are constantly reminded that they have no immunity from the law, and must always remain responsible for their actions under the law.

Mr. Martin Bell

I wonder whether the Minister is aware of the growing unease about this case in the armed forces, outside the armed forces and among the public at large, and not only in Scotland. There is a feeling that something is wrong. Does he share that view?

Mr. Ingram

I am certainly fully aware of the strength of feeling on this. We have had inquiries from about 100 hon. Members and many other letters. It would therefore be wrong to say that we were not aware of it. I am only too well aware of the difficult circumstances in which the forces of law and order have to operate in Northern Ireland. It is a difficult and arduous task that they have to perform on our behalf. But clearly, the rule of law must apply to those members of the security forces in the same way as it does to any other citizen.

To do otherwise would prejudice the minds of others as to the way in which the security forces were carrying out their actions and would diminish the rule of law overall. I make that point strongly. While we can share the concerns and understand the problems, the rule of law has to be applied equitably at all times. Clearly, these young soldiers and others who serve in Northern Ireland have difficult experiences.

One other point that has been raised with me in correspondence, although it was not raised in the debate, is why the guardsmen have not been permitted to serve their sentences in a prison nearer their families. The Government attach considerable importance to enabling prisoners to maintain family ties, and there are established mechanisms to permit this. To date, neither of the guardsmen has pursued a transfer. Should they wish to, I can assure the House that any application would be treated on its merits.

The hon. Members for Angus and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised the issue of Christmas leave. It has also been raised with me in correspondence.

It is important to put on record exactly what rules apply to Christmas home leave. It is available to prisoners who have served 10 years and to determinate sentence prisoners who are receiving pre-release leave. Like two thirds of sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland, the guardsmen did not qualify. Clearly, if special circumstances had been applied to their case, we would have been faced with demands for judicial review and for equal treatment from the other prisoners in Her Majesty's prisons in Northern Ireland. That is the reason why the matter was dealt with in that way.

The guardsmen have not applied to go back to their families. That is a matter for them. If they wish to seek such a transfer, their applications would be treated on their merits.

I give this assurance to the House. I have listened with great interest to all that has been said by the hon. Member for Tatton and other hon. Members today. I wish to assure the hon. Gentleman that the views that he has expressed will be kept firmly in mind when the cases are next considered. They will be drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

I hope that the hon. Member and others who have contributed to the debate today and those who are campaigning outside the House on behalf of the guardsmen are prepared to accept that these cases are being dealt with according to the proper procedures, and that extraneous matters have not influenced, and will not be allowed to influence, decisions in relation to these cases.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.