HL Deb 01 November 1966 vol 277 cc523-32

4.1 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement that has been made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. His words were:

"Last Tuesday this House resolved that a Tribunal be established under the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act to inquire into the causes of and all the circumstances relating to the Aberfan disaster. Last Thursday my right honourable friend the Attorney General made a statement on the implications of that decision. In view of the misunderstanding and gross misrepresentation of his action, I now find it necessary to ask permission to make a Statement about some of the consequences of the decision the House took, and also about the position of the Attorney General.

"The House fully recognises the unique position of the Attorney General. In addition to being a member of the Government with collective responsibility for Government decisions, he has certain important duties in connection with the administration of justice which are non-political and on which no Prime Minister nor he himself would allow any pressures to be put. But he has a third capacity, that of adviser on matters of law to this House and through this House to the country. It was in this third capacity that my right honourable and learned friend acted last Thursday.

" It is now being widely suggested that my right honourable and learned friend in the statement he made last week did what he did for political, indeed for Party political, reasons. This is a gross and contemptible slur on my right honourable and learned friend which should be sharply repudiated by every Member of this House.

"I think it right now that the House should be told of the considerations which led him to make the statement.

"On Tuesday last this House resolved to establish the Tribunal and clothed it with all the powers of a judicial inquiry. Every Member of the House who agreed to that Motion must have known the consequences of that decision. They were set out in fact on a similar occasion by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Macmillan, when he referred to a 1921 Act Tribunal as: '…a Tribunal armed with the power of subpoena, armed with the power to put witnesses on Oath, armed with the power to pursue them for perjury if they tell untruths, armed with the power to examine and cross-examine, and where witnesses will be protected by privilege, irrespective of the evidence they give.' "Since it is the earnest desire of every Member of this House, and of the whole public, including Press, television and radio, that this Tribunal must be enabled to get at the truth, to establish responsibility where responsibility may be shown to lie, it is vital that nothing be done which in any way weakens the power and ability of the Tribunal to do the job we have given it to do.

"Before he made the statement my right honourable and learned friend consulted the Chairman of the Tribunal and his statement was made with Lord Justice Edmund Davies' full knowledge and approval. And there was good reason for the statement.

"On the Friday of the disaster and subsequently the great majority of Press reporters and also television and radio did their duty with great responsibility and consideration—indeed I myself in Aberfan paid tribute to the Press for the great responsibility and restraint they had shown. But certain television interviews had involved cross-examination of potential witnesses of a kind so searching that they appeared to be seeking to do the work of the Tribunal in advance without all the powers and safeguards for a Judicial Inquiry on which this House has insisted, as in the words I have just quoted from Mr. Macmillan.

"Statements describing action taken or actions which it is considered should have been taken are matters to be elucidated by the Tribunal. Once statements have been elucidated by television interviewers under non-judicial procedures, they are on the record in a form which could hinder the Tribunal's ability to get at the truth.

"Moreover, those who have attacked my right honourable and learned friend and impute unworthy motives to him disregard the precedents he was following. In a previous Tribunal it was the Prime Minister, and not the Law Officer of the Crown responsible, who in moving the Resolution to establish the Committee said this: 'I do most sincerely and most earnestly deprecate publication in any form or in any conditions, of any speculation as to what happened, now that a court has been set up to investigate the circumstances. It clearly will be impossible to obtain any indication of the real causes of this terrible disaster until the evidence has been given and considered by the Tribunal. I hope, therefore, whatever people may have thought or said in the past, that they will now say no more about it until the Tribunal reports.' "That was the Thetis disaster.

"Indeed, Mr. Speaker, the House itself has, from the earliest days of these Tribunals, ruled through the mouths of a number of your distinguished predecessors in the Chair that, having established a court with full judicial powers, this House itself could not discuss any matter within the competence of the Tribunal. The original rule, Mr. Speaker, was made on March 21, 1921, by Mr. Speaker Lowther when he ruled that as a matter before the Tribunal had been referred to that Tribunal it should not be raised or discussed in the House.

"In 1959, for example, the then Lord Advocate refused to answer Questions to him even before the Motion had been confirmed before the House on the ground that a Motion was awaiting decision by the House.

"In November, 1962, when the Vassall Tribunal was set up your predecessor gave a ruling which strictly followed that of Mr. Speaker Lowther.

"The then Leader of the House, the right honourable Member for Enfield West, then submitted a Motion to the House referring this whole matter to the Select Committee on Procedure which reported on March 5, 1963, confirming in the strongest terms the rulings which your predecessors had given. The House approved that report in July, 1963.

"If Parliament has consistently and rigorously restrained its own functions in this matter because of the sub judice ruling, my right honourable and learned friend was abundantly justified in acting as he did so that others outside this House were advised of the legal position. The more so in view of the fact that since the House first ruled on these matters a new and more formidable instrument of interrogation, namely the television interview, has been evolved. It was the more necessary in that those whose duty it is to assist the Tribunal had already begun their work in Aberfan and were in process of collecting evidence and taking statements from witnesses who therefore by this time had become witnesses of the Tribunal.

"I trust, having quoted the precedents and recorded the facts, that the House as a whole will agree that my right honourable and learned friend was fully justified in the action he took in the discharge of his duties to the House and the country."

That is the end of the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for reading out that rather long Statement which the Prime Minister has made in another place. I must say, first of all, that we on these Benches are extremely dissatisfied that such a very important Statement as that made by the Attorney General last Thursday, which has drawn world-wide comment, was not repeated in your Lordships' House, and I hope we may have some explanation of that.

In spite of the long Statement, is it not still clear that, whatever the legal position may be, the Attorney General went too far in threatening the Press, radio and television on this occasion? Who felt that it was necessary to make a statement at this time? From the Statement we have just heard, it is quite clear that no previous Prime Minister or Attorney General has found it necessary to use that threatening language on any other occasion. Is it not also clear from the Statement that the interviews which are complained of—and I think they are confined largely to the B.B.C.—were all interviews which took place before the Tribunal was set up? And is there any evidence in this Statement, in spite of all the research that has been done upon it, of any comment in the Press or on the radio which was likely adversely to affect the working of the Tribunal? Therefore, would the noble and learned Lord not agree that in the circumstances the Attorney General's statement was at least clumsily worded, and was guaranteed to give the maximum affront to the Press, radio and television?


My Lords, on the first point, I regret that there was some misunderstanding or failure of co-ordination between the usual channels. It has been the practice for many years to repeat Statements made in another place, after consultation through the usual channels and, of course, taking into account the interests of Members generally. The Chief Whips of various Governments, through their contacts with all Government Departments, have sought to ensure that the House is informed, but sometimes, due to the short period between the decision to make a Statement and the making of it, information is not available in sufficient time. I understand that this was the case last Thursday, and neither I nor the usual channels in this House were aware that the Statement was being made. I regret that.

On the second point raised, I think first of all one has to see what the facts were and the sort of thing which was happening. On Sunday my right honourable friend the Prime Minister had announced that there would be an Inquiry—he had announced it on Friday, I think—under the 1921 Act, and that Lord Justice Edmund Davies would lead it. The sort of thing which took place was that on the Monday, in "24 Hours"—which I understand has an enormous listening audience—a witness was interviewed and cross-examined. The interviewer described him as: a man who surely knows more about the behaviour and nature of coal tips than anyone. Some of us, without being civil engineers, know a little about the angle of repose. These questions are manifestly civil engineering questions. The man who was described as a man who surely knows more about the behaviour and nature of coal tips than anyone was the local chargehand who had been at the pit for some 25 years. This man was severely cross-examined as to what the dangers may be, whether the tip was regularly inspected, and so forth.

Perhaps I might pause there to observe that one of the dangers which television introduces is this. When you are asked a question you do not expect, you give what must necessarily be an unconsidered reply. You may realise a moment afterwards that you have said something wrong. If you were in the witness box, of course you would have every opportunity to put that right before you left the witness box, but in these scrappy television interviews the interviewer then goes on to something else and says, "Time is up; thank you very much", and you have no opportunity to correct it.

What is a man likely to do when he comes before the Tribunal, when he knows that millions of people have already heard him make an important statement which he subsequently realised was erroneous? The interview ended by the interviewer looking straight at the camera, and saying to us who heard it: Now I have, as a young journalist, attended and reported several public inquiries into pit disasters, disasters involving men working underground. And in nearly every case I have to report to you that when grief had safely abated the final report was a frustrating exercise in official 'whitewashing'. This was a deliberate attack on the bona fides of the Tribunal, when the head of the Tribunal had already been announced and made known to millions of people, at a time when, as we all know, emotions very naturally were running high.

It is perhaps not surprising, though it may have been unusual, that on the following night the Lord Justice felt bound to go on the same programme. Those of us who heard it will remember the simple, sincere and moving way in which he said: These are my own people. I can assure you that I shall leave no stone unturned to see that we arrive at the truth. But I venture to think that no fair Englishman, once it had been announced that there was to be a Tribunal under the Act, with a Lord Justice to lead it—would suggest to millions of people that the probability was that it would be a 'whitewashing' exercise. From the other statements in the Press it is quite plain what they meant: that because this is a Labour Government, and because the National Coal Board is a nationalised industry, in some improper way they were going to try to secure that there should be a "whitewashing" Report. I have no doubt at all that not only was my right honourable friend the Attorney General justified in saying what he did, but it was high time somebody reminded the newspapers and television of what the law was. It is, I think, quite possible that they imagined that, because a Tribunal under the Act is not a law court, the law of contempt of court does not apply. But it does; and they were rightly reminded that it does.


My Lords, in reply to that, may I say that of course I would not for one moment try to defend the kind of comments that were expressed on television on Monday night. But I would point out that that was a programme which took place before the Tribunal was set up, and no mention had been made of any such adverse or prejudicial comment in the Press or on the radio, and it seemed to me that this was using extravagant language in order to bring home, no doubt quite rightly, to certain sections of public communication media a warning that, once the Tribunal had been set up, the case was sub judice.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for repeating this long Statement. I think it is quite right that it should have been repeated here to-day. May I say that I entirely acquit Sir Elwyn Jones, whom I have known for many years, and for whom I have a high regard, of making any statement for political or Party political reasons in this context. I am quite sure that he did not do that at all.

May I also say, as I said when the Statement was originally made by the noble and learned Lord, that I have every confidence in Sir Edmund Davies. I think, however, that in the circumstances, in view of the feeling in the country about this terrible disaster, it would have been better, if a warning was needed, to let Sir Edmund Davies make it, rather than the Attorney General. That, I think, was a mistake—no doubt a natural mistake in the circumstances—and, as I say, I believe that if any warning was required it would have come much better from Sir Edmund Davies.

I hope now that, when all these protests have been made, when the long Statement has been repeated in this House and made by the Prime Minister in another place, all the arguments and disputes in this matter in regard to the statement made by Sir Elwyn Jones will cease. We are dealing with a terribly serious matter, one on which there is very strong feeling in my country, as well as in England, and I believe we should now let the Tribunal under the distinguished Judge get on with their work, so that we may, in the not too distant future, receive the benefit of their findings.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, may one who agrees entirely with what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said on the subject of certain interviews on television (which I did not see) and on radio, reinforce what has just been said by the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, and indeed by my noble Leader, by suggesting that all this trouble might have been avoided if, when the Attorney General thought it necessary to make a statement in the House of Commons, he had revealed what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister revealed to-day: that he made it with the assent and approval of the Chairman of the Tribunal. I think the trouble was caused by the apparently threatening language used by the Attorney General in the House of Commons, where, of course, this statement had no more the force of law than if someone had made it outside. If the Attorney General had given a warning in another way, I think that this trouble might have been avoided. I agree with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, and I hope this now clears up the matter.

However, may I ask the Lord Chancellor one other question, which I hope he will not think entirely irrelevant to what has happened? It will remind the House of a short speech made by my noble and learned friend Lord Dilhorne on the occasion when this House approved the setting-up of the Tribunal. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor heard the one o'clock News on the Home Service yesterday? If not, I hope he will obtain a transcript from the B.B.C. Immediately after the News, in a programme called "The World at One", an interview took place between somebody at the B.B.C. and a convict recently released from Wormwood Scrubs, who answered a number of questions about Blake, about his guilt of the offences for which he was imprisoned, how he had behaved in prison and where he had probably now gone.

My Lords, I am well aware that no Tribunal has been set up in that case but I believe that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor may think those questions and that interview quite as improper, from the point of view of the Inquiry now taking place into prison escapes, as the other matters to which he alluded.


My Lords, I think I had probably better not get involved in the Blake case, although I will consider what the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, has said. On the other point, I think my right honourable friend the Attorney General was properly anxious not to involve the learned Lord Justice in any way, and, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, I should have thought it was undesirable that the Judge himself should get directly involved in controversies with the Press and that the proper way of dealing with the matter was the way in which it was, in fact, dealt with by my right honourable friend the Attorney General; that is, by reminding Parliament, and through Parliament the country, what the law on this point was—of which, of course, he, as well as the learned Lord Justice, was aware.

I entirely agree with the hope that this controversy will now end. It is perhaps right to remind those of your Lordships who have not seen it that the Daily Express of this morning says this: Of course it is very annoying if the first of the major nationalised industries is involved in an inquiry arising out of an immense tragedy at the very time when it is planned to extend the area of nationalisation. But that is no reason to attempt to threaten the Press in a statement issued under the wig and gown of a senior law officer. I hope that that type of journalism, which I venture to characterise as a disgraceful one, will also end.