HL Deb 16 November 1971 vol 325 cc585-90

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made in another place. The Statement reads as follows and is in his own words:

"The Report of the Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Edmund Compton which I set up to inquire into allegations against the security forces of physical brutality in Northern Ireland arising out of events on August 9 is being published to-day and copies will be available in the Vote Office at 4 p.m."—

in our case, in the Printed Paper Office.

"For completeness I should add that at my request Sir Edmund Compton himself also investigated allegations in respect of three persons named in the Sunday Times issue oaf October 17 who were arrested after August 9. Copies of this Supplementary Report will also be available in the Vote Office at 4 p.m. The rest of my Statement is concerned only with the main Report.

"The Government are grateful to the members of the Committee of Inquiry for the care and thoroughness with which they carried out their difficult task.

"Following the precedent of the Bowen Report on Aden in 1966, the Report is published with an introduction by myself as Minister appointing the Inquiry. The Government have not found it necessary to omit anything from the Report on grounds of security and it is, therefore, published in full.

"The Compton Committee found no evidence of physical brutality by the British Army or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, still less of torture or brain-washing. In the course of the arrest of 342 men on August 9 a small number of them suffered what the Committee describe as a measure of ill-treatment or hardship. I think the House on studying the Report will conclude that the operation, which was one of considerable difficulty and danger, was accomplished in a highly creditable manner.

"I made it clear to the Committee on the day they were appointed that their terms of reference included complaints of physical brutality in respect of a small number of men arrested on August 9 who were interrogated in depth after a detention order had been made against them. The purpose of this interrogation was to obtain vital information about the terrorist forces and their stocks of arms and explosives. In these cases also the Committee found no evidence of physical brutality or of torture or brainwashing. They did, however, conclude that some of the procedures involved physical ill-treatment. Full details are given in the Report.

"The principles applied in the interrogation of suspects in Northern Ireland and the methods employed are the same as those which have been used in other struggles against armed terrorists in which Britain has been involved in recent years. Her Majesty's Government consider however that it would be right now to review them. Very difficult issues are involved in judging what methods of interrogation are permissible in the protection of the lives of the civil population and the security forces against a ruthless and deliberate campaign of terror and murder. After discussion with the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition my right honourable Friend the Prime Minister has decided to set up a Committee of three Privy Counsellors to consider whether, and if so in what respects, the procedures currently authorised for the interrogation of persons suspected of terrorism and for the custody while subject to interrogation require amendment.

"Lord Parker of Waddington has accepted the chairmanship of this Committee. The names of one Privy Counsellor nominated by the Government and one by the Opposition will be announced shortly."

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, the House will he grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for repeating this Statement, and I believe that we shall all wish to join in expressing our appreciation to Sir Edmund Compton and his colleagues in the Committee in undertaking this particular task. We on this side of the House, I think like all noble Lords, have in the past applauded the control and the restraint of the British Forces in Northern Ireland, and therefore all of us should be careful that we do not jump to any hasty conclusions in this matter. Clearly, we shall all need to study the Report with great care.

I find it a very difficult subject. I am never quite certain where the line can be drawn between physical brutality and physical ill-treatment. I suppose it is where the action is an act of policy, on the one hand, and perhaps, in the case of ill-treatment, where it is spontaneous in response to circumstances. So we shall need to consider very carefully the evidence and the details in the Report. I think we should also understand that evidence needs to be obtained, for the protection not only of the community as a whole but also of those who are involved in the security operation. But if we are to maintain our social fabric and our general standards, on which in the end the morale of our forces depends, we have to be very careful where the line is actually drawn.

Having made that statement, I have only one question that I would put to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. In the Statement reference is made to the Bowen Report, and in that Report various lines were drawn as to what is right and proper in the field of interrogation. I believe that the previous Administration, in accepting these lines, laid down and made a recommendation, which I think was implemented, that in all cases a medical officer needed to be present at these interrogations. Can the noble Lord confirm that in the interrogations that have taken place the recommendations of the Bowen Report were fully complied with, and in particular that a medical officer was present at the time? My Lords, I think that, for the present, I should prefer to leave the matter there and to study the Report, and if we feel that a debate is justified then I have no doubt that arrangements can be made.


My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has said. I agree with him; I think that these are very difficult matters in which to balance what it is legitimate to do, the methods which are legitimate in questioning people who are known to be either murderers or directly responsible for murders. It is something which, in a civilised society, it is very difficult for us to judge. I think that this Committee of three Privy Counsellors is the right answer and should certainly prove helpful to the Government in making up their mind. The Bowen Committee reported and made, I think, two amendments to the rules of interrogation laid down by previous Administrations. These amendments were accepted by the previous Administration, of which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, was a member. All the rules were adhered to in this case. There was a medical officer present, and this very small number who were interrogated were examined by a medical officer every day.


My Lords, may I ask this question? I agree that it would be unwise and injudicious to make comments on a Report which is not in our possession and will not be in our possession until four o'clock. Obviously, it is impossible to draw conclusions from what the noble Lord has said, except, if I may, to venture this point. Where Sir Edmund Compton is concerned, I should be inclined to accept his conclusions. He is an honourable, judicious person, and his integrity is beyond question. But this is the point I would put. Would it not be wise, having seen the Report, to have a debate on the subject, in order to refute, if possible—I emphasise if possible—the allegations that have been contained in articles in the Sunday Times and in other periodicals? Surely it is far better to clear up the whole thing in the course of a debate than to allow suspicion to remain. Therefore I would, if I may, with great respect, go somewhat beyond what my noble friend Lord Shepherd suggested, a debate if desired, and respectfully expect the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to say on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that a debate should take place for the purpose of removing any ambiguities and suspicions that exist.


My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell. I would certainly welcome a debate, and I think the sooner a debate takes place the better.


My Lords, while recognising the difficulties of this problem of interrogation, and welcoming the Government's decision to establish a Committee to review the matter, may I ask the noble Lord this question? Is it not the fact that a substantial number of the alleged victims of this alleged brutality declined to give evidence to the Compton Commission because they did not recognise it as an impartial authority? And could the Minister say this: did not the limitation of the Committee's terms of reference to physical brutality mean that they did not include psychological pressure, which in circumstances of prisoners, as I know myself, may be as imperative upon them as actual physical brutality?


My Lords, with respect, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, perhaps ought to read the Report. Certainly Sir Edmund Compton did not feel that he was impaired from making recommendations and inquiring into this question of psychological and mental pressures and the methods involved. With regard to the noble Lord's first question, it is perfectly true that most of those who complained did not do so themselves; it was through second and third parties. Most of them did not come before Sir Edmund Compton, and in many ways, I am very sorry that they did not, because as a result, as Sir Edmund Compton says in his Report, he has seen only the security forces, the Police and the Army, and been able to judge from their evidence. He has not heard the evidence of the others, and to that extent he may have been unfair to the security forces.


My Lords, while echoing the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Shepherd, about the need to be temperate in this matter and not to exacerbate an already difficult situation, may I ask one question? It has been my experience in internal security operations of the kind going on now in Northern Ireland that it has been the policy to keep the civil and military Powers as clearly distinguished as possible, and as part of this it has been the custom not to place the responsibility for interrogation in the hands of operational troops but to place it in the hands of other people. May we be assured that this is the policy that is being followed in Northern Ireland?


My Lords, in this case the interrogation was done by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but it was done according to methods which the Services generally use, and there was an army advisory team there. I think one could say that this was a joint effort, a joint interrogation centre. But the actual interrogation and handling of the prisoners was done by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.