HL Deb 27 October 1981 vol 424 cc912-7
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement.

"The House is aware that at about 4 p.m. yesterday afternoon a bomb exploded in a Wimpy Bar in Oxford Street, killing Mr. Kenneth Howorth, a Metropolitan Police Explosives Officer. Mr. Howorth had entered the building following an anonymous phone call received by Reuters news agency at 2.50 p.m., warning that three bombs had been placed in shops in Oxford Street, the other two places being the department stores Debenhams an Bourne's. Subseqently an explosive device was found in Debenhams and made safe. Despite an intensive search a third device has not been found. Subsequently the Provisional IRA have said they were responsible.

"The House will wish to express its revulsion at this vicious act. It will also, I am sure, wish to join in paying tribute to the courage and dedication to duty of Mr. Howorth. Our deepest sympathy goes to his widow and family. We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those who, like Mr. Howorth, risk their lives to protect us.

"This is the third bombing incident this month in London for which the IRA have said they are responsible. In the first, at Chelsea barracks, two people were killed. The second was the attack on Lieutenant-General Sir Steuart Pringle. The House will wish me to place on record our deepest sympathy to the relatives of the victims of the first attack and our tribute to the courage of Sir Steuart.

"The emergency services have responded swiftly and efficiently on each of these occasions. I can assure the House that the police are taking all possible steps—as they have done with success in the past—to bring the criminals to justice.

"I should like to underline what the police have already said. They need help from the public and, above all, vigilance. Any suspicious objects or actions should be reported to the police immediately."

That, my Lords, concludes the Statement.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating that Statement. We all share in the sense of outrage at this despicable, cowardly and criminal attack and join in condemning it totally. We have all too often had occasion in this House to praise the work of the bomb disposal experts, the police and the other emergency services. Those expressions of our gratitude and admiration have been just as heartfelt when there has been no injury or loss of life as when there has been. But yesterday's incident really does show all too clearly how completely justified are our praise and admiration. We hope that the deep sympathy we all feel can be passed on to the relatives of Mr. Kenneth Howorth, a most courageous man. We also join in expressing our deep sympathy to the others who suffered from this attack and from the other attacks that the Minister has mentioned. Once again, we join in praising the work of the services I have referred to. Perhaps I could join in commending the high example, in terms of both courage and devotion to duty, set by General Sir Steuart Pringle, which was not only an outstanding example to his men but, I believe, to us all.

I have only one question to put to the Minister. It is clear from this latest attack that it is not solely identifiable and prominent targets which are in danger but that those responsible are once again launching indiscriminate attacks. I do not wish in any way to be alarmist but I believe that the public wish the facts to be faced. Therefore it continues to be of great importance, as the Minister has said, that everyone remains vigilant. I would ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that everything possible is being done both to keep the public on the alert and to take all the precautions which can be taken—while it is recognised that there is a limit to what can be done there. My Lords, I would only make one further point in connection with this Statement and this attack. Your Lordships will have heard or read of the statement of those who say that they were responsible and of their expression of concern for the dangers faced by the children of Northern Ireland. I confess that I am tempted to say that, coming from that source, that statement amounts almost to an obscenity. If they are so genuinely concerned about the safety of men, women and children as we all are, then they have it in their power to end those dangers by stopping these criminal acts. It will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that this is half-term for very many schools and the likelihood is that there are more children about. While it is always difficult to draw any distinctions between one target and another, one is bound to feel that there is something particularly grotesque about choosing times and places where more children are likely to be about. We join the noble Lord in hoping that those responsible will be brought speedily to justice.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, we, too, should like to add our tribute to the bravery shown on this occasion by Mr. Howorth and on so many other occasions in the past by him and his colleagues. One has only to imagine the work involved to realise the courage that is required and the quiet and unostentatious way in which their tasks have been carried out. The only other observation I would make is to query the way in which, after each of these outrages, it is reported in the media that a particular organisation "claims responsibility "—an expression which seems to me to lend an aura of respectability to these outrages. Is not the straightforward fact that what such an organisation is doing is either admitting its guilt or confessing to a serious criminal offence? Would it not help in a very small way if we were to use the appropriate terminology?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I know that the expressions of sympathy and admiration from the noble Lords, Lord Boston and Lord Wigoder, will be much appreciated by all those who are concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Boston, asked me a specific question: whether everything possible was being done to keep the public informed and to take all the possible precautions? My answer is, yes, I believe that everything possible is being done; but let us remain vigilant and take nothing for granted. So far as the closing words of both noble Lords are concerned, the Government agree that the people who perpetrated this and the two previous acts are criminals and everything possible will be done to bring them to justice.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the expressions of sympathy for the several persons involved in this deplorable affair would be applauded by every Member of your Lordships' House and by a very large body of people outside? But expressions of sympathy, while desirable in the circumstances, to me do not seem to be enough. I should like to ask the Minister a question that may not have been put in the course of debates dealing with Northern Ireland, and it is this. How long is this affair going on? How many years will elapse while scores of innocent people are slaughtered, and how many years will elapse while the British taxpayer is being asked to accept a burden that it is doubtful he can afford? Also, how many years will elapse while a very substantial and important element of the British forces are deployed in a task that they abhor, as do we all?

Is it not possible, in some form that hitherto has not been deployed—and I hope that this proposal will not be laughed at, because I do not laugh at this problem and neither do I think anybody here does—for the Government to appoint a commission of responsible people (and, if possible, people who are impartial, those who have studied Irish history, the depression, persecution and political implications associated with it) to create some medium, whether personal, or public, collective or individual, which will enable us to bring this deplorable and horrific business to an end? I know that the idea of a Royal Commission will seem futile and absurd to many Members of your Lordships' House, but not long ago a suggestion was made from the Government side of your Lordships' House that something of the nature of an advisory body might be appointed to inquire into various aspects of the problem. That proposal failed to stay the course and, so far as I know, has been rejected.

The members of the IRA—the Provisionals—have an objective. As I understand it, it is a united Ireland. That is politically unacceptable. It has been talked about for several hundred years and certainly during this century. I have heard of many of the discussions earlier than this century. But what about the other side of the coin? I make no personal or offensive criticism, but is it not possible for Mr. Ian Paisley, who is a leader of an important section in Ulster, to offer some proposal, some suggestion, which might have the effect, if not of providing a solution, of bringing the parties together for further discussion? Could we not revive the question of the sharing of power, although rejected by Mr. Paisley and his friends? All sorts of ideas might occur to members of a commission and to Members of your Lordships' House. But merely to express sympathy—however essential it is in the circumstances—is not enough.

My noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington raised an issue this afternoon that may occupy the attention of your Lordships' House for some time in the future. The Companies (No. 2) Bill has a vast array of amendments. I would rather see this House and the other place in the next few months, if necessary, devoting their attention to finding some solution to the Irish problem. Something has to be done and I think it can be done. After all, what do we ask them to do? We are asking Mr. Paisley to agree with the opponents of the other side. Mr. Paisley might consider that suggestion—however objectionable it might be to him—in the hope of providing an approach to a solution. I ask the House to forgive me for speaking in this fashion but I am sure I represent the views, hopes and the expectations and still, I hope, the optimism—of a majority in your Lordships' House.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord expresses understandable concern about the scourge of terrorism and its underlying causes so far as it concerns the United Kingdom. I do not think, with respect to the noble Lord, that this is the occasion to take up the broad and important questions which the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, has asked. I will certainly draw to the attention of my right honourable friends who are concerned the remarks which the noble Lord has made.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us are extremely anxious to ensure a satisfactory settlement to the Northern Ireland problem, but at the moment our principal concern is the catching and conviction of those who have committed these disgraceful offences in the city of London? Secondly, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will bear in mind that, with the death of Mr. Howorth, this is the second Metropolitan Police explosives officer who has died in circumstances of this kind? Thirdly, may I express our own view that the tribute which he paid to the police and which Sir Steuart Pringle paid to the other emergency services was particularly well made, if I may say so? I think it right for us to remember the debt we owe to the police, particularly at times when they are victims of so much snarling invective at other periods of the year.

Lastly, is the noble Lord aware that, although we applaud the steps which have been taken in London to increase the number of Metropolitan Police officers in central London, it is highly desirable to warn the inhabitants of other cities in this country of the risks that they run at the moment of a switch in IRA tactics to Birmingham, Manchester and other major provincial cities which have been at the receiving end of the terrorist outrages of this kind in the past?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the Government agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in his words of sympathy and admiration, and also for the word of warning with which he ended his question. The noble Lord referred particularly to the fact that this was the second tragedy of this kind concerned with Metropolitan Police officers working in this way. I think that it is right to remember—as I think the noble Lord was remembering as he spoke—that Mr. Howorth had in fact been with the Metropolitan Police since 1974; but before then he had been an army bomb disposal man. Among other places, he had served in Northern Ireland. All who do this work are owed a debt of gratitude by us.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I wish to add my voice to the words of sympathy expressed by noble Lords in this House and so widely expressed throughout these islands concerning the tragic death of Mr. Kenneth Howorth in the course of his services in protecting the lives and property of peace-loving citizens. As the recent bombing instances have been associated in the public mind with Ireland and with the Irish people, may I as an Irishman say that I utterly deplore and condemn the methods and acts of terrorism and murder being perpetrated in Britain, in Northern Ireland and in the Republic in the name of Irish patriotism and the Irish people? I feel sure that noble Lords will be fully aware that the vast majority, the millions, of Irish people in Ulster, in the Republic and those who have made their homes here in Britain are ashamed and saddened by such vile acts, acts which seriously impair the solutions to the problems confronting the people of Ireland and add great difficulties to the hardships of the Irish people.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the Government are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, for the lead which the noble Lord gives in the words which he speaks. It is that kind of constructive response which could help lead us out of these difficult days.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, before we leave this question, are the Government aware that an enormous number of people in this country are getting extremely concerned at the way in which these constant acts continue in Northern Ireland? It is obviously only a matter of time before it begins to spread to the main- land of the United Kingdom. This is going to have a very serious effect on our foreign relations. It is really bringing this country into disrepute. Will the Government consider whether it is time to proscribe the IRA, in the same way as they are proscribed in the Republic of Ireland? Is it not time that we began to take the offensive against these people? It seems to me that we are being very soft in dealing with them and there might be a good deal of support in this country for more radical measures.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the prevention of terrorism legislation, which of course is on the statute book, is the answer to the noble Lord's question. Incidentally, it may be a sad reflection that there are today some 69 IRA prisoners in English gaols.

Baroness Hornsby-Smith

My Lords, can my noble friend give us any information on the widespread reports in the press that these terrorists are being trained in the Lebanon by the PLO? In view of the fact that we have seen similar incidents in Brussels, Holland and Belgium, where similar claims have been made, can he tell us whether we have any confirmation of this and what steps Her Majesty's Government propose to take?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, the prevention of terrorism legislation is on the statute book. This is a piece of legislation which allows us to keep close watch on people who come and go, and that we will continue to do.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the Prevention of Terrorism Act is on the statute book, as also is the Treason Act. Are not people who are born subjects of the Crown and who then try to disturb other people's loyalty to the Crown by blowing things up guilty of treason?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think we are now really getting so wide that we are starting a debate. If your Lordships will excuse me, I think I will simply come back to the point at which we started. The point is to capture the criminals who have perpetrated this act; then the courts will deal with them.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with that thought, I suggest that we return to the original subject we were discussing.