HL Deb 03 April 1985 vol 462 cc306-35

8.15 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the working of the "supergrass" system in Northern Ireland.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I hope and believe that I shall receive a negative reply to my Question. I do not think that I have previously had the opportunity of opening a debate that was to be replied to by the noble Lord opposite. I know that he is as enlightened as he is allowed to be in such situations, and so I look forward to his answer.

I shall begin by referring to the Tenth Report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland. The commission's report has no doubt been carefully studied by the Minister and the commission appear not to have felt that it was within their province to say whether the system of supergrasses should be continued. They suggest, however, 10 safeguards in the event of its continuance. Those safeguards are welcome so far as they go, but I shall say at once that I shall be submitting that the system itself should be abruptly terminated as being totally contrary to ordinary ideas of legal justice and as calculated to bring the whole legal system of Northern Ireland into disrepute.

Do not let us have any misunderstanding, at any rate, of my own position here. Again and again I have condemned violence, whether from the Nationalist side or from the Loyalist side. I hope I shall not put myself in a bad way with my new Protestant friends in Northern Ireland if I quote the Pope. I know that the noble Lord the Minister, to say the least, takes an interest, but I hope I shall not be losing new friends if I quote the Pope, who said in my hearing in Southern Ireland when he went over some time ago that all violence of this kind was murder.

So I start from that point of view; and I have a deep sympathy with the police. They have a terrible task and I admire their courage very much. It is very hard, without exceptional measures, to secure the necessary convictions. I have a particularly high regard for someone I know quite well, though I do not know what regard he has for me. I refer to the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, Sir John Hermon. I feel that in a sense all I have got to say can be summed up in the next sentence that I am going to use: You cannot cast out Beelzebub by Beelzebub. That is really the pith of what I am submitting to your Lordships.

Let us take a look at the facts. In recent times, to quote the advisory commission, there have been a number of major terrorist trials in Northern Ireland which have been based on the evidence, often uncorroborated—to use their expression; in my experience always uncorroborated—of a witness who had been an accomplice in the crimes charged. These witnesses have been called converted terrorists by the police and by Government spokesmen, but they are commonly known as supergrasses because of the number of defendants who are tried largely on their evidence.

According to figures compiled by the Guardian, which I read in that eminent paper today, of the 25 informers in the so-called supergrass class who have emerged in the last four years, some 15 have subsequently retracted. Another four have had their evidence rejected by the courts and there are two trials taking place. Again—I am still quoting from the Guardian—of the 446 people named by the supergrasses, 80 have been found guilty and 291 freed. The rest remain in custody on remand or awaiting the end of trials. Twenty-nine men were freed as recently as last Monday. In other words, the system is proving increasingly ineffective; but effective or otherwise—I want to stress this—I would still say that it is utterly wrong.

There is, of course, nothing new about the use of accomplices. The standing commission picked out certain features of recent supergrass trials in Northern Ireland which give rise to particular concern, and which arguably call for greater safeguards than exist at present. I shall spell out briefly the areas of concern delineated by the standing commission, but in the time available I must concentrate on one of the areas of concern. I refer to the lack of corroborative evidence to support a supergrass testimony. The other five areas of concern are as follows—and I am still referring to ones picked out by the standing commission.

First, there is the grant of complete immunity to dangerous criminals who have committed very serious crimes, and various other inducements. Secondly, there is the lack of disclosure of the arrangements made between the authorities and supergrasses. Thirdly, there is the absence of the jury in supergrass trials, with the result that the trial judge has to warn himself—a strange piece of introversion—not to place too much reliance on the evidence of a supergrass. Fourthly, there are the delays in bringing to trial defendants charged upon the word of a supergrass and the length of time such defendants have to spend on remand in custody. Fifthly, there is the sheer size of many recent supergrass trials.

The commission spelled out at some length the kind of safeguards which they felt would alleviate these evils, assuming that the system itself would go on. But I hope the noble Lord will agree that they did not place their authority behind a continuance of the system or behind the idea of ending it. They left that an open question, but suggested certain safeguards and, as far as I am concerned, those safeguards are welcome but do not go anything like far enough.

It may be wondered how I came into this, apart from a general propensity to push myself into areas which are sometimes left to others. Not long ago I was approached on behalf of an association called Families for Legal Rights. It is an association of Protestants, of Ulster Loyalists, fervent Loyalists proud of being British and even today, as they told me, proud of the British system of justice even when they consider that it is being grossly abused. I must leave it to others to decide why they picked on me. It may be thought that they could not get anyone else, or that I seemed to be the ideal person. I must leave those speculations to a charitable man such as the Minister. At any rate, I can only say that I was flattered and honoured, and remain so.

I was invited to go over to Northern Ireland and to sit as an observer at one of these trials. I should like to give a picture of that trial for the benefit of noble Lords and anyone who reads these remarks. There were 29 men in the dock, including, incidentally, a brother of the supergrass, who was a man with a long and appalling record of crime, including two murders. Hour after hour the leading criminal barrister in Northern Ireland cross-examined the supergrass who was caught out time and time again on inconsistencies. We have all read about famous cross-examinations, like Carson's cross-examination of Oscar Wilde. The leading QC in Northern Ireland may be a Carson, but the supergrass was hardly an Oscar Wilde. At any rate, the supergrass produced inconsistency after inconsistency. After I left for England the case dragged on until the judge stopped it on the grounds that the supergrass could not be accepted as any sort of credible witness. That is one case to which I came close.

That is satisfactory so far as it goes, but it does not go very far. The lives of the defendants and their families will have been devastated, even when they are acquitted. Large numbers of such men are in prison from the time of their arrest until their trial. I understand that the time on remand often exceeds two ears. So it is by no means a case of "All's well that ends well" when a supergrass is discredited.

I learned a good deal from my day in court. I learned even more from my host and hostess on that and subsequent occasions. My hostess is secretary of Families for Legal Rights. My host worked for many years for Harland and Wolff and, suddenly, on the word of a supergrass completely uncorroborated he was swept off to custody. This supergrass alleged, without corroboration, that my friend had been involved in running guns from two uncles in America to a third uncle who was allegedly in charge of an engineering works in Belfast.

The House will find it hard to believe what I am about to say, but it happens to be true. My friend had no uncles in America, nor had he a third one in charge of any engineering works in Belfast. No corroborative evidence was brought to prove any of the assertions made by the supergrass or even to prove that the crime in question had ever occurred. I should explain that my host was tried along with 13 other men, who may or may not have been equally innocent. Be that as it may, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had been in prison for six months before trial and he was in prison for another two months while the appeal on behalf of all 14 men was being heard. The three judges in the Appeal Court set aside the decision of the judge lower down. I should remind the House—the Minister is thoroughly aware of this—that there are no juries in such cases in Northern Ireland at the present time.

How is my friend placed now? He has lost his job and, with unemployment in the shipyards as it is, there seems no prospect of his getting it back. He has received no compensation—I linger on that point for a moment—for two-and-a-half years taken out of his life in this horrendous fashion. He does not receive supplementary benefit because his wife goes out to work; so he and their children exist on her earnings. I hope that that vividly illustrates the working of the supergrass system in Northern Ireland, which no decent person can defend.

As I said, I must concentrate on one outstanding evil in the system; that is, the lack of corroboration for the evidence of a supergrass. It is by now, I think, understood in this country that judges are expected to warn juries to be very careful about accepting the evidence of accomplices, but in Northern Ireland there are no juries in these cases and so the judge is in the position of having to warn himself. This may well be felt to be an impossible feat. At any rate, the judge in the case of my friend found it impossible, according to the Appeal Court, to assess correctly the credibility of the witness in spite of that witness's dreadful record.

So far as I can discover (and I have checked this point with lawyers) in this country, where we do have juries, the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice is no longer relied on. If that practice were introduced into Northern Ireland, the supergrass system as we know it would be fatally undermined. I am therefore asking the authorities—through the Minister today or through the Minister and his colleagues later—to make sure at the very least that in this respect English practice is introduced into Northern Ireland.

I have spoken to lawyers about this matter and it seems that it would be perfectly feasible. I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, may be able to help us in that regard because he has done more work than anyone that I know on this whole subject. In any event, I hope that legislation can be introduced in regard to Northern Ireland. But we should not wait for that. The relevant authorities should make it clearly known that the system has now been brought to an end. At the moment, there are only two cases outstanding. It would be a fine thing if the Government decided now that enough is enough.

In a moment I will sit down, but before I do so there is one further aspect of this subject which I cannot refrain from touching on. The case I have briefly outlined stands on its own. I will add a further thought which is more speculative. When I sat in on the supergrass trial with a gifted Member of the House of Commons, Mrs. Clare Short, we were accompanied by a leading American lawyer—an RC as it happened—who had visited Northern Ireland five times previously and observed other supergrass trials. I have been given a copy of the report he wrote on his return to America.

This American lawyer concludes—and this was interesting coming from an outside source but from someone who had been to Northern Ireland quite often—that the Loyalist community or large sections of it have been outraged by the use of the supergrass system against themselves. This eminent lawyer refers to a dramatic change in Loyalist attitudes (about which I would hesitate to speak in front of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, but I accept such evidence when it comes before me) and to his own reception in a Loyalist club in the Shankhill Road which was far warmer than he felt could have been possible a little while earlier.

I myself caught a glimpse of the same development when I attended the trial to which I have referred and made a further visit. Is it wishful thinking to hope that out of this evil supergrass system good may yet come?—not in any change in strictly political attitudes (because I am not looking for that—at any rate, not at the moment) but in the beginnings of a new community of human feeling based on a common sense of victimisation between the hard core of vehement Protestants and the hard core of vehement Catholics. It is significant that the equivalent body on the Catholic side has warmly welcomed the initiative I am taking this evening.

Let us hope that good will come out of evil. Be that as it may, the evil itself must be brought to an end without a moment's hesitation.

8.33 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for putting this Question down. He has, as usual, argued his case with great compassion and concern for what he believes to be the underdog. I am not sure that his perception of the underdog is quite correct. Still, the noble Earl has argued his case with great compassion.

When the noble Earl told me that he had met Protestants in Ballysillan he said, "You know, they are really very nice". I had to tell the noble Earl that Protestants are quite often nice. We in this House all value our freedom and the safeguards to our civil rights. It is only when the attack on those civil rights becomes unbearable that we agree to suspend some of them to protect the rest. The dilemma which faces authority is to convince the public that the Government have the will to win; they therefore must take certain action to produce that conviction. If they do not do that properly, then somebody will take the law into their own hands. It was the lack of faith in authority that led to the evil organisation of the Ulster Volunteer Force growing.

Where are we now, after 14 years of terrorism? The noble Earl has spoken about there being no juries. The fact is that the people who are complaining about the no-jury courts have made juries impossible. They have intimidated and murdered both witnesses and jury members. They have forced us to have the Diplock courts. Now there are no juries and sometimes there are very few witnesses. At this point, I should like to say something about our judiciary in Northern Ireland. Our noble and learned colleague Lord Lowry, judges, magistrates and the lot, have been attacked viciously and murdered. Their courage and their integrity has been an inspiration to all of us in Northern Ireland, and I salute them.

For democracy to survive, there must be convictions of men of violence in the courts and they must be put behind bars. After a successful propaganda campaign by the IRA, aided by idealists and civil rights movements, internment was rendered unacceptable just as the interrogation method of producing confessions became unacceptable. Now we see a massive campaign against the use of converted terrorists by the IRA and their misguided idealists. If the idealists are genuine, they must produce alternatives—and none has been produced.

The noble Earl said, "Bring back the juries". If the noble Earl saw a murder committed in County Fermanagh and he was living in County Fermanagh, I do not imagine that he would serve on the relevant jury and then return to his farm and milk his cows. The noble Earl must be realistic; juries are impossible the way things are now.

The burden of the noble Earl's complaint is of uncorroborated evidence, but modern legislature appears rather to favour uncorroborated evidence. The Lord Chief Justice has made clear that while the law stands as it is in England and Wales and in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland, then judges must apply that law if they are the presiding judges. The suggestion of the noble Earl to change that law is merely turning the clock back. The civil rights campaign was based on bringing to Northern Ireland the standards of the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be a retrograde step, and indeed a paradox, if this practice were changed now.

The other arguments against the use of accomplices go on in various ways. Those who argue have it both ways. In the first case, if a judge produces an aquittal, then it is said that the authorities are producing weak cases. But if the judge convicts, then it is said that he is a case-hardened judge. I suggest that the opposite is true; that judges have been shown to weigh the quality of the evidence 'very carefully. I would guess that if there were a jury—and a jury is not possible in these cases—and if it were 'faced with a horrific crime, then that jury would be much more likely to convict on bad quality evidence than the judges who are so experienced.

Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, suggested in his report that infiltration into terrorist organisations is necessary. This must therefore envisage the use of the accomplice to give evidence. The terrorists are campaigning against the use of converted terrorists because it will destroy them. They are worried, and that is good.

The case put by the noble Earl based on his observations at one day of a trial plus two weekends staying with Mr. John Bingham produced the result that the supergrass he saw was untrustworthy. I question whether the noble Earl's friend is trustworthy, or is he not? The noble Earl has said that Mr. Bingham was charged with about 10 offences—very serious crimes such as possession of firearms, involvement in murder, and so on—and with membership of the UVF. In 1977 he was charged and convicted of being drunk and disorderly, and in 1975 for being criminally drunk. Earlier in 1975—your Lordships should wait for this—he was convicted of managing a brothel. Is there a precedent there?

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I wonder how the noble Viscount knew that I was going to speak about Mr. Bingham, because I told him in confidence that I was going to refer to him. Is he playing the game by making a personal attack on a man who cannot be defended today and in whom I have a lot of confidence?

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I will answer the noble Earl by saying that on the 1st February the newsletter published the fact that he was in Mr. Bingham's house.

In Ballysillan he is well known for his position in the UVF and for his involvement. Of course he has a direct interest in stopping supergrass trials, but I wonder: who was the most untrustworthy? Those who are against supergrass trials say that they are not a success. That is not true. They are a success, even when the judge throws out the evidence and does not convict. A supergrass is giving his version of what is happening in the terrorist organisation. Who better to do that than a man who has been totally involved? The intelligence gathered is worth anything to the security forces.

The noble Earl said that the supergrass fumbled his lines. If he had been properly drilled people would have said that he was word perfect and that it was not true evidence. So one cannot have it all ways. What must be said is that by the very nature of past history a supergrass must be an unsavoury character. He will have been involved in terrorism and crimes of violence, so no one should expect him to be the most charming person with whom one would want to spend one's time. But the dividends are vast for intelligence.

Some 70 people have been convicted by the supergrass system. It is worth noting that in North Belfast, after what was called the Black case, the level of violence was down by 70 per cent. Men are alive today who would have been dead had it not been for the Black case. Prior to the Gilmour case, one person was murdered every week in Londonderry. During the case hardly any violence occurred. Now, after it has been thrown out, violence is increasing again. Like others—and, I suspect, even the judges themselves—I am worried about the numbers that a supergrass implicates, but an accomplice may have been involved for many years and are we to say that for an accomplice to involve three people is acceptable but 20 is not, even if there is evidence to show that the 20 were involved?

The noble Earl spoke about good coming from evil. I think that the noble Earl has totally misjudged the situation. I believe that we have a criminal conspiracy of both the IRA and the UVF, with a joint interest in racketeering, blackmail and preventing their organisations from being destroyed, which inevitably they will be by the supergrass.

There is no other solution that I can see. In my small county, with about 20,000 people in the area, 70 of my friends have been murdered and only one person brought to justice. How pleased we would all be if a supergrass would turn up. I would not mind if the people who committed all those crimes were implicated. The defence of British democracy is being fought in the whole United Kingdom. The hand that killed my friend Jimmy Graham and Sergeant McCormack in the past few weeks is the same hand that laid the bomb in Brighton in an attempt to wipe out our Cabinet and our democracy.

8.45 p.m

Lord Gifford

My Lords, late in 1983 I was asked by the Cobden Trust to undertake a mission in Northern Ireland to inquire into the use of supergrasses in the Province. I went there and, like my noble friend Lord Longford, I was amazed at the breadth of opinion that wanted to come to me to speak of, and speak their opposition to, the use of supergrasses. I met Catholics and Protestants. I met many people who had nothing to do with, and no truck with, terrorism or terrorist offences. I was received with the greatest courtesy by the Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lowry.

I went with a very open mind. I was very well aware of the enormous difficulties which the police have in bringing criminals to justice, in obtaining evidence which can go before a court, and I was, of course, aware that the law of England and Northern Ireland has allowed the use of accomplices for many years. I came away far more disturbed than I had expected to be. I was driven to the conclusion that the use of supergrasses could not be supported. I came to two key conclusions which go to the root of the contributions which have been made, particularly that of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.

The first was that it is quite inevitable that supergrasses will be telling lies—perhaps not complete lies, but many lies. Secondly, it is wholly unreasonable to expect the judiciary, with the best will in the world, to distinguish between the truth and the lies. I shall analyse those two conclusions for a little while. The supergrass—let us be very clear about this—is not a converted terrorist. In the whole investigation which I carried out I came across only one person who even claimed that he had, while at liberty, changed his mind about his past and wished to give evidence on behalf of the authorities. That was the man McGrady, who gave himself up. In every other case what has happened is this. A man has been arrested. He may well have been caught redhanded. He is facing a very long prison sentence, if not for life. In many cases he is a man who has been in prison before and is desperate to avoid that sentence. In those circumstances he starts to consider whether he can make a deal with the police authorities—because what this system involves is the making of unsavoury deals whereby people (I believe 15 in all in the past few years) get complete immunity for crimes up to serious multiple murder and financial assistance to set themselves up in another country with a new identity so that they can be free from the revenge of the organisations against which they have given evidence. The granting of that new life, new identity and financial assistance is integral to the deal. It is the bargain which the state must make with these men.

Once that deal is in prospect and once that man has decided to make that deal there is one thing uppermost in his mind; that is, self-preservation. His life is in danger once he has started to inform on the organisation of which he had been part. He wants to make the best case he can to get that immunity. I identified five different reasons why such people will inevitably be driven to tell lies. First, they will wish to incriminate as many people as possible because, if they only know about two, three or four, they are not much use to the authorities. The authorities will not let them go free for just a handful of people to charge. What is really valuable to the authorities is a great number of people in the dock, as has happened in these trials.

Indeed, the Attorney-General himself has, in effect, encouraged the supergrass to name as many people as possible by saying that immunity is considered: Where the evidence which the accomplice can give is credible and cogent and involves perhaps a large number of alleged terrorists who cannot otherwise be charged or brought before the court".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/ 1 0/83; col. 4.] That is the first reason. The supergrass will therefore put into the statement which he makes as many people as possible, whether to his knowledge they are really involved or not.

Secondly, he will play down so far as possible his own part in the crimes with which he is involved. It is commonly said by the police that nobody who actually pulls the trigger gets immunity. Therefore somebody who has pulled the trigger will lie about his involvement and put somebody else in the role which he played if that role is one of a principal in a murder or a bombing.

Thirdly, of course, he will work off any grudges that he may have against former associates. Fourthly, he is likely to pretend that he knows as a matter of fact about things which are only gossip or rumour and hearsay in order to make up the numbers. Fifthly, and perhaps supremely, he will want to give the police the evidence which he thinks they want to hear.

In the trial in which the supergrass Grimley gave evidence and was wholly discredited, under cross-examination he said that the police were suggesting names to him, including names of defendants. That is likely to be true, is it not? The police think that they know that certain people are terrorists, and of course they are going to ask the supergrass, "Can you help us about so and so? Don't you know surely that so and so is involved?" People will be implicated not because the supergrass has hard, first-hand evidence to give about them but because he believes that that is what the police want to hear.

The lies that have been told have sometimes been proven in court, when, for instance, as in the McGrady trial, there is independent forensic evidence to show that what a supergrass has said cannot possibly be true. But that is rare. Normally the evidence is about conversations, conspiracies and attempts, and by its very nature cannot be confirmed by independent evidence.

It is often said that that may be so and lies may be told, but we have a judiciary capable of applying the standards of proof as they are applied in a British court. I should like to come directly to that argument. I should not like, and I do not think that anyone, whether he has a legal training or not, would like, to undertake the responsibility of listening to a man giving evidence about incident after incident and then having to say, with no corroboration at all, whether that person is telling the truth or telling lies.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, raised this point: when the supergrass is word perfect and when he repeats what he has said to the police in court, two things can be said. Either he has a genuine memory of events which he knows about or he has learnt his lines incredibly well. The answer is that we just do not know in any particular case where the truth lies.

I have here the statement of Christopher Black, which runs to 63 closely typed pages. That was an extraordinary trial, with 38 defendants and 138 charges, running over years. The witness in the box was able to give an account to the judge which the judge found enormously convincing and which hardly differed in a degree from the statements which he made to the police. Why was that? Was it because he was telling the truth or because he has learnt his lines and was a good teller of his lines? I have spoken to the wives of supergrasses who have been with their husbands, and there is no doubt in my mind that a lot of rehearsal and learning of lines takes place. The supergrass may have a year between the original statement and the trial, and of course he will try to get his statement right. If he does not, he will be cross-examined and inconsistencies will be exposed.

If what was being said could be corroborated, as is the normal way of testing evidence in a court, one could see whether statements like that stood up. But they cannot be corroborated, and the result is that the judge, however hard he tries, and however good a judge he is, cannot be expected to sift the truth and the lies. Some of them have thrown out altogether the evidence of supergrasses: some of them have convicted almost 100 per cent. of the people who came before them. I know that the Lord Chief Justice is enormously concerned at the burden which that places upon a judge.

My conclusion from those basic findings is this. When that kind of evidence is being relied on in a court of law, justice becomes a lottery, innocent people get convicted, guilty men escape and the system of justice as a whole is discredited. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked what else we wished to put forward. My answer is that we can operate a system of justice only by putting before a court acceptable evidence which can be worthy of belief, and, for the reasons which I have tried to show, that cannot be the case in supergrass trials.

Of course I accept that judges have acquitted and have thrown out the evidence of supergrasses—sometimes the evidence of the most extraordinarily unreliable rogues, who should never have been used as star witnesses in a trial. In my report I appeal to those in authority to adopt one basic test: not to allow people to be convicted upon the uncorroborated evidence of a person known as a supergrass who has been involved in multiple crime. I appeal to the Director of Public Prosecutions, to the Attorney-General and to the judges. Judges in some cases have accepted that idea. In one case a judge said that it was highly dangerous and wrong to convict on the evidence of such a person as a supergrass unless it was corroborated. That should be the watchword. If that is not heeded by those who bring prosecutions, I agree with my noble friend Lord Longford that Parliament needs to intervene.

In fact there have been a lot of changes in the past 15 months. There have been no more mass arrests on supergrass evidence and a number of people have been acquitted. But there are still people in gaol on the uncorroborated evidence of supergrasses. There are still people awaiting or undergoing trial who are going through the most terrible ordeals in appearing before a system of justice which, unfortunately, does not deserve the name. If we are, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, claimed, defending democracy, we must demonstrate the values of democracy supremely in our judicial system. Like my noble friend, I ask the Government to say now that this form of evidence should no longer be accepted by the authorities in Northern Ireland.

8.59 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I intervene briefly in this important debate to draw attention to something happening in Northern Ireland that may well be more significant than supergrasses and more lasting in its effects. I think that it is relevant to this debate because it concerns the ultimate triumph of justice and peace in both the United Kingdom and Ireland.

I refer to the by now considerable number of men and women who have turned away from violence, not for reward, not for possible remission or leniency, but for higher motives and in spite of considerable risks and dangers to themselves. These are the people who have rejected murder and terrorism because they have experienced the power of the Gospel and have come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Some have found this faith in prison, some after release, and others have severed all links with violence without passing through any prison gates. The latter points are important because they dispose of the cynical argument that conversions happen only because prisoners want better conditions for themselves. In this context I can also mention the recent case of a man who had served one sentence and then confessed to murder and attempted murder. He did so in order to clear his own conscience. The judge, sentencing him for the new offences, displayed his respect for the man's sincerity.

I have met some of these men. A few years ago one of them said to me, "Last year I would happily have killed you, but now God has taken the gun from my hand and put a guitar in its place". This man played the guitar for various prayer groups. Another time I saw two former paramilitaries, one Loyalist and the other Republican, embrace and forgive each other publicly before a gathering of several thousand businessmen. I met another former Republican who had been on hunger strike while in prison for 50 days or more and very nearly lost his sight. He found faith and became friends with someone brought up in the opposite tradition. Now they are released and they both together give a powerful joint witness.

These are not flash-in-the-pan or isolated examples of personal change. A community that I know in Northern Ireland which exists for prisoners and ex-prisoners and their relatives has known 20 or so instances over the last three years. It reports that all these men are holding firm to their new course and to their repudiation of violence.

Elsewhere an organisation has been formed specifically for ex-paramilitaries who are now fully entitled to call themselves Christian. A book has been written and a video film made about the experiences of some of their members. Later this week, on Good Friday, there will be a service on the theme of repentance. I understand that it will be attended by some whose lives prove that they personally repent from their involvement in political violence.

These deep and costly changes are important, even though the results are difficult to quantify. Certainly they are affecting the relations and families. I believe that they are beginning to open some minds which up to now have been firmly closed. I think that they are more likely to change the current practitioners of violence than are any number of appeals or condemnations. I do not know the precise future role of those who have found faith and rejected murder. Perhaps it is not yet clear even to these people themselves, but meanwhile they certainly deserve our respect and strongest encouragement.

As the late Canon David Watson said in Ireland in 1976: In the tremendous struggle in which God has placed us, we really do need each other. We need each other's support and prayer and love. We cannot go it alone. We cannot go it alone even within our own tradition. That is why, through the cross of Jesus Christ. God has pulled down all the barriers between us. Whatever tradition you and I may come from when we come to the cross of Christ and open our hearts to the life and power of the Holy Spirit, there is nothing between us".

9.4 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I should like to join in thanking my noble friend Lord Longford for initiating this debate on this very vexed question of the so-termed supergrass trials. I believe that the debate so far has indicated that the issues arising from the use in criminal proceedings of the uncorroborated evidence of admitted accomplices are indeed of great public concern. The questions arising are serious. My noble friend Lord Gifford made reference, as did my noble friend Lord Longford, to doubts, to facts, and to where the truth really lies. These are the questions that have been raised in this debate. What are the facts? What are the truths of the situation concerning uncorroborated evidence?

Not only are the terms and the questions arising serious in respect of individual human rights and protection of the innocent, not only are the terms serious in connection with the promotion of standards of political democracy and elementary justice; the questions are also critically serious as regards the maintenance of community respect for the police and for the credibility of the courts. That is the kind of theme that I should like to put forward in what I have to say.

I should like fully to support and to concur with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. There have been a number of people who have been dramatically changed through conversion. I also know persons who have been involved in their early youth in terrorism, in certain aspects of the Northern Ireland confrontation, who have changed dramatically into good citizens. I would not say that they have gone so far as spiritual conversion, but they have held down good jobs and have been with their families. Sadly, they have been incarcerated through the alleged evidence of the supergrasses. This has destroyed many young persons who had changed their lives. It has in many respects given rise to human tragedies.

There can be no doubt that supergrass trials in Northern Ireland over the past four years have given rise to a high degree of public controversy. There is also evidence of a growing volume of concerned interest by international organisations in the legal implications of the trial. There is also mounting disquiet among members of both traditions in Northern Ireland, the Unionists and the Nationalists, and that cannot be disputed.

Some noble Lords have already mentioned that they know about this disquiet through their meetings with representatives of the two organisations directly concerned. Some noble Lords have already referred to the Relatives for Justice, which is a body mainly comprised of the relations of persons charged on the evidence of Nationalist accomplices, and the Families for Legal Rights, which is an organisation concerned largely with the Loyalist prisoners.

These trials have generated a vast amount of coverage in the Irish and United Kingdom press and broadcasting media. There have also been a significant number of articles, pamphlets and reports featuring views and accounts of the supergrass system of criminal proceedings. In my opinion some of these publications and reports are serious and commendable studies of the issues and implications. Others are less commendable in the search for appropriate democratic measures to uphold human rights and at the same time deal with terrorist crime. A few of these publications and public utterances are blatantly propaganda, fraught with highly charged emotional and partisan arguments. They do little or nothing to promote the cause of freedom and community well-being.

For the purpose of this debate, I propose to confine my remarks to a few sources of what I consider reasoned and informed opinion. I propose to quote from the statement of Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney-General, of 24th October 1983, when replying to a parliamentary question in another place. I make no apology for going into considerable detail. I believe that it is an answer, in some respects, to what has already been raised in the debate. The source of accountability and the source of responsibility lies in this Parliament. Sir Michael said, at column 3 of Hansard: There are a number of misconceptions which appear to be current, and which should be corrected, about the use of evidence of accomplices in criminal trials in Northern Ireland and about immunity from prosecution which may be granted to such accomplices. There is nothing new about the use of the evidence of accomplices in criminal trials. The law in England and Wales and Northern Ireland is the same". Sir Michael deals with the duty of judges and goes on to say, in connection with the Diplock court arrangements in Northern Ireland: A precisely similar rule applies where a judge is trying a case without a jury. The judge must warn himself that, although he may convict on the evidence of an accomplice, it is dangerous to do so unless it is corroborated. Subject to these rules, the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice is admissible in law and the tribunal of fact has the right to convict upon it…In Northern Ireland terrorist crime is a serious problem and the full extent of the involvement of many of the terrorists is perhaps known only to those engaged with them in their criminal activities. When one of those who has been involved in terrorism and is thus an accomplice indicates his willingness to give evidence about crimes of which he knows and in which he may have been a participant, it is the duty of the chief constable to put the full facts before the Director of Public Prosecutions…Where the evidence of an accomplice appears to be credible and cogent and relates to serious terrorist crime, there is an overriding public interest in having charges brought before the court. This is especially so when the evidence which such an accomplice can give relates to murder, robbery, explosions and other similar atrocious crimes. In such circumstances it is the clear duty of the director to put the cases before the court for adjudication. It will then be for the court to determine whether the evidence of the accomplice is so convincing as to its content and so reliable in itself that it reaches the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt". Sir Michael goes on to say in relation to a matter already mentioned—the question of dealing and immunity: In every instance the director's decision to grant any immunity from prosecution to an accomplice is of a limited nature. It relates only to the offences which he has disclosed and of which he has given a truthful account. He is thus liable to be prosecuted in respect of any offence committed by him which subsequently comes to light and which he did not originally disclose and any offence in respect of which it subsequently emerges that he gave a false or misleading account…The decision whether to grant immunity to any individual is taken by the director personally. No immunity can be granted by the police. Before any application to grant immunity can be made to the director, the chief constable must recommend that the accomplice should be called as a Crown witness". The final paragraph of the quotation, which I consider of weighty importance in the debate, reads: In all these matters—and I refer now to the decision to institute proceeedings in reliance on the evidence of an accomplice as well as the decision to grant immunity to an accomplice—the primary responsibility is vested in the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. The decision in each case is wholly within his discretion which he exercises in accordance with his professional judgment and in full consciousness of his responsibility for the independent and impartial discharge of the duties of his office. He acts, however, under my superintendence and is subject to my direction. He keeps me fully informed of the general policies which he applies in this field. We consult each other regularly on these matters, both as regards those general policies and as regards specific difficult cases. I am entirely satisfied both as to the correctness of the principles in accordance with which the director has taken his decisions and with the information which I have received from the director as to the decisions taken in individual cases. I consider that to be an important aspect of the whole issue of the so-called supergrass trials because it puts right in the centre of responsibility and accountability this Parliament and the Attorney-General as regards the information that should proceed in respect of the practice and the principles of the supergrass trials.

In addition, it is on the basis of that statement to Parliament and the responsibility and accountability of the Attorney-General to Parliament, that I consider that my noble friend Lord Longford has acted in the public interest and in the best interest of democracy and human rights by tabling this Unstarred Question this evening. At the same time, I know that my noble friend will respect my point of view if I do not go all the way with what he has proposed in respect of the return of jury courts.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I did not deal with that point at all. I mentioned it as one of the matters for concern as indicated by the human rights commission, but I did not offer an opinion myself.

Lord Blease

My Lords, in that case I withdraw my remarks as regards that aspect of the matter.

It is obvious in my view that, notwithstanding the statement by the Attorney- General in October 1983, there is still a considerable amount of misunderstanding, disquiet and controversy about this form of criminal proceedings. I certainly feel that a statement by Parliament, by the AttorneyGeneral—the person with the responsibility and authority to deal with this matter—stressing the practice and the principles ought to have had wider publicity and greater adherence.

Among the organisations which have carried out studies and the monitoring of public opinion in Northern Ireland about the effects of the supergrass strategy and public confidence in the judicial system, have been the Northern Ireland Committee on the Administration of Justice, the National Council for Civil Liberties, and the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. It is my view that all three of those bodies have published well researched and reasoned studies of the relevant issues. General public opinion may be best summarised by a special feature article on law and order published in the Belfast Telegraph on 6th February, 1985. The article cited an opinion poll undertaken by the Northern Ireland Consumer Panel. One of the questions which was asked in the poll dealt with supergrasses. The question asked was: Do you think that the evidence of supergrasses should be or should not be admissible without corroboration in the trials of those charged with terrorist-type offences in Northern Ireland? Those in the Catholic community who thought that they should be admissible accounted for 10 per cent. and those in the Protestant community accounted for 35 per cent. The response as regards them not being admissable was 81 per cent. from the Catholic community and 46 per cent. from the Protestant community. As regards the "don't knows", the Roman Catholics accounted for 9 per cent. and the Protestant community accounted for 19 per cent. The annalysis by the persons who undertook the poll was as follows: Protestant opinion is seriously divided on this issue. Large percentages in their responses believe that it should be admissible, should not and also do not know. A high number (19 per cent.) are unsure of their view. By contrast, Roman Catholic opinion is unified, with four out of five people saying firmly that supergrass evidence should not be admissible". In my opinion, as part of their remit and in response to the public concern, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in its 1983–84 report gave considerable attention to the issues arising from the supergrass form of prosecution. It went on to indicate that these matters were submitted to the Baker Inquiry on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978. The report also featured a special commissioned study on the use of supergrasses as a method of prosecution in Northern Ireland.

The study was undertaken by a Mr. Jackson, a barrister-at-law, and a Miss. W. A. Russell, a law graduate. Both were qualified and experienced in the practice of criminal proceedings; and I may say that the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights is a very authoritative body—persons selected for their legal standing, their professional judgment and their experience in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I will quote just briefly from the report of the Standing Advisory Commission. Some of these things have already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Gifford. Among the items which the commission stressed as suggestions for a change in the approach are: The D.P.P. should be encouraged to be very discriminating before instituting proceedings against defendants on the uncorroborated evidence of accomplices and should aim towards adopting a practice of instituting proceedings in the main only when there is some corroboration. In non-jury trials where the prosecution relies mainly or entirely on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice, the court should consist of two judges instead of one and no defendant should be convicted unless both are satisfied of his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Greater priority ought to be given by the authorities to the problem of delays, and particularly to the length of time defendants are remanded in custody before trial". That is the end of the quotation on human rights, but I would add a fourth: that there should be a much wider discretion in the Attorney-General and the DPP to certify scheduled cases. This suggestion is based on the evidence presented by the Cobden Trust that 40 per cent. of those tried by Diplock procedure had no observable connections with terrorism.

As I understand it, the Government have yet to make known their views on the proposals arising from the Baker Report. I believe that there might be an opportunity for this in June, when the renewed debate on the review of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act is due. I hope the noble Lord the Minister may find it a bit helpful in drawing this to the attention of the Government and in comparing the reaction, not only to the Baker Report and the submissions of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights and others, but to the general feelings of this House, which I believe are a fair reflection of public opinion; that is, that there should be an urgent review of the law concerning the supergrass system. I certainly concur in the closing remarks of my noble friend (and I hope I can call him that on this occasion) Lord Longford and others seeking to make sure of a resurgence of human compassion in respect of freedom and human rights in Northern Ireland.

9.23 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, my taking part in this debate this evening is certainly not due to any academic interest, but because I believe that this is one of the most serious cases to be brought before this House. Your Lordships' House has for a number of weeks been aware that a debate on the supergrass system was to take place this evening and I am disappointed, to say the least, that there are about one dozen of us here to discuss, debate and pass opinions on what could be regarded as one of the most fundamental decisions by an elected or non-elected chamber. I have listened to my noble friends Lord Gifford and Lord Longford as well as my noble friend—I would hope—Lord Hylton, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough and the noble Lord, Lord Blease.

We live in Northern Ireland. I have no hesitation in saying that of all those who have spoken in this debate today have lived in the heat of the kitchen. For many years I represented West Belfast, which took in both the Republican Falls and the Protestant Shankhill. I also lived on the Antrim Road in North Belfast where my house was continuously under attack by the Republican element in the latter years of the 1970s, but in the latter years of the 1960s it was under attack from so-called Loyalist forces.

I remember well the 1970s. Every morning you would read the newspapers, or listen to the Northern Ireland news broadcasts, or hear the shots, which is even more emotional. I heard the shots many times from my house on the Antrim Road; shots which led to the death of policemen, innocent civilians, and members of the security forces right behind my own back door and in front of my own house. The first British soldier to be killed in Northern Ireland, Gunner Robert Curtiss, was shot only yards from my home.

I lived with it. It is not an academic exercise when I read about this, and I worry about British jurisprudence and whether it is right that this should be done. I lived with the effects of terrorism in Northern Ireland. During those years everyone who lived around where I lived on the Antrim Road, on the New Lodge Road to Unity Flats, knew that when members of the security forces or others were killed the next morning the rumours would go around the district as to who it was. I am sure that some people were telling the police who it was, but there was no evidence. Everyone who lived in those Catholic ghettos was well aware who was responsible for carrying out the murders. We all suspected.

Then after a number of years the Christopher Black trial took place. Christopher Black, as my noble friend Lord Gifford, has said, implicated 38 others in his trial. It was the first supergrass trial to take place. My noble friend Lord Gifford has said that he has lots of pages of evidence. I did not go to watch that case, but I read about it avidly.

All the people, 100 per cent. of them, who were implicated in that trial were people who I knew were on the fringe. They were all found guilty on the evidence of Christopher Black. Like my noble friend Lord Gifford I did not like the fact that Christopher Black, after giving his evidence, was exonerated. Some people say that he is now living in South Africa, that his fare was paid for him, that the Northern Ireland authorities paid for him to leave the country. I did not like that. I do not believe that anyone involved in murder and maiming should be given any facilities by the police. But the fact is that the evidence which he gave was responsible for taking out of circulation in Northern Ireland some of the most dangerous men who have ever walked the streets of Belfast.

I know what Lord Justice Kelly said to Christopher Black. He said words to the effect, "You are an evil man. I detest all the activities that you have been involved in. There is no one in any doubt that you have been involved in the most vile of crimes, but I cannot disregard your evidence." He could not disregard his evidence. Therefore, 38 people were convicted. That was the first supergrass trial.

I believe that the evidence given by Christopher Black, the evidence accepted by the courts, was unassailable. Since then we have had a whole series of supergrass trials. My noble friend Lord Gifford says that Christopher Black went in and his evidence could not be broken down under the most serious and acute cross-examination by some of the most eminent lawyers in Northern Ireland. I refer in particular to Dick Ferguson, one of the most acute cross-examiners in Northern Ireland. He could not break down Christopher Black's evidence.

In my opinion Christopher Black was an evil man. I had the same opinion as the judge. My noble friend said that Christopher Black was programmed. He implied that he was programmed, that he had given his evidence to the police and therefore he was able to stand up under the closest examination. We accept that. If a supergrass is not as programmed as some people would like to convey that he is and he breaks down, they say, "He was telling lies all the time". If he sticks by his evidence, it is said that he was programmed by the police. If he does not stick by his evidence or is proved to be telling lies, it is said that his evidence is unsafe. Thus there is no way the authorities can win.

Christopher Black was given money and a safe passage, some people say, to South Africa. There are others in prison in Northern Ireland who have committed multiple murders who have nothing to gain. They receive nothing from the police, nor are they given safe passages. One of the supergrasses who has been responsible for implicating others is in gaol for five murders. He will spend the rest of his life in gaol; at least I hope he will. He has nothing to gain. The argument against that would be that although he has nothing to gain, he is getting his own back on his former associates.

Lord Gifford

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that that man—one must speak with caution because the trial is still pending—is someone who received a life sentence for his five murders with no minimum term, so he can hope to be released early by the authorities. That is his incentive.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I hope that he would not be released in any circumstances or that he would not be given any promise of release. I am totally opposed to capital punishment but I believe that a life sentence for murder should mean exactly what it says—that it should be a life sentence.

I remember well when I was a Member of another place when the emergency provisions legislation was going through the House. I opposed the abolition of juries because I would like to think, living in a part of the United Kingdom— there is great dispute about that in relation to Northern Ireland—that we would have exactly the same rights under British justice. I was well aware that at the time juries were under tremendous pressure from threats of intimidation.

Those who know what is happening in Northern Ireland will be aware that a trial in Northern Ireland last week involved intimidation. Paramilitary forces were intimidating builders and demanding protection money from them. The witnesses, the people who were intimidated into giving money for the paramilitary organisation, had to go into Northern Ireland courts last week wearing masks. The masks they wore put them into the same league as the terrorists who had been intimidating. That gives some indication of the intimidation that is taking place. Men who have been intimidated at the point of a gun by Loyalists and Republicans were so frightened for their lives that they had to go into a Northern Ireland court last week wearing the mask of a terrorist to save their own lives. I believe that that effectively answers why there cannot be juries in Northern Ireland.

I readily accept that the supergrass system is not the best system available. I believe that some people have been implicated for all the wrong reasons by some of the supergrasses. Within paramilitary organisations the people involved, be they Loyalists or Republicans, are not Sunday school teachers. They are not the best type of citizens that we know in any part of these islands. The people involved either as Republicans or Loyalists are not the best type of character. It has already been said here tonight that their evidence must be treated with extreme caution.

It is understandable that some of the people turned to becoming supergrasses—and, by the way, the term "supergrass" is particularly offensive to me. It is a term derived from the English or American underworld, the world of thievery and criminality. Certainly in Ireland the majority of people involved in terrorist offences are involved because of some nationalistic claim. But there are other people who are total and absolute gangsters, both on the Republican and on the Loyalist sides.

So we are faced with the situation: Do the police try to use the supergrass system, or do they throw the whole thing out? Do they say, "Under no circumstances will we accept the word of an accomplice"? I do not think it would be right to ask the police to do that.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, no one is going as far as that. I said at the beginning that the word of the accomplice has been accepted in English law for many years. I am talking about the uncorroborated evidence.

Lord Fitt

Yes, my Lords; but there are circumstances in Northern Ireland where the only evidence available is the uncorroborated evidence. For example, let me go back to what I said a few moments ago. A gunman went into a builder's office. The builder was in charge of a building site in Northern Ireland. The man pulled a gun on him and told him that he would kill him if he did not give him so much money every week or every month. In a normal society that builder, when the man was apprehended, would be able to go into court and stand there and say, "Yes, I identify that man as the person who pointed a gun at me and who demanded money of me". But he cannot do that in Northern Ireland because he is afraid of being intimidated and killed. And I do not believe that the masks that they all wore last week will have any real effect because the gunman is quite well aware of the person he pointed the gun at. Whether or not he is sitting in the court wearing a mask, the gunman will be able to tell his accomplices outside who it was he pointed the gun at.

I come to the Diplock courts. Again, I disagreed when the Diplock courts were set up. I believe that there should be two or three judges sitting. The argument against one judge is that he may become case hardened; that he hears so many of these terrorist cases that he becomes hardened against them. I would only say, because of the integrity of the men that I know—the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and all the other judges—that I do not believe that they are case hardened. I believe they are dealing with a particular situation; and the very fact that they have thrown numbers of cases out of court is an indication that they will go through the evidence which is presented to them minutely and with a fine toothcomb.

Let me say to my noble friend Lord Gifford that the fact that you have juries in this part of the United Kingdom is no sure indication that all the verdicts that come from juries are 100 per cent. correct. There is the Annie Maguire case, which was notorious here and throughout the United Kingdom, in which eight people were given very long terms of imprisonment on very doubtful forensic evidence. They were convicted by a jury, but those people were absolutely and totally innocent of something about which this House is going to hear a great deal more in future. The very fact that there is a jury does not mean to say that you will get a just verdict in all situations.

This debate is about the most elementary of all the facets of life under which we live: the right of people to live under the law. I repeat that it is not an academic exercise. The judges in Northern Ireland, the population in Northern Ireland, have lived in desperate and tragic circumstances over the past number of years. Paramilitary organisations have taken control of different areas, different districts and different ghettos, particularly in my own city of Belfast, and they have intimidated many people. Many people live in fear.

My noble friend Lord Blease quoted figures given in a survey about the attitudes of Catholics and Protestants to the supergrass system. I can only say this—and I would hope that I am right. The vast majority of Catholic and Protestant people living in Northern Ireland are sick, sore and fed up to the teeth with the activities of paramilitary organisations. If the supergrass system as we know it, imperfect as it is, is responsible for taking out of circulation some of the most dangerous men who have ever trodden the soil of Ireland, then I would be the last to call for its immediate withdrawal. I would say that the judges and the whole judicial system in Northern Ireland should be very careful indeed of the uncorroborated evidence of a supergrass: but do not let us reject that evidence entirely, because by accepting the evidence, in many cases, it will lead to the saving of lives.

9.42 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Longford, in a strong and powerful speech, has drawn the attention of the House to an aspect of the legal system in Northern Ireland which is the cause of unease for sectors of the public. How large the sectors are, I am not sure; but certainly it has caused unease for sectors of the public in both the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland. I believe that my noble friend is right to bring the matter before the House, and we are immensely indebted also to my noble friend Lord Gifford for his powerful speech and for the powerful light which he has thrown on this corner of the law in Northern Ireland. He probably knows more than anyone else outside the security forces how the system is working. I believe that his report will soon be a work of reference.

I should like to emphasise that one should not be thought to be "soft" on terrorism in challenging the working of the supergrass system in Northern Ireland. My noble friend has asked his Question not because of a sympathy with terrorism: indeed, he has acknowledged this evening that he condemns violence, and all of us who know him well know that he condemns violence. He has asked the Question because, on the evidence available, he fears that for many innocent people who are charged with acts of terrorism or with one of the scheduled offences, the spring of justice may be drying up.

In assessing the working of the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland, we appreciate that a balance has to be maintained between, on the one hand, the protection of the public against terrorism and, on the other hand, the maintenance of civil liberties. I would agree with those noble Lords who have expressed the view that there are immense difficulties in striking the right balance. We should not underestimate those difficulties.

It has been said that one of the underlying policies of the emergency legislation in Northern Ireland was to make certain changes in the judicial process which would tend to an increased conviction rate, while not depriving the person accused of terrorism of his right to a fair trial. My Lords, have these two policy objectives been achieved? We have heard how the policy led to the Diplock trials, trials by a judge alone, and one appreciates that this places a heavy burden on the judge. Of course, a jury is not always a perfect instrument, but we on this side of the water have learned that a jury is a very powerful shield for the innocent. So jury trials in terrorist cases have now been suspended for 12 years.

But there is more to it than that, because since 1981 the Diplock trials have relied heavily, although not particularly successfully, on the uncorroborated evidence of one witness who had been an accomplice. Therefore we are right to ask whether this double movement—the suspension of the jury system and the reliance on the uncorroborated evidence of this one witness—imperils the right of the accused to a fair trial. We come back to the basic theme which underlined the speech of my noble friend Lord Longford.

My noble friend Lord Longford concentrated, in particular, on the use made of the uncorroborated accomplice's evidence, and he described it as an outstanding evil in the system. But he and other noble Lords referred to other features which cause concern about the use of such evidence in Northern Ireland, and I summarise them.

First, since 1981 the police have sought to rely very heavily on the evidence of the supergrass in the enforcement of the security system. This appears to represent a departure from the pre-1981 policy, although there is some evidence that that strategy may not have been prosecuted so vigorously during the past six months as in the period from 1981 to 1984.

Secondly, the system is suspect because of the character of the accomplices. They are not men of high quality. They are unsavoury characters. The Northern Ireland judges have had an opportunity of assessing these star witnesses who have come on the scene since 1981, and their assessment is to be found in the report of my noble friend Lord Gifford. The assessment is very helpful, and let me take some instances. One has been described by a judge as, a man who has committed murder and did not have scruples about committing perjury if it suited him. The evidence of another was described as "contradictory and bizarre". Yet another was strikingly illustrated by the judge as "living in a pretence".

Thirdly, the system is open to grave abuse, because of the benefits which the witness gains from giving his evidence. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Gifford how the witness turns Queen's evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution for his own serious criminal conduct, in gratitude for present and future favours, especially the offer of a new identity or a job elsewhere. This is quite a nice bargain for the supergrass, so there are very powerful reasons to falsify evidence in order to obtain these advantages.

Fourthly, of the 400 to 500 men and women from Republican and Loyalist backgrounds, named by supergrasses and arrested since 1981 on terrorists charges or the scheduled charges, there have been no more than about 80 convictions. The Minister will correct me if the figures are not right, but that is my understanding of the position. This is so exceptional and unsatisfactory that the system upon which it is based cannot stand unchallenged.

This record tells us nothing about the length of time during which the arrested were detained although they were pleading their innocence. I have read that the average period of detention has been four to five weeks although many have been on remand for more than two years. My noble friends Lord Longford and Lord Blease have again drawn attention to the fact that such detention may be disastrous for an accused person.

I have dwelt upon the weaknesses of the supergrass system. Supergrasses are yes-men; not daring to cross the prosecution, they swim with the prosecution's tide. Their bargain with the prosecution is to their own advantage; but it is to the disadvantage of the accused and often amounts to injustice for many. So why do the security forces continue with this system?

Like the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and my noble friends Lord Blease and Lord Fitt, who live in the community and who have to face the perils there from day to day, I have no wish to be unfair to the police. I accept, with other noble Lords, that the police have a very difficult task to discharge, and we must not underestimate their difficulties. We have heard tonight how the system helps the police to collect valuable information about suspect terrorists; and to find weapons; and to help put suspects against whom there is a very great deal of circumstantial evidence out of circulation for a long time. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Fitt.

There possibly, and there probably, is the key to the policy. But it must not be overlooked that this policy may be and probably is unjust in the case of innocent individuals who have been arrested on the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness. Moreover, there is evidence that the system is turning some communities against the security forces. But whether this provides a common ground upon which the affirmatives in Northern Ireland can be brought together, as my noble friend Lord Longford seemed to suggest, I do not know. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has caught a glimpse of another development which may in the long term have great significance for the Province. But today we are concerned with the legal system in Northern Ireland and its imperfections.

I trust that when the Minister replies to this debate he will acknowledge the strength of feeling on this issue which has been brought into focus by my noble friend. If we have failed to convince the Minister of that unease, then we have failed in this debate. Even if the Minister cannot go so far as my noble friend would wish him to go, and even if he cannot tell the House that the supergrass system will be scrapped or that trial by jury will be re-established, at least for cases based on the evidence of an accomplice—and I accept the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and by my noble friend Lord. Fitt that such may be unrealistic today—I hope he give the House assurance that the Government are giving consideration to the introduction of some or all of the following changes: that the evidence of an accomplice should always be corroborated in some material respect; that the terms of the bargain between an accomplice and the prosecution should be agreed before the accomplice gives his evidence, and that such terms should not be secret but should be known to the court and told to the accused; that there should be a substantial reduction in the delay in bringing the accused to trial; and that there should be a substantial reduction in the number of defendants who are tried together on one indictment.

One last word, my Lords. This is essentially a debate about the rights of the individual to justice according to law when that individual finds himself in an extraordinarily difficult situation. I suggest that we should not allow the extraordinary situation to destroy or undermine our system of justice. It is our duty to preserve our common law in the interests of the individual, in the interests of the community and in the interests of the country at large.

9.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, I am sure your Lordships' House wishes me to express gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing this really informed and, I believe, constructive debate which we have had this evening. I was also particularly pleased to see that the noble Earl who has put forward this Question to the Government took the opportunity, as he told us, and as I heard from the lips of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—to whom I shall pass on the noble Earl's compliments and admiration—to visit Belfast recently to see the courts in operation and to observe for himself the processes by which justice is done in Northern Ireland.

This evening, of all evenings—and I am sure the noble Earl will forgive me—I invite the House to join with me in expressing our sympathy and condolences to those who have been injured or bereaved by this morning's non-warning car bomb outside the courthouse in Newry. One reserve policeman was killed outright and the civilian doorman was fatally injured. Another policeman was also seriously injured. This crime reminds us yet again, if, indeed, we need further reminder, that the shadow of the terrorist lies athwart the doors of the courts in Northern Ireland.

The terrorists have set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner. Indeed, the terrorists offer no safeguards for their intended victims. The task of bringing these terrorists to book for such crimes is an onerous one. The courts bear a considerable share of the strain. However, it is the determination of the Government, the security forces and, above all, the courts to maintain the rule of law which will, at the end of the day, defeat the terrorists and bring their plans to nought.

I return to this evening's debate and the Question which has been asked by the noble Earl. The debate has been highly informed and highly interesting but it has exposed one or two misconceptions which it might be best for me to correct immediately. Two of these are contained in the Question put down by the noble Earl, which refers to the working of what the noble Earl calls the "supergrass system". Far be it for me to enter into debate with the noble Earl or, indeed, your Lordships about the term "supergrass". We have heard how this term is used in the underworld across the Atlantic. However, I would mention in passing that the term "former accomplice" is one which more accurately describes the status of such witnesses.

I take strong issue with the allegation that there is a "system". There exists a group of cases which share certain common characteristics and it is even possible to a limited extent—I emphasise the word "limited"—to study and talk about such cases in isolation from others. However, I believe your Lordships will agree that the word "system" implies a deliberate policy or process which does not, in fact, exist. There is no "supergrass system".

The position is simple. If the police have good evidence, of whatever nature, to link a person with serious terrorist crime, it is their duty to bring charges as soon as they are able, and in due course to lay the facts before the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is the duty of the director, who of course acts independently of the Executive, to consider all the evidence and information before him with a view to the initiation of criminal proceedings, including cases where the evidence of a former accomplice forms an important part of the prosecution case.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way?

Lord Lyell

Briefly, my Lords, and just once.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I wanted to refer the noble Lord to Appendix C of the report of the Standing Advisory Commission, which is headed: The use of supergrasses as a method of prosecution in Northern Ireland". Just on the semantics of it, I think he has been a bit hard on me.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the noble Earl should know that I am never unduly hard. The umpire in this game is indeed your Lordships' House. I stand by what I said. There is no system. I think that he is drawing semantic points. We may discuss this later if he will permit that.

The director must consider each case on its own facts and in the light of the interest of the public that criminals, and particularly dangerous criminals, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, should be brought to justice. Where the evidence, whatever its nature, appears to be credible and cogent and relates to serious terrorist crime, there is an overriding public interest in having charges brought before the court. It is not the function of the director to decide guilt or innocence. All he can decide is whether the evidence merits being put before the court for adjudication. If the evidence of a former accomplice is part of the prosecution case, it is for the court to determine, as it does in respect of any evidence, whether it is so convincing as to its contents and so reliable in itself that it reaches the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt.

It may assist your Lordships to appreciate the force of my contention that there is no "system" if I give some figures which I believe will not directly clash with others quoted this evening. I think that the noble Earl would agree with them, and anybody else who has studied this question would concede that they are right.

In 1983, 1,139 cases were disposed of on indictment in Northern Ireland. Most of these were heard before a jury in the normal way, but 285—that is approximately 25 per cent.—were treated as cases involving "scheduled" offences and tried by a court sitting without a jury. Only four of these cases—that is 1.4 per cent. of the total number of cases—were cases in which a former accomplice gave evidence on behalf of the Crown. In 1984, 1,085 cases were disposed of on indictment; 266, or 24.5 per cent., were treated as scheduled cases; and only three-1 per cent. of the total—involved evidence from a former accomplice. I believe that those figures are relevant to the Question asked this evening by the noble Earl.

The noble Earl also asked whether the Government are satisfied with the working of the judicial processes in such cases. I would say to him that there can be no question of the Government being either satisfied or dissatisfied with decisions which have been made by courts. What the Government are satisfied of is that the legal framework within which the police, the prosecuting authorities and the courts operate is sound and enables justice to be done. I am satisfied that justice is being done, and according to the very high standards set by the judicial systems of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The law of Northern Ireland, like that of England and Wales, approaches the evidence of accomplices with the utmost caution. In a trial before judge and jury, it is the practice for the judge to give a precise warning in his charge to the jury that, although it is open to them to convict on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice, it is dangerous to do so. It is further his duty to analyse the evidence and to point out to the jury what, if believed, could or might amount to corroboration, implicating the accused in the evidence actually before it. This places a particularly difficult burden on the shoulders of a trial judge presiding over a trial for one of the scheduled offences which, at least for the time being, has to take place without a jury.

The trial judge must first give full effect to the warning which he would otherwise have given to the jury, and he must then ask himself the very questions he would otherwise have posed. First of all, he must ask: is there credible evidence which could amount to corroboration, were it accepted? Secondly, is he in fact satisfied of its truth? Finally, and most difficult of all, if there is no such corroboration, is the evidence, in such circumstances uncorroborated, of the accomplice so convincing that the judge is satisfied so that he is sure of the guilt of the accused?

It is clear to me, it is clear to the Government, and I believe it is clear to all who, with experience have followed this matter, that, throughout the period of the Diplock and so-called supergrass trials the judges charged with the matter have approached their delicate and responsible task with meticulous and scrupulous care. In particular I would refer the noble Lord to the judgment of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland given on 26th October 1983 in the case of Gibney. That illustrates and demonstrates the conscientious skill with which the courts ensure that no one is convicted except on proof beyond reasonable doubt. I would reassure the noble Earl, and, indeed, your Lordships, that a transcript of this judgment will be placed in your Lordships' Library.

I wish to say one or two more words about uncorroborated accomplice evidence. It is admissible in courts in Great Britain and in many other countries, including the Republic of Ireland and the United States. Yet it has been suggested this evening in your Lordships' House and elsewhere, that the Government should legislate to make such evidence inadmissible in Northern Ireland.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords may I interrupt the noble Lord?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, may I just finish?

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I do not think—

Lord Lyell

No, my Lords; if the noble Earl makes sedentary remarks, it breaks up the speech. I am not a lawyer and I do not think he is. Will he just pause? He has said that he wishes to interrupt. I believe that I am on the verge of being too good mannered, but I shall finish this paragraph and then let him say what he wishes. I am in the middle of trying to deal with uncorroborated evidence. I do not think that for the Government to legislate to make evidence inadmissible in Northern Ireland would be in the interests of justice. It would require courts in Northern Ireland to disregard evidence which might be cogent and material, and which might otherwise lead to the conviction of persons for very serious crime. I would remind your Lordships and above all the noble Earl, that such accomplice evidence, although sometimes uncorroborated, is never put forward unless it is supported by other evidence—for example, of the commission of the offences in question—which, while not strictly corroborative, nonetheless tends to confirm the accomplice's story. I do not think that Parliament should supplant the discretion at present accorded to the courts to accept, reject or give such weight as they see fit to such evidence, with a rigid rule that no such evidence should ever, in any circumstances be admissible—

—I yield to the noble Earl just once.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords I want to make a rather important point. The noble Lord has suggested that uncorroborated evidence is admissible in England. In law it is admissible but I understand—and I have confirmed this with several lawyers before making my remarks—that the use of it has died out here to all intents and purposes.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the noble Lord mentions "to all intents and purposes", but I understand that my remarks still stand.

The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, raised the question of the grant of immunity to former accomplices. This issue is a matter for the law officers, not for me, and I would commend to the House the written reply which was quoted by several of your Lordships, which was given in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General on 24th October 1983. That reply sets out very fully the criteria which are observed by the Director of Public Prosecutions when considering the grant of immunity in particular cases. I would not want to add anything to that.

The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, in the course of his notable speech, also raised the question of possible inducements to accomplice witnesses. Again, I should draw your Lordships' attention to the reply of my right honourable and learned friend in another place on 24th October 1983. This sets it out clearly that the details of any financial arrangements that may be made before a trial for the protection and, when appropriate, the resettlement of a witness must be available to the court at the time of the trial. It is for the court to form a view of the probative value of the witness's statement in the light of all the information before it.

Your Lordships have made reference (I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Blease, who mentioned it) to the length of time that sometimes occurs before certain cases come to trial involving the evidence of alleged former accomplices. The Government are most concerned about any delays in the judicial process. The recent appointment of 12 additional senior counsel and the forthcoming appointment of an additional county court judge are measures designed to speed the process of justice. That said, it must be recognised that cases involving accomplice evidence are subject to particular difficulty, most obviously from the need to complete the hearing of proceedings against the accomplice before the cases against others can be heard. This imposes a regrettable but, I have to say, necessary delay on the principal case.

I am also aware that in a small number of cases the continued detention of suspects on the evidence of successive former accomplices adds to the length of detention in custody and does give cause for concern. But, equally, if the police have evidence that someone has been involved in serious terrorist crime and the courts, because of the nature of the charges brought and the other factors which they are required to consider, decide that that person cannot properly be released on bail, then both in logic and I believe in law there is no alternative but to retain that person in custody until his case comes to trial.

Finally, I would wish to remind the House of the context in which this Question has been asked this evening. Northern Ireland has suffered 15 years of terrorist violence. There are undoubtedly people on the streets in Northern Ireland who have been guilty of the callous murder of members of the security forces or, indeed, of innocent members of the public; of the bombing of property, both commercial and domestic; and of grave and brutal sectarian murders. Witnesses have been intimidated. The silence of those who question the terrorist cause has been enforced by the brutal murder of so-called informers. It stands greatly to the credit of the security forces, of the prosecuting authorities, of the courts and of the judiciary that they have weathered this storm while maintaining the standards of justice which are recognised and applied on both sides of the Irish Sea. Recent cases have made clear that if cases brought against alleged terrorist offenders do not meet the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, then they will not be upheld by the courts.

I would wish to assure your Lordships that the splendid record of the judiciary of Northern Ireland has not passed without notice on this side of the water. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Brookeborough for providing me and, I believe, all your Lordships with this opportunity to pay tribute to the way in which the Lord Chief Justice, in particular, and all the judges and magistrates at every level in Northern Ireland, are dealing with the present troubles. Judges in Northern Ireland, as your Lordships will be aware, face unusual difficulties and dangers. Their colleagues have been attacked and even murdered, some on the steps of the very church at which they had just partaken of the Sacrament, others at their homes before the faces of their families.

Many things have been devalued as a result of the violence that has taken place in Northern Ireland over the last 15 years. The impartiality and the integrity of the judiciary and of a united and independent legal profession which rises above political difference and religious obedience in defence of law and, above all, justice, remain unimpaired. It is thanks to their courage, their dedication and their skill that law in Northern Ireland is being administered with fairness and firmness. I am sure that everyone in your Lordships' House will want to join me in extending to the judiciary of Northern Ireland our gratitude for their fortitude.

In his Unstarred Question the noble Earl has asked whether the Government are satisfied. My Lords, I am satisfied that justice has been and will continue to be done in the Northern Ireland courts.