HL Deb 20 January 1993 vol 541 cc885-7

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

When it is expected that the first prosecutions will be brought under the War Crimes Act 1991.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, the prosecuting authorities will consider each case at the conclusion of the relevant police investigation. The investigations are continuing and I cannot predict whether any prosecutions will be initiated.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it is not surprising that no prosecutions have yet been brought, bearing in mind the length in time that some of the cases have been under investigation? How many detectives and other police staff are directly or indirectly employed in the investigations currently in hand? Secondly, bearing in mind that the total financial provision under the Act has escalated to £36.6 million, which is far more than was originally anticipated, at a time when we are cutting expenditure elsewhere and being told that we must pay more taxes have the Government in mind any expenditure ceiling beyond which they will repeal the Act?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is difficult to say the exact number of people involved in the investigation. The figure of £3 million which was given by my noble friend Lord Ferrers in an Answer to the noble Lord in December is a good estimate of the cost to date. As regards the future, the Answer also contained an estimate of the total amount provided, which was about £36 million. Precisely what happens in relation to that will depend on the progress of investigations. They are necessarily difficult and complicated and it would be unwise of me to try to forecast ultimate results.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, my noble and learned friend will be aware that in a defamation case in a Scottish court a few months ago a person was by implication found to be a Second World War criminal. Should not such matters be determined one way or the other through the proper procedures now available and, if possible, before too long?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is true that in an action of defamation brought in the Scottish courts allegations were made which certainly had a bearing, to say the least, on the question of whether the person who was the subject of the publication was guilty of war crimes. That action was determined in accordance with the rules applying to civil actions for defamation. No doubt the evidence which was considered in detail by the judge in that case is important in relation to the investigation of war crimes. However, as my noble friend well knows, the standards and rules in those two types of case are very different.

Lord Shaughnessy

My Lords, in view of possible prosecutions will the noble and learned Lord state the average age of those suspected war criminals who are currently under investigation?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is not easy to give an average age. However, it would be fair of me to say that they are all of considerable age.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the cost of the proceedings and the time which they take should not excuse the appalling crimes which were committed during the Second World War?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I cannot be certain of the implications which lay behind the question I was asked about cost. I assume that it was not thought that cost would excuse any crime. However, cost may well be a relevant consideration to take into account in deciding whether a particular investigation should be pursued. That is a matter for the prosecuting authorities to decide in the light of all the circumstances, one of which no doubt is the likelihood of a successful prosecution.

Lord Rawlinson of Ewell

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend not consider that the time of the prosecuting authorities and the investigative authorities might be better spent investigating those who have illegally taped various telephone conversations, who bought them, how much was paid and who is responsible for them?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the prosecuting authorities in England and Wales and in Scotland have quite a variety of material before them where there are allegations of criminal activity. It is a matter of no little difficulty to form a judgment about priorities among those. No one is better qualified to understand the difficulties of that kind of operation than my noble and learned friend from his years as a distinguished Attorney-General.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords—

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Can the noble and learned Lord assure the House that if prosecutions are brought under that Act against various people, those people will have ample opportunity to defend themselves?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am certain that if prosecutions are brought the ordinary rules with regard to fairness will prevail. No person who is the subject of an allegation put forward by the prosecution will be convicted without a fair trial.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. Is it not a fact that the Chalmers-Hetherington Report went into those matters in considerable detail? That includes Part II, which we understand cannot be published for obvious reasons. Why is it necessary for the police and the prosecuting authorities to go over that ground all over again?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the investigations that are required for the purposes of a prosecution need to be quite detailed. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that the only allegations that are now current are those which were made to Hetherington and Chalmers. Therefore, the investigating authorities have a large field in which to work. There is also the possibility of developments as regards the evidence; for example, the development to which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy referred where a considerable amount of evidence was discussed in the context of an action for defamation.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, do not the facts which my noble and learned friend has disclosed indicate that the measure was an expensive disaster?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, what I have said indicates what are the costs so far. I do not think it would be right for me to express a view on the wisdom of an Act of Parliament which proceeded on a free vote and was enacted in accordance with the relevant statutory procedures.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, may we now be brought up to date and ask the noble and learned Lord how many alleged war criminals are at present under investigation?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, in England and Wales the number is in the order of 99. The level of investigation in respect of those varies a good deal from one case to another. That is one reason that I thought it right to answer the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in the way that I did. Obviously allegations are sometimes put forward at different times. One must take account of those.

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