HL Deb 09 June 1994 vol 555 cc1319-22

3.22 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any prosecution based on evidence obtained by the Falklands investigation will be instituted only with the consent of the Attorney-General; and whether any report of the investigation has yet been received by the Attorney-General and, if so, when.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Rodger of Earlsferry)

My Lords, any possible offences are not the subject of any statutory requirement for the consent of a Law Officer. As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor told the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, on 3rd May of this year, the Director of Public Prosecutions has now received a report by the Metropolitan Police relating to its investigations. The decision is one for the Director of Public Prosecutions taken under the superintendence of my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General. The Attorney-General has been and continues to be consulted in connection with this matter.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for taking this Question on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, who alone can answer for Mr. Attorney in your Lordships' House. In view of the concern expressed in this House on four previous occasions, can he on behalf of the Government give the firm, categoric assurance sought under the first limb of the Question? Will he confirm that it is within the sole responsibility of Mr. Attorney, in the exercise of his absolute unfettered discretion, as to whether to prosecute these men, taking into account the public interest? Will he not give that assurance?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is always concerned with the constitutionally proper position on these matters. I believe that the answer I have given today, which is in accordance with answers, as he says, given in the past, is the constitutionally correct answer. The question of prosecution in a case of this kind is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions. Nonetheless, he or she, as the case may be—it is at present a she—acts under the superintendence of the Attorney-General. On such matters, therefore, she will consult—she has consulted in this case—and her decision will be taken in the light of those consultations.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, as the report was received some while ago by the Director of Public Prosecutions, cannot the matter be dealt with more expeditiously as it is causing considerable concern to the men concerned and to their families?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I know that all noble Lords will be concerned that this matter should be dealt with as expeditiously as possible. I know also that your Lordships will be anxious that it should be dealt with as properly as possible. Your Lordships will therefore wish that all the time the director considers is necessary for the proper consideration of the matter should be taken and that her decision should be made, at the end of the day, after proper consideration of all the relevant matters.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, there will be some relief at the reply of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate because there is considerable expectation in the House that the right honourable and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General should be involved so that any decisions on alleged incidents in the Falklands can be put in a proper perspective and with due regard to the public interest. Does the noble and learned Lord agree—I am rephrasing my question because of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor's misunderstanding of it when last I put it in May—that if there is any doubt about whether a prosecution should be brought the benefit of the doubt should go to those who risked their lives in the national interest? I know that the accused receives the benefit of the doubt in a court of law but by then infinite damage may have been done. In view of the lapse of time and the intense warlike circumstances, which have recently been brought home to us in our memories of the ferocious fighting in Normandy, there is bound to be doubt. Should not the benefit of that doubt go to those who went 8,000 miles to risk their lives for our kith and kin and for the benefit of the whole nation?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I and the Government have nothing but admiration for all those who took part in that expedition. Further, a decision on prosecution is always in one sense a two-stage decision. First, one has to consider whether the basic evidence is there. Then there is the further question as to whether prosecution would be in the public interest in the particular circumstances of the case. On a number of occasions your Lordships have drawn attention to various obvious factors. Those factors will be taken into account by anyone who has to make the decision on a case like this.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware, as I am sure he is, of the anguish that this procrastination is causing to the widows, parents and orphans of those who fell in the Falklands? Is he further aware that a member of the War Widows Association whose husband served in 3 Para and whose husband was killed on Mount Longdon has suffered a severe nervous breakdown as a result of this endless inquiry? And no wonder.

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I fully appreciate that the wait for this decision must inevitably cause anguish to a number of people who are affected by it. On the other hand, I do not accept the description of this as procrastination. All I would say is that the matter has been investigated and a report has been presented. It is being considered and a decision will be taken with all the expedition that is appropriate in the case.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the British population is outraged that this case should have been considered at all and that an investigation should have taken place? Is he further aware that many people are now coming to ask whether British Ministers believe in the British Army at all? Does this set a precedent? The President of Argentina has declared that the sinking of the "General Belgrano" with the loss of 323 lives was a war crime. Can we now expect that Scotland Yard officers will go over to Argentina to interview survivors; and will they interrogate Cabinet Ministers and chiefs of naval staff? Just exactly what will happen? Will there be equity? Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can tell us that.

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, of course, we do not accept for one moment that the sinking of the "Belgrano" was a war crime. Therefore the question of extraditing in that connection does not arise at all. Furthermore, as the noble Lord is well aware, there are certain international legal obligations in this matter which we have to observe. It is no shame on us that we have duly observed them and that we are investigating the matter. When that has been completed an appropriate decision will be taken.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord identify precisely the factors which are delaying the reaching of a firm decision in this matter, bearing in mind the length of time that the Director of Public Prosecutions has had the report?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, the report is substantial. The director has been considering it in connection with advice from Treasury counsel. Inevitably the whole matter takes some time.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that some of us reluctantly went along with the investigation into this matter on the basis that that was right, as the issue had been raised, and in order to clear the air? I know that that view was not universally shared, but it was certainly my view. Is the Minister further aware that the time is beginning to drag inordinately? It took a long time for the investigation to take place and the report has been with the director for a not inconsiderable period of time. Will the noble and learned Lord undertake that he will make known to the director the view of the House that it is time she came to a conclusion one way or the other?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, of course I shall draw the director's attention to the views which your Lordships have expressed. However, I would expect your Lordships to consider it appropriate for the director to take all the time which she considers necessary to reach the correct decision in this matter.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in conveying that opinion to the director, will my noble and learned friend also convey what I believe to be the opinion of this House —or a very large majority of it —that, whatever may have been the case in the past, it is no longer in the public interest that there should be a prosecution?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, in taking her decision, the director will of course reflect on what has been said in your Lordships' House.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend tell me whether, after a major war, there has ever been a case where service personnel have been suggested for prosecution and a decision has been made by the Director of Public Prosecutions rather than the Attorney-General?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I am not aware of such a case. The particular circumstances of this case are such that the decision is one for the director. But, as I say, she will take it in consultation with the Attorney-General.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I ask my—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, let us move on.