HL Deb 11 December 1995 vol 567 cc1100-2

3.1 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

In respect of each case now being investigated under the War Crimes Act 1991, when such investigation was initiated and when a decision will be taken on prosecution.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Metropolitan Police inform me that they are currently investigating 11 Second World War crimes. Seven of these allegations were received from the Home Office on 28th May 1991 on the formation of the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit. The remaining four allegations were received on 9th August 1993, 8th December 1993, 21st January 1994 and 25th March 1994. The Crown Prosecution Service will take decisions as to possible prosecution once the investigations have been concluded.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, perhaps I may thank my noble friend the Minister for what she was able to give us by way of reply and ask respectfully whether it is now accepted that the prospects of a fair trial in every one of these cases will be called in question on the application to stay proceedings for abuse of process of the court. In those circumstances, is it now accepted by the Government that, for the reasons advanced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, on more than one occasion on the Floor of your Lordships' House, some appellate process should now be introduced?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the question of a fair trial will loom very large in the minds of the Crown Prosecution Service and of the judge at a trial. But whether or not to apply for a stay of proceedings on the ground that the delay renders a fair trial impossible is a matter for the defendant and his legal representative in each case to consider. However, it would not be surprising if such applications were contemplated in these cases. As to my noble friend's other point as to whether there should be an appellate process against decisions to refuse such applications, we believe it is essential to minimise the scope for further delays in criminal trials, especially where delays have already occurred. A right of appeal against abuse of process decisions would create additional delays and is unnecessary. The defence already has a right of appeal at the end of the trial if the defendant is convicted.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say what is the annual cost of these operations?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I cannot give the breakdown but I can say that from the beginning of this process to the present day £5.5 million has been the total cost to the Metropolitan Police of pursuing these cases. The Crown Prosecution Service costs stand at £1.5 million.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say how old are the oldest and youngest people under investigation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I understand that the oldest is 84 and the youngest is 70.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the question of whether there would be a fair trial has been raised almost exclusively by a small knot of people who, for reasons which remain obscure, desire to see these appalling crimes committed during the Second World War obliterated from the public memory? Does she not further agree that to raise these questions now, when we are contemplating similar prosecutions for crimes not of the same magnitude but of the same character in the former Yugoslavia, is the height of irresponsibility?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. These are horrendous crimes. The victims of such crimes and the families of the victims of such crimes have indelibly imprinted on their memories the horror of these crimes. It is essential that we never concede the principle that simply the passage of time should be grounds for acquittal.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not a little unwise to describe crimes as "horrible" when they are still under investigation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not think there is any conflict here. The crimes were horrible. As to who committed them, that is a matter for the courts.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does the Minister recall that a substantial majority in this House declined to give a Second Reading to the War Crimes Bill and acted wholly out of a desire to see that unfair trials were not possible? Does she realise that not only are the alleged crimes at least 50 years old but that the time between the starting of these examinations and the bringing of cases to court is already excessive? Is it not time that this controversial and long drawn-out process was brought to an end?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it would be quite wrong to ignore the overwhelming view of another place in this matter. This ground has been well covered in almost every question that has been answered in the debate and indeed was well covered as the Bill processed through this House. On the point of unfair trials, that really must be a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service and the judge in the case. If it is deemed that a fair trial cannot take place, that must be a judgment of the Crown Prosecution Service in the first instance and the judges in the courts. If there is a conviction at the end of such a trial, anyone subject to a conviction is free to appeal.