HL Deb 12 June 1996 vol 572 cc1713-5

2.58 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Director of Public Prosecutions has considered the transcripts of the evidence of the inquest into the sinking of the "Marchioness" where a verdict, on 7th April 1995, of "unlawful killing" was concluded and, if so, whether any prosecutions are contemplated.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, your Lordships will recall that there have already been two prosecutions arising from the tragic sinking of the "Marchioness". Proceedings brought by the Crown Prosecution Service against the master of the "Bowbelle" for an offence contrary to Section 27 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1970 resulted in a directed acquittal after the jury twice failed to agree. An application for judicial review of the initial decision by the CPS not to proceed for manslaughter failed. A private prosecution against the owners of the "Bowbelle" also failed when the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate ruled that there was no case to answer. The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing the evidence given to the inquest jury in combination with the pre-inquest evidence. It has also sought the advice of senior counsel. When this task is complete, a decision can then be made on whether further criminal proceedings are warranted.

Lord Spens

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Would he agree with me that it has been seven years since this dreadful incident and 15 months since the last inquest, which was achieved only with the aid and help of the noble and learned Lord who allowed legal aid to the families? Is it not time that some decision was reached? Is it not true that the transcripts took eight months to move from the Coroner's Office to the Crown Prosecution Service and that the Crown Prosecution Service has now had six months to look at information which it has known for a very long time? After seven years we ought to be getting a decision, ought we not?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as the noble Lord says, it is true that the evidence from the last inquest took a considerable time to reach the Crown Prosecution Service. But the CPS owes it to the circumstances to make a thorough examination in the light of the evidence at the second coroner's inquest to see whether, in view of the verdict, any prosecution is justified. It is a very complicated matter which must be considered thoroughly and the final decision taken as soon as the investigations are complete.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, is not the key point that the inquest jury in April 1995—that is four years after the two trials to which the noble and learned Lord referred—heard further evidence and returned a verdict of unlawful killing, in terms saying expressly that its verdict was not inconsistent with the outcome of the two previous trials? In those circumstances, is it not now urgently necessary that the Crown Prosecution Service should reach a prompt decision as regards whether or not to prosecute for manslaughter? I well recognise that it is a very difficult decision to reach but the CPS should come to that decision as promptly as may be in the interests of all the relatives of the 51 victims and in the interests of the peace of mind of the captain.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I strongly agree with that, subject to the proviso that it must take sufficient time to examine the detail—and quite a lot of detail there is—to ensure that the decision taken is the correct one.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware of the profit or purpose of raising this Question in your Lordships' House?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I often have a tendency to speculate on reasons for some of your Lordships asking questions, but happily, it is not my function to deal with those speculations. I merely try to answer the questions to the best of my ability, which is what I have done.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has acknowledged that it took eight months for the transcripts to reach the Crown Prosecution Service from the coroner's inquest. Why did it take that long?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, because, as I understand it, the transcripts were not complete and ready to be handed over until the expiry of that period.