HL Deb 07 March 1996 vol 570 cc409-11

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many prosecutions have been instituted under the War Crimes Act 1991, and when decisions will be made in cases remaining under consideration.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, proceedings have been commenced in one case under the War Crimes Act 1991. The Crown Prosecution Service will take decisions as to possible prosecution in other cases once police investigations have been concluded and all relevant evidence has been fully considered and analysed.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that reply. As to the first limb of the Question, regarding Mr. Serafinowicz, aged 85, when is it expected that the committal proceedings, which started as long ago as 4th January, will end; and when is it expected that the substantive trial will start?

As regards the second limb of the Question concerning the remaining cases, six or seven of which have been under investigation since Hethrington in 1988, will my noble and learned friend accept that the purpose of this Question is not to thwart the will of another place, nor to stifle prosecutions, but to seek to contain the delay which affects the prospect of any fair trial?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, of course I accept what my noble friend says regarding the purpose of his Question. So far as the committal proceedings to which he referred are concerned, they were commenced on 4th January 1996. They were adjourned until 19th February 1996. Evidence was heard from 19th February to 1st March 1996 inclusive, and the proceedings now stand adjourned until 18th March 1996. The current best estimate is that committal proceedings will be completed by mid-April. I do not have information as to when, if at all, there will be a trial.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say how much public money has been spent in the attempt to implement this Act?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, by the end of January 1996, Metropolitan Police costs were some £5.7 million and the CPS costs, rounded up, were £1.6 million. Those were the costs in this country.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord agree that it would not matter how much money was spent, or how much delay there is, if only one of the perpetrators of the ghastly genocide against the Jews and the torture and murder of many other political dissidents was brought to book?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, that is primarily a matter for Parliament. The House of Commons took a decision in relation to the promotion of the Bill, which eventually became an Act as a result of the application of the Parliament Acts.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not plain that the real question is not whether they are convicted but whether they have a fair trial?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am sure that the proceedings will be conducted with all the fairness of which our system has every reason to be proud.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that I totally agree with his remark at the end of his intervention? To give those charged under this Act a fair trial we need an open judicial system, which we have; a careful collection of evidence, which we have; and we need that evidence to be analysed in public, which it will be. Is it not time, somebody now having been charged under the Act, that the courts were allowed to get on with their duty?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I have no doubt that the committal proceedings will go forward with all reasonable expedition under the chairmanship of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, who is presiding on the occasion.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that the chief prosecutor at the documentation research centre at Ludwigsburg, in Germany, has decided that no more prosecutions of these suspects will take place because of their age and because of probable sickness? Is that a view that my noble and learned friend would share?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, that would be a view taken in the circumstances by that particular official. So far as this country is concerned, the responsibility lies with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney-General. I report their views to the House; but these decisions are personal responsibilities of theirs.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord recall that the Hethrington Report argued that the great difficulty in regard to prosecution was the age of the witnesses and the suspects? That was eight years ago. Will he agree that, as the years go by and these proceedings drag on, the whole process becomes increasingly distasteful? Is it not becoming apparent that the other place, and the Government, might be wise to accept the advice of this House on the subject?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the other place gave its view. It would be quite presumptuous of me to express any view of my own in relation to that once the matter has become an Act of Parliament.

I think I am right in saying that the Hethrington-Chalmers Report indicated that there was a case for prosecution, at least in some cases. I do not profess to give the whole sense of what was quite a long document; the part to which the noble Lord referred was not the whole.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend agree that, at a time when further massacres are being perpetrated against the Jewish people, it is the height of bad taste to try to draw a veil over even greater atrocities in the past?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I said, my position is that Parliament, having regard to the history I referred to, put this Act on the statute book; and the executive authorities, my right honourable friend the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, are carrying out the duties that fall to them in consequence of that statute.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord confirm that the alleged crimes took place 53 years ago? Can we be sure that the evidence of identification, particularly if it is taken over television, will be reliable?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, that is a matter for the court of trial. Noble Lords would be surprised, if not astonished, were Ito give a view about that at this stage. That is a matter for the court of trial. It would be a tremendous impertinence on my part, not having heard any of the evidence or seen anything on the television about it, to express a view on that matter. The noble Lord may have his own view but I do not think that it would be right for me to express mine.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that with the recommendation of the government of which the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was a member—namely, that in the interests of justice further prosecutions would be a mistake—we are looking back with hindsight at a Labour Government which uttered great words of wisdom with that advice?

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord answers that question, I believe that I follow the wish of the House in asking whether the noble Lord the Leader of the House would move to the next Question.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps we may split the difference. My noble and learned friend might like to answer the question as briefly as he is able and we can then move on.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I think I have given my answer to that question already.

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