HC Deb 17 July 2001 vol 372 cc139-40W
Dr. Vis

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on progress with the police investigation into the destruction of rifles pertinent to the Bloody Sunday inquiry. [4979]

Mr. Hoon

The police investigation into the unauthorised destruction of possible Bloody Sunday rifles announced in my answer of 17 February 2000,Official Report, column 648W, was completed in April 2001. The Bloody Sunday inquiry has been fully informed of the progress of the investigation and asked, at the outset, that the scope of the investigation be widened to establish the histories and whereabouts of the 29 weapons originally examined by the Widgery inquiry in 1972.

The police investigation revealed, for the first time, that the partial serial numbers provided by the Bloody Sunday inquiry generate 60 possible permutations for the 29 weapons originally sought by the inquiry. The report therefore reveals that the information on which my answer of 17 February 2000 was based, although provided in good faith, was inaccurate and incomplete.

By establishing detailed audit trails for all 60 weapons, the police have been able to recover 14 weapons and confirmed that 29 have been destroyed. The police were unable to confirm the existence or whereabouts of the remaining 17 weapons, some of which have been sold, complete or in parts. Others may have either been destroyed prior to the creation of the computer record or manufactured and delivered to customers overseas.

The self-loading rifle (SLR) was declared obsolete in November 1997. A routine disposal programme involving the sale and destruction of the weapons was in progress from January 1998, although some surplus rifles were disposed of prior to this date. At the time of the inquiry's request the disposal programme was reducing stock by 4,000 weapons a month with the aim of completing disposal by April 2000. By the end of January 2000 approximately 116,000 SLRs had been disposed of out of a total of 144,000.

The dates on which weapons that "match" the partial serial numbers provided by the Bloody Sunday inquiry were destroyed are as follows:

  • 1995 unknown date (three rifles)
  • 17 September 1997
  • 21 January 1998
  • 3 February 1998
  • 12 February 1998
  • 7 April 1998
  • 27 April 1998 (two rifles)
  • 2 June 1998 (two rifles)
  • 25 June 1998
  • 6 August 1998
  • 13 August 1998
  • 23 September 1998
  • 29 October 1998
  • 13 January 1999 (two rifles)
  • 17 February 1999
  • 23 February 1999
  • 24 March 1999
  • 22 September 1999 (two rifles)
  • 23 November 1999 (two rifles)
  • 26 January 2000
  • 27 January 2000 (two rifles).

By September 1999, when the inquiry made a formal request for weapons and provided partial serial numbers, the Ministry of Defence held six weapons but was able to identify only five as Bloody Sunday "possible". Two of these weapons identified as Bloody Sunday weapons, together with a third weapon that had not been identified, were destroyed in a routine disposal programme on 26 and 27 January 2000. The destruction only came to light after the event when the computer database was updated. My answer of 17 February 2000 incorrectly stated the dates at which the computer record was updated, rather than the actual dates of destruction.

The police report concluded that the weapons were destroyed as a result of a combination of factors including inaccurate computer records, duplicated serial numbers and mistakes resulting from human error rather than an overt criminal act. Based on the police report, I am satisfied that there was no conspiracy to destroy evidence sought by the inquiry. The matter has now been referred to the chain of command to implement management improvements designed to prevent a recurrence and to determine whether any internal disciplinary action needs to be taken.

The evidence contained in the report suggests that the destroyed rifles would have been of little value to the inquiry due to duplicated serial numbers and the lack of certainty that any individual weapon was fired on Bloody Sunday. However, the police report indicates a strong possibility that a L42A1 7.62mm sniper rifle conversion can be matched to a Bloody Sunday weapon. The whereabouts of this weapon were unknown when the report was produced, but it has now been recovered by the MDP. The police investigation also confirmed that it is not possible to determine whether any rifles have retained their original barrels as large numbers of rifles were re-barrelled during the 30 or so years that the weapons remained in operational service. Detailed records were not kept to record whether a rifle had been re-barelled, or how many times this may have occurred.

The Bloody Sunday inquiry will reach its own view as to the potential forensic value of the weapons.