HL Deb 29 October 1985 vol 467 cc1482-92

4.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on 9 Signal Regiment being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission Mr. Speaker I should like to make a Statement about the outcome of the trial concluded yesterday of eight servicemen under the Official Secrets Acts.

"On 3rd February 1984 a senior aircraftsman of 9 Signal Regiment based in Cyprus failed to complete unit clearance procedures prior to being posted back to the United Kingdom. On the 6th February he was interviewed by the Deputy Unit Security Officer of the Regiment. From this interview it appeared that a breach of security had occurred and the senior aircraftsman was arrested. His case was referred to the RAF Provost and Security Service in Cyprus. Subsequently, the Army Special Investigations Branch was also brought in since it appeared that soldiers as well as RAF personnel were involved. As is the standard procedure where a breach of the Official Secrets Acts may have occurred, the Ministry of Defence Security authorities brought the matter to the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions during the course of their investigation. On the 15th March 1984, in view of the seriousness of the alleged breaches of security, the director asked the Metropolitan Police Special Branch to assume responsibility for the conduct of the investigation and in the light of their investigation he considered that the evidence justified prosecutions under the Official Secrets Acts.

"On the 11th April the Attorney General consented to the prosecution of seven servicemen who were charged on the 13th April. The Attorney-General subsequently consented to the prosecution of an eighth serviceman, who was charged on the 8th June 1984.

"As the House is aware, the servicemen charged have all been acquitted. Their future in the services will be determined in accordance with normal service regulations. These afford a right of appeal to the service boards which include Ministers before any final decision on their future is taken.

"As the House is aware the Security Commission reports to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. My right honourable friend has authorised me to say that she decided in June 1984 that, given the gravity of the apparent breaches of security and the length of time the trial proceedings would be likely to take, it would be right to make an immediate reference to the Security Commission. The reference was not announced at the time so as not in any way to prejudice the course of justice. In the light of the acquittals my right honourable friend will consult the Chairman of the Security Commission and report to the House in due course.

"The House will wish to know of the steps that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has taken in the light of what has occurred.

"First, my right honourable friend the Secretry of State was first informed of the possibility of a breach of security on 10th February 1984. In the light of further information he decided that there should be an investigation of the security arrangements and procedures in 9 Signal Regiment which was to be led by the Security Service. In parallel with this investigation my right honourable friend instructed that further investigations should be carried out into security procedures in all other static communications units of all three services which handle sensitive traffic. These security investigations produced a large number of detailed recommendations for enhancing security at the units concerned. Most of them have been accepted, and either have been or are being implemented.

"Second my right honourable friend has decided that there should be an independent inquiry into the way in which the service police carried out their investigations of the eight men originally accused. Mr. David Calcutt, QC, has agreed to conduct this inquiry and to complete it as quickly as is practical. He will start work next week. His terms of reference will be as follows: 'To inquire into the question of whether the investigations carried out by the Royal Air Force's Provost Marshal Branch and the Army's Special Investigation Branch into matters which formed the substance of charges subsequently laid under the Official Secrets Acts against SAC Geoffrey Jones, SAC Adam Lightowler, SAC Wayne Kriehn, SAC Christopher Payne, SAC Gwynn Owen, Lance Corporal Anthony Glass, Signalman Martin Tuffy, and Signalman David Hardman were carried out in accordance with lawful and proper procedures; to report with all practicable speed; and to make recommendations as to any relevant procedure.' Subject to the usual security considerations, it is my right honourable friend's intention that Mr. Calcutt's report will be published."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement, and we quite understand about the unavoidable absence of his noble friend Lord Trefgarne, who is, I understand, visiting the Ghurkas in Nepal.

The Statement is deeply disturbing. It is clear that the circumstances which have led up to it have caused great and widespread concern throughout the country. It is something—and this at least is commendable—that the Government have recognised that in the speed with which they have acted in deciding to set up the inquiry. We welcome that and also the reference made to the Security Commission and the appointment of Mr. David Calcutt. We recognise that it is difficult for the Minister today to answer certain questions, in particular about the facts and circumstances, because he cannot anticipate the findings of the inquiry. However, some questions arise immediately.

Various allegations have apparently been made in the course of the trial about the methods of interrogation of the defendants. We wish to be assured that in going into the procedures the inquiry will also go into the processes of interrogation employed in the services and be free to make recommendations on those for any necessary changes. It is said that the defendants were subjected to long periods of interrogation and detention. We shall want in due course to know the truth about that, and in particular how they came to sign the so-called confessions. I think it is also vital that we should be assured—it perhaps should not be necessary to say this, but since it has been raised in some quarters it may be—that our servicemen and women are of course no less protected than they would be if they were civilians. We shall wish to know eventually who is to blame and to be assured that appropriate action is taken against those found to be blameworthy.

I believe that we should be careful not to come to quick judgments, as have been attempted in some quarters, about the role of the law officers and the Director of Public Prosecutions. After all, we need to bear in mind, for example, that they do not know what the defence will be. But there is a clear need for inquiry into the procedures involving the law officers and the director in this case, and for reassurance that any shortcoming in the procedures will not be repeated, so far as that is possible to ensure. We need eventually, in particular, to know whether the director and the law officers knew about the long periods of interrogation and detention, if that indeed was the case, and whether they were alerted, or whether they alerted themselves, to the dangers arising from that, and whether Ministers knew about that before making reference to the director and the law officers; and the extent to which they were accordingly alerted to the dangers of accepting the so-called confessions.

I take it that the way those confessions were obtained will need to be established. Can the Minister say whether any of the investigating officers in this case was in last summer's Cyprus case, and, if so, whether any lessons have been learnt? Can he also say something about the powers of Mr. David Calcutt? The Statement mentions the terms of reference, but further help on the powers would be appreciated.

I dislike, as I think we all do, extravagant claims and extravagant language, and some of those have appeared in the newspapers over these past hours. But one is bound to say that if the reports last night and today of the extraordinary series of factual errors in the evidence for the prosecution are anything to go by, there has been a serious failure in the course of the investigations to make the most elementary checks on the evidence. If that is borne out by the inquiry (which I hope will go into that aspect), that will amount either at least to negligence or at worst to a deliberate distortion aimed at perverting the course of justice. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm today, obviously without pre-empting the task of the inquiry, that it will be part of its job to disentangle this material in particular and give us its view about it.

Can the Minister say anything about the cost of the trial? I ask one final question. There has been great suffering not only for the defendants but also for their families, and they can never be adequately compensated. But has consideration been given to ways, financial or otherwise, to try to restore them so far as possible to the position that they were in before this arose?

Perhaps the only good and comforting matter—and it may be important—to emerge from this distressing saga has been the vindication of our system of justice and in particular of our jury system.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, there may have been in some quarters an hysterical over-reaction to the result of this case, and there may be a tendency to attempt to use it in obscure ways as a stick to beat the Government. I can only say that I think there are more effective sticks available at the moment.

One does not need to have been in the legal profession the whole of one's life to know that acquittals sometimes happen. The length and the cost of the case are irrelevant. Acquittals happen because that is an integral part of our legal system. It seems to me quite wrong that some people are saying that simply because there has been an acquittal there must be some form of inquiry into why it took place, so that blame should be imputed in some way or another to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Attorney-General, those responsible for the investigation or the prosecuting counsel at the Central Criminal Court. If we are going to have inquiries into cases every time there is an acquittal, we shall very soon run out of judges or senior members of the Bar to carry out those inquiries.

The second matter, as we all know, is that the cases in this instance were based on signed statements by the defendants, apparently without any supporting evidence. It is inevitable that there should be a call in some quarters in support of the suggestion that there should be corroboration where that is the situation. I hope that this will be resisted by the Government. It is a fact that, in a very large number of cases, defendants make signed confessions and there is no supporting evidence. It is a fact that, in the overwhelming majority of those cases, the defendants are guilty and plead guilty, and that is the end of the matter. If we were to attempt to import a system under which there has to be corroboration in addition to a signed statement, the inevitable result would be that a large number of dangerous criminals who are at the moment behind bars would be today walking the streets.

In the small number of cases where there are signed statements and the defendant pleads not guilty, this is a result, as a rule, of one of two factors. Either the signed statement has been taken as result of improper pressures, which is, of course, what the defence was saying in this case, or sometimes the defendants change their minds about the admissions that they have previously made and decide that they will say that there have been improper pressures, even though there have not been. It is a very difficult line for the jury to draw in attempting to determine which of those two situations has arisen. It is perhaps worth recalling that the jury do not have to decide which of those two situations they think is the more probable. They simply have to decide whether they are sure that the signed statements are true. It is obvious that the jury in this case were not sure. That is as far as anyone can go. They are not even required to give any reason for their decision.

It is perhaps also worth recalling that, at the end of a very long preliminary inquiry, a very distinguished judge found that he was satisfied, in the absence of the jury, that at least the statements had been made voluntarily. In those circumstances, the lessons to be drawn are perhaps not quite as clear-cut as has been suggested in some quarters. I venture to think that, first, there is a general lesson to be drawn—that perhaps the security services in this country are not sufficiently accountable to Parliament. I believe that we should look at the whole general situation in due course.

Secondly, in this particular case, there appears to be some indication that at the beginning of the inquiry those who were carrying it out were not entirely sure what they were seeking to achieve; whether it was to establish that there was a leak and to plug it, or whether it was an attempt to make certain people responsible for what they believed had happened. Thirdly, it is apparent, I think, in this case that the question must arise as to whether the provost and security services have in fact the experience or the impartiality, in carrying out investigations of this sort, to do so entirely satisfactorily. Clearly, the Special Branch have to be brought in on a case of this nature. It is apparent from the satement made today that some 36 days elapsed from the original discovery that there had been a breach of security to the time that the Special Branch were brought in. That, I would suggest, is far too long on the face of the Minister's own Statement.

It appears from the Statement that on 6th February the evidence became clear that there had been a breach of security. We are told that in due course the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions was drawn to that matter. One would hope that this had been done on the 7th or 8th February. Perhaps the noble Lord the Minister can say on what date the Director of Public Prosecutions was notified of this matter.

The only other question that I have to ask the Government is one about which they have been a little coy so far. It is this. Is there clear and unambiguous evidence that there have been serious breaches of security by someone in Cyprus? Finally, I note that the matter has now been referred to an independent inquiry. I am bound to say that I myself have some doubts about the wisdom of that in this particular case. I have no doubt at all about the wisdom of appointing Mr. Calcutt because I am sure that his report will be very thorough and very rapid. We shall look forward with great interest to its contents.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments of both noble Lords opposite on this Statement. I can perhaps first try to answer some of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Boston. He refers to the question of procedures of interrogation in the services, the way that these people were investigated initially, and also the question of the long periods during which they were detained. These are perhaps both matters that will fall to Mr. Calcutt to investigate. I do not think that I can take them further forward now, except to say that I am sure they will be looked into.

As to the question of the same protection for those in the military as for those in civil life, I can only say that the relevant rules for all this are contained in service regulations. They are voluminous. I shall be happy to arrange for the relevant regulations to be made available to your Lordships in the usual way through the Library. The noble Lord was kind to suggest that no quick judgment should be made about the role of the Law Officers. I am grateful for that. When it comes to the question of whether or not they were aware of the long periods of detention, I can say, yes, they were aware. So far as being alerted to the dangers arising from them, I can only say that no complaint was made until the committal proceedings. So far as the interests of Ministers is concerned, they would, of course, have been told, not consulted, on this. It is strictly a matter for the Law Officers and not for Ministers. So far as investigators are concerned, can I say, yes, some investigators who took part in this case did look at earlier cases. I cannot go further than that.

So far as the question of taking evidence in the case of Mr. Calcutt's inquiry is concerned, Mr. Calcutt will have no power to compel witnesses to appear but this is clearly related also to issues of immunity which my right honourable friend the Attorney-General and the service authorities will be considering. Mr. Calcutt will be given access to all relevant papers in the hands of the Crown. The noble Lord asked about the cost of the trial. Calculations about this sort of thing are notoriously difficult to make. I certainly cannot venture a figure at this stage. It is too early, I believe, in any case.

Lastly, the noble Lord asked me about the question of compensation for the distress that may have been suffered by the families. I can certainly appreciate that, inevitably, stress is involved in this sort of thing. However, I have to say to him that compensation is not paid in such circumstances under either service or civilian court proceedings.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, who, in a balanced manner, introduced the arguments that bring out the difficulties associated with trials of this sort, asked a number of questions. So far as the prime question—if that is the right word—is concerned, over whether there had been any breaches of security, all I can say to the noble Lord is that there appeared to have been serious breaches of security at the time the original investigations took place. I cannot go further than that.

On the question of timing, and the report to the DPP on these issues, the first letter was sent to the DPP on 6th March and the first full briefing at the DPP's Office was on 15th March.

I do not think that the noble Lord asked me any other specific questions. He was concerned about the accountability of the security services to Parliament. With respect, I think that that goes very much wider than this immediate matter, but I note his comments. The noble Lord was also concerned about the relevance of the experience of the provost and security services and the Special Investigation Branch's work to matters of this kind. I am quite certain that these are also matters which will be addressed by the Calcutt inquiry.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, may I raise three points with the noble Lord the Minister on the important Statement that he repeated. If I may respectfully say so, is not the answer to some of the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that the Government—which have so properly ordered this inquiry—have not done so because there were acquittals? They have done so because there were accusations of improper methods being used in a vital series of investigations with a jury finding, presumably as a matter of fact, that those statements had been improperly obtained.

I move to my second point, which I believe is a point of some importance. In the course of the Statement this sentence occurs: On the 15th March 1984, in view of the seriousness of the alleged breaches of security, the Director asked the Metropolitan Special Branch to assume responsibility for the conduct of the investigation and in the light of their investigation he considered that the evidence justified prosecutions under the Offical Secrets Acts". At the end of the Statement, when the terms of reference for Mr. David Calcutt's inquiry are set out, they are purely: To inquire into the question of whether the investigations carried out by the Royal Air Force's Provost Marshal branch and the Army's Special Investigation Branch … were carried out in accordance with lawful and proper procedures". That would appear prima facie to exclude from the inquiry the very people who the Statement says were asked to supervise the conduct of the investigation, in the light of whose investigation it was decided to bring the prosecution. If the answer to my question is that the Secretary of State for Defence is not constitutionally in a position to order an inquiry into the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, will the Secretary of State for Home Affairs join in this mandate and see to it that the investigation covers the very people who are stated to have responsibility?

My third question arises out of my second one. It is this: Is the Minister satisfied, is his right honourable friend satisfied, that there are proper lines of communication between the Ministry of Defence and the Special Branch when inquiries into security of this nature have to take place?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, it is not, of course, possible to go into details on what transpired at the trial because the proceedings were in camera. But the fact is that we are dealing here with the question of the investigations which were conducted by the two service agencies, one for the Royal Air Force, and one for the Army. The relevance of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch is to the responsibility for conducting the investigation, not as I see it, the handling on the ground. The Special Branch did not take over the investigation of the matter from the service authorities; they merely conducted it. I think that there is a difference there which I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate. They retained responsibility. They did not carry it out on the ground.

As for the lines of communication, I certainly know of no reason to suppose that the lines of communication are not adequate. No doubt, again, these are matters which Mr. Calcutt will consider when he looks into the specific question of whether or not there were failings in any way with the servicemen who conducted the investigations in the first place. However, it is certainly not unusual and I should have thought that they were satisfactory.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the House assume that all of us are most sympathetic with the noble Lord the Minister who has taken over the responsibility for repeating this Statement and answering questions in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. And may I say that with his usual frankness he has done all he can to answer the questions. Having said that—because the question I asked is very important—would the noble Lord look at the wording of the Statement which says not only that the Director asked the Metropolitan Police Special Branch to assume responsibility for the conduct of the investigation". but goes on to say, and in the light of their investigation he considered that the evidence justified prosecutions". Would the noble Lord therefore take the matter back to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs with a view to considering whether this inquiry should now be made complete, as it should be, by an inquiry also being made into the conduct of this matter by the Metropolitan Police Special Branch?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, can I say simply to the noble Lord that I understand his concern. Can I say to him simply that if, in the course of the investigations that Mr. Calcutt will conduct into the way the service authorities dealt with these cases, it involves the lines of communication leading to—the noble Lord shakes his head, but I am endeavouring to explain and since I had not finished before he started to shake his head I must be failing dismally. I am trying to explain to him that the conduct of the investigation was under the auspices of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch once it had reached a certain point. But the investigating and talking to the servicemen in Cyprus was by the service branches, that is to say, the SIB and the provost and security services. I am quite sure that when it comes to the investigation that Mr. Calcutt conducts, those matters about which he is concerned will also be looked into.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, for the very last time, I promise the House—

Noble Lords


Lord Wigoder

My Lords, may I pose one simple question, before we get involved in an orgy of police bashing led by the Labour Party Front Bench——

Noble Lords


Lord Wigoder

Is it not a fact that at this trial there were no serious allegations of misconduct made against the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, so far as I know that is absolutely correct.

Lord Granville of Eye

My Lords, following upon the showing on breakfast time television this morning, of amazing scenes inside a rather doubtful night club in Cyprus, with British airmen taking part in all states of inebriation, which operation was then turned into some kind of a soap opera, may I ask the Minister whether there will be any control of cheque book journalism over the next week or so while this inquiry is taking place?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I do not think that that is a matter for me.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Mischon

My Lords, I must return to the Dispatch Box in view of a comment which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, which, if I may say so, was neither worthy of him as a Member of this House nor as a member of a very honoured profession in which we are taught to be careful with our language. From this Front Bench my colleagues and I have on all occasions praised the police, admired their courage and stood by them. However, that does not preclude a proper investigation when justice and the freedom of the subject is involved. There was only one thing that I wanted to say to the Minister and then I shall sit down. I promise that this is the very last time that I shall speak from this Dispatch Box on this matter. If the noble Lord looks at the terms of reference he will find that an investigation into what happened at the Special Branch and its supervision of the matter is excluded. I merely ask the noble Lord to look at the matter with his right honourable friends to see whether that is proper.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I shall certainly study the noble Lord's remarks. However, I can say that I believe—and I sincerely hope that I am not wrong—that a complaint could be made to the Police Complaints Authority under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act on the question of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch. If I am wrong, I can only apologise, but I believe that to be the case.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will not the Minister agree that in the rightful concern about who was or was not to blame for improprieties in the procedures which led up to this trial, we may be in danger of losing sight of one important matter? That matter has already been brought out by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, and I should like to press the Minister on it. Is it not clear beyond any reasonable doubt that classified information bearing upon the security of this nation was passed from this unit in Cyprus to a foreign power? If that is so, and if it were not passed by those who confessed to passing it, then is it not a matter of great interest to discover by whom it was passed? As in the terms of reference the inquiry to be conducted by Mr. Calcutt does not seem to include any mention of that matter, will the Minister assure the House that we shall have an inquiry into who passed that information and that when, if possible, it is known, it will be made public, irrespective of the decisions made recently in a court of law?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am afraid that I can add nothing to what I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder; namely, that at the time of the earlier investigation there appeared to have been serious breaches of security. That is as far as I can go.

Lord Morris

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend one very simple question which bears upon the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, suggested that the terms of reference of the investigation were drawn too narrowly. On the basis of the facts as adumbrated in the Statement, it appears that the noble Lord has a very strong case. I only ask that my noble friend asks his right honourable friend to look at this matter in all seriousness.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend will note my noble friend's remarks.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, as a layman, I should like to ask whether or not the servicemen concerned had a right to be tried at the Old Bailey by jury, or who it was who insisted that they not be tried by court martial? Was the matter dealt with in that way so that they could have the full benefit of British justice, or was it dealt with in that way because a court martial cannot pass severe enough sentences? There is concern about the cost of the trial. I would be very interested to know why this course was adopted.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, it was a decision of my right honourable friend the Attorney General.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think that the House may probably feel that we have given this Statement a full airing and that perhaps it might be better to resume the debate.