Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Rhodesia (Bingham Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th December 1979.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Michael Havers Mr Michael Havers , Wimbledon 12:00 am, 19th December 1979

With permission Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

In 1978 the then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs referred the Bingham report to the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider whether further inquiries should be undertaken with a view to possible criminal proceedings for breaches of the Southern Rhodesia sanctions order. Shortly thereafter leading and junior counsel were instructed by the Director to advise him whether, in the circumstances disclosed by the report, criminal offences appeared to have been committed and, if so, by whom. It will be appreciated that the Bingham inquiry was neither a police investigation nor a trial, and it was not, therefore, conducted within the constraints of the rules of evidence or procedure applicable in a court of law.

In February 1968, and again in February 1969, meetings took place between Her Majesty's Government and senior officers of Shell and BP. The outcome of those meetings—described extensively in the Bingham report—appeared to have been interpreted by the oil companies, rightly or wrongly, as giving them tacit, if not express, approval to operate what has become known as the "exchange" scheme, whereby oil and petroleum reached Southern Rhodesia. It was by no means clear whether and, if so, for precisely what length of time, the so-called "exchange" scheme was operated thereafter.

Against this background, the Director appreciated that much more factual information and research into the legal problems were required in order to particular rise offences, to identfy the principal persons acting on behalf of the oil companies and to collect the admissible evidence. Accordingly, a team of senior police officers was instructed to make further detailed inquiries, while counsel continued to review the material already available.

Steps were taken in April 1979 under schedule 1 to the 1968 sanctions order to require the oil companies to produce all the relevant documents in their possession or under their control.

It seems that there are over 20,000 files, of which at least 14,000are likely to be relevant. Bearing in mind the substantial amount of time and public money likely to be involved in analysing this mass of paper and investigating the evidentiary material available overseas, counsey were asked to give the DPP further advice. By the beginning of November 1979, in an opinion running to almost 50 pages, counsel advised the DPP of the great difficulties in the way of a successful prosecution.

The Director had to consider the following matters:

  1. (1) The material disclosed by the Bingham investigation was wholly insufficient for the purposes of a criminal trial. Direct evidence by witnesses or from proved documents would be needed.
  2. (2) There was abundant material in the report which showed that, in the period following the meetings in 1968 and 1969, oil and petroleum products had been supplied direct by railway wagon to Southern Rhodesia. The question which arose in an acute form, however, was whether it could be proved by the strict rules of evidence applied in the criminal courts of this country:
    1. (a) which companies had in fact made these supplies;
    2. (b) who, if any, among the officers, agents or employees of the companies during the relevant period were knowing parties to such supply.
It was also necessary to seek to determine whether these supplies had been made in contravention of the alleged "understanding" with Her Majesty's Government. (3) Furthermore, it was material to have regard to the fact—emphasised in the Bingham report—that many of the companies and their officials were subject to the laws of States deeply hostile to the sanctions policy and were liable to penalties for any refusal or failure to supply oil on demand. There is no power to compel the attendance of witnesses from abroad. The available material disclosed—and, indeed, the Bingham report investigation found—that many of the principal officials concerned in the contraventions of the sanctions orders were not amenable to our jurisdiction. Some who appear to have been at the very centre of the operations had since died and others had retired. It was likely to prove difficult in the extreme to establish the complicity and knowledge of their successors.

Whilst the prosecution might confine criminal charges to the years 1971–77,the defence would investigate the entire history of events from 1966 onwards. Those events would cast their shadow over the whole case and this important factor would have a serious bearing on its outcome. Counsel were of the opinion that a jury might well be reluctant to convict if there appeared to be substance in the defence that those charged had acted in the belief that their conduct had the express or ostensible consent of the authorities.

Finally, it was apparent that as complex and prolonged an investigation as this would probably not reach the stage of a jury's trial in less than four years from now, particularly as the defence would be entitled to require full committal for trial proceedings and strict proof of the essential ingredients of the offences. Also, the trial itself might occupy a jury for as long as 12 months, with all the risks that attend such an extended hearing.

The Director has therefore reached the conclusion that further investigation and public expenditure would not be justified and the matter should proceed no further. I agree.