There are several subjects that I care about, such as the financing of the BBC, teachers' pay, service and conditions, Scotland and Ethiopia. So, I shall be rapid and succinct on this subject.
I did not know the late Miss Hilda Murrell personally—though as a gardener, and sometime beekeeper, I am, of course, familiar with the beautiful rose to which she gave her name. On 24 March of this year, her body was found in a wood just outside Shrewsbury. She was in her 79th year, and had been dead for some time. On 5 December, 1984, the inquest was held in Shrewsbury. A verdict of unlawful killing was brought in, and the coroner thanked all those involved. End of the matter? Just another statistic among unsolved murders? Well, no, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The police are quoted as saying that the facts are still being held back, on the grounds that it is necessary to keep them out of the press, as the murderer has not been caught. The police version of some wandering "nutter"-type burglar breaking in, and then attacking the lady when she came home unexpectedly, does not tally in any way with what was obviously a sophisticated break-in, with a purpose that was not conventional burglary.
My interest in the case of the late Miss Murrell was aroused in mid-November when I was told, anonymously, that I ought to read carefully an article in the New Statesman, of 9 November, 1984, entitled the "Death of Miss Murrell", by Judith Cook. Knowing that Hugh Stephenson, editor of the New Statesman, would not have given the article such prominence without reason—I am a New Statesman subscriber — and knowing that anything under the by-line of Judith Cook is worth my attention, I did so. I do not doubt that those who brief the Minister have shown him Judith Cook's article.
Approaching one of my now numerous sources on the Belgrano, who has proved careful, accurate and serious, I learnt that Miss Murrell's nephew, Rob Green, mentioned in the article by name, had indeed occupied a key position in naval intelligence during the Falklands campaign. I was informed that Commander Green was in a position to know about the receipt and despatch of signals to and from HMS Conqueror, and intercepted signals from the Belgrano to the Argentine mainland and back, from both British and American sources.
However, at the outset I say candidly to the Minister that Rob Green has not approached me, that through an intermediary I have let him know that, if he wanted to talk to me, he would be welcome, and that to the best of my rather extensive knowledge, he has behaved absolutely properly as a naval officer loyal to the Navy in not talking about information gleaned when in the Navy.
The following questions flow from Judith Cook's article of 9 November and from other discussions that I have had.
Why did the police tell the press that Hilda Murrell's house had been ransacked when it later became clear that it had not been ransacked?
Whoever had been in the house had clearly been looking for something in a methodical manner. Some drawers and cupboards were open but not dissaranged.
In an odd way, it is like the Belgrano affair—small inconsistencies seem to be part of larger inconsistencies and small lies part of larger lies.
Miss Murrell's house had been carefully searched and her papers gone through, but in an orderly manner. Her telephone had been cut off in such a way that, although it was dead from inside the house, anyone calling would seem to hear it ringing out. The police agree that that is a sophisticated way of doing things—not exactly the actions of a common burglar looking for loose money and taking a chance. Moreover, not only had the telephone at Miss Murrell's home at Ravenscroft, Shrewsbury, been tampered with — the phone at her cottage over the border in Wales had been disconnected.
Later the police said that the 78-year-old lady had been sexually assaulted. Why did they say thay when it turned out on their own evidence to be untrue? What is the purpose of that kind of inaccuracy other than to sweep uncomfortable suspicions under the carpet?
The farmer who discovered Miss Murrell's car slewed on to a verge reported it to the police and I understand that the local policeman reported it to the Shrewsbury police. Two days later the self-same car was still there. The farmer again reported it to the policeman, who reported it to the Shrewsbury police.
What did the Shrewsbury police do about the second report? If they were short-staffed because too many were away dealing with miners' picket lines, the House ought to be told. I understand that, even on Friday 23 March, the Shrewsbury police failed to follow up the report. They then said that the wrong registration number had been fed into the Swansea computer. Is that true?
Does a police force which, I am told, has a good reputation for efficiency normally act like that or was it told on high authority to act in such an uncharacteristically incompetent and slapdash way? Why did the police behave out of character? Ministers should tell us. I am told by more than one of the people interviewed by the police that they instinctively felt that the police officers knew jolly well that their time was being wasted and that they were having to go through the motions of a large-scale investigation for cosmetic reasons.
On Saturday 24 March, having at last identified the car as Miss Murrell's, police began to search the field and the copse near the car with a gamekeeper's wife. It was this lady who found Miss Murrell's body, noting that the time put down for its discovery was correctly 10.30 am. Yet I understand that the police told Rob Green, Miss Murrell's nephew, that his aunt's body was found much later and that they then changed their story and said that it was found at 7 am. Did the police give those two stories and, if so, why? Members of Miss Murrell's family see a series of police errors and the contradictory information that the police had given them was not cleared up at the inquest on 5 December.
The West Mercia police say that they forced an entry into Miss Murrell's house at 6 am on Saturday 24 March. Yet several credible witnesses say that they saw men in police uniform at the house on Friday night. How could that be? Were two police forces involved? At what time were the West Mercia police joined, if at all, by the Suffolk police responsible for Sizewell security? More particularly, why was the special branch involved at that stage? Why was it necessary to force an entry into Miss Murrell's house or to claim to have done so when I am told that the back door was unlocked? The curtains had been drawn and the light left on since the Wednesday of Miss Murrell's death.
I am told that members of the public who have come forward with different bits of information have been made to feel excessively foolish. Equally, I am told that this is quite uncharacteristic of the West Mercia police, who are usually models of courtesy, welcoming information from the public. Why should the police act out of character? Is it because not one but two sets of police were involved, neither of which appeared to know what the other was doing?
I can easily understand the work of the local police under Chief Detective Superintendent David Cole, brought in from Worcester, whose manners appear to have been exemplary and whose kindness and good sense were a credit to the police of this country. However the local police have, I gather, now agreed that the special branch was involved, and I understand that my praise for the local police does not in all cases apply to the special branch.
Will the Minister explain what special branch was doing so early in the case of the murder of a 78-year-old ex-rose-grower, if it really was a simple burglary?
Why have the family not been given a copy of the postmortem report? A man who was capable, two years before, of organising crucial aspects of the British battle fleet in the south Atlantic, and who earned a special citation from the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, is capable of reading a post-mortem report.
Rob Green says:
They had said that they would answer questions about it, but you can imagine our difficulties as, since we had no idea what was on it, we did not know what to ask.
When he identified the body, Commander Green saw a mark of a blow under Miss Murrell's eye. There also appear to have been stab wounds, but insufficient to kill her. Did she, as the police say, die of hypothermia? Or was she killed by a person or persons? What does the Minister now say?
Why was a second autopsy carried out, and her family refused this too? Why was the body returned in a zinc-lined coffin in August? I can understand the police advice not to look inside, by that time, but why had so much time passed? Naturally, the body was then cremated.
Why was the Gower autopsy not published? The coroner, Colonel Crawford Clarke, has said that a second autopsy had to be held because the body was deteriorating, and that there had to be a second autopsy in case an assailant was charged. However, a body can be kept on ice.
The late Helen Smith, flown back from sweltering Jeddah, was kept for much longer. Is it normal practice to keep a body, and suddenly demand an autopsy at short notice in case an unnamed assailant is charged?
When it came, I am told that the cremation was carried out in a heck of an indecent hurry. What is the explanation? Is it not the case that the proper forensic procedures seem to have been blocked? Why? And why were the family not told that they could have an independent autopsy? Suspicions can only be laid to rest by answers.
The owner of the land on which the body was found, Mr. Scott, has stated emphatically both to the police and to the family of Miss Murrell that he was walking in the copse on the Thursday afternoon after the murder. He had been carefully examining his property, as it was used as a game reserve. As a countryman, he said that he would have noticed the body of a rabbit, let alone a person. Did Mr. Scott lie? People who know him doubt it very much. He has no motive, and his neighbours say that he is not that kind of man. If he is correct, Miss Murrell's body must have been moved after her death. Why cannot the family and others have the accurate details of the autopsy, to let them know? I am told that a local poacher has now come forward to corroborate Mr. Scott's statement that there was no body in that copse on the Thursday afternoon.
There is also the evidence of my friend, Mr. Gerard Morgan Grenville, whom I have known for nearly 40 years. Mrs. Morgan Grenville tells me how Hilda Murrell rang them up in a great state at the end of February, and how she fetched her husband. Mr. Morgan Grenville, with whom I have had a good deal to do and who is a deeply serious man, says that her parting words on the telephone were:
If they don't get me first, I want the world to know that one old woman has seen through their lies".
One is reminded of Scudder, the diarist in John Buchan's "The Thirty-Nine Steps'. Mr. Morgan Grenville had never heard Miss Murrell speak in that way before. Why should an old lady be prompted to say that? There has been speculation that her death was connected with a paper that she had written on the problems of nuclear waste and reactor choice, which she hoped would be read at the Sizewell B inquiry. Arthur Osman, writing in The Observer on 2 December, began his article:
Silkwood parallels in English woman's death … Was anti-nuclear power campaigner Hilda Murrell murdered because she was becoming too much of a nuisance to the industry?
Since, more than 22 years ago, as a new Member of Parliament who was technologically minded and on the Public Accounts Committee, I was befriended by the late Sir Christopher Hinton, who later became Lord Hinton of Bankside OM—he was a great man and a great engineer and chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board—I have had dealings with many in the top echelons of the CEGB and and the Scottish generating boards. I cannot believe for one mini-second that Sir Walter Marshall, any of his colleagues, my friend Con Allday and others from the nuclear industry, would dream of authorising minions to search the house of a 78-year-old rose grower who had elegantly expressed, but unoriginal, views on reactor choice and nuclear waste disposal.
Besides. I have been to the great Peter Pears Benjamin Britten hall where the Sizewell inquiry is being held. I listened to evidence on day 178 and talked afterwards to Sir Frank Layfield. Those people will not fuss about Hilda Murrell and her evidence, for heaven's sake.
However, Commander Green says publicly:
I am led to one solution only—that the break-in was to look for information, rather than valuables.
I have a series of questions I want to ask about the police handling of the case, particularly their view of the proposition that the intruder—because he has no authority to kill her—had no alternative but to abduct her. Later that night he may have returned, put on the lights and drew curtains to make it look like an attempted burglary. He also left evidence to suggest a sex angle.
The inquest raised more real questions than it answered.
All of these inconsistencies point away from a random murder, and therefore away from the official explanation.
This background leads me to give credence to another version of events which has come my way as a receptacle of information about the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano.
First, I must candidly tell the Minister that in my previous 22 years in the House, I should have gone privately to the Home Secretary, regardless of party. I should have gone to "Rab" Butler, Henry Brooke, Frank Soskice, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), Reggie Maudling, Robert Carr, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) or Willie Whitelaw. I have known them all and had dealings with them all. However, to some Ministers in the present Government, to whom I have been the subject of ridicule and deception, I am not prepared to go. I say in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that least of all am I prepared to go to the present Home Secretary, who makes the types of speech about the miners that bring disgrace to the great office that he holds. I am not simply prepared to go to the present Home Secretary.
The story that I am told is as follows. In the early spring, the Prime Minister and Ministers close to her were getting very nervy about incessant questioning on the Belgrano in general and about signals, intercepted signals, and GCHQ at Cheltenham, which would call into question their truthfulness to the House, in particular. This was pre-Ponting. There were a number of suspicions about people dating from 19 and 20 December 1983, when I tabled questions to the Prime Minister about GCHQ Cheltenham, which are recorded in the Order Paper and Hansard.
Because Commander Robert Green was known to be unhappy about certain aspects of the Falklands war and was known to have wanted to leave the Navy, he came under a cloud of suspicion, wrongly, to the best of my knowledge, but certainly under a cloud of suspicion. It was thought that he might have copies of documents and raw signals that incriminated the Prime Minister, some of the originals of which had been destroyed on instructions from a very high level by the intelligence services.
Just as those of us who have had certain documents have taken the precaution of keeping them in friends' or relatives' houses while we have them, so it was thought that some of Rob Green's supposed records might be in the home of the aunt to whom he was close.
I suppose—I say this in the presence of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who I hope will have the opportunity of contributing to the debate—that one cannot complain that the suspicion fell on Rob Green, as he was one of the officers at the very heart of the Falklands operation. He was one of the very few to have left the service, although I understand that he had decided to go before the Falklands crisis blew up.
I am also given to understand—and I am happy to accept it—that there was no premeditated intention of doing away with Miss Murrell—only a search of her house when she was out. Alas, on Wednesday 21 March she returned unexpectedly to change. The intruders either arrived while she was dressing or were disturbed by her. Being a lady of courage and spunk, often found in that generation of women, Miss Murrell fought them. They too had to fight. They injured her and panicked.
I am informed that the intruders were not after money or nuclear information but were checking the house to see if there were any Belgrano-related documents of Commander Green in the home of his aunt. Things went disastrously wrong. They had no intention of injuring, let alone killing, a 78-year-old ex-rose grower. Yet, being the lady she was and in her home, Hilda Murrell fought and was severely injured. She was then killed or left to die from hypothermia, and the cover-up had to begin, because I am informed that the searchers were men of the British intelligence.
If Ministers cannot solemnly deny my belief about the participation of intelligence, on whose ministerial authority, if any, did the search of Miss Murrell's home take place? Was there clearance, or was this the intelligence services "doing their own thing"? Did they do it on political orders, and if so, on whose orders? Some of us have had increasing misgivings about the role of the intelligence services in this country—again I say this in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover—in connection with the miners' strike.
It is high time that there was a Select Committee of Privy Councillors to keep an eye on our intelligence services. Such a Select Committee would be a more appropriate forum than a Consolidated Fund debate, but until that happens, and given my opinion of present senior Ministers—un-British in their behaviour compared with Ministers of previous Governments — I have no alternative but to ask these questions under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, none of the situations for which the privileges of the House of Commons exist.
I ought to add that Commander Rob Green was, I am told, the person who physically sent the signal to Conqueror that sank the Belgrano. I understand from his friends that he was also responsible for passing signals from Endurance which had shown beyond any reasonable doubt that an invasion of the Falklands was likely to happen.
Rob Green considered the Falklands to be an unnecessary war, and the Belgrano sinking appalled him—albeit he judged it to be an unfortunate necessity—as it did some other senior officers of the senior service. He took early retirement after 20 years in the Navy and left. From this Prime Minister and her colleagues he would come under suspicion. It is from the head of our security services that Parliament should be demanding an explanation, because of one thing I am certain—that there are persons in Westminster and Whitehall who know a great deal more about the violent death of Miss Hilda Murrell than they have so far been prepared to divulge.
All hon. Members will have listened with a great deal of concern and a degree of admiration to the speech of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). He is well known in the House and performs a great service by introducing deeply and carefully researched questions of this kind. He brings them forward with a great deal of courage and conviction.
Commander Bob Green is a member of the Liberal association in my constituency. I have known him for some time. The details brought forward in the speech of the hon. Member for Linlithgow were totally unknown to me until last night he did me the courtesy of allowing me to read his speech. One does not necessarily have to agree with the conclusions that the hon. Member has reached to recognise fully the serious nature of the questions he has rightly put and which need to be answered.
First let me deal with some of the facts. I have not carried out detailed research into the facts put forward by the hon. Member. However, I have the highest respect for Commander Bob Green. I asked the hon. Member if I could ring Commander Green and read his speech to him. The hon. Member allowed me to do so. Therefore, I rang Commander Green and read to him the speech of the hon. Member. I have his authority to say that he confirms and corroborates all that the hon. Member has said. The details and facts are precisely as Commander Green sees them. Where the hon. Member has referred to Commander Green, Commander Green assures me that he agrees with the hon. Member's references.
It is also fair and proper to make the point that Commander Green has in no way collaborated with the hon. Member for Linlithgow in drawing up his speech. What the hon. Member has done is entirely on his own behalf. Commander Green has had no contact whatsoever with the hon. Member. Therefore, the comments that the hon. Member was kind enough to make about the part played by Commander Green are entirely substantiated. The facts that the hon. Member has given and the conclusions he has drawn accord precisely with those of Commander Green. In no way can it be said that the hon. Member for Linlithgow has taken the name of Commander Green in vain.
I turn from the facts of the matter to the conclusions that the hon. Member has reached. They are the hon. Member's own conclusions. However, I fully understand, as will those who tomorrow read this text with some interest, how the conclusions the hon. Member has drawn are capable of being supported by the questions that he has asked. In that sense, his conclusions and questions are far too serious to be dismissed lightly. I have observed on many occasions in the past, even when the hon. Member for Linlithgow has asked questions with which I do not agree, that from time to time the Government have used, as the hon. Member mentioned in his speech, a degree of ridicule in order to dismiss them. That would be wholly inappropriate on this occasion and I am certain that the Minister will not attempt to do so. These are very important questions of fact and detail. I very much hope that the Minister will answer them. If he is unable to answer all of these questions now, no doubt he will give answers in detail my means of letter.
In the absence of detailed answers to the detailed questions which the hon. Member for Linlithgow has put, I believe that there is only one way forward: a full inquiry in front of a High Court judge. I hope that other hon. Members will support that kind of inquiry. We do not call at this stage for such an inquiry. We merely say that if the Minister is unable or unwilling to answer questions of fact in detail, that is the only proper way forward.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that the conclusions drawn by the hon. Member for Linlithgow are deep and serious. Most of the evidence suggests that they are possibilities. I hope that the Minister will be able to dismiss them unequivocally. The hon. Member used the word "solemn". It is an unhappy fact that a number of the Government's actions, including those following the Belgrano incident, have done much to raise suspicions among those of us who would like to support the Government in the difficult decisions that they had to take in time of war. The hon. Gentleman and I may part company over the Belgrano issue, because Governments often have to take extremely difficult decisions in time of war and they are entitled to the support of the democratic process, expressed through the House — even if the decisions prove in the cold light of day to have been wrong. The one case in which the Government would not be entitled to the support of the House and the country would be if they had acted with the specific intention of saving or assisting their political operations afterwards. We would almost have to get inside the minds of Ministers to discover whether that had happened.
However, the Government's campaign of misinformation on occasions and inadequate answers to questions has kept the Belgrano issue alive and caused suspicion and concern among those of us who would like to be able to support them. We would not like to have such suspicions of any British Government. I hope that the Minister will deal unequivocally with the conclusions drawn by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, so that the matter is not allowed to rumble on. The Minister has a duty to do that.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow touched on the broader issue of the intelligence services. My party and I have always pressed the need for a Select Committee of Privy Councillors to deal with intelligence matters. The intelligence services are not sufficiently accountable to the House. The mechanism for such accountability needs to be chosen carefully. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, my party has always believed that there should be a Select Committee of Privy Councillors. It would have been much better if the hon. Member for Linlithgow had been able to take his case to such a Committee in private, rather than being forced to raise the matter on the Floor of the House.
With the first so-called Ponting information, I went to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I would have preferred to go to a Select Committee of Privy Councillors or a Select Committee dealing specifically with intelligence. It has never been any part of my case to criticise service men or to denigrate the services. No criticism of anyone involved in the task force has ever escaped my lips; the only exception is Lord Lewin, but I criticised him in his capacity as a member of the War Cabinet and not as an admiral.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for making that clear, because he is significantly misunderstood on that matter. I support him. Many former service colleagues of mine who were involved in the incident at various levels believe that the hon. Gentleman is doing a considerable service.
It would have been more appropriate if the hon. Gentleman's case had been dealt with by a Select Committee of Privy Councillors instead of on the Floor of the House. Such a Select Committee would be the best mechanism for ensuring the accountability of the intelligence services to the democratic process.
I come to another central issue. It is important and necessary to have that accountability because, if the intelligence services are to operate at all effectively or properly, they must operate under appropriate political control. Indeed, I would go further and say that the intelligence services can do their job effectively only if they are closely connected with the whole political system, are very much under political control and are able to influence the political system in an appropriate and proper fashion.
At the very heart of this issue lies the system that we now refer to as "clearance". The intelligence services have to receive clearances at various appropriate levels, including at the very highest level—that of the Prime Minister—before taking any action. I have no doubt that action such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Linlithgow would, under normal circumstances, have had to be approved at the very highest level.
If what the hon. Member says is true, it is inconceivable that it could have occurred in normal circumstances other than with agreement at the very highest level. But if that did not happen, there must have been a significant breakdown in the way that our intelligence services are controlled. One must reach one or other of those conclusions if the hon. Gentleman's thesis is supportable. Either a politician at a very high level was involved in taking the decision to allow such action to go ahead, or there must have been a very serious breakdown in the democratic and political accountability and control of our intelligence services.
Those are the only two conclusions. Naturally, we shall have to wait and see whether the hon. Gentleman's overall theory is supportable, but, if it is, those conclusions inevitably follow. There are many people, including me, who, because of friends and contacts, have reason to worry that the traditional and appropriate control of this country's intelligence services has become much looser than appropriate and much less regulated than is necessary within a democracy.
Whatever the case with regard to the intelligence services and the conclusions drawn by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, the facts that he has presented are very serious and important. I hope that the Minister will now be able to answer our very serious concerns, and that he will make an unequivocal statement about the overall conclusion that has been reached.
Finally, I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow for raising this important subject and for giving us the opportunity to hold this extremely serious debate.
The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) a debt not only for raising this issue, but for the way in which he has pursued the Belgrano affair by — as the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) implied — directing himself not at the service men involved but at the operation that controlled the naval movements at the time.
My hon. Friend has given us the sort of story that would tax the ingenuity of a novelist. However, it is precisely at such times that we should remember that truth can be stranger than fiction. I hope that the Minister will not attempt to dismiss it as some form of creative literature or to put it down to a colourful imagination. My hon. Friend has put very real questions to the Minister and they deserve answers.
Like my hon. Friend, I realise that those questions cannot be answered easily or quickly. No one, perhaps, expects the Minister to give full and detailed answers now. But we, and others outside the House, expect him to put before the country in due course a satisfactory explanation of events, or to set up an inquiry to ensure that events are looked into in more depth. We may then be reassured that the implications developed by the hon. Member for Yeovil have no foundation. Obviously, we should prefer a more conventional explanation, but we cannot assume that there is one until those questions have been answered.
It is important to remember that my hon. Friend has pursued this matter and the related matter of the Belgrano in a way that has not only respected the integrity of those involved in the military operation, but revealed the extraordinary accuracy of his research. He has, literally on a one-man operation, been able to demonstrate that the Government's arguments have not held together over a period of time. They have had to change their story from time to time, and it must be to my hon. Friend's credit that his research has brought that to light.
Not only is my hon. Friend's research accurate, but so are the sources of his information. I know those to be extremely good sources of information. The Minister and many others must be deeply disturbed by the quality of the information that is always available to my hon. Friend. He uses that information to deploy his case well.
I hope that if the Minister cannot give us answers today, he will be able to reassure the House that he will ensure that those answers are provided at some stage and in some context.
There is the wider issue of the control of the security forces. It has long been the view of the Labour party, and certainly of myself, that the security forces should be under much greater political control, answerable to the House in a more direct and effective manner than they have been in the past. Anyone who has been connected with Northern Ireland will know the importance of that. The security forces have grown in number and sophistication in recent years, and to rely on the control of either the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister, answerable to the House, must be grossly inadequate in any democracy.
A suggestion has been put forward for a Committee of Privy Councillors. I always want to question whether a committee need necessarily be composed of Privy Councillors. There are other ways of dealing with the matter. We shall never give hon. Members sufficient weight and authority unless we are prepared to recognise that each can act responsibly and properly on such a Committee.
I am prepared to move on the nature and type of democratic control of the security forces. We cannot go on much longer with the present system of control. It brings the country into disrepute and leaves unanswered questions such as those asked by my hon. Friend. It must be fundamentally dangerous for any democracy to be left with the feeling that adequate answers are not forthcoming. If the public feel that there are cover-ups, that people are trying to avoid difficult questions and that the structure of the democracy is not good enough to bring matters out, the credibility of that democracy will be undermined. Sooner or later that must change. My hon. Friend, by the way in which he has brought the matter out, has done a service not only to the House but to the nation as well.
The House has listened, as I suspect it always does listen, to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) with great interest. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) was kind enough to say that he had no information about what the hon. Gentleman would bring before the House until a few hours before the debate commenced. The hon. Gentleman will be of the clear opinion that I had no information about what was in the hon. Gentleman's request to raise this issue on the Consolidated Fund until the moment of his utterances.
Therefore, the hon. Gentleman, whom I am pleased to say I have known for some 30 years, will recognise that any response that I give him will lack not only the measure of courtesy that I would wish to extend to him in being able to provide him with answers to the questions that he has posed, but also, inevitably, the factual background against which any ministerial answer should be given.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I cannot answer the many questions that he raised. The inferences he drew went substantially further than the topic set down for debate. We are here to discuss the police investigation into a death that occurred in tragic circumstances. Both the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and for Yeovil sought, reasonably, to argue the case for a different form of control over the security services in relation to the incident at the centre of the debate.
I make my second point as an observation, the reason for which may become more evident. We are considering a fairly substantial police investigation into the alleged murder of an old lady. Thousands of people have been involved, and the inquiry is continuing. Regrettably, it has not been concluded. If a police inquiry is continuing and its scale has reached these proportions, it may be considered odd, if there were a British security element involved in the investigation, or occasioning the crime for which the investigation has been set up, that it should continue without those involved being able to ensure that the police and the security services are sharing common knowledge. That is merely an observation. It requires a great deal of weight to be attached to it. Considering the time that I have had to listen to the important revelations of the hon. Member for Linlithgow, I am bound to make that observation.
My task is to deal with the police investigation. I appreciate the words the hon. Gentleman uttered regarding the reputation of the West Mercia force, and his comments, many of which were complimentary, in describing the case. I trust that no police force would wish to tackle such a tragic incident without the fullest degree of care, skill and energy. If there is any doubt about that, I shall express great anxiety, but I believe that the force has tackled it in that way.
The House will wish me to put on record the details of the incident as conveyed to me by the chief constable of West Mercia because that is where the problem currently lies. Had we been able to book an individual or individuals, it may have provided many of the answers to the hon. Gentleman's questions. I say "may" because his questions were numerous and far-reaching. A concluded investigation which results in charges being preferred and a trial being held may be the natural order of events for an investigation into a death associated with violence, and the correct way in which the factual background of the incident and the motive should be deployed for public view. Any other way would be less than conclusive.
The hon. Gentleman expressed an interest previously in a written question about the case of Miss Murrell. It is right that I should respond on the basis of information that we have obtained from the chief constable. In doing so, I must draw attention—as I believe I have—to the fact that the story is incomplete. There are some facts which it would be inappropriate for me to disclose. If I did no, it might hinder the police inquiries that are continuing and might prejudice their questioning of any suspect who might be apprehended.
Miss Murrell, who was 79-years-old at the time of her death, according to our information, lived alone in her house—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has impeccable authority for that, for correcting me. Let the record state that she was 78. She lived alone in her house at Sutton road, Shrewsbury, and she also had a cottage in Wales. She was known to be a member of several clubs and associations connected with conservation and the environment, and she had a substantial reputation as a rose grower. She was also involved, but certainly not solely concerned with, groups connected with nuclear disarmament. The hon. Member for Linlithgow referred to her interest in nuclear waste and to the paper that she had prepared. Some press reports after the inquest into her death noted primarily her interest in rose growing as the most important feature in her life.
Miss Murrell's body was found in a coppice at 10.25 am on Saturday 24 March 1984 by a police constable, accompanied by the wife of the local gamekeeper. In subsequent police circulations about the offence, the time of 10.40 am was used, which was the time at which other officers summoned to the scene arrived. The police surgeon attended the site and certified death at midday. The senior investigating officer, a detective chief superintendent, arrived at 1.30 pm, followed shortly afterwards by a Home Office pathologist, who further examined Miss Murrell's body, which was then taken to the Royal Shrewsbury hospital.
The likely sequence of events—the hon. Gentleman will understand that I must say the "likely" sequence—preceding the discovery of Miss Murrell's body has been pieced together by the police on the basis of information from many witnesses who came forward to assist them. On the morning of Wednesday 21 March 1984, Miss Murrell went to local shops in Shrewsbury, about a mile from her home. She travelled there in her white Renault car, and was seen shopping there between 11 am and midday. It is also known that she visited her local bank, where she cashed a cheque. Her return home at approximately midday was confirmed by two witnesses, one of whom had a brief conversation with her.
Subsequent police examination of Miss Murrell's home found no evidence of forcible entry, but that access could have been gained by an intruder through an insecure door. On her return from the shops, Miss Murrell had apparently had time to change from her outdoor clothing and to put away some of her shopping. There is then evidence that, in an upstairs room, a struggle took place with the offender, who had apparently previously made a systematic search of the premises, drawn the front downstairs curtains and left on the electric light.
Miss Murrell was then taken by the intruder in her car and driven approximately six miles to the scene of her death. Numerous witnesses have been able to provide details of the route of the journey, during which Miss Murrell sat in the passenger seat. The journey ended with the car being parked on the side of the road near the coppice, in the position in which it was subsequently found when the police were called to it. It seemed that the car had collided with both sides of the banked verges of the road, and then been driven into a ditch, from which an unsuccessful attempt had been made to remove it. Miss Murrell was then taken to the coppice by her abductor, beaten and stabbed, and possibly, as the coroner subsequently concluded, left to die of hypothermia.
Although, on the day after it was left there a local witness passed near to where Miss Murrell's body was subsequently found, he saw nothing, but the police are satisfied that the lie of the land may have hidden it from his sight. A local farmer first reported to the police, on the afternoon of 12 March that Miss Murrell's car was in the ditch in the position it had obviously been left by her assailant. The officers who arrived to investigate within an hour made only a preliminary search of the immediate area and, because there were no apparent suspicious circumstances, only superficial damage to the car and no apparent danger or obstruction to the public from the car, took no further action there. The car registration number was checked on the national computer and its ownership established. A police constable visited Miss Murrell's home early in the evening on Friday 23 March but, although he saw signs of habitation and the back door unlocked, he did not search the house as he assumed that nothing was amiss, despite being unable to make contact with anybody there. However, following a further telephone call to the police on the afternoon of 23 March to report that Miss Murrell's car was still in the ditch, officers went to her home later that evening, discovered that she was missing and a search was instituted the following morning with the results that I have already described.
Clearly, the police made detailed searches of both Miss Murrell's home and of the coppice to discover any information that might be of use in their inquiry. Reports of a grey-suited man having been seen running away from the coppice area at the relevant time of 21 March were also investigated and a reconstruction was staged. Despite 48 witnesses having been traced and further public appeals, the police have not yet been able to identify the man. The police also made extensive enquiries to trace people who might have been in Sutton road, where Miss Murrell lived, in the days preceding and the day of her murder. Over 100 people were identified as having been in the area, 50 of them on the day of the murder. Tracing these people formed a major part of the police inquiry and the process of elimination has resulted in only three of them remaining untraced at present.
From the considerable information that has been made available to me by the police it has become quite clear that the West Mercia police have devoted substantial resources to the investigation of what they see as a very grave offence. We all share their concern—that undoubtedly goes for the hon. Member for Linlithgow — that the offender is still at large.
I shall give some of the figures about the extent of the police inquiry. Some 3,500 people have been suggested as the potential offender by the public, police officers or by research on local and national intelligence indexes. Out of this number, 962 people have been identified for interview, and over half of them have already been interviewed. Over 1,300 telephone messages had been received by 30 November, over 2,000 statements taken and over 55,000 items of information recorded, both manually and on computer in the incident room.
As at 30 November again, nearly 12,000 people had been interviewed, over 4,500 houses visited and over 1,500 vehicles checked. I make these points not just because I think that this is an example of the tenacity and thoroughness with which the West Mercia constabulary are investigating this matter, but because even if some believe the inferences drawn by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, there has still been a massive orthodox investigation into the tragic events surrounding Miss Murrell's death.
In the initial stages of their investigation, the police made full inquiries into suggestions that Miss Murrell had been murdered because of her connections with various anti-nuclear organisations, in particular that she was at the time of her death preparing a paper to oppose the Sizewell B project. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow for dismissing that suggestion out of hand, with the probity that we know him to possess. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. A senior investigating officer assigned a small team specifically to inquire into those aspects, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be glad to note that no evidence has been found to link those activities with her death.
The police have also sought the assistance of other forces both here and overseas in analysing the considerable data available to them to prepare a profile of a likely offender by the best techniques possible. This profile closely mirrors the picture of the offender formed by the West Mercia police. Extracts of the profile have been publicised on television and in the press, and they clearly have resulted in some of the substantial public responses to which I have referred. The police investigation continues.
The inquest into Miss Murrell's death was held at Shrewsbury magistrates' court on 5 December, where both Miss Murrell's family and the police were represented by solicitors. The evidence presented to the coroner by the police was that which I have described; and on the basis of this and evidence given by the Home Office pathologist, the coroner recorded a verdict that Miss Murrell died probably on 21 March 1984 as a result of hypothermia, the victim also suffering from wounds to the abdomen and bruises to the face. The family has expressed to the police its thanks for a thorough investigation into a particularly difficult case—a case that is far from closed.
The hon. Members for Linlithgow and for Yeovil, and the hon. Member for Hammersmith in his brief intervention, said that behind these circumstances there could lurk matters of grave import. As I said at the outset, the comments made and the questions asked by the hon. Gentlemen deserve and will obtain a proper and considered response. The questions asked go beyond the remit of the Home Office, and the hon. Member for Linlithgow will recognise that time will be involved in obtaining the answers. The hon. Gentlemen have raised matters of import, and I therefore give the undertaking—
I thank the Minister for the seriousness of his reply. As long as there is a considered reply—whatever that reply may be—there will be no pressure from me to hurry the response. I certainly will not urge the Home Office to get on with the job and give a speedy reply. It can be a reply that takes weeks to obtain.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that interjection, which is both helpful and courteous. I take note that the hon. Gentleman has expressed substantial criticism of the reputation of the Home Office. I regret that fact, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the debate and the questions will obtain full consideration and a proper and comprehensive reply in the manner wished by the hon. Gentleman, myself and, no doubt, the House.