Orders of the Day — War Crimes Act 1991

– in the House of Commons at 7:33 am on 9th July 1992.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

8 am

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise in the House an issue that has divided both sides of the House and another place, and has divided the House from another place: the War Crimes Act 1991.

From time to time, the Government of the day, sometimes for lofty reasons, embark on a course of action that immediately strikes one as being astonishingly stupid and bound to end in disaster. Over the months, more and more people sense that something is going badly wrong, but do not feel able to speak out; disaster finally strikes and, suddenly, everyone wonders why that action was embarked on in the first place. Something similar happened in the case of the poll tax, and that pattern of events has occurred in relation to the War Crimes Act, except that disaster is still round the corner.

This controversial piece of legislation is believed to have flowed from a visit paid to Israel by Baroness Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. Having correctly criticised the Israeli Government for the abominable treatment of the Palestinians on the west bank and in Gaza, she was looking for a sweetener for the Israelis. She was asked whether the United Kingdom would be prepared to try alleged war criminals said to be living in Britain, and she agreed to have the matter investigated on her return to London.

In February 1988, the then Home Secretary was persuaded to set up an inquiry, the terms of reference of which were: To obtain and examine relevant material, including material held by Government Departments and documents which have been or may be submitted by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and others"—

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

My hon. Friend seeks to draw a parallel between a visit of the then Prime Minister in May 1986 and the setting up of the inquiry in February 1988. Is he not aware that Baroness Thatcher normally works at a faster rate of knots than that?

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

My hon. Friend will know that there was considerable feeling against the proposal in the Cabinet and in Government ranks, which may be one reason for the long delay before the inquiry.

The inquiry was told to obtain and examine relevant documents, which it duly did. Sir Thomas Hetherington and Mr. William Chalmers submitted their report to the Home Secretary in June 1989. They considered that some action should be taken where the evidence is sufficient and suggested legislation to allow prosecution in this country is preferable to extradition. Bearing in mind that the countries in which these crimes allegedly took place have since gained their independence, has extradition been reconsidered?

The inquiry looked into just over 300 cases, of which it recommended that 75 should be accorded further investigation. The inquiry then came to the remarkable conclusion that there were only three individuals against whom evidence to mount a prosecution existed. Rightly, Parliament was given an opportunity to express a view on the inquiry's report and the proposed legislation. Debates were held in both Houses in 1990 and in 1991.

On a free vote, the Commons backed legislation, and the Lords rejected it by an overwhelming majority, the Law Lords apparently being unwilling to go down this path. With due respect to their lordships, they are inclined to be slightly older than Members of this House. They represent the generation that went through the war and they know all about the Nazi horrors, the holocaust and the events at Nuremburg. Their wisdom was overwhel-mingly against proceeding with the proposed legislation.

In the House of Commons, 55 Tory Members, including myself I am delighted to say, but, sadly, not the Minister—I checked this morning—voted against the legislation and the total included at least two members of the present Government. I understand that the Prime Minister voted against the concept right at the beginning of the proceedings.

The Act is directed against a small group of men, now British citizens but formerly citizens of the Baltic states, who are accused of being responsible for murders in German-occupied territory during the second world war. It is restricted to them and does not cover the all-too-many atrocities committed elsewhere during and after the war. Japanese war crimes are ignored, although we know that they were horrendous, as are war crimes committed in the former Soviet Union. We know that Stalin killed considerably more of his own people than Hitler killed in Germany. More recent crimes in Palestine, Cambodia and Iraq are not covered, either.

It is retrospective legislation, and surely we should all be cautious of that. It is also selective. Britain is about to follow the old Soviet Union and modern Israel in staging vindictive show trials. The grim and grisly affair of the wrong "Ivan the Terrible" being convicted in Israel should surely ring the alarm bells in the Minister's elegant private office.

Conservative peers who opposed the legislation were led by those of the calibre of Lord Carrington, Lord Hailsham, Lord Home of the Hirsel and Lord Havers—men of great experience in international affairs. In this Chamber, we were led by my distinguished parliamentary neighbour my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who fought in western Europe and ended up a lieutenant-colonel. They believed that the more atrocious the crime, the more scrupulously the rules of criminal justice should be observed. Amendments to the normal rules of evidence procedure will give an unfair advantage to the prosecution and penalise the defence.

My second question to the Minister is, what is currently being planned to enable fair trials to take place? With regard to evidence, there has been talk of televised interviews being transmitted from the Baltic states. Has such procedure been used before, and is it seriously contemplated now? Are videos to be used? One must bear it in mind that most of the witnesses live there, although I gather that some are to be flown to Britain—is that still being considered?

Lord Shawcross, a chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, wrote in The Times on 29 July 1989: Revival of these sad and terrible matters by sensational trials of a small handful of aged men, which will take years to conduct and which will start with an assumption of guilt, will not help to promote understanding and friendship between the different peoples of the world, will not help eliminate the evil of anti-semitism nor, still less, enhance respect for British justice. Those remarks very much represent my views. We are all aware that anti-semitism has been growing in eastern Europe.

As I said, only three elderly individuals are expected to be prosecuted. There must be a chance that none of them will still be alive by the time they are due to be sentenced, even if a jury can be found to convict them after 50 years. I draw the Minister's attention to a trial following the recent riots at Wapping. It was dismissed by the judge on the grounds that the event took place too long ago for people to recall the exact details, but here we are talking about events of 50 years ago.

The whole sorry saga has been brought about by a tiny, highly financed overseas pressure group, which, I believe, is seeking not justice but revenge and retribution. It has effectively activated the Jewish voters in the constituencies. I believe that many hon. Members found it prudent to go along with the legislation rather than be thought to be soft on Nazi criminals. It is a deplorable case of the tail wagging the dog.

A special group of police officers has been formed to seek the evidence. From parliamentary questions, I have learnt that in England and Wales there are 11 such officers, led by a detective chief superindendent and a detective chief inspector. Scotland has a further three officers led by a detective inspector. I say unhesitatingly that those detectives would be much better used bringing to justice today's terrorists, murderers, rapists and burglars in Bexleyheath and in Bexhill, and in other of my hon. Friends' constituencies. It is a truly remarkable waste of precious police manpower, especially detective manpower.

In answer to a parliamentary question in February, I was also told that the additional police expenditure associated with the War Crimes Act 1991 is estimated to be nearly £1 million for the financial year 1991–92. No doubt it will rise year by year. My third question is, what are the estimated costs to the Home Office in the next three years? In addition, there will be legal costs. Does the Minister's brief state what those costs are estimated to be? Is it conceivable that they will be even greater than the police costs? Perhaps we could be looking at a bill of some £10 million before this shocking affair is behind us.

At a time of considerable financial restraint, which affects the Home Office and other major Departments of State, it is perverse and foolish to spend such a sum raking over the ashes of the past and events that took place nearly 50 years ago, possibly before the Minister was on the earth.

The purpose of this short debate is to warn the Government that this matter will blow up in their face during the lifetime of this Parliament. The Government will come under growing pressure here and in another place. It looks increasingly like an exposure and spiteful vendetta against a group of pathetic old people. Whatever may be alleged about what they did or did not do in other countries so long ago, the reality is that they have nothing left to offer and a short while left to live. The British people will pick up that what is being proposed is unBritish and inherently unfair. They will be right, because it stinks.

If show trials take place, the tabloid coverage and the radio and television coverage, gruesome and appalling as it will be, will do nothing to help the reputation of the House, it having allowed the trials to take place in the first place. Many decades ago, Winston Churchill, with his usual verbal vividness, spoke about the need to draw a sponge across the crimes and horrors of the past. He well understood that it would not be possible to prosecute every lance-corporal for what happened in Nazi Germany. I believe that Churchill was right. I call upon the Government to be prudent and to think again.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle 8:16 am, 9th July 1992

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) on his success in raising an important and sensitive issue. How to deal with allegations of the most dreadful crimes and whether to deal with them such a long time after they are alleged to have been committed were matters that were debated at length and with much feeling by both Houses of Parliament in 1990 and 1991.

My hon. Friend has spoken powerfully and has given his interpretation of the events that led to the war crimes legislation. He asked several questions. First, extradition has not been reconsidered. The War Crimes Act 1991 is now the law. Secondly, my hon. Friend asked about the use of television for giving evidence—

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

Have there been any discussions, bearing in mind that certain countries are now independent sovereign states, which they were not when the machinery moved into motion?

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

There have been discussions with the new sovereign states. I repeat that extradition has not been reconsidered.

Bearing in mind the time, I shall take now my hon. Friend's second question. He talked about the use of television for giving evidence. In England, the procedure for evidence by live television link is enabled by section 32 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The provisions were brought into force by a commencement order of 26 November 1991 in respect of cases of murder, manslaughter or serious and complex fraud. The procedure has not been used in Scotland because there is no equivalent statutory provision that equates to the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The Government have brought forward provisions in the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Bill, which recently completed its stages in the other place. The measure will come before the House in the autumn. Its provisions will admit evidence from abroad by live television link in Scottish criminal proceedings. I understand that an amendment tabled in the other place has sought to disapply the relevant provisions to any proceedings under the War Crimes Act 1991. That is the present situation.

Before taking up some of the other specific matters that my hon. Friend raised, it might be helpful if I briefly remind the House of some of the background to the War Crimes Act.

In February 1988, the then Home Secretary established an inquiry to consider allegations that some perpetrators of war crimes committed during the second world war had taken refuge in this country. The House will recall that the inquiry reported in June 1989. It had concluded, among other things, that there were, among the many innocent people who had come here at the end of the war, some who might have committed the most terrible of crimes—the mass killing of the civilian population in towns and villages in central and eastern Europe. Some allegations relate to the destruction of entire villages with the murder of all inhabitants in reprisal raids following partisan activity.

Most often, the victims of those atrocities were Jewish men, women and children who were targeted for extermination as part of Nazi policy. They were punitive organised murders and not part of military conflict. The subjects under investigation for those crimes are mainly collaborators from the local communities who were formed into auxiliary police battalions under German command to control the civilian population, and they were also used for those killings.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

Does my hon. Friend accept that there has never been a statute of limitation on murders in the United Kingdom? Indeed, this very week someone has been accused of a murder that he allegedly committed 14 years ago. Those who believe that war crimes should not be prosecuted are suggesting that those who were guilty of especially offensive murders should be given a degree of immunity denied to any other British citizen.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

My hon. Friend makes a telling point most forcefully. The Government, having considered the inquiry's report, decided to introduce the War Crimes Bill. For reasons with which the House will be familiar, and to which my hon. Friend alluded, the Bill received a Second Reading in this House on two occasions. It is worth reminding the House of the majorities on those occasions. On the first, on 19 March 1990, the Bill was passed on a free vote by 273 votes to 60. On the second occasion, on 18 March 1991, again on a free vote, it was passed by 254 votes to 88. The Bill proceeded to Second Reading stage in another place on 30 April, where it was defeated for a second time. That vote cleared the way for the operation of the Parliament Acts and the legislation came into force on 9 May, just over a year ago. I am sure that my hon. Friend will recall the emphatic support given to the Bill.

I want to deal with the progress being made in the investigation of allegations of offences under the terms of the Act. The task of investigating allegations of those offences has been given to police officers based at New Scotlandyard and to the Crown Office, assisted by police officers from Lothian and Borders police in Scotland. As my hon. Friend is aware, the police war crimes unit in England and Wales is staffed by 11 police officers, led by a detective chief superintendent, and in Scotland three police offices are led by a detective inspector. That is a significant number of police officers.

Police costs of more than £900,000 in 1991–92 and estimated costs in the order of £1·6 million in the current financial year show the commitment that the Government have made to this investigative effort. I must tell my hon. Friend that he should take this year's expenditure as some indication of the expenditure trend over the next two or three years. Legal costs will depend on the number of cases brought to court.

There are those who suggest that the employment of valuable detective expertise on investigating allegations of those offences must have diverted officers from the investigation of more contemporary offences. My hon. Friend made that point. I hope that I can reassure the House that because the two police units are fully funded by the Government, neither the Commissioner nor the chief constable of Lothian and Borders police have to divert officers from other work; they are separately funded by the Government.

It might be helpful if I set out the nature of the work of the police war crimes unit based in New Scotland Yard to illustrate the challenges facing our police officers. That is a matter of concern to my hon. Friend. Some 301 relevant cases were identified by the Hetherington-Chalmers parliamentary inquiry. Since its establishment, the unit has received a further 54 allegations.

Each of those allegations has had to be separately reviewed to establish the following essential facts: first, that the allegation, if proved, would come within the terms of the War Crimes Act and, secondly, that the person against whom the allegation is made can be traced in this country and is still alive. As a result of that exercise, the unit has been able to eliminate some 250 people from further investigation at this time.

Independent from the police unit, but working closely with it, is the Crown prosecution service war crimes unit headed by a senior lawyer. Over the past year the police and Crown prosecution service have made joint visits to Austrlia, Canada, the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Those visits have been very productive. Agreements were made with the Australian, Canadian and United States war crimes units to share information and to co-ordinate inquiries. Agreements were also obtained with the procurator general of the former Soviet Union that our officers could carry out work in their jurisdiction.

Of course the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that separate such arrangements needed to be made with the procurator generals of the new sovereign states to which my hon. Friend referred—Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. That delayed the work of the units. However, representatives of the police and the Crown prosecution service units have now visited each of those jurisdictions and have received co-operation from the authorities there.

The House will be aware that those investigations are unusually challenging. The Crown prosecution service unit is working closely with the police and will continue to do so, advising as to evidence, how it should be presented and, where necessary, supporting the police unit with advice on the interviewing of witnesses in the former Soviet Union and the Baltic states.

The police and prosecutors are, of course, working against considerable pressure of time. As my hon. Friend has made clear, the alleged offences were committed some 50 years ago and many of the suspects and witnesses are elderly. Core evidence from witnesses and documents must be gathered from abroad. Interpretation and translation at every stage means that completion of inquiries takes longer than in more usual police investigations.

Although investigation into priority cases will be completed as soon as possible, I cannot say when all investigations will be completed. Whether or not there will be any prosecution will depend on the most careful scrutiny of the available evidence to determine whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction.

The Demjanjuk case in Israel highlights the importance of accurate identification of suspects. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that the Attorney-General and the Lord Advocate require a very high standard of evidence, and will therefore scrutinise very carefully the issue of identification before they agree that proceedings may be instituted.

The House will also be aware that there is a case in the Court of Session in Edinburgh concerning an action of defamation against Scottish Television. The Lord Advocate is aware of the case, but the question of a criminal prosecution is separate from and is not determined by a decision in the civil court where the issues and standard of proof are different. Nor should the House make any assumption about whether any individual is being investigated. It is not the Crown's practice to discuss individual cases. Any such investigations are confidential. Any decision on criminal proceedings will be a matter for the Lord Advocate in Scotland or the Attorney-General in England and Wales.

I conclude by reminding the House again of its overwhelming support for the legislation that the Government introduced to deal with dreadful crimes committed during the last war. Some of the allegations relate to punitive organised murders where innocent people were herded to mass graves. To those who witnessed and survived those terrible events the experiences of many years ago doubtless remain as clear as if those events had occurred only yesterday.

It is now for the police and prosecutors to carry out their duty to investigate and bring to justice those who committed such crimes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Eight o'clock.