War Crimes

– in the House of Commons at 9:52 pm on 5th March 1997.

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

10 pm

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate again the War Crimes Act 1991. I last had an Adjournment debate on the subject on 9 July 1992. Since then, of course, Britain's first war crimes trial has collapsed. My message is clear—the absurd business should never have begun and should now be brought immediately to a halt before further police time and public money are wasted.

The case against the Act is even stronger now than it was in 1991. The issue attracts powerful emotions. It has divided both sides of the House, and it has divided the House from another place. I believe that that controversial and peculiar legislation first arose from a visit paid to the state of Israel by Baroness Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. The Israeli authorities disliked her strong and justified words about the way in which they treated the Palestinians. Looking for something to help improve her relations with the Israeli Government, Baroness Thatcher agreed to consider allowing trials of alleged war criminals said to be living in Britain.

As a result, the Home Secretary of the day set up an inquiry which was asked to examine documents submitted by the Simon Wiesenthal centre, which is itself controversial. Sir Thomas Hetherington and Mr. William Chalmers submitted their report to the Home Secretary in June 1989. It is worth noting how long ago their report was written and how slowly events have moved since then. One wonders whether the authors of that report would still be in favour of prosecutions after such a long delay. I suspect not.

The inquiry considered 369 cases and it recommended that 75 of them should be accorded further investigation. Amazingly, those involved reached the conclusion that there were only three individuals against whom evidence existed to meet the demands for prosecutions. In the parliamentary debates that followed, the Commons backed the legislation. Some 55 Tory Members—including myself, I am proud to say—voted against the legislation. I welcome the Minister who will reply to the debate, but I could not find out how he voted. It looks as if he abstained, but perhaps he will comment on that point.

I understand that the Prime Minister voted against the concept of legislation right at the beginning of the proceedings. Certainly, strong views were expressed in the Cabinet against such legislation. The other place rejected legislation by an overwhelming majority, the Law Lords apparently being unwilling to go down that path.

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. Such peers represented the generation that lived through the second world war. They knew better than younger people of the Nazi horrors, the holocaust and, of course, the Nuremberg trials. In their speeches, those people constantly referred to the decision by Bevan, Attlee and Churchill in 1948 to cease war crimes trials. With those most responsible for the war largely sentenced, those three eminent politicians thought that it would be wrong to reach down and seek to prosecute every lance-corporal in Hitler's SS for what had happened.

In both Houses, many speakers mentioned that the legislation would be retrospective—something about which many of us are always extremely cautious.

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.

Photo of Mr David Sumberg Mr David Sumberg , Bury South

Was not the essence of the legislation the fact that those men were not British citizens? Had they been British citizens when they committed or may have committed the crimes, they would have been liable to be prosecuted for murder. There was therefore a lacuna in the law, which treated those who were not born British more favourably than those who were.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

My hon. Friend has a valid point; a murder is a murder. Had those men remained in the original territories and had they been tried at an earlier stage, all would have been well. I do not dispute my hon. Friend's observation.

I object to the fact that the legislation is so restricted—restricted to those few men. It does not attempt to cover the all too many atrocities committed elsewhere during and after the war. For example, my father fought in the Burma campaign. The Japanese war crimes are ignored, although the treatment of British prisoners of war was horrendous. More recent crimes committed in Palestine, Cambodia and Iraq are not covered either. The legislation is highly restricted. That is the point that I would put to my hon. Friend.

The House of Commons does not come out well as a result of its support for the legislation. A tiny, well-financed overseas pressure group seeking revenge and retribution was able to have far too much influence on the Commons. I suspect that too many of my colleagues found it prudent to go along with the legislation rather than to take a stand—although I must add that I was under no particular pressure from my Bexleyheath constituents. I suggest that that was a bad case of the tail wagging the dog, and of Parliament being pushed around by pressure groups.

Will the legislation reduce anti-Semitism? Obviously, that would be the objective of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) and myself. In a letter to The Times on 29 July 1989, Lord Shawcross, the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, expressed views that also represent mine: 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 evils of anti-semitism nor, still less, enhance respect for British justice". There re many aspects of the Act, and in a short debate I shall not have time to touch on them all, but I shall raise some of them briefly.

When the Bill went through Parliament, its supporters, including Ministers, drew attention to the experience of Canada, Australia and Israel, which had passed laws along roughly the same lines. Subsequent experience in those countries has confirmed the worst expectations of the Bill's opponents. Israel, for example, had the grim and ghastly affair of the wrong Ivan the Terrible being convicted. Will the Minister list those countries that are still proceeding in that regard? I think that Russia is one of the very few.

I said in my previous Adjournment debate that the bill could be perhaps £10 million before this shocking affair is behind us. What has been spent so far? The Guardian claimed on 4 February this year that £6 million had gone towards the Metropolitan police costs and £2 million for the Crown Prosecution Service. When the time of Ministers and civil servants is properly taken into account, my figure of £10 million still looks possible. Press reports have suggested a figure of £15 million.

In a parliamentary question in July 1992 I asked how many police officers, of what ranks, were employed in police work flowing from the War Crimes Act 1991. I was told that in England and Wales there were one detective chief superintendent, one detective chief inspector, three detective inspectors, one detective sergeant, three detective constables and two police constables: a total of 11. The figure in Scotland was three.

The Metropolitan police war crimes unit was also supported by seven civilians. I hope that the Minister will tell the House what action, if any, is still going on in New Scotland Yard. Is the unit still in existence, albeit frozen? Is the Metropolitan police budget making any contribution at this stage, as was suggested some years ago? It would be wrong if that were the case, because war crimes are a national not a local matter.

As a London Member, I say unhesitatingly that the time of those 11 officers could and should have been much better spent dealing with today's terrorists, murderers, rapists and burglars in the Metropolitan police area. Surely the Minister will recognise that a detective chief superintendent is a most valuable individual—a key piece on the crime chessboard—whose time, dealing, for example, with London's new armed gangs and the masters of the drugs scene, could have brought major benefits.

According to the Lord Advocate, there are to be no war crimes trials in Scotland. What is the future of war crimes trials in England in 1997? A few weeks ago, Szymon Serafinowicz, an 86-year-old retired carpenter from Banstead in Surrey, was found unfit to stand trial by an Old Bailey jury. They had heard evidence that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He had faced serious charges of murdering unknown Jews in Belarus between 1941 and March 1942. That is a long time ago. The Minister himself did not grace our world until April 1945.

What exact details can anyone recall in 1997 of events in 1941, 56 years ago? The trials revolve around correct identification, as the Israelis found so embarrassingly to their cost. A few years ago, after the comparatively recent riots at Wapping, I was intrigued to see that a judge dismissed a trial on the ground that the events took place too long ago for people to be able to recall the exact details.

The more atrocious the crime, the more scrupulously the rules of criminal justice should be observed. Lord Donaldson, when Master of the Rolls, pointed out that a case turning on identification 45 years after an alleged offence was a preposterous proposition. What would he think of a period of 50 or even 60 years?

The Director of Public Prosecutions has, for various reasons that I am not clear about, refused to set a cut-off point for the trials. I do not believe that war crimes trials held in the inevitable blaze of publicity can possibly add to the reputation of our legal system—at the moment, a rather damaged reputation—but they could certainly harm it further.

The reality is that more than 100 people on the initial list of suspects have died. The tiny and pathetic group of elderly people who remain on the list—I believe that we are still talking of about five people—have nothing left to offer, and a short while left to live. It would now be amazing if a successful prosecution took place, and even more amazing if an individual were sent to prison—most likely to the prison hospital.

The journalist Milton Shulman wrote a few years ago: There is no excuse for these proceedings which have become an aberration of British justice. It is intolerable that such an inhuman and costly fiasco should continue to run and run. In a leading article in January 1995, The Daily Telegraphhad this to say: None of this should be taken to imply that any of us should forget or excuse the WAR CRIMES and their perpetrators. The wickedness of those who committed dreadful deeds 50 or more years ago is not in doubt. But when the resources of police forces up and down the land are stretched to the limit, to devote millions to WAR CRIMES investigations that have such scant prospects of success is not only futile, but profligate.The WAR CRIMES BILL was chiefly a personal folly of Lady Thatcher in her last months of office …Large sums of public money have been wasted in pursuit of objectives which most sensible voices from the outset declared to be unattainable. Exactly so—and further large sums of public money will continue to be wasted until this fiasco is killed off. It would have been much more sensible to spend the millions of pounds that have been spent on, for example, improving war widows' pensions.

Having invoked the Parliament Act 1911, no less—it had not been used for 40 years—to force the Lords to accept the Bill, the Prime Minister is obviously reluctant to call a halt now. I hope that he will think again, and will come round to agreeing with a former Conservative Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that a sponge should be drawn across the crimes and horrors of the past, for all the reasons that I have just given.

Photo of Mr Timothy Kirkhope Mr Timothy Kirkhope The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 10:17 pm, 5th March 1997

I am pleased to respond to the debate. I have noted the presence of not only my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Sir C. Townsend), but my hon. Friends the Members for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg), for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) and for Stevenage (Mr. Wood).

I am sure that it will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath that I do not find his arguments about the War Crimes Act and its operation either attractive or convincing. My hon. Friend asked how I voted in relation to the measures that the House took. I think that the record will show that I voted in support of the legislation; I hope that that is the case, because that is how I feel.

The House supported the War Crimes Act on a free vote by an overwhelming majority, not only in 1990 but again in 1991. The House was fully aware that the gathering of evidence of alleged war crimes, including evidence from abroad, would be a lengthy and costly process, given that the crimes were committed many years ago; but the House approved the legislation because of the enormity of the crimes, which cannot be diminished by the mere passage of time. The Act is about offences involving the killing of innocent people in horrendous circumstances, contrary to internationally accepted standards of civilised conduct. The House was determined to ensure that people in this country now suspected of such dreadful crimes should not be able to escape justice simply because they did not have British nationality during the second world war.

The Act is now part of the general criminal law and I must make it clear, lest there be any doubt, that the Government remain firmly committed to its purposes. The police and the prosecuting authorities can now follow up evidence that war crimes were committed by non-British nationals during the war, just as they can follow up evidence in other cases of murder and manslaughter, irrespective of the time that has passed or of whether the crimes were committed in Britain. The Act gives effect to the House's intention that persons against whom there is evidence of war crimes committed during the second world war may be brought to trial. There can be no case whatsoever for backtracking on that resolve or affording such people special protection by rendering the Act ineffective or inoperative.

I shall come to the question of investigations and prosecutions in a moment, but first it is worth recalling in a little more detail the background to the Act, what it is about and what the Government's policy on it is. The report of the war crimes inquiry, Command Paper 744, was presented to Parliament in July 1989. The inquiry was conducted, as my hon. Friend said, by Sir Thomas Hetherington and Mr. William Chalmers at the request of the then Home Secretary. The inquiry had been appointed following allegations that persons at that time living in the United Kingdom had committed war crimes during the second world war. The inquiry was asked, inter alia, to obtain and examine relevant material relating to the allegations and to consider, in the light of the likely probative value in court proceedings of the relevant documentary material and the evidence of potential witnesses, whether the law of the United Kingdom should be amended to make it possible to prosecute such persons for war crimes.

The inquiry considered about 300 allegations and concluded that in at least three of them, there would be a realistic prospect of conviction for murder on the evidence available, were the jurisdiction of British courts to be widened so that residents of this country who had committed crimes abroad could be prosecuted, albeit that they were not British at the relevant time. The inquiry recommended that further investigations be made into those cases and into more than 120 other cases. The inquiry noted that little or no consideration had been given by successive British Governments to what might be done with war criminals in the UK for the simple reason that before the inquiry was set up, none had been thought to be in Britain. The inquiry made it clear that nothing in the policy or practice of successive Governments prevented taking action to bring war criminals to justice.

Against the background of the inquiry, and in line with its recommendations, the Government introduced to Parliament in March 1990 what became the War Crimes Act 1991. The purpose of the war crimes legislation was to give our courts jurisdiction over murder, manslaughter and culpable homicide committed as violations of the laws and customs of war during the second world war in Germany or German-held territory by people who are now British citizens or resident in the UK, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, irrespective of their nationality at the material time.

It is now therefore possible to prosecute for war crimes committed in Europe people who did not have British nationality at the time of the alleged offences. I emphasise that because our courts, as has been said, had jurisdiction over murder, manslaughter and culpable homicide committed abroad by British nationals by virtue of section 9 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 6(1) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975, which was a consolidating statute incorporating the corresponding provision in section 29 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1949.

Moreover, our courts already had jurisdiction over grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions, including wilful killing and torture, wherever in the world the offence was committed and whatever the nationality of the offender, by virtue of the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, although that Act did not apply to grave breaches committed before it came into effect. The War Crimes Act did not therefore introduce any new principle concerning prosecuting for offences abroad irrespective of the nationality of the suspect.

I emphasise that the War Crimes Act did not create any new offences. Violations of the laws and customs of war have long been criminal according to the general principles of law recognised by this country and all other members of the community of civilised nations. The Act did not therefore criminalise conduct that was not already criminal by internationally recognised standards; it ensured that such conduct was triable by our courts.

The War Crimes Bill was approved by this House on a free vote by a large majority—273 votes to 60. It was then denied a Second Reading in another place, by 207 votes to 74. That was in June 1990. The Government reintroduced the Bill in identical form in this House in March 1991, where it was again approved by a large majority on a free vote, by 254 votes to 88. It was subsequently again denied a Second Reading in another place, by 131 votes to 109. The Bill was subsequently enacted, in May 1991, through the operation of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949.

I do not need to go into the detail of the debates on the Bill. Many of the arguments were anticipated by the war crimes inquiry. In particular, the inquiry had taken into account the ages of the alleged perpetrators of war crimes and the fact that the people involved had been living here for some considerable time. The inquiry was also aware of the additional manpower and resources that would be involved in investigating the allegations, and of the difficulties of bringing evidence before the courts. However, the inquiry said that those arguments were lacking when weighed in the balance against the alleged atrocities. The inquiry concluded: The crimes committed are so monstrous that they cannot be condoned: their prosecution could act as a deterrent to others in future wars. To take no action would taint the United Kingdom with the slur of being a haven for war criminals …Financial constraints should not be allowed to obstruct the course of justice in relation to such serious charges". The fact is that the War Crimes Act is now law. It came into effect in May 1991 and since then the police and prosecuting authorities have had clear responsibilities to investigate and prosecute for war crimes, as appropriate, in the same way as with other allegations of murder and manslaughter. The Government's policy in relation to the Act is unequivocal. It is that those who committed the most terrible crimes in Nazi-occupied Europe during the second world war should not be allowed to use the privilege of residence in this country to escape justice.

I must emphasise that the Hetherington-Chalmers inquiry was just that—an inquiry. It was not a criminal investigation. The investigations did not begin until the Act came into force. Inevitably, the investigations were going to take some time and be resource-intensive. As I have said, the inquiry recommended that investigations be undertaken in more than 120 cases. After the inquiry, the police received information about other cases which also required investigation. The investigations were also going to take time and be costly because the events concerned took place abroad, moreover a long time ago. All of this was, of course, known to the House during the passage of the War Crimes Act. In line with the House's expectations, the Government ensured that the police were appropriately resourced for what were likely to be difficult and protracted inquiries.

Since May 1991, the Metropolitan police war crimes unit has considered 376 cases. In 117 of those, the subject of the inquiries has been confirmed dead. In a further 253 cases, the evidence so far is insufficient for the purposes of prosecution and the Crown Prosecution Service and the police have agreed that no further action should be taken at this time. This is subject to the possibility of reopening cases should any further evidence come to light.

That leaves six cases, of which five are still under active consideration and investigation by the Crown Prosecution Service. They relate to allegations of murder or mass murder of Jewish and Soviet civilians in Belarus and Ukraine by persons who are now living in this country. In the remaining case, the defendant has been found by a jury to be unfit to stand trial. In order to bring the proceedings to an end, the Attorney-General entered a nolle prosequi.

Although the work load of the war crimes unit has inevitably fallen from its peak, because 376 cases have already been considered, the unit is still involved in investigating the five active cases that I have mentioned. In the past six months, members of the unit have made at least six visits to eastern Europe for the purposes of the investigations. Only last week, a member of the unit, accompanied by a CPS lawyer, returned from a visit to Belarus. So a number of chilling crimes which allegedly were committed during the war are still being thoroughly investigated.

Photo of Mr Timothy Kirkhope Mr Timothy Kirkhope The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

No, I will not. I am sorry; I have only a minute left.

We cannot be sure that when the five active cases have been completed, that will be the end of the investigations. There have been no new allegations for a year, but it is always possible that fresh allegations will be made or fresh evidence may emerge. It is also possible that war criminals will come to this country. In Canada, 64 suspects have been identified and they may be deported. If that occurs, it is possible that some of them may arrive in Britain as the last country of embarkation. The war crimes unit is closely monitoring the situation in consultation with the Canadian authorities.

I cannot comment on whether any further prosecutions are imminent or likely. That is a matter for the independent decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney-General.

The cost of investigations to the end of 1996 totals approximately £6 million for the Metropolitan police and approximately £2 million for the CPS. The expected cost of investigations for 1996–97 is about £630,000. Home Office special funding for the war crimes unit stopped in 1995, but the Metropolitan police will receive a total of £1.7 billion in 1997–98 for all their policing needs, including war crimes investigations.

A time bar on investigating and prosecuting war crimes raises a most important, indeed fundamental, point of principle. The fact is that in the United Kingdom we do not have a statutory time bar for laying charges of murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide and this applies no less where such acts are committed as war crimes. To depart from this policy, making war crimes a special case, would be to set a most extraordinary precedent. I do not share my hon. Friend's concerns.

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour,MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.