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Suspected Terrorists (Interrogation)

Volume 978: debated on Thursday 7 February 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps he proposes to take to make more effective the procedures for the interrogation of terrorist suspects.

The operational procedures for detaining and interviewing suspected terrorists are determined by the Chief Constable and promulgated by him in force orders. He is well aware of the need to ensure that interrogation procedures are both effective and observe the proper standards of treatment.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House which of the main recommendations of the Bennett report have been introduced and, since they have been introduced, what the effect has been on the flow of intelligence and information from interrogation? If, as some people believe, that flow of information has been reduced significantly, what proposals has he to restore the level of intelligence to what it was before?

I am able to tell the House that all the recommendations of the Bennett committee that were accepted by the Government have been put into effect. As to their outcome, it is early yet to give a precise figure, but I am able to tell the House that there is virtually no difference between the percentage of people charged after arrest and questioning within the last few months compared with a year ago.

I hesitate to draw the conclusion that there has been no change at all, but the indications are encouraging. I should perhaps remind the House that the Bennett committee made many recommendations. One was that members of the RUC involved in interrogation should undergo a course of training to make them more efficient.

Does the Secretary of State recall that the publication of the Bennett report aroused a good deal of controversy, hostility and tension because of the clear implications contained in that report that undue pressure had been used by the police in an effort to get convictions? Is he aware that since the publication of the Bennett report a mass of cases have arisen—there is one before the courts now in relation to the La Mon tragedy, and that many of the people before the courts have said that they were beaten, that confessions were extracted from them, and that they did not make confessions willingly? In those circumstances, does the Secretary of State agree that it is of the utmost importance that the police are seen to be adhering strictly to the law in their efforts to get convictions before the courts?

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is wrong in one respect. It was not so much the Bennett report as the Amnesty International report that said that. The Bennett report went into the allegations in the Amnesty report in great detail and showed that of the 3,000 cases that had been mentioned, in only a small handful could there be any justification for accusing the police of ill-treating suspects. Nevertheless, the Government accepted all the recommendations of the Bennett report intended to ensure that suspects were properly treated—which it is our business to do—and to protect the police against this kind of ill-informed attack.

I know of no case, since we have accepted and put into operation the recommendations of the Bennett report, in which allegations of cruelty against the police have been substantiated in the courts. I am sure that they will be made. It is in the interests of people opposed to law and order in Northern Ireland to make them, and they will go on doing it. But they are not substantiated, and I believe that with the methods under which the police now operate they will not be.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is a ploy of IRA people, when they are arrested and charged, to make these allegations, and that many of the allegations, when brought into court, have been proved to be groundless?

I would go further than the hon. Gentleman and say that not "many" but most of them have been found to be groundless. I am convinced that this is because the Royal Ulster Constabulary operates in a most efficient and respectable manner, if I may use that word. It is not in the interests of the RUC to use dubious means to extract confessions, and it does not do so. It is an extremely efficient police force.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there are many people, including myself, who do not believe that a democratic State is best defended by tilting the balance of the law heavily against an accused person whose freedom is at stake? Will he therefore ignore those who urge further erosion of the rights of the accused?

It is the object of Government policy—as it was the object of the policy of the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member—to restore the normal rules of civilised law and order to the Province. We are making considerable progress, albeit slowly, in that direction, but that is the target at which the whole House would wish the Government to aim.