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Northern Ireland (Stevens Report)

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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4.32 pm

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the report of an inquiry conducted in Northern Ireland by Mr. John Stevens, deputy chief constable of Cambridgeshire. Mr. Stevens was appointed on 14 September 1989 by the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to conduct an inquiry into allegations of collusion between members of the security forces in Northern Ireland and loyalist paramilitaries, and to make recommendations. He presented his report to the Chief Constable on 5 April 1990 and, subsequently, he has prepared a summary of his findings and recommendations. That summary, together with a copy of the complete report, was made available to me earlier this week. The Chief Constable made the summary report publicly available earlier today. Copies have been placed in the Library of this House and that of another place.

Mr. Stevens conducted a most thorough and wide-ranging inquiry in which, as he himself stresses, he has at all times received full co-operation at every level from both the RUC and the Army. In connection with his inquiry, 94 persons have been arrested, of whom 59 have either been charged with, or reported for, a variety of criminal offences. The majority of these cases are covered by the sub judice rule and it would be improper for me to comment further about them.

The report from Mr. Stevens was addressed to the Chief Constable. Many of its conclusions and recommendations are primarily for him to consider. Others are for the Army authorities in Northern Ireland or for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Stevens found that the passing of information to paramilitaries did take place, but that it was restricted to a small number of individuals and was neither widespread nor institutionalised. Moreover, he has recognised that steps taken by the police and the Army both before and since September 1989 have already significantly reduced the risk of repetition. No document so far traced to the possession of loyalist paramilitaries bore a recent date. Mr. Stevens recognises that there must be some tension between the need to disseminate information for operational purposes and the need effectively to safeguard that information.

Mr. Stevens finds, nevertheless, that there were deficiencies in procedures for identifying and accounting for documents containing sensitive information. Far too much material was circulating at any one time and the easy availability of photocopiers further extended the risk of unlawful dissemination. Accordingly, the report contains a number of detailed recommendations aimed at further improving the arrangements for the dissemination and control of all sensitive information; already some of these have been and others are being implemented. Mr. Stevens notes that the absence of adequate control procedures at the material time severely hampered the efforts of his inquiry to discover the origins of documents and to trace persons who might have been criminally responsible for passing them on and that, for related reasons, it cannot be assumed that a document with a particular provenance was leaked directly from the organisation that produced it.

As Mr. Stevens's own summary makes clear, any evidence or allegation of criminal conduct was rigorously followed up. No charges have been laid against any member of the RUC. Mr. Stevens concluded that there had been misbehaviour by a few individual members of the Ulster Defence Regiment. That is a matter of great regret to me, as I know that it is to the great majority of those honourable and courageous men and women who are the backbone of a very fine regiment; and I therefore welcome Mr. Stevens's equally firm conclusion that it would be wholly wrong to believe that a significant proportion of members of the UDR were involved wth paramilitaries. The House will know that steps have already been taken to tighten up procedures for screening potential members of the regiment. Mr. Stevens has made recommendations for further improvements in the arrangements in that area.

I see nothing in the findings of the Stevens inquiry to lessen my convictiion that the UDR plays a vital and valued part in the Army's support for the police-led anti-terrorist effort. I am conviced that the regiment is fundamentally sound; I am fully aware of the great efforts that continue to be made by the regiment steadily to improve its effectiveness and professionalism, and I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of its members impartially serve the whole community in Northern Ireland. I remind the House that, in that service, more than 180 serving and more than 40 former members of the regiment have been killed in Northern Ireland in the past 20 years; only two days ago, 11 members of the UDR were decorated or were mentioned in dispatches.

Mr. Stevens also makes proposals relating to the technical and scientific support services available to the RUC's anti-terrorist work, identifying in particular scene-of-crime examinations, fingerprint analysis and the scientific examination of possible exhibits. The need for improvements in many of those areas had already been recognised by the Chief Constable, and Mr. Stevens's recommendations in those areas will now be for the Chief Constable to take forward. I stand ready to respond as sympathetically as I can to any specific recommendations that the Chief Constable may wish to put to me.

Painful though its findings in some respects may be, the Stevens report is a most valuable document. It has highlighted shortcomings and deficiencies in several important areas. Action by the police and the Army to remedy many of the deficiencies to which Mr. Stevens has drawn attention has already been taken, or is now in hand; and immediate consideration will now be given to his detailed recommendations for further improvements.

I am sure that the whole House shares my gratitude to the Chief Constable of the RUC for initiating this inquiry, and to Mr. Stevens for the exemplary care and vigour with which he has carried it out. It will contribute to increasing the skill and dedication with which the security forces carry out their vital task of combating and defeating terrorism in Northern Ireland, wherever it is to be found. I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the skilled, courageous and impartial way in which they carry it out.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for his courtesy in supplying me with a copy of the summary of the report. On behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, I should also like to thank Mr. Stevens and his team of officers for their efforts in a long, gruelling and—on occasions—no doubt frustrating series of investigations.

I read Mr. Stevens's report with mixed feelings. It is regrettable that he was forced to admit that, in some cases, although he had found evidence of wrongdoing, it was impossible to trace the culprit. His admission that
"in the present climate, leakages of information from the Security Forces may never be completely eliminated"
will dismay the supporters of the rule of law in Northern Ireland and throughout these islands. It will not enhance the reputation of the security forces; nor will it facilitate co-operation with the Irish security forces.

We should not forget that it is believed that the leakages have a direct connection with the deaths of several individuals. It is important for confidence in the security forces that they should not harbour people whose loyalties may at best be divided. On the other hand, Mr. Stevens has provided a great service in his recommendations for the future. Whatever the deficiencies of the report as a criminal investigation, it is certainly an impressive management consultancy report.

Judging by Mr. Stevens's recommendations, it is obvious that the inquiry team has discoverd appalling laxity in the handling of information by the security forces and in the recruitment procedures of the UDR, which has resulted in some unfortunate publicity attaching to certain members of the regiment.

Can the Secretary of State assure us that he, the Minister of State, the police authority and the Chief Constable will act immediately on Mr. Stevens's recommendations, to ensure that, in Mr. Stevens's words:
"Any future collusion between the security forces and paramilitary terrorist groups will be eradicated"?
In particular, will he assure us that the document production and distribution procedures will now be made traceable? Will he assure us that the present level of computer security, which apparently would be a disgrace in an ordinary commercial organisation, will now be replaced by proper arrangements?

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Defence, ensure that proper personnel procedures are put in place so that the difficulties that afflict recruitment to the UDR can be removed once and for all? We welcome the recommendation that the Ministry of Defence should now justify, at senior level, the rejection of RUC advice on recruiting, but it will be regretted that the final decision was not left in the hands of the RUC, because the recommendation that the MOD should have the last say does not follow the logic of Mr. Stevens's report.

The Chief Constable has said in statements today that perhaps not all the published recommendations will be implemented. Will the Secretary of State urge him to say which recommendations will not be implemented and why?

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House the range of charges that have been preferred as a result of the inquiry—although I understand the problems associated with the sub judice rule?

I hope that the Secretary of State realises that the concerns expressed by Mr. Stevens are concerns which we all share. We hope that he will treat the matter with the urgency that is deserves. He will have the full support of the Opposition in implementing the thrust of Mr. Stevens's recommendations. In the battle against terrorism —whether loyalist or nationalist—there is no room for complacency.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks about the manner in which the matter was handled and for the congratulations that he offered to Mr. Stevens. I heard his expression of regret that, despite the intense thoroughness of the inquiry, Mr. Stevens was not able to pursue a number of matters fully.

As I hope was evident from the spirit of my statement, we shall be responding as promptly as may be to the recommendations. I temper my words in that way only because there are 83 recommendations, and their implementation will involve different time scales.

We agree with the broad thrust of the recommendatons. Inevitably, some of the recommendations are for the attention of people other than myself, but I shall be collaborating with them in their response. As regards the matters that are for me, I shall respond as sympathetically as I can to any propositions that the Chief Constable puts to me.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the traceability of documents and access to the computer. He will find from the summary that, in the case of the former, improvement has already been effected by all the interested parties, and the Chief Constable responded at the press conference that he gave this morning to the recommendations relating to the computer. The hon. Gentleman will know that a considerable amount has been done in the past six months on the vetting of recruits to the UDR. He expressed his regret that the RUC should not have the last say. I think that this is an instance in which it is simplest for us simply to disagree.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the statement that not all the recommendations will necessarily be followed up. It is probably better to let that matter take its course, given that some of the recommendations are highly detailed. Those of us to whom the recommendations are directly or indirectly made will indicate the nature of our response to them.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the range of charges. As he said, those matters are sub judice and it would probably be inappropriate for me to comment.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked the Government to respond urgently and I can assure him that the need for urgency will be observed.

What does Mr. Stevens mean by recommendation 65:

"Introduce interview of applicants' referees"?
Did no one tell him that that procedure was introduced in 1971?

Does the Secretary of State recall my request to him to consider publishing a further paper when the various charges have been processed to give detailed breakdown of the number of people arrested for questioning, the number released after questioning, the number whose cases were put to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the number of cases that were rejected by the DPP?

Does the Secretary of State agree that, although the Stevens summary has enlightened us all greatly on the technicalities of computers and photocopiers, it does nothing whatever to clear the reputation of the 28 Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers who were arrested so dramatically for publicity purposes one Sunday morning, only seven of whom have subsequently been charged, and convicted of non-terrorist related offences? To put it in plain language, I understand that they were convicted of having a few spare rounds in their possession. What soldier does not commit that offence?

Will an adequate apology by given to those men, considering that many of them had to move house after being treated as if they were terrorists? Will adequate compensation be given to them and will apologies be offered to the regiment to which they belong?

The right hon. Gentleman's first question related to recommendation 65 in Mr. Stevens's summary. No doubt he will forgive me if I say that his question was addressed more to Mr. Stevens than to me, although there will be analysis and a response to that recommendation.

The right hon. Gentleman's second and third questions related primarily to individual members of the UDR who were arrested in the course of the inquiry. I rest on my earlier remarks about the sub judice rule, although I realise that some of the cases have already been handled. The right hon. Gentleman referred to those who have had to move house. There are, of course, full administrative procedures for handling that matter, which is one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

There are those who will be disappointed by the report and see deficiencies in it because it reveals that the political hype directed against the security forces in Northern Ireland was totally unwarranted. Does the Secretary of State agree that any fair-minded person will welcome the fact that Mr. Stevens has reported that

"the passing of information to paramilitaries by Security Force members has been restricted to a small number of individuals. It is neither widespread nor institutionalised"?
Bearing in mind the fact that there are 28,000 members of the security forces and given that the Stevens report states that such activities are restricted to a small number of individuals" does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for every Member in the House to give his or her wholehearted support to the security forces in their fight against the real enemy of democracy—the terrorist throughout the United Kingdom? This part of the United Kingdom has suffered ghastly incidents in the past few days.
Recommendation 59 suggests:
"Consider location of home address of applicants".
Can the Secretary of State give a clear undertaking that, in judging the calibre of an applicant to the security forces, the guiding principle will be not his address but his person?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the fact—as I sought to do in my statement—that Mr. Stevens has drawn attention to only a small number of individuals, and that he does not regard any such activity as general or institutionalised. I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming that.

I am also delighted to sustain the hon. Gentleman in what he says about the whole House giving support to the security forces in the dangerous and highly responsible tasks that they carry out on behalf of the whole community. I know that he would not wish that support to be blind, that he would wish the rule of law to continue to be upheld and that he will recognise that in inviting Mr. Stevens to conduct that inquiry, the Chief Constable has been loyal to that thesis.

Recommendation 59 is a matter of detail which will be looked at. I shall certainly ensure that the attention of those who will be responding to that recommendation will be drawn to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

In asking a question about the UDR, I agree with the Secretary of State that none of us should forget that 220 members of the UDR are dead as a result of their activities. We on this side of the water quite properly get upset when people on this side are killed. Two hundred and twenty is a large number of people to have been killed, and I take that into account when asking this question.

Is not it the case that over the years the UDR has had a high turnover of people? Given the importance of police primacy and what I detect, on a quick reading of the report, to be a mix-up between the roles of the UDR and the RUC, would not it be better to increase the numbers in the RUC and the RUC Reserve and to keep the UDR as a smaller force, with a lower turnover, to do a limited job—an Army job?

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the numbers. Although I fear that that number now exceeds 220, he is right that it is an appalling number.

Although I believe that the turnover is probably lower than the right hon. Gentleman imagines, I acknowledge that some people do not stay all that long with the regiment. However, others have served in the regiment consistently since its formation and I pay tribute to them for their bravery.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the balance of the security forces. The armed forces have had to be increased during the past five years when, as a result of Libyan armaments, there has been a rise in the level of violence, but it is the number of those serving in the regular Army that has been increased, not the number of those in the UDR. However, there has been a shift in the UDR in that period.

Is it a source of satisfaction to my right hon. Friend that, after the serious allegations that have been made against the Ulster Defence Regiment and his own RUC, the Chief Constable appointed Mr. Stevens to carry out an inquiry; that that inquiry received the utmost co-operation throughout from the Ulster Defence Regiment and the RUC; that that inquiry was one of the most thorough that has ever taken place; and that the report has been published almost in full and has been the subject of a statement in the House?

Is not it a tribute to the way in which we are trying to cleanse the island of Ireland of terrorism that those procedures have taken place? Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm, despite the criticism in the report, his total confidence in both the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for the tone and terms in which his question was framed. The inquiry that Mr. Stevens carried out was the most intensive and extensive inquiry of its kind ever to be undertaken in the United Kingdom. We should all derive satisfaction not only from its thoroughness, but from its findings. I am delighted, as my hon. Friend has so invited me, to express my total confidence in both the RUC and the UDR

The Secretary of State will be aware that the inquiry has been described in some quarters as "political hype". I remind the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the inquiry began as a direct consequence of the murders of my constituents. In July 1989 Loughlin Maginn was murdered and three men were charged with his murder, two of whom unfortunately—I emphasise the word "unfortunately"—were full-time serving members of the Ulster Defence Regiment——

Well, they may have been from Great Britain, but that is not what I am talking about.

Immediately after that—five days later—the loyalist paramilitaries gave an exhibition of montages of considerable detail to the press. Some months later, loyalist murder gangs were intercepted by the security forces on entering my constituency of South Down, with the specific purpose of murdering constituents of mine who had been named in those leaked documents.

I do not consider this to be a matter of "political hype" or something to be taken lightly. This issue is fundamental to the recognition of and respect for law and order in Northern Ireland in all its contexts. Caesar's wife must be absolutely pure in all circumstances.

I cannot comment in detail on the report, so I simply shall refer to the Secretary of State's statement. I am concerned that some 60 people have been found guilty or will be charged with colluding in the perpetration of a crime. I remind the House that the crime that we are talking about is murder. We are talking about collusion in the murders of innocent people. That is why this matter is so important and why I hope that the Secretary of State will act with the greatest possible urgency in executing the revisions that have been found necessary and exposed in the report.

This is not the first time that various screens and processes have been reorganised. That has happened at least five or six times in the past 20 years. What is going wrong in allowing those evil people to slip through the net —[Interruption.] Another point that I should like the Secretary of State to address —[Interruption.]

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that he should address questions to the Secretary of State, not comments?

Why has it taken such a long time for adequate controls to be put in place?

Last but not least, the Secretary of State said that the Stevens inquiry referred to Army investigations and RUC investigations. Did the Stevens inquiry investigate the operation of the secret units within Northern Ireland, which are setting paramilitary against paramilitary, and community against community, and working outside the rule of law or the control of the RUC and the British Army?

I join the hon. Gentleman in his observation that the matters that gave rise to the inquiry were not ones to be taken lightly. The Chief Constable responded to a series of events in Northern Ireland by inviting Mr. Stevens to carry out an inquiry that has lasted for a full eight months. I salute the Chief Constable for his original decision and Mr. Stevens for his conduct of that inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman should allow for the fact that there is clear evidence that the action of the paramilitaries in producing the information that gave rise to the inquiry in the first instance was clearly intended to discredit the security forces, which are the paramilitaries' enemies, in so far as they act on behalf of the whole community.

It would be a mistake for us to discuss the 59 charges in detail across the Floor of the House, not only because of the sub judice issue, but because the hon. Gentleman's question slightly generalised the charges.

I give the hon. Gentleman the same pledge about urgency that I gave the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who spoke for the Opposition.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) also asked me about adequate controls. I should say—some of this is apparent in the summary—that long before the Stevens inquiry was set up, the Army and the RUC were already taking measures in that area. Mr. Stevens also refers to the many members of the RUC who were interviewed about that.

The hon. Gentleman's final question takes us into a level of operational detail, which is more a question for Mr. Stevens than for me.

At this time I think of my constituents and all the other innocent people throughout the Province who have been slaughtered by the Irish Republican Army. I thank God for the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In my view, the report, which I have hastily read, confirms that a large and expensive sledgehammer has been used to crack a miserable nut. The Secretary of State was right when he said that what generated the inquiry was the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association sending some photographs to the press.

What was the cost of the inquiry, which seemed to turn into a general inquisition and fishing expedition to satisfy republican demands, as part of a campaign to denigrate and undermine the UDR and RUC? Many people in Northern Ireland would agree that if all the effort and money expended on the report and the inquiry had been directed against the IRA, more terrorists would have been apprehended and more innocent lives saved.

I remind the Secretary of State of the protest that I made in the House in October of last year when a young constituent of mine was pulled out of his bed in the early hours of the morning and dragged off to a police station. He was a serving member of the UDR. Everyone in the neighbourhood was aware of his arrest because of the noise from the police vehicles. A few hours later, after hype and publicity in the press, he was released and allowed to rejoin his young wife and child. He was an innocent man. It was a disgraceful way in which to treat him or any other member of the UDR.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to extend his tribute to the UDR to other parts of the security forces.

He said that we had taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I state on behalf of the Government that the rule of law is beyond price and confidence that the rule of law is being maintained is a matter of great importance to everyone in the House. I do not have an absolutely up-to-date figure for the cost of the inquiry, but I understand that up to a recent date it had cost £500,000. Many hon. Members will agree that such expenditure and thoroughness was justified in view of the objective that we sought. Mr. Stevens himself said:

"Written statements have been taken from over 1,900 witnesses and suspects; 2,000 investigative enquiries undertaken and almost 2,000 man hours expended on interviews with detained persons. Over 2,600 documents of all types, have been recovered"
On the hon. Gentleman's last point, it would not be right for me to comment on an individual case. However, I salute his conscientiousness as a constituency Member of Parliament in bringing it to my attention.

As the Secretary of State made clear in his statement, the implementation of Mr. Stevens's excellent report will require action by more than one Department and co-operation between Departments. How will he ensure that there is an overall strategy to give us confidence that all the recommendations of the Stevens report will be brought into effect? Will he also take steps to ensure a consistency of standards across the Irish border so that the police in the Republic apply similar standards on the issues described by Mr. Stevens?

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the Stevens inquiry was not assisted by the Irish News which made many allegations but refused to back them up by producing evidence?

I give the hon. and learned Gentleman the assurance that he requested about action. As I have already said, I cannot prejudge the response to particular recommendations. They are addressed to several different Departments of State, including the Ministry of Defence. The 8.3 recommendations have been made as a package and we shall seek to concert our general response on an interdepartmental basis.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about cross-border matters. I have a suspicion that the Government of the Republic of Ireland will be interested in discussing the report with me on the next occasion that I meet them. I shall certainly bear in mind what the hon. and learned Gentleman said when I do that. He was right about the conclusions of the Stevens inquiry about the inability of the Irish News to sustain the allegations that it initially made.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the instances of individual wrongdoing by members of the security forces must be firmly dealt with and that Mr. Stevens is to be congratulated on the way in which he has done it? Is it not astonishing that so few instances have been found, given the strain and stress under which the security forces operate? Does he agree that as long as the security forces have to risk life and limb on the streets of Ulster and in the countryside there, they must have access to photographs of people wanted in connection with offences? Therefore, the simplest way to prevent any further instances will be for the terrorists to lay down their arms, stop killing and maiming innocent men, women and children and seek political solutions to the problems that they seek to solve. Is it not extraordinary that in his criticism of my right hon. Friend's remarks, the Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland could not bring himself to say one word in praise of our security forces and their sterling work or one word of condemnation of terrorism?

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he worded his remarks about the nature of the report and its findings, given his position on the Select Committee for Defence. I have already said that we welcome the fact that only a small number of instances of wrongdoing were highlighted by Mr. Stevens. We are all aware of the stress under which the security forces operate in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend rightly says, they are daily at risk of death at the hands of terrorists. The main lesson of the report was that the Chief Constable was determined to make sure that the rule of law is maintained within the Province.

In view of the alarmist stories that appeared in the republican press. is not paragraph 41 of the report, which says that the practice was confined to a small number of individuals and was neither widespread nor institutionalised, worthy of the greater possible publicity? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Mr. Charles Haughey, the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, receives a copy of the report immediately?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to paragraph 41, to which other hon. Members also drew attention. I have made it possible to make a copy of the report available to the Government of the Republic of Ireland.

Is it not remarkable that so many citizens of Northern Ireland are prepared to serve with the UDR after doing a day's work, bearing in mind the onerous nature of the duties and the high casualty rate? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key to the matter is improved and thorough vetting of those who join the regiment? Will the Government stick to their guns and make sure that the regiment decides, after taking the best possible advice, who is good enough to serve in it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his tribute to the UDR. It is perhaps worth drawing the attention of the House to the fact that last year 11 million man hours were spent out of bed by members of the regiment in defence of the community in Northern Ireland and that 1,000 vehicle checkpoints are mounted every night, with all the danger that that involves for those who mount them. I acknowledge the importance of vetting. I confirm that the Government will stand by their position on the process of recruitment into the regiment. On top of that, emphasis will be placed on training and further professionalisation, which the regiment has constantly in hand.

Is the Secretary of State aware that it was not a member of the Opposition who made a statement in the House which resulted in an alleged terrorist not being extradited from Ireland because it was felt that he would not have a fair trial? Is he further aware that I have been delighted to accept an invitation to join the UDR on training procedures in the north of England next week?

I am not absolutely certain that I recognise the relevance of the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question to today's statement. I warmly welcome his decision to participate in the training procedures of the UDR. If he could go further and urge more Catholics to join the regiment, he would be doing a considerable service to Northern Ireland.