Skip to main content


Volume 174: debated on Monday 18 June 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Hilda Murrell


To ask the Attorney-General if he will meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss the case of the late Hilda Murrell.

I have no immediate plans to do so. The Director of Public Prosecutions has received a report from the West Mercia police which he has considered with care. He has suggested further lines of inquiry. I do not doubt that he will consult me if he considers it necessary.

In view of the concerned letter that the Attorney-General has received from Commander Robert Green, Hilda Murrell's nephew, will the Attorney-General clarify the position in relation to David Mackenzie, and what exactly is going to happen next? He says that he is going to talk to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but with what effect?

It is not appropriate for me to comment on, and certainly not to name names in connection with, an investigation that is as yet incomplete. As I said, the Director has suggested further lines of inquiry to the police. The hon. Gentleman can be entirely confident that the Director will give the fullest weight to all concerns that properly arise out of the matter.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the late Miss Murrell was my constituent and I welcome the news that the lines of inquiry are still being pursued. But I am sure that he will agree, and the House will wish to know, that so far not a shred of evidence other than ill-informed rumour has come to light to suggest that the security services were in any way involved in Miss Murrell's demise. Is not it very much to be regretted that her name should continue to be dragged along without any proof coming forward to the authorities from those who continue to use her name for party-political purposes?

It is always tempting to get into detail when an investigation is incomplete. All that it is proper for me to say is that the Director is taking the matter seriously. I cannot properly comment on any particular detail of the report, or on whether names are involved. I am sorry not to be able to say more to my hon. Friend, but I must not.

Departmental Select Committee


To ask the Attorney-General whether his Department has any plans to submit evidence to the Procedure Committee regarding the establishment of a departmental Select Committee to scrutinise the activities of the Law Officers.

No, Sir. The Law Officers' Department is not one of those which the House thought it right to specify in Standing Order No. 130 and the Select Committee on Procedure has not invited comment on any proposal that it should be so specified.

During the past few years the Law Officers have been involved in the fiasco over Peter Wright, the running down of the legal aid service, the mismanagement of the Crown prosecution service, the failure to establish a proper supreme court of appeal and many other issues. Surely the Law Officers, of all Departments, should be the last to place themselves above proper parliamentary scrutiny? Will the Solicitor-General now add his weight to the establishment of a proper departmental Select Committee to study his Department and that of the other Law Officers?

One cannot help but feel that the hon. Gentleman has allowed some bias rather than information to inform his question.

The Law Officers control or superinted administrative functions. There is already an opportunity for scrutiny by Select Commitees as we saw with the examination of the Crown prosecution service by the Home Affairs Select Committee which, incidentally, gave the CPS many laudatory plaudits. The bulk of the Department's work is either to give confidential legal advice or to take or superintend the taking of prosecution decisions. Those are plainly independent functions in which Select Committees would not find it appropriate to involve themselves.

My right hon. and learned Friend is too polite to say it himself, but as the majority of the work of the Law Officers' Department is to advise on the law, would not the provision of such additional scrutiny only give an opportunity to barrack-room lawyers to demonstrate and exercise their ill-informed prejudices at additional public expense?

My hon. and learned Friend is entirely right that any such meddling would be inappropriate to what is an independent or a confidential function. There is an opportunity for scrutiny of other general aspects, and that has already taken place.

Paul Elvin


To ask the Attorney-General what representations he has received concerning calls for a prosecution against British Rail arising from the death of Paul Elvin.

I have received representations from the hon. Gentleman and from his constituent, Mrs. Elvin. I replied to the hon. Member last week.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for his reply. In the light of the decision of Mr. Justice Turner in the P and O case that it has a case to answer on corporate manslaughter, will there be a review of the liability of public and corporate bodies such as British Rail? I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman appreciates the great concern felt at the many deaths and accidents on British Rail sites, all of which happen without criminal prosecution against British Rail. Should not that liability be reviewed so that the regular deaths which occur, which many believe to be the fault of British Rail, can be laid at the door of those who have responsibility for such sites?

The judicial decision to which the hon. Gentleman refers did not come as a surprise to me. With many other people, I have long believed that a corporation is capable of committing the offence of manslaughter. With great respect, however, that is not the point here. The Health and Safety Executive looked closely into the tragic death of Mrs. Elvin's son and concluded, supported by the opinion of counsel, that there is insufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution for manslaughter.

I have looked closely at the papers and, recognising the natural strength of feeling of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, I shall ask the DPP to examine the papers himself. That is, of course, without the slightest intimation that I disagree with the view of the Health and Safety Executive, which I personally believe to be correct. However, in the circumstances of this tragic case, that would be the proper course to follow and I shall do so.

Maguire Case


To ask the Attorney-General when he last discussed the Maguire case with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

I discussed the Maguire case with the Director of Public Prosecutions last week when he advised me of the views that he had formed about the safety of the convictions.

Does the Attorney-General agree that the Maguire case is but one of a number of cases concerning the Irish issue where the British legal system has proved less than adequate?

It would be very unwise of me, having, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary invited Sir John May to conduct this inquiry, to make any comments now upon the matters which may form the subject of this report.

On the current trend of running down the English legal system, and the judges in particular, let me say that our legal system is rightly admired. When the judges are heavily and personally criticised and undermined it does great harm to our liberties and the freedom in which we live. The hon. Gentleman has not done that today, but his hon. Friends—unfortunately there is no shortage of them —who have spoken are inclined to undermine the reputation of the judges in a way that I consider to be completely unfounded and damaging.

I dare say that my remarks are slightly out of order, Mr. Speaker, but I wanted to get it off my chest.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that it is a tribute to the British system that occasionally we can admit that mistakes were made? We look forward to a similar confession from the Republic in respect of another Maguire case.

I shall pass on the latter part of the question.

In this country, we have a procedure through which the Home Secretary may refer a case to the Court of Appeal if he believes that there are grounds for thinking that the conviction is unsafe or unsatisfactory. The Court of Appeal will then examine the matter as though it were a fresh appeal. That seems to me to be an extremely wise and sensible procedure bearing in mind the fact that all institutions are mortal and occasionally fallible.

In his statement through counsel a few days ago, the Director of Public Prosecutions said that if the Home Secretary thought it right to refer the Maguire case to the Court of Appeal, the Director would not consider it right to seek to uphold the safety of the conviction, the ground that he expressed through counsel on Thursday.

Are not there two lessons to be learnt from the recent cases? First, when the police or prosecution, in their enthusiasm to obtain a conviction, depart from the usual good practice, convictions that might otherwise have stood on appeal—I am not referring to a specific case—may be upset as being unsafe or unsatisfactory. Secondly —although I am not casting aspersions on the judges—no matter how good the adversarial system may be for trials, in recent difficult cases it has been found wanting in regard to appeals. Will the Law Officers' Department give evidence to the May inquiry about a different way to examine these matters, as recommended by some of my hon. Friends and by the Select Committee on Home Affairs?

I should be quite wrong to comment on anything that may form the subject of Sir John May's inquiry. I certainly shall not take up the suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman in the first part of his question; all those matters are for Sir John May. As to the merits and demerits of the adversarial system, it falls within Sir John May's remit. If he seeks evidence on it, my Department and others will be happy to provide it.