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Dr David Kelly

Volume 529: debated on Thursday 9 June 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the death of Dr David Kelly and whether an application should be made by me to the High Court for an inquest to be held into his death.

As a Law Officer of the Crown, I am routinely asked to consider such applications as part of my public interest role. It is in that role that I make this statement. I would not normally present the result of my considerations so publicly, but given the interest that this case has attracted from Members of the House and in the media, I think it is right that this House has the chance to consider my conclusions and to ask questions.

The House will be aware that Dr Kelly was a distinguished Government scientist, who became one of the chief weapons inspectors in Iraq on behalf of the United Nations Special Commission and who, from 1991 onwards, was deeply involved in investigating the biological warfare programme of the Iraqi regime. Dr Kelly built up a high reputation as a weapons inspector, not only in the United Kingdom but internationally.

Against a background of allegations of information having been leaked to the media, on Thursday 10 July 2003 both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee requested that Dr Kelly appear before them to give evidence. He gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in a hearing televised to the public on 15 July, and he gave evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee in a private hearing on 16 July.

In the afternoon of the following day, Dr Kelly left his home to take a walk. By the late evening, he had not returned and his family contacted the police. A search was commenced that resulted in his body being found in the morning of 18 July in woodland on Harrowdown hill in Oxfordshire. It appeared that Dr Kelly had taken his own life by cutting his wrist. Thames Valley police nevertheless commenced an investigation into the case as a potential homicide.

That day, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, set up an inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly. The Oxfordshire coroner also opened an inquest into the death as he was obliged to do. In August, the Lord Chancellor exercised his powers under the Coroners Act 1988 to transfer the functions of the inquest to the inquiry. The inquest was adjourned on 14 August, after sending the registrar a certificate of death in which the causes were stated to be, first, haemorrhage and incised wounds to the left wrist and, secondly, co-praxomol ingestion and coronary artery atherosclerosis. When the Hutton inquiry reported in January 2004, it confirmed the causes of death as they appeared in the death certificate. Thereafter, on 16 March 2004, the coroner indicated that there was no basis or need to resume the inquest, and that his functions were accordingly at an end.

Because of the interest in the political issues that formed the backdrop to Dr Kelly’s death, a significant number of people have raised concerns about his death and the process used to investigate it, and have called for a new inquest to be set up. At this stage, only the High Court can order an inquest, and then only on an application made by me or by another with my consent. I was asked last year to make such an application and have since been provided with a large amount of information that is said to support the case for an inquest. I am grateful to all those who have taken the time and trouble to put that information together.

As Attorney-General, I had then to exercise a non-political role as guardian of the public interest and consider whether any proper grounds existed for such an application to be made. Recognising the importance of the matter, I have sought the help of independent experts to review the evidence and the new information supplied to me. That has involved help from Dr Richard Shepherd, a leading forensic pathologist, and Professor Robert Flanagan, a distinguished toxicologist. I also sought and received the considered views of Lord Hutton; Mr Nicholas Gardiner, the Oxfordshire coroner; Dr Nicholas Hunt, the pathologist who carried out the original post-mortem; and others in response to the allegations made against their handling of the matter originally. I have also been greatly assisted by officers of the Thames Valley police. I wish to record my thanks to all who have helped me in considering this matter, and in particular to the legal staff at the Attorney-General’s office who have helped me.

Having given the most careful consideration to all the material that has been sent to me, I have concluded that the evidence that Dr Kelly took his own life is overwhelmingly strong. Further, nothing that I have seen supports any allegation that Dr Kelly was murdered or that his death was the subject of any kind of conspiracy or cover-up. In my view, no purpose would be served by my making an application to the High Court for an inquest, and indeed I have no reasonable basis for doing so. There is no possibility that, at an inquest, a verdict other than suicide would be returned.

It is not possible in the short time that I have now to explain in detail the reasoning behind my conclusions. In order to inform the House, I have placed in the Libraries of both Houses today a more detailed statement of my reasons, copies of the independent reports that I commissioned, the responses of Lord Hutton and others, some additional material and a schedule—a 60-page list that I hope covers most, if not all, the arguments that have been put to me and my response to each and every such argument based on all the evidence available.

May I just say, in broad terms, that the suggestion that Dr Kelly did not take his own life is based not on positive evidence as such but on a criticism of the findings of the investigation and inquiry? It began with the views of a number of doctors, undoubtedly expert in their own areas of practice but not qualified as forensic pathologists, that Dr Kelly could not have died from loss of blood from the wounds described. To be fair to those who make such a claim, they did not have access to the material on which those conclusions had been reached in making their own reasoned arguments.

Once such a doubt had been created, those who believed that Dr Kelly was murdered looked for contradictions in the evidence given to Lord Hutton, for matters that were apparently not followed up by the police and for any other issues that might be considered suspicious. Much has been made, for example, of the position in which Dr Kelly’s body was found. Although all the witnesses bar two gave evidence to the inquiry that Dr Kelly was found lying on his back with, as the photographs show, his head very close to the trunk of a tree, the two witnesses who found the body stated that it was propped against a tree. Lord Hutton, who had considerable experience as a trial judge, recognised that honest witnesses, in genuinely seeking to explain what they saw, can and sometimes will none the less recall the same scene differently. Any Member who has any experience of the trial process will say the same. That is underlined by the fact that one of those two witnesses, in the statement that he made to the police closer to the time of the event, actually described the body as being on its back and not propped. That is not a criticism of that witness, but from that minor contradiction came the view that the body must have been moved.

If the body had been moved, then why, by whom and for what purpose? The issue has proven a fertile ground for imaginative speculation to take over. In fact, all the evidence provided by the very careful forensic examination of the scene at the time and the detailed review that, exceptionally, I have undertaken, supports the view that Dr Kelly died where he was found and from the causes determined. There is no evidence that I have seen that would suggest any other explanation, or that suggests any cover up or conspiracy whatever.

I wish to emphasise that my conclusions and decision are, as they must be, entirely my own and based on my assessment of the evidence. I have received no representations of any kind from the Prime Minister or any other ministerial colleague on this decision.

The material is in the Library for all to consider. I believe that anyone approaching this matter with an open mind, whatever their previous misgivings, will find it convincing. I would add only that I offer to the Kelly family my sincere sympathy, not simply for their loss, great though that undoubtedly is, but for having to bear that loss in the glare of intrusive publicity over such a long period. They have borne that load with great fortitude and dignity. Although I realise that it will always be impossible to satisfy everyone, I would hope for their sake that a line can now be drawn under this matter.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for early sight of both his statement and the detailed reasons for his decision not to apply to the High Court for an inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly.

Having been afforded the opportunity to read and examine the documentation relating to the Attorney-General’s inquiries, in so far as time has permitted, the shadow Law Officers are grateful for the opportunity to review the documents, from which we derive confidence that the Attorney-General has addressed himself fully to the issues involved. We have been reassured by the comprehensive nature of the inquiry and the quality of the reports produced. The allegations made have clearly been taken seriously and inquired into, and I should like to commend the thorough and extremely transparent way in which he has handled the issue. I hope that that will give Members of the House and members of the public the reassurance that he was seeking to provide.

The Attorney-General’s findings corroborate those of the right hon. Lord Hutton, who concluded in his 2004 report into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly that he was

“satisfied that Dr Kelly took his own life”


“further satisfied that no other person was involved in the death of Dr Kelly.”

The Attorney-General’s decision also substantiates the findings of the post-mortem and the toxicology reports conducted following Dr Kelly’s death and published by the Ministry of Justice last October

“in the interests of maintaining public confidence in the inquiry into how Dr Kelly came by his death.”

The Opposition therefore accept the Attorney-General’s decision today, on the basis that he has very carefully and clearly outlined his detailed reasons for not applying to the High Court to request an inquest into Dr Kelly’s death, due to the lack of new, compelling evidence that Dr Kelly did not commit suicide.

We are grateful to the Attorney-General for the written statement and related documents that he has placed in the Libraries of both Houses, which will assist Members and the public in understanding the basis of his announcement today. None the less, I am aware that few in this House will yet have had the advantage of perusing the documents. I therefore wonder whether he will provide for Members of the House, and for members of the public, who may listen to this statement but not peruse the documents in the Library, a brief outline of the legal basis of his decision not to apply to the High Court for a new inquest; confirmation that he is satisfied that, as has been extensively raised in media reports, the evidential burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt as to the cause of Dr Kelly’s death has been met, thereby dispelling concerns that a coroner’s inquest would return a different verdict; and a statement of whether he believes that his decision today would not rule out a future inquest should any new and compelling evidence about the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s death come to light.

Finally, I also wish to extend my sincere sympathy to the Kelly family for both their tragic loss and the undoubted difficulty that the extensive publicity surrounding the matter has caused.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words. I appreciate them and I have no doubt that they will be appreciated by all those who have been involved in reviewing this case.

The hon. Lady raises a number of important points, which I shall do my best to answer. First, I very much hope for the sake of all concerned that this will produce finality, but it is absolutely right that if some new and compelling evidence were to come to light at some point in future that suggests that there might be something wrong in the original inquiry findings, it would of course be possible for the matter to be looked at again, as in the case of any inquest or inquiry. In that sense, there is no bar as a result of the statement that I have made today.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asked me to explain my legal powers a little. The background is that the inquest process was replaced originally by a decision of Lord Falconer to have an inquiry, pursuant to section 17A of the Coroners Act 1988. That decision was never challenged at the time—somebody could have done so if they had wanted to, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that there was anything improper about the decision. Indeed, as I understood it, the decision marked the seriousness with which Lord Falconer took the matter at that time, and it marked his desire to have an inquiry that would be capable of going further in its scope than an inquest, particularly in respect of looking at some of the surrounding circumstances, which an inquest would not be particularly well placed to do.

Lord Hutton did indeed look at those surrounding circumstances, but they were not really the subject of this review. The review arose from the representations of the memorialist doctors who indicated that they thought that the lack of certainty specifically as to the cause of death was such that I ought to exercise my powers under section 13 of the 1988 Act to make an application to the High Court for the inquest to take place—we may have to face up to the fact that no inquest took place, because it adjourned without being completed.

I do not wish to get involved in legal technicalities, but those powers are of a slightly technical nature. However, I approached the matter on the basis that if there was an evidential basis for calling into question the inquiry’s findings on the cause of death, I would make such an application, whatever the technical difficulties might be, because of my view that in such circumstances, the Court would be minded at least to find a way to allow the matter to be reinvestigated. That was the basis on which I operated. That we have taken some time and, I must say, a lot of trouble, to look at this matter very carefully is a reflection of the seriousness, in my view, of the allegations that were being made, and of the fact that the allegations were being made by apparently sensible and reasonable people. I am grateful to them for bringing those problems forward.

That is the basis on which I operated, but having operated in that way and having reviewed all the evidence—the hon. Lady has seen the schedule, which I hope will be helpful to hon. Members who go to the Library to look at it—I decided that the evidence was overwhelming that this was a tragic case of suicide, and that suicide caused Dr Kelly’s death for the medical reasons that were correctly identified at the time that the death certificate was made out.

As a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that took evidence from David Kelly in 2003, I have never doubted that he committed suicide. I have always believed that Lord Hutton was right on that, even though his conclusions on the war have subsequently been challenged.

I have known the Attorney-General for many years, and I know that he will have done a perfectly thorough and diligent job. Will he accept that the evidence is clear, and that it is time to bring closure to this matter and move on?

I certainly think that the evidence is clear, and indeed that there is no evidence to the contrary—that point will be quite clear to anybody who looks at the schedule—in the sense that I could see perfectly satisfactory answers to every question that was raised with me, all of which led inexorably to the suicide verdict.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that this will enable us finally to draw a line under the matter. It was clearly a matter of huge and legitimate public concern for a variety of reasons, and everything took place in a very difficult political environment. However, I believe that my review and its findings are very clear-cut. This was not a question of my having to make a balancing decision and coming down on one side or the other. I reviewed all the material, and the outcome is that it is quite clear to me that the original inquiry’s findings were correct.

May I congratulate the Attorney-General on the clarity of his statement and on his decision, which on the basis of the scientific evidence that I have read is quite right? Will he confirm that the detailed scientific reports are included in the bundle of papers that he has placed in the Library, including those from Richard Shepherd and Robert Flanagan, to which he referred? Will he ensure that an interpretation for lay people of what the scientists wrote is included, so that the conspiracy theories do not develop again?

The hon. Gentleman will be the best judge of that. Professor Flanagan’s and Dr Shepherd’s reports will both be in the Library. I think they are written in pretty plain English. Clearly, they are also medically based, which is inevitable. In the schedule, I have used that material and other material to seek to set out each matter in slightly plainer terms. I think it is readily comprehensible, and I hope it will help to inform the public as well as Members of the House.

Will the Attorney-General note that when, along with my Intelligence and Security Committee colleagues, I questioned Dr Kelly two days before he died, I formed the view that a very distinguished public servant was deeply distressed by the situation in which he had placed himself? Although I am wholly unpersuaded by any of the theories that have been put forward as an alternative to suicide, will the Attorney-General spell out what he thinks will be lost by allowing the process of inquiry to be completed by an inquest?

The first problem is that there is no basis on which the High Court could possibly order an inquest. In my judgment, if I were to go to the Court and make such an application, it would be dismissed, and dismissed with—I assume, on the basis of my reasoning—a certain amount of irritation, because such an application must be made on an evidential basis.

We have also held an inquiry. I make the point in the schedule that the suggestion that the inquiry was in some way inferior to an inquest, in the sense that it was unable to look at some of the things that an inquest could have looked at, really does not bear any reasoned—either logical or legal—examination. Therefore, in practical terms, the inquest—or something tantamount or equivalent to it—has already taken place. On top of that, a review has been carried out in the knowledge of public anxiety by eminent professionals, who have looked specifically at the anxieties that have been raised, either by the memorialists or others. In each case, they have said that the original findings were correct.

I should just make the point that there was one exception: the timing of death was reviewed, because the conclusion was reached that the tables that were used by the pathologist at the time—through no fault of that pathologist—were in fact not accurate. That is a question of the development of medical science. With that exception, nothing calls into question any of the detailed findings or comments that were made originally.

May I warmly welcome the Attorney-General’s statement? He will of course know that this will do nothing to discourage the paranoid conspiracy theorists, but on the other hand they would not change their minds just because of the existence of evidence even if an inquiry went ahead.

Speaking of paranoid conspiracy theorists, where is the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)? When only last year he told the media that the Hutton inquiry had cut corners, was he speaking on behalf of the Government?

I am quite sure that he was not speaking on behalf of the Government. In any case, the Government do not have a position on the matter. I have a position on the matter, based on my review, and I am sure that many Members across the spectrum have individual views on the subject, and that is their entitlement—as it is of anybody in this country.

I listened intently to my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement, particularly the part where he mentioned that he had not received any representations from ministerial colleagues. Will he clarify whether he consulted the Prime Minister in advance of coming to the House to make this statement?

I most certainly did not, and it would not have been proper for me to do so. Nobody has spoken to me about it, and that applies to all my ministerial colleagues.

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee when it took evidence from Dr David Kelly—as was my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—I have followed these proceedings probably more closely than other hon. Members. I thank the Attorney-General for his statement and ask him to remind those who remain unsatisfied that they also have a responsibility to the family of Dr David Kelly and, unless they can really substantiate their claims, they should look at the evidence in front of them and be satisfied.

The evidence is there in the Library to see, and it will be available to the public as well. I hope that those who have concerns will take the time to look at the material. Of course, the background to this is a human tragedy of great pain for the family, and that is why I hope that people will be convinced that this matter should now be laid to rest.

What in my view distinguishes this case from the sad case of Jay Abatan, who died on 29 January 1999—an inquest was held 10 years later, at which new evidence came forward—is that in this case there were no new witnesses or evidence. In relying on the work of Lord Hutton’s team and others, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will accept that those of us who believe that Lord Hutton came to the wrong conclusion on the main parts of the inquiry can maintain that belief. If he had come to a different conclusion and used a gentler form of words than “sexed up”—or whatever the expression was—we would have had a near perfect ending to what was a very bad episode in which the previous Government behaved appallingly.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The review that I carried out was focused on the cause of death, because it was the calling into question of the inquiry’s findings and of the signing of the death certificate that started the spiral of speculation that has grown from that. I focused on that issue and my conclusions are directed to it. I appreciate that there are wider issues that Lord Hutton tried to address, but they are not matters that I have sought to reopen. I know that those matters remain controversial to many.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), who is no longer in his place, referred in passing to the book written by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who is now a Minister. Did the Attorney-General respond specifically in his judgment to some of the points made in that book and would he care to say briefly what he thought of it?

I have looked at the book on several occasions. It is partly a critique of the evidential process of the inquiry and partly a speculation—I do not think it has ever been suggested that it is anything more than speculation—about alternative possibilities for what might have happened to Dr Kelly. Having focused on the evidence, I have come to conclusions on the evidence. I hope that, as a result, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)—quite apart from anyone else—may conclude that this was in fact a case of suicide.

May I thank the Attorney-General for the clarity that has been shed on this subject? However, there is no doubt that certain bodies will now ask for a judicial review of his decision. Would the Government care to undertake not to order costs to be raised against them in the event of that application being unsuccessful?

I have to say to my hon. Friend that that is a hypothetical question. It is obviously open to individuals to apply for judicial review of my reasoning and decisions. At the moment, I simply express the hope that they will not feel the need to do so.

Will the Attorney-General say whether he would be content if one of his ministerial colleagues were to publicly dissent from his decision, given his quasi-judicial role?

I am not aware of any ministerial colleague having expressed any view that dissents from my decision.

Does the Attorney-General understand why, given that key witnesses were not called during the Hutton inquiry, that the inquiry did not have legal standing and that further evidence has come to light since, some—including Dr Stephen Frost—consider that inquiry to have been inadequate? Does the Attorney-General also understand why doubts will remain about the process followed, if not necessarily about the cause of death?

I am aware that doubts were expressed about the process. I have reviewed the process, but above all I have reviewed the evidential conclusions based on the process and the evidence. The conclusion that I have reached is that the process came to the correct conclusion. On that basis, it seems to me that it achieved what it set out to do and did it properly.

I came to this statement prepared to be dissatisfied with what I would hear because I have spoken to one of the country’s leading cardiovascular surgeons who has received evidence—admittedly second-hand and not directly—and who has said to me on several occasions that Dr Kelly could not have died from a slit to the wrist, because that would not have caused death. However, that surgeon did not of course consider in that judgment what chemicals or drugs Dr Kelly might have taken. So I commend my right hon. and learned Friend. From what I have heard today, he has conducted a thorough and impartial inquiry. I reserve judgment because I wish to read the material he has placed in the Library, but unless new evidence comes to light, I think a line should now be drawn under this matter to allow the family to put it behind them.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I listed in my statement the causes of death as they were found and put in the death certificate, and that has been reviewed in great detail. The unequivocal view of Dr Shepherd and Professor Flanagan is that those causes of death are entirely correct, and that the combination of factors as listed was what caused the death of Dr Kelly. Of course, the primary cause was the fact that he slit his wrists and took an overdose.

As someone who also harboured doubts about the quality of the process before the Attorney-General’s review, may I welcome the clarity of his statement? Does it amount to this—in focusing on the function of a coroner’s inquiry, which is to look into nothing more or less than the cause of death and to reach a verdict from a range of options available as a matter of law, is he telling the House that any inquest would have been driven to a verdict of suicide?

Yes, indeed. There is no evidence that I have seen, including the material that has been produced on the review, that could lead to an inquest coming to any other conclusion.

Does the Attorney-General agree that his statement today should put to bed some of the outrageous and fallacious speculations that members of our security forces might have murdered Dr Kelly?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have to say that those suggestions have always struck me as being at the rather far-fetched end of the spectrum. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that Dr Kelly committed suicide: he was not killed by anyone.

The Attorney-General has done the House a great favour by coming here and making such a full statement. It should be an example to other Ministers. He said in his statement that he is routinely asked to apply to the High Court for inquests. For the House’s information, will he say how many times he has actually gone to the High Court?

Generally speaking, I do not have to do it myself, but give permission for it to be done. I did that very recently in a case where a body had been found and never identified. Some considerable time afterwards identification became possible, so the inquest had to be reopened for the purpose of identifying that the person who had died and had been long buried was, in fact, the person concerned. That is an example. It is part of my functions to do it. I have to review each such case, but generally speaking, I give my permission to others to do it, and do not have to take that role myself.

I commend my right hon. and learned Friend on his statement, and hope very much that it will draw a line under all these conspiracy theories. Does he agree that these theories came about because of the previous Government’s mishandling of the case for the Iraq war, particularly the 45-minute claim about an attack on British targets?

My hon. Friend asks me to stray from the role that brought me to the Dispatch Box as the guardian of the public interest and into the realm of politics. I shall restrain myself from doing so.

Attorney-General, thank you very much. I know that the whole House appreciates the detailed answers and your statement today. It is widely appreciated.

Postal Services Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Postal Services Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 27 October 2010 (Postal Services Bill (Programme)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Mr Dunne.)