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John Downey

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Attorney-General to make a statement on the background to yesterday’s judgment on John Downey.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As I set out in a written statement to the House this morning, and further to yesterday’s written statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the prosecution of John Anthony Downey on four charges of murder and one of causing an explosion with intent arising out of the Hyde park bombing in 1982 has been stayed. I apologise to hon. Members who have read my written statement because, of necessity, a large part of what I say will repeat it.

Hon Members will know that the alleged offences arose out of the notorious bombing carried out by the Provisional IRA in Hyde park on the morning of Tuesday 20 July 1982. As members of the Blues and Royals Regiment of the Household Cavalry rode along South Carriage drive on their way to Horse Guards for the changing of the guard, a car bomb exploded.

The effect was devastating. Four of the guard were murdered—Lieutenant Anthony Daly, who was aged 23, and Trooper Simon Tipper, who was aged 19, died at the scene; Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, who was aged 19, died the following day; and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, who was aged 36, died two days after that. A total of 31 other people were injured, a number of them seriously, and seven horses were destroyed.

Mr Downey was arrested on 19 May 2013 at Gatwick airport when he was en route to Greece. On his arrest, he produced a letter stating that he was free to enter the jurisdiction without fear of arrest. Despite that letter, he was charged by the Crown Prosecution Service with four counts of murder. Before he was charged, my consent was sought, as the law requires, for him to face a charge of causing an explosion, and I gave that consent. I believed that it was right to do so, and I remain of exactly the same view today.

As acknowledged by the judge, the allegations faced by Mr Downey were of the utmost seriousness. The bombing was an attempt by the Provisional IRA to bring its terrorist campaign to London and to attack armed forces personnel who were on ceremonial duties. Whatever the circumstances in which the letter had been sent, and it is now clear that its assurances were wrongly given, it was right that the matter should be tested in court. Neither I nor the CPS were prepared to accept that the letter and the circumstances in which it had been given were such as to automatically prevent Mr Downey’s prosecution. The prosecution of a very serious offence of that kind is plainly in the public interest.

The court heard full argument and considered a great deal of documentation. The judgment given is a detailed and careful assessment of the case and the circumstances in which Mr Downey received his letter. It is worthy of note that the defence offered four grounds on which they argued that the case should be stayed, and that on three of those grounds the judge found for the prosecution.

At no point did the judge suggest that it was inappropriate for the prosecution to be brought—indeed, he noted that

“the public interest in ensuring that those who are accused of serious crime should be tried is a very strong one”.

My own very strong view is that it was entirely appropriate and proper for this matter to be considered in a court of law.

Notwithstanding that, the judgment has now been given, and the CPS and I accept that judgment entirely. We do not consider that it gives rise to any prospect of a successful appeal, and we have therefore notified the court that we will not be appealing. My sympathies above all are with the families of those who died and with all those who were injured on that day.

I should like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, and I thank the Attorney-General for his statement. May I explore some of the background to this matter? It has been clearly stated that the letter did not constitute an amnesty, but if that is the case, why did the judge take the decision that he took? In these circumstances, it would surely be appropriate for the Government to consider making an appeal.

May I also explore how we have arrived at this situation? I was a shadow Northern Ireland Minister when the Northern Ireland offenders Bill was withdrawn because it was obviously not going to get through Parliament. There was no mention at the time of any other deal being likely. Does the Attorney-General not consider what has happened since then to be a discourtesy to Parliament? Does he, like me, wonder who authorised the scheme that seems to have replaced the legislation? That must surely have been the then Prime Minister. Will the Attorney-General tell us who wrote the letters to the people who are often referred to as on-the-runs? What was in the letters? And I am afraid that I have to ask why the Police Service of Northern Ireland gave an assurance to Mr Downey that no other police force in the United Kingdom had any interest in him, when it knew that that was not the case.

May I also ask the Attorney-General how many people have received letters under the scheme? Will he tell me whether all those who have received such letters are from a republican background? At a time when the PSNI is advertising for Bloody Sunday witnesses to come forward, does he not think this situation risks undermining the entire criminal justice system of the United Kingdom?

May I first make the point that it is clear from the judgment and the supporting material that the administrative scheme was not, and never could be, an amnesty? That might have been what the previous Government sought at one time, but an amnesty could be achieved only through legislation, and no such legislation was put through the House. Parliament never approved an amnesty.

This was an administrative scheme that operated independently of the Government and was intended to identify those individuals who, although they might believe that they were unable to return to the jurisdiction without fear of arrest, would in fact face no prosecution or arrest if they were to return. The PSNI would check whether individuals were wanted for arrest or for questioning. If the individual had already been considered for prosecution, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland would make a careful assessment of its files to determine whether any prosecution would follow if the individual were to return. Many of the offences were historical, and in some cases, with the passage of time, essential witnesses might have died or forensic evidence might be no longer available.

The test applied by the Public Prosecution Service and approved by my predecessors in office was not simply whether the evidential test was no longer met, but whether it could no longer ever be met. Only in those circumstances would an individual be told that they were free to return. The position was also conditional on no further evidence subsequently coming to light of involvement in an offence. As to what happened in this case, it is quite plain that a serious error was made within the PSNI in relation to the information that it collated and provided to the Government. So far as the number of letters is concerned, I think that the better course would be for me to write to my hon. Friend, as I would not wish to give a figure that subsequently had to be adjusted, even very slightly.

I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in paying tribute to the four soldiers from the Blues and Royals who were murdered in the Hyde park explosion and to the seven members of the Royal Green Jackets who were murdered on the same day in Regent’s park. Our thoughts are with their families, because they must be reliving their suffering all over again at this time.

I wish to make it clear that the Opposition completely understand and support the Attorney-General’s decision to proceed with the prosecution. We accept that the Downey judgment raises serious issues about how the scheme for dealing with on-the-runs, which, it must be and has been made clear, never offered immunity from prosecution to anyone, has been administered by successive Governments and agencies, and, in particular, about the role of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Can we be assured that we will be told how this grave mistake occurred and how we can be sure that it will not happen again? Can the House be told how many letters to the so-called on-the-runs have been issued since this Government took office? I understand that the Attorney-General will write to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), so perhaps he could copy me in on that letter.

Will the Attorney-General or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland come to the House to make a statement once the investigations into this matter have been concluded? Perhaps the Attorney-General also shares my concern about the Prime Minister’s comments earlier this afternoon. I presume he has heard them. He may well agree with me that perhaps the Prime Minister misspoke and that it would be to the advantage of us all if the Prime Minister clarified exactly what he meant by them.

The sending of this letter was a terrible mistake, as was the failure to act when the mistake came to light. But this mistake, egregious though it was, does not discredit the Good Friday agreement and subsequent agreements. Very difficult decisions needed to be made, and very important leadership needed to be shown and was required on all sides. Northern Ireland has been delivered from a past of violence and sectarian hatred to a place where there is power sharing between old enemies, and that is what is happening at the moment. The people of Northern Ireland will not lose sight of that and our resolve to make sure that this peace process works must not be diminished.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her supportive comments about how the CPS and myself approached this case. I think that she knows that an inquiry will be held, and questions for that should be directed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That matter will be dealt with by the PSNI and the independent ombudsman. Clearly, answers will be needed as to what has happened. In addition, I entirely accept that the public will want to be reassured as to whether this is an isolated instance of a letter being sent mistakenly or whether there might be other such examples, in which case people will want to know what can be done about that. My understanding is that since the current Government came into office some 38 letters have been sent out. I hesitated to comment about what happened under the previous Administration, but once I have that information I will, of course, supply it. It is right to say that the person who had been charged, Mr Downey, denied responsibility for any role in this outrage.

The final comment I would simply make is this: the victims, including those who survived but were seriously injured, and their families are a matter that the House has constantly to keep in mind. The rule of law requires that those who are accused of grave crimes should be brought to justice, unless there is some overwhelming public interest to the contrary, and I have to say that in this case it was clear to me that the public interest was entirely in favour of seeking to bring this prosecution.

This country prides itself on its Government operating solely under the rule of law, so I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive a layman’s question about the law in this case. He describes an administrative system, but under what law is this administrative system created whereby a well-respected judge in this country accepted that this letter should, in effect, give this man an amnesty? Whether or not the Attorney-General describes it in those terms, that will be how it is seen both in this country, including in Northern Ireland, and abroad. So under what law is this constituted? Can he give the House an absolute assurance that he is sure that the criteria that he laid down—the administrative ones—have been followed in all cases?

My right hon. Friend is, of course, right that judges should interpret and implement the law, but I have to say that I have no reason to fault the judgment in this case. As well as the public interest in prosecuting, clear issues of fairness in the way in which prosecutions and investigations are conducted are involved, which are subject to the potential for abuse of process applications—that is what took place in this case.

The judge provided reasons, clearly set out, as to why, in respect of one of the four grounds advanced, which centred on the letter that had been sent, it would in his view be wrong and an abuse of process if the prosecution were allowed to continue. That centred on the fact that the person concerned, Mr Downey, had been misled by the letter. I do not think that I can say any more than that.

As to the principles underlying the other letters, this was an administrative process—one that was certainly lawful—in providing information solely to those who were not wanted. As I said earlier, it is quite clear from this instance that something went badly wrong. Whether it went badly wrong in other instances is not a matter about which I can, at the moment, help the House.

May I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has described the process as lawful? Will he confirm that it was overseen by the Law Officers, including the Attorney-General? The fact of the matter is that the process was designed to address 200 or so individuals. The whole situation was an anomaly. To achieve and lock in the peace process following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, 400 prisoners were released, some of whom had committed terrible atrocities. That angered victims at the time, which I understand, but it was an essential part of getting to where we are now. Similarly, addressing the question of the 200—that anomaly—was part of that as well.

As for the idea that this was some secret thing out of the blue, I told the House on 11 January 2006 that, in withdrawing the legislative approach to addressing the anomaly,

“the Government still believe that the anomaly will need to be faced at some stage”—[Official Report, 11 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 288.]

No one should have been surprised that we had to do that. It was necessary to get to a position in which Northern Ireland could escape its hideous past of evil and terrorism and enter into a period of almost universal peace and stability, with old enemies negotiating and governing together. That should be welcomed and our role as a Government in achieving that should be commended, and I hope that the Attorney-General will do so.

I am extremely mindful that the right hon. Gentleman and others on both sides of the House worked hard during the peace process. Indeed, they continue to do so, as this process is by no means complete. I am the first to pay tribute to him for the work that he did.

There is an important distinction between releasing prisoners under an exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, as part of a peace settlement, and any suggestion of an amnesty. Those two things are rather different. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there was no such amnesty. Indeed, any suggestion that we might move towards an amnesty was firmly rejected by widespread views expressed in Parliament.

And the Government accepted that. For those reasons, we have a system. The right hon. Gentleman says that he explained to the House—he certainly did—about looking at other methods. I think that it is best for him to explain what publicity or otherwise that may have attracted. He is quite right that the system of giving an assurance to an individual that they are not wanted because they are indeed not wanted and there is no current basis for wanting them is not an unlawful process in which to engage.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman raised the oversight of the Law Officers. He is quite right that, during this process, the office of the Attorney-General operated as the co-ordinating point, because the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland could not and would not communicate directly with Northern Ireland Office, and therefore collated the information that was supplied. In fairness to my predecessors, it is probably right to say that they would have had no independent means to verify whether or not someone was wanted, and reliance for that was placed on the PSNI and its links with other police forces in the other jurisdictions of this country.

This was a horrible and brutal murder, and the outcome is clearly grossly unsatisfactory. If the Attorney-General is sure that nothing further can be done in this case, I accept that, and I hope that he has exhausted all possibilities. Will he say more about how he will check that no other errors of this kind are waiting to come up later?

Those checks are now being conducted. They will not be conducted by me. My office might be involved in them, but I think that they are primarily for the Northern Ireland Office to carry out. I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that that is exactly what is happening.

As to my hon. Friend’s first point, if I had thought there were proper grounds on which this decision could be appealed, then of course the Crown Prosecution Service and I would have taken a different view. However, it is not in the public interest to pursue appeals that are pointless.

I too pay tribute to the families who have been left bereaved as a result of the Hyde park bombing and other such incidents. There are victims everywhere who are feeling very hurt today. The Attorney-General says that it was right to bring the prosecution. Does he still believe that it is right that no stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of justice in this case, and what further action will he now take, given that this case has only been stayed, to ensure that justice will be done, and be seen to be done by the victims?

In the light of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), many of which were not answered—I thank him for raising them in the House today—does the Attorney-General also agree that there is a strong case for a full inquiry to bring out all the facts, such as under what authority the scheme was set up, who knew about it, who was informed, what the letters said and who they were sent to? That would mean that, for once, Parliament could examine the scheme. There has been no knowledge or even a hint of information about it, which is a scandalous abuse of Parliament and the people’s representatives.

I will, if I may, take the right hon. Gentleman’s final question first. Let me emphasise to him that of course this is a legitimate matter of debate, and he may wish to raise it, but it is not one that I, within my departmental responsibilities, could address. It would have to be looked at elsewhere. So far as the stay is concerned, yes it is indeed a stay, but lifting a stay requires specific grounds. I know of no basis for thinking at the moment that a stay is ever likely to be lifted in the future. Obviously, I am not for any reason pre-empting that. If something were to come to light that justified applying to have a stay lifted, then that is a matter that would be considered.

As for the other cases and whether they will be pursued, I would like to make the position absolutely clear. My responsibilities as far as criminal justice is concerned lie within England and Wales; Northern Ireland is now devolved. If cases are brought to the Crown Prosecution Service suggesting the commission of very serious crimes by individuals who can be apprehended and brought to justice, then what I said earlier must be the case. It would generally be in the public interest—it would be very rare to think of where it would not be in the public interest—for such a prosecution to be pursued. That is quite irrespective of the amnesty provisions of the Good Friday agreement, which may reduce, for example, the period of time somebody might spend in prison. It is always in the public interest that crime should be prosecuted.

Given that the letter was issued in error, can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it has now been rescinded and will have no effect on any future occasion?

No, I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance. I understand his point, and I am happy to get back to him.

Does the Attorney-General understand that all these fine words about errors and administration mistakes will not wash with the people of Northern Ireland who will see that this has been an amnesty under another name? It is an amnesty that has been put through without this Parliament’s permission when it specifically decided, when the Bill was withdrawn, that it did not want it to happen for on-the-runs. I want to know why we are blaming an individual in the police for writing or sending those letters; they did not write them without somebody at the very, very top of Government telling them to do so.

As for the hon. Lady’s views about how this would be viewed in Northern Ireland, I suspect that it would be viewed in the same way on this side of the Irish sea. I do not have any reason to differ with her analysis. Most right-thinking people will be shocked and profoundly troubled by what has happened.

I disagree with her characterisation of the letters being tantamount to an amnesty; I do not think that they were, if written as they should have been and sent to the recipients who should have received them. Unfortunately, in this case, as we know, somebody received a letter that they should not have received. I do not wish to comment further. The PSNI has indicated that it takes responsibility for the information that was supplied. The hon. Lady believes that fault might lie elsewhere; I am in no position to comment on that one way or the other. I can only say that the information I have at the moment does not suggest that the fault lies elsewhere.

I hope, given these awful events, that the Government think long and hard about the perception that will be apparent if we are giving an amnesty to one group of people while actively pursuing others, like potentially the soldiers who were involved in the Bloody Sunday incident. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that reconciliation and justice and forgiveness apply to both sides, not just one?

I understand my hon. Friend’s comment. As I have also tried to make clear, I do not believe an amnesty is in place. Ultimately, in relation to offences committed in Northern Ireland, now that justice and policing are both devolved, these are not matters for me.

May I offer my sympathy and the sympathy of my party to the relatives of those who died in Hyde Park, and of the seven Royal Green Jackets who died the same day? There are a lot of unanswered questions and I thank the Attorney-General for his information so far. We are told that this was a mistake—an error—but people want to know what aspect of the deal was a mistake. Was the mistake just because this came out? Or was the mistake just one mistake—this one letter—or were there 187 mistakes?

People want to know about the trade-off. People have been asking me how many of the people receiving letters were British agents. Victims and survivors out there want answers—honest answers. All the victims and survivors deserve honesty, openness, straight answers and, ultimately, justice. They deserve to know why and how their loved ones died, and they deserve to know what was at the back of the deals that were done and the basis for the deals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, we had a dirty little war. Victims and survivors want to know that we are not going to be burdened with a peace contaminated by dirty little side deals.

As I understand the matter, and there may be others in the House who are better able to answer on the policy background, it arose out of a desire to provide reassurance to those who feared coming back into the jurisdiction that they could do so on the basis that there was no prospect of their being prosecuted on the evidence currently available to the authorities—the PSNI, as in this case, or other police forces. That was the basis of what happened. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right: the wider way in which the peace process has been conducted is a legitimate matter for political debate, but in my role as the Attorney-General I endeavour to focus on what I see as the issues, and as I said earlier, there was nothing unlawful about the letters. There was no amnesty. But, as I accept, it is quite clear from the court judgment and the facts that emerged in the case of Mr Downey that Mr Downey should never have been sent the letter.

My heart breaks for the families and the victims of this appalling atrocity. Five months after it happened, my soldiers were killed in Ballykelly. Seventeen people—11 soldiers and six civilians—were killed. I gave evidence against the five people who were charged with that crime—five people. Does that mean that others who were involved in this appalling atrocity are not being chased vigorously by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and brought to justice?

I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that cases are not being pursued simply because they might be old. That is not the case. Indeed, if that had been the case, Mr Downey would not have been picked up at Gatwick airport.

I have enormous regard for the Attorney-General, and this Attorney-General knows perfectly well that the European convention on human rights guarantees an effective remedy for every breach of the rights guaranteed in our convention. I am sure that the Attorney-General and others in the House would agree with me that the right to life is the most important right of all. I am absolutely disgusted, and extremely upset and angry, that we now discover that successive British Governments have secretly, wilfully and intentionally deprived families of an effective remedy when their loved ones have been murdered by the IRA. How this Government can hold their heads up and talk about respect for human rights and the right to life and the rule of law beats me, but I am sure the Attorney-General will assure me and the House with very nice words that in fact that is the case.

I am not sure whether I can use nice words, but I shall do my best to answer the hon. Lady’s question honestly. Had the scheme operated in the way that was intended, then I have to say that I do not think there was any prospect of anyone, relatives or otherwise, being denied justice in relation to anybody who received such a letter. But that is on the basis that the scheme operated properly. It is quite clear that in this case it did not operate properly because Mr Downey should not have been sent this letter. We will have to wait and see whether this is some wider failure, which applies elsewhere, but certainly from the information that I was given when I looked into this matter at the outset, there was a system in place to try to ensure that every nook and corner was looked at before such letters were sent.

However it is presented, the recipients of these letters are above the law. That is what this court decision has made clear. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that a balanced approach will therefore be taken as regards former soldiers serving in Northern Ireland? We have heard that the authorities are already advertising for witnesses in the case of Bloody Sunday. Will he also answer one question that has not been answered so far? Who in the Government authorised these letters?

No; it has not decided that the letters placed people above the law. If the letters had been correctly sent to recipients against whom there was no evidence at the time on which criminal proceedings could be brought against them if they returned to the jurisdiction, they had no possibility of putting them above the law, and as I mentioned, the letters leave open the possibility that if evidence were to come to light implicating such individuals, they could still be prosecuted. The difficulty in the case of Mr Downey was that the evidence against him was already available at the time the letter was sent, which is why he should not have been sent the letter.

I am not in a position to comment on the position of former soldiers. I simply make the point that the general rules and principles of the rule of law apply, irrespective of who may or may not have committed an offence. But in any event, my own direct responsibilities do not extend to the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.

Those are the two points I would wish to make, but I reiterate that these letters did not amount to an amnesty.

Regardless of how the Attorney-General tries to paint this issue, this shoddy, shabby, sleekit, behind-the-door deal is, in effect, seen as an amnesty, and in the case of Downey it has, in effect, been an amnesty. If the Attorney-General wishes to dispel any collusion in this by the current Government, given the fact that he has open to him appeal, judicial review and removal of the letter, will we not see one or all of those actions taken to give assurance to the public that this Government have got no part in the deal that the Labour Government undertook behind the back of this Parliament?

Our prosecutorial services are independent. If the Crown Prosecution Service thought that it was justified in appealing the decision that has led to the stay, it would be wholly within its discretion to decide to do so. It is right that I discussed the matter with the CPS. It was quite clear from that discussion, and indeed I concur with the view, that there was no basis for taking the matter further.

Anthony Daly was one of those killed by this bomb. He was a friend of mine, a man I knew well and a great man, and he perished in the service of his Queen and his country. May I ask the Attorney-General, first, what steps have been taken to ensure that safeguards were put in place for these kinds of letters, and have remained in place or been strengthened? Secondly, what measures were taken to discipline the people responsible for issuing this letter, at any level of the chain of authority? Thirdly, what measures will now be taken to ensure that those people make some public apology for what has been done?

I should say first of all that the police have already apologised for what has happened through the Chief Constable of the PSNI, and as I indicated there will be an inquiry by the police ombudsman. I have no doubt that that inquiry will be wide-ranging as to how this problem emerged. I hope that it will be able to provide the best safeguards, linked with the other work that will be done by the Northern Ireland Office and others, to ensure that there is never a repetition of this.

I, too, extend my thoughts and my sympathies to those who suffered that day in Hyde park and have continued to suffer ever since, and who have suffered again as a result of this shabby and secretive side deal that was done as part of the peace process by Labour. I also want to disabuse Members of the idea that this deal bears any comparison with the early release scheme in the Good Friday agreement, which was voted on by the people of Northern Ireland and accepted by them, as opposed to this deal, which was shabbily driven through behind the backs of even the representatives in this Parliament.

The Attorney-General has confirmed that 38 letters have been sent since 2010. That is an important date, because it marks the devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This process continued after devolution, yet had profound implications for the work of the Historical Enquiries Team and the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and it continued without the knowledge of the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland or the Policing Board. Who administered the scheme? Who negotiated with devolved institutions behind the back of the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland, so that this scheme could continue?

The hon. Lady raises a large number of highly pertinent questions, and I hope she will forgive me if I say that I do not think I am in a position to answer all of them at the Dispatch Box today, particularly because my remit and responsibility in this matter is confined to a number of very specific things.

The hon. Lady says that she considers the scheme to be a shabby side deal; I am sure that will be noted in this House by those who had cause to develop or operate it. I do not think I can comment further on it than that. She makes the point that it is quite different from the Good Friday agreement, and I have no reason to disagree with her about that; I commented on that myself and said that it is quite distinct. Nevertheless, I come back to the point that I raised before, that my understanding is that it was done with the intention of taking the peace process forward, and done in a way that was not intended to prejudice, first, the rule of law and, secondly, the right of victims and relatives of victims to see justice be done. That was the basis on which it was proceeded with and not on some other shabby basis, as she describes it. However, I have to accept, in the light of what has happened in this case, that while I suppose it might be argued that had the letter never been sent, Mr Downey would never have appeared at Gatwick airport, nevertheless the circumstances of what has happened are very unsatisfactory.

Will the Attorney-General confirm whether it would be effective for this Parliament to pass a resolution, or an amendment to a Bill, saying that these letters have no effect and should be ignored by the court in considering staying prosecutions?

The letters were statements of current fact. I do not think that, in themselves, they make any difference to the matter. It would be a matter of debate, on which we could engage, whether the letters could be rescinded, but that is a matter that would have to wait for another day.

I also pay tribute to the families, who will again go through a lot of trauma. Yesterday was a very sad day for British justice. Let us remind ourselves that these on-the-runs were murdering scum who destroyed and ruined lives in Northern Ireland by shooting and bombing. When someone receives a letter saying that there is no longer an interest in them, or that no police force has an interest in them, what do they take from it? It is an amnesty in all but legislation. It is a disgrace and we need a full inquiry into it.

On the issue of a full inquiry, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I do not think that I can say more on that.

May I associate myself with remarks in support of the victims of this and other appalling crimes that go unpunished? I was not aware that the chief of staff to the then Prime Minister or officials in the Northern Ireland Office had any role in policing or prosecution, and I am amazed that letters are being sent from that part of Government relating to issues that are bound to be referred to in a court of law. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that that manipulation—that misuse of the process—will not recur, and that those who are responsible for prosecution and policing send letters in their own name rather than through Government Departments?

My hon. Friend makes perhaps an important point. It is right to say that the letters were sent on the basis of decisions taken by both the Public Prosecution Service and the PSNI, in the context of Northern Ireland, and if domestic matters elsewhere in the UK were concerned, by their prosecutorial authorities. To that extent, it was an administrative system independently conducted of Ministers; I want to make that quite clear. However, it is also right that, at the end of the process, it was ministerial letters, or letters from officials, that constituted the giving of the information.

This is a sad and sorry affair, which unfortunately is written in the blood of our brave servicemen on the streets of this wonderful city. We should never lose sight of that. However, does the Attorney-General recognise that the case law now established by this case and its outworking has done grievous harm to the rule of law and how it is considered across the whole of the United Kingdom, and will continue to do so unless he takes specific steps to rescind all the letters to all the individuals, and does his best to find fresh factors or new evidence to prosecute—once again—Mr John Downey?

So far as rescinding of the letters is concerned, that is not a matter for me. [Interruption.] No, it is not a matter for me, acting in my capacity; I accept that it could be a matter for Government, but it is not a matter on which I can give such an assurance to the hon. Gentleman.

On the question of case law, let me make the position quite clear. There is very well-established case law about abuse of process, and cases being stopped on the basis of an abuse of process, particularly in relation to assurances given that an individual might not be prosecuted for something, has not just suddenly emerged. It is perfectly well established in our law and indeed is part of our rule of law, for the very good reason that assurances given by public administrations may be binding upon them if they lead somebody to do something to their detriment.

In this case, as I have made clear, we took the view that there were arguments that could properly be put forward to the court that, although there was an error, it did not amount to an abuse of process and was not justified. The court has taken a different view, but I do not think that one can draw general conclusions about other cases from this case, which falls on its own individual facts.

First, may I applaud the Attorney-General for the way in which he has handled this case by authorising prosecutions? My question relates to what he has just said. If there are other cases with similar circumstances and similar letters, will they still be prosecuted in the light of the judgment and the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service has not challenged that decision?

As I have indicated, all the background facts relating to each letter that has been sent will be checked, and that should disclose whether any error has been made. I want to reiterate the point that if it were to emerge that no other letters contained errors the suggestion that those letters in some way amounted to an amnesty simply cannot be right. They would be mere statements of fact, and of the position that existed at the time at which those letters were written.

Given yesterday’s announcement in the court system, what assurances can be given to families—who are awaiting justice in relation to the deaths of their loved ones and what happened surrounding those deaths—that they will not face similar revelations about side and shoddy deals?

I hope very much that no one will have to deal with side and shoddy deals. It is a matter of opinion as to whether the process of assurances to the on-the-runs was a proper one to pursue. It is a matter for political debate.

The ending of criminal proceedings against John Downey is deeply disturbing, so will the Attorney-General confirm that while criminal proceedings are preferable and what we all want to see in the House, there should be no bar to civil proceedings against Mr Downey by the victims’ families?

Civil proceedings are for the individuals concerned but, no, the letters do not amount to any sort of bar on civil proceedings.

No one can fully understand the hurt felt by families whose loved ones have been murdered, and sympathy from politicians for families of innocent victims will not be enough to heal that hurt. Indeed, at times, politicians’ actions can add to that hurt, as in this case. John Downey is believed to have participated in the cold-blooded murder of the innocent. Does a letter signed by a Government official abort the right to justice? Who else has received these letters? For example, have Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness received similar letters? Have soldiers and police officers received similar letters to give them immunity from prosecution, or are these special letters simply for terrorists, gangsters, thugs and murderers? What other dirty deals have been done behind the backs of the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the hurt of the relatives of victims and, indeed, if they survived, of the victims themselves is a matter of which the House should be well aware. I suspect that it is right to say that there are very few Members who do not know people personally who have been affected by the violence in Northern Ireland. I certainly do.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s other points, the best course of action, if I may recommend it to him, rather than asking me questions which, in truth, within my responsibility, I cannot answer, is to initiate the things he wishes. There is a wider review as to what has happened, but first he may wish to see what the police ombudsman has to say in the internal inquiry report. Then, of course, the House is a Chamber in which these matters may be debated.

I choose my words to my hon. Friend with care because, over time, the letters may have been approved in slightly different ways. Let us be quite clear: these letters were ultimately the responsibility of the Governments in office at the time at which they were sent. I will not accept the suggestion that it was otherwise. That is a completely distinct issue from that of where mistakes may have been made in the factual analysis before the letter was sent.

This is not just about some unsatisfactory circumstances. This is traumatising victims, and it is scandalising the public. The court seems to have been misled into thinking that all parties agreed at Weston Park—that is implicit in the judgment. All parties did not agree at Weston Park, nor did they agree in the submissions that we made to Government papers after Weston Park, and certainly, all parties but Sinn Fein opposed the disgraceful Hain-Adams Bill that purported to give an amnesty through legislation.

Will the Attorney-General address the implication of a judgment that basically says that even the wrong word of a Government official as part of a secret scheme should trump due process and the transparency of the rule of law? Is there not a danger in allowing that as the going rate for the future, if there is no appeal in this case? As for the status of the letters, could Parliament legislate to rescind or qualify the import of them?

Can I try to deal with both matters in turn? I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation that the court’s decision is in some way an infringement of the rule of law. I recommend, if he wishes, that he read the judgment. Far from its being an undermining of the rule of law, I have to say, while it may be a result with which I am uncomfortable and would hope that it might have been otherwise, it is actually an upholding of the principles of the rule of law, even when it has an outcome that we may find extremely uncomfortable, because it emphasises the fairness at the heart of our criminal justice system. As for the other matters that the hon. Gentleman raised, it seems to me that they are matters, as I said earlier, for wider debate.

Having worked in the criminal justice system for over 15 years, and having dealt with applications to stay prosecutions, this strikes me as an appalling travesty of justice. May I press my right hon. and learned Friend about the prospect for an appeal? Stays of prosecutions and stays of proceedings can be reversed by the Court of Appeal. These things are open to different interpretations by different judicial persons. The terminology in the letter might possibly be open to an alternative interpretation, and the source of the letter is questionable as not having come ostensibly from a prosecutorial authority. Will he not reconsider the possibility of an appeal to the Court of Appeal against this stay?

I have to say to my hon. Friend that, in any event, it is a decision that has been made by the Crown Prosecution Service and me. I have explained the reasoning behind it, and I believe that our decision is the correct one.

There is palpable anger and concern about the decision to give John Downey freedom as a result of that letter, and it poses many questions. Four young Ulster Defence Regiment men were killed in Ballydugan in Downpatrick. Eight people were arrested and questioned, then freed. The three IRA men who killed Kenneth Smyth, a sergeant in the UDR, and his best friend, Danny McCormick, in December 1973 have never been tried. An IRA man killed Lexie Cummings in Strabane, and I secured an Adjournment debate on the matter in the Chamber, which was attended by my good friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). A former Minister of State replied to it, and referred to the HET inquiry. The question is whether the HET even knew that someone was on the run.

From Strabane to Ballywalter, for both Protestants and Roman Catholics, the anger is real and makes us all wonder just how many of those involved in these murder cases that I have mentioned and others wander around with a bit of paper, which is their passport to freedom, while families and loved ones grieve. Will the HET and the PSNI be given the details of 200 names for inquiries that they have yet to carry out?

The starting point, I think, will be the inquiry carried out by the PSNI and the ombudsman. I hope that that will enable the facts to be established, and will enable some reassurance to be provided—or not, as the case may be—as to whether there are other examples of errors that have been made in these cases. I come back to the point that, on the basis that there were no other errors made, it is quite clear to me that no individual has acquired any immunity from being proceeded against for crimes that they might have committed during the course of the troubles.

In my 15 years at the Bar I prosecuted or defended in well over 50 abuse of process claims, and I regret to have to inform the House that very occasionally such mistakes take place. Although my heart goes out to the victims and their families, and while that is clearly a travesty, it occasionally takes place. I entirely endorse the Attorney-General’s approach on that point, but does this case not show that a review by the United Kingdom Government of such sensitive cases is now required, whether in the Northern Ireland context or for other conflicts, by independent counsel, so that such a travesty does not occur again?

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly good point, and I would hope—obviously, I cannot predict exactly how the matter will unfold—that as a result of the PSNI’s inquiry there will be a wide-ranging review of not only how the letters were sent, but whether anything else needs to be done in that respect.

If issuing the letters was not part of any legislation that went through this House, what law gave the Government of the day, the current Government or any officials the right to issue them in the first place?

I certainly accept that what happened was unusual, but I do not think that there was anything unlawful—I have made this point repeatedly—in indicating to a person that they were not sought and that there was no evidence against them in respect of any offences. If my hon. Friend analyses the information, he will understand why that is the case.