Edward Heath – 1972 Statement on Interrogation Techniques (Parker Committee’s Report)

The statement made by Edward Heath, the then Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 2 March 1972.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a statement about the Report of the Committee of Privy Councillors under the chairmanship of Lord Parker of Waddington. This report is published today; and copies are now available in the Vote Office. The Government have not found it necessary to omit any passage on grounds of security; and the report is published with only minor amendments which do not in any way affect the sense.

The terms of reference of the Committee were to inquire whether, and if so in what respects, the procedures currently authorised for the interrogation of persons suspected of terrorism, and for their custody while subject to interrogation, require amendment. The Government are indebted to Lord Parker and his colleagues for the scrupulous care with which they have examined this very difficult subject.

The Committee found itself unable to agree; and it has therefore submitted a majority report signed by Lord Parker and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), together with a minority report signed by Lord Gardiner.

The majority find that the methods in question, which had been applied on a number of occasions in the past under successive Governments in various parts of the world, were applied in Northern Ireland in August, 1971, to 12 detainees, and in October to two more. They consider—and I quote—that

“there is no doubt that the information obtained by these two operations directly and indirectly was responsible for the saving of lives of innocent citizens”.

They conclude that the use of the methods involved could be justified in exceptional circumstances subject to further safeguards which they recommend. They consider, however, that the use of these techniques in some, if not all, cases would offend against English law; but they refrain from expressing any view about the position in Northern Ireland where legal proceedings which raise this issue are pending. Lord Gardiner in the minority report considers that these methods are objectionable in all circumstances.

The Government, having reviewed the whole matter with great care and with particular reference to any future operations, have decided that the techniques which the Committee examined will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the Prime Minister aware that, in accordance with our usual practices in these matters, I can confirm fully that the amendments made on security grounds were entirely marginal and made no difference to the sense of the report?

Secondly, has the right hon. Gentleman noticed reports which have said that these techniques have not been used since the Parker Committee was set up? Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether that is so? I do not think that it comes out in the report itself.
Thirdly, while hon. Members will want to study the report and while every hon. Member faced with this very difficult problem will decide whether to accept in principle the argument of the majority or that of the minority, is the Prime Minister aware that I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, greatly welcome the announcement in the concluding part of the right hon. Gentleman’s statement? It is a wise announcement in all the circumstances, and it may make more than a marginal difference to the possibility of stabilising and improving the situation in Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that at the end of the two-day debate last November my right hon. and hon. Friends voted on this matter because of Compton, and, naturally, we are extremely pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has taken this wise decision?

The Prime Minister

I can confirm that these techniques have not been used in cases other than those mentioned in the majority report; namely, the 12 in August, 1971 and the two in October, 1971.

Mr. Grimond

I, too, wish to congratulate the Government on their decision that these techniques should now be abandoned. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether there must not be some disquiet about the fact that some of these techniques may have been contrary to English law? What is the position of soldiers under the Army Act who might have been required to take part in the application of these techniques when, possibly, their powers may have been in conflict as between English and Northern Irish law?

The Prime Minister

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, as both the majority and the minority reports point out clearly, the techniques were used over a long period in the postwar years under Governments of both parties in this House. On the second part, as this matter is before the Northern Ireland courts at the moment, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any difficulties which might arise in that respect. Obviously this is a matter in which the Government have given thought to the position of Her Majesty’s forces. But I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Compton Report showed that these techniques were used by the R.U.C. under the authority of the Northern Ireland Government.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

Will my right hon. Friend say whether in criminal investigations it will still be possible to put a blanket over the head of an individual who is in custody when there are good reasons for maintaining concealment of identity?

The Prime Minister

A directive has been issued to the G.O.C., which, therefore covers the whole Army in Northern Ireland, in the sense of the statement that I have made. As for the use of techniques for non-interrogation, obviously from the point of view of security sometimes it is necessary for people to be asked to stand against a wall with their arms raised so that they may be searched to see whether they have weapons. That is a specific and limited use. As for putting a blanket over someone’s head, the Army has been instructed not to use that technique in any circumstances. The police are covered by the normal police regulations. If a person asks to be covered so that his identity should not be revealed in public, it is possible for that to happen.

Mr. Mayhew

While I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision, may I ask him whether he is aware of the substantial body of expert opinion which says that the technique called sensory isolation can cause mental distress for long periods thereafter and permanently in certain circumstances? Was this known to the Government when they approved this technique?

The Prime Minister

Both the majority and the minority reports discussed this in some detail, and there is obviously a conflict of medical evidence about it. Her Majesty’s Forces will of course continue to be trained in resistance to these techniques and, at the same time, training methods are being reviewed in regard to their application to Her Majesty’s Forces. But the general conclusion of the majority report is that it has not been possible to discover ill effects on Her Majesty’s Forces as a result of subjecting them to these techniques in training. But they also point out that a training position may prove to be different from a position in time of emergency or war.

Mr. Woodhouse

Does the Government’s decision to discontinue intensive interrogation of this kind apply only in Northern Ireland or to all future circumstances anywhere?

The Prime Minister

I must make it plain that interrogation in depth will continue but that these techniques will not be used. It is important that interrogation should continue. The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances. If a Government did decide—on whatever grounds I would not like to foresee—that additional techniques were required for interrogation, then I think that, on the advice which is given in both the majority and the minority reports, and subject to any cases before the courts at the moment, they would probably have to come to the House and ask for the powers to do it.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Although one welcomes the ending of these intolerable techniques, was not the most disquieting feature the fact that, whether they were known to the members of this Government or their predecessor, they were not known to the House or to the country? Is it not right that the procedure followed in interrogation in depth, even the one which is still being sanctioned, should be put into some written form and be discussed by and available to the public?

The Prime Minister

The recommendation of the majority report was that, if the techniques were to be continued in a limited form, it would be necessary to set down guidelines in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I do not think it would be possible or perhaps advisable that there should be issued as a public document any account of methods of interrogation which did not use these techniques. I am prepared to consider that, but I should have thought that as a security measure it is probably not advisable.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Are not the holding of this inquiry, the publication of this report and my right hon. Friend’s statement today indicative of a civilised nation and an example to the world?

The Prime Minister

I think that the Government have come to the right conclusion in this matter. The majority report emphasises that the techniques had been used for a long time; and that in this particular case, in the sudden emergency of 9th August, they were used. In paragraphs 20, 21 and 22 the report sets out very clearly the advantages which were gained from that. But now that the situation is more a continuing one from the point of view of interrogation, I repeat that I think that the Government have come to the right conclusion.

Mr. McManus

Would the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that this report will only further sap the confidence of the minority in all reports instituted by this House, since it appears to attempt to whitewash what went on, and that no welcome whatever will be forthcoming from the people whom I represent for the fact that the Government have now been shamed by force of public opinion into discontinuing barbaric practices?

Would the right hon. Gentleman also bear in mind that this will call into further question the validity or usefulness of a tribunal which is now sitting? Will he particularly bear in mind that, if this sort of thing foreshadows the long-expected initiatives, they are bound, if they follow this sort of pattern, to be rejected outright by the minority?

Finally, on the question of interrogation, will the right hon. Gentleman give his personal guarantee to the House that another form of interrogation, whereby soldiers go around remote parts of my constituency and ask people their religion, will cease forthwith?

The Prime Minister

I completely repudiate what the hon. Gentleman says. If he is claiming to speak for his constituents, perhaps he will prevail upon them to abandon the barbaric practices of the I.R.A. in murdering helpless individuals sitting by their own firesides.

Mr. McManus

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Prime Minister of England to stand in this House and accuse my constituents, without proof at all, of barbaric practices?

Mr. Speaker

I have heard nothing out of order.

Mr. Tapsell

If the interrogation procedures which have been used in past years, which the report confirms have saved innocent lives, are now to be discontinued, will it not be necessary very speedily to issue a new and clear code of practice to our Forces in Ulster in case a new emergency should arise in which interrogation in depth should again be necessary?

The Prime Minister

I repeat that interrogation in depth will continue when it is deemed right, but these techniques will not be used for this purpose. We must distinguish between these two things. I would repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse), that if any Government did come to the decision, after the most careful thought, that it was necessary to use some or all of these techniques, it would be necessary to come to the House first before doing so.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I thank the Prime Minister for his answer to my earlier question, when he said that these techniques had not been used during the period following the Compton Report. Is he aware that I have sent the Home Secretary some alleged evidence—I cannot evaluate it—purporting to show that there has been a continuation of this kind of practice? Will he be prepared to set against what he has said any findings which the Home Secretary may give him? Is he aware that only today there have been rather serious allegations of a continuation of practices—whether these specific ones or the others which were not the subject of the Prime Minister’s announcement I am not certain?

Do we take it from his statement that the Prime Minister has no present intention of introducing legislation in this matter—for example, possibly to validate past actions—at any rate until the result of cases now pending in the courts becomes known to the House?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is correct. We have no intention at the moment of introducing legislation to deal with this matter by way of an indemnity. Naturally, we should like to see the results of any decision in the Northern Ireland courts. Then, if we judged it necessary, we would naturally raise this matter in the House.

On the first part of the question, I too have been sent from time to time a number of allegations, and I have immediately asked that all of them be investigated. The G.O.C. has always said that any allegation will immediately be investigated. The problem is to get those who make the allegations to come forward and make them to any inquiry or to give their own evidence about the allegations. They are prepared, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to set them down on paper and sometimes to make them to other people, but they are very slow to come forward to make them to any inquiry. But I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that these allegations are quite separate from the question of the 14 cases in which the techniques were used for deep interrogation.