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Birmingham Public House Bombings

– in the House of Commons at 5:13 am on 24th July 1986.

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Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton 5:13 am, 24th July 1986

I wish to raise the serious matter of the six men imprisoned for the Birmingham pub bombings. I have a constituency interest in the matter in that Patsy Power, of 25 Cookes close, Leytonstone, is the sister of Billy Power, one of the men in prison. She wrote to me saying: My brother, with five other innocent men, have served 11 years for the Birmingham bombings. We, the families, have worked hard, with the help of many sympathetic people, to clear these men's names, with little result until last year. `World in Action' broadcast a special programme in September of last year about this case. Let me give you the position at the moment and tell you my fears. Following the 'World in Action' programme, Sir John Farr MP passed some papers to the Home Secretary and called for a retrial. That was six months ago and we have heard nothing, except that an investigation will be held. We fear that because of the nature of the case, it will fade from the public eye and nothing will be done. Please help us. In addition, new evidence is now available in the form of Mr. Chris Mullin's book "Error of Judgement: The truth about the Birmingham bombings." I pay tribute to Mr. Chris Mullin. He has shown that investigative journalism is not yet dead. He has produced startling new information.

The bombings took place on the evening of 21 November 1974. The IRA placed bombs in two Birmingham pubs, "The Mulberry Bush" and "The Tavern in the Town." The bombs exploded, killing 21 people and injuring 160. It was the biggest murder in British history. Such was the strength of public horror that within a few weeks the Prevention of Terrorism Act was on the statute book.

Within three hours of the explosions, five Irishmen had been arrested at Heysham in Lancashire where they were about to board the ferry for Ireland. They had left Birmingham's New Street station on a train that departed 20 minutes before the first explosion. The five Irishmen were Paddy Hill, Robert Hunter, Noel McIlkenny, Billy Power and Johnnie Walker. A sixth man, Hugh Callaghan, was arrested at his Birmingham home the following night. All the men had families in Birmingham, where they had lived for between 10 and 25 years.

After three days in the custody of the west midlands police, four of the men had signed confessions describing how they had carried out the bombings. In the case of two of them, forensic tests on their hands were said to have proved positive. In August 1975, after a trial lasting 45 days, they were convicted, and each was given a life sentence of 21 years.

In his summing up the trial judge, the then Mr. Justice Bridge stated that the prosecution's case had two absolutely critical planks — the confessions, and the forensic evidence. As for the confessions, it was apparent from the start that they were gravely flawed. The passages dealing with the planting of the bombs were extremely thin and riddled with contradictions.

In each of the confessions the bombs were said to have been placed in plastic bags. In his reply to the letter that I sent to the Minister from Patsy Power the Minister said that the case for the prosecution was that the six defendants who foregathered in the area of New Street station on the evening of 21 November 1974 had with them white plastic bags and a number of explosive devices, yet at the trial the Home Office forensic scientists were adamant that the bombs had been either in briefcases or in holdalls, not in plastic bags.

The reason for the discrepancy is that the confessions were obtained before the wreckage had been sifted and before the presence there of the briefcases and the holdall was known. It was thought that the plastic bags were the answer. They were not.

Another discrepancy is that Callaghan confessed to planting his bomb outside "The Mulberry Bush." In fact, it was planted inside, at the rear. Callaghan said that it was he and Hunter who bombed "The Mulberry Bush." Walker says that Hunter was with him bombing the taverns. Hunter cannot have been in two places at the same time. The confessions of McIlkenny and Walker refer to three bombs carried to New street station. Billy Power's confession refers to six bombs carried by Hunter, Walker and Callaghan.

The confessions do not mention where the bombs came from. No trace of explosives was ever found in the homes of the men, and no explanation of the origin of the bombs was offered to the court. All the men who signed confessions say that they were beaten out of them. They described to the court a horrifying catalogue of violence which lasted for the best part of three days and two nights. It was intense physical and psychological violence. Hill tells how the barrel of a pistol was put in his mouth and the trigger was pulled three times.

Chris Mullin's book says of Hill: they talked about shooting him and dumping him on the motorway on the way back to Birmingham. 'They said nobody would know, as nobody knew I was in police custody'. His legs are still covered in scars where he says policemen stubbed out lighted cigarettes.

Billy Power is reported as saying in Mr. Mullin's book: 'Then they started telling me there was a mob outside my home ready to lynch my wife and children. All that was saving them was the police who were searching it. They said the police would not stay for ever and that the only way to save my wife and children was to tell them what they wanted to know,' … Someone said, 'Throw him through the— expletive deletive, using Richard Nixon's terms— window.' At this they started clearing the chairs away from the window and dragged him towards it. Power was not to know, that the windows were sealed shut and could not be opened. Someone said, 'If the fall doesn't kill him, the crowd will.' I want the House to get a picture of the appalling violence. McIlkenny alleged that he was the subject of a mock execution in which a gun with blanks was fired at him. There is an explicit description of that on pages 94 and 95 of the book.

Most of the men have not seen their trial papers for 10 years, and most have not met for 11, but the story that they tell today of those three days and two nights is the same as that which they have told since they left police custody. Nobody disputes that they were severly beaten during their first few days in custody. Photographs taken at the time show injuries to most of their faces. Dr. David Paul, the coroner of the City of London, is prepared to say on the basis of the photographs taken in police custody that all of the men showed signs of injuries on their faces. A medical examination shortly after their admission to Winson Green prison showed their bodies to be covered in injuries.

The police say that the injuries were inflicted by the prison officers on admission to prison, and the prison officers say that the men were injured before being admitted. The men say that they were beaten by the police and by the prison officers. As The Times put it at the time, Who beat up the bombers? The question demanded an answer, and an inquiry was set up to determine the cause of their injuries. The inquiry was a cover-up. It was headed by Mr. Davis Owen, who is now the chief constable of north Wales. He spent his whole time investigating prison officers and pinned all of the blame on them.

A year and a half later 14 prison officers were eventually placed on trial charged with inflicting the injuries. They all declined to testify and were all acquitted. Although all 14 declined to go into the witness box to give evidence, the majority of them had given statements to their solicitor before their trial. They are truthful and admit to the beatings up. Copies of those statements have been obtained, together with the solicitor's note written before the trial, which in effect, states: If these statements are available to the court all our clients will be convicted. But that does not get the police off the hook because they do not absolve the police. Three of the warders—Mr. Patrick Murtagh, Mr. Brian Sharp and Mr. Gordon Willingham—in their statements to their solicitors point out that the men had bruises before they reached their custody and that is explained in detail in Mr. Chris Mullin's book.

In their statements several prison officers also say they saw signs of injuries which appeared to have been inflicted before the men arrived at the prison. Patrick Murtagh … saw Johnny Walker stripped immediately after his arrival. Mr. Murtagh says, 'As he stripped, I noticed there were a number of marks on his body. I believe it was Walker who had a long and discoloured bruise from the waist up and across the front of his ribs … It was yellow and green.'Brian Sharp was with Murtagh when Walker stripped off. He said, 'I saw bruises on many parts of his body and his torso was more or less covered. They were all colours, black, blue, yellow, purple and most of them looked oldish.' Gordon Willingham, one of the officers who two hours later supervised the bathing, saw all the men naked.`From the marks I saw on them, I would say that their facial markings were recent, but their bodily marks were … at least one or more days old. These were consistent with a systematic beating below the neck while in police custody'." That is what the prison warders put in their statement. In the eyes of the law there is still a mystery. Apparently the prison department was persuaded to accept responsibility for the injuries although no one has even been convicted of inflicting the injuries. The Home Office is extremely anxious that the question should not be reopened. If it could ever be proved that the police were responsible for any of the violence the confessions would be invalid.

Lord Denning summed it up when he said: 'Just consider the course of events if this action is allowed to proceed to trial … If the six men fail it would mean that much time and money will have been expended by many people for no good purpose. If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean the Home Secretary would either have to recommend they be pardoned or he would have to remit the case to the Court of Appeal. This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: It cannot be right these actions should go any further.' It would also mean that the police were guilty of a world record quantity of perjury at the trial. More than 20 officers ranging in rank from detective constable to assistant chief constable testified at the trial that no policeman had laid a finger on the men. The trial judge, then Mr. Justice Bridge, in his summing up said that if the police were lying it would be a conspiracy unprecedented in the annals of British criminal history. He went on to say that if the defendants were telling the truth the careers of many senior police officers would be blighted and some may well end up in doubt. There is a problem for the police and the Home Office because many of the police officers involved have since been promoted and are now senior officers,—apart from one of them, Detective Sergeant Brian Morton, who has just served a gaol sentence for beating up suspects.

That deals with the doubts about the confessions. The other key aspect of the trial was the forensic evidence. Dr. Frank Skuse, of the Home Office forensic science laboratory at Chorley, gave the most important evidence in the trial. He tested the men's hands in Morecambe police station a few hours after their arrest. He used the Greiss test and it proved positive in the case of Hill and Power. It was this positive test that set the police off on their beatings of all the men, and to this day the police claim that they were convinced that they had the guilty men because they had forensic proof. They said to the prisoners that they were going round with jelly on their hands, meaning gelignite.

At the trial Dr. Skuse claimed that his Greiss test made him 99 per cent. certain that the two men had recently handled explosives, that they had been in contact with nitroglycerine. He was repeatedly pressed to say if any other innocent substance could give a positive Greiss test and he said no. The defence called Dr. Hugh Black, a former chief inspector of explosives at the Home Office, and he testified that nitrocellulose which is to be found in common polishes and varnishes would produce a positive Greiss test. His evidence was rubbished by the judge and disbelieved by the jury.

It was 10 years before anyone put Dr. Skuse's evidence to the test. In May 1985 Granada Television commissioned two distinguished forensic scientists to put the conflicting forensic evidence to the test. The new tests were conducted by Dr. Brian Caddy, the head of the forensic science unit at the university of Strathclyde, and David Baldock, a former senior Home Office forensic scientist. Both showed that nitrocellulose could produce the same result as nitroglycerine. In other words, Dr. Black had been right and Dr. Skuse had been wrong.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd , Aldridge-Brownhills

In what way has the hon. Gentleman satisfied himself that the tests conducted by Dr. Skuse were identical to the tests conducted by the experts who were gathered together for Mr. Mullin's book?

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

I shall come to that in a moment. The samples were provided by the laboratories at Chorley and those samples were of exactly the same nature as those used in the tests conducted by Dr. Skuse. The tests were identical in their format.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd , Aldridge-Brownhills

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Dr. Skuse contends that they were not identical and that that is important? The hon. Gentleman's case hangs on the tests being identical. What inquiries has he made to ascertain that the tests conducted by the later two experts were identical to the tests conducted by Dr. Frank Skuse?

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

As I have said, Dr. Skuse's formula was provided by the laboratory at Chorley. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is making, but I do not think that it is valid. The doubt must be enormous about Dr. Skuse's claim that he was 99 per cent certain.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Dr. Brian Caddy of the forensic department of the university of Strathclyde made the point that the tests had been done by testing nitrocellulose in relation to old playing cards. I treat all this with very great caution and I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but Dr. Brian Caddy was certainly acting in good faith.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has made a valuable point.

Among the items which gave a positive test were Spectra clear lacquer, a varnished wooden surface, a cigarette packet, a picture postcard covered with nitrocellulose and two packs of old playing cards coated with nitrocellulose. These cards are significant since the men had been playing cards on their train journey from New Street to Heysham immediately before their arrest.

Dr. Caddy then asked Ian MacBride, a Granada television producer, to shuffle one of the packs of playing cards for five minutes. He tested Mr. MacBride's hands and obtained a positive reading. On that basis Dr. Skuse might have said that there was a 99 per cent. chance that the TV producer had handled explosives, when he had not. That Granada experiment destroys Dr. Skuse's evidence and a plank of the prosecution case.

The Granada programme was shown on 28 October 1985 and on 31 October Dr. Skuse took early retirement from his job at the Home Office laboratory in Chorley. He was aged 50—remarkably young. The Home Office has refused to give the reasons for his retirement.

On 22 July the Government told my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow in a written reply that Dr. Skuse's retirement had nothing to do with the "World in Action" programme a week earlier. That is disingenuous because the Granada experiments were conducted five months earlier. Although they were not publicised, they must have been widely known within the forensic community. Certainly the Chorley laboratory was aware of them because they provided Dr. Baldock and Dr. Caddy with the formula used by Dr. Skuse when he swabbed the men's hands.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd , Aldridge-Brownhills

The book does not rubbish Dr. Skuse but suggests that, because of the consequences of tests conducted 10 or 11 years after the event, a man should be dismissed. Is that what the hon. Gentleman suggests? That seems to be the drift of the hon. Gentleman's comments. I find them very distasteful.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

I do not know whether he was dismissed. I do not know the answer.

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

This is the first time that the allegation has been made. Is there not a simple way to clear up the matter? We are told by the Home Office that Dr. Skuse retired on the ground of public interest. But that has never been specified. All the allegations against Dr. Skuse can be cleared up tonight by the Minister telling us why he took early retirement.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

I endorse that comment.

The results of the Granada tests have been with the Home Office since last October. It is widely known that it conducted its own tests many months ago, but it has refused to reveal the results. I suspect that the Government are waiting for the recess so that they can avoid questioning by the House. That is hard luck because they have to face the questions. When were the tests conducted? When were they completed? What was the outcome? Why has there been such a delay in announcing the outcome? It is now 10 months since the Granada programme and 14 months since the Granada tests.

There is a third and crucial aspect of the case.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I understand that further tests are being carried out at the forensic laboratories in London by Dr. Margaret Pereira and her colleagues. Some information might help.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

The Minister is shaking his head, but we want the answers to these serious questions because men are languishing in gaol.

In his book, Mr. Mullin asks, "If these men were not responsible for the bombings, who was?" He says that he has identified all four who were actually responsible. He has interviewed three of them, and two have given him what he believes to have been an accurate account of what happened. That is covered in chapters 39 and 40 of his book.

The draft of those last two chapters was forwarded to the Home Secretary by the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) on 12 May, and I give full praise to the hon. Gentleman for trying to get justice in this case. On 20 May the Home Secretary replied to the hon. Member, stating: the material and claims in the extract from Mr. Mullin's book raise … matters which are wholly new and which present a completely different approach to the whole question of whether the six men may have been wrongfully convicted". He continued: You will understand that I shall need to consider the implication of what Mr. Mullin has to say very carefully", and he concluded by urging the hon. Gentleman to encourage Mr. Mullin to make available as quickly as possible any relevant material which he may have. The hon. Member for Harborough and Mr. Mullin got together and agreed that they should ask for a meeting with the Home Secretary to present this evidence. A letter to that effect was sent by the hon. Gentleman to the Home Secretary on 26 May. There was then a long silence, but eventually on 9 July the hon. Gentleman arranged for both himself and Mr. Mullin to see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Two days before the meeting, the Minister's office contacted the hon. Gentleman and told him that he was to come alone. In effect, the Minister did not want to see Mr. Mullin. A few days later Mr. Mullin received a letter dated 10 July from a civil servant, a Mr. B. M. Caffarey, who was careful to emphasise that he was writing at the suggestion of the hon. Member for Harborough. That in itself is surprising. The letter stated: No doubt, if you have any material evidence, documentary or otherwise, of which you feel the Home Secretary should be aware, you will make it available so that it can be taken fully into account". Mr. Mullin informs me that he has replied repeating his offer to meet the Home Secretary. Why, then, does the Home Office Minister refuse to meet him? After all, the Minister will have to take the final decision. He should therefore satisfy himself about whether Mr. Mullin has interviewed the people who carried out the bombing. Why did it take six weeks before the junior Minister could even be persuaded to see the hon. Member for Harborough? What was the Home Office afraid of?

Incidentally, the Home Secretary also sent the last two chapters of the book to the west midlands police, and in a parliamentary answer on 26 June he asked them to report on this aspect in particular. They too have made no attempt to contact Mr. Mullin. The chief constable replied with a long letter that poured scorn on the book, and I understand that he even questioned Mr. Mullin's motives.

Will the Minister make public the contents of that letter from the chief constable? If he says that it is private, why has Superintendent Martin Burton, spokesman for the west midlands police, read extracts of it to the media? The implication must be that they have a vested interest in debunking Mr. Mullin's case and in continuing the cover-up.

It should be remembered that six innocent men have so far spent 12 years in prison apiece for a crime of which they are wholly innocent, and they have no prospect of being released. The Minister should be prepared to cut through that cover-up and see Mr. Mullin.

There is some evidence to suggest that up to a certain level the Home Office and the prison department know that the men inside are innocent. In the prisons in which these men have been held for any time, they are widely regarded as innocent. They are not regarded as IRA prisoners either by the staff or by other genuine IRA prisoners. Three of the men receive normal, unsupervised visits alongside the ordinary criminal prisoners.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Will my hon. Friend confirm the prison category of the prisoners we are speaking of?

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

They are supposed to be category A, the most serious.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unusual, if not unprecedented, for a category A prisoner to be allowed to receive unsupervised visits?

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

Yes, indeed; yet the Birmingham six are supposed to be the biggest murderers in British history.

Walker, at his trial, was described as a brigadier in the IRA and the brains behind the bombings. He is allowed unsupervised visits, but in the same prison, Long Lartin, an IRA man with a record nowhere near that of Walker and who is within one month of release from a 14-year sentence is still given the category A status. Nearly all the staff at the prisons, probably up to the governor and probably at the Home Office, know that they have got the wrong people.

There are many serious questions for the Minister to answer frankly. Why is the inquiry process proceeding at such a snail's pace? When were the Home Office's forensic tests carried out? Was it at least six months ago? Is the Minister planning to announce the results of the inquiry in the depths of the recess when there is no opportunity for Members to question the decision? Will that further extend the cover-up and provide reasons for not reopening the case? Has anyone been found to take responsibility for the beatings which were administered during the men's first week in custody? Is it not true that the original inquiry by Davis Owen, now the chief constable of north Wales, was a whitewash designed to pin responsibility on the prison warders and so take the heat off the police?

A most important question is why Dr. Skuse resigned. Can the Minister categorically say that there is no connection between this case and Dr. Skuse's sudden retirement at the age of 50? If there is no connection, what is the reason for his retirement? Why is the Minister so reluctant to meet Mr. Mullin and discuss the case? Why did it take the Home Office six weeks even to see the hon. Member for Harborough? Is it that the Home Office is reluctant to face awkward questions?

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd , Aldridge-Brownhills

The speech of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) is almost like a panegyric for a book. I appreciate this is a serious subject and raises great matters of question. The last two chapters of the book are flawed for an ordinary citizen like myself. To state that one has talked with the perpetrators of the crime and name then as X, Y and Z is an unsatisfactory procedure. Has the hon. Gentleman satisfied himself that this is no more than a gimmick to heighten the serious charges which Mr. Mullin makes in terms of the individuals whom he claims are the biggest mass murderers other than the ones presently serving sentences in prison?

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

I do not think it is a gimmick. There is one way in which the charges can be tested and that is by the Minister and the police. They should meet Mr. Mullin and discover what evidence he has in respect of those interviewed. That should have been done a long time ago.

If these men are supposed to be the biggest murderers in British history, why are they treated so differently from other IRA prisoners? Why do three of them receive visits alongside ordinary prisoners? Most people in the prisons know that they are innocent men.

During questions to the Home Office yesterday the Minister came up with another excuse for the delay. Apparently, investigations were now in an advanced state, but they now had to investigate the new claims in Mr. Mullin's book. That is not a good enough excuse for further delay. Since October, the Minister and the police have been in possession of the new evidence — the "World in Action" programme and the evidence from Home Office tests. It is not a good enough excuse for avoiding seeing Mr. Mullin.

The Minister impugned the motives of hon. Members who asked questions about the case during Question Time today by accusing them of mounting an "orchestrated campaign". There is nothing wrong with that when swift action to right an obvious injustice is demanded. Those involved in the so-called orchestrated campaign, according to the Minister's answer on 7 July, include the Government of the Republic of Ireland, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishops of Westminster and Armagh, the Bishops of Down, Connaught and Derry, many organisations, 40 hon. Members on both sides of the House, two Lords and members of the prisoners' families. It is certainly an orchestrated campaign, and one which covers a wide selection of the community.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. I think that he has done a great service to the House in delivering his speech. Does he accept that for a long time many people have been asking searching questions about all the issues surrounding the Birmingham pub bombings? A long time has had to pass and there have had to be television programmes and now a book for there to be any degree of open debate. Responsibility lies with the Minister to agree to meet Mr. Mullin to discuss what he has written and to ensure that there is a full and open Home Office inquiry into what could well be an enormous travesty of justice.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

I endorse my hon. Friend's comments.

The Minister wrote to me on 17 July in response to the Patsy Power letter which I forwarded to him. He wrote that he was empowered by section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968 to refer a case to the Court of Appeal for review … if significant new facts, material to the rightness of the conviction, had come to light which had not previously been before the courts". The "World in Action" programme that was shown in October 1985 certainly produced material new facts.

I urge the Minister to show courage and to face the fact that an injustice has been done, regardless of the consequences which might flow for those involved. Stop delaying and refer the case to the Court of Appeal forthwith. Show the necessary courage in the interests of justice.

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North 5:52 am, 24th July 1986

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) on raising this extremely important matter. From what we have heard already, and from the many parliamentary answers that there have been from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Home Secretary, we must ask why there has been such an incredible delay in the review that the Home Office has been conducting into the case. There are two possible explanations. First, the matter is grave—it obviously is—and the inquiries that are being conducted are so meticulous, thorough and careful that a long period has been necessary. Unfortunately, the other explanation is that there is a cover-up.

It seems that I have to reject the first explanation, which is that the inquiries are taking place with meticulous care and thoroughness. That cannot be so, for the following reasons. It is clear that there is a lack of will or enthusiasm on the part of Home Office Ministers to talk to the author of the book which has re-awakened interest in the case, who is Mr. Chris Mullin. The sorry history of that has been outlined by my hon. Friend. The forensic tests that were carried out by Dr. Brian Caddy took place some considerable time ago and the Home Office is well aware of the results. It is clear from its own answers that the Home Office undertook its own tests on the grease tests some time ago, and we would like to know precisely when. As that is a specific matter, it does not take months to evaluate the results of the tests. Even if there are other things about which the Home Office is not certain, why have not we been told what its conclusions are on the tests?

The fact that the police have not spoken to Chris Mullin is extraordinary. The Home Secretary stated in a written reply that he had received the book. He referred to Mr. Mullin's claim to have identified the four men who took part in the bombing and said that he had asked the police to report on that. Apart from the general review, he has asked the police to investigate the claims made by Mr. Mullin. The answer came four weeks ago. Yet, to date, no attempt has been made by the police who are meant to be conducting the investigation to contact Mr. Mullin. I cannot believe that that is a serious or thorough investigation.

It took the west midlands police three days to decide that they had the guilty men. If they could reach that conclusion, shabby as it was, so quickly, why has it taken the Home Office nine months to consider, without reaching a conclusion, whether the west midlands police force was right? Furthermore—it is a familiar complaint that Labour Members make about the procedures —is it appropriate that the west midlands police should conduct the inquiry into whether they had got the right people in the first place? I cannot believe that the delay is because of the thoroughness and meticulousness of the Home Office or the police. Therefore, I must ask whether it is a cover-up. Unfortunately, there are some indications in that direction.

It is beyond dispute that the men were beaten. The argument is about where they were beaten. Were they beaten by the police, in which case their confessions would be invalidated, or were they beaten in Winson Green prison alone? We know that they were beaten in Winson Green prison. The question is whether they were beaten before they arrived there. No serious attempt has been made to answer that question. Despite the fact that 14 warders were acquitted of the charge, the Home Office has made no serious attempt to look into it. I have said that both the Home Office and the police refused to talk to Chris Mullin. That shows a cover-up.

We do not have any serious explanation of Dr. Skuse's retirement. It took weeks of evasive answers by the Home Office to parliamentary questions before the Home Secretary finally wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and assured him that it was not as a result of the "World in Action" programme. That leaves the main question unanswered. Was it as a result of the exposure of his inadequate work on the original tests?

One Conservative Member has questioned the doubts that have been cast on Dr. Skuse. I am afraid that I should like to add to those doubts. I think we know for certain that Dr. Skuse had never met the west midlands police officer in charge of the original inquiry until the case of the Birmingham pub bombings. The forensic scientist living in Lancashire and the policeman living in the Midlands never met again, as far as we know, after the trial of the Birmingham pub bombers.

Nevertheless, early in 1975, when work was starting on the Granada Television programme, for some extraordinary reason Dr. Skuse travelled from his present home in Wigan down to ex-Chief Superintendent Reade's present home in Rugely, Staffordshire, to have a discussion about the fact that Granada Television was undertaking investigations into the case. One wonders why on earth Dr. Skuse had to make that journey so many years later. That underlines even more the need for an explanation as to why Dr. Skuse took early retirement. That suggests a cover-up.

The Minister must accept that the forensic evidence in the trial has collapsed. In many ways, the confessions depended on that forensic evidence. It is quite clear that the police persisted with whatever methods they used to get those confessions because Dr. Skuse had told them that certain of the men were covered in gelignite. Therefore, the police assumed that they were guilty, and everything else followed.

Some extraordinary aspects about the case and the circumstances of the arrest of the men have never been explained by those who seriously believe that the men were members of the IRA. For instance, when the men were taken off the train at Heysham, four were held by the police. One of them, Paddy Hill, actually went on to the ferry. He was taken off the ferry only a couple of minutes before it sailed. The four who were questioned by the police were told that they would have to go to Morecambe for forensic tests.

I believe that their response was quite undisputed, and it is a matter of police record. They said, "Oh, what about our mate?" Here we have, allegedly, brigadiers and so on of the IRA— hardened bombers with years of criminal terrorist experience — and the four who had been captured said of the one who was about to get away, "Oh, what about our mate?" Does anyone seriously believe that men who had any connection with the IRA would react in that way?

It is extraordinary that more attention was not paid at the trial to another point. It is a matter of record. It has been proven and never been denied. Paddy Hill, the man taken off the boat, went on the journey to Belfast at the last minute, having borrowed the train fare from Sister Bridget, a nun in the local convent. Does anyone really believe that an experienced IRA bomber, about to plant bombs in the middle of Birmingham in two pubs, would arrange to get his train fare by borrowing from a nun two hours before the train was to leave? That is nonsense. No one has ever managed to explain those circumstances.

Could anyone really believe that so many police in the west midlands and at Morecambe were capable of extracting confessions in this manner? We know the answer in respect of one of those policemen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton has already said, Detective Sergeant Brian Morton was convicted and gaoled for beating up a suspect while obtaining a confession in another case. We therefore know that one of the policemen in the police station at the time the confessions were extracted was perfectly capable of taking that kind of action.

The point has already been made— I have personal experience of it—that the prisoners are widely regarded as innocent. Only a few weeks ago, when a little publicity about the concern being shown in this place appeared in my local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo, one of my constituents, who had served many years in Hull prison for an offence that had nothing to do with any political, Republican or terrorist motivation, rang me up and said how pleased he was that the case had been re-opened. He had been in the prison for many years with Richard McIlkenny. It was common knowledge in the prison, from the governor downwards, that that man was innocent and was treated as such.

The Home Secretary must explain why the six are treated as though they are in prison for committing a minor offence and why they can sit in the cafeteria among other prisoners, conducting interviews, while IRA prisoners convicted on much more minor charges are supervised by warders, are in locked cells, and the rest of it.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Has my hon. Friend asked himself another question on the implications if an inquiry were held and those being held for the Birmingham pub bombings were found to be guiltless? Has my hon. Friend considered the implications for the whole legal system, the position of the police—in view of the way in which they have extracted confessions in this case — and the forensic evidence that Dr. Skuse produced in this case and perhaps in previous cases? Does my hon. Friend think that it might be in the interests of the Home Office and the establishment to allow innocent people to stay in prison because, if they come out, there would be great implications for the legal system?

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I agree that that is the great difficulty faced by the Home Office. We have to understand and to feel some sympathy with its dilemma. The trial judge—now Lord Bridge — spelt it out clearly. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton has already made this point. If one believes that the men are innocent and that the confessions were extracted in the way suggested, an extraordinary number of police perjured themselves. Some of those policemen were and still are in extremely senior positions. This is understandably a matter of great embarrassment to the Home Office. It faces potentially grave embarrassment if it does not clear up this case.

I should like to refer to another point which has already been raised by an hon. Member and in the press, and I am sure that the Minister will do so also because he has already done so during Question Time. Why does Mr. Mullin not name the people he believes did it? The first point to make — I am sure that the Minister is well aware of it—is that if Mr. Mullin were to name those whom he thinks did it, those whom he has interviewed, and, in two cases, those who have told him they did it, it would be of no value in a court. It is pure hearsay.

The second point, which I am surprised hon Members do not understand implicitly and obviously, is that the IRA is not an organisation known for dealing with people it falls out with by sending them solicitor's letters. Mr. Mullin, in embarking on this inquiry, which was intended not to identify those who did it but to establish the innocence of those who did not, gave undertakings in many cases to perfectly innocent third parties, in order to find his way to those who did it. He gave undertakings of absolute confidentiality at every stage. He is a man of integrity. Indeed, many aspects of journalism in this country depend on the integrity of journalists to keep their word and not break confidences. Assuming that the Minister accepts that it was a legitimate inquiry — he must accept that because the Home Office would not have spent the time that it has reviewing the case unless it thought there was an element of doubt— and assuming that the Minister thinks that Mr. Mullin was acting from honourable motives and doing a job that was potentially in the public interest, he must know that Mr. Mullin would not have got anywhere in trying to identify those who did it unless he gave undertaking of confidentiality. If the Minister was in the same line of business, surely he would have given those undertakings because he would know that he would not get anywhere if he did not. Having given those undertakings, would the Minister break them? Would the Minister put his hand on his heart and promise to keep certain information confidential and then blatantly breach that?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Does my hon. Friend not agree that journalists can perform a valuable role—they certainly have in this case — but that the responsibility for checking the accuracy of Mr. Mullin's account rests entirely with the police? Why should Mr. Mullin perhaps put himself in danger by revealing the sources that he has had to use in order to produce his evidence? The evidence is there. The responsibility is now entirely that of the police and it is no good saying that it is Mr. Mullin's responsibility to bring other people to book.

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

I agree entirely. I was about to make that point. Apart from the incredible danger that would be involved, not only to Mr. Mullin but to other third parties, it is entirely the job of the police to find those who did it. Not only that, it should be much easier for the police. It is extraordinary that the police, with all their intelligence methods, special branch and the ability to interview anyone they wish within the jurisdiction, find it so difficult to discover who did it and yet complaints are made that Mr. Mullin, an investigative journalist with none of those facilities, refuses to give names. It is a bit of a cheek for the Minister and others in the Home Office to be pursuing that line and saying that Mr. Mullin should say who did it, especially as at the moment the Home Secretary and the Minister are refusing to talk to Mr. Mullin.

The Home Office should consider that, apart from the moral considerations of the case and the appalling and serious possibility that six innocent men have been held for 12 years, with all the ignominy of their convictions and the reflection on their families, there are, if the Government cannot understand those arguments, pragmatic arguments. I should like to put one to the Minister. The United States has recently signed an extradition treaty with the United Kingdom for the extradition of terrorists. As the Minister will be aware — this has been raised by Conservative Members in the House recently—it will still have to be demonstrated in an American court that those being extradited will face a fair trial in Britain. There will already be question marks over the Diplock courts. Unless the Home Office takes the case seriously and clears it up, it could well be that the case will, effectively, be retried in American courts. American lawyers will argue before American judges that there is no chance of a fair trial in this country, given the history of the case. The Minister should consider that argument. He should also consider the implications for the Anglo-Irish agreement which the Government and many Labour Members, not including me, were so enthusiastic about. The Minister knows perfectly well that Peter Barry, the Irish Foreign Minister, and other members of the Irish Government have made representations about the case.

A courageous decision is needed now from the Home Office. It has many options and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton suggested that the case should be referred to the Court of Appeal or to a retrial. I am not so sure, and this is the only point on which I may possibly disagree with him. I am not sure whether there can be a retrial when the question rests on forensic evidence at that time, confessions and how they were extracted at that time, men's movements at that time and discrepancies about where the bombs were put. Memories of the witnesses and those charged will not go back that far. Moreover, no one has yet got hold of those who committed the crime.

There is enough evidence that six innocent men have already wrongly served 12-year sentences. It is within the Home Secretary's power to grant a pardon. If he did so, it might circumvent some of the embarrassment about which the Home Office is undoubtedly worried. A retrial or a reference to the Court of Appeal will mean that Dr. Frank Skuse, various police officers, the men and their families will be dragged through it all again. The most courageous decision would be for the Home Office to recognise that it has convicted the wrong people, to tell the police to get on with the job and to grant the men a free pardon.

I hope that the Minister will answer the specific questions raised tonight, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton. We have debated why the Home Secretary or the Minister will not meet Mr. Mullin. This matter is too serious for playing games about who will ask whom for meetings. Mr. Mullin is in the precincts of the House and the Minister could leave the Chamber after the debate and start an initial discussion with Mr. Mullin and arrange to meet him for further discussions. I hope he will give a commitment to do so before he sits down tonight.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 6:13 am, 24th July 1986

What happened in Birmingham was simply horrific and innocent people were maimed and killed, so I started from a position of scepticism. However, the more one knows about events, the less comfortable one becomes.

The Minister must have time to answer, and my interest is confined to the forensic aspects of the case. For 19 years I was a weekly columnist in New Scientist and in that capacity Chatto and Windus gave me an advance copy of Chris Mullin's book "Error of Judgement". Anyone who reads the book must be increasingly disturbed about the case, but I shall leave the wider issues to others.

I have been interested in the forensic science aspects ever since Dr. Margaret Pereira and her colleagues took me round the Lambeth laboratory some years ago. Faced with the prospect of having to write a review of the book, I wrote to the Home Office on 28 June asking some factual questions, and, as ever, I received a courteous reply from the Home Secretary. But there is no reason why those factual questions cannot be answered, so I shall repeat them now.

In relation to page 35 of Mullin's book, the first question was whether in the light of subsequent information from Strathclyde, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Home Office now believes that Dr. Frank Skuse was as up-to-date in the latest techniques of detecting explosives on people's hands as his position warranted? I should make it clear to the House that these are my questions, and no one else's. Secondly, were Dr. Skuse's results cross-checked with professional colleagues at Chorley?

The third question relates to page 40. Does the Home Office have a record of the timing of Dr. Skuse's inquiries and investigation during his stay at Morecambe police station? The fourth question relates to page 45. I can imagine what Dr. Skuse felt like being hauled out of his bed, or whatever, in Wigan, driven to Morecambe and having to work through the night. But did Dr. Skuse ask Power or the others about what he had been doing—that is, playing cards?

The fifth question relates to page 46. Why does the Home Office refuse to permit Dr. Skuse to be interviewed? The sixth question relates to page 47. Would it not have been normal practice, by daybreak, to have provided Dr. Skuse with more forensic help from Chorley or from elsewhere? Is it satisfactory to rely on a necessarily tired man working through the night? Incidentally, that is no criticism of Dr. Skuse. It is just an explanation of the position in which I suspect he found himself. I should be reluctant to say anything in criticism of Dr. Skuse until I have had the other side of the story.

In relation to page 48, the seventh question was this: what was the result of the water test? Was it submitted to a genito-urinary expert?

The eighth question relates to page 59. Does the Home Office agree that many of us who have never handled explosives could reveal faint positives of ammonium and nitrate on our hands?

The ninth question relates to page 165. What is the Home Office response to Mullin's suggestion that the results of the thin layer chromatography and gas chromatography mass spectrometry tests were "surprising"?

Question 10 relates to page 166. Is there documentary evidence that the GCMS test on Hill's left hand proved positive? Question 11 relates to page 167. What has happened to the oscilloscope readings suggesting the presence of nitroglycerine? Question 12 relates to page 168, where Mullin makes a statement which is possibly the central concern of my letter. It is this: Because most forensic scientists are in the employ of the Government, it has always been difficult to find scientists of sufficient stature and practical experience to stand up to the Crown experts like Dr. Skuse. I asked the Home Office whether it sees this as a problem.

Of course, I have talked to Dr. Brian Caddy of Strathclyde, and I hope that funding may be made available, through the Scottish Office or the Home Office, to set up the sort of institute which the Home Office knows that he wants at Strathclyde. There is an urgent need for it. I have talked to lawyers and to friends in the police, who concur with that view.

Question 13 relates to page 169. Does the Home Office have records of the tests carried out on the men's clothing? Question 14 relates to page 169. How come that the playing cards had simply disappeared? Is this not extraordinary in a case of such gravity? Question 15 relates to page 170. Did Dr. Black, the former Home Office chief inspector, seek ministerial or departmental permission before giving evidence? Question 16 relates to page 237. How does the Home Office respond to statements, as presented to Mullin, of Mr. David Baldock and Mr. R. A. Hall?

Question 17 relates to page 238. How does the Home Office respond to Brian Caddy's finding that shuffling old packs of cards produces the same indications as handling nitroglycerine? Question 18, which relates to page 239, stated: Can you give the undertaking that Dr. Skuse's premature retirement was unrelated to the World in Action programme? That undertaking was given to me in the letter.

In summing up, Mr. Justice Bridge referred to two absolutely critical planks in the prosecution's case against the six men, first, there were the confessions and, secondly, the forensic evidence given by Dr. Skuse and the whole question of the Greiss tests, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) referred.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

My hon. Friend referred to the playing cards and the traces of nitroglycerine. Does he not think that another question to ask the Minister is what has happened to the two sets of playing cards that the men were using on the train to Morecambe? They were exhibits at the trial, but they have subsequently disappeared. Should the Minister not answer where they are?

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I agree with my hon. Friend. This is one of the questions that I asked. Like every one of those 18 questions, it is a factual question to which, after a month, there should surely have been some answer. I was not asking wild questions or proffering guesswork or hypothesis. I was simply asking factual questions, and that is why I was dissatisfied with the Home Secretary's answer.

It is most important that the Minister should have time to reply. I am going to cut out the rest of what I would have wished to say and sit down because Members of Parliament who raise questions ought to be disciplined in allowing Ministers to give answers.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney 6:21 am, 24th July 1986

In November 1974 there was a campaign of bombing in the midlands. On 14 November 1974 at the post office telephone exchange in Coventry, James McDade was killed when the bomb he was attempting to plant exploded prematurely. On 21 November, the day McDade's body was being taken to Northern Ireland for burial, at about 20 past 8 in the evening, there was an explosion at two public houses to the centre of Birmingham—"The Mulberry Bush" and "The Tavern in the Town". A warning was telephoned to a local newspaper, but not in time to save lives. In all, 21 people were killed and 162 injured, many of them very seriously. It was one of the most appalling crimes in British history. As we have heard this morning, six men were arrested and charged with murder arising out of this dreadful offence.

The six men came to trial in 1975. The trial, which was held in Lancaster, lasted 32 working days. On 15 August 1975, all six men were found guilty, each on 21 counts of murder, by unanimous verdicts. All six sought leave to appeal against their convictions. Their applications for leave to appeal were refused by the full Court of Appeal on 30 March 1976.

At these court hearings, all the evidence in the case was most thoroughly examined. The courts heard full details of the character of the accused, of their background and something of the circumstances leading up to the planting of the bombs. They considered the forensic evidence in considerable detail. The methods, results and significance were examined, and questioned. The defence brought its own expert to give evidence. The possibility of innocent contamination by a non-explosive substance was raised.

Most importantly, the nature and content of the confessions was closely examined. Here, of course, I touch one of the main points now raised in support of the contention that the six men were wrongfully convicted, namely, the suggestion that their statements were obtained by violence and threats and were therefore not only false but inadmissible as evidence.

So far as the trial is concerned, this issue was the subject of what has been termed a "trial within a trial". This lasted eight days. It was conducted first in the absence of the jury. The evidence was then repeated before it. At the end of the "trial within a trial", the presiding judge concluded that the evidence of the statements was admissible. At the end of the trial, the jury concluded, clearly in large part on the basis of the statements and confessions, that the men were guilty.

The key point raised in connection with the confessions has been, as I say, the allegation, made by the six men themselves, that they were improperly obtained. There is no doubt that when the six men appeared in court, after their remand at Winson green prison, clear signs of injury were seen on their faces. There is equally no doubt that the trial judge, and in turn the jury, accepted the evidence of more than 20 police officers that the men had not been assaulted or threatened while in police custody. The judge took the view, in the clearest terms, that the men had sustained their injuries while in prison. That view was later confirmed by the Appeal Court.

But the court hearings, and consideration of the case, did not end there. In 1977, three of the six men initiated a civil action against the chief constables of West Midlands and Lancashire, and against the Home Office. Eventually, in a variety of separate and joined actions, all six men sought the award of exemplary damages on the ground of assault and negligence while in police and prison custody. In the course of the hearing before the Court of Appeal (Civil Division), it was accepted by the Home Office that the six men had sustained injury while in the custody of the prison department.

In all, there were three civil hearings between 1978 and 1981, culminating in three days before the House of Lords in October 1981. In brief, the courts had to determine whether or not the action seeking damages, resting on the allegation of assault by the police, could properly be allowed to continue. In effect, the courts finally determined that they could not proceed to hear an issue —namely, the allegation of assault by the police—that had already been considered and determined in the criminal courts. The actions were thus held by the courts to he prevented from proceeding — in the legal terminology, by estoppel, or by the fact that they were an abuse of process.

Of particular significance, in the light of the recent representations about the case—to which I shall come—is the fact that both existing and new evidence was considered. In particular, the civil courts had before them evidence and statements from prison officers and a report regarding the appearance of injuries on photographs of faces of the six men.

Dr. Paul, the coroner for the City of London and Hornsey, had examined photographs taken before and after the men were received into prison. In a report in 1976, he concluded that these showed signs of injury inflicted before their reception into prison. This carried the implication that these injuries had been sustained while in police custody. However, to put the point at its simplest, the Court of Appeal (Civil Division), concluded that this evidence, and the evidence of prison officers regarding injuries, did not change the aspect of the case—again to use the legal wording—it had no probative value. That view was confirmed in the House of Lords.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

The Minister accepts that these men had injuries. On what date did the Home Office accept that injuries were inflicted on them while in custody?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I said that the Home Office, given our responsibility for the prison service, accepts that injuries to the men were caused while in Winson Green prison.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I wish to complete my speech within the time available. If I give way to an hon. Member, that rules out the prospects of my giving way later. If the hon. Gentleman wants his chance to intervene now, so be it.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

As it is accepted that the prisoners were beaten while in prison — somebody did it; it was not self-inflicted—what action has been taken to bring those guilty of inflicting those wounds to book?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

There was a trial of prison officers.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

Am I not to be allowed to answer interventions? The hon. Gentleman should contain himself. I contained myself while listening to his speech. He should contain himself while I deal with his hon. Friend's intervention, otherwise civilised debate in this place — to which I assume he attaches the same importance as I do—will not be possible.

As I was saying, there was a trial, before a court, of prison officers accused of that matter. That trial did not result in convictions.

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

Are we to take it that when people are acquitted of a crime, the police consider that to be the end of the matter? In other words, does it mean that from now on, crimes for which people are charged and acquitted are ignored and no attempt will be made to discover who committed them?

Perhaps the Minister would care to correct something he said. While it may not have been intentional, it may seem to somebody reading the Official Report that he gave some slightly misleading information. He said that the evidence of the warders had been considered at the appeal. Will he accept that the key evidence, given by the warders to their solicitors, has never been examined by a court? In that evidence, three of the warders said that, in their view, beatings had already taken place before the men arrived at Winson Green prison. Further statements have been submitted and they are being considered in the context of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's present inquiries as to whether there are fresh matters that would merit reference to the court.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

If I am permitted to get through the rest of my speech, that is one of the points that I hope to make. As I was saying, there was a trial in 1976 of 14 prison officers who were accused of assaulting the six men. All were, in fact, acquitted. This case has been given full and detailed attention by the courts, but in addition the case has already been the subject of review within the Home Office. The six men have long protested their innocence, and in particular denied their confessions. That has led, over the years, to many representations from right hon. and hon. Members and others. When such representations have been received, they have been carefully examined, but to date no Home Secretary of either political stripe has been able to conclude that he would be justified in taking any action to interfere with the decisions of the courts. At this point, before I turn to the recent representations, it is important that I should explain what powers the Home Secretary has at his disposal where a miscarriage of justice is alleged to have occurred.

Our constitution places the duty of administering justice in individual criminal cases on the courts. The clear, underlying principle is that the Executive should not intervene in or interfere with the courts' decisions. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary has certain reserve powers. In particular, he may consider sending the case to the Court of Appeal for judicial review. This is his power of reference, provided by section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968.

But it is also clear that a Home Secretary must not exercise his powers in such a way as to usurp the functions of the courts. In practice, this means that he can consider intervening only if some new evidence, or some new and material consideration of substance, comes to light.

This practice is not rigid. It does not rule out the consideration of a case, or its referral to the Court of Appeal, solely on the grounds that some particular new piece of evidence could, with due diligence, have been laid before the courts. But what would be inappropriate would be for the Home Secretary to seek to review cases, and interfere with the decisions of the courts, on the basis of his own or someone else's view of the facts and arguments which have already been considered. He cannot exercise his powers on the basis of concern, doubt, rumour, suspicion, or unsupported claim. He should not intervene merely because, if the decision had rested with him, he might have taken a different view of the facts than the jury.

I turn now to the more recent representations which have been made about the men's convictions. The case was featured in a "World in Action" television programme which was broadcast on 28 October 1985. Following that programme, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir. J. Farr) submitted to my right hon. Friend various papers in support of the contention that the men's case should be referred to the Court of Appeal. My right hon. Friend naturally undertook to give these papers the most careful consideration.

It may be helpful to the House if I summarise at this stage the main points raised in the programme and in the associated documents submitted by my hon. Friend. Essentially, they focus on two issues: first, the allegations that the men were beaten in police custody, and secondly, the reliability of the forensic evidence. With regard to the former, my right hon. Friend has received copies of statements by six prison officers to which the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) has already referred. These were apparently made in February 1976 but have not previously been made public. It is claimed that these statements support the view that the men were already injured when they were received into Winson Green prison. In addition, my right hon. Friend received a copy of the report by Dr. Paul, which I mentioned earlier, of his examination of photographs of the six men. As I have said, this report was produced in 1976. Turning to the forensic evidence, it has been claimed that tests carried out by Dr. Caddy of Strathclyde University and Mr. Baldock demonstrate that nitrocellulose can give the same positive result on a Griess test as does nitroglycerine. Hon. Members may recall that this was a claim made by the defence at the trial but which it was unable to substantiate.

Clearly, these various points needed to be taken seriously and examined with the greatest care. This examination was set in hand immediately by my right hon. Friend. Had it not been for the need subsequently to consider further new points raised in Mr. Mullin's book —to which I shall turn shortly—I think that I would have been able to give the House a detailed account tonight of the steps which we have taken to examine these matters. But, as the Home Secretary has said, it would be wrong, in my view, to deal with a case of this kind in a piecemeal fashion. It would be potentially misleading to try to provide a detailed response on one aspect when the case as a whole is under review. That is why I shall have to content myself with assuring the House that the points raised in the television programme and in the papers submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and others are being looked at very thoroughly, drawing on expert scientific advice as necessary. Not only are the points raised being examined in their own right but, as I have indicated, they are being considered against the background of the whole of the case, including the civil actions which the men subsequently pursued. I cannot take further what the hon. Gentleman said for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained. He also said in his letter to the hon. Gentleman that those matters will be addressed in due course.

I do not think that the happy chance that this matter was eligible for debate today should project the Home Secretary into having to make premature explanations. One or two hon. Members have not fully understood it, but he exercises an extremely difficult quasi-judicial function. He has to make what is often an invidious decision whether to refer a case to the Court of Appeal, using the powers that Parliament conferred on him in the 1968 Act.

We have had a full account of some of the arguments in Mr. Mullin's book. Everyone will agree that, for the most part, it simply provides an account based on the man's own narrative. In the closing chapters, however, Mr. Mullin recounts how he traced three men and identified a fourth who he says were responsible for making or planting bombs. He does not, however, name them, which is not, of course, helpful to us in discharging our functions That is a decision which I hope he will reconsider. Of course I heard the explanation that the hon. Member for Sunderland, North gave, but if the Home Secretary is supposed to conclude that there is fresh evidence which entitles him to exercise his discretion under the 1968 Act, it is difficult for him to do so simply on an allegation that other unnamed men are responsible.

I do not propose to go into whether there is a good reason for not taking the matter further than that. I am simply saying that, if it is alleged that unnamed people are responsible for the offence, that is not a firm base on which the Home Secretary can exercise his discretion.

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

I am aware of the difficulty that the Home Secretary is in, but I wonder whether the Minister understands the difficulty that Mr. Mullin is in. However, helpful the Minister thinks it would be for Mr. Mullin to name names, does he agree that there are many questions that he or the Home Secretary would ask Mr. Mullin which he would happily answer about how he conducted his investigation and what leads him to believe that he knows who did it? The Minister has now talked quite a lot about Mr. Mullin. Is it not time that he talked to him?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

We want only to consider as objectively as we can evidence that comes forward. The question is how best to do that. I was grateful for the courtesy of Mr. Mullin's publishers who, presumably at the behest of Mr. Mullin, sent us an advance copy of his book. As a result of that, and as there was new material in at least two of the chapters, the decision was taken to ask that further inquiries be made by the police.

If there is further evidence, in addition to that in the book, which Mr. Mullin wants to lay before us, either publicly or confidentially — perhaps some matters are best raised confidentially — we would be more than prepared to receive it. We are dealing with difficult and essentially legal matters — whether there is a basis for reopening a jury trial. It is a grave matter, because we cannot regard the jury as a bastion of our liberty and be too ready to reopen consideration of what it does. There are, of course, proper times to reopen cases, and the Home Secretary has no interest in not reopening a proper case. If there are points that Mr. Mullin wants to put in writing, they will be considered seriously. If there are points that he would rather discuss, a discussion can certainly take place. My judgment at the time was that the bulk of the work of trawling through the evidence in detail is not done by Ministers but by officials. Mr. Caffarey, who has made contact with Mr. Mullin, is the assistant secretary in charge of the division responsible for the work. It seemed to me appropriate that Mr. Caffarey, if there was to be a meeting, should be the person who carried it out. I even thought that that might have attractions for Mr. Mullin since Mr. Caffarey might be regarded as being more disinterested than a Minister, if some of the allegations are pursued—I hope they will not be—about why Ministers might not want to reopen the case.

I have stated as clearly as I can my view on that. I would be willing to consider any further representations that are made as to what would be the appropriate way of taking this forward and I hope that what I have said is helpful and clarifies the point.

My initial judgment was that an oral meeting with a Minister was not the best way of carrying forward these difficult matters. But, as I think even the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) after our exciting experiences together on the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 will agree, I am always open to argument, although I cannot guarantee to accept every argument put forward by him.

May we leave the matter and communicate further. The offer of the meeting with Mr. Caffarey remains. Other matters we can consider in due time.

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Battersea

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on one point that is puzzling me and that is that reference has been made to the fact that some of the prisoners are being treated differently in prison from the way in which one would expect them to be, given the gravity of the offences.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

They are being treated exactly as other prisoners. What is not happening is that certain additional restrictions are not being imposed on them as on some other prisoners because of the manner of their behaviour. That is why I told the hon. Gentleman yesterday that special restrictions are not being imposed on visits to Mr. Walker in Long Lartin prison.

I willingly concede that the behaviour of these men in prison has not been like many other IRA prisoners. There is no secret about that. I conceded it yesterday.

The Home Secretary must consider whether any of the material that has been submitted to him presents evidence of a kind which would justify referring the case back to the Court of Appeal. In practice he has to look for fresh evidence or new considerations of sufficient weight as might be thought to affect the court's view of the case. We have already given, and will continue to give, careful consideration to the representations made to us following the "World in Action" programme. We are now following up the wholly new claims in Mr. Mullin's recent book. Only when we have completed our examination of matters will my right hon. Friend be able to reach a final decision on whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal.

I must assure the House that no considerations of favourable times for disclosing this matter arose. It simply is, as I think would be conceded, that even with the advance copy of Mr. Mullen's book it has only a matter of a few weeks that we have had that fresh evidence.

Apart from anything else, it would be disrespectful, given the amount of work that has gone into it, if the matters that were new within it were not subject to full and careful consideration.