Dr. Frank Skuse

– in the House of Commons at 11:44 pm on 16th February 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maclean].

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin , Sunderland South 12:07 am, 16th February 1988

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of Adjournment debates on different aspects of the case against the six innocent men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings. During these debates, I shall take the opportunity to explore areas that were not touched on in the recent hearing before the Court of Appeal and I hope that in due course this material may be used as the basis for reopening the case.

Tonight I will deal with Dr. Frank Skuse, the forensic scientist whose evidence above all helped to convict these unfortunate men. It is already a matter of record that Dr. Skuse was an incompetent scientist. Indeed, that is why in October 1985 the Home Office ordered his compulsory retirement at the grand old age of 51. The evidence he gave at the original trial has been utterly discredited, so much so that the judges at the recent Court of Appeal were obliged to set aside his evidence, even though they upheld the convictions.

I shall not dwell on Dr. Skuse's incompetence as a scientist. I go further and allege that Dr. Skuse also conspired with police officers to pervert the course of justice, and I shall provide the factual basis for that assertion.

At the time of the Birmingham pub bombings, Dr. Skuse was a scientific officer based at the Home Office forensic laboratory at Chorley in Lancashire. Five of the six convicted men were arrested at the port of Heysham a few hours after the bombs exploded. They were taken to Morecambe police station. Dr. Skuse was telephoned at his home in Wigan shortly after midnight and asked to come as quickly as possible to Morecambe to test the men's hands for explosives.

He was called by Sergeant Ray Paton, the police liaison officer at the Chorley laboratory. Sergeant Paton drove to Wigan to collect Dr. Skuse, and together they returned to the laboratory at Chorley, where Skuse collected his hand-swabbing kit, which was already packed, and they then went on to Morecambe, a total journey of just over 40 miles on roads with little traffic.

According to Dr. Skuse, they arrived at around 3.30 in the morning. It is puzzling why this journey should have taken the best part of three hours, since in the same statement Dr. Skuse estimates that the return journey from Morecambe to Chorley, made in daytime traffic, took only 45 minutes.

At about the same time as Dr. Skuse alleges he arrived, a party of west midlands detectives led by Superintendent George Reade reached Morecambe. Dr. Skuse and Mr. Reade had never met before that night. They have, however, since formed a close relationship which has endured for 13 years—a subject to which I shall return. Dr. Skuse invites us to believe that, having arrived at Morecambe, he did not commence his tests until 5·50 am. Just how he filled in the intervening 2 hours and 20 minutes is unclear. It is unclear also how there could be any possible reason for the delay, since the police were extremely anxious to know the results of Dr. Skuse's tests.

Dr. Skuse and Sergeant Paton installed themselves in the medical room in the cell block of Morecambe police station. The west midlands detectives were, initially at least, confined to the CID offices on the first floor. They were, understandably perhaps, in view of what had happened in Birmingham, in a state of great agitation. They at first insisted on immediate access to the prisoners. Very properly, this was refused by Chief Superintendent Ibison, the senior Lancashire detective. I am told by an officer who was present that this led to a blazing row between Reade and Ibison, but to begin with at least Mr. Ibison held his ground.

Dr.Skuse says that he commenced testing the hands of the five men at 5.50 am. At their trial the men testified that they believed that the tests had commenced much earlier, at around 3 or 4 in the morning. This was necessarily only an estimate since they had no watches, but, as we shall see, there were a number of people who did have watches and who support their evidence.

According to his timings, Dr. Skuse obtained his first positive test from the hand of Billy Power at around 7 o'clock in the morning. He obtained another positive from Paddy Hill by around 7.30. There then occurs a lengthy gap in the times offered by Dr. Skuse, who claims that he did not see the next prisoner, Johnny Walker, until 8.55 and that he carried out a further test on Paddy Hill after 9 am. At the recent appeal hearing, Dr. Skuse explained the gap by saying that he ran out of ether and had to send out for more from a local chemist, Mr. John Rayner. Mr. Rayner, he said, had arrived at between 8.15 and 8.30 am. Mr. Rayner, however, told the court that he delivered the ether to Morecambe police station at between 5 and 6 in the morning. He was quite definite about this. The Appeal Court judges chose to explain this difference away as a lapse of memory on Mr. Rayner's part, but Mr. Rayner is not alone in his recollection.

What is not disputed, even on Dr. Skuse's controversial timings, is that by around 7 in the morning word of Dr. Skuse's positive findings had reached the west midlands detectives, who were anxiously pacing up and down on the first floor. From that moment onwards, they honestly believed that the men downstairs were the Birmingham pub bombers. Although he had no business to be so, Dr. Skuse was absolute in his certainty. There was, he testified later, a 99 per cent. chance that those men had recently handled nitro-glycerine.

At around 7 am or earlier, the Lancashire police surrendered control over the cell block in Morecambe police station to Superintendent Reade and his men, who commenced a series of fantastic assaults in an effort, which was successful, to extract confessions from the men who they sincerely believed, on the basis of what Dr. Skuse had told them, had recently handled nitro-glycerine.

I do not suggest that Dr. Skuse or Sergeant Paton witnessed or overheard these assaults. I do, however, say that, whether or not Dr. Skuse knew of the violence, he is a party to the elaborate web of fraud and perjury to which Superintendent Reade and his men had to resort in order to cover up the assaults.

The official story is that the Lancashire police, under Superintendent Ibison, conducted an orderly handover of the prisoners at 9.30 am. Patently, that is nonsense. Sergeant Ronald Buckley, the officer in charge of the cells at Morecambe, almost let the cat out of the bag at the original trial. He testified that west midlands detectives were already interviewing the prisoners in the cell block when he came on duty at around 7 am. It was not just a slip of the tongue; his evidence on this point covered a whole page of the transcript and lasted several minutes. He only climbed back on board the official version of the events when the judge, Lord Bridge, came, as he sc often did, to the aid of the prosecution and hinted to Sergeant Buckley that his memory might be faulty. However, 13 years later Mr. Buckley still sticks by his story. Interviewed by the Devon and Cornwall police on 13 May last year, he again insisted that west midlands detectives were interviewing the prisoners when he came on duty at about 7 o'clock. He repeated this knowing the implication and knowing — indeed, it was put to him — that Superintendent Ibison, his superior officer at the time, was still saying something quite different.

Inspector Ken Brown was another Lancashire officer on duty that night. He was on duty until 6 am. When I contacted him two years ago, he told me: "My recollection is that Skuse had a positive by the time I went home, although I wouldn't swear to it." If Inspector Brown's recollection is correct, Dr. Skuse must have commenced his tests at least an hour earlier than the time to which he admits.

Sergeant Paton, who drove Dr. Skuse to and from Morecambe police station, can also assist with inquiries. He was not called to give evidence, either at the original trial or at the recent appeal. If the times have been rejigged, he must know. When Sergeant Paton was interviewed last year at his home in Preston by detectives from the Devon and Cornwall police force, he gave two statements. The first, dated 26 March, said that he and Dr. Skuse had arrived at Morecambe at around 1.30 am, two hours earlier than Dr. Skuse claimed.

The Devon and Cornwall police, having taken the statement from Sergeant Paton, went to see Dr. Skuse, who gave them the official version of events, flatly contradicting his driver, Sergeant Paton. So the Devon and Cornwall police went to see Sergeant Paton again and refreshed his memory. His memory suitably refreshed, Sergeant Paton clambered back on board. He signed a second statement, agreeing that he had arrived at 3.30 and not, as he said originally, 1.30. The Devon and Cornwall police were kind enough not to pursue how he came to be so far adrift, nor indeed how he had managed to spin out a 45-minute journey to the best part of three hours.

I come now to Dr. Skuse. It is now established beyond doubt that he was an incompetent scientist. Even the Home Office now accepts that. He was sacked on the grounds of what the Home Office coyly call limited efficiency". It is also established beyond doubt, although the Home Office has yet to own up to this, that Dr. Skuse's limited efficiency dates back to at least 1975, the year he gave his now discredited evidence at the original trial.

What I am suggesting today is something rather more serious than incompetence, and has nothing to do with Dr. Skuse's credibility as a scientist. I say that Dr. Sk use has conspired over a long period with Superintendent George Reade to rearrange the timing of events in Morecambe police station to cover up the fact that west midlands detectives had access to the prisoners several hours earlier than has so far been admitted and that, during that time, they commenced a ferocious programme of violence which led to the extraction of false confessions.

That is why Dr. Skuse and Mr. Reade, who had never met before that night and who live 80 miles from each other, are still so closely in touch after 13 years. That is why they liaised with particular care during the recent appeal and that is why Mr. Reade has stoutly championed Dr. Skuse's claim that he has been unfairly dismissed by the Home Office. Reade needs Skuse's silence if what happened to those men in police custody is to continue to be concealed.

The four days which Dr. Skuse spent in the witness box at the Old Bailey in November must have been particularly nerve-wracking for George Reade. If Skuse had been caught out on timing—he was caught out many times on scientific matters— Reade would have been in deep trouble. If Sergeant Paton had broken ranks and testified along the lines of his first statement, the game also would have been up.

At the recent appeal hearing, it emerged that Dr. Skuse kept no contemporaneous note of the times at which he carried out the tests. Indeed, he kept very few notes of any kind. He did not even record the chemical formula he had used. It emerged also that Dr. Skuse had taken it upon himself to alter the times noted by Sergeant Paton by 10 or 15 minutes. He had done this without telling Sergeant Paton. He did it, he said, at the suggestion of Superintendent Ibison. He denied that he had done it at the suggestion of Superintendent Reade, even though it was pointed out that the new times matched Reade's not Ibison's.

While an alteration of 10 or 15 minutes is not directly relevant to the charge I am making—that the times were adjusted by several hours—it establishes that Dr. Skuse, far from being an impartial scientist, was prepared to change his evidence at the suggestion of a police officer. I do not dwell on this.

Central to the allegation I am making is the relationship that has developed between George Reade and Frank Skuse over the past 13 years. When I and a colleague from Granada Television called unannounced at George Reade's home in Rugeley, Staffordshire, two years ago, he said: I know you lads were about. Frank Skuse told me. That was before any of the recent controversy became public. Dr. Skuse had not telephoned to alert Mr. Reade to our investigation. He had taken the trouble to drive 80 miles to Rugeley to alert Mr. Reade in person.

Over the following 18 months, as Dr. Skuse's difficulties with the Home Office increased, George Reade became a champion of Skuse's cause. He took Skuse to see his Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for AldridgeBrownhills (Mr. Shepherd), whom I hold in the highest regard. Reade even wrote on Dr. Skuse's behalf to the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Brian Cubbon. I submit that George Reade did not do this out of the kindness of his heart. He did it because he needed Skuse's silence and he was worried that an embittered Dr. Skuse might blurt out the truth.

At the recent appeal hearing, Frank Skuse and George Reade were both important witnesses. Skuse was in the witness box for more than four days. Witnesses are not supposed to discuss their evidence with each other or anyone else while the case is proceeding. Indeed, that very point was made to Dr. Skuse by the Lord Chief Justice.

I am reliably informed that Dr. Skuse, on more than one occasion, while the case was proceeding, telephoned former Sergeant Ray Paton in Preston and discussed the case with him at length. Mr. Paton was the man who drove Dr. Skuse to Morecambe. His silence is also needed to corroborate Dr. Skuse's unlikely time schedule.

I further believe—and I challenge Dr. Skuse to deny —that, while the appeal was proceeding, Frank Skuse was regularly in touch by telephone with George Reade, the other principal Crown witness.

I go further. On Sunday 29 November, shortly after Skuse and Reade had completed their evidence, but while the case was still being heard and they were both technically witnesses, liable to be recalled at any time, an ITN journalist, Mr. Chris Jameson, called unannounced at Reade's house. Who should open the door? It was none other than Frank Skuse. Frank Skuse was there, in George Reade's house, while the appeal was still being heard.

Skuse and Reade are the villains of this terrible affair. Dr. Skuse, unwittingly perhaps, provided the false scientific evidence. Mr. Reade provided the confessions and they have conspired together ever since.

Giving judgment in the Appeal Court on 28 January, Lord Justice Lane said: It is inevitable that the allegations made on behalf of the appellants would necessitate the active collaboration of Dr. Skuse. That is exactly what I am alleging.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon 12:22 am, 16th February 1988

The allegations made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) appear to have been made with no evidence at all, for no evidence has been produced. They appear to represent a distortion both of any role that any of the people whom he has named under the cloak of parliamentary privilege might have had and of the Court of Appeal's judgment in the Birmingham pub bombings case. The hon. Gentleman's attack on a member of the judiciary was totally inappropriate and wrong.

The defence had the opportunity to put before the court any evidence that it wished. The court gave the case careful consideration. It is not clear to me, nor to my hon. Friends, exactly what purpose the hon. Genetleman seeks to serve by using the cloak of parliamentary privilege to make entirely unsubstantiated allegations based on nothing more than his personal interpretation of some of the facts for which he has produced no evidence, even when he has been challenged. His attack on a member of the judiciary is entirely inappropriate for an hon. Member following the conventions of the House.

The hon. Gentleman has clearly not read the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case. He has distorted Dr. Skuse's role in the prosecution and chosen to ignore the corroboration that his evidence received at crucial points. The speech that the hon. Gentleman read at great speed, presumably as a trailer for a future book or television programme, was one of the worst and most wretched performances that I have ever heard in the House of Commons.

I shall give a few facts about the retirement of Dr. Frank Skuse, who, along with members of the judiciary and others, has been subjected to attacks by the hon. Gentleman under the cloak of parliamentary privilege.

Dr. Skuse joined the Home Office forensic science service in 1963 at the age of 28. After six years service he was promoted in 1969 to the next grade of principal scientific officer. It was in that grade that he passed the remainder of his career in the forensic science service. Over these years he developed a particular interest in arson and explosives. Throughout the 1970s Dr. Skuse's career followed a normal pattern, with him gaining experience in the matters in which he had developed his particular interests. It is unremarkable, therefore, that among the cases he handled was one that later became known as that of the Birmingham bombers. Dr. Skuse's career continued on these lines until the early 1980s, when his managers noted some falling off in his performance as a principal scientific officer.

It was that deterioration in performance, noted in a number of staff reports—[Interruption.] I am giving the facts and the evidence. I am not making unsubstantiated and wild allegations. That deterioration in performance led to an invitation to Dr. Skuse to consider early retirement. At the same time, it was made clear to Dr. Skuse that in view of his current performance the Department was bound to make moves to secure his compulsory retirement on grounds of limited efficiency. "Grounds of limited efficiency" is a perfectly ordinary term of art that is used in the Civil Service across all Departments. It is not something to be sneered at.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

No, I shall certainly not give way.

In the event, in June 1985 Dr. Skuse agreed to take voluntary retirement. That is a fact rather than an allegation or an unsubstantiated, wild statement, such as we have heard from the hon. Member for Sunderland, South. There was some discussion with Dr. Skuse about whether he should retire at the end of October or early in November. That also is a fact. In a letter dated 23 July 1985 he was told that his last day of service would be 31 October 1985.

The chronological sequence that I have just described makes it absolutely clear that the question of limited efficiency that led to the retirement of Dr. Skuse related to his performance in the period to his retirement in 1985, and certainly not to the work that he had done as long ago as 1975.

It has been demonstrated, therefore, that there was no connection between Dr. Skuse's retirement and the case of the Birmingham bombings. However, the Department, as a matter of prudence, has reviewed Dr. Skuse's earlier work on a number of occasions. The most comprehensive review was one made by the then director of the Chorley forensic science laboratory, Mr. George Walker, in 1984 and 1985, at the request of the controller of the forensic science service. Mr. Walker used all the available records at the laboratory. These covered Dr. Skuse's written evidence in some 350 cases, dating back not just to 1975, but to 1966. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not seem to be interested in the facts and in the evidence. They are interested only in wild and unsubstantiated allegations.

Mr. Walker concluded that his investigations had not brought to light any case where Dr. Skuse had misreported facts, had been biased in his reports, or had been negligent in his work. On the basis of his investigations, Mr. Walker did not consider that he had any grounds for suspecting that Dr. Skuse's work had led to any miscarriage of justice. Leaving on one side the case of the Birmingham bombers, nothing emerged from these reviews that called into serious doubt convictions reached in cases where Dr. Skuse gave evidence.

I should make it absolutely clear that, following the normal conventions of the House, neither I nor my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department consider it right to comment in any way on the evidence given at the appeal hearing or on the judgment handed down by the court. What I can say is that the Court of Appeal had laid before it the facts and arguments about Dr. Skuse's evidence. It went over ground raised at the trial.

At the appeal hearing, seven says were spent on the issue. The hon. Gentleman said that Dr. Skuse gave evidence for four days. It was about the only fact that the hon. Gentleman referred to in his speech and even that was wrong. Dr. Skuse gave evidence, not for four days, but for three and a half days. If the hon. Gentleman wants to report facts to the House, he should at least take the trouble to make sure that he has got them right. [Interruption.] I thought that the hon. Gentleman cared about facts. Clearly he does not. He undermines the basis of his own arguments by his cavalier attitude to facts and his reliance on allegations and suppositions. There has been a clear opportunity for any issues or arguments about the scientific evidence in the Birmingham bombings case to be raised. After long and careful deliberation the Court of Appeal gave its judgment. As my right hon. Friend has made plain, he cannot now, in the absence of any indications from the court that he should do so, intervene in these convictions. It is not for him to seek to pass further judgment, quite rightly. He is not a court of law; nor am I; nor, in the strict sense, if I may say so, is the House.

What about the issue of further reviews of Dr. Skuse's cases? We have, of course, looked at what the court had to say in its judgment. Our understanding is that the judgment has not shown any grounds for casting doubt on Dr. Skuse's scientific work in general or in other specific cases. The position in cases in which Dr. Skuse gave evidence is the same as in any other contested criminal case that resulted in a conviction. If any new evidence or any new consideration—I emphasise the word "new" — is brought to our attention that casts doubt on the accuracy of the evidence—whether that of Dr. Skuse or any other witness—or on the safety of the conviction, we would think it right to review the case, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has shown himself very ready to do.

As with the Birmingham case, the decision for my right hon. Friend would be whether or not he found that there were grounds that would justify his referring the case to the Court of Appeal. We therefore have no present plans to subject criminal cases on which Dr. Skuse worked to further review. As I have said, however, we would clearly be ready to consider reviewing and intervening in any particular case where some new evidence or new consideration of substance that cast doubt on the safety of the conviction came to light.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way, as I have only two minutes in which to conclude my remarks on the case.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

This is an important point.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I can see no justification for giving way to the right hon. Gentleman. I must return to the starting point of the Adjournment rather than deal with a number of allegations for which no evidence has been produced.

I believe that I have shown conclusively that the circumstances of the Birmingham bombings, and therefore the issue of Dr. Skuse's retirement, have been fully addressed in my remarks to the House tonight in reply to the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment motion.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, if there is a moment. I have listened to the Minister with interest. He has totally failed to meet the points made by my hon. Friend about established collusion between two witnesses appearing before the court. I ask him, before the debate ends, to say that he will investigate the points made by my hon. Friend, who has devoted a lot of effort to proving what most people now believe to be the case, namely, that the Birmingham six are innocent and that the only reason that their appeal was turned down was that if it had been upheld the British judiciary at a very high level, and the police, would have been brought into disrepute.

The Minister, in replying to my hon. Friend, has totally failed to address some of the most serious allegations that I have heard made in the House. Those reading the report of this debate in Hansard will draw the conclusion that the Minister, too, is covering up for the judiciary and the police.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I must ask the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to withdraw those last remarks. They are totally unparliamentary and unacceptable.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

Madam Deputy Speaker, I said that those reading the report of the debate in Hansard would be driven to the conclusion that the Minister was covering up for decisions that had been taken elsewhere.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

It is those remarks that I ask the right hon. Member to withdraw. I plead with him. They are totally unacceptable to me in the Chair tonight, and unacceptable to the House. I ask him to consider and to withdraw them now.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am an old Member of the House and I ask you what is unparliamentary about accusing the Government of covering up, because that is precisely the charge.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

"Covering up" is a charge that I have heard used regularly in many years of debates in the House.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I understand when the right hon. Gentleman says that he is a long-standing Member of the House, but he is making a personal attack on the Minister tonight, which I believe is totally unjustified, and I ask him to withdraw those remarks at this stage.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

Madam Deputy Speaker, I will bow to your ruling, but I must say that if the charge is objectionable because it relates to the Minister, I must claim that the Government, who are responsible to the House, are covering up for what happened in the police and the judiciary.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Those remarks I can accept, but there must be no aspersions in the House against a Minister. Criticism of the Government is perfectly justified in the House, but it must not be made against any individual Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to One o'clock.