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Dr. Frank Skuse

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:07 am on 16th February 1988.

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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.