The Shrewsbury 24

– in Westminster Hall at 3:58 pm on 24th March 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon 3:58 pm, 24th March 2015

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.

I do not intend to rehearse the issues raised during a debate on 23 January 2014, because I think that all hon. Members in this Chamber attended it. However, I shall say that the will of Parliament is being defied by this Government. The will of Parliament on 23 January 2014, by 120 votes to three, was that documents should be released so that people who were locked up in 1973 could have the chance to clear their name.

We were advised and supported by the Minister, who said he would try to help us take this matter forward. He met us in the Lobby after the debate, and he then met us—me, along with Ricky Tomlinson, who was one of those locked up in 1973, and Eileen Turnbull, who works for the campaign—in July last year. We told him then that there were far more documents than he related in his response to the debate—four redacted letters, currently being withheld. We said there were a lot more than that; and, to give credit where it is due, the Minister went away and released an Excel spreadsheet of 2,282 file references being held by the Government.

Out of those 2,000-plus, the campaign team, led by Eileen Turnbull, selected 51 that she believed could have a direct connection to the trials. When she inquired whether those files could be released from the National Archives, she was told that she would have to apply to each respective Department where the files were being held. She has applied for six files from two Departments by way of freedom of information requests. She has been told in no uncertain terms that “None of the above” will be available for public scrutiny. They are being withheld under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. On asking for a review of those decisions in February this year, she was told on 20 and 24 February that the response to the application for a review was not to release the documents. Therefore, with great respect to the Minister, the words he gave us had no bearing. We have moved nowhere.

Those of us who are involved in this issue are clear that we would like to see a number of files. I will list just six, but that is out of a great big bunch that we could go into. First, we would like access to the relevant un-redacted Cabinet documents and internal police, intelligence and Security Service records for the period from the start of the national strike in May 1972 to the subsequent convictions in March 1974, together with any such files relating to the Shrewsbury pickets beyond those dates. Secondly, we would like access to documents that deal with communications between Departments and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, particularly those involving Sir Robert McAlpine.

Thirdly, we would like access to any documents that deal with the decision to set up a police investigation squad in north Wales led by the chief constable of Gwynedd and the chief constable of West Mercia after the strike in 1972 to collect statements that led to the prosecution of the 24 Shrewsbury pickets. Fourthly, we ask for a copy of the joint report of the chief constable of Gwynedd and the chief constable of West Mercia in 1972-73, which included a statement that, in their view, any violence by pickets was sporadic and episodic and that they did not have the evidence to bring conspiracy charges against the pickets, although those were ultimately levied against them in court.

Fifthly, we would like records of communications between any combination of the following: the Home Secretary and the Home Office, the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Treasury counsel, the chief constables of West Mercia and Gwynedd and Sir Maurice Drake, QC, who was acting for the prosecution in 1972-73. Finally, we would like all documents relating to the decision of the Lord Chancellor to make the practice direction ending the right of the defence to know the occupation of jurors, something that was overturned just before the case. We would also like a copy of said direction. That document, which should be in the public domain, is still unobtainable through the usual sources. That is a short list of some of the things that have been hidden from public view by this Government and by previous Governments.

What we are talking about in this debate is justice, integrity and honour, but we are also talking about real people’s lives—the 24 men who were convicted in 1973: John Carpenter, John McKinsie Jones, John Elfyn Llywarch, Kenneth Desmond Francis O’Shea, Eric Tomlinson, Dennis Michael Warren, William Michael Pierce, John Malcolm Clee, John Gary Davies, Derrick Hughes, Samuel Roy Warburton, Thomas Brian Williams, Alfred James, Dennis Morris, George Arthur Murray, Patrick Kevin Butcher, William Charles Leslie Hooson, Terence Renshaw, Graham Roberts, John Kenneth Seaburg, Peter Alfred Sear, Bryn Thomas, Edward Leonard Williams and Thomas Bernard Williams.

Those 24 men have never had their names cleared. Sadly, four of them—John Carpenter, Des Warren, Alfred James and John Kenneth Seaburg—will never know if their names will be cleared, because they are now dead. Their families are still living with the burden that their husbands, fathers and brothers have gone to their graves as convicted criminals. The youngest of the men still surviving is almost 70 and the oldest is 90. It is 42 years since they were convicted and this Government are holding on to records, transcripts and paperwork that could clear their names. It simply is not right in this day and age. We are constantly told by our Prime Minister that we should let the sunshine in and have transparency. That is all we have asked for in these debates, and it is the one thing we have never had.

With your latitude, Mr Caton, I want to quote from the transcript of the court case. I will quote from the summing up of the case, first from Ricky Tomlinson and then from Des Warren. Everyone knows who Ricky Tomlinson is—he is a national treasure and an icon—but he still clearly regards himself first and foremost as a City and Guilds plasterer who was doing a job trying to protect himself and the men he worked with from working in some of the worst and most arduous conditions in the world. While he was waiting to be sentenced, this is what he said to the judge—the judge did not want to hear it, and I am not surprised. These are just some snippets. He said:

“It was said by Goebbels in the last war that if you repeat a lie often enough it eventually becomes accepted as the truth. This I have observed being put into practice here in this court…I can sympathise with members of the jury because they have been used in this charade in just the same way as myself and my colleagues. We must remember that British justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done…No sentence passed on me by this court, however lenient or however severe, can hurt me more that I have already been hurt. I have been almost continuously unemployed since my arrest and, of course, this punishes my wife and two infant sons to a far greater extent that it does me. During the length and course of this trial my family have been abused by the very people whose duty it is to assist them…The sentence passed on me by this court will not matter. My innocence has been proved time and again by the building workers of Wrexham whom I represent, and also by the building workers from all over the land who have sent particular messages of support to myself and my family and my colleagues…I know my children when they are old enough, will understand that the struggle we took part in was for their benefit and for the benefit and interest of building workers and their families.”

That is true; sadly, they know that their father is still effectively a convicted criminal. He then went on to say these words, which are why we are here today:

“I look forward to the day when the real culprits of these crimes, the McAlpines, the Wimpey’s, the Laings and the Bovis’s, and all their political bodies, are in the dock facing charges of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right, picketing.”

He also spoke about the fact that those companies were running building sites in this country where one builder a day was dying. The companies were abusing health and safety legislation, which was there to protect the men and boys working on the sites.

I now move on to the speech made by Des Warren. He was the first to admit that he was a political activist. He was one of the “reds under the bed” that people were terrified of in the 1970s. He never hid away from that, but he was also a proud working man. This is what he had to say:

“I have spent a week in jail, and people in there and various other people, not including my counsel, have told me that it was always a mistake to make a speech from the dock, because whatever you are going to get will be doubled. I tried to explain to them that the system that operates is purely for the upper class, and I don’t expect any leniency or mercy from it, so I’ll continue anyway.

It has been said in this court that this trial had nothing do with politics. Among ten million trade unionists in this country I doubt if you would find one who would agree with that statement. It is a fact of life that Acts of Parliament have been passed and picketing and strikes are looked upon as a political act. It therefore follows that every action taken in furtherance of an industrial dispute also becomes a political act…On the other hand, employers, by their contempt of laws governing safety requirements, are guilty of causing the deaths of a great many workers, and yet they are not dealt with before the courts. Mr. Bumble said: ‘The law is an ass.’ If he were here now he might draw the conclusion that the law is, quite clearly, an instrument of the state, to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against the majority. It is biased; it is class law, and nowhere has that been demonstrated more than in the prosecution case in this trial…Was there a conspiracy? Ten members of the jury have said there was. There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets…The conspiracy was between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police. It was not done with a nod and a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory Members of Parliament who demanded changes in picketing laws…The working class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallenged. It is yet one more step along the road to fascism, and I would remind you that the greatest heroes in Nazi Germany were those who challenged the law, when it was used as a political weapon by a fanatical gang for a minority of greedy, evil men.”

This man died as a direct result of the way he was treated in prison. He was treated disgracefully. He was beaten up and given liquid medication that caused him to develop Parkinson’s. He suffered desperately. My sister nursed him in the 1980s and said it was the hardest she had ever done. This man was effectively killed by the state, even if it took 30 years for him to die.

So this is a debate about justice and honour, but it is also about the Minister; because the Minister, if he does not help us today, will again defy the will of Parliament. We all recognise his long track record inside and out of the House of being honest and being honourable—of being a seeker after truth. What we saw in the mid-1970s was a group of men who were set up and who were locked up. Ever since then there has been a cover up, which has lasted 42 years.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. Does he agree that the only crime that these men committed was to fight for better health and safety on the building sites? During that time, 571 people had been killed in a three-year period and 221,000 people had been injured on construction sites. That, coupled with £30 for 30 hours, was what these people were fighting for. It was a miscarriage of justice of the highest order.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Like me, he worked in the mining industry, which saw some of the most horrific accident and death statistics going back centuries. We fought against that and turned it around in the mining industry. The people in the building industry were trying to do exactly what we did. They wanted to bring to the building sites the sort of legislation and protection that we had achieved, sometimes through industrial action, but also through coming into this place and getting legislation passed to protect people at work. That is what these men were doing. They also wanted a decent living wage, because £30 was not a lot of money in 1972. They wanted a reasonable pay rise, but they were also defending people’s lives and limbs.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

May I ask the Minister a question through my hon. Friend? Why is it that the Government are reducing the 30-year rule to 20 years, yet in correspondence on this matter with me the Ministry of Justice has increased the information release date from 30 years to 40 years? My five constituents, who are among the names mentioned by my hon. Friend, cannot get justice until 2022, when many of them will be very old indeed.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

My right hon. Friend asks a very valid question, and I hope that we get an answer from the Minister. It beggars belief. We know the context in which this case took place. We had industrial strife in a number of industries and obviously a lot was happening in Northern Ireland. We also know the context of police behaviour in the 1970s, because it is now coming out through things such as the Saville and Hillsborough inquiries, issues relating to the miners’ strike at Orgreave and the behaviour of the security services in relation to the Birmingham and Guildford bombings, for example. We are talking about 24 men among a larger group who went to a picket line. On the day, not one of them was charged, warned or arrested. If they done something that warranted arrest, they would have been arrested there and then—not five months later, not after a fishing expedition, but on the day.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has assiduously pursued this issue since he came into Parliament. One way in which the trade unions were undermined in the ’60s and ’70s, certainly in the building industry, was through something called lump labour, which kept wages down. Sometimes these things are forgotten in this day and age, but they happened then. Sometimes people were expected to work in appalling conditions, and if someone got blacklisted, it was like a life sentence: they never got another job.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of that, because what the building employers were doing was not only bad in terms of people’s working conditions; they were actually breaking the law. They were encouraging people not to be paid properly. In effect, those employers were not paying income tax or national insurance contributions, so they were stealing from the public purse, while at the same time coercing the Home Secretary to pressure the police into bringing forward a case against 24 innocent men, whom the judiciary would then prosecute as a warning to others. That is exactly what this is all about, and I am convinced that the papers show that. My right hon. Friend Mr Hanson asked why the information release date has been extended to 40 years; I am not sure that we will get the answers even in 2022, if we are still around. The sad reality is that some of these men will not be around. That is a disgrace.

I look to the Minister as someone who, I believe, is an honourable man. I know that he does not have much time left over the next few days, but he may be in the same post in eight weeks’ time. Obviously my colleagues and I hope that it will be someone from our party sitting in his place, because we have pledged to release the papers, and we have said that we will do it no matter what the Security Service or the spooks tell us. We will release them, because we see this as a debt to the people of the country, but we also see it as exercising the will of Parliament. Parliament spoke in January last year; that voice has been blocked deliberately by this Government. I look to the Minister today to try to help us to move that blockage and to move it now.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:16 pm, 24th March 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.

I pay tribute to Mr Anderson; he knows that I respect hugely his commitment to this issue. I will not repeat myself, but he also knows from the large debate that we had on the Floor of the House in January last year that I am very sympathetic to the cause that was the basis of the dispute. I represented many building workers in the past, and I know that practice in the building industry was often appalling. In the ’70s and earlier, safety was poor, so it was an important campaign for the unions to be involved with. I therefore start from a position of both respect for the people in the unions who were involved and support for the cause that they were campaigning on. I remember the dispute, and I thank the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for continuing to pursue the issue. I will be as helpful as I can. He came to see me after the previous debate, and we discussed how we could make as much progress as possible.

I will try to deal with the issues quickly, but let me first summarise the facts. In 1972, there was a strike by building workers in Shrewsbury. A number of the picketers were then arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and conspiracy to intimidate. Several picketers, whom the hon. Gentleman named, were given prison sentences. That was controversial, partly because of the alleged role of the security services, and the Justice for Shrewsbury Pickets campaign was established with the intention of having the convictions overturned.

In recent years, there has been a renewed push for the release of all Government-retained papers on the issue. I have seen Ricky Tomlinson here. He attended the previous debate and has taken a direct interest, having launched an e-petition for the release of the documents that garnered 33,000 signatures. Another petition was submitted in December 2013 with about 70,000 signatures. Together, they probably crossed the 100,000 signatures trigger line for e-petitions. That led to the Backbench Business Committee granting the debate on the Floor of the House on 23 January last year. The hon. Gentleman is right that an overwhelming majority of the Members who voted in that debate called for the papers to be published, and that included not only Opposition Members but Government Members.

Since then, some of the Shrewsbury 24 have applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission—I discussed that with the hon. Gentleman when we met. Ministers understand that, as part of its ongoing consideration of the case, the CCRC has exercised its powers under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 to access papers relevant to the case. It has not come to a public position on that, but its staff have seen the papers and they have regarded and taken account of them in as much as they wish to do so.

The majority of the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24 were released under the Public Records Act 1958 to the National Archives. Under sections 62 and 63 of the Freedom of Information Act—this relates to the point made by Mr Hanson—a record becomes an historical record 20 years after it was created, so the right hon. Gentleman is right, the Government have legislated to make the 30-year rule a 20-year rule. Gradually we are working our way down so that in a few years all public papers, unless they are exempted, will be released under the 20-year rule. I will come on to the qualification to which he referred.

Under the existing public records legislation, all records selected for permanent preservation must be transferred to the National Archives by the time that they are 30 years old unless—this is the key issue—they are needed for administrative purposes or

“ought to be retained for any other special reason”.

Where that is deemed to be the case, the Department in question must seek the Lord Chancellor’s approval.

Since 1967, successive Lord Chancellors in the three different types of Administration have been satisfied that information related to security and intelligence matters falls within the category of “other special reason”. The approval granted in an administrative instrument signed by the Lord Chancellor is referred to as a security and intelligence “blanket”.

The date to which the hon. Member for Blaydon and the right hon. Member for Delyn referred arises from the current blanket approval given on 19 December 2011 by the then Lord Chancellor, running up to the end of 2021. It is then up to individual Departments to decide whether they wish to rely on the security blanket to keep information from the National Archives.

Papers retained under the blanket should be reviewed for ongoing sensitivity every 10 years. The Cabinet Office has told me, as I told the hon. Member for Blaydon last year, that the process to review the papers held by it is now under way and will be completed by the end of this year, as required under the Public Records Act.

I am aware that colleagues have been in touch with Ministers in the Cabinet Office. There have also been questions to me by Katy Clark, which I answered in March last year, and by the hon. Member for Blaydon on 9 March this year, which the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General answered:

“A review of these retained papers is under way and will be completed by the end of 2015, as required by the Public Records Act.”

Today I saw that the hon. Gentleman was down to ask an oral question as well.

I have also seen a letter about a constituent to the Minister for Employment from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General dated yesterday:

“Thank you for your e-mail…addressed to the Minister of State for Justice…regarding the release of papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24. The ongoing sensitivity of this material is subject to periodic review and they are being reviewed this year. I am responding as the Minister responsible.

An outline of the material which has been retained was given to Parliament in a statement by Simon Hughes on 23 January 2014. The process to review the papers is under way and will be completed by the end of 2015, as required by the Public Records Act. I can also advise you that the Criminal Cases Review Commission has seen the papers and expressed no interest.”

It is open to the hon. Member for Blaydon, even at this stage in this Parliament, to make a request to the Cabinet Office, whose decision it is, to have a meeting with the Minister whose responsibility it will be as to whether to release those papers this year. I urge the hon. Gentleman to do that. He has pursued assiduously all sorts of approaches to open up what has happened and I hope that, if he has not already done so, he will approach the Cabinet Office Minister directly for a meeting to make the formal request ahead of the decision.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

That is the intent of my question to the Cabinet Office, which is down for tomorrow, but I am on my feet to ask a different question. Does the Minister not find it strange that despite what was said in last year’s debate and what I have said today, and despite campaigners out in the public domain attacking judges, police, Ministers, big business and every part of the establishment, not one of them has responded by saying, “You have made all this up”? Not one has said, “You’re wrong, you’re out of order.” Does that not give even more credence to the fact of a cover-up to conceal what people have done, which was deliberately to put those people in jail as a lesson to working men and women?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s drawing that conclusion. To be fair—trying to step back for a second—the fact that nothing has been said can be open to interpretation in either direction, but I completely understand the view that if there were nothing to hide, someone might have said that. Legalistically, however, people might rightly have said that they could make no comment.

May I be helpful in two other ways? In fact, I want to say three other things in the remaining few minutes. Four documents are central to the case, so let me put on the record what they are: a Security Service report; a letter from the director-general of the Security Service to the Cabinet Secretary, which was released but for one redacted paragraph; a minute from the Cabinet Office to No. 10 referring to the report, which was released except for a single paragraph; and a minute from No. 10 to the Cabinet Office in reply, which has been released except for a single paragraph. Those are the four documents that we are talking about—the four documents that we know about.

We also know that the bulk of the documents on the subject that are held by the Government have been released. According to the figures I have, of the 1972 records—all records, not only those concerning the builders’ strike—93.5%, or 50,917, are available to the public already; 2,932 are closed at the National Archives; and 1.1%, or 625 documents, are retained by Departments. The assiduous researcher of the hon. Member for Blaydon has addressed herself to those Departments on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf. The Departments have the responsibility to decide whether to release the documents. I do not have the power to order other Departments to release documents. If release is refused, there is a right of appeal under the Freedom of Information Act to the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal. I will continue to be as helpful as possible.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

My hon. Friend Mr Anderson commented that the Minister was a respected person. I have no doubt that that is the case. Will the Minister tell us what powers he has to progress the matter? He has been in his position for quite some time now and I am wondering whether he has done anything at all.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Within my powers as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice I have done all that I can do. I do not have the power to direct other Departments to release documents for which they have the responsibility. The process is: application to the Department, which the researcher of the hon. Member for Blaydon has made, and, if turned down, a Freedom of Information Act appeal to the commissioner and to the tribunal. My advice continues to be to fight the case, as it were, in the other Department—this is not in relation to the four documents, which are covered by the Cabinet Office secrecy blanket. To see if there is further material, other documents have to be pursued Department by Department.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

I understand all that. The question is, what powers does the Minister have and what powers has he used since becoming a Minister to progress matters in his own Department?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

We do not hold any of the documents in my Department. The reason that I was responding to the debate is in part because I am the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information. I have ensured that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Blaydon know exactly how to use the powers given to them by the law. I cannot take those powers away from them and I cannot tell Departments which information to release if they choose to refuse to do so, but there is a process in law that will take the hon. Gentlemen to the courts in order to have the information released.

May I share one other thing that I hope will answer hon. Members’ questions? I am keen, if possible, for the FOI requests to be accepted and for the information to be released across the Departments, as well as from the Cabinet Office. Under this year’s Cabinet Office process to decide whether to retain the documents, officials look at the material afresh and the test is whether the transfer of the records to the National Archives or any other place of deposit creates a “real risk of prejudice” to national security. That is the criterion they have to judge by. Officials have to make that decision with authority delegated from the Cabinet Office Minister.

The Lord Chancellor looked at the papers in 2012 and satisfied himself that the test was applied, but even that decision—if the hon. Member for Blaydon goes to the Cabinet Office to make the request and the papers are still not released—can be challenged by asking for that information through an FOI request, which has an appeals process, and through judicial review if appropriate. I am happy to put the resources of my Department at his disposal as a seeker after the facts, but it is the Cabinet Office, subject to the courts, that makes the call that will determine whether a document is released. I hope that there can be progress this year and that, for his sake and the sake of those whom he represents, there is therefore the release of the documents. The decision, however, is that of the Cabinet Office Minister.