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Timothy Evans (Reinterment)

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 25 November 1965

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

10.47 p.m.

The House will no doubt be aware of the somewhat macabre and distasteful publicity that surrounded the story of the reinterment of the remains of the late Timothy Evans. It was the desire of his family that his remains be taken from Pentonville Prison and reinterred m Greenford Park Cemetery, in my constituency.

Hon. Members will have read some of the stories which have appeared in many newspapers. There has been evidence of a great hoax, but the results have caused much suffering to be endured by the family, relatives and friends of the late Timothy Evans.

I will give the House a brief summary of some of the facts which led up to this distasteful situation, and I have some pointed questions to put to the Minister. Subsequent to the coming into law of the Murder (Abolition of Capital Punishment) Act, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary issued a licence for the reinterment of the remains of Timothy Evans from Pentonville Prison to a place of holy ground selected by his family.

The family of the late Timothy Evans are Roman Catholics, and through their solicitors, Zeffert Heard and Morley Lawson, they made arrangements for the body to be reinterred in Greenford Park Cemetery. His mother, Mrs. Probert, anticipating the probability of getting this licence from my right hon. and learned Friend, purchased grave space in Greenford Park Cemetery, and later, when the licence was actually obtained, the family explained to the chaplain superintendent there, Father Lesley Elliott, that when the body was to be removed they wished the utmost secrecy to be observed because, as Mrs. Probert put it to me, she did not want what was to them a deeply religious occasion and a moment of deep concern turned into any form of a circus.

The story from there on goes something like this. On 5th November, the Rev. Elliott was instructed to open the purchased grave for the interment of the exhumed remains of the late Timothy Evans. He received these instructions from the solicitors to whom I have just referred. He was given the coffin size, and all the other details that are involved on such an occasion. He was also told that the reinterment would take place at Greenford Park Cemetery at 3.30 p.m. on 10th November. Here, again, it was stressed that great secrecy was to be observed; it was to be a strictly private affair, and only relatives and a very few close friends would be in attendance. It was also pointed out to the chaplain superintendent that the appropriate documents which are required on such occasions would be provided on the day and at the service.

It meant that the Rev. Elliott had to give instructions to his cemetery staff to prepare the grave. The local Roman Catholic priests were informed, and they were ready to assist in the ceremony of the reinterment, and to assist the family in what was to the family a very touching moment.

On 10th November, the day appointed, at about 11 o'clock, a plain van entered Greenford Park Cemetery. It was manned by two men. The Rev. Elliott seems to think that they were uniformed men. They said that they were from Pentonville Prison, and that they had instructions to wait with the van at the cemetery, and they stayed there for some three or four hours.

The Rev. Elliott was approached by one of these, as he thought, officials of the Home Office, who asked him if they could use the telephone. He agreed to their doing so. After using the telephone, they turned to the chaplain superintendent and informed him that the remains of Timothy Evans had already been interred at Leytonstone, and that the grave at Greenford Park Cemetery was not now required. The Rev. Elliott inspected the van, and discovered that beneath the pall cloth at the rear of the van, under which he had assumed would be the coffin with the remains of Timothy Evans, there were a number of boxes. The men then said that they had instructions to clear out, and as far as they were concerned that was that.

The Rev. Elliott contacted the family of the late Timothy Evans, and I too have had conversations with Mrs. Probert. I was driven many miles to see her. She said that when the funeral left Pentonville Prison she was under the impression that they were going to Greenford Park Cemetery. After they had been travelling for some 10 or 15 minutes, she realised that they were not on the way to Greenford Park Cemetery at all; that, indeed, they were travelling in the opposite direction. Ultimately they arrived at Leytonstone. She had no idea that any decoy arrangements had been made and was quite shocked when she and her daughter arrived at Leytonstone instead of at Greenford Park Cemetery.

However, at this stage solicitors explained to Mrs. Probert that there had been a leak in the arrangements and that the television, the Press and camera men were all waiting at Greenford Park Cemetery. The very thing that the family did not want—namely, that this particular moment should be turned into a circus—might well have happened, and the solicitors had no choice but to make these alternative arrangements.

When this was explained to Mrs. Probert she offered her apologies to the Roman Catholic clergy and to the superintendent of the Greenford Park Cemetery. The superintendent has been quite prepared to accept these apologies. But he thought it was a little unthinking of someone that he was not taken into confidence and that the whole matter had not been explained to him and to the local Roman Catholic priests.

I have spoken to the superintendent and he told me that the scene at Greenford Park Cemetery resembled something like a circus. The Press and the photographers were there. I understand that both the I.T.A. and the B.B.C. were there. All who behaved in this manner ought to have been completely and thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

The matter does not end there. Later on, when the Press and the television people discovered that they had been hoaxed, they did not give Mrs. Probert a minute's peace. Indeed, after the funeral when she got home she was hounded by the Pressmen. She was telephoned sometimes at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning, after all that the family had gone through—and we know what a terrible story it is. Indeed, I am one of those who think that we as a nation have been guilty of a most terrible miscarriage of justice. However, I realise that that has nothing to do with this aspect of the matter that I am raising.

Mrs. Probert was in some distress. She told me that she could understand why her solicitors had had to arrange this hoax. I wish to say straight away that my criticisms do not involve all the Press. Indeed, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to newspapers like the Northern Echo, which has been so helpful during the entire case. Mrs. Probert has told me how deeply grateful she is to the people on this newspaper for the way in which she had been helped. She has also said that when she appealed to certain newspaper men her appeal was heeded. But it was not heeded in the case of the Daily Sketch and it was apparently completely ignored by the Daily Express. But there is always a saving grace, and I am glad to say that the behaviour of the journalists on the Daily Mirror was absolutely exemplary and consistent with the ethics of decent journalism.

I wish to put these direct questions to my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I should like to know whether the van that was used was in any way a Home Office vehicle. Was the Home Office involved in this hoax? Were the uniformed men, for example, civil servants? Were they members of the Pentonville staff? Was the Home Office concerned in any of what I would call these unfortunate arrangements which, while they may have been necessary, were not carried out properly because the Roman Catholic clergy and cemetery authorities at Greenford were not informed? These arrangements have caused a great deal of anguish to many people in my constituency. If the Home Office was involved, why was not the Rev. Elliott taken into confidence. I hope my hon. Friend will clear up this matter once and for all. I hope that, when my hon. Friend has replied to the points which I have raised, all of us who have been concerned in any way whatsoever with this unfortunate affair will be resolved to let this saddened family live their grief-torn lives free of unnecessary intervention. They have suffered enough.

11.0 p.m.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) has raised this matter, because it gives me an opportunity to state what actually happened and to refute some of the allegations which I know have been made outside this House. As I will show, the responsibilities of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary in this matter were confined to the exhumation and the taking of the remains out of Pentonville Prison.

First, however, I should like to say a few words about the permission for exhumation. As long ago as last February my right hon. and learned Friend said in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour) that if the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill became law he would be ready to consider sympathetically an application in respect of any executed offender for a licence for the removal of the remains for private reburial.

The Bill became law on 8th November and my right hon. and learned Friend's decision to grant a licence in the case of Evans followed simply from the earlier statement which I have just mentioned. It will be seen, therefore, that the exhumation was not connected in any way with the special inquiry by Mr. Justice Brabin, and the announcement about the removal of the remains of anyone executed was made six months before it was decided to hold an inquiry. I am glad to be able to make this clear, for it has been suggested that it was wrong for my right hon. and learned Friend to allow the reburial of the remains while the question of Evans's innocence or guilt is the subject of an inquiry and that he was in some way prejudging the issue. I can say that that is not so, because if the relatives of anyone else who had been executed applied for an exhumation this would be considered in the same way as was done in the case of the remains of Timothy Evans.

As for my hon. Friend's questions, the solicitor for Evans's mother, Mr. Morley Lawson, who had been in touch with the Home Office from time to time following the Parliamentary statement last February, told us that they desired the reburial to take place as soon as possible after the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill became law. In accordance with their wishes, arrangements were made for the remains to be exhumed so that the funeral could take place on Wednesday, 10th November.

My right hon. and learned Friend issued a licence on 9th November and it contained the condition that the removal of the remains and their reburial should be effected with due care and attention to decency and that to this end the arrangements should be such as to ensure that nothing should be done which was likely to attract publicity. It was, indeed, impressed upon us that it was the desire of Timothy Evans's mother, Mrs. Probert, that the reburial should be completely private, a wish which we fully understood and appreciated, as I am sure all hon. Members do.

The position at the beginning of November was that the arrangements had been agreed with the solicitor acting for the Evans family as to the date, time and manner in which the remains should be taken on behalf of the family from the prison for reburial. Beyond this—I stress this most emphatically—my right hon. and learned Friend had no other responsibility.

Hardly had these arrangements been made when there appeared in certain newspapers on Friday, 5th November, a story to the effect that the funeral would take place on the following Wednesday at Greenford cemetery. The solicitor for the Evans family then told us that, in view of the desire of the family that the funeral should not be the subject of publicity, he had arranged—I stress that it was he who made this decision—for the funeral to take place at another cemetery. He did not tell us, and neither did we feel called upon to ask him, where this would be, and, in view of the family's desire for privacy, the solicitor told only two people about the changed arrangements.

The only way in which my right hon. and learned Friend was at all involved in the new arrangements was this. The solicitor asked that, in order to avoid the funeral cortège being followed to the new place of burial, he should be allowed to send to Pentonville two vans, the first to leave without a coffin and to go in the Greenford direction, and the second to go, a little later, with the coffin to the cemetery where the reburial was to take place. In the special circumstances, my right hon. and learned Friend thought it right to comply with this request, that is, to allow two vans into Pentonville, but there—I cannot emphasise this too strongly—his responsibility stopped. The rest was entirely a matter for the Evans family and their solicitor.

The decoy van was not a Home Office van, and neither was it accompanied by any prison officers or anyone else from the Home Office; it was a van sent in by the solicitor, and we do not know at all who the drivers were. Beyond letting this van into and out of the prison, the Home Office had absolutely nothing to do with the matter at all.

As the House will appreciate from what I have said, my right hon. and learned Friend is not in any way answerable for anything that was said or not said to the Greenford cemetery authorities by the solicitor acting for the Evans family, and anything further that I say is without prejudice to this. However, in fairness to my hon. Friend, whose motives in raising the matter I fully understand, I have consulted the solicitor, and he has informed me that no Roman Catholic priest was misled or put into the deplorable and embarrassing position of waiting at a grave to conduct a service which, in fact, was taking place elsewhere. According to Mrs. Probert's solicitor, he, the solicitor, told Mr. Elliott, the chaplain at the Greenford cemetery—who is not a Roman Catholic priest—not later than Monday, 8th November, that he would not require the services of the Roman Catholic priest who would, in the normal course, have performed the ceremony. The solicitor explained this by saying that he would be providing his own priest. The solicitor agrees also that not until the real funeral was over did he inform Mr. Elliott or the Green-ford cemetery authorities that the funeral would not take place there. I emphasise that the solicitor has told me that he took this decision not to inform the Greenford cemetery authorities and Mr. Elliott quite consciously.

I am informed also that the actual burial was duly conducted by a canon of the Roman Catholic Church and that the remains were reinterred in ground recognised by that Church as consecrated ground. If the Greenford cemetery authorities feel that they were misled in any way or not given information which they think they should have been given, I am sorry about it, but my right hon. and learned Friend cannot accept any responsibility for this whatsoever. If they wish to pursue this matter they must do so with the solicitor for the Evans family. As I have indicated, and as I have assured my hon. Friend, to the best of my information there has been no question at all of misleading any Roman Catholic priest or putting him into a false position.

I conclude by saying—although I would hope that no assurance is really needed on this point—that my right hon. and learned Friend's interest throughout this has been, so far as his own responsibilities are concerned, to deal with the matter on an intensely humanitarian basis and as far as possible in accordance with what we understood to be the wishes of the Evans family—and again I would like to emphasise that the only responsibility of the Home Office was with the reinterment of the remains and the taking of the remains out of Pentonville Prison and that there our responsibilities ended.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven Minutes past Eleven o'clock.