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Miss Hilda Murrell

Volume 81: debated on Tuesday 18 June 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

1.23 am

I raised the case of Hilda Murrell under the Consolidated Fund at 4 am on 20 December, 1984.

Owing to parliamentary good fortune, which so often smiles on just causes, I am able to raise the topic again at 1.20 am on the day after assistant chief constable Peter Smith gave a press conference on the report.

Why did the assistant chief constable of Northumbria, Mr. Peter Smith, hold a press conference yesterday, Wednesday, to answer questions about the murder of Miss Hilda Murrell without publishing the full report of his review of how the West Mercia constabulary had conducted its inquiries? Will the Minister place a copy of Mr. Smith's report in the House of Commons Library?

Whose decision is it not to publish the report? Is it that of the chief constable of West Mercia, of Mr. Smith, or of the Home Office? If Ministers wish to convince an increasingly interested and sceptical public, would it not be in their own interest to publish?

If the report were published, some light might be thrown on the many questions raised first of all by the Cecil Woolf book "The Death of a Rose Grower", by Graham Smith, and then by the New English Library's "Who Killed Hilda Murrell?", by Judith Cook, as well as by the excellent television programmes by Harlech by "World in Action" and the BBC "Crime Watch".

Why are the police so convinced that this is an "ordinary burglary gone wrong" when they have not succeeded after 15 months in finding the person or persons responsible and there are so many extraordinary aspects to this case, particularly the abduction of Miss Murrell in her own car?

A secret report on activities that are shrouded in secrecy cannot dispel fear and mistrust. Some of the questions that I had hoped the inquiry report would answer raise issues of public concern.

Was there an inquiry into leaks concerning GCHQ Cheltenham and the Belgrano, commissioned by Sir Robert Armstrong, Secretary of the Cabinet at the end of 1983? Was intelligence told to identify the origin of leaks of information about the Belgrano? Was Commander Robert Green on the list of possible suspects? Was the home of his aunt checked for information? Has Mr. Smith approached Sir Robert Armstrong?

What is the nature of the relationship between the official security services and unofficial private detective agencies? Is it true that Sir Robert Armstrong has close connections with a director of Zeus Security Consultants, as reported in the Daily Star of 13 June 1985? Has any Government Department ever employed, directly or indirectly, either Zeus Security Consultants or the Sapphire Investigation Bureau?

Was Miss Murrell under surveillance at any time? Specifically, was her telephone tapped? Was she on the files of the special branch, locally or nationally? Has Mr. Smith looked into the records of the Shrewsbury special branch?

Has the burglary at Commander Hurst's home been investigated for a possible connection with the Belgrano? How do the police account for the fact that no valuables were taken and that only Commander Hurst's flat, not those on the top or ground floors, was burgled? Has the coincidence of the time — a few hours after my speech at 4 am on 20 December, but before any newspaper reports of that speech—been investigated and explained?

In relation to Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Norris and Mr. Peachman, were any of the aforementioned questioned by police concerning either the Sizewell inquiry or the murder of Miss Murrell, and with what outcome? Did any of them work on commission, directly or indirectly, for a government department? At whose request and on whose authority? If they denied involvement with burglaries connected with the Sizewell inquiry, what further steps were taken to establish whether these denials were true? Who did commission each of the above to work on Sizewell concerns?

Why was the way in which Miss Murrell's car was left regarded as suspicious by members of the community but apparently not by the police? Why did it take so long to find the body? Why did the police officer who visited Miss Murrell's house on Friday night not notice anything wrong, when her neighbours on the following day noticed scattered contents of her handbag and three days' post at the front door? Did the police officer enter the house or not? Did he seek to make contact with Miss Murrell? If he did not enter the house, why did he go away before discussing the abandoned car with her?

Has the red Ford Escort, to which much reference has been made, been found? I refer to pages 66 and 67 of the excellent book by Graham Smith. Have the red Ford Escorts, variously reported near her home and near the site where the body was found, been located and their owners interviewed? Do the reports refer to the same car?

Are the police looking for one or more than one suspect? In view of the differences between the photofit pictures and the accounts of the grey-suited running man and the man in the dark anorak, has the possibility of a team operation been fully investigated, and with what results? Has any possible connection with the red Escort been ruled out?

The two boys who supposedly stole and later burned the tax disc from Miss Murrell's car claimed that there were papers in the car. Is that true? Were they recovered? Are the boys lying?

How can the evidence of Mr. Ian Scott be accounted for? He maintained that no body was in the copse on Thursday 22 March. How do the police evaluate this evidence and the possibility that the body was moved? Has any progress been made on reports of a large dark car near the site where the body was found or on reports of lights in the wood on Thursday 22 March? I refer to pages 37 and 80 of Graham Smith's excellent book.

How was the telephone at Miss Murrell's Shrewsbury home disconnected? Were the wires ripped out, or were they disconnected in a more sophisticated manner? Her neighbour, Mr. Brian George, told me that the telephone wires had been disconnected in a professional way. As to the phone at Llanymynech, if it was damaged by lightning, why is there no record of lightning at the time in question? When did the fault develop, and when was it reported? The Home Secretary's answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was extremely unconvincing.

Are the details of the report by Steve Doughty in The Standard of 2 February 1985 accurate in relation to the telephones? If they are accurate, the scene of the crime, which was videod, must have been fixed. If they are inaccurate, we should be told.

When was Miss Murrell's car reported missing and its details checked? By whom? What information was given or received at each stage? What was Commander Green told about the reason for the delay in locating the owner of the car? If the police quickly established that the car belonged to Miss Murrell, an elderly local dignitary, why did they not contact her home immediately, and why, when an officer went to her home, did he leave before ensuring that she was safe and well?

What questions were put to Mr. Gary Murray, a private detective, when he was questioned by officers of the West Mercia special branch in April? Were the officers told of Mr. Murray's belief that Hilda Murrell would have been under surveillance from other private detectives? Why did West Mercia detectives go on a so-called "fishing expedition" for information about peace campaigners when they questioned Miss Murrell's friends about her murder, as reported in Graham Smith's book at pages 34 and 35?

Are the police looking for a local man as chief suspect? Would a local man drive past the police station or through the town, rather than head for open country? If the chief suspect is a local man, why has he not been located? All this effort, yet one recalls the sight on Harlech television of a local burglar saying that, had it been a local Shrewsbury burglar, they would all have known each other and he would have been reported to the police immediately. Are there any other known cases of a burglar being disturbed and abducting a house owner in his or her own car? Are there any similar cases in the area?

Is the account in the New Statesman of 25 January true? It states:
"A man who is an accredited counsellor to people with sexual problems was visited by police before Miss Murrell's body was discovered and asked if he knew of anyone fitting the description of a loner who might break into women's bedrooms and be violent."
That is at page 33 of Mr. Smith's book.

In summary, the main areas of concern for many people are as follows. First, who was responsible for the death of Hilda Murrell? Why, 15 months after the murder, has it proved impossible to find those responsible? Secondly, why have the official accounts given of the murder revealed unexplained delays in following important lines of inquiry and conflicting accounts of factual evidence? Thirdly, why have British citizens who have not engaged in illegal activities been subjected to surveillance, burglaries and other forms of harassment by members of the security services or those working for them? Fourthly, is political control of the security services, on which Judith Cook writes powerfully, and those working at their request adequate to protect fully the civil rights of British citizens?

To allay public concern about the murder of Hilda Murrell, the Government should give a full and public account of steps taken so far in the inquiry, and publicly demonstrate, in a way that leaves no reasonable doubt, that there was no involvement in these tragic events b) or instigated by the security services. Public confidence can be fully restored only when such authoritative evidence is made known and when all possible steps have been taken to find the murderer of Miss Murrell.

When did the West Mercia special branch begin inquiries into Miss Murrell's murder? Why did the Minister say last December that special branch officers had already investigated the possibility of a link between the murder and the Sizewell B public inquiry when the private detectives who were spying on objectors to that inquiry were not questioned until April? What caused the delay?

Several church leaders have followed this case with interest and concern. Although they have not yet made a formal approach to the Home Office or any public statement, we know that they are worried by the failure to find the person or persons responsible for Miss Murrell's death, and the failure to date to provide a clear and convincing account of the murder.

In her remarkable book "Who killed Hilda Murrell?", which has just been published, Judith Cook documents 14 serious discrepancies in the appendix between the official accounts and the independently established accounts.

Finally, if I seem extremely sceptical about Government answers, I can only refer to Clive Ponting's "The Right to Know". On page 133, for example, he states that Sir Clive Whitmore's view was that we were not telling a direct lie. Sir Clive Whitmore argued that it was all right to imply that, so long as we did not explicitly state it as being correct. If Ministers are pained that I do not accept the Government's word, I can only say to them that between 1962 and 1979 I used automatically to accept the word of a Government, of either party. After my experience in court No. 2 at the old Bailey day after day at the Ponting trial I may be forgiven for asking for detail and proof. Let Peter Smith's report be published in full so that it can be scrutinised.

1.35 am

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for agreeing that I should take part in this debate on a tragic subject. The tragic death of Miss Hilda Murrell on Shrewsbury on 24 March 1984 has been turned by the media not merely into a tragic event but into an establishment scandal. Smoke is easy to blow around, but many people in Shrewsbury are reaching the stage when they would like to see a little more body to the accusations that are constantly being levelled at the conduct of the inquiry carried out by the West Mercia police in my area. They allocated more than 100 officers to this serious investigation and even at this late stage 19 officers continue to work on it full time. If there was an establishment cover-up, the West Mercia police would certainly not still be undertaking such a massive investigation.

There was considerable pressure because of the hon. Gentleman's questions, which he was right to raise in the House. As a result of the considerable pressure from the media, Mr. Peter Smith, an assistant chief constable from Northumbria, was appointed to conduct an outside review of the conduct of the case. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State replies, he may well go into the details of that report and, therefore, I shall not take up the time of the House in doing so. It is known that Mr. Smith was asked to carry out an independent review into the conduct of the West Mercia police inquiry and to assess the use of technical and scientific equipment, and the theories and speculation.

There has been no substantiation to the theories and speculation. They make good copy in the newspapers, and might make good reading in a book or two. However, the fact remains that the murderer of Miss Hilda Murrell still goes free. I care not whether the murderer was a by-chance burglar, a secret service agent or whoever. We want to see Miss Murrell's assassin brought to justice. I doubt whether that will be aided by the publication of Mr. Smith's report on the conduct of the inquiry. My hon. Friend may say whether the publication of the report, as requested by the hon. Gentleman, at this stage in the continuing investigation will jeopardise the character and quality of the evidence before it is tested in court. I cannot say because I am not a lawyer. But we know that the full publication of that report would be widely reported in the media and, therefore, could be easily read and assessed by Miss Murrell's murderer.

A considerable amount of effort has been made to link the murder to the secret service and great things have been said of the telephone. I am happy to accept that the hon. Gentleman may have spoken to a neighbour about the telephone, but I have spoken to British Telecom engineers and they tell me that a disconnection may appear a professional job or, as some would like to insinuate, a secret service job, but that need not necessarily be the case. The disconnection of a telephone is not a unique act in the committing of a crime. Apparently, if a telephone wire is yanked from its socket, it is done by means of the sheath, within which are contained the connecting wires. It is not unkown for those British Telecom engineers to see that at a burglary. The sheath is pulled. One wire remains connected and the other does not. An amateur, a neighbour or anyone interested in fuelling speculation about the secret service might like to read into that some James Bond technique, but it is not unique and can be easily and accidentally done.

I can draw no conclusions from that act, which is given a great deal of credence, and it is not proof that anything has been done by the British security agencies. It is without doubt that not all murders are solved, but the solution of many may be hindered. I respect the determination of the hon. Member for Linlithgow to bring before the nation the details of that murder and its inquiry. He has claimed in the House and on the media that he has information which associates the British secret service with the murder. I should not suggest to such a distinguished Member that he put up or shut up. I should never seek to limit free speech, but it is time that the hon. Gentleman put up the information that he has that can bring to justice the murderer of my late constituent Miss Murrell.

1.43 am

The House may be forgiven for wondering in what capacity the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was addressing the House. Was he addressing it in his capacity as a Member of the House, in his capacity as an acting detective sergeant (unpaid) or in relation to the publication of some books?

The hon. Gentleman read out a series of questions which are directly related to an investigation which in his view should long since have been concluded and the matter resolved. Everyone in the House would agree that that should have been the case. This matter has not been concluded. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) reminded the House, the investigation is continuing. Despite the fact that the hon. Gentleman has had substantial access to those involved in the investigation and the fact that he has received categoric assurances from me in the House and by letter, he is still raising some of the issues about which there has been a clear exchange of views.

I must seek to answer some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. The first was about why the report by Mr. Smith, the assistant chief constable of Northumbria, is not publicly available. The review of the investigation was undertaken by Mr. Smith at the request of the then chief constable of West Mercia, Mr. Cozens. Mr. Smith has reported to the new chief constable, Mr. Mullett.

There are two highly cogent reasons for not making public the detail of the report which the chief constable explained in his statement to the press today. First, the report deals with a continuing investigation and thus contains details of confidential operational information. Secondly, the publication of such details would, in the event of a future arrest, detract from, if not destroy, their evidential value. Those are cogent and important reasons.

The hon. Gentleman asked to whom the report was made. It was made by Mr. Smith to the chief constable of West Mercia and it is for him to determine whether it should be published. Those are his views, and I have no reason to doubt that they are cogent and should be observed in this case.

When the inquiry is finished, the reasons that the Minister has given for not publishing will no longer exist. Will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that, after the inquiry is finished, he will publish the report?

:The investigation is in the hands of the local police. The decision whether to publish the report in due course will rest with them. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is on the record.

The second question that the hon. Member for Linlithgow asked was about the security services. He wanted to know whether Mr. Smith had approached Sir Robert Armstrong. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I gave him a categorical assurance on 28 December that Government intelligence services were not involved in any way.

Mr. Smith had full access to all the information held in the force's incident room and to all persons who may in any way have been able to assist his review. I understand that Mr. Smith has seen all those persons at the highest levels in Government when he wished. I can therefore give the assurance that he has seen Sir Robert Armstrong. Indeed, Sir Robert confirmed to me that all those persons involved at the highest levels of Government have been seen.

The present position is as was stated on 28 December. There is no involvement whatever in any aspect of the security services in this affair. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the investigation continues and 19 officers continue to follow up the lines of inquiry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham reminded the House.

If anyone submits information, each and every bit of it will be examined. The West Mercia police are in the extraordinarily difficult position of being accused of covering up all the evidence that they have, and the evidence which is produced, whether it is from the hon. Member for Linlithgow, or from the recent book by Mrs. Judith Cook which refers to Mr. Otter—who has views on this matter similar to those quoted by the hon. Member for Linlithgow in relation to Mr. Morgan Grenville.

I understand from the chief constable that Mr. Otter's involvement was first drawn to Mr. Smith's attention by the hon. Member for Linlithgow. I am grateful to him for his letter of 23 May. The information was passed to West Mercia police on 28 May and it was followed up immediately. Mr. Otter has now been interviewed three times by West Mercia officers, but nothing that he has said has helped to take the investigation forward. That has been so on a number of issues which the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the telephone disconnection and the problem of storm damage. He knows from the letter of 14 January when I described fully that the police confirmed that Miss Murrell's telephone at her home in Shrewsbury had been disconnected, that at first it was believed that this was done by removing the connectors at the junction box, but at no time did the police use the term "sophisticated" about the way in which it was done. In the absence of any further evidential confirmation that this was the means of disconnection, and after checks of the junction box, the police believe that the connecting wires were simply snatched out, perhaps because the connecting screws were loose.

There has been a detailed response to many of the questions which the hon. Member for Linlitgow has put to me. He has put many more questions to me tonight. I shall do my best to write to him about some the detailed points. However, the central issue remains the same. The hon. Gentleman believes that leads about the involvement of the security services or others involved in the private investigation of Sizewell have not been followed up and that allegations should be made. Every allegation and every lead which he has offered, or which anyone else has offered, has been taken seriously and examined from every possible angle by the West Mercia police.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the involvement of private detectives. Before the most recent press speculation about Mr. Peachman's activities as a private investigator, West Mercia police had already investigated the alleged link between the activities of private detectives, the Sizewell B project and Miss Murrell's death. The hon. Gentleman will know from the chief constable's report on Mr. Smith's report that one of Mr. Smith's criticisms was about the way in which certain aspects of the alleged connection were followed up. They have established that inquiries in connection with Sizewell B were undertaken for a private client but that these were concluded over a year before Miss Murrell's death and that she was not the subject of the inquiries.

I understand also from the chief constable that Mr. Peachman was engaged by Zeus Security to undertake inquiries on 21 January 1983 and had completed his engagement by the end of the same month. The conclusions of his inquiries were passed to the client's solicitors and the chief constable has no information about what happened thereafter. Miss Murrell did not correspond with the secretary to the Sizewell inquiry until August 1983 and was therefore not known to the inquiry as an objector at the time of Mr. Peachman's inquiries. It cannot be deduced from the involvement of that private detective agent with the Sizewell objectors that Miss Murrell had any connection with the inquiries that were being made at that time.

Much as everyone in the House would like to achieve a resolution of this affair, it has not yet been possible so to do. The hon. Gentleman will know—my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham referred to the fact—that regrettably there are homicides that are never fully solved. I gather that there are about 398 currently without a suspect and with no likelihood of being concluded. Sometimes a case with many and various pieces of evidence attached to it cannot be concluded satisfactorily.

West Mercia police, having had a thorough appraisal of what had been done, which was conducted by a independent and senior police officer from a force without any connection with West Mercia, are still proceeding to try to solve the case. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and everyone else that that must be a professional and significant undertaking and one which is sometimes not helped by those who raise false points on complicated issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Two o'clock.