Skip to main content

Birmingham Pub Bombings

Volume 174: debated on Tuesday 12 June 1990

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.Chapman.]


This is not a party political issue, and I hope that the Minister will not treat it as such. As he knows, it has aroused concern among people of every political persuasion. He has no doubt cast his eye over early-day motion 36, which is sponsored by myself and his hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), and has been signed by a number of his colleagues. It is not uncommon in this place for Ministers to urge me to continue to raise this issue, so I do so in the knowledge that the issue arouses widespread concern.

I appreciate that the Minister may not share my view, but he must by now know enough about the case to realise that there is something seriously wrong. I draw his attention in passing to the fact that it was January 1982 when I first wrote categorically and in some detail that the persons convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings were innocent and that the Maguire family were innocent. What has happened since in the Guildford case is a matter of record, and the Minister will be aware that the convictions of the Maguire family are collapsing daily in front of Sir John May's inquiry.

The case of the six people convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings has also collapsed. The trial judge, Lord Bridge, said in his judgment that there were two main planks of the Crown's case against those six people—one was the forensic evidence and the other concerned confessions. The star forensic witness was Dr. Frank Skuse, who has since been dismissed, at the grand old age of 51, for what the Home Office coyly calls "limited effectiveness". The test that he employed, which was the central feature of his evidence, has been discredited. Even the Lord Chief Justice accepted that at the appeal two years ago.

The forensic evidence now hangs by a single thread—the test carried out by Dr. Janet Drayton at Aldermaston. The printouts from that test—the only documentary evidence of it—have disappeared, as have some of Dr. Drayton's notes. The notebook still exists, but the stubs of pages that were torn out have gone. Dr. Drayton's recollection of the result of that test are different from those of Dr. Skuse. That is all that remains of the forensic evidence.

As the Minister will be aware, it was obvious from the outset that the confessions contradicted each other in every major respect and those contradictions were examined in detail at the trial. It is also evident that, in their first few days in custody—this is not, I think, controversial—the men were severely beaten. The controversy arises over whether they were beaten in police custody or in the custody of Winson Green prison warders, or whether, as they say, they were beaten by both. No month has passed without someone contacting me who has overheard police officers involved boasting at one time or another about what happened to the men, although it is fair to say that they have gone a bit quieter in recent years.

The list of witnesses who have put their signatures to statements saying that the men were beaten in police custody—or that there was some evidence of that—include the two solicitors who interviewed them in police custody, two prison officers who received them at Winson Green prison, three former police officers who gave evidence at the appeal hearing and Dr. David Paul, the coroner of the City of London. I believe that further evidence has been submitted to the Minister by defence solicitors. I put it to him that that undermines any credibility that the confessions ever had.

The Minister will tell us that all this has been considered by the Court of Appeal, and so it has. But I wonder whether a jury would have reached the same conclusion had it been permitted to pass comment, and had its members known what we now know. That surely is the key question. It has not yet been addressed, and I invite the Minister to consider it now.

Since the appeal hearing, there have been two major developments, the first of which was the release of the four persons convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings, apparently because the Surrey police were careless enough to leave early drafts of the forged confessions lying around. I do not think that we shall be so lucky in the Birmingham pub bombing case. But we now know that what Lords Bridge, Roskill, Donaldson and Denning found unthinkable is possible: the police can and did commit fraud and perjury on the scale alleged. If that can happen once, it can happen twice.

The second major development that has occurred since the appeal hearing was the winding up of the west midlands serious crimes squad for—would you believe, Madam Deputy Speaker?—forging confessions—the very allegation that was one of the two central features of the trial and involving the very body of men responsible for obtaining the convictions in 1974, including at least four of the same individuals. I do not think that it is necessary to demonstrate that the same individuals were involved. It is enough, surely, to show that the same body of people were systematically forging confessions.

So far, more than 20 people who signed confessions in the custody of the west midlands serious crimes squad have either had their convictions quashed or had the charges against them withdrawn. In addition, Police Sergeant Brian Morton has been to gaol. He was one of those around in Queen's Road police station with access to the prisoners at the time of the interrogation. He went to gaol for beating up a suspect with a view to obtaining a confession, but the Home Office is still telling us that there is no cause for concern. Ministers are still ridiculing those who are trying to draw to their attention what has happened subsequently. They still refuse to establish an independent inquiry that would command public confidence.

The hon. Gentleman and I have had conversations about this point, and I believe that the view that I am about to describe is shared by other Birmingham Members who are present in the Chamber this evening. With regard to the constant reiteration of the possible shortcomings of the West Midlands police, whether of the serious crimes squad or elsewhere, speaking as a west midlands Member, I believe that it must be a main point of the hon. Gentleman's argument that any further measures that we take in connection with the Birmingham Six should be designed partly to re-enhance the credibility and the confidence that the public have in that force.

Sadly, that force has suffered from the necessity to re-examine and examine again the evidence, which has perhaps disclosed further shortcomings in that force. I believe very strongly that it is important that Birmingham Members should ensure that the matter is resolved. I am sure that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) will be pressing that point on my right hon. Friend the Minister.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments; and his intervention demonstrates that concern about the issue is widespread. The fact that he represents a Birmingham constituency gives particular credibility to his points. It is in the interests of the West Midlands police force as much as anyone else—and in the interests of the credibility of the entire police and judicial system—that the case is not allowed to linger on, but is sorted out as soon as possible.

Three police inquiries are under way at the present time, and they are all prevented by their terms of reference from addressing most of the fundamental issues.

The West Yorkshire police are examining the activities of the serious crime squad. However, their terms of reference preclude them from going back before April 1985, and they cannot address the serious allegations that predate that time, allegations which incidentally do not simply concern the pub bombings, but relate to several other cases.

The Devon and Cornwall police are conducting their second inquiry into the case. They are examining material that was submitted to the Home Office by the defence solicitors before Christmas. The inquiry is proceeding fairly slowly. I do not necessarily complain about that, but I do complain about the fact they they will report to the chief constable of the West Midlands police. He will append his comments and pass the report to the Home Office. It will not be available to the people who submitted the new material. According to parliamentary answers that I have received, the defence solicitors will not see a copy of that report, and it will not be published. I invite the Minister to comment on the fact that it is very difficult to have confidence in an inquiry the report of which will not be made public.

The other police inquiry that is proceeding at the same time as the others is a small inquiry being run by the Lancashire police, who are investigating how I came by some of the documents that I used in the most recent edition of my book on the case. I have written to the Lancashire police suggesting that they might like to address the contents of the documents, but I regret to inform the House that they are not interested in that aspect.

None of those inquiries is a satisfactory way of dealing with the problem, and none of them will resolve the serious and widespread public concern about the case.

I invite the Minister to comment on the need for a public inquiry along the lines of that being conducted now by Sir John May with lay assessors, but with more powers than Sir John May appears to have. As the Minister may have noticed, he is having some trouble persuading one or two of the forensic scientists to come and give evidence, and he is also having trouble getting hold of documents.

There are three specific points on which I should like the Minister to comment, and to help him take the matters seriously, I contacted his office earlier in the day and gave the details of the three points.

First, a large amount of evidence in this case has disappeared, which is not an uncommon feature of miscarriage of justice cases. Among the missing items are 2,000 so-called non-material statements. They were not shown to defence solicitors, as they should have been. There is not a single statement from any of the people who were crowded into the Taurus bar where the six men say they were assembled when the bombs were planted. There is not a single statement from any of the transport police who would have been on New Street station observing the comings and goings there. It is not credible that none of those people came forward. Where are those statements? I hope the Minister will do his best to find out.

Also disappeared are the playing cards. They are believed to be—although nobody can definitively assert it without them—the source of the contamination, the nitrocellulose, that probably resulted in Dr. Skuse's positive test. Those playing cards have been gone for many years and nobody has any suggestions about where they may have gone.

The third item that has disappeared is that to which I have referred already—the printouts of Dr. Drayton's tests, the sole remaining thread of the forensic evidence. We are asked to rely on her memory—I cast no aspersions on her—as to what she says she saw on a screen, a blip that lasted a fraction of a second 15 years ago. There were printouts that would have confirmed, or not, Dr. Drayton's interpretation of that result. They have disappeared. Also gone are a number of pages from her notebook. As I say, I cast no aspersions on Dr. Drayton. I just want to know where they have gone, and may we have them back, please?

The Minister will know—it received a certain amount of publicity—that in March, Granada Television provided the Home Office with a document that appeared to come from the Special Branch archives, complete with its criminal records office number. It is a precis of interviews with an IRA man who was arrested in November 1975, six months after the trial and about a year after the bombing. He was giving the police a great deal of accurate information, and he was telling them the names of some of those whom he said were responsible for the bombs. It even contained the remarkable sentence, "So-and-so told me he put one of the bombs in the pub."

While I have grown rather case-hardened over the years, I thought a decent interval would have occurred while the Home Office thought about that. But that is not what happened. Within a few hours of that document being made available to the Home Office, it put out a statement pouring cold water on it, saying that it was old news—which was correct, since the Department or somebody had been sitting on it for the last 15 years—and it contained the inaccurate statement that the document was prepared before the trial.

Where are the original notes of those interviews? This document is a precis. Particularly remarkable about it is that the interviewer can think of no supplementary questions to ask this person who has just told him that so and so told him he had put a bomb in the pub. No surprise is recorded at the receipt of that information. I am sure that everyone would like to see some information about who conducted the interviews, where the original notes of the interviews are and to whose attention they were drawn at the time they were made.

I believe this to be the tip of a fairly large iceberg. I know of at least two other members of the Birmingham IRA who, in the wake of the pub bombings, to a greater or lesser extent co-operated with the police and told them that they had got the wrong people. Those people were in a position to know that.

I can provide that information. I shall not do so across the Floor of the House, but I am willing to co-operate with the Minister, and there is no problem about that.

I want to know where the notes of those interviews are. What was done with them, and to whose attention were they drawn? I hope that, in return for my providing him with the details—the Minister did not expect me to do that—the right hon. Gentleman will be kind enough to show me the notes.

Thirdly, and lastly, it occurs to me—I do not assert this; I merely put it to the Minister—that the connections between the Guildford and Woolwich and the Birmingham cases are rather stronger than any of us had imagined. There is the obvious point about the massive fraud and perjury which occurred in the former and could equally have occurred in the latter. More specifically, according to parliamentary answers given to me on 30 October last year, nine Surrey police officers were in Birmingham at the time of the arrests in the pub bombing case. It would be relevant to establish whether those officers picked up any of the interrogation techniques of the West Midlands police force. The Guildford defendants were not arrested until some time afterwards, and their account of what happened to them in custody bears some remarkable similarities to the allegations made by the six people convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings.

I just want to know the names of the Guildford officers who were in Birmingham at the time, and what they were doing there. I have tabled questions about that, and received rather unsatisfactory answers. One said that only three of them could be identified. It does not require a genius to know what step to take next: contact those who have been identified, and ask them who the others were. I leave that thought with the Minister.

I am sure that the Minister will assure us of his willingness to look at new evidence, but we have new evidence coming out of our ears. What is required is some means of assessing it that will command public confidence. This case will not go away. Just as it did in the Guildford and Woolwich case, the truth will out in the end. I am only anxious that the case should be resolved while these six unfortunate men and their families still have some of their lives left after this tragedy is sorted out, and I should appreciate any assistance that the Minister can provide to bring this great scandal to an end.

12.17 am

In the brief 10 minutes left to me, I shall do all that I can to answer directly all the questions that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has posed.

I, like all right hon. and hon. Members, recognise that any miscarriage of justice has a devastating effect. We all agree that any allegation of a miscarriage of justice must be investigated as fully and carefully as possible. I assure the House that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will consider any new evidence brought forward in this case, as he has done in the past—as when he showed himself willing to refer allegations made by the solicitor acting on behalf of these people to the investigation carried out by the Devon and Cornwall police.

There is no lack of common ground between us on the seriousness of miscarriages of justice and on the fact that they must be seriously looked into. The difference between us is that the hon. Gentleman does not think that this case is being seriously looked into, or that, if it is, it is being looked into in the wrong way.

I do not want to get involved in the Guildford and Woolwich issue tonight. I can understand that the hon. Gentleman sees parallels and, in the case of the Surrey police, even connections between the two cases. Sir John May can look after himself. He has made no public complaint about a lack of powers to summon people and papers to his inquiry. I read in The Independent the other week that he said that he felt that quiet persuasion was a better way to do things. As we know, if it was in The Independent, it must be true.

The hon. Member spoke of his concern about the apparent absence of 2,000 non-material statements and of the playing cards. I see that a question about the playing cards has been tabled, and it may come up at the next Home Office questions, on Thursday. The hon. Member has said that he is concerned that it is not possible to say what happened to these statements, which, he says, were not made available to the solicitors acting for the six men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings.

It has not yet been established that any relevant evidence in this case is missing. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the alleged failure of the prosecution to inform the defence of the existence of non-material statements formed part of the grounds of the appeals considered by the Court of Appeal in November and December 1987, when the court dismissed the arguments advanced by those representing the six men.

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to try to answer his questions, I had better not do so.

Representations about the alleged disappearance of these non-material statements were among the matters put to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary by the men's solicitor. He has passed these allegations to the chief constable of the West Midlands police, and they will form part of the inquiry being carried out by the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. That will bring to light evidence as to whether the non-material statements and the playing cards are missing or not.

It has been alleged that the police reports were inadequate. It is clear that the hon. Member is not a great admirer of the British police. I cannot remember him ever saying a kind word about them.

No, it is an important point, because the hon. Gentleman should balance his criticisms with appreciation.

Indeed, and many West Midlands policemen would bitterly resent aspersions being cast on them and on the way in which they carried out their duties.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South has referred in disparaging words, which will appear on the record, to various police inquiries connected with this case. and has commented adversely on the fact that it is not intended to make public the results of these inquiries. As hon. Members will be aware, it has been the practice of successive Home Secretaries, both Labour and Conservative, not to publish the reports of such inquiries, as the information that they contain is provided to the Home Secretary of the day on a confidential basis.

However, I can assure the House that, should my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary decide, after consideration of the report from the Devon and Cornwall constabulary, when it comes, to refer the case of the Birmingham six back to the Court of Appeal, copies of all statements taken in the course of the inquiry will be made available to those representing the six men, in advance of any appeal.

The House will recall that this is exactly the same procedure as that which was followed with the Guildford Four, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), then the Home Secretary, decided to refer that case to the Court of Appeal, after considering reports of inquiries carried out by the Avon and Somerset police. On the other hand, following precedent, should my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary decide not to intervene further in the case of the Birmingham six, I assure the House that he will place in the Library a detailed memorandum explaining his reasons for that course of action, and his response in detail to the representations that he has received. That is the proper way in which to proceed.

We have confidence in the Devon and Cornwall police conducting a thorough and conscientious inquiry. I hope that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South agrees. I note that he does not seem to; that is a matter for him. The inquiry will, of course, include the allegations about collusion between the officers of Lancashire county council and members of the West Midlands police to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that allegations about misconduct by members of the former west midlands serious crimes squad are being considered by West Yorkshire police under the direct supervision of the independent Police Complaints Authority. Parliament has rightly set up that authority to exercise an independent supervision of the investigation of complaints against the police. Hon. Members will appreciate that we must await the results of that investigation into the serious crime squad. The Police Complaints Authority is precluded under section 98 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 from disclosing publicly any information that it has received in connection with its functions under the Act, except under certain circumstances—for example, in a general statement that does not identify the person from whom the information was received or any person to whom it relates.

I am happy to repeat the assurance that my right hon. and learned Friend and I have given on a number of occasions. If anything arises from the present inquiries into the activities of the serious crimes squad that casts doubt on the safety of the convictions of the Birmingham Six, the most careful consideration will be given to that evidence.

The hon. Gentleman, again consistent with form inside and outside the House, has mentioned two more people, but he has not given the names.

The hon. Gentleman has had many opportunities in recent years to tell the House and the outside world that he knows who bombed Birmingham. This obviously makes him uncomfortable, but he has consistently refused to name them.

The hon. Lady must forgive me; I am not giving way.

Tonight, the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to name those—

The hon. Gentleman spoke of two additional people tonight, so we are no longer talking about four people, but six. If the hon. Gentleman has had those names in this possession, why were they not given many years before? One day, the hon. Gentleman must answer that question. If he does not answer it, the House must draw its own conclusions.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to present a rounded case to the House, I cannot understand why he cannot present a totally rounded one, giving all the names that he claims to have in his possession.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the material contained in the new edition of his book "Error of Judgement"—[Interruption.] I note that his hon. Friends do not much like the fact that the hon. Gentleman has not named the names and they must find them very embarrassing, but—

The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, persuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.