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Mr David Simpson

Volume 176: debated on Wednesday 18 July 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. Nicholas Baker.]

1.25 am

I wish to express my delight at obtaining this Adjournment debate, although it is diminished by my regret at having to raise the issue in such a public way. I recognise that raising this case in the House will inevitably arouse memories, anger and anguish among those concerned in the incident three years ago.

I wish that we—myself, Mr. David Simpson and his solicitor and his barrister—had been able to convince the Home Office and the Minister, through private correspondence, of the need to pay Mr. Simpson compensation for the three months that he spent in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

I do not think that there is any disagreement between me and the Minister about the background to the case. There was a fatal road accident in April 1987, and there is no doubt that Mr. Simpson was subsequently charged with causing death by reckless driving. Throughout, Mr. Simpson protested that he was the pillion rider and not the driver rider of the motor cycle involved.

The Minister will know that Mr. Simpson was on bail for about 14 months until he appeared in Leicester Crown court on 1 to 3 August 1988. He was convicted on a majority verdict and received a 12–month term of imprisonment. However, in the light of further evidence his conviction was quashed at the Court of Appeal on 11 November 1988. After some three months in prison, that innocent man was finally vindicated.

I must emphasise that Mr. Simpson was extremely lucky that two new witnesses came forward to support his case. It was fortuitous that they did so before the appeal was heard. They had seen a report in the 10 August 1988 edition of Motor Cycle News and realised that there had been a miscarriage of justice. At the time of the accident, the two witnesses had been living in Leicester, but had subsequently moved to Cornwall and so were not familiar with what had happened; neither had they seen reports of the court case in the Leicester Mercury, the local evening newspaper.

When the witnesses saw the report in Motor Cycle News, they realised that it was their duty and responsibility to come forward and support Mr. Simpson's case. In the absence of those new witnesses, there would have been a distinct possibility that an innocent man would have had to serve the remainder of his sentence.

In the light of that background—and I bear no animosity towards the Minister—I wish to emphasise that I deeply resent and regret that the fact that he included the following sentence in a letter to me on 13 November 1989: I quote from the third page of the Home Office letter and the words of the Minister, or perhaps of his civil servant:
"The new witnesses, although apparently known to a friend of Mr. Simpson, did not appear until three days before the appeal hearing—some 18 months after the incident."
I am not sure what was meant by those words, but I draw from them two inferences that I find deeply offensive. The first is that Mr. Simpson should or could have been aware of the existence of those witnesses at the time of his trial, and that some fault therefore lies on his shoulders for not bringing them forward then. The second is that those witnesses were somehow sprung on the Court of Appeal at the last moment. If I am wrong in drawing those inferences, I shall be delighted to hear the Minister say that they do not represent his point of view.

The barrister who defended Mr. Simpson is convinced that the original conviction was a miscarriage of justice. The Minister will have read a letter from Mr. Gaskell to the Home Office dated 12 February 1990, in which he wrote:

"Normally, as counsel, I do not concern myself with questions about whether a defendant actually did or did not commit the crimes alleged. But as the evidence in the trial unfolded, it became clear that this was a wholly exceptional case. Sometimes juries do get it wrong: they did here. The conviction was, in my view, plainly wrong. Accordingly, Mr. Simpson spent 3 months in prison for a crime he did not commit."
It will come as no surprise to the Minister that the effects of the incident on Mr. Simpson and his family were devastating. I will quote his own words. He explains that in the pre-trial period he was bailed for 14 months,

"during which time the mental stress of having the case `hanging over me' was unbearable and had already affected a four-year relationship with my common law wife. At this time she left me."
The relationship between Mr. Simpson and his common law wife broke down as a direct consequence of the pre-trial stress. His elderly parents suffered great mental stress, ending with their both being treated with medication by their doctor. Mr. Simpson's relationship with his two children, then aged 19 and 20, also suffered during the pre-trial period as a consequence of the stress, irritability and depression that Mr. Simpson felt.

Mr. Simpson continued to protest his innocence throughout this time in prison. He writes:
"My total bewilderment at my predicament, constantly protesting my innocence, led me to suggest to the prison doctor the drastic action of a hunger strike. I was told I would be put in a hospital wing in a padded cell if I suggested such a thing again."
Perhaps that was the natural reaction of an innocent man, trying to show the authorities that he was prepared to go to any lengths to protest his innocence. He goes on:
"While sharing a small, cramped cell with two other prisoners, one of the inmates threatened to hang himself with a sheet, whilst another inmate close by was threatened with rape, and a brutal attack ensued. Those are just two examples of the awful atrocities I encountered on a daily basis."
That further illustrates the ordeal that this innocent man had to endure throughout his three months in prison.

After this innocent man's conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal some 18 months ago, he was released, but he is still trying to draw the threads of his life together. I quote him again:

"To this day I feel I have been mentally scarred by these events. It has left me feeling confused, persecuted and unable to trust. Family and close friends have commented continuously about my changed personality. I have been unable to form a close relationship since my release. I am constantly depressed, increasingly bitter by the complete injustice of this ordeal. This is despite the fact that I have endeavoured to build a new life for myself, completing a year's Fine Arts Course and gaining a place on a BA (Hons) Degree course. Despite my efforts throughout the last 18 months I have suffered severe financial loss due to this case, my parents (who are both pensioners) have also suffered financially due to this case. I am still in the process of paying off debts incurred while I was in prison. The constant refusals to pay any amount of compensation for this ordeal, even after my innocence was exonerated by the high court, is still creating mental pressures and fuelling the bitterness I feel.
I am picking up the pieces of my life. I would like very much to put this dreadful experience behind me. Not only for myself, but for my family and supportive friends who have all suffered because of my constant determination to see justice be done. My worst fear is that this experience could happen again to an innocent man."
I recognise, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as I know that both you and the Minister will—that no amount of money can remove these mental scars. Only the passage of time will remove them from the forefront of Mr. Simpson's mind. No decision by the Government or the Minister can remove those scars. However, I hope that the manner in which I have dealt with Mr. Simpson's case—I have not castigated the Minister personally—will lead to recognition of the fact that an injustice was done and that there was a miscarriage of justice. I hope, therefore, that some compensation will be made for the time that Mr. Simpson spent in prison.

1.37 am

I begin by saying two things to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). First, I appreciate the measured way in which he has pursued this case on behalf of his constituent. Furthermore, I appreciate the reasoned and reasonable way in which he has put the case, both in correspondence and in the House tonight. It was in the best traditions of the House. No constituent who found himself in this or in any other unfortunate circumstance could wish for anyone more assiduous as his Member of Parliament than the hon. Member for Leicester, South in taking his case to the highest quarters. The hon. Gentleman's constituent must be fully aware of the way in which his case has been advanced by his Member of Parliament.

It is unnecessary for me to go in great detail into the facts of the case. There is no dispute about the facts of the trial and the appeal, as it unfolded. Before I deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, the House might find it helpful if I outline briefly the criteria to be applied when considering applications for the payment of compensation in cases of wrongful conviction such as this. It is important to get the facts in front of us.

Compensation may be payable under section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 or, where that does not apply, it may take the form of an ex-gratia payment. Under the terms of section 133 of the 1988 Act compensation may be payable where a person convicted of a criminal offence has that conviction quashed by an appeal made to the court of appeal, either "out of time" or following a reference by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary under section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968, or by means of a free pardon on the ground that a new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that there has been a miscarriage of justice. I remember the debates on section 133 of the 1988 Act when I took the Bill through the Standing Committee.

There is an ex gratia scheme, because those cases which do not meet the criteria of section 133 are considered in the light of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), the then Home Secretary, on 29 November 1985. Such ex gratia cases are now confined to those cases where people have spent a period in custody but where a conviction is quashed by the Court of Appeal following an "in time" appeal or to persons charged and where proceedings were later terminated, possibly because of some alleged misconduct by the proper authorities.

The criteria to be applied in these cases are as follows. First, the detention must have resulted from serious default by a member of the police force or of some other public authority or, if there is no evidence of such a default, there must be exceptional circumstances that justify compensation. Quite often, after due process in the Court of Appeal, a conviction is overturned without any allegation of serious default by a member of the police force or any other public authority. Therefore, it is important to realise that, in many cases, quite properly, compensation is not paid because there has been no such default.

An example of exceptional circumstances would be the appearance of facts at the trial or on appeal that completely exonerate the accused person. Compensation will not normally be payable in cases where persons have been acquitted at trial or subsequently on appeal because the prosecution were unable to sustain the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in relation to the specific charges brought. That bears repeating. According to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary, compensation will not normally be payable in cases where persons have been acquitted at trial or subsequently on appeal because the prosecution were unable to sustain the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in relation to the specific charges brought. Such an occurrence would be the failure of a witness to attend, therefore preventing the prosecution proceeding with the case.

Requests for compensation are usually made by letter from the claimant or his solicitors. The facts of the case are first considered to decide whether it falls under the statutory scheme, the ex gratia scheme or neither. Such applications often require further inquiries to be made, for example of the police, before a decision can be reached. The question of eligibility for the payment of compensation is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, entirely a matter for determination by the Home Secretary of the day.

It has been important to rehearse these facts because those who are concerned, such as Mr. Simpson and his family, should know the facts that underlie our system of compensation.

I now turn to the claim for compensation, which was advanced so powerfully by the hon. Member for Leicester, South on behalf of Mr. Simpson. On 5 May 1989, Mr. Simpson's solicitors applied for compensation for the three months that their client had been detained in custody. That is common ground between the hon. Gentleman and myself.

Following that application, detailed inquiries were made of the Leicestershire constabulary, which investigated the accident. As Mr. Simpson's appeal had been in time, his claim did not meet the requirements of the statutory compensation scheme under section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The only possibility available to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was to consider it under the terms of the exgratia scheme.

In Mr. Simpson's case, there was no question of serious default by the police in bringing the charge of causing death by reckless driving against him. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on that. I see him indicating assent. The charge against Mr. Simpson was brought on the basis of evidence from witnesses of his position on the motor cycle at the time of the accident. The evidence of a forensic scientist cast doubt on the suggestion that the rider had been thrown from the motor cycle while it was moving. That evidence was presented to the jury which, in the light of its majority decision, must have accepted it, although none of us will know what went on in the jury room.

The two new witnesses presented on appeal questioned that evidence but did not make themselves known to the police prior to the trial—it strikes me as peculiar that they did not do so—hence the sentence that the hon. Gentleman said that he resented. I do not think that there is any reason for resentment. It is peculiar, but sometimes there are peculiar circumstances in criminal cases that are hard to understand. I find it hard to understand why they did not come forward earlier. Linden Arnold's comment —he was one of the two new witnesses that the police did not ask them to make statements is understandable from the police's point of view because they were unaware of those witnesses when they conducted their investigation. The police behaved properly in the pre-trial period.

The witnesses were, however, known to a friend of Mr. Simpson's before the trial. In the circumstances, there are no grounds to suggest that the police were at serious fault in charging Mr. Simpson or that the conviction was wrongful on the basis of the evidence available at the trial. The new evidence produced by the two witnesses three days before the Court of Appeal hearing questioned the safety of the evidence presented by the prosecution at the trial. However, from the information available to me, it would appear that their evidence contained several discrepancies, compared with the earlier evidence given by the police officers. Some conflict about who was driving the motor cycle remains unresolved.

On the information available, Mr. Simpson's case does not appear to my right hon. and learned Friend to meet the criteria required to establish a claim for an exceptional payment of compensation under the terms of the ex gratia scheme. His application was refused accordingly.

I am grateful to the Minister for the measured way in which he is replying to the debate. Again, he has made the inferences to which I referred about the two new witnesses, but the fact of the matter is that the Court of Appeal accepted their evidence. That new information led it to quash the original conviction as being unsound and unsafe.

I appreciate that that leads to discussion and argument about the way in which the police conducted the original inquiry and I have my doubts about that. However., I deliberately did not raise that issue this evening because I did not want to cloud the specific injustice that had been done to Mr. Simpson with wider allegations about the original investigation.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. Let us just rehearse briefly the representations that he has made since he first wrote on 26 September 1989 to the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who is now the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Then and on previous occasions Mr. Simpson's case has been given the most careful and detailed consideration and that consideration underpinned the letter that I wrote on 3 November 1989, which contained the offensive sentence, informing the hon. Gentleman that the case was not one in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary would feel justified in authorising any ex-gratia payment of compensation from public funds.

I reconsidered Mr. Simpson's case with officials on two further occasions following the hon. Gentleman's letters of 11 December 1989 and 23 February 1990 to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. As the hon. Gentleman knows from my letters to him of 15 January and 2 May, we could find no grounds to justify departing from our earlier decision.

I listened with careful interest to what the hon. Gentleman said tonight on behalf of Mr. Simpson, but I do not think that any new matters of consideration have been put before the House. In the light of that, I must inform the hon. Gentleman and the House that I do not think that it will be possible for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to change his earlier decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Two o'clock.