[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Home Office and the case of the Shrewsbury 24.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. As Members will know, this is not the first occasion on which the great injustice of Shrewsbury has been brought before Parliament. I make it clear from the outset that there is no doubt that the jailing of Dessie Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and four others, and the guilty verdicts against a further 18 Shrewsbury pickets, was a great injustice. Indeed, in 2014 there was a full debate in the main Chamber in which an overwhelming majority supported the motion to release Government documents pertaining to the case. Earlier this year, due to the perspicacity of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), we again debated the call for the release of Government documentation relating to the Shrewsbury 24.
It might be asked why we are here again to raise the matter with the Minister. The answer is quite simple: not only have the Government not kept their promise to release the documents kept secret from the public for 43 years because of a fallacious threat to national security, but there is now compelling evidence, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and I have had access, that undeniably proves that the whole saga is a conspiracy at the very heart of Government. We would like to bring that to the House’s attention.
I will quickly recap the events of the national building workers’ strike of 1972, its immediate aftermath and the new evidence that was recently brought to light. I will then highlight what campaigners are requesting and the process for release. From previous debates, I know that some Tory Members simply believe that workers should not be allowed to strike and that many who do are either agitators or criminals, but I remind the House that taking legitimate strike action was then an inalienable right—and it still is, despite the draconian restrictions of the Trade Union Bill.
In the previous debates on this matter, apart from some limited opposition relating to some of the minor issues surrounding the case, the material substance of the claims raised in Parliament has been largely accepted. As John Platts-Mills QC said:
“The trial of the Shrewsbury Pickets is the only case I know of where the government has ordered a prosecution in defiance of the advice of senior police and prosecution authorities.”
The campaign team’s researcher, the redoubtable Eileen Turnbull, trawled through documentation archived at Kew and uncovered a letter dated 25 January 1973 from the then Attorney General, Peter Rawlinson—the highest legal adviser in the land—to the then Home Secretary, Robert Carr. Rawlinson advised the Home Secretary that, in his view, having discussed the case with Treasury counsel and the Director of Public Prosecutions, no less,
“proceedings should not be instituted.”
There is a litany of major inconsistencies in due legal process but, for expediency, I will outline just a few. Despite the fact that the police never received any report of incidents of criminal behaviour, or even unacceptable behaviour, by pickets at the time of the industrial action, political interference led to a belated investigation of the Shrewsbury pickets. The unions did not receive any complaints from the police about the conduct of the pickets—in fact, there is photographic evidence showing that the police were mingling freely with the strikers.
There was political interference with the judicial process and a very dubious relationship between senior Tories and certain senior police officers. Convictions for conspiracy were the then Government’s ultimate aim, as such convictions were seen as totemic in deterring other workers from taking industrial action. Despite no complaints, cautions or arrests, on 6 September 1972 a team of 24 detectives was deployed to north Wales to carry out a fishing exercise, gathering 800 statements, of which three quarters were discarded. Original statements that did not fit the investigators’ viewpoint were shredded and new statements ordered. I am sure the shadow Home Secretary will examine that issue in further detail.
A practice direction from the then Lord Chancellor followed in which the legal system regarding the swearing in of juries was changed. That denied defence solicitors the right to know jurors’ occupations, to which legal representatives had been privy for generations. The defendants’ legal team expressed major concern about the lack of neutrality in the area in which the trial was held. The trial was presided over by Judge Mais, whose inexperience was matched only by his lack of impartiality; his expertise was mainly in rural and ecclesiastical matters.
Inexplicably, a television programme entitled “Red Under the Bed”, which specifically made references to the ongoing trial, was allowed to be televised in the Shrewsbury area during the trial. In any other circumstance that would have been considered contempt of court and the trial would have been stopped. Scenes from the building workers’ strike, the committal hearing at Shrewsbury and shots of Des Warren and some of the Shrewsbury pickets were screened, which was prejudicial to a fair hearing. Papers already released show that the then Government, right up to the Prime Minister, were involved in assisting the programme’s production. The jury was misled. When the jury initially failed to agree a verdict, it was advised that, should it agree to convict, the accused would only be fined by the court. As we know, that did not happen.
In the Commons debate of January 2014, the motion requested that the Government release all documents relating to the prosecution of the Shrewsbury 24. At the end of the debate, the then Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, replied for the coalition:
“The Government are…committed to transparency.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 515.]
He wanted as “much information as possible” to be put in the public domain, in line with the Freedom of Information Act enacted by the previous Labour Government.
I had the pleasure of replying to that debate for the Opposition; we were somewhat encouraged by what the then Minister, Simon Hughes, said. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured this debate almost two years later, and I am particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend, the shadow Home Secretary, is here. The Government have since gone backwards, have they not? They are now bringing the shutters down. Is that not a disgrace?
Hopefully, between us, we will be able to explain to the people here, and to the wider public watching and listening to this debate, exactly how the Government have backtracked on the promises that were made less than two years ago. If the Government are honest about transparent and open government, which we so often hear about from Government Members, the easy thing for them to do is to release the documents.
Two years ago, I said that I believed the course of natural justice had been denied because of arrests
“on trumped-up charges…a dodgy trial and…unsound convictions. That would not be allowed and would not be acceptable today, and it should not have been allowed and should not have been acceptable then. It was a legal process that would shame a third-world dictatorship.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 492.]
Given the new evidence seen by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh and me, I now believe that to be the case even more than I did following the debate 23 months ago.
Frankly, it is bonkers that the documents we requested in that debate—a request that the House of Commons overwhelmingly supported in the vote—should remain under lock and key. The Minister at the time, Simon Hughes, said that just four documents relating to the Shrewsbury trial were being withheld by the Ministry of Justice, but he could not speak for other Departments. He also conceded that the Government were retaining 625 files from 1972. It is our belief that the process that led to the prosecution of the Shrewsbury pickets is germane to many of those files, which are therefore fundamental to the veracity of the campaigners’ case. Only when those files are placed in the National Archives at Kew for public viewing will that become apparent.
The superficial justification for the Government’s position is that an exemption from disclosure was signed by the Lord Chancellor of the day, Lord Hailsham, who at the time was a Cabinet member, a Law Lord, Speaker of the House of Lords and a member of the judiciary. By coincidence, he acquired a significant range of new responsibilities through the higher courts in England and Wales when the Courts Act 1971 came into force in 1972, and he used his power to suppress information under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958.
Some might say that this happened a long time ago, and they would be correct. Indeed, other Home Secretaries have had the opportunity to overturn the original decision, but have failed to do so. The most recent instrument, signed in 2011, provides an explanation of the reason for withholding the documents, under section 5, which states:
“The special reason is that transfer of the records after that period to the Public Record Office or a place of deposit appointed by the Lord Chancellor under the Act will create a real risk of prejudice to national security.”
Parliament has been discussing “national security” at length during the past few weeks, and I would never try to diminish the importance of our domestic resilience. As many Members said during the Syria debate, there is no greater priority than the safety of the nation. But can anybody honestly argue that a strike by building workers who sought better pay and working conditions 43 years ago would in any way threaten our national security?
The Shrewsbury 24 campaign submitted an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission on 3 April 2012. The Government have assured them that the CCRC has been given access to all documents relating to the trials, but how do we know this has actually happened? The CCRC is not the advocate for the applicants; it is the adjudicator, and it is there to consider the evidence from the applicants to decide whether or not there is a real possibility that the Court of Appeal would find the convictions unsafe. There are many files at the National Archives in Kew that have just one or two pages in them that relate to the trials. How can the Government expect the CCRC to go through dozens of files looking for individual documents when it simply does not have the staff for such a monumental task? Although the CCRC has statutory powers to obtain documents, it does not have the resources to conduct the detailed research that is necessary to show a conviction to be unsafe.
In the case of the Shrewsbury 24, the convictions were brought about by Government interference. The applicants have to establish that, and the CCRC cannot do that for them. However, the relevant Government Departments know exactly where their particular documents relating to the case lie, and they could provide them to the applicants to ensure that they can make a complete evidential submission to the CCRC, so that their application can be fully considered—if, of course, there was the genuine will within Government to be open and transparent; and that is why we are here today.
After the debate in 2014, the Minister met my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon, together with the campaign researcher, Eileen Turnbull, and the most well known of the pickets, Ricky Tomlinson. Afterwards, the Minister arranged for Stephen Jones, head of freedom of information and justice devolution at the Ministry of Justice, to send Eileen the references of files held at Kew that could relate to the Shrewsbury pickets. Mr Jones sent her 2,307 references. Eileen diligently and painstakingly went through the references and selected 51 of the files that she believed to include information about the Government’s involvement in the prosecutions, even though they did not specifically refer to the Shrewsbury trials in their titles.
Eileen’s research concluded that there was important material kept on file relating to the Shrewsbury pickets that was not specifically referenced using either the word “Shrewsbury” or the word “pickets”. That was supported by an open document at Kew that stated that information regarding picketing was held under the reference “Security/Subversion”. Staff at Kew acknowledged that the Cabinet Office uses this reference internally. This information establishes, therefore, that there are many files—at least four volumes—kept on pickets by the Government and referenced “Security/Subversion”. When Eileen followed up her request for files with the words “Subversion in industry” in their titles, she was refused, as everything that fits that description—“Security/Subversion”—is classified.
The Government say that they have withheld only three letters and a security services report. We believe that there is much, much more than that on file and we would ask, in the first instance, for the following documents to be released. First, there is the report of West Mercia police and the report of Gwynedd police, which were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions by Chief Constable John Williams on 18 December 1972. The campaign believes that these documents demonstrate that the police considered that there was no evidence to bring charges against the Shrewsbury pickets.
Second, there is the communication between the Home Secretary and other Departments, and West Mercia and Gwynedd police forces, including Assistant Chief Constable Alex Rennie, after 6 September 1972 about their large-scale investigations into picketing in north Wales and the Shropshire area during the strike. The campaign believes that these documents reveal the process of decision making that occurred at Cabinet and security services level to bring about charges against the building workers. As we all know, there were no complaints by the police or the public on 6 September 1972. No pickets were cautioned or arrested, even though there was a large-scale police presence at sites in Shropshire that day.
Thirdly, there are the communications between the Home Secretary and the Attorney General in December 1972 and January 1973 about the prosecution of the pickets. Campaigners have long believed that these documents will reveal who made the decision to proceed with charges against the building workers five months after the dispute ended.
Fourthly, there is the note of the phone call from a Government Department to Desmond Fennell, the junior prosecution counsel at Shrewsbury Crown court, that according to Maurice Drake QC, chief prosecuting counsel, was a request to inform the judge that they did not want him to pass custodial sentences. The campaign believes that this document further highlights evidence of the Government’s direct interference with the trial.
Fifthly, there are the MI5 files held on Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and any of the other pickets. The relevance of this request is obvious, as campaigners believe that these files will reveal the monitoring of the pickets during the 1972 building workers strike by the security services, as well as the security services’ activities in manipulating the Shrewsbury trials.
Sixthly, a full copy of a letter from Robert McAlpine and Sons Ltd dated 26 February 1973 to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis should be released. Campaigners believe that this letter confirms the role of this construction company in intensifying pressure on the police to bring about charges against the pickets. Just for reference, I point out that the Brookside site in Telford was, by coincidence, a McAlpine site, and Sir Robert was, of course, a senior member of the Conservative party. That site was where the evidence was assembled by the police to bring about charges of conspiracy to intimidate, affray and unlawful assembly.
The Cabinet Office maintains that it would not be in the public interest for the files to be released. That is absolute nonsense, which most reasonable people would categorically reject as an argument. For the Government to resist requests to disclose documents actually brings about distrust and suspicion, which is not in the public interest. However, central to my request for the release of these files is the desire for justice for these men while they are still able to see justice being done. Many of the lives of the Shrewsbury 24 were blighted by the events 43 years ago. The youngest of the Shrewsbury 24 is 68 and the oldest is 90. At least five have passed away since the trials in 1973-74, so time is of the essence.
It is inconceivable that a building workers strike in 1972 could throw up issues of national security in 2015.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very persuasive case. I start from the presumption that, where matters of justice are concerned, the hurdle for withholding information is much higher, so I start from a presumption in his favour. It has been reported in the newspapers today, or by the Press Association today, that the shadow Home Secretary is proposing to withhold support for the Investigatory Powers Bill if he does not, as it were, win his argument today. It seems to me that there are two arguments here: one, which is very powerful, that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) has just made; and another one, which again is powerful, against the Investigatory Powers Bill. It seems to me that both arguments are diminished by joining them. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us that what he is after today is to win by persuasion and not by coercion?
I think the argument is persuasive. To tell the truth, I never speak for the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh; he can speak for himself. Given that he will wind up, he will address the points made by the right hon. Gentleman.
It has taken 43 years to get where we are today, and the argument that we are putting forward overwhelmingly demonstrates, I think, that there is no way that any of the documents that would be released could be a danger to national security. That is the nub of this: it is about the documentation being released, so that the CCRC can have the full picture, not a partial one, in deciding whether to refer to the Court of Appeal. That is what the debate is about; others can speak for themselves.
I hesitate ever to disagree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), but we now have a Government who are attacking freedom of information and the Human Rights Act, including the right to freedom of assembly. We need to see these things in the round, because there is a sustained attack on individual freedom.
It is sustained in as much as it has taken Governments of all persuasions—to tell the truth—more than 43 years to get to the position we are in today. I am no friend of the current Government, but we also had an opportunity. We were in government for 13 years and we should have done a lot more than we did. This is not just about the apportionment of blame; it is about trying to get to where we need to get. Let us get everything out there and give it to the CCRC, so that it can make an informed decision on whether the case should be referred back to the Court of Appeal.
I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in thanking our right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). As shadow Lord Chancellor, he made that change—I was simply his vehicle for announcing it—to say for the first time that a future Labour Government will release all those documents, and that pledge is maintained.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more, and in fact—I think the shadow Home Secretary will come to this—we want to go further. We want to look at historic injustices in the round. There are direct links between an awful lot of them. There is a thread that goes from 1971, possibly through what happened with Wilson, through the miners’ strike and possibly ending up with Hillsborough. I have been given a lot of information by Eileen Turnbull and others on this, and there are so many similarities, with the establishment deciding what was right for the country and covering things up.
This is a conspiracy that happened at the very highest level, so I look forward to a Labour Government, although what we are asking for is for the documents to be released, hopefully before a Labour Government, and we cannot get that until 2020. For some of the Shrewsbury pickets, four years is four years too long. They have waited long enough. The reason we want it is that information requested could prove crucial to the case that the campaigners are putting forward to the CCRC and to having those unsound convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal. It is time for the obfuscation to stop and for the Government to do what is right.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on his contribution and welcome this further debate. I welcome the work of those outside the House who are campaigning daily to try to get to the truth of what happened more than 40 years ago. It is clear that an injustice has taken place and that the convictions were wrong. It is clear that those convictions caused tremendous difficulty to people at the time, but many, including a number of my constituents, bear the cross of those convictions still.
My hon. Friend made a strong case, and I do not wish to repeat it; it speaks for itself. It is, however, important to remember that the strike was about pay and working conditions. In the three years before that strike took place, 571 people had been killed and 224,000 had been injured in the building industry. The strike was about trying to get fairness at work. Such issues will of course generate strong passions, but the key question is whether the strike generated criminal activity. I believe that the Government have information on that and that the ongoing criminal review will show that the strike was not a criminal act, but an argument about conditions at work.
My hon. Friend has covered the long history in detail, but I have taken an interest in this case and campaign for some time. I am a Member of Parliament for a north Wales constituency and I represent a large number of the people who were charged and convicted at that time—some are still alive and some have died.
Let me make a confession, Mr Howarth: I was a Minister at the Ministry of Justice in the latter part of the last Labour Government. I could not raise the issues as a Minister, but as a constituency MP I wrote to Jack Straw, the then Member for Blackburn, in 2008-09. I asked him on behalf of my constituents whether we could release papers relating to the convictions, the trial and surrounding matters. My right hon. Friend, as he was then and still is now, agreed to look at those papers. After consideration, the Labour Government agreed to release the papers relating to the trial in 2012. Obviously, we lost the election in 2010.
I took it upon myself on 8 November 2010 to write to the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I said that there was a commitment from my right hon. Friend, the then Member for Blackburn, to lift the blanket ban on those papers and to release them in 2012. I asked whether he would stick to that agreement. He wrote back saying that the blanket agreement was still in place and would be in place until 2012, but that he was reviewing the matter. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
On 23 March 2011, I wrote to the then Justice Secretary again and asked him to make a decision. He wrote back and said that he was still considering the matter. I wrote to his successor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), on 20 November 2012. He said, “Thanks very much, David. It is very nice of you to write, but on 19 December last year, unbeknown to you or the House and without any disclosure, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe signed a new instrument, giving his approval for the retention of the records.” The retained records include the information that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned, but also—this has helpfully come to light—information relating to other matters. That is why a Minister from the Home Office is responding to the debate.
Why is that information important and why are those papers still being retained? As my hon. Friend said, we had a debate in January last year on a Back-Bench motion, in which the House overwhelmingly voted to support the release of the papers. The Justice Minister at that time indicated that he would review the matter further; presumably, he said that on behalf of the Government that the Minister here today was and is a member. The then Justice Minister said at the time that under existing public record legislation, papers would be retained past the 30 years only if they were
“retained for any other special reason”.—[Official Report, 24 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 468WH.]
On 1 January 2013, the same Government began their move to transparency, deciding that 30-year documents would be released after 20 years because they wanted to be open and transparent. Yet in the case of the papers relating to the Shrewsbury trial and convictions, the Government do not want the 20-year rule to apply. They do not even want to stick at 30 years, which is the current figure, but prefer a situation in which my constituents, who face this issue every day of the week, have to wait until 2022 before they can find out what documents the Government choose to release, all because of some nefarious issue relating to “some other special reason”. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has mentioned what the other special reason could be: the involvement of the security services.
Before I came to this debate, I googled the words “Falklands war”. We might think those words would elicit closure, secrecy and lack of transparency. I can find out anything I want about what was said in the Cabinet, what was undertaken in Cabinet and what was done at the time about the Falklands war, yet I cannot find information about what happened 10 years before that during an industrial dispute, because the Government have undertaken some disclosure, but not full disclosure.
What is so secret, so damning, so damaging and so improbable that the Government, 40 years on, will not let people have full access to the history of their case?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we live in a very curious state given that Ricky Tomlinson is apparently seen as more of a threat to national security than General Galtieri?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting it that way. I will take that as a compliment to Mr Tomlinson, and also to my friends who live in my town in my constituency who face this issue daily. Where are the people who were working in the security services from 1972 to 1975? How old are they now? We are talking about 42 or 43 years ago. Were they in short trousers working for the security services? They will have retired. They will have gone. They will be off the face of the earth. They will have moved on. They are not there now in senior positions. If they are, let us hold them to account for what they have done.
This 42-year-old case matters to me and my constituents. I do not want to mention people by name—they know who they are—but I will provide one example. I will not put his name on the record; he knows who he is.
A colleague of mine is a town councillor in the town where I live. He is the mayor of the town. He will be putting on his red cloak and his chain in a week’s time for another civic event. He has served as a county councillor, been on the police authority, worked as a lecturer and is a citizen of the community in which I live. He is respected, well known, well loved and well liked, yet he cannot go to America on holiday with his friends and family because of an event 42 years ago: he got a conviction that, if the information was found, could be proved to be false. My constituent, the mayor, cannot get a visa, even today, to travel to the United States, because he is viewed as a threat to security. This person lives in my town, serves on a police committee and is the mayor of the town. He can walk down the street and hold his head high for what he tried to do at the time.
If disclosure is going to be unfair to somebody in the security services or Lord Hailsham or another Conservative Minister, so be it. Their reputations might deserve to be challenged at this stage. What is not fair is for my constituents—not only the one I have mentioned—to live in a community that knows they have been to jail or have convictions when those convictions are false. That is what the issue is about. This is not fun and games between the Government and Opposition Members; this is about real people’s lives and we want to see justice done. We should see the information and let the world judge whether there is something to hide.
I do not know what the documents contain. Let the world judge and not say what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), said to me in a parliamentary answer on the Floor of the House on 21 October. When I asked him about releasing the papers, he did not say, “I am reviewing it”, “I will look at it”, or “There may be a case”. He said:
“No. I have no intention of authorising the release of those papers, which relate to the security services.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 940.]
The Minister needs to justify that answer and not simply say there is no reason to release those papers. He needs to talk about transparency and explain what happened 43 years ago. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton and the case he has made. The Minister must respond and I look forward to hearing what he says at the end of this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. The debate is timely and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), who for many years has been a stalwart in trying to get justice for the Shrewsbury 24. I will say this on the record: this case is a catastrophic and deliberate miscarriage of justice deliberately organised by the state. Of that there is no doubt. If they have nothing to hide, let us see the papers. It is simple. I can see the Minister staring at me. He is a former worker, which is highly unusual among the Conservatives. He has worked in the services with distinction, so I appeal to his good side. We are not asking for anything out of the ordinary other than to see some documents. According to the Conservative Government, there is not anything in them. If there is not anything in them, why can we not see them? That is fairly straightforward.
We have discussed this case on various occasions in the Commons. The Back-Bench debate in the Chamber was one of the best debates we have had. We were solid behind the motion that was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson).
I am a former miner. I have been through many strikes. I have been a picket and have suffered the same as some of the representatives of the Shrewsbury 24. It is simply not right for an ordinary person, who has never had any problems and never been arrested before, to get arrested for trying to save their job and look after their family. It is just not right. It is an abuse of political power. It is an abuse of the judiciary system, an abuse of individual human rights, and an attack on the fact that someone is prepared to be part of a collective organisation in the trade union movement. That is what happened back then. This was not an industrial dispute, but a political dispute. The state wanted to show, by example, what would happen if people dared to stand up against the state.
We have seen legislation after legislation introduced since then. The recent Trade Union Bill, which should be the anti-trade union Bill, builds on what happened all those years ago in the early 1970s. These people were on strike; they were not raving, militant lunatics and revolutionaries. They were on strike because people were getting maimed and killed in the building industry. They were fighting for wages and, in the main, for health and safety on building sites. Is there any better cause for trade union members to fight for than the health and safety of the people they work with in the workplace? I think not.
We hear much in this country about aspiration and about who represents those with aspiration. Surely, those involved in this dispute were an example of that—their aspiration was for a better life, better working conditions and better pay.
They had little in the way of aspiration other than to live the life of ordinary working people. If we think about it, this was about people being able to go to their workplace and do their job, to actually come home and see their families without having been maimed or lamed, and to put bread on the table at the end of the week. That is what these outrageous people were after. They have been targeted for years just for wanting to get on with their jobs in a safe environment and to create a decent life for their families.
When we had our debate nearly two years ago, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), shouted that it was nice to see
“old Labour is still alive and well and, in some respects, seeking both to justify and to romanticise mob rule and violence and intimidation.”
Who was romanticising? Where was the mob rule? Where was the intimidation? Nobody was arrested on the day. There was not a problem. The police were there, and they were talking to the pickets. It was a fine example of how things should be. There were no problems until months later, when people started to get the knocks on the door. My hon. Friend the former Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said that the comments by the hon. Member for Aldershot
“reminded us exactly what the Tories are about”
“workers should be…seen and not heard”.—[Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 485-501.]
I think he summed it up perfectly.
There has been new, compelling evidence, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) will explain exactly what it is and add to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton. However, a documentary was shown, including in Shrewsbury, during the court hearing. It was called “Red Under the Bed”. It showed scenes involving the men who were up for trial. Good Lord, is that fair? Who saw it? Who did not see it? However, it is also compelling evidence, isn’t it? Perhaps we could use it to show that there was no intimidation and mob rule, that people were not fighting and that bricks were not being thrown. There was none of that.
I want to put on record my support for, and my commitment to, every one of the Shrewsbury 24 pickets and their families. I give a guarantee that we will fight forever and a day to seek justice for them. However, we really should look for justice as soon as we can. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned, the youngest of these men is 68, while the oldest is 90, and five of them have died.
These principled people were offered a fine of £50 if they would walk away. The police officers said, “You can be home at 3 o’clock if you accept a guilty plea.” They would not be here now—we would not be here now—if they had accepted. However, out of principle, they said, “We are not guilty of any charges that have been placed on us.” That is principle.
It is about time that we—as a country and as politicians—ensured that these people got justice. Let us see who was behind the decisions that were made at the time in the police and the judiciary and, most of all, who was behind the political decisions made against these honourable, hard-working people.
It is a pleasure to be here and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for securing the debate. His speech was informative, persuasive and, above all, powerful.
As the SNP spokesperson on trade union and workers’ rights, let me say it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Before coming to this place, I was a Unison activist. Two years ago, in the hon. Gentleman’s city of Liverpool, Ricky Tomlinson addressed the UK Unison conference to raise awareness of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign. It was my pleasure, as the then treasurer of Glasgow City Unison, to sign a cheque to the campaign, and I would encourage all members of the public watching the debate to consider making a contribution to it.
I want to assure the campaign that all right hon. and hon. Members of the SNP support it. It is important that justice be done. I should add that the campaign resonates with me because the arrests and charges came one month before I was born. Throughout my whole lifetime, therefore, the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign has been waiting for justice.
We know from the campaign that the National Federation of Building Trades Employers compiled a dossier. At the time, the Financial Times dismissed the dossier, saying:
“This document is itself flawed since it suggests the existence of a sinister plot without being able to substantiate the allegations. Many of the incidents that have been listed seem to be little more than the ordinary spontaneous angry behaviour that might be expected on a building site at any time (and especially during an industrial dispute)…the publication reads more like a politically motivated pamphlet than a serious study.”
That is a good way of putting it.
I want to praise the speeches we have heard so far. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) referred to the previous debate, on the Floor of the House, in January 2014, and to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). When I read the report of the debate, I noticed that that hon. Gentleman bragged about his membership of the Freedom Association—what we would consider to be the Consulting Association’s wee cousin.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) made a number of excellent points. I was surprised to hear that promises made in correspondence to him since 2010 have not been kept. I think he is due an explanation.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, beyond this huge injustice, something else is at stake—the reputation of this Parliament? Deceit upon deceit has been practised here, and the reputation of the word of Minister after Minister is now in the gutter. There is a deep-seated smell of corruption, which goes right to the heart of the Government, and it needs to be expunged.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. He makes the valid point that members of the public outside watching this debate will be very confused that promises about the release of information keep getting made but are not kept. That is why many of them do not trust parliamentarians and Parliament. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.
In making his powerful address, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton got to the nub of the issue for those involved in the campaign. The eldest of these men is 90, and the youngest is 68. They should not have to wait five years for the release of these documents.
The SNP supports the decision taken in the House in January 2014. I want to emphasise the result of the vote: there were 120 votes in favour of releasing the documents, and three against. Many of us are concerned that national security is being used as a reason not to release the documents. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has said:
“It is time to end this 40-year conspiracy of silence and release all the government documents relating to the Shrewsbury 24. There is something deeply wrong in this country when a 21st century government uses national security to withhold documents about ordinary working people who tried to improve their working conditions four decades ago. We believe the Tories are desperately trying to hide the stench of a great miscarriage of justice and we urge fair minded MPs to back our campaign to release all the government papers on the Shrewsbury 24.”
Alex Deane, a Conservative public affairs consultant, wrote on the ConservativeHome website in January 2014,
“whilst deeply unsympathetic to their cause, I find it simply impossible to conjure up what the national security concerned might be in hiding the decisions taken by officials and elected persons relating to the prosecution of builders in Shropshire 40 years ago. What technique of surveillance or undercover work might possibly justify non-disclosure after this passage of time? Any technique will be outdated or universally known about. Any individual involved in undercover work can have his or her name redacted from the papers which might otherwise be released. Consideration of the wider disclosures rightly made in recent times of papers relating to Northern Ireland, where on any view those concerned were more dangerous, makes a mockery of any such claim to national security concerns.”
We believe a great injustice has been done, and hope that the Minister will confirm today that he will release the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24.
Order. I am about to call the shadow Home Secretary. Although I think there will be plenty of time for both Front-Bench spokesmen, I ask them to bear in mind the fact that Steve Rotheram has the right to a few minutes at the very end. I hope that they will make sure that he gets them.
I want to congratulate my great friend: my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) made a powerful and persuasive speech. I also thank my many Opposition colleagues for being here today and for their show of solidarity with the Shrewsbury 24. Given that it is nearly Christmas, I even thank the Scottish National party for being here to lend support to our campaign. It is good to have it.
The Government deserve credit for the willingness that they have shown in facing up to the historical injustices of Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough and child sexual exploitation. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has said, something that many people consider an outrageous injustice—a case that goes to the heart of how we were governed and policed in the previous century—is still shrouded in secrecy today. In the previous Parliament, following a debate called by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), the House voted overwhelmingly for the full truth about Shrewsbury finally to be told, but in October the Minister for the Cabinet Office ruled that the Government papers would continue to be withheld.
The purpose of today’s debate is to challenge that decision, and I will do so by revealing a series of documents that shed new light on the whole issue. Before I do that, I want to pay tribute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton did, to Eileen Turnbull, the researcher to the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, whose diligence and utter dedication to the cause has brought the documents to light. I have her dossier here today, and it reveals three things: first, how the trial was politically driven by the then Home Secretary, from the gathering of evidence to the commencement of proceedings; secondly, how there was an abuse of process by police in the taking of statements; and thirdly, how there was an attempt at the highest levels of Government, supported by the security services, to influence the outcome of the trial.
There is also a crucial piece of context, which other hon. Members have mentioned, and I ask that it be borne in mind at all times. On the day in question, 6 September 1972, no pickets were arrested, nor were any cautions issued. That brings me to the first document, a letter dated 20 September 1972—some two weeks later—from the press officer of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers to regional secretaries. It is headed “Intimidation Dossier” and it says:
“You will be aware that we are compiling a dossier on incidents of intimidation and violence during the recent wage dispute. The intention is to pass this document to the Home Secretary for his consideration with a view to tightening up the law on picketing in industrial disputes.”
It calls for details of any incidents, statements from eyewitnesses and photographs. So at the outset that establishes that there was an evidence-gathering exercise on the strike involving the Home Office at the highest level.
Confirmation of the political interest in legal proceedings comes from the second document that I have: a page from the case file of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Shrewsbury pickets. An entry on 29 December 1972 reads as follows:
“The Home Secretary is interested in this case. 2 counsel to be nominated.”
That, by the way, was no passing interest from the Home Secretary, as the third document will show. I have here a letter dated 25 January 1973 about the Shrewsbury case from the then Attorney General Peter Rawlinson to the then Home Secretary Robert Carr. Its contents are extraordinary. It begins:
“The building worker’s strike last summer produced instances of intimidation of varying degrees of seriousness...A number of instances consisted of threatening words and in which there was no evidence against any particular person of violence or damage to property. In these circumstances Treasury Counsel, took the view that the prospects”—
of a conviction—
“were very uncertain, and in the result I agreed with him and the Director that proceedings should not be instituted.”
That letter is talking about proceedings against the Shrewsbury pickets. It goes on to warn of the risks of jury trial, saying that
“juries tend to treat mere words more leniently than actual violence”.
There it is—an admission that they were talking about “mere words”. Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Home Secretary of the day was advised by the Attorney General and the DPP that no proceedings should be brought against the Shrewsbury pickets. Secondly, it is made clear and explicit that there was no evidence of violence or damage to property. “Mere words” were the only things that were thrown.
We do not have documents revealing the subsequent decision-making process within Government, but we do have the first page of a confidential memo sent by the Home Secretary to the Prime Minister the week after the letter was sent. It reads:
“Thank you for your minute of 29 January about picketing. I have taken a close personal interest in this problem since I came to the Home Office and I have myself discussed it with the chief officers of those police forces which have had to deal with the most serious picketing. I believe that chief constables are now fully aware of the importance we attach to the matter”.
From that there is no doubt at all that the Home Secretary was heavily interfering in operational police matters, and just over a week after his memo was sent to the Prime Minister the Shrewsbury pickets were picked up by police and charged—a full five months after the strike had ended. That series of documents puts beyond any reasonable doubt the fact that the Shrewsbury trial was politically driven by the Home Secretary of the day.
I am sorry I have not been able to attend the debate so far, but I was attending to my staff in the run-up to the Christmas period. The shadow Home Secretary makes a big play of the fact that the Home Secretary was involved. The right hon. Gentleman was not around at the time, and I was. I recall the case and, indeed, had a letter about it published in The Times. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Home Secretary should not have been concerned about the case, I think he is making a mistake. The Home Secretary should have been concerned.
At that time, the nation was bedevilled by strikes. We had not had the legislation that Margaret Thatcher introduced. If the case that the right hon. Gentleman is making is that the Home Secretary should not have been involved, that is a fundamental misreading of the situation that applied at the time. The Home Secretary was right to be concerned because the British people were concerned at the way trade unions were running rampant across the country.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have been here at the start of the debate to hear the whole case. He has just revealed that it was a political campaign against the trade unions. That is what he just said, and that is the point. He has revealed his hand to this entire gathering. It was a political campaign that Mrs Thatcher sorted out. That is the point here. There was a campaign driven from the top of Government, as I have revealed. We do not live in a country where politicians can put people on trial. I do not want to live in a country like that. These should be independent matters for the police and the legal authorities. The hon. Gentleman has heard evidence today of politicians putting people on trial; if he is not concerned about that, well, I am, and that is why we are holding this debate.
The next document that I have shows that due process was not followed in the aftermath of the political pressure. On 17 September 1973, a conference between police investigating the case and the chief Crown prosecutor, Mr Drake, was held at Mr Drake’s home. I have here a note of that conference. Let me quote the key passage in paragraph 16, which records an explanation from police officers about the gathering of statements:
“So that Counsel would be aware it was mentioned that not all original hand-written statements were still in existence, some having been destroyed after a fresh statement had been obtained. In most cases the first statement was taken before photographs were available for witnesses and before the Officers taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.”
Let me read that again for the benefit of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), so that he can hear it without any confusion. [Interruption.]
Order. Before the shadow Home Secretary does that, I should say that I understand that emotions are running high for those observing this case, particularly in the light of some of the things that have been said. However, the debate should be heard in silence.
Let me read from the note quietly and carefully so that no one is under any doubt. It says: “before the Officers”—the police officers—
“taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.”
I put it to the House that that document, which has not been made public before, is the smoking gun in the Shrewsbury case. It is clear that the police felt it incumbent on them to investigate propelled by a prosecutorial narrative, rather than by an even-handed investigation of events. I was led to believe that the Conservative party believed in the Peelian principles of policing, but they were not followed in this case. Transcripts of the trial reveal that the court and the jury were never informed of the destruction of those original witness statements. That fact alone raises major questions about the conduct of the trial and the safety of the convictions.
I turn to the trial itself and the Government attempts to influence it. “Red Under the Bed” was a television programme made by Woodrow Wyatt for Anglia Television. Its aim was to reveal communist infiltration of the trade unions and the Labour party, but it was also clearly intended to influence the trial. Wyatt’s controversial commentary was interspersed with footage of John Carpenter and Des Warren and pictures of Shrewsbury Crown court. The programme was first broadcast across ITV regions on 13 November 1973, the day the prosecution closed its case. We know that the judge watched a video of the programme in his room just after it was broadcast. It is inconceivable that the programme did not influence the trial, and unthinkable in this day and age that a television programme prejudicial to a major trial could have been aired during that trial. But it was.
I will now reveal the full back story about how the programme was made. I have here a memo, headed “SECRET”, to a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official from the head of the Information Research Department, a covert propaganda unit operating within the FCO. It says:
“Mr. Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme, ‘Red under the Bed’, was shown nationally on commercial television on Tuesday, 13 November, at 10.30 p.m…We had a discreet but considerable hand in this programme…In February Mr. Wyatt approached us direct for help. We consulted the Department of Employment and the Security Service through Mr. Conrad Heron’s group…With their agreement, Mr. Wyatt was given a large dossier of our own background material. It is clear from internal evidence in the programme that he drew extensively on this”.
What an extraordinary thing for a Government official to be writing in a memo to a senior civil servant!
It gets worse. In the next paragraph, the head of the unit says this:
“In our estimation this was a hard-hitting, interesting and effective exposure of Communist and Trotskyist techniques of industrial subversion. But Mr. Wyatt’s concluding message, that the CPBG’s”—
the Communist Party of Great Britain’s—
“main aim is to take over the Labour Party by fair means or foul—an opinion which is almost incontrovertible—offended the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s standards of objectivity, as they interpret the Statute…This difference of opinion held up the showing of the film”.
This is senior civil servants talking about the infiltration of the Labour party—a spurious claim that they were trying to make through a television programme that they were directly involved in making. It is astonishing that it came to that.
Knowledge of what was going on went right to the very top. The Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary put in a handwritten note to Mr Heath. It says:
“Prime Minister…You may like to glance through this transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s ‘Red Under The Bed’ TV programme.”
The reply came back from the Prime Minister:
“We want as much as possible of this”.
On the back of that, the PPS wrote a further confidential memo to Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary. It says:
“The Prime Minister has seen the transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme…He has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing. He hopes that the new Unit is now in being and actively producing.”
The “new Unit”.
What new unit?
Yes, we can only wonder what that was. In a reply headed “Secret” and copied to the Prime Minister, Mr Hunt writes:
“I confirm that the new Unit is in being and is actively producing material. Use of the service”—
the Security Service—
“is being kept under continual review between the Lord Privy Seal and Mr Heron.”
So there we have it: the security services were helping to make not only a television programme that was nakedly political in its aim of damaging the Labour party but, in the case of the Shrewsbury 24, a programme that was prejudicial to their trial and that went out in the middle of their trial. The Government were complicit in making that happen.
The documents that I have revealed today lead us to only one conclusion: the Shrewsbury 24 were the convenient scapegoats of a Government campaign to undermine the trade unions. They were the victims of a politically orchestrated show trial. These revelations cast serious doubt on the safety of their convictions. Let us remember: this was a domestic industrial dispute led by one of the less powerful trade unions of the day, involving industrial action in and around a number of small market towns in England and, on the day in question, no arrests were made.
How on earth, 43 years on, can material relating to it be withheld under national security provisions? I put it to the Minister that the continuing failure to disclose will lead people to conclude that the issue has less to do with national security and more to do with the potential for political embarrassment if what was going on at the time were widely known.
We need from the Minister today a guarantee that all the papers identified as important by the Shrewsbury campaign are released to the National Archives. That is vital. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton said, the individuals concerned are not getting any younger. They have a right, even now, to a fair trial, and it is only when all the documents are released that we will know whether they received one.
But in the end, the issue is about more than 24 individuals. There is a modern-day relevance to today’s debate, with a Trade Union Bill going through Parliament that requires police supervision of the activities of trade unions. In the light of what I have revealed today, perhaps the public will understand more why the trade union movement objects so much to that Bill, and why the Bill has sinister echoes of the past. It also comes at a time when the Government are asking for our support for an extension of the investigatory powers of the police and security services.
As I have said before, I am prepared to support them on that. But if the Government want to build trust, they must be honest about the past. It is only by learning from this country’s past mistakes that we will be able to build the right safeguards into the new legislation and prevent future abuses by the state. I do not make my support conditional on that; I am asking the Government to help to build trust so that we can help them get the legislation right.
In the end, the Shrewsbury case is about how we were governed and policed in the second half of the last century. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, I see clear parallels between Shrewsbury and Orgreave, where trumped-up charges against miners were thrown out of court—and, of course, with Hillsborough, where statements were altered to fit the narrative the authorities wanted. In all three cases, the establishment tried to demonise ordinary people.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the final, successful resolution of the Hillsborough case shows that it is never too late to overturn a miscarriage of justice?
I started by praising the Government for their work there, but they need to show the same openness and transparency here. In all three cases there was a pattern: the establishment tried to demonise ordinary people. Only when we know the full truth about the past century will we, as a new generation of lawmakers, be able to make this country fairer and more equal. This is the people’s history, and I demand their right to know it.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on producing those documents today, which, frankly, I and, I would suggest, many of us in this room have never seen before. I also congratulate his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate.
I was 14 in 1972—two years before I joined the Army; I am not as young as the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—but I do remember this event, not least because later on in life my father desperately tried to get me to stay in the building industry. My father and I come from a family of small builders, so it was very much there. There was a lot of talk about how we could make sites safer and make sure people on sites were paying their tax—this was when we brought the 715s in and all that—so I do know a little about this.
As the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) indicated, I am a worker, still today, and I come from a trade union background—the Fire Brigades Union, which I understand has rejoined the Labour party. I was a member of a trade union when I was a lifeguard for the local authority, but I cannot remember which one it was—it would have ended up in Unison by now, but I think it went through several versions—so of all the Ministers who could have been standing here today, I have empathy, and I have always tried to have empathy, particularly when I work with the shadow Home Secretary and particularly on Hillsborough.
It is very easy for us to assume that the Chamber—either this one or the main Chamber—could be a court of appeal, but it is not. There is a process going on now with the CCRC—an independent body, set up by the Government of the day—as to whether, in its opinion, there has been a miscarriage of justice that could be referred to the courts. That is the legal system we have in this country, and it is not for right hon. and hon. Gentlemen here to come to a conclusion. Most of us would agree that we have that sort of judicial system.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
I am the Minister for Policing; I would love to be the Home Secretary.
I am sorry that I promoted the Minister inadvertently. The evidence may be fresh to him and this Chamber may not be a court of appeal, but does he accept that, to shed some light on the matter, he needs to publish the documents that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) spoke about, which will help us come to some sort of conclusion? Does he accept that and will he do all in his power to ensure that happens?
I will come to where the documents should go, who should see them and what should happen, and ask the question, as general response, as to whether the CCRC has seen the documents and whether they have been submitted to it. If the right hon. Member for Leigh knows, perhaps he will let me know during the debate.
My understanding is that the CCRC has not seen the documents that the Shrewsbury campaign considers to be important. They are far more extensive than the small number of documents that the Ministry of Justice identified. The important thing is for the campaign to identify which documents it believes to be important. They should then be put into the archive at Kew and the relevant documents should be given to the CCRC. That is the process we are asking for.
Order. As far as I am aware, there are no criminal or appeal proceedings pending; in which case, no sub judice rule applies to this debate. It is a matter for debate. I want the Minister to understand that.
I apologise if I inadvertently indicated that there was anything sub judice. Clearly there is not. The CCRC is there, before we get back into the courts, to independently look at what was going on.
Before I answer the question that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) asked me, let me say that 1972 is a long time ago. There have been many Governments, of two different persuasions, in power during that time.
Yes, three if we count the last one. For this to be a Tory conspiracy, whenever we are in government, I just do not understand as to why—[Interruption.] Bear with me. I do not understand why this has not been addressed before now. That is the point I am trying to make. It is all too easy to say, “You nasty, horrible guys. You’ve been in government for a long time, and you’ve not done this.” As the right hon. Member for Leigh said, we have done an awful lot, particularly on Hillsborough.
I know that the Minister is a decent guy and that he is trying to do his best, but could he tell us why my ex-right hon. Friend, the then Member for Blackburn, agreed that the documents would be released in 2012, but the current Ministers took a decision not to release them when they were asked in 2012?
The same question—why was it not done before?—could be put to the right hon. Member for Leigh, who was in the Home Office too. I do not know the answer to that question.
Well you should do.
I do not. There was a decision made by Jack Straw at the time. Previous Labour Home Secretaries had not done it. I accept the evidence that I have not seen before today, but if we really want to get to the truth, Labour Members cannot just say, “We were in government for 13 years and did absolutely nothing about it, and it is now suddenly your fault because you happen to be in government today.” I just do not accept that.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am going to try to answer the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth in as straight and honest a way as I possibly can.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), looked at the documents carefully and said to the House that he will not reveal them, and that stands. He and the Cabinet Secretary—not a Tory politician—looked at the documents and
“both came to the firm conclusion that they do not relate in any way to the question of the safety of the conviction of the Shrewsbury 24”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 54, c. 940.]
I just want to pick up a point that the Minister made. He said, “You were in government, and you didn’t do it.” First, he is well aware, as an experienced Government Minister, that when one party is in government, there is a custom that it does not release papers relating to another party. He knows that, but the point is worth making. Secondly, to clear some of this up, why does he not meet some of the campaigners to discuss these issues? Let us try to move things forward, focus on what we are asking for today and see whether we can bring resolution to this whole issue.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am generally very fair about these sorts of things, and I would have come to that point in my speech, but I just felt—perhaps wrongly—that there was something that one of the Labour Administrations since 1972 could have done to address the concerns of the Shrewsbury 24. I think that must be a fair assumption by any description.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) introduced some compelling information and evidence. Will the Minister make a judgment on what he has heard today?
As the right hon. Member for Leigh said, I have been in many Departments, and I do not make instant judgments. I will look carefully at it.
On the shadow Home Secretary’s point, I am more than happy to meet the campaigners. I know that the Minister for Security—probably the more relevant person for the documents we are referring to—is also more than happy to do that. If there are other Ministers in Government who it would be pertinent for the campaigners to meet—I am probably putting my foot in it again, as usual—I cannot see any reason why they should not be able to do so. That is a way we can move forward.
I welcome that statement. I say to the Minister, in all humility and as a lawyer, that my hon. and right hon. Friends and I are not saying that the Shrewsbury 24 were innocent of criminal offences. That is not for us to say. What we are saying is that, on the evidence, particularly that produced today, there appears to have been a major injustice done—that those individuals were denied a fair trial to decide whether they were guilty or not. We want the Government to address the injustice of the apparent suppression and destruction of documents that would have aided the defence of the Shrewsbury 24 to make their case in a fair trial. They did not get that fair trial. That is the injustice that we want addressed. We are not saying today that they are innocent; we cannot do so as legislators.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am not a lawyer, and it is actually quite useful in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice not to be a lawyer, because I can look at things in a slightly different way.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission did not exist in the ’70s—it was not put in place until 1997. It is absolutely imperative that the documents that the shadow Home Secretary has put before the House today are presented to the CCRC, so that it can do exactly what it says on the tin and impartially and independently look at the case. I know that other evidence has been submitted to the CCRC by the campaigners that we have not heard today, and it is imperative that we let the CCRC do its job.
With the full documents.
With the documents, as we are saying. The CCRC has had access to any documents of any description that it requires and has asked to see. Those are exactly its powers.
I want I give the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton an opportunity to respond. I want to be as helpful as I possibly can. If meetings need to take place, they should take place. We are examining documents within the Home Office now to see whether they are relevant and if they are, we will do everything that we possibly can. However, there has been a decision—not my decision, but a decision made by the Cabinet Secretary, who I would think is fairly independent on such things, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—that the documents that they have withheld have no relevance to the case of the Shrewsbury 24, and the Government are standing by their decision not to release those documents on the basis of national security. I know that that is perhaps not the answer that Opposition Members wanted from me, but that is the position of Her Majesty’s Government.
I will do everything that I can to assist the campaign as much as possible. If I was a constituency MP for the campaigners, I would be sitting there today, as hon. and right hon. Gentlemen and Ladies know, because that is the way I am. I passionately believe in the trade union movement. I was a member of it for long enough and have stood on picket lines myself. I believe in natural justice, which is what the CCRC is there for.
I first need to thank all hon. and right hon. Members who spoke in what I believe to be a particularly powerful debate. Most reasonable people watching today’s proceedings will come to the conclusion that the case has been overwhelmingly made for the release of the documents. It is for the campaigners to decide what documents they believe to be relevant and for the Government to release them to be lodged at Kew. Those documents should then be referred to the CCRC. That would be a just and equitable outcome from this afternoon.
I have to say that I hope that the real face of the Tories is the Minister who wound up and responded to the points that we raised and not the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), who, despite the rhetoric of compassionate Conservatism, proved beyond reasonable doubt that the nasty party is alive and kicking.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I understand the passions that are aroused, but this country was seriously under threat at the time from trade unions that did not have the level of constraint that applies today. In 1979, 30 million days were lost to strike action—[Interruption.] It is no good shouting me down; this is the House of Commons. Last year, the number of days lost was 788,000. Industrial relations have been transformed since those unhappy days of which the hon. Gentleman speaks.
I am just trying to get my head around what the hon. Gentleman just said. He believes that because there was industrial action that lost the country days, it was okay for the state to stitch up 24 people and imprison them. Is that the point that he was making? I think people will come to their own conclusions.
The hon. Gentleman has had two goes and I think he is digging himself a deeper and deeper hole.
The Minister, who is an honourable man, tried to defend his position, but I think he tried to defend the indefensible on this occasion. He tried to muddy the waters around the release of the documents, but this is about a miscarriage of justice. That is what is central to today’s debate: a miscarriage of justice. The current Government have the opportunity—it is in their gift—to put right a wrong of 43 years. That is all that the campaigners have asked for over the decades. I hope that the Minister will listen to their concerns and to the arguments of Opposition Members. I hope that he will act with honesty and integrity and meet the campaigners and then go back and fight their cause to get the documents released.
Question put and agreed to.
That the House has considered the Home Office and the case of the Shrewsbury 24.
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
There is a Division in the House. If there is more than one Division, we will resume after 25 minutes or as soon as we all get back.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.