I beg to move,
That this House is seriously concerned at the decision of the Government to refuse to release papers related to the building dispute in 1972 and subsequent prosecutions of the workers known as the Shrewsbury 24 and calls on it to reverse this position as a matter of urgency.
The debate is long overdue but I urge colleagues not to intervene unless they feel they have to, because there are a number of Members who wish to speak and time will obviously be limited.
Nineteen seventy-two was a momentous year for industrial relations in this country. A weak Government had twice declared states of emergency, first in February during the first miners’ strike for almost half a century, and secondly in August during the national dockworkers’ strike. Matters were made worse by the Government’s attempts to prevent unions from defending their members’ rights, wages and conditions at work. It was clear that of all the work forces in the United Kingdom, the building industry was a bigger mess than all the rest put together. Wages were low, there was no job security and exploitation was rife through a system known as “the lump.”
As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, of which I am a member, has conducted an inquiry into blacklisting. Would it be fair to say that the Shrewsbury 24 would most certainly have been blacklisted after the strike in 1972?
I thank and forgive my hon. Friend for his intervention. There is absolutely no doubt about it: people were blacklisted. One real sadness about what we are discussing today is that 40 years on from that disgrace, similar things are still taking place. The Scottish Affairs Committee should be congratulated on the great work it has done in this area.
The lump was a system whereby people were paid cash in hand, meaning not only that no income tax or national insurance contributions were paid—so the state was robbed—but, vitally, that workers were uninsured against accidents or worse while they were at work. That was extremely serious. A building worker was dying every day on average on building sites across the UK and, in the three years before 1972, almost a quarter of a million industrial injuries were reported, with many more not being reported.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I hope that his debate will be balanced. He talks about the need to protect people’s rights and about violence, so I very much hope that in preparation for the debate he spoke, as I have, to some of the police officers in Shrewsbury and some of the people in the building trade who experienced great violence and intimidation from those people at that time.
I will run the debate; the hon. Gentleman should just sit there and listen.
In 1972, the unions, exasperated at the failure to achieve progress, called the first and so far only national building strike ever held. Four months later, the strike was called off after the unions forced their employers to concede the biggest increase in basic pay rates ever. It was a victory for the working man, but a bitter blow for the employers, who were determined on revenge. They were not alone. The Tory Government were rattled by the success of one of the least well-organised groups of workers in this country and were determined to help their friends in the building industry.
To pursue that revenge the employers’ body, the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, went on what can only be described as a fishing expedition. It wrote to its members on 20 September 1972, two weeks after the strike ended, seeking any information related to possible violence and intimidation during the strike. The clear intention of the federation was to pass the dossier on to the Home Secretary for his consideration so that he could tighten up the law on picketing in industrial disputes. The federation specifically asked its members for information on any incidents available to them, including signed statements from any eye-witnesses; copies of any photographs from local newspaper photographers of, as the federation said, “the more notorious occurrences” that would give strong support to the submissions; and any other kind of suitable evidence that members might have come across, such as tape recordings and personal photographs.
It was not just the members of the federation who were being written to. In a letter to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Robert McAlpine complained that there was no problem with the law governing pickets and their activities, but that the problem was rather down to
“the lack of enforcement of the law by the police”.
That was a clear shot across the bows of the people who had the responsibility of ensuring that the law was adhered to on the ground. The police, in whom we put our faith to ensure that the law is upheld properly, were being told by an employer that they had not done their job properly.
I will be as quick as I can. It is not only in the building trade that blacklisting has gone on since the ’70s; it has gone on in other industries. We have recently had debates about that. More importantly, the Tories have not changed. Look at the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, because that tells us a lot. They want to make the law worse for working people.
My hon. Friend is right. Some things, sadly, never change.
When the dossier was completed in October 1972, it was passed on to the then Home Secretary, Robert Carr, who immediately instructed the chief constables of West Mercia and Gwynedd to investigate events in one particular part of the country—that is, the area in and around north Wales. He obviously wanted to pursue the agenda laid out by the employers in the dossier despite reports such as those in the Financial Times—hardly the workers’ friend—that said:
“This document is itself flawed since it suggests the existence of a sinister plot without being able to substantiate the allegations.”
Those involved who are in the House to listen to the debate today believe that the Home Secretary gave the job to the police so that they would put bones on the case that the employers were trying to make.
Why was that important? If it could be shown that the activities of the pickets were deliberately planned to intimidate, the charges laid against them could be much more serious than those for the argy-bargy that was the norm on picket lines. In particular, if conspiracy could be proven, the potential to lock up some of the leaders of the dispute for a very long time became a reality.
The choice of north Wales as the focus for police action was not an accident. Despite evidence of much more aggressive activity in other parts of the country, the Home Secretary deliberately focused on north Wales. That might be purely coincidental, but I can assure the House that no one involved in the campaign believes that to be so. North Wales was a part of the world where the McAlpine family had a huge amount of political influence. They were not only influential players in the Tory party but one of the biggest developers in the building industry, including at the site in Brookside in Shrewsbury that was the epicentre of the case against the pickets. In addition—again, this may be purely coincidental, but I doubt it—the high sheriff of Denbighshire, the man responsible for law and order in the area, just happened to be the ninth member of the McAlpine family in succession to have held that post.
As the police investigation gained momentum, 31 pickets were arrested on 14 November—two months after the end of the dispute. The men were released without charge, but three months later, on Valentine’s day 1974, 24 of them were rearrested. A barrage of charges— 242 in total—were levelled at these men, all of whom were charged with intimidation. Much more seriously, the first six to go on trial were charged with conspiracy to intimidate contrary to common law. This was the charge that the employers’ body wanted to see, because it gave the establishment the chance to send pickets to jail for long periods. The intent was clear—lock these people up and the rest of the trade union movement will know that legitimate trade union activity, including picketing, could now be treated as a criminal act.
So how did these workers become embroiled in this legal minefield? On 31 August, a joint meeting of members of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and the Transport and General Workers Union was held in The Ball and Stirrup pub in Chester. At the meeting, which was the first time many of those present had met each other, a request was read out from union members in the Shropshire area seeking support from other comrades throughout the north-west to successfully prosecute their case in their area. The meeting agreed that a group of pickets would travel down to Oswestry on 6 September to meet local activists and then decide which locations to picket.
That meeting is crucial to the issue. Anyone who has ever been involved in picketing, and looking round this room, I see a number of people who have been, knows that, especially when you are going outside your own area, you have to plan properly—basic stuff including where people are going to be picked up, when they can expect to get home, and where they are likely to be throughout the day. You also need to ensure that anybody going picketing is aware of the need to behave properly at all times and give them clear information in case there are problems. The meeting was simply a planning meeting, but crucially, when the case went to court, it was classed as a meeting to conspire to intimidate workers on the ground. No evidence was ever laid to substantiate that claim, but it was the crux of the case and it was what led to imprisonment.
The prosecution were so intent on getting jail sentences imposed that they even charged a person with conspiracy who was not present at the planning meeting. John McKinsie Jones had been collecting union subs in the downstairs bar of the pub, and he left before the planning meeting even began. He was nowhere near the meeting, yet amazingly he ended up being sentenced to nine months in jail for conspiracy to intimidate. How on earth can someone be part of a conspiracy when they are not even at the meeting where it is discussed?
It is interesting to compare what happened to the pickets who were charged with 242 offences between them and those at other courts who had been involved in similar activities. Earlier in the year, two trials were held in Mold. At the first trial, only minor charges were upheld by the jury and the maximum fine was £50. At the second trial, the jury found all defendants not guilty of anything. One of the main reasons for this was that in Mold, prior to the jury being selected, the lawyers for the defendants exercised their long-held right to challenge potential jurors. As was the right of the defence laywers, they were looking for people who might have connections with the building industry or might be hostile to trade unions. As a result of the cross-examination, a number of prospective jurors were excluded from the jury.
However—again, forgive my scepticism—after those trials, but before the Shrewsbury ones began, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, another part of the Tory hierarchy, unilaterally banished the right of lawyers to challenge jurors. This was done without warning and contrary to decades of practice, and without any prior consultation with the legal system or other interested parties. In order to try to get a fair trial despite these clearly deliberately motivated changes to the legal process, the defendants’ lawyers requested that the trial of those charged in relation to picketing in Shrewsbury be held in Mold or be moved to an area of the country that was more neutral than Shrewsbury would have been. The judge flatly turned down that request and set 3 October 1973 as the date for the first hearing.
The trial judge, Mr Justice Mais, was a surprise choice for such a high-profile, politically charged case. He had little, if any, experience in cases of this magnitude, or in criminal cases at all; his expertise was mainly in rural and ecclesiastical matters. His behaviour throughout the case led many to question his capability and impartiality. A number of issues gave rise to this concern. For example, when the jury were called to bring in the verdict, they were unable to come to a majority decision—they were tied at eight to four. The judge asked them to keep going but they said, “We’re too tired to go on today—we need to have a break.” So he agreed to give them a break and let them stop in a hotel overnight, but he closed by saying:
“You should go to the accommodation prepared for you…and I suggest that you continue your deliberations there.”
That was an extraordinary thing to suggest. The only place where a jury should consider any case is in the jury room and nowhere else, be it a hotel or anywhere else.
If that were the judge’s only error, it would still be wrong, but throughout the trial his behaviour was, to say the least, questionable. The campaigners provided me and other Members of this House with reports from David Altaras, a junior barrister who defended Ricky Tomlinson at the first trial. In 2012, he gave a statement in which he said:
“Given the fact that I regularly adjudicate criminal trials myself I have no hesitation in saying that, during the trial, the Judge’s conduct towards the defence frequently crossed the line between permissible and impermissible behaviour and amounted to a display of obvious hostility towards the defendants. He took particular exception to John Platt-Mills who represented Des Warren and to Des Warren himself. I vividly recall an occasion when Mr Platt-Mills was cross-examining a witness (probably a police officer) and the Judge took off his wig and threw it on the bench in irritation. I recall occasions when he threw his pen down and turned to face the wall when either a defendant was giving evidence or the defence were adducing evidence in cross-examination. In addition, I can remember his rather rude interruptions during cross-examination.”
He went on:
“During the Judge’s various outbursts, I remember members of the jury nudging one another. My own view at the time, a view shared by other members of the Defence team with whom I discussed the Judge’s behaviour, was that the jury (a) could have been in no doubt where the judge’s sympathy lay and (b) could have absolutely no doubt that he loathed Mr Platt-Mills.”
So we had a court case where the legal system had been changed to deny jury challenges, that was held in an area where the defendant’s legal team were genuinely concerned about the lack of neutrality and was presided over by a judge whose inexperience was matched only by his partiality.
But it gets even worse. The campaign team’s researcher, Eileen Turnbull, has trawled through documentation that is in the archives at Kew. She has uncovered a letter dated 25 January 1973 from the then Attorney-General, Peter Rawlinson, to the then Home Secretary, Robert Carr, in which he advised the Home Secretary that in his view, having discussed the case with Treasury Counsel and the Director of Public Prosecutions, these
“proceedings should not be instituted.”
That was the highest legal advice in the land. We remember how, in the previous Parliament, my party was, quite rightly, lectured by then Opposition Members about the failure of Tony Blair to listen to the Attorney-General in relation to the Iraq war. In this instance, the same authority advised the Home Secretary not to pursue the case. The Home Secretary ignored him, and we have to ask why. The people who went to jail are clear about the reason. They have no doubt that the pressure from the building industry, particularly from a man who would soon be appointed as deputy treasurer and chief fundraiser to the Tory party, was overwhelmingly more important than the views of the people entrusted with advising on legal issues at the highest level.
We must remember that this pressure had been felt by the police at the highest level, with the result that in the autumn of 1972 they set up a huge fishing expedition. A team of detectives were billeted in north Wales and 800 statements were taken, of which 600 were discarded. This was despite the fact that on the day in question—6 September 1972—not only were no arrests made, but the police actually congratulated the leaders of the pickets on the disciplined way in which they conducted their activities. We must also remember that this was all done at the behest of the building employers’ federation.
Another issue of grave concern was the decision during the trial to allow an inflammatory television programme to be aired on the very night of the prosecution’s summing up. Under the title, “Red under the Bed”, the programme was an attack on this country’s left-wing political parties and trade union activity. It specifically referred to the ongoing trial. The day after it was aired, Judge Mais dismissed the defence’s attempts to have the TV company charged with contempt. Indeed, he criticised the defence for having the temerity to raise the matter. What is of even greater concern is that the papers that have already been released show that the then Government, right up to the then Prime Minister, were involved in assisting the programme to be produced.
There is clear evidence in the paperwork already in the public domain that a special unit was set up in Government to undermine legitimate trade union activity and to paint left-wing political activity and parties as subversive, despite their legitimate right to agitate in a modern democracy. That was all being done behind closed doors and it would never have been exposed without the determination of those who still seek justice today.
These men went to jail as a direct result of the onslaught of the establishment over a prolonged period, which was clearly designed to deter the wider labour movement from using industrial action to pursue its legitimate claims. Des Warren was given a three-year jail sentence and Ricky Tomlinson a two-year sentence, and John McKinsie Jones—the man who was not even present at the so-called conspiracy meeting—went to jail for nine months. Other men received suspended jail sentences. At the second trial, three more pickets—Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce—were given jail sentences. At this and the subsequent third trial, others were also given suspended jail sentences.
These men and those who have been campaigning for more than four decades contend that they went to jail and got criminal records as a direct result of direct political interference in this country’s political and judicial systems by very strong personalities who pressurised politicians, senior police and members of the judiciary to take part in a witch hunt and to send out a clear message of intent that people involved in industrial disputes would face exceedingly serious consequences.
I am listening intently to the worrying case being made by the hon. Gentleman. Is he able to enlighten me on whether there was a financial link between the employers and the party then in government? In other words, were the employers funding that political party?
I cannot say for certain that that was the case, but it is clear that one of the main protagonists was Mr McAlpine, who became the deputy treasurer of the Conservative party within a matter of months after the trial ended and who was also one of the party’s chief fundraisers for decades.
The ongoing refusal to release all the documentation related to this case only hardens the suspicions of those involved. The morass of papers already in the public domain show clear evidence of the pattern of pressure that was applied in order to get the results the employers wanted. Today we have a chance to set in train the process that should lead those in power to come to a view that it is in the real public interest and, clearly, a matter of natural justice that the remaining papers be released. Only then will we really be able to see just how far the tentacles of big business spread into the public realm. Whether we like it or not, we are responsible for the failures of the state in the past. Today, collectively, we can start to address those failings.
Not only have I been listening, but I was party to the public debate at the time, for I had a letter published in The Times on 14 January 1975, when I was director of Freedom Under Law, calling on the then Home Secretary to allow the law to be upheld and for the jail sentences of Tomlinson and Warren to be maintained, so I have an interest in the matter.
It is important for Labour Members to realise that if they wish to secure the support of the British people at the next election, they need to make it clear that they renounce the kind of practices that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s.
No, I am not going to give way at the moment. It is very important that people should understand the conditions that applied at the time. People who were going about their ordinary activities were subjected to intimidation. I became the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood in 1983 and I saw constituents of mine who were trying to go to work in Littleton colliery having bags of urine thrown at them by striking miners from south Wales.
No, I will not give way. This was in the day of the flying pickets. These people would go around the country supporting trade unions that were engaged in that kind of intimidation, even though they themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the strike or industry in question.
The statistics make interesting reading, because it was at this time after the second world war that Britain was going substantially down the tubes. Successive Conservative Governments had failed not only to turn back but to arrest the ratchet of socialism that had driven through this country in the immediate post-war years. [Interruption.] I see that that has huge support on the Opposition Benches.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He will forgive me if I disagree with pretty much everything he has said so far, even though we do agree on certain aspects of life in politics. The motion calls for the publication of papers. It does not call for anybody to make judgments for and against; it asks for the papers to be published so that the public can make a judgment call. Some of us believe that those papers will show certain things and, obviously, Conservative colleagues think they might show something else, but surely we can agree on transparency in politics and the publication of documents.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am slightly relieved to hear that he does not agree with what I have said, because that makes my life easier and it probably makes his life easier as well. I will not resile from my personal affection for the hon. Gentleman and I will address his point.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) was on his feet for about half an hour, during which he talked about the circumstances that prevailed at the time. We heard about the way in which the workers were being ground down by the employers and, of course, every possible opportunity was taken to associate those employers not only with the Conservative party, but with its fundraising efforts. It is important that there is a public understanding of the conditions that prevailed at the time and how it came about that these men were jailed.
I want to draw attention to the record of days lost to industrial action at the time. In 1970, when Ted Heath became Prime Minister, nearly 11 million days were lost. In 1971, the number of days lost was 13.5 million; in 1972—the year in question—it was nearly 24 million; in 1973 it was 7 million; and in 1974 it was 14.75 million. That illustrates just what was going on in the country at the time. [Interruption.] There was indeed a Tory Government. There was also a concerted effort by the trade union leaders, whom Margaret Thatcher described in her book as being first, second and third socialist politicians. They were not trade union leaders and they were not looking after the interests of their members. They were in pursuit of a political objective, which was to support the socialist party under the guise of the Labour party at the time. That is what they were trying to do. The Conservative Government at the time did not have a majority and, I submit, probably did not have the conviction to roll back socialism and tackle the trade union reform that was necessary, which was of course addressed by Margaret Thatcher and the 1979 Government.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to respond to the question put to him about the motion. I do not want to hear a re-enactment of the events of 40 years ago. The general public are entitled to see the papers relating to what happened then. Does he agree that the papers should be published so that both sides can see exactly what happened 40 years ago?
I told the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is a friend, that I would address that point, and that I would do so in my own time, not in his. The Liberals, typically, are sitting on the fence. I forgive my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell). It is absolutely right and proper, and important—[Interruption.] I know that we are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but there we go.
Britain was the sick man of Europe in the 1970s. One reason for that was the kind of trade union activities that were going on. The hon. Member for Blaydon has given his romanticised version of what went on, and I am absolutely determined to put an alternative case, and I hope that I am in order to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. That alternative case will not be uttered by any Opposition Members. I suspect that the only other person to do so will be my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who of course has a vested interest in his constituency. [Interruption.] I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon, and I will indeed continue.
I have set out the pattern of industrial action that was destroying Britain, and of which the country was absolutely fed up. An opinion poll in The Times in January 1980 said that 71% of the people surveyed about the kind of measures that the Thatcher Government were introducing —to restrain secondary picketing and intimidation—wanted those measures to be taken, as, interestingly, did 62% of trade unionists. One of the successes of the Thatcher period was to restore trade unions back to their members, taking them out of the hands of their politically motivated leaders. We were acting very much in line with the spirit of the British people.
The hon. Gentleman, who is also a friend, will have to be patient. I will deal with that point in my own time. [Hon. Members: “When?”] In my own time.
Secondary picketing was eventually outlawed in 1984, during the Parliament in which I first served in this House. Much has been said about the cases of Warren and Tomlinson, but it is very important to put some of the facts on the record. To quote from my letter in The Times of 14 January 1975:
“It is worth reminding them”—
those who took the same line as the hon. Member for Blaydon—
“of the words of Mr Justice Mais, the trial judge, in passing sentence on December 20, 1973. Of one of those jailed, he said: ‘You took part in violence and encouraged violence… You are prepared to impose your views on others by violence if need be.’”—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On three occasions, the hon. Gentleman has been asked to clarify his position and to address the motion. He is not in any way discussing the motion. Will you perhaps advise me? Time is moving on and many hon. Members wish to speak, but he is clearly filibustering to waste time.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not possible for a Member of the House to filibuster while I am listening carefully to what is said and making sure that it is relevant to the matter before us. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) has explained that he is coming to the main point of his argument. I have allowed him to develop his argument, as is perfectly in order, but he is an experienced parliamentarian and will know that he must come to the very point of the matter. I will be very strict this afternoon in making sure that all speeches are within the scope of the matter before us and are properly in order.
I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members should accept that the question whether the remaining papers that have not been released to the National Archives should be revealed is a pertinent one. In debating, as we are, the issues surrounding the cases, particularly two of the cases, it is highly relevant to question whether the papers should be revealed.
Before I was interrupted, I was quoting Mr Justice Mais, the trial judge. He went on to tell the six people before him:
“Some of you were clearly determined to strike terror in the hearts of those who continued to work.”
That was a very serious crime indeed. Furthermore, the case went to appeal and, to quote The Times editorial of 20 December 1974, the Court of Appeal judge said:
“There was at each site a terrifying display by pickets of force and violence actually committed or threatened against buildings, plant and equipment; at some sites, if not at others, acts of personal violence and threats of violence to the person were committed and made. Persons working on the sites and residents near by were put in fear.”
That should not be tolerated in our country, and it should not be supported by Opposition Members.
The hon. Gentleman has quoted the Court of Appeal judge. He was the same judge on whose verdict the hon. Gentleman relied for many years in resisting the case for a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday and so on. Is he confident that his reliance on Widgery today—
I also want to refer to people who have spoken more recently about the issue. An article from Wales on Sunday of 27 January 2013 in the debate pack provided to Members—so it must be relevant, Madam Deputy Speaker—states that
“Peter Starbuck, who says he was Oswestry’s largest contractor at the time, claims violence and intimidation were a routine part of the strikers’ tactics and the convictions are sound. And bricklayer’s labourer Clifford Growcott has described how he was ‘punched and kicked like a football’ during the strike.”
I am astonished that Opposition Members want to side with people convicted of using that sort of violence against their fellow human beings.
I take from what the hon. Gentleman has said that the Court of Appeal judge was Lord Widgery. On the point about the litany of activities that are supposed to have happened—if it is correct that those events happened, they are very serious—why was not one person arrested on the day that they happened or are alleged to have happened? Lots of policemen were there, so why did they not pick those people up and arrest them? Why did that happen five months down the line, when they were effectively stitched up by the case against them?
I will give way to the hon. Lady in a minute.
I remind Opposition Members that in Margaret Thatcher’s excellent book, “The Downing Street Years”, she wrote about the Government’s attempts to deal with trade union legislation. At one point she says that
“when a dispute did occur the trade union was able to exercise what amounted to intimidation over its members—‘lawful intimidation’ in the unhappy phrase coined by Labour’s former Attorney-General, Sam Silkin.”
At the highest levels of the Labour party at that time, such practices were basically endorsed. I say to right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches that the country has moved on. If the Labour party wishes to occupy the Government Benches once again—I very much hope that it will not—its Members must understand that the public out there do not want to see any return to such behaviour or to hear any sympathy expressed for it.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) has been extremely persistent and I am delighted to give way to her.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is talking about the dispute. The motion is about the request for papers. The Government cite national security as a reason for not disclosing those papers. What does national security have to do with an industrial dispute?
I will address that point in one moment. I only wish to make two further points and one of them will address the hon. Lady’s question.
Robert Carr, who became a peer in the other place—I will continue to refer to it as the other place, Madam Deputy Speaker—was accused of conniving with the police and the security forces at the behest of the construction industry. That is a conspiracy theory. Those of us who knew Robert Carr cannot imagine that he was anything other than a charming, polite and reasonable Home Secretary. I do not think that he was in the business of conniving.
Let me conclude by coming to the point that has been raised a number of times.
I am most grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that guidance. I will fully comply with the implicit request.
I put it to Opposition Members that it is not only the current Lord Chancellor who has reviewed these matters. I have not spoken to him about the matter, but I understand that he has done so recently. He has considered that there is no reason to change the decision of previous Lord Chancellors. Lord Irvine was Lord Chancellor in 2002 when the 30-year rule would have applied. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) later became Lord Chancellor. Labour’s Lord Chancellors all concluded that it was not appropriate for certain of the papers to be revealed. [Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] Labour Members must address that question to the right hon. Member for Blackburn. I have no responsibility for bringing him to the Chamber to provide answers on these matters. He is a Member of the Labour party, not of my party.
It is important that we put it on the record that successive Lord Chancellors have looked at this issue and deemed it appropriate that certain papers, supplied or otherwise relating to the intelligence services, should not be released to the National Archives. I am not privy to what those papers are. I dare say that I would like to look at them. However, I repose my trust in Lord Chancellors, whether Conservative or Labour. They should be responsible for determining whether our national security would be imperilled.
To conclude, in the 1970s, when the nation was being held to ransom by strikes all over the country, people like me and my new wife were stocking up with provisions in case there was a shutdown, and Ross McWhirter of the “Guinness Book of Records” and I were looking at how we might produce a newspaper to get information out to the public when the newspapers were being closed down by trade union militants. That was the mood of the nation at the time. It is important that the country understands that. This case arose out of that mood.
Thank goodness for this country that we had a Conservative Government, led by a real Conservative in Margaret Thatcher, who restored the power in trade unions to their members. Today, we have the evidence. The number of working days lost to strikes in 2012 was not 10 million, let alone 30 million. It was not even 1 million. It was 250,000. That is testimony to the fundamental reform of trade union relations that was carried out in this country. The United Kingdom has prospered ever since.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) claims to be a member of the most transparent Government ever. Ricky Tomlinson might have a couple of words to say about that. I congratulate—[Laughter.] Someone’s just got it!
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) on the tenacity he deployed to secure today’s debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, which has been persuaded, unlike those on the Government Benches, that this issue is important enough to warrant a full parliamentary debate. It is important that we stick to the terms of the motion.
It is true to say that this debate has been a long, long time coming. We now know more than ever about the political, judicial, media and police manipulation that scarred the working lives of 24 ordinary men, who were wrongly convicted on trumped-up charges, with six of them unjustly jailed. As John Platt-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”.
I want to praise on the record the remarkable persistence of the campaigners over the past four decades. In particular, I praise Ricky Tomlinson for the way in which he has used his fame as an actor to highlight this injustice. Despite his success, he has remained steadfastly shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the other Shrewsbury pickets and their families. Ricky said from the dock during his trial:
“I know my children when they are old enough, will understand that the struggle we took part in was for their benefit and for the benefit and interest of building workers and their families.”
When I was indentured as an apprentice bricklayer in 1978, notwithstanding the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, Britain’s building sites were still workplaces of great danger and the conditions for workers were shockingly poor. On most sites, there were no proper toilets, washbasins or lockers. There were certainly no hard hats, goggles, gloves and masks as standard personal protective equipment. People died daily.
When workers had the audacity to ask the state to take action and stop the carnage, the Government of the day interfered in the business of the judiciary, resulting in the most political and corrupt criminal trial that had been seen in peacetime Britain.
I will develop that point at the end of my speech and explain why it is so wrong that it has taken so long even for the matter to be debated in this House.
The people we are talking about were arrested on trumped-up charges, received a dodgy trial and were given 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.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon has suggested, the exploitation of workers and the unacceptable and unsafe working conditions in which workers were forced to operate were the bedrock of the first ever national building workers’ strike in 1972. As a result of that national strike, which was settled on 16 September 1972, the building workers succeeded in achieving an across-the-board increase for all trades working in the construction industry. There was, however, enormous political anxiety as a result of that victory, fuelled by a targeted lobbying campaign by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. Shrewsbury 24 campaigners firmly believe that the end of the strike was in fact the beginning of the employers’ campaign to have pickets prosecuted, and to use that as a deterrent should they ever have the temerity to take further industrial action.
Does my hon. Friend accept that that was the precedent that started the ball rolling for all the disputes that came after? That dispute set the goal, which is why it is important to have transparency. After that court case came ’74, ’84, and the miners’ strike—the legal position changed at that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) mentioned previous Labour Lord Chancellors, particularly the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Has the hon. Gentleman had any discussions with previous Labour Lord Chancellors about why the information has not been released?
The hon. Gentleman should not think I am going to stand here and defend the indefensible. We had an opportunity when in government to do what we are asking for today, but we did not take it. However, that does not stop people continuing to campaign and trying to persuade the Government—no matter what colour—that that is the right thing to do. That is what we are doing today.
Is there another consideration, because since previous Lord Chancellors considered the issue and refused to release the papers more research has come forward from campaigners that now makes it more materially important to release the papers and be transparent?
That is a good point, and as things develop more and more information is known. Some further information has been gathered by Eileen Turnbull, and I am sure other Members will refer to that in their contributions.
On 20 September 1972, a letter was sent to all NFBTE regional secretaries around the country from its head office in London. It was headed “Intimidation Dossier”. The dossier was presented to the Home Secretary, Robert Carr, who had previously been Secretary of State for Employment and overseen the introduction of the contentious Industrial Relations Act 1971. Out of 85 instances of alleged intimidation and violence detailed in the dossier, only six related to north Wales. Despite the undeniable fact that most incidents occurred elsewhere, the Home Secretary instructed the chief constables of West Mercia and Gwynedd police forces to carry out an inquiry into picketing in north Wales during the strike. Let us not forget that, as was said earlier, none of the pickets was cautioned or arrested on the day, the unions did not receive any complaints from the police about the conduct of the pickets, and photographic evidence shows that the police were present and mingling freely with strikers. Some police had their hands in their pockets—hardly intimidation.
We now know that of the 900 statements taken, 600 were disregarded by the authorities, presumably because they failed to corroborate what the police hoped they would say. On 11 October 1972, Robert Carr told this House that in his opinion there was no deficiency in the law as it stood, and the problem lay with enforcement. In other words, he was pressuring the police who he believed had failed to do their job properly. A few days later, the then Attorney-General, Sir Peter Rawlinson QC, gave a speech to the Tory 1922 committee in which he used strikingly similar language. Following that, we know that of the 200 or so pickets identified, just 24 were carefully selected for a political show trial at Shrewsbury Crown court, and charged with the offence of intimidation under section 7 of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875.
I will not take any further interventions. I intended to take 11 minutes but my speech has gone over that because of the interventions.
Six pickets were singled out for special treatment and to stand trial for the common law offence of conspiracy to intimidate. They were arrested while the other 18 were summoned to appear, thereby indicating the distinction in the severity of their roles to the court. That strikes me as odd. Given that the police made no arrests and undertook no immediate investigation after the picketing in and around Shrewsbury on 6 September, where did the “'disturbing evidence” that Robert Carr referred to come from? Campaigners will never know until all documents are released.
In addition to the submission of the dossier, other less transparent forms of lobbying took place, as documented in a letter to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis—the highest ranking police officer in the country—from Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons in February ’73. That was followed by personal representations to the Home Office, and questions to Ministers designed to turn up the pressure for the police to pursue pickets. As we have heard several times, there were no reports of violence on the picket lines, and no arrests made at the time of the strike.
We have recently seen documents relating to the Brixton riots, the Lockerbie bombing, Mrs Thatcher’s attempted use of the Army against the miners, as well as details of how she made no effort whatsoever to make the case for the release of Nelson Mandela. Most surprisingly, perhaps, in November 2013 The Guardian reported details about the release of secret memos relating to the efforts of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to maintain a Cypriot base. Given the political, strategic and geographical importance of that base, it is surprising—certainly to all Opposition Members—that an issue of such magnitude does not warrant an extension of the security and intelligence instrument of the Public Records Act 1958, yet documents relating to a couple of dozen strikers during a building workers dispute 40-odd years ago are deemed to be a risk to our national security! It would be farcical if it was not so serious for those whose lives have been deeply scared by this miscarriage of justice, and I can see no reason whatsoever for the Government to withhold the release of those papers.
Yes, it will probably be politically embarrassing for the Conservative party; yes, it will be another shameful exposé of Britain’s dark past in which the powerful ran roughshod over the weak; and, yes, it will be an indictment of how the British establishment—including the hon. Member for Aldershot—believed it was above the law when it conspired to fit up individuals or groups whose politics it feared. But it would be the right thing to do.
I will conclude by placing this debate in a much wider context. We are at a juncture in our country where we have the chance systematically to cleanse the wrongs of our recent history. From Bloody Sunday to historic child and sexual abuse cases; from Amritsar to Stephen Lawrence; and, yes, from Hillsborough to—who knows?—perhaps Orgreave and beyond. I believe that the House must act upon this moment. The Shrewsbury campaign may well have been the first in a series of injustices that have spanned more than 40 years, leaving heartache and grief in their wake, but the time has come for the obfuscation to end, for campaigning to succeed, for documents to be released, and for justice to be done.
Order. A large number of Members want to participate in the debate so I am imposing a time limit of six minutes for each Back-Bench speech, starting immediately. We will see how we go through the afternoon, but it may be necessary for that limit to be reduced further if we do not have enough time to fit everybody in.
As the hon. Member for Shrewsbury, this matter is obviously of great interest to me. I want to put into context my initial question to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson). To have a strong debate and a point of view, we need to try to understand the other person’s perspective. That is why I asked him how much time he had spent in Shrewsbury interacting with the local people trying to find out their interpretation of what happened at that time. I say to him, and to other hon. Members, that, being the Member for this beautiful Shropshire town, I have spoken to a lot of my constituents who were there at the time. I was born in 1972 when these incidents occurred, so I have to rely on the first-hand accounts and experiences of my constituents. It was disappointing to have been shouted down by Opposition Members when I tried to make that point.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said, 1972 was a time of great industrial strife. Some people felt that they had the right to intimidate and use violence to achieve their political objectives. Margaret Thatcher saw the danger to democracy of allowing this to continue. She saw a great danger to our parliamentary process and to the rule of law by not tackling people who felt that the use of violence was a perfectly legitimate tool to pursue their aims. We must not forget how damaging militant trade union vandalism was, and we must never allow it to return.
I spoke to the police officer who was first on the scene, Mr Aubrey Kirkham. He is a respected member of the Shrewsbury community. He described the people descending on our small town that day—400 people, I think he said to me, came on coaches from outside Shropshire—as a “marauding mob”. He felt that they meted out huge intimidation to local people and massive violence to local workers. Police suffered great violence and were massively outnumbered. He told me of one bricklayer from Heathgates in Shrewsbury who had a brick thrown at him for refusing to come down from scaffolding. He subsequently fell and a year later he died. Some of his family think that he died as a direct result of that incident.
Many constituents say that these people have been tried and convicted by a jury, and they are bewildered that this debate has even been called. They think that Parliament should be looking at other, more pressing priorities.
The issue we are debating is not whether what the hon. Gentleman is saying is correct, or whether what is being said by Opposition Members is correct. If the papers were to be released, we would be able to make that judgment, and that is what we are calling for in this debate.
If the hon. Lady allows me to finish, I will come on to exactly that point.
Obviously, I have also spoken to many people in the building trade in the past few days, in advance of this debate, for their first-hand accounts. If any hon. Members are genuinely interested in finding out what the people on the ground felt at that time about the violence, I very much hope they will approach me.
Coming on to the point raised by the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Blaydon asked for the documents to be released. I have two questions. I will be very brief and let other hon. Members contribute. I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot: we have to ask why, over a long period—the Labour party was in office for three terms—former Labour Lord Chancellors decided not to release this information. That is a perfectly legitimate question to ask. If Opposition Members feel passionately about this issue—I clearly see that they do—they should challenge and scrutinise their colleagues to ask why the Labour Government did not release it.
I am very interested to hear from the Minister whether he will release the documents and, if not, why he is not prepared to release them. I have been approached by constituents who have a different perspective. They feel that they do not want documents to be withheld from the public domain if there is the potential for a cover-up of some kind, or some form of inappropriate behaviour. As a community, I think the argument is evenly balanced in Shrewsbury. There are people who want to remember the violence. We are a wonderful but quiet Salopian town. This was an extraordinary event in our history and they want people to remember the violence they experienced. They also want the Government to account for why they will not release the documents.
In the book “The Key to My Cell” by one of the pickets, Des Warren, he says that when, on 6 September 1972, they visited the first site at Kingswood, they were greeted by the son of the contractor who had a shotgun in his hand and was threatening to use it. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he seems to be presenting to the House a one-sided version of what happened?
As I have said repeatedly, both sides of the argument have to be taken into consideration. I felt it appropriate to come here today, as the Member representing Shrewsbury, to outline some of the things that leading members of my community have stated. Clearly, there are other perspectives. I hope the Minister will explain, if he is not going to release the documents, why he will not do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) on securing this important debate about working conditions in the 1970s. It is about a time when, in that three-year period, 571 people were killed and 224,000 were injured on building sites. It is about an industrial campaign to ensure that those working conditions changed. It is about a trial that led to the results that my hon. Friend outlined. It is about a campaign, to which I pay tribute, that has lasted now for 40 years to get documents into the public domain to ensure that people have the full facts on why action was taken and why the judgment was made.
The motion states simply that the Government should release the papers referring to all aspects of the trial and the case. The motion is a fair one. I say to both the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) that the judgment of this House can be made, as can the judgment of the public, on the information contained in that simple motion, which calls on the Government to reverse their position as a matter of urgency and to release the papers.
I will not give way. A lot of Members want to speak and time is pressing.
This is a simple motion, but for my constituents it is not a simple matter, nor has it been for the past 40 years. For my constituent Arthur Murray it meant six months in prison and a lifetime of concern about the impact of that sentence. For my constituent John McKinsie Jones it meant nine months in prison and concern about his employability, his future and his peace of mind. For my constituent Terry Renshaw it meant a four-month suspended sentence for two years, which has had an impact on his life. They are currently bringing a case for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to consider their convictions to see if they were sound. The material that is not in the public domain could well be relevant to the case, and that is why they want it to be released.
I have written to the Secretary of State for Justice on several occasions. When I was a Minister in the Justice Department, I pressed, as a constituency MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), to release the information. The judgment was made, under the Labour Government, to release the information in 2012. Being the kind, open soul that I am, I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), in 2010 to ask whether he could confirm that it would be released in 2012. He wrote back to me on 8 November 2010, saying that the “blanket” covering was still in place until 2012. I wrote to him again on 23 March 2011, and he said he was reviewing the matter and would make a decision. I wrote again on 20 November 2012, and was told by the now Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling):
“On 19 December 2011 Kenneth Clarke signed a new instrument which records that he has given his approval for the retention of the records”.
The retained records include:
“a paragraph from a memorandum from Sir Michael Hanley, Director General of the Security Service to Sir John at the Cabinet Office…a copy of the report which was enclosed with the…memorandum…a paragraph from…Sir John Hunt to a Mr Armstrong dated 13 January”
“a paragraph from a memorandum to Sir John Hunt relating to this report”.
It is important that this information be in the public domain. The Government are currently reviewing the 30-year rule and reducing it to 20 years, yet in this case, when there is 40 years of information, they are seeking to extend the period, and so withhold the information, until 2022. That seems unfair.
My colleague Terry Renshaw has been a councillor for years, he has served on the police authority, he is a lecturer, he has been mayor of the town I live in, he is a respected citizen, yet even today they will not let him into the United States of America because of that conviction. My constituent Arthur Murray, a decent man, served six months in prison, and made the point to me that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) made about John Platt-Mills, who said:
“The trial of the Shrewsbury Pickets is the only case I know where the government has ordered a prosecution in defiance of the advice of senior police and prosecution authorities.”
My constituent John McKinsie Jones said only last year:
“I have lived for almost 40 years with the stigma of being arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned for conspiracy. My family were devastated… Like a lot of the other pickets I had never been in trouble in my life. We were completely innocent of these charges. We were branded as criminals by the media. We were blacklisted”.
This debate is about the lives of people in my constituency; it is about the lives of people who dedicated their lives to the trade union movement and who were only doing their jobs. I want these papers released. I might have to leave before the end of the debate, because of a long-standing constituency engagement this evening, but this debate has my support, and my constituents have my support.
Well, that has put the Lib Dems in their place, hasn’t it? I have always wanted to do it. I know Clegg’s got a sour face—[Interruption.]
Anyway, we live in the age of transparency, don’t we? We have transparency coming out of every pore. Every day I turn up in the House of Commons, from all sides I am assailed by people saying, “We need transparency.” At the beginning, I was unsure what it meant; I am sure now. It is a class thing. It applies only to the things that affect us, but it does not give us an inch when we are asking for something from the other side. We can have transparency about hospitals, care homes, schools, and everything else, but not about this. Isn’t it strange that we are being told again today, by this tin-pot coalition, that we cannot have it? [Laughter.] It really is tin-pot, although I know the last Labour Government did not pull their weight either. It has to be put on the record.
But this is a debate about class, and we do not get many of those in here. Every so often, it erupts, and we talk about class. That is what this is. It was the same with Hillsborough, when my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) got that debate, and it was the same with Thatcher and the funeral and all the rest of it. I do not want to go into that, but the truth is that it is very rare. Here are a few people who were on the picket line, they ordered a bus from a bus company, and they talk about conspiracies—all the records are there! I know it was not the age of social media, Twitter and God knows what else—if it had been, they would have won, because they would all have had a mobile phone, with a camera, and they could have took some pictures. Yes, it’s about class, and that is why we are here today, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and other colleagues.
I was here in the 1970s, and I could not believe it the moment I got to London: we were on picket lines, and winning—winning! It does not happen very often, so we have to treasure every moment. My father worked for 50 years in the pits, and when we won the 1972 strike, he said, “It’s the first time in my life.” Yet there is all this talk, somehow or other, about workers having power. It is not true, and this is another example where they do not have it, or otherwise the papers would have been released and, what’s more, this whole episode would not have begun. It began because of the climate of 1970 onwards. The establishment, the Heath Government, were defeated by the miners in 1972, after a seven-week strike. It is true there was a bit of pushing and shoving, but by and large it was a relatively peaceful affair. The police were wearing long stockings underneath their trousers. I told Tom Swain, and he said, “I’m getting a pair.” That’s what it was like, by and large.
What happened then? The Upper Clyde shipbuilders had a sit-in and won. Then there was Vic Turner and Bernie Steer saying, “We’re going to put some pickets on down at the docks”—at what is now Covent Garden—and they got put in Pentonville jail. The Industrial Relations Act had just got Royal Assent, but what happened? After Vic Turner was put in jail with his mates, the Official Solicitor had to turn up, representing all the echelons of the establishment, saying, “They won’t purge their own contempt. We’ve got to do it for them.” We said, “Yes, but at a price”, and so they had to kick the Act into the long grass.
In the middle of all this, some people, such as those I should not speak about in the Gallery, decided also to battle for better wages. They had never had great wages, but UCATT and the building workers had had a lot of injuries, so they decided in that climate to take a chance and fight for better wages and conditions. That is all it was. The evidence was there, as we have heard, but the establishment decided that somebody needed a lesson: “We’ll take these on. We lost to the miners. We lost to Upper Clyde. We lost the Industrial Relations Act. We’ve got to have a victory.” That was what this was all about, and let no one kid themselves: when the echelons of the state decide to take action, the judiciary join them, and I do not care what their names are. It has been apparent for so many years, and it is still apparent today.
My time is running out. I compliment all those who have taken part, but I want to pay my final compliment to that face I saw in Lincoln prison, Des Warren, fighting the establishment, and when I call for transparency, it is the face of Des Warren—
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) went before me. My only regret is that he was not gracious enough to me, given that we are almost family. It is not generally known that my nephew, who lives in Clay Cross, is the partner of the hon. Gentleman’s second cousin. If they got married, we would be related by marriage—but we are still working on that.
I would like to welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), to the Dispatch Box. I am sure he would have wished for a better occasion to make his debut, but there we are—we have to take the rough with the smooth. Nevertheless, I congratulate him on his new position.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) has made the most powerful speech so far. The motion before us is quite clear. I intervened on the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). I do not want to rehearse here this afternoon incidents from 40 years ago, but we must have all the relevant papers published. It has been acknowledged that successive Governments—perhaps the motion should have incorporated the term “successive Governments”—have failed to do so. It is also important to recognise, as the right hon. Member for Delyn said, how many advances have been made in the safety of building sites over the last four decades. The trade unions can certainly take credit for that, as can anyone involved in health and safety and, indeed, employers. When the London Olympic stadium was built, not a single life was lost. We should contrast that with what is happening at other major sporting venues around the world. Let us acknowledge the positives here.
I conclude briefly by saying that many lessons have been learned, not least in health and safety. We need all these papers to be released. If there is a silver lining to this dark cloud, if it had not been for the Shrewsbury 24, we would never have had the brilliant comedy actor, Mr Tomlinson, on our screens.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I inform the House that I am reducing the time limit further to five minutes. I am doing my best to fit in all those who want to speak. I ask Members to pay attention and to assist colleagues to make their points; it is not necessary to take five minutes, but five minutes is the maximum from now on.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) on securing this debate. I must say from the beginning that I am not a man of violence, but the contribution from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) certainly stretched my tolerance level. He reminded us exactly what the Tories are about and what they think the workers should be—seen and not heard, shall we say.
No. The hon. Gentleman has had enough time.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the outside world if I sound somewhat repetitive, but I genuinely believe that the more people that say this and listen to it, the more likely we are eventually to get somewhere on the issue of transparency. If we look at the Press Gallery, we see that there is very little interest in this issue from the press—apart from, of course, the regular and reliable Morning Star. For some reason, other newspapers, apart from some in the Trinity Mirror group, are not covering it.
In a week when we have discussed the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, we can see how difficult it is, when it comes to what happened 40 years ago, to get transparency from this coalition Government. It is somewhat ironic that we are still discussing this issue in 2014.
To reflect on the Shrewsbury 24 issue, the conditions that existed in the building industry in the 1970s were a blight on our society. Sites with hundreds of thousands of men were given two rat-infested, filthy toilets. There was nowhere to change, so if workers got soaked in the rain, they would either have to go home and lose their pay, or continue to work—sodden and freezing. The health and safety conditions were appalling. In 1973 alone, there were 231 fatal accidents in construction. When talking about this issue, I am reminded of why these people were victimised—it was because they were raising serious health and safety concerns to ensure that workers were safe in the workplace. That is why the then employers turned against the trade unions—to make sure that health and safety issues were not raised at the appropriate time. The employers’ agenda was not about looking after their workers.
We look on some of the working conditions in some countries with disgust, and we call on UK-based companies working in those other countries to look at their supply chains and improve their human rights records. The Shrewsbury 24 were picketing in conditions that we would be horrified at today, so the calm and dignified protest they led is to be commended. It was a difficult task—something that has not been repeated—trying to organise building workers who often moved to new temporary sites and it was a struggle to organise them on account of that. The Shrewsbury 24 wanted to highlight the issues caused by colleagues “on the lump”, but they did not get violent and did nothing illegal. At this stage, I am reminded of what the Scottish Affairs Select Committee is doing on the issue of blacklisting. Only yesterday I listened to some of the evidence that the trade unions gave to that Select Committee. Even today, trade union organisers are refused access to building sites, simply because they want to raise health and safety issues that the employer does not want to listen to. Ordinary trade unions are still struggling to get recognition.
The Shrewsbury 24 hired six coaches and picketed large sites around Shrewsbury, which were chosen because they were not as well organised as some places in the bigger cities. It was peaceful—there were no cautions and no arrests. They had the permission of site owners. Chief Superintendent Meredith even shook the hand of Des Warren and thanked him for the co-operation of the UCATT and the then Transport and General Workers Union.
For that reason, when 24 men were arrested on conspiracy charges months later, they were shocked and confused. Six were sent to jail, and over four decades later, the pickets still deny that they were guilty of any of the charges levelled against them. The sentences had a devastating impact on these men. While in prison, Des Warren was regularly forced to drink “liquid cosh”, which has been blamed for his death from Parkinson’s disease in 2004. These men struggled to get work afterwards.
Let me finish by saying that if there were any sort of national security issue, it would never be viewed as acceptable in this day and age that information for which people are looking should be denied to them.
What lies behind this motion is a belief by many that there has been an abuse of state power and a subversion of the legal process. Successive Governments have said repeatedly that there are just a handful of files relating to the Shrewsbury trials. I would like to focus today on just one single file—PREM 15/2011, with which I hope the Minister can acquaint himself. It is described as “Woodrow Wyatt’s TV programme, ‘Red Under the Bed’”. On 27 August 2012, the National Archives website said that this file was “retained” by the Cabinet Office under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958. Why would such a file be kept back when it relates to a current affairs programme that was broadcast on ITV in November 1973? Following a freedom of information request by the Shrewsbury 24 campaign’s incisive researcher in August 2013, the Cabinet Office finally conceded and released some of the papers.
Why is this file relevant? It is relevant because the film was broadcast on 13 November 1973, the day on which the prosecution completed its case against the pickets. It was featured in the TV listing section of the local evening newspaper, the Shropshire Star, which would have been read by many of the jurors. The film included a highly tendentious commentary by Woodrow Wyatt, interspersed with footage that showed the following: two of the six defendants, John Carpenter and Des Warren; Shrewsbury Crown Court, surrounded by police officers, with a group of demonstrators attending a meeting nearby; images of a march through Shrewsbury in which the defendants could be made out; violence and damage alleged to have been caused by pickets on building sites during the national building strike of 1972; and violence and damage alleged to have been caused by pickets during a recent coal strike and a recent dock strike.
The next day, the defence applied to the judge for the television company to be held in contempt. The judge viewed the film and dismissed the application, even criticising the defence for raising the point. The file shows that the film, which lasted for one hour, was followed by a studio discussion of 30 minutes. Interestingly, the discussion was not broadcast in every ITV region—Granada, for example—but it was transmitted by ATV, the region covering Shrewsbury. The final words of that discussion were from the then Conservative MP Geoffrey Stewart-Smith. He was asked by the studio chairman, the late Richard Whiteley:
“Can you give me one example in 1973 of blatant communist influence?”
“The violence in the building strike was called by a group, The Building Workers Charter, operating in defiance of the union leadership indulging in violence and flying pickets and this is an example of these people operating, opposing free trade unions”.
Can you imagine anything more blatantly prejudicial to a trial than that, Madam Deputy Speaker? Imagine what the reaction would be today. Just think of any current high-profile trial, and what a defence team would say, and how that would be reported in the print media now.
We have to ask ourselves why that film was made, and why it was shown on that particular date. It is my contention that the file reveals the highest level of collusion between the Government, the security services and the producers of the film. The first document in the file is a memo from Mr Thomas Barker of the Information Research Department to a Mr Norman Reddaway. For the benefit of younger Members, I should explain that the IRD was formed after the second world war as a covert anti-communist propaganda unit operating within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and was closed down in the late 1970s. Mr Barker boasts:
“We had a discreet but considerable hand in this programme....In general, this film, given national networking, can only have done good.”
He praises the studio discussion after the broadcast. The file contains more documents, including a note from the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, supporting the film after being sent a copy of the transcript by the Cabinet Secretary.
Is it possible to view the documentary now, or is it banned?
It is not possible to view it. However, the file reveals that
—that is, in February 1973—
“Mr Wyatt approached us direct for help. We consulted the Department of Employment and the Security Service through Mr Conrad Heron's Group, which has been meeting approximately fortnightly for the past year.”
So many meetings; so much consultation. Where are the documents relating to that? Were those people involved in the discussions that led to the decision to prosecute the pickets? If it had happened today, there would be outrage in the House.
Having seen the transcript of the film, the then Prime Minister replied to the Cabinet Secretary:
“We want as much as possible of this.”
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
So we have evidence that the Government and the security services were working closely with television production companies, newspapers and secretive organisations that were the forerunners of today’s blacklisters to produce propaganda to discredit trade unionists. The present Government posted a response to the e-petition on the website, claiming that the withholding of the information was due to an “intelligence and security instrument”. Why? This was a strike organised by building workers 40 years ago with the aim of improving their pay and conditions of work.
If Members want to know the thinking of industrialists at the time, they should read Lord McAlpine’s book “The Servant”. He wrote that the servant
“must have his own network of informants and men who will assist him. The servant must always know how to use the network of the State.
Dealing in deceit, as the servant must, great caution must be required. Avoid small deceits: like barnacles on the bottom of a ship, they build in the minds of people whom you may need to convince in a large deceit”.
What greater deceit can Members imagine than depriving those young men of their freedom and liberty?
The Stasi published their files after the Berlin wall came down in 1989. I think that we can publish ours now.
The Johannesburg principles were written a long time ago, but let me quote from them now. This is what was said about freedom of information and the state:
“A restriction sought to be justified on the ground of national security is not legitimate unless its genuine purpose and demonstrable effect is to protect a country's existence or its territorial integrity against the use or threat of force, or its capacity to respond to the use or threat of force, whether from an external source, such as a military threat, or an internal source, such as incitement to violent overthrow of the government...In particular, a restriction sought to be justified on the ground of national security is not legitimate if its genuine purpose or demonstrable effect is to protect interests unrelated to national security, including, for example, to protect a government from embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing, or to conceal information about the functioning of its public institutions, or to entrench a particular ideology, or to suppress industrial unrest.”
That was not written about this country. It was written in Johannesburg about South Africa under apartheid, about North Korea, about China, and about all the rest of them. However, it applies to this Government now.
That Tory from Aldershot has gone now, but when he quoted from his letter, he forgot to mention the capacity in which he wrote it. At the time, he was secretary of the Society for Individual Freedom. He did not tell us what that organisation was about, but I can tell the House that it worked with BOSS, the South African Bureau of State Security. A book has been written about it, and this is how it described that Aldershot MP’s organisation:
“it’s almost certainly a British intelligence front organization which is mainly used for disseminating Establishment-type propaganda.”
That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) went on to form a new organisation called “Freedom Under Law”, along with Francis Bennion, to counter anti-apartheid. And what did Francis Bennion do in 1972 to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), who was campaigning against apartheid? He took out a private prosecution against him for criminal conspiracy. This is what has been going on, and this is why people do not want those files to come out.
Who was it who funded the Economic League’s secret committee—a secret committee in a secret organisation? McAlpine. Even I was put on a blacklist. Who put me on it? I believe that it was one Russell Walters, who today works as Tory researcher, and who was chief of staff for that would-be Tory leader, the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). He was working for the Economic League. There was also a bloke called Ned Walsh, a liar, who said throughout these events that he worked for the unions. In fact, during the 1960s and 1970s he was working for the Economic League, infiltrating the unions. That is the conspiracy.
I am intervening on my hon. Friend because I think that he may need some more time. Does he think that this quotation from Construction News, published on 17 December 1970—a very long time ago—gives some indication of the power and influence of the construction industry? The paper said of a private Christmas dinner organised by McAlpine in 1977:
“Anyone who can hold a private party and make it virtually impossible to get a Cabinet quorum cannot be without influence of friends.”
The fact is that McAlpine was based in that part of the world, and it is no coincidence that this was picked on.
We know what these people do. They did the same during the miners’ strike. What they do is randomly pick out people and claim conspiracy, which is exactly what they tried to do to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath and others in the anti-apartheid movement. That is the mindset of some of these people. They believe that they have some sort of supreme knowledge, and then they claim to defend freedom.
These people are not the friends of freedom; these people are the enemies of freedom. That is why those Johannesburg principles were written, and that is why they apply not just to South Africa under apartheid, not just to North Korea and the lunatic running it, not just to China and the repression of working people there, but to this country and to western democracies. Freedom is about the right to go about your business. It is about the right to engage in protest, including industrial protest. It is about the right to hold your Government to account, and to ensure that if there are documents out there, they are brought to light. Such documents are already slowly emerging. We have seen the documents about Hillsborough, and in future we will see documents about Orgreave and the miners’ strike, and many, many more. There is an information revolution going on in this country, because people are fed up with the secrecy of the state and those misfits around it who set up organisations claiming conspiracies when there is no conspiracy because it suits their political ends—and some of them clearly even participate in events like this but are still elected to this Parliament.
If this is a coalition Government, this Liberal Minister needs to demonstrate that he is part of the coalition. The Liberals have always told us they stand for individual freedoms. Well, prove it; release these documents. These people who have had to fight against this for years deserve it, but there is a bigger cause, too: the rest of us. This is about defining freedom in this country. That is what this debate is about, and why this Liberal Minister has to act.
The lack of Members on the Government Benches shows exactly how much interest there is in this topic from this coalition Government of Tories and Liberals.
This Shrewsbury 24 debacle represents a catastrophic and deliberate miscarriage of justice by the state against working individuals. I say again for the record that this was deliberate. This attack on the Shrewsbury 24 was a deliberate, calculated miscarriage of justice. It is a catalogue of deceit, deception, secrecy and discrimination worthy of the best of the best North Korean governmental political plots. It truly is a must-read true-life story of thriller proportions. The covert, politically inspired interference of faceless decision-makers, be they politicians, civil servants, police or the judiciary, made life hell for ordinary hard-working people whose only crime was to dare to take industrial action against the mega cash-rich building companies of that time.
These people—the Shrewsbury pickets—were fighting for £30 for 30 hours and better health and safety on the building sites, where, as has been mentioned on more than one occasion, 571 people in the construction industry were killed in three years. Is that not fair? Is that not what we should be seeking in a modern-day society—health and safety, preventing people from being abused and killed when they take their sandwiches to work and want to return to see their families at night? Is that a crime? Should they have been punished—should they have been imprisoned, as the six Shrewsbury pickets were? The answer to that is of course not.
I have tremendous experience of picketing, and I am proud of having been a picket during many disputes. I witnessed what happened on the picket lines during the miners strike. It was absolutely disgraceful. What we have seen in the last two or three weeks is again a Government refusing to allow papers—confidential and secret papers—relating to that dispute to be released. What we have seen is absolutely ludicrous. There has not been the outrage there should be, but we have seen that senior Cabinet Ministers in a previous Government and a Prime Minister—Thatcher—stood at the Dispatch Box and deliberately misled the Commons, and deliberately misled the Government. Where is the public outcry from the press? There is not one, because they are not interested in ordinary people.
A lot can be said about this but I would like to finish on this point. We cannot even begin to understand how these men and their families felt when they were hammered by the state—by the Government. They were offered lesser charges and they would have been freed. They stood by their principles so that people in the future would benefit, and they went to prison. We cannot begin to think what it was like for these people, who could have been free—“£50 fine and you can go home tonight and be home by 3 o’clock.” That was the agreement, but they stood by their principles. We cannot begin to imagine how they suffered in their time in prison.
Let me say a word on Des Warren, who was treated very badly in his time in prison. The liquid cosh killed him and as a result we are where we are today.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and our other hon. Friends on securing this debate.
It is important to say, as all Members have said so far, that this is not about defending violence or picket line violence. It is about justice. This is about making the case to publish documents so that the truth can come out. I believe that case has been made overwhelmingly by Opposition colleagues who have spoken and it has even been agreed by Conservative colleagues. The only reason not to publish is that it would prove the political interference and perhaps the source of some of the evidence that was offered against the individuals.
It is important to remember that these were different times, different issues, different perspectives. The establishment was paranoid. It was not just the Tory establishment. Harold Wilson saw political manipulation in the NUS strike in the ’60s. That is when the NUS was the National Union of Seamen, not the National Union of Students. This is not just a Tory crisis, therefore. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) said this period saw the height of trade union membership and power, with working people trying to come to terms with the UK’s industrial decline and trying to hold on to what they had in the face of the establishment coming at them.
Times were difficult and the establishment felt threatened. The Shrewsbury 24 came in the wake of the Pentonville Five and the collapse of the industrial relations court. My hon. Friend mentioned Vic Turner. He was one of my councillors. He was mayor of Newham. When I knew him he was a very gentle and decent man, and he was one of the five who were locked up. Incidentally, for the information of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), I will say that when I was the secretary of the Scottish nationalist trade union association I issued a statement supporting the release of the Pentonville Five and was contacted by Edinburgh and told to withdraw the press release or be expelled from the SNP. That was the end of my romance with the Scottish National party.
In construction, the lack of a structured, organised business caused industrial carnage as many colleagues have mentioned, with nearly 600 dead on building sites in three years. The lump set worker against worker and kept the industry in the dark ages. They were dark times, indeed, not only for the country but for individuals thrust into the front-line—the Five, the 24 and others. The ’70s was a decade of massive industrial unrest; I am old enough to have been on strike in the ’70s with the fire service—against a Labour Government. It is surely time for the Government to come clean. The Government should publish the papers—I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say—so that these decent men and their families, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) has outlined, can understand what happened and why it happened and hopefully be able to put behind them what I believe will be shown to be another shameful part of our history.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) for securing this debate. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth)—I am delighted he is back in the Chamber—for his stout defence of exploitative and abusive employment practices and his argument for sustaining one of the most grievous miscarriages of justice in living memory, because it reminds me of exactly why I came into politics.
This is an immensely significant case and one that has already shone a light into some of the darkest recesses of the British establishment. What is abundantly clear is that this case will continue to be a running sore until such times as all Government and Cabinet and other documents over the relevant period from the early ’70s to date in connection with this matter are released. The sooner the nettle is grasped the better.
The Government’s determination to keep documents secret and to keep information from the appellants casts a very dark and long shadow over our democracy and serves only to heighten concerns that there has indeed been a conspiracy—not a conspiracy to cause affray at a building site, but one politically to engineer criminal charges and to interfere with the criminal justice system. It can hardly be more serious.
This campaign will ultimately succeed, and when the full truth emerges it will not be a good day for this country. The longer it goes on, the worse it will get. It is a travesty that men have already gone to their graves without this matter having been resolved. The campaigners’ case is simple: they were wholly innocent of the charges made against them. The dispute had come to an end, and no complaint had been made about their conduct at the time. The subsequent investigations many months later, the prosecution and then the sentences imposed upon them were draconian, wholly inappropriate and, worst of all, politically motivated. I want to spend some time talking about the sacrifices that the men made, but time does not permit me to do so.
At this remove, the demands of the workers seem so modest and reasonable, but in the dark days of 1972 they were seen as other things altogether. However, their cause was just and right. They vehemently opposed and exposed the abuses and exploitative and blackmailing practices endemic in the construction industry, which provided workers with absolutely no security of employment. They were working on the lump for appalling pay and, as has been said, fatalities were a regular occurrence. Robert Carr wrote a letter at the time. He said:
“I intend once again to draw the attention of Chief Constables to the provision of the law and discuss with them what further action they might take to defeat such violence and intimidation in industrial disputes.”
So much for the operational independence of the police. The Attorney-General wrote to him at the time and said:
“A number of instances … have been submitted to me recently in which the intimidation consisted of threatening words and in which there was no evidence against any particular person of violence or damage to property.”
He recommended that proceedings should not be instituted. We have clear, unambiguous advice from the country’s leading law officer that proceedings should not be instituted, yet despite that, charges were laid and prosecutions taken. He was also of the view that a jury trial would lead to an acquittal, so Treasury Counsel advised that the principle of jury trial should be abandoned.
It is scandalous that successive Governments have refused to release all the papers about this matter. We are led to believe that it would compromise national security. It is much more likely that individuals and previous Governments will be ashamed and embarrassed by their dreadful cover-up, and the time has come for the Government to do the right thing. These men and their families have waited far too long for the truth to come out and they should wait no longer. As Ricky Tomlinson himself might say, “Guilty? My goodness me, nothing could be further from the truth.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend and comrade the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) on securing this vital debate. I regret that he is not in his place at the moment. I was reminded of Aneurin Bevan’s description of the Tory party when I listened to the shameful contribution from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). The way in which this dispute was handled by the Government of the day and subsequent Governments represents a disgraceful and shameful chapter in the long history of hostility towards working people on the part of the Conservative party.
My dad was involved in that building workers strike, and he could well have been one of the victims of the Tory party who were sent to prison for their principles. The following year I started as an apprentice bricklayer in the building trade. Hon. Friends have already pointed to the 571 fatalities between 1970 and 1973 and the 224,000 industrial injuries that took place in the construction trade. I was one of those statistics, because health and safety on the building sites that I worked on in 1973 was disgraceful. That was what the strike was all about. It was about decent pay—£30 a week. It is not much to ask for, for crying out loud. It was about health and safety on building sites to protect young apprentices such as me. I could have been killed because there was no handrail on the scaffolding.
The strike was also about the lump—the disgraceful lump that was endemic in the building trade at that time. We had a vindictive Tory Government. I will not repeat the comments that have been eloquently made by my hon. Friends about the disgraceful treatment of those pickets, but they were charged with intimidation. I have never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. The people who were responsible for intimidation were the vindictive Tory Government, who sent ordinary working people to prison for standing up for their rights, for their comrades, for decent working conditions.
So of course the papers should be released. That is the very minimum that should happen. The convictions that were imposed on those brave trade unionists—one of whom, Ricky Tomlinson, I am proud to say, is in the public gallery now, although I know I should not mention it—should be overturned. I hope that we hear the Minister support that when he gets to his feet.
This is a highly politicised debate. It touches on the desirability and necessity of workers organising themselves in the workplace to ensure that they are treated well and have decent health and safety and terms and conditions. It has been clear from the speeches that there are different views about that on either side of the House.
Colleagues have been correct to try to explain the context of the industrial dispute. My family were some of those involved in the dispute. My grandfather, Barney Davies, who is still alive, and Larry McKay, my uncle, were members of the Transport and General Workers Union and worked in the construction industry all their lives. They were clear with me why they thought it was important to have strong trade unions in the construction industry, in particular for health and safety. Indeed, they supported the closed shop, because they felt it was the only way that progress would be made in the construction industry.
It is necessary to say clearly that this type of organisation and the 1972 strike were seen as a significant threat to those who owned the construction industry and made huge profits from it. The more we find out about the Shrewsbury 24, the more murky it gets. The motion today is simple: it calls for the release of the documents. It will be interesting to see how the Minister responds to that request. It is difficult to see after 40 years how they can contain anything that seriously threatens national security. If we are not successful now in getting the documents, the issue will not be looked at again until 50 years after the dispute. Some of the people directly involved have already died, one of them probably as a direct result of drug-induced Parkinson’s and the treatment that he received against his wishes in prison. I would ask the Minister to look at this seriously. If he believes in freedom of information and transparency, he should please take action to release the papers.
I shall give the last word in this debate to the person who cannot be here, which is Dessie Warren. Dessie went into the dock against the advice of his lawyers. They advised him, “Dessie if you go in, you will most probably be sentenced double,” and that is most probably what happened, but he addressed the central question we have asked here today: was there a conspiracy? Let me use Dessie’s words:
“Was there a conspiracy? Ten members of the jury have said there was. There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets. The conspiracy began with the miners giving the government a good hiding last year. It developed when the government was forced to perform legal gymnastics in getting five dockers out of jail after they had only just been put there. The conspiracy was between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police. It was not done with a nod and a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory Members of Parliament who demanded changes in picketing laws.”
He was asked about the law. He said:
“the law is, quite clearly, an instrument of the state, to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against the majority. It is biased; it is class law, and nowhere has that been demonstrated more than in the prosecution case in this trial. The very nature of the charges, the delving into ancient Acts of Parliament, dredging up conspiracy, shows this to be so.”
Then he was asked about intimidation. He said:
“The jury in this trial were asked to look upon the word ‘intimidation’ as having the ordinary everyday meaning. My interpretation is ‘to make timid’, or ‘to dispirit’, and when the pickets came to this town to speak to the building workers it was not with the intention of intimidating them. We came here with the intention of instilling the trade union spirit into them, and not to make them timid, but to give them the courage to fight the intimidation of the employers in this area.”
That is the spirit that has been instilled in us for the past 30 years, all the way through this campaign. It is also the spirit that has been instilled in all those others, including Ricky Tomlinson, Eileen Turnbull and the others who have been campaigning over this period. In that spirit, we will not let go until the truth is revealed, until we have full openness and transparency, until those people’s names are cleared and until it is accepted that this was a class attack. It was a class attack involving the intimidation of a group of workers to ensure that others did not fight in what was, and is, a class struggle to improve wages and conditions and, yes, to assert some sort of power and control over people’s working conditions. I support that struggle; that is what this debate today is all about.
I congratulate the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), on his new position. It has been a long time coming. I hope we can have a constructive working relationship, and I look forward to hearing his views on a number of issues, not least the damaging effects of the Government’s complete dismantling of legal aid. I know he was highly critical of that himself until very recently.
This has been a powerful and emotional, but reasoned, debate that does credit to everyone who has spoken from these Benches and to the House. For 40 years, the treatment of the Shrewsbury 24 has raised questions that successive Governments have not been prepared to answer, and those who were convicted and their families, friends and supporters have campaigned for justice, transparency and fairness. It is right that this issue should be debated fully here and that the House should place demands on the current Government—or, failing that, the next Labour Government—to disclose the remaining documents relating to the case. I hope that there will be some movement on that from the Minister this afternoon, rather than just a repeat of the recital of the Secretary of State’s view that the Government wish to park the issue until 2022.
I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and the Backbench Business Committee for securing the debate. I also want to thank those Opposition Members who have spoken today, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who spoke on behalf of his constituents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who has tabled an early-day motion on this subject that has so far attracted 62 signatures, mainly of Labour MPs but also of six Members from other parties.
Most of all, I would like to acknowledge the tireless work over those 40 years of the campaigners. They include the late Dessie Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, who has proved such an effective figurehead and given the campaign some of its best soundbites, including
“a threat to social security perhaps, national security never”.
They include Eileen Turnbull, whose six years of painstaking research has already uncovered many troubling facts in the case, Unite the union, which has offered much in the way of practical and moral support, Thompsons solicitors and Len McCluskey, who has taken a close personal interest in achieving justice for the 24. They also include the tens of thousands of trade unionists who have marched, protested, and signed the petition that led to today’s debate.
This shows the trade union movement at its democratic and campaigning best. In that sense, history is repeating itself, because it was the successful national building workers’ strike of 1972 against the appalling health and safety record of the industry and the exploitation of lump labour that led to the arrest and prosecution of the Shrewsbury 24. In an era before the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, 200 building workers were being killed on sites every year.
Given the time, I am reluctant to give way.
Summary dismissal and blacklisting were commonplace for anyone who complained about poor pay and working conditions. After years of refusal to act by Government and employers, trade unions across the sector organised the biggest national strike since 1926. They were calling for fair terms and conditions, fair pay and safe and secure working practices. I do not intend to repeat the story of the strike, the arrests, the trials and the subsequent attempts to find justice, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon and others have already described. What I would like to do is explain why this issue from 40 years ago still matters not just to those directly affected, but to all of us in this House and in the country.
The picketing that led to the charges was peaceful and heavily policed, and it passed without incident or comment. The arrests months later, the conduct of the trials, the use of conspiracy charges, the sentences handed down, the involvement of the Government and the close relations between senior figures in the Government and the building employers all raise suspicions that these were not normal proceedings. The use of section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act to withhold selective documents, the continuing refusal of the present Government to engage with the campaigners, and the postponement of consideration for another 10 years also suggest that there is a desire to sweep this issue under the carpet. Whether that suggestion is right or wrong could be determined by releasing the papers. That would also provide closure for those convicted, of whom all those who are still alive are of pension age.
I would like to ask the Minister these questions. If he is not prepared to agree to the motion today, will he explain more fully why? Will he tell us how many documents are being withheld, what issues they deal with and why—specifically, rather than using civil service catch-all jargon—they are deemed not to be publishable? I get the impression that this is an embarrassment, an irrelevance or an inconvenience to the Secretary of State. To the 24, it is a matter that has dominated their lives and that continues to do so.
This is not an issue only of historical importance; it continues to affect those convicted today. It affects them in practical ways, such as through the travel restrictions we have heard about. It affects them emotionally, and it also affects them because they are men who have an ingrained sense of justice who in many cases have devoted their lives to the service of their communities. It matters to them, and to Labour Members. It should also matter to the Minister and to his party, which, whatever its historic antipathy to the trade unions, has often claimed the moral high ground on civil liberties and transparency issues.
Sadly, the Minister is now part of a Government with a terrible record on such matters. Under the coalition we have seen: an expansion of the use of secret courts across the civil justice system; attacks on the Human Rights Act and the European convention; the use of judicial review being severely curtailed; unprecedented cuts in legal aid and advice; and restriction on access to justice for everyone from unfairly dismissed employees to mesothelioma victims. And yesterday, we had the absolute disgrace of the gagging Bill, which threatens to shackle and silence the voluntary sector and the trade union movement under the guise of tackling lobbyists. We have seen blacklisting continue as it did in 1970s. We have also seen a Government more closely aligned with special interests and corporate greed, and less on the side of employees or consumers, than the Heath or even the Thatcher Governments.
In trade union history, the case of the Shrewsbury 24 stands alongside the miners’ strike, the Taff Vale case and Tolpuddle as examples of how the state, and the Conservative party and its allies and funders in the corporate sector, use the law and officers of the law to restrict and subdue organised labour. This is a struggle that has gone on for hundreds of years, and it will continue far into the future.
In his autobiography, Ricky Tomlinson asks:
“Will the day come when it will be a crime in itself to be a member of a trade union?”
Certainly there has not been such a sustained attack on trade union rights by the governing party and its allies in the media for 30 years. If the Minister wishes to deny that, or if he wishes not to judge the events that led to the conviction of the Shrewsbury 24 but to give others the ability to do so, he should agree to this motion, release the withheld documents and show that his Government have nothing to hide. Ricky Tomlinson also said recently that it felt as though the Tories were waiting for the 24 to die before they would reveal the truth. The Minister might not be responsible for the Tory party, but he is responsible for freedom of information and for upholding transparency in government. He and his colleagues should support the motion today.
I congratulate sincerely the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) on initiating the debate and the Backbench Business Committee on agreeing to it. This is exactly the sort of issue that we should debate, and I respect entirely the views expressed on a very important matter, which, at its heart, is about the freedom to see documents even though they relate to events 40 years ago.
I am aware that the Government have been noticing this campaign’s growing momentum over the years. This is the first debate on this issue that Parliament has had in either House. Questions have been asked and letters written, but we have never had a debate, so I am very pleased and honoured to reply to it.
I am very conscious of my responsibility, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) for his kind words of welcome. I am a Justice Minister, responsible for freedom of information and the National Archives. I believe in justice. In our Department, we want maximum freedom of information, and we want maximum revelation in the National Archives of documents that have been in the public domain. So I am very clear about where we should be going and what the principles are.
I do not see it as my job to be here to defend the Government in the 1970s or any political party. That is not part of my brief.
No, it is not. I am here to deal with an issue that, if I may just make the obvious and, I hope, only party political point, was not dealt with differently by Labour or Conservative Administrations—a point that has been accepted by colleagues around the House.
No, I want to try to be helpful, and out of respect for the hon. Member for Blaydon, let me, please, unusually for me, be uninterrupted; I want to respond to as much as I can.
May I tell the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and other colleagues that, not just as the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, I completely understand the issue to do with health and safety and decent wages generally and in the building industry in particular? I have campaigned on this issue. I understand the dreadful health and safety record in the past. Strong trade unions, particularly in the building industry over the past 40 years, were hugely important in ensuring that wages and conditions were better, which, thank God, they are now. I pay tribute to those who were part of that effort.
At the end of this episode, there were convictions for affray, unlawful assembly and conspiracy to intimidate. They are serious offences. They have led to people going to prison. I will return in a second to how the justice issues may be addressed. I know about the intensity of people’s views. I know about the efforts made to get the petition to the current number of signatures. I am clear what people hope I can say.
The Government are, of course, committed to transparency. We are agreed that as much information as possible should be in the public domain. The public would expect that, and the principles of the Freedom of Information Act, enacted by the Labour Government and now fully in force, are ones that we are expected to implement.
Most of the papers that relate to the Shrewsbury 24 are already available in the National Archives for public inspection. Of the records that date back to 1972, over 90% are available. Only 625 documents, I am told, are not yet publicly available—[Hon. Members: “Only.”]—across the Government, in relation to that year. The only material held by the Cabinet Office that is not available and that is the information at the heart of this debate is one report and three paragraphs—one in each of three separate documents—which I shall return to later.
No. If I have time a bit later, I will, but I am trying to make sure that all the information is on the record.
There has already been a decision, taken in principle by the Labour Government and implemented by this Government, to reduce the age at which historical records are made available. The period is coming down now from 30 to 20 years. [Interruption.] No “buts”. In parallel with that, we are reducing the maximum duration of the exemptions from disclosure from 30 to 20 years. That has started this year, and the period will also reduce, so that people in future will not have to wait as long to see records. So those are good changes, but let us be specific about the matters that relate to the request for these papers today.
The current law is, and the consistent practice has been, that under section 34 of the Public Records Act 1958, public bodies are allowed but not required to retain records after they would usually be required to be transferred to the National Archives—so, after the old 30-year period, which is reducing. Retention is allowed where it is necessary for administrative purposes or for “any other special reason”.
Since 1967, when Lord Gardiner was Lord Chancellor in the Labour Government, all Lord Chancellors—five Labour, five Conservative—have been satisfied that where the transfer of security and intelligence records would prejudice national security, they can be retained on the “other special reason” basis. That approval is recorded in an instrument, signed by the Lord Chancellor, which is more commonly referred to as the security instrument.
The current approval that governs security and intelligence records was, as colleagues have said—the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) referred to it—given by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) when he was Lord Chancellor on 19 December 2011. That does indeed last until 2021. That is public; it has been on the website. However, these papers are due to be reviewed by the Cabinet Office for their security and sensitivity every 10 years, as all other papers are, and they will fall to be reviewed next year, in 2015. I should like to tell the hon. Member for Blaydon respectfully that I suggest that he and his colleagues, who have a rightful interest in their being revealed, address that office and that deadline, and I will personally take an interest in this issue in the time up to next year, when they fall to be reviewed for their security.
What are the specific documents? One is a Security Service report, and the other three are single paragraphs, each of which has been redacted from letters and memorandums. The first was in a letter from the director general of the Security Service to the Cabinet Secretary dated 10 January 1975, which is public apart from one redacted paragraph. It refers—it is not a secret—to the fact that the assessment was that there was Communist party activity in relation to the campaign. The second was in a minute dated 13 January 1975 from the Cabinet Office to No. 10, which has been released apart from a single paragraph. The third was in a minute from No. 10 to the Cabinet Office dated 15 January 1975.
Of course it is not. I am just saying what the revealed documents have said, and they are in the public domain. The Ministry of Justice has no relevant information retained. I do not know whether any other Departments have retained any. I am not privy to that information, but I am clear that four pieces of information are retained by the Cabinet Office and are open to review next year.
As hon. Members know, under the Freedom of Information Act people can request that information. They then, in particular, have to confront the question as to whether it is covered by the exemption in section 23 of the Act. The application was refused in this case. It went to the Information Commissioner and he decided on 2 July 2008 that the four documents do relate to the intelligence agencies and therefore fall within the scope of the exemption. The exemption is designed to protect
“Information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters”.
The view of the Government has always been—all Governments have said—that to provide details of the national security risks that might be posed by the release of information of this sort would be detrimental to the purposes of the exemption set out in the Act. So that is the view of the Cabinet Office, but these things will be reviewed next year. The Lord Chancellor has asked me to say that he has personally looked at these documents and come to the same view. I know that that will be disappointing and frustrating to people, but the position is that those documents cannot therefore be revealed now.
However, one other matter is very important. There is currently a legal challenge to the convictions, and the case went to the Court of Appeal. Miscarriages of justice are not matters for the Government to consider; they are matters for the Criminal Cases Review Commission—ultimately, for the courts. The hon. Member for Blaydon set out the arguments for a miscarriage of justice review, and I understand them. The cases of at least some of the Shrewsbury 24 have been referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and it is currently assessing that set of applications. It has the power to require, when it is reasonable, that any information held by any public body in relation to any case under review can be retained for, and produced to, it, irrespective of confidentiality. The Commission therefore has, potentially, the access to information of the highest sensitivity, including material withheld by the Cabinet Office—the Commission has the power to see that. My understanding is that the Commission has asked for this information. It is currently considering the application for a review, with this information before it. If the Commission sends a case to the courts, the courts have the power to see the information, and I would entirely expect them to be able to do so.
There are two routes ahead, and they include the point made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson). One is the review that is coming up next year by the Cabinet Office. The second is the miscarriage of justice review, which is currently actively being pursued. I hope that colleagues understand that I am, at the moment, unable to change the position that Governments have adopted over the years, but there are ways in which this matter can be reviewed again. I accept that. That is proper and appropriate, and therefore the efforts of the hon. Member for Blaydon, and those of the petitioners and colleagues, are not in vain.
I welcome the Minister to his post, and I will look very closely at what he had to say. The youngest picket is 65 and the oldest is 87. One of the people who is central to this debate died last week. The reality is that people may need to be brought to book, and if we go on hiding information, those people will be long gone before there is a chance to find out exactly what went on.
The Minister talked about national security. That has been quoted in this House for the past 40 years. It was quoted over Bloody Sunday; shoot-to-kill; the setting up of a secret terror force in Northern Ireland; the fitting up of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four; the picket at Orgreave; the allegations of rioting at Mansfield during the miners’ strike; and, despicably, the Hillsborough decision.
The people of this country do not have faith in those who control the state, because they have seen how the words “national security” have, for so long, meant national cover-up. They do not want to live in a country where secrets are used to abuse the people, and the people in the Public Gallery today were abused. Des Warren went to his death bed as a direct result of being locked up for something he did not do. My sister nursed him in 1988, 15 years after he had been in jail and subjected to what has been described to me as chemical castration. My sister worked as a nurse in the Army, and she said that the two weeks she looked after Des Warren was the hardest work she had ever done in her life. All that man did was to try to make life better for the many he represented. He tried to create a safer working environment and to ensure that employers did the right thing and paid income tax and national insurance contributions. For that, he and five other men went to jail and 18 others had their lives destroyed. This is a matter of justice. I heard what the Minister had to say, and it was not good enough.
That this House is seriously concerned at the decision of the Government to refuse to release papers related to the building dispute in 1972 and subsequent prosecutions of the workers known as the Shrewsbury 24 and calls on it to reverse this position as a matter of urgency.