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Birmingham Pub Bombings: Legal Aid

Volume 616: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

I called this debate with the support and backing of all the Members of Parliament for Birmingham. Special credit goes to my right hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for joining me here today. I want to say a massive thank you to all Members from across the midlands, especially the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who have always supported the campaign. I also thank Northern Ireland Members who are here tonight to give their support. I wish to give a special mention to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who recently gave voice to the issue in this place.

Today I will focus on two areas. I want to breathe life into a debate that has become about claim and counter-claim and a very famous miscarriage of justice. It is time that in this place and outside it the story of the 21 people who died became our focus. I will also cover some of the issues that the families of the 21 victims have faced in the fight to receive fair and equal access to our justice system.

I am sure that the Minister is poised to tell the House that yesterday the families were informed that they would be granted some form of legal aid funding. That was not the case when I called for the debate, so perhaps I will do a little less fist-waving—I do love to do that—than I might have. However, their treatment and the legal funding that has been granted still pose fundamental questions that must be answered.

For Brummies, this is a bit like knowing where you were when Kennedy died. Anyone from Birmingham has a story to tell about the night of the pub bombings. My parents were driving away from the city with my two brothers—then a baby and a toddler—in the back of the car when they heard the blast. My dad returned to work the following Monday to find that a young woman he taught had been killed. That young woman was 18-year-old Maxine Hambleton.

Twenty-one people died in the Birmingham pub bombings on 21 November 1974. Those 21 people have been largely forgotten in a story that for so many people became about six men. When I was a kid, the story of the Birmingham Six was everywhere. It is worth noting that it was not the justice system that acted to correct itself in these matters; it was the actions of a Member of this House at the time—namely, Chris Mullin—that led to their release. This House has had, and can have again, an important role to play in the story.

Along with similar miscarriages of justice at the time, the story of that fatal night became, for many, a story about the accused and the war in Northern Ireland. The lives and loves of the people who died got lost; today, we must remember them. They were: Desmond Reilly, Eugene Reilly, Maxine Hambleton, Jane Davis, Michael Beasley, Lynn Bennett, Stanley Bodman, James Caddick, Thomas Chaytor, James Craig, Paul Davies, Charles Grey, Anne Hayes, John Jones, Neil Marsh, Marilyn Nash, Pamela Palmer, Maureen Roberts, John Rowlands, Trevor Thrupp and Stephen Whalley. Their names are not enough. The people who died had lives and responsibilities.

That night, six friends stood around a bar at the Mulberry Bush—like we all do after a long day’s work—sharing a pint and a joke. It was Stan Bodman’s turn to buy a round of drinks. A larger-than-life character, the life and soul of the group, his mates included John Rowlands, an electrician, a father and a husband; and John Jones, a postman, who that day had returned from two weeks’ leave. Stan’s request for drinks saved the life of the barmaid, but ended those of him and his friends. When they were found in the rubble, they were positioned exactly where they stood, in a circle—friends in death, as they had been in life.

At the same time that Stan was ordering his last round of drinks, Paul Davies was walking past the Mulberry Bush. When the bomb went off, he and his friends died outright. He was 20 years old, with a young child and one on the way. His partner never got over his death, and she died in tragic circumstances a few years later, leaving her child an orphan.

Maxine Hambleton had popped into the Tavern in the Town to hand out tickets for a house-warming party that she was planning to give. That night, Maxine and Jane Davis, who was the youngest victim, at 17, both died, their lives extinguished before they ever had time to begin. I met Julie Hambleton, the sister of Maxine, five years ago. Until recently, we did not realise the connection between our families. Julie, her family and the families of many others who died that night have been campaigning for years to find out what happened to their loved ones. I want to stress today that the victims of these killings are not confined to those who died; they include those who were injured and the hundreds of people affected through the loss, grief and fear that followed.

Last week, Julie wrote to me:

“Maxine was our sister. She had an aura of such maturity that even now when I remember her, those memories are of a young woman who had a purpose and direction in life. My memories of Maxine are very few and far between, which as I’m sure you can imagine is hard…I would love to have…memories of her…I sit here at work, writing this to you, crying, fighting to try and remember more about my beautiful, kind, generous and funny big sister. I remember how we watched Thunderbirds together when we were living in Yardley in the old cottage opposite the Church. We used to sit and watch it every week…watching these programmes helps me to feel her…presence. Our love for her will never ever die for as long as we live and we will fight until our dying breath, because we know without any doubt, that she would have died for any one of us…to get to the truth.”

The families want to know who killed their loved ones. They want to know what happened in the investigation, which is still so shrouded in secrecy and questions. After years of individual battles, the families came together to form the campaign group Justice For The 21. Julie Hambleton, who was just a kid at the time of the bombings, leads this campaign with the same tenacity and emotion as if they had happened yesterday. I admire her resilience; she has fought this for longer than I have been alive.

And so to the issue today. In June this year, the Birmingham and Solihull coroner ruled that, on the basis of submissions made by the legal teams of three of the victims’ families, there was sufficient reason to resume the inquest. It is important to state that the legal support that has been offered to date has been provided completely for free to the victims’ families. Without the fight from the families, and the generosity of their lawyers, the inquest would never, ever have resumed.

Today is 26 October, and the day after tomorrow—on 28 October—submissions are to be made on the scope and process of the resumed inquest.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech; she speaks for all of us. I hope that the Minister will address the months since the inquest was granted in which the families have had to wait to hear about their legal aid. That simply shows a lack of respect, and an apology for that extra delay would be useful today.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; I could not agree more. The families involved were told only yesterday that arrangements will be made for their legal teams to work with another firm and receive legal aid. Does the Minister think that three days’ notice on this matter is sufficient?

I stress how much I welcome the progress that has been made since I called for the debate. At that time, the families still had no idea whether they would be granted funding at all, even though they applied for exceptional case funding from the Legal Aid Agency in January this year, and the resumed inquest was granted in June. In the meantime, the families also applied to the Home Secretary to seek the use of the Hillsborough funding and administration scheme. The families have been given messages of support all along the way from the former Home Secretary, who is now the Prime Minister, the new Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary. However, those warm words proved to be little else. The legacy of what happened at Hillsborough marked for many a turning point in how the families of those bereaved or injured in large public disasters would be treated. Lord Wills, in speaking to his Public Advocate Bill in the other place, stated that when he met families of those that died in Hillsborough in 2009, one

“message that came through over and over again was that they wanted to find a way to prevent other similarly bereaved families suffering and having to endure in the way they had suffered and endured for 20 years.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 January 2016; Vol. 768, c. 1519-20.]

The Prime Minister should rightly feel proud of her role in how the Hillsborough families finally got justice, but I am afraid that the systemic problems that these brave families fought against still remain. The current Home Secretary said that funding the Birmingham pub bombing families through the Hillsborough scheme would not be appropriate, but I take real issue with that judgment. Both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have cited the way in which the inquests on the 7/7 bombings were funded, even though the scheme that those families used is no longer available, as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removed it.

The bereaved Birmingham families feel that they were strung along by the Home Secretary on this matter, and ultimately let down. They tell me that she told them that she had written to the Justice Secretary to give her support for exceptional case funding from the Legal Aid Agency. When Julie Hambleton and I approached the Justice Secretary in Birmingham, she seemed to have no knowledge of the case. The families then received a letter from the Justice Secretary saying that neither she nor any politician could influence the outcome from the Legal Aid Agency, which seemed contrary to what they had been told by the Home Secretary.

With three days to go before the process is to begin, the families are informed of an arrangement that has strings attached. They feel they have been misled and fobbed off. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that these are families who lost their sisters, mothers, brothers, daughters and partners. They are just ordinary working-class people who are trying to fight for justice in the face of powerful actors whom they already do not trust. The appalling way in which the funding for their case has been handled pushes them—and, I have to say, me—into really doubting that those in power want to see justice done. As with Hillsborough before, this is a David and Goliath fight.

The former chief coroner, who will chair the resumed inquests, called for parity of funding in inquests where there is state involvement.

My hon. Friend is making a valuable speech. On seeking parity, would it not be useful to know how much public money is being made available to fund the legal costs of the police and other Government agencies in this case, and how that compares with the help for the families?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The former chief coroner, who will chair the resumed inquest, called in his annual report for exactly the same level of parity. Parity of funding means at the rates available to other parties to the resumed inquests. West Midlands police has apparently set aside £1 million so far. Former police officers will be represented through the Police Federation, and Government Departments will no doubt be represented by lawyers from the private sector.

Tonight I ask whether the legal aid for the relatives of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings is appropriate or sufficient. I accept that it might be appropriate in many circumstances, but Hillsborough gives us a successful model, and there has been no explanation of why that cannot be replicated in this case or, in fact, in future cases of this kind. That is in the gift of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.

The hon. Lady is speaking passionately from the heart. It is clear that the process lacks compassion for those who lost loved ones in the Birmingham bombing atrocity. Does she agree that the relatives should receive the same support that was given to the victims of Hillsborough so that they can find out the truth about what happened to their loved ones, who were murdered by IRA terrorists so horribly many years ago?

I think that this and other cases that will almost certainly be discussed in this place will require a specific mechanism for the future.

Will the Minister guarantee today that legal aid funding will provide the Birmingham families with parity? As a Birmingham tax and rate payer, and as a representative of Birmingham tax and rate payers, all I ask is that fairness is considered when our money is spent. Hundreds of my constituents and thousands of Brummies have signed petitions and written letters in support of the families. Without the certainty of parity, how can any of them—and, in fact, any citizen in this country—ever believe that if the worst were to happen to their relatives, those responsible would face justice? So many people in this country believe that powerful establishment figures act against them. The levels of disillusionment in the UK today should worry us all.

The Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and said that she would fight against burning injustice. She said:

“When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you.”

I stand here today to ask on behalf of the ordinary families in Birmingham whether this Government will help them to be mighty and powerful, or are those words worthless?

I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for allowing me to speak briefly. Her speech was not just powerful, but, frankly, superb.

I am keen to demonstrate, by standing here today, that this is not a party political issue. Finding justice for the victims of IRA terrorism is a cause that unites Members across the House and the west midlands. The false conviction of the Birmingham Six meant that vital inquiries into what really happened in 1974 closed down far too early. The fact that the new inquiry might have unearthed new evidence only makes the mistake more obvious and tragic.

Four decades is too long to wait for justice. This Government have already proven themselves willing to confront difficult issues from the past, such as Hillsborough. I know that legal aid is independently run, but January is far too long a wait and shows that the system is not meeting the test of compassion in our society.

We have come a long way since 1974. We are a more tolerant and less deferential society, thank goodness, but we should not rest until past injustices have been faced up to.

May I join in the tributes to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and pay tribute to those who have supported her? We have heard tonight from the hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight).

I was a young student when the bombings happened. Like others of my generation, I remember the sense of deep shock and horror at this event in November 1974—it was shortly after the general election when Harold Wilson won by a narrow majority—when bombs exploded in two public houses in central Birmingham. Twenty-one people were killed, and 222 others were injured. At the time, it was the deadliest act of terrorism that had happened in Great Britain since the second world war. It caused great shock, not only in Birmingham, as the hon. Lady has said, but right across the country. People were horrified by what had happened. I remember the deep national mood of mourning at the time. The Government express their heartfelt sympathy to the friends and the families of all the innocent people who lost their lives in that shocking crime, and to those who were injured and had their lives changed by this awful event.

There are inquests where families need more help than they would get in an ordinary—if one can call it that—inquest, which is a matter of finding out fairly simply what the situation was, with the coroner asking the questions. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which has been mentioned, enables the provision of exceptional case funding for representation in such cases if certain tests are met. The Legal Aid Agency decides legal aid applications entirely independently, which is why Ministers have said—rightly so, I think the hon. Lady would agree—that it is not for politicians to interfere in its independent decision making.

Two applications have been received by the Legal Aid Agency. So far, one has been granted and, as the hon. Lady said, a way has been suggested of finding the other application to be within the rules. Those applications do not cover all the families who have been bereaved, so there may be further applications. I welcome, as she has, the fact that one of the applications has been accepted and that a way has been found to proceed with the other.

The Birmingham and Solihull coroner, Louise Hunt, has decided to reopen the inquests into these deaths, because she felt that there was sufficient reason to do so. That is partly because of the campaign that has been waged to resume the inquest and to look at the new evidence, which she feels should be investigated. I do not know whether the hon. Lady would agree, but I take the view that there is a role for campaigners to get behind an issue, to press and to push, and for Members of Parliament to help them. She mentioned Chris Mullin, and it is true that he took part in such a campaign, as she is doing in relation to this.

The exceptional case funding scheme is not intended to provide a general power to fund cases that fall outside legal aid. Legal aid is fundamental to our system. Resources are not limitless, as we all know, and it is always necessary to make sure that public confidence—

That is a point that the hon. Lady has made. I will come to it in a second, but I think there is an issue here that needs examination. The decision about whether to provide legal aid funding in an individual case should not be a political one. It is solely for the director of legal aid casework at the Legal Aid Agency to decide whether a particular case is within the regulations and the laws, which we in Parliament have set.

On the overall position mentioned by the hon. Lady, I want to make it clear that we acknowledge there is a wider issue. It turns on the perception that, as she mentioned, families in very difficult circumstances with complicated cases have gone unrepresented while public bodies and individuals are represented at a cost to the public. The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are rightly working collaboratively to consider that issue.

As the hon. Lady said, the families at the 7/7 inquest received legal aid exceptional case funding, which was under an earlier scheme. The issue related to the terms and conditions for receiving legal aid. In fact, it is obvious from what has happened in recent days that it is possible to receive legal aid under the current scheme.

Questions have been asked about other possible funding arrangements, and the arrangement used for the Hillsborough families—the Home Office made direct grants for representation at the hearing of inquest—does raise a question. The Hillsborough inquiry was expertly conducted by Lord Justice Goldring, who investigated the case in a very sensitive, effective and thorough way, but there are lessons to be learned about the tragic history of Hillsborough. As the hon. Lady may know, Bishop James Jones, who played a distinguished part in tackling the Hillsborough case, is preparing a report on how it was dealt with, and we want that report to inform how we take this work forward.

The Minister is addressing the points raised well. If, as he says, he is looking at the lessons to be learned, will he tell the House tonight that he agrees with us that there should be parity of funding for the legal costs in this inquest? Does he agree with the parity principle—yes or no?

What is important is that there should be an element of equality of arms in the sense that the work that needs to be done for the families should be done effectively and in accordance with the funding arrangements put in place by the Legal Aid Agency. Let us be clear that for cases that involve an inquest for which exceptional case funding has been agreed, I have never heard the scheme described as not providing enough funding for particular items of work for lawyers. The point is that there are rules about how people can enter the scheme and, as appears from the decision that has been mentioned, such a case has led to funding.

I want to make the point that the coroner for the Birmingham inquest will be His Honour Judge Peter Thornton, the previous Chief Coroner, and I am sure that he will have the confidence of the families. I am grateful to hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, and I think we will all want to pay tribute to the way in which the families have campaigned.

May I briefly draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that, for 7/7, there was never any question of a problem with the investigation, but there was such a problem with Hillsborough and with Birmingham? Therefore, unless he now agrees to parity of funding, he will not be addressing the fundamental problem, which is that there was a difficulty with the police investigation. That is what the families object to.

We may just be talking semantics. I certainly agree that it is important for families with legal aid representation to be able to do what their lawyers think is necessary to conduct their affairs at the inquest properly. If the right hon. Lady is simply saying that the amount of money must be exactly the same for all, I do not think the system would ever work in that way. My own experience of appearing at inquests, as I have in the past, and of appearing in cases is that different rates of pay can be given to different lawyers, but the important thing is that the lawyers should be doing what is necessary, in a competent and effective way, to represent their clients. From what I know of the solicitors who have been granted a legal aid certificate—I am not in a position to say who they are—I do not think that is an issue.

First, I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her outstanding speech—she spoke passionately about a grotesque injustice. As the shadow Minister for Policing at the time, I was involved in the discussions on the Policing and Crime Bill and the Hillsborough inquest. It was indicated then that there was sympathy for proper representation for the Birmingham families, based on the Hillsborough model. Why has it taken so long that, just three days before the process starts, there is at last movement? Why can the Minister not give the simple assurance that the Hillsborough principle will be replicated in the Birmingham case?

As I have indicated, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are looking at the best way forward. We want to learn the lessons from Hillsborough and regard the report being prepared by Bishop Jones as an important part of that. The issue is not so much whether the funding is through the legal aid fund or through a Hillsborough-type approach as the fact that the families should be represented if the case requires. That is the system we are trying to create.

Does the Minister recognise that the basic test of fairness for the families is that they all need access to representation and that that representation needs to be at the same level as that of other parties in the inquest?

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.9(7)).