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Cammell Laird Workers Imprisoned in 1984

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2023

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of a public inquiry into Cammell Laird workers imprisoned in 1984.

I declare at the outset that I am a member of the GMB trade union. I note the unfortunate absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), who has campaigned on this topic consistently since his election to the House, and whose brother was one of the 37. He had hoped to take part in this debate, but unfortunately he has tested positive for covid and therefore cannot be here.

In October 1984, 37 trade unionists who had fought to stop the closure of the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead ended their occupation of a gas rig in the shipyard and were promptly arrested and locked up in Walton jail, Merseyside’s maximum security prison. Their supposed crime was to have been found in breach of a contempt of court hearing following an earlier judicial hearing; as they had been sacked, they were guilty of trespassing.

No other industrial action resulted in so many men being sent to prison. The prison sentence of 30 days was grossly unfair. By the time they were released, the 37 had been sacked. They lost redundancy pay, and those entitled to pension payments lost those too. Officials from GMB believe that one of the men may have lost out on £120,000 or more.

The men were locked up alongside murderers and criminals. They were blacklisted and struggled to find work afterwards. In a democracy, belonging to a trade union and taking industrial action should not lead to the risk of imprisonment. Trade unionists in 1984—and indeed those of us who are trade unionists now—are not above the law, but the Cammell Laird 37 were part of an official national dispute, and they enabled essential maintenance to take place on the destroyer being built at the time. They had impressive records of employment service and were clearly patriotic. The decision to imprison them was completely disproportionate.

There have been many attempts to highlight the injustice of what happened to the 37. They and their families, supported by their trade union, GMB, have campaigned for almost 40 years for this injustice to be made right.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I apologise for not being able to stay for all of it. As he said, my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) has campaigned tirelessly on this issue. He tabled an early-day motion in 2021, in which he highlighted, among other things, the immense suffering and economic hardship that the imprisoned workers endured as a result of their month-long detention, and the blacklisting and loss of redundancy and pension rights that followed that imprisonment. Does my hon. Friend agree that any public inquiry should fully take into account such practices?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She and my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead are two of the many MPs who have already raised the case of the 37.

Strikingly, in response to one of the questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead in 2021, the then Justice Minister, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), argued that if there were concerns about the imprisonment of the 37, the case should be referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The problem with that answer is that the men were sent to prison for contempt of court—a civil matter. As I understand it, under sections 9 to 12B of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, which lists the type of cases the Criminal Cases Review Commission has the power to review, there is no mention of decisions of the High Court to commit someone to prison for contempt of court.

Either a public inquiry is needed to review the treatment of the 37—that is the purpose of this debate—or the case should be reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, with all the investigative powers it has at its disposal. If so, the law will need to be changed to bring contempt cases resulting in prison within scope, because the Cammell Laird 37 will have little chance of justice until one or other of those options happens.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and, with the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), who is absent, for his fight for justice. Does he agree that these miscarriages of justice, which we can simply look at historically, are for those men and their families life-changing and altering? For them to understand that the lessons learned from their story can result in legislative changes can provide closure for families that went through it and provide protection for other families in future.

I very much agree with that point; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the case that others and I will make.

In the latter part of 1984, across Britain’s industrial heartlands at the time, huge numbers of jobs in nationalised industries, including steel and coal, were axed by Margaret Thatcher’s Government, with a casual disregard for what would come next for those made redundant and their devastated communities. In shipbuilding alone, a hugely important source of jobs across the UK at the time, British Shipbuilders went from employing 62,000 workers in 1982 to just 5,000 five years later.

It is clear, from papers released by the National Archives and from Margaret Thatcher’s private papers, that Ministers were determined to privatise the building of warships, reduce the number of shipbuilding yards and sell off the remainder of the yards. Those records confirm a central belief of the 37 when they went on strike, that Ministers wanted to close Cammell Laird. They confirm that Norman Tebbit, then Secretary of State, and Norman Lamont, then Minister of State in the Department for Trade and Industry, wanted to close Cammell Laird, potentially as early as the end of the year, when the two ships then being built were expected to be completed.

We know that, because what emerges from these relatively recently declassified records of the time, is how Cammell Laird’s future became the centrepiece of a fierce Whitehall battle between the majority of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, hellbent on privatisation at any cost, and a far smaller group worried about the future of Merseyside if Cammell Laird closed. At the time, Cammell Laird was one of Britain’s most important shipyards. In existence for more than 150 years, it was a byword for engineering and shipbuilding skill of the highest order.

Warships built at Cammell Laird, such as Ark Royal, helped to protect our shores during two world wars, while other ships built there delivered huge wealth from across the globe to Britain’s shores. The 37 had helped build ships crucial to our efforts to win back the Falklands and later to take on Saddam Hussein. Short of active military service, there surely are not many more patriotic things one can do for one’s country than help build the means to defend it.

Word began to leak out in the spring and early summer of 1984 that Cammell Laird might be at risk of closure. Ministers at the time in the House of Commons denied that any major shipyard closures were being contemplated.

“I know of no such proposal.”—[Official Report, 27 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 1095.]

So said Norman Lamont, then Minister of State at the Department for Trade and Industry. That was not quite the full picture. The Ministry of Defence had tendered for contracts to build two Type 42 destroyers in late 1983. Cammell Laird’s bid had met the quality threshold and apparently offered the best price. Over the course of nine months, from April 1984 to January 1985, Norman Tebbit successfully persuaded Margaret Thatcher and the rest of her Cabinet to delay Cammell Laird being awarded a contract to build at least one of the planned new Royal Navy destroyers.

The then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, recognising the profound economic and social consequences for Merseyside if Cammell Laird were to close, wanted to place orders for one, possibly two, Royal Navy Type 22 frigates with Cammell Laird, which would have secured the yard’s immediate future, and prevented even more job losses. The records released by the National Archives and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation detail how Norman Tebbit and the Department for Trade and Industry strongly objected, arguing, according to papers at the time now in the National Archives:

“If Cammell Laird did remain open, overcapacity would remain in shipbuilding with gratuitous risk to the successful privatisation.”

Commitments had been made that Cammell Laird would be able to bid and would have “a strong case” for building Type 22 frigates, as far as back as December 1982, by the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott, in this House. In April 1984, Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for Defence, underlined the significance of that commitment, and the impact on Merseyside if that commitment were not honoured and Cammell Laird closed. He particularly underlined the fact that Cammell Laird had won the MOD’s tendering process.

When British Shipbuilders published accounts in July 1984 for the previous year, it noted that Cammell Laird’s warship-building operations were still profitable, making some £3.22 million in surplus. None the less, Norman Tebbit, Margaret Thatcher and a series of Cabinet allies eventually forced the re-tender of the contracts to build these warships, delaying for almost a year the award of a warship-building contract to Cammell Laird. The papers also reveal how Norman Tebbit wanted to spin the decision, to put the blame and responsibility for the closure of Cammell Laird first on the British Shipbuilders Board and crucially, too, on the workforce, whose growing concern about their future they comment on—although they describe that as union militancy and worsening industrial relations.

I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on securing this important debate. He is making an important contribution around the thrust of Government direction in policy terms in relation to shipyards at this point of time. Does he agree with me that the systematic reduction of the workforce at Cammell Laird from 5,500 in 1977 down to 3,300 in October 1983 and a reduction of another 1,000 in the 12 months thereafter—taking into account the period following the dispute—points to that attempt to undermine British shipbuilding? Is that not why we need this inquiry? Given the fact that, sadly, several of those who were arrested have passed away in the years in between, does that not add to the urgency of the inquiry at this stage?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that there is an urgency to this case. I welcome his support for the points that I am trying to make.

My hon. Friend is explaining powerfully that justice delayed is justice denied. We have members of the Cammell Laird 37 with us today in the Public Gallery. Is it not important for anyone watching or listening today that we have justice? It is about time. All the documents should be made public as soon as possible.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her support for this debate. I absolutely agree with her concluding point, which I want to come on to in a little bit.

On balance, it is difficult not to conclude from the papers I have read that a significant group of Ministers in 1984 were so determined to drive through the complete privatisation of British shipbuilders, regardless of the wider economic and social consequences, that they decided that to achieve this, Cammell Laird had to close, and that any employee or union resistance had to be resolutely confronted.

When I was an engineering apprentice in the late 1960s in Liverpool, it was abundantly clear to anyone working in engineering that Cammell Laird was important not only for the reasons stated by my hon. Friend, but also for training engineers, who then went off into other areas of the industry. The case that he is making and the evidence he has referred to are important. He has highlighted two options on how to proceed, but if those are not feasible, would something similar to the Hillsborough inquiry carried out by Bishop James Jones, where all the evidence could be properly reviewed and perhaps point in a different direction, be a potential third option? Perhaps the Minister might consider that in his response.

I am grateful for that intervention by my right hon. Friend, who knows the yard, its environs and its significance much better than I do. His point about a potential third option is very important. Crucially, and as I will come on to, it requires such a third option for full access to the various papers that are still available that relate to the closure.

I turn to the court action in 1984. Not knowing any of the Whitehall battle that was going on, the workforce at Cammell Laird had seen their numbers reducing steadily—the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western) made—through various waves of redundancies, so not surprisingly they took the decision to go on strike from the end of June 1984. Fearing that British Shipbuilders might move the two ships that the yard was working on, so that they could be completed at other yards, several men occupied the gas rig from June 1984.

The only court record that I could find shows that those occupying the rig and picketing the destroyer that was being built were sacked on 23 August 1984. Just days later, in early September 1984, British Shipbuilders was able to begin court action to accuse the men of trespassing and to require them to leave the rig and stop their peaceful picket.

I gently suggest that it is challenging to believe that the sackings and the court action were not directly related. The men, believing—rightly, we now know—that stopping their occupation would make it easier for the yard to close, refused to leave the gas rig, as required by the injunction. British Shipbuilders then went back to court and it appears that the company successfully asked Mr Justice Glidewell on 13 September 1984 to order that the men be arrested and sent to prison for contempt of court, because they had ignored his earlier court order.

The 37 men only got any sort of legal representation, and only then from the Official Solicitor, when the case was appealed at the High Court on 10 October 1984, but the prison instruction was confirmed. The key judges seem to have made little effort to understand the position of the 37. Justice Glidewell, in insisting on prison if the occupation did not end, made a point of suggesting that national security was somehow at risk. There was no one present to challenge that narrative: the men could not turn up without ending their action; and they certainly did not have the expensive lawyers that British Shipbuilders would have been able to call on to put their case.

Lord Lawton, who was the senior judge when the case went to the High Court, had been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had visited Hitler in the 1930s and had been selected to run for Parliament. He does not seem to have considered whether a 30-day prison sentence was proportionate. Given that the occupation of the yard had ended when water supplies ran out and that the men had already been in prison for 10 days by the time that he considered their case, it is even more extraordinary that they were required to complete their full sentence.

There were other contempt cases at the time in other industries, but none of them resulted in prison for those involved who were found in contempt, even where, as with the Cammell Laird 37, they did not co-operate with the judicial authorities. Most striking of all is the case of Arthur Scargill and the executive of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1984-85 miners’ strike. They, too, were found in contempt of court, yet never went to prison.

There are many instances of unions being fined during this period. However, despite considerable work by the House of Commons Library, to whose researchers I am very grateful, I can find no record of any other group of striking workers being sent to prison for contempt, or indeed any other large group of workers who were sent to prison at all because of a national dispute, except the Shrewsbury 24, whose convictions were rightly overturned recently by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

So why were the Cammell Laird 37 imprisoned and treated so badly? They had no legal representation of their own; they could not afford the barristers and solicitors who were necessary for them to have a chance of avoiding jail; the Official Solicitor took up their case at appeal, but by then it was too late; and a further appeal to the House of Lords could have happened, but did not.

So who were the 37? Billy Albertina, Eddie Albertina, Francis Albertina, Jimmy Albertina, John Albertina, Jimmy Barton, Christopher Bilsborough, John Brady, Michael Byrne, Thomas Cassidy, Thomas Culshaw, John Dooley, Lol Duffy, Colin Early, Nicholas Fenian, Joe Flynn, Andrew Frazer, Barry Golding, Paul Hennessey, Edward Kenny, Paul Little, Eddie Marnell, Jimmy McCarthy, Anthony McGarry, Philip McKeown, Michael Mooney, Aiden Morley, Sam Morley, Alan Prior, Francis Roach, Stephen Smith, Christopher Thompson, Tommy Webb, Tommy Wilson, Chris Whitley, George Whittaker, and John Wright.

They were, of course, painted as militants, a line that the right does rather like to use a lot. The politics and tactics of the 37 may not have been to everyone’s taste, but their pride in the job they did and their respect for the role that the ships they were building were set to play were never mentioned in court, or in much of the media coverage at the time. Even while they were picketing the destroyer, they were allowing other workers on to carry out essential maintenance, with the leaders of the Cammell Laird 37 intervening to stop others from occupying or going on to the destroyer.

These were working-class men—hard-working, some very skilled. They were not schooled in the law or in high politics, but there is surely something very honest in wanting to defend your community, and, as I understand it, the Cammell Laird yard was certainly fundamental to the economic and social fabric of the Wirral and wider Merseyside community. The men did not stop the eventual closure of the yard, but their actions in helping to publicise what the loss of the yard would mean certainly delayed its closure. Eventually, one of the contracts to build the Type 42 destroyer was finally given to Cammell Laird, saving many jobs for a while longer.

Very few people want to go on strike—a truth that very few Conservatives have been willing to acknowledge down the years—but it is a fundamental right that should be protected. Of course, what links the case of the Cammell Laird 37 to today is that the Conservative party is still trying to criminalise those who want to push for better jobs, a decent living and dignity in their employment. The desperate Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill that Ministers are pushing in an attempt to divert attention from a miserable record of economic mismanagement mirrors the efforts of Ministers back in 1984 to try to avoid public responsibility for the consequences of axing huge numbers of jobs across our industrial heartlands.

The Cammell Laird 37 were brave men. They faced the full wrath of the judicial, media and political opinion of the time; they had the chance to say sorry in court for occupying the yard—in legal language, to purge their contempt—but that would have been apologising for fighting to stop the yard’s closure and save their community. Not one of the 37 did so, even when the mother of some of the men died. Others in the group encouraged those men to say sorry, so that they could leave prison to grieve and say longer goodbyes, but they would not: they were determined to stay, side by side with the others. They made a point of going back to prison after the funeral to show their support and solidarity. They went in together, and they came out together.

The 37 have campaigned with, and through, the GMB to try to find out the full picture as to why they were sent to prison, with a film, a book, and rallies and meetings across the country down the years. They have searched for all sorts of records and made numerous freedom of information requests. Police records from the time, Walton jail records, and full records of the involvement of the official solicitor or Attorney General do not appear to be publicly available; what we can, I think, definitively say is that throughout 1984, decisions about the future of Cammell Laird were being taken at the very highest level of Government. The possible role of government —in its widest sense—in the decisions that led to those men being imprisoned and losing so much should be explored by those whose powers allow full and complete access to any remaining records. The proportionality of sending the men to prison at all, and of keeping them there once the occupation had ended, also merits review.

In the end, this is about 37 men who were sent to prison when no other comparable national dispute, at the time or since, saw a similar outcome. As such, I hope the House will be sympathetic to the case for a public inquiry, a Hillsborough-style inquiry or, indeed, a review by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for securing this important debate. I declare that I am a proud member of the GMB trade union.

I will start by paying tribute to the 37 Cammell Laird workers and their families—a number of them are here in Parliament today—and all the campaigners who have been fighting for justice for so long. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), who I know wanted to be here today, for his tireless campaigning over decades.

I fully back the campaign to secure truth and justice for the 37 Cammell Laird workers who were imprisoned in Walton jail in 1984. Those 37 workers and their families have now suffered the further injustice of almost 40 years in which truth and justice has been denied to them by the state. Sadly, many have passed away in that time. The workers were deliberately targeted to try to break the industrial action they were partaking in to save the shipyard and hundreds of jobs. As part of the state’s attempt to demoralise the workers taking strike action across the country at the same time, we saw the same modus operandi at Shrewsbury and Orgreave, with the state using brutal tactics to break industrial disputes. It then implemented a cover-up to deny the victims the justice they deserve. It is only thanks to the remarkable efforts of campaigners like those in the Chamber today, as well as the likes of Eileen Turnbull and all those involved with the Shrewsbury 24, that that fight for justice was eventually won last year. But those from Cammell Laird and Orgreave are still denied that justice today.

The industrial action at Cammell Laird happened against a backdrop of rapid de-industrialisation by the Thatcher Government. There was a decimation of jobs across Merseyside, where between 1978 and 1981 34,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. I grew up in Liverpool at that time, and it was an absolutely devastating period that we still have not fully recovered from. Remember that the Thatcher Government were contemplating the managed decline of my great city at the same time.

Cammell Laird was a national asset that the Government were preparing for privatisation by halving the workforce. In 1984, 1,000 more planned redundancies were announced and the strike and occupation took place in response. The targeting of trade union members at Cammell Laird was truly despicable and culminated in an injunction seeking to remove strikers occupying the rig, enforced by the police. Then there was the arrest and month’s imprisonment of 37 workers at Walton jail—a category A prison in which they all suffered greatly.

The 37 trade unionists were tried and convicted in their absence. They were denied the opportunity to defend themselves in court and a fair opportunity to clear their names. Once released, the Cammell Laird 37 never worked at the shipyard again. They were blacklisted and they lost their redundancy and pension rights. For standing up for the future of their communities, they were punished by the state, with the effects lasting a lifetime.

I want to read a testimony of Allen Small, who is a good friend. He says,

“In 1984 I was a 19-year-old apprentice at Cammell Laird. Myself and one other apprentice Dave Griffiths refused to cross the picket line and we joined the strike. Dave and I were sacked for refusing to attend work. I struggled for many years to find work. I applied for many jobs and welding courses but was always unsuccessful. Eventually I retrained as an electrician and found work in shop fitting and on building sites in London”—

away from the north west. He continues:

“Unfortunately Dave passed away 10 years ago.”

That shows the devastating impact of standing up for your community and fighting for a trade union.

Truth and justice are still being denied almost 40 years later. In 2014 the European Parliament ruled that the British Government had no basis for the convictions and should apologise and remunerate the 37 pickets. The Government have done nothing to this day. Appallingly, no records that relate to the policing of the dispute, British Shipbuilders’ handling of industrial relations or the Government’s response have been published. That is despite the European Parliament Committee on Petitions calling on the UK Government almost a decade ago to release all relevant papers and information to allow justice for the Laird strikers.

As someone who was at Hillsborough in 1989 and now chairs the all-party parliamentary group on public accountability, I have lived and seen the scale of cover-ups by the British state. It is a shameful history that we have—from the nuclear test veterans to the contaminated blood scandal, from the Birmingham Six to Hillsborough. There are many, many more I could talk about for hours. If we continually have a state and establishment that act with impunity and evade responsibility and accountability for their actions and the consequences of those actions, how do we ensure such injustices will never again be perpetrated?

That is why a Hillsborough law would be so important in ensuring that justice is not an abstract concept for the working class in this country who have been wronged by the state. We should all expect to have that in a functioning, fair and democratic society. That is why the fight to end the injustice seen by the Cammell Laird 37 is so important for the people involved and the country at large. Justice should not be a pipe dream, but a reality.

I close by asking the Minister this. Where is the Government’s apology and acknowledgement that there was no basis for the convictions? Will the Minister agree to a public inquiry with the power to compel disclosure? Anything else is an abdication of leadership and decency by this Government. The campaigners and the people who suffered deserve nothing less.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as ever, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for bringing this debate to the Chamber this afternoon. I will declare an interest: I am a proud trade unionist—always have been, always will be.

In 1984-85, I was a striking miner. A lot of the things that have already been said resonate with me, my friends, my family and our communities. This is simple; it is about justice for ordinary people. It is important that people are seen to get justice from the state. They need answers. Who was behind this? Who was behind the instructions that ensured that 37 hard-working people were put in jail for contempt of court? It is ludicrous, man! It is unreal to think that could happen to ordinary people who were fighting for employment. That was the charge: fighting for employment. They wanted to keep their jobs, they wanted to put food on the table, they wanted to clothe their kids. Those are not crimes, yet they were put in jail because they fought for that, for heaven’s sake.

It is not acceptable. It is not acceptable no matter which way we look at the situation. It was a severe miscarriage of justice. They were incarcerated for trying to secure the future of their families and their communities. They had not committed a crime and they were put in prison with murderers, armed robbers and rapists just because they wanted to maintain employment.

Of course, it was all about privatisation—the industrial cancer of working people—wasn’t it? They were trying to maintain their standard of living and sustain their economies. There is a lot to be answered. The potential merits of a public inquiry into the imprisonment of Cammell Laird workers? Of course there is potential for an inquiry because many people would not believe that this sort of thing would happen in a free and democratic —or so-called free and democratic—nation such as the UK.

The Shrewsbury 24 have already been mentioned twice by colleagues. It was the first ever national building workers’ strike in 1972. Again, pickets were jailed. In fact, one of them died shortly afterwards as a consequence of being imprisoned. They fought. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) mentioned Eileen Turnbull. She and her campaign team campaigned vigorously to get these convictions quashed. You know what? Forty-seven years later, it actually happened. On 23 March 2021, the court quashed the convictions against the Shrewsbury pickets. I urge the campaigners and everyone concerned to learn from what has happened in the past. Never give in, because you are on the side of the angels; never give in, because you are right. That needs sorting as quickly as we can. There needs to be a demand for justice.

The consequences of being put in prison for something to do with retaining employment are never getting a job again and being blacklisted. If someone is put in prison, people look at them as if they are something else. I could not imagine ever being in prison. I was in a police cell a number of times during the miners’ strike. That was bad enough. To be locked away from their families and from the people they were seeking to support in the first place is so degrading that I could not begin to think what it might be like.

Margaret Thatcher’s fingerprints are all over this. They were all over the papers during the miners’ strike and it was the same time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West mentioned, Margaret Thatcher’s name and fingerprints are all over the situation with these 37 lads from Cammell Laird. They need to find out whether that is the case; they need to find out who made the decision. Who deliberately targeted these ordinary people? It happens in the Chamber every other day now. If someone dares to question the Government, they are a militant. If someone is fighting for their job, if they are fighting for wages, terms and conditions, and if they are fighting for health and safety, they are a militant. That is strictly not true—and by the way, I wish there were more militants. I will be perfectly honest. I wish there were. This is the way that ordinary people are being tret.

I believe that people being sent to prison for contempt of court is absolutely unreal and that needs to be looked at. There needs to be some sort of public inquiry, as has been suggested. It has been mentioned that the Hillsborough disaster inquiry took a long time. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is still campaigning for an inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike. It has done a fantastic job. I pay credit to the GMB union, by the way, for the campaigning and support it has given to the 37 individuals. It is about time we realised that being in a trade union and standing up for your rights is not a crime. It is about time we realised that being in a trade union and standing up for your community and what is right is not a crime and people should not be castigated for it in any way, shape or form. That is the sad situation we have had with the Cammell Laird 37. It is a serious miscarriage of justice and I strongly urge the Government to think about a potential public inquiry into what happened all those years ago. It is a scar on the lives of the 37, their families and their communities. Sort it out!

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for securing this debate and for an excellent and forensic introduction to why this is such an important issue and why justice needs to be done. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my membership of the GMB trade union. I also add my tribute to all the others that have been made to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) for his tireless work campaigning on what is clearly a very important issue to him personally. I know he would have been here if he were able. But this issue should be important to anyone who cares about justice, truth and accountability. We have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: how did an industrial dispute end up with the arrests and imprisonment of 37 men? Let us not forget that, in its origins, this was a civil dispute—the criminal courts did not need to get involved—and it was no different to thousands of other disputes that have happened over many decades in the history of this country.

The men who were arrested were not told why. Is that not a basic tenet of our law? Who even did the arresting? The official position is that the police and bailiffs were involved in the eviction, but some have said that it was members of the SAS or the SBS—the Special Air Service or Special Boat Service—who were engaged. I do not know how accurate that is, but it is an important question, and if there is a grain of truth in it, it points to a much deeper level of Government involvement than has so far been admitted. That is an important reason why we need to look at the issue in more detail.

As we have heard already, the Thatcher Government were intent on placing Liverpool into a state of managed decline. I do not think that was a secret to the people living on Merseyside at the time; they certainly felt the effects of it every single day. We know that one of the papers released under the 30-year rule showed how Sir Geoffrey Howe urged the Prime Minister not to spend any public money in Merseyside, because he described it as “stony ground”.

We do not need reminding of how the decade was characterised by the Government’s war against trade unions, driven by an ideological determination to weaken workers’ rights to organise collectively and to take industrial action. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West very clearly set out, the decision to re-tender the contract after it had already been awarded to Cammell Laird was clearly part of that political attack and managed decline strategy.

Frankly, we should not be left to speculate and have questions left up in the air. We need full transparency. I think if the Government have been interfering in industrial disputes to the extent of getting the special forces involved or re-tendering contracts that have already been awarded, that is something that we all ought to be concerned about, wherever we come from on the political spectrum. It certainly would not be out of keeping with the Government approach at the time.

We have also heard that the men did not receive any redundancy payments. I believe they were told by the management that they were deemed to have dismissed themselves—complete legal nonsense. It was a nonsense in 1984 and it is a nonsense now, but, importantly, it means that the men were denied their redundancy payments, which lawfully they should have been entitled to.

We also have to raise the question of judicial impartiality. Since the Taff Vale case, the courts have had a reputation of being pretty unsympathetic to the ability of working people to organise collectively. Lord Justice Lawton, at the opening of the appeal, said that

“you cannot really expect any leniency to be shown unless and until each and every one of these men signs a piece of paper apologising for what happened, and expresses some regret”.

I think it is pretty clear that any idea of judicial impartiality was thrown out of the window that day.

How can anyone expect a fair hearing if they are told they should apologise before the case has even started? Why was it necessary to rub salt into the wounds of the eviction by adding 30-day prison sentences to the charges? A legal assessment of the strike commented that imprisonment is usually avoided because it inflames industrial disputes rather than terminates them. It is clear to me that putting those 37 men in prison was a clear statement of intent—one that strikes me as calculated, excessively punitive and almost certainly political in its origin. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West stated, imprisonment was not the normal punishment in disputes of this nature. There have been hundreds of similar disputes over many decades where imprisonment was not sought, so why was it insisted upon on this occasion? Given that, it is little wonder that the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions ruled in 2014 that the response to the occupation was disproportionate, and that the Government should release all documentation relating to the dispute and apologise to the men. I know the Government generally do not like things that come out of Europe, but they should listen to that ruling. I believe that when Labour is in office, we will honour it.

The stock response that we will hear from the Minister to our request for an inquiry is that this is not a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but I believe it is a question of justice. It is also a question of accountability and transparency. If the Ministry of Justice is not responsible for dealing with this matter, will the Minister please tell us where the campaigners and the hon. Members who have been fighting for this cause for so long should take their request?

Those men, who were thrown in prison and then blacklisted for taking industrial action, have not received any form of justice whatever in nearly 40 years. At the very least, they deserve an explanation from the Government, and the questions that we have asked today should be answered properly. Those in power really ought to know by now that the people of Merseyside do not rest until justice is done and the truth is uncovered.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on opening the debate in the way he did, giving all the details of this enduring injustice and outlining what needs to be done to set it right.

I want to start by talking about a day in Parliament I will never forget. In March 2021, I arranged a meeting so that MPs and Lords could come together to listen to trade union activists who had been spied on by undercover police officers and blacklisted. We had an unexpected guest on that Zoom call. I had sent an email inviting every Member of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I watched what we might call the usual suspects—some of them are in here—sign into the meeting, and then we were very surprised when Norman Tebbit joined our Zoom call. He was full and frank in his disclosure. He said that when he was Secretary of State for Employment for Margaret Thatcher, he received intelligence and information on trade unionists. He said that he even knew when and where trade union activists, deemed to be on the hard left, were going on holiday. He was there not to deny it; he was there to say, “Yes, we did it, and we were right to do it.” I mention that because it gives an insight into the political atmosphere at that time in the 1980s and a window into the ideology and psychology of the Ministers in Thatcher’s Cabinet.

The truth is that the injustice faced by the Cammell Laird workers all comes down to the fact that in the 1980s trade unionists were viewed, appallingly, as the enemy within—people who did not deserve justice, who were a barrier to privatisation and the neoliberal economic dream that Thatcher wanted to push through Britain. We need to understand that they were, at worst, collateral damage for some powerful forces at that time. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West read the names of the 37 Cammell Laird workers; that is something that everybody in a position of power should listen to and reflect upon. Those 37 people were put in prison for taking action as trade unionists to defend jobs and the community. Those decent people were treated like dirt and thrown into a maximum security prison alongside very dangerous criminals—how appalling.

Their maltreatment and punishment did not end then, as we have heard. They were blacklisted. They did not get their redundancy payments and it was harder for them to get jobs. How many lives were detrimentally affected by that brutal mistreatment of 37 decent working people and their families? It is a source of shame. Anybody, regardless of political party, who believes in democracy and civil liberties should know that that injustice needs to be resolved soon.

I was proud when our shadow Secretary of State for Justice committed in the 2019 manifesto to releasing all the papers on the 37 Cammell Laird shipyard workers, as well as the Shrewsbury 24 pickets, and promised to introduce a public accountability Bill. I am proud as a Labour MP that our Labour party still holds dear those important policies. I congratulate the GMB on supporting the ongoing campaign for justice. As we have heard before, justice delayed is justice denied.

Of course there needs to be a public inquiry. The imprisonment of the 37 Cammell Laird shipyard workers was an abuse of state power. When such an abuse occurs in this country we cannot cover it up and pretend it did not happen. We cannot try and explain it away. We need the disinfectant of full disclosure and the light of truth shining upon it so that apologies can be made, compensation can be given and justice can be done. It is an outrage that the GMB still has to run the campaign now. It is an outrage that the surviving workers who were imprisoned have to come to Parliament today to watch this debate. I hope this debate can get the page turned and secure justice for those workers.

The Government have an opportunity to turn the corner. They should release all the papers related to the Cammell Laird 37. The Government should apologise and remunerate the pickets. It is important that the Minister is given the opportunity today to do simple things. I invite him to agree with the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee that the Cammell Laird 37’s basic human rights have been contravened, and to commit to review the files on the dispute that have not been published, including any files held by police authorities or security services.

I invite the Minister to agree, on the public record, that the jailing of striking workers was an abuse of state power against decent, hard-working people and their families and the trade union movement, arising from the fact that trade unionists at the time, and perhaps in the minds of some still politically active today, were seen as fair game for injustice to be visited upon them. They were seen not as the fabric of our country creating the wealth and keeping our public services going, but as the enemy within. Once we have a Government that believe a group of working people and their trade unions are the enemy within, it justifies all sorts—surveillance, blacklisting, and treating people really badly.

We need to see real change. The Minister has a good opportunity today to make a difference, say what is necessary and get the ball rolling on what the surviving 37 imprisoned workers, the GMB and hon. Members have called for—an apology. Let us get the ball rolling on a public inquiry, because the truth is that, without one, justice will never be done. If we cannot achieve that, we must ask ourselves big questions about where we are as a society.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. On behalf of my SNP colleagues, and indeed my constituents, I extend solidarity from Clydeside to Merseyside on this issue, because I do support a public inquiry for the Cammell Laird 37.

I will start with some of the historical background and parallels between Clydeside and Merseyside, because they are interesting, and there is a point where they diverge, which I think sums up where we are. Many people in the Glasgow South West constituency worked in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the early 1970s. They were proud of their work, and the term, “Clyde-built” defined their international reputation for quality.

In June 1971, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders went into receivership. It was described as being loss making, even though the yards had a full order book with a profit being forecast for 1972. The move to receivership was political, not economic. The Heath Government had announced a policy that refused further state support for what they called lame duck industries. That refusal led to a crisis of confidence among UCS creditors, which resulted in severe cash-flow problems for the company, and it was then forced to enter liquidation.

None of that needed to happen, and the trade unions and shipyard workers knew it. Under the leadership of Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, they decided to conduct the now-famous UCS work-in to complete the orders already in place. They were joined on marches by 80,000 people, and the world watched on with wonder at the demonstration of popular support for the workers of Scotland. The then-Conservative Government in 1972 had to relent to the demands of the workers, and restructured the yards around two companies.

So, what is the relevance of the UCS experience to today’s debate on Cammell Laird? Well, the first part of each experience is similar: shipyard workers were concerned about the possible closures of their yards and consequent mass unemployment with few alternatives for future livelihoods; politically motivated decisions were made to proceed with closure; and the workforce responded with industrial action, including occupation.

Sadly, that is where the stories of each begin to seriously diverge, because Margaret Thatcher was even more ruthless than Ted Heath. She had few qualms about unleashing the powers of the state, and its appendages, to undermine the human rights of workers. The use of the police to break the miners’ strike the same year as the Cammell Laird action showed a consistency of contempt for ordinary working people—“Throw them on the scrapheap; they are no longer needed by the Government!”

Some would argue—it is unfortunate that we do not have a Conservative Back Bench Member to perhaps articulate this position, but maybe they are on strike; I do not know—that the planned closure of Cammell Laird was legitimate, and that it was a political decision by a democratically elected Government. However, that is why I do not think that we should discuss the decision to close; I think we need to concentrate on the means used to implement Government decisions.

Today’s debate is not simply about political decision making regarding industrial closures; it is about the treatment of workers and the denial of their human rights, and especially about the subsequent cover-ups by those in authority, then and now. It is about the campaign to secure justice for the 37 Cammell Laird workers who were jailed after taking part in an official industrial dispute. 

I welcome and endorse the position of the Labour party that, if it was to win the next election, it would

“release documents held by government relating to the Cammell Laird prosecutions and carry out a review into the jailing of striking workers.”

However, the issue is about not just the integrity of political parties and Governments but the credibility of the United Kingdom itself, which has long claimed to be a beacon of human rights. Well, as far as workers’ rights are concerned, that beacon dimmed in 1984, and, in other debates, as I have seen in the past few weeks, we may discuss whether it is dimming even still. 

Through the snippets of information currently available to us, we believe that key shop stewards were victimised during the redundancy process. Apparently, Michael Heseltine boasted about that by referring to a

“step change in attitude and motivation arising within the new balance of the workforce following selective compulsory redundancies”.

Having continued their occupation of two new vessels, 37 workers were ordered to abandon that occupation to attend a court hearing and were then threatened with contempt of court. That was a novel form of attempted strike-breaking by the state, escalating into the notorious imprisonment of those 37 men. The climax of it all for the 37 was their subsequent blacklisting and financial hardship. Those are not the hallmarks of some beacon of workers’ rights and industrial harmony. They look much more like what we see in oppressive regimes: the use of false imprisonment of dissenters and other human rights violations, which we would all condemn in other countries as being part of a brutal abuse of power. We have seen the abuse of power closer to home, as in Northern Ireland, and have had the courage to investigate it. We must do that for the Cammell Laird 37.

It was good that in April 2017, the then Justice Minister Phillip Lee agreed to look into the case if re-elected in the forthcoming June election, but we are still waiting. Perhaps the Minister here today can tell us what actions the Government have taken since April 2017 to look into this specific case. Almost no records that relate to the policing of the dispute, British Shipbuilders’ handling of industrial relations or the Government’s response have been published, and it is now time for that to happen.

Following subject access and Freedom of Information Act requests, we have heard claims from numerous Departments that they do not hold unpublished papers. We heard the cop-out in 2010 from the Metropolitan police, who refused a subject access request from one of the striking workers and responded by saying that the Met

“neither confirms nor denies that it holds the information you requested.”

Internationally, we have heard the opinion of the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions, as other hon. Members have said, and it is worth my quoting, in closing, the statement in the petition to the European Parliament:

“There have been consistent attempts since 1984 to obtain information, answers and justice…regarding the contravention of basic human rights of the people involved under established European and international laws, Treaties and conventions. Yet…their stated rights of respect for the principle of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law under Art. 6 of the Treaty of the European Union…have been denied.”

That beacon of human rights is only barely flickering, and the world sees it. Let us have that justice for the Cammell Laird 37.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this debate and bringing further attention to this historic injustice to the Cammell Laird workers, some of whom sadly are no longer with us. I also pay tribute to the GMB union, which has provided continuous support to the workers so that they and their families can finally achieve recognition of that injustice, and for their suffering and hardship. It is good to recognise that three of the men—Eddie Marnell, Billy Albertina and Sam Morley—are joining us this afternoon in this Chamber.

The Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead has a proud history. The site has played a strategic role in British shipbuilding for 200 years. Importantly, it has proved pivotal in supporting the Wirral community, sustaining vital jobs and creating a lifeline for the local economy. I remember well the 1970s and ’80s, when I was a young newspaper reporter and spent a lot of my time reporting on shipbuilding, on both Teesside and Clydeside. I know that shipyard workers are proud and loyal workers, and they are pleased to have their role in society. But as we have heard, in September 1984, Cammell Laird Ltd, through the High Court, conducted legal proceedings that would mark the history of this impressive hub of industry in Merseyside in a way that surely no one could have desired. It followed the decision by Cammell Laird to implement masses of job cuts, and a decision by the workers and their trade union to fight for their future. From July of that year through to September, the dispute escalated from picket lines to the occupation of a rig under construction and a blockage preventing access to HMS Edinburgh, which was under construction at the time.

The company then sought an injunction, which in turn led to the 37 people occupying the area being arrested for contempt of court between 1 and 3 October and imprisoned in the then category A Walton prison. History tells the story of injustice and the horrendous impact that it has, not just on those imprisoned but on the whole community. Those workers were fighting principally to make a difference, to protect jobs and the area in which they lived, but they paid a terrible price. They were faced with a month-long detention in prison, followed by blacklisting and the loss of redundancy, pension rights and their livelihoods. They have since spoken of the feeling among the workers that the dispute could have been resolved, but that the authorities were in no mood to negotiate. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) spoke of the decimation of manufacturing jobs in Liverpool at the time—a loss from which the city is yet to fully recover. More importantly, he spoke of the fact that these men were never allowed the right to defend themselves.

Eddie Marnell, one of the persons present today, is a former shipyard worker and one of the 37 men who spent those 28 days in prison after being arrested at Cammell Laird. He has campaigned heavily for the release of documents about the case. He believes the workers were used by Thatcher’s Government as a warning to the miners and any other organisation that posed a challenge. I understand that some of the documents have been released, but others remain secret to this day.

Those 37 men were fearful that the end of Cammell Laird was imminent, taking Birkenhead’s economic and social health with it. This case of injustice is not isolated. Too often, we have seen successive Governments sweep issues under the rug and hope to avoid culpability. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, this is simple. It is about justice for ordinary people who were incarcerated despite not breaking the law, and locked away from their families. Recognition of that injustice by the Government would be an uncomplicated action towards bringing solace to these workers and their families for all the misfortune they have suffered. More generally, as has been said, we cannot ignore the comparison between the 1980s and what we are seeing today. After 13 years of Tory Administrations, workers are once again seeing their rights disregarded. Contempt for workers now is not dissimilar to what it was then.

We know the Government have form for deterring workers from exercising industrial action. In the ’80s, we saw the Tory Government introduce successive laws restricting industrial action. A matter of weeks ago, this Tory Government introduced legislation once again set on doing the utmost to quash strike action by threatening people with the sack. The Government apparently believe in the right to strike, but the shoddy legislation they have introduced—the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill—is yet another attack on working people’s freedoms. Labour strongly opposes this Bill on principle. It is simply unworkable. We voted against it on Second Reading and we will repeal it in Government.

The past few months have seen the greatest strike disruption in decades, with rail workers, ambulance workers and nurses taking unprecedented industrial action. Yesterday saw both NHS nurses and ambulance staff striking simultaneously for the first time. Unlike this Government, Labour is proud of the trade union movement’s historic achievements in giving people a voice at work through collective action. Standing up for workers is in our history and in our future. A Labour Government will champion these rights and transform people’s lives for the better.

On the matter under discussion, can the Minister say what appetite the Government have for looking again at the Cammell Laird injustice to recognise it for what it was? Do the Government accept that those 37 people had their lives ruined by the heavy-handed use of the law, and that it was unfair and unjust?

There appears to be some confusion over the routes to having these matters looked into again. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), who submitted a parliamentary question on the merits of looking again at what happened to the 37 Cammell Laird workers. In response to that question, the former Justice Minister, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), said:

“The appropriate route to challenge a conviction and/or sentence is by way of appeal.

Anyone who has been convicted of a criminal offence in England, Wales or Northern Ireland can apply to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which can review and investigate possible miscarriages of justice. Where there is a real possibility that the conviction or sentence will not be upheld, the Commission can refer the case to the appropriate court.”

The Minister present will know, as I do, that these workers were jailed for contempt of court. Can he confirm whether the legal route described by the former Minister would apply in this case? If not, does he have sympathy with the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West that a change in the law be sought, allowing issues associated with contempt to be subject to the same rules and therefore applicable to the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission?

To be clear, a Labour Government will always stand up for the rule of law and challenge injustice wherever we find it. Labour would release documents held by Government relating to the Cammell Laird prosecutions and carry out a review into the jailing of the striking workers. Sadly, our history is littered with injustices, with the lives of hard-working people ruined as a result. As such, I would very much welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that what happened four decades ago was wrong, and that, rather than develop new ways to foster conflict between employers and workers, we should see them work together for everybody’s advantage.

Thank you very much, Sir Christopher—I think you are the only Member of this House in the Chamber today who was also a Member back in 1984.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this important debate. He and I have exchanged views across the Dispatch Box in this Chamber on a number of issues in the past, when I have been in different roles, and I have always sought to be constructive; I will endeavour to be so again in responding to him and other hon. Members today.

I also recognise, as other hon. Members have done, the campaigning work of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley). I know he would have wished to be here, but following his covid test, he is not able to be. I hope he is okay, and if he has any symptoms, I hope he recovers very quickly and is back with us soon—tabling questions to me on this matter, I suspect, or raising the issue in the Chamber. I wish him a speedy recovery.

As we have heard, in 1984 37 workers were involved in an occupation of the Cammell Laird shipyard at Birkenhead in a bid to stop compulsory redundancies. I recognise the huge value of the work undertaken by those working in shipbuilding and the huge pride that was, and continues to be, felt by people in shipbuilding and a whole range of important industrial sectors. A number of hon. Members have highlighted that, and it is important that we put it on the record.

The 37 were sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment for contempt of court after refusing to comply with a judge’s orders to leave the partially built gas rig, as we have also heard. I do not propose to recount all the circumstances—the hon. Member for Harrow West set them out very clearly, as did a number of other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne). He gave a passionate and moving speech, not only showing the depths of his feelings on the issue, but highlighting through individual examples the impact that it has had.

Hon. Members often listen to each other carefully in this place—all the time, I hope—but it is perhaps a little rarer for hon. Members to learn something, or to hear a speech that causes them to reflect further. The speech made by the hon. Member for Harrow West achieved that, and I pay tribute to him for it; it was genuinely interesting and thoughtful. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) is always passionate. I hope not to damage his political career by saying that I have huge respect for him, but he knows of what he speaks, and he speaks with not only knowledge but experience. Again, it may damage his political career if I say that I do not believe I have ever called him a militant—he may wish I had—but none the less, in the spirit of this debate, let me say that he makes his points fairly and passionately.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) had the dubious privilege of being my shadow for almost three years. He and I debated a number of issues in the context of health. He always does his research, and speaks with moderation but also with a clear view of these matters; I pay tribute to him. I was going to say the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) shadowed me in a previous role, but he was actually far more elevated—he was shadowing the Lord Chancellor. While we do not often share the same political perspective, I could never—and I do not think anyone could ever—doubt the sincerity with which he holds and propounds the views and positions he does on behalf of his constituents.

The 37 were imprisoned for 30 days in HMP Walton. It is important to highlight that they were imprisoned for contempt. They were subsequently dismissed from their jobs and lost the right to redundancy and their pensions. As hon. Members will know, sentencing in that case, as in others, is a matter for our judiciary; we cannot comment on the decisions made by the judiciary in that respect.

Before turning to the details, I will say a little about contempt. If a party, when summoned to appear, admits the contempt and complies with the instructions regarding the contempt, often no further action will be taken. But if not, upon proof of the contempt the court has to impose penalties. That is a matter for the independent judge. I understand that in this case the official solicitor put forward various arguments against the duration and nature of the penalty. That independent judge rejected those arguments.

I highlight at the outset that I recognise that this is an incredibly difficult case for all those concerned, and for the local community at the time more broadly, with far-reaching and long-lasting impacts. There are understandably strong feelings about the case. I may not always agree with everything it propounds, but I highlight the work that the GMB—at the time, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union—has done, and the tenacity with which it has pursued the matter. I am not unsympathetic to the case, and in particular to the impact it has had on individuals. I recognise that due to the passage of time a number of those individuals have sadly passed away in the intervening years.

I also take this opportunity to highlight that this Government do recognise the ability to strike as an important part of industrial relations in the UK, rightly protected by law. We understand and recognise that an element of disruption is a key part of that. I do not think that is in anyway incompatible with the necessary legislation currently going through Parliament in respect of minimum service levels.

I should also state that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) sat on a Bill Committee with me looking at some of these issues back in 2015-16, when we were first elected to this place. As I said then, I recognise the important role that trade unions play in our economy and society.

The Minister refers to the new Bill. If that Bill had applied to the Cammell Laird 37, they would have been dismissed with no right to a tribunal. Does the Minister seriously think that is fair? That is what the new Bill says.

The new Bill refers to very specific areas of service in specific sectors, subject to further delegated legislation where such minimum service levels could be required. I do not think the parallel he draws is directly analogous.

It is important to note that the world has changed since the 1980s. Back then, unions tended to protect their members through collective action and did not rely on the courts to the same extent that they do today. Individual employment rights were less common than they are now. Since the 1980s, the industrial relations landscape has significantly changed, with a greater emphasis on individual rights. Nowadays, when they are recruiting, employers cannot discriminate on the grounds of trade union membership or activity. Similarly, an employer cannot dismiss a worker for being a member of, or active in, a trade union. Workers benefit from legal protections when taking lawful industrial action.

Today, blacklisting is, rightly, completely unacceptable and has no place in modern employment relations. Any individual or trade union who believes they have been a victim of this practice can enforce their rights under the regulations, through an employment tribunal or the county court. The Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010 are further reinforced by powers in the Data Protection Act 2018 protecting the use of personal data, including information on trade union membership and sensitive personal data. The Information Commissioner’s Office regulates the use of personal data and investigates breaches of the Data Protection Act. It has the power to take enforcement action, including searching premises, issuing enforcement notices and imposing fines for serious breaches. Anyone with evidence of offences in that area should present it to the Information Commissioner’s office.

The specific question posed by this debate relates to the potential merit of holding a public inquiry into the Cammell Laird workers imprisoned in 1984. As I have alluded to in reference to the hon. Member for Harrow West, I do recognise that this is an issue of abiding parliamentary interest, and the number of hon. Members in the Chamber today reflects that. Although debates in this Chamber are often about important subjects, it is not always as well populated with hon. Members.

Public inquiries are independent investigations into matters of significant public concern. They can be established by the Government and led by an independent chair. They are usually asked to establish the facts surrounding a particular serious issue and consider the lessons to be learned from what has happened, as well as to make recommendations intended to help correct the deficiencies for the future. For example, an inquiry might be established to determine the cause of a major disaster or accident.

When the Government determine that a matter is sufficiently serious to meet the bar to warrant an inquiry, there are number of options for the form that might take, including the establishment of an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. As the right hon. Member for Knowsley highlighted, that is not the only option in this space. Unfortunately, by the vagaries of how debates are allocated, although the Ministry of Justice owns the Inquiries Act 2005 and Inquiry Rules 2006, Justice Ministers do not have any power to decide whether to set up such an inquiry. That would fall to the Department with the policy or operational responsibility for the issue under consideration. Therefore, as a Justice Minister, I have no power to agree to the request for a public inquiry. However, industrial relations and how they were historically dealt with, although not a matter for the Ministry of Justice, do fall under other Government Departments. Although I cannot comment on the merits of an inquiry in this instance, other Departments would have an interest. I will turn to that in a moment.

Document disclosure is a vital part of an inquiry, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West highlighted. As the Government have previously set out, this Department has conducted extensive searches of its records and those in the court and prison systems. I understand that nothing has been found in relation to the Cammell Laird strike action or the strikers themselves. Other Departments—the Cabinet Office, Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as it was until a few hours ago today—have likewise confirmed that they do not believe they hold potentially relevant material.

This is an area of legal complexity. In the spirit of constructiveness, I want to try to address some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West and the shadow Minister about previous answers on this and explore other routes that might be available—notwithstanding that I cannot opine on the merits of a public inquiry.

The Minister referred to the fact that I said there was a potential third option. Would he be willing to consider an independent panel, along the lines of the Hillsborough Independent Panel? My view, like those of my hon. Friends and others, is that there should be a public inquiry, but if that is not possible for legal reasons, there is that option to explore.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for suggesting a potential third way. Again, that would not fall within the powers of the Ministry of Justice. I suspect it is the sort of thing that may fall under the remit of the Cabinet Office—that is one of the four jobs I held in brief succession last summer, so I still remember some of that.

I hope I can give the hon. Member for Harrow West a constructive response.

I just want some clarification. Is the Minister saying categorically that there are no documents in any Department relating to Cammell Laird that are not in the public domain?

I repeat to the hon. Lady what I said—I will be quick, because I want to give the hon. Member for Harrow West time to wind up—which is that I understand that my Department has previously conducted extensive searches of our records within the court and criminal system, and nothing was found. I also stated that other Departments—the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and BEIS, as was—have likewise confirmed that they do not hold any. I limit my remarks to that and to repeating what I said, not because I necessarily disagree but because I want to confine myself to what I know I can say in this Chamber with knowledge. I do not want to risk misleading the House in any way.

The hon. Member for Harrow West asked about options. This is a legally complex area, and the answer that was previously given suggested the CCRC. I understand that there is no bespoke redress scheme for civil claims arising from committals for contempt of court. Claims for compensation may be explored through the normal civil court process. There are various courses of action. I know that the 37 did not appeal to the House of Lords, but I believe that, were there permission, it would be possible for them to consider an appeal to the Supreme Court. I am reticent to suggest that those may be the solutions. In the spirit of a constructive response, I say to the hon. Gentleman that if he writes to me, I will ask my officials to look into those legal routes in greater detail to try to get a bit of clarity, especially given the written parliamentary answer that he referred to. I hope that might slightly help to move things forward.

I want to give the hon. Gentleman some time to wind up. In summary, although I am extremely sympathetic to the case and to the individuals and communities affected, industrial relations and how they have historically been dealt with are not a matter for the Ministry of Justice. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment on the potential merits of an inquiry in this instance. As I say, if he writes to me, I hope I might be able to be constructive in responding.

I am grateful, Sir Christopher, for the opportunity to make a short winding-up speech. I am very grateful to hon. Members who have attended the debate, including my hon. Friends the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I am grateful for their support and knowledge.

I am also grateful for the Front-Bench speeches. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) was clear in his support for the release of documents. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for reiterating our party’s commitment to review this issue in Government and ensure the release of all documents.

I am grateful to the Minister for offering to look at two possible legal remedies. I will certainly write to him. I welcome his acknowledgement of the impact that imprisonment had on the 37.

I take the opportunity again to praise the GMB union for its tenacity in supporting the 37—in particular, Eddie Marnell and the others who have continued to campaign consistently on this. This is the only remaining case of trade unionists being sent to prison. It was wrong then, it is wrong now and we need some sort of inquiry to put it right.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the potential merits of a public inquiry into Cammell Laird workers imprisoned in 1984.