HC Deb 24 January 1956 vol 548 cc31-6

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the circumstances of the conviction, pardon and compensation of Leonard Richard Emery, James Edmund Powers and Arthur Joseph Thompson.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Major Gwilym Lloyd-George)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will answer Question 91.

Leonard Emery, Arthur Thompson and James Powers were convicted on 26th January, 1954, at Northampton Assizes of doing grievous bodily harm to a police constable with intent so to do. They were sentenced to 10, 7 and 4 years' imprisonment respectively. The case against them rested principally on the identification of two of them by the constable who was attacked and of one by a civilian witness, and on the evidence of the constable and the other eye witnesses as to the make or description of the car in which the men concerned drove away.

The three men applied to the Court of Criminal Appeal for leave to appeal, but leave was refused. They petitioned, maintaining their innocence. Inquiries were made into these petitions, but they adduced no new evidence and there was nothing on which I should have been justified in taking any further action.

In February, 1955, Emery gave, in a petition, the names of three men who, he said, were responsible for the crime. He gave no evidence in support of this statement and there was at that time no evidence to connect the men mentioned by Emery with the crime or to throw doubt on the evidence on which Emery, Thompson and Powers were convicted. In September, 1955, I received a petition from one of the men mentioned by Emery who was serving a long term of preventive detention. He stated that he and another man and a third man now dead were responsible for the crime at Marlow.

Confessions of this nature cannot be taken at their face value. Further inquiries were, therefore, made at my request by the Buckinghamshire police and these led me to think that the confession might be genuine. I accordingly asked the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to arrange for a senior officer to undertake thorough inquiries. As I said in the House on 20th December, these inquiries started towards the end of October. They were carried out with the full co-operation and assistance of the Buckinghamshire police. They involved interviewing over fifty people scattered about the country, many of whom had to be seen more than once. Some of them were of bad character and some had been in contact in prison with Emery. Their statements, therefore, had to be carefully checked one against the other and against the surrounding circumstances.

When I received the officer's report I thought that although there was strong evidence to support the confession it was not conclusive. In particular, there were discrepancies between the story told by the two men who said they were responsible for the crime and the evidence of disinterested eye witnesses. I therefore asked for further inquiries to be made into one aspect of the matter which seemed to me significant. After considering a report of these further inquiries and all the other circumstances of this far from straightforward case, I came to the conclusion that it would be right for me to recommend the grant of free pardons to Emery, Thompson and Powers. I think it is right to pay a tribute to the police officer concerned who, with the full co-operation of the Buckinghamshire police, did a brilliant piece of work in collecting and analysing a mass of detailed information.

When a man has been imprisoned as a result of what turns out to have been a mistake it is right that the State should make some payment as a symbol of its desire to acknowledge the error and to do what is possible to square the account between society and the individual. The payment is not an acknowledgment of liability in law. It is made ex gratia and does not imply that there has been any fault or neglect on the part of the authorities. I accordingly decided that ex gratia payments of £300 each should be made to Emery and Powers and £400 to Thompson. These amounts bear comparison with the few cases where people have in the past, after exercising their rights of appeal, either been granted a free pardon or had their convictions quashed on a reference to the Court of Criminal Appeal by the Secretary of State.

Mr. de Freitas

Does the Home Secretary realise that, whatever the circumstances of the conviction in this case, many of us feel that the sums awarded to these men were quite inadequate? Even if the precedents are relevant, would not the right hon. and gallant Gentleman look at the case again, especially considering such matters as the fall in the value of money—which is a most important point? If the State has done wrong, it should not appear to look at this matter in a niggardly fashion, as a very important principle is at stake.

Major Lloyd-George

I have gone through the few cases of this character which there have been over a large number of years. Taking all the circumstances into account—and this is a very important matter—I regard the awards to these three men as generous.

Mr. Rees-Davies

May I reinforce the plea of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) and ask my right hon. and gallant Friend to look again at the question of compensation? In these days the amounts of these damages are in no way related to the sort of sum which would be awarded at law, and I venture the sub- mission that it should be so related. The other point which I would like to put to the Home Secretary is this: in the light of the evidence which was given, is it clear that that evidence, in the circumstances, did not amount to perjury? If it did, is consideration being given to appropriate action?

Major Lloyd-George

The only perjury that occurred, or which has come to light as a result of the inquiry, was that of the prisoners themselves. Indeed, I have it on the authority of the trial judge to say that had they not perjured themselves so much during the course of the trial they probably would not have been convicted.

Mr. Shinwell

If these men are now regarded as innocent of the crimes alleged against them and of which they were convicted and sentenced, will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman explain to the House why it is necessary to use the term "free pardon"? Of what have they been pardoned, if they have not committed any crime? Ought not they to be conceded an apology for what has occurred? Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman explain the matter, because it really is very mysterious?

Major Lloyd-George

There is nothing mysterious about it. The expression "free pardon" has been used over many years. I have known people query it on one or two occasions. I am quite prepared to look at the matter, but it has been the practice over many years that there is a free pardon if, after an inquiry, a conviction has been quashed.

Sir T. Moore

Does my right hon. and gallant Friend recall that a late constituent of mine, Oscar Slater, was awarded £6,000 in somewhat similar circumstances, except, of course, that his sentence was carried out for a much longer period?

Major Lloyd-George

I have gone into all the precedents and, as I say, taken all the other cases and the circumstances of this case into account. It must be remembered that one alibi of at least one of the prisoners was that they were not concerned in the attack on the policeman, because they were, in fact, on the way, to steal a safe in Watford.

Mr. Grimond

Apart from the question of public anxiety at the small amount paid to these men, will the Home Sec- retary also bear in mind the very great anxiety that such mistakes can happen with the best will in the world, and that it has peculiar reference to the matter of capital punishment? Will he bear that in mind when considering the attitude of the Government to capital punishment?

Major Lloyd-George

That is obviously something which we cannot deal with by way of question and answer. There will be opportunities at a later stage during this Session to raise that question.

Mr. Woodburn

Would the right hon. and gallant Gentleman consider whether the evidence of one man is sufficient in these cases? Would not he adopt the Scottish system of having two witnesses or some other corroboration?

Major Lloyd-George

There were two witnesses in this particular case, and it was on the evidence of the two witnesses that the jury came to the conclusion which it did.

Mr. Doughty

Is it not a fact that these three men of whom the Home Secretary has spoken spent a large amount of the time which they served by reason of sentences in respect of offences dealt with at the same Assizes, and to which, in fact, they had pleaded guilty?

Major Lloyd-George

Two of them were serving concurrent sentences which had been imposed at the same assizes.

Mr. S. Silverman

Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman say whether in the case of one of the men he was a man of perfectly good character without any convictions of any kind and without any attack ever having been made on him? Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman further say whether it is not perfectly clear that these three men were, in fact, innocent of the crime of which they were convicted and, therefore, that the main substance of their evidence at the trial must have been true? Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman bear in mind that when a serious miscarriage of justice of this kind occurs the public are anxious to have a much fuller explanation of how it came about and how it was possible than that given by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman? Will not the Home Secretary institute an inquiry so that these matters can be investigated, and, in particular, inquire why the police were un- able at the start to verify what obviously everybody now knows to have been the truth?

Major Lloyd-George

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say "what everybody now knows to be the truth." I say that had it not been for the confession no one would have known what it was. It was a confirmation of the confession, after a very brilliant piece of work by the police themselves, greatly assisted by the Buckinghamshire police, which made it possible for me to take the action which I was very glad to take. As far as the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the evidence given at the trial are concerned, if the men had not stuck to their story at the trial, which the judge said was palpably false and which the jury said was false, they might well not have been convicted.

Several Hon. Membersrose——

Mr. Speaker

We cannot carry this matter further at this stage.