HC Deb 14 January 1964 vol 687 cc179-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. I. Fraser.]

10.25 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Rodgers (Stockton-on-Tees)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of discussing the case of Maurice Frederick Walton, not only because it concerns the liberty of a constituent of mine, but because it raises wider questions of the public interest which are of grave concern to me. The basic facts, which perhaps we ought to get clear at the beginning, are that on 6th February, 1963, Albert Clarke was assaulted in the Victoria Hotel, Stockton; on 9th April, at Durham Quarter Sessions, Maurice Frederick Walton, the constituent of mine, was convicted of wounding and sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment. Later that month, however, two other men, Thomas Walton and Owen Eastwood both signed statements before Maurice Frederick Walton's solicitor admitting that they had committed the offence and exonerating Walton. Leave to appeal was applied for on the grounds of these statements, but refused by the Court of Criminal Appeal on 28th June. The case then came to my notice in August.

There are three aspects of the case which I should like to discuss: first, the events since I first approached the Home Secretary about the case; second, the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeal to refuse leave to appeal; third, the case itself on its merits.

Because certain matters of principle appeared to be involved which concerned the Court of Criminal Appeal my first letter went to the Attorney-General, but it was, of course, passed at once to the Home Secretary. This letter was dated 9th September. I have here the reply of the Home Secretary which is dated20th December, over three months later. I want to emphasise that point, because I shall return to it. In the interim there had been further correspondence. I had written direct to the Home Secretary on 24th September setting out again the salient facts of the case. In a letter dated 17th October, the Joint Under-Secretary of State had asked for the statements by Thomas Walton and Eastwood and I had expressed surprise that only at this stage, five weeks after my first letter, was the matter being properly investigated. Then, on 21st November, I asked a Question in the House about when the Home Secretary expected to announce his decision in reply to my letter of 9th September, and was told that he was studying the full reports and hoped to write shortly. "Shortly" turned out to mean a whole month later.

The delay from September to December is beyond my comprehension. It took only two months from the date of this man's alleged offence to take away his liberty, but it took over three months to consider whether he could be given it back. This seems to me to be a totally wrong order of priorities. Kafkaesque in its implications and quite unlike what, as a layman, I believe the way the British system of justice, including the Home Office, works. T think it important to say that this was not delay due to inadequate police forces, to crowded courts, to overworked judges—any of the reasons which are normally given for the law's delay; this was simply the slow crawl of the administrative machine and not in any way due to those other causes which are frequently brought to our attention.

Of course, investigation takes time, but the police were quick enough in attaching the original offence and bringing Maurice Frederick Walton to court. Of course, papers need to be carefully read, but surely not at the rate which was achieved by the Home Secretary in the period from the middle of September onwards.

What would have happened had the Home Secretary found grounds for recommending his release? What sort of compensation might have been available to him for his imprisonment from September, when the matter was raised with the Home Secretary until the decision, the wrong way as it happened, on 20th December? It is easy to believe that the Home Secretary took the view in advance that there was not very much to this case and, therefore, he could afford to consider it in a leisurely fashion in the belief that in the end his view would be that the man ought not to be released.

Those are specific points, and I hope that the hon. Lady will give specific answers to them. Three months and more is much too long, and I should like to know why there was such a time lag.

That brings me to the second aspect of my case, the hearing of the application to appeal. Two phrases in the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeal disturb me. First, there was the reference to the fact that the jury in this case convicted in just sixteen minutes". It seems totally irrelevant whether the jury convicted in 6, 16, or 60 minutes, because the whole burden of my argument is that evidence which was not available at the trial became available after it. I am sure that the jury behaved in the way one would expect them to behave in view of the evidence before them, but it was the evidence which was not before them which prompted me to bring the whole matter to the attention of the Home Secretary.

The second point, and perhaps the most important in its bearing on the whole matter, is a phrase in the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. As a layman, it horrified me when I read it. The final paragraph of the judgment says that: both Walton and Eastwood, whatever the truth may be, were available witnesses at the trial…Accordingly, following the principle that this Court applies, they refuse leave… to appeal.

This is the first time that I have come across a case where the truth is regarded as irrelevant.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member appears to be criticising the decision of the court. He cannot do that on this Question.

Mr. Rodgers

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. What I really wish to do is to say that I drew these matters to the attention of the Home Secretary, believing that in the light of the remarks of the Court of Criminal Appeal he would take the view that it was right to recommend a pardon, and I apologise if I appear to be criticising the court, which it was not my intention to do.

Perhaps I might for a moment consider the third aspect of the matter, the case itself. As I was endeavouring to explain, the point that I made to the Home Secretary was that evidence became available after the original trial which the Court of Criminal Appeal, following the principles it follows, felt unable to take into account. Because of that, it seemed right that the Home Secretary should examine the matter with a view to recommending a pardon. When I approached the Home Secretary, I had in mind the exercise of the Royal Prerogative on this one ground, and one ground only, that after the original trial statements were signed by Thomas Walton and Owen Eastwood which exonerated Maurice Frederick Walton.

Following; the letter which I received from the Joint Under-Secretary of State on 17th October—when the hon. Lady asked for the statements from these two men—and:ny subsequent protest about the delay of five weeks which had occurred, she wrote again on 7th November, and said that a study of the transcript of the proceedings of the Quarter Sessions and of the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeal showed that special inquiries were needed. The letter continued: This was done so that it could be considered whether the Home Secretary would be justified in asking for special enquiries to be made by the police. It was decided that such enquiries were needed…' That is a very important statement in the letter of 7th November, considering what happened subsequently.

Despite my Question on 21st November, the next communication I received was the letter from the Home Secretary of 20th December, and I would like to read from it. I am endeavouring to discover what were the decisive factors that persuaded the Home Secretary that he could not recommend any interference with the decision of the court. The Home Secretary mentioned that the statements were not confirmed by Thomas Walton and Owen Eastwood, but he said that he nevertheless considered them carefully. They were not confirmed, but they were not denied, either. He said: I have nevertheless carefully considered these statements in the light of all the circumstances, including the evidence given by Albert Clarke and by other witnesses at the trial, and also statements made by a number of other persons who have subsequently been interviewed by the police in the course of the investigation which I called for. So we have the position of the Joint Under-Secretary saying that because of the preliminary inquiries further investigations were needed, and we then reach the position when the Home Secretary says "No" to my original request. Obviously the decision of the Home Secretary must have turned upon the results of the inquiries which were undertaken.

Now I reach the final stage of my correspondence, and in some ways it is the one which surprises me most of all. On 3rd January, I wrote to the Home Secretary asking for information about the interviews upon which the decision turned. I said, It would be a great help to me in understanding the position if you would be kind enough to let me have a copy of this evidence. I know only ten days had elapsed, and that that was nothing compared with the period of over three months which I waited for my original reply, but I would have thought that as a matter of common courtesy—to put it no higher—I might have received a reply in time for today's debate. This sort of thing is exceedingly irritating, and it seems to me to reflect very badly on the Department. I regard its behaviour in this respect as shabby and unworthy, but it is a fitting end to a very sad story.

At this stage I would have expected some indication of urgency and some feeling for this case, which matters to me, and which is most important to the man who is in prison and to his wife, who came to see me in August, convinced of her husband's innocence and most concerned about the adoption proceedings going forward for a child to which she was very attached. She waited until 20th December for a reply, and I have waited since 3rd January for information for which I asked in a most reasonable manner—and I have not yet had a reply, except a formal acknowledgment.

Nevertheless, this evidence was taken, and it is upon that evidence that the Home Secretary's decision turned. But who were the people who were interviewed? Were those people available as witnesses at the trial? Where were they found? Why were not they brought forward at the trial, and were they interviewed by the police who carried out the original investigation, which resulted in Maurice Frederick Walton being brought to court? Is Maurice Frederick Walton now to be condemned by unnamed people, who have given unknown evidence, collected by the police who prosecuted in the first place, unseen either by Walton's solicitor or his Member of Parliament and judged alone by the Home Secretary in his room?

This seems to be the position, and I think it is an absolutely disgraceful one. I had always assumed that the British system of justice was open and efficient, but in this case it has been neither open nor efficient. In every way it has been a story of incompetence and indifference. I would like to believe that it is more a case of incompetence, because indifference in this respect is more morally reprehensible. At no time have I dogmatically said that Walton is innocent, and I do not say it now. The relevant question is: Is it beyond reasonable doubt that, if the jury, on 9th April last, had had before them the statements of Thomas Walton and Owen Eastwood, they would have convicted Maurice Frederick Walton? This, surely, is the only test, and the one which ought to be applied by the Home Secretary as it is applied in the courts.

The answer to that question is obviously "No". It is not beyond reasonable doubt that had these statements been available the court would have convicted my constituent in April last. The job of the Home Secretary, I would have thought, is at every time and in every case to seek reasons for leaving men free, not reasons for placing restraints upon them. Given this, and reasonable doubt, Maurice Frederick Walton ought now to be released.

10.40 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

We have all listened with interest to the very lucid explanation which the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. W. T. Rodgers) has given of this case, but I must say at the outset that it is not a case or story of incompetence or indifference. It is, indeed, a matter of careful and painstaking investigation. As the hon. Gentleman has said, these investigations inevitably take time. As a constituency Member, I share the impatience which we feel when Government Departments seem to be taking an unduly long time in their investigations. I understand his impatience in this matter, but I hope that, in replying to the debate, I shall be able to put his mind at rest both as to the investigations which have taken place and as to the justice of the decisions which my right hon. Friend has made.

I think that it would be as well if I were to make clear at the outset what the Home Secretary's position is in matters of this kind and what procedure is followed. The Home Secretary is not a reviewing authority so far as the courts are concerned, and it is not his function to attempt to re-try cases on the facts which were before the courts or to set his judgment against theirs on the question of an accused's guilt or innocence. But, subject to this, the Home Secretary's function of advising on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy enables him to intervene as an exceptional measure if it becomes apparent that an injustice has occurred which cannot be corrected by the ordinary processes of the courts. If, therefore, exceptionally, new information comes to light after a trial which casts doubt on the Tightness of a person's conviction, it is clearly my right hon. Friend's duty to investigate.

My right hon. Friend is fully conscious of the need to lose no time in carrying out such investigations, but it is inevitable that the process of inquiry should sometimes be protracted if, in the interests of the convicted person, the matter is to be thoroughly explored. It may, as in this case, be necessary to order a transcript of the proceedings at the trial, and, if an appeal—again, as in this case—was lodged, a transcript of the judgment of the appeal court in addition, before deciding whether the evidence is sufficiently weighty to justify asking the police to make special inquiry.

The police may find it necessary to get in touch with witnesses to the crime or other persons who may be able to throw some light on the matter and to take statements from them. Of course, it is essential to study the results of the investigations with great care before a decision is reached. In finding witnesses and making these investigations, it is not always easy to do things with the speed which the hon. Gentleman would require in this instance. It is not always easy to find and question witnesses once the trial is over. If all the points at issue are not resolved to the Home Secretary's satisfaction, it may be felt desirable to ask the police to pursue further lines of inquiry.

It may be thought, as the hon. Gentler man said, that when a person or persons have confessed to a crime of which someone else has already been convicted, the matter should be straightforward enough. But this is by no means necessarily so, as I, in my short time at the Home Office, have already discovered. In some cases, such confessions may prove to be without foundation. In others, it may emerge that the persons who made them did, in fact, participate in the commission of the offence, but that the man convicted was never the less rightly found guilty of it; and in such a case it would clearly not be proper to recommend the grant of a Free Pardon. That can only be appropriate if it is quite clear that he was wrongly convicted and was morally as well as technically innocent.

Now for the circumstances which led to the conviction of Walton. They were that on the evening of 6th February, 1963, Wall on and a foreman named Albert Clarke, who had dismissed Walton from his employment that morning, were both present in the singing room of the Victoria Hotel, Stockton-on-Tees. When Clarke, who played the piano in this room of the hotel, went to the toilet he was brutally attacked and received injuries to the face which required thirteen stitches.

Clarke claimed to have recognised Walton as one of his attackers but could not identify a second man who took part in the assault, and a witness, Mrs. Tillson, testified that she saw Walton follow Clarke to the toilet and emerge after Clark s had staggered out into the singing room. When Walton came out of the toilet he had in his possession a watch belonging to Clarke which he handed to the licensee of the hotel.

Walton denied any part in the offence and asserted that he had remained in the singing room throughout the incident: and two men, Owen Eastwood and Albert Haylett, testified that Walton had been in their company when the offence was committed. Clarke did not know Walton by name at the time, but he was in no doubt of his recognition of Walton, who had worked at their place of employment for about a fortnight, as one of his assailants.

As the hon. Member has said, Walton lodged an application for leave to appeal against conviction out of time and submitted a copy of a statement alleged to have been made by a man named Thomas Walton, who is no relation to himself, which was to the effect that he and Eastwood and not the accused had attacked Clarke. Leave to appeal was refused by the full court on the ground that both men had been available to give evidence at the trial and that Eastwood had in fact given evidence.

It is not, of course, for me to comment on the rules of practice followed by the Court of Criminal Appeal concerning the admission of fresh evidence. The matter is entirely one for the Court to decide.

After representations had been made to the Attorney-General on September 9th and to the Home Secretary on September 24th by the hon. Member, a transcript of the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeal was ordered from the shorthand writers and examined, together with a transcript of the proceedings at the trial, and it was decided that special inquiries should be made by the police.

The hon. Member was accordingly asked on October 17th to forward copies of the confessions to which he had drawn attention. I would say at this point that I think the hon. Member misunderstood what was said in the first letter from me, when I said that on receipt of this fresh evidence investigations would be made. In my subsequent letter, I pointed out that what I had intended to convey was that preliminary investigations were already going forward and that, on receipt of this other evidence, we would then continue with the investigations. I think possibly the hon. Member has my letter in his hand and could perhaps clear up this point.

Mr. Rodgers

We should get this absolutely clear. My first letter to the Home Office was in its possession on 10th September and I understand that between then and 17th October, the transcript of the trial proceedings and the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeal were studied. I want to be clear about this. Is the hon. Lady saying that it took five weeks to obtain the transcripts and read them and that after that the investigations were called for?

Miss Pike

The hon. Member is correct in saying that within a period of five weeks—which seems a long time to him but, as he will see if he studies the processes carefully, is not an unduly long time—these transcripts were obtained and studied. It was subsequent to that that we said we would continue the further investigations.

I am merely trying to clear up the point, in that the hon. Member seems to feel that nothing had happened until his letter of 17th October. In fact, the investigations, which were protracted and very carefully carried out, were going forward.

On receipt of the confessions, the police interviewed both Thomas Walton and Owen Eastwood and a number of other persons who were in the Victoria Hotel on the night in question and furnished the Home Secretary with a full report. This report and the statements which accompanied it were, in accordance with usual practice, submitted to my right hon. Friend in confidence.

The decision whether to recommend the use of the Prerogative is my right hon. Friend's and his alone, and it would be contrary to his practice and that of his predecessors in office to divulge in detail information which was before him when his decision was reached in a matter of this kind. I am, however, able to say that—as my right hon. Friend has already told the hon. Member—one of the two men who confessed to the crime, Thomas Walton, declined when questioned by the police to confirm his statement, and the other felt unable to add to it in any way.

It is a long established principle that the use of the Prerogative is recommended only where there are unquestionable grounds for doing so, and the results of the inquiries my right hon. Friend caused to be made in this case failed to produce any fresh evidence which could exonerate Maurice Walton or to provide grounds for interfering with his conviction.

It may be asked why Thomas Walton and Eastwood should seek to upset Maurice Walton's conviction if the latter did, in fact, participate in the assault. All I can say on that is that it is not for the Home Secretary to speculate on the motives which prompted these men to adopt the course they did. All he is concerned with is whether there is sufficient evidence to justify any interference with the decision of the court, and he is in no doubt that in this case there is not.

I have tried as carefully as possible to give a detailed description of the course taken. I can give the hon. Member my assurance that there was no undue delay and that my right hon. Friend carefully investigated all aspects of this case. He was anxious to establish whether or not there was any fresh evidence in the matter and if there had been any fresh evidence on which he could come to a different decision. My right hon. Friend took time not because he was indifferent but because he was careful to ensure that in coming to his decision he would take all the relevant facts into consideration.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Can the hon. Lady tell me whether the confession was a contradiction of the evidence given at the court and, if so, has this evidence been submitted to the Public Prosecutor with a view to a prosecution for perjury?

Miss Pike

It was submitted to the Court of Criminal Appeal, which dismissed the evidence.

Mr. Howell

It would have been given under oath?

Miss Pike


Question out and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o clock.