HC Deb 15 January 1964 vol 687 cc367-78

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

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)

I want to bring to the attention of the House the case of Mr. Adrian Ayres, who is a citizen in the county borough of Burnley and at the moment is a very despondent and unhappy man. I should like to outline the cause for that state of affairs. First, he wishes to make upon the Home Office and the Government a claim for an ex gratiapayment in lieu of compensation for wrongful arrest. I should like to recount the facts of that unhappy affair.

He spent three months in Her Majesty's prison with a capital charge over his head. We should pause there a moment and realise that this was indeed a terrible position for him to be in. At Lancaster Assizes on 22nd May, 1963, he was acquitted after a trial lasting only one-and-a-half days. I would draw that fact to your attention, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and to that of the House, because that fact alone establishes this as a very exceptional case.

I will not go into it in too great a detail, because I am not a lawyer. Nevertheless, my researches entitle me to say that the very fact that this man Adrian Ayres was acquitted on the direction of the judge and not merely found not guilty by a jury is a very important point. Indeed, I am entitled to say that at that point he could have been declared an innocent person and not a person found not guilty. I hope that the Home Office will bear that very important point in mind.

This man's anguish while in Her Majesty's prison was made worse by the knowledge that his wife was pregnant. It was a terrible ordeal, and yet Ayres, who has pressed me on a number of occasions, and I believe with every justification, bears no malice to the police or to anyone else. But there is no doubt that, as a result of his imprisonment and the emotional strain, he suffered considerably. In the six weeks following his discharge at Lancaster Assizes he was a sick man. He had a nervous breakdown. He lost his employment. I am certainly not blaming his employers; the man obviously had become very much less efficient. He claims that during this very anxious period when he had to undergo this terrible strain his financial losses amounted to some £300. That £300 was in debts of various descriptions which relatives had paid in homage to him in this very trying position, and included rent arrears—and we can imagine the position at home, with his wife in the condition I have already described.

Mr. Ayres has pressed his claim on me and I have here a letter in which he wanted me to take up his case with the Prime Minister. I knew perfectly well that if there was a means of deciding his case in any terms satisfactory to him this certainly would have been—I say this with respect to the Prime Minister—rather the better way.

I am comforted in bringing this case forward because I find that if the Home Office looks upon this case with any degree of compassion—and I feel it ought to—it will not be creating any precedent. That, I think, is very important. I find that in the last ten years eight people have been so treated, and that the sums of compensation have been from £80 to £400. I would not want to attempt to put the Home Office in the position of creating a dangerous precedent, though I am realist enough to believe that I would not succeed if I tried; but the precedent has already been created. Thus no precedent can be created, inasmuch as these eight cases have been established in the last ten years. Thus with that, coupled with the knowledge that this is undoubtedly an exceptional case, for the reasons which I have already dwelt upon, I think we can see that Mr. Ayres, who now feels he has been denied justice, can receive it. I appeal very much to the spokesman of the Home Office tonight to give very serious consideration to that indeed.

I want to make some reference to the background of this man who has suffered such an unhappy period in his life. He has never at any time been in any trouble with the police in any part of the country. He possesses an honourable discharge from Her Majesty's Forces. I have here a personal recommendation from a neighbour, and I am sure the House would be interested to hear it. It says: I have known Adrian Keith Ayres over a long period of time, and have always found him to be kind, considerate, and of good manners at all times. He is industrious and hard working, completely honest in all his dealings with other people. In his domestic life I find him kind, faithful, compassionate; in short, a man happy in his wife and child, upon him they can rely. He is not given to any violent or turbulent impulses, but he is rather the sort of person who would 'go the other mile'. I am not quite sure what our friend means when he says "go the other mile." This is language which may be familiar to other hon. Members but is not familiar to me. It would seem to mean "turn the other cheek." The writer goes on: I can quite honestly recommend him…and there is no doubt in my mind as to his complete reliability. I am, Yours faithfully, Howard V. Yates. This man is a licensed lay reader in the Church of England. I am sure that this gentleman, occupying such a position, would measure his words extremely carefully. I also have a recommendation from Mr. Ayres' employers who, after a period of time, found that his usefulness had become reduced. I am not blaming the employers, and it may be that they were justified in their action. In desiring to discover as much as I could about his background, I asked them to tell me what kind of a workman Mr. Ayres was. They informed me in a letter: We confirm that the above named"— that is, Mr. Ayres— has been in our employ as a production worker since May 1958. He performs the work allotted to him in a satisfactory manner, whilst his relationships with his supervisor and fellow-employees have always been most harmonious. There was general sympathy for him during the period he was prevented from working, and his return was welcomed by one and all. I have deliberately sought independent testimony about this man's character, and, as I see it, the facts show that there is not a person in the United Kingdom who, in the position of Mr. Ayres, would not feel entitled to seek redress. There cannot be anyone who, believing in justice, would refuse him. I say this as a deeply held opinion. Indeed, I would like to meet the person who, having endured what Mr. Ayres has endured, would not feel that society owes him something in return.

For these reasons, I humble ask the Joint Under-Secretary to reconsider this request on the basis of human compassion. When that reconsideration is made, I hope that one point will be borne in mind—that in my opinion this case is different from those which fall in other categories; that this is a man who was undoubtedly acquitted and who, I believe, was innocent rather than was found not guilty.

I hope that I have said enough for the hon. Lady to tell me that this matter will be reconsidered and that when that reconsideration takes place it will be done on a basis of compassion with regard to a person who has suffered at the hands, of the law, I believe innocently, and that amends should be made.

10.39 p.m.

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

I am sure that we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Dan Jones) for the manner in which he has approached this case. He has spoken persuasively on behalf of his constituent, and I can assure him that I have listened to him with attention and sympathy. I am the more sorry that I cannot give him the answer he is seeking.

I can only repeat tonight what I have told the hon. Member in correspondence; that it is only most exceptionally that the Home Secretary feels able to make a payment to a person who has been prosecuted but not convicted of a criminal charge, and that he has not felt justified in making a payment to Mr. Ayres. To explain why the Home Secretary has reached that conclusion, I must first say something about the legal position and about the policy which successive Home Secretaries have adopted in these cases. In law there is as I am sure the hon. Member knows no obligation upon the Home Secretary, or any other member of the Executive, to pay compensation to a person who has been acquitted by the courts. If such a person thinks he has grounds for compensation he can proceed in the civil courts and, if he is successful, recover damages. Any payment that the Home Secretary may make to such a person is paid as an act of grace. It is quite true that such ex gratia payments are made from time to time, but they are made in one set of circumstances only. The very long-standing policy has been to make a payment only where the claimant has suffered hardship through the negligence or misconduct of the police or of some other public authority or official. I will try to explain, first, why it has been thought right to restrict payments to this category of case and, secondly, why, in our view, Mr. Ayres' case is clearly outside the category.

First, as to the general policy, it goes without saying that not every prosecution for a criminal offence results in a conviction. There is bound to be a substantial proportion of unsuccessful prosecutions; the safeguards that we have built up over the years into our judicial system would not be working if there were not. In round figures, there are more than 9,000 cases every year in which a person charged with an indictable offence is acquitted or discharged. That leaves out of account the very much larger total of summary offences. Ought all these 9,000 to be compensated? Their acquittals will have been for a variety of reasons. In one case, innocence will have been unquestionably established. In another, it will be more a question of the prosecution's having failed to discharge the onus of proof; in another, the acquittal may be on some wholly technical ground. It would be difficult to argue that compensation was justified, on merits, in each such case.

Even those people who dislike the Home Secretary's present policy would concede, I think, that there would have to be some criterion for selection, and what we have to decide is what this criterion should be. There is a very real difficulty here which I ask the hon. Member to appreciate. Is the Home Secretary to make compensation only where he is satisfied that the claimant is really innocent and deserving? That sounds attractive, but let us consider its implication.

The implication would be that the acquitted person who had grounds for a claim but whose claim was rejected was not really innocent. The Home Secretary would be imposing his own standard of moral guilt or innocence on the standards applied by the courts. That would be an impossible policy, as I am sure the hon. Member would agree, and I am sure, too, that the Home Secretary would soon be in trouble in the House if he tried to work it. So it is that the Home Secretary confines compensation strictly to those cases where there has been not just a discharge or acquittal but a failure of the system through negligence or misconduct of the kind I have described.

That brings me to the specific case of Mr. Ayres. I am sure that the hon. Member is not suggesting—he certainly did not seem to—that the police or anyone else concerned with the prosecution acted in bad faith, so we can, I hope, agree that no question of misconduct arises.

Mr. Jones

I said that.

Miss Pike

What, then, the Home Secretary has had to consider is whether there was negligence in prosecuting Mr. Ayres. I have studied the facts very carefully, and I should now like to go through them again.

The murdered man, Mr. Porter, was Mr. Ayres' father-in-law. He lived in Burnley with a lodger, Mr. Ellis. At about ten o'clock on the evening of 18th February, last year, Ellis telephoned the police and told them that he had come home to find the living-room in the house in disorder, and a bloodstained axe on the table. He had not, he said, been upstairs. Upstairs, in bed, the police found Mr. Porter's body. He had been struck four blows on the neck and face with an axe, apparently while he slept. Police inquiries produced two witnesses who had seen Mr. Porter alive in the street, one of them at between 11.0 and 11.45 a.m. on that day, the other at 12.30. The medical evidence put the time of death at between 5.15 a.m. and 4.15 p.m. So the murder must, it appeared, have been committed in the earlier part of the afternoon.

The police interviewed members of Mr. Porter's family, including Mr. Ayres. They took a statement from Mr. Ayres on 19th February, the day after the murder. In this he said that he had gone to Mr. Porter's house at about two o'clock on the 18th. He had had no reply at the front, and had gone to the back. The back door was ajar, and he went in. The drawers of the living-room dresser were open and there was an axe on the table, but this was not unusual. He had called out, received no reply, and gone upstairs to Mr. Porter's bedroom. He had remained at the door and not gone up to the bed which, as far as he could see, was empty. A sheet was on the floor and the bedclothes were turned back as if Mr. Porter had just got out. There was an overcoat over the top half of the bed so that he could just see the pillow. Mr. Ayres had then, he said, left, closing the door behind him.

The police also interviewed two of Mr. Porter's daughters, Mrs. Calvert and Mrs. Osborn. Mrs. Osborn told them that Mr. Ayres had called at her house between 12 and 12.30 on the afternoon of 18th February. He had said that he was looking for her father to speak to him about a job with which they were concerned. He had already knocked unsuccessfully at Mr. Porter's house on the way to her. She had suggested that her father might be in bed and Mr. Ayres had left saying that he would go and see. About 20 minutes to half an hour later he had come back and said that he had found the back door open and the drawers open. He had not, he said, been upstairs. He was looking, Mrs. Osborn said, quiet and pasty as though he had had a shock.

Mrs. Calvert told the police that Mr. Ayres had called at her house at about 2.30 on the 18th. He told her that he had been to Mr. Porter's house and had found the back door and the living room drawers open. He told her, too, that he had been upstairs but her father was not in bed. Mr. Ayres made a second statement to the police on 24th February. He now said that he had been to the house twice. The first time he had knocked on the front door and received no reply. After visiting Mrs. Osborn he had gone back and gone in, thinking that Mr. Porter might be asleep. After seeing the open drawers and the axe he had gone upstairs and seen the bedclothes were pulled aside. He had re- turned to Mrs. Osborn and had not heard that Mr. Porter was dead until next day.

Mr. Ayres signed this statement. But then he told the police that he had in fact gone into Mr. Porter's bedroom, pulled down the coat which was on the bed and seen Mr. Porter's body, the head injured. He had decided not to disclose his discovery. The next day Mr. Ayres was charged with the murder. Mr. Ellis, Mr. Porter's lodger, had left Burnley after the murder and had gone to Northern Ireland where he was taken into police custody on another matter. On 24th March while in custody he told the police that they had got the wrong man in charging Mr. Ayres. He, Ellis, had killed Mr. Porter with the axe at about 6.45 a.m. on the 18th. He gave the police varying accounts of the circumstances of the killing. According to one of them, Mr. Porter had woken up while he was searching the bedroom for money and he had then attacked him. In a later statement he denied searching the room or that there was a quarrel with Mr. Porter. He said at first that he could not remember whereabouts he had hit Mr. Porter. Later he said that it was on the neck, but he could not remember which side or which way Mr. Porter was lying.

As I have indicated earlier, there were witnesses who saw Mr. Porter alive long after 6.45 a.m. and there were indications that Mr. Porter was asleep when he was killed. Mr. Ayres came before the Burnley magistrates early in April and on 4th April they committed him for trial at Lancaster Assizes. Mr. Ellis gave evidence at the committal proceedings and retracted his confession to the murder. The witness, Mr. Berry, who had seen Mr. Porter alive after mid-day some hours after Mr. Ellis said that he had killed him, also gave evidence to that effect. But the witness who had told the police that he saw him between 11 and 11.45 a.m. now said that this had happened on an earlier date.

The trial took place on 20th May and, as the hon. Member has indicated, Mr. Ayres was in custody meanwhile. At the end of the case for the prosecution Mr. Ayres's counsel submitted that there was no evidence against him to go to the jury and that it would be dangerous and unsafe to take the case further. On the direction of the judge, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty".

It would be impossible for me in the time available for this debate to review all the circumstances of the case and I am sure that the hon. Member would not wish me to do so, but those are the essential and important facts. The question I have to ask is whether it can be said in the light of them that it was wrong or negligent to proceed against Mr. Ayres. It is not for the Home Secretary or for me to explain or justify a decision to prosecute in a particular case, but I ask the House to remember that the prosecuting authorities have, in the interests of the community, a very difficult duty to discharge: the duty, that is, of judging when there is such a case against a suspect that it should be brought before and decided by the courts.

I am sure that that duty was discharged with all due thought and care in Mr. Ayres' case; and while realising that a frightened man may do foolish things—I have no wish to criticise or censure Mr. Ayres—it is right to stress that if there was suspicion of him it was accentuated by the lies he told the police.

This is not, then, I submit to the hon. Gentleman, a case which comes into the limited category of cases to which I referred in which compensation may be paid because of misconduct or negligence by a public authority, and I am afraid that I must end as I began by repeating that, having listened sympathetically to the hon. Gentleman, and having previously investigated this case very carefully. I cannot feel that the Home Secretary could meet his request to pay compensation in this case.

Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, South-East)

I found the hon. Lady's reply somewhat disturbing and rather strange, because for five-sixths of it she seemed to be speaking in the guise of the prosecuting counsel. I cannot think of any speech which could have blackened Mr. Ayres' character more than the hon. Lady's. Nearly the whole of her speech was devoted to showing why it was right that Mr. Ayres should have been taken into custody and charged with this murder.

Miss Pike

The last thing that I wish to do is to blacken Mr. Ayres' character in any way, but, in trying to prove that there was no negligence, it is important to show why the police took the steps they did, and that is why I took particular care to indicate the circumstances in which it was thought right to prosecute. I want to underline very clearly that there is no intention at all to blacken the character of Mr. Ayres in any way.

Miss Bacon

I am pleased to hear that, but I did not quite understand that to be the position during the hon. Lady's speech.

The hon. Lady said that there are thousands of people who are acquitted every year, but surely there must be very few who have been imprisoned for three months with a murder charge hanging over their heads, and that, I submit, is something quite special and the reason why the Home Secretary should make an ex gratia payment to this man.

The hon. Lady said that Mr. Ayres could take legal action, but she knows that in a case like this that could be very expensive, far too expensive for a man who suffered as this man did, and who lost his job because of his ordeal. I suggest that this is an exceptional case. Being in prison for three months is in itself a serious matter. I know that the courts do not sit very frequently, and we are trying to remedy this state of affairs, but it must be a terrible ordeal to be in prison for three months with a murder charge hanging over one's head. As my hon. Friend said, this was not a case of Mr. Ayres being found not guilty, but of him being acquitted for lack of evidence. If the right hon. Gentleman has the power, which he evidently has, to decide when an ex gratia payment should be made, I suggest that in this exceptional case he should use that power to compensate this man for his ordeal.

Mr. D. Jones

May I ask the hon. Lady whether, before she finally says the last word on this case, she will discuss the matter with me?

Miss Pike

In previous correspondence, I have told the hon. Gentleman that this case has been investigated very carefully. I listened with great care to what he said tonight. I should like to find some way to help him, but in all honesty I must say that we have looked into this case very carefully. It is a very narrow category of cases in which my right hon. Friend is able to make an ex gratia payment. I hope that I have been able to prove that this case does not fall into that category, and I believe that I would only be raising false hopes if I gave an indication that the decision on it could be reversed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.