HC Deb 20 January 1964 vol 687 cc876-86

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

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) and I desire to draw the attention of the House to the cases of Francis McEvoy and Hugh Reeve. They were connected with the so-called Dudley race riots, which took place between 28th July and 4th August, 1962. Whatever their origin or causes, they were accompanied by scenes of violence and disorder which, fortunately, are very rare in this country.

Throughout this week of rioting the Dudley police force, assisted by police reinforcements from other areas, including other parts of my constituency as well as other constituencies, in spite of grave provocations and pressures, acted with the characteristic loyalty and devotion to duty which we have come to expect from our police officers. It is another example of the great debt which we owe to them for safeguarding our security and maintaining and enforcing law and order.

On 1st August, during that week of rioting, soon after midnight further rioting took place. McEvoy and Reeve were arrested. Their story—they have consistently maintained their account of what took place—is that they were sitting in a car belonging to McEvoy. It it evident that both these young men would have been well advised to have kept well away from the centre of Dudley that night. They were tried before the local magistrates the next day. Both were sentenced to two months' detention.

It may be asked why they did not appeal. I understand that they were advised, rightly or wrongly, that if they appealed their appeal would not be heard until after they had served their two months. Following their conviction, representations were made to the Home Secretary by my hon. Friend and myself. As a result, the Home Secretary arranged for a senior police superintendent, Superintendent Tilley of the Gloucestershire police, to investigate the case. His report was subsequently sent to the Dudley justices for their comment. On 7th August of last year the right hon. Gentleman informed my hon. Friend and myself that, in the light of the Superintendent's report and of the views expressed by the Dudley justices, he could not properly recommend the grant of a free pardon, nor could he take any further action.

I would like to make two comments. First, I do not suggest that Superintendent Tilley is other than an experienced, able and conscientious officer. But justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. In the minds of many people, the Superintendent was not an independent investigator. I suggest to the Home Secretary that it would have been preferable if an independent legal mind could have been brought to bear on the sifting of the evidence in this case. perhaps with Superintendent Tilley as an assessor, or even as a joint investigator. Secondly, the report was submitted to the Dudley justices, the same bench which had convicted these two youths. Surely in these circumstances it is difficult to argue that the Dudley justices were independent when they were asked to make their comments upon the report of Superintendent Tilley.

I hope that the Home Secretary will reconsider this case and refer the report to an independent legal mind for his advice. If he could see his way to do this, I believe that it would go a long way to removing the doubts which have been expressed in many quarters about the investigation which he ordered. I want to say that the Home Secretary has shown himself to be most responsive to the representations that have been made by my hon. Friend and myself, but I know that he will realise that there is a great deal to be said on the question whether a senior police officer, no matter how experienced, should be the one responsible for investigating questions and situations in which the police are involved.

I am not suggesting that we must not have confidence in the police force. There is no question of lack of confidence when I submit that in such cases an outside mind should be brought into their consideration, particularly in the sort of case: we are considering tonight.

11.50 p.m.

Mr.George Wigg (Dudley)

Nobody regrets more than I the events which took place in Dudley in August, 1962, but I do not think that the problem which caused those disturbances is one peculiar to Dudley. Indeed, I said publicly at the time that it was not a problem peculiar to Dudley, but of the age in which we live.

At that time, in what is called the "industrial fortnight," there was a minority of young people, many of them not from Dudley, with too much leisure time and money. They proceeded to indulge in what amounted to hooliganism and that continued, not on one, but on successive nights. It is true to say that modern techniques, television—with all the excitement that can be induced in such circumstances—had something to do with it.

A constituent of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson), Mr. McEvoy, and a constituent of mine, Mr. Reeve, two excellent young men from highly respectable families, were caught up in a chain of circumstances which brought about the most unfortunate results. I have, naturally, been concerned with the case of Mr. Reeve. I took his case up as long ago as October, 1962. As far as was humanly possible, in my own way I tried to come to grips with the problem and I have become completely convinced of this young man's innocence. I have written to him and I am glad of this opportunity of saying publicly that, in my opinion, he was wrongly convicted and that there is no stain on his character. In my opinion, a combination of circumstances arising from the background of the unfortunate events of August, 1962, was responsible for Mr. Reeve's and Mr. McEvoy's conviction. These two young men were sitting in a motor car when two other young men jumped into the car. The police came along and arrested the four of them. It was a thousand pities that the next day Mr. Reeve and Mr. McEvoy were not only convicted, but were given exactly the same sentences as the other two young men, who had previous convictions. However, convicted they were, but I believe that had these young men gone forward with their appeals their convictions would have been quashed.

I am not sure that I join with my right hon. and learned Friend in condemning the action of the Home Secretary in asking Superintendent Tilley to carry out an investigation. Suppose that I had come forward, as I had thought at the time, and asked for an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921? If there had been an independent inquiry some investigations would have had to have been made. Had the right hon. Gentleman appointed a distinguished judge to preside, he would have had to find a means of having inquiries made.

I do not know Superintendent Tilley, but I do not believe that an officer holding a position as high as that, or that the Home Secretary, would be a party to selecting other than the best men for the job. He carried out his inquiries and I think that he reached a conclusion which points to the fact that these young men ought not to have been convicted.

On 7th August, 1963, after an investigation which had lasted since the previous October, the Home Secretary wrote to me. There had been a conflict of evidence and the right hon. Gentleman said: On the other hand, it produced nothing which conclusively established that they were not guilty of the conduct of which they were convicted. That is surely an inversion of the normal process of law; the supposition should be that, there being no conclusive proof of guilt, the Home Secretary should have sought some way of relieving these young men of the penalty imposed on them.

The men concerned say that they lodged an appeal, but that, quite irregularly, the appeal did not go forward. There seems to be some confusion there, but I appreciate the Home Secretary's difficulty, namely, that if they had been indicted it would have been possible for him to refer the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal, but that, as the case was dealt with summarily, his hands are tied. The right hon. Gentleman may not have the necessary powers, but is he, or are his advisers, certain that there is no way of bringing the matter forward in a judicial manner? If that cannot be done, does he not think that in future legislation action should be taken to ensure that the law provides that in cases of subsequent uncertainty, such as. in this one, he or his successors will be able to deal with it without the cumbersome machinery now available only through the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act?

Nothing I say now must be taken as criticism of the Dudley police. In the most difficult circumstances, the chief constable and those who serve under him did their best. The situation could easily have got out of hand, and the fact that it did not is a tribute to the good sense not only of the Dudley police, but of the citizens of Dudley. Those who bear the responsibility for maintaining public order must be given the powers to enable them to do that. They have been given those powers and, at the time, I gave them the backing of my voice, but it is now my duty to plead with the Home Secretary for Mr. Reeve.

I have seen this young man, and his father, and have written to tell that I believe him to be not guilty of this offence; that he has, in my view, no stain on his character, and that if, in the future, his career were to demand someone to testify for him by way of formal reference or speaking on his behalf, I am at his service and that of his family.

11.58 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

The right hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) and the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) have for some time past taken a close interest in this case, and I think that they will grant that I have done so, also; that is why I am myself replying to this Adjournment debate.

I have had a good deal of correspondence with them, explaining the steps I took to investigate the case as fully and as scrupulously as I could and giving the reasons why I felt bound to reach the conclusion that it would not be right for me to recommend the grant of a free pardon to these two young men, or interfere in any way with the verdict of the court that convicted them. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member have been good enough to indicate—and I very much appreciate it—that they have no specific criticisms against me or the police in this case. They are concerned whether, as a matter of principle, it is right for me to entrust a police officer with inquiries in a case of this kind. The right hon. and learned Gentleman made that suggestion and the hon. Member for Dudley said that he would not seek to criticise me. I am very glad to have the opportunity of dealing with that important issue but before I do so I think that as a necessary background I should rehearse briefly the main facts.

It was on 28th July, 1962, that there was a fight at a public house in Dudley between a coloured man and a white man and that led to the most deplorable racial disturbances in Dudley on the night of 30th July, and again the following night in spite of warnings from the police to keep away from the trouble areas and by the magistrates that anyone causing further trouble would be dealt with severely.

It was in connection with incidents in the early hours of 1st August, when a police van carrying some arrested persons was surrounded and brought to a halt by a crowd, that McEvoy and Reeve were charged under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936, with using threatening behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said, quite rightly, that the two young men would have been well advised to keep well away from that area. Two other youths, named Poston and Bott, were similarly charged. At Dudley magistrates' court that day, 1st August, evidence was given against McEvoy and Reeve by two constables who had arrested them. One knew McEvoy well because he had been at school with him, and he knew Reeve by sight.

McEvoy and Reeve pleaded not guilty. They admitted being in the area in which the incident with the poilce van occurred, but they maintained that they took no part in it. They were represented by a solicitor, who cross-examined the con- stables. The court went into the case most carefully—there is no doubt about that—but, as is not unusual, the court were faced with a direct conflict of evidence. In the end, the court found the charges proved and committed McEvoy and Reeve and the two other young men to a detention centre for three months.

McEvoy and Reeve gave notice of intention to appeal to quarter sessions. Very shortly afterwards they abandoned their appeal It is not for me to say whether or not they were well advised in taking that course, but had they exercised their right of appeal the case would have been reheard by another court. I cannot say what would have happened, but whatever might have happened I doubt whether the matter would then have needed to come up in Parliament.

Mr. Wigg

The right hon. Gentleman will realise that both young men deny that they abandoned their appeal.

Mr. Brooke

The fact was that the appeals were abandoned by them or in their names and there is nothing I can do to undo what then happened.

I first heard of the case when the right hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton wrote to me on 18th September of that year and forwarded correspondence from McEvoy's mother. She gave her son's version of what had happened. She enclosed other letters designed to show that McEvoy was a good character and not likely to have taken part in this kind of disturbance. I obtained a report from the Chief Constable of Dudley. I carefully studied it, but I could find no grounds at that stage to justify me in recommending any interference with the verdict of he court.

As the House knows, it is not my function as Home Secretary to retry a case on the very same facts which were before the court. As I have said, the court had undoubtedly considered this case very carefully. On 16th October, 1962, McEvoy and Reeve and the other two young men, Poston and Bott, were released in the normal course from the detention centre. Not long afterwards the right hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton and the hon. Member for Dudley drew my attention to a report in a Sunday paper that Poston and Bott had made statements to that paper which purported to clear McEvoy and Reeve of taking any part in the disturbances.

In the light of this I decided, with the agreement of the Chief Constable of Dudley, that it would be right to have the case investigated afresh by an experienced senior police officer from another force, an officer who had had no previous connection whatever either with this particular case or with the disturbances in Dudley generally. That investigation was carried out by Superintendent Tilley, of the Gloucestershire Constabulary.

Superintendent Tilley went into the case most fully. He interviewed McEvoy, Reeve and Bott. The fourth young man, Poston, refused to make a statement. Superintendent Tilley interviewed the two constables who gave evidence in court and several other police officers and witnesses. His report, which I have here, was certainly a most careful and comprehensive document. As a report on the facts, I do not believe it could have been improved upon. It included evidence which was consistent with the account of the evening's events which McEvoy and Reeve gave in court and have adhered to ever since. On the other hand, it produced nothing which established that they had not been guilty of the conduct of which they were convicted.

The hon. Member for Dudley asked me whether, in those circumstances, there was no means of getting this matter investigated by another court. No, there was not, because the appeals had been abandoned, and that would have been the natural way of having the case investigated. He asked whether I could not use the Royal prerogative; but the Home Secretary should use the prerogative only when evidence comes to light which definitely proves that there has been a miscarriage of justice. He ought not to use the prerogative simply when fresh evidence comes to light if that evidence is by no means conclusive that there has been a miscarriage.

When I had read Superintendent Tilley's report, in fairness to the two young men I decided to make it available to the Dudley justices together with all the statements made to Superintendent Tilley so as to give the justices them- selves an opportunity of considering whether, had all the evidence now available been available in court, they would have reached the same conclusion. The justices gave this report careful study and they told me that in their view there was nothing in that report which led them to think that McEvoy and Reeve ought not to have been convicted.

As I then informed the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friend, my conclusion after again examining the whole case most carefully was that I could not properly recommend the grant of a free pardon to the two youths; nor, frankly, did I think there was any further action which it would be right for me to take in the matter. As I have said, it is not the Home Secretary's business to retry a case.

I want to turn to the question of principle which was raised this evening—whether it is right that inquiries like those in this case should be entrusted to the police. In so far as this raises issues which were considered by the Royal Commission on the Police, I think that the proper occasion to discuss them is in connection with the Police Bill, now before a Standing Committee of the House. In the present case, however, the issue is not the issue with which the Royal Commission was primarily concerned, and that is whether disciplinary action should be taken against a police officer. The issue here is whether there had been a wrongful conviction.

In a case like that, my first need and duty is to obtain all the relevant facts, including, where that is appropriate, statements from anybody who may be able to throw some further light upon the case. The police are very well equipped by training, experience and the facilities available to them to assist me by obtaining the facts and by taking statements under proper safeguards. I do not think that anyone could have produced a better factual report than Superintendent Tilley did. But it is for me, the Home Secretary, and for me alone in the exercise of my responsibility with regard to the Royal prerogative, to assess the facts and to reach a conclusion on them. The police are not in any way judges in the case.

Sometimes, as in the present instance, it may be helpful for the inquiries to be carried out by a senior officer who has no previous connection with the case, but his function, again, is simply and solely to inquire into and assemble the relevant facts. It is for me to consider them and then, after consultation, if that is called for, with the trial court, to reach my own conclusion on the facts.

The alternative, no doubt, would be to entrust the inquiries to a specially appointed person—an independent legal mind was mentioned—or tribunal. I do not believe that such a person or body would be in a better position than I am to ascertain the truth. The person or body concerned would surely have to depend largely, as I do, on the results of police inquiries. The hon. Member for Dudley frankly recognised this.

If the suggestion is that besides ascertaning the facts an independent body or tribunal should come to a conclusion on the merits of the case, that comes near to a proposal for the appointment of a kind of non-statutory court to hear an appeal from the decision of the magistrates' court in a case where a right of appeal to a higher court was available but the appeal was abandoned. I find a proposition of that kind difficult to accept when all its implications are considered.

Also, that proposal would mean that the Home Secretary should delegate to, or share with, an independent tribunal the responsibility for deciding whether Her Majesty should be advised to exer- cise the prerogative. That duty, however, is constitutionally the Home Secretary's alone. It would not be right for me to pass on any part of it to another body.

For all these reasons, I believe that the procedure which I followed in this case is not only reasonable, but is sound constitutionally. It accords with that which has been consistently followed by my predecessors, successive Home Secretaries. I hope, therefore, that the House will accept that I have done everything that was right and possible to get at the truth of this difficult case.

It is not for me to say whether McEvoy and Reeve were guilty; certainly, I am passing no judgment on that tonight. That was a matter for the court which heard them and found against them. A full investigation has not proved that they cannot have been guilty and the justices have told me that after careful consideration of the results of the investigation, they stand by their original finding. In the absence of any further evidence or relevant considerations, I am sorry to say that there seems to me to be no ground on which I could properly recommend the exercise of the prerogative or interfere in any other way.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Twelve o'clock.