HC Deb 17 June 1964 vol 696 cc1438-50

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

10.57 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel J. K. Cordeaux (Nottingham, Central)

During this week we have heard a great deal about oppression and injustice suffered by people all over the world—in Cyprus, British Guiana, Greece, Spain, and so on. We often become more excited about cases of injustice to foreigners than about injustice to our own people, but tonight I want to call the attention of the House to what I consider to be a case of grave injustice, under the law, suffered by a constituent of mine—a Mr. Harold Graham Dunsmore, of 15, Clarence Street, Nottingham. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that he has suffered a grave injustice, because when new evidence was produced about his case my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary ordered the remission of the remainder of his borstal sentence, and also his immediate release.

The main facts of the case are not in dispute, but for the benefit of the House it is right that I should give a brief account of them. This young man is a person of not very stable character at present. He is aged 20, and possibly his character is in some sense influenced by the fact that he suffers from epilepsy. Not long ago, at the end of last summer, he left home to go south, either for a visit or to look for work, and on 25th September he was stopped by two police officers in London and questioned. The time was 2 a.m., an hour at which the police in London are naturally suspicious of people wandering about the streets without any apparent motive.

During the course of the discussion it came about—I think Mr. Dunsmore volunteered information to the police officers—that he was in possession of a cigarette lighter. This was engraved with initials other than his own, and this caused the police officers to be suspicious. As a result, they questioned him about two other objects in his possession—a ring and a wrist watch. The ring also had initials on it other than his own. Mr. Dunsmore gave the police officers his name and address in Nottingham, and I am afraid that that was the last truthful thing he told them that night. He told them not one lie but two successive contradictory lies, concerning the way in which he came into possession of these three objects.

First of all, he said that he had bought them from a friend in Leeds. Next he said that he had bought them from a friend in London. Naturally enough, the police officers were not satisfied with this explanation and told him that he would have to go with them to the police station.

Then he did something more foolish than telling lies to the police. He ran away from them. Why he behaved so foolishly I do not know, and I do not think that he does himself. The probability is that he was in a complete panic and did not know what he was saying or doing. About 10 days later he came up before the magistrate at Bow Street charged with being in unlawful possession of these three objects, the wrist watch, the ring and the cigarette lighter.

In court he told yet another story about how he came into possession of the articles, but in this case his story as regards at any rate the watch and the ring was true and showed that he was innocent of being in unlawful possession of them. However, he called no evidence in support of his story and a good deal of play was made of the successive lies that he had told about the articles. The result was that he was convicted.

I think it is easy to understand why he called no evidence in his defence. He had not been given bail and had been in custody since the police picked him up. He is not the type of young man capable of looking after himself in conditions of that sort without advice, and he was not prepared to tell his family because he hoped to be acquitted and that they would not need to know anything about the matter.

Also, he was not granted legal aid. I am not sure whether he asked for it on this occasion. I doubt whether he did, but I would say in passing that it seems most unfortunate that the court did not see that he got it. After his conviction, the seriousness of his position apparently came home to him and as a result he told his family what had happened. He lodged an appeal against conviction and applied for legal aid.

The appeal was heard by the County of London Sessions on 23rd November, and his application for legal aid was then refused. I consider, and I am sure that subsequent events have proved this, that the refusal to grant legal aid on that occasion was an absolute disgrace. At the appeal he repeated his story which, as I said, was true in substance about two of the articles, the watch and the ring, and produced another story about the third, the lighter, which was that he had found it the previous summer when out for a walk with his brother.

A certain amount of evidence, not very much, was called on his behalf. The appeal was dismissed and he was sentenced to borstal training. It was at this point that I was brought into the case as the result of a letter from Mrs. Dunsmore, his mother. I was absent from London at the time and my private secretary forwarded the letter from Mrs. Dunsmore to my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and a month later a reply was received saying that the representations had been carefully considered and inquiry had been made but that no reason could be found for thinking that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that there were no grounds for action on the part of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

The boy's mother then appealed to the People newspaper, which sent an investigating team to Nottingham to make inquiries. I have not the time to go into the details of the inquiries made-or, indeed, the rather complicated details of the way in which Dunsmore actually obtained these articles. The result of the inquiry showed that, as far as the ring and the watch were concerned, he had come into possession of them in a perfectly lawful manner.

I think that great credit is due to the People newspaper for the action which it took and the results which it obtained, though I think that the newspaper would be the first to admit that its task was not a particularly difficult one, certainly not in the same class as the inquiries which it has been making into the way that footballers have been taking bribes. All that the newspaper had to do was to check Dunsmore's story as he had given it in court with the witnesses that he had named. This the newspaper did and obtained signed statements from witnesses. I should like to know why the police did not take action previously to check that story when he told it in court. They would have been in a much easier position to check it than the People.

I want to know particularly why these inquiries were not made as a result of my representations. I was definitely told in the letter of 31st December from the Home Office that inquiry had been made. Did the inquiry include checking Dunsmore's statement? If not, I should like to know what use it was. If Dunsmore had been granted legal aid when he asked for it at his appeal, his counsel would certainly have seen that these inquiries were made to check his statement and if necessary to have the case remanded in order that that should be done.

On the strength of this new evidence, my right hon. Friend ordered a new inquiry by the police. This fully substantiated the facts established by the People. As a result, my right hon. Friend then issued a statement on 9th May in which he stated that it had been proved that Dunsmore was in lawful possession of two of the three articles—the watch and the cigarette case. As a result, the remainder of his borstal sentence would be remitted and he would be released immediately. He was released the same day.

There remains the third article, the cigarette lighter. After telling lies about it, Dunsmore had said that he found it on a walk with his brother. The only evidence given about that was by his brother. From whom else could it be obtained? It is worth pointing out that the brother, who fully confirmed the story, had not the opportunity of contacting Dunsmore because he was in custody the whole time. No doubt the police made inquiries in an effort to find the owner of the lighter, but did not succeed.

When I raised the question on 4th June in this House and asked if a free pardon could be recommended for Dunsmore, the Home Secretary said that this would not be possible because it was impossible to accept his story as regards the lighter because—this was the effect of his answer—he had already told lies about it. I absolutely refuse to accept that as a good reason, because he had already told two sets of lies about the other two objects and then his third story had been proved absolutely true and had proved his innocence. Surely the obviously likely solution to the business is that exactly the same happened in the case of the cigarette lighter. In a panic he told a lie about that and then told the truth. The only possible evidence that can be produced confirms that.

It may be that he was guilty of stealing by finding the lighter, but it was a very trumpery lighter. My hon. Friend may be able to say what it was worth. I believe it would not be worth more than £1 when new. How many of us have not been guilty technically of stealing by finding? How many of us, finding a threepenny bit in the street have taken it to a police station; how many of us have put it in our own pocket? In any case, this charge of being in unlawful possession of an object seems to me an exceedingly peculiar charge, and I believe that it is unique in English law. I am open to correction, but I believe that it is the only case in which the accused is required to prove his innocence rather than the prosecution being required to prove his guilt. When all is said and done, how many of us, if challenged, could prove in court that we were in lawful possession of every single object which we owned under £2 in value? I am sure that none of us could.

Firstly, I would ask my hon. Friend for definite answers to a number of points. First, is Dunsmore to be refused a free pardon because on his own statement he is considered guilty of stealing by finding this cheap, trumpery, cigarette lighter? From the reply which I received from my right hon. Friend a week ago, I think not. If not, is a free pardon to be refused to him because his final story about finding the lighter is disbelieved merely because he told lies about it beforehand, remembering that he told lies about the other two objects yet his final story was proved to be entirely true?

Secondly, what was the nature of the inquiries which, I was assured, were made as a result of my representations on 31st December? Did they or did they not include a check on Dunsmore's story which he told in court and which was true? If they did not include that, then I can only assume that they were completely superficial and utterly useless, and I feel that I must say that the statement made to me in the letter on 31st December—that inquiries had been made—was only in order to keep me quiet. As a result, I do not feel that any such general assurance which I ever have in future in a similar case from my right hon. Friend could be accepted.

Although I have been refused an answer to this question once before, I ask it again: why was Dunsmore refused legal aid when he applied for it at the time of his appeal? Does not my hon Friend agree that if it had been granted to him he could not possibly have been convicted? I do not envy the court concerned which refused to grant that legal aid when it sees the miscarriage of justice which resulted.

I make this plea to my hon. Friend. Nobody who has listened to my very sketchy and imperfect account of this case could doubt that a very grave miscarriage of justice has occurred. I am sure that my right hon. Friend believes that. He would never have remitted the whole sentence and released this boy immediately if he had not done so. He admits it in his statement on 9th May. But, as a result, this boy has been in custody or in borstal for over six months. Whichever way we look at it, that could not have happened if the truth had come out at his trial.

I am afraid that I am in no way cut out to be a barrister, and I have probably pleaded this case very poorly. Nevertheless, I ask my hon. Friend as earnestly as I possibly can, not to say now that a free pardon will be recommended for this lad—I ask nothing of the sort—but to say that she and her right hon. Friend will not close their minds to the case but will consider the arguments which I have adduced tonight and will go into the case again with all the care and consideration which I know they always give to cases of this sort, and that they will see whether they can change their minds about it.

11.15 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend has, as one would expect, gone to a great deal of trouble on behalf of his constituent and has argued his case very strongly. I have listened with great care to everything he has said, and I will convey his argument and pleas to my right hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend contends that as this young man was convicted of being in unlawful possession of three separate objects and as subsequent investigations showed that he was in lawful possession of two of them—with the result that my right hon. Friend thought it right to recommend the remission of the whole of the remainder of his sentence and to order his immediate release—it would have been only right to remove the effects of the convictions altogether by recommending a free pardon.

Naturally my right hon. Friend considered very carefully whether the circumstances justified this course. But a free pardon is, rightly, regarded as an exceptional act of grace to be granted only in very special circumstances, and by long-standing practice the innocence—moral as well as technical—of a person must be unquestionable before a free pardon is recommended. This, I am afraid, does not apply in the case of Dunsmore, whose complete innocence of all the charges on which he was convicted has not been fully established.

As my hon. Friend said, Dunsmore was himself very largely responsible for his conviction and detention by his lies to the police and his refusal to tell the true story until late in the day. I will briefly relate the facts of the case. The facts are that on 25th September, 1963, two Metropolitan police constables saw Dunsmore running from the Mall and looking behind him as he did so. Their suspicions being aroused, they stopped and questioned him. He told them that he had come to London two days before with a friend called John, had been sleeping out and was now lost.

He was found to have in his possession a lighter with the initials "H.A.W.", a ring with initials which they read as "W.M." or "M.W." and a Smiths watch. The police questioned Dunsmore about his possession of these articles. He said that he had bought them all two weeks previously from a friend in Leeds whose name he could not give. Asked to give the make of the watch he said it was a Timex. Further questioned, he said that he had bought the articles from a friend in London a week before. Told that his explanations were unsatisfactory, he ran away.

He was caught and taken to the police station, where he was told that if he would give the names and addresses of the people from whom he had bought the articles, inquiries would be made to check his story. He would only say that he bought the articles from John. Dunsmore was charged with having in his possession a cigarette lighter, ring and wristwatch suspected of having been stolen or unlawfully obtained.

After appearing at Bow Street Magistrates' Court, he was remanded while police inquiries were made to trace the owners of the property, but these were unsuccessful. On 2nd October he was convicted at Bow Street of the offence, and on 18th October, following a remand for probation and borstal suitability reports, he was sent to London Sessions for sentence with a view to borstal training. At the same time he was committed for sentence for an offence of stealing property from a shop for which he was on probation.

During the magistrates' court hearing the clerk of the court pointed out to Dunsmore that it would help him if he could name the persons from whom he had obtained the articles. He still said nothing. Dunsmore appealed to quarter sessions against his conviction. In his grounds of appeal he explained his possession of the articles as follows; first, that he had bought the wristwatch off a friend, John Duke, it being John Duke's property; secondly, that he had bought the ring off a neighbour, William Watson, for five shillings; and, thirdly, that he had found the lighter.

At the appeal hearing, on 20th November, John Duke gave evidence in support of Dunsmore's story. William Watson was not called, but Dunsmore's mother handed in a note from a William Warrington, who said that' he had sold the ring to Dunsmore. The appeal was dismissed, and Dunsmore was sent to borstal training for the current offence and for the offence for which he had been on probation since February, 1963. He had previously been on probation in 1962 for an offence of larceny from a schoolroom.

It was at this stage that Mrs. Dunsmore approached my hon. Friend. She disputed the police account of how they had first encountered Dunsmore and the police evidence of what Dunsmore had said to them. She mentioned that "We have seen two men whom he bought the watch and ring off, one went with us to the appeal", but she produced no additional evidence. My hon. Friend then asked me for information about the case, and I obtained a full report from the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police. This, I think, is the answer to my hon. Friend's question about inquiries. This report did not disclose any information which had not been available in court.

While my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is always ready to examine any new evidence that may be brought to his notice after a trial, it would be quite improper for him, as I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, to purport to retry a case on the same evidence that had already been considered and rejected by the court. Accordingly, we were bound, on the information then before us, to take the view that we could find no grounds for recommending any interference with the sentence imposed by the court, and so I informed my hon. Friend.

In March, as my hon. Friend has said, our attention was drawn to an article in the People reporting investigations it had made following an approach by Dunsmore's mother. The People claimed to have uncovered evidence showing that Dunsmore was, as he said, the lawful owner of the ring and the watch. It said that William Warrington's story that he sold the ring to Dunsmore was supported by Mrs. Warrington. It also said that it had evidence to support John Duke's claim to have sold Dunsmore the watch. Duke's cousin, Alfred Dale, was prepared to say that Duke gave him the watch to pawn, and subsequently sold the pawn ticket to Dunsmore, who redeemed the watch. Duke's mother was prepared to give evidence of seeing Duke sell the pawn ticket to Dunsmore, and the pawnbroker named by Dunsmore remembered the watch being pledged and redeemed.

This, if true, amounted to new evidence, and we thought it right to ask the police to investigate it. Their investigation took some weeks, but by the end of April they were able to report, after questioning the persons named in the People and obtaining other, corroborative evidence, that the account in the People was substantially correct. Although it was clear that Dunsmore could have been convicted, on his own admission, of stealing by finding the lighter, it was considered that some action to mitigate his sentence ought to be taken by the Home Secretary.

There were three possible courses to be considered, and the first was whether a free pardon was appropriate. As I have indicated earlier, however, a free pardon is recommended only when innocence is complete and unquestionable, and this was not so in Dunsmore's case. My hon. Friend has represented that, in keeping the lighter after he had found it, Dunsmore was doing no more than very many people would have done. But keeping the lighter was an offence, and the fact that other people might have done the same thing in similar circumstances is, as I am sure hon. Members will agree, no sufficient reason for lowering the standards which successive Home Secretaries have always felt must be satisfied before Her Majesty can properly be recommended to grant a free pardon.

Secondly, consideration was given to whether Dunsmore should be released on licence. The release of a borstaller on licence is something the Home Secretary has power to do under Statute, and this would have had the effect of restoring supervision to which, had it not been for the current conviction, Dunsmore would have been subject until February, 1965, by the probation order. But it was decided that the right course was to recommend the use of the Royal Prerogative to grant Dunsmore unconditional remission of the remainder of his sentence, and he was released on 9th May.

My hon. Friend has expressed dissatisfaction that his earlier representations did not lead to this result. There was, of course, no question of greater regard being paid to the newspaper than to his representations. The difference was that the People indicated the existence of evidence which was not before the court and might, if true, provide grounds for recommending interference with the court's decision.

My hon. Friend has asked why Dunsmore's request for a defence certificate was refused by London Sessions in November, and he has suggested that had Dunsmore been represented his story would have been more thoroughly checked, and the appeal, perhaps, have succeeded. This is not a point on which I can usefully say very much. The decision whether or not to grant legal aid is entirely for the court to which application is made, and it would be outside the province of the Home Secretary to inquire into the court's reason for its decision, or to comment on what it decided.

As I said at the very beginning, I have throughout listened very carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments, and to the very forceful pleas he has put forward. I assure him that my right hon. Friend has gone very carefully into this case, but I can assure him also that we will look at it again, but on the facts as I see them, I cannot give any great hope that new facts will come to light to change the Home Secretary's decision. However, we will look very carefully into all the arguments my hon. Friend has put tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-jour minutes past Eleven o'clock.