HC Deb 05 April 1971 vol 815 cc204-16

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

11.27 p.m.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

I am grateful for this opportunity to tell the House an unusual story. It is the story of what I believe to have been a miscarriage of justice. I do not suggest that it was deliberate, and I do not cite it as a general indictment of our legal system.

This is the story of two ordinary youngsters who became caught up mistakenly in what, at that time and place, was the rapid, impersonal course of the criminal law, and the question which arises is how they are to obtain redress.

The story begins on 1st August, 1962, which was one of a series of evenings when there took place in Dudley some ugly, nasty race riots. The following day the magistrates dealt rapidly and decisively with the offenders, and I do not complain about that. It was an unpleasant episode, but happily it was never repeated and it is best forgotten.

Among those arrested were two young men, Michael Francis McEvoy and Hugh Reeve. They were charged under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936, with using threatening behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace. They pleaded not guilty. They were adjudged guilty, and although young men of previous good character from well respected families, they were sentenced unceremoniously to three months in a detention centre, and that sentence they duly served.

They maintained then and they have maintained ever since that they were not guilty of that offence. Michael McEvoy is my constituent. His good name was a matter of such concern to him and his family that they never ceased to look for a way to clear it. I agree at once that they might have appealed, and no purpose would be served now in discussing whether the plentiful advice which they seem to have received from various quarters was, in the circumstances of that time, good or bad. Suffice it to say that ultimately Hugh Reeve was persuaded not to pursue his appeal, and in those circumstances Michael McEvoy decided that it was pointless to pursue his appeal alone.

The matter was brought to the attention of my predecessor, the Right Hon. Arthur Henderson, later Lord Rowley, and the then hon. Member for Dudley, now the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, because Hugh Reeve was his constituent. They raised the matter with the Home Secretary, who commissioned an inquiry by a senior police officer, Superintendent Tilley of the Gloucestershire Constabulary. The wisdom of entrusting that inquiry to a police officer in the circumstances may be open to doubt: what is not open to doubt is that Superintendent Tilley was a distinguished and conscientious officer who produced a careful report, not omitting what was in favour of the defendants. The Home Secretary sent that report to the magistrates who had convicted, inviting them to reconsider the matter. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they concluded that they had been right first time.

On 20th January, 1964, this matter was raised on the Adjournment by my predecessor and the then hon. Member for Dudley. The matter was fully ventilated. My predecessor asked for a report by a legally qualified investigator. The hon. Member for Dudley took the opportunity to say that he was convinced of the innocence of these young men. The Home Secretary, in the course of his remarks, formulated the criterion for the use of the Prerogative by a Home Secretary in these words: …the Home Secretary should use the prerogative only when evidence comes to light which definitely proves that there has been a miscarriage of justice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th January, 1964; Vol. 687. c. 883.] Applying that criterion he did not feel able to intervene.

There the matter might have rested, but in 1969 Associated Television showed a film sequence of the Dudley race riots, and there on the screen was the whole incident, re-enacted for posterity. There is an element of dramatic irony in the situation, because back in 1963, since various people claimed that they had seen a television reproduction of the incident, a very careful search had been made for the particular film sequence, but it had been edited out and from the film sequence then available it had not proved possible to find it.

To explain the significance of the film it is necessary to refer to evidence which was given in the magistrates' court by the police officers. I take this from notes of evidence which have been very kindly supplied to me by the Home Office. I emphasise that this does not purport to be a verbatim transcript of the evidence, but it does purport to be a note taken by a magistrates' clerk of great experience, who is personally known to me and who is very widely respected. And this is the evidence on which the two young men were convicted.

Two police officers gave evidence. They said that they arrested these young men at 12.40 and that they were banging on the side of the police van shouting, "Come on, let's get them." One of the officers specifically stated that they were arrested as they banged on the van. In cross-examination he rejected a suggestion that they were arrested when seated in their car. The other police officer, under cross-examination, as I understand it, admitted that he had not actually seen them banging on the side of the van.

Michael McEvoy maintained that he never left his car. He said that they were driving through Dudley and stopped to watch what was happening. That may have been unwise, but it certainly was not criminal. As the police van arrived he said that two total strangers jumped into the back. That story was confirmed by Hugh Reeve, and the strangers have been identified. Their names are Mr. Bott and Mr. Poston, and they subsequently made a statement to the Press confirming what McEvoy and Reeve said about it. That was very fairly confirmed by the Home Secretary in the Adjournment debate in 1964.

This film sequence is significant in three respects. First, McEvoy and Reeve are shown arrested, but not by the officers who gave evidence of having arrested them. In fact, one of the officers who gave evidence is shown as fully occupied struggling with Poston, not with McEvoy and Reeve. The other officer is not shown at all. The police constable who is shown arresting McEvoy has not subsequently been identified. I understand that it is possible that there might subsequently have been a formal arrest by these two officers, but there is no reference in their evidence to their receiving assistance from any other officer and, reading their evidence, it seems clearly calculated to convey that they personally arrested these young men immediately following the banging—and with that the film is quite inconsistent.

Secondly, it is clear from the film that the young men were not banging on the van when they were arrested. They were arrested from the car. The film does not exclude the possibility that they were banging on the van before the sequence began and that, in fairness, may be consistent with the second of the police officers who gave evidence. It is certainly not consistent with the evidence of the first officer, because he specifically rejected the suggestion that they were in the car when they were arrested. He said that they were arrested as they were banging on the van. The film is manifestly inconsistent with that evidence. Thirdly, both officers gave the time of the incident as 12.40 a.m. and I understand that the photographer who took these pictures states that he took no pictures after 11.30 p.m.

The film has subsequently been studied by senior officers of the forces involved. That has been arranged by the Department of the Under-Secretary of State, and I am most grateful for the very careful consideration which he has undoubtedly given to this case and for the very full and careful letter which he sent to me.

But at the end of the day the question is whether they have satisfied the test formulated by the Secretary of State's predecessor. The difficulty is that it is no easier now for these defendants to prove their innocence than it was at the time of the original crime. I can only submit that on this evidence, and in the light of what we now know, virtually no court would consider that it was safe to convict. The letter from the hon. Member does not say whether the officers who gave evidence have been confronted with these discrepancies and invited to offer explanations. I do not suggest that they were necessarily lying. There was a great deal of confusion at this time. There is the possibility that they may have seen someone else banging on the side of the van and that they subsequently confused the identity of that individual with McEvoy and Reeve.

But my submission is that this evidence is clearly unsatisfactory. It is evidence on which, beginning afresh, no court would consider it safe to convict. Again, at this last moment, I ask the hon. Member to clear the names of these young men and to vindicate the years of struggle by these families. If he feels unable to do so, I ask him to consider again what was suggested by my predecessor in 1964—inaugurating a full inquiry by someone with legal qualifications and who could not be suggested to have any personal interest in the matter.

Often today those who suffer a real or imagined injustice choose methods of redress which we can only deplore. The McEvoy family have consistently used the channels prescribed by the constitution, channels which we always boast are available for the redress of wrongs. I suspect that if the hon. Member had replied to the debate which was so rudely interrupted on Friday—if he had not been prevented from doing so by hon. Members on his own benches—he might have urged upon us that these channels are available to redress the wrongs of the citizen. This family has pursued them, believing what they have been told of the adequacy of the channels of redress. Whether or not these facts satisfy the Home Secretary's criterion, the hon. Gentleman must be driven to conclude that there has been here a real danger of a miscarriage of justice. Is there no redress?

11.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

Replying to the last point made by the hon. Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer), had I been able to answer the debate last Friday I would have said that one of the channels availabe for the redress of injustice in this country was indeed Adjournment debates and debate in the House. I certainly welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to raise this matter again in the House tonight and vindicate the right of this House as a House in which alleged injustice may always be raised by any back bencher.

As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, we are discussing an incident which took place more than eight years ago, in the early hours of 1st August, 1962, during what he has described as an ugly and nasty night of racial disturbance in Dudley. Since that time there have been two police inquiries into this matter. There has been a previous Adjournment debate, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, in January of 1964, in which three then hon. Members took part, none of whom is any longer in the House.

I must remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that as long ago as January, 1963, a senior police officer reporting on this matter commented: It is almost impossible now to re-create the atmosphere of confusion prevailing at that time. It must also be appreciated that after five to six months memories are bound to be affected and inaccuracies occur. That was said by the senior police officer holding the inquiry in January, 1963, and now, seven years later, inevitably so much greater is the possibility for confusion and inaccuracy. But, despite the previous inquiries which have taken place, I fully accept, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that if there is reason to believe that there was a miscarriage of justice, it would be right that we should look at this case again. Despite the length of time that has elapsed, I entirely accept, as I have made clear to the hon. Gentleman, and appreciate his reasons for raising this matter again now.

I am bound to say at this stage that, having looked very carefully into the whole of the evidence and having listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said tonight, I am not satisfied that there is ground on which the Home Secretary would be justified, after this lapse of time, in intervening in the conviction that occurred. I do not wish to repeat what the hon. Gentleman said, although much of it is common ground. He reminded the House of the facts which led to the conviction of both Francis McEvoy and Hugh Reeve. As he said, the incident started with a fight in a public house on 28th July, 1963, which then led to a series of disturbances on later evenings of the following week.

As a result, on the night of 30th/31st July some 29 people were arrested, and on the following night a further 18 people were arrested, including McEvoy and Reeve, and charged under section 5 of the Public Order Act with using threatening behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace. They appeared before Dudley Magistrates' Court on 1st August, 1962, when evidence was given by two police officers, one of whom—and this is important—claimed that he knew McEvoy well, having been at school with him, and knew Reeve by sight. Both of those officers described how they had seen McEvoy and Reeve run into the road in front of a police van which was conveying prisoners and how they had seen them hammering on the side of the van and shouting, clearly intending to incite the crowd to rescue the prisoners in that van.

I looked at the notes of evidence of that hearing while the hon. Gentleman was speaking. As I understand the evidence—and I accept that it is not a complete transcript—it appears to me that both of those officers maintain that they had seen them banging on the side of the van. But McEvoy and Reeve, I accept, insisted that they had been in no way involved in that incident. Their case was that they had parked their car along Hall Street and they admitted that an incident occurred in that street but said that McEvoy had remained in the car throughout, and that Reeve had walked a short distance from it but had returned to it, and as he did so, the police van arrived. Then they described how two youths named Poston and Bott, strangers to them, had jumped into the back of the car, and the police came and, according to them, dragged the two men out of the back of the car and also arrested McEvoy and Reeve.

That was their evidence about this affair. However, it must be accepted that, having heard all the evidence and the submissions made on behalf of the defendants, who were represented at the hearing, the magistrates found the charges proved and committed the defendants to a detention centre. The defendants had the right to appeal. In fact, they gave notice of their intention to appeal but later decided to abandon it.

Shortly after they had completed their sentences, as a result of representations made by the hon. Gentleman's very distinguished predecessor, Lord Rowley, and by Lord Wigg, the Home Secretary arranged with the chief constable for the case to be reinvestigated by an experienced senior police officer; namely, Superintendent Tilley of the Gloucestershire Police Force.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can say that it would be unsuitable to put this inquiry into the hands of a police officer, because, whatever may be argued about the right means of handling complaints about the police force, it is undoubtedly accepted that this is the normal channel by which such complaints are investigated.

As Mr. Henry Brooke, as he then was, told the House in the Adjournment debate to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, this very careful report—anyone seeing the report would accept that it was a careful report—although including evidence which was consistent with the account of the night's events which both McEvoy and Reeve had given, did not in his opinion contain anything which clearly established that they had not been guilty of the conduct of which they were convicted.

In deciding whether to recommend the exercise the Royal Prerogative of mercy, it has always been accepted by successive Home Secretaries when a court has convicted that they should exercise the Royal Prerogative only if they are satisfied that the man is not guilty of the offence of which he has been found guilty.

Mr. Henry Brooke, as then was, referred Superintendent Tilley's report back to the Dudley justices. The hon. Gentleman says that that was unusual, but it was done in an attempt to achieve justice and to make sure that no avenue was ignored in the interests of these young men. The justices, having had the opportunity to consider whether, has the evidence which was available to the superintendent also been available to the court, they would have reached the same conclusion, decided after careful consideration that in their view there was nothing in the report that led them to think that either of these young men ought not to have been convicted. With that advice from the magistrates, and in the face of the superintendent's report, Mr. Brooke concluded that he could not properly recommend the men to a free pardon.

What has happened since then on which the hon. Gentleman bases his request now, eight years later, that the Home Secretary should change his mind? There are two matters, about which the hon. Gentleman has written to me and to my predecessor last summer.

The first piece of fresh evidence, which I agree is very important evidence and which I assure the hon. Gentleman I have studied with great care, consists of a television film taken at the time of the disturbance. The other, on which I noticed that the hon. Gentleman did not rely—I think rightly, having looked at it—was the evidence of a Mr. Ivan Parkes.

Mr. Peter Archer

It may assist the Under-Secretary to know that in the light of what we now know about that evidence I do not pursue that aspect of the matter.

Mr. Carlisle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that. All I say about it is that, with the lapse of eight years, that gentleman's evidence must either have been of another incident which occurred that evening or—which is equally reasonable—was so hazy as a result of the lapse of time that it was not of a type which one could ask the Home Secretary to act on in a matter of this kind.

I come now to the film strip, which, I agree, is important. Referring back to 1963, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Superintendent Tilley, when carrying out his inquiry, was told by Mrs. McEvoy that there was such a film strip available, and, as the hon. Gentleman himself pointed out, he approached A.T.V. He arranged for a run-through of the film in the presence of Mrs. McEvoy and her son, and, when the film was played through, it had no part which related to the Hall Street incident. He made further inquiries. He was told, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the missing material had been edited out. I have seen—I have it here with me—a copy of a letter written to him by the authorities concerned in A.T.V. saying that the film was no longer available.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not—I know he does not—for a moment think that there was any attempt by the police to cover up on the matter.

Mr. Peter Archer

Of course not.

Mr. Carlisle

Now, apparently—I have for the first time learned where it came from—as a result of a showing in 1969, this piece of film has been miraculously revealed. I do not say "miraculously" in any unkind sense, and I accept it as an authentic piece of film. The hon. Gentleman was able to send it to the Home Office, and we have had it studied.

It consists of four separate sequences which have been spliced together and copied. One of those sequences clearly relates to McEvoy and Reeve. There is only—I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree here—a brief flash of a part of the incident around McEvoy's car. It has been examined by the police. It has been shown to a number of police officers in an effort to identify the various police officers on the film concerned. It shows only one of the police constables who gave evidence against McEvoy and Reeve, and he, assisted by an unidentified officer, is shown struggling with the man Poston in the roadway. Other police officers are shown escorting Reeve, McEvoy and Bott out of the picture. The one police officer who can be identified, who was not interviewed before, when the police inquiry was carried out in 1962, has been interviewed since, but, perhaps not surprisingly, he cannot after this lapse of time recall the incident itself.

I say to the hon. Gentleman quite honestly that I accept what he said: I accept that the evidence shown in the film is inconsistent with the evidence given in the court so far as it relates to the arrest of these two men. But, as the House will appreciate, there was obviously a great deal of action both before and after this brief flash of film. I think there is no doubt that the film covers the moment when McEvoy and Reeve were first detained by the police, and it shows that they were escorted from the immediate scene out of the picture by two unidentified officers, who were certainly not the two who gave evidence of having arrested them.

However, it does not, in a way, surprise me that a number of other officers might well have been involved in detaining the four young men, in addition to the officers who eventually charged them. This is what one expects in a confused situation. It is not uncommon in such cases for other officers to assist in removing the suspected offenders from the scene of the incident and detaining them until the officer who had witnessed the suspected offence was free to make the formal arrest and charge the persons concerned. This may well have occurred in the short space of time during which these two young men were taken into custody. Having said that, however, I am bound to say that the officers who gave evidence against McEvoy and Reeve did not in their evidence refer to having the assistance of other officers in detaining the defendants as shown in the film.

Therefore, having studied the case, I accept the point made by the hon. Member that there is a discrepancy in the film and the evidence of detention as given by the two officers. What we have now to consider, however, and what the Home Secretary must ask himself is, accepting that the court was not fully informed as to the precise circumstances in which the arrest was effected, whether it is established that the court was wrong in deciding that the accused men had committed the alleged offence. This is what it comes down to in the end.

The House is, I am sure, aware that the Home Secretary cannot contemplate recommending interference with a conviction by a court unless it is clear from fresh evidence—which was not before the court—that the accused did not commit the offence alleged. The final point, therefore, is not who detained the men, but whether, prior to the scene shown in the film strip, McEvoy and Reeve were indeed shouting and banging on the side of the police van. The plain fact is that we are not any further forward in establishing this than we were before the film strip was seen.

Despite careful inquiry—and I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he said; I assure him that I have looked thoroughly at the police reports—nothing has come to light, either recently or earlier, which proves conclusively in the way that would be needed for the Home Secretary to establish that the defendants did not do what they were convicted of doing. I can only rely on what Lord Brooke said in the previous debate, when he said that much of what had appeared was consistent with the explanation of arrest as given by the young men without anything going to prove that they did not commit the offence of which they were convicted.

I realise, as does the hon. Member, how difficult it is for these men now to prove their innocence in that situation at this point in time. I appreciate the anxiety which the hon. Member feels about the case. I assure him that I am no less anxious as to the possibility of a miscarriage of justice, and I assure him that this is a case which has given the Home Office considerable concern. I can only say, however, after the most careful consideration, that the position must remain as explained to the House by the then Mr. Henry Brooke as long ago as 20th January, 1964.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes to Twelve o'clock.