HC Deb 19 May 1976 vol 911 cc1421-30
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

As the House knows, I have been considering the case of Patrick Meehan.

Patrick Meehan was charged with the murder of Mrs. Abraham Ross at Ayr, and on 24th October 1969, in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He appealed against his conviction to the Court of Criminal Appeal, and, after a hearing, his appeal was dismissed on 25th November 1969. Since that time there have been representations regarding the conviction to successive Secretaries of State for Scotland based on the case against Mr. Meehan at the trial, but also on other matters, including statements by another man alleging his participation in the robbery.

In the last few days I have received new information following the death of William McGuiness, a man with a record of crimes of dishonesty and violence. It was revealed after his death that he had made statements to the effect that he had participated in the Ross robbery to the exclusion of Mr. Meehan. The value of these statements must remain a matter of judgment, but there is independent evidence establishing that McGuiness was in Ayr on the night of the murder. I have considered whether the case might again be brought under judicial review. The only provision of law by which a conviction, once reached and appealed against, can be restored to the judicial field is my power to refer a case back under Section 263(1)(a) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975. However, by statute the court could not go wider in considering the case than it can in an ordinary appeal against con- viction, and, having regard to the nature of the considerations relevant to a decision on the case, I have reached the conclusion that my powers of reference back are inappropriate to it. Nor would further investigation or inquiry be likely to lead to the discovery of such further information as to make such a reference appropriate.

In the circumstances I have reached the conclusion that it falls to me as Secretary of State to reach a decision on whether or not to recommend the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. The new information which has become available since the death of McGuiness, taken along with the earlier considerations relevant to the case, has convinced me that it would be wrong for Patrick Meehan to remain in prison convicted of murder. I have therefore decided to recommend the exercise of the Royal Prerogative to grant a free pardon. Mr. Meehan is being released today.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate is at present considering, in the light of the new evidence, whether he should instruct any further investigations with a view to possible criminal proceedings.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

May I say how much I appreciate that the decision that the right hon. Gentleman has announced cannot have been an easy one and must have involved him in a great deal of thought and consideration? Will he confirm that the new evidence that he describes in his statement, which was not available when this case was considered on previous occasions, is available now only because the solicitor concerned is no longer bound by the confidentiality rule? Does this not raise very much wider questions, and might it not be appropriate that the matter of solicitors' confidentiality should be referred to the Royal Commission on the Legal Profession? Secondly, would the right hon. Gentleman say whether the police have been involved in the recent investigations and confirm that they have co-operated fully in bringing this new evidence to light?

Mr. Millan

I can confirm that the new information, which I received only recently, is important and has weighed very heavily in the decision I have taken. Solicitors' confidentiality raises many extremely difficult questions and is, I think, in the first instance, a matter for the Law Society of Scotland. As far as I am aware, it would be relevant for the Royal Commission to consider that matter, but if there were thought to be some benefit to be gained from any discussions between my officials and the Law Society I would be happy to co-operate on that. I can confirm, on the second point, that we have had the utmost police co-operation in these further investigations.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Can I press my right hon. Friend further on the question of confidentiality? Since this question was first raised, there is now a clear example of a miscarriage of justice. Although I welcome the decision which my right hon. Friend has taken, is it not the case that previous Secretaries of State have been severely handicapped by lack of knowledge which was available in another quarter?

Mr. Millan

That may be so. I have said already that I have had additional information available to me which was not available to my predecessors. I have absolutely no doubt that my predecessors considered this case with great care and anxiety. However, on the question of confidentiality of information given to solicitors, an obvious point, for example, is whether the information would be made available to solicitors if there were no confidentiality rule. It is not a matter which is easy to decide.

Mr. Fairbairn

Does the House appreciate that this is a moment of great triumph for those who have been fighting for Meehan's release for seven years against the bland face of the Scottish Office and the Lord Advocate?

Mr. Robert Hughes

asked That is disgraceful.

Mr. Fairbairn

asked In a moment of victory, magnanimity is essential, but does the Secretary of State appreciate that this case raises a large number of important questions which can be answered only by a public inquiry as to why, for instance, evidence of paper from the safe of Mr. Ross was found in the pockets of a man who is now acknowledged to be innocent, or of his accomplice who is now acknowledged to be innocent, and how the parade was falsified? Many other questions must now be answered, as to how, again and again, both the courts and the Secretaries of State have frustrated—

Hon. Members

asked Too long.

Mr. Mellish

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have no interest in the matter, but as a Member of this House I aways thought that the Chair had strictly ruled on allegations, or imputations, being made here against individuals who are unable to defend themselves in a case of this kind. Other hon. Members have never been allowed to go this far. I ask you, is this not a case where you ought to stop it?

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman, but I have not yet heard an allegation against an individual—[Interruption.] Order. I think the House should remember that this is a time of some emotion for the people concerned, when a man is being released after being in jail all these years. The hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), who represented him, has a right to address the House.

Mr. Fairbairn

Does the House appreciate that we must have an explanation how the Lord Advocate and those succeeding him took the right of their office to oppose bills of criminal letters which would have established the very facts which are now admitted in the name of the Secretary of State?

Mr. Millan

asked I do not think I can accept that point. The fact is there was a conviction and an appeal, and the appeal was turned down. Many of the matters raised subsequently were matters considered at the trial, as the hon. and learned Gentleman should know, since he was the defending counsel. All I can say on this matter, which is a very difficult one, is that it is a very responsible decision indeed to set aside a conviction in one of the High Courts of this land. Any Secretary of State would have to be very well persuaded of what he was doing before he would set aside a conviction and take the decision I have taken today.

As far as the question of an independent inquiry is concerned, if the hon. and learned Gentleman will look at the statement I have made he will see that I finished by saying that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate was making some further inquiries into certain aspects of this case. It would be, at the very least, premature to consider any question of an independent inquiry before these investigations have been completed.

Mr. William Ross

asked While not necessarily disagreeing with the final decision which my right hon. Friend reached, may I ask whether he appreciates that in this case there has been a confusion and a duplication of confessions, not all from unimpeachable sources, which makes this matter much more difficult? Bearing in mind the important implicit consequences of his decision for many people in Scotland, is he satisfied that this was the only action which was open to him? Will he publish the police report about which we have read, which he received, and will he make it clear that the original defending solicitor, Mr. Beltrami, had in his possession a confession not from the man who was accused in the defence of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn)—that was his special defence, accusing somebody else —but from a third man whose confession is now being accepted?

Mr. Millan

So far as Waddell is concerned, that was a matter raised during the trial. I agree very much with my right hon. Friend that this is a case of very considerable complexity. All these matters must be extremely difficult, and this, for a whole host of reasons, is a particularly difficult one. I know that my right hon. Friend applied the very high standards of care and diligence to his consideration of this case that he applied to all other matters with which he dealt at the Scottish Office. I have come to a different conclusion from my right hon. Friend, but I have had certain additional information available to me which was not available to him. As I have said, that additional information has weighed very heavily with me.

My right hon. Friend asks whether the decision I have reached is the only decision I could reach. Of course, it is not the only decision—I could have taken other decisions—but it was the only decision I felt I could reasonably reach in the light of all the information available to me. So far as the publication of the police reports is concerned, they are, in the nature of things, confidential documents. It would be very undesirable to breach the principle that these reports —which of course go not to me, but to the Crown Agent and the Lord Advocate—should not be published after the event even if in particular circumstances there is a lot of public interest and people may well feel that certain interests of justice would be served by publication. I do not think that I can take the view that these police reports should be published. But, as I have said, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate is carrying out further investigations and it is certainly my intention that we should investigate this matter with very great rigour and thoroughness.

Mr. David Steel

Does not the Secretary of State accept that, when he makes a statement of this gravity, it is bound to cause some dent in confidence in the administration of justice in Scotland and that his overriding duty must be to restore that confidence? For that reason, why does he refuse to have some independent public inquiry into the nature of the police evidence? When accusations have been made about the conduct of the Lord Advocate's own Department in the case, an inquiry by the Lord Advocate himself is clearly not sufficient.

Mr. Millan

I did not rule out the possibility of an independent inquiry. What I said was that it would be inappropriate even to take a view on that matter at the moment, when further investigations which are being carried out may lead to prosecution. It would be inappropriate in those circumstances for me to take a view about an inquiry. But I am well aware, in making this decision, that there are many loose ends remaining. Some of them have been pointed out in the House and will no doubt be pointed out elsewhere, but I had to decide whether Patrick Meehan should remain in prison or get a free pardon. I felt that in all the circumstances the decision which I reached was the only decision I could reach.

Mr. Buchan

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on taking this decision. I have called for an inquiry but I believe that the course that he has chosen is correct and just in the situa- tion. Although he must, as I do, reject the allegations of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), which amounted almost to prejudging the very inquiry we seek, will the points mentioned in relation to the evidence be matters which will be under inquiry both in relation to a possible criminal prosecution and in a wider context?

Mr. Millan

With the possibility of criminal proceedings being involved, the matters which may be subject to inquiry are specifically matters for my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and not for me. However, I can say that all aspects of these matters, including some which immediately come to mind, will certainly be investigated, so far as they can be investigated at this date. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will not mind my saying that he certainly intends to see that all relevant matters are thoroughly investigated.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

May I, on behalf of the Glasgow Bar Association, of which I am a former president, congratulate the Secretary of State on what cannot have been an easy decision to make? May I also say that I once represented Meehan—one of many solicitors—and that one can understand why he was impatient of the law, in view of his experiences? Can any statement be made about compensation, and will there be a special look at the rate of compensation for the period during which it has been clear that a free pardon had to be granted? Would the Secretary of State agree that, no matter how we dress it up, this case is a blot on the fair name of Scottish criminal justice, which is known to be one of the best systems in the world? Is this not one of the worst incidents since the case of Oscar Slater, and therefore would it not be wise to be as open as possible from now on? May also say—

Hon. Members

Too long.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Would the hon. Lady come to a conclusion now?

Mrs. Ewing

Is it not regrettable that a statement of such importance has not been couched in apologetic terms, since we are talking about seven years of a man's life?

Mr. Millan

I hope that, among other things, I have approached this problem with sympathy as well as with a desire to see that justice is done. Of course I want to be as open as possible in this matter, but I hope that the House will accept that there are certain inhibitions at this time. I would not use the expression that the hon. Lady used, about this case being a "blot" on the Scottish legal system. It is a system of which we are all proud, but no system can be absolutely 100 per cent. perfect all the time. This is a difficult and complex matter. I certainly would not use this case as any reason for an attack on the Scottish legal system. That would be grossly unfair. Compensation would he a matter for an ex gratia payment rather than a statutory payment. No doubt that matter will be raised. and, in accordance with precedent, I will take independent advice.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I will allow two more questions before the next statement.

Mr. English

May I reinforce my right hon. Friend's gentle suggestion that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) is wrong about confidentiality? What sane man would be likely to confess to a murder save to a person who is not allowed to give that confession as evidence in court? It is very important to preserve confidentiality between lawyer and client—which in this case has caused a man to be released.

Mr. Millan

I do not think that I want to comment any more on this, but I think that the solicitor himself may well take the view that, if it had not been for the convention of confidentiality, it is doubtful whether the information given to him would in fact have been given to him. But these are difficult matters and I do not think that we should make snap judgments about them.

Mr. Younger

As there is intense public interest in this case, would the right hon. Gentleman please take the greatest care to ensure that the maximum fairness and impartiality is achieved, particularly with reference to the conduct of the police in this case? Since they do a very difficult and dangerous task in many ways for the benefit of the public, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that they are not the subject of a witch hunt in this case?

Mr. Millan

I have paid tribute a number of times to the Scottish police force and I am happy to do so again. At the same time, so far as any of these matters involve policemen they will be investigated with the same rigour and thoroughness as if they involved ordinary citizens.

Mr. Hooson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, one appreciates the deep concern of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) on this matter and the great fight that he has waged for years for his client, but has it not always been a convention of the House that an advocate does not personally raise or discuss in this House any matter which concerns a case in which he has been directly involved? I appreciate that you allowed the question and that the hon. and learned Member has raised it previously, but does it not set a dangerous precedent in other completely different cases? Should not this matter be considered a little more by yourself and the appropriate Committee to see whether a rule could not be introduced?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. and learned Member. As the House has seen, I have just had the "good book" given to me. It says: it is contrary to the usage and derogatory to the dignity of this House that any of its Members should bring forward, promote, or advocate in this House any proceeding or measure in which he may have acted or been concerned for or in consideration of any pecuniary fee or reward,". I will obviously look at the matter. What is said, is said.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I submit to you that there is another side to this matter—that as long as it is known to the House that one of its Members has acted on behalf of the person concerned, the House itself may derive advantage from having points put to it of which only that Member is aware? There is a balance of advantage possibly to the House in having points put to it which could not otherwise be put to it than by the one Member to whom they are known. That should also be borne in mind in the interests of the House.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I dislike giving off-the-cuff rulings on important questions such as this. If the House will allow me, I shall make a considered statement tomorrow.