HC Deb 19 July 1977 vol 935 cc1562-70

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

12.19 a. m.

Sir Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

First, I apologise to the Under-Secretary for dragging him here at this inclement hour. Having done a similar job once myself, I have some sympathy with him.

I want to raise a classic case—the need for this House to achieve justice for an individual, one of my constituents. Many Ministers, including myself, have considered this case over the years, but it has now come to a conclusion and there are certain major issues connected with it which I felt I should raise tonight. It has been the duty of this House over the centuries to achieve justice for individuals. It is only through his Member of Parliament that a constituent can bring to this forum of the people such a case. I hope that the Minister, who with his colleagues has already put right some mistakes, will be able to put right this major mistake—namely, the right of my constituent to compensation.

Time and again over the last century this type of case has come before the House, particularly in the closing years of the Victorian era. My constituent was born in the closing years of the Victorian era. He is aged 87. He came to the House this afternoon, a spry and sprightly man despite all the agonies of mind that he has gone through.

After the First World War, Mr. Thorne set up business in the Federated Malay States, which were at that time part of the British Empire. He had a practice which in those days, 1921–22, was worth £9,000 a year. That was in the days when the pound was worth a pound. He had a bright future ahead of him.

Due to a civil debt which involved bankruptcy, Mr. Thorne was in error charged with a criminal offence. He was taken to court and sent to gaol. He was charged wrongly and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment in 1923. The British administration was responsible. It was made responsible under a treaty of 1895.

As a result of being sentenced to that year in gaol, Mr. Thorne was removed from the local Bar and was unable to practice as a barrister. He was also struck off as a solicitor in the United Kingdom. He has suffered from this tragedy all his life.

Through the intervention of Mr. Ernest Bevin in 1939, Mr. Thorne achieved a clerk's job as a temporary civil servant. He retired from that job in 1956. He lives in great hardship in my constituency. He owns a rambling, large Victorian house which he cannot afford to keep up. His situation can be described only as tragic.

What has happened since Mr. Thorne retired? He has, of course, fought to clear his name. He finally achieved success when, in 1963, the Sultan of Perak, as the successor to the colonial Government, granted a Royal pardon and all the records of his conviction were expunged. The records of his fingerprints were returned to him. So far as Malaysia is concerned, Mr. Thorne is innocent and should never have been convicted of a crime which he did not commit.

Ministers here have followed the ruling of Malaysia. On 21st February this year, Mr. Thorne received a letter from the Lord Chancellor's Department dated 21st February 1977. It read: The pardon entirely removes any stain on your character. You are to be treated for all purposes as if your conviction had never taken place. This has as much force in England as anywhere else. That was confirmed the next day in a letter to me from a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, who has taken a great and sympathetic interest. He said: I am happy to say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have secured agreement to an ex-gratia payment of £3,000 being made to Mr. Thorne in view of the hardship he has suffered following his wrongful imprisonment in Malaya in 1922. There is, therefore, no dispute between the law in this country and the law in Malaya. Mr. Thorne is innocent.

I now turn to the payment that has been awarded to him. It is not just a question of the ex gratia amount of £3,000. Interest in the case has been widespread. A dedicated campaign has been conducted on Mr. Thome's behalf by a young journalist, Hugh Kirby of the Richmond Herald. He has pressed the case upon anybody who would listen and work on Mr. Thorne's behalf.

I shall not this evening quote at any great length a recent editorial in the Richmond Herald, but I think it is worth commenting on the sort of feeling that is felt by public opinion about the way in which this old gentleman has been treated. Part of the editorial in the Richmond Herald of Thursday 14th July states: Awarded £3,000 by the Foreign Office as an expression of sympathy for a corrupt and damning mistake by British colonial officials which sent him to prison for a year in 1922 and has ruined his life ever since, Mr. Thorne refuses to use a penny of it. And despite the poverty which surrounds 88-year-old Hugh Thorne and his wife Pamela in their dilapidated Lonsdale Road home, this newspaper applauds his decision as that of a proud and courageous man. As a £9,000-a-year solicitor in 1922 at the height of the rubber boom, Mr. Thorne had more than 40 years of business life to look forward to. And yet the faceless bureaucrats of Whitehall have the nerve to offer him a paltry £3,000 'as an expression of sympathy'. That sympathy has to be stretched over 55 years when Hugh Thorne, struck off the roll for a crime he never committed, scraped for a living. That is the feeling of many people who live in my constituency and of people in a wider area around it who know of this case.

As I have said, there is no dispute now over the question of Mr. Thorne's pardon or his innocence. That is accepted by everyone. The only point at issue between the Government and myself is the question of compensation and how much it should be.

I regret that a Treasury Minister will not be answering the debate, because I recognise the efforts that Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and officials behind them have made to try to get justice for this man. It is now a question of the Treasury deciding how much money it is prepared to pay out in compensation for Mr. Thorne.

I hope that tonight the Under-Secretary will not quote the April 1969 court case, because the Government have in the past quoted part of a judgment which is in error. The passages which have been quoted are in fact an observation and in error. This position does not accept the ruling of Malaysian law and challenges the validity of setting aside a conviction by a court in that country. It ignores a pardon which was granted after investigation and after an inquiry, and the British court in question in 1969 and early 1970 had no jurisdiction to comment on the nature of the pardon, but only on whether the writ before it could stand. There was, in fact, no evidence before the court in 1969 and 1970 relating to a pardon or the effect on Malay law, or, indeed, the Malay pardon's in English law. The Government have admitted that the imprisonment was wrongful. That constitutes an admission of fault.

Therefore, what I ask tonight is that the Minister looks again at the whole matter relating to compensation. I know that the Under-Secretary will agree with me that this is a tragic case. I see no reason at all why similar rules and regulations should not be followed in Mr. Thorne's case as are followed in the normal course of events by the Home Office in a domestic case.

For instance, the Home Office paid £17,500 to Mr. Virag and large sums in many other cases between 1972 and 1977. Only today I have had sent to me an official explanatory note, produced and typed by the Home Office, on the method that it uses to provide ex gratia payments to persons wrongfully convicted or charged and the procedure for assessing the amount of payment". This procedure lays down, in paragraph 2, that Subject to Treasury approval, the amount of the payment to be made is at the discretion of the Home Secretary, but it is his practice before deciding this to seek the advice of an independent assessor experienced in the assessment of damages. An interim payment may be made in the meantime. There are another six paragraphs of that instruction. It includes the fact that a person who has been wronged can be represented by a solicitor and that they can meet and discuss and go into detail on how much payment should be made and also on what it should be based. It seems to me to be right—I am sure that the Minister will look into this—that this procedure, which has not yet been followed in regard to Mr. Thorne, should be followed in his case.

I hope that the Minister tonight will be able to give some feeling of hope to this man in the evening of his life. He is a man aged 87, living in great poverty, who has been deeply wronged and who has suffered for 55 years. It happened to him five years before I was born. It seems to me that in this House tonight we might perhaps do something to put this right.

12.32 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Evan Luard)

This is an unhappy story, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) for having put the case to the House and to me so cogently and with obviously such heartfelt sincerity. It is not often that we have to deal here with constituency cases where the relevant events occurred 55 years ago, but the hon. Gentleman's constituent was a relatively young man at the time when these unfortunate events occurred, and he is obviously also a very persistent person. As the hon. Gentleman has described, over very many years Mr. Thorne has fought this case. It has been raised in many different ways with different Governments and, now relatively advanced in years, he is continuing to present his case.

The basic facts of the matter are not in dispute, and the essential facts have been given by the hon. Gentleman in his speech. We accept that Mr. Thorne's whole life has been affected by his imprisonment in 1922 as a result of a conviction in the Malayan courts, as described by the hon. Gentleman, and that that conviction was subsequently quashed. I think we can only admire Mr. Thorne's tenacity in seeking complete vindication in the way that he has.

Partly as a result of this persistence, Mr Thorne, with the assistance of the late and distinguished Member of this House James Griffiths, was successful in 1963 in securing a Royal pardon from the Sultan of Perak. I understand that, in connection with the pardon, the Government and judicial authorities in Malaysia took action to quash the conviction, to ensure that all records of the proceedings were destroyed, to ensure that the records of conviction were destroyed, deleted and expunged, that Mr. Thorne's name was removed from the register of criminals by the Registrar, Central Criminal Registry, and that his fingerprints were returned to him for disposal. Mr. Thorne's name was cleared of any criminal stain, and he was thereafter quite properly restored to the solicitors' roll from which his name had been struck.

In 1969 Mr. Thorne sued the Attorney-General of the United Kingdom for false imprisonment in Perak and malicious prosecution. He claimed, in effect, that the Crown in respect of the United Kingdom was responsible for certain actions which were taken by officials in Perak. This statement of claim was struck out by the master and subsequently on appeal by the judge in chambers, as disclosing no reasonable cause of action.

A further appeal by Mr. Thorne came before the Court of Appeal in 1970. Having agreed to let him amend his action to refer to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office instead of the Attorney-General, that court dismissed his appeal with costs and refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords. The Court of Appeal in no way questioned the fact or validity of the pardon but held that it did not give Mr. Thorne a right to sue for damages. The court noted Mr. Thorne's claim, which it did not accept, that the prosecutor in the courts of Malaya had been a person for whom the Crown of England was responsible, but it concluded that there was no possible ground for any action against the Crown or any officers of the Crown in the matter. I believe that a subsequent attempt by Mr. Thorne to have an appeal heard by the House of Lords was also unsuccessful. It is not for me to enter into argument about these various judgments on Mr. Thorne's statement of claim, but I mention them only to demonstrate the unanimity of the highest courts in the land on the matter.

Since 1964, Mr. Thorne has sought to obtain financial compensation from Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom for the injustice done to him. But I think that the facts that I have already given show that those events were not the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom. Governments of both parties in this country have consistently maintained that no legal responsibility rested on Her Majesty's Government.

I cannot do better than read out a passage in a letter from my noble Friend Lord Shepherd, dated 1968, quoting an earlier statement by Lord Landsdown: The legal position is that any claim for compensation which Mr. Thorne may consider has arisen by reason of his conviction in 1922 in Perak could never have been brought against the United Kingdom Government but, if at all, only against the appropriate Government in Malaya. Such a claim now would be one for consideration by the Government of Malaysia by reason of the transfer of rights, liabilities and obligations of the Federation of Malaya under the provisions of the constitution set out in an annex to the Federation of Malaya Independence Order in Council 1957. I recall that the hon. Gentleman, when he occupied the position I hold as Under-Secretary of State, told James Griffiths that, as Mr. Thorne's claim for compensation was in Her Majesty's Government's view a matter for the Malaysian authorities, it would not be appropriate for Her Majesty's Government to make an ex gratia payment. He also expressed the view that, as the courts had ruled that Mr. Thorne had no sound claim against Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, there could be no question of the Government's offering him compensation.

I do not recall that fact to score a point against the hon. Member. I know him to be a fair-minded person. I refer to his statement in order to show that fair-minded people in both parties and Ministers in both Governments have reached the same conclusion—that this matter is not within the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government.

Despite that conclusion, in 1976, in response to requests from Mr. Thorne to look again at the matter, and in the absence of any admission of legal liability, the present Government took the decision, as an exceptional measure and as evidence of our sincere sympathy for Mr. Thorne, to make him an ex gratia payment of £3,000. It was made clear at the time that this did not involve any admission of liability on the part of Her Majesty's Government.

My noble Friend the Minister of State wrote to the hon. Gentleman at that time making clear that the payment could not in any way be regarded as compensation but that it was a recognition by the Government of their concern and sympathy for Mr. Thorne in the unhappy course of events that had occurred to him. It was in no way a recognition of liability. I do not think that that decision concerning liability is likely to be changed.

But I am very anxious that Mr. Thorne should not feel that the arguments put on his behalf by the hon. Gentleman and those he himself has put will not receive the fullest and most careful examination. The hon. Gentleman has raised in particular certain points concerning the principles governing compensation and the basis on which it is granted. I should like to examine those arguments in greater detail, and in the circumstances I am prepared to ask that the case be looked at yet again and that all the facts raised by the hon. Gentleman tonight and any further facts that he or Mr. Thorne likes to raise with us be considered. I cannot, of course, give any indication tonight as to the likely outcome, but I could give an assurance that we are prepared to look at this unhappy case once again with the greatest of concern and sympathy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to One o'clock.