HC Deb 15 November 1983 vol 48 cc824-30

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

11.6 pm

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to put before the House the case of Margaret Livesey, presently serving life imprisonment for the murder of her 14-year-old son which I do not believe she committed.

Early in 1982 I received a series of anonymous letters regarding this case. One such letter arose from the author's concern about a debate taking place at about that time on capital punishment. He had, he claimed, an open mind on the subject until February 1979. It was what he described as a miscarriage of justice in the Livesey case that decided him on that issue. He also drew my attention to the opinion of a chief psychiatrist who was working at that time at Risley remand centre, who had declared himslf convinced of Margaret Livesey's innocence, and several other factors, such as the evidence of two women, Norris and Warren, to which I shall refer later.

I determined to see Mrs. Livesey in Durham prison and paid a visit there on Tuesday 13 April 1982. Obviously I made a subjective assessment, and decided that she was most likely innocent of the murder of her son. Following this, I visited the scene of the crime, the crescent in which she and her family had lived, and spoke to several neighbours and the husband of Margaret Livesey, who still lives not far from the area but in a different home. Finding new evidence that could be submitted to the Home Secretary was beyond my resources, so I turned to Tom Sargent, the then director of Justice, for assistance in this case. What happened thereafter has been the subject of a BBC television programme, "Rough Justice". I hope that the Minister, if he has not seen the programme already, will make a point of seeing it in the near future.

Having read a transcript of the trial which culminated in the guilty verdict and sentence of July 1979, and having considered the evidence produced by the "Rough Justice" team of researchers, I am more than ever convinced that this case requires a new official investigation.

I am aware that Tom Sargent, to whom we all owe a considerable debt, made a submission to the Minister of State on 9 November in which he presented several documents urging a reappraisal of the case. I do not wish to spell out precisely what was in those submissions, but I wish to emphasise certain crucial questions.

The fixing of the time of the murder with absolute certainty is difficult, as it is in most such cases. That is why forensic evidence becomes vital. Professor Cameron, a highly reputable authority on forensic science, has concluded that the time of death was in the region of 10 pm based on all the evidence regarding food digestion and rigor mortis, particularly in relation to the eyelids, which Margaret Livesey had attempted, but failed, to close later that evening.

When interviewed, Professor Cameron made several statements which would have assisted the jury to reach a different verdict had they had access to them, and I hope that the Minister will study Professor Cameron's evidence particularly carefully. It is doubtful from his evidence that the murder weapon as produced at the trial was in fact the weapon used, because of the absence of blood, which could not, in his opinion, have been completely wiped or washed away. There is also the suggestion of a homosexual element in the murder which unfortunately does not appear to have been fully investigated by the police.

I return to the time element. If Professor Cameron's view that 10 pm is a likely time is right—and we assume a margin of error of half an hour on either side—we are considering the period 9.30 pm to 10.30 pm, and not 11 pm which the police appeared to have fixed as the time of death.

During that period—9.30 pm to 11 pm—on the day of the murder, Mrs. Livesey's movements are well known. She left her home at about 8.50 pm and went to the Queen's Hotel, Bamber Bridge, where she was joined by two friends, both of whom state that the time of leaving the pub was 10.50 pm. Following a chat in the car park, Mr. Bamber drove her home and he fixed the time of her leaving the car in the crescent, where she resided and where the murder took place, at 11 pm

Since the trial another witness, John Kershaw, has been interviewed; he saw Mrs. Livesey in the crescent at 11 o'clock. Mr. Kershaw, who had been visiting a friend in Leyland and left there at 10.50 pm, was able to fix the time exactly, and, from his evidence, Mrs. Livesey is placed near a lamp post just past the entrance to the crescent, as I say, at 11 pm. Mr. Kershaw's evidence was ignored by the prosecution and unfortunately he did not give evidence at the trial.

Another witness, Mrs. Matthews, said at the trial that Mrs. Livesey knocked on her door at 11 pm or 11.15 pm, but she has subsequently revealed that it was 11 pm and she had said that it was 11 pm in her original statements to the police. This was pointed out by the defence at the trial but apparently ignored by the jury.

The evidence at the trial given by Susan Warren and Christine Norris is clearly in need of re-examination in the light of the contradictions produced during the "Rough Justice" researches. Were they activated by malice when they made their statements in court, statements that had clearly been changed? Was there an assumption by Mrs. Warren that she needed to protect Peter Nightingale from police suspicion? He had been held by them for several hours for questioning. Peter Nightingale it was who at 10.5 pm heard a noise emanating from the Livesey house and saw what he described as a young man, about 5ft 10ins with white blondish hair which bounced at the back of his head, wearing an anorak, walking down the garden path of the Livesey home. The time was fixed clearly by "News at Ten", which Nightingale had heard start at his friend's home, five minutes walk away, as he left.

It would be possible to go on referring to the material produced in the film made by the the BBC and to refer particularly, because I rate their views as highly important and relevant, to the points made by Lord Salmon and Professor Cameron. Instead I shall place on record a summary of the main issues in the case. I refer first to the matters that have contributed to Mrs Livesey's conviction, such as her alleged confession—a confession not written by Mrs Livesey, and the publicity given to it in her first trial. Next, there is the evidence of Susan Warren and Christine Norris of her shouting at her son, and their blackening of her character. There is the devaluation by the trial judge of the vital evidence of Peter Nightingale, to which I have already referred, and consequently of the noises heard by both Susan Warren and her gentleman friend Ronald Mason at 9.55 pm. The failure of the trial judge to mention to the jury the defence counsel's submissions that Alan's killing and the circumstances surrounding it implied that it had followed a torture session, the failure of the prosecution to serve on the defence statements taken from Mrs Rogers and John Kershaw, and the failure of the police to provide the defence with full information about the cigarette packets found in the room and to test the cigarette stubs in the room for saliva, are all important points that contributed to Mrs Livesey's conviction.

On the other hand, there are matters that point to Mrs Livesey's innocence. When on 23 February, she gave the police a detailed time schedule of her movements the previous night, she could not have known whether they would be confirmed by six prosecution witnesses. There was strong evidence that Alan had entertained a visitor after his mother had left the home, from the sounds heard after 9.55 pm, the evidence of Peter Nightingale. the presence in the room of three packets of cigarettes, and Alan's change of clothing back into his cadet's uniform and boots.

There were strong signs that the wounds were the result of a homosexual torture session, I refer the Minister to the opinions expressed by Professor Cameron and Lord Salmon in this regard. The only possible time that Mrs Livesey could have committed the murder and done what she was alleged to have done was around 10.45 pm, by which time she could not have arrived at the crescent unless Frank Bamber and Marion Walker, and to a lesser degree, Miss Jones were lying, which was not suggested at any time. The knot around Alan's wrists was far too complicated for Mrs Livesey to have tied it and the nicks in the sock around Alan's neck showed it had been there during the stabbing. Professor Cameron's opinion, based on the stomach contents and the degree of rigor mortis, was that death had taken place between 9.30 and 10.30, and, as I have already said, Mrs. Livesey's movements during that period are clear and beyond question.

We should consider Mrs. Livesey's inability to close Alan's eyes because of the rigor mortis, the absence of any forensic evidence linking her with the killing and the evidence that, on her arrival at the Matthews' house, she seemed to be normal and there were no signs of blood on her clothes. Mrs. Livesey was advised that, as the jury must have accepted the confession as genuine, there was no point in appealing. She wanted to appeal, but thought that she could not because she had had two trials. I am sure that the Under-Secretary is aware that the first trial was terminated because a juror had a serious domestic problem.

Mrs. Livesey eventually applied for leave to appeal out of time. I do not know anything about its contents or how it was received. It can be fairly urged that very few, if any, of the matters that I have dealt with have been considered by the Court of Appeal and that there is sufficient new material to justify a reference to the court.

I request the Under-Secretary to submit the Livesey case to the Court of Appeal unless, following his examination of the case in detail—which I am sure will happen—he reaches a firm conclusion that she ought to be released forthwith. I shall be glad to hear the Under-Secretary's comments, and I hope for his co-operation.

11.21 pm
Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

With permission, I register an interest because, following the Boundary Commission changes, I now represent the area in which this tragic case occurred. I congratulate the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Thorne) on the clarity with which he raised this issue, and I look forward to hearing what the Under-Secretary has to say because this matter now affects me as much as it affects the hon. Member for Preston.

11.22 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I have listened with great interest to what the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Thorne) said about the case of Margaret Livesey, and I note the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins).

It would be helpful first if I explained the functions of the Home Secretary in cases in which it is suggested that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. While it may be familiar, it forms the essential background against which we have to consider this particular case, and therefore it bears repetition.

Constitutionally, the duty of administering justice in individual criminal cases lies with the courts. The decision whether to convict is taken by a jury, and the accused person's normal remedy, where it is suggested that the conviction was wrong, is to go to the Court of Appeal. It is to take account of the possibility that points may emerge which suggest that the conviction was wrong but which are not capable of being considered in the normal way, that the Home Secretary is given certain powers to intervene—either by recommending the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy or by referring the case to the Court of Appeal under section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. This allows very exceptional cases to be dealt with by whatever means are appropriate and the powers are therefore very wide in their scope. In their practical operation, however, it is essential that selectivity and discretion should be applied. Otherwise, as I am sure the House will recognise, there is a danger that the Home Secretary will simply usurp the functions of the courts. This means, for example, that the Home Secretary will not normally consider recommending the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of mercy in a case that is capable of being referred to the Court of Appeal. It also means that the Home Secretary will consider taking action only if some new and material consideration comes to light that has not already been looked at by the courts.

The Home Secretary will not recommend the award of a free pardon on the basis of facts or arguments already considered by the courts, nor will he refer a case to the Court of Appeal simply so as to require it to, as it were, have another go at a case which it is said to have got wrong. It would be quite wrong for the Home Secretary's powers of intervention to be used merely because, if the decision had rested with him, he might have taken a different view of the facts. He must therefore be satisfied that there is new material which goes to the heart of the matters on which the conviction was based; and when an application is made to him he must carefully differentiate between those pieces of evidence which are genuinely new and those which are mere restatements of points made when the courts were considering the case. He need not necessarily be satisfied, before referring a case to the Court of Appeal, that the new evidence is overwhelming; but he will want to be satisfied that it is relevant and cogent in the sense, for example, of not being contradicted by other, undeniably more persuasive, evidence. I shall deal with Mrs. Livesey's case against that background. As the hon. Gentleman has told us, Mrs. Livesey was convicted at the Crown Court at Preston on 25 July 1979 of the murder of her son Alan, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. She subsequently applied to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal against her conviction. Her application was refused on 17 September 1980 by a single judge empowered to consider such applications. She did not renew her application to the full Court of Appeal.

On 22 February 1979, the day of the boy's death, following an evening spent with friends, Mrs. Livesey was given a lift home. According to her third and final statement to the police, immediately upon her return home an argument started between her and her son, and shortly afterwards she picked up a kitchen knife and stabbed him. She then left the house and went to the house of a friend—a Mrs. Matthews. Alan's body was found later that evening by Mrs. Matthews' son, Leslie, who had gone to the house at Mrs. Livesey's request. Alan had been stabbed 10 times in the face, neck and chest and his hands were tied behind his back. There was a sock around his neck and the gas taps were turned on. The police were summoned to the house at 11.28 pm. A pathologist put the time of Alan's death at about 11.10 pm but said that it could have occurred within one hour either way.

The basis of the prosecution case, therefore, seems to have been Mrs. Livesey's statement and the evidence of her two next-door neighbours who said that they had heard her arguing with Alan at around 10.30 to 10.50 pm. In giving evidence before the jury, Mrs. Livesey denied that she killed her son and said that she "couldn't remember" having admitted to the police that she had done so. She said that she had made the statement in the first place only because the police were "going on" at her. She said she had left the public house at 10.50 pm., had been given a lift to the corner of the road, and had gone straight to Mrs. Matthews' house. She said that she did not go to her own house until Leslie Matthews returned and told her that Alan was dead.

Mrs. Livesey has now served a little over four years of her life sentence. Let us be clear that during this time she has not petitioned the Home Secretary about the circumstances of her conviction. Nor, until the BBC took the matter up, were any representations received on her behalf at the Home Office. I now know that the hon. Member for Preston has been involved with the case from early in 1982. The first occasion upon which doubts about her conviction were brought to the notice of the Home Office was through the recent television programme to which the hon. Gentleman referred and which I have seen. This is not, therefore, a case in which it can be suggested that the Home Office is being slow to take action to investigate a possible wrongful conviction. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that.

I watched the television programme with interest, as I have watched all the programmes in the new "Rough Justice" series. My right hon. and learned Friend and I are, of course, every bit as anxious as anyone else that any cogent suggestion that a wrongful conviction has occurred should be properly looked into.

A little while before the programme was broadcast, but after we had received notice of it, the producer was asked by the Home Office to let us have any new and material evidence which suggested that a wrongful conviction had occurred so that it could be carefully examined. The BBC has not sent us its material, but last Wednesday, 9 November written representations on behalf of Mrs. Livesey were sent to us from the organisation Justice, with which the BBC collaborated in the series. These representations are commendably clear and comprehensive. They appear to cover, and in some respects helpfully to expand upon, the points made in the television programme. The hon. Gentleman has obviously had the advantage, as he made clear, of seeing Justice's representations.

I hope that the House will accept that we have not been able to examine, thoroughly and conclusively, the representations in the very few days since we received them. I am therefore not able today to say whether my right hon. and learned Friend will conclude that it is right to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. But the hon. Gentleman is fully entitled to know our first reaction and how we intend to reach a conclusion, and I can offer him and the House some significant assistance this evening.

The first step now must be to see what is new and what, of that, is relevant in the representations that we have received. That is, of course, entirely the normal procedure. Where we find that new points are raised which might go to the heart of the conviction, my right hon. and learned Friend will normally instigate a police investigation into these matters. In this case, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is apparent that the representations newly received merit a fresh police investigation, and that is how we intend to proceed.

As for who should carry' out the investigation, I am, of course, aware that one of the central issues is the reliability of the admissions that Mrs. Livesey made to the police. I have therefore reached the view, without in any way prejudging the merits, that it would be right in these circumstances to have the inquiries made by police officers from a different force. We have discussed all that with the chief constable of Lancashire, who is wholly content to proceed in that way.

I hope that those steps will commend themselves to the hon. Gentleman and to the House. Once the police report is received, my right hon. and learned Friend and I can then properly consider the case as a whole and determine what should be done in the best interests of justice.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.