HC Deb 18 December 1986 vol 107 cc1335-9
2. Miss Maynard

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has anything to add to his Department's earlier statements regarding the formula used for the Griess test carried out by Dr. Frank Skuse in the case of the six men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings; and if he will make a statement.

3. Mr. Corbyn

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the reply to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) of 20 November, Official Report, column 288, what information he has regarding evidence dating from 1975 that the strength of the caustic soda solution used by Dr. Frank Skuse to test the men subsequently convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings for nitro-glycerine was 1 per cent.; and if he will make a statement.

4. Ms. Clare Short

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what procedure is used by his Department's forensic scientists to record details of tests carried out in criminal cases.

6. Mr. Madden

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what meetings (a) he, and (b) his officials have had with Dr. Frank Skuse since his retirement, to discuss Dr. Skuse's role in the case of the six men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings.

11. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent discussions the director of his Department's laboratory at Chorley has had on the case of the six men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor)

As part of our review of this case we arranged for a reappraisal of the Griess test to be undertaken by the Aldermaston forensic science laboratory. It was not clear from the papers what strength of caustic soda solution Dr. Skuse used and whether or not he used ethanol. I understand that the practice is for observations, tests, results and conclusions to be recorded, but that there was no reference to these two points in the notes which Dr. Skuse made in this case.

We have sought written and oral clarification from Dr. Skuse about his method. In two telephone conservations in January 1986, with the controller of the forensic science service and the present director of the Chorley laboratory, Dr. Skuse said that he had used a 0.1 per cent. strength solution of caustic soda and that he thought that he had not used ethanol. The belief that he had used a 0.1 per cent. solution was supported by a guidance note which Dr. Skuse had written, which referred to the use of a solution of this strength, and which he circulated in January or February 1975.

It appeared therefore that the then director of the Chorley forensic science laboratory had been in error in informing Mr. Baldock in May 1985 that Dr. Skuse had used a 1 per cent. solution.

However, Dr. Black, who gave evidence at the trial, has recently said that his recollection is that Dr. Skuse indicated to him in May 1975 that the solution strength was 1 per cent. The then director of the Chorley forensic science laboratory has also said that the information that he gave to Mr. Baldock was based on information given to him by Dr. Skuse.

The Aldermaston re-appraisal of the Griess test made allowance for these uncertainties by conducting tests using differing strengths of caustic soda solution with and without the use of ethanol.

My right hon. Friend is continuing to consider the various representations made to him, including the material submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) following the "World in Action" programme on 1 December. He intends to reach a decision shortly.

Miss Maynard

Will the Minister confirm that the retirement of Dr. Skuse at the age of 50 was far from voluntary and that he was sacked on the grounds of "limited effectiveness"? Is not this matter being hushed up to avoid a scandal?

Mr. Mellor

No. I utterly reject any suggestion that this matter has been hushed up. Full disclosures have been made of such facts as we are able to make prior to my right hon. Friend reaching his decision. In relation to the position of Dr. Skuse, it is right—and we have always made this clear—that he was retired on grounds of limited efficiency. However, it must be said that that was limited efficiency at the time that he was retired, not limited efficiency in 1975.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Minister confirm that in May 1985, his office believed that the records at Chorley were accurate, but in September 1986, in a letter to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), the Minister said that there was some doubt about the accuracy of those records? Does he believe that that warrants an inquiry into what is happening in the Chorley laboratory? Does he think that someone in the laboratory is being "economical with the truth" about the evidence of those tests?

Mr. Mellor

The full investigations that have been made at the laboratory have certainly revealed matters that are a cause for concern about the record keeping in this case. The adequacy of those records and the consistency or otherwise of some of the matters set out therein, is a prime point that my right hon. Friend is considering in the context of further action to be taken in this case. Many changes have taken place since 1975 in the forensic science service in the manner in which these tests are carried out and recorded. We are satisfied with the efficiency of the forensic science service in those respects at present.

Ms. Clare Short

While we are pleased that the Minister will review the procedures at Chorley—it is shocking that written records were not kept in such a crucial case—does he accept that the major concern is the six men involved, who received 21 life sentences for an offence which they probably did not commit? Will the Minister give us an assurance today that if there is any doubt he will take the percentage that is most beneficial to those men, particularly given that Dr. Black's records from the time—the one man who had a record—show that it was a 1 per cent. solution?

Mr. Mellor

Of course, I give the hon. Lady the assurance that these matters are being considered seriously. Anything that tends to suggest that there is new evidence or new considerations of substance that were not before the court in 1975, and which cast doubt on the safety of the conviction, would provide a basis for my right hon. Friend to refer the matter back to the Court of Appeal. My right hon. Friend has a difficult decision to make. Information is still coming in and, indeed, earlier this week we received a full statement of an interview that the police had with Mr. Clarke. My right hon. Friend will consider the papers carefully and personally over the next few weeks and he intends and hopes to announce his conclusions early in the new year.

Mr. Madden

Will the Minister confirm that the trial judge placed great emphasis and importance on the forensic evidence and the confessions? Will he further confirm that the forensic evidence and confessions have been found to be fundamentally flawed? In the name of humanity and justice, as those men now face their 12th Christmas and new year in prison, will he take this opportunity to say that the Government have decided to refer the case to the Court of Appeal so that all the matters can be looked at afresh?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman has plainly reached his own conclusions about the matter. It is not for me to join him in a rush to judgment on these issues. It is for us to determine, as I have already said, whether there is new evidence or considerations that entitle others, whose task it is within the criminal justice system, to consider whether matters have proceeded properly and to re-examine those matters. That is what we are doing. I must tell the hon. Gentleman, as I told other hon. Members last month, that is not the least bit reassuring that some hon. Members seem to believe that we in this House, and not the court, should reach conclusions about guilt or innocence. It is a matter for the courts.

Mr. Skinner

The Government's representatives are not much good when they come under cross-examination of one kind or another, are they? Is it not a fact that Dr. Frank Skuse, who represented the Government, was about as convincing as Sir Robert Armstrong was in Australia? Does the Minister recall another forensic scientist, Dr. Clift, whose name was bandied about this building for about three years, until eventually a Tory Minister had to recognise that the campaign against Dr. Clift's forensic evidence would result in some people being released from gaol? Why does the Minister not acknowledge that fact now instead of engaging in a cover-up?

Mr. Mellor

As usual, the hon. Gentleman throws allegations around. I regret that he feels it necessary to turn every issue into a partisan one. In so far as Dr. Skuse was representing any Government when he gave evidence at the trial, it was a Labour Government.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

Why is it that since the resignation of Dr. Skuse the Home Office has not questioned him directly on his methodology? He says that he wants to make available all the information that he has, that the case notes are full, that as recently as January they were in the possession of Chorley and that they would show the methods and detail he used in the application on that night in November 1974.

Mr. Mellor

Repeated attempts have been made to get full explanations from Dr. Skuse, but they have not peen successful. I can give my hon. Friend chapter and verse about that.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be invidious for all the staff who work at the forensic laboratory at Chorley, where some of my constituents are employed, to be tarred with the brush, as the Opposition seem to be doing, that somehow everything is wrong at Chorley and the staff do not do a remarkably good job on behalf of those who need their advice?

Mr. Mellor

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The willingness of some Opposition Members to traduce a whole group of people because of the alleged inadequacies of one is hardly reassuring for their reputation on maintaining law and order.

Mr. Alton

Given the Minister's admission about the lack of co-operation, why has he not taken steps to have the notebooks and case records impounded and made available to the lawyers representing those who are in gaol? How is it possible for a scientist to be almost certain about the formula that he used?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension. The notebooks and other articles are available and are forming part of the re-examination that is taking place.

Mr. Alton

Will the Minister make the papers available now?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman should listen to my answer instead of asking further questions from a sedentary position. If my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary decides to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal, any material relevant to the appeal and its proper prosecution will be made available. That is the situation and that is how it has always been.