HC Deb 20 November 1986 vol 105 cc676-9
5. Ms. Clare Short

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he first became aware that Dr. Frank Skuse's records were not sufficiently clear to establish the precise formula used in the Griess test he conducted on the six men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings.

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

Following the "World in Action" programme on 28 October 1985 the Controller of the Forensic Science Service initiated a study to reassess the evidential value of the Griess test. When the relevant case notes were examined in November 1985 it was found that they were not sufficiently clear.

Ms. Short

Does this in any way explain the inordinate delay in the Home Office in concluding whether there should be a further inquiry into this case? Does the hon. Gentleman know that there is growing concern throughout the country that six men who were not guilty of this offence have been locked up for 12 years? It seems to me that there is no conceivable explanation for the Home Office's delay. We do not want the Home Office to come to a conclusion on the case. We simply want it to conclude that there needs to be another inquiry, and for that inquiry to take place elsewhere.

Mr. Mellor

I cannot agree with the hon. Lady. It is right that matters as serious as this should be the subject of thorough investigation and consideration. It may interest the hon. Lady to know that some further important points have emerged only this month, including a final letter from Mr. Mullin, the author of one of the books on this matter and, as recently as 10 November, a letter from the West Midlands constabulary dealing with these investigations. We shall announce the outcome of our considerations as soon as possible. It is astonishing that the hon. Lady, as a Birmingham Member, should state categorically that these men are not guilty. She is fully entitled to say that the matter should be looked at, but for her to rush to judgment in that way seems to show an amazingly one-sided view, which I am astonished she can get away with in her city.

Mr. Cormack

Although my hon. Friend's remarks are entirely justified, and people recognise that, is he aware that there is concern in the west midlands lest the perpetrators of this horrific outrage were not all brought to justice? It is therefore important that the decision on the inquiry is made as soon as possible.

Mr. Mellor

It is because the matter is so important that it is being considered with such care. Care takes time.

Mr. Terry Davis

Is the Minister aware that it is not a case of rushing into judgment and deciding whether people are innocent or guilty, but a case of pressing for an inquiry? Why will the Minister not establish an inquiry to settle this matter, which is causing great concern to many people on all sides politically? Does he not care about such a basic matter of human rights?

Mr. Mellor

Once again, the hon. Gentleman is not doing the subject justice by thinking matters through. There is no question of an inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering whether to use the power that Parliament has given him to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal under section 17. It is no good the hon. Gentleman waving his hands around. That requires fresh evidence. The question whether there is fresh evidence is being considered carefully. I should have thought that, as another Birmingham Member, the hon. Gentleman's constituents would want some balance in this consideration.

Mr. Stanbrook

Has my hon. Friend any evidence to suggest that anyone was responsible for the Birmingham bombings other than those convicted of the offence?

Mr. Mellor

It would probably be better to deal with those matters when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announces his final conclusion.

Mr. Clay

Is it not extraordinary that the Minister should write to one of his hon. Friends saying that the formula for the Greiss test supplied to "World in Action" was wrong, but does not inform other hon. Members? The hon. Gentleman now says that the original case notes are not clear enough even to determine whether the formula used by Dr. Skuse on the six men was accurate. Is it not the case that the Minister has enough evidence now to come to a conclusion and to get this matter dealt with? Clearly, in view of the reaction so far, all the evidence that the Minister has, the incompetence at Chorely and the fact that Dr. Skuse is not even co-operating, there is enough evidence for the Minister to come to a conclusion now.

Mr. Mellor

Once again assertion is mingled with what seems to be predjudice. The hon. Gentleman knows only too well that looking back through records and case notes of several years ago at what was or was not done will inevitably be a difficult process. The hon. Gentleman knows only too well, or should know, that in so far as the forensic evidence is material—it is certainly material in certain instances—it goes for only two of the six men, because in only two of the six cases did anything allegedly show that they might have been in contact with explosives found on their hands. The hon. Gentleman should not rush to judgment, but should allow these matters to proceed as they are doing towards my right hon. Friend being in a position to make a statement soon about these matters.

Mr. Baldry

In considering both that case and the Maguire case, does my hon. Friend agree that we should not lose sight of the point that Robert Kee makes in his book, "Trial and Error", that in both cases the trials took place according to the proper forms of English law, the jury found the accused guilty, the proper procedures for reviewing those procedures, were applied, and as a result of those procedures it was decided that the convictions were sound?

Mr. Mellor

That is precisely right, and that is why it is difficult to understand the impatience of Opposition Members. Home Secretaries in Labour Governments had to go through precisely the same investigations as we have had to go through. The plain fact is that a jury trial cannot be impugned in this country unless there is fresh evidence that casts doubt on whether the jury would have arrived at the same conclusion if it had been before it. That is, of course, the question that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is having to consider.

Mr. Mallon

Although I recognise the serious legal and humanitarian issues at stake in that case, and in the Guildford and Maguire cases, is there not also a fundamental political dimension? Until these matters are satisfactorily resolved, and seen to be resolved in a just fashion, it will be all the more difficult to continue with the job of trying to bring about justice, peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mellor

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman speaks with great sincerity. Perhaps he did not mean what he said, but I cannot help feeling that it is very damaging if there is a political aspect to all this. We are talking about a judicial matter, whether a decision of a criminal court, in a free society, can be overturned merely as a result of political pressure, or whether it requires fresh evidence. We are anxious to separate the question of political pressure, with people rushing to premature judgments based on one-sided and tendentious accounts of the evidence, from the question whether, objectively viewed, there is a proper basis for re-examining the case. That is what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will do, whatever the pressures to the contrary.

Mr. Kaufman

Is the Minister aware that if the men in prison for the Birmingham pub bombings, the Guildford pub bombings, and the murder of Carl Bridgewater carried out those crimes, it is right and proper that they should be where they are? If the Maguires carried out the crime for which they were convicted, it is right and proper that they should have served the sentences that were given when they were convicted. However, if it turns out that those in prison for those offences, and the Maguires who have now been released, were not responsible for the crimes of which they were convicted, there must have been a gross miscarriage of justice, about which the Government should be as alarmed as my hon. Friends are, who have already asked questions. After all, miscarriages of justice have taken place before when juries have convicted people. The Government need to take a very different attitude. If those convictions are unsound, people will have been wrongly imprisoned and dangerous criminals are still at large.

Mr. Mellor

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman and I are in disagreement. It is not for the Government to say whether those people were innocent or guilty, and nor is it, with the greatest respect, for hon. Members to say so. The Government must consider carefully how my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should exercise the powers that he has been given by Parliament to refer a case to the Court of Appeal. When my right hon. Friend has completed the proper consideration necessary in this case with the West Midlands police and Mr. Mullin, along with some reassessment of the forensic evidence, he will announce his decision. But he must do so bearing in mind considerations not of expediency or pressure, but of evidence. That is the way that things are done in Britain.