HC Deb 24 October 1988 vol 139 cc145-52

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

11.32 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

This is the second Adjournment debate dealing with the case of Major Peter Cory, the first being held nearly 25 years ago, on 30 June 1964. By any criteria of judgment, the case of Major Cory is quite remarkable. Hopefully, it is unique and will remain so.

It is a case that will not go away, nor should it be allowed to go away. It is about an injustice, a miscarriage of justice, which not only has yet to be put right but which, as I discovered only a few months ago, has been compounded over the years by the Ministry of Defence. There is now a second dimension to the case of Major Peter Cory.

In 1961, Major Cory was charged with operating dishonestly the president of the regimental institute's fund of 60 Company Royal Army Service Corps, which he commanded, and which was then stationed in Kenya. In due course he was sentenced by court martial to the heavy term of one year's imprisonment. A shameful series of events resulted in him serving his sentence before his appeal was heard by the court martial appeal court. In a scathing judgment, the appeal court totally exonerated Major Cory, pronounced him innocent of all charges and declared him to be the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Major Cory later received some financial compensation.

The case caused grave concern in Parliament. The then Secretary of State for War, the late James Ramsden, presided over a War Office inquiry. It is a remarkable and unacceptable feature of that inquiry that neither Major Cory nor his legal advisers were called to give evidence, although his advisers were told to be prepared to do so. The Secretay of State's lengthy statement on the findings of the inquiry is to be found in Hansard, 17 December 1963, columns 1049–59. The Secretary of State was questioned the following day, 18 December, at columns 1249 to 1259.

The case of Major Peter Cory did not end there, as perhaps the War Office hoped. The Member of Parliament for Basingstoke at that time, Mr. Denzil Freeth, raised it in Adjournment debate of 30 June 1964, at columns 1310 to 1320. Over a period of nearly a quarter of a century, nine written complaints have been submitted to the Minister of Defence by Major Cory, by his legal advisers, and by three successive Members of Parliament for Basingstoke—Mr. Denzil Freeth, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) and myself.

The case of Major Cory did not end in 1963 because so many people who have studied it believe that Major Cory remains the victim of a miscarriage of justice. The essential argument is that, although the miscarriage of justice that Major Cory suffered was acknowledged by the courts martial appeal court in April 1963, that miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated, primarily by the demonstrable, irrefutable and culpable inaccuracies made to the House of Commons by the late James Ramsden. I refer to the Official Report for 17 December 1963, columns 1949 to 1959. I have studied the statement and the whole of Major Cory's case for more than four years. Along with others who have done this, I have concluded that Major Cory will not be, and cannot be, fully vindicated as a result of the miscarriage of justice that he suffered unless or until the Ministry of Defence acknowledges and accepts the inaccuracies of the statement made to the House by the late James Ramsden.

One of the reasons why, 25 years ago, the inquiry was convened was, to quote from a letter that the Minister of Defence wrote to Major Cory, to supply Parliament with a true history of the case'". That has not yet happened. For 25 years, Major Cory and his advisers have pleaded with the Ministry of Defence. For 25 years, the Minister of Defence has resisted. It is abundantly clear that Ramsden did not supply Parliament with sufficient facts for the true history of the case to be understood, and that at key points his statement is irreconcilable with the judgment of the courts martial appeal court, which exonerated Major Cory. It is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State presented as fact what the appeal court had demonstrated to be false, and that he denied what the appeal court had established to be true. Major Cory appears in a less favourable light because of it.

Ramsden told the House of Commons: The searches made both by the prosecution and defence after the trial failed to produce any … material documents. Yet, pivotal to the appeal court's exoneration of Major Cory was nothing other than the discovery of material documents. It is said in the judgment: Some … discovered alter the close of the Summary of Evidence … others … were found after the trial had concluded. One cannot have it both ways.

Referring to the 15th charge which, as my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, was one of theft of £47 9s, which, during the court martial, the prosecution claimed to be the cornerstone of the case against Major Cory, Ramsden told the House of Commons: The respondents, in the course of the hearing … did not seek to sustain the conviction on this charge".—[Official Report, 17 December 1963; Vol. 686, c. 1054–6.] That is not so. The 15th charge was withdrawn long before the appeal court hearing, since the prosecution was unable to substantiate that charge. What Ramsden should have done in this very Chamber was to explain how the War Office confirmed a conviction and a prison sentence on the prime charge, knowing full well that it was unable to substantiate the charge.

The inquiry was also convened to present to Parliament a considered conclusion on the handling of the case by the legal and military personnel involved". Again, I quote from a letter that the Ministry of Defence wrote to Major Cory. Ramsden's statement came to no such conclusion. It contains no reference to the stinging rebuke and condemnation to be found in the appeal court judgment and, once again, Major Cory appears in a less favourable light because of it.

Time and again over 25 years, detailed arguments have been presented to the Ministry of Defence. The files must be enormous. It cannot, with any intellectual honesty, be denied that Ramsden omitted many crucial factors in his presentation of the case. It cannot be denied that his statement neither accurately reflects nor recalls the criticisms made by the appeal court, nor that it contradicts the judgment. The statement contains no fewer than 23 errors of fact as established by the court martial and the appeal court. The individual significance of those inaccuracies varies considerably, but their collective significance is to deny Parliament a true record of the case. That was the primary purpose of the inquiry.

In his reply of 26 May to a written question that I tabled, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary acknowledged that Ramsden made certain omissions in his statement", but my hon. Friend would also have us accept that that these were made in the interests of brevity". He would also have us accept that the statement should not be taken to contradict or minimise Major Cory's complete exoneration by the courts-martial appeal court's judgment". I must tell my hon. Friend quite bluntly and frankly that neither Major Cory, nor his legal advisers, nor myself, will accept what my hon. Friend asks us to accept.

Now comes the second dimension to the case of Major Peter Cory. In January this year, Major Cory had occasion to believe that a situation almost beyond belief prevailed. I corresponded with the Home Office and tabled two written questions. The truth was soon revealed. Despite national interest in the case at the time, exoneration by the appeal court, a War Office inquiry, the grave concern expressed in Parliament and 25 years of relentless campaigning by Major Cory and his advisers, the legal department of the Ministry of Defence—or, as it was at the beginning, the War Office—had failed to notify the national identification bureau that Major Cory's conviction had been quashed on appeal. For 25 years my constituent, Major Peter Cory, had been labelled as a criminal and he was not a criminal. I appreciate my hon. Friend's frankness in this and, in his answer of 26 May to my written question, he said:

I regret that due to an administrative error by the MoD Major Cory's name was not removed from the records"—[Official Report, 26 May 1988; Vol. 134, c. 325–6.] How truly remarkable is the letter written to Major Cory's solicitors by the Ministry of Defence on 7 October this year. When the Minister had already accepted the Ministry of Defence's responsibility, how truly remarkable that a Ministry official should ask Major Cory's solicitors: Who do you consider responsible for advising the Bureau of the quashing of the conviction? After all that has been said and done over 25 years, can it be that the MOD needs to inquire of Major Cory what the conviction was for, where it was recorded and when? Such a letter does little to command confidence in the MOD legal department. It is too indicative of MOD's long-standing treatment of Major Cory. The original injustice that Major Cory suffered has been compounded by this revelation. There is a disgraceful consistency in what many would describe as MOD's callous disregard for and treatment of Major Cory. From first to last, the MOD has found him a nuisance and an embarrassment. He has been an inconvenience to the system. It is not good enough for my hon. Friend to regret that due to an administrative error by the MoD Major Cory's name was not removed from the records".—[Official Report, 26 May 1988; vol. 134, c., 326.] It is not good enough for a Home Office Minister to ask me to pass on to Major Cory apologies for the inconvenience which he has suffered as a result of the records of NIB being incorrect. Major Cory has not suffered an inconvenience; he has endured a ruined life. Responsibility for this starts and finishes with the MOD and the War Office before it. Enough is enough. Although with the passing of time it may be thought that the events and concerns of 25 years ago are of decreasing importance and significance, justice is timeless. If evil men can be punished for what they did in a war which ended more than 40 years ago, why cannot a good man receive, after 25 years, that full, complete and total exoneration which he so justly deserves? My hon. Friend alone can answer that question since the power and the responsibility to do so is his. A miscarriage of justice of a quarter of a century ago has been perpetuated by the MOD. The time has come to call a halt to it.

Major Cory has suffered immeasurably at the hands of the MOD. Indisputably, the Ministry has a moral obligation, and arguably a legal obligation, to put an end to a wretched saga. A positive response is called for.

11.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on securing this Adjournment debate. I pay tribute to him for the considerable interest that he has shown in the case of Major Cory over the years and the support that he has clearly given to his constituent.

I am sure that Major Cory is most appreciative of all the efforts that have been made over the past years in support of his interests. This is a sad case and little credit reflects on many of the parties involved, both originally and in the intervening years. I shall seek to respond to the arguments which have been advanced and give my hon. Friend the assurances that he is seeking.

Before dealing with the specific matters that have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, I shall set out briefly a summary of the history of the case that he has raised.

Major Peter Cory RASC commanded 60 Company, Royal Army Service Corps from its formation in England in July 1958 until December 1960. The company was a unit of 24 Infantry Brigade Group based in Kenya. Throughout his period of command, Major Cory personally operated the president of the regimental institute's fund. These were non-public moneys that were used for the welfare of the unit in providing small additional amenities, such as sports equipment. Queen's regulations prescribe that these accounts should be audited at regular intervals, but unfortunately this was not done in accordance with the laid-down procedures.

Major Cory left the company on 17 December 1960 to return to the United Kingdom on 21 December 1960. In November 1960, he had appointed a board of officers to carry out an overall audit of unit funds and accounts as part of the handover of the unit to his successor. That board could not complete its task in respect of the president of the regimental institute's fund, because the quarter ending 30 September had not been audited.

On 15 December, two officers of the company appointed by Major Cory began the audit of the accounts for the July to September quarter. My hon. Friend will agree that there is nothing to be gained by going into the detailed account of the various audits that followed, but the accounts were found to be in a very confused state and a cash deficiency was found of £82 15s 7d. In early 1961, Major Cory's attention was drawn to the deficiency and he was asked to meet it. His reply sought to explain it, but was not considered satisfactory.

There were grounds to suspect that the account had not been run properly, and on 6 May 1961 Major Cory was asked to return to Kenya. On 16 May, he was put on a holding charge and placed under arrest. It was unfortunate that Major Cory was not asked to provide an explanation before being arrested, but at the time it was believed that there were valid grounds for concluding that the account had been operated dishonestly. On 25 September 1961 Major Cory was arraigned before a general courts martial in Nairobi on charges relating to the PRI account. The trial lasted for 43 days. There were a number of reasons for its length, but it should have taken far less time and the result was a heavy burden on all taking part.

Mr. Hunter

My hon. Friend the Minister errs in one respect. He does not draw attention to the letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Ackers which draws attention to the fact that there was no deficiency in the PRI account. I hope that my hon. Friend and his advisers will note that. There was no such deficiency, as was acknowledged by the appeal court in due course.

Mr. Freeman

I acknowledge what my hon. Friend has said. On appeal, the original charges were quashed.

Major Cory was convicted of seven of the charges and sentenced to be cashiered—the modern equivalent of being dismissed with disgrace—and two years' imprisonment. As two of the findings of guilt were not confirmed, the confirming officer also reduced the term of imprisonment to one year.

Major Cory completed his sentence and was discharged from prison on 24 July 1962. His appeal was heard by the courts martial appeal court on 9 April 1963 when the court quashed all the convictions and made a number of extremely critical observations on the case. As a result of the quashing of Major Cory's convictions, his Army pay and allowances were restored. On 7 May 1963 he applied to retire voluntarily and that was approved with effect from 1 August 1963. He was given retired pay and a terminal grant. In addition to his back pay and allowances an ex-gratia payment of £7,500 was authorised in consideration of the hardship caused by his conviction. That amounted to three to four years' pay. The amount was arrived at on the advice of one of the official referees of the Supreme Court acting as an independent assessor.

That is a summary of at least some of the facts in this very sad case. Regrettably there were errors, but when the courts martial appeal court quashed Major Cory's conviction, it completely vindicated him. I have already assured my hon. Friend, and I repeat, that that was a complete vindication of Major Cory. So far as the Ministry of Defence is concerned, leaving aside the errors that undoubtedly were committed, that was a complete vindication.

I know that Major Cory feels that that was not the case; in other words, that he was not vindicated. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members have taken up his case and we have corresponded regularly over the past two years on various aspects. The subject was raised in the House before. On 17 December 1963 the then Secretary of State for War, Mr. James Ramsden, made a statement informing the House of the outcome of inquiries undertaken by the Lord Chancellor and himself into the circumstances of the court martial of Major Cory and the subsequent events up to the hearing of the courts martial appeal court.

My hon. Friend has referred to that statement tonight and to the fact that Major Cory felt that it contained a number of omissions and inaccuracies and statements that were open to misinterpretation. 1 want to make it quite clear that the statement was the outcome of the inquiries undertaken by the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for War. Its purpose was to supply a history of Major Cory's case with the particular criticisms made by the courts martial appeal court, and to give the considered conclusions of the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for War on the handling of Major Cory's case by the legal and military personnel involved and on any bearing it might have on the then current legal position in the Army. It was not intended as a further public vindication of Major Cory's conduct and character. Perhaps it should have been, but in fact it was not.

My hon. Friend mentioned the concern that Major Cory was not personally involved in the investigation. However, the investigation included interviews with the lawyer who defended Major Cory at the trial as well as —exceptionally, I understand—with the president and members of the court. As I have said that the purpose of the investigation was aimed at internal procedural irregularities and certainly not to serve as a rerun of the original trial, there was no reason for Major Cory's involvement.

I give my hon. Friend the assurance that the Ministry of Defence is ready to receive further representations from Major Cory's legal advisers concerning the accuracy of Mr. Ramsden's statement of 1963. I understand that Major Cory believes that Mr. Ramsden's statement contained inaccuracies and can provide evidence that has so far not been considered. We shall gibe those representations fair and thorough review.

I wish to make it clear that, if any statements were made to the House that were open to misrepresentation, or if any facts were omitted in the interests of brevity, there was no intention to mislead—and the statement should not be taken to contradict or minimise Major Cory's complete exoneration by the courts martial appeal court's judgment. Major Cory is innocent of all the charges.

That leads me to a regrettable error made in this case that came to light very recently. Owing to an oversight by my Department in 1963, the national identification bureau was not informed after the courts martial appeal court hearing that the convictions had been quashed. The convictions remained on the record of the national identification bureau. I have taken steps to ensure that the national identification bureau's records are now correct, and I understand that it has written to Major Cory confirming that.

In view of that unfortunate error, I have instructed Ministry of Defence officials to re-examine the procedure for notifying courts martial convictions to the national identification bureau, and to devise a system that will prevent a wrong conviction being recorded in the NIB computer, or a conviction not being erased because a reviewing authority has quashed a finding or sentence. I appreciate that that in no way undoes the wrong that has been done, but perhaps my hon. Friend will join me in believing that at least we have taken steps to ensure that such a regrettable error does not happen again. That has now been done, and Queen's Regulations for the Army 1975 are being amended to reflect the changes in procedure. All reviewing authorities have been issued with instructions reinforcing the amendments.

My hon. Friend mentioned also the question of compensation. I understand that there has been preliminary correspondence between Major Cory's legal advisers and officials of my Department about the possibility of a claim, but that no details of that claim have yet been made available. My hon. Friend referred to a letter dated 7 October. That came from the Ministry of Defence claims department, and I understand that it was seeking preliminary information about that potential claim. It was not intended in any way as a slight or criticism. I understand that it was designed, at a very early stage in these proceedings, to extract information.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, in the circumstances, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the matter at this stage. If we are to enter legal proceedings concerning any potential claim, it will probably be better to allow the normal procedures to run their course.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

As it appears that an ex gratia payment, as it were, has already been made, and as later errors have now been revealed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence, it is clear that there should be reconsideration of the amount that has been paid. I would not want my hon. Friend to go further, but does he agree with that proposition?

Mr. Freeman

I may say to my hon. and learned Friend that we are dealing with a separate issue concerning the failure to erase from the NIB's records Major Cory's conviction after it was quashed. That is a separate issue, which I take very seriously. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend if the sense of his intervention is that proper consideration should be given by the Ministry of Defence to any claims that might arise. I give my hon. and learned Friend my assurance that this matter will be treated very seriously and very thoroughly.

To sum up, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for raising this matter and for giving me an opportunity to emphasise to the House that, when the courts martial appeal court quashed Major Cory's conviction, he was totally exonerated by its judgment.

I should also add, because I know that this point has worried my hon. Friend, that any omissions in Mr. Ramsden's statement were made in the interests of brevity. Let me also say that I am as anxious as my hon. Friend that the parliamentary record relating to Mr. Ramsden's statement and questions to Mr. Ramsden should, if necessary, be amended and made clear. He and I are at one on that. We want to ensure that, although the event occurred 25 years ago, the record is clear, unambiguous, constructive and helpful. The appeal court clearly quashed Major Cory's conviction, and it is my duty, which I take very seriously, to ensure that if there were factual inaccuracies—and I trust that the further evidence to be provided by Major Cory's legal advisers, if there are such representations, will be taken seriously—any necessary corrections will be made and put on the parliamentary record.

Finally, I offer my Department's apologies for the error in not notifying the NIB that Major Cory's conviction had been quashed. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would convey my apologies, continued interest in the case and best wishes to Major Cory.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Twelve midnight.