HC Deb 14 March 1991 vol 187 cc1109-26 4.11 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's response to the decision earlier this afternoon by the Court of Appeal to quash the convictions for murder of Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Hill, Robert Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, arising from the two bomb explosions in public houses in Birmingham in November 1974. A similar statement is being made by the Lord Chancellor in another place. We will arrange for copies of the Court's judgment to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses as soon as it is available.

The case, together with others which have occurred, raises a number of serious issues which must be a cause of concern to us all. It is of fundamental importance that the arrangements for criminal justice should secure the speedy conviction of the guilty and the acquittal of the innocent. When that is not achieved, public confidence is undermined.

Under the provisions of section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, any person whose conviction has been quashed on the basis of a new or newly discovered fact following a reference by me of the case to the Court of Appeal is entitled to apply to me for compensation. The amount will be decided on the basis of advice from an independent assessor. I will, of course, give careful consideration to any application that is made to me by the six men.

We fully recognise the seriousness of the issues raised by those cases, and the Government are resolved to ensure that they are properly addressed. However, it is important to recognise that the Government have already taken a wide variety of measures that ensure the conviction of those who have committed criminal offences and protect innocent suspects. They include the codification of police powers to investigate crime; controls over police interrogations, including the tape-recording of interviews; the reform of the law of evidence as it affects confessions; the setting up of the Crown prosecution service and the Serious Fraud Office; extension of the Court of Appeal's power to order retrials; and improved quality controls over forensic science work.

Many of the cases that have given cause for concern predate those developments. My predecessors and I have demonstrated our willingness to look hard and seriously at any evidence presented to us about alleged miscarriages of justice, and our readiness when necessary to refer that evidence to the Court of Appeal.

Our criminal justice system deals perfectly well with the overwhelming majority of cases. That should never be forgotten. The cases that are now the cause of our concern represent only a tiny proportion of the work that is carried out to very high standards. I would wish that to be clearly understood, so that we do not get carried away with the quite erroneous belief that everything in our current arrangements is flawed. We believe, however, that it is now necessary to undertake a review of the criminal justice process as it at present stands, taking full account of recent reforms. The aim of such a review will be to minimise so far as possible the likelihood of such events happening again.

The review will embrace all stages of the criminal process. It will consider the investigation and pre-trial stages. That will include the management of the investigation by the police and the role of the prosecutor. It will include also the role of expert witnesses and, in particular, that of forensic scientists and the reliability of scientific evidence. It will review the place of the right to silence in criminal proceedings. It will consider a possible role for investigating magistrates, the conduct of criminal trials, and the duties and powers of the courts.

In addition, the review will examine appeals procedures, the powers of the Court of Appeal, and the investigation of alleged miscarriages of justice once appeal rights have been exhausted—including the functions at present carried out by the Home Secretary.

The review, extending as it does over the work of the criminal courts in England and Wales, is of such importance that we believe that it should be undertaken by a royal commission. Her Majesty has accepted that recommendation. We have placed a copy of its terms of reference in the Libraries of both Houses. Her Majesty has approved the appointment of Lord Runciman of Doxford to be chairman of the royal commission. We shall announce the names of the other members as soon as possible.

The Government's decision to establish a royal commission is an indication of the importance that we attach to the work of the review. It is our intention that it should be wide ranging and thorough. It must also be carried out as soon as possible. We have, therefore, asked its chairman to make every effort to complete the commission's work within two years.

The House will, of course, be aware that in October 1989, Sir John May was appointed to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the convictions of the Guildford Four and the Maguires. In July 1990, he submitted an interim report, which led my predecessor to refer the convictions of the Maguires to the Court of Appeal. The court has yet to hear the case, and I would not wish to make any further comment on it while it remains sub judice.

We have asked Sir John May to complete his very important inquiry into the Guildford Four and Maguires cases. The appointment of the wider inquiry that I have announced today is not intended to inhibit him in any way. We think it right, however, to ask him to concentrate his inquiry on the circumstances of the cases themselves, and to contribute his views on the wider issues to the royal commission, of which he has agreed to be a member.

All of us in the House must be disturbed by what has occurred. The objectives of the criminal justice system must always be to ensure that those who commit criminal offences are brought to justice, that the guilty are punished, and that the innocent—including those wrongly charged with offences—are protected. Valuable reforms have already been introduced in recent years. I believe that our present arrangements work well in the overwhelming majority of cases, and I pay tribute to all those who endeavour to achieve that.

The time is right, nevertheless, to take a fresh look at the existing arrangements, to see whether further improvements can be made—and that is why the Government have decided to establish this royal commission.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

The first emotion that we must all feel today is relief, that so grotesque a miscarriage of justice has at last been righted. The second is anger that it ever happened at all—and that it was allowed to continue for so long. The third must be determination that it never happens again.

I express my admiration for all those—principally, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—who fought so long and so bravely to see justice done. Without them, the six men would still be in prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South in particular has been subjected to much vilification. He is entitled to many apologies from both inside the House and outside it, not least from previous Home Secretaries—although I doubt whether he will receive them.

Although it is important to emphasise today that most police officers act honourably, and that our judiciary are generally perceptive and fair-minded, the case of the Birmingham Six, following that of the Guildford detainees, has done much to damage the reputation of British justice. Does the Home Secretary agree that it is essential that that damage is repaired as quickly as possible?

As I understand the Home Secretary's statement, the May inquiry will continue to examine the wrongful convictions in the Guildford cases. Am I right to conclude—although I hope that I am wrong—that such an immediate and urgent inquiry will not be made into the Birmingham convictions?

The Home Secretary talks about the May inquiry's efforts being concentrated on the cases already in hand. Someone must make an urgent investigation, not simply into the principles of British justice—important though that is—but into the reasons why these six men were wrongfully convicted. I hope that he shares my view that, as well as an immediate public inquiry into the causes of this tragedy, those who may be responsible for any breaches of the law which resulted in this miscarriage of justice ought to be speedily brought to trial. I do not believe that a royal commission will have that effect and produce that end.

Does the Home Secretary also share my view that, as well as demonstrating the likelihood of a number of malpractices in the preparation of the evidence, today's decision illustrates fundamental weaknesses in our judicial system? They were vividly illustrated by the judgments in the Court of Appeal in 1987—especially well illustrated by the comments by the Lord Chief Justice during and at the end of that case. The comments made then are now proved to be categorically wrong, and the Home Secretary is wholly wrong if he is suggesting today that recent changes in the criminal law will automatically avoid the recurrence of such a tragedy.

For example, arrests made in similar circumstances to those of the Birmingham Six would not attract the protection provided under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. I regret that in his statement the Home Secretary implied that they would.

I warn the Home Secretary of the dangers of postponing improvements in the judicial system for the length of time inherent in a report by a royal commission. A royal commission would take years to report and even more years would pass before its decision could be implemented.

It is the view of everyone who has examined the matter that the Government ought to take action now, for it is generally accepted that the problem was intensified and prolonged by the process of judges passing judgments on other judges. We now need some sort of independent view on appeals in contentious cases. We need an appeals system for such cases which includes some laymen who can make an objective judgment on how the criminal system and the lawyers and judges behave.

Let me urge the Home Secretary to introduce immediate legislation to set up such an independent appeals system. I promise him that, were he to do so, he would have the support of the Opposition in passing such legislation at the first opportunity. We need something which improves and rehabilitates the criminal justice system immediately, not in five, six or eight years' time.

Too often, royal commissions have been used to postpone action rather than to facilitate it. I urge the Home Secretary to act far more speedily than his suggestion today implies.

Mr. Baker

I thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for his generally helpful response to my statement.

On the question of a further inquiry into the Birmingham Six case, I believe that the essential facts of the case have now been fully established in the Court of Appeal. I do not see a need for any further inquiry. It is not for me to decide, but I understand that necessary inquiries are well advanced. At the request of the chief constable of the West Midlands, the Devon and Cornwall constabulary are already investigating the question of criminal or disciplinary misconduct by officers involved in the original investigation. The question of any criminal or disciplinary proceedings will have to be considered in the light of the report of that investigation.

The right hon. Gentleman hopes that the royal commission will report in a short time. I have said that it will do so within two years, and I very much hope that it might be within that time because I agree that certain changes have to be made. From the wide-ranging terms of reference of the royal commission, he will know that it will cover such matters as the conduct of police investigations and their supervision by senior police officers, in particular the degree of control that is exercised by those officers over the conduct of the investigation and the gathering and preparation of evidence". It will also deal with the role of the prosecutor in supervising the gathering of evidence…the role of experts in criminal proceedings…the arrangements for the defence of accused persons, access to legal advice". and the access of the defence to forensic evidence and forensic advice.

The final point made by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook was an important one, on which I do not think the two sides of the House differ. We need to examine the whole system of looking into miscarriages of justice after the normal processes of law have been exhausted. It is generally agreed that the present system, whereby I refer a case to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration, is not satisfactory. The terms of reference speak of The role of the Court of Appeal in considering new evidence on appeal, including directing the investigation of allegations". The right hon. Member referred to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. The Act has changed, for example, the way in which confessions must be signed by the person who has been arrested in the police cell. Other protections have also been introduced: for instance, the handling of forensic evidence has changed substantially since the 1970s. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is in all our interests for the royal commission to examine all those matters.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is of the greatest importance for the public as a whole to have confidence in the criminal justice system and process? His announcement of a wide-ranging inquiry by a royal commission into court procedure and the investigation and preparation of cases will satisfy many of the concerns that are felt.

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the cases that gave rise to this afternoon's statement date from 17 years ago, since when the procedures for the investigation and recording of evidence—as well as the Crown prosecution service and the forensic science services—have changed beyond all recognition? Have not they become dramatically different? Finally, does he agree that the experimental tape recording of interviews under the prevention of terrorism Act is a welcome development?

Mr. Baker

I agree that practices have changed substantially since the inquiries were undertaken in 1974 and 1975. I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises that. I confirm that two experiments with the taping of evidence in terrorist cases are now taking place, in London and Liverpool.

The terms of the royal commission are wide enough for the commission to re-examine those matters and to look at all the procedures. It can examine virtually everything, from the arrest of a suspect to the final examination—in a different Appeal Court from the one now being used, until these matters have been dealt with. I am sure that the commission will use the considerable scope with which we have provided it.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Does not the Home Secretary feel very uneasy about the length of time that it has taken to put right what has been recognised for many years as a palpable wrong? Many opportunities have been provided for that injustice to be redressed. Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel a deep-seated unease about the fact that the system of justice has proved unequal to redressing the wrong that has undoubtedly been done?

Will the Home Secretary take it from me, as someone who has prosecuted and, indeed, defended the perpetrators of serious crime in the High Court in Scotland, that the issue of so-called "confessions" in police custody is by no means new, and no less controversial even as a result of the statutory improvements to which he has referred? That will remain a weakness in our criminal system, both north and south of the border, until arrangements are in place to make it impossible for confessions to be fabricated, or for coercion—physical or otherwise—to be employed to ensure that such confessions are produced by people who the police have decided are guilty, albeit in the absence of evidence to prove it.

Mr. Baker

I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that the time taken to resolve this matter gives rise to concern. It has been a long process which has ended only this afternoon, with an appeal hearing in 1987–88 as well; but it was the appearance of fresh evidence very late in the day, substantially forensic evidence, which led the Court of Appeal to quash the convictions today.

On the question of confessions, things have changed since the time when the investigations were carried out into the Birmingham Six. Now, a contemporaneous written record is made of any confession and signed by the arrested man, which was not so in this particular case. Other changes have been made: now, when someone is arrested, he is brought before a custody sergeant who authorises the detention; he must also consider whether a doctor should be called, and things of that sort. Considerable changes have been made.

The royal commission has the power to consider all these matters, and I have no doubt that it will also go into them again.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wholly wrong for the British public to form the wrong impression from what has happened today about the conduct of our police and our courts? Does he agree with me that the way in which the police have responded to the implementation of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the introduction of the Crown prosecution service shows their desire to co-operate in the improvement of the criminal justice system?

Although it would be wrong to prejudge anything that the royal commission may recommend, can my right hon. Friend tell the House that the Government will implement its findings as speedily as possible?

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is generally agreed that these cases are exceptional, although that does not make them any the less serious and I do not want to give any appearance of complacency. These are serious matters and it is important that they be investigated in the way that they will be. The serious way in which the Government have taken this matter is reflected in the fact that we are appointing a royal commission.

PACE has made considerable changes in the actual handling and investigation of cases of this kind. Changes have been made. The various elements of the criminal justice system have co-operated with those changes. Once again, I recognise that they should be reconsidered, and that is what the royal commission is doing. I confirm to my hon. Friend that in the overwhelming majority of cases British justice works very well: a fair hearing is given and the guilty are found guilty and the innocent found innocent.

My hon. Friend asked me whether I would undertake to implement all the recommendations of the royal commission. I cannot give such a blanket undertaking; I will have to consider what the commission says. I would, however, point out to my hon. Friend that the commission will cover some matters on which there will have to be changes, and legislative changes at that. I am quite sure that a major reform Bill will flow from the work of the royal commission.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Does the Home Secretary agree that no compensation will ever make up to these men and their families for 17 years in prison when they were innocent? The other side of that is that, because the system would not face up to the error that it had made, the men who did this terrible bombing—the worst mass murder in British history prior to Lockerbie —went scot-free. Will there be a new police investigation to try to get them?

Is the Home Secretary not big enough to respond to the invitation by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) to apologise on behalf of many members of his party for the smearing of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who has done a fine job in helping our system to reach justice at last?

Mr. Baker

I realise that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—I am sure that he is disappointed not to be in his place this afternoon—along with several others, has over a long period taken a close interest in this case.

The hon. Lady asked me about guilty people possibly getting away with these crimes. I can tell her that investigations conducted by the Devon and Cornwall constabulary have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the bombing of the premises in Birmingham. I understand from the chief constable of the West Midlands police that he intends to appoint a team to review the findings of the Devon and Cornwall inquiry and to follow up any new lines of investigation that may come to light.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

May I congratulate the Home Secretary on the appointment of a royal commission which will make a thorough and radical examination of criminal law, practice and procedure? This will obviously take some considerable time, and the law will have to be changed.

In the meantime, will the Home Secretary consider some alterations to the law? He will be aware that the IRA trains its terrorists in how to react when they are arrested, so that they can put forward a plea of innocence at their subsequent trials. Would he consider introducing a system similar to that employed on the continent, whereby a magistrate would cross-examine a defendant shortly after his arrest, so that the facts could be ascertained and subsequently could not be changed?

Mr. Baker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the appointment of a royal commission. Its terms of reference specifically allow it to consider the hon. Gentleman's latter point—the possibility of an investigatory process at an early stage. Of course, that would be a novel departure for the criminal justice system in this country.

It would not be sensible for me to anticipate any of the findings of the royal commission and to introduce changes before it reports. I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, and I refer him to one of the terms of reference that I have laid in the Library. The royal commission is asked to consider the opportunities available for an accused person to state his position on the matters charged and the extent to which the courts might draw proper inferences from primary facts, the conduct of the accused, and any failure on his part to take advantage of an opportunity to state his position".

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I sat through the previous appeal for some time, and I have sat through all of this appeal, other than for today when the decision was made. May I express my absolute joy at the release of people who have been wrongly imprisoned for so long? May I also pay tribute to those who have campaigned for their release, especially the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for Harborough (Sir J. Farr)? It must have taken considerable courage for the hon. Member for Harborough to support the case of the Birmingham Six, given the political position that he holds.

There is one matter for which we cannot legislate, and that is the hatred and racist attitude that we witness so often, and especially in the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, sometimes in political statements and at other times from a prejudiced press. Does the Home Secretary agree that part of the problem with this case, arid part of the reason why it went so wrong at the beginning, was the demand made on the police to obtain instant results? Does not that demand stem from a substantially prejudiced press?

Mr. Baker

I could not agree with that point. The hon. Gentleman might recall the circumstances of the 1970s, when there were some substantial, wicked and criminal acts of terrorism that involved the death of many people. There is an expectation—not just by the press, but by people throughout the country—that every investigation should be pursued vigorously. The facts of the case are now well known. Errors have been made, and they have been put right today by the quashing of the conviction. The royal commission will examine the whole operation of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Hertfordshire, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that both parts of his statement will probably receive a general welcome, and that they deserve to do so? Will he ask the royal commission to consider —I say this without reference to the particular case or to particular individuals—whether it might not advantage British justice in England if it were open to the courts to have a verdict of not proven, as is the case in Scotland? The failure to obtain convictions or the overturning of them would then sometimes be viewed as evidence having been unsatisfactory or inadequate. Would not that be better than having to follow the current requirement of an absolute decision one way or the other?

Mr. Baker

I am sure that the royal commission would not be precluded from examining that possibility although I do not know whether it would be entirely appropriate in matters of this kind. Such a sentence has been available in Scottish courts, but there is nothing within the royal commission's reference that would preclude it from considering that if it so wished.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does not the Home Secretary agree that two immediate and urgent steps could be taken in the intermediate period between now and the report of the royal commission, which I welcome? Those steps might prevent miscarriages of justice occurring on this scale.

The first step is simple. Anyone arrested should have the automatic right of access to a solicitor. At the moment, some people in some circumstances are denied such access. As a second step, and as a temporary measure the power in the Criminal Appeal Act 1968 is amended by the Criminal Justice Act 1988 for a judge in the appeals courts to review evidence as a jury would should be sustained. If a case arises in which the Court of Appeal is to review new or existing evidence that would have been reviewed by a jury, that particular case, of which there are not very many each year, should perhaps be returned to a jury for retrial. Through those temporary measures, and until the royal commission reports, we might just improve the system a little.

Mr. Baker

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is trying to be helpful, but it would be imprudent to bring forward piecemeal changes. The royal commission has been invited to consider the full range of the operation of the criminal justice system, including the examination and the right of access to a solicitor, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, such access can be denied for 36 hours and it can be denied for 48 hours under the prevention of terrorism legislation. I am sure that those matters will be considered by the royal commission, but they will be only part of a substantial consideration.

I will bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's point about the Court of Appeal. I am sure that the royal commission will consider the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Stewart) and by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). Clearly, there must be a separate, different and better system for the final process of examining miscarriages of justice. I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for St. Helens, South when he says that any body that examines miscarriages of justice should not necessarily be just a court as we know one today, but it could perhaps have —I do not anticipate the royal commission in this respect—some investigative powers of its own to consider particular evidence.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that this is a very sad day for lawyers. However, as a profession, we are grateful that my right hon. Friend has acted so speedily to investigate the whole system and, we hope, exonerate it by introducing reforms that will prevent such things happening again.

With regard to the Maguire case, the Guildford Four and this case, it is clear that there must be a mechanism by which new evidence can be examined before it is placed before the Court of Appeal, which should be able to act as a jury and evaluate that evidence. It is insufficient to consider the matter from the point of view of irregularities if we are to avoid such things happening again.

Mr. Baker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree that we should be grateful that, as I have already said, in the overwhelming majority of cases, British justice works very effectively.

With regard to my hon. Friend's final point, one of the particular characteristics of this very long case was the appearance of forensic evidence very late in the day—in 1988–89—affecting the papers of the confession and in relation to the handling of nitro-glycerine. As Lord Justice Lloyd has made clear, that evidence was available to the Court of Appeal and was no doubt germane to its decision today to quash the convictions. When new evidence is available like that, it is important that it is investigated and made available. As soon as that was known, my predecessor referred the case to the Court of Appeal.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

In his statement, the Home Secretary seemed to say that the royal commission would examine only the legal jurisdiction in England and Wales, excluding Scotland and Northern Ireland. Would any beneficial findings apply rapidly thereafter to Scotland and Northern Ireland particularly because there is grave concern in Northern Ireland about four UDR soldiers in prison there?

When did the police investigating this crime and the others to which the Home Secretary referred, cease their investigations? Why are the West Midlands police simply considering the work carried out by the Devon and Cornwall constabulary? Why are the West Midlands police not making inquiries to discover the identities of the people who actually carried out the crime? Most hon. Members do not share the view of the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) who said that this is a sad day for lawyers. This is certainly a very sad day for the police in this country. If people do not trust the police, there will be real problems. The police are responsible for the mess, not the lawyers.

Mr. Baker

Many things have come to light during this long case. The hon. Gentleman may have misheard one of my earlier replies because he asked whether the West Midlands police are conducting further investigations. As I said earlier, investigations conducted by the Devon and Cornwall constabulary have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the bombing of the premises in Birmingham—the original crime in this case. I understand from the chief constable of the West Midlands police that he intends to appoint a team to review the findings of the Devon and Cornwall inquiry and to follow up any new lines of investigation that may come to light in the actual bombing incident.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Like the Home Secretary, I recognise that the overwhelming evidence suggests that miscarriages of justice are the exception rather than the rule. However, when they occur there is a heavy burden on society to ensure that those mistakes are rectified.

The Home Secretary did not answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) about Northern Ireland and Scotland. Clearly miscarriages of justice can occur in Scotland and Northern Ireland just as they can in England and Wales. What implications might there be in the royal commission's report for Northern Ireland and Scotland particularly as the greatest case of injustice outstanding at the moment relates to four British soldiers who are members of the UDR?

Mr. Baker

In response to the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), I can tell them that the royal commission will examine the practices and procedures of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. The systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland are different from that in England and Wales, and they are also different from each other. We must await the findings. They may well have a wider application, and I bear in mind what the hon. Member for Belfast, East said. I am sure that the royal commission will consider his comments and those of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East.

I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, East that miscarriages of justice are the exception. Fortunately, that is the case, but, when they occur, they must be dealt with vigorously, competently and efficiently. The whole purpose of the royal commission is to examine the procedures so that the whole investigative process that evolves when there is an alleged miscarriage of justice means that it will be dealt with more expeditiously, more fairly and more quickly.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Does the Home Secretary accept that, if it was his aim to establish a royal commission that would fearlessly and ruthlessly weigh the evidence and produce a report that was both comprehensive and of intellectual distinction, he would have been hard pressed to find a better person to head it than the person whose name he announced today?

Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that we should not underestimate the royal commission's task? if we are to have a system of justice in which we all have confidence, the royal commission's report must be as thorough as possible? Does he accept that we must satisfy the police that British justice is as fair as we would like it to be? If the police do not believe that, some of them—I put it no higher than that—are prepared to tamper with evidence so that they get the justice they think we deserve rather than the justice we should have.

Mr. Baker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about Lord Runciman. He is a distinguished academic at Cambridge university, and I am sure that he will be a very distinguished chairman of the royal commission.

Several hon. Members have referred to the police, but serious questions also arise with regard to the handling of forensic evidence and the way in which it may or may not be made available to the defence and the rights of the defence to have access to that evidence.

Many changes are already in hand. I visited Aldermaston forensic laboratory a fortnight ago and it was explained to me that the defence now has access to forensic evidence. It can send in its own experts, see what evidence is being prepared, and have it explained. In future, the defence will be able to commission forensic laboratories to work for it. That is a tremendous advance on the system available in the 1970s, so many changes are being made.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although a terrible wrong has been done, we can take some satisfaction from the fact that a British court has freed those men? Does he agree that, in view of the grave implications of his statement, it would be appropriate in every possible way for the House to debate the matter on Monday instead of the War Crimes Bill?

Mr. Baker

That is not really a matter for me. I simply felt that it was my duty to come to the House at the earliest opportunity to make a statement. The men were released at 3.30 pm. With the full agreement of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), for which I am grateful, we made the unusual decision that a statement should be made immediately. It is right that the country should know the Government's reaction.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the IRA, through its actions, has poisoned the wells of our justice? It has killed and maimed many hundreds in the island of Ireland and our country. However, has not our democracy been found wanting and the hysteria that surrounded events 17 years ago led to convictions that were not safe, sound or satisfactory? The royal commission's inquiry will take three years, but will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the possibility of the admissibility of confessions—of linking tape recording of confessions with video tapes of confessions—to ensure that they can be neither dubious nor doubtful in the future?

Mr. Baker

Changes have been made in the way confessions are now recorded. Contemporaneous accounts of confessions are now written down and sometimes tape-recorded, but the written accounts are always signed by the arrested person. I am sure that the royal commission will consider that matter.

The hon. Gentleman commented on the IRA and its concern with justice. It is not concerned with justice at all——

Ms. Short

He did not say that. He said that the IRA was undermining justice.

Mr. Baker

In that case, I agree with him. The IRA has poisoned the wells of British justice. It is not remotely concerned with justice but with trying to destroy the democratic process in this country and the will and determination of successive Governments not to give in to it. It will not succeed.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, whatever rejoicing may be taking place in some quarters tonight, deep anger and dismay will be felt in others that, after 17 years, the evil people responsible for the crime that killed 21 people and injured hundreds of others are still at large? Will he confirm that no effort will be spared by the West Midlands police in the inquiry that he has announced to the House? Will he also ensure, in looking to the future, that no effort will be spared and every assistance—financial and therwise—will be given to police forces throughout the country to root out the IRA, whose evil work we in Staffordshire have had to put up with, at close quarters in the past year?

Mr. Baker

I sympathise with my hon. Friend, because last year saw the murder of a soldier in a station in Staffordshire and the wounding of two other people. There was also an earlier incident in Staffordshire this year. I assure my hon. Friend that no money or effort will be spared in dealing with terrorist attacks and trying to ensure that they do not occur. I assure him that arrangements have been made. I have strengthened the counter-terrorist activity in our country in the past two or three months and further resources have been made available, because we must provide every support to ensuring that people who commit crimes of such an appalling nature are brought to justice. This afternoon, we contacted the chief constable of West Midlands police, who intends to appoint a team to look into the original crime in this matter—the Birmingham pub bombings.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Would the Home Secretary care to express his sympathy for the families of those six men—their wives and children—who struggled for 17 long years, with many disappointments and much of the time alone, to see justice done? Would he care to recall to mind what Lord Denning said in 1980 in one of those appeals, that if those men were innocent, the police were guilty of perjury, violence and threats? The obtaining of confessions involuntarily and improperly has been put in evidence. Will the Home Secretary assure the House that those policemen will be brought to trial?

Mr. Baker

Investigations are being conducted at the request of the chief constable of the West Midlands police, by the Devon and Cornwall police into any allegations that may be made. I am not prepared to comment on them now, but I assure the hon. Lady that the matter is in hand.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that, without the tireless campaign by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Birmingham Six would not have been released today? Is he aware that one of the criteria by which a criminal justice system is judged is its ability to correct mistakes? Far from weakening British justice, today's decision will strengthen it.

Mr. Baker

I recognise the campaign of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and the books that he produced. I am sure that he will be disappointed that he is not present to see the culmination of his efforts.

Mr. Hattersley

He is at court.

Mr. Baker

He is at the court. I am sure that he will be pleased to know the outcome. It is a test of a judicial system that, when errors are identified, they can be corrected. Errors have been made in this case and have been corrected.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Has the Secretary of State seen early-day motion 518 signed by 69 Members from both sides of the House, expressing disquiet about the sentencing of four Ulster Defence Regiment men? Does he recognise that many people in Northern Ireland will feel hurt by today's news that the royal commission will be restricted to England and Wales? There is no constitutional reason why it could not have included Northern Ireland. As the case in Northern Ireland seems to be moving slowly—as did the Birmingham one—but inexorably towards a similar result as the Birmingham case, will the Secretary of State consider at this stage extending the role of the royal commission to Northern Ireland?

The Secretary of State commented that, for courts to have our respect, they must find guilty people guilty and innocent people innocent. Will he make it clear that guilty people will not be found innocent anywhere in the United Kingdom and that, in some cases, those found not guilty are not automatically presumed innocent?

Mr. Baker

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, it is not for me to determine guilt or innocence, but those men were wrongly imprisoned. They should not have been convicted on the evidence that was presented to the court and will receive compensation for that.

I shall resist the invitation to extend the inquiry of the royal commission into the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. I know what the hon. Gentleman has said and will draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has similar powers of referral in such matters.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the royal commission will look into the appointment of judges, particularly High Court judges and their backgrounds, and perhaps come up with recommendations to appoint judges from a wider base? Has he seen any sign today that the senior judges involved in the case may be considering early retirement? That might do more than the royal commission to restore confidence in our judiciary.

Mr. Baker

Those matters are not for me, and the role of the royal commission does not extend to considering the appointment of judges.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

Many people will be disappointed that the Home Secretary so grudgingly acknowledged the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) in this issue. There were three words that he could have used, were they in his lexic: gratitude, apology and thanks to my hon. Friend for the role that he played. I am afraid and disappointed that the grudging and mean-minded manner with which the Home Secretary responded has done little to improve his stature in the House.

On inquiries, does the Home Secretary accept that while many of us welcome a royal commission and even an investigation into the events surrounding the initial crime, we are more worried about the intervening 17 years than the six weeks or six months of the investigation? Does he accept that some of us find it absolutely impossible to understand how, apparently despite all the evidence, during that period, the establishment refused to accept that six innocent people were in prison?

Will the Home Secretary caution his colleagues on the Conservative Benches? I have listened to accusations that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and others, including myself, were supporters of the Provisional IRA when we raised a matter of justice. Will he caution his colleagues that, whether in the case of the Maguires, the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six or the UDR Four, our fight for justice does not mean that we are supporters of the Provisional IRA, or fully paid-up members of the Orange lodge?

Mr. Baker

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point. On his earlier points about the length of time taken, I agree that it has taken a totally unacceptable time to resolve this matter. That is one of the matters that the royal commission will consider. If there are alleged miscarriages of justice, they must be investigated in a more expeditious way than has been possible in this case. I remind the hon. Gentleman that important forensic evidence came to light very late in this case. That evidence in particular led the Court of Appeal to quash the convictions.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the royal commission's investigations stretch over the dishonourable conduct of parts of the press? There was a tissue of lies, vilification and abuse of people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who was described as a loony left Member of Parliament who backed bombers, simply because he raised questions about a matter which has turned out to be probably the most serious miscarriage of justice in the history of our criminal courts. It is important that the journalists who produce such distortions and vilifications are held to account. Such journalists contributed a great deal to the hysterical atmosphere that resulted in the mistaken convictions in the first place.

Will the Home Secretary confirm that this case demonstrates beyond peradventure, as lawyers are wont to say, that capital punishment has no place in our society and rests only in the minds of a few Tory backwoodsmen?

Mr. Baker

On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman knows my view. When the crimes were committed, the possibility of the capital sentence for them did not exist in British law. Although the terms of the royal commission are wide, they do not extend to the press. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to continue to make the points that he raised—many may feel that they are valid or invalid, but that is not for me to say—he should make a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Is not there a risk that statements from the Home Secretary from the Dispatch Box to a sombre House may have the effect of sanitising the horrow of what has happened in the past 17 years? The horror is not so much that forensic evidence came to light relatively recently, as the Home Secretary just said, but the knowledge, which is familiar to anyone who has any information whatever about the case, that the men were assaulted in custody and thereafter made statements. If people received life sentences on that basis in any other country in the world, we in Britain would express outrage.

Lastly, following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), will the Home Secretary reflect that, if he were ever sufficiently mistaken as to listen to advice on criminal justice matters from most of his hon. Friends—including his predecessor and the former Prime Minister, who are keen supporters of the death penalty—we should have no cause to rejoice in cases such as this when convictions were quashed? We all know precisely what would have happened in 1974.

Mr. Baker

The capital sentence was not available to the courts when the crimes were committed. It had been taken off the statute book before that. I made my views clearly known on that in the debate before Christmas. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's strictures about my predecessor or my hon. Friends. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned that there should not be miscarriages of justice and that, if there are alleged miscarriages of justice, they should be examined properly, dealt with expeditiously and, if an injustice has been perpetrated, corrected.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)


Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Shersby.

Mr. Skinner

He has just walked in.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am on my feet. Although the hon. Gentleman was not here for the statement, he assures me that he has read it.

Mr. Shersby

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the terms of reference of the royal commission will be restricted to pre-trial procedures, forensic evidence and other related matters? Or will it provide an opportunity to examine the role of the police in modern society? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has not been a royal commission on the police force since the Willink report? Is not this a time when such a royal commission could examine the broader issues to which I referred?

Mr. Baker

We do not envisage that the royal commission will be extended into a commission on all the various aspects of the police, which is what my hon. Friend implied. However, I draw his attention to the first two points, and particularly the first point, in the terms of reference. Clearly, the royal commission will look into the conduct of police investigations and their supervision by senior police officers.

Mr. Speaker

Before the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) interrupts me again, I remind the House that the statement was not shown on the screen, so I am allowing a certain amount of latitude.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I apologise that I was not in the Chamber for the statement for the reasons that you have given, Mr. Speaker. May I ask a precise question arising out of the May committee, which is investigating the Guildford case and is examining the police and other matters? It is being held up because of the police inquiry and because there may be court cases. Therefore, the May committee investigation is being slowed down. Will the same thing happen to the royal commission? There may well be—I put it no higher than that—court cases arising out of the conduct of the West Midlands police. As what went on in the police force is germane to the inquiry, will another problem arise? In any event, where will the May investigation slot into the royal commission?

Mr. Baker

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman was not present to hear my statement, but I know that he follows these matters closely. Sir John May is looking into the cases of the Guildford Four and of the Maguires. He is held up on the Guildford Four because there is a possibility that criminal proceedings will be brought against certain officers. The investigation cannot continue until that case is resolved. But Sir John May has agreed to be a member of the royal commission, so he will be able to bring his considerable experience to bear on the work of the commission. That is why the royal commission has general terms of reference rather than terms of reference specific to a particular incident or to the Birmingham Six.

Mr. Hattersley

May I offer the Home Secretary another opportunity—he has had five already—to show a little graciousness in this matter and offer congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), without whom the men would still be in prison?

When the right hon. Gentleman has abandoned the mean-mindedness of previous answers, will he deal with another question? Six of his answers referred to the protections provided by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Will he confirm that, if six men were arrested and accused of similar crimes today, they would not be afforded the protection of PACE? They would be denied immediate access to solicitors, which was one of the problems in the case of the Birmingham Six and would be a problem if the case were reproduced today.

Mr. Baker

I have recognised the work of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He wrote his book and he has campaigned hard. He has every right to feel proud that the convictions have been quashed today.

On the right hon. Gentleman's particular point, considerable changes have been made as a result of PACE —[Interruption.] May I reply to the right hon. Gentleman? Those changes would have affected substantially the way in which the original investigations were conducted. For example, there are now custody records. The custody sergeant would have had to read out the clear rights which were available to the person in the police station who had been arrested but not charged. As it was alleged that the men were beaten up, the custody sergeant would have had to decide whether a doctor should be called to examine the arrested men. Changes have also been made on the signing of confessions. On periods without solicitors, as I have already said, two different proceedings are clearly set out in PACE. The period without solicitors under PACE is 36 hours and under the prevention of terrorism Act it is 48 hours.

The right hon. Gentleman should recognise that a lot of changes have been made, but I agree that we must consider the whole procedure of the criminal justice system to see whether other changes should be made. He should be generous enough to recognise that, over the past few years, we have made many changes to ensure that the criminal justice system works better.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Judging from the questions that have been allowed this afternoon, I take it that the basic rule has not been changed. Ordinarily, people must be here for the statement. This statement was notified on the annunciators and it would be regarded critically if people were allowed special privileges, such as being able to read copies of the statement. Copies are not available to ordinary Back Benchers and the House would be regarded critically—not you, Mr. Speaker—if people who are paid about £30,000 a year by outside organisations were given access to the statement so that they could ask questions to earn their money.

Mr. Speaker

I have already dealt with that matter. The hon. Gentleman knows that the statement did not appear on the annunciators until the middle of business questions which was well after 3.30 pm. That is why I allowed a little discretion today. The general rule has not changed. If hon. Members are not here to hear the statement, it is very difficult for them to ask questions and therefore they are not normally called.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not need any help. I allowed two hon. Members who had not heard the statement to ask questions. Today is a private Members' day and they could perhaps have asked questions during the coming debate, but they might not have received an answer.

Mr. Williams

I wish to raise a different matter. I accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker. Personally, I am not dissatisfied as notification of the statement appeared very late on the monitors. A more interesting point is that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) implied that he had read a copy of the statement. Perhaps the Secretary of State had a copy put in the Library or in the Vote Office concurrently with coming to the Dispatch Box. On previous occasions, Mr. Speaker, you have said that you think it wrong that some Back Benchers should have access to copies of statements which are denied to others. I want to raise that aspect—whether copies of this statement were generally available or whether they were available only as a special privilege for spokesmen for the Police Federation.

Mr. Speaker

I do not know. When the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) came to see me, he said that although he had not heard the statement, he had read it. Where he got it, I do not know.