HC Deb 28 February 1996 vol 272 cc819-42

11 am

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)

I am glad to initiate this debate, which will be the first time that this distressing case has been fully discussed in the House.

The tragic and outrageous murder of newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater, whose parents and family deserve our sympathy, has been shrouded in controversy since November 1979 when four men were convicted for the killing. Vincent Hickey and James Robinson went down for life for the murder and Michael Hickey was also convicted of murder and detained during Her Majesty's pleasure. Pat Molloy got 12 years for manslaughter.

Six weeks after the convictions, a man called Hubert Spencer shot his friend Hubert Wilks through the head in the farm next door to the one where the murder was committed. It emerged at once that Spencer had been an early police suspect for the Bridgewater murder, that he knew Yew Tree farm—where the murder had been committed—had coveted antiques there such as those that were stolen during the robbery and had access to shotguns. It also emerged that a blue Vauxhall Viva, driven by a man in uniform, was seen going into the farm an hour and a half before the murder. Intensive police inquiries throughout the midlands could establish only one owner of a blue Vauxhall Viva who wore a uniform—Hubert Spencer.

The convicted men consistently pleaded their innocence and a huge array of evidence has been uncovered to challenge the slender case that was made against them at their trial. Replying recently to questions in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who I am pleased to see in his seat, referred twice to the numerous police inquiries into the case since 1981. He said that the latest batches of new evidence have been thoroughly examined—extremely thoroughly examined". —[Official Report, 15 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 1126.] He asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) whether he recognised the thoroughness of the police investigations that had been carried out.

Hon. Members who are worried about the case recognise the thoroughness of the police investigations and the inordinate length of time that they have taken but, as we have discovered recently, thoroughness is not always the same as fairness. There is a great deal to suggest that the recent investigation into the case by Merseyside police, though intensely thorough, has not been fair to the convicted men and their families.

Most of the recent new evidence submitted to the Home Office by the men's lawyers has dealt with the confessions of Pat Molloy, which are the kernel of the case. He was arrested on 8 December 1978. He was held at Wombourne police station and refused access to friends, family and lawyers. On 10 December, he signed a confession that he was upstairs at Yew Tree farm when the murder was committed. The confession named the other three men as the boy's killers.

Molloy was refused access to a lawyer for another eight days, until 18 December. The moment that he saw a lawyer on that day, and ever since, he insisted that he had never been at the farm, that his confession was wholly false and that he had signed it out of fear of the police and for revenge against the Hickeys, who, he was led to believe, had implicated him in the crime. At his trial, however, acting on legal advice, he did not give evidence and did not deny his confession. Though he pleaded not guilty and denied that he was at the farm, his lawyers asked the jury to conclude that if it thought that he had been at the farm, he was guilty not of murder but only of being an accomplice.

That tortuous defence, and Molloy's failure to give evidence, was the turning point in the trial. He was convicted of manslaughter and the other three of murder. Almost immediately after his conviction, he submitted an appeal. He regretted his silence at the trial and insisted again that he had never been at the farm. He said that his confession had been beaten out of him by police officers, whom he identified. He set out the details of his beatings in a series of memoranda to the Court of Appeal and in conversations and letters to his sister, to his son, to Jimmy Robinson's then girlfriend Carol Bradbury and to Ann Whelan, the mother of Michael Hickey, who had visited him. In July 1981, before he could get to the Court of Appeal, he died of a heart attack in Gartree prison.

The new evidence submitted by Molloy's family lawyers in 1993 provides powerful—some would say overwhelming—evidence in support of Molloy's story. For instance, the lawyers had proved 14 separate visits to his cell at Wombourne by police officers connected with the inquiry. The records show no recorded interviews during any of those visits.

The Home Office asked Merseyside to interview the police officers concerned. Those officers do not dispute—they cannot really since it is on record—that they went to Molloy's cell on all the occasions alleged. They do not dispute that there were no recorded interviews. By way of explanation, they claim that they were inquiring after his welfare, checking that he was properly fed and so on. That is all accepted by the police investigators. Is it credible that the police at Wombourne should have shown such assiduous concern for a man who had just signed a confession to one of the worst murders ever known in the area?

A more credible explanation for the 14 missing interviews may be that the officers were searching desperately but unsuccessfully for a single shred of evidence to corroborate Molloy's confession. On 14 December, in desperation, officers from another force took Molloy to Yew Tree farm. It was plain to them that he did not recognise the place where only three months earlier he had allegedly taken part in the killing of the young boy.

The plain fact is that over 17 years not a single piece of evidence has been found to corroborate Molloy's confession. The likelihood that the 14 mystery visits were inspired by an anxious determination to authenticate what the officers rightly feared might be an entirely false confession is not even considered by the investigation's police officers, who simply took the word of the Wombourne police on trust.

Here is another example. The police investigation attempted to uncover a number of occasions on which Molloy is said to have confessed to police and prison officers after the trial. Each of those alleged confessions is highly dubious. One, provided by a prison officer at Winson Green, is flatly contradicted by prison records, but the Merseyside police blamed the records rather than the officer. Moreover, the list of alleged confessions has been submitted as hard evidence without the other side of the story ever being considered. Molloy's son Nick, Ann Whelan, and Molloy's sister Frances—all of whom can testify to Molloy's strenuous denials of his confession right up to the day before he died—were never interviewed by the Merseyside police. One side of the story is set out at great length; the other is not even investigated.

There are many other examples. When overwhelming linguistic evidence proved that Molloy's confession interviews could not have been taken down verbatim, as the trial was told, the police investigators promptly switched the goal posts and claimed that the confession had been taken down in response to "trigger notes".

A man called Mike Chamberlain stated on television in the summer of 1993 that his friend the late Detective Constable Perkins—the police officer who had taken Molloy's confession—told him clearly that he intended to extract a confession out of Molloy". Chamberlain is dismissed by the Merseyside investigation on the basis of a statement that he made a year earlier that he did not want to speak to the police.

At the appeal hearing, much was made of the fact that Spencer had not had access to a gun at the time of the murder; yet, when the police investigators discovered that he had been sold a shotgun in the summer before the murder, they dismissed it as irrelevant. There is powerful evidence that yet more misleading statements were made by the only substantial witness against Jimmy Robinson—Mervyn Ritter, a man already exposed in the courts as a pathological liar. That, too, seems to have been dismissed too easily by the investigation.

It is simply not good enough for the Home Secretary to take it on himself to dismiss all that new evidence solely on the basis of a private police inquiry. That is at the heart of the argument for reopening the case in public. The Home Secretary cannot and should not usurp the role of the courts by deciding himself about controversial evidence that has been tested only by police officers in secret, not by discovery of documents and cross-examination in open court. If, as many believe, a terrible injustice has been done to those men, each year that passes compounds that injustice. Each year brings new evidence, all of it exonerating the men and none of it implicating them.

In 1993, Tim O'Malley, who had been foreman of the jury at the 1979 trial, came forward. He had, he said, been convinced of the men's guilt at the trial, but was now even more convinced of their innocence. What plainer proof can there be that a verdict is unsafe than such a statement from the jury foreman, made at some risk to himself? Surely the honourable and open thing to do is to send the case back to the Court of Appeal.

11.14 am
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I shall speak only briefly about the case that was set out so clearly, and in so much detail, by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner).

In one way or another, I have been involved with the case for the past 14 years—initially because Ann Whelan, Michael Hickey's mother, was a constituent of mine and visited my advice bureau. I pay tribute to the dogged determination with which she has argued her son's case for the past 15 years, but I confess that, when she first spoke to me, I was sceptical about her son's innocence. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) will confirm that it has never been my way to assume automatically that cases that he regards as miscarriages of justice are miscarriages of justice. He would say that I had come late to the defence of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford bombers, as they were once wrongly described.

My natural instinct when I first met Mrs. Whelan was to assume that mothers are inclined to believe that sons are innocent. At the time, her son was on the roof of the prison in which he was incarcerated, and I believed then that there was more emotion than evidence to her case. Over the years, however, I have become utterly convinced that the case that she made then was right. Week after week, month after month, additional evidence has been supplied to support that case.

Looking back, I now realise that the case began with the basic ingredient for a miscarriage of justice. Locally, there was a sense of absolute outrage—which was proper and understandable—that a newspaper boy doing his rounds in the morning, wholly unconcerned with what was going on, should stumble on robbers and be shot dead. In my experience, such outrage—fuelled by the newspapers, which say that someone must be convicted and that the case must be speedily resolved—puts pressure on police, which in itself is likely to produce the wrong result. I have no doubt that it was that sense of outrage that began the whole process.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East pointed out, the entire case rests on Molloy's evidence. I do not want to repeat my hon. Friend's account of how that evidence was obtained, but there is little doubt that Molloy believed—I make no allegation that he was told—that, if he incriminated the men who were eventually convicted of the murder, he would escape on a lesser charge. That is speculation; but it is a fact that, had the events occurred 10 years later, Molloy's evidence would have been discounted, because it was wholly inconsistent with the rules laid down by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Molloy was kept for 10 days without proper assistance from a lawyer, and, for much of that time, without any support from his family. The records of his evidence are inadequate by any standards. The pattern continues. After the conviction, when it was known that appeals were likely and that Molloy had recanted—he had announced that he had been wrong to incriminate the other three men—14 visits were made to his cell. They were not recorded in diaries as they should have been, and the conversations that took place in the cell were also not recorded, as would now be required for evidence to be acceptable to the courts. That pattern of what would now be regarded as malpractice characterised the entire process, not simply of obtaining the conviction, but of ensuring that public outrage at the conviction, and the formal appeal, should not have the result that I consider justice to have required.

Two weeks ago, at Question Time, I referred to the strange incident of the bicycle. Although it is a small incident in the overall saga, it is indicative of the sort of procedures that were used. I knew about the bicycle because, during one of her visits to my constituency surgery, Mrs. Whelan had told me that she had heard that there were fingerprints on it, about which we were not being told the full story. The bicycle was exhibited in court, but not much was said about it, although it was standing there in front of the jury. The bicycle was then left in the jury room. The jury, no doubt, felt emotionally involved because it was the bicycle of the innocent paper boy who had pedalled off in the morning and who had met his death when he was shot by robbers at the farm. The jury felt emotionally disturbed by the presence of the boy's bicycle as they considered their verdict.

We now know that there were fingerprints on the bicycle, but we do not know whose they were. We know that the fingerprints were not those of Michael Hickey or the men who were eventually convicted of the murder, but they were never identified. Over 10 years ago, on the suggestion of Mrs. Whelan, I asked the then Home Secretary about the fingerprints and he gave me an answer that I can describe only as evasive. He said that he knew nothing of them and referred me to the local police. The local police gave me an answer that was equally uninformative. It was not until months afterwards that we discovered that another person had been present at the crime scene—the fingerprints proved it, but that evidence was not provided during the trial.

When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), about this the other day, he said that the defence counsel had known this before the appeal. The defence counsel certainly did not know it at the time of the trial. Indeed, the principal counsel, now a High Court judge, has said publicly that had he known it at the time of the trial, he would have asked for the scene of crime officer to be called in evidence and he would have cross-examined him about the possibility of other persons being there. That is just one example, but I could give many more—and I am sure that my hon. Friends will give many more.

I conclude by making one simple point. Michael Hickey had many misfortunes: the misfortune that he was implicated in a crime about which there were proper feelings of outrage; the misfortune that the police were determined to find someone to convict; the misfortune that a man—Molloy—believed it was to his advantage to incriminate others to receive a lighter sentence; the misfortune that the evidence of that man, which was recanted, was not available to the appeal because he died of a heart attack; and the misfortune that he appealed two or three years too early.

I do not mean that Michael Hickey's mother and those who supported him were over-enthusiastic; I mean that he went to appeal at a time when the Court of Appeal was taking the hardest possible line on these matters. I believe that had the appeal taken place in the new circumstances—when a different attitude and a different Lord Chief Justice prevail—a different result would have been obtained. For those reasons and because of the dubiety that covers so much of the evidence, I am sure that the Home Secretary should resubmit the case to the court. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that that course has not entirely been ruled out.

I do not always understand the arcane language of the law, but as I understand the Home Secretary's response, he has said that he has not quite made up his mind not to do it; he has nearly made up his mind not to do it, but there is still a chink of hope that he might do it. I hope that that chink of hope can be extended. I am absolutely certain that, sooner or later, as has been the case in other examples of the miscarriage of justice, Michael Hickey will come out of prison. It will be righted sooner or later. It will be a tragedy if he is allowed to stay in prison unjustly for any longer than is necessary. There must be an immediate submission to the Court of Appeal.

11.23 am
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)

It is pleasing to see that a number of hon. Members have a particular interest in the case. I do not wish to go into the minutiae of it. I agree with a number of the points that have been made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner). One of the concerns that I have was expressed in an article in The Guardian in June 1993. I refer to the remarks attributed to Mr. Tim O'Malley, who was the foreman of the jury at Stafford Crown court.

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) is in this place this morning.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

I welcome this debate and I pay tribute to the extremely careful analysis that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner). I believe that this matter should be reviewed and referred to the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Banks

The murder of Carl Bridgewater has unleashed a multitude of theories, conspiracies, scapegoats and excuses over the last 17 or so years—most of which have been eagerly recounted by hon. Members. Before I deal with the unsatisfactory story of the incarceration of the four convicted, let me make it clear that the first thought of many of us—particularly hon. Members on Government Benches—is for the victim and his family. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), said: I hope that all hon. Members will also bear in mind the appalling time that the family of young Carl Bridgewater have had. They have suffered terribly, and the continuing publicity and time involved in considering representations are causing them even more suffering."—[Official Report, 15 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 1132.] If Carl had been spared his ordeal at Yew Tree farm in 1978, he would be just a few years younger than I am now. Nothing will ever compensate his family for his loss. What will always make me and others feel a little more whole, a bit more secure, is the knowledge that the real murderers are behind bars and that they are being punished as severely as society will allow. What must be causing untold distress to Carl's family is not so much the seeming uncertainty that surrounds the four convictions, but the continuing publicity that is accorded to the death of their boy. Paul Foot, who has been eulogised many times, said in his book "Murder at the Farm": Each time the case got any publicity, they said, the suffering of that awful September came back to haunt them. Whoever did the murder was to them of small significance compared to the fact that their son was gone. Between 1981 and 1987, there were four secret police inquiries into new evidence, which have cast doubt on those convictions. In 1987, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), referred the case to the Court of Appeal. The appeal lasted nine weeks through 1988 and 1989 and was dismissed. In February 1993, the then Home Secretary, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, turned down leave for appeal by the three men on the ground that the new evidence presented to him did not cast doubt on the convictions. New evidence has been presented to the Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), and as the Home Office press release of 7 December 1995 put it: The Home Secretary has not decided whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal, although at present he is minded not to do so. As someone who takes a slightly different line on this matter from Labour Members, I, too, am appalled at the length of time it is taking for the case to be fully closed. It seems to me that it will never go away.

The point I want to make about the convictions must be prefaced by my belief that, of course, if the men's convictions are found to be unsafe, they should be freed. No one, no matter how unsavoury, should be locked away for any longer than they deserve. I say "longer than they deserve" because it is a fact that we are not yet dealing with victims when we talk about Patrick Molloy, Vincent Hickey, Michael Hickey or Jimmy Robinson. I am sure that their families have been badly affected by their long incarceration, especially Molloy's family because he died while in prison. However, the only victims in this case, as I understand it, are Carl Bridgewater and his family.

Many aspects of the case are unsatisfactory. In my view, the rooftop protests of Michael Hickey and Jimmy Robinson suggest that there is a strong grievance inside these men. The excruciating investigation into this case carried out by Paul Foot, Ann Whelan, Michael Hickey's mother, and others has cast a suspicion that the Home Secretary and the courts could throw out this case 100 times and the defence would still come back for more.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was never a shred of forensic evidence linking Michael Hickey or any of the others to the crime? Indeed, the only evidence against Michael Hickey was another prisoner saying that while Mr. Hickey was in the shower, he had confessed to the crime. The prisoner's confession was later retracted. The Court of Appeal decided not to take into account the evidence of the prisoner who had put forward the fabricated confession, which means that there has never been any evidence to link Michael Hickey with the crime.

Mr. Banks

The hon. Lady will know that Mr. O'Malley's comments in the report from The Guardian to which I referred, were followed by those of Dr. Eric Shepherd, a forensic psychologist commissioned as part of the Government inquiry into the convictions. The report said that he concluded that Mr. Molloy's crucial confession was unreliable. Yet, when people are reminded that both Molloy and Vincent Hickey originally confessed—Hickey in an attempt to "save his own skin", to use Foot's words, from the Chapel farm robbery charge and Molloy because he received a better deal than the others—that Molloy was a convicted robber and that Hickey and Robinson were likewise hoodlums, it is palpably nonsense to describe them as anything other than shady and callous criminals who may well have received a lot more than their come-uppance.

I read through some of the press cuttings of the case. I was perplexed to see the unjust captivity of John McCarthy compared with the ordeal of the three men in prison by Jill Morrell. If those men are set free by the courts, I shall see the validity of the comparison a little more clearly.

In another press cutting—somehow speaking during his rooftop protest in 1993—Jimmy Robinson spoke to John Mullin of The Guardian. Describing his situation on the roof of Gartree prison with his fellow protester—another convicted murderer—he said: The cold is the worst. Then boredom. We read magazines and old newspapers they send us up. We keep each other company. We tell each other about our lives. We tell each other jokes. We're both good liars, you know. He may well be; the other two may well be too.

My arbitrary quotation of Robinson is symptomatic of the case in its entirety. There have been so many statements, retractions, accusations and so forth that the case goes on like some horrible soap opera, with the original crime almost hidden by the quagmire of investigation into the so-called Bridgewater Four. It would be more sensitive to call them the Yew Tree Four, but that is just my mind set.

My speech is not necessarily intended to be a contribution to the continuing investigation, but I hope that it reminds people of the true victims in the case. Those who genuinely want a possible miscarriage of justice righted are to be admired. While failings in a criminal justice system must be corrected, I am not so sure about my feelings towards those who possibly see the case as an opportunity to attack the system as a whole—although I am not suggesting that right hon. and hon. Members have done so today—or towards those who forget the feelings of the loved ones, who do not want to see the circumstances surrounding their son Carl's death staring at them in every newspaper from now until who knows when.

11.32 am
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I endorse what the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) said about the family of Carl Bridgewater. All of us who have been involved in cases of miscarriage of justice understand the terrible effect that the case dragging on unresolved year after year must have on the families of the victims. It is as much in their interests as in the interests of the men who, I believe, have been wrongly convicted that we bring the situation to an end.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) on his good fortune in obtaining this debate and on the clear way in which he set out the issues. I am glad that it is clear that the case, like the other celebrated miscarriages of justice, is beginning to attract support from both sides of the House. I have never felt that concern about miscarriages of justice should be confined to one side. I have always dealt with the issues and looked at them from the point of view of justice rather than from any party political perspective, and I will continue to do so. In all the great alleged miscarriages of justice, I have taken heart from and worked happily with Conservative Members who have come to the same conclusions as I have. I look forward to doing so in this case.

This is the greatest unresolved miscarriage of justice. I am genuinely puzzled that Ministers so stubbornly refuse to face up to what has obviously gone wrong. I do not know of any other case in which the foreman of the original jury has publicly stated that he does not believe that the men would have been convicted if the jury had known then what we know today. That statement is wholly unprecedented. Since one of the judgments that the Court of Appeal has to make when deciding whether to quash a conviction is to decide what the effect of new evidence would be on the jury, the evidence of the foreman of the original jury is something to which great weight ought to be given.

When the Guildford and Birmingham cases collapsed, we were assured that lessons had been learnt and that there would be no repetition of the scandals of the late 1980s and early 1990s. For a while, that seemed to be the case. Yet here we are, going round the same old track again, with endless police investigations that lead nowhere and cost enormous amounts of public money and crucial information that should have been disclosed at the trial having to be prised out of Ministers and officials line by line.

Five years after the royal commission on criminal justice was set up, there is still no sign—or not much sign—of the establishment of the independent review authority for which we legislated last year. If ever there were a case that ought to be dealt with swiftly by the review authority, the Bridgewater case is it. The post of chairman was advertised last September and interviews took place last December, but a chairman has not yet been appointed. I do not believe that the authority is likely to be set up until at least the back end of this year, and I cannot understand the long delay.

Mention has been made of the confession of Patrick Molloy, which is central to the case—it hinges on his confession, which was extracted in extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps I should qualify that by saying that they were not all that extraordinary, compared with the way in which the West Midlands police went about their business at the time. Certainly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, no court today would uphold a conviction based on a confession obtained in those extraordinary circumstances.

I notice that the confession was taken by Detective Constable Perkins of the West Midlands serious crime squad, who is one of the most complained about officers in one of the most complained about forces in the country. I notice, too, another familiar name—that of Detective Sergeant Hornby, who was peripherally involved with the case. He is probably the most complained about officer in the most complained about force in the country. I have the advantage of having seen his disciplinary record, which was disclosed at the Birmingham pub bombings trial, in which he played a part.

I am looking forward with great interest to the day when the discipline record of DC Perkins will have to be disclosed, to find out what other allegations of a similar nature have been made about that man, as I know that there are quite a lot. While we are on the subject, I wonder where that discipline file has got to. I should have thought that it was relevant, considering his central role in the case. If his credibility is so relevant, I should have thought that that file ought by now to have been disclosed and I hope that the Minister will tell us what plans he has for doing so.

It is strongly my view that no court today would allow a confession obtained in such circumstances to stand. I am puzzled as to why Ministers are still clinging to the wreckage.

On fingerprints, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook referred, the fact that two unidentified fingerprints were found on the bicycle belonging to Carl Bridgewater has emerged recently, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East said. I raised that matter with the Minister on 15 February, and I think that he gave me a misleading answer. He said that the existence of the fingerprints had been disclosed in 1988—that is only nine years after they were known to the prosecution—whereas the truth is that all the defence was told in 1988 was that two unidentified fingerprints had been found at the farm; not quite the same thing.

It was not revealed until 1994 that the prints had been on the bike, which was picked up by one of those responsible for this terrible deed and thrown into a pigsty. No one should be under any doubt about the significance of those fingerprints, because the police were not. They took the matter seriously at that time and records show that they contacted 34 police forces in an attempt to discover who had left the fingerprints. The police lost interest in the fingerprints only when they had charged the four men, against whom there was no forensic evidence and of whose fingerprints there was no sign at the farm.

I invite the Minister to correct the false impression that he gave me on 15 February and to confirm that the existence of fingerprints on the bike were not disclosed until 1994, 16 years after they were known to the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Igor Judge. So much, incidentally, for the contention in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill, which we debated only yesterday, that we can rely on the Crown to disclose all relevant material to the defence.

I wish to repeat a point made by others the other day, but which has not yet been made today. As I understand it, it is not the job of Ministers to evaluate the new evidence—though, God knows, there is enough of it. Ministers have to decide only whether new evidence of sufficient significance has emerged to warrant a referral to the Court of Appeal. In this case, that is manifestly so.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook made an important point. It is no good the Minister telling us that much of the new evidence was considered by the Court of Appeal in 1988 and 1989. The defendants had the bad luck to be referred to the Court of Appeal while it was still under old management. I have no doubt that there would be a different result today if the case were to be referred.

To give an idea of the extraordinary nature of the 1989 appeal judgment, one need only consider the passage about the witness, Mr. Mervyn Ritter. The gist of that passage was that the judges accepted that Mr. Mervyn Ritter was a pathological liar, but on that occasion they believed that he could be relied on as a witness of the truth. It is hard to deal rationally with people who think along those lines, but I must restrain myself. I draw that passage to the attention of the House only as a sample of the quality of the thinking of the Court of Appeal under old management. I am confident that that would not happen again today.

The hon. Member for Southport referred to the long rooftop protest made by some of the defendants. They were on the roof of Gartree prison for 89 days in 1983, during one of the coldest winters of this century. I realise that that is not evidence, but I wish to point out to the Minister as gently as possible that the fact that someone who is arguing his innocence is prepared to endure discomfort of that magnitude is surely evidence that he feels a sense of grievance. I do not believe that someone who was trying to con us would sit for 89 days on the roof of a prison in one of the coldest winters of this century. He would not have done that if he did not feel that he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. But I can see that the Minister is looking puzzled. The other evidence is strong enough and there is no need to dwell on such esoteric points. If the Minister is not convinced by it, he should forget it.

This case will not go away. If Ministers decline to refer it, it will be one of the first cases to fall on the desk of the criminal cases review authority when eventually it is set up.

All 17 of the people whom I said were innocent in my maiden speech in 1987–18, including Judith Ward, whose innocence I first drew to the attention of the House in July 1988—have had their convictions quashed and are walking the streets with compensation in their pockets. With that in mind, I can tell the Minister that I am confident that these three men will walk out of the front door of the Old Bailey with their convictions quashed, too. For the sake of everyone, not least the family of Carl Bridgewater, let us get it over with.

11.44 am
Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I am privileged to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who has been so active in campaigning against miscarriages of justice long before it was fashionable to do so.

One common thread running through the many recent miscarriages of justice is that many of those falsely convicted had some criminal background that led the police, under pressure to secure convictions, to presume guilt and then to cut corners in their investigation. The Bridgewater Four is another such case. There is no doubt that Vincent Hickey, Michael Hickey, Jimmy Robinson and Pat Molloy all had criminal backgrounds, but it was the unscrupulous behaviour of Vincent Hickey that led to disaster for all four.

In late 1977, Vincent Hickey, who had a long history of petty crime, was involved with three others in deception and robbery at a house in Rickmansworth. Evidence was left behind that allowed them to be traced. On arrest in February 1978, Hickey quickly realised that the game was up and offered a deal. He would give the police the names of his accomplices if he was charged only with deception, not robbery. The result was that Vincent Hickey received only a two-year suspended sentence, while his cousin Reg Hickey—who later gave evidence, subsequently retracted, that Vincent knew the area around Yew Tree farm—got four years in prison. The enormous value of grassing was not lost on Vincent Hickey.

On 24 November 1978—the day that Vincent Hickey was in court for the Rickmansworth job—Michael Hickey, another cousin, took part in an armed robbery at Tesco in Northfield in Birmingham. His accomplice was James Robinson, whom Michael had met at the Dog and Partridge pub in Selly Oak a month earlier, but several weeks after the cold-blooded killing of Carl Bridgewater on 19 September 1978.

Robinson later joined both Vincent and Michael Hickey in an armed robbery at Chapel farm, another isolated farm like Yew Tree farm. That coincidence did not go unnoticed by the press. Chapel farm is about an hour's drive from the site of Carl's murder. During the robbery, their car was seen and traced to Vincent's girlfriend. Vincent then went to the police with his fateful plan to escape a lengthy prison sentence by pretending to have knowledge of the murder at Yew Tree farm. In fact, his only information was gleaned from a television reconstruction of the murder. We should remember that the Hickeys had not come into contact with Robinson until after the Carl Bridgewater murder.

I give that background because it must be known that those of us who are convinced of the innocence of the Bridgewater Four are under no illusions as to the previous history of the men. Once Vincent Hickey had implicated Michael Hickey and Robinson, Molloy was drawn in because of his association as a partner in crime of Robinson's, although it is clear that he was never involved in any violent crime.

Until Vincent Hickey volunteered the other three men's names, nothing in the three-month investigation into the Carl Bridgewater case had led the police to suspect that any of the others might have had anything to do with the murder. But in four days, the men were interviewed 36 times and held in solitary confinement for the rest of the time. As has been said already this morning, the procedures that we take for granted today were not in place then.

Molloy, who at first protested his innocence, was denied access to a lawyer for 10 days. During that time, he signed a statement confessing that he was present at the murder. An account of his interrogation is given in the book by Jill Morrell and it describes violent action by Detective Constable Perkins, who broke Molloy's teeth while his mate held me in his arms and repeatedly asked me to sign a statement saying I was at the farm upstairs, robbing it. Molloy also describes how he was left all night and how his meals were "liberally doused in salt". He was not given anything to drink and eventually had to cup his hands in the lavatory basin and flush it to get water to drink. He ends: I signed (the statement) out of revenge on the others and out of fear of more beatings and ill treatment … I never thought for one moment that it would be believed. As soon as Molloy had access to a lawyer, he stated that his confession was false, that it had been dictated to him by police officers and that he had never been to Yew Tree farm.

Following Molloy's confession, Vincent Hickey suddenly realised that he was in deep trouble and admitted that he had invented his story to get off the Chapel farm robbery. He denied that he had ever been to Yew Tree farm, but it was too late; the fate of the four was sealed.

During the trial, Vincent Hickey was directed by the judge not to mention the robbery at Chapel farm, which meant that he had no credible answer to the question, "Why did you shop Robinson and incriminate yourself in this horrible murder?" As has already been said, apart from Molloy's confession, the evidence against the men was extremely flimsy. There has never been any forensic evidence against them. Michael Hickey and Robinson strenuously denied any part in the murder from first to last. Despite the inconsistencies and contradictions of Molloy's confession and the lack of any corroborating evidence, all four were charged with murder.

The men's lawyers were unaware that, until the Chapel farm robbery, Hubert Spencer had been a suspect for the murder. He was a local ambulance driver with a gun licence and an interest in antiques—antiques were stolen at Yew Tree farm. He drove a blue Vauxhall Viva of the type seen by witnesses on the afternoon of Carl's murder. He knew Yew Tree farm inside out and was a past neighbour of Carl Bridgewater, who would have recognised him.

In December 1979, one month after the four men were sentenced for the murder of Carl Bridgewater, Hubert Spencer murdered his close friend, farmer Hubert Wilks, in a similar manner to the killing of Carl Bridgewater. It is thought that the two men had been discussing the Bridgewater case shortly before the murder. Spencer claimed that he had blanked out and did not know why he had killed his friend. Although convicted of that murder, Hubert Spencer is now a free man.

One interesting aspect of the case, particularly in view of the news at the weekend that officers of West Midlands police are alleged to have offered inducements to get prisoners to confess to crimes in order to improve the clear-up rate, is the use made by the prosecution in the Bridgewater case of evidence from prisoners. What little evidence there was against the four relied heavily on allegations about the accused by witnesses from Winson Green prison, where the Hickeys and Robinson were remanded for 10 months. The court even accepted evidence against Molloy, who was not at Winson Green prison at the time.

Mervyn Ritter was transferred from Leicester prison to Winson Green soon after Michael Hickey joined Vincent Hickey and Jimmy Robinson there. He was not a category A top-security prisoner and so was kept separately from the three men. However, on 31 March, because of what he described as internal problems, he was suddenly and mysteriously moved on to landing D3, the landing confined exclusively to top-security prisoners. He subsequently testified that Robinson and Michael Hickey were always laughing their heads off and that Robinson had confessed to killing Carl Bridgewater, but adding that it was an accident.

As has already been said, at the 1988–89 appeal, Mervyn Ritter was proven to be a pathological liar, but the appeal judges ruled him to be a witness of truth in the Bridgewater case. Following the appeal hearing, new evidence, which is included in that currently being considered by the Home Secretary, was submitted in the form of a statement from a former prison officer, who said that, on hearing that the Bridgewater appeal had failed, Ritter said: My Christ, they actually believe me. A leaked Home Office document, written in 1991 by William Miller of DC3 division, states: Ritter's assistance to the authorities has been quite extraordinary … Ritter enjoyed rather more privileges than the general run of ordinarily trusted … prisoners". A similar story surrounds the evidence given by Brian Sinton, who was serving his first prison sentence for petty crime. Oddly, he also found himself close to one of the high-security prisoners in Winson Green—Michael Hickey. In contravention of prison rules, Sinton was taken for a shower with him. According to Sinton, Michael Hickey incriminated himself during the conversation in the showers. Immediately after that, Sinton was dispatched to another prison and was released after serving just 11 months of his 18-month sentence, despite having breached his original suspended sentence. His story that Michael Hickey had referred to the child crying was thrown into doubt by evidence from the pathologist, Dr. Benjamin Davis, who had concluded that Carl was not crying when he was shot. In fact, all the evidence pointed to the fact that Carl had not cried at all and the circumstance of his death suggested that he had known his killer. Carl would not have known any of the men convicted of his murder, but he did know Hubert Spencer.

The appeal was eventually lost. The only evidence remaining was the behaviour of Vincent Hickey following the Chapel farm robbery. The judges ruled that as the alibi evidence showed that Michael had been with Vincent all afternoon and they judged Vincent to be guilty, then Michael must be guilty, too. We must remember that that was at a time when the judiciary was reluctant to admit to major miscarriages of justice, especially when they rested on police evidence. It was the time of Lord Denning's "appalling vista" statement, at the unsuccessful appeal of the Birmingham Six.

Soon afterwards, further evidence was being submitted to the Home Office. It included evidence from forensic psychologist, Dr. Eric Shepherd, who had been commissioned by Merseyside police to examine defence experts' findings that there was only a one in a million chance that Molloy had confessed in the manner reported by the police. When he agreed with the defence findings, the police promptly commissioned new experts.

The trial jury foreman, Tim O'Malley, also wrote to the Home Secretary, stating that Molloy's confession had been crucial to the jury's verdict on the three men. The then Home Secretary decided that the case should not go back to the Court of Appeal, and Dr. Shepherd subsequently wrote to him expressing his strong view that DC Perkins had committed perjury. He did not receive a reply. The men's lawyers discovered that none of the language experts had even been interviewed by the police. They asked the Home Office why they had discounted Dr. Shepherd's findings. The Home Office said that there were other experts who supported the prosecution's case, but would not name them.

During all that time, the men claimed their innocence. We have already heard about Michael Hickey's rooftop protest, lasting 89 days. As a convicted child killer, he had initially faced considerable hostility from fellow prisoners, but his endurance was possible only as a result of their later support. They became convinced of his innocence.

All that is emotional stuff. Their past criminal record went against the four and their subsequent behaviour in protesting their innocence convinced many of the truthfulness of their story. I am sure that the Minister will say that we must look at the evidence and deal in facts. It is a pity that the prosecution did not do so.

Since 1993, more evidence has been disclosed. Fourteen police interviews with Molloy were not disclosed at the trial and subsequent appeals. Every officer of every rank who interviewed Molloy was involved in substantial breaches of the then current judges rules governing the treatment of suspects, or withheld evidence at the trial. Pat Molloy's custody records have been uncovered. They show major contradictions between custody officer entries and detective interview schedules. They show that he was interviewed on at least 15 occasions without legal representation after a solicitor had been instructed and that he was interviewed without a solicitor at least seven times after he was charged.

The Home Secretary has been considering the latest submissions since 1993. In June 1994, further undisclosed evidence emerged of the fingerprints found on Carl Bridgewater's bicycle, which someone, presumably the killer or the killer's accomplice, had thrown into the pigsty at Yew Tree farm. Carl's bicycle had been put on show in the court room and had also been placed in the jury room. We all know the emotional response that that was designed to achieve. It is disgraceful that, although the police and the prosecution knew that fingerprints on the bicycle matched none of those of the four men, that information was not disclosed to the defence until quite recently.

The Home Office has been considering all the new evidence for more than two and a half years. It is clearly of a nature not to be dismissed lightly. The Minister says that the Home Office's inquiries have been thorough; it was said that the whole case was thoroughly examined in the Court of Appeal in 1988–89, but that has subsequently been proven not to be the case.

It is interesting to note that the first two police inquiries were carried out by Manchester police, and that only when John Stalker announced his intention to supervise the third inquiry was it switched to Merseyside police. I wonder why. Leaked documents from C3 show the unreliability of police witnesses. C3's William Miller wrote in 1991 of DC Perkins, who took Molloy's confession: He maintained in evidence he had written Molloy's statement at Molloy's dictation … whether he could be said to have perjured himself appears to be a very fine point. Miller's document confirms that Perkins was disciplined for making false and untruthful records". Regrettably, the disciplinary aspects are merely the tip of a somewhat polluted iceberg.

Is the Minister prepared to release the record of DC Perkins to hon. Members, now that he has died? We are now asked to believe that the police have been able to give satisfactory explanations for the discrepancies in their original evidence and in the custody records, revealed in the new evidence.

In the Home Secretary's recent press release, in which he said that he was not minded to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal, he mentioned evidence that allegedly implicates Vincent Hickey and Pat Molloy in the murder. In a written parliamentary question, I asked the Home Secretary about the nature of that information. The reply that I received was: The … information is confidential. The letter"— the letter to the men's lawyer— makes clear that in reaching his provisional conclusions my right hon. and learned Friend has placed no reliance on that information."—[Official Report, 19 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 6.] We must ask, therefore, why the Home Secretary decided to put the detail of the mysterious new evidence in the press release. That is what the press focused on when they looked at the case. Yet he says that there was no reliance on that information and that it was irrelevant. If it was irrelevant, why mention it?

Every time that this case comes up, it must be agony for the parents of Carl Bridgewater. Our heart goes out to them. While the obvious miscarriage of justice continues to be ignored, the case will be raised time and again. Surely it must be time to refer the matter back to the Court of Appeal. Then all the new evidence can be examined in open court and not behind closed doors.

12.2 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) on obtaining the debate and bringing this important matter before the House. He set out the facts and the issues that need to be considered afresh in detail and with great clarity, as did the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks).

The House does not have to reach a conclusion on the evidence; nor does the Home Secretary. We simply have to consider whether there is a real danger that there has been a miscarriage of justice. The Home Secretary has the power to do more than express doubts and fears. He can send the case back to the Court of Appeal. He should do so now after 17 years in which more and more doubt has grown over the safety of the court's decision.

I make a more general point about miscarriages of justice. The House decided only last night to change the law on disclosure to reduce the burden of paperwork on the police and increase the chances of convicting the guilty. We supported that measure, which we shall seek to improve in Committee. Hon. Members on both sides of the House warned of the need to get the balance right to ensure that the innocent are protected and that alleged miscarriages are corrected. The case that we are discussing demonstrates the need for such care and balance.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) rightly referred to the dogged determination of Ann Whelan. It is worrying that there still has not been a proper review of her case after so many years. Many right hon. and hon. Members who, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, may have had doubts about the strength of her case, are now convinced after her representations that that is necessary.

The cases with which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has been associated demonstrated overwhelmingly that some alleged miscarriages are indeed real, and leave an innocent person or persons incarcerated for long periods, their lives ruined beyond repair. It is worrying that the criminal justice system is held in such low regard by the public—because villains walk free and the innocent are sometimes convicted. That is why the Labour party called for a body to investigate miscarriages of justice as long ago as 1991, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook was shadow Home Secretary.

The royal commission, which was set up to examine miscarriages of justice, recommended the urgent establishment of such a body. The Government eventually introduced a Bill to establish a criminal cases review body. We supported that Bill but expressed concern that it was weaker than what Labour or the royal commission had urged. We also expressed concern that the Government had been slow to introduce the Bill and that it was likely that they would be slow in establishing such a body. Why, oh why are the Government so slow in getting it established and operational? Why, oh why has the Home Secretary not got on with the job so that the new body can deal with the backlog of serious cases in which a grave miscarriage of justice is alleged? I do not suggest for a moment that all the alleged miscarriages will be found to be miscarriages when properly investigated, even when they are considered by the court, but there are enough serious cases in which there is serious doubt for the work of such a body to be urgent.

Many right hon. and hon. Members expressed the frustration of looking at a constituency case and becoming uneasily aware of serious grounds for concern. We do not easily reach that view. The case of my constituent, Michael O'Brien, is one of many that have come to my attention. Many cases, after we have heard the arguments, do not leave us with that sense of deep unease. The Michael O'Brien case leaves me feeling deeply uneasy. In those rare cases, there is nothing that we can do. If one has the consistency of purpose of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South, one might be able to touch a small number of cases. There are, however, a number of serious cases about which hon. Members will be concerned but about which nothing can be done until that body is established and takes on the responsibility that the House has agreed that it should have in investigating alleged miscarriages of justice. We cannot as Members of Parliament set out to investigate those cases. We are not detectives. We do not have the resources. We can ask questions and then receive straight answers from the Home Secretary that get us no further forward. It is a matter of deep concern. It is a scandal that, three years after the royal commission report stated the obvious, that body has still not been established.

The royal commission's recommendation should not have been a surprise. It was set up because it was blatantly obvious that something needed to be done, that a body must be established and that other changes in the law and in the administration of justice were required. The delay in establishing the criminal cases review body is a scandal. It is a sad demonstration of the ineffectiveness of the House. It is a sad reflection on the Government's commitment on justice and it leaves a cloud over the criminal justice system.

Each of those points applies with equal strength to the case of the Bridgewater Four. It is outrageous to delay a reference back to the Court of Appeal given the facts and the underlying doubts that were set out in detail by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-East, and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) and particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South. In fairness, I should say that my hon. Friend is not, as is sometimes alleged, soft on crime. Indeed, he is one of the Members of Parliament who is quickest to be tough on crime—but he is also tough for justice. It is only fair to place that balance in his character on the record. That is what everybody is appealing for. It is asked not that we be soft, or assume that cases should go to appeal and be dismissed, but that justice should be done, and should be seen to be done.

We heard a powerful and persuasive speech by the hon. Member for Southport, who was given a strong explicit endorsement by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). It would be wise for the Minister to listen to what has been said in the debate.

Hansard is full of questions and speeches by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have examined the case and become disturbed by what they have learnt—often having started with the sort of scepticism that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook and I have described. The questions that have been asked over recent months make it clear how many Members on both sides of the House are now convinced that something needs to be done.

The establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission will end the Home Secretary's involvement with alleged miscarriages of justice, because the commission will be able to refer cases directly to the Court of Appeal.

I know that the Minister will not be able to give way to us today; in his brief is 20 minutes' worth of closely argued text, and doubtless he has been sent here to hold the line. I appreciate that he has little room for manoeuvre. I simply ask him to take back to the Home Secretary the clear message that the issue will not go away. Sooner or later the case will be reviewed by the Court of Appeal.

Neither the Home Secretary nor the House need prejudge the decision of the court, but it does Parliament and the Home Secretary no credit to delay justice. For God's sake let justice be done, and be seen to be done, by referring the case to the Court of Appeal now.

12.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) on his choice of topic. I am here not, as has just been suggested, merely to hold the line, but to set out the background to the case and explain the way in which it has been dealt with up to this point.

It is right that miscarriages of justice, and the possibility of miscarriages of justice, should be a matter of the highest public concern. Such concern for justice is one of the hallmarks of a civilised democracy. Our criminal justice system, at all its stages, must work so as to protect the innocent while properly punishing the guilty.

The Government have been responsible for a series of major reforms to the criminal justice process, up to and including the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill now before Parliament. In the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 we introduced the most important and far-reaching change of recent times to the procedures for reviewing criminal cases in the last resort. Work is well under way to establish the new Criminal Cases Review Commission, which several right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. We intend the commission to start its work later this year.

Until then, the responsibility for considering cases of last resort rests with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, as it has done with Secretaries of State since the turn of the century. It is a responsibility which all Secretaries of State, and their officials, have taken most seriously. The liberty of the citizen is at stake. So is justice, and the security of the public.

Cases such as the one highlighted by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East can sometimes become the subject of intense and impassioned lobbying and campaigning by people who no doubt sincerely believe in the innocence of those convicted. The task of Secretaries of State, however, is not about deciding or believing in guilt or innocence. Their task is to reach a judgment on all the available evidence, and to decide whether the case should go back to the Court of Appeal.

Certainly, Secretaries of State must listen and pay attention to those who campaign and argue with such feeling. But at the end of the day the decision in each case must be taken calmly, objectively, in the light of all the evidence. The same principles and the same careful judgment must be applied to each and every case, whether or not it is one known to the wider public, and regardless of the degree of clamour or otherwise that may surround it.

The criteria that successive Secretaries of State have applied in considering cases are well known. There must normally be some new evidence, or other consideration of substance, touching the safety of the conviction. New, in this case, means not previously put before the courts or available to be put before the courts. Those criteria do not fetter the overall discretion, and exceptional cases have been referred outside the criteria.

The general thrust found expression in a slightly different way, by Lord Justice Simon-Brown in the divisional court judgment in Hickey and others. He said that the question to be asked was: could the new material reasonably cause the Court of Appeal to regard the verdict as unsafe? In applying those criteria to the case before him, the Secretary of State is bound to look at the evidence in the case as a whole, and to consider the weight and cogency of any new matters in relation to the overall picture. I have heard it argued, in relation to this case and perhaps to others, that the Secretary of State should immediately send any case in which there is credible new evidence straight to the Court of Appeal.

That is quite mistaken. It is also plainly absurd, because if that happened there would be no purpose in having a role for the Secretary of State, or for the new commission. Every convicted person could simply take his or her evidence straight back to the Court of Appeal, which would become clogged with hopeless cases.

Of course the threshold applied by the Secretary of State in deciding whether to refer a case to the Court of Appeal is lower than that which would be applied by the court itself when deciding whether to allow an appeal. But the Secretary of State is entitled to take a view of the weight and cogency of matters placed before him, in the light of the overall picture. Indeed, it is his duty to do so.

In relation to the particular case on which this debate has focused, there is a long and involved history of reviews and investigations spanning the 17 years since the convictions of the four defendants. It has sometimes been suggested—indeed, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and others suggested so again today—that simply because there have been so many investigations, the case should be referred again to the courts. That is false logic.

Successive Secretaries of State have been determined in the interests of fairness to have all the new matters put before them fully and properly investigated, however slight or implausible some of these matters may have appeared at first sight. If we investigated only matters bound to lead to a reference to the Court of Appeal, we should quite rightly be criticised for dealing with cases superficially, and for seeking justice on the cheap.

At this point I would like to pay tribute, as I have done before, to the quality of the investigation work carried out in the case, especially by the Merseyside police in the two most recent inquiries. Those inquiries have been exceptionally rigorous and exhaustive. Every lead has been followed. Witnesses have been interviewed and re-interviewed. The most painstaking research has been carried out. Considering the time that has elapsed since the events of the case, that is a formidable achievement.

We are fortunate that such expertise and energies have been applied to the illumination of this case—work that is by no means untypical of the quality of police work in other miscarriage investigations. Parliament was wise to ensure that such skills and expertise will also be available in future to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The comprehensive and meticulous nature of these inquiries can be judged from the substantial volume of statements and other material that has been disclosed to the solicitors for the four men, in accordance with the divisional court judgment in ex parte Hickey and others. That was an important judgment. It acknowledged that there had to be a balance in matters of disclosure, and that in some circumstances it would be right for material to be kept confidential. I assure hon. Members that we have gone out of our way in the present case to see that the interests of fairness are met, by providing all the material that is, in our judgment, relevant to the provisional conclusions that we have reached.

As we announced on 7 December, our provisional conclusion, having given the most careful consideration to all the material in the case, and having applied the criteria that I explained earlier, is that the case should not be referred back to the Court of Appeal. We have set out our reasoning in detail and provided the supporting material. On Monday afternoon this week we received a 34-page submission from the solicitors acting for those who were convicted. I understand that that is only a partial response and that the solicitors intend to make further submissions at an unspecified later date. We shall of course consider most carefully the points that have been put to us.

On our provisional conclusions and the response from the solicitors, I do not want to anticipate or prejudge our final consideration, but I propose to set out the evidence on which our provisional conclusions are based and, where possible, to respond to some of the points that hon. Members have made. If there are points that I cannot immediately answer or if we run out of time, I will ensure that those points are taken into account before a final decision is taken.

As I explained earlier, the Secretary of State's task is to consider any new matters in the context of the evidence, old or new, as a whole. That includes of course evidence that formed the prosecution case at trial and that has not been set aside by the Court of Appeal. In the present case, much of the evidence was examined by the Court of Appeal in 1989, following a reference of the case by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd). The appeal hearing was, at the time, unprecedented in its length—hon. Members have referred to it—and the court's judgment ran to 216 pages. Clearly, any fresh consideration of the case must have regard to the existing evidence and to any view that the Court of Appeal may have taken about that evidence on a previous occasion.

Recent representations in the case have focused largely on the case against Patrick Molloy, but there is separate evidence against each of the four convicted men. Against James Robinson there is the evidence of Mervyn Ritter, Helen Johnston, James Dundas-Ure, Patricia Copus and Peter Bryant. There was also direct evidence identifying Mr. Robinson at the crime scene and evidence of association between Mr. Robinson and the others, evidence of his possession of a gun, and evidence of his reaction when police officers asked him about the gun.

In 1989, the Court of Appeal found Mr. Ritter's evidence in the case to be worthy of belief, despite its acceptance of his reputation as a confidence trickster and a liar. The court found nothing inherently unreliable in Helen Johnston's evidence and nothing in what it had heard to cast doubt on the verdict in so far as it depended on Mr. Dundas-Ure's evidence. It found nothing to justify rejection of Peter Bryant's evidence or to cast doubt on the reliance that the jury may have placed on the evidence of Miss Stagg, a schoolteacher who identified Mr. Robinson as having been at the crime scene at the material time. The court concluded that the case against James Robinson was and remained strong and convincing.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

What weight does the Minister give to what my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), with all his experience of these matters, has described as the unique position where the jury foreman at the original trial is saying that a serious miscarriage of justice has taken place?

Mr. Kirkhope

It is a matter not of the amount of weight that I give to that, but of the Appeal Court's reconsideration in 1989. It placed no reliance on that—certainly not in the terms that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Since then, we have been asked to consider fresh allegations purporting to cast doubt on the credibility of one of the witnesses, Mr. Ritter, to whom hon. Members have referred. On investigation, those allegations have been found to be largely groundless. Our provisional conclusion is that they provide no reason to think that the Court of Appeal would give Mr. Ritter's evidence any less credence than it did in 1989. As I have said, there was other evidence against Mr. Robinson.

In interviews with the police, Vincent Hickey made detailed admissions—which he later retracted—about his involvement in the burglary at Yew Tree farm. The whole of those interviews were adduced at the 1988–89 appeal hearing. The court was unable to accept the claim that Vincent was or might have been trading false information for immunity from prosecution for another robbery. The Court of Appeal described the evidence against Vincent Hickey as overwhelming. No fresh matters have since been raised that go directly to the evidence against Vincent Hickey.

In 1989, when examining the evidence against Michael Hickey, the Court of Appeal made it clear that it placed no reliance on evidence given at trial by Brian Sinton or Reginald Hickey. Considering the totality of evidence, however, from Michael Lee, Detective Constable Massey, Detective Sergeant Williams, Dennis Eaton, Peter Bryant, prison officer Kelly and Mervyn Ritter, the evidence of association and the evidence of Michael Hickey's access to vehicles of the type observed at the crime scene, the court concluded that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that Michael Hickey left the Dog and Partridge public house in company with his cousin Vincent and that thereafter he was at the scene of the burglary of Yew Tree farm. No fresh matters have been raised that go directly to the evidence against Michael Hickey, except for the allegations about Mr. Ritter that I have just dealt with and that hon. Members have referred to.

As has already been said, the fourth defendant, Patrick Molloy, died in prison in 1981 while his application for leave to appeal was pending. His conviction was not referred with the others to the Court of Appeal in 1989 because, at the time, it was thought that the law did not permit an appeal by a deceased person. Since then, in the case of Giuseppe Conlon, it has been established that such an appeal can be heard by means only of a Secretary of State reference.

The evidence against Mr. Molloy at his trial consisted of his admissions at different times to police officers and prison officers. He signed a confession statement, known as exhibit 54. In his proof of evidence, Mr. Molloy recorded not only that he was the author of exhibit 54, but that, in his view, the statements of detective officers Perkins, Leeke, Watson, Wood, Scott and Wys were a correct account of what he had said in interviews with them.

Representations have alleged that Mr. Molloy's admissions while in police custody were made under duress, were fabricated, or both. One of the officers who interviewed Mr. Molloy, the late Detective Constable Perkins, was disciplined for his part in falsifying evidence in a later case. Language analysts have expressed doubts about whether Molloy's reported admissions were in his own words. There are allegations that Mr. Molloy was assaulted and that records of interviews with him were not disclosed to the defence.

In recent years, in a number of appeals and references to the Court of Appeal, alleged malpractice by police officers has been the main issue. Some of those appeals and references have resulted in convictions being quashed. Mindful of that background, we have examined with particular care the fresh representations made in relation to Mr. Molloy's treatment by police officers and his admissions to them. The inquiries made on our behalf in relation to those points have been exceptionally thorough and detailed. In our provisional conclusions, we have sought to explain as fully and clearly as possible what those inquiries have revealed and how they have been taken into account.

The fact that one officer, the late Detective Constable Perkins, was disciplined for falsifying evidence in another case cannot be a ground for referring this case to the Court of Appeal. There would have to be other evidence that, on its own or taken with the evidence of Detective Constable Perkins' later misconduct, casts doubt on the safety of the conviction. We have considered carefully the allegations of ill treatment, but we have found little evidence to support them. The allegation that Mr. Molloy had his teeth broken—to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) referred—is not borne out by prison medical records and is directly contradicted by a photograph of Mr. Molloy taken on 18 December 1978, eight days after he signed his confession statement, which shows him smiling with his teeth intact. That was discovered during the recent thorough investigation in 1993–95. Our provisional conclusion is that there is no basis in those allegations for referring the case to the Court of Appeal.

The opinions of the language analysts were considered during the previous review of the case by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Substantial doubts exist about the methodology and overall validity of some of those analyses, and some of the opinions submitted were based on a misconception of the way in which interviews and statements were noted and written up. The suggestion that Mr. Molloy could not have said certain things attributed to him is directly contradicted by what he said about the making of exhibit 54 and the accuracy of the statements in his proof of evidence. None the less, the further submission delivered to us two days ago asks us to reconsider matters relating to Mr. Molloy's confession statement and the interviews immediately leading to that statement. We will reconsider those matters with the utmost care.

It is alleged that there was a failure to disclose records of interviews with Mr. Molloy because, at times, the custody record of his detention refers to visits by police officers for which there is no corresponding statement. No undisclosed interview records have been found, however, and there is nothing in any other evidence—for example, in Mr. Molloy's discussions with his solicitor—to suggest that any such interviews took place.

The inquiries made on our behalf have sought to establish, as fully as possible, bearing in mind the passage of 17 years, what actually happened. The picture that emerges is of a provincial police station unused to the level of activity associated with a murder inquiry, in which the accuracy of records suffered. The term "interview" was very likely applied generically to any contact between an officer and a prisoner—as the natural meaning of the word permits—and there is no reason to suppose that, on every occasion, questioning took place that should have been recorded. If there were any evidence of undisclosed interviews, that would require grave consideration, but I repeat that there is no such evidence and it is our provisional conclusion that nothing in that aspect of the representations would justify a reference to the Court of Appeal.

The evidence in Mr. Molloy's case as a whole contains, on the one hand, the allegations about ill treatment, fabrication and undisclosed statements, none of which appears to be supported. On the other hand, there is the confession which was signed by Mr. Molloy; his confirmation to his solicitor that the statements by police officers were accurate about what he had said to them; his subsequent spontaneous admissions to other police officers and prison officers; and the evidence of Helen Johnston, who overheard Mr. Molloy say to Mr. Robinson: whatever you do, whatever you say, say the gun went off accidentally". In addition, the recent inquiries have led to a number of other witnesses coming forward with evidence of admissions that Mr. Molloy continued to make about his part in the raid on Yew Tree farm right up to the day before his death two and a half years after he was charged. We have approached such evidence with caution, discounting some which lacks credibility but taking due account, along with all the other evidence, of those statements that do have credibility. Our provisional conclusion has been made clear. Other matters have been raised with us—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We must move to the next topic.