Shrewsbury 24 speech

(December 10, 2015)

Shrewsbury Petitioners March on Whitehall


Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab):

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Home Office and the case of the Shrewsbury 24.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. As Members will know, this is not the first occasion on which the great injustice of Shrewsbury has been brought before Parliament - so letme be clear from the outset - there is no doubt that the jailing of Dessie Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and four others, and the guilty verdicts against a further 18 Shrewsbury pickets, was a great injustice. Indeed, in 2014 there was a full debate in the main Chamber in which an overwhelming majority supported the motion to release Government documents pertaining to the case. Earlier this year, due to the perspicacity of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), we again debated the call for the release of Government documentation relating to the Shrewsbury 24.

It might be asked why we are here again to raise the matter with the Minister. The answer is quite simple: not only have the Government not kept their promise to release the documents kept secret from the public for 43 years because of a fallacious threat to national security, but there is now compelling evidence, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and I have had access, that undeniably proves that the whole saga is a conspiracy at the very heart of Government. We would like to bring that to the House’s attention.

I will quickly recap the events of the national building workers’ strike of 1972, its immediate aftermath and the new evidence that was recently brought to light. I will then highlight what campaigners are requesting and the process for release. From previous debates, I know that some Tory Members simply believe that workers should not be allowed to strike and that many who do are either agitators or criminals, but I remind the House that taking legitimate strike action was then an inalienable right—and it still is, despite the draconian restrictions of the Trade Union Bill.

In the previous debates on this matter, apart from some limited opposition relating to some of the minor issues surrounding the case, the material substance of the claims raised in Parliament has been largely accepted. As John Platts-Mills QC said: “The trial of the Shrewsbury Pickets is the only case I know of where the government has ordered a prosecution in defiance of the advice of senior police and prosecution authorities.”

The campaign team’s researcher, the redoubtable Eileen Turnbull, trawled through documentation archived at Kew and uncovered a letter dated 25 January 1973 from the then Attorney General, Peter Rawlinson—the highest legal adviser in the land—to the then Home Secretary, Robert Carr. Rawlinson advised the Home Secretary that, in his view, having discussed the case with Treasury counsel and the Director of Public Prosecutions, no less, “proceedings should not be instituted.”

There is a litany of major inconsistencies in due legal process but, for expediency, I will outline just a few. Despite the fact that the police never received any report of incidents of criminal behaviour, or even unacceptable behaviour, by pickets at the time of the industrial action, political interference led to a belated investigation of the Shrewsbury pickets. The unions did not receive any complaints from the police about the conduct of the pickets—in fact, there is photographic evidence showing that the police were mingling freely with the strikers.

There was political interference with the judicial process and a very dubious relationship between senior Tories and certain senior police officers. Convictions for conspiracy were the then Government’s ultimate aim, as such convictions were seen as totemic in deterring other workers from taking industrial action. Despite no complaints, cautions or arrests, on 6 September 1972 a team of 24 detectives was deployed to north Wales to carry out a fishing exercise, gathering 800 statements, of which three quarters were discarded. Original statements that did not fit the investigators’ viewpoint were shredded and new statements ordered. I am sure the shadow Home Secretary will examine that issue in further detail.

A practice direction from the then Lord Chancellor followed in which the legal system regarding the swearing in of juries was changed. That denied defence solicitors the right to know jurors’ occupations, to which legal representatives had been privy for generations. The defendants’ legal team expressed major concern about the lack of neutrality in the area in which the trial was held. The trial was presided over by Judge Mais, whose inexperience was matched only by his lack of impartiality; his expertise was mainly in rural and ecclesiastical matters.

Inexplicably, a television programme entitled “Red Under the Bed”, which specifically made references to the ongoing trial, was allowed to be televised in the Shrewsbury area during the trial. In any other circumstance that would have been considered contempt of court and the trial would have been stopped. Scenes from the building workers’ strike, the committal hearing at Shrewsbury and shots of Des Warren and some of the Shrewsbury pickets were screened, which was prejudicial to a fair hearing. Papers already released show that the then Government, right up to the Prime Minister, were involved in assisting the programme’s production. The jury was misled. When the jury initially failed to agree a verdict, it was advised that, should it agree to convict, the accused would only be fined by the court. As we know, that did not happen.

In the Commons debate of January 2014, the motion requested that the Government release all documents relating to the prosecution of the Shrewsbury 24. At the end of the debate, the then Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, replied for the coalition: “The Government are…committed to transparency.”— [Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 515.]

He wanted as “much information as possible” to be put in the public domain, in line with the Freedom of Information Act enacted by the previous Labour Government.

Two years ago, I said that I believed the course of natural justice had been denied because of arrests “on trumped-up charges…a dodgy trial and…unsound convictions. That would not be allowed and would not be acceptable today, and it should not have been allowed and should not have been acceptable then. It was a legal process that would shame a third-world dictatorship.”— [Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 492.]

Given the new evidence seen by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh and me, I now believe that to be the case even more than I did following the debate 23 months ago.

Frankly, it is bonkers that the documents we requested in that debate—a request that the House of Commons overwhelmingly supported in the vote—should remain under lock and key. The Minister at the time, Simon Hughes, said that just four documents relating to the Shrewsbury trial were being withheld by the Ministry of Justice, but he could not speak for other Departments. He also conceded that the Government were retaining 625 files from 1972. It is our belief that the process that led to the prosecution of the Shrewsbury pickets is germane to many of those files, which are therefore fundamental to the veracity of the campaigners’ case. Only when those files are placed in the National Archives at Kew for public viewing will that become apparent.

The superficial justification for the Government’s position is that an exemption from disclosure was signed by the Lord Chancellor of the day, Lord Hailsham, who at the time was a Cabinet member, a Law Lord, Speaker of the House of Lords and a member of the judiciary. By coincidence, he acquired a significant range of new responsibilities through the higher courts in England and Wales when the Courts Act 1971 came into force in 1972, and he used his power to suppress information under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958.

Some might say that this happened a long time ago, and they would be correct. Indeed, other Home Secretaries have had the opportunity to overturn the original decision, but have failed to do so. The most recent instrument, signed in 2011, provides an explanation of the reason for withholding the documents, under section 5, which states: “The special reason is that transfer of the records after that period to the Public Record Office or a place of deposit appointed by the Lord Chancellor under the Act will create a real risk of prejudice to national security.” Parliament has been discussing “national security” at length during the past few weeks, and I would never try to diminish the importance of our domestic resilience.  As many Members said during the Syria debate, there is no greater priority than the safety of the nation. But can anybody honestly argue that a strike by building workers who sought better pay and working conditions 43 years ago would in any way threaten our national security?

The Shrewsbury 24 campaign submitted an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission on 3 April 2012. The Government have assured them that the CCRC has been given access to all documents relating to the trials, but how do we know this has actually happened? The CCRC is not the advocate for the applicants; it is the adjudicator, and it is there to consider the evidence from the applicants to decide whether or not there is a real possibility that the Court of Appeal would find the convictions unsafe. There are many files at the National Archives in Kew that have just one or two pages in them that relate to the trials. How can the Government expect the CCRC to go through dozens of files looking for individual documents when it simply does not have the staff for such a monumental task? Although the CCRC has statutory powers to obtain documents, it does not have the resources to conduct the detailed research that is necessary to show a conviction to be unsafe.

In the case of the Shrewsbury 24, the convictions were brought about by Government interference. The applicants have to establish that, and the CCRC cannot do that for them. However, the relevant Government Departments know exactly where their particular documents relating to the case lie, and they could provide them to the applicants to ensure that they can make a complete evidential submission to the CCRC, so that their application can be fully considered—if, of course, there was the genuine will within Government to be open and transparent; and that is why we are here today.

After the debate in 2014, the Minister met the hon. Member for Blaydon, together with the campaign researcher, Eileen Turnbull, and the most well-known of the pickets, Ricky Tomlinson. Afterwards, the Minister arranged for Stephen Jones, head of freedom of information and justice devolution at the Ministry of Justice, to send Eileen the references of files held at Kew that could relate to the Shrewsbury pickets. Mr Jones sent her 2,307 references. Eileen diligently and painstakingly went through the references and selected 51 of the files that she believed to include information about the Government’s involvement in the prosecutions, even though they did not specifically refer to the Shrewsbury trials in their titles.

Eileen’s research concluded that there was important material kept on file relating to the Shrewsbury pickets that was not specifically referenced using either the word “Shrewsbury” or the word “pickets”. That was supported by an open document at Kew that stated that information regarding picketing was held under the reference “Security/Subversion”. Staff at Kew acknowledged that the Cabinet Office uses this reference internally. This information establishes, therefore, that there are many files—at least four volumes—kept on pickets by the Government and referenced “Security/Subversion”. When Eileen followed up her request for files with the words “Subversion in industry” in their titles, she was refused, as everything that fits that description—“Security/Subversion”—is classified.

The Government say that they have withheld only three letters and a security services report. We believe that there is much, much more than that on file and we would ask, in the first instance, for the following documents to be released. First, there is the report of West Mercia police and the report of Gwynedd police, which were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions by Chief Constable John Williams on 18 December 1972. The campaign believes that these documents demonstrate that the police considered that there was no evidence to bring charges against the Shrewsbury pickets.

Second, there is the communication between the Home Secretary and other Departments, and West Mercia and Gwynedd police forces, including Assistant Chief Constable Alex Rennie, after 6 September 1972 about their large-scale investigations into picketing in north Wales and the Shropshire area during the strike. The campaign believes that these documents reveal the process of decision making that occurred at Cabinet and security services level to bring about charges against the building workers. As we all know, there were no complaints by the police or the public on 6 September 1972. No pickets were cautioned or arrested, even though there was a large-scale police presence at sites in Shropshire that day.

Thirdly, there are the communications between the Home Secretary and the Attorney General in December 1972 and January 1973 about the prosecution of the pickets. Campaigners have long believed that these documents will reveal who made the decision to proceed with charges against the building workers five months after the dispute ended.

Fourthly, there is the note of the phone call from a Government Department to Desmond Fennell, the junior prosecution counsel at Shrewsbury Crown court that, according to Maurice Drake QC, chief prosecuting counsel, was a request to inform the judge that they did not want him to pass custodial sentences. The campaign believes that this document further highlights evidence of the Government’s direct interference with the trial.

Fifthly, there are the MI5 files held on Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and any of the other pickets. The relevance of this request is obvious, as campaigners believe that these files will reveal the monitoring of the pickets during the 1972 building workers strike by the security services, as well as the security services’ activities in manipulating the Shrewsbury trials.

Sixthly, a full copy of a letter from Robert McAlpine and Sons Ltd dated 26 February 1973 to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis should be released. Campaigners believe that this letter confirms the role of this construction company in intensifying pressure on the police to bring about charges against the pickets. Just for reference, I point out that the Brookside site in Telford was, by coincidence, a McAlpine site, and Sir Robert was, of course, a senior member of the Conservative party. That site was where the evidence was assembled by the police to bring about charges of conspiracy to intimidate, affray and unlawful assembly.

The Cabinet Office maintains that it would not be in the public interest for the files to be released. That is absolute nonsense, which most reasonable people would categorically reject as an argument. For the Government to resist requests to disclose documents actually brings about distrust and suspicion, which is not in the public interest. However, central to my request for the release of these files is the desire for justice for these men while they are still able to see justice being done. Many of the lives of the Shrewsbury 24 were blighted by the events 43 years ago. The youngest of the Shrewsbury 24 is 68 and the oldest is 90. At least five have passed away since the trials in 1973-74, so time is of the essence.

It is inconceivable that a building workers strike in 1972 could throw up issues of national security in 2015.

For some of the Shrewsbury pickets, four years is four years too long. They have waited long enough. The reason we want it is that information requested could prove crucial to the case that the campaigners are putting forward to the CCRC and to having those unsound convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal. It is time for the obfuscation to stop and for the Government to do what is right.


A full transcript of the debate can be viewed here

Or you can watch the full debate in the video below..


Click here to return to the News page