Shrewsbury trial and jailing ‘a conspiracy at the very heart of government!’

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The Wigan Building Workers Action Committee march arrives in London in 1972
The Wigan Building Workers Action Committee march arrives in London in 1972

THE government has rejected calls to release confidential files relating to the Shrewsbury 24, who were charged with various offences after the first national building workers’ strike in 1972.

MPs voted ‘overwhelmingly’ for the release of government documents related to the case to be released in January 2014. But on Wednesday, Home Office Minister Mike Penning said the files could not be released on the grounds of national security. Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said it amounted to ‘a cover up’.

Prior to the Westminster Hall debate, Burnham indicated that a failure to release all documents about the Shrewsbury 24 case could jeopardise Labour support for the government’s plans to extend spying powers. Addressing MPs during the debate, Burnham backed down saying support ‘was not conditional upon that’.

The Shrewsbury 24, included Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren, picketed building sites in Shrewsbury in the first national building workers’ strike in 1972. They were later charged under the 1875 Conspiracy Act. Six were sent to prison.

Tomlinson served 16 months in jail. Des Warren served two years and eight months. His death in 2004 from Parkinson’s Disease has been linked to his time in prison, in particular to the use of a ‘liquid cosh’, a cocktail of tranquillisers that was administered to inmates at the time.

In Wednesday’s Westminster Hall debate, mover Steve Rotheram, the Liverpool Walton Labour MP said: ‘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.’

Rotheram added: ‘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”.’

He said: ‘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.’

In the debate, shadow home secretary Andy Burnham declared: ‘I want to pay tribute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton did, to Eileen Turnbull, the researcher to the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, whose diligence and utter dedication to the cause has brought the documents to light.

‘I have her dossier here today, and it reveals three things: first, how the trial was politically driven by the then Home Secretary, from the gathering of evidence to the commencement of proceedings; secondly, how there was an abuse of process by police in the taking of statements; and thirdly, how there was an attempt at the highest levels of government, supported by the security services, to influence the outcome of the trial …

‘Confirmation of the political interest in legal proceedings comes from the second document that I have: a page from the case file of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Shrewsbury pickets. An entry on 29 December 1972 reads as follows: “The Home Secretary is interested in this case. 2 counsel to be nominated.”

‘That, by the way, was no passing interest from the Home Secretary, as the third document will show. I have here a letter dated 25 January 1973 about the Shrewsbury case from the then Attorney General Peter Rawlinson to the then Home Secretary Robert Carr. Its contents are extraordinary. It begins: “The building workers’ strike last summer produced instances of intimidation of varying degrees of seriousness … A number of instances consisted of threatening words and in which there was no evidence against any particular person of violence or damage to property. In these circumstances Treasury Counsel, took the view that the prospects (of a conviction) were very uncertain, and in the result I agreed with him and the Director that proceedings should not be instituted.”

‘That letter is talking about proceedings against the Shrewsbury pickets. It goes on to warn of the risks of jury trial, saying that “juries tend to treat mere words more leniently than actual violence”. There it is, an admission that they were talking about “mere words”. Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Home Secretary of the day was advised by the Attorney General and the DPP that no proceedings should be brought against the Shrewsbury pickets. Secondly, it is made clear and explicit that there was no evidence of violence or damage to property. “Mere words” were the only things that were thrown.

‘We do not have documents revealing the subsequent decision-making process within government, but we do have the first page of a confidential memo sent by the Home Secretary to the Prime Minister the week after the letter was sent. It reads: “Thank you for your minute of 29 January about picketing. I have taken a close personal interest in this problem since I came to the Home Office and I have myself discussed it with the chief officers of those police forces which have had to deal with the most serious picketing. I believe that chief constables are now fully aware of the importance we attach to the matter.”

‘From that there is no doubt at all that the Home Secretary was heavily interfering in operational police matters, and just over a week after his memo was sent to the Prime Minister the Shrewsbury pickets were picked up by police and charged, a full five months after the strike had ended. That series of documents puts beyond any reasonable doubt the fact that the Shrewsbury trial was politically driven by the Home Secretary of the day …

‘The next document that I have shows that due process was not followed in the aftermath of the political pressure. On 17 September 1973, a conference between police investigating the case and the chief Crown prosecutor, Mr Drake, was held at Mr Drake’s home.

”I have here a note of that conference. Let me quote the key passage in paragraph 16, which records an explanation from police officers about the gathering of statements: “So that Counsel would be aware it was mentioned that not all original hand-written statements were still in existence, some having been destroyed after a fresh statement had been obtained. In most cases the first statement was taken before photographs were available for witnesses and before the Officers taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.”

‘I put it to the House that that document, which has not been made public before, is the smoking gun in the Shrewsbury case. It is clear that the police felt it incumbent on them to investigate propelled by a prosecutorial narrative, rather than by an even-handed investigation of events. I was led to believe that the Conservative Party believed in the Peelian principles of policing, but they were not followed in this case.

‘Transcripts of the trial reveal that the court and the jury were never informed of the destruction of those original witness statements. That fact alone raises major questions about the conduct of the trial and the safety of the convictions.

‘I turn to the trial itself and the Government attempts to influence it. “Red Under the Bed” was a television programme made by Woodrow Wyatt for Anglia Television. Its aim was to reveal communist infiltration of the trade unions and the Labour Party, but it was also clearly intended to influence the trial.

‘Wyatt’s controversial commentary was interspersed with footage of John Carpenter and Des Warren and pictures of Shrewsbury Crown Court. The programme was first broadcast across ITV regions on 13 November 1973, the day the prosecution closed its case.

‘We know that the judge watched a video of the programme in his room just after it was broadcast. It is inconceivable that the programme did not influence the trial, and unthinkable in this day and age that a television programme prejudicial to a major trial could have been aired during that trial. But it was.

‘I will now reveal the full back story about how the programme was made. I have here a memo, headed “SECRET”, to a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official from the head of the Information Research Department, a covert propaganda unit operating within the FCO.

‘It says: “Mr. Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme, ‘Red under the Bed’, was shown nationally on commercial television on Tuesday, 13 November, at 10.30pm … We had a discreet but considerable hand in this programme … In February Mr. Wyatt approached us direct for help. We consulted the Department of Employment and the Security Service through Mr. Conrad Heron’s group…With their agreement, Mr. Wyatt was given a large dossier of our own background material. It is clear from internal evidence in the programme that he drew extensively on this”.

‘What an extraordinary thing for a Government official to be writing in a memo to a senior civil servant! It gets worse. In the next paragraph, the head of the unit says this: “In our estimation this was a hard-hitting, interesting and effective exposure of Communist and Trotskyist techniques of industrial subversion. But Mr. Wyatt’s concluding message, that the CPBG’s”— the Communist Party of Great Britain’s – “main aim is to take over the Labour Party by fair means or foul – an opinion which is almost incontrovertible – offended the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s standards of objectivity, as they interpret the Statute … This difference of opinion held up the showing of the film”.

‘This is senior civil servants talking about the infiltration of the Labour Party – a spurious claim that they were trying to make through a television programme that they were directly involved in making. It is astonishing that it came to that.

‘Knowledge of what was going on went right to the very top. The Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary put in a handwritten note to Mr Heath. It says: “Prime Minister … You may like to glance through this transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s ‘Red Under The Bed’ TV programme.” The reply came back from the Prime Minister: “We want as much as possible of this.”

‘On the back of that, the PPS wrote a further confidential memo to Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary. It says: “The Prime Minister has seen the transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme … He has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing. He hopes that the new Unit is now in being and actively producing.”…

‘In a reply headed “Secret” and copied to the Prime Minister, Mr Hunt writes: “I confirm that the new Unit is in being and is actively producing material. Use of the service”– the Security Service – “is being kept under continual review between the Lord Privy Seal and Mr Heron.”

‘So there we have it: the security services were helping to make not only a television programme that was nakedly political in its aim of damaging the Labour Party but, in the case of the Shrewsbury 24, a programme that was prejudicial to their trial and that went out in the middle of their trial. The Government were complicit in making that happen.

‘The documents that I have revealed today lead us to only one conclusion: the Shrewsbury 24 were the convenient scapegoats of a Government campaign to undermine the trade unions. They were the victims of a politically orchestrated show trial. These revelations cast serious doubt on the safety of their convictions. Let us remember: this was a domestic industrial dispute led by one of the less powerful trade unions of the day, involving industrial action in and around a number of small market towns in England and, on the day in question, no arrests were made.

‘How on earth, 43 years on, can material relating to it be withheld under national security provisions? I put it to the Minister that the continuing failure to disclose will lead people to conclude that the issue has less to do with national security and more to do with the potential for political embarrassment if what was going on at the time were widely known.’