Almost everyone recognises the actor Ricky Tomlinson. For those of us who grew up with Brookside, he will always be Bobby Grant and for those younger than me, the indomitable Jim Royale. But Ricky Tomlinson is also a victim of miscarriage of justice and in Parliament today, Labour MPs were seeking to persuade the Tory and Lib Dem coalition government to take a crucial step that will help undo that miscarriage for Ricky and his colleagues, known as the Shrewsbury 24.
Over forty years ago, during the national building strike, five coachloads of pickets visited seven construction sites in Shropshire to call on building workers to join the strike to improve poverty pay and terrible health and safety conditions that were rife in the industry.
The picketing of sites was completely peaceful, entirely open and there were no arrests made or cautions issued, despite the presence of many police officers at the sites, because there had been no trouble. The Police Officer in charge on the day even shook hands with one of the organisers, Des Warren, thanking him for the cooperation shown by members of the two unions involved, UCATT (the builders’ union) and the Transport and General Workers Union.
Yet five months later, police arrested and charged twenty four of them with a variety of offences including unlawful assembly, intimidation and affray. Six of the pickets, including Ricky Tomlinson, were charged with an archaic offence of conspiracy to intimidate. They were advised that all the prosecution needed to prove was that they had gathered together in such a way that a “reasonable man” might presume that they were about to breach the peace.
Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and John McKinsie Jones were sent to prison for terms of up to three years. Terry Renshaw, then twenty five years old, was given a suspended sentence.
Documents from the case that are publicly available show the trial was an abuse of process. There was clear political interference. The men didn’t get a fair trial and the convictions and impact of prison sentences have stayed with them for the rest of their lives. As Ricky told me “Dessie went into prison a big, strapping bloke. He was a steel fixer. He came out a physical wreck and never worked again.” Des Warren died from Parkinson’s Disease brought on by medical treatment administered whilst in prison. Another three pickets have also died.
Forty years on, Tory minister Ken Clarke, and now his colleague Chris Grayling, have refused to release vital documents about the case on grounds of national security, saying they have to remain secret until 2021. This goes way beyond the normal thirty year rule. Terry Renshaw said to me “I’m not even a threat to social security, how could I be a threat to national security?”
Ricky told me he is convinced the government are hoping the men will be dead by then (he’ll be 81 by 2021) and the issue will go away.
But it won’t. 42 years on, the men and their families are still fighting for the truth and they will continue to fight. They want their convictions quashed and the case is currently with the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The CCRC must see these “secret” case documents.
Today’s Parliamentary debate comes days after the death of Lord McAlpine, Margaret Thatcher’s “political soulmate” and part of the construction dynasty right at the centre of the Shrewsbury case who are major donors to the Tories along with other big construction companies.
And some of the industry is still engaging in murky practice. The criminal activities of the Consulting Association, financed by construction companies, who operated a longstanding blacklist of workers, preventing them from getting jobs around the country, ruining lives and breaking up families, are now out in the open.
All MPs today had a duty and a responsibility to support the victims of this miscarriage of justice and demand that the Tory and Lib Dem government release all the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24 case. Labour MPs stood up and were counted. The vote was in favour of the government disclosing the case papers. Coalition MPs didn’t bother turning up.
Will the government respect this democratic vote? Let’s hope so.