HC Deb 15 November 1984 vol 67 cc884-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

10.23 pm
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

One of the basic tenets of British justice is that every convicted and discredited man is entitled to a fair hearing, and if new evidence emerges, he has a further entitlement to a new hearing. It is on those grounds that the case of Dr. Alan Clift should be raised in the House.

The main grounds for concern are that some eminent forensic scientists are claiming that Dr. Clift has been wrongly discredited, both by the judge and by the Home Office, that he was a victim of malice, and that the Home Office failed to carry out proper procedures and so denied Dr. Clift elementary justice. Important information on those issues has been provided by the scientists themselves, and through investigative journalism by Tim Crook of Independent Radio News.

This issue is naturally of great importance to Dr. Clift, and the rights of individuals always concern this House. In addition, Dr. Clift's story has wider implications. The controversy surrounding him reflects the conflicts that undoubtedly exist about the role of the expert in the legal process. Those conflicts must be resolved if we are to have a healthy legal system. First, however, the truth of what happened to Dr. Clift has to be established—and that can only be done by an independent inquiry investigating the full circumstances.

I am asked why I am now taking sides with Dr. Clift after being critical of his work and pressing vigorously for a review of all the cases with which he dealt. My answer—and I emphasise this—is that I am not taking sides with Dr. Clift, but I believe that it would be unfair and grossly unjust completely to accept the public discrediting of a leading Home Office forensic expert now that there is such a weight of distinguished dissent against it. I believe that Dr. Clift ought to have an opportunity to clear his name, that we are all entitled to the truth, and that the only proper recourse is to an independent inquiry.

The independent inquiry should look at four separate areas of concern.

The first is the validity of Dr. Clift's public discrediting by Lord Justice-General Emslie in Scotland, hearing the John Preece appeal. I wish to make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that John Preece was wrongly cleared. The obvious weakness of the case against him was shown by the fact that the prosecution did not proceed with its case at the original English magistrates hearing. He was extremely unfortunate that his case was subsequently pursued in Scotland, where a jury majority of nine to six is sufficient for a conviction. Whether John Preece's justified release should be so dependent on the discrediting of Dr. Clift is a different and more controversial issue. Lord Justice-General Emslie condemned Dr. Clift as a witness whose accuracy, fairness and objectivity could not be relied upon. He did so or two grounds.

First, Dr. Clift had been categorical at the trial that the man who had intercourse with Helen Wills before her murder was a group A secretor. The judge noted that two of the experts giving evidence for the Crown at the appeal disagreed with the theory that led Dr. Clift to this conclusion and, to use the judge's words, they made it clear that the two propositions on which it depended had no "scientific validity." However learned a judge may be, he has to rely on other experts if he wants to criticise an expert, and so it was in this case. Amazingly, Professor Kind, one of the two experts cited, is now saying: The judge got it wrong". and He did not understand. Dr. Kind claims that he did not condemn Dr. Clift as was suggested and that there is public evidence to support Dr. Clift's theory. The other witness, Professor Hennigson, claims that in his evidence to the appeal court he said that although Dr. Clift's conclusion was not absolute or irrefutable there was some evidence for it. That is a very different matter from its having no scientific validity.

Those important statements by people involved cast doubts upon the validity of the condemnation of Dr. Clift by Lord Justice-General Emslie, who for his summing-up relied on his own notes. The doubt should easily be resolved by the study of the transcript of the hearing. But incredibly that cannot be done because there is no transcript. There are only shorthand notes of this appeal. The Solicitor-General for Scotland, to his everlasting shame, said to me today that he has refused to provide a transcript because he is "not persuaded" that the £1,000 cost is justified. Is that not a shocking, disgraceful statement? So much for the price of justice in Britain today.

The judge also condemned Dr. Clift because all the experts agreed that he should have disclosed the fact that Helen Wills was herself a blood group A secretor. Dr. Clift had not done so. The judge suggested that this failure on Dr. Clift's part made it impossible for the defence to discover the blood group and that Dr. Clift was trying to minimise the risk of his opinions being challenged.

Now, startling evidence has emerged. The forensic expert who advised the defence at the original trial says that he was aware that Helen Wills and John Preece were almost certainly both group A secretors. He adds that he was surprised that defence counsel did not ask him to give evidence about this point, on which he was well qualified. Had this been done, he would routinely have checked it with Dr. Clift. So Dr. Clift did not make it impossible for the defence to discover crucial information, as the judge alleged. If Helen Wills' blood group was so crucial that Dr. Clift was discredited for not disclosing it, what blame can be attached to the defence for failing to probe this matter at the original trial?

For his part, Dr. Clift claims that after mentioning the murdered woman's blood group in his first report, which he believed would be available for the defence, he omitted it from the second one for the Scottish court on the advice of the prosecuting counsel. An independent inquiry would look into the reason and responsibility for this omission. The undeniable fact in this confused area is that defence counsel at the original trial did not regard the blood grouping as important because as many as 30 per cent. of the population share the same blood group. Dr. Clift's superior, Dr. Curry, also felt that it was not relevant; yet it was this issue that discredited Dr. Clift. Only an independent inquiry can determine whether or not it should have done so.

The second reason for an independent inquiry, and another area for concern, is the internal Home Office report of six of Dr. Clift's cases. This report was the essence of the case against him which led him to his enforced early retirement.

Dr. Clift asked a number of distinguished scientists to evaluate this report. They included a director of a forensic establishment, and a past president of the Forensic Science Society. I have read their comments, and they are very impressive. The overall conclusion of all these 11 experts was that Miss Pereira's report deserved more criticism than did Dr. Clift's work. There were some points of criticism of Dr. Clift, but not one of the experts supported the basic condemnation of Dr. Clift's professional integrity.

Typical comments were: It is perfectly evident that he (Dr. Clift) has received less than justice", Opinionated criticism of Dr. Clift's work, being concerned only with trivia", Nothing that lies outside the boundary of professional comment and judgment and The report has not shown the impartiality it rightly advocates. Despite those comments, Dr. Clift was forced to retire by the Home Office. It should be borne in mind that the experts were invited by Dr. Clift to comment on the cases. Nevertheless, they are respectable scientists of integrity. Did the Home Office have undisclosed evidence, or did it simply ride rough-shod over the combined views of these experts? It is highly unsatisfactory for a controversial figure to be forcibly retired, apparently on evidence that has been so effectively questioned. The other side of the affair, if there is one, must be revealed and evaluated. The House, and concerned forensic scientists, have a right to know.

The third area of concern it that is has been alleged that Dr. Clift was the victim of malice. That is a serious charge of which the Minister is no doubt aware, and it must be examined. Dr. Clift worked for the forensic science service from 1953. He was promoted and, as far as is known, he had no adverse annual reports. At the end of July 1977, a new quality control officer arrived at Birmingham where Dr. Clift was working. By 5 September, the new arrival had produced about 15 cases on which to question Dr. Clift. Three days later, on 8 September, Dr. Clift was publicly suspended and his work referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Home Office has said that, "once it became clear" that his work was not of a professionally competent standard, he could not continue as an expert witness. No one can criticise that statement. But how did it take only three days, after 24 years of unblemished service, for professional incompetence to become clear? It was obvious that the publicity involved would finish his public career. It was a sudden and unexpected downfall. Was it justified? The truth is that we simply do not know.

One year later, in October 1978, Dr. Clift was completely cleared by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Dr. Clift's solicitor claims that the Home Office was told that there was no question of criminal proceedings against Dr. Clift. During this time, Dr. Clift's solicitor alleges that there was a whispering campaign against him, and his waste-paper basket was searched to see whether there were any damaging notes. These allegations should be scrutinised, not by the Home Office, which is directly involved, but by an independent inquiry.

The fourth reason and area of concern is the way in which the Home Office disciplinary procedures were apparently used. There were no informal warnings, no formal warnings, no known adverse annual reports, no chance to improve performance, and documents requested by Dr. Clift's solicitors were refused. Perhaps the Home Office believed that his unusual sequence of events was justified by the unusual nature of the case, but that cannot justify the Home Office being the prosecution, judge and jury, all in secret.

I appreciate that my request for an independent inquiry will not be welcomed by the Home Office. Possibly, there are fears by some officials that it may open a Pandora's box. But the Minister has a clear duty to the House of Commons, as well as to his Department.

I hope that the Minister will not hide behind the tired establishment formula that proper authority has already decided. If he claims that the judge should not be open to criticism, and that a retirement board has considered all the facts, and nothing further should be done, he will be failing to answer the case I have made. By reading a facile brief, he would be insulting the House of Commons. I hope that, if he is unable to agree to the independent inquiry now, he will undertake to go back to the Home Office, carefully consider the case that I have presented and let me have a fully considered reply in due course.

10.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

This is a matter of considerable public interest, and I am glad to see other hon. Members in the Chamber, including my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who I know has an interest in at least one of the cases that has been considered by the Court of Appeal recently. I must confess to some surprise at the case which the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent (Mr. Ashley) now puts forward for an independent inquiry into the case of Dr. Clift. He has been pressing for such an inquiry for some time, but his grounds for doing so have changed dramatically. Earlier this year, in seeking a debate under Standing Order No. 10, on the Parliamentary Commissioner's report into the Preece case, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the negative response by the Home Office to the discovery. He said: that one of its leading forensic scientists was professionally incompetent, made unjustified conclusions and gave meaningless evidence."—[Official Report, 26 January 1984; Vol. 52, c. 1069.] Now the right hon. Gentleman has changed his tune. he says that he is not taking sides, that he is not sure whether Dr. Clift has been done an injustice by the Home Office. He now wants an independent inquiry to help him make up his mind about these matters. What a change from the right hon. Gentleman's earlier views about Dr. Clift which I have quoted. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. I cannot pretend to find that at all creditable.

In answering the call for an independent inquiry, it is important to set out some of the background to this affair which, though familiar to the right hon. Gentleman, may not be so well known to the wider audience interested in this debate.

After a long career in the forensic science service Dr. Clift moved to Birmingham forensic science laboratory in June 1976 to take charge of the biology department. In 1977, as a part of new quality controls introduced by the then controller of the forensic science service, an assistant director was appointed to the Birmingham laboratory. His job was to monitor the performance of scientists at the laboratory by various detailed checks of tests, files and reports. In the course of his examination of one of Dr. Clift's cases he found errors which he drew to Dr. Clift's attention. These errors were corrected, but other cases of Dr. Clift's were also found on examination to be unsatisfactory. These findings were reported to the director of the laboratory and by him to the controller of the service on 1 September 1977.

On the basis of these findings, the controller reported within the Home Office on the substantial prima facie evidence that Dr. Clift had selected results in writing his reports, had reported results that were clearly wrong and had been guilty of grave technical incompetence. Following discussion of these findings with representatives from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Dr. Clift was suspended from duty on full pay on 9 September 1977 pending a police inquiry on behalf of the DPP into his Birmingham cases. Early in the course of his investigation, the police officer reported areas where Dr. Clift had failed to maintain the standards expected of him as a scientist. However, the DPP decided on the basis of the officer's final report in 1978 that there had been no criminal intent and that Dr. Clift should not therefore be prosecuted. However, for the avoidance of doubt that is not the same as saying that Dr. Clift should be treated as a fully competent forensic scientist.

The police officer was assisted in his inquiry by Miss Pereira, an experienced biologist. Miss Pereira was then director of the Aldermaston forensic science laboratory. She is now controller of the forensic science service. She had the thankless task of investigating the conduct of a colleague, and she came to the conclusion, after a careful and painstaking inquiry, that Dr. Clift's conduct in a number of cases was not acceptable, and fell below the standards to be expected of an expert witness. She reported those conclusions honestly and fairly, giving examples of poor quality work such as conclusions based on flimsy evidence, failure to disclose full facts, risky decisions, unsound and invalid conclusions, ambiguous reports and other indications of incompetence. Miss Pereira had no axe to grind against Dr. Clift, and was concerned only for the standards of the forensic science service. Her conclusions have subsequently been criticised by Dr. Clift and his supporters. I want to place it on record that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I have the fullest confidence in Miss Pereira's professional judgment and integrity, and have no reason to doubt that the conclusions she reached were the right ones.

Following Dr. Clift's suspension from duty in September 1977, three convicted prisoners petitioned the Home Office to re-open their cases. Two of these cases were referred to the Court of Appeal, which quashed the conviction of one of the two prisoners along with those of two other men convicted with him of robbery and burglary mainly on the evidence given by Dr. Clift.

Mr. Ashley

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mellor

No. There is not sufficient time.

The setting aside of these convictions, among other things, was used by solicitors in support of an application to the Secretary of State for Scotland to refer the case of Mr. John Preece for review by the High Court. Eventually on 17 February 1981, the case was referred to the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland.

The decision of the High Court, allowing the appeal and quashing the conviction, was delivered by the Lord Justice-General on 19 June 1981. The court dealt very fully with the question of the serological evidence given at the original trial and heard expert evidence from a number of outstanding forensic scientists; perhaps, it was suggested, the most impressive body of such experts ever assembled in one court. After considering that evidence the judge concluded that Dr. Clift was, in relation to the evidence which he gave at the trial of the secretor status of the semen in the mixed stains, discredited as a scientist. Furthermore, that his testimony upon this very important chapter of the case fell far below the standards…normally to be expected and normally displayed by such a witness. Finally, that no reasonable jury would have convicted once it had become clear upon a consideration of the serological chapter of his evidence that Dr. Clift was discredited not only as a scientist but as a witness upon the accuracy, fairness and objectivity of whose evidence reliance could be placed. On 26 January, in reply to a question from the right hon. Member, my right hon. and learned Friend announced the results of the review of cases in which Dr. Clift gave evidence and his decision that it would be right for him to refer 16 of them to the Court of Appeal under section 17(1)(a) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. The basis upon which that decision had been taken was made perfectly clear. The cases were those in which, if the evidence given by Dr. Clift at trial was erroneous or false—and my right hon. and learned Friend made no assumption on that point—the convictions might reasonably have been regarded as open to question. It was accepted at the time that the individual cases might in themselves have not warranted reference to the Court of Appeal, and that Dr. Clift's evidence was by no means the only evidence against all the accused persons, but it was felt right that they should have the benefit of any doubt about their convictions and that the Court of Appeal should be asked for its independent and authoritative determination in each case.

Three of the convicted persons indicated that they did not want their cases to be referred and their wishes in the matter have been respected. Efforts to trace two other defendants are continuing. In three of the 11 cases referred to the Court of Appeal earlier this year the appeals were subsequently abandoned by the individuals concerned.

Mr. Ashley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mellor

I shall not give way to the right hon. Gentleman. He exceeded his time.

Mr. Ashley

This is a shocking speech.

Mr. Mellor

Of the remaining eight cases, there were three in which the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions and five in which it dismissed the appeals. In none of the cases referred to the Court of Appeal has the court questioned the earlier conclusions reached about Dr. Clift's competence.

I now come to Dr. Clift's compulsory early retirement. In his case the normal procedures for civil servants— which take some considerable time to complete—could not be used because his professional weaknesses, when they came to light, discredited him as an expert witness able to give evidence to courts. This is the chief function of a forensic scientist. It was not possible for him to continue in his existing work and there was no other work in the Home Office to which he could be transferred. As I have said, his weaknesses came to light as soon as revised quality assurance arrangements were introduced. The weaknesses had not been suspected previously because it had been assumed that an officer of his standing would be scientifically competent and that it was unnecessary to check the integrity of his work.

Although the retirement procedure used in Clift's case was unusual, it was inevitable because the normal procedure was impracticable. It was agreed between the Department and the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, the union representing Dr. Clift, that six specimen cases would be examined in detail to show the Department's objections to Dr. Clift's work, that he would offer his defence and, if this was not accepted, a retirement board would be asked to consider the case for his early retirement.

That procedure was followed. Dr. Clift was given access to all papers, records and statements relevant to the cases under review. The board, consisting of two assistant secretaries who had had no contact with Dr. Clift and two scientists not employed by the Home Office, considered these six cases and concluded that his work was seriously inadequate and unanimously recommended his early retirement. Dr. Clift and his solicitor were given every opportunity to put their case to the board and were invited to appear before it, but they did not accept this invitation. Dr. Clift then appealed to the Civil Service Appeal Board against his retirement. In an unusually long hearing, the board reviewed the procedures that had been used, the case against Dr. Clift and the Department's decision and concluded that the Home Office had acted fairly and that Dr. Clift had not been unfairly dismissed.

Dr. Clift therefore had ample opportunity to present his case against compulsory retirement. Nothing that has happened since then has led the Home Office to conclude that its decision was wrong, or unfair to Dr. Clift. His conduct was carefully examined before he was retired. In all the subsequent proceedings which have flowed from the Clift affair none of the responsible bodies concerned—the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Civil Service Appeal Board, the Court of Appeal—has questioned the conclusion reached about Dr. Clift's competence. It is true that Dr. Clift and some of his friends have mounted a campaign to vindicate him, but no new evidence has been produced, and indeed much of what has been said tends only to confirm the correctness of the decision that Dr. Clift was not acceptable as an expert witness. I regret that the right hon. Gentleman has lately lent his name to that campaign. He seems to think that he can act as counsel for the prosecution and the defence in the same case. I and many others do not find that a particularly edifying spectacle.

To sum up, my argument comes to this. In 1981 the High Court of the Judiciary in Scotland delivered a broadside against Dr. Clift of almost unprecedented ferocity. It amounted not merely to a denunciation of his competence in that case, but called into question his standing as a reliable witness in any case.

Faced with that, it has always seemed to me and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that it was necessary to trawl through those cases of which details were available and where the issue of guilt was contested. As a result, 129 cases were examined in detail and as we know 16 were identified as ones which should be referred to the Court of Appeal.

Those were cases where, in the opinion of my right hon. and learned Friend, the evidence of Dr. Clift was of sufficient materiality that if the evidence was unsound, the conviction might reasonably be regarded as open to question.

That is not to say that we felt that all the convictions were unsafe and unsatisfactory. That is not our job. It is the job of the courts to deal with these matters openly and publicly. It was for us to identify those cases where there was reasonable unease—that is precisely what we did. In deciding to refer those cases my right hon. and learned Friend sought to give the benefit of any doubt to the convicted person. I should make it clear that it has come as no surprise to me that in a majority of them the Court of Appeal has felt that the convictions were perfectly safe, or the appellants have abandoned their appeals.

But we should have been much criticised had we failed to expose to open view those cases where a contrary view was genuinely possible even if not probable. That is what we have done. It has been a painful exercise for all of us at the Home Office and particularly in the Forensic Science Service. But I am convinced that what we have done in the wake of the Preece decision was both wholly necessary and quite right. These matters have been fully ventilated and appropriate procedures have been followed, as I hope I have demonstrated to the satisfaction of the House tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eleven o' clock.