Last week yesterday in a historic vote the House of Commons voted by 120 votes to 3 in favour of the Government publishing the remaining papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24. For those unfamiliar with the background to this campaign, following the first ever national building workers’ strike in 1972 twenty-four pickets were convicted of charges such as unlawful assembly, intimidation and affray. Six, including the actor Ricky Tomlinson, were convicted of conspiracy to intimidate and were jailed.
Since this time numerous documents have come to light highlighting serious legal flaws in the prosecutions of the 24 and a close relationship between the building employers (concerned by the concessions won in the national strike) and the then Tory Government.
A dossier was compiled by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers and handed to the then Home Secretary Robert Carr who subsequently instructed the Chief Constables of West Mercia and Gwynedd to investigate picketing in the Shrewsbury area during the dispute. This is an area of the country where future Conservative Treasurer and construction firm owner Lord McAlpine had considerable business interests. His influence at that time can be demonstrated by the guest list of his 1970 Christmas Party which included Cabinet Members, heads of industry as well as two former Conservative Prime Ministers.
Documents reveal that following the investigation the Attorney General Peter Rawlinson advised the Home Secretary that ‘there was no evidence against any particular person of violence or damage to property’ and crucially ‘that proceedings should not be instituted’. Three weeks later however the 24 were charged.
The impact that these events had on the 24 personally was appalling and continue to this day. One of the pickets, Des Warren, never worked again following his release in prison and his death in 2004 from Parkinson’s disease has been linked to the cocktail of tranquilisers administered to him in prison against his will. Another picket Terry Renshaw very recently found he was unable to travel to the United States as a result of his conviction. Many of the pickets tell of blacklisting over many years.
The pickets insist they were wrongfully convicted and that their convictions were politically motivated. Successive Governments have maintained that documents relating to the case cannot be published for reasons of national security.
The events of 1972 have genuine significance today. The building workers won significant pay increases as a result of the 1972 strike. One of the other major areas of dispute between building workers and employers at that time was over the practice of blacklisting with employers funding a secret organisation, the Economic League, to maintain a blacklist. Anyone following developments on recent major infrastructure projects will know that this is an issue which has not gone away.
It is difficult to see how there could be genuine national security reasons for not releasing the papers after such a long period of time. There may however be political embarrassments such as we saw in the recent release of paperwork relating to the Miners Strike 1984/5.
Unfortunately despite the overwhelming Parliamentary vote the Government remains unwilling to publish. In his first appearance as a Minister Simon Hughes had the opportunity to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats were not simply doing the Tories dirty work for them. He comprehensively failed to do so, claiming to be a supporter of Freedom of Information but confirming the Government intended to continue to keep these documents secret.
A sustained campaign from individual MPs such as Dave Anderson secured last Wednesday’s backbench business debate where Labour MP after Labour MP called for the papers to be released. Andy Slaughter made an excellent speech from the Labour-front bench calling for publication, representing a significant break with the past. As a party we now need to keep the pressure up to secure justice for the Shrewsbury 24. We must continue to try to get the papers released now. But if this cannot be done prior to 2015 we must ensure it is delivered immediately following the General Election.
Katy Clark is the Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran