Amid all the gloom on Tuesday 23 March, the first anniversary of the UK’s Covid lockdown, there was a ray of sunshine for the labour movement. On that day, the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions of the North Wales building worker pickets who had been prosecuted at Shrewsbury Crown Court over 47 years ago.
Six of them had been jailed, and 16 others had received suspended prison sentences at three trials. The first, involving six so-called ringleaders, began in October 1973 and lasted 12 weeks. Three of the pickets were found guilty of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly, and affray, and were sent to prison.
The leading picket, Des Warren, received the longest sentence – three years on each count, to run concurrently. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience while he was in jail. Two further trials, which each lasted approximately four weeks, saw three other pickets jailed. 16 were given suspended prison sentences, and just two were acquitted.
These convictions remained unfinished business for many trade unionists. The premature death in 2004 of Warren became the catalyst for a group of trade unionists in Liverpool and North Wales to revisit what happened: in 2006 they decided to launch a campaign to attempt overturn this historic miscarriage of justice. It has taken 15 years to achieve that goal.
1972 was a year of high trade union militancy. More strike days were recorded that year than any other since 1945, including the first ever national building workers’ strike.
Construction workers faced hostile and powerful employers, lump labour, and isolated workplaces that changed constantly whenever a contract finished. Health and safety measures on building sites were non-existent, and building workers faced dangerous working conditions on a daily basis.
On average one building worker died each working day in the early 1970s. There were over 70,000 registered industrial injuries and diseases each year in the industry.
Four unions were involved: UCATT and the T&GWU—which are now both part of Unite—and the GMWU and FTAT, now both part of the GMB.
The strike started on a selective basis on 26 June 1972. The unions organised picketing of sites throughout the country. After a pay offer from the employers was rejected on 8 August, the unions stepped up picketing and called an all-out strike.
At the end of the 12-week dispute, in September 1972, they won the highest ever pay rise in the history of the building industry. They did not win an improvement in conditions, but decided to accept the offer, regroup, and fight on for better health and safety and to eradicate the lump.
On the evening of 14 February 1973, five months after the strike ended, six of the pickets were arrested in their homes and driven to police stations in Shropshire. 18 others received hand-delivered summonses.
The 24 North Wales pickets (18 T&GWU and 6 UCATT members) were charged with over 240 offences, including intimidation, affray, and criminal damage. The six arrested were also charged with conspiracy to intimidate. None of the 24 had been cautioned or arrested during the strike. There were no picket lines and no confrontations with the police.
The prosecutions focused on picketing in the Shrewsbury and Telford area on 6 September 1972 – specifically at the ‘Brookside’ site, which was owned by Robert McAlpine Ltd. Approximately 80 police had accompanied the pickets on the site.
The Fight for Justice
In 2008, as a campaign committee member, I was asked to carry out research into the background of the case. We needed to obtain fresh evidence, not available at the time of the original trials, that would support an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) on behalf of the convicted pickets. The scope of the task was daunting, notwithstanding that I had never carried out research before and that I, like all campaign members, was doing this on a voluntary basis.
I travelled throughout the country, searching archives and libraries in Kew, Warwick, Salford, Hull, Shropshire, Oxford, Cambridge, Bournemouth, and central London. I discovered that the government was withholding many files relating to the trials. Despite repeated requests they refused to release them, relying on Section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which relates to national security.
The campaign launched a Downing Street e-petition and a paper petition calling for the release of the missing documents, which gathered tens of thousands of signatures. Labour MPs raised many Early Day Motions. This culminated in a three-hour debate in the House of Commons on 23 January 2014, sponsored by David Anderson MP, calling on the government to give full disclosure. The MPs voted by 120 to 3 to release the documents. The government has never released them.
The pickets’ application to the CCRC was submitted on 3 April 2012. Over the following four years we sent in further submissions based upon the evidence that I unearthed, particularly at the National Archives. Despite the strength of our case, the CCRC turned us down in October 2017.
It was a desperate day for us all. But our lawyers, Bindmans, advised us that the CCRC had failed to apply the correct legal test to our evidence and recommended that we challenge the decision through a judicial review. The campaign was up for it, and so were eight of the original ten pickets that had applied in 2012. They never gave up.
Their courage was vindicated when the CCRC’s barrister threw in the towel half way through the hearing in the Administrative Court in Birmingham on 30 April 2019. But it took the CCRC a further ten months to reconsider the case.
The Latest Hurdle
Finally, on 4 March 2020, it announced that it would refer the convictions of the eight pickets to the Court of Appeal: Des Warren, John McKinsie Jones, Ken O’Shea, Malcolm Clee, Michael Pierce, Terry Renshaw, Kevin Butcher, and Bernard Williams. The CCRC publicly invited any of the other pickets to apply to them. The families of four deceased men contacted the campaign to ask to join the action. We successfully submitted further names: Alfred James, Roy Warburton, Graham Roberts, and John Seaburg.
The appeal had two grounds, based upon evidence that I discovered in the National Archives:
- Original witness statements had been destroyed by the police and this fact had not been disclosed to the defence counsel or the court; and
- A highly prejudicial documentary, Red Under The Bed, was broadcast on ITV halfway through the first trial, the content of which was contributed to by a covert agency within the Foreign Office known as the Information Research Department.
This week, the Court of Appeal unanimously upheld the first of these grounds:
‘If the destruction of the handwritten statements had been revealed to the appellants at the time of the trial, this issue could have been comprehensively investigated with the witnesses when they gave evidence, and the judge would have been able to give appropriate directions. We have no doubt that if that had happened, the trial process would have ensured fairness to the accused. Self-evidently, that is not what occurred. Instead, we are confronted with a situation in which an unknown number of the first written accounts by eyewitnesses have been destroyed in a case in which the allegations essentially turned on the accuracy and credibility of their testimony. As we have already described, we consider it correct to infer that the descriptions by the witnesses would in many instances have changed and developed as they were shown the photographs and as the police gained greater understanding of what those responsible for the investigation sought to prove. Those changes and developments could have been critical for the assessment by the jury of whether they were sure that the individual appellants were guilty of the charges they faced. The jury either needed to have this evidence rehearsed in front of them to the extent necessary, if the statements were still in existence, or they needed to be given clear and precise directions as to how to approach the destruction of the statements if that had occurred. Neither of those things happened, and in consequence we consider the verdicts in all three trials are unsafe.’
Justice At Last
The pickets are overjoyed with this decision. They always maintained their innocence. They were prosecuted for taking part in a strike and picketing to gain support from their fellow workers.
The government thought that North Wales workers would be an easy target because trade unionism was weaker there than in the main industrial centres; the press and TV of the day contributed to the witch-hunt against them.
But the campaign succeeded not only because of the vital evidence that I discovered, but also the tremendous support that we and the pickets received from 21 national unions, the TUC, hundreds of union and Labour Party branches, trades councils, and individuals. Our victory has been hailed as a boost by other campaigners, including those demanding justice for Orgreave and Grenfell.
Winning takes patience and perseverance, as well as unity and solidarity. Thank you to everyone who has supported us.