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After 46 years the Shrewsbury pickets have a chance to clear their names

The notorious case of the jailing of six striking building workers in 1973 has finally been referred to the Court of Appeal following a long campaign battle. EILEEN TURNBULL reports

“SOME will think this has not been the commission’s finest hour.”

This was the comment of chair of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) Helen Pitcher in its press release on March 4 2020 announcing that, after eight years, it was now referring the Shrewsbury pickets’ case to the Court of Appeal. 

Terry Renshaw, convicted picket, was delighted: “I have been campaigning for over 14 years to clear our names. It was the proudest day of my life to be able to speak with my fellow pickets and let them know that we were now going to the Court of Appeal.”

The Morning Star has reported on this case regularly since the applications were submitted in April 2012. 

The case began 47 years ago when 24 pickets were picked up by the the police in north Wales, five months after the first national building workers’ strike. 

Between them the men were to face 243 charges. After three trials at Shrewsbury Crown Court in 1973-4, six pickets were jailed. 

They were given prison sentences ranging from six months to three years. Sixteen received suspended prison sentences.

Des Warren, who led the north Wales strikers when they picketed working sites in  Shrewsbury and Telford, was given the longest sentence, of three years. 

The trial judge, Hugh Mais, told him when handing down the sentence, that Warren had the power of speech and the power of leadership. 

After he was released in August 1976 at the age of 39, he was never to work again due to blacklisting and failing health.

The pickets have always maintained that they were innocent of all charges. After Warren died prematurely in 2004, the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign was launched shortly afterwards to clear their names. 

It asked the Labour government for all papers relating to the Shrewsbury trials but was turned down by lord chancellor Jack Straw. 

He relied upon section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the government to withhold papers on the grounds of national security. 

I then travelled to archives and libraries all over the country to obtain the fresh evidence required by the CCRC if it was to refer the convictions to the Court of Appeal. 

Over the next 10 years I unearthed the crucial documents that formed the basis for the pickets’ applications.

The campaign worked tirelessly over this time to gain support and raise funds for the legal case.  

We decided from the start that the pickets would not be asked to contribute to the legal costs as they had already paid a heavy price for their stand in 1972. 

We travelled throughout Britain, to union and Labour Party conferences, branch and trades council meetings, the Durham Miners’ Gala, Tolpuddle, Orgreave and many other events to spread the word. 

As a result, we have 21 national unions affiliated to us, hundreds of branches, trades councils and constituency Labour parties. 

The chair of the campaign, Harry Chadwick, said: “We have achieved this success against the odds with the commitment of the campaign committee and the support of the trade unions. 

“We have always been heartened by the warmth and generosity of the trade unionists and Labour Party members that we have met and I want to thank you all.”

In 2017, five years after the pickets’ applications had been submitted, the CCRC turned them down. 

This was a great setback and two of the 10 pickets withdrew from the case, despite the best efforts of their fellow pickets to keep them in. 

The campaign challenged the CCRC’s decision through a judicial review on the grounds that its decision and reasoning was legally incorrect and perverse. 

At the first hurdle, in March 2018, a judge turned down the case as having “no merit.” 

The campaign decided to contest this and went to a full “permission” hearing in the Administrative Court on November 9 2018. 

Another judge found that there was an arguable case and gave the pickets the green light to proceed to a full judicial review of the CCRC.

At court on Tuesday April 30 2019, halfway through the submissions by the pickets’ QC, the CCRC conceded the case without presenting any challenge to the evidence. 

It agreed that it would withdraw its original decision and reconsider the referral of the pickets’ convictions to the Court of Appeal. 

Even though the CCRC was reminded many times of the age and frailty of the surviving pickets, it took it a further 10 months to release its revised decision, on March 4 2020.  

This was just two days after the campaign travelled to the CCRC’s Birmingham office to hand in a letter to its CEO Karen Kneller, complaining about the delay and asking her to oversee the matter to ensure that its decision was communicated speedily. 

What compounded the anxiety and frustration of the pickets was the CCRC’s final act:  publicising its decision on its website before it had been seen by the pickets through their solicitors. 

It meant that the pickets only got to hear about it after it was in the public domain. 

In its press release the CCRC set out the two grounds for referring the cases:
i) new evidence consisting of a note dated September 17 1973 which revealed that some original statements had been destroyed. Neither this note, nor the fact that statements were destroyed, was disclosed to the defence at the time of the trial or at any time thereafter.

ii) A new legal argument relating to a TV documentary, The Red Under the Bed, which was broadcast during the 1972 trial, and analysis, applying modern standards of fairness, of the way in which the airing of the documentary was handled by the trial judge.

The pickets and the campaign now await a date for the appeal hearing. They hope that the appeals office will list it quickly and that the pickets, who have sought justice for the past 46 years, will at last have an opportunity to clear their names.

The CCRC has indicated that it will accept applications from any of the other convicted pickets. 

The campaign has already had contact with several who had initially been reluctant to put their names forward in 2012 due to the stigma caused by their original convictions. 

We are grateful for all the support that we have received over the years and ask trade unions to continue to affiliate and donate to the campaign. 

It is the intention of the campaign to take all the convicted pickets and their families to London for the appeal hearing. 

Eileen Turnbull is researcher and secretary of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign. The campaign can be contacted via its website, www.shrewsbury24campaign.org.uk.

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