Thursday, 10 December 2015

A look at the cases of the Shrewsbury Pickets

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 is the principal legislative statement of current Trade Union law.  The 1992 Act not only consolidated many earlier Acts but also made a number of significant changes to the law.  The history of the law prior to this Act was complex and is well described in books such as Smith and Wood's Employment Law.  The "power balance" between Unions and Employers has proved to be exceptionally difficult to find both politically and legally.  The struggle between the Labour Movement and the government was epitomised by the Industrial Relations Act 1971, later replaced by the Trades Union and Labour Relations Act 1974.  The ebb and flow of Trade Union law continues with the latest Trade Union Bill which has passed the House of Commons and is now before the House of Lords - BBC 15th September 2015.

Notably, the Bill increases the required voting threshold before a strike may be lawfully called and it will make further provision about picketing including notification to the Police.  Picketing is, of course, a means by which a Trade Union seeks to make a strike effective and it is lawful provided that it is carried out in accordance with the 1992 Act.  Historically, picketing was decriminalised by the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 but this Act contained (section 7) offences relating to intimidation punishable by either a fine or 3 months imprisonment.  The 1992 Act repealed section 7 of the 1875 Act and the whole of the 1875 Act has since been repealed.

In 1972, there was a national strike by the building workers’ trade unions which lasted from May to September. The strike concerned the long hours and low pay of craftsmen and labourers.  Unions organised flying pickets targeted at building sites in small towns and rural areas.  On 6 September 1972 picketing took place in the Shrewsbury area. The picketing was largely peaceful, and no arrests were made or complaints raised by the police following the strike action on this day.

The early 1970s seemed to be a difficult, even unhappy, time.  Unemployment was rising.  The Industrial Relations Act 1971 had angered the Labour Movement.  Money had been "decimalised" in 1971 - (one "new" penny was equivalent to 2.4 "old pennies)!  Inflation was on the increase and the government tried to impose an incomes policy.  The Shrewsbury cases arose against this backdrop and in an industry where employment was precarious due to the "lump" system by which workers were employed on a job-by-job basis giving them little or no long term security.

Some months following the conclusion of the strike, a number of the picketers involved in the Shrewsbury action were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and conspiracy to intimidate.  They were tried at Shrewsbury and six men received lengthy custodial sentences.  This is viewed as a "miscarriage of justice" by the Shrewsbury 24 campaign and the cases have been referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).  Furthermore, a petition was presented to Parliament and the case was debated in the House on 9th December 2015 - (view the Westminster Hall debate).

On 7th December 2015, The Guardian published an article - The dirty tricks of the Shrewsbury trials exposes the dark heart of the radical 1970s - where it is claimed that the Edward Heath Cabinet and the security services influenced a television documentary entitled "Red Under the Bed" which featured the defendants. The programme was televised at the time of the trial.  Further evidence relating to the case is being withheld on national security grounds - see Politics Home 9th December 2015 - Labour threatens to oppose Surveillance Bill because of the Shrewsbury 24.

One important question about these cases is why was no Police action taken at the time?  It appears that in October 1972, the employers compiled a dossier of evidence of intimidation in the strike and handed it to Conservative home secretary Robert Carr.  Construction boss Robert McAlpine wrote to the Metropolitan police commissioner demanding “enforcement of the law by the police”. Carr then ordered a team of detectives to build a conspiracy case against the union militants.  Charges followed.

Viewed through the lens of some 43 years, the law of 1972 seems to our eyes to be a very strange thing.  1972 was the year that Assizes and Quarter Sessions were replaced by the Crown Court of England and Wales.  Very few practising lawyers remain today who practised in those older courts.  The Police decided whether to prosecute (sometimes taking legal advice from a Police Solicitor) ; the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, with its better safeguards for suspects, was still some way in the future; many public order offences were still defined (rather vaguely) by the common law and were not put on a statutory basis until the Public Order Act 1986.  A further feature was that charges of conspiracy could be brought in some instances even where the conduct aimed at was lawful - (Law Commission's 1976 Report on Conspiracy).  Conspiracy charges were open to the very serious criticism that they could be used as an engine of oppression by making greater penalties available. This was not changed until the Criminal Law Act 1977.   A further feature available in 1972 to defendants was the right of peremptory challenge to jurors.  This right was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1988.  Challenge for cause remains.

Those convicted are hoping to have the cases referred by the CCRC to the Court of Appeal.  Their request for the CCRC to act was lodged in April 2012.

Other links:

View the Westminster Hall debate

The Guardian 9th December - Burnham backs call to publish all Shrewsbury 24 papers

The Shrewsbury Trials

John Platt-Mills, the QC who represented Des Warren at Shrewsbury Crown Court, wrote in his autobiography Muck, Silk and Socialism:

'The trial of the Shrewsbury Pickets is the only case I know of where the government has ordered a prosecution in defiance of the advice of senior police and prosecution authorities.' 

It appears that the Attorney General at the time (Sir Peter Rawlinson QC) had advised against prosecution. (As mentioned in the Westminster Hall debate).


  1. What won't go away is this: the pickets wee trying to stop others going about their lawful business. That is never acceptable whether it is crossing a picket line, going to an airport, buying goods from (let us say) Ruritania, buying the product of an unpopular company, or simply crossing the road. A's individual right to go about your business trumps B and C's collective "right" to stop A from doing so.

    1. Indeed. That does not go away but interesting that Police did not take any action at the time. The delay in doing so is significant.