Public interest gag 'denied fair Guinness trial'

Chris Blackhurst looks at why Redwood issued a PII certificate
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The Independent Online
The public interest immunity certificate signed by John Redwood, then a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, on 7 November 1989 (report on front page), could go to the heart of the defence case in the Guinness trial.

Lawyers for the four defendants - Ernest Saunders, Gerald Ronson, Anthony Parnes and Sir Jack Lyons - maintained the evidence suppressed by the certificate would show their clients were denied a fair hearing.

At an early stage in the 1990 trial they alleged their clients were unfairly subjected to investigation by DTI inspectors, who enjoy wide powers, rather than by the police, who are subject to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. In particular, they did not enjoy the right to silence normally extended in criminal cases. The DTI inspectors, they claim, were effectively doing the police's criminal digging for them but without the safety net for the defence of normal civil liberties.

This decision, to use the DTI rather than the police, is what they believe is contained in the minutes of discussions between ministers and officials withheld by Mr Redwood's certificate.

This new evidence could prove vital in their appeals, due to be heard in full in October, and due for a preliminary hearing next month.Lord Spens, a defendant in the second Guinness trial who had the charges against him dropped and is intent on pursuing a case for damages against the Government, is convinced Mr Redwood's certificate is more pivotal than those used by other ministers in the Matrix Churchill arms-to-Iraq case. "In Matrix Churchill, three men did not go to prison; in Guinness I, three did," he said yesterday.

The affair had ruined the lives of all those involved - not just those like Saunders, Parnes and Ronson who were imprisoned. "I was acquitted but it cost me millions," Spens said. Unlike Matrix Churchill, where Mr Justice Smedley, the judge, ordered disclosure, in Guinness I and II, Mr Justice Henry accepted the need for non-disclosure.

Mr Redwood signed the certificate in the run-up to the Guinness I trial of Saunders, Parnes, Ronson and Lyons for their part in the Guinness takeover of Distillers in 1986. Mr Redwood's certificate says he understood that lawyers acting for Parnes were seeking to challenge at a preliminary hearing the admissibility of transcripts between their client, a stockbroker and the DTI inspectors. Lawyers advising Mr Redwood were concerned that Parnes's lawyers might try and obtain documents relevant to the challenge. These included a note dated 13 January 1987, from Jonathan Rickford, then the DTI solicitor, to another DTI official, Mr Hilton, "recording a telephone conversation ... the previous evening with the inspectors and subsequent discussions with the Right Honourable Michael Howard QC MP, then parliamentary Under Secretary of State, and Mr John Wood, then Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions".

The certificate continues: "The note records the existence of certain evidence in the hands of the inspectors indicating the possibility of criminal offences having been committed. The note proceeds to discuss consequential action to be taken."

The certificate details other notes of meetings where the inspectors reported on the likelihood of criminal offences having been committed. Mr Redwood states he has "personally read" the documents and "it is necessary in the public interest that they should be withheld from production".

Further indication of the evidence covered by the certificate - and which Mr Heseltine is prepared to release - comes from an affidavit signed by a DTI official for Guinness II. Bryan Welch, a DTI legal officer, submitted the affidavit after Roger Seelig, one of the defendants, attempted to obtain a witness summons against Michael Nash, a DTI records clerk. Mr Welch said that Mr Nash had "custody of the DTI's records relating to the inquiry into Guinness Plc and its consequences".

These included: records of meetings between the inspectors and DTI on the progress of the investigation; notes of meetings held by senior DTI officials and Crown Prosecution Service officials; records of discussions between the DTI and police; communications between ministers and officials, including "the Prime Minister's office, law officers and the Home Office". All these documents, said Mr Welch, "fall into classes of document which are in the public interest immune from compulsory production".