A new travesty is waiting to happen: Do we ever learn from our mistakes? The Royal Commission set up when the Birmingham Six were released delivered its verdict yesterday - the anniversary of another tragedy, the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster

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THERE is a view that those who preside over our criminal justice system have learnt some lessons from the events of recent years. I do not agree.

With certain honorable exceptions, I believe that most of those responsible for the recent series of disasters are entirely unrepentant. Subject to a few minor changes, they would cheerfully repeat the mistakes of the past.

What buoys them up is the firm belief - heard wherever two or three lawyers, police officers or Conservative politicians are gathered - that the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Mrs Maguire and her family are guilty anyway. OK, they say, maybe the police and the forensic scientists souped up the evidence, but we know they're guilty.

A whispering campaign to this effect has been under way from the very moment that the Birmingham and Guildford defendants walked free from the Old Bailey. If anything, it has grown stronger as the years have passed.

Indeed, such sentiments were aired openly, under cover of privilege, at the recent trial of three Surrey police officers charged in connection with the Guildford case, and eagerly seized on by a large section of the media.

It ought to tell us something about the extent of the rot at the heart of

our criminal justice system that such a massive delusion can collectively grip so many intelligent people. It also provides us with a clue as to the scale of the task facing the Royal Commission.

The commission was set up on the day that the Birminghan Six were released. 'The aim of such a review,' said the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, 'will be to minimise so far as possible the possibility of such events happening again.'

Judged by this lofty ideal, the commission's report is a disappointment. The single greatest omission is the failure to outlaw convictions based on uncorroborated confessions. The commission is content to make do with video recordings and warnings by the judge.

This overlooks the clear lessons of recent history. The key to obtaining a false confession is to reduce the suspect to such a degree of terror that he or she will say whatever is required once the formal recorded interview commences.

In the Guildford case, Paul Hill says he confessed because the police offered to release his pregnant girlfriend. Gerry Conlon says he confessed because of threats to his sister and mother. Both these confessions, which were the sole basis of conviction, would still have been forth- coming if the interview had been recorded.

The commission fails to recognise the enormity of what it is dealing with. The report says: 'A small number of police officers have been proved to be dishonest in fabricating confessions.' This is nonsense. The scale of the fraud and perjury uncovered in the Birmingham and Guildford cases is massive.

In the Guildford case the Crown counsel, Lord Havers, said that, if the defendants were telling the truth, then the police must have engaged in 'a really gigantic conspiracy'. In the Birmingham case the trial judge, Lord Bridge, said that for the defendants to be telling the truth, the police would have to have been involved in a conspiracy 'unprecedented in the annals of criminal history'.

The commission has utterly underestimated the scale of the problem. Many police operations, particularly those involving elite detective squads, regard perjury as a way of life. 'There is nothing wrong with perjury, committed by an honest police officer in aid of good cause,' a senior official of the Police Federation said recently - to me of all people.

Paul Condon, the new Metropolitan Commissioner, was frank about the problem when he appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee on 24 March. 'Police officers,' he said, 'talk of something which we call 'noble cause corruption', the essence of which is that the end justifies the means.' Mr Condon, I should add, did not attempt to justify this, but unlike the commission he at least recognised the problem.

Another feature of most miscarriages of justice is the suppression, by either the police or the Crown, of evidence inconvenient to their case. The commission recommends that police officers, scientists and prosecutors be required to certify in writing that they have disclosed all that they should have done to the defence.

This is sensible, but I would go further. Negligent failure to disclose should be made a serious disciplinary offence. Deliberate failure to disclose should be a criminal offence. So far as I am aware, none of those responsible for the suppression of crucial evidence in the Birmingham, Guildford or Judith Ward cases - some of whom were severely criticised by the judges - have suffered even the mildest inconvenience for their sins.

On forensic scientists, the commission recommends an advisory council to enforce the minimum standards of efficiency and integrity that were so sadly lacking in the conduct of some recent cases. This is intended to apply to all public sector laboratories and to those in the private sector that do police work. The commission also makes clear that scientific facilities, preferably not in the same laboratory, should be made available equally to prosecution and defence. All this is to be welcomed.

On police discipline, the commission recommends that acquittal at court should no longer be a bar to disciplinary proceedings on the same facts. No doubt this will produce howls of outrage from the Police Federation. Given, however, the apparent inability of our legal system to convict police officers caught out in even the most flagrant malpractice, it is an idea whose time has come. I shall watch with interest the fate of this proposal.

The commission recommends an independent review tribunal to deal with alleged miscarriages of justice. The idea is not new. It was first proposed as long ago as 1982 by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons.

In theory it is a very welcome dev-

elopment. How it will work out in practice remains to be seen. The scope for subversion is considerable. Much will depend on who the Home Secretary appoints to sit on it, what powers they have, and whether the Appeal Court - which will remain the final arbiter - takes any notice of their recommendations.

On one important issue the Royal Commission is silent - Freemasons. The word does not feature anywhere in its 261 pages. And yet one would have to be blind not to notice that there are Freemasons at every level in every part of our police and criminal justice system.

A great deal of paranoia surrounds Freemasonry and I have no wish to add to it. It is surely not asking too much, however, to declare that membership of a secret society is incompatible with maintaining public confidence in our criminal justice system.

The solution is not to ban anything - merely to require that police officers, magistrates, judges and prosecutors who are Masons should be obliged to declare the fact, and that the record of their declarations be available publicly.

There is much that is good in this report, but were anyone to ask if it would prevent another Birmingham Six or Guildford Four tragedy, I regret that I would have to say no.

The writer is Labour MP for Sunderland South and author of 'Error of Judgement - the Truth about the Birmingham Bombings'.

(Photograph omitted)