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4.36 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I want to raise an important matter involving what I believe was a serious miscarriage of justice affecting two of my constituents, Gareth Perrett and Richard Perrett. Both are former policemen. Gareth Perrett was an inspector in Halifax with 29 years' service; his son Richard served in the Odsal division in Bradford for several years. Both had unblemished records.

As MP for Halifax, for many years I have worked closely with Inspector Gareth Perrett. I know him well, and have always found him to be an excellent police officer, completely on top of his brief and well liked and respected in the community.

On 7 February 1998, an alleged incident occurred on a flight from Orlando to Manchester. The two Perretts and a friend were reported by two passengers for disorder: they claimed that the men had had too much to drink, and were noisy. On arrival at Manchester, the three men were met by the police. They were told that a complaint had been made. They were not arrested, and they were not told what the complaint had been; they were allowed to collect their car and drive home to Halifax.

As a senior officer, Gareth Perrett felt that there had been a misinterpretation, or a misunderstanding, of the men's behaviour. He sent a letter to the senior officer at Manchester airport. He thought that he should at least

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have been provided with a list of passengers, which would have enabled him to obtain evidence that neither he nor the other two men had done anything wrong. The Manchester police disregarded the letter, and the Crown Prosecution Service did not follow up its suggestions.

At that stage, both Inspector Perrett and his son still had no idea what the complaint against them was. Only when they read a report in the local press did they find that they had been accused of upsetting two passengers. Three months after the incident, a summons was served. The men were accused of being drunk on an aircraft, and using abusive or insulting words in the hearing or sight of a person which might cause harassment, alarm or distress.

On 12 June, my constituents pleaded not guilty to both charges. The second charge was withdrawn, which left them with the charge of being drunk on an aircraft. They have always denied that. The police produced no video evidence, and after they had met them from the plane they had allowed them to drive home. That is difficult to understand.

Gareth Perrett, or Richard, sought evidence from other passengers, but were met by a wall of opposition from Britannia Airways. The investigating police force was not helpful either. My constituents therefore set about finding passengers, and managed to locate a family who had been sitting close to them on the aircraft. That family are completely teetotal--as they made a point of saying in court; they gave evidence that the three men were

The family were the main witnesses and the case collapsed. The two men were declared not guilty and left the court without a stain on their character, although the judge did remark that there might have been some juvenile behaviour.

The two men returned to work. However, their problems were far from over; three months later, they were told to appear at a disciplinary hearing before the new chief constable, who--ignoring both the verdict of the court and the testimony of witnesses who had spoken in their favour--asked both men to resign. Later, at an appeal, a tribunal upheld the chief constable's decision but took note only of his conclusions; the independent evidence was not even discussed.

I took up the case with the Home Office for three main reasons. I am not convinced that the case of the Perretts was fairly investigated either by the Greater Manchester police or the West Yorkshire police. I do not believe that a court's not guilty verdict should have been overturned by a chief constable who had taken more notice of exaggerated press reports. I do not believe that two excellent police officers should have lost their jobs; they are lost to the service, at a period when we are desperately short of good, experienced officers.

The Home Secretary has turned down their appeal; he says that he took into account the response of the chief constable and the recommendations of the tribunal. I am very disappointed that he has done so. I am the last person in the world to condone disruptive or drunken behaviour on an aircraft, but after going into the case in great detail--listening to the local community and reading the proceedings thoroughly--I feel that an injustice has been perpetrated.

Like the court, I do not believe that a serious offence took place. I do not believe that people should be tried twice. I want the Home Office to take another look at

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the case. Recently, a senior reinstated police officer pleaded guilty to far more serious offences; we should remember that the Perretts were proved not guilty.

The emotional cost to the family has been tremendous. They are a local family who are well known and well respected. The two men have been under great stress; they have lost income and have experienced personal hurt. I did not feel that the House should adjourn without me drawing attention to this case--I shall certainly pursue it.

4.43 pm

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): Although politics can be an unpredictable science, I suspect that this may be my last speech in the Chamber--although I continue to have the privilege of representing Orkney in the Scottish Parliament. There have been several highlights during my 18 years as a Member of Parliament, but the fact that I was a Member of the Parliament that delivered a Scottish Parliament--for which my party had campaigned for more than a century--and that I had the opportunity to play a part in that process brings me considerable pleasure.

One consequence of the Scottish Parliament and of legislation passed in this place is that the Orkney and Shetland constituency has been split in two, so when the general election is called I shall cease to have a representative link with Shetland. That is why I want to focus on an important issue in Shetland--one of the major incidents that occurred during my time as a Member of Parliament.

On 5 January 1993, the oil tanker Braer went aground at Garths Ness on the southern tip of Shetland, spilling its cargo of 84,000 tonnes of oil. Regrettably, more than eight years on, there is still unfinished business. I shall devote my remarks especially to the outstanding claims of people who believe that their property was damaged as a result of the spillage.

I declare a personal interest. I have a small cottage about a mile from where the tanker went aground; subsequently, it was noted that the felt roof was warped. The roof was replaced by benefit of the compensation fund at a cost of between £3,000 and £4,000.

Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky in having their compensation claims met. The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund has the advantage that those who want to claim do not have to prove negligence on the part of the ship owner or the ship's master. In any event, it is sometimes speculative--and would have been in the case of the Braer--whether the owner or master would have had the resources to meet compensation claims. However, the downside of that advantage is that compensation from the fund is limited--in respect of the Braer, it is limited to a pay-out of about £50.6 million.

At the outset, quick payments were needed to help cash flows for the worst affected industries, especially fishing and fish farming. Although there was subsequent criticism that payments were made too quickly, even with the benefit of hindsight it is right that businesses that had lost trade overnight should have been helped over their immediate difficulties.

Claims had to be identified before 15 January 1996. In October 1995, 2,000 claims, amounting to £45 million, had been settled. At that stage, a moratorium was placed

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on further payments. Payments were resumed only in May last year, with a dividend of 40 per cent. of approved, unpaid claims being met.

Many of the claims have been subject to court proceedings. It is only during the past few weeks that a judgment has been entered for one of the major cases, so the sub judice rules no longer apply. It relates to claims made by people who believed that their asbestos cement roofs were damaged.

My constituents and their legal representatives have expressed concern that an unduly legalistic approach was taken by the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund. Nit-picking points have been made. Although it is not improper for solicitors and counsel advising the fund to draw attention to how its liability might be minimised, we are entitled to ask whether it is politically or morally proper that a fund set up to compensate the victims of pollution should adopt such an approach.

I shall give the House an example. In the case of a couple whose jointly owned property suffered damage from oil pollution, a claim was made by the widow, because her husband, sadly, had died in the meantime. The claim was challenged and compensation was reduced by half because she had sued only in her own name and not as the executrix of her husband's estate. No doubt the challenge was legally correct, but it begs the fundamental question of whether it was morally correct.

I have raised such issues with the fund itself and with successive Ministers with responsibility for shipping. The view seems to be taken that although the Government are party to the convention, it is inappropriate for them to intervene in individual cases. However, if the Government cannot intervene as a member of the fund, who can?

The most significant set of claims relates to damage to asbestos cement roofs. People found that their roofs started to buckle and to show signs of damage about 18 months after the Braer went aground and after dispersant was used to try to clear up the spoil. Although, at first, cases were based on damage by oil, when they came to court they were based on contamination by dispersant. In either event, the Lord Ordinary in the Court of Session--Lord Gill--found against the claimants. I do not criticise Lord Gill, as his carefully written opinion reflects the evidence laid before him.

My concern is that the fund undertook several surveys and received reports that it subsequently withheld from the claimants. Those reports may have been helpful to their cause.

In a faxed message to the director of the fund, Mans Jacobsson, in November 1994, Dr. Brian Dicks said:

he gives a number of dates--

He said that it was important to recognise that a significant part of the comparative control process was provided by the experience gained from the fund's surveyors.

I have subsequently been advised from local sources that a local surveyor, acting on behalf of the fund, submitted to the fund a number of reports concerning damage to asbestos roofs. The principal report concerned

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the final six months of 1994, and detailed visits, surveys and periodic inspections of a number of properties, including some done beyond the contaminated area to be used as controls. Another surveyor submitted reports in respect of a number of individual claims, including one of damage to an asbestos roof in the village of Cunningsburgh, where the owners had not even thought of claiming until it was suggested to them by a representative of the fund because of the apparent damage to the roof. Now, five years later, and after litigation, they find themselves with a bill for legal expenses.

Efforts have been made by the solicitors for the claimants at the appropriate point in the proceedings to recover the documents and reports. That was resisted by the fund. No doubt it had a legal basis for doing so and the court adjudicated accordingly, but it misses the point. No one in Shetland asked for an oil tanker to land on their doorstep and spill its load, and if the reports do not support the claimants' case, what is to be lost by their disclosure? If, on the other hand, they do lend support to the claimants' case, that survey changes the whole picture. Whatever may be the strict legal position, surely there is a moral case for the fund not to hide behind legal technicalities, but to compensate those who have suffered loss.

I have asked the fund, both in writing and when I met the director last week, whether he would disclose these documents and, to be fair, he has agreed that he will consider the request. I have addressed a similar request to the shipping Minister, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill). I was due to meet him this morning, but unfortunately that meeting has had to be postponed until later in the month. It is important, in the interests of fairness, for these documents to be released. I urge him to use his good offices to recover them. If they do show that there was evidence of the type of damage through contamination that the claimants believe that there is, I believe that an ex gratia settlement from the fund, or indeed from the Government, who had responsibility for the spraying, would be in order.

I wish to raise two further points relating to the Braer. The first concerns expenses. It would be unfair if huge expenses were landed on the doorsteps of those who had the oil land on their doorstep. To be fair, the director of the fund has said that he will not be sending the bailiffs in. Finally, on equality of treatment, there is £3.7 million of unpaid claims already established but only £2.4 million available for further payments. Inevitably, that means a dividend, but others have been paid in full. I have asked successive shipping Ministers how the Government intend to address that inequality, and I still await an answer.

In the House we regularly pay lip service to the adage that the polluter must pay. It is intolerable that the victims of pollution should pay. There is a huge sense of grievance and injustice. There is a belief, too, that a compensation fund should do just that: compensate. I seek the disclosure of the survey reports and an indication of how the Government intend to ensure that there will be equality of treatment.

This is unfinished business. I suspect that I shall not be a Member of the House when it is finished, but I very much hope that it will be concluded in a satisfactory and just way.

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4.52 pm

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