Ministerial Statement: Impact of Policing on Communities during the Miners' Strike
Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson
Presiding Officer, I am pleased to come to Parliament to address members about the Government’s plans to initiate an independent review of the impact of policing on affected communities in Scotland during the miners’ strike.
Last September, in answer to an oral Parliamentary Question, I advised that the Scottish Government was addressing various issues around proposals for a review of policing of the miners’ strike of 1984-85. I committed to announcing my decision in due course.
I know this statement has been keenly awaited by interested parties, not least by individuals and communities from our mining heartlands, and I thank them for their patience and their role in getting to this point today.
It is generally understood that the 1980s represented an extremely difficult time for many communities throughout Scotland, mining communities in particular.
I know from the conversations I have had that, although more than three decades have passed since the main miners’ dispute, the scars from the experience still run deep.
In some areas of the country most heavily impacted the sense of having been hurt and wronged remains corrosive and alienating. That is true of many who were caught up in the dispute and aftermath. Those who were employed in the mining industry at the time, of course, but also wider families and communities.
The miners’ strike was also a difficult period for the police, with many individual officers finding themselves in extremely challenging situations, and police and community relationships coming under unprecedented strain.
Whilst things have moved on considerably in the decades which have followed, the question of how best to learn from this period remains. How best can we aid understanding, reconciliation and inclusion?
One approach is the “let sleeping dogs lie” approach – in other words to do nothing. This is, some might say, the approach adopted by various governments in the past.
But if the hope had been that the sense of injustice and division would heal naturally, without intervention, then it seems to have been misplaced. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away.
So I understand the great disappointment that arose, in October 2016, when the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, announced that the UK Government was ruling out an inquiry into events at the Orgreave Coking plant in South Yorkshire – the “Battle of Orgreave”, as it became known, one of the most notorious flashpoints in the miners’ strike.
I made clear at the time that I thought that was the wrong decision – not least, because it seems clear that key elements in the mix , which need to be understood, were the attitudes and perhaps actions of the then UK Government.
An alternative to the “do nothing” approach, put to me strongly by campaigners, is to honestly address some of the key issues through a focussed investigation specifically into the policing of the miners’ strike in Scotland.
When I met with campaigners – including Neil Findlay, whose commitment to this matter I readily acknowledge – I agreed to explore this option as sympathetically as possible, within the constraints placed on Ministers in this Parliament by the devolution settlement.
A key issue is what kind of review is possible and crucially what value would it add, given where we are today.
It is important to recognise, for example, that there is already effective provision available for anyone who considers that they have experienced a miscarriage of justice in terms of criminal conviction.
The Scottish criminal justice system has established procedures to deal with alleged miscarriages of justice and, as I have made clear to the campaigners, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is the appropriate route if anyone believes they have suffered in this particular way.
However, wrongful conviction is just one form of injustice. The question is how might we better-address wider but equally distressing forms. This has come home to me in my dealings with campaigners.
I have been struck, as I said, by the continuing deep feeling and sense of injustice, a sense that our fellow citizens feel they have been misrepresented and ill-treated, that they wish their side of the story to be told and that any appropriate lessons are learnt, to avoid unnecessary division and distress in the future.
I have given this careful consideration. In particular, I have had to look closely at a significant number of technical challenges, and I want to ensure that anything we do is robust, proportionate and fair.
I have considered that doing nothing is not an option. While what I can do is limited by the powers devolved to Scottish Ministers, I am determined that the Scottish Government should do what it can to do right by those affected by the dispute.
Consequently, I can announce that John Scott QC has agreed to undertake an independent review of this matter. His remit will be:
to investigate and report on the impact of policing on affected communities in Scotland during the period of the miners’ strike from March 1984- March 1985.
I can announce too that John Scott will be assisted by an advisory panel comprising our former colleague Dennis Canavan; former Assistant Chief Constable Kate Thomson; and Professor Jim Murdoch of Glasgow University. This grouping will bring real authority and a balanced insight into the issues raised.
Their work - which will begin with some preparatory activities over the Summer - will include a review of the publicly-available files held at the National Records of Scotland and the National Archives in London.
It will also include gathering evidence from those directly affected by, or having knowledge of, the dispute and reporting the findings. To allow effective engagement and consideration of the issues, I have asked for an interim report in early 2019.
A final report, setting out lessons learnt and making recommendations for any other action required, will follow by June 2019 and be made publically available.
I hope that my decision to establish this review underlines the importance that the Scottish Government attaches to this issue and our understanding that there are questions about the impact on communities that remain to be answered.
I am pleased to say that Nicky Wilson, President of the National Union of Mineworkers gave his wholehearted backing to this approach when I spoke to him this morning. He said:
“Following the Justice Secretary’s earlier meetings with the NUM, I really welcome the leadership being demonstrated by the Scottish Government on this issue. Rather than a potentially costly and drawn-out Public Inquiry, we will have a time-limited and focused independent review which I hope will really get to the heart of the injustice experienced by mining communities at that time. We have good relations with the police and no wish to pursue a vendetta but it is high time that what mining communities endured during the Strike is properly understood.”
Going forward, my expectation is that the process and outcome of this review will help to bring a degree of closure – crucially, of a positive kind, through openness, disclosure and understanding. In keeping with the ‘truth and reconciliation’ approach suggested by the Scottish Police Federation.
It does not of course remove what I see as an obligation on the UK Government to fully explore the extent of any political interference by the UK Government at that time.
I have therefore written to the new Home Secretary to renew my call – first made in November 2016 – for the current UK Government to institute an inquiry. Although my earlier plea was rejected, I remain of the view that it would be better for all concerned if – in a spirit of transparency, justice and reconciliation – the UK Government would now follow our example.
Through this independent review, Scotland will certainly lead the way in ensuring that the experiences of those affected by the dispute in the 1980s are properly recognised.
Some of our communities have been blighted by the shadow of that time for too long. I hope that members will join with me in both encouraging those affected to engage with the review, and in welcoming the work of John Scott and the advisory panel as an opportunity to acknowledge those difficult times and truly learn from them.