Barbara Castle passed internal Home Office documents to a journalist in an extraordinary personal battle with civil servants, various supporters of the Paedophile Information Exchange and the MP for Rochdale.
She lost her fight with Cyril Smith early one morning in 1984 when twelve uniformed and three plain clothes police officers surrounded the offices of the Bury Messenger free newspaper.
Three men, identifying themselves as Special Branch, seized 30 pages of documents from a young newspaper editor under the false pretext that he was about to breach a government D-notice.
The deputy secretary of the present-day Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee, Air Commodore David Adams, told reporter Garrick Alder in an email last week there is no archive record of a D-notice:
The only person who issues D Notice advice is the Secretary of the DA Notice Committee. We have, nevertheless, in connection with similar enquiries, searched the available archives for any D Notices that may have been issued during the period in question and have found none.
Despite having served as a cabinet minister, despite being a privy councillor and despite being a member of the European parliament, Barbara Castle was outgunned by the Liberal MP for Rochdale and his police contacts in London.
The young editor was Don Hale, a 31 year old former professional footballer for Bury ‘just keeping the seat warm’ at the Bury Messenger office very early in his career as an editor.
Now 61, with an OBE for his notable campaign as the editor of the Matlock Mercury, helping to overturn the unsafe conviction of Stephen Downing who had served 27 years of a life sentence for the murder of Wendy Sewell, Hale says he got to know Barbara Castle when he was a contributor at the BBC local radio station in Blackburn.
In 1979, after a record 34 years as MP for Blackburn, she handed over her safe Labour seat to her former political adviser Jack Straw.
As Margaret Thatcher was coming to power, Barbara Castle ran for election as a member of the European parliament, standing at the age of 69 in a ‘first past the post’ contest for Greater Manchester North.
The European constituency she won in 1979 included Rochdale, the home town and power base of her nemesis.
Cyril Smith had been Labour mayor of the town in 1966, owned a metal spring manufacturing firm and 1,300 concealed shares in the town’s leading manufacturer – the world’s largest asbestos producer – Turner & Newall.
Smith switched parties to win Rochdale for the Liberals in 1972, holding the seat for five elections thereafter. In 1981 he wrote to Turner & Newall, asking them to draft his Commons speech against the forthcoming EEC public health restrictions on the import and production of asbestos. He declared: “The public at large are not at risk. It is necessary to say that time and time again.”
In 1982 he used parliamentary privilege to accuse Yorkshire Television of lying about asbestos in their celebrated documentary Alice – Fight For Life which featured Alice Jefferson, 47, suffering from malignant pleural mesothelioma 30 years after working for 9 months at the Cape asbestos mill in Hebden Bridge.
Don Hale, now living in North Wales, described how Barbara Castle took to dropping in at his newspaper office, a former bank in Silver Street, Bury.
Barbara Betts had worked her way from Love Lane Elementary School, via Bradford Girls Grammar School and St Hugh’s College, Oxford, to a seat on St Pancras Borough Council in 1937.
She had been a reporter on Tribune and the housing correspondent of the Daily Mirror in 1944.
Her lover, William Mellor, who died in 1942, when she was serving as an air raid warden in the London blitz, had been editor of Tribune and the top-selling Daily Herald.
Her late husband Ted Castle had been night editor of the Daily Mirror and editor of Picture Post.
Yet in 1984 here she was asking for help from the editor of the Bury Messenger free sheet.
Don Hale remembers:
She was feeling a little bit isolated in those days. I was a firebrand and a socialist. She would come on her own to see me but her assistant would phone first to make an appointment.
I had been asked to come in and sort things out at Eddy Shah’s Bury Messenger. He sold out later and after eighteen months the new owners eventually asked me to work in Derbyshire.
Barbara was quite angry one day and said, “I’ve been working on something – I don’t suppose you’d be able to help me. I don’t mind you bringing my name into it.”
She was objecting to the funding of the Paedophile Information Exchange and concerned about the speed of their infiltration among the civil servants and the number of prominent names apparently supporting them. She was horrified at the prospect of Parliament approving legalised sex with children, often under the guise of educating them, and mentioned an influx of rent boys and unsavoury and unfortunate situations that had been covered up by the authorities.
When I asked her to give me something more substantial she pulled about thirty A4 pages out of a battered briefcase absolutely chocker with stuff.
The pages included cuttings from the PIE magazine Magpie, documents from the PIE and the National Council for Civil Liberties and a list of the names of about sixteen MPs she thought were involved. There was also a list of about 30 prominent people in the North West and a list of speakers for PIE.
It was enough to make a splash for the paper. A lot of what she was claiming came from agenda for meetings at the Home Office. There were Home Office headings on the minutes of meetings and Home Office headings on lists of people present at meetings or reasons for the non-attendance of others. The name of Cyril Smith did not appear.
I agreed to run something the following week and set about contacting the Home Office and certain people mentioned. The names of Sir Keith Joseph MP and Dr Rhodes Boyson MP cropped up.
When I explained the detailed nature of the information and that I couldn’t reveal my source, you could almost hear a pin drop. The officials were unsure what to say or do. I was in the middle of it.
Quite a lot of Liberals were mentioned in the documents, so I spoke to their former leader, Jeremy Thorpe. That’s what prompted Cyril Smith to turn up in my office in Bury. Barbara had never made any allegations against him.
He was very angry. He tried to persuade me that it was all poppycock. He said Barbara had got her “knickers in a twist” since leaving the House and had become bored with wine lakes and sugar mountains in Europe. He played down the whole episode and wanted an assurance that I wouldn’t run anything. I wouldn’t give it.
After the visit from Cyril Smith came the visit from Special Branch. There was a knock on the door of the office at around 8:00 one morning. It was amazing. Three SB men with London accents came inside. Some of the uniformed men stayed outside. They all flashed warrant cards. They showed me two pieces of paper. One looked like a search warrant with a warning. They were a rough bunch.
One of them said, “I have a D-Notice here and a search warrant signed by a judge. This is in response to a call made to Leon Brittan’s department. That was how they put it. They didn’t say they came from the Home Office.
They pushed me into a corner and one of them said, “Let me assure you that this story is not in the public interest. It cannot be printed, as a matter of national security. We’re not here to argue, Are you going to hand over your papers?
“If you don’t comply with this notice, we will arrest you for perverting the course of justice. You will be liable for up to ten years in prison. We can arrest you straight away if we believe you are going to publish.”
They knew Barbara had been to see me. They knew Cyril Smith had been round. Most of the documents were together in one folder. So it didn’t take them long. They picked up my own typewriter saying: “We’re taking that in case you’ve been forging documents.”
There was nothing I could do to resist. I’d never seen a D-Notice in my career and I was on a very temporary contract keeping the seat warm for another editor.
My Bury police contact was utterly shocked. He knew nothing about it. A day or two later the local police told me: “It was a visit from the London mob. We were not briefed.”
When I told Barbara, she said, “I thought that might happen.”
I told her, “I wish you’d told me. I could have copied them.”
She said she had only a small band of supporters. She felt like a lone wolf. Her supporters in Parliament felt their seats were threatened. The presence of the PIE group had become accepted.
It was a hot potato thing. It had an effect on me years later. Facing the task of investigating the conviction of Stephen Downing for a murder he had not committed, I was determined not to let it happen again.
When the files on Stephen’s case were lost in transit by a courier taking them from the Home Office in London to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in Birmingham. I had copies ready for the CCRC.