HC Deb 29 March 1934 vol 287 cc2177-83

12.41 p.m.


I rise to direct the attention of the House to an entirely different but very important matter. It will be within the recollection of the House that this morning the Home Secretary answered a question relating to the circumstances that surrounded the arrest of Mr. Cope Morgan. Those who listened to that reply must have felt that the anxiety concerning this case was somewhat disarmed by the frank and conciliatory nature of the reply. In every part of the House I think there will be a desire not to add further to the publicity which has already surrounded this unfortunate citizen. On the other hand, although one might be influenced by those considerations, it is my view and the view of some of my hon. Friends that there was conduct on the part of certain high officials of so reprehensible a character that we cannot possibly allow the matter to remain where it is. I am not going to ask the House for a moment to consider any of the evidence given in the course of the proceedings at the court, nor the decision of the court itself. We are not concerned at all about that; we are concerned only with the events that occurred before the case came for trial.

The incident around which the trial occurred took place at about 12.20 a.m. on 1st March. Mr. Cope Morgan was taken to Tottenham Court Road police station, there charged, and freed on bail. It transpired, as the Home Secretary admitted, that he was on friendly terms with the Secretary at Scotland Yard, and he rang up or called upon the Secretary, and because of the intervention of the Secretary no proceedings were taken on charge. There was nothing unusual about the charge, for such charges occur in the ordinary life of a policeman in London. The only unusual thing about this case was that Mr. Cope Morgan knew the Secretary at Scotland Yard and the Secretary was on friendly terms with him. The assumption is that if Mr. Cope Morgan had not known the Secretary no one would have intervened; Mr. Cope Morgan would not have been able to obtain access to the Secretary and no steps would have been taken.

I want to emphasise that point. That is why anxiety has been aroused—one citizen is able to exert an influence from which other citizens are debarred. Were it not for the fact that this citizen had a friend and influence in high places the normal course of justice would have been proceeded with, and Mr. Cope Morgan would have been called upon to surrender to his bail at 10.30 the following morning. Because of this fact, because that is the only unusual feature of the case, because he was known to a high official, the machinery of Scotland Yard is set in motion and the course of justice is obstructed. In other words a high official is guilty of a gross misdemeanour. That official is escaping unscathed. No steps at all have been taken to deal with him. There are two persons culpable. There is, first, the station officer who did not proceed with the case. I am not going to over-emphasise that aspect of the matter. It is true that, in law, he ought not to have surrendered the charge sheet. He ought not to have permitted himself to be interfered with by anybody at all. It is true that he ought to have said to his superior officer, "I am responsible in law for seeing to it that this man appears on his bail to-morrow morning and I am going to see that he does so." That is the law of the matter. The report of the Royal Commission on Police Powers and Procedure of 1929 states: Some account of the relationship between the individual policeman and the force to which he belongs is necessary for an understanding of the manner in which police powers are exercised. The essential feature which distinguishes police organisation from most other organised bodies is that the policeman's powers are not delegated to him by superior authority…. Modern conditions have led to the development of highly organised police forces the members of which are graded in different ranks. But these ranks have for the most part only an administrative as distinct from a legal significance and the responsibility of the superior officers consists ultimately in ensuring that their subordinates properly discharge the duties of their office as constables. These duties are imposed upon every constable by law and they cannot be widened or restricted by any superior officer or administrative authority. A constable is not an 'agent' but is personally liable for any misuse of his powers or any acts in excess of his authority— It would almost appear as if the language of this report were written in preparation for the case which we are discussing— and he cannot plead that he is obeying the orders of his superior officer or of his police authority. Nothing could be clearer than that. The station sergeant has imposed on him by statute the obligation of seeing that any charge made against a person is entered in the charge sheet and if bail is imposed he is responsible for seeing that the person charged is released only by a magistrate. I am not asking that steps should be taken against the station officer although I would point out that a very important protection of civilian rights is involved in this matter. I understand that the legal status of policemen and soldiers is such that they cannot claim immunity from legal action on the ground that they have carried out an illegal act on the instruction of a superior officer. Indeed, if we are to retain our civilian rights that must be so, because if that plea could be urged in extenuation of illegal acts, a policeman or a soldier might shoot a civilian on the instruction of a superior officer and claim immunity. There is always another superior officer above the superior officer concerned, and so there would be no one at all who could take proceedings against the Government, which is the most superior officer of all, except the Government itself. Obviously, if civilian rights are to be adequately protected the Home Secretary in the administration of the police force must insist that policemen who, presumably, know the law or at any rate this part of the law, should not plead as an excuse for breaking the law the instructions of some higher power.

As I say, however, I do not insist on that aspect of the matter. But I do insist that if the station officer should escape with verbal censure that should not be the position of the Secretary of Scotland Yard. He surely knows the law. Here he attempts to secure protection for a friend and he diverts the normal course of justice in order to do so. It was not that he was not satisfied that sufficient evidence existed for the arrest. The station officer was the person who had to be satisfied of that and he had satisfied himself on that point. But here is a man who uses his office for the purpose of protecting a friend from the machinery of justice. There can be no offence more heinous than that. The fact that that man is a high official of Scotland Yard is no reason why he should escape. If I saw a "pal" being carried off by a policeman to the police station and if I interfered, the policeman would arrest me. Here is a man who does precisely the same thing. He tries to prevent a friend being brought to trial. If high officials can break the law and claim immunity then the law is going to be brought into grave disrepute in Great Britain. An hon. Friend reminds me that this man to whom I refer was not himself a policeman. If these are the first fruits of the policy of bringing people from outside into the police force, the Home Secretary had better reverse that policy immediately. In this case we are to understand that this man is either so ignorant of an elementary law, a law which is known to almost every citizen, that he interferes where he ought not to do so, or else that he knowingly broke the law and interfered to protect a friend.

This incident occurred on 1st March and proceedings were not instituted, as the Home Secretary told us, until 5th March. But on 5th March a national newspaper contained information about the case. The assumption therefore arises that if the information had not leaked out to the public no proceedings would have been taken. I am not making a charge, but it is a very serious matter, and we must remember that four days elapsed before proceedings were taken. I am speaking with only a layman's knowledge and the Solicitor-General will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that if a charge is not proceeded with inside four days it lapses. I believe that the Home Secretary in this case had to take action under special powers conferred by a certain Act. But people outside are entitled to put two and two together and make four. Here a charge is made against a man. It is illegally interfered with and nothing happens until the information leaks out in the newspaper but on the day on which it is printed the Home Secretary decides to prosecute. I do not wish to use exaggerated language but I suggest that incidents of this kind undermine public confidence in the impartiality and dispassionate character of our police administration. It is not desirable that any citizen should feel that prominent citizens are better able to escape the consequences of their misdoings, or alleged misdoings, than less prominent people, and I suggest that public anxiety will not be allayed unless steps are taken to deal with the person who tried to use the powers reposed in him by his high position to obstruct the course of justice on behalf of a private citizen. In conclusion, I think the sympathy of everybody should be extended to this unfortunate person who finds himself put in a floodlight of publicity by the misguided efforts of his friends.

12.56 p.m.


I have really very little to add to what I think was the very full statement of the circumstances of this case which I made at Question Time to-day. I observe that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan), who has just brought this question up again, deprecates the unhappy effect which inevitably comes from continued discussion and advertisement of a problem of this kind upon the individual concerned. I should have thought that what was said at the court made amply clear what the court, on investigation of this question, thought of the matter, and the decision should, I think, be accepted by the general public without doubt. With regard to the other matters, all that I have to add is that it has been a very regrettable circumstance, but that at no stage of it beyond the first initial mistake, has there been irregularity or any question of giving any particular or peculiar advantage to anyone because of any position which he may have held. With regard to the other part of the problem, as I said in answer to questions to-day, so far as the station officer is concerned, I thought he acted in difficult circumstances, and I am sure the sympathy of the House will go out to him in those circumstances. With regard to the civilian Secretary at Scotland Yard, there has always been a civilian Secretary, and it is one of the unfortunate circumstances that any idea should be put about—for what reason, can best be judged by this House—that, because of some new reform, some change has taken place in this Department. Quite the contrary. There has always been a civilian Secretary, and the present secretary was there long before either I or Lord Trenchard had anything to do with the reorganisation of Scotland Yard. I have considered this matter with the Commissioner. The fault has been fully acknowledged, and regret has been expressed. It is one of those things to which, after all, we are all liable in human life, and I am satisfied, and I am sure the public can be satisfied without any question, that the proper procedure has been always pursued at Scotland Yard in this matter, with this one exception, and that it will be pursued in future. I can assure the House and the country that there will be no question of there being any doubt as to the fairness and proper administration of the law as long as I have anything to do with it.