HC Deb 10 February 1938 vol 331 cc1245-8
58. Mr. H. Morrison

asked the Home Secretary whether his attention has been drawn to a recent case in which the Lord Chief Justice criticised the system under which two police officers arrested an innocent person on suspicion of having committed a felony; what action he proposes to take with the view to preventing a repetition of such cases; whether the damages of £300 and the costs awarded against the police officers are to be paid out of the Police Fund; and, if so, what proportions will fall on the Exchequer and the London ratepayers?

Sir S. Hoare

With the permission of the House I propose to answer this question at the end of Questions. It is rather a long answer.

At the end of Questions:

Sir S. Hoare

I am obliged to the right hon. Member for giving me an opportunity of making a statement on this case, and I wish first to express on behalf of the Commissioner and myself regret that an innocent and respectable man should have been subjected to treatment which gave proper grounds for an action for damages. The damages and costs will be paid by the Metropolitan Police Fund, which is constituted of equal payments from the Exchequer and from the ratepayers in the Metropolitan Police District. As, however, the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt agree, the financial aspect of this matter is less important than the question of providing adequate safeguards for the protection of the liberty of the subject.

The reference in the question to the "system" which led to the arrest in this case raises two questions: First, the question of the statutory provision in the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839, which empowers the police to stop and detain any person who may be reasonably suspected of having or conveying in any manner anything stolen or unlawfully obtained. And, secondly, the question of the administration of this statutory provision. The statutory provision undoubtedly places on the Metropolitan Police a serious and difficult responsibility, but experience shows that if the community is to be protected a power of this sort is necessary in the public interest. On the other hand, it is essential that in the exercise of this power due regard should be had to the protection of liberty.

The question how best to give guidance to the police as to the exercise of their dual responsibility both to the community and the individual has been the subject of careful consideration, and an elaborate code of instructions has been issued by the Commissioner to the effect that while every officer shall be active and vigilant when there are reasonable grounds for suspicion, the greatest care must be taken to avoid any abuse of this power even at the risk of some guilty persons going free. I have reviewed these instructions and am satisfied that they give ample guidance as to the general principles which should be followed by the police.

Occasionally, as in the present case, a genuine mistake is made, but the rarity of such cases is, I think, an indication of the care taken to guide and train police officers in the proper exercise of their duties. There will be no relaxation of the efforts of the police authorities to ensure that the Metropolitan Police shall in this matter take the utmost care to avoid action which involves improper interference with the liberty of the subject. The present case is an illustration of the principle of our law that if owing to human fallibility a mistake is made, the police are not above the law, and a remedy is available to the citizen.

Mr. Morrison

Would the right hon. Gentleman make inquiries with a view to satisfying himself, not only of the suitability of the instructions, but as to whether undue pressure is not brought to bear upon police officers in plain clothes to be unduly and improperly energetic in detaining people in this manner, and thereby running the risk of improper detentions in certain cases?

Sir S. Hoare

I have been very carefully through all the details connected with this question, and I am satisfied that the regulations are sufficient and that, speaking generally, they are carried out in the letter and in the spirit, but I will take account of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said.

Mr. Macquisten

How many cases are there in which the man does not take action?

Sir Percy Harris

Is there any reason why the House should not see these regulations? Are they confidential, and could they not be laid on the Table of the House?

Sir S. Hoare

Regulations of this kind have always been regarded as confidential. I think the hon. Baronet will see that they must be confidential in the nature of the case, as they give detailed instructions when and how action should be taken, and in what kind of case arrests should be made. Obviously that is information which could not be broadcast.

Sir William Davison

As the gentleman concerned is one of my constituents, may I ask the Home Secretary how it came about under these instructions that this innocent man was arrested? What made the police think he was guilty of these charges?

Mr. Speaker

We cannot reopen the case here.

Mr. A. Henderson

Would it not be possible for steps to be taken to draw the attention of all ranks of the police force to the fact that individual efficiency does not depend upon the number of arrests that may be made?

Sir S. Hoare

They are already aware of that fact, and I see no reason for drawing their attention to it.

Mr. Thurtle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these cases are much more frequent than he appears to imagine, but that many of the people concerned are too poor to take the necessary action?

Sir S. Hoare

No, Sir; I am informed that that is not the case. It is possible for even the poorest persons to obtain the necessary legal aid, under the Supreme Court Poor Persons Rules.

Mr. Macquisten

How many people are going to take the trouble to bring an action?

Mr. Thorne

In the early part of his answer the Home Secretary expressed deep regret at the arrest of this respectable man. Does that mean that he has no respect for the man whose position is below that of what would be called a respectable man?