HC Deb 04 February 1943 vol 386 cc1127-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

I believe this Clause gives the Home Secretary powers to increase a policeman's sentence on appeal. Although it is too late, unfortunately, to move an Amendment, I would like to say a word or two, because I brought the point up on Second Reading, and I was not quite satisfied with the Home Secretary's answer. I do not say for one moment that the Home Secretary should not have powers to increase a sentence; nevertheless, I do think that the process should be a little different from that embodied in this Clause. As far as the borough police are concerned, I have nothing to say. I believe their case still goes before the watch committee and then goes, on appeal, to the Home Secretary. In the case of a county policeman—and it is important, because many borough police are now to be transferred to the county police, and they are accustomed to appearing before the watch committee first before appealing to the Home Secretary—it is regrettable, I think, that in this Bill the Home Secretary did not make the disciplinary authority for the counties not the chief constable but the standing joint committee and that he did not make appeals from him go to the standing joint committee. The chief constable is the disciplinary authority at present. I think that is completely undesirable. It is very unfortunate that he should be, because he may in fact be the judge in his own cause, which is highly undesirable. If a policeman is punished he has to go straight from dismissal by the chief constable, or from punishment by the chief constable, to the Home Secretary. He might quite easily think that the chief constable is biased against him, such as an offence against the regulations made by the chief constable. Therefore he should go before a court of first instance. I asked the Home Secretary in regard to this point on Second Reading. I would like, if I may, to touch on the Question I asked and the answer he gave. I said: If the right hon. Gentleman is going to provide for the penalty to be increased on appeal to himself, does he not think that may deter constables from appealing, because they may feel that although they are suffering under an injustice an appeal would be hardly worth while if there was risk of an increase in the punishment. The Home Secretary said: I have considered that point. There is nothing new about this proposal. As my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will agree, it has been a feature of the procedure in the Court of Criminal Appeal for 35 years. When a person appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeal he runs that risk."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1943; col. 122, Vol. 386.] I pointed out that nobody goes to the Court of Criminal Appeal before going to a court of first instance and that that did not apply in the case of county police whose organisations are now to be very much enlarged owing to the amalgamation which the right hon. Gentleman proposes. Then the right hon. Gentleman gave me his answer. After I had protested, he said: If the hon. Member is going to introduce as many stages as possible in this painful process, he can do so, but I do not think it would be a good thing. We must have this provision for two reasons. First, the local authority may itself be lax in its discipline. Let us not forget that there is a danger of under-enforcing discipline as well as of over-enforcing it. The right hon. Gentleman dismisses this as introducing more painful processes. This is typical of the debating tactics of the right hon. Gentleman; no one is more adept at trying to prove that black is white, but there are many of us who are obstinate enough to look upon black as blacker than ever, after we have listened to the obviously subtle endeavours of the right hon. Gentleman. However, let me go back to my point. If the policeman went before a standing joint committee, it would still be open to the right hon. Gentleman to increase the sentence upon appeal and he would thus provide against any laxity on the part of the watch committee or the standing joint committee. The right hon. Gentleman ended by saying that the policeman must weigh up the question of whether he is likely to get something or whether there is a risk of losing. Between those two considerations I think he will take a balanced view on the question of whether to appeal or not."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1943; col. 122, Vol. 386.] That is a most undesirable thing for the Home Secretary to say. He says that the policeman must consider whether there is something to gain or to lose, but the whole point that has to be considered is whether the policeman has been justly treated or not and whether the cause of justice would not be better served by the process which I suggest.

The right hon. Gentleman also said: I do not expect a flood of appeals as a consequence of this Bill."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1943; col. 120, Vol. 386.] Of course he would not, quite naturally. A policeman would very much think twice before he ran any further risk of going straight to the right hon. Gentleman from punishment or dismissal by the chief constable. He said that many men who had suffered unjustly would be forced to take a balanced view of the matter; quite clearly many would not take the trouble to appeal; whereas if they went first before the standing joint committee, it would be very much better. It would be a safeguard and more in the course of ordinary justice. Should he then not be satisfied, a policeman would have the right of appeal to the Home Secretary, who could rightly and properly give him further punishment should he disagree with the committee. That is the position as I see it.

It is regrettable that the right hon. Gentleman has not seen fit to do this in the case of county policemen, especially now that he is enlarging the county authorities by absorbing into them many borough authorities. No doubt he will absorb many more. It is unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman did not include in the Bill a procedure similar to the procedure in the boroughs, that his case be heard by the standing joint committee and then an appeal to himself. That is far more equitable, and it would suggest to the county policeman that his case would be treated extremely fairly. It would also satisfy many of us who are concerned about this centralising of the power of the police—which has many dangers—and the desire of the right hon. Gentleman to get that power into his own hands. If I had had the time, which I have not had lately, I would have moved an Amendment to the Clause, but I want to put my protest on record.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

My hon. Friend has covered a good deal of the ground that we covered in the Debate on the Second Reading. As I understand it, the principal point which he wants to raise is the question of the power of the Secretary of State either to increase the penalty or to decrease it when an appeal is made to him against the decision of a watch committee in a borough or a chief constable in a county. There are, of course, very similar provisions in our criminal law. I think that in every case where there is an appeal, the court appealed to has the right to increase the sentence as well as to decrease it if it thinks fit. That seems to me to be a wise and salutary provision, because, if it is a case of "Heads I win and tails I do not lose" from the point of view of the appellant when an appeal is made, there will be an appeal against every decision of a watch committee or a chief constable. The officer against whom disciplinary action is being taken will have nothing to lose by way of appeal and the chance of something to gain; it is most undesirable in the rather wide range which we are now giving for appeals by police officers against decisions of the disciplinary authorities. It would be a hopeless proposition if, in every case where disciplinary action was taken in any one of the four cases provided for by the Bill, the whole thing had to be reconsidered by officials in the Home Office, who would report to the Home Secretary, who would then have to take a further decision in the matter.

Dr. Russell Thomas

I thought I had made my meaning clear—certainly the Under-Secretary of State has not answered my point. What I suggested was, that the chief constable of the county being no longer regarded as a disciplinary authority, the disciplinary authority should be the standing joint committee and that a constable should have his case heard by the standing joint committee. If a constable disagrees with the committee's decision, he should have the right of appeal to the Home Secretary, who should have power to increase the penalty. That would bring it into line with the boroughs, indeed, it would bring it into line with the administration of justice, in the manner to which we are accustomed.

Mr. Peake

The hon. Member has put forward a proposition which has been considered by Parliament before and no doubt ever since county police forces were first established. In point of fact, Parliament, in its wisdom, has never thought fit to make standing joint committees disciplinary authorities for police forces. It would be a complete novelty and, the standing joint committee being a mixed body, I am not at all sure that it is suitable as a disciplinary body. The existing system in the counties has worked with a great deal of satisfaction ever since county police forces have been established, and I do not think that such a very wide and novel proposition, which has been rejected by Parliament on many previous occasions, can properly be discussed on this Motion.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third Time, and passed.