HC Deb 10 December 1945 vol 417 cc143-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." —[Mr. Mathers.]

9.4 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I want to raise the case of ex-constable. Allen Perrins, and I am certain that those who hear it will agree that it is an amazing story. Before doing so, however, I must apologise to the Minister for the short notice that I have given him. I was under the misunderstanding that when the book was signed that automatically carried the notice to the Minister. In raising this matter, I must once again refer to the case of ex-Inspector John Syme. He fought for 20 years to get an injustice rectified, and after he had spent 20 years in fighting and battling, when his life was broken and destroyed, the Home Office at last had to admit the terrible injustice that had been done to him and tried to make him some recompense for the neglect. It is one of the most amazing cases. Many of us have read Dickens' works in our early years, and maybe can remember "Bleak House" and the terrible story of the man from Shropshire, and all that he had to suffer battling against the Court of Chancery. When we read it we could scarcely believe that it was true that a man could go through such a terrible time in trying to get open recognition of what everybody recognised to be a just cause. The Court of Chancery is nothing to the Home Office. If somebody makes a decision at the Home Office, it is the nearest thing to impossible to get anybody to alter it, even when everybody recognises that an injustice has been done.

There is no doubt that this ex-constable was of good character. Never was a charge of any kind made against him. He had a fine character, and was a fine up standing man. There was never anything against his personal character, but the Chief Constable, at a particular moment, accused him of the theft of a bicycle pump and the unlawful possession of Government petrol. Those were the two charges. The Chief Constable then offered him a document to sign, according to the Regulations. The document was framed in such a way that if the ex-constable signed it and said "Yes," he would have admitted his guilt; and if he said "No," he would have been telling a lie. The document said he had been in possession of petrol and of a bicycle pump. If he had said "Yes" he would have admitted the theft of a bicycle pump, and if he had said "No" he would have admitted having the petrol, although not the unlawful possession. He at once said, "I will not sign the document until I have seen a lawyer." The Chief Constable takes him before the Watch Committee. We are now told that it was on the question of discipline that he was dismissed. He appealed for an inquiry, and there was an inquiry, but only on the question of discipline. Nothing is ever done about the charges of theft and unlawful possession.

I raised the matter once before in this House, but because the man comes from Ipswich, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) made an intervention in which he said that I had raised the matter without consulting him. When I drew attention to the fact that I had discussed the matter with him, the hon. Member admitted it. It will be seen in Hansard, if anyone cares to read it, that the hon. Member did admit that I mentioned the matter to him but that he had forgotten it. When the new phase of the matter was brought to my attention, I went to the hon. Member for Ipswich and asked whether he was prepared to take the matter up with me, or by himself, but he said he was not interested in it because he thought that no injustice had been done. I mention these points in case the hon. Member should make an intervention again.

For four years this ex-constable has been labouring to get that to which he is entitled and to which any lawyer would tell the Home Office he is entitled, a public open trial, on the charges of being in unlawful possession and theft. He has been battling for four years, and he cannot get justice from the Home Office. A few weeks ago he attended a social function in his own town. His wife was there. Two or three girls were standing talking. One girl points him out and, in the hearing of the ex-constable, says, "What's that man doing here? He was put out of the police for being a thief. I raised this matter in the House, and asked the Home Secretary whether this man could get no consideration or justice. The Home Secretary makes the appalling answer: If an unjustifiable accusation is made against this man, he has his own remedies." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd November, 1945; Vol. 416, c. 569.] The Chief Constable made an accusation of theft against this man. Four years later, he is pointed out as a thief, and the Home Secretary says that this man "has his own remedy" against being pointed out as a thief at a social function in his own town. The Home Office absolutely refuses to give him the justice he demands. When the matter was raised before in the House, the peculiar situation arose that the then Under-Secretary for Home Affairs was trying, by every means, to evade the real issue and cover up the question.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

What date was this?

Mr. Gallacher

It was raised before on 14th March, 1944. When the Under-secretary was putting his case we got the following: Mr. Benson (Chesterfield): On that point, may I ask whether a Watch Committee is competent to try a criminal charge? "—[OFFICIAL RETORT, 29th March, 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1469.] The man is taken before the Watch Committee on what is presumably a question of discipline. The Under-Secretary said: If I may, I will say one word about that when I have finished this part of my speech. Later on he said: Now I will come to the point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield; where a criminal offence is involved, should the Watch Committee institute criminal proceedings before proceeding to treat the matter as an offence against discipline? I think the answer to that question is one on which it is difficult to lay down hard-and-fast rules." — [Official Report, 29th March, 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1470.] He then goes on to suggest that the offence of unlawful possession is not a serious one. As a matter of fact, I have been fold since that unlawful possession is nothing, but I have here in my pocket a letter from the War Office about a lad who came here after being a prisoner of war. I tried to get the War Office to do something for him. He was imprisoned for three months for unlawful possession—no question of theft, but just unlawful possession of rationed goods. The letter from the War Office tells me that it is a civil offence and they can do nothing about it. Unlawful possession is a very serious matter. This was particularly so during the war when it was a question of petrol, and merchant seamen were risking their lives to bring petrol into the country. Anybody found in unlawful possession of petrol was heavily punished. In this case the man is charged with stealing a bicycle pump and being in unlawful possession of petrol. What happens? The Under-Secretary brings in that careful dodge by saying: Where a criminal offence is involved, should the Watch Committee institute criminal proceedings before proceeding to treat the matter as an offence against discipline? I think the answer to that question is one on which it is difficult to lay down hard-and-fast rules. Before we get to that, here is what the Under-Secretary had to say: The Chief Constable, under the Section t have just read, remitted the case to the Watch committee, before whom Perrins appeared on 24th October, 1941, assisted by a solicitor. He submitted that the Watch committee had no jurisdiction to hear the charge, since it amounted to an offence against the criminal law and was a matter for a court. The committee overruled this submission. The constable and his solicitor then intimated their intention of taking no further part of the proceedings, and withdrew from the hearing. The Watch Committee then proceeded in accordance with powers which are vested in them by the regulations, to hear the charge in his absence. The charge of stealing a bicycle pump was dismissed.

It being a quarter past Nine 0'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — [Captain Blenkinsop.]

Mr. Gallacher

Has any legal man ever heard of a criminal charge being taken before a watch committee and the watch committee solemnly deciding that the charge is proven or not proven? I always understood that, according to the law of this country, if a criminal charge is made against anyone, the public court is the place in which to try it, and either to find the man guilty or to give him the opportunity of proving his innocence. Here we have a watch committee deciding on a question of theft. Listen to this: The charge of stealing a bicycle pump was dismissed. The Watch Committee did not find that charge proved… The second charge, that of being in unlawful possession of Government petrol, was found proved by the Watch Committee."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th March, 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1467.] Did hon. Members ever hear anything like it? Is anybody prepared to justify that? Never in the history of British jurisdiction was there anything like it.

Mr. Stokes

I should have thought, lots of times.

Mr. Gallacher

There is a man's life at stake in this. For 20 years I was with John Syme in all parts of the country, agitating with him, and trying to get justice for him. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean); the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood), and other hon. Members, tried time and again during those 20 years to get justice for him. John Syme was a fine upstanding man, one of the kindest, most generous and most honest men one could meet. After 20 years he was a broken man; his family life was ruined, and his wife was bearing a burden of suffering along with him during all those years. Everybody admitted that an injustice had been done, but the Home Office would not face the facts and make an admission of it. And in this case which I am now raising, nobody will tell me that a watch committee in any part of the country has the right to constitute itself judge and jury and decide on cases of this sort. This is what we were told: The second charge, that of being in unlawful possession of Government petrol, was found proved by the Watch Committee, that is, the properly constituted, democratically elected, disciplinary authority." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th March, 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1467.] The Watch Committee has power to deal with questions of discipline. If a constable commits an action of indiscipline and it is taken before a Watch Committee, the Watch Committee has power to deal with it, but never has any Watch Committee had such powers that it could hear a charge of theft. When an appeal was made for an inquiry, an inquiry was instituted by the Home Office, but the inquiry actually considered the question from the point of view of the Watch Committee and discipline, and did not deal in any way with the charge of theft and the charge of unlawful possession made against this man. It was said that the Watch Committee decided that the case of theft was not proved, but the case of unlawful possession was proved. But the man was able to show—and the documents are there—that the petrol which he obtained was obtained from an ordinary garage and that the ordinary coupons were handed over. Because there was a certain colour in the petrol similar to the colour of Government petrol—which was proved by the man to have been caused by the substance he was using for saving the petrol—he was accused of being in unlawful possession of it. There were statements from the garage man who supplied the petrol that it was obtained in the ordinary way and that the ordinary coupons were given for it.

Never at any time, from the beginning to the present time, has there been the slightest attempt to have a charge properly brought against him or an opportunity given to him to refute the charges in open court. This ex-policeman has not asked for reinstatement or any special consideration. He says that charges have been made deliberately against him by the Chief Constable—of theft and of being in unlawful possession of Government petrol, both very serious criminal charges. He says that he is entitled to the ordinary course of the law and that he ought to be taken into a court. The Chief Constable, and the Home Office with him, must make good these charges or give him an opportunity of disproving them. If they are not prepared to take him into court—and we are always told that every Britisher has that right under the law, to have charges made against him proved, or to be given an opportunity to defend himself or to clear his name—on a charge of theft or of unlawful possession, I ask that the Chief Constable and the Home Office should make a public declaration that the charges against him have no foundation whatever in fact and should be withdrawn and his character exonerated.

Is that too much to ask? Is it desirable that a man should have charges levelled against him and no attempt be made to carry those charges, through the proper channels, to a conclusion in one way or another, and that years afterwards he should be pointed out, as this man was pointed out a short time ago, and confronted as a thief? The Home Office says that if he is branded as a thief by a girl at a dance, he should sue her and take the matter into court; he should defend his character after the Home Office and the Chief Constable have put a brand on his character. I appeal to the Minister not to play about with the question of the Watch Committee and the inquiry which was only concerned with the question of discipline. Here is a case where a charge is made against an upright man, with nothing whatever against his character previously. Once the charge is made, let the Home Office give him the opportunity of a trial in a public court where he could clear his character or, if not, let the Home Office and the Chief Constable make an open, public declaration that the charges were unfounded and that there was nothing whatever against the character of this man. Do justice before it is too late. It was too late when justice was done in the case of ex-Inspector John Syme. I hope that it will not be too late before justice is done for ex-Constable Perrins.

9.23 p.m.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

I came in to listen to the Debate tonight, and not necessarily intending to speak, but in view of the challenge which my hon. Friend has thrown out, I feel bound to say that he had not warned me that he was raising the matter tonight any more than he warned me on the previous occasion.

Mr. Gallacher

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Stokes

I will in a minute or two. On the previous occasion my hon. Friend warned me, and on that occasion it was 12 months before he took the matter up. On this occasion, about five weeks ago, he gave me further notice. I told him I was going to look further into the matter.

Mr. Gallacher

Was it not the case that when I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes). he gave me to understand that he was not interested in the matter? Is it not also the case that at Question Time in the House when my hon. Friend was present, I intimated that I would raise the matter on the Adjournment, and that it has been on the notice Paper for several weeks? What does my hon. Friend want?

Mr. Stokes

It is not the same thing. A Member expects, when a matter concerns his constituency, especially when he is hot an irregular attender at the House, that he would at least have his attention called to it. It is not the case that I was not interested; it is the case that I heard the hon. Member say at Question Time that he would raise the matter on the Motion for the Adjournment, but I have heard at least 200 people say that who never raised anything at all, so that it does not follow that, when one says that, one intends to do anything. I do not want to stand in the way of justice to one of my constituents or of the argument which the hon. Member has raised with the Minister.

What I wish to make quite clear to everybody, including my own constituents, is that, immediately I learned that this matter was to be raised some five weeks ago, I attended a meeting, held at my request in my constituency, with the ex-police constable in question, when I found precise confirmation of my previous experience when raising matters of this kind. I expressed my satisfaction that, so far as the law was concerned, the officer in question had had everything he could expect under the law. I read out to him and to the committee what had happened when the Under-Secretary to the Home Office replied on that occasion, and I said that, if he would furnish me with a reply, other than that the law is bad and ought to be changed, I should be very glad to raise the matter in the House of Commons again. I only wish to say this tonight. I have received no communication whatever either from the person concerned or his lawyer.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

May I ask the Minister if he will deal with a very substantial point which has been put by the hon. Gentleman opposite? Has a Watch Committee power, by itself, to deal with an indictable offence? That is to say, if a charge is brought against a police constable which is obviously an indictable offence, according to the evidence produced by the hon. Member opposite, can the Watch Committee say, "We are not concerned with the view that the court may take; we are the body which will deal with it"? The second question is this—If this man was suspected of a criminal practice, because, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that is what he was charged with, why was he not tried in a court of law? That is the question which I hope will be answered.

9.28 p.m.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

I want to say a very few words which co-incide, to some extent, with what the noble Lord has just said. If a person is charged with a criminal offence, not even an indictable offence, the case must be tried in the ordinary course of criminal jurisdiction, and the crime must be proved, and any party which sets out to prove the commission of such offences should prove it to the same absolute strictness as with a charge on an indictment. If it is the law of this country, as it may well be, that a Watch Committee can determine, as a matter of discipline, something which is, in fact, a criminal offence, two things must follow. The first is that it is a very bad law; the second is that the Watch Committee should realise, if faced with a thing like that, that it is doing something about as serious, anxious, and undesirable as it might well do, and, if it is anything like the ordinary competent Watch Committee —and I am not saying that they are incompetent—it is about as unsuited for the trial of a charge of a criminal offence as any body so constituted. It is a very difficult task, a judicial task, and a Watch Committee is not intended for that sort of thing at all.

One other thing I would like to mention is this: In some of the quotations from earlier discussions read by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) it was mentioned that the Home Secretary said that people treated like this had, after all, their remedies. I hope he was implying that they had a remedy less costly, less utterly miserable, and less like lasting two decades than the remedy apparently open to ex-Inspector John Syme. Let us look at the only possible remedy, which, so far as I know, the Home Secretary could be thinking of. If you are, on the one hand, accused in the broad sense of the word of a criminal offence and, at the same time, not brought before a jury where you can defend yourself because, apparently, the evidence is too slight for the jury but good enough for the Watch Committee; if you are left, on the one hand, not accused in a way you can answer and, on the other hand, accused quite sufficiently to damn you in the eyes of the general public, what is your remedy? If you go to an ordinary common law counsel—and there are such people even in this House—and ask, "What is my remedy? "the answer is, "You can bring a libel action." You then ask, "What will it cost?" and the answer will be," Anything from £150 to £500."

When, having overcome that obstacle, you ask, "What are my prospects of success? "you will then be told," If you bring a charge against the chief con- stable, or whoever it is who has committed himself to this action against you of criminal offence, if that chief constable has any wisdom, he will not put in a plea of what is called justification—that is to say the truth of the charge on the record—so that you will never get your character cleared in that respect, but he will put on the record a plea of privilege which is, ' I am a chief constable acting in pursuance of my duty.' Therefore, it will not go to the jury and will be thrown out by the judge on the ground that you have not proved what is called malice. Malice, like most other laws of libel, does not mean what it says; it means some corrupt or improper motive." So the Home Secretary may say, "You have a remedy," and if you have a few hundred pounds you may start seeing whether you have or not, and your remedy will be that the case will be dismissed at the end of your evidence before the defendant's evidence is ever called, unless you can show that the defendant was moved by some corrupt or improper motive. If you ask whether it is not corrupt or improper to be as stupid or obstinate or as lacking in a fair sense of justice as to make a charge, on the one hand, and not to take it to court on the other, and leave it like that, I do not say certainly, but almost certainly the answer will be that the judge will rule, if you do not prove more than that, that it is not enough, and you show stupid incompetence and lack of realisation of the true issues involved. However, that is not improper motive, and it is not true to say that the man has any redress.

9.33 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) who opened this discussion will, I am sure, not complain if I can only deal with this matter in a very cursory way because it is not long ago we were informed that he was to raise this matter on the Adjournment, and therefore it has been necessary to ascertain precisely the case which was likely to be stated. Let me say at the outset that in this case there is no question at all of the police constable or the ex-police constable in question ever being charged with theft. He was charged with being in unlawful possession of Service petrol; that was the issue, and the only issue, relating to petrol and no charge of theft of any kind was made.

Mr. Gallacher

Will the hon. Member excuse me? The Under-Secretary stated, as I have read out, that the Watch Committee found the charge of theft not proven.

Mr. Oliver

I can only conclude that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the bicycle pump. This is not a serious matter. The serious matter relates to being in unlawful possession of Service petrol. This ex-constable was charged with a breach of discipline under the Disciplinary Code of the Police Act, 1919, Section 4. The charge was: That he had been guilty of conduct likely to bring discredit upon the reputation of the force, in that, on 30th September, 1941, he was found to be in unlawful possession of a quantity of Service petrol at his home and also at a lock-up garage in a road stated—

Earl Winterton

Will the hon. Gentleman answer this specific question? There is obviously a conflict of evidence. The hon. Gentleman opposite says that this man was charged originally with the theft of a bicycle pump and found not guilty. Will he deal with that part of the case? Why was the Watch Committee competent to deal with a criminal charge?

Mr. Oliver

If the Noble Lord will permit me to make my speech, I will deal with that. The important matter relates to unlawful possession. Under the Code, to which I have made reference, these words appear—

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

Surely, being in unlawful possession of Government petrol is a criminal offence?

Mr. Oliver

I am not denying that it is a criminal offence. I merely say that the theft of petrol was not the issue; it was the theft of a bicycle pump and being in unlawful possession of Service petrol. Under the Disciplinary Code, it is competent for the Watch Committee —and I now come to the Noble Lord's point—to consider these matters where the conduct of the constable was such as was likely—to quote the words of Section 1 of the Disciplinary Code—to be "discreditable conduct." That is to say: ' If he "— that is the police constable— acts in a disorderly manner or in a manner prejudicial to discipline or likely to bring discredit on the reputation of the force or on the Police Service. That was the matter on which the issues were considered. This matter was referred to the Watch Committee by the Chief Constable, and when the constable, with the aid of his solicitor, appeared before the Watch Committee, he and his solicitor objected to the Watch Committee hearing the charge. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am not complaining about that, because in the view of the solicitor, the Watch Committee had no jurisdiction. No one is complaining about that; I am not seeking to deny or establish the case. The Watch Committee in the absence of the man, as they were entitled to do by the Regulations, continued to hear and determine the case, and found that the man had been guilty of the charge of being in unlawful possession of petrol.

Whether or not the Watch Committee had the power at this stage was subsequently heard by a tribunal which was set up by the Home Secretary, when the matter had been referred to him. That tribunal consisted of Mr. Anthony Hawke and one of H.M. Inspectors of Constabulary, named Sir Frank Brook. They went fully into the whole of this matter; an opportunity was given to the constable, who was legally represented, and the whole matter was heard de novo. Evidence was called, the whole matter was gone into, and it is not correct to say, as the hon. Member said, that no consideration was given to anything other than the disciplinary issue, because evidence was taken on the whole of the facts, and the tribunal came to the conclusion that the man was guilty of the charge that he was in possession of Service petrol. [Interruption.] That may be true. The Noble Lord has no need to press me on this point, but I must give the House the history of what the Home Office did in the circumstances. Therefore, there was nothing that the Home Secretary of the day could do, when the constable appealed to him, than to do the thing which he did, which was to institute an inquiry to see whether this man had been wrongly dealt with by the Watch Committee and whether the Watch Committee had the power to do that which they purported to do.

The tribunal came to the conclusion, and reported, that they were not prepared to say that the facts alleged came outside the ambit of the Regulation. The tribunal found that on the facts that had been proved in evidence before them, a breach of discipline had been committed, and that the proper penalty had been imposed. They considered that no miscarriage of Justice had occurred. This was a competent authority, but the matter did not remain there. The ex-police constable made an application to the Divisional Court of the Kings Bench for a writ of certiorari. That too was—

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton)

In view of the fact that this man has not been proved guilty in a court of summary jurisdiction, is my hon. Friend prepared to make a declaration that this man is innocent of the charge levied against him?

Mr. Oliver

That is not a point which I can reply to at this juncture, for the simple reason—

Mr. Paget

Will the Minister allow me—

Mr. Oliver

No, I cannot allow my hon. Friend to interrupt me any further. Regarding the institution of a prosecution, I am not unmindful of the fact of whether Watch Committees should or should not do these things. That is a matter on which I have no doubt the Home Secretary has applied his mind since this case—

It being a Quarter to Ten o'Clock, Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.