§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement to the House.
On 24th September last, the "New Statesman and Nation" published a letter, signed "John Hadlow," describing an incident alleged to have taken place in Dalston Lane, Hackney, "one recent Sunday," in which very specific charges were made against the conduct of the Metropolitan Police.
On that same day, in the belief that "John Hadlow" was the real name of the writer and that he could be easily traced and would be willing to substantiate his allegations, I gave instructions that he should be interviewed and his statements examined. It was with surprise that I later discovered that the signature was a nom de plume, although no indication of this fact, known to the editor of the "New Statesman," as he admits, was given on the date of publication
In pursuance of my instructions, the Commissioner of Police wrote to the editor of the "New Statesman" asking him to invite "John Hadlow" to give details of the incidents, in order that the allegations might be properly investigated. As the Commissioner's approach failed to produce the requisite information, notwithstanding the editor's willingness to co-operate, I myself wrote to the editor of the "New Statesman," stating that if Mr. "Hadlow" was willing to come forward and give evidence I would be prepared to set up an independent judicial inquiry.
I also gave an assurance, on behalf both of the Commissioner of Police and of myself, that Mr. "Hadlow's" position as a reporter vis-à-vis New Scotland Yard would not in any way be prejudiced, although I made it clear that I could not guarantee immunity from legal process taken by any individual police officer who believed that his official character had been traduced. At the same time I took preliminary steps, in consultation with the Lord Chancellor, for a high judicial officer to be available to hold an inquiry into the complaints.
208 I informed the House on 27th October of the steps which had been taken. On 3rd November, in a supplementary question, the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Platts-Mills) alleged that the police knew the identity of the writer of the letter, that they had at once visited his employers and that he had "got the sack." The hon. Member suggested that the act of victimisation which Mr. "Hadlow" had feared, and which I had said would not take place, had been brought about by the police themselves.
I at once investigated this allegation, and received a written categorical assurance from the Commissioner of Police that no Metropolitan Police officer had approached the employer of any journalist thought to be "John Hadlow." The editor of the "New Statesman" had previously informed me that Mr. "Hadlow" had told him that "Hadlow" had informed someone senior to him on his paper that he was the author of the letter published in the "New Statesman."
After the statement made by the hon. Member for Finsbury, I made further inquiries of the editor of the "New Statesman," who informed me that Mr. "Hadlow" had, in fact, been asked to resign from the paper, but that on no occasion had Mr. "Hadlow" made allegations to the editor of police intervention against him. The hon. Member for Finsbury tells me that he has no positive evidence of police intervention, but that his statement was based on information supplied to him. As a result of my inquiries, I can only assume that the hon. Member has been misinformed. In view of the statement made by Mr. "Hadlow" to the editor of the "New Statesman," no intervention on the part of the police is required to explain the call for Mr. "Hadlow's" resignation.
More than a month has now elapsed since I wrote to the editor of the "New Statesman." The editor of the "New Statesman" and the hon. Member for Finsbury inform me that they have seen Mr. "Hadlow" separately on several occasions, and I have been in frequent communication both with the editor and with the hon. Member. They inform me that Mr. "Hadlow" declines to come forward on the ground that the disclosure of his identity would make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to earn his livelihood in his profession.
209 The hon. Member for Finsbury suggested that I should see Mr. "Hadlow" under seal of confidence, but I have not felt able to accept this suggestion. As the House will appreciate, if Mr. "Hadlow's" identity were disclosed to me under a seal of confidence and I interviewed him under that seal, I should be in an impossible position, since I would be able neither to communicate my information to this House, nor to take any action on it to have his allegations publicly and judicially tested.
There has been a further development. On 8th November, the editor of the "New Statesman" informed me that a member of the public, other than Mr. "Hadlow," had witnessed an incident, which he assumed was the incident referred to by Mr. "Hadlow," but he did not give as full details as those contained in Mr. "Hadlow's "letter. At my request, the editor asked his informant whether he would be willing to make to a representative of the Treasury Solicitor a statement which, in default of further particulars from Mr. "Hadlow," might afford a basis for an inquiry. The editor informs me that the informant feels that it would be useless to give evidence alone, but that he would be willing to do so if, and only if, other journalists who were present on the occasion in question would do the same.
The position, therefore, is that allegations have been made in the public Press reflecting most gravely on the fitness of a section of the Metropolitan Police to be members of that or of any police force. I am most anxious that those allegations should be fully and properly investigated, but an inquiry cannot be held merely on the basis of a letter in the Press.
If there is to be an inquiry, Mr. "Hadlow," or somebody who believes he saw the same incident, must be prepared to give evidence before an independent tribunal to enable the truth to be ascertained by the usual methods of examination and cross-examination of witnesses. Since no one is willing to come forward to support the allegations, it is not possible for me to set up a tribunal of inquiry.
I have, however, caused to be made, without the assistance of Mr. "Hadlow," such inquiries as are open to me. and have obtained reports from the police 210 about all recent incidents that have occurred in the Dalston Lane area. These reports do not in any respect support the grave allegations made by Mr. "Hadlow." I have also made inquiries about court proceedings arising out of any recent incidents in that area, and I am informed that in no case has it been alleged in court that the police behaved in the manner complained of by Mr. "Hadlow."
It may also be not without significance that the person, alleged by Mr. "Hadlow" to have been assaulted in the presence of the police, has not come forward in support of Mr. "Hadlow's" allegations, and has not seen fit to make any representations in the matter, either to the Commissioner of Police or to the Home Office.
I apologise to the House for the length of this statement, but the history of our own times records in all too ghastly a fashion the danger to human liberty of a police force which adopts a partisan attitude towards the citizens it should impartially protect. The situation in East London is a particularly delicate one. As I have repeatedly assured the House, it has had my constant personal attention.
Conferences with the principal police officers concerned have left them in no doubt as to the insistence of the Government on the maintenance of law and order without consideration for the political, religious or racial affiliations of any individual citizen who may be the subject of their attention, either as in need of protection or for a breach of the law.
I can only say, in conclusion, that I think it is most unfair to the police that grave allegations should be written against their conduct by persons who are unwilling to afford the necessary facilities to enable their charges to be investigated. If any police officer were guilty of the serious misconduct alleged on this occasion, the most severe disciplinary action would be taken against him.
The Commissioner of Police—no less than I—would be most anxious to weed out from the force any person who was shown to be so unfit to discharge the high responsibilities of a police officer and to maintain the high tradition of the British police service. I am sure the House will agree with me that these unsubstantiated allegations should not be allowed in any way to shake the con- 211 fidence of Parliament, or the public, in the impartiality of the Metropolitan Police.
§ Mr. Eden
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side certainly share his sense of resentment at the fact that these anonymous charges should be made in respect of the Police Force? Is there any power in the Police Force whereby they can take action themselves in their own defence against anonymous charges? Further, is it not an extremely undesirable practice that any newspaper should publish an anonymous letter under a genuine name without giving any indication at all, by inverted commas or any other means, that a nom de plume has been used?
§ Mr. Ede
With regard to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary, I am not sure how I can answer that, Mr. Speaker, in view of your recent Ruling. I have no responsibility for the correspondence columns of the Press, but I hope I shall not be out of Order in saying that I think, especially where charges against public servants are made, that if the signature is one that cannot be identified there should be some indication of that fact to readers. With regard to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary, I would remind the House that a police officer is an ordinary citizen. If an individual police officer can be identified in these very vague and general charges, undoubtedly he has the same remedies in the courts as any other citizen. I hope it will be recognised by the House that a police officer is a civilian, and no more. That is the great glory of the British police forces. If any individual officer thinks that he can be identified, I hope he will take action.
§ Mr. Churchill
Should it not be a little more than that? If an individual officer can be identified, and is slurred upon and assailed in this manner, surely it is a case which might well be considered by the Law Officers of the Crown to be worthy of the attention of the Public Prosecutor as a matter of criminal libel.
§ Mr. Ede
Hon. Members who recollect this particular letter will remember that no one's name is mentioned. There is an allegation that not far short of 40 officers were involved, but no date, time 212 or place was given. So far as I am concerned, I would do all I could to assist an officer who wanted to vindicate the honour of the Force in this matter.
§ Mr. Eden
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there may be cases—this is one—where a particular officer is not named? In those circumstances is the Commissioner of Police empowered to do anything, or must anything be accepted in the way of charges so long as an individual policeman is not mentioned?
§ Mr. Ede
The whole question of group libel—and that is what this really is—is a matter which has been engaging the attention of distinguished lawyers recently. I do not think they have found any satisfactory solution to it, and I am sure the House would not expect me, as a layman, to pronounce upon so intricate and legalistic a point.
§ Mr. Thurtle
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the editor of the "New Statesman and Nation" himself, in the week following the publication of this letter, made some very severe strictures on the police which were based on the allegations made in this anonymous letter?
§ Mr. Platts-Mills
As I was brought into this matter, may I make one or two observations to the Home Secretary? The right hon. Gentleman clearly admits that there was a journalist who wrote under an assumed name, but I think there is something more. First, this man is an established and reliable journalist of whom his editor said, in his letter of dismissal:I would, of course, gladly at all times be ready to give you"—
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member must ask questions. He cannot challenge or debate the Home Secretary's statement.
§ Mr. Clement Davies
On a point of Order. The hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Platts-Mills) was reading from a document. Is there not a Rule of this House that if an hon. Member does read from a document it must be laid on the Table?
§ Mr. Platts-Mills
I was not reading from a document. It was a personal memorandum, copied from the original letter of dismissal which I hold in my hand, among other documents. Lest the House should have had any doubt about the terms the editor used, I was reading this copy, showing that he had a high opinion of this man's capacity. The Home Secretary still challenges, apparently, the fact that this man was dismissed. May I remind the House of the terms of the Home Secretary's statement?
§ Mr. Speaker
The Home Secretary's statement cannot be debated. There is no Motion before the House. There is merely a statement on which questions can be asked. It cannot be debated.
§ Mr. Platts-Mills
Is the Home Secretary aware that he said on 17th November:that what Mr. John Hadiow said to the editor of the 'New Statesman' does not bear out the allegation that he was dismissed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1949; Vol 469, c. 2172.]Is he further aware that that was before the date of his dismissal? Whatever the right hon. Gentleman said, it had the effect of spreading the idea that the man had not been dismissed or perhaps even the idea that I had misled the House, when two weeks' before I asserted positively that he had been dismissed. Has anyone any doubt that for a young professional man with responsibilities to be sacked out of hand is a very serious issue? Is there anyone who thinks that the victimisation of a professional man is less harmful than the victimisation of an ordinary working person? While we understand the Home Secretary being chiefly concerned about the reputation of the police, does he not agree that the Special Branch of Scotland Yard is a secret and political branch that works hand in glove with M.I.5, and is not answerable to this House, let alone to the Minister?
Does the Home Secretary expect me to tell him what I know about their activities when we know that they would never tell him what they are up to? [An HON. MEMBER: "Do they know what you are up to? "] If the hon. Gentleman thinks that this particular branch of the police knows what I am up to that is certainly true: I am not ashamed of that at all. With the ordinary branch of the 214 police I have most active and cordial relations. Does not the Home Secretary realise that young Fascist blackguards are spreading violence and fear throughout Shoreditch and the neighbouring boroughs? Does he not appreciate—
§ Mr. Speaker
I have interrupted the hon. Member already. There is no Motion before the House. We cannot debate this statement; we can ask questions of the Home Secretary, and that is all. The hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Platts-Mills) was putting his questions almost in the form of a Debate, and I shall not allow him to stand up much longer.
§ Mr. Platts-Mills
You will observe, Sir, that I was brought into this as though I have some responsibility for it. When the right hon. Gentleman suggests that I sought to put some condition on his seeing this young man, does he not remember that he wrote to me in terms which indicated that he was prepared to see him subject to conditions as to disclosure? I have the letter here, and I will read it if the House desires. Does he not agree that in view of the spreading of this campaign of violence against our peaceful citizens—
§ Mr. Speaker
I have allowed the hon. Member a lot of rope. He is making all kinds of wild allegations, and I cannot allow him to go on any further. The Home Secretary can now answer the questions.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have said that I cannot allow the hon. Member to go on any further. He must now resume his seat.
§ Mr. Gallacher
On a point of Order. I should like most respectfully to draw your attention, Sir, to the fact that in a very considerable part of the Home Secretary's statement mention was made, time and again, of the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. Platts-Mills) as though, somehow or another, he had been responsible for some of the happenings in connection with the publication of this letter or the events subsequent to its publication.
§ Mr. Speaker
I read a copy of the Home Secretary's statement as he was reading it. Mention was made of the hon. Member's name, but only occasionally.
§ Mr. Ede
With regard to the questions put by the hon. Member for Finsbury, I have detailed in the statement the information that was conveyed to me by the editor of the "New Statesman" that this man was asked to resign by the paper which employed him. As far as the Special Branch are concerned, they are responsible through me to Parliament for any action that they take.
§ Mr. Ede
That is the responsibility of the editor. With regard to the letter that I wrote to the hon. Member for Finsbury, we were corresponding about this matter, and if there is one thing that happens in correspondence it is that one keeps at arm's length from the other party. I was anxious to know the name of this man. Therefore, I wrote the letter to the hon. Member suggesting that we should meet. At that time he had said that the man was willing to come forward under the seal of confidence. When I met the hon. Member for Finsbury in my room in this House, the first thing I did was to explain to him how impossible it was to meet a man under seal of confidence for the reasons I detailed to the House, which I gather the House this afternoon accepted.
Might I say that if this man or any other man will come forward to substantiate the statement so that the police officers and he can be confronted with one another, a judge will hold an inquiry into the allegations. With regard to this man's professional future, he placed in jeopardy the professional future of a very large number of police officers. Let me add this—I hope there will be no doubt about it that if they or any single officer had been guilty of such dereliction of duty as they were accused of, 216 there would have been nothing short of summary dismissal for any such officer, and I should have had the support of the whole of the police officers of the country in imposing such a penalty. This is a most serious charge to have been made and a most cowardly effort to get out of substantiating it.
§ Mr. Marlowe
The Home Secretary is quite right that no civil libel proceedings can be taken unless some particular police officer is identified, but it is possible to take criminal libel for a scurrilous attack made on a public body in this way. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider submitting this question to the Law Officers of the Crown for them to determine whether or not it is possible to take criminal libel proceedings against the newspaper, the editor of which no doubt acted innocently, which undoubtedly would have the result of compelling the disclosure of the name of the person?
§ Mr. Crossman
While agreeing that my right hon. Friend has been scrupulously fair in his investigations, may I ask whether he does not agree that the pressure put by their employers on Mr. "Hadlow" and on other journalists who were present, to prevent their coming forward, is highly undesirable, and is as much resented by the editor of the "New Statesman" as by himself?
§ Mr. Lipson
Is it really beyond the Home Secretary's powers to find out who "John Hadlow" really is, and is it not fair to the police, against whom these serious unsubstantiated charges have been made, and in the public interest that he should continue his efforts to find out and should see that the matter is properly investigated.
§ Mr. Michael Foot
In view of what has been said in one or two questions, will 217 the Home Secretary confirm the fact that the editor of the "New Statesman" has done everything in his power to assist the Home Secretary in trying to secure an inquiry and in trying to persuade Mr. "Hadlow" to come forward? The second question I want to put is—has it not long been the custom in practically all newspaper offices in certain circumstances to print anonymous letters when, in fact, inquiries have been made as to whether there is really such a person existing, and if that right were to be taken from newspapers it might involve a very serious interference with free speech in this country?
§ Mr. Ede
How do I know why? I have trouble enough in explaining why I do things, without being answerable for editors. I do not think—I am speaking only personally now—that charges of this kind should have been ' made in the columns of any responsible newspaper without the editor being assured that the writer would come forward and substantiate them.
Mr. Wilson Harris
Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson), it is obviously in the interests of the Metropolitan Police that the identity of this man should be discovered. The Metropolitan Police are in the habit of conducting difficult and searching investigations into all sorts of questions. Does the Home Secretary say they are incapable of investigating this case and establishing the identity of Mr. "Hadlow"?
§ Mr. Ede
I did not say that, but the hon. Gentleman will recollect that one of the charges made against the police is that they went to the present employer of the person concerned and secured his dismissal. I do not want to lay them open to similar charges of persecution. No one knows who was the author of the "Letters of Junius" and he raised issues 218 of public policy as great as Mr. "John Hadlow" did.
§ Mr. Beswick
On a point of Order. Would the original Question which gave rise to this statement—which called attention to the allegations in the public Press against officers in the public service—have been in Order under your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, given earlier about questions relating to the public Press?
§ Mr. Beswick
Might I put this question to you again Sir, in the hope that I might get a reply. I wish to ask whether the original Question, which gave rise to this statement by the Home Secretary and which called attention to the allegations made in the public Press against officers in the public service, would have been in Order under the terms of your Ruling which you gave earlier this afternoon?
§ Mr. Ede
Further to that point of Order. Might I remind you, Mr. Speaker, exactly how this question came up. A Question was on the Order Paper dealing with allegations of violence in the East End of London, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) asked as a supplementary if my attention had been called to the failure of the police to intervene in a certain case as indicated by this letter. My responsibility clearly is seeing that the police do intervene in such matters, and this was not a question that was based merely on a newspaper statement.
§ Mr. Churchill
Before we leave this topic, could the Home Secretary say whether he has got a supply of questions like this to keep Parliament going until the Dissolution?
§ Mr. Speaker
The question asked by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) was purely hypothetical and I should like to see it upon the Order Paper. I should like to see it in writing, and then I will consider it. I cannot answer this type of question: "Supposing so and so, would it be in Order?" No, I want to see this question first.