HC Deb 11 November 1952 vol 507 cc905-14

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

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)

I am pleased that I have secured the Adjournment tonight, because I want to raise a subject which is of particular concern to the people at this time. I have been endeavouring to secure this opportunity because, nine days ago, all of us, and particularly the citizens of the great borough of Croydon which I have the honour, with two colleagues in this House, to represent, was shocked to learn from the radio and the Press that, the night before, Police Constable Sidney George Miles, attached to Z Division, had been shot and killed while endeavouring to carry out his duty. The Home Secretary and myself, only a few days ago, had to attend the tragic funeral held in the Croydon Parish Church.

It therefore follows that the subject that I want to raise with the Home Secretary is that of the position of widows of police officers who were killed in the execution of their duty. Before coming to the specific facts which I want to put to the Home Secretary it is right that I should make some general observations, about which I feel very strongly indeed.

I cannot forget that it was Parliament, in its wisdom or otherwise, that decided against corporal punishment for criminals. I do not think I am wrong in saying that if such a vital issue were discussed again in this House—I fully realise that the subject is a most contentious one—it might well be that a different decision would be reached by Parliament. All hon. Members have been inundated with letters from constituents who are concerned about this vital subject. This is because the country has unfortunately been experiencing a disturbing period of violent crime. I hope that Parliament will have an opportunity to debate this important matter, when the feelings of Members of Parliament of today could well be ascertained.

Whatever the outcome may be, I feel that when Parliament came to its last decision it definitely exposed our police force to the possibility of unprecedented violence. Since 1946, six police officers have met violent deaths in this country from gunfire, from the use against them of such weapons as Sten guns and cutoff Sten guns. Without delay the Home Secretary should take an important decision with regard to these guns. He should decide—I fully realise the considerable publicity that is at his command—that all guns which are not covered by licences should, over a very short period, be handed in to police stations, with no penalty for those who are prepared to hand them over. Afterwards, anyone discovered with any gun should be subject to the most serious penalty, and our judges and courts should be encouraged to take a very serious view of the matter.

We are living in such extraordinary times that people can purchase, under the guise of toys, knuckledusters, coshes, daggers, and even stilettos, and other weapons which can be used by criminals to carry out violent attacks. One must have a sense of proportion in these matters. We do not want to stop children playing ordinary childish games like "cops and robbers" and "Red Indians," but the Home Secretary will obviously have to go into this matter without delay. Possibly he will have to come to a decision to ban the sale of these dangerous weapons in order to protect people from their utilisation by criminals.

When the Home Secretary bears in mind what I have been saying, he cannot fail to recognise that our police force has been exposed to terrible risks, so it is up to this House to see that British justice and fair play is meted out to the dependants of these men by means of sufficient pensions should any police officer suffer tragic death while carrying out his duty.

There is another vital aspect of this matter. We all know in this House, as well as in the country, that our police force today is accounted to be second to none in the world. At the same time we must recognise that its strength has been declining. So much so that in the Metropolitan area the establishment which we believed to be adequate at some 20,000, and which may well not be sufficient under present conditions, has an actual strength now of only approximately 14,000. In other words, it is 30 per cent. below what we consider to be essential in the Metropolitan area.

We look solely to the police force to protect our citizens today, and it is they and they alone who go out to maintain law and order. Is it not obvious, therefore, that apart from the question of fair play, on sheer sound common sense when recruiting officers they should at least have the confidence of knowing that under the tragic circumstances to which I am referring their dependants would be taken care of? One could well understand a man deciding to go into the police force discussing this issue with his family and possible dependants, and the query arising as to what would happen to his wife and children if anything unforeseen should happen? Would they be reasonably taken care of by the State employing them?

What are the facts? For my example I want to state the case of the widow of Police Constable Miles, who was killed in Croydon on Sunday, 2nd November. He was 42 years of age and had served with the police force with great distinction for 22 years. He was recognised to be fearless and brave in the protection of the public. When he died his wages were precisely £9 7s. 10d. a week. I believe I am right in saying that his widow will receive a pension of approximately one-third of this amount, namely, £3 2s. 6d. a week. Time does not permit me to give details of how this one-third is built up, but I am sure the Home Secretary will know that I am correct in stating that this approximate figure is about right.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Is the hon. Gentleman talking about the ordinary pension or special pension?

Mr. Harris

I am talking of the combined pension that this widow will receive. I have amalgamated them all. This will give her a total of about one-third of the total wages which the police officer was drawing when alive.

Normally, this one-third pension would in the main apply to the dependants of other police officers as well, but I have here some facts which the House might like to know. For instance, Police Constable Edgar, who was shot in February, 1948, left a widow and two boys. The total pension of his widow is £2 18s. 7d. a week. Police Constable Baxter, shot in June, 1951, left a widow who gets only a pension of £2 8s. 6d. a week. Detective Inspector Fraser was shot and killed in July, 1951. His widow receives a pension of £4 14s. 3d. a week. Police Constable Jagger left a widow who receives £4 a week, and Police Constable Macleod, of Glasgow, who was shot in September, 1952, left a widow and child and his widow gets now £3 15s. a week. I am sure that hon. Members of this House will be very disturbed, particularly in regard to cases where the pension is even less than £3 a week.

Turning back to the case I was originally stating, Mrs. Miles will have to pay out of her £3 2s. 6d. a week rent for a house which she occupies amounting to about 32s. a week. That leaves about 30s. a week on which to live. It is fortunate that there are no dependent children. I believe that a most generous and correct view has been taken about the house that Mrs. Miles occupies and in which she will be permitted to remain, but in today's circumstances how can she manage with the 30s. that is left for her to live upon?

In a short debate of this kind it is impossible to go into the considerable detail of cost of living expenses, because there are so many ways of viewing the subject, but I am sure that the Minister must agree that living by herself will cost Mrs. Miles at least 35s. to 40s. a week for food alone. On top of this, we must remember the other hundred and one household items for which she will have to pay—gas, electricity, coal, insurance, rates, shoes, clothes, cleaning material, and so on.

These items in themselves, even with the most stringent economy, must take up at least 30s. a week. Together with rent and food, therefore, it is imperative for Mrs. Miles to receive something like £5 a week even to exist. It is fair to mention that Mrs. Miles is at present. I believe, in a position to go to work, but this should not be the criterion in cases of this kind because, obviously, she may not always be able to do so.

It is only right and proper that such widows should not receive what is approximately one-third of a police officer's wages as pension but under present day conditions, more like 50 per cent. The Police Pensions Act should be revised accordingly forthwith. My right hon. and learned Friend will realise that I have studied all the details of the pensions payable under circumstances of this kind. I could take up more time by going into the facts, but it still comes down to the general result that Mrs. Miles, as with other similar dependants, will be receiving approximately one-third of her husband's wages as pension, whereas a figure of approximately 50 per cent. should be much nearer the true position. In addition, there should be further consideration where in other cases there might be dependent children.

I may be reminded that stringent economy has to be exercised in Government expenditure, but I cannot believe that any hon. Member would wish to economise in a matter of this nature. Since 1946 15 police officers have lost their lives while on duty. Six of them were killed by gunfire and the other nine lost their lives by other accidents. Therefore, the cost to the State of what I am proposing would be almost infinitesimal compared with the general State expenditure of today.

The Home Secretary may say also that police pensions are under consideration and that certain revisions may be coming forward in the near future. I believe I am right in saying that this particular problem will not be covered by any plans which might at present be in mind. I feel I have made out a case which cannot be disputed and which calls for an urgent and fair adjustment in these widows' pensions.

After the tragic death of Police Constable Miles, Croydon, as a borough, has already rallied in response to voluntary appeals by the local Press and the Croydon magistrates, who have opened up funds on behalf of Mrs. Miles. Both these funds are to be amalgamated. While one does not in any way wish to dampen the generosity of people, particularly at a time like this, it seems deplorable that under such conditions a widow has to rely upon this charity to see her through.

Whilst the Minister's reply may not give me complete satisfaction, I sincerely hope that he will be able to throw out a word of comfort in enabling me to feel that the matter will be seriously and urgently considered. It is just not good enough to praise police officers who die while on duty. Nor is it good enough for us to rely on the public's generosity at a time like this. What we have to do is to see that, without any question, the State meets the obligation which we feel exists, and that is all I am really asking of the Minister tonight.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

The hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris) is certainly fortunate in that he has advocated three courses, each of which, he indicated, would require legislation and, on the Adjournment, has not been ruled out of order in respect of that.

Obviously, having drawn attention to that, I cannot deal with the first two points that he raised, much as I should like to do so, but with regard to the third I do not believe legislation is necessary. I believe that something could be done to deal with the question of police officers murdered on duty without having to submit legislation. I think the records of the Home Office will show that during the time that I was there I strove very hard indeed to get an amendment of the necessary regulations which would enable cases like this to be regarded as cases which called for adequate public recognition of the heroism of the officer concerned.

Sir Sidney Marshall (Sutton and Cheam)

I suggest "Government recognition." The public recognises it.

Mr. Ede

I thought the hon. Gentleman believed that this Government represented the public. Although I might differ from him on that, when I said "recognition by the public" I meant recognition at the public expense to which all of us have to contribute.

I believe that this type of death on duty calls for special recognition. The officers concerned face very great perils, and I do not want any officer to feel that if he is called upon to face peril he must have some thought as to what will be the plight of those left behind him if he pays the full price for carrying out his duty.

These are police officers. Let us be quite certain of this—they are only people paid a salary to do a duty that falls on each one of us. If this constable had called on any one of us here to assist him in apprehending these two people who were on the roof of that building, it would have been our duty, subject to a penalty if we did not comply with it, to assist him.

I hope that these men who, in circumstances of great peril in attempting to preserve the Queen's Peace, shoulder a specially heavy responsibility for us, will receive an assurance from the Government that from public funds they will receive recognition for their wives and dependants should they fall in the course of duty.

10.34 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I am sure the House would wish me to begin by expressing the sympathy of the Government, and, indeed, of every hon. Member of the House, to the widow of Constable Miles and also to the dependants left by the other constables who have lost their lives in this way who were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris).

Perhaps I might start by very briefly giving the facts in the Croydon case. The case is, of course sub judice in certain respects, and I think I should only say that Constable Miles was shot dead while on duty attempting to seize a man on the roof of a store. As my hon. Friend has said, he was aged 42, had 22 years' service and left a widow but no children. The widow is entitled to a pension of £2 16s. 4d. per week, and not as stated by my hon. Friend. The reason is, of course, that it is the average of the last three years' pay, and not of the actual pay at the date of death.

That pension is a special pension; that is to say, it is a pension payable at the rate and under the conditions applicable when a police officer loses his life in the course of his duty or dies as the result of injury sustained while on duty. It is, in that sense, to be opposed to the ordinary pension, which is payable to the surviving wife of a police officer, which she receives whatever the cause of the officer's death.

The special rate is somewhat higher than the ordinary rate. I will not trouble the House by giving particulars as to how the rate is calculated; it is rather complicated. In fact, it combines a service element with a National Insurance element. For a widow alone, the pension is never less than one-third of her husband's average pay for the last three years of his service, and, in some cases, it may be somewhat higher, though not very much. In addition to that, there is payable an element for children, which ranges from £33 to £38 per year for the first child, and from £40 to £45 for the second and subsequent children.

My hon. Friend referred to the case of Constable Macleod in Glasgow. He had only six years' service, but left a widow and one child, and her special pension will be at £3 15s. per week. At the moment, it is actually £4 0s. 6d., because for the first 13 weeks it runs at a slightly higher rate, and if, as I believe is to be the fact, she has another child, she will get another 15s. 6d. per week in respect of that child. I have told the House of the ordinary and special pensions because I think it is the necessary background.

The proposal put forward by my hon. Friend, and substantially supported by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, is that we should introduce a third class of pension. It is to be, as I understand it, a pension for the widows of those constables who are murdered by armed criminals. I think that is stating fairly what has been suggested.

I should tell the House that that is not a novel proposal. In fact, the Police Pensions Act, 1921, did contain provision very nearly to that effect. It gives a specially high rate of pension for the widow of a man killed in the execution of his duty involving special risks. Section 33 (3) of that Act gives a special rate of widow's pension where the husband died from a non-accidental injury, and the House will be interested to hear that a non-accidental injury is defined as— Any injury intentionally inflicted, or incurred in the performance of a duty involving special risks, shall be deemed to be non-accidental injury. That is not very far from what has been suggested in the course of this debate, and, indeed, it shows clearly that, at that time, Parliament had very much the same ideas as are entertained generally by all hon. Members this evening, and, if I might say so, very naturally and properly so. But it is important to recall what, in fact happened to that Section. It was impossible to maintain the narrow line which was originally intended by Parliament rather as we are intending this evening, and the special class to receive a higher pension was continually added to and expanded until it became so large that the differentiation was ultimately abolished under the administration of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) in 1948, and, I think I am right in saying, abolished without the disapproval and perhaps even with the welcome of all parts of the Police Council.

Shooting cases, if I may so refer to them, are the only ones which have been specifically mentioned this evening, and I have, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, been supplied with a large number of administrative reasons why it would be difficult to deal specially with those cases. But I do not think that the temper either of the House or of the country would wish to consider administrative reasons particularly carefully at the present time.

On the other hand, I want the House to face what is really implied by what hon. Members have asked this evening. It is not that the Government are unsympathetic to what is asked, but that it is right that the House should see what would be the effect of doing as suggested. My hon. Friend, I think, limited his request to a special rate of pension for widows of men who are killed by shooting.

Mr. F. Harris

Time is short, so I do not want to interrupt, but I did not say that. I said that 15 had been killed by one means or another.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am sorry. That is what I understood my hon. Friend to say I think that he would agree, however, that it would be impossible really to differentiate between that type of case and the case of the constable who was killed by a blow from a crowbar. I think that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that, but wishes to limit it to those two types of case or, at any rate, cases where there has been an actual murder in the ordinary sense of the word.

Mr. Ede

Murder or manslaughter.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

There we get a difference at once. We at once get the next type of case where we find a man who is deliberately or recklessly run over when he tries to stop a bandit committing a felony. We then get the next case of the man who is not deliberately run over but who falls off the running board of a car in which he tries to stop a thief committing a robbery. We then go on to the case of the constable who falls off a roof instead of being shot, and so on right down to the case which was reached under the 1921 Act where the widow of a constable on point duty is eligible for the higher rate.

I must point this out to the House to show the real practical difficulty that exists. Hon. Members must make up their minds that if they are going to have a special class they have got to except those who are not in the class, and wherever we draw the line we are bound to find very real cases of hardship. That is the practical difficulty.

On the other hand, it has been suggested—and I think that the House will take notice of this—that the type of case where a murder has been committed is a really exceptional type of case, and I think that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and also the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is of course concerned with this, will both take note of that fact. I certainly am not in a position here this evening to say that it will be possible to do anything, but I can undertake on behalf of my right hon. Friends that they will look at this position again in the light of what has been said.

I can hold out no promise or undertaking of any kind because the difficulties are very great, and I think that that is recognised. On the other hand, this debate has served a useful purpose, and I can assure all hon. Members that this matter certainly has the most sympathetic attention of the Government.

10.45 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I have only a few moments, but I should have liked to make a few general observations because P.C. Miles was one of my constituents, and I am told that he was regarded as a very good officer both by the magistrates and the Recorder. In this case, the problem may be solved by the fact that one of the local newspapers has opened a fund, to which there has already been a generous response, and the magistrates are also opening a fund. I believe they are to be amalgamated.

I express my thanks to my colleague, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris). Two of his constituents are on a charge; one of mine was killed—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Fourteen minutes to Eleven o'Clock