HC Deb 12 December 1955 vol 547 cc969-76

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

11.10 p.m.

Mr. H. A. Price (Lewisham, West)

I want to raise this evening the case of Mr. J. T. White, who at the relevant time was living in my constituency, although he has since left. At once I must apologise to my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary for the fact that this case has already received considerable publicity in today's Daily Express. I should like to assure him that that was not in accordance with any wish of mine. On the contrary, it was in direct breach of a clear and unqualified promise given to me by an official of the Daily Express over the telephone this weekend that it would not, in fact, be published until tomorrow, Tuesday. It is extremely regrettable that a Member of this House cannot rely on such a pledge from such a source. I thought that I could. It is a mistake which I shall not repeat.

Secondly, I should like to say how sorry I am that I should appear to add a little to the weight of criticism which has been levelled at the police force recently. I do not suppose that there are more saints per thousand in the police force than in any other section of the law-abiding community, but I certainly have no wish whatever to be associated with the spate of wild, unsubstantiated criticism which has been levelled at the police force recently. Nevertheless, the case which I have to bring before the House is one which calls for attention.

Briefly, the facts are as follows. On Saturday, 20th August, Mr. White attended a social gathering at Peckham. On the way home at about 12.15, or perhaps a little later, he stopped for a cup of tea at an open-air refreshment stall in Rye Lane, Peckham. While he was sitting there drinking his tea—there was no disorder of any kind, either from him, or any other customer, no singing, shouting, or swearing; the proceedings were perfectly orderly—a police car pulled up and two uniformed police constables approached Mr. White. One seized him by the arms and the other punched him about the face and head and cut his lip. This incident was witnessed by the stallholder and customers.

He was then dumped into the car and driven off. He was, not unnaturally bewildered and a little confused, but he is fairly sure that the next stage took only a very few minutes. He was driven around the back streets and eventually thrown out of the car outside a school which was in or near Phillips Road, Peckham, where he was told, "Beat it." Having recovered his wits, he proceeded to the Peckham Police Station to lodge a complaint. The sergeant on duty refused to listen to him and turned him away. When my hon. Friend replies, I hope that he will deal with that point. It was rather unfortunate.

He thereupon telephoned Whitehall 1212 and spoke to a more senior official of the police force, who advised him to return to the police station and await his arrival; which he did. The inspector, or detective inspector, arrived, and Mr. White was able to make a statement. The detective inspector, as I shall call him from now on, even if that is not his exact description, assured Mr. White that he took a serious view of the incident and would investigate it. He then drove Mr. White home. That was in the early hours of Sunday, 21st August.

During the evening of that day Mr. White called again at the coffee stall, and was informed that the detective inspector had taken a statement from the stallholder. While he was at the stall he discovered, by chance, that one of the customers present the previous evening who had witnessed the incident was prepared to testify. I have given my hon. Friend the name of that witness, and I believe that a statement has been taken from him.

Mr. White was asked whether he could identify the officers concerned in this incident. He said that he thought he could, and an identification parade was arranged for Thursday, 25th August, at which there were not fewer than 30 uniformed men, and not fewer than 12 plain-clothes men. That brings me to the next point on which I would like elucidation—was it necessary to have so large a force of men for that parade? It seems to me to have been far larger than was necessary, and it was unfortunate since it only added to the confusion in Mr. White's mind. It did not make the task of identification easier. He was unable to identify the plainclothes men. He had not expected to do so, as they were in the car all the time; but he thought he could identify the two uniformed men. He is reasonably confident about one, but less confident about the other.

Mr. White was then invited to make a statement, but there appears to have been some difficulty over its wording, and the interview was eventually terminated because the police officer taking the statement wanted Mr. White to be much more definite in the statement about the two uniformed men than he could be. He was not certain, and refused. He did so properly, in my opinion. The interview was thereupon terminated, and Mr. White was told to be on his way. I think that was unfortunate, and I shall be glad if my hon. Friend will say a word or two about it.

These are the facts, and as far as I know they have never been challenged, certainly not as to their generality. Mr. White told me the story, and I wrote to the Home Secretary on 31st August. After two letters assuring, me that investigations were continuing. I received a final reply on 4th November, which was nine weeks later. This made plain that the investigations had been unsuccessful in uncovering the identity of the men responsible, and in the last paragraph said that the Commissioner would continue his endeavours to bring the investigations to a successful conclusion.

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that neither my constituent nor I were satisfied with that reply. We are dealing with a police force which is the envy of the world, which often traces from among the 50 million people in these islands one person who has committed a crime, working upon a clue as slender as a hair, or composed of dust or a laundry mark; yet we are asked to believe that after nine weeks of intensive investigation it has been unable to trace the one police car out of the small number which could have been on duty in that area at this time on this day. I find that impossible to accept.

I hope that my hon. Friend will deal with this point, because I would like to know what is the maximum number of cars which could have been in that area at that time on that day. I suggest that the maximum number is three. There may well have been a larger number on duty throughout London, but that is a different point. I suggest that the car which was involved in this incident must have been one of not more than three, which, of course, brings me back to the question of the identification parade, because that is why I feel it was so unfortunate that so many men were put up for identification.

The number of men who might possibly have been involved in this incident, it seems to me, could not possibly have exceeded a dozen, and yet well over forty were put up. I have no means, of course, of hazarding an explanation for this incident, although I have not the slightest doubt that there is one; but I should have thought that, since all these cars are in radio communication with Scotland Yard, it ought to have been possible, from those records, to discover which car or cars were on duty in that particular area at that particular time; and, what is more, having narrowed it down to the very small number—which I have suggested could not have been more than three—it is very difficult to believe that it was impossible to establish which of that very small number was in fact responsible for this incident.

My final point is this. Will my hon. Friend please tell me what is meant by the final sentence in his right hon. Friend's letter of 4th November, that the Commissioner will continue his endeavours? I do not think my constituent is vindictive in this matter. He merely wants to have the mystery solved and the apology to which he feels he is entitled.

I too feel that, as a citizen of this country, he is entitled to an apology for this very regrettable incident. I must say in passing that I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend and the Commissioner for the efforts made so far, but I should like to feel that they will pursue this investigation with all the energy at their disposal in order to find out who these men were, and to wring from them the apology which is my constituent's due.

11.22 p.m.

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

I do not complain at all of the way in which my hon. Friend has dealt with the facts of this case, but I think it may be well if I restate the facts as I see them from the information which is at my disposal.

At 2.30 a.m. in the early morning of 21st August, a telephone call was received at Scotland Yard from Mr. White complaining that he had been arrested. He said then that this had taken place some twenty minutes earlier, and that the sergeant at Peckham Police Station had refused to listen to him. The duty officer at Scotland Yard who took the call asked him to return to the Peckham Police Station, and said that the duty officer there would see him.

1 should perhaps say here, with regard to Mr. White's complaint about the sergeant, that it is correct that he did not make much progress with the sergeant. The sergeant says that Mr. White was abusive and noisy, and that he refused to give any details about himself. Now, I do not say that in any way in criticism of Mr. White. He was certainly excited in the circumstances, and I think one can very well picture the scene that took place.

The duty officer, in due course, saw Mr. White at the station, and he took a statement from him, in which Mr. White gave the time of his arrest as 12.15 a.m. After taking the statement, the inspector took Mr. White home in his own car. The inspector states categorically that there were then no signs of physical injury upon Mr. White.

Mr. H. A. Price

Did the inspector say at any time that Mr. White showed him his cut lip, which Mr. White tells me he did?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

My information is that the inspector says that there were no signs.

Of course, having regard to the nature of the complaint, inquiries were immediately put in hand. In fact, statements were taken from the proprietor of the coffee stall, two persons who were at the stall at the time of the incident, and the crews of all the police cars which could legitimately have been present at the time of the incident. Also, the log books, the car diaries, station records and all messages between the information room and police cars over the period in question were scrutinised and cross-checked against one another.

Great difficulty arises here, of course, owing to the uncertainty of the time at which the incident took place. As I have said, originally Mr. White gave the time as 2.10 a.m. My hon. Friend has given the time as 12.15 a.m. in his letter. In fact, that was the time subsequently stated by Mr. White, and I have no doubt that is where my hon. Friend has got it from. Two of the independent witnesses give the time as 12.30 a.m. One has subsequently corrected that to 1 a.m. The third independent witness says, and sticks to it, that the time was 1.30 a.m. Therefore, there was a period from 12.15 a.m. to 2.10 a.m. during which the incident might have occurred, and, as the incident itself took only some five minutes, it will be seen that quite a number of police cars could have been present and involved.

I am told that the number of such cars was, in fact, six. The crews of all these cars were questioned, and none of them admitted any knowledge of the incident whatsoever. Having regard to that, on 25th August an identification parade was held. It was, of course, necessary to parade all the crews of the cars which might have been involved, and that already takes the number to about a score, or perhaps a little more. In such parades, it is always the practice, for reasons which will be quite obvious, to mix a proportion of known innocent men among those who might be otherwise.

There were present at the parade Mr. White and one independent witness. The other two witnesses had said that they would be unable to identify those concerned in any event. Mr. White picked out two of the men, but, as my hon. Friend has said, he was unwilling to make a signed statement to the effect that he was sure that they were the ones involved. He did not feel certain enough to do so. I do not blame him for that; he had doubt. He was asked if he would do so, for the obvious reason that, if any action was to be taken against these men, it could clearly only be taken on very positive evidence. I think that everyone in the House would agree that it would be most desirable that the person providing that evidence should at least be prepared to put his name to it.

In fact, what Mr. White said finally was, "No, I am taking other action." What he meant was that he intended to enlist the services of his Member of Parliament, but there was some misunderstanding here, because the chief inspector thought that what he meant was that he was considering taking legal proceedings. That was quite a different thing and was perhaps a more normal construction to put upon those words. The chief inspector said that he could not carry the matter any further, because of course if there was any question of writs, the right course of action for the inspector was to stop the matter then and there.

There is something of a real mystery in this case. Mr. White asserts that he was forcibly arrested and put into a car at some time during the early hours of the morning of 21st August. He has three independent witnesses to that fact. The witnesses do not altogether bear out what he says. They are not witnesses to the fact that he was assaulted in the way my hon. Friend has said, but they are witnesses to the fact that he was put into the car.

Mr. White also says that he was so treated without explanation or justification. So far as justification is concerned, I am most willing to agree entirely. I want to say quite categorically that there is no reason known to the police why he should have been so arrested. I am also quite willing to believe—though of course there is no evidence to support it —Mr. White's statement that after five minutes or so in the car, in which nothing was said, he was abruptly put out again. It is certainly true that he never reached a police station in the car.

If the police did what Mr. White says, their action was entirely motiveless. It is, of course, possible to say that it was done maliciously, that they did it for no reason; but, apart from the fact that it is difficult to believe that responsible men behaved in that way, there is very good reason why they should not do so. After all, they drove their car up to a place where it was seen by a number of witnesses, and it was very likely indeed that one at least of the witnesses would have taken the number of the car, with dire results to the men in question.

If there is a motive there is only one which comes to my mind, and that is that there was some mistake of identity. But if that were the motive, why should there be this sudden change of mind in the car when, without saying a word, without any discussion between themselves, apparently, according to Mr. White's own story, the police suddenly, with one accord, stopped and put him into the road. Also—as my hon. Friend suggested in his speech—if it was intended that someone should be arrested in that neighbourhood surely we should have found some trace of it in the various messages passing between the police on that evening; but there is nothing of the kind.

After my hon. Friend had written to the Home Secretary, my right hon and gallant Friend replied in accordance with the letter to which my hon. Friend has referred, on 4th November. That was after lengthy inquiries had taken place. Since that date I have made inquiry, and I find that all the evidence and all the papers in this case have been minutely re-examined, and a careful comparison of the various parts have been made to see if there is anything which would show that something had been wrong, but nothing of the kind has come to light.

Both the Commissioner of Police and my right hon. and gallant Friend are naturally extremely disturbed that allegations—and supported allegations—of this kind can be made against the police without their being able to discover more about the matter. At the present time I cannot say that there is any further direction in which it seems possible to make useful inquiries, but I will certainly promise that if any shred of evidence comes to hand which may throw any light upon these circumstances, it will be examined most fully and carefully with a view to ascertaining if possible what is the true history of the events of that early morning.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Twelve o'clock.