HC Deb 29 May 1957 vol 571 cc565-74

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Lagden (Hornchurch)

Having been fortunate enough in the Ballot to be able to initiate this Adjournment debate tonight, I propose to call the attention of the House to the use of existing powers of the Home Secretary in connection with police forces and, in particular, to the lack of such powers in some cases.

I am not advocating a State police force, and I wish to make absolutely clear at the outset that I do not in any way wish anything that I say tonight to be construed as an attack on the police of our country, who are, in my opinion, a very fine body of men doing a very difficult task—very often having to use such method as lies ready at hand—which they do with tact and, in my opinion, with great understanding.

There is a wide belief that the Home Secretary and Parliament, in whose name he acts, have ultimate power in connection with almost all police matters. That is not so in relation to the county forces. The Home Secretary is responsible only for administration and for such questions as terms of service and so on. He is not really responsible for the discipline of any of the officers of those county forces. That is the responsibility of the chief constable.

The existing police forces are, first, the Metropolitan Police force, which has its Commissioner, and the Home Secretary and Parliament have their responsibility for that force. Then there are the city and borough police forces which have their chief officers and watch committees with certain responsibilities. There are also the county forces which have their chief constables and standing joint committees, which have nothing like the powers of the watch committees. In fact, they have no powers over the discipline of the officers in the forces. but only certain powers over the chief constables if they should in any way personally misbehave or require removal from office. Then, of course, there is the City of London Police force.

Let us examine the position of the Metropolitan Police force, which covers London and Greater London. Few complaints are received about this force, which behaves and acts in a most commendable manner. The force covers about one hundred constituencies of hon. Members of this House, and it has a disciplinary board which can be reviewed from time to time by the Home Secretary. The city and borough forces have their chief officers, and in disciplinary matters their decisions can be reviewed by the watch committees, but not by the Home Secretary and Parliament. However, the watch committees are bodies of duly elected persons, and they would, if necessary, curb a chief officer in any of his decisions.

I come to the question of the county forces. In charge of a county force there is a chief constable and a standing joint committee. Here the powers of the Home Secretary are considerably limited. What can he do if he wishes? He can withhold the police grant. That is not very satisfactory because it could happen—I think that possibly it has happened—that the withholding of the grant merely means that the county pays the amount of the grant itself. That is only punishing the ratepayers of the county concerned.

Then there are the visits of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary. With the deepest possible respect to those inspectors, I would point out that they go to the areas only to make sure that the administration is being properly carried out. If my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department would make the necessary inquiries at first hand, he would find that, as a general rule, the visit of Her Majesty's inspector is known prior to his arrival at any police station, and a great deal of scrubbing and polishing takes place in the two or three hours before his visit. It is not surprising that when he arrives everything is in perfect order and he is able to report that he found everything in admirable condition.

The chief constable of the county force is all-powerful. In matters of discipline he is answerable to no one but himself—I repeat—to no one but himself, not even to his standing joint committee.

Let us consider the 100 fortunate Members of this House whose constituencies are within the Metropolitan area. If any one of them has a complaint made to him by a constituent he can ask a question of the Commissioner and ask him for a report. He can ask a Question in this House, and if he is not satisfied with the answer he gets from the Home Secretary he can apply to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate. He is carrying out the task for which he was elected, to be the watchdog of his constituents. That is extremely important.

Not so with the other Members whose constituencies are not within the Metropolitan area but are within a county. Such a Member cannot ask a Question in this House. He will be told. as I have been told, that there is no one to answer the Question because no one is responsible. He cannot claim an Adjournment debate, for the same reason. He is unable to protect his constituents by raising the matter in this House. It seems reasonable that every hon. Member should have the same facilities for protecting his constituents, whether he represents a Metropolitan constituency or one in a county.

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member is complaining about the present state of the law he must realise that that can only be altered by legislation, and that debate entailing that is out of order on the Motion for the Adjournment.

Mr. Lagden

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am not complaining; I am merely pointing out what in point of fact exists. Every hon. Member should have the same facilities and, more important still, all the persons whom he represents should be able to expect the same protection from him as that which any other Member of this House gives to his constituents.

Let me give an example. If, say, a police-sergeant in the Metropolitan area were seen in the act of seduction by one or more witnesses and the witnesses lodged a complaint with the hon. Member who represents them here, that hon. Member should, of course, look very deeply into the matter. As their Member of Parliament he should, and probably would, report the matter to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. If he were of the opinion that the Commissioner—I think this is unlikely—was attempting to whitewash the conduct of the officer he could and should bring the matter to the House, where it could be discussed. If precisely the same thing happened in a county, say in Essex. the hon. Member could not refer the matter to this House.

Mr. Speaker

Surely the hon. Member is, by inference, complaining of the existing state of the law with regard to responsibility for the Essex Constabulary, and that cannot be altered without legislation. The hon. Member has gone into this matter very thoroughly. I admit that he is doing his best, but the matter is out of order.

Mr. Lagden

I will not continue on those lines, but will conclude that part of my argument by saying that the people of Essex would in that respect be indeed badly served.

If such a state of affairs exists as that to which I have previously referred, great public disquiet must be raised. The public will feel, and do feel in some cases, I have no doubt, that by reason of existing law their Member—I do not want to transgress your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and I am trying very hard not to—is unable to protect them. They may also feel that the shadow of suspicion is being cast upon officers where it should not be cast—

Mr. Speaker

Surely, these are all reasons why the existing law should be altered by means of legislation. I can see no drift to the hon. Member's argument other than one which is contrary to our practice with regard to debates on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Lagden

I thank you very much. Mr. Speaker.

In that case I should like to refer, if I may, to what was said by an eminent Home Secretary, none other than Sir William Joynson-Hicks. I understand that these are the actual words he used in this House on 20th July, 1928, and I take it that if he used them I am in order in quoting them. He said: I am the servant of the House of Commons, and every action I take, every decision I come to in regard to the police, can be brought up and discussed here."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1928; Vol. 220, c. 840.] The author of the book in which those words are quoted goes on to say: Any act of the Commissioner, or of his subordinates, down to the latest joined constable, can similarly be brought under the scrutiny of the House of Commons. In the case of other police forces in England and Wales, the Home Secretary can be challenged in Parliament, with regard to the matters of general principle for which he is responsible, but he is not answerable to the House of Commons for their administration or conduct, as he is for those of the Metropolitan police. It is fitting that the police force which protects Parliament, the Government and the capital of the Empire, and may be said to exemplify the British police system to the world, should be readily amenable to national criticism through the channel of Parliament. As an arena for the public discussion of police questions, the County Hall (or other meeting place of a local authority) can hardly stand comparison with the chamber of the House of Commons. What wise words the then Home Secretary used, and this evening I am trying only to suggest that in 1928, he was saying, within the rules of order, what I am trying to say tonight—

Mr. Speaker

I do not know whether Sir William Joynson-Hicks was making that speech on the Adjournment, or what comment the Speaker of the day made upon it, but the hon. Member is in this difficulty. Either he is complaining about the Essex police force, for which the Home Secretary has no responsibility,—and on that assumption, of course, the debate on the matter is out of order on the Adjournment because of lack of Ministerial responsibility; or, on the other hand, he is suggesting that the Home Secretary should have responsibility for it, in which case the hon. Member is out of order, because he is suggesting legislation. These are the rules of the House.

Mr. Lagden

In that case I will conclude and, with the deepest possible respect, will ask my hon. and learned Friend to convey to the Home Secretary what he thinks I have been trying to say this evening. I thank you for your assistance in this matter, Mr. Speaker, and I am perfectly certain that our united efforts will lead my hon. and learned Friend to see that the Home Secretary knows your opinion and mine.

11.44 p.m.

Dr. Donald Johnson (Carlisle)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Lagden) for allowing me two minutes of the time allottted to this debate. It was my intention, Mr. Speaker, to endorse his plea, but if I do so at any length I shall be equally out of order. I think, however, that it will be in order for me to express fears similar to those of my hon. Friends, and at the same time to bestow a word of praise in a positive manner on the Chief Constable of Carlisle for the rapidity with which he called in an outside force in our recent murder case in Carlisle, which led to a quick and satisfactory solution—

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that praise, equally with blame, is out of order in a matter connected with a police force for which the Home Secretary is not responsible.

Dr. Johnson

I think that I have used up my available time, Mr. Speaker.

11.46 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Lagden) made it quite plain with, if I may say so with respect, assistance from you, Mr. Speaker, that the responsibility of the Home Secretary and of Parliament for a county police force is quite different from that which my right hon. Friend has for the Metropolitan Police force. In spite of that, I think that one can, whilst still remaining within the rules of order, accept with gratitude, at any rate as a fellow citizen, his tribute to the police forces in general of this country.

I do not propose to advert to the points where my hon. Friends seemed to be running into danger of transgressing the rules of order, but I propose merely to deal with what is the direct subject matter of the Adjournment debate—the use of the existing powers of the Home Secretary. My right hon. Friend's statutory powers in relation to police forces are quite clearly defined and they fall broadly into four categories.

First, there are the powers under the Police Act, 1919, and the Police Pensions Act, 1948, to make statutory regulations governing pay, pensions, allowances, and other conditions of service such as discipline procedure.

Secondly, in the more serious cases where a police officer has been punished for indiscipline—that is to say, cases resulting in punishment of dismissal, requirement to resign as an alternative to dismissal, or reduction in rank or reduction in pay—the Secretary of State has power to adjudicate on appeals made to him under the Police (Appeals) Acts, 1927 and 1943. The procedure in the case of such appeals is prescribed by statutory regulations and it is, in fact, the same in the Metropolitan Police area as in the counties. I think my hon. Friend was not quite right in that respect. The decision of the disciplinary board in the Metropolitan Police cannot be reviewed by my right hon. Friend, except on appeal by the officer. It is in the same position in that respect as in any other force.

Mr. Lagden

I fully agree with that. The point that I was trying to make was that the chief officer can, if he so wishes, decide not to hold an inquiry which would lead to the dismissal of the guilty officer.

Mr. Simon

As will appear, that is, of course, entirely a matter for the chief constables in the counties.

Thirdly, under the Police Act, 1946, my right hon. Friend may make a scheme for the amalgamation of police forces in certain circumstances prescribed in that Act; and finally he is responsible for authorising the payment of the 50 per cent. Exchequer grant in aid of local police expenditure. For that purpose he has authority to inspect police forces, through Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary, to ensure that local police authorities are discharging their statutory duties to maintain efficient police forces.

In particular, the Police (Grant) Order, 1951, provides that payment of Exchequer grant to any police authority shall be conditional upon the Secretary of State being satisfied that the police area in question is efficiently policed, that adequate co-operation is afforded by the police force to other police forces, that the police service is efficiently and properly maintained, equipped, and administered, and that the rates of pay and allowances of the force are as prescribed or approved by him; and if he is not satisfied on any of these matters he may withhold the grant in whole or in part, permanently or for such time as he may determine. In preparing the statutory regulations to which I have referred, the Secretary of State is required to consult the Statutory Police Council for England and Wales; and that contains representatives of local police authorities and of all ranks of the police service. In addition, the regulations on pensions are subject to the approval of Parliament. In practice, since 1953, most of these matters of general administration, and especially those relating to pay, pensions, and conditions of service, have first been referred to a non-statutory body, namely, the Police Council for Great Britain, which is representative of all ranks of the service and of local authorities.

The object of that system of consultation is to ensure that the fullest weight is given to the views of local police authorities who have the direct statutory responsibility for maintaining the forces, and meet half of the expenditure, and to the views of the service itself. My right hon. Friend's statutory function in relation to police discipline appeals is appellate andquasijudicial and, in the present context of my hon. Friend's speech, it is important to note that as he is an appellate authority, he has to avoid any appearance of partiality in instituting any inquiries into alleged indiscipline which might eventually lead to formal proceedings.

The power to withhold the Exchequer grant has been regarded by successive Home Secretaries as one to be used in the very last resort. In the ordinary way, the advice of Inspectors of Constabulary and, if necessary, discussion and correspondence between my right hon. Friend and the police authority concerned, afford sufficient means for clearing up difficulties. It is only where these have been exhausted that the question of suspending the Exchequer grant is seriously considered. It is, as I have said, a power which is most sparingly used. It has been suggested that this power to withhold the grant might be used where there is dissatisfaction about the manner in which the local disciplinary authority has dealt with complaints against officers of the force.

It may help if I explain that the Inspectors of Constabulary make the most careful inquiries into the state of discipline in each force during the course of their inspections and, with respect, my hon. Friend's description of the procedure of an inspection is, if I may say so, a caricature of what really happens. When any complaint is made against a police officer it must be formally recorded in the records of the force, and it is the duty of the disciplinary authority to consider whether it calls for disciplinary action and, if so, to take the necessary formal steps. The procedure in these matters was examined with great care by the Committee on Police Conditions of Service—that is the Committee presided over by Lord Oaksey in 1949—and by the Home Secretary's predecessors in office from 1950 to 1952, in consultation with the Police Council.

The system now in force is in accordance with the recommendations of the Police Council, and places clear responsibility for decisions in individual cases of alleged indiscipline on the local disciplinary authority. In the case of a borough, that is the watch committee, and in the case of a county, the chief constable. The Inspectors of Constabulary examine the discipline record of each force regularly and report upon it to the Home Secretary. There is, however, no question of that examination being used to usurp the functions of the local authority.

The inspectors and the Home Secretary concern themselves with the general state of a force, including its discipline. Special notice might be taken if there were a number of cases tending to show that discipline needed more attention, but the odd case in which a complainant is dissatisfied would certainly not justify interference with the proper discharge of local functions or the suggestion that it reflects a general lack of efficiency in the force. The investigation of complaints against police officers is bound up with the day-to-day control of the force.

The essential feature of our police service is that it is organised and controlled on a local basis: any tendency to centralise that control would be greatly resented by the responsible local authorities, and could not be contemplated without a radical change in our ideas about the functions of the British police. We must always bear in mind—and my hon. Friend has quoted a former Home Secretary who is now, unfortunately, deceased—as a former Home Secretary who is in this House, the right hon. the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), reminded us the other day, the great danger to liberty that has occurred through the establishment of State police forces.

The position is different in the Metropolitan Police force, because the Home Secretary is the police authority for that force. In the course of a debate in Parliament in 1888, the then Home Secretary, Mr. Matthews, stated that "it was plain that it was the intention of the Legislature to put the [Metropolitan] police force under the authority of the Secretary of State, and to hold him responsible, not for every detail of the management of the force, but in regard to the general policy in the discharge of their duties".

For the Metropolitan Police, it is a matter for the discretion of the Secretary of State as to how far, in discharging the duties placed on him by Parliament, he should himself, through the Home Office, interfere with the executive action which is the responsibility of the Commissioner. In practice, in respect of administration and the maintenance of discipline, it is the Secretary of State's sphere to prescribe and enforce general principles, and the Commissioner's sphere to apply them to individual cases, subject only to his general accountability to the Secretary of State as the police authority. In matters of discipline it is also subject to the right of appeal to the Secretary of State provided by the Police (Appeals) Acts.

Although I know well that what I have said will not altogether satisfy my hon. Friend about the question which he had at the back of his mind, and which he was precluded from bringing to the front of his tongue, nevertheless I have described what in fact is the use of the existing powers of the Home Secretary.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

May I ask my hon. and learned Friend if he would explain one point that is not absolutely clear to me. He stressed the point of efficiency of the force, and discipline, as the guiding factors. What would happen in the case—

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

Adjourned at one minute to Twelve o'clock.