HC Deb 16 July 1959 vol 609 cc723-32

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

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I desire to raise on the Adjournment a Question which I attempted to raise one day last week, as the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be aware.

On Tuesday, 19th May, two of my constituents, Mr. Thomas Halloran pf 53, Isledon Road, Islington, and Mr. Patrick Joseph Cox, of 17, Travers Road, Islington, called to see me to tell me that on the previous Sunday evening, Whitsunday, 17th May, they had been brutally assaulted, beaten, disfigured and kicked by a police sergeant and three or four police constables at the Hornsey Road police station, with the result that on their release from the police station a few hours afterwards, their wounds and injuries had to be treated and dressed at the Royal Northern Hospital.

They had been taken to Hornsey Road police station, arising out of an incident at the Clarence public house, Seven Sisters Road. Mr. Halloran's condition when I saw him showed obvious signs that he had recently suffered considerable violence. His eyes were badly swollen, he had cuts on his face and forehead, and other bruises on his face. His neck showed signs of serious bruising and he complained of having been kicked in the ribs by one of the police officers at the police station.

I saw Mr. Cox separately. Although his injuries were less serious, he confirmed Mr. Halloran's statement to me that Mr. Halloran had been held by two police constables while two others proceeded to punch and batter him until he collapsed on the ground, when he was violently kicked by one of the officers. In these circumstances, I thought it my duty to make the fullest investigation that I possibly could.

I accordingly saw Dr. Raymakers, the doctor on duty at the casualty ward of the Royal Northern Hospital, who attended Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox, and Sister Moore, who received them at the hospital. They confirmed the serious nature of the injuries sustained by Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox. I also saw the manager of the Clarence public house and his wife, and various other witnesses who were in the public house at the time.

It appears that as a result of a quite trivial incident, the manager of the public house had telephoned and asked the police to call. When the police called, he had pointed to Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox. The visit attracted no general attention in the public house at the time. Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox left quietly. A number of witnesses assured me that when Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox left the public house, they were unmarked in any way, and I was also told by various witnesses that they were neither drunk or disorderly.

Shortly afterwards, about 10.30, a friend of Mr. Halloran called at the police station to see whether he could bail his two friends out, but was told that this was not possible. According to both Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox, this brutal assault and beating-up administered to them in the police station was entirely unprovoked. Mr. Halloran told me that it was so severe that he was frightened for his life and one of the officers clutched him so violently by the throat that he thought he would be choked. Another officer said to him, "I will kill you, you bastard". Both these gentlemen, who, I may say, have an unblemished record, are of high repute, married men with families, living in my constituency.

They appeared the next morning in the North London police court charged with being drunk and disorderly. Wisely or unwisely, they pleaded guilty to that charge. Mr. Halloran was fined 40s., including costs, and Mr. Cox was fined 30s., including costs. I understand that the learned magistrate made some remarks about Mr. Halloran's appearance and disfigurement and was told by one of the police officers that he had been aggressive.

At the same time, I received an entirely unsolicited letter from the Diplomatic Correspondent of the Daily Express, who wrote to me as follows: I happened to meet Halloran in the early afternoon the following day when he was asking his way to another newspaper in Fleet Street. I asked him into the Express, and he told me the story of his assault. This was evident on his face. It was heavily bruised in various places, indicating not one but a number of blows. One eye particularly was nastily swollen and discoloured; he had a plaster strip across an injured nose. I asked him to show me his own hands, and as they were entirely undamaged it was clear that he had not been assaulting anyone or fighting back. I have here a number of photographs which were taken at the time and which are visible proof of the very considerable battery and injury that Mr. Halloran had sustained. Having satisfied myself that there was, to say the least, a very strong prima facie case requiring investigation, I communicated the facts, as I knew them, to the Home Secretary. I gave him a list of a large number of witnesses who would be able to confirm the statements they had given, and I asked for an independent and impartial investigation.

I took that course for this reason. I myself have and always have had the highest regard for the high standards which are normally observed by the Metropolitan Police. I am very conscious of the strain and provocation to which the police in certain districts of the Metropolitan area, particularly in the Holloway district, have recently been exposed. I personally am always anxious that the police should be given every possible moral and other support in the performance of their duties. But if public confidence is to be restored when an incident of this kind comes to the notice of a Member of Parliament, accompanied by so much detail and so much evidence, then it does seem to me that the public interest requires that there should be an independent inquiry.

One often hears reports of beating by police officers in police stations. I am quite prepared to believe that some of those incidents are exaggerated, but the public are alarmed about this, and the difficulty is that people who are subjected to that kind of treatment, which, I hope, does not occur very often, in police stations have no redress.

As the Economist said, putting the matter very fairly in the number for 27th June this year, under the caption: "The Police: Impartial Investigations Needed": Not everybody will share Mr. Butler's confidence in the present method of investigating allegations into a breach of the rules of conduct by the Metropolitan police. It then comments on what has happened in a number of cases, and it points to the very inadequate machinery of allowing Scotland Yard to make its own inquiries, and then it says this: Independent witnesses of the actual assault, if it did take place, do not, of course exist. Here, however, there are independent witnesses. There are two people quite independent. There is also clear evidence that when they left the public house they were umarked. There is the evidence which their hands show that they did not take part in any fisticuffs themselves. There is the evidence of the doctor at the hospital, of the sister and others, and there are these photographs of the violence to which they were subjected at the police station.

If ever there was a case requiring the fullest investigation and an impartial investigation and disciplinary action not only in the interests of the public, but in the interests of the police themselves, I should have thought that this was the case.

The Economist writes: It will be said that the police are having an extremely difficult task combating thuggery"— with which I agree— and that if complaints against them are made the subject of a prosecution, it will undermine public confidence. But public confidence is already shaken, and the only way to restore it is for an independent inquiry—in some form or another—into each case where there is prima facie evidence of assault. Investigations by the police into the police on behalf of the police cannot, in present circumstances, carry sufficient weight. In view of those circumstances, I was particularly disappointed with the most unsatisfactory reply which I received from the Home Secretary. What has taken place is this. Either the Commissioner or someone deputed by the Commissioner has made some investigations, and either he has satisfied the Home Secretary or he has not, but the Home Secretary has tried, if I may say so, to avoid responsibility by saying that if anyone is assaulted by the police he has the same remedies and can take proceedings as in the case of assault by another person.

But it is not the case. Everybody knows that citizens who are unfortunate enough to find themselves beaten up in a police station cannot identify their assailants; they do not know the names of the police officers; it is impossible even for them to ascertain their numbers. There is no machinery which enables citizens who are assaulted in this way to obtain any effective redress. Theoretically, there is a remedy but in practice there is none.

It seems to me, therefore, most important, in the interest of justice, in order that the public confidence may be restored, and in the interest of the high standards of the police themselves, that when incidents of this kind come to light they should not be covered up by an inquiry by the police themselves, who are, naturally, anxious to cover up any dereliction of duty on the part of their subordinates. There should be an independent inquiry by an independent, impartial person.

10.21 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

The hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) has made serious complaints against officers of the Metropolitan Police. I agree with him that when allegations of this kind are made it is of the utmost importance that there should be adequate machinery for their investigation. I take this opportunity to draw attention to the machinery which is available.

There are four possibilities. The first is prosecution by the police of the officers concerned. The second is disciplinary proceedings against those officers. The third is prosecution of the officers by the injured parties. The fourth is civil proceedings by the injured parties against the police officers concerned. It is, of course, not for the House to adjudicate upon the facts, which might have to be decided at any one of these four kinds of inquiry. I wish to make some important points of principle tonight, and, therefore, I shall not spend much time on the allegations which the hon. Member for Islington, East has made. But the hon. Member has brought to the notice of the House a number of allegations of fact and I wish to tell the House that many of the facts which he has mentioned are disputed. It is only right that I should do so.

My information is that the licensee of the public house where Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox had been drinking sent for the police who, after hearing the landlord's complaint, ejected them. It may well be true that when first ejected they went quietly. After they were ejected, however, there was a violent altercation and struggle outside. The police arrested the men for being drunk and disorderly in the street. They were powerfully-built men and it took four policemen to get them into a van. They were taken to the police station. At the police station the two men, particularly Mr. Halloran, continued to kick out and struggle violently, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that they could be charged and put in the cells.

As it appeared that Mr. Halloran had suffered some injuries by then, the divisional police surgeon was summoned, but Mr. Halloran refused to be examined by him. Later that night both men were bailed to appear at court the next morning. When they came to court they pleaded guilty, as the hon. Member for Islington, East has said. They were by then most certainly quite sober and in a condition to decide whether or not to plead guilty, and they were sentenced, as the hon. Member has mentioned.

Between being bailed in the early hours of the morning and appearing in court the next morning they both went to the Royal Northern Hospital. Statements which have been taken from the medical staff who attended them do not support the allegation that they were really seriously hurt. The hon. Member's version which he has put before the House with considerable emphasis—and I do not complain of it, for he has his duty to perform—is of an unprovoked attack by the police on two harmless men. The facts elicited by the Commissioner of Police do not support that. They show, on the other hand, that the police were having great difficulty in restraining two violently drunken men.

I now propose to consider how the machinery for investigating allegations against the police has been used so far as the Commissioner of Police is concerned. The House will realise that with regard to the first two possibilities I mentioned it would be for the Commissioner to consider the matter in the first instance in order to decide whether or not proceedings should take place. On 18th June, ray right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in reply to the hon. Gentleman's Question that the Commissioner had investigated very fully the allegations put forward and had found no grounds for disciplinary action or for the institution of criminal proceedings, and added that he accepted the Commissioner's conclusion. In case the hon. Gentleman should think that the Commissioner's investigations in this matter were cursory or superficial, I should mention that he had statements taken from no fewer than 22 people, including Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox themselves, and others whom the hon. Gentleman thought might be able to help.

As I understand the case the hon. Gentleman has put before the House, he says it is not enough for the Secretary of State for the Home Department to say that the Commissioner of Police has investigated the matter and that my right hon. Friend accepts the conclusions. The hon. Gentleman is saying in effect that there must also be some form of special and independent inquiry. Of course, each of the four possibilities I mentioned—unless it be said that the disciplinary proceedings are not independent, in which case the other three forms of proceedings—are entirely independent inquiries by the courts of this country. I hope that on reflection, therefore, the hon. Gentleman will agree that in a case of this kind a special form of inquiry is unnecessary.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that any machinery which requires consideration of the facts and a decision upon them by the Commissioner as to the taking of proceedings is unsatisfactory because the Commissioner cannot help having some bias in the matter. The hon. Gentleman did not use the word "bias", but he most clearly suggested it. He seems to regard such bias as self-evident, but in doing so he overlooks the fact that there are occasions when the Commissioner has to institute proceedings against members of his force, and he never hesitates to do so when appropriate. The hon. Gentleman must remember that recently in London there was a case of this kind. However, it would be absurd and, I suggest, most distrustful of a man of the Commissioner's standing to suggest that when he decides that there are not good grounds for prosecution his decision has been influenced by bias.

Hon. Members will understand me when I say that there is nothing unusual in complaints being made against police officers. Their duties bring them in contact with a wide variety of people who, for various reasons, are too often ready to distract attention from their own failings by making false attacks on the police. When a complaint has been made against an officer of the Metropolitan Police the Commissioner has to decide whether, if it were substantiated, it would disclose a criminal offence or an offence against police disciplinary regulations and nothing more. But in this case, as I say, after full investigation, the Commissioner found no grounds for either type of proceeding.

A police officer, like everybody else, is subject to the law of the land, and whatever decision the Commissioner may have reached on his assessment of the facts the citizen is not debarred from setting the law in motion himself. Under our law, Mr. Halloran or Mr. Cox, or both of them, could apply to a magistrate for a summons to prosecute, or they could take proceedings for damages in the High Court or county court and, if they were qualified, they could apply for legal aid.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman address himself to the question of how these people can identify those whom they might wish to prosecute?

Mr. Ronton

I have that point very much in mind in view of what has transpired, and I am coming to it. Before dealing with it, I would add that the machinery of the law has, of course, been satisfactorily invoked by private citizens against the police on a number of occasions.

I quite agree that none of the four procedures which I have mentioned would be effective unless the police officers alleged to be responsible could be identified, because otherwise one would not know against whom to start proceedings. In this case, the hon. Member says that Mr. Halloran and Mr. Cox do not know the names or the numbers of the police. That in itself need not constitute any difficulty. It has already been pointed out to the hon.

Member by my right hon. Friend that the Commissioner is prepared to give the names of the officers concerned in this case and to give the complainants an opportunity to identify any officer against whom they have allegations to make, and I cannot think of anything fairer than that. Unfortunately, neither Mr. Halloran nor Mr. Cox has so far been prepared to take advantage of that offer, but I really do not think that it can be said that the machinery which is available is inadequate because of any difficulty of identification.

It is surely contrary to the spirit of our laws, when legal remedies already exist, to suggest that some special machinery should be invoked. I am not saying that there are never cases in which some form of special tribunal might not be appropriate and necessary. There may be complaints not amounting to complaints that a crime or civil injury has been done, but which are complaints that some practice contrary to the public interest is being followed, whether in accordance with superior instructions or otherwise. In cases such as those, special inquiries have been held in the past and may well be the only way the matter can properly be investigated. But the case brought forward this evening, which is fairly simple and of a familiar character, is not of that kind.

My right hon. Friend and I and, if I may say so, the House of Commons as such, have an obligation to the police as well as to the public. It is, of course, right and in the interests of the Force that there should be machinery by which complaints against policemen can be pursued and that that machinery should be adequate and used effectively. As I have pointed out, such machinery does exist and is fully available to the complainants in this case. That being so, we should not, I suggest, encourage proposals to subject police officers to trouble and distraction which would certainly be involved in a special form of inquiry. The police have their rights like any other citizen and they have also their duty to do, and we should see to it that they are not diverted from doing that duty.

For those reasons, I am not in agreement with the hon. Gentleman in his suggestion that there should be some form of special inquiry. Independent inquiry there may be, but let it be independent inquiry in accordance with well established and much trusted forms of law.

Mr. Fletcher: I am obliged to the Minister for the very full way—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is not entitled to make another speech on this matter. He may ask a question, but no more.

Mr. Fletcher

May I ask the Minister whether he takes the view—as I hope he does—that although he does not agree with me on the facts of this case, he would hope that the remarks he has made will do something to remove any feeling that the police would take the law into their own hands? Will he express the hope that the more widely what he has said is known the more it will remove any possible feeling that people are without remedy if this kind of thing should happen in police stations?

Mr. Renton

In this case, and so far as I know in any other case, there is no question of the police taking the law into their own hands. If there should be such an occasion, the citizen has his remedies. Not only that, but the policeman concerned would be offending against his own disciplinary regulations and the Commissioner of Police would not hesitate to take proceedings.

Question put and agreed to.

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