HC Deb 26 May 1960 vol 624 cc843-52

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

11.25 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I do not wish it to be understood that my reason for raising the case of Mr. Thompson on the Adjournment is in any way to restrict the proper performance by the police of their duties. In fact my reason for raising this matter is quite the contrary. I believe that generally the courts have opportunities to expose any over-zealous activities on the part of the police and that is as it should be. But I believe that this House should be equally zealous of the rights and liberties of the subject.

I felt it my duty to raise the matter as a result of a report which appeared in the Daily Telegraph of Tuesday, 19th April. It stated: A motorist who stopped late on Saturday night outside Brixton police station to tell a motor cyclist that his rear light was not working, 'was dragged into the police station' after speaking to the motor cyclist, a police officer off duty, the Lambeth magistrate was told yesterday. P.c. Ronald Woodman said that Mrs. Thompson came into the police station after her husband. 'She was very excited. I told her to go away but she refused. Her breath smelt strongly of drink and I arrested her for being drunk and disorderly.' Mrs. Thompson said she had only three small gins that evening. 'My husband was in the police station and I asked to see him. They refused to let me see him. They didn't tell me what my husband was being questioned about. I didn't find out until afterwards. My husband pulled up to talk to a motor cyclist who had no rear lights on the back of his bike and who had been driving very badly. It happened to be a police officer and he took my husband into the police station. Any woman would have been excited if her husband was dragged into a police station. Giving evidence on his wife's behalf Mr. Thompson said: 'I was taken into the police station after I spoke to the motor cyclist who had no rear lights. My wife had only three drinks that evening. I heard her being arrested when I was at the rear of the station'. The magistrate said: 'There is a slight doubt whether she was excited because her husband had been taken into the police station or whether she was excited because she had had too much to drink.' That report was read widely throughout the country, and I believe it to be in the interests of the police and the public that the facts should be elicited. If they are in favour of the police, that is perfectly all right with me, and I am sure that the police and the public and everyone else would welcome an opportunity to hear the whole facts. The newspaper report implied impropriety on the part of the police.

On 5th May I put a Question to my hon. Friend. I asked … why Mr. Thompson, a motorist, who stopped to inform a police office off duty late on Saturday, 16th April, that the rear light of his motor cycle was not working, was taken into Brixton police station; why his wife was not allowed to see him; and if he will make a statement. My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department said: Mr. Thompson was reported by two officers of the City of London Police returning from duty by motor cycle to the officer on duty at Brixton police station for an alleged offence against the Road Traffic Acts. According to the officers concerned, no reference was made to the rear light on their motor cycle. After investigation the Brixton officer decided not to charge Mr. Thompson. An apology was tendered to him, and he was allowed to go. His wife was not allowed to see him because her behaviour on entering the police station led to her being arrested and charged with another offence. The charge was later dismissed. In a supplementary question I asked: Can my hon. and learned Friend say how it is that there appeared in very responsible newspapers the statement that Mr. Thompson had reported to a police officer that his rear light was not operating and that, as a result of that action, he was taken into Brixton police station? Is he aware that in fact no charges whatever were pursued against Mr. Thompson; that according to Press reports his wife appeared in court the following day charged with being drunk and disorderly, and that the magistrate … dismissed the charge in the terms I have already indicated. I asked if it was not likely that in the circumstances this woman would be excited, and suggested to my hon. and learned Friend that the wife of any man arrested under these circumstances might become emotional and excited. I find, quite frankly, nothing surprising in that in the circumstances. It was pointed out that these were City of London policemen off duty or returning to their duty. I wondered, and still wonder, why my hon. and learned Friend did not honestly say that they were off duty, because in fact I understand they were and they were probably returning to their homes. My hon. and learned Friend said: The City officer found that his rear light was not working, but neither he nor the other officer recollect Mr. Thompson having drawn their attention to it at any stage. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) asked: If the behaviour of the police officers was completely correct, for what exactly did they apologise? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1960; Vol. 622, c. 1253–4.] My hon. and learned Friend said that in the circumstances apologies were always tendered.

On 12th May I pursued this matter and asked my hon. and learned Friend if he would say if the two officers who took Mr. Thompson into custody were in plain clothes and: whether he first spoke to them or they saw some reason for approaching him first? My hon. and learned Friend said he was not then in a position to give an answer to that question. I hope that he will be tonight. I also asked whether Mrs. Thompson was examined by a doctor before being charged and my hon. and learned Friend said she was not. He went on to say: The two cases, although they were both cases of drinking are not strictly comparable, because they are slightly different offences. One is for driving under the influence of drink and the other is for being drunk and disorderly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th May, 1960; Vol. 623, c. 617.] Last evening I thought I had better see Mr. Thompson in order to get his point of view. I was very careful not to lead him to say anything that might be strictly inaccurate and I took down exactly what he said. He said he left the Elephant and Castle at 10.30 and saw a motor cycle and sidecar with no rear-light. At Kennington, when he was held up by traffic lights, he jumped out and approached the motor cyclist and said, because, he asserts, he felt that the motor cyclist was driving rather badly: "Take it a bit steady. You have got no light on the back" He then stated, "One of them retorted, You had better tell a policeman'." His reply was, "I probably will."

He then drove towards Brixton and at the traffic lights just outside the police station he was stopped by the red light, and he was then forcibly removed from his car by these two men in mackintoshes who at this stage disclosed that they were police officers. He was taken into the police station where he asserts that he was, as he clearly was, examined by a police surgeon, who found that he was not drunk, and he was given the keys of his car and he could have driven it away. He was released at 11.45 p.m. and at 12.15 a.m. he was advised that his wife was being charged with being drunk and disorderly. He ultimately bailed her, and she appeared in court the next day and the case was dismissed.

Those are the facts as I know them and that is the statement which Mr. Thompson has made. It may or may not be strictly accurate, but this whole matter should at least be brought into the open, and I should like to ask my hon. and learned Friend several questions. I would point out to him that both Mr. and Mrs. Thompson under oath in court stated that they had informed the riders of the motor cycle that the rear light was out. The City officers ultimately said that they found that the rear light was not working but the very next morning neither one nor the other could recollect Mr. Thompson having drawn their attention to it at any stage, "recollect" being my hon. and learned Friend's word.

It seems to me extraordinary that two police officers should not recollect whether Mr. or Mrs. Thompson had drawn their attention to that. Does my hon. and learned Friend believe that two trained police officers the next morning after this incident just cannot remember or cannot "recollect"—that is my hon. and learned Friend's word, not mine?

I should like to know what caused the two officers to conclude that Mr. Thompson was drunk in charge. Did it suddenly occur to them conveniently right outside Brixton police station? Or did they have cause to believe at some stage earlier that this man was drunk in charge? If so, why did they not stop him immediately, because if they were convinced that he was drunk, he would be driving to the danger of himself and the public?

Whatever the other facts may be, it was quite natural that Mrs. Thompson should follow into the police station to try to find out what had happened to her husband. According to the evidence of the police constable in court the next day, he told her to go away. Where could she go? Her husband was in the police station being questioned and the keys of the car were in the possession of the police. She knew her husband's circumstances. Would not my hon. and learned Friend agree that in the circumstances, as the two cases were linked, it would have been far better had the police surgeon been asked to examine Mrs. Thompson? At least there would have been an opportunity of establishing whether at the time of her arrest she was suffering from emotion as a result of her husband's circumstances or from drunkenness. In any case, my hon. and learned Friend stated the position rather differently from the police constable in court.

My hon. and learned Friend stated that Mrs. Thompson was not allowed to see her husband because her behaviour on entering the police station led to her being arrested and charged with another offence. P.C. Woodman stated that Mrs. Thompson came into the police station after her husband. She was very excited. I told her to go away, but she refused … so I arrested her for being drunk and disorderly". Perhaps someone with a little more experience than this officer apparently had, realising the circumstances, might have said to this woman, "Would you wait? Your husband is inside. He will probably be released in a little while. Will you sit down? Just to tell her quite brusquely, as he apparently did according to the evidence given in court, to go away was inviting the woman to become even more excitable and even more emotional.

I felt that my hon. and learned Friend rather laboured the suggestion that Mr. Thompson admittedly had had some drink. He was found to be quite capable of driving his car. It is not an offence to have some drink. I do not want in any way to suggest that the police should let up on people who have too much drink when in charge of cars. On the other hand, can my hon. and learned Friend honestly say that he has never taken drink when he was going to drive a car? If he cannot, I hope that he will look at this in a reasonable light.

In conclusion, I point out again that I believe that the police do an extremely good job in a very efficient way under sometimes very difficult circumstances. When it is publicised that something improper has happened, it is right and proper in the interests of everybody concerned that the facts, if possible, should be elicited in this place.

11.42 p.m.

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

There is a conflict of evidence on some of the material facts in this case. There is a great deal which is not in dispute. The House is not a court of law, and we cannot attempt to try the case here. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) has said some fairly harsh things about the police. What he has said is based upon the version of the facts which he has obtained. I propose to give the facts as reported by the police.

These are the facts. On the night of Easter Saturday at 11 p.m. two City of London police officers were returning to their homes from duty in plain clothes. My hon. Friend has asked me to say whether they were on duty or off duty. That is beside the point, because a constable is always a constable and, whether he is on duty or not, if called upon or if circumstances demand it he must exercise the powers of a constable. They were travelling on a private motor cycle combination, which was the private property of one of them.

As they were passing through Brixton they slowed down for some traffic lights. As they did so, Mr. Thompson's car— the car which later turned out to have Mr. and Mrs. Thompson in it—pulled in ahead of them, having come from their offside. As the car did that, Mr. Thompson called out, you have cut me up Stop at the first policeman."The traffic lights turned green, and the car and the motor cycle moved off.

A little later Mr. Thompson's car swerved in front of the police constable's motor cycle and forced one wheel of the motor cycle combination on to the pavement on the nearside. Mr. Thompson's car then drove on and the two police constables followed. Mr. Thompson's car stopped outside Brixton police station, and the police officers on the motor cycle combination stopped behind it. One of them went up to Mr. Thompson, who had not got out of his car, and explained to him that if he wanted to report the matter to the police he should go into the station and do so. While this was being said, the police officer noticed a very strong smell of alcohol, so strong that, coupled with the driving which he had witnessed, he felt obliged to arrest Mr. Thompson for driving under the influence of drink. Mr. Thompson was, therefore, taken into the police station by the two officers.

In accordance with normal procedure in cases of driving under the influence of drink, the police surgeon was called to examine Mr. Thompson. The police surgeon arrived a little later and formed the opinion that, although Mr. Thompson had been drinking, he was not unfit to be in charge of a car. The inspector in charge of the station, who was of the Metropolitan Police, therefore decided to refuse the charge of driving under the influence and, in accordance with well-established practice when refusing a charge, he apologised to Mr. Thompson, who was allowed to go. A good deal has been said about this apology, and I shall refer to it again later.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Thompson had come into the station, and, in the opinion of police officers there, her behaviour and appearance indicated that she was drunk. She was, according to what I understand from the police, abusive and obstructive. They asked her to leave, but she continued to behave in an obstructive manner. After several warnings, she was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. She was not examined by the police surgeon, for it is not the rule for police surgeons to be called in in ordinary drunk and disorderly cases.

The next day, Mrs. Thompson appeared in court. The case was, as my hon. Friend has said, dismissed by the magistrate, but in doing so the magistrate said: I shall dismiss this case, but it is obvious that your behaviour was such that it naturally led to your being arrested". Much has been made of the fact that the police officer's private motor cycle had a defective rear light. My hon. Friend has asked me particularly to deal with this point. Both City police officers say that at no time did Mr. or Mrs. Thompson, so far as they are aware, point out to them that their light was not working. They did discover this themselves after Mr. Thompson had overtaken them, after the second incident when he had swerved into them. They then found that the light was defective and was flickering on and off.

My hon. Friend has asked me why it was that Mrs. Thompson was at first told to go away from the police station. The reasons are these. When she first came into the station just after 11 p.m., it was noticed by officers in the station that she staggered, that her eyes were glazed, that her speech was loud and slurred, and that she smelt of drink. Her husband was in the charge room awaiting the arrival of the doctor, and it was felt, rightly or wrongly, that her presence there would have interfered with the doctor's examination and the investigation of the charge. Her attitude was hostile and although she was asked to behave, she refused to do so, and she had to be ejected from the station. But because she kept up her pressure and the behaviour I have mentioned, she was arrested. Those were the reasons that she was at first asked to go away. It was not a very great hardship on her because, after all, her husband's car was standing outside the station and she had only to go back to it and wait instead of, as the police felt, making a nuisance of herself at the station.

Having studied this case very carefully and fully, I say that the case against the police cannot possibly be substantiated on either view of the facts.


I have not tried to establish any case against the police. I re-emphasise that. I said that this matter ought to be brought into the open because of the publicity which was against the police; it is right that it should be. I have not tried to establish any case against the police. I must make that quite clear.

Mr. Renton

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and he must forgive me if I gained a completely different impression both from the speech he has just made and from the questions he put at Question Time on two occasions.

The real point in this case, and in other cases like it, is that if Mr. or Mrs. Thompson consider that there was either a malicious prosecution or a wrongful arrest, they can take the matter to court by civil action. They have not done that. Neither have they made any complaint to either of the chief officers of police who might be considered to be concerned, namely, the Commissioner of the City Police and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. There is a well-known, well-established disciplinary procedure for investigating complaints against police officers if those complaints are made to chief officers, who never hesitate to use that procedure when necessary.

I felt that my hon. Friend, although ho. must correct me again if I have misunderstood him, was suggesting that, because the inspector refused the charge against Mr. Thompson, the two City officers were wrong in arresting him. That does not follow. There are many occasions when police constables feel obliged to arrest or report a person because of his behaviour but the superior officer, the officer in charge of the station, decides after carefully considering the matter that the charge should not be pursued.

That does not mean that the officers who report the matter are in the wrong. On the contrary, they may well have had a duty to report the matter and they might be failing in their duty if they did not do so. Nor does the making of an apology indicate any fault on the part of the police.

I am at a loss to understand, even now, my hon. Friend's precise purpose in raising this matter, but I have done my best to give him the facts as they are known to the police and as they have been passed on to me. On those facts, I cannot find that the police have done anything wrong or anything contrary to approved and established practice. It seems to me that the police officers appear to have done their duty. I am sorry that my hon. Friend feels about the case as he does and I am afraid that on this occasion I am unable to express any sympathy with his point of view.

Mr. Burden

My hon. and learned Friend must not get the idea that there is some sort of vendetta on the ground that the action of the police under any circumstances is sacrosanct. If it is felt, as it has been implied in national newspapers, that police officers have behaved incorrectly, I believe it to be in the interests of the police, and of the public, particularly when there is little or no opportunity of testing the case in court, that the facts should be made known.

I have no brief for Mr. Thompson or anybody else who drinks while in charge of a car, but the implication in the Press, which was read by many people, was leading to disquiet. In the circumstances, I am quite happy with the reply which my hon. and learned Friend has given

Mr. Renton

I am obliged to my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Twelve o'clock.