HC Deb 09 March 1962 vol 655 cc860-70

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I wish to raise on this Adjournment Motion a question arising out of the case of Meek and Fleming, and I do so at the request, among others, of a number of senior officers in the Metropolitan Police Force who are deeply concerned about the integrity and reputation of the force. I have already given the Minister notice of the specific questions I intend to put to him, but I must briefly recapitulate the relevant facts.

The present Commissioner, Sir Joseph Simpson, was appointed on 1st September, 1958. In the following month, on 8th October, a certain Mr. Fleming was promoted to the post of chief inspector, he having been selected, the previous April, for promotion to that rank by a selection board over which Sir Joseph presided. Chief Inspector Fleming was put in charge of Cannon Row Police Station.

On the night of 5th November, 1958, Guy Fawkes night, a number of arrests were made in Trafalgar Square, and the arrested persons were taken to Cannon Row police station, charged, and subsequently released. It so happened that Mr. Meek, who is a Press photographer from Fleet Street, with a good record, was in Trafalgar Square that evening taking pictures. He was arrested, on a charge of obstructing the police, at 9.40 p.m., taken to Cannon Row, and kept in a cell until 1.30 a.m. Very considerable violence was caused to him by a number of police officers, including Chief Inspector Fleming.

On 17th December, 1958, Mr. Meek was convicted at the magistrates' court of obstructing the police and fined £5. He had, however, already issued a writ against Fleming for damages for wrongful arrest and personal injury. The case eventually came to trial on 20th October, 1960, but prior to that two important things occurred.

In December, 1959, Fleming had been demoted, or reduced in rank, from chief inspector to station sergeant. This was the result of a disciplinary action by the police arising out of circumstances in which Fleming had been involved in a deliberate deception of a court of law. This fact was not, however, known to Mr. Meek the photographer.

The other relevant fact is that on 18th November, 1959, about the same time, there was a debate in this House arising out of the case of Garrett and Eastmond, with which the Minister will be familiar, and I want to quote two passages from what the Home Secretary said on that occasion. In column 1248 he announced that it was the regular practice for the solicitor for the Metropolitan Police to represent police officers against whom civil proceedings were taken in relation to conduct while on duty. He also said that the present Commissioner is not a man who will tolerate the covering up of any officer who has brought the service into disrepute."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1959, Vol. 613, c. 1254.] Mr. Meek's action came before Mr. Justice Streatfeild, sitting with a jury, on 21st October, 1960. It lasted five days. After an absence of four hours the jury returned a verdict which resulted in Mr. Meek's action being dismissed and judgment being given in favour of Fleming, the defendant. The contest at the trial turned entirely upon the credibility of Mr. Meek, the photographer, on the one hand, and that of Fleming and six other police officers, on the other, as to what had taken place in the hours around midnight at Cannon Row Police Station.

Here, I should observe, in parenthesis, that in recent years, unhappily, there have been a number of cases in which members of the public have had to complain of violence by police officers at police stations. I myself have raised a very serious case in the House. Almost invariably, when charges of this kind are made, the Home Secretary tells us that an inquiry has been held by the police themselves, vindicating the police officers involved. He has often added that anyone who is aggrieved at what takes place in a police station has the same remedy in the civil courts as against any other member of the public.

Mr. Meek pursued his remedy in the courts, and lost, but after the case was over he learnt the facts of which I have just reminded the House, namely, that prior to the trial Mr. Fleming had been demoted from inspector to station sergeant. That fact was deliberately concealed from the judge and jury. Whereas the six police witnesses for Fleming appeared in court in uniform, Fleming appeared in mufti. His appearance in uniform as a police sergeant would have aroused suspicion. Moreover, he was frequently referred to by the judge and by counsel as "Inspector Fleming," and care was taken not to reveal that he had, since assaulting the plaintiff, been demoted for a disciplinary offence involving the deception of another court of law. When he was asked, in cross-examination, "You are a chief inspector, and you have been in the police force since 1938?" he answered, "Yes, that is true." That reply was a lie, and amounted to perjury. These facts are taken from the Weekly Law Reports, 4th August, 1961.

When Mr. Meek and his advisers learnt the true facts they applied for a fresh trial. This was resisted by the police, acting, presumably, on the instructions of the Commissioner. The Court of Appeal, however, in June, 1961, took the unusual course of setting aside the decision of the judge and jury. They did so on the ground that Fleming had deliberately misled the court, and that it would have been an intolerable infraction of the principles of justice to allow him to retain his verdict. A new trial was ordered, but before it was heard the solicitor for the Metropolitan Police agreed to pay Mr. Meek £2,000 damages and indemnify him for all his legal expenses. One may well wonder why that course had not been taken in the first place.

Mr. Meek's honour has, therefore, been vindicated, but that is not the end of the matter. As is well known, Mr. Victor Durand, Q.C., has shouldered responsibility for the conduct of the trial and has paid the penalty. I make no comment whatever on the rights or wrongs of Mr. Durand's conduct, or of any censure that he may have received. I am concerned with the responsibility of the solicitor for the Metropolitan Police, the Commissioner, and the Home Secretary. Fleming could not have attended court in civilian clothes without the express instructions of the Commissioner. It would have been a breach of regulations clearly laid down in the Metropolitan Police Instruction Book for him to have done so.

These Regulations are quite express. Chapter 9, Section 19 (a) provides that: Police attending on duty at any Court"— and the word "any" is underlined— will be correctly dressed in uniform. I am well aware that I may hear that there has been some change in these regulations since this time. Indeed, when I put a Question to the Minister of State on this subject as long ago as 27th April, 1961, and when he told me then that there were no general rules applying to the wearing of uniform in the civil courts, he was in error.

These are the questions I want to ask. Mr. Durand, in accepting liability—and this is quoted at the end of the report of the case in the Weekly Law Reports—said: Neither my learned junior counsel nor my instructing solicitor was responsible for initiating or pursuing that policy, and, indeed, they expressed their disapproval of it. The seriousness of the offence, the seriousness, of course, of the deception of the court, was that very often the liberty of the subject depends upon the veracity of police witnesses in a court of law.

The public have become entitled to expect that police evidence will be honestly and truthfully given, and, as a rule, it is. It is because the liberty of the subject is so often affected by the credibility of police witnesses that it is most important that the highest standards of integrity should be observed by the police, the Commissioner and by the Home Secretary supporting them when they give evidence.

On this occasion, the Court of Appeal has said that there was a wilful conspiracy to deceive and mislead the court. At what stage did Mr. Durand take responsibility for this mischievous course of action? May I observe that the solicitor for the police was, of course, accepting responsibility for the conduct of this defence. The £2,000 which was eventually paid was paid out of public funds. If the solicitor expressly disapproved of this course of conduct, what did he say to the Commissioner? Did the Commissioner approve of it? Did he consult the Home Secretary or ask the Minister whether he approved of police officers, in cases conducted by the solicitor for the police, wilfully and deliberately deceiving the court and perverting the course of justice?

Has the Commissioner made any apology? Will the Minister make some apology now? After all, for whose benefit was this deception practised? It could not have been for Mr. Fleming's benefit, because he was not going to pay in any case. The police funds were going to pay. For whose benefit was it that Mr. Durand, if it were he alone, went to this extraordinary length? There is ground for feeling that the Commissioner knew of this course of conduct all along. He, and he alone, must have instructed Fleming to attend the court in civilian clothes, because if he had done so without authority, then, presumably, there would have been disciplinary instructions taken against him. Can we know whether these instructions were given in writing or verbal? Can we know what the Commissioner said to the solicitor? Can we know whether the Commissioner himself was deceived? Did he know anything about it? Did the Home Secretary know that this was the course of conduct?

I put these questions because, unfortunately, there is a widespread belief that there is a course of policy, of which this case is merely symptomatic, to try and cover up actions of police officers when they are criticised in this way. If there is that course of conduct, then, of course, it is most reprehensible. It is contrary to the best interests of the police themselves as well as of the public, and it is something that ought to be stopped.

I hope that the Minister will not tell us that he is not entirely responsible for what the Commissioner does. If he is not satisfied with the course of conduct pursued in these matters by the Commissioner he can, of course, dismiss the Commissioner or terminate his agreement. It might be that that is the next thing to be done. But the public mind is very uneasy to find that in this case, which is not an isolated case, there has been this deliberate masquerade and a course of conduct which has had the result not merely of deceiving the court but which would have produced injustice if it had not, quite fortuitously, been discovered.

I hope that we shall hear two things. I hope that we shall hear an expression of profound regret by the Minister for what has happened. I do not think that Mr. Durand should shoulder all the responsibility. There ought to be a full, independent inquiry as to who else in the Commissioner's Department, and whether the Commissioner himself, knew about what was being done and approved it. Obviously, the solicitor for the police should have stopped it. We know that he disapproved.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is not incumbent on any solicitor or clerk, let alone the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, to concur in a course of conduct which he knows to be dishonourable, which is what happened here. I suggest that at the very least the whole of the papers in this case, including instructions sent to counsel, notes of any conferences with counsel and any inter-office notes in the Commissioner's office, be sent to the Royal Commission now inquiring into the conduct and affairs of the police, and the relations between police and public generally, so that there may be a full investigation.

May I conclude as I began, by saying that I, as much as anybody—and certainly, may I assure him, as much as the Minister—have at heart the well-being and integrity of the Metropolitan Police. I raise this matter today in this way because a great many responsible senior officers in that force are very distressed that a course of conduct as exemplified so blatantly in this case is tolerated by the Commissioner. It redounds to the discredit of the force. Most respectable and respected senior officers are anxious to maintain and improve the moral standing of the force and to do everything to enhance the reputation of the police with the public.

4.16 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Renton)

I will deal with the last point first. I should have thought that if senior responsible officers felt anxious on this point, their right course would be to see the Commissioner, or, if necessary, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I have no evidence that they have done or have asked to do either of those things.

The case which is the subject of our debate is one which has roused considerable public interest and has had unforeseen repercussions outside the police service. Today we are concerned only with those aspects which affect the Metropolitan Police. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) for giving me some notice of the points he intended to raise. The hon. Gentleman mentioned two points in particular, the wearing of plain clothes and the settlement of the action, and he asked for the views of my right hon. Friend about them which I will give. The hon. Gentleman has asked for information today on a number of other points on which, I must confess, I should have preferred to have some further warning. However, we will see how far we can go.

I hope I shall be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman at any rate on the two points he raised. I do not dispute the principal facts which he gave by way of explanation of what he proposed to complain about. But I think it would be as well if for the record, and in order to get the various major events in this matter into their true time perspective, I just gave a short chronological sequence which only partly overlaps what the hon. Gentleman has given.

As he said, the case arose from an incident in Trafalgar Square on Guy Fawkes night, 1958. Mr. Meek, a Press photographer, was taking photographs in the Square and was arrested by Fleming who was then a Chief Inspector. Meek was charged with obstructing Fleming in the execution of his duty and with causing wilful damage to Fleming's raincoat. On 17th December, 1958, Meek was convicted at Bow Street Magistrates' Court on a charge of obstruction. The charge of causing wilful damage was dismissed. Immediately after the hearing of the case Fleming was served with a writ alleging assault and battery, trespass and false imprisonment. The hearing of this action began on 17th October, 1960, and ended on 21st October with a verdict for the defendant. On 14th December a notice of appeal and a notice of application to adduce fresh evidence was served. The case was heard by the Court of Appeal in June, 1961, when all the grounds of appeal were dismissed except one, which read as follows: That at the trial the rank and status of the Defendant was by implication represented to be that of Chief Inspector, when in fact between the date of the matter complained of in the action and the date of the trial he had been reduced to the rank of Station Sergeant, by reason of misconduct, and that the credit of the parties was a crucial issue at the trial. The Court of Appeal upheld the appeal on this ground, ordered a new trial and ordered that the costs of the appeal and the costs of the first trial be paid by the defendant. That order for costs, incidentally, is somewhat material to the ultimate terms of settlement.

The case was finally settled out of court in December, 1961. The disciplinary proceedings as a result of which Fleming was reduced in rank had been in December, 1959, and were not in any way connected with the events which led to the arrest and conviction of Meek.

The hon. Member has laid stress on the fact that Fleming appeared in court in plain clothes when the case was heard in October, 1960. He suggested that this was part of a deliberate policy of concealing from the defence that Fleming had in the meantime been reduced in rank as a result of disciplinary proceedings. I am advised by the Commissioner that there were no standing instructions governing the appearance in civil courts of police officers at that time. There certainly have been cases in which defendants have appeared in civil courts in uniform. Nevertheless it had long been the practice—recollection so far as I have been able to find goes back to the mists of time—for a Metropolitan Police officer who appeared in court as defendant in a civil case to wear plain clothes.

In the present case, the concurrence of Fleming's leading counsel was obtained to the course taken. The hon. Member asked me whether the Home Secretary now approves of the decision that Fleming should wear plain clothes. My right hon. Friend certainly sees no reason to dissent from the view that as a general rule officers who are appearing in civil cases as defendants should wear plain clothes. After all, proceedings are then being taken against them as ordinary citizens. Needless to say, however, my right hon. Friend would not approve of any attempt to deceive a court. As I propose to show, in the present case, as far as the Metropolitan Police are concerned, there was no question of deliberately concealing Fleming's reduction in rank for it was thought at the time that the question of the clothes he should wear was irrelevant to the question of the evidence to be given to the court.

This is a matter which has been gone into in great detail in several places and I am not going over it all again. The hon. Member, however, forces me to go into the question of Mr. Durand's part in this. I do so only with reluctance and only because one has to defend the action of the Metropolitan Police. I shall quote fairly fully the statement he made. It has been partly quoted by the hon. Member and I am grateful to him, for I think that he has been very candid about it. The statement which leading counsel for Fleming made in June, 1961 after judgment had been given on the appeal, was as follows: The decision not to disclose the Defendant's change of status was mine, and mine alone. Having come to the conclusion that this course was justified I determined and dictated this policy throughout. Neither Junior Counsel nor my instructing Solicitors were responsible for initiating or pursuing that policy. In fact they expressed their disapproval. The hon. Member kindly gave notice that he would suggest that the case was quickly settled out of court once the full facts had come out on appeal. He did not stress that so much today, but it is an inference that some explanation is called for from me. The question whether to settle in this case was naturally one for full and anxious consideration, and there was no question of rushing a decision. The appeal was heard in June but a settlement was not reached until some six months later. After the appeal had been heard in June, fresh counsel were briefed and the case was considered with them.

Public money is involved in cases of this kind and a settlement has to be approved by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as police authority for the Metropolitan Police. Before authorising the payment made, my right hon. Friend was satisfied that the course taken had been determined on the best possible legal advice. The facts simply do not support any suggestion that the case was settled out of court in order to hush it up. It had already been given ample publicity through the hearing of Meek's successful appeal and through the proceedings elsewhere which followed the judgment. Indeed, there can have been few cases of this kind which had received more publicity.

The question which first the Commissioner and then my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had to consider was whether in all the circumstances any public interest would be served by deciding not to attempt to reach a settlement, notwithstanding the advice received, but instead to go through court proceedings yet again. There are no grounds at all for any suggestion that in cases in which civil proceedings are taken against a police officer in respect of an act committed on duty, the general practice of the Metropolitan Police is to settle out of court rather than to face court proceedings with the attendant publicity. Each case is considered on its merits. If there is a reasonable defence, the case is defended. If, on the facts, it appears to be indefensible, it would be wrong in the interests of the plaintiff, of the defendant and of the public purse not to seek a settlement.

Although I have not had an opportunity to check the point, the hon. Member was not quite correct in quoting the Court of Appeal as having referred to a conspiracy in this matter. The action of leading counsel concerned, for which he had apologised to the court, was mentioned, but there was no suggestion that others had conspired in this way, and I think that I ought to put that straight for the record.

The hon. Member asked for whose benefit was deception practised. Quite candidly, in view of the full avowal which leading counsel made in this case, I do not think that either the Commissioner or my right hon. Friend is called upon to answer a question like that. I do not feel it incumbent upon me to do so.

Mr. Fletcher

Did the solicitor consult the Commissioner? Did the Commissioner know about it or was he deceived, too?

Mr. Renton

I cannot, without notice, answer detailed questions as to what passed between the solicitor and the Commissioner. The Commissioner naturally engages a fully-qualified solicitor in whom he has every confidence. Mr. Durand has made it quite clear—

The Question having been proposed after Four 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 twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.