HC Deb 19 December 1963 vol 686 cc1458-61
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I will, with your permission, Sir, and that of the House, make a statement about the case of Mr. Herman Woolf.

On the instructions of the Commissioner of Police a thorough investigation was carried out by Detective-Superintendent Axon, whose report I have studied with great care, together with some further information which I requested.

There have been two grounds of concern about this case.

The first was that, although Mrs. Woolf had reported to the police that her husband was missing, she received no information about him until after his death. This occurred through a failure of co-ordination within the Metropolitan Police organisation for which the Commissioner has already expressed his deep regret. The procedure for dealing with inquiries about missing persons has been reviewed, to safeguard against any similar failure in future.

The second ground of concern was whether Mr. Woolf, after being knocked down by a car, might have received any further injuries during the time when he was at West End Central Police Station. For my part, I would have welcomed the holding of a fresh inquest at which any such allegations could have been tested; and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General gave his authority for an application for a fresh inquest to be made to the High Court.

On 13th November the court, to which all the information in the hands of the police was made available, refused the application. In delivering judgment, the Lord Chief Justice said that the evidence before the court fell far short of enabling the court to say that there was any real risk that justice was not done at the inquest.

From my own study of Detective-Superintendent Axon's report and of the statements which he took from every available witness, I am in much doubt whether further inquiry will throw any fresh light on what happened. But in the circumstances of this case, with its tragic end, I am anxious that no possible point of doubt should remain unresolved, if further inquiry can resolve it.

I have, therefore, decided to set up an inquiry into the actions of the Metropolitan Police in relation to the case of Mr. Herman Woolf, from the time of the road accident in which he was involved on 10th November, 1962, until the time of his death in the Atkinson Morley Hospital on 23rd November 1962.

Mr. Norman Skelhorn, Q.C., the Recorder of Portsmouth, has agreed to hold the inquiry and the Secretary will be Mr. W. Middle mass. Any communication about it should be addressed to him at the Home Office. I shall publish Mr. Skelhorn's report.

Miss Bacon

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his decision to hold an inquiry will be generally welcomed in view of the very grave public anxiety which there has been about this case? Is he further aware that this anxiety was not allayed by the decision of the court not to hold another inquest and that, in fact, the anxiety was heightened by subsequent events at the West End Central Police Station? Could the right hon. Gentleman say whether or not Mr. Skelhorn will have all the power that he needs with respect to witnesses and the giving of evidence?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the welcome she has given to my decision, which I think is the right one. I think that she will be aware that until the Police Bill, which is now being considered in Standing Committee, becomes law there is no statutory power to compel the attendance of witnesses at an inquiry of this sort. I think that that is a shortcoming and that is why I introduced the proposal in the Bill, but I feel quite sure that all those who can throw light on the matter will be willing to do so.

So far as the police are concerned, I can give an undertaking that they will appear and give evidence.

Mr. Fletcher

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that Mrs. Woolf will be able to be represented by counsel, if she so desires, at the inquiry and that her representative will be able to cross-examine any witnesses who give evidence?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the question of legal representation will be one for Mr. Skelhorn, but I have no doubt at all that he will agree to Mrs. Woolf being represented. I think that she should be.

Mr. Swingler

May I thank the Home Secretary for responding to the request for an independent inquiry in the Woolf case? May I also ask him whether he will direct the attention of Mr. Skelhorn to the question of how it was that an injured man was held in custody and by hospital authorities for a period of nearly a fortnight without any action being taken to contact relatives or the next of kin?

Quite apart from the administrative failure, for which an apology has been issued, in the Missing Persons Bureau, will the right hon. Gentleman pay attention to the fact that no action was taken to contact the next of kin and see that the terms of reference of the inquiry are wide enough not only to investigate the police action, but also the action of the hospital authorities—the people at St. George's and at the Atkinson Morley?

Mr. Brooke

It is for Mr. Skelhorn, who is conducting the public inquiry, to say what is relevant or not. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing in the terms of reference to exclude medical evidence of relevance to the inquiry. I hope that the House will agree that I should not respond to the hon. Gentleman's request and give directions to Mr. Skelhorn. It is far better, when I have taken this decision, that Mr. Skelhorn should exercise his own discretion.

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