HC Deb 09 July 1964 vol 698 cc723-33

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

8.30 p.m.

Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon)

I welcome the opportunity of raising on the Adjournment this evening the practice of the Metropolitan Police in supplying information and fingerprints regarding convicted persons. While I want to raise the general question, I am led to do so by a particular constituency case which was recently brought to my notice, and necessarily I shall have a good deal to say about that case in order to illustrate how unsatisfactorily, as it appears to me, existing arrangements in this matter are. I do not want to mention the name and address of my constituent as, in the circumstances of the case, it will be clear to the House as I develop my argument that it would be unfair to the individual that I should do so. But I have supplied my hon. Friend with all the particulars about the case. He knows the name of the individual to whose case I am referring, and I think that is sufficient for the purpose of this debate.

The case which I am particularly raising relates to a constituent of mine, or perhaps I should say a former constituent of mine, because about two years ago he removed out of Wimbledon and emigrated to Australia. But prior to his removal he had lived in Wimbledon for about 29 years. I do not think that I can tell his story better than by reading in a slightly abbreviated form a letter which he has written to me from Australia. This is what my constituent writes: Having been a resident of Wimbledon for the past 29 years, and also run a business there, I feel that I have been the victim of a gross injustice, and should like your comments. About two years ago I migrated with my wife and son to Australia. Having had my capital considerably reduced in various ways, I applied for many jobs, eventually being promised a situation in an estate agent's office, subject to my applying to the New South Wales Police for permission to work there. You can imagine my surprise and disgust when a police officer called at my home last week and produced a photostat copy of my fingerprints and details of an offence I committed in England in 1927. All this had been supplied to him by the Records Depart- ment of Scotland Yard. He also informed me that I would not be allowed to take the job as an estate agent's salesman. As I have committed no crime in Australia and have run a business in Wimbledon for the past 29 years, I cannot see why the British police should take the trouble to chase me around the world with details of something that I did as a young man over 37 years ago. If it is any satisfaction to Scotland Yard, they have succeeded in preventing a British subject from obtaining employment. As you probably know, there are many thousands of Poles, Dutch and Yugoslavs and other Europeans against whom no records are available. Therefore this is discriminating against a British subject with the co-operation of the British Government. In conclusion, I was under the impression that, unless I committed a further offence, my previous misdemeanours would not be brought against me for any reason. If you wish to verify the truth of my statement you may check with New Scotland Yard and the New South Wales Police at the Court of Petty Sessions, Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales. I would like to add that, following the police sergeant's call upon me, I wrote to the police, as I was so annoyed, and withdrew my application, although I had already been told I could not take the position. I am tempted to say, what a tragic and shocking case of man's inhumanity to man.

It appears that in New South Wales, and it may be in other parts of Australia as well, in order to be employed in an estate agency business a man or woman needs a licence from the police authority, and it was in this connection that this tragic experience of my constituent arose. I hold the view very definitely, and I think that this will be shared by other hon. Members and the public, that when once a man has paid the penalty of his wrong-doing—and that penalty may properly be a severe one if the offence is a serious one—the slate should be wiped clean and he should not be interfered with in seeking to resume his life and to undertake in future an honest and law-abiding career.

I anticipate from the correspondence which I have had on this matter that, among possibly others, there are three points which will be made in defence of what Scotland Yard did in this case. As I shall have no further opportunity of speaking, perhaps I may briefly mention those three matters and make my comments upon them. First, I think that it may be said that the outrageous treatment of my constituent is the responsibility and should be laid at the door of the New South Wales police and that it cannot be properly laid at the door of the Metropolitan Police in London.

We in this House, of course, have no control over the police in New South Wales, although I am bound to say that on such information as we have about this case I consider that they have behaved in this matter with a singular disregard for the position of my constituent, and in a way which was bound to involve him in the utmost ignominy and embarrassment in the new country in which he has taken up his residence. But it is not sufficient to say that the fault in this case lies at the door of the New South Wales police, because they could not have taken the action that they did had they not been supplied with the information by New Scotland Yard, and it is the fact of that information having been supplied that I complain of so strongly this evening.

The second point which, I think, may be made is that when my constituent was refused an estate agent's licence for the reason I have mentioned that was not necessarily the end of the matter because, under the law of New South Wales, he had a right of appeal to a magistrate. This right of appeal he did not exercise. It was, of course, a matter for his own judgment and decision, and I have some sympathy with him in not pursuing the matter further. I have no evidence as to whether, if he had appealed, the appeal would have been heard in a public court in which the matter would have been gone into in public, possibly being reported in the newspapers in the town in which he was living. If this were so, one could very well understand his reluctance to appeal and give further publicity to the circumstances of his conviction by the British courts. One can sympathise with him in dropping the matter at that stage.

The third point which may be made is that this information was, so I understand, supplied by New Scotland Yard to the New South Wales police in pursuance of certain international arrangements which exist between the police in this country and police forces in many other parts of the world and according to which there is an agreement that information of this kind shall be exchanged. If, under such an agreement, New Scotland Yard was under an obligation, legal or moral, to supply the infor- mation, then, I agree, New Scotland Yard would have been in difficulty in withholding it. But, if this be the case, I submit that the form of the present arrangement among police forces in different parts of the world is unsatisfactory in imposing that kind of obligation about the supply of information and such agreements should be revised and modified.

I am raising this matter tonight not because anything can be done at this stage to cure the harm which has been done to my constituent in his desire to live at peace and in honour in a new country and to obtain employment there, but because I am most anxious that something should be done by my hon. Friend at the Home Office to ensure that other cases of this kind do not arise in the future and that other citizens of this country elsewhere in the world do not run the risk of receiving similar treatment.

Let me briefly summarise the position of my constituent in this matter. It is not disputed that, 37 years ago, he was in trouble with the police. I understand that it may be said that he was guilty at that time of several offences, and I am willing to believe that those offences may have been serious. I understand that my constituent does not suggest that he was improperly convicted, and I do not think that he makes any complaint about the sentence imposed upon him. But what he does say—and he has my complete sympathy and support in it—is that this all happened when he was a young man, 37 years ago, and that, having paid the penalty which the law imposed upon him for his wrongdoing as a young man, he has for 37 years lived an honourable life.

He has carried on business of his own, a business which, I feel quite certain, was conducted satisfactorily and honestly. It really is too bad that, 37 years later, he should be put in the position of having all this raked up against him, and that another country on the other side of the world should have his fingerprints produced and the particulars of his conviction disclosed to the police who can have no possible interest in what happened so long before It really means that however long a convicted man may live, and however far away from the scene of his crime may go, he can never escape from the possibility of the facts of his offence being made known.

It is almost impossible to imagine a case in which the justification for supplying the information would be more inadequate than in this case. In point of time, 37 years have elapsed since the conviction of this unfortunate man. In point of distance, he has gone as far away from this country as he can, and is now resident thousands of miles away, in Australia—on the other side of the world. But, he having gone straight for 37 years, the record of a youthful offence is dragged up against him at the instance of the police at New Scotland Yard and he is deprived of the opportunity of obtaining employment, with possibly disastrous consequences to himself and to his family.

I just cannot believe that the repercussions of this matter were in any way thought out by the person at New Scotland Yard who supplied this information. Anyone with any degree of humanity and fellow feeling at all would have realised how tragically unfair it would be in those circumstances to supply information to the police in Australia.

As I say, I am not concerned so much about this case, because the harm in this case is now past curing, but I am concerned that this should not happen again in other cases. I have always denied the truth of the charge sometimes brought against the police by persons who have been convicted that the police will never give them a chance of living an honest life after they have once been convicted and sent to prison. I should not like to think that this charge is true, but a case like this certainly lends strength to the feeling on the part of convicted people that they do not get fair treatment when they have paid the penalty of their wrongdoing; but that, however long they may live and however far away they may go, there is always the risk of a youthful offence being dragged out against them to their detriment. I hope that my hon. Friend may be able to give an assurance that he will look into the matter, and that steps will be taken to see that such a case as this will never occur again.

8.48 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) has raised a question of general concern, and has focussed his remarks particularly on a case in which it is impossible not to have some degree of sympathy. He has outlined the facts put before him by his former constituent, and I know that he will not think that I am in any way seeking to cast doubt on any of the statements made in good faith by his former constituent if I take the opportunity of outlining the case as we see it in London. From that point of view, the facts are as follows.

The story begins as far as we are concerned in November, 1963, when a letter was received at the Criminal Record Office at New Scotland Yard from New South Wales police asking for information about a man who had applied for registration there as a real estate salesman and asking whether anything of an adverse nature was known against him. It is not in dispute that this was my hon. Friend's former constituent, but I will follow my hon. Friend's excellent example of mentioning no names.

We have ascertained that applications for registration as estate agents in Australia are governed by the Auctioneers, Stock and Station Real Estate and Business Agents Acts, 1941 to 1957, which were introduced for the purpose of preventing the exploitation of persons desiring to purchase land.

The Criminal Record Office search disclosed certain convictions—more than one—in 1927 resulting, in one case, in nine months' imprisonment. In accordance with the normal procedure, this information was passed to the New South Wales police who, we are told on the authority of my hon. Friend, then told the applicant that his criminal record would result in the failure of his application for a licence. It appears then that the man forthwith withdrew his application without waiting for the decision of the licensing authority, although, as my hon. Friend has fairly recognised, he was under no obligation to do that.

It may help in considering the circumstances of the case if I begin by outlining the general practice of the Metropolitan Police on the disclosure of information, including fingerprints, to other police forces. At this point, I should, perhaps, emphasise that all I am about to say applies only to the interchange of information on a police-to-police basis, because that is the context in which my hon. Friend has raised the subject.

There is, first, the question of the degree of freedom with which information is exchanged. It is a fundamental principle of police procedure that information should be freely available between police forces, provided, of course, that a normal degree of mutual confidence exists between them. It is accepted by everyone concerned that the information so exchanged is required in connection with law enforcement and the prevention and detection of crime and that the freedom of such exchanges is essential to enable each police force to obtain reciprocal benefits from the others. In other words, the essence of the practice is mutual trust, which must exist between police forces if they are to secure one another's co-operation in carrying out their own jobs.

There is, therefore, no general restriction on the kind of information that may be exchanged between one police force and another, whether it be a home or an overseas force and whether or not it is a member of Interpol. The information exchanged can include criminal records as well as information about the results of criminal inquiries. Nor, when information about a man's ciriminal record is sought, is this provided on a selective basis. At least, that is to say, no distinction is made between major and minor crimes or between recent and old ones. This is an aspect of the existing system which my hon. Friend criticised.

It has, however, always been considered—and I think that this is right—that where information is exchanged between police forces on a basis of mutual trust, it is not for the police who provide the information to edit it before passing it on. It is properly a matter for the receiving force to decide what is relevant and what is not and how much weight to attach to any part of the record. I do not mean to suggest that the Commissioner pays no regard to the possible use to which information so provided might be put or that there may not be circumstances in which a request might be refused or might be met only partially.

For example, it is one of the aims of Interpol to promote the widest possible mutual assistance between criminal police within the limits of the laws existing in the different countries, but only so long as this does not involve intervention in matters of a political, military, religious or racial character. As, however, my hon. Friend will recognise, these considerations do not arise in the present case, which concerns a matter of law enforcement.

The only circumstances in which old or trivial past convictions may become expunged from the record is in the weeding process which is carried out periodically within the Metropolitan Police records. I believe that my hon. Friend and the House will bear with me if I refrain from disclosing in detail the circumstances in which that process of weeding is carried out. But I can assure the House that the convictions in the case which my hon. Friend raised this evening did not fall within any of the categories subject to the weeding procedure which, generally speaking, relates only to minor offences.

My hon. Friend also raised the question whether it is fair that people with criminal records emigrating from this country should be more vulnerable than immigrants who go to Australia from other countries where such records are, for one reason or another, not available. It seems to me that questions of this kind cannot be primarily matters for the country which provides the information. They must be primarily a matter for the country which initiates the inquiry. In our own country the police can only be expected to observe the normal procedures which they have here.

The essence of the criticism in the case raised tonight is twofold—first, that the Metropolitan Police should not have passed on information about convictions which occurred so long ago, and secondly, that the New South Wales police ought not to have regarded those convictions as justifying an objection to the grant of a licence nor ought they to have told the man concerned that such an objection would be lodged.

The first point concerns the length of time since the convictions occurred. It is certainly true that the offences were committed a long time ago but, as I have said, it is the generally accepted practice that it is not for the police force which provides the information to decide what is likely to be relevant and what is not. The second point is one which touches on New South Wales legislation and the action of the New South Wales police. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that, however strongly he may feel on this matter in his constituent's interest, neither of these is a subject for which I have responsibility or indeed on which it would be proper for me to comment, except to say this: I am informed that the New South Wales police have a statutory duty to inquire into and to report upon the character of an applicant for a licence as a real estate agent in New South Wales.

Opinions may reasonably differ on the question what weight should be attached to any particular conviction in any particular case. But I must remind the House that the decision whether to grant a licence did not rest with the police and that according to my hon. Friend's constituent's own account, the man in question withdrew his application without waiting for the decision of the licensing authority or exercising his right of appeal.

My hon. Friend suggested, finally, that safeguards ought to be introduced to prevent such circumstances as arose in this case from occurring again. I hope that I have said enough to show that in providing the information in question the Metropolitan Police were acting properly in response to a legitimate request from an overseas police force. Nor for that matter, since the person concerned withdrew his application, have we any evidence one way or another, as my hon. Friend conceded, whether the disclosure of this information would or would not have resulted in his being prevented from setting up as an estate agent. In those circumstances, I could not accept that there was any abuse of the normal police-to-police procedure such as would justify an attempt to impose restrictions on the free exchange of information between police forces. But I should add that if any police force were found consistently to be using information that came on a police-to-police basis in a manner or for purposes which the force providing the information considered improper, I have no doubt that the force which had been providing the information would consider very carefully indeed how far in future it ought to continue to meet such requests.

May I say that I agree that my hon. Friend has undoubtedly raised a problem of public importance, and he has presented it very persuasively from the point of view of the man concerned. I would only wish in conclusion to try to put the same problem from the point of view of the police. It seems unquestionably desirable that police forces should exchange information about criminal records provided that they have mutual confidence in each other. No one will dispute the propriety of such a relation between the Metropolitan Police and the State police of one of our most respected fellow members of the Commonwealth. Nor will anyone, I think, dispute that the Metropolitan Police must maintain adequate records of criminal activities even going back 40 years, since it is perfectly possible that these might be required by the courts of our own country.

What then has happened in this case? The New South Wales police made a perfectly proper inquiry which they were indeed obliged to make under their own law. It would have been quite wrong for the Metropolitan Police either to deny that they had that record of the man in question, which would have been a lie, or to attempt to conceal the character of the record. To have refused to answer the inquiry in these circumstances or to have answered it in deliberately evasive terms would have provoked suspicions at least as damaging as the truth itself. Under the present system the Metropolitan Police clearly had no alternative but to reply as they did.

My hon. Friend's criticisms can, therefore, only legitimately be directed either at the system itself or at the use made of the information by the New South Wales police, and he has, in fact, done both these things. So far as the system is concerned, it seems to me as a general proposition, as I have said, that it is indispensable, and I certainly cannot imagine that anyone concerned with law and order would wish to see it abolished or even to see it selectively applied to the detriment of our colleagues in Australia.

So far as concerns the use in New South Wales of the information made available, I must repeat that it would be improper for me to comment on the conduct of the police in a country which, without understatement, I can describe as friendly, law-abiding and universally respected. But I should remind my hon. Friend again that it was for the court to decide in the last resort what weight to attach to the applicant's record and that his constituent did not, in fact, apparently wait to hear what the court would decide.

I hope I have said enough to make it clear that I am conscious that there is a real dilemma here. The particular case naturally commands sympathy, but I cannot accept that any impropriety was committed or that the Metropolitan Police are in any way open to criticism over what occurred.