HC Deb 26 June 1964 vol 697 cc896-908

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

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Donald Chapman (Birmingham, Northfield)

In these days of large nations, large issues and large problems, it is a good thing that the British Parliament can still spend at least a little time on the case of an individual man in a far-off island dependency in the Caribbean. Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke is a well-known figure in the island of St. Lucia. He is a former headmaster. He has been very active in youth and social work, he is a former public servant of some standing in the island and he was at one time an honorary A.D.C. to Lord Hailes, when he was the Governor-General of the West Indies Federation. In 1957 Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke was appointed Superintendent of Prisons in St. Lucia, and at the same time he undertook what I believe was an honorary appointment as staff officer of the special reserve police.

The facts of the awkward period of 1961–62 in the history of St. Lucia police force are not disputed. In 1961–62 there were police troubles in St. Lucia. There was dissatisfaction among the local constables and corporals—dissatisfaction over white officers, over lodging allowances and dissatisfaction with the then Chief of Police, Mr. McGoun. In September, 1961, a commission under Mr. Justice Chenery investigated the causes of this dissatisfaction. Before this report from Mr. Justice Chenery was received, there was what amounted to a strike by sections of the police force, when Mr. McGoun, in advance of this report, began to resume duties. As a result of this strike a further commission of inquiry was held under Mr. Justice Hallinan, and this Hallinan Commission reported on this insubordination which took place in November, 1961. The Commission firmly incriminated one or two members of the force, such as Inspector Foster, Corporal Spooner and one or two others. This was the history of a difficult period in the St. Lucia police force, with two commissions of investigation.

We then move to March, 1962. In March, 1962, a new Chief of Police, Mr. Cannon, held a court of inquiry into the activities of Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke. He had claimed that following the Hallinan Inquiry he had received evidence that Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke had been active in the events which led to the police insubordination and the strike. As a result of this inquiry, Mr. Cannon, the new Chief of Police, wrote to the island administrator, who is a representative of the Crown, and recommended that Mr. Yorke be dismissed from the public service.

One must be clear about what happened at this inquiry by Mr. Cannon, because it is crucial. This was an inquiry held in the absence of Mr. Yorke. He was not at that time called to give any evidence, and the whole of that inquiry turned on evidence given by people convicted by the Hallinan inquiry, namely, Corporal Spooner, who was the main person concerned, who turned informant, if one likes, on Mr. Yorke, and incriminated him. Mr. Yorke was informed of these charges that he had been active in this insubordination. He protested his innocence, and another commission of inquiry was started, again under Mr. Justice Chenery. This was specifically to inquire into the allegations against Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke.

I ask hon. Members to note, before I go any further, that before this inquiry started Mr. Yorke had already resigned from the Special Police Reserve. He felt that he could not in the circumstances carry on. But this did not affect his position as Superintendent of Prisons, which is an entirely separate department.

As a result of the Chenery second inquiry, Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke was summarily dismissed from the public service as a whole—not from his position in the Special Police Reserve, from which he had resigned, but even from his post as Superintendent of Prisons, which had nothing to do with the police and was nothing to do with all the subjects which had been inquired into by the three Commissions. Indeed, his performance as Superintendent of Prisons was at no time in question.

What in this history is my complaint? I hope to be able to show that in the way that Mr. Yorke was dealt with by the Administrator there was vindictive-ness by the Administrator and by the Colonial Office; there was a certain amount of viciousness; there was, as I shall show, certainly administrative failure; there was certainly some pettiness and spite in the way that Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke and his family were dealt with. There was an obvious intention to humiliate Mr. Yorke and his family before the local community, even before his guilt was proved, as I shall show, and even before his trial by the second Chenery Commission had started. There is, finally, a grave doubt, in my view, that he was guilty. Indeed, I go so far as to say that there is left some feeling that there might well have been grave injustice for this public servant in St. Lucia, and I feel that the way in which the whole matter was handled by the Administrator and the Colonial Office fell far below the standards to be expected of British administration in the Colonies.

I come to my complaints in detail. "This is where I want to examine whether it is possible that Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke was not guilty. The findings of the Chenery second inquiry were never published. The guilt of this man was established by a private inquiry, the findings of which have never seen the light of day. I want to know if the Under-Secretary can tell us what was in the findings. If he still refuses to publish them, at least in fairness to this man the contents of the report should be summarised, and we should know why the Colonial Office was so certain that Mr. Yorke was guilty.

I should also like to know why the Chenery Report was not published, when the Hallinan Report, an exactly similar report, was. True, the Hallinan Commission had been set up to inquire into the particular disturbances, but it is also true that it firmly turned out to be a castigation person by person of individual officers and a direct attempt to decide whether they were guilty. Indeed, on page 30 of the Hallinan Report there are these words: We have honestly concluded on the evidence before us that these are the persons who are most to blame for the indiscipline of the force "— "these" being Inspector Foster, Corporal Spooner, and the others. This Commission established the guilt or otherwise of these men. Why were not the findings of an exactly similar commission inquiring into Mr. Yorke's case published? That was an inquiry to find out whether he was guilty of taking part in these disturbances and aiding and abetting the officers who were proved guilty.

Secondly, there is further doubt as to whether he was guilty. I ask the House to reflect on the fact that only two out of the five charges against Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke were found proved by Mr. Justice Chenery in his second inquiry. Strangely enough, it is the other three charges, which Mr. Justice Chenery did not find proved, which are the crucial ones. Charge No. 2 was that Mr. Yorke had, for example, kept in his own house a list, what was called "The Black Book of complaints" by two policemen in St. Lucia against their police chief. This was a very detailed and important piece of evidence, but eventually he was acquitted of that charge.

He was also acquitted on count No. 3; of encouraging a public march. That was a part of the allegation of indiscipline. On count No. 4, which concerned making a statement to subordinate ranks of the St. Lucia Police Force calculated to discredit officers of the police force, he was acquitted. On only two, vague and general counts, was Mr. Yorke found guilty. One was a charge—charge No. 1—that he consorted with the people who had been incriminated by the Hallinan inquiry to the prejudice of discipline in that force. I do not wish to belittle the importance of that, but that charge is not as detailed and important as the other three, of which he was acquitted. Indeed, he had to consort with these people because he was a member with them of certain committees responsible for running the welfare of the police force.

The other charge of which he was found guilty—charge No. 5—was that he had actively encouraged certain members of the St. Lucia Police Force to be disloyal. In other words, Mr. Justice Chenery seems to have been left with the decision of saying, "I cannot find anything very detailed against this man, so I dismiss all the detailed charges—charges 2, 3 and 4—and I am left with the rather minor charges, Nos. 1 and 5". In the absence of the publication of the Report I am in some doubt as to whether it was finally possible really to prove Mr. Yorke's guilt.

There are two other points I wish to put before the House in considering whether this man was guilty. First, the evidence on which he was found guilty was evidence of a convicted man, Spooner, and Spooner's evidence, on which the police relied for convicting Yorke, cannot be regarded as the very best of evidence. Secondly, there was a rumour, which should be denied, to the effect that Spooner had, so to speak, turned Queen's Evidence and had incriminated Yorke on the promise that he would be more likely to be dealt with leniently and get his gratuity, despite being convicted by the Hallinan inquiry.

On all these counts, one is left in some doubt as to whether, in fact, Mr. Yorke was guilty. This brings me to my final point; even if the Under-Secretary can satisfy me that Mr. Yorke was guilty, we are left with the question, was he properly dealt with? Was there not a great deal of viciousness, vindictiveness and pettiness in the way he was treated? I give eight reasons why I consider he was badly dealt with. The first is that Yorke was tried twice for the same offence. The Hallinan Commission clearly said that there might have been other people involved in the insubordination, but it had no evidence about that. Even more important is a letter which I received from the Under-Secretary's hon. Friend, dated 2nd March, 1964, in which it is stated: Although it was strongly suspected, no "direct evidence of Yorke's participation in these activities was disclosed at the Commission of Enquiry. In other words, it was clearly intended by the administrator and the Colonial Office that Mr. Yorke should be one of the people investigated at the Hallinan inquiry. They suspected that there was evidence, but there was no direct evidence, against him to be found and, in that sense, he was acquitted because they found nothing against him.

Secondly, as I have said, he was dismissed on three of the five charges against him. Thirdly, consider the question of whether he was dealt with properly in regard to the count concerning the tenancy of his house. He was thrown out of his house at nine days' notice before the Commission of Inquiry into his action began to sit. His guilt was presumed. He was told to get out to make way for a new superintendent of prisons even before Mr. Justice Chenery had begun his inquiries. That was a humiliation to him and his family, and it was vindictive and absolutely disgraceful.

Fourthly, a month later, uniformed police officers turned up at his house with a search warrant to find—what? It was to find his clothing as a reserve policeman. They searched his house to find a cap, a beret and hosetops—all the power of the police and an official search to do that. It was, again, a deliberate attempt to humiliate him.

I come now to administrative incompetence. It turned out that Mr. Fitzgerald Yorke was never told, until someone jogged the Administrator's arm, of the counts on which he had been found guilty and those on which he had been found innocent. It seems that it was only after the Colonial Office had reprimanded the Administrator that he wrote an apologetic letter to Mr. Yorke and said that he should have told him that he had been acquitted on three counts and convicted on two.

The Public Service Commission of St. Lucia recommended that Mr. Yorke be sacked, but did the Commission see Mr. Justice Chenery's full report? My evidence is that all it had was a letter summarising that report, and made the recommendation that Mr. Yorke should be sacked on a vague document, and not with the full knowledge of the findings of the inquiry held by Mr. Justice Chenery.

The last three points are really a repetition of some I have already mentioned; that three charges against Mr. Yorke had been dismissed, that his guilt on the other two was on the basis of evidence given by people already incriminated, and possibly committing perjury—certainly giving evidence conflicting with that at their own trial; and, lastly and most important, that his job of Superintendent of Prisons from which he was sacked had nothing to do with the police force.

I therefore contend that this man has been very badly dealt with, and that even if his guilt was found to the satisfaction of the Colonial Office, that Department should have allowed him either to retire or resign from the public service. In the light of the eight matters I have listed in which he was badly dealt with—and his treatment was certainly not up to the usual standards of the British Colonial Administration—it was very bad simply to sack him out of hand, instead of asking him to resign or retire. I particularly have in mind that all this business was about the police force, whereas it was as Superintendent of Prisons that Mr. Yorke was sacked summarily, with ignomy and, to this day, without knowing the evidence on which he was found guilty.

4.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies (Mr. Nigel Fisher)

The incident in St. Lucia which has given rise to this Adjournment debate was not a very creditable one either to Mr. Yorke or to the St. Lucia Police, and I should have thought that it was best forgotten.

In some ways, therefore, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Chapman) should have resurrected it, but I agree that it is entirely right that an alleged injustice to a single member of the Overseas Service in a small Caribbean island can be raised and argued in this House of Commons.

As I understand the matter, the hon. Gentleman disputes the verdict of the judicial inquiry, on which I cannot comment, and thinks that this penalty of dismissal was too harsh; and that, instead of being dismissed, Mr. Yorke should have been allowed to retire from the service, with his pension rights unaffected. To that extent, therefore, this is a matter of degree rather than principle.

I will not recapitulate the facts which the hon. Gentleman has given, except to say that there was this disaffection in the summer of 1961, I think because of the unpopularity of the then superintendent of police and because of the appointment of non-St. Lucians to senior police posts. There may have been grounds for this discontent, but I claim that there was no excuse whatever in a disciplined force, for what followed—which was a preplanned mass refusal of duty by a large majority of the force. That was a very serious matter, and without precedent in any colonial territory.

Following that, the unpopular superintendent was sent on leave and subsequently replaced, the men returned to duty, and a commission was appointed to inquire into the November police strike, and the circumstances giving rise to it.

This was the Hallinan Commission. It published its Report in February, 1962, and the Report found that there had been an organised strike which was the culmination of a campaign of subversion and insubordination. Disciplinary proceedings then followed against the officers implicated by the Report. None of them was automatically disciplined because of the Report, and each had his own case examined in the disciplinary proceedings that followed the Hallinan inquiry.

It was in the course of these later proceedings, and as the new superintendent began to gain the confidence of his men, that evidence came to light of Mr. Yorke's complicity. He was then charged and a three-man Committee of Inquiry, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Chenery, was appointed to examine the charges. Mr. Yorke was represented by his own barrister. Two of the five charges were proved.

The case then went to the Administrator who, in accordance with the Constitution, consulted the Public Service Commission. The Commission was free to recommend any penalty or no penalty. It recommended dismissal. Even then the Administrator did not have to accept its advice, but he thought that the case was a serious one and that the Commission's advice was correct and he dismissed Mr. Yorke. Since then the matter has been examined with care by the Department of Technical Cooperation, by my own officials in the Colonial Office, by my legal advisers and, since the hon. Member raised the matter, by myself.

As to the particular aspects of the matter which the hon. Member has mentioned, he said that Mr. Yorke was tried twice, that his case was examined by the Hallinan Commission, and that, in effect, nothing was found against him. That is not quite correct. The Hallinan Commission did not examine Mr. Yorke or his involvement in the November strike. The purpose of the Hallinan Commission was to inquire into the strike and what led up to it. It was a fact-finding inquiry and no one was charged and no one was accused.

It led to proceedings against individual officers, but there was no question of Mr. Yorke having been tried by the Hallinan Commission. His name was mentioned only at one stage of the inquiry, in the evidence given by Inspector Foster and that evidence was inconclusive. The proceedings against Mr. Yorke arose not from the findings of the Commission, but from the evidence which subsequently came to light when disciplinary proceedings were taken against other officers. As far as the Hallinan inquiry was concerned, Mr. Yorke was neither implicated nor exonerated.

The hon. Member also said that Mr. Yorke should not have been asked to vacate the official quarters which he occupied as Superintendent of Prisons at such short notice. He was asked on 30th June to leave the quarters by 9th July. Although not required to do so, he moved out on 1st July and he did not regain possession of his own house until 17th July. This probably caused inconvenience to him and his family for a period which need have been only a week, but which by his own choice lasted over two weeks.

There were three reasons for asking Mr. Yorke to leave by 9th July. First, it was thought inappropriate that he should continue to occupy official quarters in the prison when accused of serious offences. Secondly, the premises were needed for the officer appointed to take over his duties who moved into them as soon as Mr. Yorke moved out. The third reason was that these quarters were next door to the police headquarters and gave Mr. Yorke easy access to the police if he wished to subvert them just at a time when the new superintendent was trying hard to rebuild police morale.

These were the three reasons for causing this inconvenience to Mr. Yorke, but I do not feel very strongly either way on this and I do not think that the point was very important, because he had to vacate the premises anyway.

Mr. Chapman

But only if he had been proved guilty.

Mr. Fisher

It is true that he was only charged then, but with very serious offences. He was subsequently proved guilty.

The hon. Member's third criticism was about the return of Mr. Yorke's uniform. This, again, seems to be a very minor matter. When he gave up his appointment as staff officer on the Police Reserve he was asked to return his arms and equipment, but he did not return his uniform because it was not specifically mentioned at that stage, and later, as the hon. Gentleman said, three officers went to his home to collect the uniforms and he handed them over. I do not know why he has any grievance about this, because the uniforms could have been of no conceivable use to him after he left the police force, which by this time he had done.

Then there was the question of publishing the report of the Chenery Committee. I am advised that reports on individual officers are confidential documents to the Government concerned and that it would be entirely contrary to all precedent to publish this report. I know of no case of this sort where a report has even been published. This is so even outside the sphere of the Government. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in private industry, if an employer wants to sack an employee for misconduct, he does not have to refer it to anybody else or to any other authority; and even in the home Civil Service there is no procedure like this for protection if a permanent civil servant is dismissed because of misconduct.

In the Colonies we stand rather well on this, for we have the special procedure specially designed to protect these officers, and it is exceptional, and it does give them greater protection than they could normally expect in any other employment. This really was a fair and impartial inquiry before a judge, at which Mr. Yorke was represented by a barrister of his own choice, and I can see no ground for making an exception to the established practice of not publishing.

I come to the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the penalty of dismissal being too severe. I think that he said it was "vindictive and spiteful"—rather strong words. The charges of which Mr. Yorke was found guilty were, first, that to the prejudice of discipline in the public service he associated with two police officers who were convicted of serious offences; secondly, and much more seriously, that he actively abetted and encouraged certain members of the police force to be disloyal. I have a note here of the sort of thing he did. He was heard—it was confirmed—to make remarks to members of the police force encouraging the police to march and to strike, and he was heard criticising senior officers to their juniors. There are many examples of the sort I could quote.

These charges, especially the second, are really serious charges which amount to undermining the discipline of the force to the point of refusal of duty. It does seeem to me that a Government must be able to count completely upon the loyalty and discipline of their police in order to discharge their first duty as a Government, which is, to maintain law and order within their territory.

This man was not only Superintendent of Prisons, but he was also the only gazetted officer in the Police Reserve, and in a case of this sort the greater the seniority the greater the offence. Because of his position, his education, and his experience, there is no doubt that Mr. Yorke could have been a restraining influence in this matter. Instead, he was exactly the opposite. He used his influence and prestige to subvert discipline. I cannot imagine a more serious offence of this kind.

This case has been very carefully looked at, as I said, by the Public Service Commission, by the Administrator, whom I know personally and in whom I have the greatest confidence, by my Department, and my legal advisers, and I have spent a great deal of time myself looking at all these papers, and we have all independently come to the view that it was perfectly right to bring the charges against Mr. Yorke, that the investigating procedure was correctly followed, that his counsel had every opportunity to state his case and protect his interests, and that the conclusions of the inquiry and the penalty were justified.

In the circumstances, I think that the adjectives used by the hon. Gentleman are exaggerated. I am sorry, but I really could hold out no hope at all of any further review of the punishment which has been awarded.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.